Sunday, June 28, 2009

"The Heights"

Story By: Patrick Brian Miller
Tourism Attraction: Capitol Heights historic district
Location: Montgomery, Alabama
Photos by: Patrick Brian Miller (click to enlarge!)

IT’S OLD, texted Joanna Beaumont.

MAYBE IT WILL BE A MANSION popped up on the small cell phone screen.

DOUBT IT, Joanna texted back.


LOL. DON’T THINK SO, texted back Joanna.


“Put that thing away,” said her father. “We’re almost there.”

Joanna scowled at him.

GOTTA GO, Joanna texted.


As Joanna snapped the phone shut, she felt the last link to her friends in St. Louis close tight.

“There’s a lot of history in this neighborhood,” he said.

Joanna sighed and crossed her arms defiantly. She turned her face away from him and gazed out the window. The historic homes of Capitol Heights continued to slide by, each one a reminder that she was in a strange, new place. Her green eyes widened in surprise when a large banner fluttering in a small park came into view.

"Capitol Heights Welcomes You Home!" the banner read in bold red letters.

“Is that for us?” she asked.

Her father gazed over at the banner.

“Sure,” he said.

“You’re teasing me,” she said.

“Yep,” he laughed. “Come on; it’s a good omen. You’re going to like it here, honey.”

“I told you I won’t,” she said.

“Give it a chance.”

“I want to go back home. Mom wouldn’t have made me come here.”

“You want to go back to a place where our house gets broken into?” he asked.

Joanna felt a painful lump swell in her throat.

“It’s not about the break in,” she said. “Every time you talk about the break in, you just remind me of losing her necklace. I wish you’d just stop and admit this is about your job.”

“Honey, you know that’s not true. I’m sorry they stole your mother’s emerald necklace. I know it meant a lot to you.”

“It was the last thing she ever gave me . . . and you keep bringing it up,” said Joanna. Her voice began to shudder with anger. “You don’t care about me or my life!”

“I’m sorry, honey. Of course I care about you. I just wanted to find a safe, quiet neighborhood where things like that won’t happen to us anymore.”

“You could have kept looking for another job in St. Louis. But you didn’t try.”

“It’s not easy finding work after being laid off in this economy. We were lucky that this architectural firm hired me so soon. I have to go where the opportunities are, and there aren’t that many. Maybe if you weren’t fourteen, you’d understand that. There are a lot of families that are worse off than us right now.”

Joanna decided that he didn’t deserve any more conversation from her. She pressed her lips together and turned away from him again. Soon, the car turned onto a tree-lined avenue and made its way into the neighborhood. She plugged in her headphones and pulled up the playlist that Bobby had made for her trip to Montgomery. She tuned out her father and the houses moving by, allowing herself to slip into memories of her friends back home.

Joanna awoke the next morning to a loud ringing at the door. Her bleary eyes struggled to focus on the clock: 7:16 a.m. Who could be bothering them at this time of the morning? She slowly slid out of bed as hazy memories of crying herself to sleep last night blurred through her brain. The ringing continued to annoy her in consistently timed intervals. Joanna dragged herself across the wooden floors and slumbered towards the front door. She was still wearing her jeans and T-shirt from the car ride yesterday. Her father met her with equally bleary eyes in the foyer. She stood in confusion as he opened the large door to reveal three bright-eyed women with beaming smiles.

“Good morning, new neighbors!” began one in a soft, purring voice. “We’re here to welcome you to Capitol Heights. My name is Sidney McCall, and I’m president of the Neighborhood Welcome Committee.”

“I’m Ellen Patton,” jumped in another woman in an irritatingly high-pitched tone.

“And I’m Janie Elway; so nice to meet you!” chimed in the last. “We brought you this welcome basket to start off your first morning just right.”

Joanna tried to hold back a scowl as the three women continued to gleam with joy. No one should be that happy this early in the morning, she thought. Her father grinned sheepishly in his housecoat, boxers and undershirt. His hair was still disheveled, and his face and chin bristled from not shaving since they left for their long drive.

“That’s so kind of you ladies,” he said. “I’m Lance Beaumont, and this is my daughter Joanna. We just arrived last night from St. Louis.”

“Oh, what a darling little girl,” purred Ellen with amazing sincerity.

Joanna winced with skepticism, for she could still feel the streaks of heavy mascara around her tear-stained, puffy eyes.

“The basket has all kinds of goodies,” said Sidney with pride. “There’s my homemade cinnamon cream cheese banana nut bread for breakfast. It’s my special recipe. And there’s some gourmet coffee.”

“And don’t forget the gift certificates for the Renaissance Spa in downtown,” said Ellen. “Joanna, you’ll just love that. It’s just a few minutes away, and they will pamper you like a princess!”

“Thank you,” replied Joanna.

“I also included my card,” said Sidney. “If either of you need anything, anything at all, you just call me right away. We want all our new neighbors to feel welcome in Capitol Heights.”

“Is there a Mrs. Beaumont?” asked Ellen.

“Actually, I’m recently widowed,” said her father.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” said Sidney.

“Well, we hope to make a new start here in Montgomery,” said her father. “I’m glad to see that this is such a friendly neighborhood. It’s a lot different than our last neighborhood.”

“Here in Capitol Heights, we believe that community is very important,” said Ellen. “We try to be one big family.”

“I see that,” said her father.

Joanna forced back a sarcastic smile.

“We would also like to invite both of you to dinner tonight at my house,” said Sidney. “I’m having a party for some of our friends, and we would just love to have you.”

“That would be great,” said her father. “We would be delighted to come.”

“My address is on the card. I’m just a few blocks away across from Armstrong Park. It’s the big yellow house with the curved porch out front. You can’t miss it. Would seven o’clock be okay?”

“That would be wonderful,” agreed her father. “It will save me from having to cook tonight.”

“Be sure and bring your appetite because I don’t like to send anyone away hungry,” said Sidney.

“Maybe we should let them have breakfast now,” suggested Janie. “I’m sure they have a lot of things to do.”

“If you need any help, just give me a ring,” said Sidney. “I can send over a team of people to help, whether it’s moving furniture or just putting things away.”

“That’s very considerate,” said her father. “I think we’ll manage for now. But we’ll sure keep your number handy.”

“Well, enjoy your breakfast,” said Sidney. “And welcome to Capitol Heights.”

Once her father had finally shut the door, Joanna sighed in exasperation.

“What’s the matter with them?” she asked. “Are they on some sort of drugs?”

“No, honey, they’re just friendly. That’s not something we had in our old neighborhood.”

“We hardly talked to our neighbors before. That lady doesn’t even live on the same street. It’s weird.”

“You’ll get used to it, honey. After a while, you might even like knowing your neighbors.”

“I doubt it. I wish they would leave us alone. At least until eight o’clock. I was trying to sleep in.”

“You haven’t even checked out the new house. Don’t you love it?”

“Well, it’s different.”

“Did you know the same architect who built the house lived here also? He built it in 1908. Look at some of these features. You won’t find these in modern homes.”

