Little Black Dress with Bonus Material (24 page)

BOOK: Little Black Dress with Bonus Material

Sensing it would take a bit of work to get her aunt back into the bedroom, Toni pulled the dusty sheet from the settee and took Anna's hand to lead her to it. “If Evie didn't love you, if she hadn't thought about you, why would she keep these?”

She sat Anna down beside her then propped the shoebox in her lap. Removing the lid, she pulled out the tissue-wrapped bundle within, precious items she'd taken from Evie's hatbox. “I believe these are yours,” Toni said as she handed them over, one by one: the silver mirror and hairbrush engraved with an “A,” a tortoiseshell comb, and the Kodachrome photo of Evie and Anna from The Night That Changed Everything.

“Oh, my,” Anna murmured, fingering the silver mirror, trembling as she lifted it to gaze at her own face. “Mother gave this to me for my birthday. I don't remember which.” She set the mirror down and picked up the brush, stroking the horse-hair bristles. “Evie kept them all this time?” she asked, and her chin quivered as she touched the photograph. “She hadn't swept me from every corner of her mind?”

“Hardly,” Toni said, certain it was the truth.

“Then why didn't she invite me home?” Anna said, her soft voice hurt. “It was Bridget who took me in when I had nowhere to go, not Evelyn, not my own sister.”

I swore to them both that I'd be quiet, and I won't break my word to either. Not even for you.

So Anna had been living with Bridget on Mosquito Island. No wonder the folks in Blue Hills hadn't realized she'd come back. Living on the island was akin to living in a different world. No one ever had to see you if you didn't want them to.

“Was she afraid that I'd do something rash?” Anna suggested. “That I would upset her life again?”

Miss Anna would not budge unless Miss Evie made the first move. I kept telling your mother to let bygones be bygones for her sake and yours, and I believe that's what she meant to do before she had that stroke.

Whatever the case, Toni couldn't speak for her mother. “That's something you'll have to ask her yourself,” she said, wetting her lips. “Trust me, if I could go back and undo all that's wrong between you, I would. But I can't. Nobody can fix this but the two of you.”

Anna glanced down at the things in her lap, looking overwhelmed, as if bewildered by the choice between her past and the present.

“Please, Aunt Anna, can't you look forward?” Tears flooded Toni's eyes and she let them fall, skidding down her skin. “Isn't it time to make amends? I know that's what my mom wanted, and I know it's what I want, and Bridget, too.” She stopped to swipe at damp cheeks and draw in a deep breath. “Say you'll help me bring Evie back. You have to be there at the hospital with me, or she won't wake up.” She firmly believed it. “And we have to take the black dress with us, it showed me what to do—”

“The dress?” Anna interrupted and began to mumble, “Oh, my, oh, my.”

Toni thought that she looked frightened. “Bridget told you I had it, didn't she? She must have mentioned that I'd discovered its magic, the way it connects us?”

Her aunt gazed at her, unblinking.

“We have to take it to the hospital with us. The doctor left a message on my cell about taking Evie off the sedation. We have to wake her up, the two of us.” Toni scooted to the edge of her chair, ready to go. “You will come with me, won't you? She needs you, Anna.
need you.”

It seemed forever before Anna reacted. For the longest moment, she wore an expressionless mask, and Toni was terrified she didn't care; that she felt nothing, not compassion or remorse.
God, don't let it be too late.

“Please?” Toni whispered, and the look on Anna's face subtly shifted.

“Yes,” she agreed so softly Toni had to lean closer to hear, “yes, I'll go with you to see Evelyn, if only for your sake, dear girl, and so we don't antagonize the dress.” She reached over, setting a blue-veined hand on Toni's knee, such urgency in her face. “Promise me that you'll be very careful how you use it. Its power is not to be trifled with.”

“I swear,” Toni told her, afraid to say anything else. She would have promised the moon if that was what it took.

