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By R. B. CHESTERTON
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2013 R. B. Chesterton
All rights reserved.
JULY 7, 1974
A whipping summer gust blasted off the water, sending a paper bag skittering across the parking lot of Beauchamp's Grocery. I couldn't see the water from the parked car where I waited with my grandmother, but I could smell it. That tang of salt and fish and a wildness from the marsh grass that made me long to get out and stretch my legs in a brisk walk.
"It won't be long," Cora said, patting my leg. "Don't fidget."
My grandmother was a social worker for the Department of Pensions and Security, later renamed Human Resources. Annie had come to her attention when she was picked up on the streets of downtown Mobile. At first it was thought she was a teen prostitute, but Cora claimed she was an amnesiac, a girl with a big imagination, a talent for storytelling, and no one to love her, no memory of where she'd come from or what she was meant to be doing. Cora had a soft touch for mistreated children, but she wasn't in the habit of dragging them home. Annie was different, though. Something about her had tugged at Cora's heartstrings.
I was already working as a tutor for the three Henderson children—a job I'd held since the previous May. In the short weeks of my employment, I had found my place in the family. I taught lessons, but more than that; I was valued and respected as part of the family.
I went to work the day after my college graduation, eager yet also unsure. Now I'd gained my footing, but the addition of another teen gave me concern. Cora would hear none of my worries.
"She's a teenager with no place to turn. Give her a chance, Mimi," Cora said. "You may discover you have things in common."
The things I'd have in common with her would be that I would have another charge to educate. My life with the Hendersons was nearly perfect—I didn't see the need to include another child.
Shifting on the car seat to better see my grandmother, I asked, "Why did the Hendersons agree to take her in?" Most families I knew would never consider harboring a strange child, especially a sixteen-year-old girl who had no memory of who she was or where she'd come from. Annie was the only name she'd give.
Grandma, who I'd grown up calling Cora, believed in the power of love. All of my life, she'd told me how love could heal any wound, patch any hole in a person's soul. Love was her miracle drug.
"The Hendersons have room and plenty of love. Once Annie feels secure, her memory will return. I suspect she's been through a terrible trauma. The doctors believe her amnesia comes from some shocking event or accident. The Hendersons are the perfect family to help her heal. Belle Fleur is the place for her. You'll be a part of her healing, Mimi. Perhaps you, too, will find the experience curative."
I wasn't certain that was true. Even after thirty years as a social worker, Cora wanted to believe the best of people. I was only twenty-one, just out of college, and I knew better. But I said nothing. Cora was a figure beloved in the Coden community. She'd asked the Hendersons to foster Annie, and so they would.
Cora had gotten me the tutoring job, a full-time position that required me to use my education degree from the University of South Alabama to its maximum potential. I was the compromise between Bob and Berta Henderson. Bob loved old Belle Fleur, the house of his dreams and the perfect project to show his architectural and renovation abilities. He'd bought the property against Berta's wishes. He'd completed the renovation before she'd consider moving here. Bob wanted the slower pace—and perceived safety—of a small, rural Alabama town to raise his children.
Berta, a California girl through and through, refused to send her children to the Alabama public schools. She was more than a bit horrified by the curriculum, not to mention the prevalence of "portable" classrooms, essentially trailers. Before she'd move from the heavenon-earth of Cambria, California, to Alabama, she negotiated a live-in tutor, four week-long trips to "cities with culture," an in-home movie theater, and piano and violin lessons for all the children. I was young, unattached, and credentialed in teaching. Though I'd been living with Cora, I also longed for a family, something I found nestled in the brood of blond Hendersons. I felt as if the job had been created especially for me.
The three children, Donald, nine, Erin, twelve, and Margo, sixteen, were not spoiled, but they were willful. Donald quickly became my favorite. Erin charmed me with her energy, and Margo challenged me. How would this new child, this orphan, fit into the mix? I wasn't sure this was a good idea.
"The bus is late." Cora frowned. "When I was a young woman like yourself, the bus was the only way to get into Mobile. Folks didn't have cars like today. We relied on the bus, and it was on time. I know I sound like a fuddy-duddy, but this whole country is going to hell in a handbasket."
We were only six years past the terrible murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, a man my grandmother revered. His death shook her faith in her fellow countrymen and the basic goodness of America, but she didn't stop trying or believing. Girls like Annie—the abandoned, the thrown away, the damaged goods—this was where she made her mark. America might have lost its way, but Cora knew the steep and rocky path she was meant to trod.
The bus pulled in front of the grocery store on a belch of black smoke. It looked as old and worn as the setting. I was about to step out of the car when a gust of wind caught the heavy Pontiac door and slammed it with vicious force, almost catching my hand.