“That’s all your stuff, Dad. I’m not into it. I’m going to get in the shower and then take Max for a walk.”

“Don’t you want to try some of this banana nut bread?”

“No, I’m not hungry.”

“Suit yourself, honey. But don’t wait too long or I might eat it all.”

Joanna hesitated. The basket did smell delicious. She hadn’t eaten dinner last night. But she decided to take a shower before any more “friendly” neighbors showed up to welcome her.

Thirty minutes later, Joanna had showered and dressed. She felt like a new person by the time she strode out into the living room. Joanna stopped in front of an old, gold-engraved mirror. She couldn’t help but notice the contrast of her youthful image bursting out of a reflection surrounded by the elegance of the past. Her sparkling emerald green eyes shined brilliantly against the backdrop of an aged staircase with original oak balusters standing as solid as time itself. The warm light of a spring day cascaded through the front door’s beveled glass windows, highlighting the youthful flame of her long red hair. Her skin, washed clean of the heavy makeup, seemed to breathe fresh air into the polished pine wood floors beneath her feet.

Joanna had never lived in an old house, certainly not one more than a hundred years old. A sense of comfort and stability seemed to run through the oak beams adorning the ceiling above. She could see the care and passion crafted into the wooden mantels and low, oak picture moldings. This was not just a house; this was a home.

Feeling refreshed and reinvigorated, she walked onto the back porch. Max, her Golden Retriever, jumped up from his spot in the beautiful yard and raced to greet her with joyful leaps. She put on his collar and led him out of the back gate and around to the front of the house. She turned for a moment to admire the dark green stucco walls with a high pitched roof and finely crafted gable. Stone steps led through a walkway lined with green shrubs to a shady porch fronted with cool white columns. The bungalow was right out of a story book, and she could hardly believe that this would be her new home.

Max was eager to begin his walk, so she turned again and started down the sidewalk of St. Charles Avenue. Even the well-worn, hexagonal stones of the sidewalk seemed to be alive with character. Each street name was carved into the beginning of the path. The yards were lined with lush landscaping that teased her eyes with the beauty of a mid-spring bloom. A wide variety of dogwood trees greeted her along the way with pink and white blossoms. The fragrant scent of cultivated wisteria competed with the sweet aroma of wild honeysuckle draping from wooden fences.

Joanna noticed a soft white, late-flowering camellia amid the beautiful array of pink, purple, and red azaleas that lined almost every other yard. She stopped across from a large, red brick church fronted with tall, white columns and a towering spire. There was something cozy about a church set back into the neighborhood, where the noisy traffic lanes of highways could never interrupt the slow, peaceful dance of the day. A line of cut back crape myrtles along the church’s street side promised a sweet summer bloom when the joy of spring faded. The many magnolias also seemed to smile in anticipation as they prepared to fill the neighborhood with their rich, lemony blossoms. Even a few rose bushes had burst forth their bright colors, as if they were too eager to wait for the others.

“Max!” chided Joanna. While she had been admiring the magnolias, Max had been busy digging up a carefully arranged, beautiful display of Rembrant tulips. Joanna jerked him away and rushed him down the sidewalk before they were caught.

The streets were also lined with the cool shades of water oaks and even occasional live oaks with their strong Southern limbs spreading canopies of charm from one beautiful yard to another.

“Hello there,” said Joanna. She stopped to stare with fascination at a rare ginkgo tree sprouting up from a yard. She reached out and felt its smooth, soft, fan-shaped leaves. “You’re going to grow very tall, little one.” Next to the ginkgo tree was a thick, planted Rosemary herb, and she bent down to breath in its rich, spicy scent.

Joanna also began to notice the unique designs of the bungalows lining the streets. Many had historic markers proudly displayed on their porches. She was used to the cookie-cut house plans of modern neighborhoods, but these houses were distinguished by a wide variety of finely hewn features. She studied with appreciation the many exposed, ornamented roof rafters that supported low pitched gable roofs over shady porches with brick and wood columns. Even to her untrained eyes, the artistry of these houses was unmistakable.

Every turn in this neighborhood seemed to offer a new and inspiring sight. As she made her way onto Madison Avenue, a gorgeous, dark brick church came into view. The windows were arched at the top and flanked an intricate brick arch doorway with stylish wood designs. Stones set into the brick arches and corners offset the lines with a Tudor flair. She was filled with a sudden vision of getting married at this pretty church. A silly fantasy, she knew. Maybe someday.

As Joanna continued down the main avenue, the homes became grander in size and splendor. She stopped across from the lush green of Armstrong Park to gaze wistfully at a large, pretty yellow house facing the opposite side. The two-story house was lovingly restored with white columns supporting a beautifully curved, wooden porch that wrapped around the corner of the house and was covered with a new tin roof shining in the morning dew. This must be Mrs. McCall’s house, she realized. Joanna was suddenly filled with a burning curiosity to see the inside, but she knew that she had to wait until dinner that evening.

On her way back to her house, Joanna passed a pair of limestone lion statues facing each other and guarding the entrance to one of the neighborhood streets. “CAPITOL HEIGHTS” was carved into the concrete base. She reached out and smoothed her hand across one’s proud, worn stone mane. She wondered how long they had quietly rested there absorbing the sweet, shady Southern days into their porous stones.

A few minutes later, Joanna was back in front of her house. Before she could take Max through the gate, a tall, thin, older woman strode up to her. Joanna turned and flashed a beaming smile, but the woman’s icy blue eyes froze her in her tracks. The woman wore a pale green dress, and her iron-gray hair was clenched into a tight bun.

“Hello, I’m Joanna Beaumont; we just moved in last night.”

“I am Francis Tillwater,” replied the woman. Her sharp voice was cold enough to match the frost of cruelty in her eyes. She held up a small bunch of tuplis ripped by their roots. “I believe your dog is responsible for these.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am. He got to them before I noticed. I was so caught up in how pretty the landscaping was, I wasn't able to stop him until it was too late.”

“Yes, I’m sure. This is a very dog-friendly neighborhood, Miss Beaumont. One of the reasons for that is because everyone takes responsibility for their pet. We also take great pride in tending our lawns. I am sure that everyone would appreciate it if you took responsibility for your dog.”

Joanna felt tears welling up in her eyes. “I can replant them for you.”

“That would be too late, I'm afraid. It will be next spring before I can get another bloom like that. Good day, Miss Beaumont.”

Joanna stood in stunned amazement as Mrs. Tillwater strode away without another word. Joanna led Max into the back yard. By the time Joanna had gotten back inside, the tears were streaming down her face.

“What’s wrong?” asked her father.

“I hate this neighborhood!” Joanna yelled.

“What happened, honey?”

“The people are mean!”

“How can you say that? You saw how friendly they were this morning.”

“Not all of them are friendly.”

“Come on and sit down. Tell me what happened.”

Joanna followed him into the kitchen, where she scrubbed her hands clean in the sink and then sat down. Her father offered her some of the banana nut bread that the other ladies had brought earlier. She began telling him what had just happened as she munched on the delicious banana bread, followed by occasional gulps of the freshly-squeezed orange juice that the ladies had brought over as well.

