Enjoy the first Three Chapters of Her Sister’s Shoes
Lovie and Oscar Sweeney had been providing vacationers to the South Carolina coast with fresh-from-the-ocean seafood since opening their doors in May of 1959—and little had changed since then. Not the quality of the service or the layout of the store. The same brass ship’s clock still hung on the wall above the door, ticking away the decades. The customers didn’t mind the outdated decor as long as the knowledgeable staff served superior product with a friendly smile. The creaking floorboards and dusty shelves welcomed them back year after year, just as the pungent odor of the marsh at low tide greeted them upon arrival in the small inlet town of Prospect.
When it came time to do something about the termites eating away at the floor joists—and to replace the electrical system that was one spark away from a catastrophic fire and the refrigerated display cases that were held together with hope, prayer, and a wad of electrical tape—Samantha Sweeney, the middle daughter of Lovie and Oscar, decided their market was way overdue for an upgrade. Their local customers encouraged Sam to remodel in the same vintage that had brought them success for more than fifty years, but she ignored their advice. Following her gut instincts, Sam had opted for a radically different approach.
After years of planning and saving, the renovations were nearing completion. With exposed ceiling pipes and pendant lighting, subway tile wainscoting and concrete floors, Sam had envisioned a minimalist style, the seafood being their main event. But as she surveyed the gleaming new showroom, she worried the results were more operating-room sterile than upscale industrial.
Sam suspected her sisters shared her concerns.
Faith turned in circles, contemplating the empty space. “Once the shelves are stocked and the refrigerated cases filled, the place will come to life.”
“Why don’t we paint the walls?” Jackie whipped her color wheel out of her oversized black patent bag. Sam had hired her older sister, an interior decorator, to offer guidance on trim selections. Jackie thumbed through the color strips, eventually holding out the wheel for Sam to see. “Here we go. I’ve used this linen color many times before. It’s neutral, but at the same time soft and warm.”
Sam barely glanced at the color. “But the painters have already finished. They’re out back cleaning up.”
“I’ve never known a painter to turn down more work.” Jackie tucked the paint wheel under her arm, and, like a cheetah in search of her prey, she glided toward the kitchen in the back. With mahogany hair styled in a sleek bob, dressed in a tailored black sleeveless top and white pique cropped pants, Jackie embodied the picture of elegance.
“Don’t tell her I said so,” Faith whispered to Sam, “but I think she might be right this time.”
Sam smiled at her younger sister, who was every bit as pretty as Jackie but in a less sophisticated way.
“She better be. We can’t afford another mistake with only two days left before the grand reopening.”
Sam took a step back and closed her eyes, trying to imagine the showroom walls washed in linen. She pictured the wooden wine racks stocked with bottles and specialty dry goods arranged neatly on the metal shelves. She envisioned fresh produce overflowing from baskets on the carts in the front
of the store, raw seafood on display in the refrigerated cases in the center of the room, and prepared meals filling the merchandisers along the sidewalls. She imagined customers moseying about, sipping wine from little plastic cups while the staff offered advice on the best practices for grilling tuna.
Sam drew in a deep breath of confidence and exhaled any leftover feelings of doubt. She respected her sister’s tastes. If Jackie thought linen-colored walls were the finishing touch the room needed, then who was she to argue?
Jackie returned with a self-satisfied smirk on her face. “The painters promised to have everything wrapped up by noon tomorrow. There’s hardly any wall space to paint, considering the pass-through to the kitchen in the back and all the windows out here.”
Sam ran through her mental checklist. “Noon tomorrow means we’ll lose half a day of cleaning and stocking. We’ll have to work around the clock in order to open on time on Saturday.”
“Why don’t you hire someone?” Jackie said with a flippant wave of her hand, as though a strong-bodied person might materialize from thin air.
“What about the twins?” Sam asked. “They’re always looking for a way to earn extra spending money.”
Jackie’s sixteen-year-old sons, Cooper and Sean, often showed up at the market, late in the afternoon, peddling their day’s catch—fish and shrimp and crabs, anything they could catch with a net, a trap, or a fishing rod. Sam paid them the same amount she would a wholesaler, even more when their product was fresher, which it usually was.
“You’ll have to find someone else.” Jackie busied herself with gathering up tile and concrete samples that were scattered across the wine-tasting table. “The boys are busy getting ready to leave for camp on Saturday.”
“Today is only Wednesday,” Sam said. “Since when does it take a teenager two days to pack?”
“They’re not just packing, Samantha. They’ve made plans with friends.”
“Ask them anyway. I’m sure they’ll want to help. They already talked to me about working at the market when they get home from camp.”
“They’ll be busy with football practice when they get home from camp.” Jackie flung her bag over her shoulder. “This may come as a surprise to you, but I have higher aspirations for my boys than running a seafood market.”
Even if that smelly seafood market provided you all the luxuries you felt entitled to when we were growing up, Sam thought. “I’m not talking about a full-time career, Jackie. The boys just want to earn some money while they have a little fun.”
“They will have plenty of fun at camp, and they’ll get paid this year, as junior counselors.”
“Why do you send them off to camp, anyway, when we live ten minutes from the beach?” Sam asked.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but having them tucked away in the mountains keeps them out of trouble.”
“And out of your hair,” Sam mumbled.
