southern fiction · paranormal thriller · Charleston, SC · ghost story
“I am always on the lookout for exciting new writers, and once I started reading Charleston Green by Stephanie Alexander, I was captivated. This novel leaves the reader entranced; the writing is skillful and clever and funny. I highly recommend this book.” —New York Times Bestselling Author Elin Hilderbrand
If Tipsy Collins learned one thing from her divorce, it's that everyone in Charleston is a little crazy—even if they're already dead.
Tipsy, a gifted artist, cannot ignore her nutty friends or her vindictive ex-husband, but as a lifelong reluctant clairvoyant, she's always avoided dead people. When Tipsy and her three children move into the house on Bennett Street, she realizes some ghosts won't be ignored.
Till death do us part didn't pan out for Jane and Henry Mott, who've haunted the house for nearly a century. Tipsy's marriage was downright felicitous when compared to Jane and Henry's ill-fated union. Jane believes Henry killed her and then himself, and Henry vehemently denies both accusations. Unfortunately, neither phantom remembers that afternoon in 1923. Tipsy doesn't know whether to side with Jane, who seems to be hiding something under her southern belle charm, or Henry, a mercurial creative genius. Jane and Henry draw Tipsy into their conundrum, and she uncovers secrets long concealed under layers of good manners, broken promises and soupy Lowcountry air. Living with ghosts, however, takes a toll on her health, and possibly even her sanity. As she struggles to forge a new path for herself and her children, Tipsy has a chance to set Jane and Henry free, and release the ghosts of her own past.
— scroll down to read book sample —
2020 Publisher's Weekly BookLife Prize Quarter Finalist for Fiction
2020 Readers' Favorite Book Awards Silver Medalist for Paranormal Fiction
2020 Chanticleer Book Awards/Paranormal Fiction Long List
“Charleston Green is a charming and clever novel…colorfully peopled by eccentric individuals, both living and deceased. The ghost story element and the ensuing mystery that unravels, allows a familiar story of personal growth and rediscovery, to uniquely shine. Intriguingly, this is also a love story to Charleston and the surrounding Low Country, and the author richly establishes a distinctive sense of place…eminently readable and quietly inventive, the novel’s unusual tone casts a lingering spell.” —The BookLife Prize
“5 Stars, a genuinely enjoyable drama that uplifts as it unfolds...sure to keep readers turning pages from cover to cover... filled with Southern charm and realistically drawn characters... intriguing and heartfelt.” —Readers' Favorite
“An enchanting novel of a woman finding her way out of a midlife (and mid-death) crisis...Alexander blends the warm humor of her characters with balmy descriptions of her Southern gothic setting... In Tipsy and her ghosts, Alexander finds a story about the frustrations of love and aging, as well as the weight history places on the living, particularly, perhaps, in the South Carolina Lowcountry.” —Kirkus Reviews
“With humor, heart and a heaping helping of Southern Charm, Charleston Green brings an entirely new meaning to the term 'unwanted house guests.' Tipsy is a lovable, flawed, complex heroine that readers will root for from the first page to the last—and pitch-perfect storytelling will leave fans begging for a sequel. This is Stephanie Alexander at her best!” —USA Today Bestselling Author of Feels Like Falling, Kristy Woodson Harvey
“Charleston Green is the perfect read for summer. It’s breezy without being vapid, spectral without being creepy, and full of all the right points for fans of fantasy and realism alike.” —San Francisco Book Review
“...outstanding...a thoroughly engrossing saga.” —Midwest Book Reviews
“...a delightfully cozy mystery...an intriguing puzzle to be solved as well as life lessons to be learned...” —Manhattan Book Review
“Offsetting the drama of Tipsy’s struggle for a new life, Alexander refreshingly interjects charming humor into Tipsy’s dealings with the dead, the mental messages from the spirit of her sassy Granna, and the crazy antics of her besties who are looking for love....This southern tale of love and loss, life and death, and intricate family dynamics is like a taste of fried green tomatoes with a side of sweet tea, while sitting on the porch’s joggling board painted a deep Charleston Green.” —BookTrib
“Impressively original and solidly entertaining from beginning to end, Charleston Green showcases author Stephanie Alexander’s genuine flair for deftly crafted fantasy fiction that will completely engage the reader’s full and appreciative attention.” —Small Press Bookwatch
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie Alexander grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Drawing, writing stories, and harassing her parents for a pony consumed much of her childhood. After graduating from high school in 1995 she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from the College of Charleston, South Carolina. She returned to Washington, DC, where she followed a long-time fascination with sociopolitical structures and women's issues to a Master of Arts in Sociology from the American University. She spent several years as a Policy Associate at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a think-tank focused on women's health and economic advancement.