“Well, no wonder they need such a high power welcoming committee with neighbors like Mrs. Tillwater,” said her father.

Joanna laughed and brushed away some of the crumbs from the corners of her pouting lips. Slowly, a smile began to creep back up. Her smile widened when her father suggested that he take her down to the Renaissance Spa that afternoon to use the gift certificates before dinner. An afternoon at the spa was just what she needed to sooth her frayed nerves. Joanna already wished that she would never have to see Mrs. Tillwater again. Little did she know that she was headed for an even more dramatic encounter with Mrs. Tillwater later that night . . .

“So who is the banner for in the park?” asked Joanna later that evening. She leaned back in the wooden swing on Mrs. McCall’s wide porch.

The full moon bathed the streets of Capitol Heights with cascades of soft, ethereal beams falling through the treetops. Joanna rocked back and forth after one of the most sumptuous meals she could remember: butter lettuce salad with grapes and walnuts, pork roast with Carolina gravy, herb-marinated grilled vegetables, topped off with a dessert of strawberry-fruit toss with cornmeal shortcakes. She sipped on her peach iced tea and felt the cool spring breeze blow through her hair. After an afternoon at the Renaissance Spa and a full meal, her body and mind were completely relaxed now.

“The banner was from the party welcoming home two neighborhood boys back from the war,” said Dr. Bradshaw. “Well, they’re not boys anymore; one used to mow my yard years ago. Thank God they both came home safe.”

Although the dinner had been wonderful, the guests were a little above Joanna’s head; an English professor, two history professors, a novelist, a playwright, a museum curator, and an artist, among others. Even her father, who was a fairly smart man in her eyes, had barely held his own. Fortunately, one of the professors, Dr. Bradshaw, had taken a liking to Joanna and kept her in the conversation. The two were enjoying the quiet evening on the porch while the rest continued heavy discussions inside.

Dr. Bradshaw was a professor of medieval history at one of the local universities, but rather than being stuffy and dry, she was wonderfully alive with amusing conversation. The last time Joanna had laughed so hard was with her mother, and she already felt like one of Bradshaw’s daughters. Bradshaw was short and portly with cropped gray hair and very thick glasses, but she was filled with more energy and vitality than most of Joanna’s teenage friends.

“That was a wonderful meal,” sighed Joanna. “I had always heard about Southern cooking, but Mrs. McCall sure does show out. She could sell her family recipes in a cookbook.”

“If she did, she would get sued,” said Bradshaw with a snicker.

“What do you mean?” asked Joanna.

“Most of her ‘family’ recipes come right off of from Southern Living magazine. Oh, she’s a wonderful cook, no doubt. But last year, Sidney’s son got her online for the first time. Sidney’s very old-fashioned, mind you, so she never saw much need for the internet. It started out with e-mail and sending photos of her grandchildren around, but it didn’t take her long to find her way onto And ever since then, her dinner parties have been growing in attendance.”

“How did you find out?”

“One of the ladies in the garden club matched up one of the dishes. Once that happened, the sun hadn’t set before everyone in the neighborhood knew. But don’t dare let the secret out or she might stop hosting these dinner parties.”

“Oh, I won’t. I promise. I wouldn’t spoil another meal like that for anything. I feel like I could sleep a week.”

“But do suggest the idea of the cookbook when we go back inside; I would love to see her face when you do.”

Joanna grinned in amusement and continued to rock.

“I’m glad that there are so many nice people here. I was scared after meeting Mrs. Tillwater this morning.”

“Oh, that old bird watches everyone like a hawk. There’s hardly a thing that happens in this neighborhood that she doesn’t know about. But don’t you mind her, sweetie. She’s harmless. But I wouldn’t step foot in her yard again.”

“I won’t.” Joanna sighed with satisfaction. After such a wonderful afternoon and evening, the incident with Mrs. Tillwater didn’t bother her a bit. Joanna was starting to feel very good about this neighborhood. “There seem to be a lot of professors and artists living here. Are there more?”

“Sure, we have a large group of intellectuals here to keep us entertained. But not everyone’s an academic. If you have any plumbing problems, just call Stanley Watson over on Vonora St. Or if your car is acting up, you can give Henry Worth a call; he’s one of the best mechanics in town.”

“They actually come over to your house?”

“Of course; we’re all neighbors.”

“That must be convenient. Are you able to do anything for them?”

“I tutor Henry’s kid in history. Henry Jr. is going to Harvard next year on a scholarship; so you can bet I don’t have to pay top dollar for car repairs. And Mark inside tutors some of the kids in English. And Sidney occasionally drops by with a homemade pie, so when she needed help repainting a few months ago, plenty of volunteers showed up. Someone in the neighborhood always knows how to help out with whatever you need. That’s what neighbors are for, other than to bug you.”

“In my old neighborhood, we barely knew our neighbors at all.”

“There've been times when I would have liked to have had that kind of anonymity; but not when my car needs a $3,000 repair that Henry can fix for $300.”

“That’s a big difference.”

“That’s also a summer cruise to Jamaica. There’s something to be said for knowing your neighbors.”

“I’m starting to see that for the first time.”

Later that night Joanna stepped out onto her front porch. The full moon had climbed to the center of the sky, giving the entire street a brilliant glow. She had stayed up late texting her friends about her new neighborhood.

A lone figure walking quietly through the grass down the street caught her eye. At first, Joanna thought the dark figure might be walking his dog, but then she realized that he was alone. He jumped behind a row of bushes when a car pulled around the corner farther down the road.

Joanna froze in terror when she realized that he was not one of her friendly neighbors. He was here to do bad things. Her whole body began to shake as she knelt lower behind the railing and crawled over to the door. Joanna slid the front door open and slowly slipped inside, shutting it carefully back. As soon as she was in, she twisted the bolt and raced to her father’s bedroom.

“Daddy! Daddy!” she whispered urgently.

“What is it, honey?”

“There’s a burglar down the street.”

Lance Beaumont instantly jolted up.

“What did you say? Where?”

“He’s hiding in the bushes a few doors down. I saw him, Daddy.”

Her father leapt out of bed and quickly opened his bedside drawer. He pulled out a pistol.

“No one’s breaking into our house again or anyone else’s on this block,” he vowed.

Joanna grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“Daddy, no! Please don’t go outside. Just call the police. Please!”

The rage that had instantly filled her father’s cold eyes seemed to melt away slowly as he gazed at her worried face. He could see not only the terror of danger in her pleading eyes but a fear of abandonment, a fear that began with the loss of her mother.

“All right, honey. Don’t worry. You stay in here while I call the police. Everything’s going to be okay.”

“No, I want to stay with you, Daddy.”

“Okay. I’m going to get the phone.”

