The Safe Room
How long can murder haunt a family? Until the wrong is put right and the victim is able to rest in peace. The Safe Room is the story of such a murder and such a haunting.
Set in Lexington, Massachusetts, The Safe Room toggles between the eve of the Civil War and the present. It follows the doomed love affair of Silas Person, a run-away slave riding the Underground Railroad on the eve of the Civil War, and Sarah Harden, the daughter of a famous abolitionist who befriends him. Sarah and Silas' story is intertwined with that of Lee Seymour, a modern-day descendant who suddenly must grapple with a world in which murder and ghosts are all too real.
The Safe Room is a suspenseful tale that employs love and the paranormal to explore the ugliness of injustice and the beauty of hope.
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"Narrator Lee Harden toils as a research assistant for an inner-city drug center in Boston. Unofficially, she counsels recovering black addict Trina and helps her own grandmother (with whom she lives) ready her historic house for acceptance into a national park comprising Underground Railroad stations. Lee complains of unnerving nightmares about the house's root cellar and even sleepwalks while the house undergoes renovations. Her narrative shares space with journal entries an ancestor made in 1858, detailing her unacceptable relationship with an escaped slave. Increasingly eerie connections with the past, a missing bracelet, and murder make this a recommended choice for readers of psychological suspense."
A single, sharp sound woke me. I sat up in bed, disoriented, askew, and struggled to listen through the fog that hangs between sleep and waking. But all I could hear were the whispered sighs and creaks of Gram's old house struggling through the night, nothing as sharp and clear as the noise that had torn away my sleep. Had I dreamed it? I lay back and closed my eyes, thinking of all those who'd lived and died within these walls: seven generations of Hardens, whom I counted in the night the way insomniacs count sheep.
I had gotten as far as Colonel Stanton Harden, when I heard it again. A faint rasping, a grating, as if something, or someone, was scraping metal against metal, a manacle against stone. Digging? The noise rose from deep within the house, yet at the same time, it came from outside. From all around.
I crawled from bed and looked into the yard. It was hooded in shadow, and as the wind played through the trees, the streaks of darkness shifted and deepened and assumed odd and alien shape. No one was there. I opened my bedroom door and peered into the murky hallway. A stair riser creaked, the aging furnace rumbled its protest against the chill, but as I strained toward the scraping, I could hear nothing. No one was there.
In the morning, my bedroom was filled with the brilliant light of early May, and the phantoms of the night had departed to wherever it is phantoms go when the sun is out. The brilliance of a New England spring was powerful enough to banish even the most resilient of ghosts, and by the time I climbed into my car and headed for work, I had forgotten all about the strange sounds that had haunted me in the darkness.
Although I was twenty-seven, I was only a bit more than a year into my first real job—waitressing and substitute teaching didn't seem to qualify, although they had felt real enough at the time—and I still secretly reveled in the idea of being a part of the "grown-up" world of commuting and carrying an unpaid balance on my credit card. Of course, my mother and my cousin Beth, both of whom were committed to curing what they considered my protracted adolescence, would have claimed I was far from grown-up.
Hadn't I broken off an engagement to the "perfect man"—perfect, that is, except for the fact that I had caught him cheating on me two months before the wedding? ("Everyone should be allowed one mistake," my mother had explained to me. "Especially someone as brilliant and good-looking as Richie.") Hadn't I wasted years getting a masters degree in a discipline as frivolous as sociology? And wasn't this proven by the fact that I was currently underpaid and underemployed as a part-time do-gooder with no chance of advancement? Not to mention that I lived with my grandmother. It was a wonder I could drag myself out of bed in the morning.