Her award-winning first Southern fiction novel, Charleston Green was released in April 2020 and is the 2020 Readers' Favorite Book Awards Silver Medalist for Paranormal Fiction.
Stephanie and her husband live in the Charleston area with their blended family of five children and their two miniature dachshunds, Trinket and Tipsy. She is represented by Stefanie Lieberman of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, New York, NY.
SAMPLE FROM CHARLESTON GREEN
If Tipsy learned one thing from her divorce, it’s that everyone in Charleston is at least a little crazy— even if they’re already dead.
She had to move into Miss Callie’s place to figure out that the dead carry on like the living do. She almost always ignored dead people, because early experience had proven that if she paid any bit of attention to them, they became a straight up nuisance. When she met Jane and Henry Mott, Tipsy had to stop avoiding and start listening. Some ghosts refuse to be ignored.
She wasn’t worried about ghosts on moving day. She was thinking how damn lucky she was to be moving into Miss Callie’s house, rent free. By the time the movers cleared out at five o’clock, she was done in. Even the house seemed wiped out, and it hadn’t done anything but sit there since the 1890s. Thank goodness it was Ayers’s weekend with the kids; she couldn’t have handled them running in and out and rustling through boxes. The whole crew, Ayers and all three children, had stayed with his parents for the weekend to avoid the chaos. Ayers had moved out six months ago, and now with Tipsy moving to Miss Callie’s and him returning to their old house, she felt like she was in a game of musical domiciles. She had trouble remembering where anyone lived.
She carried the last box, the one containing Mary Pratt’s American Girl dolls, through the white picket fence and up the porch stairs to the double front doors. Miss Callie’s tea roses had run amuck since she passed on. The June sunshine woke the yellow blossoms, and they reached for Tipsy through the banister. Ayers’s brother-in-law Jimmy had offered Tipsy this temporary solution to her housing problem.
Jimmy’s mother had recently died, and he was happy to let Tipsy move into Miss Callie’s place and look after it for a time. She made a mental note to rein in those rebellious flowers once she got settled. Tipsy hadn’t known Miss Callie too well, but she certainly owed her now. Her status as honorary caretaker would give Jimmy time to fix things up before selling the place, and buy Tipsy precious months to figure out her increasingly unpredictable life. She planned on earning her keep in the meantime.
Tipsy took the winding staircase to the second floor for the hundredth time that day. She couldn’t help but compare this crumbling yet palatial house in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant—one of the most elegant neighborhoods in the Lowcountry, a place legendary for all things refined—with her grandmother’s four-room 1950s rancher in the upstate town of Martinville. She grew up at the end of a dirt driveway. The nearest body of water: the aboveground swimming pool behind the neighbor’s doublewide trailer. Now, her neighbors across the street sipped cocktails on their docks and watched the sunset over the harbor. On the other side of the Ravenel Bridge, the Charleston skyline wiggled through humid air. Bronze crosses grabbed at the sky, the Episcopalians trying to reach God before the Presbyterians. She could hear her Granna’s voice: My Tipsy, ain’t you all fancy now.
Shush, Granna, Tipsy thought. Not too fancy in the bank account department at the moment. Besides, this place has seen better days.
Tipsy dropped the box of dolls in the twins’ bedroom. They grinned at her, reminders of the days when she and Ayers had casually doled out hundreds of dollars on smiling plastic little girls. She transferred her hands to the small of her back.