Joanna followed him closely as he strode into the dark living room and got the phone. A small sense of relief flowed through her as he dialed 911 because now she knew that he wasn’t going to rush outside to confront the burglar. However, her mind was still racing with terrible images. A sudden thought burst into her mind. She raced to the refrigerator and pulled off a card. Joanna’s trembling hands barely managed to dial the number from the card into her cell phone.

“Hello?” came a sleepy voice over the line.

“Mrs. McCall?” whispered Joanna. “This is Joanna Beaumont.”

“Yes, is everything all right, dear? What time is it?”

“It’s late. But you said if we ever needed anything to call right away. I just saw a burglar down the street from our house.”

“A burglar? Where?”

“About four houses down from ours. He hid in the bushes when a car came down the street.”

“Have you called the police?”

“Yes, ma’am, my father is on the phone with them right now. But I thought you might want to know.”

“Yes, dear, thank you for calling. You just stay inside and keep the door locked. I’ll activate the neighborhood watch.” Mrs. McCall’s pleasant Southern drawl suddenly turned hard and menacing. “Don’t you worry, dear; we’re going to get him.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll stay inside.”

“I’ll call you back soon.”

Mrs. McCall hung up, and Joanna walked back to her father, who was still on the phone with the police. Now all she could do was wait and worry. She slid down by the corner of the window, but her father instantly warned her away. However, he took guard against the same window, peering out watchfully and still clenching the gun.

As Joanna waited, she felt a well of anger begin to build up. Memories of the afternoon when they came back home to find their house broken into started flashing through her mind. Joanna vividly recalled rushing down the hall and into her room. One fear had raced through her mind in those sickening moments: Please, God, don’t let Mom’s necklace be gone! But when she frantically searched through her jewelry box, the heirloom necklace was nowhere to be found.

Another memory flashed through Joanna’s mind: she was standing in the mirror, admiring the sparking green necklace paired with her first Homecoming dance dress. Her mother’s kind face beamed proudly behind her.

You’re prettier than Scarlet O’hara, honey,” her mother had said.

And with a temper to match,” her father had added.

By now, Joanna’s anger had overwhelmed her fear. This burglar could not be allowed to steal the joy away from anyone else’s precious memories. She hoped the police caught him.

A distant sound of barking dogs pulled her out of her angry thoughts. There was a group of dogs, she realized, and they were on the move. Their barks were getting louder and closer with each moment.

“Where are the dogs coming from?” she whispered.

“I don’t know,” said her father. “It sounds like from both directions.” Her father strained to hear. “What the hell?”

Joanna sneaked a glance through the window. Her father was so stunned that he didn’t push her back. She saw the same black-clad figure coming down the street. But instead of being in the shadows, he was in the middle of the street, running for what seemed like his very life. Not far behind him was a pack of dogs and their angry owners. Joanna counted at least five pairs. The burglar skidded to a stop right in front of their house and darted back and forth in several directions before stopping again.

That’s when Joanna noticed a second group of dogs and owners approaching from the other end of the street. As the two packs of dogs and owners closed in, a flash of blue light and a loud siren stopped them. Joanna breathed a sigh of relief when a police squad car screeched to a halt at the corner and two policemen jumped out.

“Everybody back!” yelled one policeman, waving them away.

“Stay here,” said her father as he went outside. Joanna continued to watch through the window in amazement. She slid the window open just a tad to listen.

“On the ground!” hollered the policeman. The burglar, almost in relief, slowly lowered himself to the ground as the other policeman quickly cuffed him. “Get back, people! Let us handle this!”

The officer was forced to yell over the barking of the dogs. Joanna counted two German Shepherds, one Doberman Pinscher, two pit bulls, a Pug, a Pomeranian, and even a small but loud Chihuahua. All were on leashes, which was a good thing for the burglar because they were growling and barking as if they were ready to tear him to pieces. All of the dogs had male owners, except the Pomeranian, who was barely held in check by an older woman in her nightgown.

“Mrs. Tillwater?” whispered Joanna to herself. Even amid all the ferocious dogs, Mrs. Tillwater’s fierce glare was intimidating.

“What kind of neighborhood is this?” the burglar asked the policeman.

“You’re not the first punk who’s made the mistake of coming into this neighborhood,” laughed one of the policemen as he jerked the man to his feet. “Guess you didn’t know that this area has one of the most active neighborhood crime watch organizations in the state. You’re lucky we got to you first. Keep those dogs back!”

Joanna’s worried face slowly broke into a smile. Mrs. McCall was as good as her word: they got him.

Early the next afternoon, Joanna, her father, and a small group of neighbors walked through the halls of the Montgomery police station.

“Are we in trouble, Daddy?” she asked.

“I don’t know, honey. The Lieutenant just asked us to meet him down here at two o’clock. He didn’t say why.”

The group was led into a large conference room, where a tall policeman greeted them.

“Is this her?” asked the policeman, pointing to Joanna.

“Yes, sir, this is the girl,” replied another policeman.

“Well, then. Nice to meet you, Miss. Beaumont. I’m Captain Thorsby.”

Joanna hesitantly shook Thorsby’s thick, strong hand.

“Hello, sir.”

“Miss Beaumont, I wanted to personally congratulate you for your quick action last night. While we were processing that perp, we came across some very interesting information that I thought you’d all like to know about. It turns out that he was wanted in several states for burglary, and we finally caught him here, thanks to Miss Beaumont’s call. It seems that every time things got too hot for him, he would move on to another state and start over again. In fact, because he was selling his stolen items across state lines, the FBI has even taken an interest, and that means that he’ll be doing some federal time if convicted.”

Mrs. Tillwater surprised Joanna by putting a comforting arm around her.

“Even our young ones won’t allow these thugs to get away with crime in our neighborhood,” said Mrs. Tillwater. She gave Joanna a warm, affectionate smile, causing more than one neighbor to open their mouths in awe; no one had ever seen Mrs. Tillwater smile at anyone.

“Yes, Mrs. Tillwater, this isn’t the first time you and the Capitol Heights Neighborhood Watch have assisted our department with capturing criminals.”

“You sure took your time getting there,” said Mrs. Tillwater.

Thorsby continued as if he hadn’t heard her last remark.

“And since the program has been so successful, the mayor has decided to honor your neighborhood with an achievement award at the next city council meeting. I’ve alerted the media to cover the event, and we’ll be giving a special citation to you, Miss Beaumont, for doing the responsible thing and calling us first.” Thorsby cast a warning glare at Tom Jackson, one of the loudest members of the pack the night before. “However, I want to also take a moment to advise you of the dangers of taking the law into your own hands. We don’t want to encourage neighborhoods to form vigilante groups with packs of dogs. It’s important that you let us handle the enforcement of the law from now on.”

“Speaking of our dogs, what about their citation?” demanded Mrs. Tillwater. “If it weren’t for my Winston and the other ones, you might not have caught that thug at all.”

Thorsby sighed in frustration.

“I don’t see how we can recognize the dogs without sending the wrong message,” he said.

Joanna felt a sudden leap of inspiration.

“What if they were just out walking their dogs?” she suggested. “I was just about to walk my dog before I saw the thief. There’s nothing wrong with walking your dog is there? I would really like the dogs to get an award.”

