Note: Buried Secrets is the first book in my Ella Perri Mystery Series. It can be read as a standalone or as part of my Mystery/Suspense Trilogy. Below are Chapters 1 & most of Chapter 2.
I spy the cottage through the pines at the edge of the driveway as fragrant autumn leaves drift past me.
<em>It’s not the same.</em>
My mind still hears Poppy’s whispers revealing the presence of a hidden box in the cottage, urging me to find it. He’d mentioned it once before, but I didn’t believe he was serious until it escaped his lips in his last breath. The ache in his voice seemed deeper than the sorrow for that moment.
<em>Where is that box?</em>
And then there’s the letter I found suggesting something terrible happened a long time ago. Something sinister. Was Poppy involved?
I tread lightly, cautiously forward, my gaze firm on the charcoal shutters of the bedroom where I’d slept so often as a child. The shutters seem smaller to me now as they peek out between the branches of the old oak standing in front. I slowly proceed and more of the cottage uncovers itself, as if peering from behind a curtain. Soon all of the front windows, the door, and the porch are visible, and I stand squarely in front of it. We stare each other down for a moment and I am lost in thought.
I recall how the cottage once stood proudly with its beautiful white Victorian porch and double doors at its center, framed by two grand pillars, enveloped in lush greenery.
Now it slouches, uncertain, sad - a lost soul. Its pillars, chipped in some places and slightly dulled in others, struggle to keep it firm. It reaches for me. I feel it beckoning me, an old familiar friend.
<em>Come in, El.
There’s something you should know.</em>
Heavy branches of crispy, golden leaves dance above the roof, and
Skaneateles Lake, the cleanest of the Finger Lakes, glistens from behind. Does this pristine lake know it houses a blemish on its shore, clouding its pure waters? It continues to beckon me.
<em>You can do it, El.</em>
I long to be wrapped in its arms again like before, and I ache for happy memories to wash over and comfort me. I wait for my grandparents to welcome me at the foot of the steps. But the steps are empty.
I can’t go in there.
<em>But you must.</em>
The cottage is a close friend of mine. Not the kind you see once in a while and you know pretty well, but a friend with whom you share your happiest hopes, your deepest secrets, and your darkest thoughts. It once provided endless comfort, stability, and love, the only place I’d seek when I was sad or lonely, a sanctuary to ease the ache and decay within my heart ever since the accident and what happened with Jack. <em>Don’t say it out loud.</em> It was a constant companion I depended on in my ever-changing life—and not just merely because of its structure or the memories contained within, but because of the two most important people in it.
And now only one. I not only see a difference in this friend, but I feel it deep within my bones. Its DNA is forever altered. And we both stand aloof, the cottage and I, facing each other with a giant, gaping hole in our existence, as together we mourn the same loss.
Our Poppy, the architect of this cottage and the heart, soul, and glue of our family, is gone. We are empty and heartbroken. An uneasy feeling curls in the pit of my stomach and leaves an unsettled darkness I cannot explain as I ponder that conversation about the box just two weeks ago, just before he passed.
Faint sounds of my mother’s voice coming from the cottage distract me, but my legs are heavy and anchored to the ground. I choke in the dense air. I am devoid of feelings. Blank. Defeated. And I sense that I’m slipping back into the sadness again. I know I need to go inside. They’re waiting for me —to talk about the past and wrap it all up in boxes and send it all away.
A monarch butterfly distracts my gaze and I watch it flit around the flowers in Poppy’s garden. Poppy holds my four-year-old hand as together we weave through the rows of vegetables, pointing at potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, and lettuce, chattering about the meals we would make. Poppy was proud of his garden and spent hours weeding, planting, adjusting. Spending time with Poppy amidst the fresh soil permeating the air, the sweet, soulful tones of his voice describing the life around us, was unmatched to anything else. Poppy’s life centered around eating, and foods were plentiful in our family. The hierarchy in Salvatore F. Perri’s world went: God, food, family, food again, and then everything else.
Had I told him how much I loved him as much as he’d told me? Did I do enough for him? Was it really enough? My thoughts are pulled back to the accident, and, in addition to feeling a heavy burden of loss for the love of my life, there rests a heavy burden of guilt. My heart sinks beneath the cumbersome weight upon it—I know the accident was my fault. Jack was not just my loss but a loss to everyone who loved him, especially Poppy. Theirs was a unique and immediate friendship, two kindred spirits bridged between young and young at heart. Had Poppy secretly blamed me for what happened to Jack, like I do?
“C’mon, Ella, Nonna’s waiting.” Mom’s voice, louder now, almost breaks through, but I don’t answer, not before I glimpse the tips of Storybook Tree popping out from the far corner at the back of the house. Storybook Tree: the best part of growing up at the cottage as a little girl. For a moment, my legs are light and free from the earth, and I run, almost bouncing around the corner, and stop just short of it. I touch its smooth bark and rub my fingers along the curled edges. I am especially fond of this tree, named by our family for the great stories Poppy and Nonna used to tell us as we sat beneath it. To us, they were the best grandparents in the world.
