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March 15, 2005
Dust billowed up from inside the trunk. Tucker Coulter waved a hand in front of his face and coughed. When the sting cleared from his eyes, he brushed the grit from his dark hair and squinted to see in the dim light of the attic. Either his mother’s memory was failing her or he’d opened the wrong camelback trunk. Instead of six baby books, one pink and five blue, he had unearthed what appeared to be a wedding gown gone yellow and fragile with age.
Bewildered, he carefully set the dress aside, hoping that the baby books might be underneath it. No such luck. Instead, he found a thick green tome with gold lettering on the front that read, My Diary. His mother’s, possibly? Curious, Tucker picked up the book and turned to the first page. In a flowing, feminine cursive someone had written, My Diary, Thursday, April 27, 1882. Below was written a name, Rachel Marie Hollister. Tucker had never heard of the woman. Nevertheless, his curiosity was piqued. It wasn’t every day that he came across a diary dating back well over a hundred years. Eager to read more, he flipped to the next page. The ink had faded over time, and in the attic twilight, it was difficult for him to make out the words.
Today is my fifteenth birthday, and this diary is my present from Ma and Pa. I am going to write in it every single day and keep it in a safe hiding place so Daniel and Tansy will never find it.
Tucker smiled in spite of himself. He guessed that Daniel and Tansy had been Rachel’s brother and sister. Having come from a large family himself, he could sympathize with a young girl’s need for privacy. He leafed farther ahead to skim over other entries, impressed by Rachel’s perfect spelling and syntax. She spoke of attending school and frequently mentioned her teacher, Mr. Pitt, whom she described as being older than dirt and quick to mete out corporal punishment. It sounded as if Rachel’s brother, Daniel, had gotten his knuckles whacked on an almost daily basis.
Tucker found himself smiling again when he came across a passage about Rachel’s dog, Denver, who had eaten her new kid boots. Tucker felt as if the years had fallen away and he’d stepped back into another era. It all seemed so real and immediate to him, as if Rachel Hollister had written the words only yesterday.
Impatient to learn more, he skipped ahead again. The next entry chased the smile from his lips. Not only had Rachel’s spelling taken a sudden turn for the worse, but the tone of the diary had become gloomy and sad.
Monday, December 17, 1888. I am always so lonely at t’is time of year. I cannot ’elp but t’ink of Cristmases past— of t’e wonderful smells of Ma’s baking, and Daniel’s excitement about going out wit’ Pa to find a perfect tree.
Tucker frowned in bewilderment. The errors in the script weren’t so much misspellings as they were deliberate omissions of the letter H, which Rachel had painstakingly replaced with an apostrophe. Strange. She’d clearly realized, even as she wrote the words, that she’d left out the letter.
I miss t’em so muc’. I yearn to string berries and popped corn for our tree wit’ Tansy again, and o’, ’ow I wis’ I mig’t ’ear Pa’s voice one more time. I am now twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two. It’s been almost five years since t’ey left me and almost as long since I’ve been able to leave t’e ’ouse. T’ere are days when I’m so lonely I fear I may lose my mind, but I dare not try to leave.
For the life of him, Tucker couldn’t imagine being trapped inside the house for five years. Had Rachel Hollister become agoraphobic? It certainly sounded that way. He read a few more lines, then closed the book and pushed to his feet.
“Mom?” he called as he descended the narrow drop-down stairway from the attic to the garage. “Hey, Mom?”
Mary Coulter opened the fire door that led into the kitchen. Dressed in gabardine slacks and a cheery pink blouse, partially covered by a white bib apron, she was everyone’s picture of a contemporary grandmother, pleasantly plump but still beautiful, her short, curly brown hair only lightly touched with gray. “Did you find your birth certificate?”
Winter doldrums and a bout of depression had convinced Tucker to take a vacation, and he needed the document to get his passport. “No, I opened the wrong trunk.” He held up the book. “Instead of our baby books, I found this diary. Who was Rachel Hollister?”
Mary’s blue eyes clouded with bewilderment. “Rachel who?”
“Hollister. This is her diary. The first entry dates clear back to 1882.”
Mary pushed the door wide to let Tucker into the house. He went directly to the table and opened the dusty old tome. “Come look at this, Mom. It’s fascinating.”
“Oh, my.” Mary’s round face creased in a smile. “I had forgotten we even had that. It’s Rachel Paxton’s diary.”
“According to this, her last name was Hollister,” Tucker corrected.
Mary wiped her hands clean on her apron as she leaned over the book. “Hollister was her maiden name. She married Joseph Paxton, your great-grandma Eden’s brother.”
Tucker remembered hearing stories about Eden Coulter. “Dad’s grandmother, the one with the fiery red hair and hot temper?”
“That’s the one.” Mary laughed. “I wish I had known her. If the stories your father tells me are true, she was quite a lady. Sadly, she died in 1954, when your dad was only twelve, and I never got to meet her.”
“I never knew my great-grandma Eden’s last name was Paxton.”
“Eden took the name Coulter when she married your dad’s grandfather, Matthew James Coulter.” Mary ran her fingertips lightly over the faded handwriting and smiled wistfully. “Goodness. It gives you a strange feeling, doesn’t it? To think that this was written so long ago.”
Tucker hooked his boot around the leg of a chair to pull it away from the table, motioned for his mother to sit down, and then took a seat beside her. “How on earth did our family end up with Rachel’s diary?”
Mary glanced up from the book. “All of her family were slain, and she was the only Hollister left. When she passed away, one of her children sent the diary to Eden as a keepsake because so many of the entries were written by her brother.”
“By Joseph? It was Rachel’s diary, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, but after Joseph and Rachel married, the diary became a joint effort. You know how you kids are always asking your father and me how we met and fell in love?”
Tucker hadn’t asked for years because he’d heard all the stories a dozen times. But he nodded anyway.
“Well, Joseph and Rachel told their story in this diary. He recorded his side, and she recorded hers.” A distant expression entered Mary’s eyes. “I attempted to read it once, but with five kids constantly interrupting me, I finally gave up. It’s fascinating reading, as I recall, a he said, she said kind of thing, very sweet and romantic, but very intriguing as well with a murderer still at large.”
Tucker wasn’t into romance, but he loved a good whodunit. “A murderer?”
“Yes. As I said, Rachel’s entire family was killed by a sniper. They were picnicking along a creek, as I recall, and the man came upon them unexpectedly and just opened fire. Horrible.” Mary shuddered. “Only Rachel survived.”
Tucker leaned closer to read the entries. “Did they ever catch the guy?”
Mary shrugged. “I don’t even know if it was a man who committed the slayings, actually. I had three of you boys still in diapers when I tried to read this, and I’ve forgotten most of it. All I clearly recall is the night Rachel and Joseph met. It stands out in my mind because he broke into her house, and she almost shot him.”
“You’re kidding.” Tucker had been skimming the passages while his mother talked. “This is so incredible. I can’t believe it’s been in our attic all these years. Won’t Bethany love it?” Tucker’s only sister Bethany was the genealogy buff in the family. “Once she gets her hands on this, we’ll have to fight for a chance to read it.”
They both fell quiet. When they reached the bottom of that page, Tucker turned to the next. Soon they each had an elbow propped on the table, and the kitchen had grown eerily quiet around them, the only sounds that of their breathing and the ticking of the clock.
“Ah, look there,” Mary whispered. “Joseph Paxton’s first entry. See the difference in the handwriting?”
Tucker nodded. The masculine scrawl definitely wasn’t Rachel’s. The passage was dated Friday, March 22, 1889, and Tucker was hooked after reading only the first paragraph.
I write this after the fact and speak from experience when I say that there isn’t any explaining what makes a man fall in love. I liken it to a hornet nailing me between the eyes. I never really thought I’d want to give up my Friday nights in town, playing cards and wetting my whistle with good whiskey. All that poetic stuff about getting lost in a woman’s eyes was for my older brother Ace, not for me. I figured I was smarter than that.
Those sentiments struck a familiar chord with Tucker. All of his brothers were happily married now, but he had no intention of following in their footsteps. Maybe, he thought whimsically, he had inherited his aversion to marriage from Joseph Paxton. “What relation was Joseph Paxton to me, exactly?” Tucker asked his mother.
Pressing a fingertip to the page to keep her place, Mary frowned at the distraction. “He was your great-great-uncle.”
Joseph went on to write:
All the same, I figured if I ever did fall in love, the lady of my dreams would be someone really special, as pretty as sunrise, sunset, and everything in between, and with a disposition as sweet as fresh-dipped honey. Instead she was totin’ a shotgun when first we met, and the little hoyden damned near killed me.
In Tucker’s mind, it was no longer the year 2005 but a blustery March day in 1889.
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