Joanna could see the conflict on the captain’s face as he debated her idea. She could tell that he didn’t want to involve the dogs but also didn’t want to disappoint her, either. She put on her best pouting face.

“Please, Captain Thorsby,” she pleaded. “I would feel awful if the dogs didn’t get any credit at all.”

“All right,” said Thorsby, after a long hesitation. “But everyone needs to stick to the story: you were out walking your dogs, not hunting for a burglar. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” they all said at once.

“By the way, you should all take a look at this, too,” said Thorsby. “Lieutenant.”

Another policeman stepped forward and unlocked a large plastic case. He carefully slid the contents onto the table, revealing a large collection of expensive jewelry.

“These are what we recovered from the perp’s vehicle that was parked just outside the neighborhood,” said Throsby. “It’s probably just a small slice of what he’s stolen over the past three years, but at least we might get these pieces back to their owners.”

A shimmer of green immediately caught Joanna’s eyes. She squeezed her father’s hand before stepping forward and lifting a necklace out of the pile. The large green emerald stared back at her in almost joyous recognition.

“Joanna, that’s your mother’s necklace,” said her father.

Joanna couldn’t reply; tears of relief had already seized her voice up. She turned and hugged Mrs. McCall tightly.

“That was her mother’s,” said her father softly. “She gave it to Joanna two weeks before she passed away.”

“I don’t understand,” said Thorsby. “I thought we caught the guy before he got into anyone’s house.”

“It was stolen from our house in St. Louis just before we moved here,” said her father. “Joanna thought she had lost it forever. And if it weren’t for all of you, she would have.”

Thorsby turned back to the Lieutenant, who nodded in confirmation.

“He was last reported in St. Louis, Captain. I’m sure there’ll be a record, if they reported it stolen.”

“We did,” said her father. “Joanna?”

He put his hand gently on her shoulder, but Joanna still refused to let go of Mrs. McCall. Joanna wanted desperately to thank them, but she still couldn’t speak. All she could think was: Capitol Heights is the best place to live in the whole world.


“The Heights” Tourism Guide
Although the characters are fictional in “The Heights,” all of the buildings and places are part of the real neighborhood of Capitol Heights in Montgomery, Alabama. Capitol Heights is a charming neighborhood designated as a historic district for its architectural significance, especially in the Arts and Crafts style of the early twentieth century. Capitol Heights was also recently named one of the best real estate buys in the Southeast by This Old House magazine. The value of Capitol Heights is increasing every year because it offers attractive, safe, and quiet housing located just minutes away from the the riverfornt area of downtown Montgomery. In the past few years, downtown Montgomery has experienced a burst of tourism and business investment with new restaurants, hotels, shops, and entertainment venues.

Capitol Heights also offers candlelight and walking tours during certain times of the year. Please contact the Capitol Heights Civic Association at the link below for more information. A walk through this beautiful area will reveal a sweet Southern charm not found in more modern neighborhoods. The surrounding attractions make a visit even more worthwhile.

The Beaumont home is actually the Belser House on South Lewis St. and was built by prominent architect Richard S. Whatley in 1908. The “pretty yellow house” on Madison Ave. was built in 1914 and still offers a picturesque view across from Armstrong Park. The Capitol Heights Church of Christ is a sight to see, and yes it does offer wedding services! The Capitol Heights United Methodist Church is set back in the neighborhood away from the traffic, and its sanctuary is beautiful to behold. A detailed guide to the many historic homes in the Capitol Heights historic district may be obtained from the Capitol Heights Civic Association.

During my research into the Capitol Heights area, I learned that the neighborhood really has aided the police department on more than one occasion in catching criminals. The residents of Capitol Heights are also very passionate about their dogs, and one such pet also aided in the capture of a would-be thief, which gave rise to the inspiration of this story. The purpose of this story is to show how much better all of our neighborhoods could be if there were a stronger sense of community and responsibility to each other.

A mouth-watering part of this research involved from Southern Living magazine. If you would like to add more “family” recipes to your collection, please visit the link below.

To learn about other attractions on the Montgomery area, please also visit the full list of links below. I should note that any posted links or travel information related to this story do not mean that the tourism attractions listed have endorsed this story or sponsored the Tourism Guide. However, any tourism article about the Montgomery area's tourism opportunities would be remiss not to mention larger tourism attractions like the RTJ Golf Trail or the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Listing these sites are just my personal recommendations to anyone enjoying the story who wants to add a little more fun on a trip to the area.

Although I cannot vouch for all of the services in the Renaissance Hotel & Spa (located in downtown Montgomery), my wife and I did enjoy a couple’s massage and overnight stay there for our anniversary, and I quickly decided to make that a tradition. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is in beautiful Blount Cultural Park and offers classic and modern plays throughout the year. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts has a large, impressive art collection on display and is located next to the Shakespeare Festival. Both are linked to below. If you (or your spouse) are interested in golf, the Legends course is very close by in Prattville. The Legends is part of the national award-winning Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and is highly recommended for any golf enthusiast. The Rosa Parks Museum is located in downtown Montgomery and offers an unforgettable presentation of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950's.

To learn about even more attractions to visit in the Montgomery area, please visit the Montgomery Convention and Visitors Bureau at the link below.

If you enjoyed this story, please submit a short comment on your reaction at the end of the Tourism Links. Perhaps you could share a short post about how knowing your neighbors has helped your family in some way. I hope this story encourages readers to get more involved in their neighborhood crime watch program with their local police department or maybe even start one if none yet exists. Follow the link below in the Tourism Guide to learn how to connect with your local police department for community involvement.

If you are interested in learning about real properties for sale in the Capitol Heights area, please contact local real estate agent Cindy Keeping, who specializes in the area. You can learn more about Cindy and how to contact her by clicking this link for Partners Realty.

Tourism Links

Capitol Heights

Capitol Heights Civic Association

Capitol Heights on Facebook!/profile.php?id=100000039810294&ref=mf

Capitol Heights Church of Christ

Capitol Heights United Methodist Church

Learn how the real neighbors of Capitol Heights pull together to save a house

Crime Prevention: Learn how to get more involved or even start a neighborhood watch program by working with your local police department.

Montgomery Police Department Crime Prevention site

National Crime Prevention Council Website


Renaissance Hotel & Spa

Alabama Shakespeare Festival

Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

Rosa Parks Museum

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail

Montgomery Convention and Visitors Bureau

For Writers! Connect with other Alabama writers and take advantage of valuable resources:
Alabama Writers Forum

Join SELTI on Facebook for email updates on new features.!/group.php?gid=289783765813&ref=mf

Saturday, June 27, 2009

"The Last Confession"

Bibb Graves Bridge, First Presbyterian Church
Photo by Wetumpka Herald

Story By: Patrick Brian Miller
Tourism Attractions: Cahawba state park/Wetumpka scenic river trail
Location: Cahawba, AL/Wetumpka, AL

Father Jonathan Brady snapped away from his doleful thoughts as the rusted red Bronco jolted over another jagged pothole on the dirt road leading towards his punishment. The noxious fumes of dust-laced oil saturated the steamy, unforgiving air that blasted across him through the cracked window. Behind them, a thick trail of dust kicked high into the air, blurring any thought of his retreat. Before them lay a long, twisted trail of eroded dirt and endless pines baking in the mid-August noon.

