A baby is found in a basket on the grounds of a small-town museum during their annual Folk Festival. Twenty-two years later, a homeless man is murdered in exactly the same spot. Connection? Or coincidence? Peace Morrow, the foundling, now an adult working at the museum, is haunted by this question and thus begins a quest that explores the nature of family, of loyalty and responsibility. As she tries to reconstruct the victim’s history, his story becomes entangled with her own search for family roots, a journey that leads her through the dusty boxes in the museum’s basement, to the antique markets in the northern part of the state and, ultimately, to the innermost reaches of her own heart.
Peace Morrow surveyed the crowd from the hill’s summit, reflecting on her first experience of the Folk Fest, an event she knew only through the telling of it and by the yellowed clipping her mother had saved for her. How odd to have so little knowledge of the happening that had determined the course of her life. It was a life blessed in many ways. She knew this and was grateful, but still felt incomplete, as though there were fissures in her being, waiting for the missing pieces to drop in. The conviction that she’d located the first and perhaps most important piece sent a shiver, half hope, half dread, down her spine. Tomorrow. She vowed to ask him tomorrow. Today–
Eddie, one of the cops on hand for crowd control, interrupted her reverie. “Looks like your festival’s a success.”
The words “your festival” prompted another shiver, this one of pure delight. The Folk Fest had been a part of every spring of her twenty-two years, but this was the first time she’d had a share in making it happen. She hugged herself, spun in a giddy half circle that sent the long, homespun skirt swirling around her ankles and almost collided with the stilt-walker. “Omigosh! You okay?”
“Steady as a stone. Takes more than a slip of a girl to topple me.”
She laughed and blew him a kiss, then watched, holding her breath, as he teetered off toward the funnel cakes.
A team of majestic Clydesdales pulling a wagon filled with wide-eyed children clopped by. A little girl waved from the back of the wagon. Peace waved back and curtsied to her, then headed toward the sheep shearing, always a hit with the family crowd.
She joined the circle of onlookers, more interested in the families than the shearing, captivated by the interaction between parent and child, especially father and daughter. A chubby toddler with a fluff of flyaway hair bounced with excitement, restrained from rushing to the animal only by her father’s firm grip. Older children watched too, awe-struck by the strangeness of the process, the fleece unreeling in a continuous blanket. A middle-aged man on her left kept up a running commentary, apparently intended for the lanky teenager beside him, but audible to everyone in the circle of onlookers. “This guy’s good,” he said. “Look at the sheep. I don’t think he even feels the shears.”
No sooner were the words out than the ram let out a piteous bleat and a thin red trickle appeared on a naked flank. The crowd let out a collective gasp. The teenager shot an oh-yeah grin; the man grinned back and shrugged. The shearer went on with his work, ignoring both the animal’s distress and his audience’s reaction.
Peace turned away, unwilling to let anything mar this perfect day. Where next for her? There were plenty of choices, all of them tempting. Pseudo soldiers, outfitted in ragtag Colonial gear, paraded by. Nearby, a juggler seemed to defy gravity, his air of nonchalant elan as much a part of the attraction as his dexterity. Strolling musicians winked and flirted with the crowd, making up in personality what they lacked in genius. A jaunty banjo tune called from the north lawn. Giggles from the puppet theater pulled her in that direction.
And then – a different sound – one that changed everything: a scream split the air and hung, an almost tangible presence, obliterating both music and laughter, stilling movement, transforming the tableau into a bizarre still life. Finally, the hysteria lessened and Peace was able to make out words: “Blood! All over him.”
She turned back toward the shearing area. The sheep looked fine. The shearer stood as though frozen, his clippers held aloft. The crowd shifted, exchanged nervous glances and, when the scream faded, surged toward its source: the carriage shed behind the museum. Peace half-covered her face with her hands and watched individuals merge into a tight clot at the north end of the shed.
The cop, Eddie, dashed past, yelling into his phone.
An emergency vehicle parked on the grounds roared into life.
Eddie held the phone in one hand and signaled gawkers to make way with the other. The ambulance inched through. The crowd closed in behind. Someone stepped on Peace’s skirt, jerking her sideways. She grabbed the edge of a table, righted herself and joined the throng rushing toward the shed.
“Yo!” A bruiser of a guy in a Phillies T-shirt yelled at her.
She realized she’d elbowed the man, called, “Sorry,” over her shoulder, but did not slow down.
Another policeman joined Eddie. Together, they waved the crowd back. Two jumpsuited figures emerged from the shed, half-carrying, half-pushing a wheeled gurney. Over shoulders and between heads, Peace saw a scuffed sneaker, its frayed laces held together by a series of knots. The emergency workers shoved the gurney into the ambulance and banged the doors shut. The bulky vehicle jockeyed an awkward turnaround, then eased between trees and over the rolling terrain on its way to the street.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It doesn’t have to be him. But deep within, in the place she thought of as her soul, she knew it was. She turned and raced toward the opening in the temporary fence that enclosed the grounds on Festival weekend. Halfway there, she collided with her boss, Fran Walters, the museum’s site director, who grabbed her arm and shouted in her ear, “What happened?”