Glass of tea, sugar? Granna’s voice rose in her mind again. Granna and she had shared that strange affinity for the dead, so although Granna herself was many years gone, Tipsy still sometimes heard the voice that had steered her through her haphazard childhood. Truth be
told, at times Granna resonated clearer than living people, with their yammering on about this or that. She didn’t tell anyone this, of course, because that would qualify her own mental church as infested with a bad case of the batshit crazies.
Bats and belfries aside, Granna’s voice had a good idea. As Tipsy backtracked down the narrow hallway she ran her hands over accent tables and the random chairs elderly people always place in spots where no one ever sits. Heavy wood and dark reddish upholstery in velvets and satins had an old-plantation-house kind of prettiness. While the mustiness made her nose itch, the well-worn furniture made the place homey. She hadn’t wanted to take much of the furniture in her old house. Ayers had picked all of it, and he preferred stark modern styles. Made no sense for a hunting-and-fishing boy like him to have the aesthetic of an effete New York theater director, but that was Ayers. A study in contradictions.
Tipsy avoided her passing reflection in the glass covering Miss Callie’s framed Duck Stamp prints. She let her long hair down from its too tight ponytail and rubbed her sore scalp.
That hair. Not blonde. Not brunette. Granna’s sniffing laughter. So sweaty dark it looks like you had a run in with the wrong shade of L’Oreal. Like thirty-four years of hard livin’!
Oh, come now. You know I’m teasing. You’ve barely changed since seventeen. Who’ d know you had three kids? But damnation, you need some of that Botox! You got my worrying brow.
You’re biased, and then out loud, “Got to grow old gracefully.”
“Is someone there?”
That shrill voice shot out of one of the guestrooms and knocked Tipsy sideways. Her ankle rolled. As she fell, she grabbed one of Miss Callie’s antique porcelain lamps. She hit the Oriental rug with a thud. The three cavorting cherubs on the lamp reached out to her in sympathy. She thanked god those expensive little dudes were still in one piece.
Tipsy stood and rotated her foot until most of the pain dissipated up her leg. She peered into the cheery little room, with its yellow wallpaper and accent pillows in the shape of lemons and cherries. A woman sat on the four-poster bed. While she appeared to be about Tipsy’s age, her tiny bare toes didn’t reach as far as the lace bed skirt. Her pale, almond-shaped eyes stared into Tipsy’s with startled curiosity, like a Siamese cat who unexpectedly found itself pinned down by the tail.
The woman jumped to her feet, buried her face in her hands and sobbed. She wore a sleeveless lavender dress with a dropped waist and a multi-layered lace hemline that ended below her knees. Her skin was translucently white, her hair black. Tipsy’s initial assessment had classified the women’s coiffure as a messy up-do, but her fidgeting revealed it to be a disheveled bob.
She whimpered with no break to gasp for air. It was too repetitive, too staccato. She wrapped her thin arms around herself. The edges of her dress smudged and faded and solidified again as she swayed. The fading spread from her clothes to her hair to her skin.
She’s dead, Tipsy thought. She doesn’t need to draw breath.
As a child, suffering from her own loneliness and tired of finding friendships in storybooks, Tipsy would speak to a ghost here or there, although most of them had lost their senses over time, like the teenage girl who haunted Martinville’s single public park. She once caught Tipsy staring at her. She followed Tipsy, in her Little House on the Prairie garb, from the slide to the swings, begging Tipsy to help her find the family pig. By age ten, Tipsy had to swear off the park all together. It had been years since she made such a mistake, and not only because a ghost’s desperate jabbering could annoy the hell out of a person in a skinny minute. Granna had warned her that while most were harmless, there were a few who were anything but. In educating Tipsy about their mutual peculiarity, she emphasized downplaying its existence, for everyone’s benefit.
Something about this woman, though, made Tipsy pause. She reminded her of a little girl in the middle of some childish heartache. Grown women don’t cry so hard without a good reason. This one was producing enough tears to fill the River Styx, and being damn loud about it—and in the bedroom right beside Tipsy’s. Tipsy’d probably seen a hundred or more ghosts in her day. She’d run across them in places as predictable as the old Dock Street Theater— during a showing of A Christmas Carol, no less—and as random as the Mount Pleasant Whole Foods.
