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The Other Side of Through by Michelle Donice Gillis

Some of you don't know me as a writer, so I thought I would share the first chapter of my novel The Other Side of Through. I hope you enjoy it! By the way, I'm so thrilled that 2024 has freed me up to return to my first love, writing!



Magnolia Bay, Georgia, Present Day

Jessie gently swayed in one of the white wicker rockers that lined the wraparound porch of her Victorian home on Magnolia Bay, sipping the iced tea she couldn’t quite get right. The house, a gift to her husband David from his parents ten years earlier, sat back from the street on over four acres of land resplendent with magnolias, and the heavy white blossoms poured out an intoxicating fragrance. Wooden window boxes painted with a fresh coat of white paint overflowed with petunias and English ivy, and the house’s white gingerbread details and pale yellow paint gave it a fairy tale quality. Stately live oaks stood guard like sentinels, making Jessie feel as if the trees were creating a barrier between her and the rest of the world.

It was truly a beautiful house, the kind she would have wanted to live in as a child, but she longed for something else. At first it was innocent enough, an almost inconspicuous desire for something just beyond her grasp, and it was reflected, simply enough, by the iced tea in her hand. Sprigs of fresh mint bobbed in the murk, caressing the ice with a lover’s touch, but with each sip, Jessie realized that there was something missing. After adding several more teaspoons of sugar and finally getting up to brew another pot, she still couldn’t capture the taste she was longing for or quench her thirst.

But Jessie realized it wasn’t just this pot of tea. She had been going through this for a while. It seemed that even the flavors of her favorite foods were muted. Earlier that morning, she had washed the dirt from a basket of Georgia peaches she had purchased from an old farmer selling fruit from the back of his beat-up truck. All of her life, she had loved Georgia peaches, but as she sank her teeth into the downy flesh she was instantly disappointed. The meat tasted too mushy, and the nectar, which ran down her cheeks, was too syrupy sweet to lick away, forcing her to wipe her mouth and sticky fingers with a damp hand towel. Over the past few months, she had thrown away so many pitchers of tea and half-eaten plates of food that she was almost too embarrassed to eat in front of others. Everything seemed just this side of satisfying.

This thirst manifested itself in other aspects of her life too. She’d been looking for the perfect shade of lavender to paint her daughter Shayla’s room, but nothing felt right. She spent days, entire weekends searching for the exact paint chip, calling 1-800 numbers and frantically searching websites, but it was all beyond her reach. Either the color was too purple, too pink, too bright or too pastel to satisfy Jessie’s fickle taste. Poor Shayla didn’t care one way or the other; she just wanted her room painted and couldn’t figure out what was taking her mother so long.

And sometimes, Jessie would even catch herself staring at David as if she wasn’t sure who he was or how he got there. He would be standing in the kitchen talking to her, and as she watched his lips move, she couldn’t seem to make sense of what he was saying. She recognized the verbs and the adjectives, but couldn’t string it all together to make sense.

It was true that her heart had never skipped a beat when David entered the room, but she had always been pleased to see him. Lately, however, she felt absolutely nothing. Her thoughts toward him had grown cold and platonic, and she was afraid that she no longer loved him in a romantic way. If she had felt anger or contempt, it would have been better, but it was this absence of emotion, the utter lack of affection that terrified her. It made her feel like she was  underwater, where everything seemed to be out of focus and distorted.

Years ago, before she and David married, they took a trip to the Florida Keys. She had never snorkeled before, and David had insisted that she would love it. She remembered standing knee-deep in the cold water and dreading the thought of submerging her head below the surface, but when she finally got up the courage, she sat down in the water and stretched her legs behind her as the water floated over and around her. She’d lightly kicked her legs, which propelled her a few feet from where David had been standing and coaxing her along. At first, she didn’t see anything but seaweed and little particles floating in the water, but a school of tiny yellow and white fish suddenly paraded before her, causing a cloud of sand to billow in front  and temporarily blind her.

