e x c e r p t
Roses in December
A sentimental romance from the 1970s
R. L. Mosz
FOR UNLOVED GIRLS
The blue rose has long been a literary symbol of perfect, yet impossible or unattainable, happiness and love.
Annie Aldridge stood combing out her long dark hair before the antique mirror in her room. Leaning closer, she studied her appearance critically as if to discover some explanation for her broken heart.
“Did you see Ethan at school today?” Nestle settled herself on Annie’s bed with her doll, Laura, and proceeded to rebraid its partially balding head.
“Nestle, that doll is going to lose its hair if you keep brushing it like that all the time.” Annie took the toy from Nestle a moment and examined it disapprovingly, allowing a bit of the resentment and frustration she’d been feeling for Ethan vent itself on her resilient little cousin. “You should have left her hair like it was…in a bun!”
“Well, how’d you like to never have your hair brushed?”
Annie handed the doll back to her and sighed, preparing to twist her own hair up on top of her head. “Yes, I did see Ethan on campus today. Funny you should ask.”
“Did he be nice?”
“Well, he refused to even look at me. I wouldn’t say that was too nice.”
“Did Gregory tell you not to go out with him no more?”
“Not exactly. You sure are curious today. Why are you always so darn curious?” After fastening her hair into place, she turned to look at Nestle’s innocent elfin profile with a frown. Nestle always reminded Annie of a scarecrow with her sharp little nose, round dark eyes, and wisps of short black hair tufting out at odd angles.
“Well, I like to know things. So does Al.”
“Al? You mean your friend across the street?”
“Well, I hope you don’t tell him my personal problems.”
“Sometimes. He doesn’t mind. He’s—”
“Nestle! I don’t want you skating up and down the block, telling—”
“I don’t! I only tell Al, and ‘sides, he’s a policeman.”
“So!” Annie shot back, her beautiful face agitated over this latest revelation. “Nestle, if he’s a policeman, he’s probably very busy, and you shouldn’t just invite yourself over there and blab all the time.”
“He’s not berry busy. We’re good friends. ‘Sides, he only finds out who kills people. He gets to stay home when no one gets kill’t. And he is interested in you. He is. He asks me stuff about you all the time.”
“Great.” Annie exhaled wearily.
“Nestle?” Gregory poked his graying head in. “C’mon down. And bring that bag I packed you. It’s almost time to go.”
“ ‘Kay!” Leaping past her father on pencil thin legs, Nestle landed in her room across the hall.
Gregory leaned his long, angular form in the doorway, regarding Annie uneasily. “Are you going out tonight?”
“Yes,” she admitted reluctantly. “With Jill.”
He stepped all the way into the room, and instantly Annie read disapproval in his distant gray eyes. But she also sensed he was not going to try to prevent her from going. He swept his hands over his forehead and frowned. Annie knew he was recalling an earlier encounter with Jill a month ago. “Well, I don’t know what to think of this friend of yours. She’s scatterbrained.” He regarded her quizzically. “Why is it you prefer her company so much?”
Annie began twisting the delicate emerald ring she wore on her little finger, but upon catching Gregory’s stare, she abruptly ceased the action. “I don’t know. I guess I like her because she’s easy to be around.”
He glowered, unlatching his briefcase to check its contents. He and Nestle were going on an overnight business trip to Boston. Gregory was in the habit of bringing Nestle everywhere with him, and Nestle seemed to feel it was her god-given right to be continually by her father’s side.
“Well, don’t get back too late,” he admonished at last. He wished she wouldn’t go out at all tonight, especially to North Park. Her uncle turned in the direction of Nestle’s room. “Nes! C’mon! We have to go.”
“ ‘Kay!” A minute later, Nestle trailed in, a mite guiltily, dragging her overnight bag in one hand and Laura in the other.
Gregory eyed the bag suspiciously. It looked bumpy, not at all the way he’d packed it. After checking his watch, he nervously zipped it open. “Doggone it,” he swore, his neck flushing slightly. Nestle had repacked the bag with toys, an old summer dress she had long since outgrown, and several rolls of toilet paper, one of which was completely unwound.
Nestle stood quietly, grasping a few strands of hair that had loosened from the poor doll’s head. “Well,” she began, flinging it away. “I didn’t mean to. Gregory, can we go eat at that place in Boston, you know, the one we went to before?”
“Yes,” he replied, trudging across the hall to get her things.