She’d never, however, lived under a roof with one, or tried to have a real, adult conversation with one. Tipsy wasn’t really sure how any of it worked, from a ghost’s perspective. Now suddenly, she and this lady were two chickens in the same coop. Tipsy would need to make her acquaintance sooner or later, if she didn’t want to have the bejesus scared out of her on a daily basis.
Besides, from the antiquated look of the ghost’s dress and hair, it appeared this had been her house a hell of a lot longer than it had been Tipsy’s. Tipsy wasn’t going anywhere, and this woman’s ghostly existence meant she wasn’t going anywhere either. Tipsy knew that much. The ghost couldn’t leave the house if she tried, bless her heart. Trapped as a blind and clawless kitten on a high tree branch. Compassion, practicality, and a smidge of plain old curiosity overrode Granna’s deeply entrenched wisdom.
“Can I help you with something?” Tipsy asked. She raised her voice to be heard over the woman’s bawling.
The woman hugged herself tighter and rocked herself faster. “I can’t say I know how to reply. Perhaps I did once, but I’ve forgotten.”
Tipsy didn’t know anyone other than Granna who shared her talent, so opportunities to speak probably hadn’t come this woman’s way too often. She tried a different route. “I should have introduced myself. My name is Tipsy Collins. Sorry if I startled you, but I didn’t expect to find a ghost crying in the spare bedroom.”
The woman’s fingers twirled among themselves, as if she were knitting an invisible scarf. She sniffed and went solid. Aside from her pallor, she didn’t look particularly dead. “Tipsy? Is that a French name?”
“No. My real name is Tiffany Lynn. Tiffany Lynn Denning, now Collins. The pastor’s son couldn’t say Tiffany when I was a baby. So I’ve always been Tipsy.” She waited for the ghost to make the usual alcoholic comment, before remembering she probably wasn’t familiar with booze-related slang.
“You can see me.” Still her fingers spun, as if she were raveling together fractured pieces of thought.
That seemed enough of an explanation. “My name is Jane Mott. I was born a Robinette. The Robinettes of Water Street. My mother’s people came from the Old Cannon, on the Wando.” Jane ran both hands over her face, and giggled. She smoothed her hair a little too eagerly.
Uh, oh. Maybe I’ve popped the tab on a shook up can of Coke.
Too late, now, said the voice of Granna. She might be crazier than a stoned possum, but now she knows you can see her. You’re stuck with her.
Tipsy backed toward the door. She would only need three of the house’s six bedrooms. One for herself, one for her six-year-old twins, Mary Pratt and Olivia Grace, and one for her eight-year-old son, Ayers Lee Collins V. Maybe she’d be able to steer clear of this diminutive spirit. “I live here now,” Tipsy said. “So maybe we could, you know, mind each other’s space.”
The ghost’s mouth hung open, as if she needed a straw to draw meaning from Tipsy’s words.
“I guess I’ll see you sometimes,” Tipsy said, “but I’m usually really busy. So if I don’t chat—”
“I’m accustomed to being ignored.”
“Because no one sees you?” Again Tipsy felt the tug of sympathy.
“My husband ignores me. I ignore him. It’s to our mutual benefit.”
“Your husband is still alive?”
Jane looked at her with eyes as clear as Miss Callie’s best Waterford vase. “He’s just as dead as I am, Miss Tiffany-Tipsy.”
“Oh, of course,” said Tipsy, feeling slightly stupid. “Why do y’all ignore each other? It seems like a nice arrangement. Like a couples’ haunting?”
For someone who wants to mind each other’s space, you’re asking a lot of questions, said Granna.
Tipsy ignored her. Sometimes Tipsy and Granna ignored each other, too. It could get crowded with both of them inside Tipsy’s head.
“We don’t get on,” said Jane. “Haven’t gotten on in quite a spell of time.”
Tipsy found it odd to hear someone who appeared to be her own age speak in the soft drawl she associated with women of the grandmotherly sort, albeit rich Charleston grandmothers like the ones in Ayers’s family. Jane seemed to blink when a particular word needed emphasis. The combination of bobbed hair, batting blue eyes and fey voice was reminiscent of Betty Boop. “If I can be frank, Henry and I don’t get on at all.” Blink-blink!