Jackie’s face turned red. “Don’t you have enough to worry about with your own son without worrying about mine?”
Sam’s eyes narrowed and her back stiffened. She was preparing for battle with her older sister when Faith intervened. “Curtis can help. With stocking the showroom. He’s looking for work.”
“I take that to mean the job at the brick plant didn’t work out,” Jackie said.
Faith picked at a hangnail. “Turns out they hired too many people. Since Curtis was the last one hired, he was the first one they fired.”
“He’ll find something else soon, I’m sure. In the meantime, I can definitely put him to work around here. At least for the next couple of days,” Sam said, thinking how Curtis’s physical strength made up for his lack of brainpower. “I’ll work out the details with him when I see him at the party tonight.”
“Speaking of the party, I’ve gotta run.” Jackie positioned her oversized sunglasses on her face, the dark frames in contrast to her pale unblemished skin. “Can one of you pick up Mom?”
“Since when does Mom need a driver?” Sam asked.
“Since she’s been acting so forgetful lately,” Jackie said. “Surely you’ve noticed.”
“Of course she’s forgetful,” Sam said. “She’s eighty-two years old.”
Jackie slid her sunglasses down and peered at Sam over the top of her bug-eyed lenses. “She’s not just forgetful. She’s downright demented. I can
hardly have a conversation with her anymore. She asks the same questions over and over again.” Jackie turned toward Faith. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
Faith shook her head, her eyes wide with concern. “I haven’t seen much of Mama since we started the renovations.”
“Well …” Jackie repositioned her sunglasses on her nose. “I’ve invited some important people to my party. I don’t want Mom embarrassing herself.”
Sam glanced at the ship’s clock above the door. “Okay, look. It’s already five o’clock. Clearly this is something we need to talk about later.”
“I agree,” Jackie said. “Let’s just get through tonight first.”
Sam turned to Faith. “I might be running a few minutes late by the time I pick Jamie up from physical therapy and help him get changed. If you can bring Mom to the party, I’ll take her home.”
“I can do that,” Faith said.
“Perfect.” Jackie leaned over and kissed Faith’s cheek, then Sam’s. “In case I forget to tell you both later, Happy Birthday.”
Sam locked the front door and stepped back, admiring the new logo painted in seaweed green across both windows, the interlocking S’s announcing that Captain Sweeney’s Seafood Market was open for business.
Sweeney’s was located at the T-intersection of Main Street and Creekside Drive. Sam’s parents had chosen well when they leased the corner property in 1959. Creekside had always been a thoroughfare to South Carolina’s most popular beaches, but Main Street had only recently become the home for many outdoor cafes and novelty boutiques.
Sam heard someone calling her name from across Creekside Drive at the Inlet View Marina. She shielded her eyes against the late afternoon sun, and waved at Captain Mack Bowman, her father’s oldest and dearest friend. With gray frizzy hair and scruffy beard, cigar stub dangling from his lower lip, Captain Mack was an old salt of a man, his body scarred from his many adventures at sea.
Mack cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted across the noisy street, “Will you be ready for a mess of fish tomorrow around this time?”
“Bring ’em on,” she hollered back.
He gave her a thumbs-up and she blew him a kiss in return.
Sam watched his tall frame lumber back down to the dock where a long line of charter and commercial fishing boats were coming in from a long day of fishing in the Gulf Stream. Mack Bowman and Oscar Sweeney had spent most of their adult lives floating alongside one another in the ocean. Neither of their commercial fishing boats—The Miss May and My Three Gulls, named after the women in their lives—was ever seen coming in or going out of the inlet without the other on her stern.
Oscar Sweeney was no more than eight when his family immigrated to the United States from Ireland. His father, Sam’s grandfather, worked as a lobsterman in a small New England seaside village. Away from the confines of the streets of Dublin, Oscar developed a passion for outdoor living, but his extreme hatred for the endless, bitterly cold Maine winters eventually drove him south. The day after his eighteenth birthday, with his life savings sewn securely in the lining of his coat, Oscar embarked on a journey. He hopped from one fishing vessel to another until he found himself in the small town of Prospect, deep in the heart of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Three weeks later, he spotted Sam’s mother window-shopping the boutiques on Main Street and set out to make her his bride.
Back in those days, young ladies from prominent families weren’t allowed to marry fishermen with orange hair and thick Irish brogues. But over time, Louvenia’s parents grew to appreciate Oscar’s gentlemanly nature and his deep belly laugh. They even took to calling her Lovie, Oscar’s nickname for his petite china doll.
Determined to see his son-in-law a success, Lovie’s father lent Oscar the money he needed to start his own business, a retail shop or perhaps a small cafe. Instead, Oscar partnered up with Captain Mack, the born-and-raised South Carolinian he’d met while working a shrimping boat, and together they bought The Dreamer, the fifty-foot commercial boat they fished together for the next ten years.
Desperate to pay her parents back, Lovie set up shop under an umbrella in the parking lot of the Inlet View Marina. By the end of the second summer, the money she’d earned selling fresh fish and homemade baked goods to the vacationers who traveled through town every Saturday was enough to sign a
lease on the empty building across the street. When her lease ran out five years later, she convinced the building’s owner to sell her the property. By scrimping and saving and operating the business on a tight budget, she was able to pay off the bank loan in less than ten years.