Later that evening, long after Gregory and Nestle had departed, Annie again inspected her reflection in the mirror. Her hair fell to her waist. She wondered if she should cut it off; no one seemed to have long hair now. She recalled something Ethan had said to her not long ago as they’d walked hand in hand in the moonlight.
“I love your hair,” he had told her, caressing it. “Don’t ever let it get too short.”
Carly Carr had long hair too. Was he with her tonight? A wave of despair enveloped her. Stepping back again, she adjusted her blue cashmere sweater over her new jeans. Gregory and Nestle had accompanied Annie shopping a few months ago and insisted she purchase the sweater along with an entirely new closet full of clothes and accessories. She fastened her gold watch around her wrist and put in sapphire star earrings, also gifts from Gregory. She’d brought practically nothing upon arriving to live with her uncle, just a battered old suitcase full of threadbare clothes. The green ring sparkled on her finger in the subdued bedroom light. Holding her hand close to her eyes, she frowned slightly. She quickly changed her thoughts.
The doorbell chimed, and switching off the light, Annie raced downstairs to answer it.
“Hi, Jill, come in a minute and warm up.”
“Great. Geez, I almost froze my rear off from the car to your door! Oh, what a fab sweater!” Jill’s elaborately made-up eyes widened in delight, her glittered eyelids reflecting in the light cast from the chandelier overhead. She looked about thirty but acted more like sixteen with her gelled, bleached hair and outlandish outfits. Jill was rumored to be a bit crazy, according to her boyfriend, Rocky, and a few other students on campus, and they enjoyed laughing about it behind her back. “Gee, I don’t even want to go out with you tonight. You make me look positively drab.”
“Gregory bought it for me. And you look nice too,” Annie added, lying though her teeth.
“Lucky you. But then, your uncle’s loaded. Just look at the place you live in.” Jill waved her hand around the general interior of the old Graystone. “Well, c’mon. It’s getting late.”
Closing the heavy oak double doors, Annie and Jill exited. Their shoes clicked on the flagstone walkway and their breath floated like clouds before them in the frosty night air.
Jill pointed across the street. “Who’s the guy who lives over there?”
“Huh?” Annie responded, glancing back absently in the direction Jill was pointing. Her thoughts had been hopelessly entangled with Ethan again.
“You know, the fantastic-looking guy pruning his rose bushes the last time I was here.”
Annie squinted at her friend and shook her head in disbelief. Jill thought every man alive was fantastic looking. “His name is Al Tortino, or something. Nestle says he’s a cop.”
“Really.” Sliding into the driver’s seat of her car, Jill focused her happy gaze at the neighbor’s house. “That’s absolutely unreal!”
“Give me a break.” Annie rolled her eyes, carefully buckling her seat belt. Jill was a rotten driver.
“What? You don’t think he’s fantastic looking?”
As they pulled out into the ethereal, tree-lined street, Annie eyed Al Tortino’s dark house. “I suppose…” she replied vaguely, her thoughts drifting back to Ethan Jackson. Where was he tonight? She twisted the emerald ring on her finger in the darkened shadows of the car.
They joined a party already in progress at the home of a friend of Jill’s, close to the west end of North Park. After one hour in the raucous, smoke-filled house, Annie began to regret ever accompanying Jill anywhere. She was drinking heavily, and Annie was angry with her for that. Now she would have to drive on the way home, and her license was expired and out of state to boot. Pressing her way through the noisy crowd, Annie felt the pounding bass beat of the stereo blasting into her head. She glared about in annoyance for her friend.
“Annie, come quick!” Jill gestured dramatically over a large mug of beer.
“Darren is going to do his magic act!”
“I’m going, Jill. I feel really tired.”
“What? But we just got here! Rocky might show up in a little while after he gets off work, and I want to be here when he comes!”
“That’s okay. I’ll walk.”
“But it’s miles!”
“So what? I used to walk for miles in the snow in Alaska. Besides, what I really need is some fresh air, and—”
“C’mon, Jill, it’s starting!” A friend beckoned, and Jill, instantly distracted, quickly followed.
With a sigh, Annie retrieved her coat and attempted to squeeze past the crowd for the front door. Suddenly, she froze, scarcely able to draw a breath. Standing not five feet ahead of her was Ethan Jackson, holding Carly Carr’s hand. Upon sighting Annie, he immediately released it. Carly glanced up at him in confusion, and Ethan continued to eye Annie unevenly, his long, boyish frame leaning slightly against the couch as if for support. Sweeping his shiny dark hair back from his eyes, he attempted a smile.