Tipsy did some rough math in her head. The woman’s attire put her squarely in the 1920s category, like Downton Abbey, later seasons. “And you’ve been stuck in this house together for…ninety years?”
Tipsy thought of being trapped in a house for decades with only Ayers for company. She couldn’t bring herself to hate him now, despite the damage he’d dealt her over the past six months, but she damn sure would after a century. “That’s understandable. Marriage is only supposed to last ‘til death do you part. You’re not meant to keep at it for all eternity.”
“How can we possibly be congenial”—blink-pause-blink—“when he killed me?”
Boop-Boop-be-do! said Granna.
Tipsy sank into an antique chair. “Well, shit.”
Jane scowled, and she remembered that proper southern ladies probably didn’t drop the word shit very often in the 1920s. “Sorry. Wow, he did? How… or…” Is it polite to ask a ghost the details of her murder?
“Yes, he did. Although he still denies it.” Jane balled her hands into fists. “But I know he did it! And then he killed himself.” She hugged herself again and her black hair went smudgy. Tipsy saw right through her.
“Wait!” she said, and Jane returned to focus. “I’m moving my children into a house that’s haunted by a murderer?”
The air around her cooled as Jane crossed the space between them. Jane’s legs didn’t move fast enough to explain her momentum, but she came on just the same, as if the wood floor had turned into a flat airport escalator. A lemony scent overrode the dusty smell of Miss Callie’s antique quilt. Tipsy shuddered. She’d have had the same reaction if hands tipped a glass of lemonade down her shirt.
Granna! Tipsy thought as she stood. Is she one of the bad ones?
But Granna said nothing. Tipsy knew that if Granna had the answer, she’d give it. The thought brought her no comfort.
She took a step into the hall and Jane followed. “Henry will never admit to it,” the ghost said, with blinking ocular italics. “He won’t. But I know he did it.”
“Of course. I’m sure it was horrible—but I have to—”
Jane’s eyes filled with sparkly diamond tears. “Beg pardon. I’m frightening you.” The sobbing again. “I believe he did it. In my heart…” She buried her hands in her hair. “But oh, my soul, I can’t remember. I can never remember.”
And with that, Jane Mott disappeared.
Tipsy wasn’t keen to stay in the house that evening, but her girlfriends had been itching to check it out. So after a rushed tour, she sat on the late Miss Callie’s front porch with Shelby and Lindsey. She gripped a cold Bud Light in a koozie emblazoned with the cheerful message, “Joe and Julie, October 18th, 2013—Love is Always a Party!” Tipsy had never met Joe and Julie, but she’d somehow acquired this token of their undying love. She wondered if they were still partying five years later, maybe with a couple kids and a mortgage and Julie’s growing suspicions that Joe was shacking up with his assistant.
She took a long swig of beer and it stuck in her throat. I live in a house with a murdering ghost and his discontented, possibly deranged wife. Hey Julie, want to trade?
“And so there she is,” Shelby said, “standing out on the driveway at three in the morning. Drunk as Cooter Brown. Screaming up at his window. I know you’re in there, Glen! I know you’re in there! And all the neighbors opening windows—”
“Wait—what?” Tipsy asked. “You lost me.”
Shelby pursed her lips. “You’re worse than a man with one eye on ESPN and the other on this month’s Playboy.” She crossed her eyes, as if Tipsy and Lindsey needed a visual.
Tipsy had first laid eyes on Shelby Patterson during a sorority rush skit at Carolina. Shelby’s portrayal of Sandy from Grease was the stuff of legend in the Kappa Zeta house. Tipsy would never forget watching Shelby’s skillfully teased blonde hair float across the makeshift stage. Her skintight black pleather pants had accentuated the purposeful shaking of her voluptuous butt.
“Glen’s ex-wife,” said Shelby, “y’all know she hates me—”
“You hate her, too,” said Lindsey. Lindsey was always one for stating the obvious, but at least she gave Shelby her full attention. With her wide brown eyes and round face she resembled an early rising owl come to roost on the porch for Happy Hour.