A cool breeze tickled Sam’s skin, raising the hairs on her arm. She untied the sweater from around her waist, slipped it on, and headed for the parking lot. She hopped in her red Jeep Wrangler, buckled her seat belt, and turned up the volume on the classic rock station. She was waiting for a break in the traffic to make a right-hand turn onto Creekside Drive when a silver Audi convertible, with vanity plates DR HART, blew by her headed in the opposite direction. She recognized the handsome driver as her brother-in-law, the illustrious cardiologist, but the female passenger in the pink scarf with the hot-pink lips was definitely not her sister. Not only was it logistically impossible, considering Jackie had left the market only ten minutes ago, but her sister would never be caught dead in any shade of pink.
The traffic cleared, miraculously, like the parting of the Red Sea, and Sam whipped into the lane behind the Audi, following them through town at a discreet distance. She wracked her brain as to why her brother-in-law was driving around town with a beautiful woman riding shotgun. The woman was wearing a sundress and not a uniform, which ruled out the likelihood that he was giving one of his nurses a ride home. Maybe she was a patient, although that seemed unlikely since the glamour girl superglued to Bill’s right arm was no damsel in distress. She was too old to be a student intern and too young to be one of those volunteers from the women’s auxiliary at church who looked for local professionals to donate their services to the needy.
Jackie had never given Sam any reason to believe her marriage was anything less than perfect. Then again, Sam and Jackie didn’t confide in each other the way most sisters did. From Sam’s perspective, they appeared the perfect couple—Bill the doting husband and Jackie the devoted wife.
Three or four miles on the outskirts of town, Bill made a sudden, sharp right turn into Water’s Edge, a new community of three- and four-story houses built on pilings on tiny parcels of land. After several blocks, he pulled into a driveway and screeched to a halt with the familiarity of a well-traveled path.
Sam eased up to the curb alongside the house next door, hopped out of the Wrangler, and crept up to the giant magnolia tree that separated the properties. She peered through the branches and watched her brother-in-law help his passenger from the car. To Sam’s dismay, Bill kissed the woman passionately, in the middle of the driveway for the entire world to see. The woman then pulled away and led him by the hand around the back of the house.
Sam made her way over to Bill’s convertible. When she noticed the keys in the ignition, she entertained the idea of driving off in his car. She would love to see his face when he discovered his most prized possession missing. She imagined him pacing up and down the driveway, ranting and raving to the police when he called to report it stolen.
Sam collapsed against the hood of the car. She didn’t see Bill as the cheating type. She’d never felt especially close to him, and, aside from family occasions, their paths had rarely crossed socially. Not that Sam even had much of a social life. But Bill had always been supportive of her son. He took Jamie hunting and fishing on a regular basis and he came to as many of his sporting events as he could manage with his busy schedule. He was the best kind of father to Cooper and Sean, and they worshipped him in return. A divorce would devastate them.
Sam stared at her watch, counting the minutes as they ticked away toward party time. The idea of barging in on the couple in bed, with Bill’s mistress pulling the sheets up to cover her naked body, held no appeal for Sam. But she couldn’t leave until she had a chance to confront the cheating bastard.
Five minutes later, Bill emerged from the house alone. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Sam leaning against his car.
“She doesn’t look sick, so I’m guessing she’s not your patient. Should I assume she’s one of your nurses? She appeared skilled in giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
Bill smiled at Sam, the warm smile she imagined he used when delivering bad news to his patients. “She’s actually the widow of one of my patients.”
Sam stared at him, mouth agape.
“Is there any chance I can convince you to keep this between the two of us?” he asked, his tone hopeful.
Sam pushed herself off the car and stood face to face with him. “You’re kidding, right?”
He held her gaze. “Actually, I’m not.”
“If you wanted to keep your little love affair a secret, why were you flaunting your glamour girl through the middle of town like a beauty queen in the Fourth of July parade?”
His shoulders sagged. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“You were thinking, all right. Just not with the head on your shoulders. Are you going to tell my sister or should I?”
He slumped back against the car. “I should be the one to tell her. Although I think I should wait until after the party tonight.”
“That’s awfully big of you, considering it’s her fiftieth birthday and she’s been planning this party for months.”
“You never have liked me much, have you, Sam?”
She smacked him on the back. “Don’t take it personally, Bill. Aside from my father and Captain Mack, I’ve never met a man I could trust.”
By the time she arrived at the office complex at the hospital, Sam was nearly thirty minutes late to pick up her son. She slid into the closest handicapped-parking place and ran inside. She found Jamie waiting in the lobby, hunched over in his wheelchair, watching a baseball game on ESPN.
“You’re late,” he said, his eyes glued to the television.
She bent down to kiss the top of his dark head. “I know, honey. I’m sorry. Something important came up.”
“Moses wants to see you. He’s waiting for you in his office.”
Sam glanced at her watch. They were due at Jackie’s in an hour. “Okay. Wait here and I’ll be right back.”
“Seriously? Like, where else would I go?”
Sam dashed down the hall to the physical therapist’s office and burst in without knocking. “I’m so sorry, Moses. I had a family emergency.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.” He came from behind his desk to greet her. He towered over her as he took her hand in his. Although she’d gotten to know the therapist well over the past six months, Moses’s size always amazed her. Jamie referred to the framed articles on the walls and the trophies lining the shelves as his shrine, a tribute to his time playing tight end for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Sam let out a deep breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Revealing family secrets was not in her nature, but Moses had proven his trustworthiness many times. “I caught my brother-in-law Bill in a rather embarrassing situation this afternoon.”