But as quickly as her vision had clouded, it suddenly cleared, and a silvery-blue fish appeared right before her eyes and looked at her before darting away into the dark abyss. She had panicked and surfaced, thinking she was still close to David and the shoreline, but she had unknowingly drifted and had to tread water for a few minutes until she could get her bearings and swim back to the beach. She had hated that feeling of not knowing what was right in front of her, of being frightened and farther than where she thought she was.

That was how she felt now–out of control. When she looked around, she saw all of the things that she was supposed to be grateful for: a career, a beautiful family, and material things, but inwardly, she felt like her soul was slipping away beneath an expanse of obscurity.        

She often would find herself wondering, how did I get here? And she feared this feeling of disconnectedness and discontent. But she had no way to fix it because she really couldn’t articulate what it was that was bothering her.

When her girlfriends talked about their lives, they seemed to be connected and in tune with their feelings. They talked about the men they loved, and their jobs and hobbies with a passion that she couldn’t even begin to relate to because she felt nothing. It was ironic that of her friends, she was the only artist and the only one without passion in her life. Maybe it was true what the old folks in her father’s church used to say when she was a little girl: that God had a sense of humor and gave passion to everyone but the one who should have had it. Jessie thought that if there was somehow a God, he definitely didn’t have a sense of humor, and he probably studied the lives of his children with the sober intensity of a mortician.

To others, the obsession for the most divine shade of lavender and the perfect iced tea may have been ignored or prayed away, but since Jessie did not believe in prayer, the feeling kept gnawing at her, making her think that she should be searching for something she had misplaced along the way. Some meaning to her existence. If she were asked to name what she was missing, she would be hard pressed to say, yet she knew deep within her being that whatever it was, it was vital to her survival.

Next to her on the front porch where she rocked and sipped, bright geraniums sprang from terra cotta pots exquisitely positioned by the Southern Homes designer her mother-in-law had hired to decorate the interior and exterior of “her Davey’s house.” Jessie reached down and plucked a shriveled brown leaf from the plant before she took another sip of her iced tea.

The rhythmic click-click of her teeth against the cold cube momentarily calmed her as she scanned the yard for Shayla. Jessie spotted her daughter safely kicking a ball near one of the trees, so she walked back into the house to pour out the iced tea and grab a bottle of spring water for herself and a juice box for Shayla.

When she returned to the porch, she felt a wall of heat against her face. It was only April, but it was already getting too warm to be outside, and she knew that she should call Shayla in for a quick snack before her friend Nia came over to play. Subconsciously, she held her breath before walking into the large foyer, the same way she used to before diving into the pool when she was a little girl.

The sweltering heat coiled itself around Jessie as she unscrewed the cap off the water bottle. Just a few more minutes, she thought as she settled back down in the rocker. Deacon, David’s golden retriever, barked somewhere in the distance, probably at some small animal that had crossed his path as he explored the confines of the expansive front yard. But he knew not to get too close to the dirt road that would trigger an electronic jolt to his rhinestone-studded collar. Jessie watched as Shayla, having grown bored with her ball, wandered over to one of the massive oak trees and began to lazily twist herself around and around in an old truck tire that David had hung from it, her pony tails trailing behind her like long black ribbons.

Every so often, traces of Confederate Jasmine and magnolia blossoms wafted in the air, but Jessie could barely make out the scent that would have been so heady to anyone else. Instead, she continued to look out over her property–actually, David’s property, because like both cars, the title was in his name–and tried to ignore her growing discontent and the sweltering heat as the sun made its slow, sensual crawl across the morning sky. Jessie watched Deacon run out to the circular drive that cut in front of the house and sniff around the edges of the magnolia trees, hoping to catch the scent of something promising.