Still, there I was, up and out and actually enjoying my drive to work, which I liked to think of as a ten-mile trip across the social class system of America. I started from the modest, three-bedroom-two-and-a-half bath colonials of Lexington, proceeded past the expansive lawns and mansions of Belmont Hill, and dipped into a corner of Cambridge jammed with teeth-gnashing rotaries, used-car dealerships and loud signs announcing appliance sales. Then I headed east on Memorial Drive, the impeccable grounds of Harvard University lining both sides of the Charles River, and across the BU Bridge, past some of Boston's toniest townhouses. But soon the well-kept boulevards melted into a grimy sameness of garbage-filled streets and unpainted, tired structures, and I was in a place where the blocks were gap-toothed with the flattened, charred remains of futile turf wars—and grass only grew where it shouldn't. An introductory sociology course in forty-five minutes or less, depending on traffic.
That morning, when I reached the run-down intersection of Centre and Washington Streets, there was something about the angle of the shadows that flashed me back to the morning of my first job interview at SafeHaven. I had somehow lost my bearings, but I hadn't been scared driving in aimless circles around sagging porches crawling with children and three-legged furniture. I had been excited. It was so exotic, so exhilarating: the obscenities scrawled on the walls, the rusted cars haphazardly resting on their tireless rims, the bored stares of the mothers, the vacant stares of the addicts. This was real life, this was where real things happened.
A year later, as I swung a well-practiced U-turn and parked in front of a tattered gray house, I knew all too much about the real things that happened in real life.
Two signs were mounted on the house's porch railing. One sign, scrawled in barely legible Magic Marker, read: "R. M. Masdea, DDS, No Appointment Necessary," and the other, neatly lettered, said: "SafeHaven." I peered through the grimy window of Dr. Masdea's mean little office and felt a rush of sympathy for those who had to let that awful man touch their teeth. It was an easy bet he overcharged too. I pushed the buzzer under the "SH."
"It's Lee," I yelled into the intercom.
When no answering buzz released the door, I hit the button again. Things were always breaking down at SafeHaven, both physically and emotionally, and we often functioned like a MASH unit, rushing from one crisis to another, focusing on whichever one appeared to loom largest at the moment. "Triage mentality," Kiah, the program director, called it; and it was an apt description, for whatever the big problem of the day was, invariably, a new crisis would arise to push it to the back burner, where it heated up and boiled into the next day's crisis, which pushed that day's crisis to the back burner, where it heated up. . . It's the nature of cycles to keep cycling, and SafeHaven had yet to find a way to beat them. But we kept trying.
A wary brown eye filled the broken peephole, then there was a grunt and the door swung inward. "Lee," Joy said with a scowl. "Damn button's busted again. Pain in the butt. Every time somebody comes, I gotta get up and let 'em in myself. Then the phone rings and the door goes again and I can't get a damn thing done. Kiah says we can't fix it 'til the next check comes from the feds. Pain in the butt," she muttered as she walked down the narrow hallway to her office. "Fucking pain in the butt."
I followed Joy to her desk. She sat down and her frown deepened. "We're running out of everything and Kiah says she's gonna have to turn clients away—even if they're in a real bad way."
Joy had only been on the job for a few months and hadn't yet caught on to the rhythm of life in an inner-city drug program. For once, I felt as if I was the insider, one of the in-crowd, rather than the outsider I knew myself to be. In many ways, I was in a foreign land, a place with different customs, different rules, even a different language—and as hard as I tried, as long as I stayed, I would always speak with an accent.
I leaned over and gave Joy's ample shoulders a squeeze. "Kiah's never turned away a woman who needed her, and she's not going to start now. I'm finishing up the report, and they're going to give us the money for next year—I promise." I only hoped the god of procurement at Health and Human Services was listening.
"You don't think we're gonna have to close down?"
"No way." I raised my arms and clenched my fists. "Super researcher to the rescue: in search of truth, justice and a speedy buck!"
Kiah stuck her head out of the door of her office. "Truth, justice and a speedy buck?" She walked over and gave me a hug; she was tall and thin and moved with the willowy grace of a ballet dancer. "Thanks for coming in today, girlfriend."
It was officially my day off, but "officially" didn't count for much at SafeHaven—one of the many things I liked about working there. Kiah was another. She was a remarkable woman: tough and confident and extremely competent, but softened, and made even more remarkable by an amazing ability to get inside a person's head and understand—truly understand—why she did the things she did.