Shelby sniffed loud enough to drown out the cicadas. “Hell, I don’t hate her. But she is a tramp—”
Movement at the other end of the porch caught Tipsy’s eye. Miss Callie’s joggling board bounced ever so slightly.
Did you invite Miss Jane to your girls’ evening? asked Granna.
Tipsy eyed the wooden contraption, just like the one Granna had kept on her own modest porch. No different from the boards she’d seen on umpteen South Carolina porches. Joggling boards were part lawn ornament and part outdoor furniture, a long single board with a dip in the middle, held up by two simple wooden pedestal ends. They had always reminded her of church pews without the back, or of saggy picnic table benches.
As a general gravitational rule, a joggling board didn’t bounce unless the weight of someone’s butt on the center plank made it bounce. Tipsy stared at the empty air above the board, but made out nothing beyond the haze of a summer evening punctuated by a few swirling no-seeums.
“Of course I was pissed. Who spends a whole Friday night with his ex-wife shooting at zombies?”
“Zombies?” Tipsy asked. Aren’t ghosts enough?
Lindsey rescued Tipsy once again. Shelby looked like she might scream at the next interruption. “Glen and his ex,” said Lindsey. “They took their son to paintball for his birthday. It’s zombie paintball.”
“Oh. He took his son. You can’t get angry.” Tipsy sipped her beer and glanced down the porch again.
A man sat in the middle of the joggling board, his elbows resting on his knees. He wore baggy tan pants and a white button down shirt. His bright red wavy hair suggested a failed attempt at flattering it with pomade. A man like that should have been pale all over. Instead, his dark eyes clashed with the rest of him. High cheekbones towered over a full, sensuous mouth. He was either one of the oddest looking men Tipsy had ever seen, or the handsomest.
“What are you looking at?” asked Shelby.
Tipsy cleared her throat. “The joggling board. It needs a fresh coat of paint.”
“Charleston green,” said Lindsey.
“Mmmm, hmmm.” Shelby squinted at the board and tilted her head. “Nice shade.”
Tipsy nodded. If she turned her head just right, so sunlight glanced off the board, the oily sheen of the paint revealed the true color. The green of a forest at midnight, under a full moon. “Probably hand mixed.”
“Hand mixing always makes the best Charleston green,” said Lindsey.
While most people wouldn’t have noticed the subtle tone, Tipsy, an artist; Shelby, an art dealer; and Lindsey, a part time but unusually talented interior designer, could pick it out from a mile away. Or at least from across the porch. “I could work up a batch once the kids are settled in—”
“Good lord, Tips, I’m trying to tell a story!” said Shelby. “I know the three of us can make a whole conversation out of mixing paint, but come on now.”
“I’m sorry,” said Tipsy. The man on the joggling board picked at the peeling paint, but no flecks of blackish green drifted to the floor below him.
“Pay attention. You’re about to send my train of thought off the rails and into a ditch.”
“I’ve just got a lot on my mind.” Tipsy got a peek at the yin and yang tattoo on Shelby’s right wrist before Shelby took her hand. Years ago, Tipsy had taken to tapping that black and white symbol when Shelby needed to be talked off an emotional ledge. Shelby’s ledges tended to be steep and high and loom over unyielding concrete and racing emotional traffic. The gesture had become part of their friendship’s long code. Come back to the light, sister.
Sometimes, though, life turned the tables on them. Shelby was her rock during the dark days after the twins’ birth, when sadness settled over her like a stalled low pressure system, soaking her in fear, worry, and inexplicable despair. While no challenge, before or since, equated with the emotional mêlée of postpartum depression, in the wake of her divorce, Tipsy was once again more of the sooth-ee than the soother.
“Honey, you must be so tired,” Shelby said. “Let me shut up about Glen, Sexy Fishing Charter Captain Extraordinaire.”
“That sounds like a better story than Glen, Possible Deadbeat Dad, and His Annoying Ex-Wife,” said Lindsey. “Besides, y’all have only been dating two months. Story can’t be that long.”
