Standing in the doorway of the library, Zinnia presents the tutu lamp with a wry smile.
“Third floor guest room,” Darrell says, pausing from unloading the books to wipe his brow and stand in front of the oscillating fan. He is suddenly overcome with vertigo and a sense of déjà vu. “And enough with the judgment.”
“No judgment, just amusement,” she says, making a billows of her shirt to cool herself off. “Third floor guest room—for all to see.” She mock-pirouettes out into the front hall and mounts the squeaky stairs, footsteps echoing in a strange, rapid way.
Darrell reluctantly leaves the comfort of the fan and removes the last stack of books from the open box, a sharp twinge in his leg as he stoops down. He scans the spines—more dry legal texts. Carrying them to the wall-to-wall bookshelf, he scales the rolling step ladder, and adds them to Max’s section.
After he descends, he guzzles some water, pulls back the curtain, and gazes out at the expansive grounds of Wellington Plantation. Max had showed him yesterday where the slave quarters had been situated, past the shed and towards a flank of Spanish-moss-veiled oaks. They’d walked through the field together at sunset—the two of them and a thousand cicadas. At that time, the high grass had seemed to stretch on infinitely, and Darrell had grown nauseated thinking about all the tiny, identical shacks that had once crowded the space. They’d found a hideous, black wooden beam out there, half-moored in clay, which they dragged in and set aside in the library.
He turns to the desk, where the ancient beam now rests, ashy in the sunlight, and wonders how old the piece is, if it has any historical significance.
Probably just a piece of lumber from Home Depot.
He walks back over to the boxes, gazing up at the recessed tray ceiling and crown molding, and feels a dizzying wonderment, questioning the odd fortune that had brought him to this beautiful—but twisted—place. His home.
Suddenly the chandelier light sputters out; the oscillating fan dies. He can hear throughout the rest of the house other quietly humming appliances winding down. From outside, the buzz and chatter of insects begins to fill in the unsettling, midday silence. Despite the heat, he shivers.
He walks over to the side hallway exit. Tries the light switch.
Steps out into the hall, finds the cobwebby electrical closet near the bathroom, and flips the breakers.
On his way back, he hears the stairs creak again as Zinnia descends from the darkness. He finds her in the library, looking exhausted, bathed in sweat, a little haggard.
“What’s up with the power?” she asks.
He shrugs. “I tried the breaker. Maybe a power line’s down.”
“Wanna call the power company?”
“Maybe wait a bit and see.”
She grabs a bottle of water and takes a sip while he slashes open a new box of books. He shelves a few armloads before Zinnia speaks again.
“By the way, that lamp…” she starts.
“Look, sugar,” he says, “it was my mother’s, not a gift at my coming-out party. I’m a sentimental boy.”
Zinnia watches him dip down for more books.
“You just have the one, right?”
“What is it with you and—”
The rotary doorbell rings, and they squint questioningly at each other.
“I’ll get it,” she says.
He watches her go, blots off a little more sweat—hardly makes a difference; his shirt is soaked through—then follows after. At the foyer, he finds Zinnia leaning against the doorframe (a bit coyly, Darrell thinks). Beyond her stands a large man in mirrorshades, gesturing back towards the road. His thick arms and wide shoulders strain his short-sleeve button-up. The unbearable humidity has already begun to divine beads of sweat from the man’s temples.
“Hi,” the man says, face shifting towards Darrell. “I was just telling…”
“Zinnia,” she says.
“Zinnia here—nice to meet you, Zinnia, I’m Frank—”
“Yeah, likewise. And you are?”
“Nice to meet you, Darrell.” They shake. “Anyway, I was saying I’d drunk too much coffee and was looking for a gas station. Figured there must be one around this exit. My car broke down, and my phone’s not getting any service.”
Zinnia lights a cigarette, eyes darting back and forth between Frank and Darrell.
“That’s a boatload of problems,” Darrell says.
He cracks a polite smile. “Could I use your bathroom?”
“Okay,” he nods and points the way. “Take a right at the hallway junction. Second door on the left.”
“Awesome. Really appreciate it.” The man surges forward.
Darrell steals Zinnia’s cigarette and takes a drag.
“Nice butt, nice everything,” she comments.
“Please.” He rolls his eyes.
“When we tell Max about our little visitor at dinner—give me that—what adjectives are you going to use?”
Darrell laughs. “You are bad.”
A sheepish Frank, sunglasses removed, emerges well after the cigarette has been tossed into the yard.
“Everything go smoothly?” Zinnia smiles.
Frank chuckles and pauses in the foyer, no rush to leave. The floor clock at the end of the hall inaccurately strikes five. “Quite a place you got here. Mind if I make a call or two?” he looks about for a phone, only finding scattered furniture and stacks of boxes lining the walls.
“No landline,” Darrell says, unlocking his phone, handing it over, and motioning towards a parlor with faded, peppermint-striped wallpaper. “Go ahead.”
“You guys are the best.”
“Don’t be long,” Zinnia clucks.
The two of them step out onto the porch, gazing down the drive to see if they can spot Frank’s car in the sizzling heat. No, but the path is too long and wooded to be able to spot much of the road from here.
“No service,” Frank says, stepping out of the front door and handing back the phone. “Miss?”
“Zin, hate to be a bother, but could I try yours?”
She unlocks her phone and hands it over. Frank raises an eyebrow at the Frankenstein Monster Hello Kitty case.
“That was judgment,” Zinnia says when they’re alone again.
“Who is this guy?” Darrell asks, checking his phone. Zero bars.
“Didn’t really say.”
“Has a kind of martial air, doesn’t he?”
“He wouldn’t look bad in uniform.”
“Nothing,” Frank says, reappearing.
“Impossible. It had full bars when I handed it to you just now.” She walks up and takes back her phone.
“You have a computer here?”
“Power’s out at the moment,” Darrell says.
Frank snaps his fingers in frustration. “Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Better let you get back to unpacking. Take care, you two. Thanks for everything.” He hops down the front steps.
“Good luck,” Zinnia calls after him, voice twanging slightly. “Take a left at the end of the drive; next house is about half a mile up the road.”
“Will do.” He waves and strides off down the driveway.