By Elena Santangelo


I followed her through an old-fashioned kitchen as big as half my apartment, then out the back screen door. To my dismay, she made straight for what I'd begun mentally calling "the Forest of No Return." I ran to catch up--had to, she walked that fast. She plunged right into the profuse undergrowth, and miraculously, it seemed to know her and part before her.
    That's when I saw the trail, little wider than a shoe width, double A at that. After the first vine sent tiny needles into my forearm, I rolled down my sleeves and stuck my hands in my pockets in self-defense. "Miss Shelby?"
    "Heavens, don't call me that. I taught junior high for over forty years. Still get shell-shock every time I hear `Miz Shelby.'"
    "What should I call you then?"
    She shrugged. "Magnolia, Maggie, whatever."
    "The man who drove me called you Miss Maggie."
    "Hugh's one of my former students. Never could get him to drop the Miss. Use it if it makes you feel better. Or you could call me Mary. My christened name. Hardly anyone knows it, except Joel since it's my legal name, too. Wouldn't mind you calling me Mary. Only when we're alone, though."
    "Why me? I mean, Mr. Peyton saidľ "
    She stopped walking abruptly and swung around. "Can't tell you. Not yet. Joel says to wait until you sign the papers. He'll be over with them tonight." Again she canvassed me, toe to head, sighing when she reached my nose. "Say your name for me."
    "Patricia Montella."
    She repeated it, sounding as Italian as my grandmother. "Pretty name. Melodic. You prefer Patricia?"
    I shook my head. "Pat."
    "Suits you." Turning her back on me with a nod, she resumed her brisk pace.
    Not ready to give up, I tried a roundabout approach to my mysterious benefactor. "How'd you come to be named Magnolia?"
    She laughed. "My granddaddy called me that because I loved to climb that old cucumber magnolia in front of the house."
    "You said you taught junior high. What subject?"
    "History." As she said it, we stepped out of the forest, into another semi-clearing.
    Before us rose a mass of vines, in places twice my height and three times as wide as the farmhouse we'd come from. I supposed that association made me say, "This was a house, wasn't it?"
    Her eyes widened in surprise. "Beats me how you could tell. Burned during the Chancellorsville battle. Most of the original bricks have been hidden by this jungle long as I can remember."
    I was barely listening. A powerful feeling had come over me, almost as if those long-concealed bricks had suddenly sat up and greeted me. And the single word that came into my mind, and stuck there, was "home."

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