I shrugged, slightly embarrassed by my pleasure at Kiah's gratitude and her use of the word "girlfriend." In the year we'd been working together, she and I had evolved an odd kind of friendship—one that contained mutual respect and affection, but also a touch of distance, a wariness of circumstance we couldn't quite overcome: I left at the end of the day, and she did not.
"You didn't leave your grandmother home alone holding the bag, did you?" Kiah rubbed the heel of her hand against her cheekbone, a habitual gesture of both exhaustion and determination. Kiah's skin was a gleaming ebony that I'd always admired; when I once mentioned this, she told me her mother cried at its darkness when she was born. "I wouldn't want to be accused of standing in the way of Tubman Park," she added.
Not only would Kiah never be accused of standing in the way of Tubman Park, she was the reason I was involved with it—or more accurately, why my grandmother was involved with it. I lived with Gram in a house built by my great-great-great-great grandfather, Colonel Stanton Harden. He had been an ardent abolitionist and Civil War hero, and the house had been a station on the underground railroad—and that was the connection to Kiah: Kiah was a board member for the new Harriet Tubman Network to Freedom National Park, which, when it was completed, would connect hundreds of underground railroad sites into a six-hundred-mile-long park—actually, more of a six-hundred-mile-long archipelago. According to the Boston Globe, the Park would revive the spirit and history of the underground railroad "from the fraying edges of national memory."
"I'm bringing Trina back with me to help when I'm done here," I said. "Want to come give us a hand?" When I had first told Kiah about the history of Harden House, she immediately arranged to meet Gram and get a tour. Before I knew it, Gram, my cousin Beth and I were overseeing the house's designation as part of the Park. It was an ongoing joke that Kiah was responsible for the mammoth workload this had created—as well as the obsession that drove my grandmother.
"Don't I wish I could." Kiah waved her hand in the direction of her cluttered office. "Everything's pretty much on schedule?"
I shrugged. "I guess I'll find out soon. We're meeting with the contractor this afternoon."
"And your report?"
"The budget'll be ready for the accountant before I leave—if everything checks out with her, it can go out tomorrow." A large part of SafeHaven's money came from research-demonstration grants awarded by the federal government, and the next year's funding was dependent on the quality of the previous year's report. I could feel the weight of this responsibility lying heavy across my shoulders. I told Kiah I'd better get to it, and left.
Although I was officially a research assistant, no one at SafeHaven was slotted into a single job description. In my sixteen months on staff, I'd been a therapist, employment counselor, baby-sitter, carpenter, chauffeur and secretary—just to name a few. I did whatever I could, relishing the idea that although I might be working a "real" job, I wasn't working a "straight" one. Pantyhose were not my thing.
As I headed to the back stairs that led to my tiny attic office, I couldn't resist poking my head in the living room. Another reason I liked working at SafeHaven was that it was part of my job to mind other people's business—and I'm a nosy person by nature. I waved to Jayce, who was washing windows, and to Darla, who was mopping the floor. Jayce gave me a sad, sweet smile, but Darla ignored me. Darla was in the "week two funk." She was sure to come around after she had worked through her "week three fury." Either that or she'd leave.
I stopped outside the dining room, which doubled as a therapy room when it wasn't meal time, and watched morning group through the clear spot at the top of the etched-glass panel in the door. When the heavy wood-frame doors were closed, it was hard to hear what was being said—which was why the dining room was a good site for therapy sessions—but it was possible to see what was going on if you pushed your eye to the tiny piece of unclouded glass. Often, seeing was enough to know all.
A dozen women were sitting around the long scarred table: eleven clients and one counselor, Ruth Thompson, the head of treatment and a reformed addict like most of the staff. (SafeHaven was a grass-roots, community-based type of place, and I was almost singular in both the paleness of my skin and the lack of drug or alcohol abuse in my history.) I knew all the women, liked some and disliked others. I looked more closely when I saw that Trina Collins was sitting next to Ruth.