When I looked up, Annie was standing beside the car. Dark curls batted about her small, pinched face. She was beautiful, elfin almost, and she looked so lost. The word that came to mind was "stray." Like a dog or cat hungry for love and attention. I opened the car door, pushing against the wind that tried to keep me safe inside. She simply stood there, as if she didn't know how to help. At last I got the door open and got out.
I extended my hand. "I'm Marie Bosarge. You can call me Mimi," I told her. "I'm Cora's granddaughter. I'm the tutor at the Hendersons."
She shivered in a gust of hot air, and I realized she was nervous. Her too-short dress exposed long legs, lean but shapely. She was sixteen, and she looked starved. She came with only one suitcase, a battered brown thing that had once tried to pass itself off as leather before the surface had been scraped and the cardboard beneath revealed. I picked it up and put it in the spacious trunk.
"Climb in," Grandma ordered. "The Hendersons are waiting."
Annie clambered into the back seat, teeth chattering. Cora turned off the air conditioner and away we went, racing down Shore Road ahead of the storm that brewed to the south. The squall had blown in quickly, as marine gales are wont to do. In the summer, we worried about hurricanes, but the Gulf was empty of the whirling tempests that could wreck a coastal town and kill hundreds with high winds and water.
With the air conditioner off, the car was like an oven, and I rolled down my window for a moment of fresh air. Seagulls cried and cawed, circling the marshy shore. The wind seemed to have confused them because they swooped at the car as if they meant to attack. They were curious birds, but not stupid. The erratic behavior puzzled me.
"What's wrong with the gulls?" Cora asked.
"It's almost as if they're disoriented. Maybe something to do with the storm." I'd spent a bit of time bird-watching, and I'd never seen gulls pursue a car. "Or maybe ... blind." They acted as if they'd lost their ability to see.
"Maybe it's the car," Annie said from the backseat. "They're following us."
It was true. The birds moved down the road with us. To my complete horror, a gull came straight at the car like a missile. I reached over and honked the horn as Cora applied the brakes.
"Good lord!" she jerked the wheel, sending my head banging into the passenger window. In the backseat, Annie slammed against the door. The bird hit the windshield with a bloody smack as Cora brought the car under control and stopped.
I got out quickly and checked the bird, but it was hopeless. The impact had killed it instantly. The other birds wheeled and cried, circling above me and the car, but they made no attempt to get closer. I moved the carcass to the side of the road. When I got back inside, Cora's hands shook on the steering wheel.
"I can't believe that happened," Cora said. "I've driven this road my entire life. I've never hit a gull."
"Something was wrong with it," I said. In my family, the death of any creature was cause for grief. I was partial to birds and I'd trained as an amateur ornithologist. I wasn't an expert, but I knew gulls didn't deliberately dive into the windshields of cars traveling fifty miles an hour.
Cora was shaken but tried not to show it. "It had to have been sick. I'm sorry, Annie. I don't want that to spoil your arrival here in Coden."
"I don't believe in omens. At least it was a quick death," Annie said. "It didn't suffer."
I hated it when people mouthed platitudes. A quick death. What did that mean? Annie had no clue what she was talking about, but I wisely kept quiet. Cora was struggling to regain her composure, and I didn't want to do anything that would make it harder for her.
She put the car in DRIVE and we started along Shore Road at a more sedate pace. When I glanced back in the side mirror, I saw a dozen other gulls pecking the corpse. They tore at it with a savage frenzy. Gulls were scavengers, but I'd never seen them feast on a freshly dead comrade. My gaze connected with Annie's in the rearview mirror. She watched me with cool calculation.
"What's wrong?" she asked. She was so calm, I could only imagine what hardships she'd endured to gain such composure.
"Nothing." I had no desire to spoil her arrival at Belle Fleur. The Henderson family was waiting, a happy occasion. Cora had planned this for days. The bird's death was unfortunate, but there was no reason to mar the remainder of the day.
"Wild creatures are unpredictable, don't you think?" she asked.
"Seagulls are hardly wild creatures."
Annie broke her gaze from mine. "Will the Hendersons like me?" she asked Cora.
"I'm certain they will. This is a big day for them, too. I've told them all about you."
Out of the corner of my eye I watched Cora put aside her shock and assume her professional demeanor. "All we know," I added. "There wasn't a lot to tell since you can't remember anything about your past."
"They'll be charmed by you," Cora said. "And you will adore them."
"Will they adopt me?" Annie asked.
Cora hesitated. "We've talked about this, Annie. You're sixteen. That's a bit old for adoption. They may foster you until it's time for college. That would be a wonderful outcome for you."
"Yes," she said.