Anna nodded and withdrew her hand. “You'd be wise to put the dress away once this is done,” she murmured. “Sometimes it's better not to see.”

ith the help of Daddy's old friend Judge Harper, Anna was quietly committed to the St. Louis State Hospital on Arsenal Street.

I had gone to talk to my father straightaway after Bridget brought Jon and me back to the cottage with Antonia. He hadn't said a single word all the while I'd sat in the den across from his desk, my hands in my lap, describing what had happened in the dark before dawn after Antonia's birth and in all the months before when I had lied to him. Remarkably, he hadn't blustered or berated. He didn't even bang his fist on the table. He had only listened and watched me with weary eyes.

And when I'd finished, when my face was full of snot and tears and misery at failing him so completely, he got up from his chair, came around the desk, and did something I would not have expected in a million years: he pulled me into his arms and held me close. “I will not let her near you again, Evelyn Alice,” he'd said, “and she will never see your daughter, not as long as I live.”

The minute I'd left him, before I'd closed the study doors behind me, I heard him picking up the telephone and making calls, fixing everything so no one would ever learn how near I'd come to losing my child.

Not even the judge knew in the end that Antonia wasn't mine. Daddy made sure she had a proper birth certificate with Jon's and my names on the paper, as if Anna had never been a part of her life at all.

Like a coward, I stayed home while Daddy went to fetch Anna at Ingrid and Bridget's. I still had too sharp a memory of her wading into the river with my little girl, and I could not block it from my mind.

“It is done, Evelyn,” he told me, coming by the next day while Jon was at the winery and Antonia was sleeping. He looked defeated, sighing deeply as he'd sunk into the wing chair by the fire. His face looked haunted with sharp grooves in his brow and cheeks and dark pockets around his eyes. “She will be gone a long while, but this time at least we will know where she is.”

When I asked him what was wrong with her, he mentioned terms like “manic depression” and “paranoid delusions,” and I wondered how long those took to fix, if they could ever be fixed at all.

“And what of Bridget and Ingrid?” I said next. “What if they should talk?”

“They won't,” he replied, rubbing hands on his knees. “They understand the need for silence,” which I took to mean Daddy had made some kind of arrangement with them. I didn't care if he'd paid them outright so long as I would not have to see them and be forced to relive that dreadful night. “They will keep their distance until we decide otherwise. I want you to feel safe, Evie, you and Antonia both.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, and he nodded, understanding.

Though I realized my sister was as good as locked up, tucked away as she was in a sanitarium sixty miles from Blue Hills, I knew that every day and every minute of my life thereafter, I would be terrified she'd come back and try to take Antonia.

My father made a second attempt at persuading us to move into the Victorian, and, this time, Jon and I agreed. Within the week, we had our bags packed and had closed up the cottage, settling into the big old house where I had spent the better part of my childhood. I had no trouble giving up some privacy. I felt safer with an extra pair of eyes watching over the baby.

So I hardly flinched when I heard a knock at the front door on a blustery morning soon after, when my father and Jon were at the winery. I had just finished burping Toni after her bottle and quickly set her in her crib.

When I saw the old wood-paneled station wagon through the window, I opened the door but a sliver, allowing just enough room to speak. “Bridget? Why are you here?” I asked, none too friendly.

“Oh, Miss Evie—” she started to say, to commiserate or apologize, I'm sure; but the crack in the door and my frown stopped her short.

“Can't I come in?” she asked, huddled in her wool coat, but I shook my head and made no move to allow her entrance.

“I don't think it's wise,” I told her, hating the way I felt; so angry at her and Ingrid both, as if they had done something to cause Anna's deterioration.

“Just this once more?” she begged, and I thought she might cry. She looked so young standing there with the wind tossing her red curls across freckled cheeks. “You must know we did nothing wrong. We only meant to take care of them both—”

“And look how well that turned out,” I snapped before I could stop myself.

Her face fell. “We did the best we could,” she said, the rims of her eyes turning pink, her voice a sad rasp. “I would do anything for her. I love her like a sister.”

“So did I,” I assured her, and I hung hard onto the door, thinking my legs would give out from beneath me. “I loved Anna, too.”