The sweat-soaked face of his driver, Nick Broder, had become more and more anxious as they came closer to the small town of Phoenix, their destination. Nick’s inane, constant chatter had become slowly sporadic and then blessfully buried underneath a gritty resolve to arrive at--and then quickly leave--the dreaded place.

Brady recalled again the ridiculous rumors and myths surrounding the isolated, abandoned town of Phoenix, empty of life save for the solitary priest whom Brady would soon replace. But despite the stories, the only fear that Phoenix aroused in him was a desperate recognition that his career was doomed. What had he done that would cause the Bishop to inflict this assignment upon him? Of course he hadn’t connected well with the rural, simple-minded parishioners who had made up his first congregation. But then why not reassign him back up North, or even perhaps overseas, where he could make a real difference?

Brady’s dream had always been to work in the Vatican, but instead he had been assigned to a small, country parish in the deep South. He had always tried to hide his disdain and disappointment from his congregation, but their beady eyes must have seen through his thin mask of cordiality. They had answered his inner thoughts by complaining to the Bishop, he was sure. And his punishment: an assignment to this awful place that time had long since passed over.
The ruins of Crocheron Mansion in Cahawba, the
inspirational setting for Phoenix. Click to enlarge.
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission

Phoenix had once been a thriving cotton town in antebellum days. As the county seat before the War, it had once boasted its prosperity with impressive, graceful mansions and a picturesque town square dominated by a stately courthouse. But Yankee raiders had burned much of the town to the ground. Undaunted, the town had quickly resurrected itself around a new, shiny red brick cotton gin factory that prospered for twenty wonderful years. However, a fated flash of lightning had burned it to the ground as well, leaving only a broken, brick skeleton. A single tower was left standing to guard the tomb of rubble.

Ten years after the fire, a terrible flood had washed away the remnant of inhabitants still determined to live in this cursed abode. So, around the turn of the last century, Phoenix had begun its long, lonely existence as a ghost town, visited only through the courage of teens who had lost a dare from their peers.

Five years ago, the Church had sent Phoenix its first semi-permanent resident. The small church that had once served slave owners and barely lasted long enough to see segregation had been quietly reclaimed and rededicated by the Church. The purpose of this newly consecrated church was still a mystery, even to Brady. He could only hope that Father Kelso, its first pastor, might shed some light on the matter before he left Brady with only the company of his unsatisfied curiosity.

A sudden hiss of white smoke from underneath the hood brought Brady back to his surroundings.

“Damn!” shouted Nick, with a sudden guilty glance at Brady. “Sorry, Father.”

The Bronco slid to a halt on the dusty road, and Nick stepped out and lifted the hood. A flurry of smoke shot out, causing Nick to erupt into a few more involuntary curses. Brady stepped out, too, grateful to escape the sauna of the vehicle.

“How bad is it?” asked Brady reluctantly.

Nick sighed in frustration.

“The radiator is busted bad, Father. We’re gonna need some help.”

Brady glanced around at the Southern wilderness. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

“I’m not sure if this will work out here,” confessed Brady, “but it’s worth a try.”

He squinted at the hazy glare on the small screen before twisting it into his shadow. With little hope, he pressed the power button, only to be greeted by a no-service signal.

Nick looked up and down the dirt road and came to a realization.

“It should work at the top of that hill a few miles back, Father,” Nick offered.

Brady stared without enthusiasm at the still-spreading blanket of dust curling up behind them.

“Even if it works there,” continued Nick, “it will take a couple of hours for someone to meet me. Phoenix is only about a mile or so down this road, if you want to walk it. As soon as I get help, I’ll come back for Father Kelso.”

“I suppose I’ll manage,” stated Brady, silently grateful to escape Nick’s company. “Well, Nick, good luck then. I will see you later this afternoon.” He handed Nick the phone and turned towards the last, long leg of his journey. He left his luggage in the Bronco for when Nick returned.
Oak St in the abandoned town of Cahawba, Alabama.
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission.

Brady launched into a steady, rhythmic stride, now eager to reach his destination. The automatic pattern somewhat eased the effect of the incredibly oppressive heat. The burning sun played strange tricks on his mind, and he felt himself becoming a part of the harsh, humid landscape instead of merely suffering within it, as if he were a wild animal that belonged in this intimidating environment. Cool shadows underneath tall pines beckoned to him on either side, but prickly walls of green thickets guarded the way. No matter; he was content now to walk forever along this road.

The road curved to the left about a quarter of a mile down, and he noticed a gradual change in the landscape. Lines of old wisteria began to cover the pines, and broken fence posts along with collapsed shacks began to dot the roadside. Instead of thick forests, overgrown fields and pastures began to slide into view underneath the gray canopies of draping Spanish moss. Finally, at the top of a small hill, he stopped to behold the town of Phoenix about a half-mile below.

Not much was left of the town, but he could distinctly make out the crumbling courthouse and ring of fallen buildings that had once made up what had probably been a beautiful town square. He searched for the renovated church and found its clean, white steeple in strange contrast with the rest of the ruins. The church stood on the far side of an old, magnificent bridge that still stood as a testament to the early ambitions of Phoenix. He also spotted the lone tower of the burned out factory that had briefly saved the town from abandonment. Well, this was to be his home for the next year or so. He started again with an energetic pace fueled by a powerful sense of fate beckoning him on.

He had not taken three steps before a low, deep growl of thunder rolled across the land. Brady turned and saw the dark gray clouds gathering force a few miles away to the west. He didn’t care if the storm caught him now; it would only offer relief from the dizzying heat.

As he made his way down the hill, he wondered again what purpose he was to serve here. He found it ironic that a town named “Phoenix” was to be perhaps the death of his career. Yet the Bishop had never quite stated that this assignment was a punishment for Brady’s ineffective service. The Bishop had been brief and mysterious, saying only that Brady had been chosen and to follow any instructions from Father Kelso exactly. The Bishop’s voice had been direct but not stern, and Brady still remembered the strange earnestness in the man’s eyes.

The first lashes of thick raindrops began to pelt him as he made his way alongside the factory. He gazed up at the single tower appearing ominous in the onslaught, and he wondered how long it would stand before crumbling down like the rest of the town. He also wondered how long he could stand living in this desolate place alone.

Brady had never been a very spiritual man, despite his profession. He had always been attracted to the scholarship of the Church and its rich cultural heritage rather than its emotional and spiritual aspects. But here in this place, he was as far away as possible from accessing the deep valleys of intellectualism that the Church had always provided him.