Moses’s chocolate-brown eyes grew large. “Uncle Bill, the brother-in-law who’s married to the sister with the twins?”
“Exactly. Cooper and Sean.”
“That’s too bad,” he said, shaking his head.
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I thought you should have a heads-up about the situation. The last thing Jamie needs right now is more drama, but considering his close relationship with the twins, he’s likely to get mixed up in the fallout from the divorce.”
“Calm down, Sam. You’re snapping the ball before the quarterback calls the play. Millions of men and women have extramarital affairs. Not all of them end in divorce. Hopefully, for the twins’ sake, your sister and her husband can work out their problems.”
Sam paused, letting that thought sink in. She couldn’t imagine Jackie letting Bill off the hook for something as big as an affair, but she’d given up on second-guessing her older sister a long time ago. “Maybe you’re right.”
Moses took Sam by the elbow and guided her to the door. “I have to meet another patient in a few minutes. Do you have time to walk with me to the recreation room? I’d like to talk to you about Jamie’s progress.”
“Of course.” Sam followed him out of the office and into the hall.
“I spoke with Jamie’s neurologist this afternoon about his recent MRI. Apparently Dr. Mitchell has been trying to reach you.”
Sam increased her pace to keep up with Moses’s long legs. “We’ve been playing phone tag for the last few days. Did Mitchell have good news?”
“Good and bad,” Moses said. “I’ll give you the good first. The MRI showed the bone has healed and the swelling is gone.”
“And the bad news?”
“The obvious. Jamie should be walking by now and he’s not.” Moses took her elbow and drew her to a halt. “Your son’s problem is no longer physical, Sam. Dr. Mitchell believes, and I am in agreement, that his paralysis has become psychosomatic.”
“Yo, Mo!” A bald-headed man, his muscles bulging from his navy scrub top, approached them. “Can I have a quick word with you about a patient?” He pulled Moses aside, leaving Sam to stand alone in the hallway.
The prognosis for Jamie’s recovery had always been good. A team of doctors at MUSC had inserted a rod and repaired the damage to his lower spinal cord, an injury sustained in an ATV accident at his best friend’s house. But that was five months ago, and Jamie had yet to take his first step.
“Sorry for the interruption.” Moses rejoined her and they started walking again, in the direction of the lobby. “As I was saying. I know Jamie had several sessions with a psychiatrist on staff while he was in the hospital. Has he seen anyone since then?”
“No. He refuses to talk about the accident. He says it only makes things worse.”
“And I empathize with him,” Moses said. “What your son experienced would be tough for anyone to handle, especially an eighteen-year-old kid. Jamie is a very angry boy, Sam. He is grieving and he is carrying a load of guilt. He has hit a wall. I’m afraid he won’t walk again until his heart gives his body permission to do so.”
None of this was news to Sam. Her hope was that time would heal all her son’s wounds, both physical and emotional. “What can I do to help him?”
Moses handed her a business card.
Sam read the card. “Dr. Patrice Baker, MD, Psychiatrist.”
“Patrice is a close friend of my older sister’s. She’s helped many of my clients before.”
She dropped the card in her handbag. “I trust you, Moses. I’m willing to give her a chance. I only hope I can convince Jamie to do the same.”
When Sam returned to the waiting room, she saw Jamie deep in conversation with a police officer. Panic gripped her chest as she approached them. “Is my son in some kind of trouble, Officer?”
Jamie’s head jerked up, surprised to see his mother standing over them. “Right, Mom. What could I possibly have done wrong, drive my wheelchair over the speed limit?”
The officer chuckled. “That’s a good one, speed limit for a wheelchair. I’ll have to remember that.” He stood to greet Sam and offered his hand. “I’m Eli Marshall. Your son and I have just been discussing batting averages. I’m impressed with his knowledge.”
Sergeant Marshall, according to his name badge, was about the same size as Jamie, medium height and stocky build. Judging by the crow’s feet around his eyes and the dark curly hair graying at his temples, Sam guessed him to be in his midforties.
She accepted his callused hand, a workingman’s hand. “Sam Sweeney. Nice to meet you.”
“Jamie was telling me about his recent trip to Turner Field.”
Sam followed the officer’s eyes to the television. “Aha. The Atlanta Braves. Jamie’s uncle was good enough to invite him along when he took his boys to Atlanta last summer,” she said, reminded of Bill’s more generous qualities. “But did Jamie also tell you his true devotion lies with the Red Sox?”
Eli smiled. “He may have mentioned that.”
Sam ignored her son’s glare. “I bet Jamie didn’t tell you he’s been offered a scholarship to play shortstop for USC.”
Eli’s gray eyes grew wide. “Wow! The Gamecocks are huge. Congratulations.”
“That’s all in the past, Mom. The sooner you realize that, the better.”
“Baseball is your future, Jamie. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll get out of that wheelchair.”
Eli placed a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “I don’t know what your situation is, buddy, but never give up on your dreams no matter how many bumps in the road you encounter. Trust what you feel in your heart and everything else will work out.”