Before she ran off and left us, before Mother took too many pills, before she turned into someone I didn't know and tried to harm my child.

Only I wasn't sure if I could love her anymore.

“I'm sorry you're hurt,” Bridget said, and I heard the pain in her own voice, but I didn't apologize. I just wanted her to disappear and leave us be. “Please, take care, Miss Evie, and my best to the baby. She will always be special to us.”

I couldn't even say good-bye. I had nothing else to give.

With a nod, Bridget turned her back to me and went down the steps, her shoulders bent and burnished hair blowing. She got into the car without looking back and soon was pulling out of the Victorian's circular drive and heading toward the main road. I stood there with the cold coming through the crack and watched her go, and it pained me, far more than I'd realized.

“It has to be this way,” I told myself even if I didn't quite believe it.

Perhaps I should go after her, chase her down, tell her she wasn't to blame, that I was sorry for being so cruel. But as I threw wide the door and stepped outside, I noticed the suitcase she'd left on the porch. It was pale blue with a gold lock and plate that sported the initials “AE.” It was part of a set Daddy had given Anna when she'd turned sixteen, and it had been missing since the night that changed everything.

The sight of it turned my blood to ice.

“Bridget!” I yelled and started toward the steps, but the car was too far gone. I hugged myself, breathing hard, unsure of what to do with Anna's suitcase. All I knew was that I didn't want it.

I would throw it out, I decided, and went over to pick up the damned thing. At once, the lock came open, springing the latch, which split the case in two, spilling out its contents. The wind chose that moment to blow a mighty gust, whipping through the porch and sending a chill across my skin. It scattered pieces of clothing and a parade of colorful postcards, which spun and skittered past my feet and across the whitewashed floor.

Let it go,
I told myself,
let it all go;
but, much as I tried, I couldn't do it.

I grabbed at sailing paper and floating fabric as fast as I could. When my teeth began to chatter, I left what I hadn't reached for the wind to carry off and I brought the rest inside and shut the door.

There in the foyer, I sat on the floor, panting, a few of Anna's meager belongings settled around me. I pushed tangled skirts and blouses back into the broken suitcase. Then, more carefully, I picked up a shiny postcard with my cold-numbed fingers and looked at it; then another and another after that, seeing photographs of city skylines and landmarks between here and Manhattan then across the ocean, finding each addressed to “Miss E. Evans” with the same message scrawled across the back in Anna's loopy script. Not “I miss you” or “I am well” or even “I'll be home soon,” but simply “I am here.”

Not one had a stamp affixed.

She had never mailed them, I realized, and I whimpered like a wounded dog, sinking back against the paneled door. Daddy hadn't kept her from contacting us. My sister's carelessness had. What if she'd mailed them all, or even one? Would it have changed anything? Would it have kept Mother alive or brought Anna back any sooner? What if she had come home too early, before her misguided affair with Antonia's father?

Then I would not have my child, the little girl who had stolen my heart well before I'd ever held her; whom Anna had nearly thrown away.

She is not well,
I reminded myself, but I needed someone to blame. I needed to lay the fault at my sister's feet or else none of it made sense.

I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!

I heard her voice in my head, could not shake it. There on the floor, I bent over and covered my face with my hands, the need to weep so strong within me that I felt physically sick.

But a sudden sound stopped me from falling apart. I heard Antonia's stuttered cries followed by a full-blown wail. Swiftly, I stuffed Anna's things into her broken case and left it where it lay. I would leave it for Daddy or Jon to toss out with the trash, I decided as I raced up the stairs to my baby.

“There, there,” I said when I scooped her into my arms, her tiny face purple with effort, her little hands balled into fists. “It's all right, Toni,” I cooed. “Mama's here, Mama's here.”

I took her over to the rocking chair that my own mother had rocked me in long ago, and I sang every lullaby that came to mind until she settled down in my arms, all thoughts of Anna gone.