As he crossed the bridge, his eyes traced the powerful and elegant lines of the solid arches, and he stopped for a moment to peer over the side. Below, the rumbling waters of the river raced inbetween primordial rock formations that must have enchanted the Indians of long ago. Now, only a lone blue heron peered out on the beautiful scene, perched beside one of the many frothy pools that had been worn into the river rock.

The power of the storm softened by the time that he had reached the church. The building was old but well-kept, even the manicured grass that surrounded its freshly-painted walls. Brady wiped a hand through his soaked hair and made his way up the wooden stairs. He knocked nervously on the thick, dark wooden doors and then cautiously stepped through.

Inside, the church was filled with a somber silence, broken only by the soft rustling of rain on the walls and windows. Tall, stained-glass windows sent cascades of color across the rich, thick, red velvet carpets, cushions, and dark wood pews. The gold surfaces surrounding the small altar glinted in the gentle candlelight, the only sign of life in the quiet space. The pews couldn’t hold more than a hundred parishioners, yet their eerie emptiness seemed to fill the room with a thousand abandoned seats. Brady was grateful when a tall, thin figure draped in black robes emerged from a small door behind the altar.

“Father Brady,” welcomed Father Kelso in a pleasant tone that filled the room with warmth. “I was wondering when you would make it here. Where is Nick?”

“I’m afraid that we had car trouble, Father Kelso,” replied Brady. “Nick had to walk a few miles to get help. I walked here ahead of him.”

Kelso squinted his blue eyes in the dim light and frowned, sending a ripple of creases across his old face.

“Why, you’re soaking, Father Brady. Come with me, and I’ll lend you some dry clothes.”

“Thank you, Father,” answered Brady politely. He followed the old man back through the door to a small, one-room rectory. Kelso gave him a towel and a clean set of clothes before returning to the main room. In a few minutes, Brady returned also, eager to have his questions answered at last.

Brady found Kelso gazing wistfully around the small church. He was surprised when the old man turned with tears in his eyes. Brady assumed that he was relieved to be finally leaving this lonely place.
An abandoned shack in Cahawba.
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission.

“So, Father Kelso,” began Brady with a sarcastic grin, “what did you do to be sentenced to this place?”

Kelso regarded him with a strange, intense glimmer of anticipation.

“I was chosen, Father Brady, just as you were. You will soon find that serving here is not a sentence but rather a special privilege.”

“Forgive me, Father, but I cannot see what privilege there could be in this place, other than for a monastic.”

“No, you will not see,” agreed Kelso, “but you will understand.”

Brady held up his hands to emphasize the emptiness of the church.

“What are my duties here, Father Kelso?”

“You will have but one duty here, Father Brady. At three-thirty in the afternoon each day, you will hear confession.”

“Confession?” laughed Brady in amazement. “I don’t understand.”

“But you will,” assured Kelso with conviction. “At the designated time, you must enter the confessional. Do not leave it until the confession is fully heard. There will be a screen between you and the confessor; you cannot breach that wall of anonymity. Beyond that duty, your time is free.” Kelso sensed Brady’s frustration and placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “I did not understand at first, either,” he admitted. “But soon, all will be clear. I must leave now, but I wish you the best of luck. Once a week, on Saturday afternoon, Nick will come with groceries and supplies. Let him know of anything you need, and he will bring it the next week. God bless you, Father Brady.”

Without another word, Kelso walked out of the church. Brady followed him outside in stunned confusion, but the old man did not turn around. Brady watched him walk through the rain until he disappeared over the hill above the town.

Brady stood outside for at least half an hour pondering what the old man had told him. When the rain finally stopped, he glanced at his watch and frowned: 3:25.

Brady waited and watched for the next five minutes. He wondered if anyone would show up, and if they didn’t, should he still enter the confessional? When the time had elapsed, he decided to fulfill his duty, on the off chance that somehow he was being watched. After all, such an occurrence couldn’t be stranger than being sent here in the first place.

He walked back into the church and listened to his steps creak into the old floor beneath the carpet. He entered the small confessional just to the side of the main door and sat down on the hard, wooden bench. He pulled the curtain closed and waited in anticipation. The confessional was dark, and he could just make out the thick screen that separated his side from the other. He wondered how long he should wait if no one appeared.

But less than a minute later, he heard the heavy doors of the church open and a set of steps creaked around to the confessional. He heard the other curtain being pulled aside and closed, followed by the sound of a person sitting down.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” panted the strained voice of a man.

“I am here,” announced Brady, surprised and intrigued. “How long has it been since your last confession?”

“I don’t know,” admitted the man, sounding very distracted, almost confused. “I have two sins to confess.”

“Go on,” encouraged Brady, wondering what sin could cause this man to travel so far to confess.

“Last Saturday night, my wife and I went to a party,” began the man. “She, Beth, asked me not to drink too much, but I didn’t listen. She was drinking, too, and I was supposed to drive us home.”

Brady’s mind cringed, for he could already guess where this confession might lead. He was used to hearing petty confessions of greed, jealously, lust, and anger, but few carried severe consequences. Already, the pain in the man’s voice betrayed the horrific crime that he had committed.

“Remember, my son, all sins are forgivable in the eyes of the Lord,” stated Brady.

“But I couldn’t forgive myself, Father,” whispered the man sorrowfully. “I had a wreck on the way home; my Beth died,” he sobbed. “My beautiful Beth.”

The unbearable pain in the man’s voice singed Brady with pity and compassion. Brady had never felt comfortable with emotion, and dealing with this man’s inner torture was almost too much to stand. He felt a sudden, powerful impulse to run from the confessional rather than help this poor soul overcome such incredible grief. After all, what could he, even as a priest, say that could possibly help this stricken man to overcome self-guilt when the man was, irrevocably, guilty? This man would never live another day without remembering his crime.

“My son, I would be lying if I told you that there is some way to take away your pain. But perhaps, with God’s love and forgiveness, your pain can be softened. Life is a precious gift, and each day of your life now is an opportunity to please the Lord.”

“It is too late for me, Father,” moaned the man. “I couldn’t bear to live without Beth. Every second was torture for me.”

“It is never too late for forgiveness, my son,” countered Brady, summoning all of the confidence he could muster. He felt sweat beginning to pour out from his forehead. “Your life can still be used to bless the Lord.”

“No, it can’t,” lamented the man. “For that is my second sin, Father. The day after my Beth was killed, I took my own life.”

Brady’s mournful eyes hardened. He immediately bolted up, tore through the curtain and ripped open the other side to reveal . . . emptiness. He scanned the confessional for some hidden speaker but found only solid wood. He stepped inside to examine the walls more closely, but he was filled with a harsh chilliness. He gasped at the coldness he felt inside and stepped back out reflexively.

Brady stood, panting in confusion, for he knew that no one could have escaped that fast. He also knew that there was no speaker. Or perhaps the speaker was inside the screen. He reached his arm slowly back into the confessional, but the same severe cold immediately shivered up his skin. He pulled his arm out and noticed chill bumps rising before his eyes. Brady stepped away from the confessional now and stared at the empty seat with horror. He could still sense the presence of the man, despite what his eyes were telling his brain.

