There are times you wish you could change things, take things back, pretend they never existed. This was one of those times, Ibby Bell was thinking as she stared bug-eyed out the car window. Amid the double-galleried homes and brightly painted cottages on Prytania Street, there was one house that didn’t belong.
“Ibby?” Her mother turned down the radio and began drumming her fingers on the steering wheel.
Ibby ignored her, letting her mother’s words mingle with the buzz of the air conditioning and the drone of the idling car engine as she craned her neck, trying to get a better look at the house that was stubbornly obscured by the sprawling branches of a giant oak tree and the glare of the midmorning sun. She cupped her hands over her eyes and glanced up to find a weathervane shaped like a racehorse jutting high above the tallest branches of the tree. It was flapping to and fro in the tepid air, unable to quite make the total spin around the rusted stake, giving the poor horse the appearance of being tethered there against its will.
I know that feeling, Ibby thought.
The weathervane was perched atop a long spire attached to a cupola. Ibby’s eyes traveled to the second-floor balcony, then down to the front porch, where a pair of rocking chairs and a porch swing swayed gently beside mahogany doors inlaid with glass. Surrounded on all sides by a low iron fence, the house looked like an animal that had outgrown its cage.
Her mother had described it as a Queen Anne Victorian monstrosity that should have been bulldozed years ago. Ibby now understood what she meant. The old mansion was suffering from years of neglect. A thick layer of dirt muddied the blue paint, windows were boarded up, and the front yard was so overgrown with wild azaleas and unruly boxwoods that Ibby could barely make out the brick walkway that led up to the house.
“Liberty, are you listening to me?”
It was the way Vidrine Bell said Ibby’s real name, the way she said Li-bar-tee with a clear Southern drawl that she usually went to great lengths to hide, that got her attention.
Vidrine’s face was glistening with sweat despite the air conditioning tousling her well-lacquered hair. She patted the side of her mouth with her finger, trying to salvage the orange lipstick that was seeping into the creases and filling the car with the smell of melted wax.
“Damn humidity,” Vidrine huffed. “No one should have to live in a place hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.”
The heat, her mother claimed, was one of the reasons she and Ibby’s father had moved away from New Orleans just after they married. Far, far away. To a little town called Olympia, in the state of Washington. Where no one had a Southern accent. Except, on occasion, the Bell family.
“Whatever you do, Liberty Bell, don’t forget this.” Vidrine patted the double-handled brass urn sitting like a sentinel between them on the front seat. Her mouth curled up at the edges. “Be sure and tell your grandmother it’s a present from me.”
Ibby glanced down at the urn her mother was pushing her way. A week ago that urn didn’t exist. Now she was being told to give it to a grandmother she’d never met. Ibby turned and looked at the house again. She didn’t know which was worse, the sneer on her mother’s face, or the thought of having to go into that big ugly house to meet her grandmother for the first time.
She eyed her mother, wondering why no one had bothered to mention that she even had a grandmother until a few months ago. She’d learned about it by chance, when on a clear day in March, as her father went to pay for ice cream at the school fair, a faded photograph fell from his wallet and floated wearily to the ground. Ibby picked it up and studied the stone-faced woman in the picture for a moment before her daddy took it from her.
“Who is that?” Ibby asked.
“Oh, that’s your grandmother,” he said, hastily stuffing the photo back into his wallet in a way that made it clear that he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
Later that week, while she and Vidrine were doing the dishes, Ibby got up enough gumption to ask her mother about the woman in the photograph. Vidrine glared at her with those big round eyes that looked like cue balls and threw the dish towel to the ground, slammed her fist on the counter, then launched into a lengthy tirade that made it clear that Frances Hadley Bell, otherwise known as Fannie, was the other reason they’d moved away from New Orleans right after she and Graham Bell were married.
And now here Ibby was, about to be dropped off at this woman’s house without any fanfare, and her mother acting as if it were no big deal.
“Why are you leaving me here? Can’t I come with you?” Ibby pleaded.
Her mother fell back against the seat, exasperated. “Now, Ibby, we’ve been through this a thousand times. Now that your father has passed away, I need some time away . . . to think.”
“Why won’t you tell me where you’re going?”
“That’s something you just don’t need to know,” Vidrine snapped.
“How long will you be gone?”
Vidrine frowned. “A few days. Maybe a week. It’s hard to tell. Your grandmother was kind enough to offer to keep you until I figure this whole thing out.”
Ibby’s ears perked up. Kind was not one of the words her mother had used to describe Fannie Bell.
In the background, she could hear the radio.
“This is WTIX Radio New Orleans,” the announcer said. “Up next, The Moody Blues . . .”
“Turn that up—that was one of Daddy’s favorite new bands,” Ibby said.
Vidrine turned off the radio. “Now go on. She won’t bite.” She poked Ibby in the ribs, causing the brass urn to teeter and fall over on the seat.
Ibby straightened it back up, letting her fingers linger on the cool brass handle. She swallowed hard, wondering why her mother was being so secretive. Now that her father was gone, she got the feeling that what her mother really wanted was to get away from her.
Vidrine leaned over and said in a soft voice, “Now listen, honey, I
know it’s hard to understand why God takes some people from this earth before their time. But he took your daddy in a silly bicycle accident. And now . . . well, we just have to move on somehow.”
Ibby gave her mother a sideways glance. God was a word her mother had never uttered until her father died, and being left with someone she’d never met for an indefinite period of time wasn’t exactly Ibby’s idea of moving on. But she was just shy of twelve years old, and no one had bothered to ask her opinion on the matter.
She let her hand fall from the urn. “Aren’t you at least going to come in with me?” Ibby asked.
Vidrine crossed her arms. “Liberty Alice Bell, quit your whining and get on out of this car right now. I’ve got to go.”
“Now remember what I told you. Be a good girl. Don’t give your grandmother any trouble. And one more thing.” Her mother leaned in closer and wagged a finger. “Try not to pick up any of those awful expressions like y’all or ain’t. It’s just not ladylike. Understand me?”
Before Ibby could answer, Vidrine reached over, opened the door, and pushed her out of the car.