“Hello, Ethan. Hi, Carly.” Annie nodded, aiming to appear breezy and unconcerned at the sight of the two of them together.
“Hi.” Ethan had trouble maintaining the smile and dropped his eyes self-consciously. In his left hand he held a bottle of white wine that he had been trying to keep out of sight as if somehow ashamed.
Carly smiled widely, recovering from the hand-dropping slight. She eyed Annie with a competitive air as she tossed back her long sandy hair, which she wore loose in an attempt to appear younger than her twenty-nine years.
“Hey, Ethan, let’s go hunt up a bottle opener.” Wrestling the bottle away from his hand, she steered him toward the kitchen with a final look of triumph.
Her mind spinning with emotion, Annie slipped out the front door. A blast of cold air hit her like a knife, but pulling her coat tighter around her, she felt flushed and warm. He still felt the same way about her! It had been written plainly in his eyes. She smiled, and a pleasant glow enveloped her as she recalled the look on Carly’s face when Ethan had dropped her hand. Carly knew it too. He would come back to her. She knew it!
Starting down the main road, she found she had to walk in the rough gravel along the side. It seemed dangerous to her; the street was not well lit, so every time a car careened by, Annie stood away in the ravine to the side. She also feared harassment at this late hour. The faces of the two assaulted women she had seen in the paper floated into her in her mind, and she shivered but then quickly dismissed them. It had happened before she had ever come to live here. Somehow that thought brought comfort to her wary mind.
To her surprise, it began to snow. Snow was unusual this late in the spring. The stars peeked out like tiny fragments of crystal between the great puffs of moving clouds. As she walked along, a crescent moon, rocking on its side, appeared and reappeared over and over again. Was she breathless over the love in her heart for Ethan or from the frigid air, which seemed to be turning colder by the moment?
Al Tortino sped along the highway in his blue Volvo, thinking as he usually did when he traversed this lonely stretch of road about the shooting that had occurred here almost ten years ago when he had first moved to North Park in the mid-sixties. He squinted into the darkness and turned on his high beams. It was beginning to snow. It had been snowing the night of the shooting too, and he eased back in his seat more in an effort to relax. Where was that perpetrator tonight? That person, like so many others he had investigated, had never been apprehended.
He was nearing the scene of the crime now. Almost out of habit, he strained to see past the swirls of snowflakes into the inky darkness. Something moved. Braking, he pulled off to the shoulder and stared long and hard into the ravine cutting into the side of the road. Had it merely been his imagination, just tricks played on him by his overworked mind? His instincts told him otherwise. Switching off the engine and grabbing his heavy flashlight, he pulled out his gun from where it was hidden under his jacket in his shoulder holster and walked slowly over to the edge of the ditch.
“Halt! Police officer!” Al shone the light directly ahead of him. Annie Aldridge stared up at him, both shaken and amazed. He recognized her instantly and quickly replaced his gun. Pointing the beam away, he held out his hand to her.
“Annie! Are you all right?”
Accepting his gloved hand, she nodded, feeling terribly mortified. “I…I was walking home,” she quickly attempted to explain. “I was at a party and unable to get a ride back.”
He looked astonished. “Well, come on. I was headed home myself.” He opened the car door for her, and once inside, she sighed with relief. It was wonderfully warm in the car. But when he climbed in next to her, her apprehension returned. Al started the engine and looked at her in alarm. They drove in silence for a while, Annie still heady with embarrassment and Al speechless with concern.
She stole a quick glance at his profile. He was frowning slightly as if deep in thought. The passing lights in the distance lit the edges of his dark hair, the expression on his handsome and intelligent face forming a question.
“Annie…” He glanced at her. “It’s twenty degrees right now and this road is dangerous at night. You really shouldn’t walk alone here at…” He paused to look at his watch. “…Almost midnight.”
His voice was articulate and pleasant to the ear, but she grew defensive at his taking her to task. “Well, I didn’t…I mean, I was staying out of sight every time a car drove by. Please don’t mention it to Gregory,” she added a bit anxiously.
Her neighbor shook his head and smiled a little, despite his concern. “All right, I won’t.” Al changed lanes, preparing to turn toward home. “But don’t walk home along this road again at night, okay?” He smiled again.