Poppy built the cottage when they still lived in Buffalo, New York. It was a place where our family often gathered on summer weekends. I’ll never forget the day the cottage became their official home. We now had them right at our fingertips. It’s funny that, even though it became their home, we never stopped referring to it as “the cottage.”
Under Storybook Tree, the adventures of “Ned and Jed” and the chronicles of “Lydia and Matilda” never grew old. As we grew, we’d read our own books under this tree, drifting to sleep in the middle of a warm summer day. But Storybook Tree was not just a spot to listen to stories. Everything sweet, special, and important was shared beneath its branches. It’s where we came to cry when we’d lost our dog, Duke; where the Ghost in the Graveyard counting began; where we held hands with significant others; and where intimate secrets were told.
Except for one secret. <em>And I need to find it.</em>
What was Poppy hiding in the cottage? What did I not yet know? Would the answers lie among the creeping myrtle and lavender leading to the tree? Were they hidden within the black-eyed Susans or the wispy Leyland Cypress trees that scattered along its path? Or perhaps beneath the soft mulch at the foot of the tree where I stand just now?
A fresh breeze coming off of the lake takes up my long dark hair, swirling it about my face. I remove the strands from my eyes and refocus my thoughts. What was it Poppy said about that box the first time he mentioned it, just a few weeks before he passed?
“Hey, El. In case I forget, if there’s ever an emergency or if something happens to me, there’s a box in the cottage. I want you to find it. Only you.”
“Oh, sure,” I had said. “What, are there diamonds or something in there?”
“It’s worth more than diamonds—at least, to me.”
I remember thinking, What could be worth more than diamonds? He never elaborated, never actually said he was serious. And I never asked. I thought he was being silly. Just being Poppy. Why hadn’t he told me about the importance of the box then?
When Poppy’s heart began to fail for the second time in his life, the whole family happened to be together for one of our last celebrations of the summer before kids went back to college and families went on vacations.
He’d grown weaker over the past few months but still maintained his usual routines, insisting on cooking dinners and entertaining. He seemed to be struggling, and I noticed that he was sweating a lot and out of breath. He and Nonna had decided a while back that, if his heart began to fail again, he would not go back to the hospital. The doctors said that other than keeping him comfortable, there was nothing more they could do to improve the quality of his life without putting him at greater risk.
We had just finished dinner and Mom, Nonna, and Aunt Lena began collecting the dirty dishes. Poppy excused himself to go outside and get some air. I followed and spotted him sitting on the bench under Storybook Tree. His curly locks were wet and so was his shirt. He looked worried, his face ashen. Instantly my stomach tightened, and I felt sick.
“Oh, Ella,” he strained to say.
“Are you okay? Do you need something?”
“Just more time,” he said with restrained emotion. I could not accept this answer. “Whatayagonna do.” One of his most famous expressions.
“I can get you some water? Or ... should I tell Nonna to call the doctor?”
“Maybe water, but no doctor.” His face was drawn, sad.
“How ‘bout I walk you back inside, so you can lie down.”
“You’ve grown to be such a beautiful young woman. You know how much Nonna and I love you. We’re so proud of you.”
<em>Where was this going?</em>
He gently took my hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed the back of it. Then he slowly brought our clasped hands down to his lap. My eyes fought back tears as I tried to listen to him speak.
“Life is funny, isn’t it? We’re given so much in life and we don’t always appreciate what we have.” His words became more labored. I wanted to stop him. Tell him that he was okay. That we were all going to be just fine. But I didn’t do that because I wouldn’t stop Poppy when he was sharing a piece of himself.
“Are you happy?” I knew he was referring to living without Jack. He’d kept a close watch on me ever since that stormy day.
“Yes, I’m happy, Poppy.” Heavy tears rushed down my cheeks.
“I know you’ve had your share of trials. We all do,” he said with downcast eyes. “But always try to be happy. Promise?”
“I promise.” I turned and hugged him for a few minutes, not wanting to let go. Then I helped him up and we walked slowly, arm in arm, back to the cottage.
When we reached the back door, my mother’s eyes caught mine and together we led Poppy to the sofa. We gave him water and a clean, dry shirt and covered his feet with a blanket while some of us gathered around him and others stayed close by. For the next hour we exchanged sweet words of love and gratitude with Poppy as sorrow filled our hearts and voices.
That’s when he took my hand again, pulled me near, and whispered, “Find the box, Ella. It’s real. It leads to ...” His breaths became labored, his eyelids heavy, but still holding me close he muttered, “Watch who you trust.” I swear I saw a slight smile in the corner of his mouth.
“I will.” I choked back tears and leaned closer. “Where?”
He struggled to speak, his voice just above a whisper. I couldn’t make out what he said. A tear gathered in the corner of his eye and traveled down his cheek.
“It’s okay. I’ll find it,” I said. “I love you, Poppy.” Please don’t go. I kissed his moist forehead and felt his hand loosen. Then our sweet Poppy drifted off to sleep and didn’t wake up.