In this ideal setting, Jessie closed her eyes and leaned her head against the back of the rocker, hoping to shut out the uneasiness she felt. Here, she was with everything she was supposed to want, but none of it seemed to satisfy her. Beads of sweat pooled on her forehead and she knew it was time for her and Shayla to retreat into the icy blue coolness of the house. But the thought of entering the house reminded her of water again. She couldn’t help but think that this was what it must feel like to drown: to be fully aware of your surroundings but unable to save yourself.

Jessie whistled for Shayla and Deacon, and the three of them walked inside. Shayla ran upstairs with Deacon close at her heels, and Jessie walked into the kitchen. She poured the rest of her bottled water into the dog’s bowl and grabbed two juice boxes for Shayla and Nia, who would be arriving any minute. She began to cut up the rest of the peaches and sat them on the table with four triangles of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, making sure to cut the crust off the way the little girls liked.

Jessie was sitting at the kitchen table with a cold wet kitchen towel draped across her face when she heard the doorbell ring. She knew she had better get her mind right before she answered the door for Nia. Two curious six-year-olds running through the house and looking for something to get into could be a dangerous thing.

Jessie walked to the door to let the little girl in. Nia stood on the porch holding a Bratz doll in one hand and a Piggly Wiggly bag in the other.

“What’s that?” Jessie asked, smiling down at the girl.

“My mommy told me to give this to you,” Nia said, looking over her shoulder towards her mother, who was sitting in the Lexus idling in the drive. Jessie grabbed the bag from the little girl and quickly looked inside before stepping onto the porch to wave to Peggy, Nia’s mom. Peggy opened her door and stepped out of her car.

“Hey, Jessie,” Peggy called. “I was praying this morning and you just popped into my mind. The Lord told me to bring that to you, and you know I had to be obedient.”

“Well, that was…” Jessie didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence before Peggy interrupted her.

“Girl, don’t mention it,” Peggy said, as she started to get back into her car. “Oh, before I forget. There’s a women’s conference coming up in a few weeks, and I sure would like for you to be my guest. I put a brochure and registration info in there, too.”

“Okay. It was good seeing you,” Jessie lied, before quickly walking back into the house and closing the door behind her. She briskly walked into the kitchen, lifted the lid on the recycling bin, and dumped Peggy’s copies of Charisma Magazine and Joyce Meyers books.

“If the Lord had really been talking to her, He would have told her that I don’t believe this shit,” she mumbled before going into her bedroom to grab her journal and the Jodi Picoult novel she was reading.

Later, when she was curled up on the couch writing in her journal, she realized she hadn’t heard the little girls in a while. She went to Shayla’s playroom, thinking the girls were in there playing with their dolls, but she saw no sign of them. She walked down the hall to Shayla’s bedroom–empty–and so was the media room. Something in the pit of her stomach told her to walk up the back staircase to the attic, and there she found the door slightly ajar. It wasn’t like Shayla to come up here because it was too dark and hot, but sure enough, she could hear the little girls’ voices calling out to each other in what sounded like a game of hide and seek. Jessie stood apprehensively at the door and watched them play.

From where she stood, Nia was It. Jessie could see both girls, and she watched Shayla frantically dart around the room looking for the perfect hiding space as Nia slowly counted in a singsong voice: “One…two…three…”

Jessie could tell the little girl was cheating, because every so often, she peeked through her fingers to see if she could see Shayla in the dim light. Shayla finally settled on a hiding place in the corner of the attic behind a stack of packing boxes.

After Nia counted to ten, she jumped up and spun around on her heels, heading to the corner where she had seen Shayla hiding. Just as Nia grew closer, Shayla jumped out from behind the stack of boxes and grabbed her friend, yelling, “boo!” She screamed with laughter at the surprised expression on Nia’s face.

Nia was so startled by the sudden movement that she backed into one of the boxes and knocked it onto the attic floor. She bent down and peeked inside of the box, sending up a riot of silvery dust that caused her to sneeze. As Nia doubled over sneezing, Shayla pulled back the lid of the box and pulled out an intricately laced table cloth, slightly yellowed from its once white splendor. Shayla wrapped the delicate material around her body like a wedding dress and spun around, and Jessie suddenly imagined her beautiful little girl as a grown woman gracefully walking down the aisle to meet her handsome groom.