Peace twisted away, her fear intensified by this departure from the older woman’s usual cool demeanor. “I’m going to the hospital to find out.”
“Call me when you know something.”
“Sure.” She answered on the fly, already jogging up the hill. She tripped and cursed the cumbersome attire which only minutes ago had given her such pleasure. The ambulance passed, siren wailing. She lifted the skirt above her knees and raced toward her car, parked at the curb in front of her apartment, just two short blocks from the museum, a distance that at the moment yawned as wide as the Sahara..
* * * * *
At the hospital, she went directly to the emergency room and asked the woman behind the desk, “Where’s the man they brought in from the Folk Fest?”
The woman was calm and infuriatingly slow to respond. “Are you a family member?”
“I work at the museum.”
The woman looked her up and down, taking in the homespun dress, the apron, the cap. “Through those doors. Ask someone back there.”
“Thanks,” Peace glanced at the plastic tag above the woman’s pocket and added, “Bonnie.”
The use of her name drew a smile for the first time. “I hope he’s okay.”
Peace didn’t take time to voice her own fervent hope, but dashed off in the direction indicated.
A sharp antiseptic smell caused her nostrils to pinch when she passed through the double doors. Most of the cubicles were vacant, with open curtains exposing empty beds. She headed for the one with the curtain partially drawn. Three white-jacketed figures stood between her and the bed. They leaned forward and spoke in monotones. Desperate to see, Peace crowded in behind. One of them darted a scathing look over his shoulder.
She backed up, found a chair shoved against the wall close by and perched on its edge, all without taking her eyes off the activity around the bed.
One man, older than the others, seemed to be in charge. He looked at them and shook his head.
Peace placed her hands between her knees to steady them.
A woman stepped out.
Peace stood and nodded toward the cubicle. “Is that the man they brought in from the Folk Fest?”
The woman nodded back, but didn’t speak.
“How is he?”
“Dr. Michaels will see you in a minute.” She spoke briskly, avoiding eye contact, then scurried down the hall.
The older man walked away from the bed, toward Peace. The other stayed behind and pulled the curtain closed.
“Dr. Michaels?” She heard the tremor in her voice and took a deep breath before she went on, “I’m Peace Morrow. I work at the museum.” She looked toward the seam in the closed curtain. “Is that . . .”
“Yes, I’m Dr. Michaels.” His voice was gentle, his eyes even more so. Thick, silver hair fell in a slant across his forehead. He pushed it back, then placed his hand on Peace’s elbow and steered her toward the end of the corridor. They entered a small, windowless room. Dr. Michaels pulled out a chair for her and, after she was seated, he sat on a corner of the desk. “Peace Morrow, right?”
“Yes.” She wished he’d skip the niceties and get on with it. “How is he?”
Instead of answering, he asked, “Your relationship to the patient?”
“Uh . . . none.” Instantly, she saw that answer would get her nowhere. “He doesn’t have any relatives. He’s homeless.” She realized she didn’t really know if it was him. “At least I think that’s who it is. I just saw his shoe before the ambulance doors closed. It looked like Jack’s shoe.”
“Jack?” Dr. Michael’s brow furrowed. “So you know him?”
“We talked. Almost every day.” She could stand it no longer. “Please, can I see him? I need to know if it’s my . . . my friend.”
He gave her a long look, then rose without speaking and headed toward the closed curtain.
Peace followed, stopped for a moment when the doctor pulled the drapery aside.
A white cloth covered the narrow form on the bed, concealing even the face.
Nausea threatened, but she managed to get out the words: “He’s dead then?”
She looked away, but still saw it all too clearly, registering details that had escaped her at first. The sheet tented upward in the area where the chest would be. A red stain made an irregular circle like a badly-drawn target where the cloth touched down.
She swayed and gripped the gurney’s edge.
Michaels put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right?”
No! She turned and focused on the doctor’s eyes. They were gray, fringed with short, dark lashes and held such sadness it would be easy to think he’d never had to do this before. Aloud, she said, “Yes,” then, “Is it okay if I look? I mean, so I know for sure?”
He hesitated, studying her. “We do need someone to identify him.” He grasped the edge of the sheet and looked at her, asking with a lifted brow if she was ready.
She nodded. Her mouth refused to form words.
He pulled the sheet down, exposing the face slowly, respectfully.
At first, she thought it wasn’t him. Jack’s face was animated, a canvas filled with a constantly-changing series of expressions. This face was . . . Death. This is how it looks.
Sandra Carey Cody grew up in Missouri, surrounded by a family who loved stories, whether from a book or told on the back porch. She’s lived in various cities in different parts of the country, but wherever she’s gone, book have been the bridge to new her new community and new friends. She now lives in Bucks County, PA http://www.sandracareycody.com
Love and Not Destroy is an ebook available at: http://amzn.to/wxIV81