The 13th Victim

A short excerpt from The 13th Victim:

Technically, she was not dead. Of course, she was not dead. Otherwise, she would not be reading on the internet that she was. She looked up from the laptop and out the bay window at the pasture and the gray sleet that deadened the mountains and the distant tree line, the ice crusting over the already graying snow that neither melted nor grew with the cold February day.

She thought of the horses that she would need to go visit later in the afternoon and dreaded the short trudge through the snow and mud and ice between the house and the barn. Even the red and white barn painted just two years ago faded into the muted light of the Sunday afternoon.

Looking back at the laptop screen, Pearl Marie Taliaferro Montgomery, known since she was nine as “Pea”, curled her legs beneath her on the oversized red suede sofa and began to read again about her disappearance and probable death. The short internet blurb led to a longer article posted in yesterday’s Staunton Dispatch. The newspaper article related the story of Pearl Marie Montgomery, 20, of Staunton, Virginia, who had disappeared June 1, 1998, from an area along Route 11, just outside of Staunton.  The article went on to mention that Pearl Marie Montgomery had previously been arrested twice for possession of narcotics. The newspaper included information on Pearl’s family, acquaintances, and the usual ineffective quote from law enforcement that had probably stopped their search for Pearl the month she disappeared. There was also a photograph of Pearl that was obviously a mug shot from one of her previous arrests, as well as a picture of a middle-aged black man, wearing a cracked leather coat and a Virginia Tech Hokies baseball cap, his face worn and as wrinkled as his coat. He was surrounded by what appeared to be Pearl’s other family members.

The photograph of Pearl’s family disturbed Pea the most. Their distress, their not knowing, their worry and pain were evident even with the passage of the 12 years since Pearl had disappeared. The man in the picture held a sheet of paper from which he appeared to be reading. Pea could imagine a slight tremor in his hand as he read from the paper, asking for any help, any information, just anything that would relieve his worry.

The photograph of Pearl was a contrast beyond words. Pearl glared from the laptop screen, her face angrily defiant, but her eyes appeared sad and a bit confused and she looked older than the 20 years she actually was when the mug shot was taken. In the photograph, her brown skin looked dull, her short brown hair matted and flat. Pea believed that before the drugs and what ever she had stumbled upon that Pearl had probably been quite pretty. Even with the dull, aged skin, an underlying bone structure told of a Pearl that might have been, a happier child and teenager who had maybe once dreamed about dolls and dates instead of drugs.

Unknowingly, Pea sighed, the only sound in the house other than the quiet snores from her two Harlequin great danes sleeping beneath her, their huge bodies sprawled across the antique, wide, golden oak floorboards like black and white blankets, the rise and fall of their great barrel chests moving like small waves against the shore of the oak.

How odd, she thought. A woman, the same age as she, with her name, had disappeared on her birthday 12 years ago and less than two hours away from where she sat now. Where was she 12 years ago? She knew without hesitation. Her 20th birthday. She had spent it here with her teen age sister, Mary Alicia Taliaferro, whom she called Ree, and with her parents.

It had been a spectacular June day as most Greenbrier County June days were. Warm, but not hot, with the slight promise of a thunderstorm later that night. She was happy that day in a way that now no longer seemed even a remote possibility. Not because it was her birthday, but because she was with those she loved in the place she loved the most of anywhere she had ever been.

Pea was not a traveler. A student at William and Mary, she loved the school and the campus, but it was not home. No place was home but the family farm, with its 600 acres and adjacent Anthony Creek Stables. Home to her was on the back of a horse, riding through the pastures around the farm. She preferred the quiet of West Virginia’s Greenbrier Valley, the comfortable knowledge that things there would be as they had been for the over 200 years her family had lived there. Mary often teased her about it and told her she was stuck in Green Acres land. Mary was beginning her senior year of high school with a dream of law school, politics and world travel.  I can always visit, Mary would say, but for Pea, visits were for everywhere but here.

Pea’s fiancée, Manley, was back at school, packing for a summer trip home.  Pea felt lucky that Manley seemed just as happy to settle with her at the family home. Although a native of La Terre, Louisiana, he told Pea that she was what he wanted and where ever she was would be his home. They had met at a Greek party his fraternity was having with her sorority. He was a Pike, a Pi Kappa Alpha, and she was a Tri-Sigma. He was someone she
had known for a year or so and their eventual joining had seemed inevitable. He was handsomely dark, tan, and athletically thin with conversational skills that complemented Pea’s shyness. Alone, they were able to find similar interests and dreams.  At 20, she had thought that sharing each other and love were enough.

Thinking back on that June day, she wondered what the other Pearl Marie had been doing. Had she been happy? Sad? Looking for release in a pipe? Had either of them really had a chance after that day, she asked herself.

She closed the laptop before the tears could come. All she ever wanted was a quiet life here with a family, a man who loved her, children to raise, a small garden to tend. Nothing big or important. Not to be famous or rich. Just a wife and mother who taught horseback riding to children, to run the family farm, with a life full of children and animals and Manley. Manley.

He was gone. Her parents gone. Her sister gone. Even most of the horses now gone. Just her, an empty house with two snoring dogs and an internet newspaper story that told her that she, too, was gone.

Well, hadn’t she known that already? She had disappeared with the other Pearl Marie that same day and hadn’t even known until now that she was gone.

Her disappearance took 12 years and began June 1, 1998 as well. That night her parents had driven to The Greenbrier Resort for dinner with friends after her afternoon cake and presents. Their maroon Volvo had swerved on the wet road from the thunderstorm that had finally presented itself in its full glory, landing in the late spring high waters of the Greenbrier River. The car was found a few miles downstream near Ronceverte the next morning.  Pea and Mary had woken to sharp knocking on the heavy unpainted maple front door of their home. The sheriff’s deputy held his hat in his hands and couldn’t meet their eyes as he related the details of their parents’ deaths. He looked out to the road to his squad car as if to escape their grief. Death notifications required something that he lacked. Not tact or sympathy, but just the awful bravery it took officers to face mortality in the tears of others.