As Shayla held the dress, Nia reached into the box and pulled out a little book covered in green velvet. She opened it and handed it to Shayla. “I can’t read cursive yet.”

“Me neither, but my Mommy can. Maybe she’ll read it to us,” Shayla said, putting the book on the floor by her feet so she wouldn’t forget to take it with her. Nia reached back into the box, pulled out a quilt that she spread on the floor, and laid on it. Instead of joining her on the quilt, Shayla reached back into the box and peered inside. Jessie was about to walk back down the stairs when she saw Shayla glance surreptitiously over her shoulder before holding up a locket that she quickly stuffed into the pocket of her shorts.

Enough! Jessie’s mind screamed as she watched Shayla hide the locket. It took all of her self-control not to charge into the room and snatch it from her daughter’s hands. She remembered all too well the beautiful gold sheen of the locket and the delicate chain it swung from. Each panel held a small photograph of three generations of beautiful black women. In the center was a black and white photograph of an old woman with light brown eyes and thick, wooly gray hair. Her head was tilted back as if the photographer had caught her in the middle of a deep, belly laugh. To the left was a picture of a fair-skinned woman with delicate features and luxuriant blondish-red curls that cascaded over her shoulders. She too had the same golden brown eyes, and though her lips were parted and unsmiling, her eyes were crinkled around the corners as if she were stifling a chuckle.

It was the photograph in the last panel that Jessie had hoped to never see again. This woman, the most beautiful of them all, had a haughty, regal air and stared unflinchingly into the camera as if she were challenging the photographer to try to make her smile. The woman’s skin was polished mahogany, and her hair lay against her scalp like two sheets of black silk separated in the middle by an exact part. The expression on her face and the contrast of her eyes against her dark skin was arresting. Jessie remembered looking at that locket as a child and being filled with wonder that although these three women ran the gamut from café au lait to deep chocolate, the shape and color of their eyes gave away the secret that they were all kin: three generations of Crawford women.

The locket had once hung around her mother Claire’s neck, and the quilt, which had covered her parent’s bed, had been made one summer when her mother was a teenager visiting her grandmother, Mama Pearl, on Hog Hammock. It was a beautiful heirloom that should have never have been hidden away in a cardboard box, but Jessie had folded every single remembrance from her past and tucked them away long before Shayla had been born.

Jessie was too overcome with emotion to walk into the attic and chastise the little girls for being in this part of the house without supervision or permission. But she wasn’t really upset about them playing in the attic; she was more upset that they had disturbed something that she thought she had hidden out of sight. She had always known that one day she would have to explain things to Shayla, but she hadn’t expected it to happen so soon.  She quietly walked down the stairs and sat on the couch, trying to figure out how she would respond to the questions her daughter would surely ask.

Later that evening after Nia left, Jessie ran Shayla’s bath water and went to her own bathroom to shower as the little girl played in the tub. After putting on her gown and robe, Jessie walked back down the hallway to her daughter’s room to make sure she had brushed her teeth and hung up her bath towel before settling in for the night. Jessie turned off the light to the bathroom and walked into Shayla’s room just as she was crawling into bed after saying her prayers. At the foot of the bed was the quilt she had found earlier.

“Mommy, will you tuck me in?” Shayla asked, reaching down to pull the quilt over her  body.

“Shayla, let mommy put this in the cleaners. It’s a little dusty. See?” Jessie folded the quilt and sat it on the floor next to the bed. There was such a longing in Shayla’s light brown eyes that Jessie couldn’t be mad at her for opening the box that held so many painful memories. She didn’t know that like Pandora, she had opened a box that had let everything but hope come out.