“You know with me it can be.” Shelby scooted closer to Tipsy on the wicker loveseat. “When is Ayers bringing the kids back?”
“Tomorrow afternoon,” Tipsy said. “I’ve got to set up their rooms.” She looked over her shoulder, but the redheaded man was gone.
“Y’all know I love to decorate!” Lindsey grinned and hopped to her feet. She wore obscenely tall platform wedges, despite Tipsy’s and Shelby’s flip-flops. Regardless, she barely reached Tipsy’s chin, and even Shelby could still look down at the top of her head.
“It shows,” said Shelby. “Your house is straight out of Architectural Digest.”
“Thanks, honey,” said Lindsey. “I had to get something out of my ex—that pathetic old goat!”
Tipsy laughed, and Lindsey joined her. She never minded being the butt of the joke, even after the intense public humiliation of her divorce from Barker Davies, one of the richest lawyers in town. Barker had left his first wife and kids for Lindsey. Ten years later, he had once again
traded in for a newer model, leaving Lindsey a single mom with one daughter, a huge house, a fat bank account, and a great attitude. Tipsy thanked the good lord Shelby had introduced her to Lindsey after she left Ayers. Lindsey’s positivity gave her hope.
“I might never have rustled up the nerve to leave him myself, so this new chick did me a favor.” Lindsey’s short blonde ponytail bounced. “Come on.”
Tipsy’s calves ached as she walked to the kitchen, the result of too many flights of stairs on Lowcountry legs unaccustomed to inclines of any sort. Lindsey called over her shoulder as she and Shelby headed upstairs: “Bring the beer to the nursery, Jeeves!”
Tipsy imagined the red headed man appearing in the doorway holding a levitating Yeti cooler and a butcher’s knife. She assumed him to be Jane Mott’s homicidal husband, Henry. Henry’s flat, dark stare hadn’t done anything to rouse the sympathetic curiosity that Jane had evoked.
By the time she reached the refrigerator, she’d squashed her burgeoning fear by donning the Armor of Mommy. Tipsy’s children needed more than pretty rooms. They needed stability. She wasn’t going to let a ghost risk their first opportunity at either in months.
Be careful, sugar, said Granna. You already caught the attention of one loony spirit. Knowing you, you’ll poke your head right into a Venus flytrap. You’re not sure what he’s capable of.
That’s what I need to figure out. And I will. Sooner over later.
Tipsy, that man killed his own wife.
What choice do I have? Tipsy grabbed hold of the perpetual panic that lurked in her stomach before it could poke her heart. It’s this or a friend’s couch and blow-up mattresses for the kids.
Ain’t that the truth. What if Ayers wants the kids full time? Or his parents do? asked Granna.
No way. My children will stay with me, and I’ll make a home for them. I will make this work.
Tipsy rose and fell on her toes to stretch her calves as she hunted through unfamiliar drawers for her Gamecock bottle opener. Tomorrow she’d go for a long run. She didn’t have tolerance for wobbliness in her limbs or her living situation.
She watched for signs of Henry as she popped the tops on three beers: her own Bud Light, Shelby’s Mich Ultra (always watching her carbs) and Lindsey’s Corona Light (always with a lime). She carried them up to the second floor landing, where Shelby and Lindsey were examining a table covered with old vases.
“What’s the latest with the ex-husband from hell?” asked Shelby.
“Okay, Shelby.” Tipsy handed over her beer. “That’s a bit extreme.”
“Screwing your wife out of her alimony qualifies as extreme to me.”
“Seriously,” said Lindsey. “Even Barker didn’t do me like that.”
“Ugh, y’all, I don’t want to talk about screwy South Carolina alimony laws.” Tipsy walked faster. “What’s done is done. He’s paying me child support—”
“Not enough to come close to getting y’all by.” Shelby gripped the skinny neck of a green vase as if she were choking it, or might knock someone upside the head.
“I know, but he’s having a really hard time. I’m trying to give him a break.”
“Whatever!” said Shelby. “He shouldn’t even expect you to speak to him, after what he’s done to you. Accusing you of adultery? When y’all weren’t even living together anymore?”
