Two Years Earlier
February's thick snow silences Boston's Back Bay area and heightens frightful screams inside seven-hundred-eighty Boylston Street. Annoyed tenants, arriving home from work, hasten inside and swiftly close their apartment doors. Several minutes later, shuffling and whispering evolve in front of apartment 20A. Tom, worried neighbors reported the noise, looks through the peephole, finding an attractive brunette and several men staring back. He takes a deep breath, clears his throat, and opens the door a crack.
“Yes. May I help you?” He asked, tempering remnants of anger in his voice.
As the door opens wider, Ellen, his wife, joins his side. Immediately, aware of the camera crew, and their disheveled appearance, they both step back. Ellen brushes her hair in place and rolls a crinkled sleeve over newly formed bruises. Tom conceals a contused fist with his left hand and forces a grin. Unaware of the rampage moments ago, the television host and camera crew believe they're witnessing a couple surprised and nervous from unexpected events.
“Congratulations! You're the new winners of the AHD Dream Home Sweepstakes,” the woman squealed, waiting for a response, only receiving wide-eyed silence.
Now, curious neighbors spy through slit doors.
Unprepared for the fortuitous moment, Tom flinches when the lively Alcott Home and Design's (AHD) TV host places the intrusive microphone at his mouth. She steps aside, directing the cameraman to move in and capture the winner's excitement. With a curious glance, she gestures her hand to induce some emotion from the straight-faced couple. “Are you excited?”
“What? Is this for real or some hoax?” Tom asked. Shock, embarrassment, disbelief, and a mixture of emotions swell through their minds.
“This is real,” the animated brunette said. “You and your family are the winners!”
Only entering his name twice in the sweepstake, and never taking it seriously, Tom can't believe his name was chosen out of millions of people. “You're kidding … Right?” Moments later, realizing their reality is about to change, elation replaces incredulity.
* * *
A week later, they're chauffeured from their two-bedroom apartment in Boston to their new million-dollar home in Vermont. For a weekend, AHD's Dream Team treats them like royalty and proclaims, “Your life just changed for the better.” When the magical weekend concludes, they're given three sets of keys attached to a geometric keychain—a bronze triangular home inside a gilded circle and square—the keys to their beautiful Mountain Home. Boxes packed, old items discarded, they leave their two-bedroom apartment and never look back. Although Tom realizes the Dream Home might be too expensive to maintain, he vows to make their new life work.
December 10, 2014, Vermont
Two years later, remembering the Sweepstake Dream Team's promise of a new and better life, Tom stares at the elusive dream crumbling around him. “All lies, lies, lies …What do they think; they can give us this dream then take it away? No, they won't, not from me,” he mumbles with anger burning in his eyes. Reeling from the loss of his high-powered career, and pondering the uncertainties of his life, disillusionment soon turns to anger, vengeance, and now madness as he paces back and forth in his office.
A sudden dizzy spell claims his balance. He holds his head and rubs his temples to contain swelling pain. For a moment, he pauses, takes a deep breath, and turns his attention to the layout in front of him, wondering if he can pull off his plan. Uncertain of the outcome, he merely understands the need to strike their hearts with fear. They must know what they've done, he affirms while staring at the circular trail of photos surrounding a picture of AHD's headquarter.
His desk resembles a small-scale FBI crime lab. Photos of three females and one male are numbered one to four in executable form. Internet printouts from Google maps and other miscellaneous information are strategically placed beside each picture. Given the sweepstake team's celebrity, he's amazed he'd found all the information needed on the Internet. With a little cunning, he'd pretended to be the new architect for the 2016 Dream Home, acquiring the team's cell phone numbers from the ill-advised receptionist, Rebecca. As a gatekeeper, he couldn't believe how gullible she was, making no effort to confirm the real name of the architect. She will be useful as my plan unfolds.
Magazine clips from personal interviews provide more intimate details about AHD's team. Tom scrutinizes the layout on the table and reassesses each picture and item of significance. Several photographs surround an image of AHD's headquarters. The first photo displays an attractive, African-American woman with massive waves of brown hair and almond-shaped hazel eyes. Below her picture lay two printouts from the web—a townhouse surrounded by cobblestone sidewalks and gas lanterns, adjoined to a photo of the Bakehouse Bakery Cafe with the caption Morning Coffee Stop. The second picture of a striking strawberry blonde with mesmerizing bluish-green eyes is stapled to a blue velvet ribbon. Underneath the photo, lays a printout with a red bullseye in the middle of a sprawling home labeled Alcott Estate. The third photo of an enchanting raven-haired female with piercing green eyes is surrounded by letters copied from AHD's blog site. Similarly, an image of a modern townhouse with massive oak trees sits under her photo.