He had a nice smile, she decided, feeling somewhat revived. Her thoughts strayed back to the party. Ethan still cared about her! Her spirits soared. Snuggling down more in the comfortable car, she smiled to herself. It had turned out to be a wonderful night.
“Hi, is Annie here?” Ethan Jackson knelt down to Nestle’s level where she stood in the entryway after having answered the front door.
“You don’t have to get bent down,” Nestle scolded, scratching at a tuft of hair self-consciously. She turned in the direction of the stairwell. “Annie!”
“Be right down!”
Ethan straightened up, feeling oddly foolish as he had in the past when confronted by this unnerving young girl. Nestle made no effort to leave, instead she began burrowing the point of a sharp pen she held into a tiny scratch in the side of an antique phone desk.
“How’s your roller skating coming?” Ethan asked at last, folding his arms across his chest and tossing his hair back from his eyes.
Nestle pursed her lips as if the question required careful consideration. “Just fine,” she admitted, pushing at the pen. “Al’s taking me skating at Don’s Chalet.”
“He’s a policeman. He arrests people and puts them in jail.”
“Really.” Ethan nodded, watching her destructive progress on the costly desk.
“Hi, Ethan.” Annie stepped down from the dark stairwell, suddenly brightening the gloom of the Graystone with her beautiful smile.
Nestle ducked her head, pulling on a jacket and reaching for her skates.
“I have to drop Nestle across the street,” Annie explained, feeling heady with joy as she always did when the object of Ethan’s attention. She had known he would call her! Now they planned to spend the day together in North Park along the marina.
“I can go by myself,” Nestle insisted, her elfin face now a scowl.
“Well, I can!” She pushed open the heavy door and trotted down the wide flagstone steps.
“Nestle, wait up!” Annie turned to Ethan. “I’ll be right back.” Feeling silly, she charged after her young cousin. To Annie’s further embarrassment, Nestle simply wrenched open Al’s front door without knocking and slammed it closed behind her. Annie remained outside, a trifle baffled by Nestle’s behavior. The door immediately opened again, and Al looked out, regarding her pleasantly.
“Hi, Annie, come in.”
Shaking her head, Annie spotted Nestle inside, already curling up on Al’s couch with a book. “I can’t. I’m in a hurry. I just wanted to thank you for watching Nestle on such short notice. I should be back around four.”
“It’s no problem; Nestle and I are great skating partners,” he insisted, glancing back at Nestle.
“She’s going out with that dumb ‘ol Ethan!”
“Well, I have to go.” Whirling around, Annie made a quick exit, anxious to get back to the Graystone.
It was past seven when Ethan pulled up in front of the Aldridge home again, with Annie basking in the exhilaration of a beautiful day. He had taken her to the coast where they had walked for miles along the stretching shoreline, dining on fish and chips from a little stand by the marina while they talked endlessly about hopes and dreams.
Annie glanced over at Al’s house a trifle uneasily. It was dark now, but Gregory was obviously home; the Graystone’s lights were on. “Well, I should go in.”
“All right.” Ethan smiled, relieved that all was right between them. His eyes glowed with a tenderness that seemed to pierce her innermost soul. “I’ll…I’ll see you tomorrow.” He kissed her lightly several times on the lips and she felt breathless.
“Goodbye,” Annie managed reluctantly, reaching for the handle of the truck. “And goodnight.”
Opening the heavy double doors a moment later, she stepped gingerly inside, allowing them to slip closed noiselessly behind her. The entryway was dimly lit by a light shining in the library across the room. It was oddly quiet. As she moved cautiously towards the stairway, Annie’s breath caught in her throat, causing her to cough. Suddenly, she noticed Gregory standing immobile in the shadows, watching her. From what she could observe of his expression, he appeared annoyed.
“Uh…hi.” She smiled faintly, anxious to explain the situation. “I had to go out, Gregory; I left Nestle with Al. He didn’t mind.”
“Al was not even with Nestle today; he had to leave her with someone else because…” He broke off, rubbing his eyes tiredly. Sighing, he shook his head and checked his watch. “Al is supposed to be here any minute, and I’m telling you, I’m not at all happy with what went on here today!”
Feeling confused and increasingly defensive, Annie glanced up at her uncle uneasily. There was a light knock on the door. Stepping past her, Gregory opened it.