“That’s the problem,” Jamie said under his breath. “I don’t feel anything in my heart anymore.” He spun his chair around, and wheeled toward the door.
Sam watched him go, and then turned to Eli. “I apologize for my son’s rudeness. He’s really not himself these days.”
Eli held up his hand. “No apology necessary. He’s a good kid with a lot on his mind.”
Sam shook the officer’s hand again before following Jamie to the parking lot. When she caught up with him, Jamie was struggling to hoist himself up into the Wrangler. Refusing her help, he managed to lift his body onto the passenger seat. She folded the wheelchair and stowed it away on the special rack she’d had installed on the back of the Jeep.
“You were pretty rude to that policeman,” she said, climbing into her seat. “I know you’re hurting, but you have to at least try. Having a positive attitude is the most important thing toward your recovery.”
He rolled his eyes. “Can we please not start this again?”
Sam knew she sounded like a nag, but she had no idea how else to reach her son. She held three fingers up Boy Scout-style. “I promise. No negative talk tonight. We have a party to go to.” She started the car and weaved her way out of the parking lot.
She thought about the long night ahead of her, of being forced to watch Bill make nice to her sister for the sake of the party. She would have to be careful not to let the secret slip to her sister and her mother. If only she had her son back to confide in. Sam missed their camaraderie, but mostly, she missed his humor. The old Jamie had always taken a light-hearted approach to life’s difficulties. But there’s nothing funny about being confined to a wheelchair. And no place for humor when you are mourning the loss of your best friend.
“Did you get a chance to enjoy the nice weather today?” Sam asked.
His eyebrows shot up. “Since when is hundred-degree heat nice weather? I took your suggestion and wheeled my way over for my appointment this afternoon. I was dripping with sweat when I got there.” He lifted his arm and smelled his armpit. “I smell like shit.”
“Come on, Jamie. It couldn’t have been that bad. The hospital is only five blocks from our house, downhill all the way.”
“I’d like to see you try it.”
Sam waited for the traffic to clear before turning right onto Main Street. “I’m sorry, honey. I wanted you to see that you can still have some independence. Prospect is a small town. You can wheel yourself over to a friend’s house who can drive you places. My schedule is going to be busy after the market reopens this weekend. I’m not always going to be around to take you where you need to go.”
“You don’t need to worry about me, Mom. I’m fine at home. I just want to be left alone.”
“Staying cooped up at home in front of the Xbox is not good for you. You should be out and about, enjoying your summer.”
A group of Jamie’s friends from school pulled up next to them at a red light. The driver motioned for him to roll down his window, but Jamie ignored him. The boy shouted at Jamie through the closed window, “Beach Week wasn’t the same without you, dude.”
Sam felt a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Jamie had never mentioned going to Beach Week.
The light turned green and Jamie flashed his friends the peace sign before they sped off.
Mother and son rode the rest of the way home in silence.
Fifteen years ago, Sam bought her little yellow cottage from Captain Mack when his wife died after a long battle with breast cancer. He couldn’t stand to live in the house surrounded by all the memories of the good times they’d shared. Without children to consider, Mack made Sam an offer she couldn’t refuse, and moved to the old houseboat he kept on a wooded property he owned. The property was on the inlet outside of town.
Built in the early 1940s, the cozy one-story Cape Cod offered everything a mother and her young son needed—front porch and back deck, three bedrooms and two baths, sitting room, dining room, and kitchen. The fenced-in yard had given Jamie plenty of room to run around in when he was little, and the detached garage had provided storage space for all his hunting and sporting equipment as he got older.
Sam drove in the driveway and parked in front of the garage. She shifted in her seat to face him. “I had a nice chat with Moses today. He’s convinced you will walk again.
“What does Moses know?” Jamie stared out the window. “All he does is work my worthless muscles.”
“I have never known you to shy away from a challenge. You are a strong, gifted athlete.” She grabbed his chin and turned his head toward her. “You just need to work a little harder, push yourself a little more. You’ve always been a fighter. You set your goals high and go after them with gusto. That’s who you are.”
“This isn’t a baseball game, Mom. I’m not trying to lift more weight or reach a certain speed. In case you haven’t noticed, I am paralyzed. Translated, I can’t walk.”
“There’s a difference between can’t and won’t.”
He opened the door to escape, then realized he couldn’t get far without his wheelchair. He closed the door again. “I’m the one who got screwed here. I get to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair while Corey gets to fish for eternity in the great big ocean up in heaven.”
“What happened to Corey is not your fault.”
“How can you say that? I was driving the Gator.”
“On Corey’s family’s property. His parents were responsible for making sure the trail was cleared. If anyone is to blame, they are. Look,”—she tilted his chin toward her—“I understand you are still coping with a lot emotionally. I think talking to someone might help. Moses gave me the name of a doctor—”
“How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t need a damn shrink?” He drew his fist back and punched the dashboard. He winced in pain and his eyes filled with tears. “Will you please just get my chair?”
Her son reminded Sam so much of his father with hair and eyes as black as coal. Until now, he’d never exhibited any signs of Allen’s dark moods. He’d always been a happy boy, but lately, she’d sensed a storm brewing beneath the surface.
Sam glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “We will table the discussion for now. But only because we’ve got to get ready for the party.”