Tom ponders the picture of the only male, an African-American with hazel eyes, a strong jawline, and closely cropped brown hair. He wonders why he couldn't find personal information on AHD's Producer and Home Planner. His image sits alone with a bold red question mark he'll undoubtedly answer with time.
On the table sits four silver gifts wrapped with blue velvet bows. He wonders if they'll understand the message the gifts contains. One last time, he scans the large graph paper and wonders if the information is enough to carry out his plan. It has to be, he affirms. With meticulous hands, he rolls the paper like an architectural blueprint and places it inside a black satchel with the silver packages. Tom sweeps his office from corner-to-corner, to confirm clues aren't left behind.
Sadly, he glances around his home, wondering how life spun out of control so quickly. This is not my life, and won't be my children's, he maintains firmly. His vision blurs. Tom reels forward and clutches the desk's corner before black spots claim his sight. With a tight grip, he holds the desk's edge until dizziness elapses. A veil rolls over his eyes, like shades enclosing him in darkness. And with the same alacrity, his sight returns—spotty globs dissipate to light.
With the return of sight comes another bout of anxiousness. The permanent dweller in his head taunts relentlessly. You can't handle this, Tom. How can you live with the pain you'll cause your family? Look at you; you can't even pay your bills. How do you expect to feed your family and keep this house? You can't! What sort of man are you! You're just like your father. He glares at stacks of bills hidden from his wife and snaps at the voice in his head. “You'll never understand what I'm capable of. I'm not my father!”
A guttural sound escapes his mouth. Clenching his teeth, he tries to silence the noise rattling inside his head. Momentarily, the voice subsides, but anger reappears with the elusive dream fading around him. A delusional sense of entitlement and paranoia invades his mind. Sickness clouds his logic. No longer comprehending his personal difficulties, he blames others, not his illness for his troubles.
A sudden surge of nausea overcomes him. Quickly, he runs to the master bath and dry heaves over the toilet bowl, but the bitter liquid refuses to surface. For several minutes, he sits on the floor, fearing another bout of nausea. Slowly rising to his feet, he heads to the medicine cabinet, rummages through multiple prescription bottles, and finds the mind-altering pill. Inadvertently, he catches a shocking, gaunt image staring back in the mirror. He's never been this thin. Unwilling to tolerate another listless moment, he disgustedly spits the tablet into the sink. “No more … I have to feel like myself again,” he affirms. Willfully, he empties the entire bottle into the toilet.
With quiet steps, he exits the bathroom, pauses, and stares at his wife fast asleep under the down comforter. Backing toward the door, he makes his way to the children's room, standing over his four and five-year-old nestled fast asleep in the bunk bed. A lump forms in his throat as he fathoms the fragile security of their world. A few minutes pass before he snaps out of his reverie and he leans over and kisses them on the forehead.
“I won't let them take this away from us.”
With brevity, he hurries to the dining room and writes a note to his wife.
There's an opportunity for work that involves travel. If I'd told you I'm going away for a while, you would have protested and I don't want to fight about this. Sorry for sneaking out. I'll call you when I reach my destination. Please give the kids my love. See you soon.
Tom envisions Ellen's morning routine as she proceeds to the fridge for a glass of water. He's certain she will see the note pinned to the refrigerator door. He takes his five-year-olds' favorite black and white spotted dog magnet and posts the note for Ellen's eyes. One last time, he heads to the master suite and watches Ellen's peaceful slumber. He remembers her joy when they moved into the home, and can't bear the thought of her pain and loss to come.
With a heavy heart, he leaves his family in tenuous comfort. Steering the car out of the driveway, he glances back at the home's deceptive beauty and the mountain's perpetual grandeur. Determined to reach South Carolina, Tom exits Vermont and heads onto I-95 South, realizing he may never see his family again.
December 15, 2014, Charleston, SC
In South Carolina, Mother Nature overlooked winter and soared full-fledged into spring, blitzing December with unusual warmth and balmy breezes. Along Charleston's Battery Promenade, Palmetto trees sway from coastal winds, and early risers, though stunned, welcome tropical weather as they start their morning ritual.
In the French Quarters, harbor winds whip around Tara McPherson's townhouse and through an open window, banging blinds rowdily across the windowsill. Bolting from sleep, Tara stumbles downstairs in a somnolent trance, closes the window then plods heavy-eyed through the dark, bumping into the hall credenza. “Owww!” She squeals, stoops, and grasps her stubbed toe, sucking air through clenched teeth until the pain subsides.