“Come in, Al.” Gregory’s tone was a little unfriendly, and Al dipped his head in response, his normally warm brown eyes regretful as they met Annie’s.
“Nestle’s asleep upstairs. I want to talk to both of you in there.” He jabbed his thumb in the direction of the den. Once inside, Al seated himself on the stuffed chair, and Annie sat on the edge of the sofa on the farthest cushion away from him.
“Gregory, let me explain,” Al began, “It’s all my fault. You see—”
“I’ve been sitting here for over two hours, and I haven’t felt this angry for as long as I can remember,” Gregory interrupted, as he eased his long, slender form into a nearby chair and ran his fingers through his graying hair. “Al, aren’t you on twenty-four hour call for the duration of your investigation?”
Al nodded, appearing rather resigned. “Yes.”
“We’ve been friends for years. But even if there was a break in your case today, I would never have expected you to just dump Nestle with some stranger.”
“He’s not a stranger. He’s a good friend of mine. I’ve known him for years.”
“Nestle sat around in that precinct house for over two hours. You used bad judgment, Al; it’s no place for a five-year-old girl.”
Al was quiet, his expression nonexistent. Annie studied them both anxiously. As if on cue, Gregory turned to her. “Annie, why in the world didn’t you call me? You knew where I was all day. I could have come home if you needed to go out.”
Annie continued to sit immobile on the end of the sofa, her normally expressive eyes carefully averted. “I…I knew you were busy. I thought it would be all right. You let her stay over at Al’s all the time.”
“I haven’t recently if you’ll check your memory. Not since he’s become a part of this investigation. His task force is on twenty-four hour call.”
“She didn’t know that,” Al spoke up in her defense, anxious to accept full blame.
Annie shifted nervously, a trifle scornful of his efforts to exonerate her even though she did need all the help she could get. It was obvious he had offered to watch Nestle for her to gain her approval. But instead, it had landed her in hot water with Gregory, and that was all she needed right now.
“Okay, so she didn’t. The truth is she left Nestle with you because she didn’t want to call me. She didn’t want to call me because she was going out with Ethan Jackson for the day, and she knows—”
“Look Gregory…” Al stood up. “I have to get going. I’m sorry about all this. Tommy Johnson was the best I could come up with under the circumstances. Mrs. Ryder and Handy weren’t home. You’re right; agreeing to watch her at all today was my mistake.” He checked his watch. “I just stopped by to apologize.”
Gregory sighed, feeling spent and his anger subsiding. “All right, I appreciate it. I know you have to get back. Look…” He stood up as well, jamming his hands into his baggy trouser pockets awkwardly. “…Good luck with all of this. I hope it ends soon so you can get some semblance of a normal life back.”
“Thanks.” He turned to Annie, but she refused to look at him. “Goodnight, Annie.”
After the door closed behind their neighbor, Gregory cast a dubious glance at Annie. “Annie, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep an eye on Nestle and make sure she’s not distracting Al too much when he’s home. She likes to call him up a lot. He’s been overloaded lately.”
Feeling somewhat revived, Annie nodded; she was glad, at least, that Gregory was not going to plunge into a lecture regarding Ethan’s irresponsible behavior. “Okay, I’ll keep her occupied.”
“It must have slipped my mind…” He smiled for the first time that evening. “I meant to mention it to you about his being on that task force. He’s garnered quite a reputation at this point for being a topnotch detective, and I hope it will make a difference.”
It annoyed her, all this talk about their neighbor being so overworked. He wasn’t so busy if he had time to pester them constantly, popping over at all hours of the day. Furthermore, she was beginning to nurse a grudge toward him that all this had happened today in the first place. It was entirely his fault; Al should have never agreed to watch Nestle at all, considering the circumstances. It was bound to sour Gregory’s outlook on her boyfriend even further, and this unfortunate turn of events had not been Ethan’s fault.
“Don’t get the wrong idea or anything,” Gregory added. He had reseated himself in his chair and was regarding her a bit more intently. “I trust Al implicitly; we’ve been very good friends for years. He’s a remarkable man, Annie. You ought to get to know him better.” Gregory’s gentle eyes shone with hope and enthusiasm.
“Uh-huh.” She smiled again, wondering if she could safely excuse herself and head upstairs. She longed to be alone with an entire day of memories of Ethan. It stung deeply, this reference to Al’s character. It was her uncle’s way of communicating to her his lack of confidence regarding Ethan.