Sam helped Jamie into his chair and pushed him up the wheelchair ramp, through the back door and into the kitchen. “Aunt Jackie is expecting us to be on time. Can I help you get cleaned up?”
“I’m not going to her stupid party.”
“Of course you’re going. It’s her fiftieth birthday.”
“Seriously, Mom. I’m not in the mood to have everyone staring at me, the poor pitiful cripple. Please, will you just go without me?”
Sam squatted down beside his chair. “We are family, honey. We have to go and support Aunt Jackie.” She ran her hand down his unshaven cheek. “Besides, Cooper and Sean are counting on you to come. After you make polite conversation for a few minutes with the adults, the three of you can go off and do your own thing.”
“You make me sound like a little kid. My legs are paralyzed, not my brain. I’m capable of having an intelligent conversation.” He rolled off toward his room.
“Can I help you with anything?” she called.
He slammed his bedroom door in response.
She tapped lightly on his door. “Don’t forget to shave. And wear a collared shirt.”
Sam headed down the hall to the smaller bedroom on the front of the house.
After the accident, she gave up her master bedroom so Jamie would have easy access to the en suite bath. Even with the special sink and shower her handyman had installed, it took Jamie a long time to carry out his routine. He’d begun to let his hygiene slip. His hair hung in greasy strands to his shoulders. Angry pimples covered his forehead, the result of not using his cleanser. He hardly ever shaved. His facial hair grew in patches, giving him a bedraggled appearance rather than the outdoorsy scruffy look popular amongst his friends. A sour odor emanated from his body, a combination of dirty hair and sweat.
Sam showered, towel-dried her short hair, and rummaged through her closet, wishing she hadn’t loaned Faith her favorite black dress. She settled on a pair of white jeans and a pale-blue sleeveless silk top. Grabbing her straw clutch, she went to the kitchen and dumped the contents of her everyday bag onto the counter. She retrieved Dr. Baker’s business card from the pile and created a contact with the doctor’s numbers in her cell phone, then tore the business card into little pieces, depositing them in the trash can
Time was running out, and Sam was desperate for help. She would drag her son to see Patrice Baker if she had to. If Jamie didn’t walk again soon, she would have to make some hard decisions about his future.
Last spring, during Jamie’s junior year in high school, the University of South Carolina offered him a partial scholarship to play baseball. When the head coach learned of his accident, he consented to hold the spot open for several months in light of the speedy recovery the doctors had promised. But when spring arrived and Jamie showed no signs of improvement, the coach withdrew his offer, claiming he had a long list of healthy recruits to choose from. Sam remained optimistic the coach would consider Jamie for the team when he recovered. She was thrilled when the university offered him the same amount of money based on his academic merit.
After several knock-down-drag-outs, the subject of college had become the elephant in the room that neither mother nor son dared to mention. Sam viewed the academic scholarship as an opportunity for Jamie to get an education she could not afford otherwise, while Jamie viewed the money as a consolation prize. He refused to consider leaving home for reasons he would not discuss.
Moses was right. Jamie had hit a wall. He had given up.
Curtis whistled when he saw Faith wearing her sister’s simply cut, form-fitting black dress. “Why are you so dolled up?”
He lay, sprawled out in his boxers and undershirt, with one leg thrown across the back of the couch, while their six-year-old daughter, Bitsy, sat on the floor next to him, busily coloring at the coffee table.
Faith had told her husband countless times about the party. She’d even affixed the invitation to the refrigerator so as to remind him every time he got a beer.
“Stop messing around, Curtis.” She nudged him with the toe of her worn-out ballet flat. “We’re gonna be late if you don’t get dressed.”
He took a sip from the full beer in his left hand, then spit tobacco juice into an empty can in his right. “Late to what?”
“Aunt Jackie’s birthday party is tonight, Daddy,” Bitsy said, without looking up from her coloring. “Do you think they’ll put fifty candles on her cake?”
“I ain’t going to no party with no stuck-up rich people.” He wiped his stringy brown hair out of his face. “Besides, I already made plans.”
“Then unmake them. Jackie has been planning this party for months.” Faith pulled Bitsy to her feet. “Don’t sit on the floor like that, honey. You’ll wrinkle your dress.” She smoothed her hand along the bottom of her daughter’s dress, hoping no one would notice the crease in the fabric where she’d let out several inches of hem. “Go get your hairbrush out of the bathroom,” she said, patting her daughter’s bottom.
“Come on, Curtis.” Faith picked his foot up off the couch and let it drop to the floor. “We’re supposed to pick Mama up in ten minutes.”
“Aw, hell, nah.” He drained the rest of his beer and crumbled the can. “I’m not going anywhere with that crazy old bitch. I’m supposed to meet the gang later.”
Faith placed her hands on her hips. “It won’t kill you to come to the party, at least for a little while.”
His eyes narrowed. “I don’t remember you ever asking me if I wanted to go.”
“I shouldn’t have to ask you to go to my sister’s fiftieth birthday party. Sometimes you have to do things for your family, whether you want to or not.”
He struggled to sit up. “I guess I could stop by for some grub on the way to meet the fellas. But she better have some real meat, like barbecue ribs. Those fancy little bite-size things you pop in your mouth ain’t food.”
Bitsy returned with her hairbrush and a ribbon, handing them both to her mother.