“We all know the laws in this state.” Tipsy had learned the ramifications of South Carolina’s unusually conservative divorce laws the hard way. “You date someone before you have a settlement agreement in place and it’s adultery. Ayers was depressed, and his lawyer talked him into it. And I left him. I don’t know what that feels like.”
“Jesus, Tipsy,” said Shelby. “Why are you defending him? You left him for a hell of a lot of reasons. You were intimidated by his ornery ass when you were married to him.” Shelby waved the vase in Tipsy’s direction. Lindsey swiped it out of her hand and rearranged all the vases in neat rows. “Now add feeling guilty to feeling scared,” said Shelby, “and it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Sometimes the truth can get under a person’s skin. Shelby didn’t sugarcoat anything, so her truth often came with a double dose of annoying. “I hear you, Shelby, but we have to get along for the kids.”
“Right, but you’re too nice. Ayers can go screw himself.” Shelby grinned. “I’ve been engaged three times and never married so I’m the expert on ending relationships.”
Lindsey stepped carefully over a stack of bubble-wrapped frames as Tipsy steered them into Little Ayers’s room. “Time to move on,” Lindsey said, “and we know who you need to move on with. Will Garrison.”
Tipsy opened a moving box near the closet door. Soccer trophies, a Carolina piggy bank, a few framed photos from Little A’s christening, and the antique toy cars her father-in-law had given him. The cars were heavy and cool in her hands. Solid craftsmanship, not like the flimsy Walmart specials that Ayers always bought. “Glen’s fishing buddy?”
“Yes! He and P.D. were roommates at the College of Charleston, and they grew up together in Beaufort, too. He’s handsome—”
“He didn’t seem very friendly.” She thought of the time she’d met Will Garrison in passing on the way out of a restaurant. He’d pretty much glared at her through a mumbled nice to meet you and good-bye.
“He’s so sweet, once you get to know him,” said Lindsey. “Wouldn’t it be fun? We can all hang out.”
“Hmmm,” Tipsy said. Lindsey’s boyfriend, P.D., was a gentle giant of a man who worshipped the ground she walked on, despite her post-marriage habit of philandering with the local college students. Tipsy trusted his good opinion. Glen’s, however…
Shelby clapped. “He’s a great dad, and he has a good job—”
“And good hair!” Lindsey tapped her head.
“Maybe. A little distraction can’t hurt, right?” She held Little Ayers’s old bunny in front of her chest like a tattered plush bridal bouquet.
Shelby reached over and hugged her, the embrace squashing the bunny between them. Little Ayers didn’t need it every night anymore, so Tipsy hadn’t sent it with his dad. For some reason the feel of that beloved toy against her best friend’s hug brought tears to her eyes.
“You think about it, sister,” said Shelby. “No hurry. Just think.”
Tipsy gave her a watery smile. As she wiped her eyes, a shiny black shoe and one trouser leg disappeared past the doorframe.
When that ghost comes calling, you might as well ask him to set awhile and chat. Tipsy could have sworn she felt Granna’s warm breath on the side of her neck. The smell of grits and apples and Prell shampoo. Memories like that returned to her, clear as day, at the most peculiar times. Sometimes they ran through her head like movies on a screen, or recordings of long past thoughts. The smells and sounds and tastes just as full and loud and flavorful as ever they were in the original.
When Tipsy was not long out of diapers, she’d seen a car hit a squirrel while she and Granna waited for a ride at the end of the state road. When she was eight, for no reason at all, the little creature’s death had come back to her in all its gory detail. Granna found her crying in her bedroom. She’d tried to explain the blood shooting across hot asphalt, and the thump of a tiny body against an uncaring tire. Granna had barely remembered the squirrel at all. She’d said, Sugar, maybe your talent serves you in other ways. Not just seeing ghosts. You find a way to use it.
The next day, Tipsy drew a picture of the squirrel’s demise instead of talking about it—much to the disturbance of her third grade art teacher. Drawing became her release, and then, as she discovered the comfort of a brush in her hand and a picture in her mind, she turned to painting. As the years rolled on, she stopped trying to explain the movie memories. That didn’t mean they stopped coming.