“He’s been such a big help since Karin left. And you can see how crazy Nes is about him, too.”
“Well, I should go up and take a bath.”
“There’s some dinner in the kitchen.”
“We…I already ate.”
He smiled again, his eyes a little sad. “Okay, maybe I’ll go up with you and check on Nes…”
Later that night, Annie slept fitfully. Waking up, she parted the curtain lace and gazed down into the quiet spring night. Looking out over the silent landscape, her eyes settled on the weeping willow tree when a thought suddenly occurred to her. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Her heart light, she flew down the old stairwell, relieved to note that Gregory’s room was dark. Slipping noiselessly out the side door from the kitchen a moment later, her bare feet pressed into the dewy blades of fresh grass. Weaving her way through the cascade of willow branches, she reached the tree trunk and carefully slid her hand inside the hole just beneath the lowest branch. Sure enough, she drew forth a folded piece of paper and smoothed it flat, the light cast by the moon illuminating the cherished scrawl.
Today was perfect. I’ll always remember the timeless moments we spend together. You are a ray of hope shining through my dark mind. Your eyes are priceless emeralds in a universe of deserts.
Her heart glowed as an owl hooted overhead. He had signed it, “Love, Ethan.” In the last note he had left in the willow tree a month ago, he had left the “love” out, unlike all the previous notes left there. That was when she had known something was wrong. She had thrown that note away; the words had felt oddly impersonal, like someone carefully pulling their arm away from a no longer welcome touch.
A car was turning on the street, and she pulled back into the shadows away from the glare of the headlights. It was Al Torino’s blue Volvo, and a minute later, he swerved into his drive. After shutting off the ignition, he sat immobile behind the wheel. Oddly enough, he looked as if deep in some private reverie.
The night was very still; even the owl sat and held his peace. It felt as though she waited a long time before he finally reached for the door handle and slid out. To her further annoyance, he stood silently gazing at the rose bushes that bordered his property, their branches now swollen with budding leaves. The half-moon slipped in and out behind strands of clouds.
She felt almost sorry for him as he stood in front of his rose bushes; he was probably thinking about dead people at three o’clock in the morning. There was something pathetic about that. Finally, he headed up the stone walkway that led to his entryway and closed the front door behind him. A moment later, a light went on.
Turning away, she slipped back to the side door leading into the kitchen and pushed the bolt closed behind her. Back in her room again, she unlocked the silver jewelry box on top of her bureau and set the note with the rest. Feeling sentimental, she drew the entire pile out and began carefully unfolding them one by one. Most of them she had memorized already, but she loved to linger over the words, the style of his writing, and especially the way he signed his name.
After she had finished, she replaced them all, thinking to herself how much she valued them, far more than any jewelry. The tiny emerald ring on her little finger sparkled in the light. She gazed at it quietly for a moment. The clock was ticking on her nightstand; it was almost four o’clock. Switching out the light she slipped back into bed, reaching up to pull her curtain closed. Outside across the street, his light was still on.
“I’m going out on an errand. Will the two of you be all right for an hour?” Gregory stood in the doorway of the old kitchen where the morning sun was streaming in through the colonial windows. Robins and warblers trilled out on the dewy grass. Flying about like a little bird herself, Nestle pounced into Annie’s lap where she sat reading the morning paper at the table.
“I’ll watch her,” Annie offered eagerly, anxious to make amends for yesterday’s disaster.
“Gregory, you know what?” Nestle jumped off Annie’s lap and hung on Gregory’s pant leg, gazing up at his damp gray-black hair.
“What?” His gray eyes met his daughter’s inquisitive hazel ones almost reluctantly, certain of who was going to be mentioned next.
“Tommy Johnson doesn’t even take his braids out when he takes a shower; I even asked him! He has lots, lots of corncobs.”
“Cornrows,” Gregory corrected, studying the happy face below him with displeasure.
“He changes beads though. He puts them on the ends of all those corncobs; he showed me…his hands are two colors! They have brown skin on this side and pink skin on this side.” Detaching from his pant leg, Nestle gave a hop and pointed to her palm.
With a sigh, Annie tore her concentration away from the front page article about the rash of assaults against women and glanced uneasily up at her uncle. She wished Nestle would be quiet. She’d been extolling the seemingly innumerous virtues of Al’s buddy from the moment she’d become conscious this morning at five forty-five.