“Oh … I almost forgot. Sam needs you to help stock the showroom tomorrow and Friday.”
“Fine, as long as she pays me.”
Faith secured Bitsy’s ponytail with a hairband, then tied the pink ribbon in a big bow. She set the hairbrush down on the coffee table. “Haven’t you already been paid enough?”
“My going rate is twenty an hour. Take it or leave it.” Curtis hauled himself up off the couch. He picked Bitsy up by her shoulders, planted a big kiss on her cheek, then set her back down and turned to Faith. “Damn, woman, you’re looking downright hot tonight. Where’d you get the money to buy the new dress?” His face was so close to hers she could smell the stale tobacco juice on his breath.
“I didn’t buy it. I borrowed it from Sam.”
He lifted a lock of Faith’s hair and sniffed it. Fingering the pearls around her neck, he said, “I haven’t seen you wear these in a while. They’d fetch a pretty penny down at Hank’s.”
Faith swatted his hand away. “Daddy gave me these pearls, Curtis. They belong to me. And one day I will give them to our daughter.” She opened the door and escorted her daughter out before her husband got any more ideas about pawning her pearls.
She stood for a moment on the front steps. The refreshing evening air offered a welcome relief from the stuffy trailer and the heated exchange with her husband.
“Why is Daddy mad at you, Mama?” Bitsy skipped along beside Faith as they walked across the driveway to her rusty old pickup truck.
Once white, the paint on the truck had yellowed with age. The tires were bald and the starter was shot, but Faith loved the truck just the same. Her father had given her the pearls on her sixteenth birthday, and the truck when she graduated from high school—the only two items of value she owned.
“He’s not mad, honey. He’s just in a bad mood.” Faith scooped her daughter up and gave her a big hug before sliding her into her car seat in the back.
“But he’s always in a bad mood,” Bitsy insisted as Faith was fastening her in.
“Not always, baby. It just seems like it lately. That happens sometimes when grown-ups have a lot on their mind.” Faith kissed the tip of Bitsy’s nose. “But that’s nothing for you to worry about.”
For the past two years, Curtis had been in and out of numerous jobs. He’d been fired from the job at the brick plant after only three days. The longer Curtis went without a job, the meaner he got and the more he drank. Most nights he came in drunk. She only wished he spent as much time looking for a job as he did hanging out with his biker friends.
Faith, saying a silent prayer that the truck would start, turned the key several times before the engine finally caught. “We’re not gonna let Daddy’s bad mood spoil our fun, now are we?” she asked, looking at Bitsy in the rearview mirror.
“No, we’re not!” Bitsy said, bouncing in her seat. “Mommy, will they have a cake for you and Aunt Sam tonight, too?”
“No, sweetie. We decided to let Aunt Jackie have the spotlight this year since she’s turning fifty.” Bitsy’s disappointed face prompted her to add, “But I’ll tell you what. After the grand reopening on Saturday, I’ll let you buy me an ice cream sundae at Sandy’s to celebrate my birthday.”
She stuck her lower lip out in a pout. “But I don’t have any money to buy ice cream.”
Faith smiled. “How about if I loan you the money and you can pay me back in kisses and hugs?”
Bitsy beamed as she bobbed her head up and down.
Faith turned the truck around and headed down the long dirt driveway toward the highway. Moving their double-wide to the woods in the middle of nowhere had been Curtis’s idea. He loved to kill squirrels with his shotgun, and scratch his privates on the front steps without anyone around to see. Faith dreamed of having neighbors, a friend to drink coffee with in the mornings, children for Bitsy to play with in the afternoons. She envied her sisters their proximity to town, especially Jackie whose expansive property fronted on the water.
Faith wasn’t smart like Sam or creative like Jackie. Instead of going off to college like her sisters, she’d chosen to stay home and attend classes at the regional community college. All she’d ever really wanted was to be a mom. But one child was all she and Curtis were destined to have. After several miscarriages and a difficult pregnancy, she was lucky to carry Bitsy until the thirtieth week. She’d never forget the chaos in the delivery room that day—the emergency cesarean section, her baby’s blue face as the nurses rushed her off to the neonatal nursery, her husband’s pale face when the doctors told him the baby was a girl and there’d be no more. For one whole month, Faith never left the side of the incubator. The baby had problems eating and breathing, and a little problem with her heart that eventually worked itself out. Faith named the baby Elizabeth after Curtis’s great aunt, but Lovie called her Bitsy from the start. “Such an itsy-bitsy thing, fighting for her life.”
Mother and daughter sang along together, very loud and very off-key, to Brad Paisley all the way to town. Faith turned left onto Creekside Drive, drove four blocks, then turned right into the complex where her mom lived in the last townhouse in a row of ten. The corner unit afforded her two hundred more square feet than the others, plus a first-floor master suite and large deck out back.
Faith pulled up in front of the townhouse and blew the horn, a honking noise that sounded like a wounded goose flying in for a landing.
Her mama appeared at the door. Lovie was not a fancy dresser. Shorts in the summer, jeans in the winter, and the same red knit dress on Sundays to church. She’d shrunk two inches in the past few years, now measuring in at exactly five feet. Today’s outfit—a pale-blue silk nightgown cinched with a zebra-skinned belt and topped with a furry vest—made her look like a little girl playing dress-up.