“No,” he whispered to himself, unable to believe. No, this could not be his duty. But he knew that it was. Now, he understood.

Brady’s body shook as he reentered his side of the confessional. With trembling hands, he closed the curtain again and sat. For the first time that day, he prayed. He asked for courage, for guidance, for anything that could get him through the next terrible minute of his life. Then he spoke again.

“I am here,” he began.

“It is so dark,” moaned the voice. “So empty.”

“You are a child of God,” Brady reminded him firmly. “You were sent here for forgiveness, and forgiveness you shall receive. Are you sorry for your sins?”

“Yes,” whispered the voice.

“Then the Lord forgives you, my son.”

“What of my penance, Father?” asked the voice.

Brady’s eyes welled with stinging tears as he placed his hands on the screen.

“You have already suffered your penance, my son. Go in peace; the Lord will light your way.”

“Thank you, Father,” whispered the voice. Brady heard him gasp in amazement. “Father, I see the light! I see it!”

“Follow the light, my son,” instructed Brady, wiping his tears away. “Follow the light.”


"The Last Confession" Tourism Guide
St. Lukes Church in Cahawba, circa 1854.
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission.

Many stories created through fiction are inspired from real places, events, and people. “The Last Confession” is no exception. The town of Phoenix, Alabama, is symbolic of a person whose rise to fortune in the material world has fallen away into decay, as evidenced by the ruined mansions and the brick skeleton of a once-prosperous factory. The only thing “alive” in this abandoned town is the renovated church, or “soul” of the person, symbolized by the freshly-painted walls and manicured lawns contrasted against crumbling ruins. Father Brady himself, despite his vocation, is a man who suffers from intellectual vanity and is governed by worldly ambitions. The town of Phoenix, his dreaded assignment, will ultimately reveal that his true personal value lies not in his intellectualism but in his human compassion.

Although the town of Phoenix is fictional, the setting has a definite inspiration in the real world. The creative spark came from a visit I made a long time ago as a 15 year-old to the abandoned town of Cahaba, Alabama. Cahaba was the original state capital of Alabama, but it was abandoned shortly after the Civil War. A series of mishaps and bad fortune allowed this town to literally crumble away, even though at one time it was a thriving town with great promise. I particularly recall the image of an antebellum tombstone of a 17 year-old girl and the sad inscription that read “Everything Bright Must Fade.” How little her parents must have realized on the day of her burial that one day the town itself would become the neglected tombstone of a long-forgotten dream.
One of the wells at Cahawba.
Photo by Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission

Today, there isn’t much left of Cahaba. A few columns are all that remain of a once glorious Southern mansion. Lonely wells still offer water to a population that has long since perished and faded away. Silent streets are lined by overgrown ruins along the banks of a whispering river. However, the town is still accessible. There are historical markers and a small park for picnics. The historic St. Lukes Church (built 1854) is still standing, along with a two-story building that once served as slave quarters. The town's antebellum cemetery and a freedmen's cemetery are also still open to the public, and both have a detailed guide to the graves at their entrances. I encourage anyone who loves history or even just the allure of a real ghost town to visit this beautiful, quiet place. A visitor center has been opened to help tourists fully enjoy the mystical experience of one of the few remaining ghost towns in America. An excellent guide to Cahaba can be found at The helpful staff at the visitor center will also answer any further questions.

Cahaba is also nearby to Selma, Alabama, home to the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge and National Voting Rights Museum. If you’ve never been to Selma, I highly recommend the trip. The first time you cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a chill will run through your body as the dark images of that seminal moment in American history reach out and touch your soul. Selma also offers some excellent lodging and dining for anyone on their way to Cahaba.

A few recommendations: the historic St. James Hotel is the best place to stay. Hancock's BBQ is just a few minutes from Cahaba on Highway 22 West (you will pass it on your way to the park if driving from downtown Selma). A walk through Live Oak Cemetery in downtown Selma (also on Hwy 22) is thoroughly recommended. This historic cemetary is easily spotted on the left of the highway by its low stone wall. Both Selma and Cahaba have legends of real ghosts attatched to their tourism sites, even the St. James Hotel. The Black Belt Ghost Trail will soon detail these stories on a web documentary being filmed now ( For more information about Selma and all its attractions, please visit

The factory in the story has another inspiration in the town of Prattville, Alabama. In 2002, the 143 year-old Gurney building was destroyed in a blazing fire that lit the sky of Prattville all night and continued to smoke for days afterward. The Gurney building was part of the old Pratt millworks that manufactured cotton gins since before the Civil War. Fortunately, the brave firefighters of Prattville saved the rest of the historic factory and the nearby downtown buildings. After the fire, I took pictures of the haunting, skeleton-like brick tower that stood tall against the broken remains of the building. The tower is gone now, but the downtown district and factory are still amazing places to visit. Excellent pictures of the fire and the tower standing over the ruins can be found at (Note:The pictures there are not mine.) Prattville is also home to the premier Legends golf course, part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. For more information on the golf trail, please visit

If you enjoyed the suspense of
"The Last Confession," try my
suspense novel Blind Fate, the
nation's first interactive tourism novel.
Finally, visual inspiration for the church in the story comes from the First Presbyterian Church in Wetumpka, Alabama. This enchanting antebellum church still stands and is the first sight you’ll see when crossing the Bibb Graves Bridge (seen in the opening photo). Although I am not associated with the church, I recommend that anyone stop by to see it and read the historical marker there. Across the bridge is a scenic riverfront park with a paved walking trail well worth a visit. The photo was generously provided by the Wetumpka Herald (

Wetumpka is also home to Jasmine Hill Gardens ( and Fort Toulouse National Historic Park ( The gardens will offer exceptional examples of classical Greek sculpture and architecture. Fort Toulouse offers a fully reconstructed colonial fort complete with buildings and cannon. Along the walking trail by the river bluff, one can also discover an Indian burial mound nearly a thousand years old. For an overview of all that Wetumpka has to offer tourists, please visit

I am not directly associated with any of these sites or places. I am just like you, a person who enjoys visiting unique and out-of-the-way places. Despite today’s hard economic times, Alabama is dotted with getaways, both big and small, where a tourist can have a stimulating or relaxing adventure for a very affordable price. Rather than just visit one place, follow a path that offers new and intriguing turns at every step of the way.

To learn more about all that the area has to offer (the above examples are just a highlight of what is available), please visit the website links for more information. If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy the suspense in my novel Blind Fate, a riveting tale written from the unique perspective of a blind protagonist. Blind Fate was was the first novel in the world with an interactive tourism guide, allowing Kindle and iPad users to instantly click on the tourism websites from inside the novel.

"The Last Confession" was originally published in the anthology Southern Gothic Shorts by PJM Publishing in England. "The Last Confession" was also published in November 2010 on The Moonlit Road, an online site with many chilling ghost stories from around the South. The Moonlit Road has the added feature of many audio presentations of the stories done in a dramatic style by professional storytellers. Please check them out here and browse their many haunting stories: