A Tale of Marriage, Medicine and Murder

Chapter Seven

This is a preview to the chapter Chapter Seven from the book PERSONAL BAGGAGE by Margaret McMillion.
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After a drought so severe that no amount of watering could revive Penny’s impatiens, rain splashed on the pavement like tiny people dancing in the street. It spilled over into cracks in the parched earth, and the air smelled wet and summery as she drove to the Jacksonville Airport. She stopped beside the long-term parking gate and watched the machine spit out her ticket and the entry arm lift.

The name TERMINAL bothered her. Would they accept the tickets David had sent? It would have been easy for someone to make a mistake scheduling three flights! If she did get through this trip and return intact, would she be able to find her car? Selecting a parking spot near the gate, she sketched the location of her Chevette on the parking ticket.

Eventually, Penny boarded her plane. Always before, Johnny had taken her to the airport and picked her up or they had traveled together in the car to Charleston. This was the first time she had tried to go there on her own, and, to Penny’s surprise, everything was working out. She relaxed and her thoughts drifted back to her childhood years at home.

Growing up as the oldest of three children, Penny had enjoyed the tree house and the sandbox where she played with her brother and sister, and the swings and stilts her father had made for them. Those were happy times, but as Penny grew older, the tension increased until her father’s depression became a breathing force. There were days when he didn’t say anything, and his expression made her ­stomach ache.

Her mother was busy caring for the family in addition to her duties as a minister’s wife. Parishioners, neighbors, and friends came to Mrs. Nichols for counseling and comfort, but her most challenging task was cheering up her husband. As a child, Penny knew she wanted a husband who stayed happy by himself and whose feelings would not be her responsibility.

Three hours later, the pilot turned on the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign, and in window seat 14-A Penny sighed and stretched stiff muscles. After flying above white clouds that humped and dipped in uneven globs over a sea of black-bean soup, they descended through a bumpy, grey mist into a driving rainstorm, soaking the runway and the terminal.

At the luggage carousel, Penny watched her red suitcase emerge from the cave and bounce toward her. She reached for the handle and another hand beat her to it, grabbing it away from her. Her brother set the bag down and grinned. David and his wife had rented a car and driven from their home in Virginia to the Charleston airport.

Petite Alice, her short brown hair shining, smiled and hugged her sister-in-law. David was almost bald, but in Penny’s mind he was still the tall, golden teenager he had been when she left for college. Arthritis made him limp as he stepped around the luggage to hug her. “We beat you by thirty minutes and returned our rental car. Come on! Faye’s waiting for us out front in the loading zone.”

Elizabeth Faye Nichols, Penny and David’s middle sibling, was Public Relations Director for the city. Resembling their mother more than Penny had remembered, Faye smiled and fluttered a hand at them from behind the wheel of her Volvo. Her once-dark hair, now silvery, was dramatized by hoop earrings and a silky scarf. “I came straight from work so I haven’t seen our parents today, but last night I drove out to Westview and Dad was sorting books.... Mom doesn’t have a handle on any of this yet.”

While still serving a Presbyterian church in Charleston, Reverend Nichols had purchased his retirement home, an old summer cottage on Sullivans Island. He had done most of the work on the property himself: winterized the house and added two bathrooms, built a garage with a workshop, and sank pilings for the dock using a garden hose. He loved gardening and sharing vegetables, figs, and blueberries with the neighbors. He had won prizes for his camellia blossoms.

Moreover, he had a special affection for birds. With a mere whistle, he would call a whole flock of seagulls to the end of his dock. One particular mockingbird family maintained residence on the site and could be counted on to mimic his whistle and to provide appropriate music for watching sunsets across the Cooper River from the screened porch.
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