Jessie reached down and pulled the ruffled pink comforter that was already on the bed over Shayla’s body and pushed the edges beneath her. She stood, but a flicker of light in the darkened room caught her attention. She bent over Shayla again, and pulled her hair back from around her shoulders. There, at her neck, was the delicate locket. Jessie reached down to touch it as if she were reaching out for a serpent, and although she was able to steady her breathing, she couldn’t dislodge the cottony lump in her throat that kept her from swallowing.

Jessie knew that Shayla was watching her, so she fought back the tears that threatened to flood her eyes and forced herself to calm the muscles in her face that wanted to reveal her true emotions. She felt confused, having to confront these demons right now when she couldn’t make sense of anything in her life, and she just didn’t have the strength to tackle both her past and her future.

For so many years, Jessie had worked hard at forgetting, yet here were vivid reminders that brought back raw emotions that had never been thoroughly processed. She didn’t want to feel what she was feeling now because it was too painful–and yes, there was a time when she probably needed to feel anger and sadness, but that was a long time ago. Since then, she had tried too damn hard to distance herself from feeling anything that would cause her pain, and she had taught herself well.

Shayla looked up inquisitively at her mother, her large eyes framed with thick black lashes the length of Jessie’s pinkie nail. She must have sensed something was wrong because she asked, “Mommy, are you sad at me?”

“No, sweetheart, I’m not sad at you,” Jessie said, smiling inwardly at the innocently comic way her daughter had phrased the question.

“Whose things are these, Mommy?”

Jessie hesitated and took a deep breath before answering. “They used to belong to my mom, your Nana. Her name was Claire Crawford Stephens.”

“Where is she now?”

‘She died before you were born. You see this locket you’re wearing? This picture is your Nana,” Jessie said, pointing to the last photograph in the panel. This is your great-grandma, Celestine Crawford. She was your Nana’s mom. And this picture right here,” Jessie said, letting her finger rest below the face of the woman with the crown of thick gray hair, “is your great-great-grandmother, Mama Pearl.”

“Her hair is funny,” Shayla said, smiling up at her mom.

“Yeah, I guess it is.” Jessie smiled. “She’s the one who made this quilt. My mother, your Nana, used to talk alot about the summers she would spend with Mama Pearl when she was a little girl.”

“Where are they?”

“Where what?” Jessie asked, momentarily confused on how to answer her daughter. She had assumed Shayla was asking where these women were now that they had died. She knew that her daughter was expecting her to say heaven, but Jessie couldn’t quite bring herself to tell her daughter something that she herself wasn’t quite sure she believed.

“Where are they? They’re dead, right? Where are they brurried?”

Jessie smiled again at her daughter’s mispronunciation. “They are all buried in a place called Hog Hammock.” She suppressed a laugh as she watched Shayla giggle at the funny sounding name. She was probably imagining a place where hogs walked on their hind legs, lazed around in hammocks, and moved around the little settlement dressed in top coats and Sunday dresses, like she used to imagine when her own mother told her about Hog Hammock.

“Can we go?”

“I don’t think so,” Jessie said quickly, and without further explanation. “It’s time for you to go to sleep.”

“Mommy, will you tell Daddy to come give me a kiss when he comes home, even if I’m asleep?”

“Of course, sweetheart,” Jessie said as she kissed her daughter’s forehead.

When she reached down to pick up the quilt, she noticed the green velvet book was also on the floor, almost hidden by the dust ruffle on Shayla’s bed. It was her mother’s journal, and she placed it on top of the quilt and walked down the hallway to her own bedroom.

The quilt and the locket were like deep roots connecting Jessie to the women who had come before her, but she was too afraid to read the journal. Yet as she lay alone in her bed, waiting for sleep to descend upon her, she held the journal close to her body, wondering what secrets lay within. Although she was curious, she knew she could not bring herself to read it because just holding it felt like too much. But the journal was like a talisman trying to force her to open her heart, and for the first time in a long time, Jessie felt a trickle of longing for her mother as she fell asleep.

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Jan 19

I want to get to the other side of through with Jessie. You left me hanging! Love this!

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