“?‘And then there was Atticus and his sisters, Dora, Carson, and Harper.’?”
The silence continued. Mamaw looked at each girl’s face. Dora sat far back on the settee, her blond hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail and her eyes wide as saucers. Carson sat beside her and dropped her face in her hands. Harper closed the books and sat stiffly, ankles together and lips tight, like a marionette.
“He’s our brother,” Dora said in a flat voice. “Our brother!” she exploded. “Daddy’s illegitimate son, born just months after Harper. Both women must’ve been pregnant at the same time. For God’s sake, didn’t Parker ever keep his pickle in the jar?”
“Dora!” Mamaw exclaimed, shocked. It was one thing to think it, another to shout it out so crudely.
“I can’t believe Atticus lied to us,” Harper said, her voice high with emotion. “After all his talk about honesty.”
“I know,” Carson agreed. She shook her head disbelievingly. “I should’ve trusted my instincts. There was something about him that seemed like we’d met before, a deeper connection than just a minister or a friend. And then, those blue eyes. And you, Mamaw”—Carson pointed her finger at her grandmother accusingly—“you covered for him. That’s what threw me off the scent.”
The three girls turned their heads to look reproachfully at Mamaw.
“I did not cover for him,” Mamaw said sternly. “There was no covering up at all. He came to see me that first day, and we decided, Atticus and I, not to tell you the truth about all this until after the weddings. In fact, it was my idea in the first place not to tell you. Atticus didn’t like the idea of lying. And by the way,” Mamaw said with emphasis, “we didn’t lie. I told you that Atticus was a minister and that I asked him to marry you. All that is true.”
“You just omitted the little part about him being our brother,” Carson spat out.
“Only temporarily. We were going to tell you after the wedding. I thought it would be too stressful for you to deal with.”
“And this isn’t?” Harper’s voice was an octave higher than normal.
“You weren’t supposed to find out.”
“Well, we did,” Carson fired out. “And I feel like I’ve been betrayed. That my trust was betrayed. I told him very personal feelings. I believed him.”
A knock sounded at the door.
“Taylor is furious,” Harper added. “I had to stop him from going over and having it out with Atticus.”
“It’s not Taylor’s issue to deal with.” Mamaw’s voice was harsh with outrage. “I will not have it.”
The knock sounded again. “Mrs. Muir?” a voice rang out from behind the door. “It’s Beth from Wildflowers. I have a quick question for you.”
Mamaw closed her eyes tight a moment, then composed, called back, “I’ll be there in a minute.” She felt the tension rising in the room. Everyone had a million tasks to attend to, which only exacerbated the already-short tempers. This had to be the worst time for the news to come out.
“You stirred the pot,” Dora said to Mamaw. “Bringing Atticus in here under false pretenses. Of course we’re upset. What did you think would happen when we found out?”
“I didn’t think that far ahead,” Mamaw admitted honestly. “I was so thrilled to meet my grandson. And I was so pleased with the way you were all getting along. You did get along. You can’t deny it.”
“But it was all based on a lie.”
“I don’t want him to marry us. Who knows if he’s even a real minister?”
“He was taking advantage of us.”
“How do we know he really is our brother?”
The girls’ voices all rose over each other until Mamaw couldn’t bear the backbiting any longer. She clapped her hands. “Stop it! Be quiet,” she said in a controlled fury. She looked at each of her granddaughters without hurry. “Atticus Green is your brother. The only brother you have. And he is my grandson. And as such he is as dear to me as every one of you.”
The three women stared back at their grandmother, summarily silenced.
Another knock sounded on the door. “Excuse me, Mrs. Muir. It’s Dan with the tent. Would you come take a look?”
“One moment!” she called back in a frustrated shout. She could feel her heart accelerating. Everyone seemed to want a piece of her today. And it felt as if her granddaughters were ganging up on her. It was all too much. She looked down at her hands and saw them shaking. Clasping them together, she lifted her chin and faced her granddaughters.
“I pray that none of you have to endure the agony of burying a child.” Her gaze lingered on Harper. “You never fully get over it. And Parker was my only child.” She looked across the room at the rows of books on the shelves, recalling how Parker had loved to read in this very room.
Mamaw’s face softened with memories. “You never forget any of the things they’d done or said, no matter how trivial. The sound of his laugh, the feel of my arms around him, his arms around me. That morning when I opened the door and saw Atticus standing there, I thought I’d seen a ghost. I called out Parker’s name.”
“Oh, Mamaw,” Carson said with sympathy.
Mamaw placed her hands on her lips to still the trembling. “I saw my son in his son. I still think back on that moment with a degree of disbelief and awe.”
“But why did you feel you couldn’t tell us the truth about Atticus?” Dora asked.
“Atticus didn’t want me to tell you. We made a promise.”
“But why? I don’t understand.” Dora looked both confused and hurt.
“He had only just discovered the truth of his birth a week before. Imagine how he felt learning that the father he’d known his entire life wasn’t his biological parent? His father had died some years ago, his mother had just passed several months prior, and he’d thought he was alone, without family, only to suddenly learn in a letter from his mother’s lawyer that he had a grandmother and three half sisters he’d never known existed. He didn’t know how we’d react to the news of his not only being your illegitimate brother, but one who was black. You have to put yourself in his shoes.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered that he was black,” Harper said dismissively.