Although impartiality was the watchword at SafeHaven, it was impossible for individual staff to respond equally to all clients. After all, SafeHaven was all about connections between people, and chemistry was a big part of connection. Right from the start, Trina had sparked something in me, and it wasn't just the notoriety of her case, or the unfairness with which she had been portrayed in the media. Nothing made what she did justifiable, but right and wrong weren't as clear-cut as they appeared on TV. The first time I saw Trina—excluding the nightly news—she had been sitting in the shabby armchair in Kiah's office, shell-shocked, her handsome face dimmed by all she had been through. She was so skinny her jeans had been fastened around her waist with a shoelace.
Now, as I watched her lean over the table, full of good heath and resolve, her face stern but her eyes warm, I felt a swell of pride. She was speaking earnestly to Shirleen, who sat across from her. Trina had come a long way since that first day, and although all the hard work had been hers, I liked to imagine that my friendship had been of some assistance. And although she still had much farther to go, and more battles to fight than either she or I might care to think about, I believed that Trina was going to be one of the few to break out of the cycle. Kiah wasn't as certain.
I turned from the window and climbed the stairs. Even if my mother and Beth thought I was wasting my time, my great-great-great-great grandfather, the Colonel, would be proud of what I was doing.
Trina took the abuse, sitting quietly, knowing that though nine of ten times it wouldn't make a bit of difference, there was that one of ten that just might. This was what she needed to do. To make it up to Hendrika for what she had done to her. To stay out of prison. To stay alive.
"Chill," Trina finally said to Shirleen, knowing it wasn't personal, but feeling like it was. "It might be hard to hear, Shirleen, but you gotta look at what came down. You need to get Willie back and you don't want what happened to Willie to—"
"I never did nothing bad to my baby!" Shirleen screamed. "I took care of him from the day he was born. My baby loves me!"
"'Course he loves you," Trina said. "You're his mama. But that ain't always enough."
Shirleen glared at Trina, and Trina understood the other woman's anger as if it were her own. She had been exactly where Shirleen was. In that same seat. Shirleen was bullshit at the cop who bagged her instead of Thatch, the asshole pusher who deserved more time in the hold than he could serve in ten lifetimes. Shirleen was bullshit at the skanky sister from Children's Services who took Willie away. And Shirleen was bullshit at the judge who ordered her here. But mostly Shirleen was bullshit at Shirleen.
"Puttin' on airs," Shirleen muttered. "Ms. Trina Collins and her fuckin' straight fuckin' airs."
Trina glanced over at Ruth, hoping she'd run interference, but Ruth just sat there like some round, peaceful Buddha doll, all calm and serene-like. So Trina conjured up the sweet, tiny face of her lost little girl and tried again. "Drinking while you was pregnant was bad for him," she said. "Willie had a bad time—a really tough time. All those weeks in that preemie ward hooked up to all that shit. And now that you're pregnant again you gotta think about—"
"Who the hell are you to tell me what I got to do?" Shirleen demanded. "To tell me all the bad shit I did? At least my baby's still alive!"
I headed home to Lexington with Trina in the passenger seat beside me. Trina wasn't the first woman I'd brought home on SafeHaven Furlough—part-time work during the last phase of treatment—but she was the first success. Kiah claimed Gram and I were too trusting, that it was hard for white folks to understand, that we tended to go overboard in whatever direction we chose. And after what happened with Anet, I guess I'd have to admit Kiah had a point—but that didn't mean the point was valid in every case.
Trina had been working for my grandmother for almost a month, officially as a secretary, but she was a good sport, and did pretty much whatever Gram needed. And my grandmother needed lots of assistance—not because she was old or infirm, actually nothing could have been further from the truth, but because of the incredible amount of work that had to be done before Harden House could become part of Tubman Park: schedules and renovations and deadlines and contractors and inspections and paperwork and paperwork and more paperwork. Although Gram had been indifferent to family history before meeting Kiah, now the Park was her prevailing preoccupation, her passion, surpassing even her zeal for tennis. Unfortunately, Gram's organizational skills did not compare to her backhand—which was where Trina came in: Despite Trina's lack of formal education, or maybe because of it, she was a whiz at organization.