Manley rushed from school to her side, guided them through everything, leading them to the Honaker Funeral Home and selecting coffins, to florists, and churches and their minister and music and obituaries. On one side he held Pea up throughout the services while Mary stood to her other side. Her life had changed then. Lawyers, wills, probate, an entire summer filled with death. She remembered the strangest things from that summer. Not ceremonies nor meetings or even her decision to leave school and take on the farm. Instead, if she thought about it now, 12 years later, the things she remembered most was sitting at the family’s baby grand playing Billy Joel’s Lullabye every day, riding the trail along Anthony Creek and watching the leaves floating away toward the Greenbrier, thinking that the leaves would follow the Greenbrier to the New River to the Mississippi and then eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. The leaves and the lullabye.

While Manley prepared to return to Louisiana for a briefer than planned visit, she eventually woke from her grief that summer and began the daily responsibilities of running the farm. Her parents had divided the estate equally between their daughters, but Mary quickly stepped up and told Pea that she couldn’t, wouldn’t, take on the farm. It’s always been yours, Green Acres, she said. And truly there was enough money for both of them for a lifetime, even one without the farm, but even at 17, Mary understood that Pea could not survive the loss of their parents and the farm so she “gave” it to Pea with only the verbal promise to come home as often as possible so Pea wouldn’t be alone.

Manley gave the same promise, though it was only later that Pea realized he had wanted her to sell everything and leave the Greenbrier Valley forever. Later that summer he had taken her to his home in La Terre to meet his “mama” and unknown to her at the time, to try to convince her to abandon the idea of running the farm.

His mother, Laura, could not have been more gracious or sympathetic to her loss or more encouraging of the marriage next spring of Manley and Pea.

Laura, however, had insisted on calling Pea “Pearl” and had spent long hours talking about her own family, her dead husband and dead daddy. She questioned Pea about her plans, about her sister’s entailment of the family property, would she really want to run the farm with children? Was West Virginia really sophisticated enough for her and Manley to make the life they wanted for their children? Louisiana, after all, had so much culture to offer beyond a horse farm and a five star hotel, she would say.

Pea had smiled and ignored Laura when Laura began her daily campaign to bring them to La Terre. Pea loved Manley, but she knew that she could not leave her family home. It was where she was born. It was where she probably would die and be buried in the family plot. Maybe she wasn’t sophisticated, but she was smart enough to see Laura’s plans. When she complained to Manley, he just shrugged it off and said “That’s just mama. Don’t worry about it. We’ll do fine.”

So she believed him. She believed him for ten years, through the birth of their daughter, Alicia Marie, through her daily running of the farm, through her garden club meetings and church duties, through his long hours working at the hotel and her horseback camps, through two miscarriages, and finally through the death of their daughter, Alicia, at the age of six.

Then she discovered that her ideal life was a lie. The fights began shortly after the Lexington Horse Show where little Alicia rode for the first time in competition. Something so simple. Just once around the track on her gentle Palomino, wearing her red habit proudly, her head held high until a noise spooked the horse and he reared up, throwing Alicia back onto the hard packed Virginia clay, her neck breaking like a stick of kindling.

They had airlifted her small body to the UVA hospital, but it had been too late the moment the horse reared up. The doctors asked about organ transplants and neither parent could respond. Mary, who had driven from Lexington to Charlottesville faster than anyone could have conceived, took them together and helped them agree to the transplant and then drove them the three hour trip home without their baby.

Alicia was buried next to her grandparents. Pea visited her daily. Manley pretended the plot did not exist.

Manley began to stay away and Pea began to hear the whispers she had previously, intentionally, deafened herself to. When she discovered that he had had numerous affairs during their ten year marriage, including an off-again, on-again affair with a girl he had been engaged to at William and Mary before he met Pea, she filed for divorce. She told him she would not charge him with adultery if he walked away quietly. He yelled, threatened her with legal action, and finally demanded a substantial settlement for his “help” with the farm. In the end, she gave him $150,000 and told him to go back to Louisiana and never remind her that they had ever been married.

Now, almost two years later, she had almost shut the farm down. All but three of her horses were left and the family land was rented out to local cattle farmers for grazing. Pea closed the stables to the public, stopped attending her club meetings and church and became reclusive to the point that her only time away from the farm was a weekly evening trip to Lewisburg to Kroger’s or a trip to Charleston, West Virginia every few months to have her hair trimmed. Anything to avoid other people who knew her failure as a mother and wife and daughter. Anything to avoid a reminder of the life that she had lost. She could not let them see her tears and so even her existence faded away into the past gossip of garden club meetings and a vague memory of the Taliaferro family.

She and Mary Alicia were the last Taliaferros in Greenbrier County. Mary Alicia was gone and now, according to the Staunton Dispatch, so was she. She thought about that for a few moments, even touching her cheek to see if she was really there and for the first time in what seemed like two years she laughed out loud. She placed the laptop on the glass table beside the sofa and rustled the dogs from their sleep to go check the horses.

I’m not dead, she said out loud. I’m not dead. But she wondered if the other Pearl Marie had said those words. It wasn’t much comfort and as Pea began to feed the horses, she also began for the first time in 12 years to think about anything other than what she had come to call “her own useless life.”

No, I’m not dead. I’m not. I’m not. She was whispering those words over and over to herself quietly, as she softly stroked the forelock of the Palomino.”

From the novel The 13th Victim by Renee Porter, copyright 2011. Published by Roet Press. All Rights Reserved.

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