In the months that followed, I let myself breathe more easily, and I began to feel safe and centered, cocooned in my father's house with my husband, my whole being focused on Toni. Soon the gray of winter ebbed and spring warmed my heart in a burst of brilliant sunlight, turning fields green and dappling the earth with tiny blossoms. I felt renewed, reborn, until I saw the missive addressed to me topmost on the stack of mail that Daddy brought in from the post office.

“She isn't supposed to be sending you letters,” my father remarked and ran a hand across his thinning hair. “I'm not sure how this got through, but it did, and if you'd like me to burn it, I will,” he said, but I shook my head.

Something in me had to see.

Within the envelope was a postcard, and I picked it up reluctantly. I noted the building with its green dome depicted on its front, clearly labeled beneath: “City Sanitarium.” My mouth went dry as mothballs as I turned it over and saw Anna's cursive, sloppy to the point of being unreadable. “I am here,” she had written, and I closed my eyes and let the card fall to the floor. At least this one she had sent.

“Forgive me, String Bean, I should never have given that to you,” Daddy said and was quickly beside me, placing a steadying hand on my arm. “I'll call them right now, tell them she's not to send another letter.”

But I knew then, as I had always known, that it would not be so easy to erase Anna from our hearts. Though I fought to forget her for several months more, I had a growing need to see her, to find out how she was. I suggested to Jon that we drive up to St. Louis to view the newly constructed Gateway Arch. He thought it was a grand idea, and we made plans to go the week after. “We'll make a day of it,” he told me, wondering if we might take a picnic basket.

I made no mention of Anna until we'd spent a lovely afternoon at the foot of the Arch, wandering around its gleaming legs and staring up at its silver curve as hordes of tourists swarmed, taking photographs from every conceivable angle. We resisted buying commemorative trinkets, settling instead on a single postcard to remember the day. For an hour or more, we rolled Toni around the park paths in her stroller, and she was fast asleep by the time we'd spread a blanket on the grass near the river to eat. When she roused, Jon kept her busy, pointing out the tugs and barges that passed, occasionally tooting their horns in greeting.

As we packed the car to head back to Blue Hills, I finally confessed that I wanted to stop at the hospital to see my sister. He was by no means happy with my decision, but he agreed and drove me there in silence.

He kept Toni with him while I went inside, and I nearly turned around and left before I got the nerve to sign in at the guarded front desk. Since I had arrived unannounced, I had to wait for them to check with Anna's doctors and see whether she was allowed visitors that day. I sat in a stiff-backed chair for at least twenty minutes, long enough to have gnawed my left thumbnail down to the quick.

It wasn't the nurse who came to fetch me, but Anna's doctor himself: a trim man with a slim mustache, dressed in dark trousers and white coat. “I'm Dr. Parness,” he said with a bob of his chin.

“Evelyn Ashton,” I told him, my heart thumping as I stood. “I'm Annabelle Evans' sister.”

“Yes, well, I'm sorry to tell you this, Mrs. Ashton, but you'll be unable to see Anna this afternoon. I told her you'd dropped by, and she became extremely agitated, so much so that she had to be sedated. I'm not sure it's wise that you come again, at least not any time soon. Perhaps, next time, you should phone first and save yourself the trouble.”

Like that, I'd been dismissed. He turned on his heel and walked away.

I left the building, shaken, stumbling out onto the manicured lawn and finding Jon on a shaded bench, Toni asleep in his arms.

“What's wrong?” he said the minute he looked up.

“Anna didn't want to see me,” I told him and sank down beside him, staring at the hospital doors, not sure if I was more angry or relieved at being asked to leave. “I imagined I'd be the reluctant one, that she'd be eager after all these months to charm me into loving her again.”

“Maybe it's for the best, Evie,” he replied as I leaned my head on his shoulder. “Maybe you should stay away until whatever's broken inside her is fixed. Sometimes we have to let someone go in order to find them again.” He turned so that the baby's soft fuzz of hair touched my cheek. “What's important isn't inside those walls. It's right here.”

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