Bitsy giggled from the backseat. “What is Lovie wearing, Mama?”
“I don’t know, sweetie, but we’d better go find out.”
Once freed from her car seat, Bitsy ran over and wrapped her arms around her grandmother. Faith could hardly believe her mom was only six months shy of her eighty-third birthday. She’d always been the youngest-acting of all her friends’ moms. She’d insisted her grandchildren call her Lovie, claiming it made her sound like a hip grandmother instead of some old lady granny.
Jackie had mentioned their mother’s memory slipping, but she hadn’t said anything about strange behavior.
Faith ran her hand down the back of Lovie’s vest. “Is this real?”
Lovie beamed. “Jacqueline gave it to me two Christmases ago. Mink isn’t exactly my taste, but I thought I’d wear it in honor of her birthday.”
“It’s kinda cool tonight, but I think you might get hot,” Faith said.
Lovie reached for the door handle on the truck. “We don’t have time for me to change now.”
“At least put on a slip. I can see right through your nightgown.”
“My nightgown?” Lovie looked down, apparently realizing for the first time what she was wearing. She rubbed the silky fabric between her fingers. “I guess you’re right. This is kind of a strange outfit. I never could figure out how to wear this silly old vest.” She rummaged through her pocketbook for her house keys. “It won’t take me but a minute to change.”
Faith glanced at her watch. “Take your time. We don’t have to be there until seven.” Faith knew Jackie would prefer for them to skip the party than arrive with their mom in her nightgown. She took the key from Lovie and unlocked the front door. “Come on, we’ll help you find something to wear.”
Once inside, Faith glimpsed the mess in the living room as they passed by, but the chaos in Lovie’s bedroom caught her by surprise. Clothes lay strewn across the floor and every piece of furniture as though a tornado had ripped through her closet and dresser. Her mama had always insisted they keep their rooms tidy when they were young. They had shared two tiny rooms between the three of them, but always kept their underwear folded in their drawers, and their dresses hung in neat rows in the closets.
“What happened in here?” Faith asked. “Hurricane season is still weeks away.”
“There’s a method to this madness.” Lovie dug through the pile of clothes on her bed until she found her navy slacks. “All my pants are here. And my blouses over there.” She found a white silky blouse from the mountain of clothes heaped on top of the rocking chair.
While Lovie changed into her new outfit, Faith began to straighten the room. When she went to hang her mom’s robe on the back of the bathroom door, she found cosmetics scattered across the counter and clumps of dried toothpaste in the sink. Wet towels were piled up in the corner and the wastebasket overflowed with lipstick-blotted tissues.
“What time are we supposed to be at Jackie’s?” Lovie asked.
“Seven o’clock, Mama.” She’d told her mom that not ten minutes ago.
Lovie glanced nervously at her bedside table where three different alarm clocks were set to the same time. “Oh Lordy. It’s already six thirty.”
“Relax. We’ve got plenty of time. What’s with all the clocks, Mom?”
“They help me keep my appointments straight. Each night before I go to bed, I write my appointments for the next day on those little sticky notes next to the clocks. Then, I set a different alarm for each appointment, fifteen minutes before I’m supposed to be there.”
Faith glanced over at Bitsy who was listening attentively, as though her grandmama’s system was the most brilliant idea ever. One of the alarms sounded, a loud beeping noise, and the three of them jumped. Lovie removed the sticky note attached to the clock and held it up for Faith to read. “See, Jacqueline’s party. You told me a fib. We’re supposed to be there at six forty-five, not seven o’clock. Which means we better get going.” She stuffed a wad of tissues in her bag and started toward the door.
“Shouldn’t you put on shoes first?”
Lovie looked down. “Oops.” She slid her feet into gold sandals and then motioned to Faith and Bitsy to follow. “Come on. We’re going to be late.”
As she passed down the hallway, Faith studied the disarray in the other rooms. Stacks of newspapers and catalogs cluttered the floor and furniture in the living room, and dirty dishes filled the kitchen sink.
“Why don’t I come over on Sunday and help you clean up?” Faith said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I can do it myself. I’ve been so busy lately, I haven’t had time.”
Busy? Doing what? The market had been closed for remodeling for more than six weeks. Lovie didn’t belong to a bridge club or a book club or any groups at church. Other than taking meals to sick friends and looking after her family, her mom’s life had always revolved around the seafood market.
Lovie asked Faith five more times during the ten-minute drive what time the party started. When they passed their old driveway, next door to Jackie’s, Lovie smacked her hand on the dashboard and shouted, “Where on earth are you going, Faith? You missed the turn.”
Faith hesitated. Did her mom think they still lived in the cottage next door, or was she simply confused about whose driveway was whose?
“I know it’s hard to see with the sun glaring through the windshield, but that’s our old driveway.” Faith pulled up next to the mailbox at the end of her sister’s driveway. “This is Jackie’s.”
“Oh right,” Lovie mumbled. “Of course.”
Her mama popped the top off a Maybelline tube and smeared lipstick across her lips. Lovie had always worn the same shade of cherry red lipstick, but the woman who grinned over at her looked like a clown with penciled-on eyebrows, flushed cheeks, and bright orange lips.
I hope you enjoyed meeting Samantha, Jackie, and Faith. You can read more about them and experience South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Grab some sweet tea and order your copy of Her Sister’s Shoes today