“Nestle,” Gregory began, checking his watch, “that’s about enough. I’m getting a little tired of hearing—”
“Tommy Johnson hasn’t got one of his eyes. It got poked out by somebody mean.”
“Nestle, if I have to hear this one again, I’m liable to—Nestle, stop that!”
Nestle had pinched her little fingers around her own eyeball and was pressing at it experimentally. “Gregory, where is Tommy Johnson’s eyeball now? Did it get buried?”
“How should I know?” he snapped back in exasperation, checking for his car keys. “You’ll have to ask him!”
“ ‘Kay! Can I go down to—”
“Nestle!” Gregory glared, and she fell silent at last, her fevered mind biding its time. “I’ll be back in an hour.” He pointed warningly at her. “Behave!”
“ ‘Kay! Bye. See ya later!” Nestle waved, and the side kitchen door bounced closed behind him. With Gregory safely out of sight, she sidled up to Annie, ready to plunge back in. “Tommy Johnson has a shot in his arm. It’s not there now; it got dug out by doctors.”
“Nestle, give me a break. I’m trying to read right now if you don’t mind. Who cares about Tommy Johnson anyway? So he got shot in the arm once? Big deal.” Annie rolled her eyes and focused once again on the tragic details in the article before her. “And would you please stop blabbing nonstop about Tommy Johnson? You’re making Gregory mad at me again.”
“Al has a big stab in his chest.”
Annie exhaled wearily. “Nestle, you’re making me sick.”
“Okay, I’m not telling who stabbed it then, so there!” She stamped her bare foot on the wooden floor.
“Is that a promise?” Annie finished the article and flipped to the comic page.
Nestle busied herself with the balding doll, preparing it for some great adventure as she chattered away to herself on the long window seat next to the screen door. “Anyways, we have to go see Al. He promised to make us a fort, and ‘sides, we haveta tell him some things. Come on, Laura.”
Annie looked up abruptly as Nestle pried the screen door open. “Nestle, don’t go outside yet; I’m still in my pajamas.”
“S’okay, I’m just going over to Al’s for—”
“Nestle, get back in here!” Annie rose cautiously off the chair.
“Just for a minute!” she screamed happily, thrilled at Annie’s horrified expression. The screen door popped open and closed in record time, and Annie leaped after her to no avail. Nestle streaked across the road without so much as a glance back in her direction, and Annie felt her blood boil.
“Nestle! Don’t go over there!” she shouted hopelessly. Annie turned and raced back up the stairs to change. She ripped off her pajamas, threw on a dress and—with her hair a ratty tangle—ran cursing down the stairwell and back outside, this time through the front door.
Nestle was nowhere to be seen. Annie fumed as she picked her way gingerly across the dusty road in her bare feet. Nestle was probably inside already, she lamented, wincing in pain each time she stepped on a sharp stone. Now she would be stuck facing him again. Annie frowned and exhaled tiredly; her cousin could be such a brat sometimes. Hearing Nestle’s squeaks around the back, she reluctantly peeked over the white gate between the hedges. Sure enough, Nestle stood gesturing to Al excitedly where he sat in a striped lawn chair.
He spotted her and waved. “Hi, Annie. Come on back.”
The situation was humiliating, not to mention irritating, but what could she do? Unlatching the gate, she stepped in, glancing about. She had never been back here although she had looked over the gate a few times.
The garden was well cared for, lushly beautiful and peacefully serene. There were birdhouses, flower beds, a fountain, and even an old hammock hanging between two trees. But she found herself bothered by the homey touches and tender care that he had clearly given to everything. It was as if something was missing from all this and she knew only too well what it was: He lacked a wife, and as his warm brown eyes assessed her admiringly this bright spring morning, she recoiled inwardly. He was obviously setting his sights on her and hoping to reel her in, Annie being easy prey living just across the road.
“Hi,” she replied carefully while gazing at Nestle, who maintained a safe distance.
“Would you like some coffee? I just made a pot.” He arose with hope, but she shook her head.
“That’s okay. I don’t really drink coffee.”
“Oh, all right.” He stood around a trifle awkwardly, jamming his hands in the pockets of his white shorts and then meeting her eyes again.
“Nestle, come on home.”
“Nestle…” she began again, stepping closer as Nestle skittered away.
“Nestle, listen to Annie,” Al requested, and hanging her head a little, Nestle obliged, allowing her cousin to capture her.