I couldn't see her expression, for her face was hidden behind a blowing strand of dark curls, but her voice sounded less than sure. She merely wanted to be loved, I thought. Who could not love a child so beautiful and damaged?CHAPTER 2
The banner hung in the live oaks that lent the front lawn of Belle Fleur an air of grace and elegance. The house, surrounded by oaks, camellias, azaleas, and other hardy shrubs, faced the road and the water. To me, it looked like a photograph, something captured on film from a bygone time when houses were built with care and attention to detail. As we drew closer, I could see the love Berta had showered on the house in the hanging ferns along the front porch, the freshly painted wicker furniture, the pots of geraniums that bloomed blood-red. Bob had loved the house first, but Berta had grown to love it over the summer.
Cora stopped the car a dozen yards from the five Hendersons who stood beneath the banner. Bob and Berta wore welcoming smiles. Donald had his typical open friendliness that always made me think of Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. He was all boy, all adventure, all happy to include a poor waif with no memory. Erin was unsure. Margo was trouble. The instant Annie stepped out of the car, Margo took her measure and a sneer crossed her face. I couldn't say I blamed her. Annie and Margo were the same age. No matter how hard Berta worked at it, both girls would compete for her love. It was the way of the teenager.
"Annie!" Berta came forward, extending the joyful welcome of a California goddess. Berta was sun and oranges and blue- eyed beauty. She was a perfect match for Bob, who could have played Robert Redford playing Gatsby.
The two of them had produced three children as golden and blond as the loins from which they sprang. Against them, Annie appeared foreign and dark, a dainty child compared to the tall Nordic Hendersons.
Berta engulfed her in an embrace. "Welcome."
Annie clung to her. Her thin arms circled Berta's neck and she didn't let go until Bob offered her an embrace. She almost disappeared in his hug. Donald and Erin seemed amused. Margo rolled her eyes and mouthed the word "baby" at me.
Introductions were made and we went into the house for cake and ice cream, a treat Berta reserved for birthdays and special occasions—sugar wasn't normally allowed. Berta had brought a head full of crazy California ideas with her. She believed in "healthful" treats like apples and pears, but Annie's first day with the family was a momentous occasion and would be celebrated as such.
We gathered round the dining table for the welcome fete, and at first, chatter animated the room. Cora sat beside Annie, and she glanced at her often, the guardian of a lost child's safety. Cora was worried, though she did a good job of hiding it, and I wondered why. Annie seemed okay. She attacked the cake and ice cream as if she were starving, and I had to wonder how long it had been since she'd had enough to eat. While I refilled coffee cups and laughed with the others, I watched Annie. She seemed eager to fit in. Maybe Cora was right—this wouldn't be a problem, but a joy.
As we relished the delicious pound cake Berta had baked from yard eggs she'd raised, the chatter died and an uneasy quiet settled over the dining room. When Berta offered Annie a second piece of cake, she nodded eagerly.
"Mama made pound cake because she said everyone liked it," Donald said. "What's your favorite, Annie?"
For a brief moment she looked like an animal caught in the headlights of a fast-approaching car. "I don't know. This is delicious."
"But what's your favorite?" Donald pressed. "Erin loves chocolate. Margo likes coconut pie. What do you like?"
Annie looked around the room as if she might read the answer from someone's face. "I don't remember. Probably pound cake. I could eat the whole thing."
"And then you can waddle around the house," Margo said.
Berta shot her a warning look, but Margo ignored it. In the last few weeks, she'd begun to defy Berta. And to a lesser extent, me. She was falling behind on her studies and was often on the phone. The move had been hardest on her, tearing her from her teenage companions. At sixteen, she was legal to drive and wanted to have more of a social life than Coden could provide. Of all the children, she missed California the most. When she was banned from the phone, she wrote endless letters to her old classmates and lately had taken to sneaking out of the house. To what end, I didn't know. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do in Coden. The town shut down at five o'clock.
Though I'd never been a problem teen, I empathized with Margo and felt she was simply testing her wings for that leap of flight from the nest. Still, she behaved like a brat, and Berta was fed up with her conduct.
"Do you remember anything about your past?" Margo pressed Annie. "I mean, surely someone must be missing a wonderful child like you. Cora has been singing your praises for weeks." The edge in her tone made Berta push back from the table.
"I know some things," Annie said. "I get dressed and I know how to read and do math. I think I know how to drive ..." she shrugged. "It's strange because I don't know what I know until I try it."
"Do you know how to ride horses?" Erin asked, oblivious to the darker undercurrent between the two older girls.
"Maybe." Annie's smile was wan. "I'd know if I tried."
Excerpted from THE DARKLING by R. B. CHESTERTON. Copyright © 2013 R. B. Chesterton. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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