Hands gently press into my shoulders, and I jump as I’m pulled back to the present. I’m surprised to see Uncle Luca behind me and Aunt Lena at his side. I lean into their warm embrace and we stay like that for a couple minutes. Their scent of leather, tobacco, and pine immediately puts me at ease. They are my favorite aunt and uncle, which is no surprise since Uncle Luca is Poppy’s brother and just like him in so many ways. Aunt
Lena is a lot like Nonna, too, and she’s often mistaken for her sister.
We step apart briefly and Uncle Luca’s thumb brushes a tear from my eye. He studies my face and hugs me again.
“I know, Ella. I can’t believe he’s gone. I just can’t.” He steps back again, and his eyes are wet. “I know you don’t want to go in there,” he says, glancing at the cottage and back to me, “but we have to. Nonna needs us now.”
I nod, and Aunt Lena dabs her eyes with a tissue. We walk together, arms linked, towards the back door of the cottage. But my thoughts quickly turn to the letter and the box, and I wonder if they know what I know.
We poke our heads through the doorway. Peering into the living room, I see a younger version of us in pajamas watching old black-and-white movies—me, my sister Liv, my brother Sal, Nonna, and Poppy. I’d get excited as a child and even as an adult when I knew I’d be seeing them that day. It was like opening a Christmas present each time; that’s how full they made my heart feel. Poppy and Nonna knew my hopes, dreams, and fears and they never judged, always knowing when to listen and when to give advice. As I got older, they’d sometimes seek my advice and often shared old stories about our extended family that not many people knew. I felt special to be trusted with their “secrets.” They were my grandparents, my closest friends and confidants.
Poppy had the most generous heart I’d ever known. His presence provided an immediate warmth, comfort, and joy when he walked in the room. He was filled with life and made everyone around him feel like the most important person in the world. Who would have thought that his wonderful heart would be the thing that failed him in the end? “El?” my mom calls again.
“I’m right here, Mom, coming in.”
As soon as we walk into the living room, I’m hit with a rush of their scent, an aura that transcends all time and space. A combination of woodsy vanilla, cinnamon, musk, and sugar, perfectly blended, blankets the room. I want to bottle it. But an overwhelming panic fills my chest. I haven’t stepped foot into the cottage since his last day.
I can’t breathe.
“Nonna, I smell Poppy!”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” my mom laughs. Poppy was well known for being a jokester, and passing gas was one of his favorite pastimes.
“Come here, honey.” My mother wraps me in her arms. Nonna shuffles out from the kitchen and I break from my mom to hug her. She is smaller than I remember, and I feel her shoulder blades against my arms. I feel so sorry for her. What will she do now that she’s alone? How do you spend fifty years with someone and then, just like that, they’re gone?
Aunt Lena and Uncle Luca embrace us both, and then Uncle Luca disappears into the kitchen to pour a glass of wine, as he always does when he first arrives.
“I don’t know where to begin,” Nonna whispers. She walks to the back window and peers outside.
“Maybe we tackle one room at a time together?” Mom suggests.
I give my mother a look. I am not ready to pull apart the cottage.
“We’re just doing a little at a time for now, El, so it’s not so overwhelming. Nonna might stay with Aunt Lena and Uncle Luca for a while,” she says, looking at Nonna, “until we can figure out what’s happening with the cottage.”
“What’s happening with the cottage?”
“Don’t think the worst, El. We’ll talk more later.”
I don’t want to talk about it ever let alone later. I turn to Nonna who’s staring out the window.
“Nonna, did Mom tell you that I have the scrapbooks and Poppy’s oil paintings?”
She nods, holding her gaze on the lake.
“I’d like to hold on to them for a while ... if that’s okay?”
“Yes, honey, of course it is,” she says.
“Mind if I take the paintings and have them matted and reframed? You know, to honor him. I know it’s something he would’ve loved, but never got the chance to do. I’d like to—”
“Of course, sweetie. That’s very thoughtful of you.”
“Okay, Nonna. I’ll bring them right back as soon as possible.” She turns and winks, smiling half-heartedly.
A lonely silence fills the house for the next several hours. Only the soft sounds of clothes being carefully placed into boxes and the tearing of packaging tape can be heard. An uncomfortable, nagging feeling returns to my stomach and I stop what I’m doing to walk about the cottage, imagining the best hiding spots for a secret box.
As I’m about to leave, Nonna asks me if I’d like to take another box of scrapbooks she’d found in Poppy’s study. I hadn’t remembered seeing them before and happily agree. She shows me to the study and motions to an uncovered box on the floor next to Poppy’s desk. It’s tightly packed with old photo albums, and I can tell by its bulging edges that it’s heavy. I squat close to the floor and hoist it to my thighs, and then one more big lift at my waist. The musty smell emanating from the box makes me cough and sneeze. I slightly bend to kiss Nonna’s cold little forehead and tell her I love her before heading to my car.