To my grandmother's credit, she had taken out a rehab loan and found a company named Preservations to do the necessary renovations—although calling Preservations a company was a bit of a stretch. Preservations was really Michael Ennen, a nice guy who was long on good looks and charm, but short on experience. Gram was convinced that his two years of architecture at Harvard (he had dropped out), two more studying history at BU (he had dropped out), and a dozen summers spent working carpentry jobs with his father made him the perfect contractor for Harden House. His work had to be completed before the US Park Service would certify the house as an official "station" in the Park, and I worried that Michael's charm wasn't going to carry as much weight with the inspectors as it did with Gram.
"Is Michael going to be there?" Trina asked, as if reading my mind.
"Did you ever notice how neat he is all the time? How can a real contractor have such clean fingernails?"
"The man likes to take care of himself."
"I bet he spends more time getting ready for a date than I do."
"Check it out."
"I don't think so."
"Suit yourself." Trina shrugged. "But remember: a piece of a man is better than no man at all."
"You're so full of shit," I said. "You think I'm going to believe you think a piece of Lionnel is better than no man at all?" One of the first real conversations Trina and I ever had was about Richie and Lionnel. She had told me how Lionnel got her hooked on him and then on heroin, and how he took a powder as soon as he found out she was pregnant. I told her how I had discovered Richie in bed with one of his graduate students—Richie was a real, live rocket scientist, at MIT, no less—two days after I mailed our the wedding invitations. "Guess a man doesn't need to be black to be a shit," Trina had said, and we had solemnly promised we'd help each other to stay away from handsome men. Trina was not holding up her end of the bargain.
Trina grinned. "I admit Lionnel's a sleazy, slimy, rotten dog, but the man has his uses."
I stepped on the accelerator, passed an old Chevy on the right, and zipped under a light as it went from yellow to red—all right, so it was completely red, but the two cars behind me went through it too. The successful Boston driver is the one who knows which risks to take.
"I saw you with Ruth in group today," I said, changing the subject. "You seemed like you were doing real well."
Her smile disappeared and she turned away. "You must've been doing your spying early on."
"Oh?" I waited a good couple of seconds, then said "oh?" again. When Trina continued to stare out the window, I switched the radio to a station I knew she liked and didn't say anymore. It wasn't easy. No one has ever accused me of being reticent, but over a year at SafeHaven had taught me to hold my tongue. I kept quiet for an entire Puff Daddy song.
Trina watched the rowers out for crew practice on the Charles. Her shoulder-length braids were gathered in a tattered ribbon, and her neck was exposed; it was so innocent, so vulnerable, such a heart-breaking creamy brown. Trina was twenty-three, but looked seventeen, maybe younger. As we crossed the BU Bridge, she turned and followed the path of a sleek boat full of college girls, racing toward Boston Harbor, its oars disappearing then rising from the dark water. A place she'd never been. A life she'd never had.
Yet, weren't they more alike than they were different? Trina and those girls? Trina and me? We all wanted the same things: a comfortable existence, health, love, peace, safety. Trina was smart and beautiful and had everything going for her except the facts of her birth and every day of her life. Unfortunately, we got what we deserved even less often than we got what we wanted.
"Shirleen can be a real bitch," I said, meaning it. Shirleen had attitude taller than the Prudential Tower. She once told me to fuck off after I offered to help her set the table.
Trina turned from the window and looked at me sadly. "Oh, Shirleen's not so bad. She just wants that baby back so much that she's all twisted around by it—that and the guilt."
The expression on Trina's face reminded me of the first time she had told me about Hendrika's death. She claimed she had felt the spirit of her child rise and wrap itself around her, full of love and forgiveness. Trina said Hendrika came to her often, at daybreak, the hour of her birth.
"Do you still feel like Hendrika's with you?"
"Sure," Trina said. "The dead don't ever leave."