Al smiled and sipped his coffee as Annie grew even more annoyed. Now she was supposed to make small talk with him, and she really wanted to tell him to buzz off.
“Thanks,” she managed, suddenly realizing how tired he looked. There were dark circles under his eyes. “I’m…I’m sorry she bothered you like this.”
He shook his head. “She never bothers me.”
“Bye, Al!” Nestle waved over the gate as they latched it closed behind them. He gazed after them until they disappeared from sight.
Later that day, Annie parted the curtain in the dining room and watched Gregory swing his Lincoln into the driveway. Nestle was curled up in the corner with a book. Al was busy soaping up his Volvo in his own driveway, and he waved to Gregory as he opened his car door to get out.
After hesitating a moment, Gregory shoved his car keys in his pocket and started across the road. Annie sighed inwardly; now they were bound to stand outside and talk for a half-hour, and she was anxious to go out. In her purse was a carefully composed note to Ethan. It had taken her over an hour to write, and she planned to take the bus to North Park to tuck it away in their secret spot—the crack next to his bedroom window in the cottage where he lived along the marina.
Sighing again and shaking her head, she watched Gregory and Al laughing over something in his drive. Apparently, now they were great pals again. Turning for the stairwell, she decided to go upstairs and change into something perfect in case she should have a chance encounter with Ethan while placing the cherished note.
Seeing Annie depart, Nestle flung her book down in preparation to follow her, but at that moment, her sharp ears caught her father’s voice floating through the open dining room windows. Racing out the kitchen door, she immediately spotted him and streaked across the road.
“Oh, doggone it, Nestle! I’ve asked you a million times not to cross the street,” Gregory scolded, reaching down and holding her firmly by the shoulders. “You wait for me or Annie. I’m really serious about this!”
“ ‘Kay. Hi, Al!”
“Hi, Nestle.” Al began rinsing down his soapy car with the hose.
“Can I do it?” she immediately begged, bouncing up and down and clapping her hands.
“All right.” He handed her the hose, and she splattered them all by accident.
“Nestle, watch out!” Gregory admonished, flashing his usual expression of exasperation before turning back to his friend again. “Like I was saying, Annie’s birthday is on the twenty-first. First day of summer. I’m throwing a barbeque. Thought I’d get the old pool cleaned up and usable. I hope you’ll come. I’ve invited Mary, Handy, the Lears, the entire neighborhood.”
Al, appearing pleased, nodded his support. “Sounds like fun. I’d be happy to.”
“Gregory’s buying her a horse,” Nestle confided, watering the sidewalk. “But it’s a secret. Don’t tell her!”
Al smiled at that, an idea suddenly occurring to him. Taking the hose from Nestle, he finished rinsing off the car and shut the water off.
Gregory and Nestle departed to eat lunch, and Al went back inside, reaching for the book on the bookshelf where he kept the old photograph. Drawing it forth, he studied it carefully, most notably examining the horse the three figures in the photo were grouped around. Annie held it around the neck, her cheek resting against the muzzle. It appeared to be a young horse, chestnut brown with a white blaze. Annie had vanished after her brothers died in the accident, fearful of being brought back to California to live with her mother and stepfather as she was still a minor at the time. The horse had probably been taken in by a neighbor and was possibly still in the same area.
Sinking back in a chair and still holding the photograph in his hand, he did a few calculations in his mind. It would be tricky getting away right now, and truthfully, he should not even risk it, considering that he would be going as far away as Alaska. But with any luck, he could wrap the scheme up in less than twenty-four hours and be back in time for the weekly briefing on Thursday.
Replacing the photograph in the book, he placed it back on the bookshelf in its customary spot and headed out the front door to visit the Aldridge household. He was about to knock when it opened and Annie stepped out. She was wearing a blue and white striped summer dress and looking so attractive that it was difficult for him to conceal the admiration in his eyes.
She managed a quick smile before heading down the steps and cutting across the lawn on the way to the bus stop. A moment later, Gregory poked his head out.
“Hi, Al. Come in.”
“I can’t. I have to get down to the station. I just stopped by to ask you a question. Have you picked out a horse for Annie yet?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Well, don’t. I think I know of something she might really like. I can let you know in two days.”
Gregory looked surprised. “Really? Great. I’m afraid I’m pathetically misinformed when it comes to large animals.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, so am I,” Al admitted while checking his watch. “But this case might turn out to be a real exception, mark my words.”