Slowly, rising from the floor, she shuffles one-sided, eyes down to the top of the stairs, and then abruptly stops when a strange light glimmers above. Rubbing sleep from her eyes, she steps onto the landing, glances about the window-less space, circles, and waves her arms about for the source, but finds nothing. Much too tired to solve the baffling light, she shuffles into the bedroom.
“Darn,” She grumbles.
Catching time on the clock, she realizes the alarm will chime in two minutes. Tara sighs and deliberates jumping back in bed. With a deeper sigh, she drags her weary body to the shower; unaware the glow trails behind.
* * *
Thirty-five minutes later, Tara's bedroom appears a hurricane's aftermath. With clothing strewn pell-mell about the room; she searches for a suitable outfit to wear in the unseasonable weather. Fretfully standing undressed in the middle of the room, hair flying in voluminous curls, she sighs and peers toward the large walk-in closet. At the back, she spies her spring wardrobe and ponders two dresses suitable for the temporary warm spell. Improvise; improvise.
Finally, she tugs a simple tan dress around her narrow hips and slips into a pair of suede pumps, wishing she could wear a pair of jeans and T-shirt. Maybe it's time for a new dress code at work—casual dress, jeans and a blouse; no sneakers or flip-flops. “Hmph,” she deliberates with a smirk. However, Southerners prefer formality and she's certain casual attire is unacceptable. Anyway, as Managing Director, I must dress accordingly.
Standing at the vanity mirror, her father and mother's features appear dominant this morning. Never one to wear much makeup, she applies modicum lipstick, blush, and mascara, stares at her massive curls, and toys with the idea a simple ponytail. But instead, she wears it loosely about her shoulders. At first glance, Tara appears a Southern Belle, that is until her northern dialect reveals her native origins. Her nationality isn't always apparent given indistinct facial features. With honey brown skin and wavy chestnut hair, she borders on African, Indian, and Latin-American. She abhors racial labels and will never deny her mother's African American heritage or her father's Irish roots. She realizes the appropriate representation is biracial, but she prefers African-American for the sake of simplicity.
Tara scoffs at laws prohibiting interracial marriages, prevalent in South Carolina before the 1970s. Life is so absurd. If she'd been born in Charleston, the probable outcome would have been imprisonment or worst for her parents. The thought infuriates her; the ignorance makes her boiling mad, but she appreciates what her parents endured to make their lives possible. Although years ago, racial mixing was forbidden; she's certain it was merely concealed in Southern towns like Charleston. Nonetheless, neither race nor anti-miscegenation laws prevented her parents from marrying, but at the cost of uprooting themselves from their beloved Charleston. Moving to New York City, they married in 1975, several years after interracial marriages became legal in South Carolina. The McPherson's made a life in New York, and Tara grew up a city girl, which was probably for the best.
With her father's connections, she entered New York University's Business School and two years later, acquired her Interior Design degree from Parsons School of Art and Design. She recalls Nyla's surprise when she decided to enter business school. “You're just like your dad.” However, Tara suspects she's more like her mom than she lets on. Tara perceives she inherited her business acumen from her father, an astute Corporate Lawyer, but she also inherited her mother's aesthetics for architecture and interior design. Nyla postponed her career to raise her daughter, wanting to give Tara a healthy home environment and the relationship she'd had with her mom. Aware of her mother's decision to abandon a cherished career in Interior Design, she'd often ponder Nyla's success if she hadn't been born. Nevertheless, Nyla always upholds, “Honey, you're my greatest piece of work, and nothing else compares.”
At the age of fourteen, Tara sensed her mom's desire to resume her career. She laughs at her futile attempts to prove her maturity. “Mom, I'm old enough to take care of myself,” hoping to persuade her to restart a stunted career. Finally, when Tara turned sixteen, Nyla took a position as an Assistant Interior Designer with a small design firm where she worked many years before leaving New York City.
Tara's parents loved and missed the South's simple lifestyle and longed to move back. There wasn't a single day she didn't hear about their beloved Charleston. She grew up eating her mother's Southern cooking of butter beans, fried green tomatoes, buttermilk biscuits, bread pudding, pecan, peach, and blackberry pies, and her favorite—blueberry cobbler. Just thinking about her mother's cooking makes her mouth water. It's a wonder I didn't grow up porky, she thinks while glancing in the mirror. Tara's relieved she'd not only inherit her dad's business acumen but also his long, lean figure.
Years later, at twenty-four, Tara made her first trip to South Carolina. A grandfather she'd never met and who had no interest in meeting her was her parent's impetus to move back to Charleston. Her father, James, inherited the entire McPherson estate. There was no inkling of her family's wealth and prestige in Charleston. Because of her grandfather's animosity toward his marriage, dad spoke of him rarely and usually in a disparaging tone.