It rang once and went straight to voicemail. I checked the time. New Orleans was an hour behind, which meant it was after one there. I hung up. Mama usually turned her phone off while in surgery. I would try her again later, but what if she had a long shift, or had multiple surgeries scheduled, or was too tired to talk when she finally quite for the day? I couldn’t wait for her to call me back at her convenience. I needed an answer now.
I dialed her number, hoping that maybe a second call would prompt her to pick up this time. Again, it went to voicemail, and I waited for the beep to sound to leave a message.
“Ma, it’s Meg. Call me back as soon as you get this. I’m at Cedar with Grandma, and I . . . she . . . she’s said some things, and . . . ” I fumbled through my mind how I would ask the question. Who was your real father? I wanted her to hear the urgency in my voice and call me back as soon as possible, but I didn’t want to frighten her, make her feel too uncomfortable to say anything at all, or confuse her, especially if everything Grandma had said turned out to be all lies. “Does the name, Lindell, ring a bell to you?”
I turned at met the pallid skin and dark eyes of Drake, who had quietly walked up behind me, and breathing on my shoulder, whispered, “Jenny.”
I nearly knocked him over with my purse as I swung around. “Dammit!” I squeaked. I backed into the window to put some space between us.
“Mr. Carlton, stop scaring the guests,” the nurse said, though she never looked up from the computer screen. She wasn’t too concerned about how nervous this man made me feel.
He reached out his hand and lightly brushed my cheek with his fingertips. If I didn’t look white before, that had all changed now. I was white with fear. Would he lean in to kiss me next? I turned my head and pinched my lips together to avoid future advances.
“Millie wants to know if you’ll come back.”
I cut my eyes at him. He’d backed off, and was holding out his hand for me to take it. His grip was stronger than I’d expected. He lead me back to Grandma’s circle, but instead of guiding me to my empty chair, he squeeze my hand tighter and pulled me to sit next to him on the couch, recently vacated by Winifred.
“Look at the happy couple,” Thomas said.
“Hush!” I snapped. I tried to regain possession of my hand, but Drake intertwined his fingers with mine and pinned my hand down in his lap.
Thomas smirked, and I started to squirm, thinking about all the sexual jokes he’d made that afternoon. Drake looked frail, but he had a hidden stamina about him. I feared I would inadvertently feel something rising in his lap. I jerked my hand, and he yanked it back, like playing tug of war.
“Drake, let the poor girl go!” Tammy said.
She startled him enough that his hold loosened, and I broke away and scooted closer to the arm of the couch, furthest from him. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by abruptly going back to my chair next to Marcos. As long as he didn’t touch me again, I wouldn’t have a reason to move.
“Meg, I’m sorry,” Grandma said. “I really didn’t mean to spring that up on you . . . about your grandfather.”
“Do you expect me to believe anything you’ve said?” I asked.
“It’s all true.”
“How? Where’s your proof.”
“Your mother’s the proof,” Grandma said. “How old is she? Do the math.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything about who her father was,” I said.
“I married your Paw in ’84. You grew up calling him your grandpa ’cause that’s all you knew, but—”
“But Mama called him daddy too,” I said.
“She was still a teenager when we married. Like I said, he was my longest marriage. She called him daddy ’cause he stuck around.”
I shook my head and slipped my silent phone back into the front pocket of my purse. I was growing more anxious for her call. She was the missing link. She could piece this whole mystery together for me.
“Didn’t you say you looked me up on Ancestry? Didn’t it have the date on it.”
I’d created the Ancestry.com account over a year ago, and spent the entire afternoon scrolling through a seven-page list of hints generated by Grandma’s name and birthdate. I’d skipped over records of names I didn’t recognize until I came across a record of Grandma and Pawpaw’s marriage. But clicking on the link proved fruitless. I needed a paid subscription to see any more. All the information the preview provided was their parents’ names and the name of their only child, Linda. No marriage date, no ages.
The other hints I’d ruled out, believing that Millie Jones was just a common name. There were marriage records that had Grandma married as a teenager. 16, 17, 19. I’d thought they were just records of other Millie Jones’, but could those marriages have been to Andrew? Burt? Carl? I couldn’t remember the recorded names of the husbands.
There was only one name that stood out to me in that search. Nate Parker. He was married to a Milly Jones, had a two-year-old daughter named Linda, and also an eight-year-old son named Ryan. The record was from 1970, and while there were striking similarities—the names, Mama’s age—I scratched it out because, at the time, I’d believed Pawpaw was Mama’s father.
“Were you ever married to someone named Nate Parker?” I asked.
“That nut!” Grandma scoffed. “Biggest mistake of my life.”
“Wasn’t Nate the serial killer?” Jerry asked.
“I might have exaggerated just a little,” Grandma said, “but he was crazy. I married him because we both had kids. I thought it would be good for Linda. Us being a family. But he always talked about how he hated his ex wife, who just happened to die mysteriously the year before.”
“Ha! Like you could talk. You had thirteen dead husbands before him!” Thomas said.
“I didn’t always feel safe around him.”
“He should’ve been the one scared of you,” Jerry said.
I noticed Grandma rubbing the base of her neck, visibly agitated by Thomas and Jerry’s teases. There was something about Nate that Grandma wasn’t saying. More than just hatred of his first wife lead to him being dubbed the serial killer.
“Did he ever hit you, Grandma?” I asked.
“He had a bit of a temper,” she answered with a wavering voice, walking around the question, but from the way she continued to pull at her neck, I suspected he’d attempted to choke her . . . once . . . just before he died mysteriously, like his wife.
Thank you for patiently waiting for this latest episode of 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths. Don’t forget to check out other A to Z Challenge posts!