Little Black Dress with Bonus Material (8 page)

BOOK: Little Black Dress with Bonus Material
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She refused to start feeling guilty for the past. Like Bridget said, it was spilled milk. She was here now, wasn't she? Besides, what was Toni supposed to have done two years ago? Should she have forgotten she had a life in St. Louis and moved back home to keep her mother company?

God, she hated getting schooled, like she was ten and not three decades beyond. Why did being a daughter have to come with so many strings attached? And why did coming home always make her feel like a child, no matter how old she was?

“Miss Antonia!” Bridget yelled from across the house. “Lunch is ready!”

Perfect example,
she thought and hollered back, “Coming!”

Then she put down the mail she'd been sorting, got up, and headed to the kitchen.

I
didn't hear from Annabelle for the longest time after she ran out on Davis Cummings and, if truth be told, on Mother and Daddy and me.

Early on, I'd harbored hope that she'd return once the maelstrom had quieted. Since Anna was our own Sarah Bernhardt with a flare for the dramatic, I figured she'd give herself time enough to catch her breath and plot how to move on from such an awkward situation. Once she'd penned that new script in her head, she'd descend on Blue Hills with tears in her eyes and her tail between her legs, begging for forgiveness. Then she'd beguile her detractors before they knew what had hit them, all would be forgotten, and she'd press onward as if nothing had happened.

For weeks, my ears pricked at every knock on the door and every jingle of the telephone as I waited for Anna's return. But neither came to pass.

As odd as it felt to go on without her, the world kept spinning regardless. Soon, spring blossoms faded and the days grew long as summer blanketed Blue Hills with its typical muggy heat. By then, I knew I'd been wrong to think I'd see my sister anytime soon. Anna had finally done what she'd longed to do for so many years: she'd spun the globe, set her finger on a faraway destination, and put Blue Hills behind her. At that point, I wasn't sure if I'd ever see her again.

“What in God's name was she thinking?” my father walked around muttering for weeks on end, at first to me and then to no one in particular. “What the devil has possessed her? I did everything I could for that girl,
everything,
and it was never enough.”

I bit my tongue instead of reminding him that Anna had been a free spirit since birth and that pushing her into marriage with Davis Cummings had only made her feel trapped. But I kept that to myself, along with my guilt. Because I knew I bore some of the blame for what had happened. I was the elder sibling and far more level-headed. I should have kept my sister from going into the Gypsy's shop that day or, at the very least, stopped her from buying the dress. But I had done neither, and, in the end, an act of magic—or voodoo, whatever one chose to call it—had turned her head and sent her off in an entirely different direction.

As confused as I felt about what Anna had done, her absence affected me deeply; it affected us all. Without her around to tease us out of our dour moods and bind us together, our once tight-knit family began to unravel.

“She'll come home, Evie, just you wait,” my mother insisted, nodding as she spoke, as if to convince herself it was the truth. “She won't stay away forever, not my baby.”

But I'd seriously begun to wonder. I had gone into Anna's room many times after she'd run off, desperate for some kind of connection. I didn't sense her presence so much as the emptiness left in her wake. I'd seen the bare hangers in her closet, the missing suitcase from beneath her bed, and, lying open atop her vanity, the black velvet case in which Mother had kept Charlotte's pearls. I had no idea what else of value my sister had taken with her. My guess would be whatever she could carry.

Despite my being labeled as “the bright one,” Anna was no mental lightweight. She had always been clever as a fox; one might even say manipulative. She must have packed enough to survive for quite a while, even if she had to sell family heirlooms to do it. Anna may have loved pretty things, but material goods had never meant as much to her as to my father, and I'd venture to say that she didn't put a price on living her life her own way. Perhaps Anna had felt that being stuck in Blue Hills was a fate worse than death, one she'd narrowly escaped.

“She hasn't written you at the school, has she, Evelyn?” my mother asked, even though I visited the building only occasionally during the summer to check on my classroom or for a private tutoring session, as I wouldn't resume teaching full-time again until September.

“No, ma'am, she hasn't.”

But after six months with no word from Anna, Mother's porcelain-smooth façade had developed cracks, and it would have been impossible to miss the desperation in her voice when she asked, “She hasn't contacted you through one of her friends?”

“Not even a postcard,” I admitted.

“Will you let me know if she does?”

“Yes, of course I will.”

If I, like my sister, had been more a fiery McGillis and less a stoic Morgan, I might have had the nerve to shake my mother and say, “Anna is not coming home, not now or anytime soon! And she'll stay away for as long as it pleases her!”

Annabelle had always had a mind of her own, and she'd obviously made a conscious choice to steer clear of this town and our family. As painful as it was to grasp that ugly truth, I'd begun to do just that. Clearly, my parents had not. I wasn't certain which was worse: my father's righteous indignation or my mother's heartfelt delusions. It hurt to listen to them both.

Every night before I fell asleep, I lay in bed imagining how different things would have been if not for that one afternoon in Ste. Genevieve. Anna would be married and safely ensconced in the Cummings family manse, by far the most ostentatious house in the county. With Davis' daddy a widower, my sister would be the mistress of a vast acreage that included land our great-grandfather had staked so many years before. Daddy could have patted himself on the back for a job well done (one that my granddad Joseph surely would have cheered), and Mother would have a newlywed daughter to fuss over while she anxiously awaited the birth of future grandbabies.

It all sounded so neat and proper, like the perfect ending to a fairy tale, but Anna would have suffocated. She had never hidden from any of us her desire to roam the world. Why was it so odd that she'd finally found the strength to flee? And if the dress had given her the courage to do it, was there anything so wrong with that?

But it seemed that I was the only one who even tried to understand or who offered my sister an iota of sympathy.

My father had run in circles apologizing to everyone even remotely touched by what he deemed “Anna's unpardonable behavior.” He'd even visited with Davis Cummings to personally beg forgiveness, but Anna's would-be groom and his family were not so willing to accept.

“You have deeply humiliated my son, myself, and our good name,” said an angry note from Archibald Cummings, Davis' father, which Daddy had read aloud to Mother and me, his voice trembling. The gist of it was that no Evans was welcome in their home or on their property ever again.

I understood their rancor as I believed then that Davis had been wounded as deeply as we had. I had witnessed firsthand the pain in his face when Anna had walked out on him. However, it wasn't long before I saw it announced in the paper that Archibald Davis Cummings Jr. (aka Anna's former groom) was engaged to marry Christine Deaton Moody. There was even a portrait of the pretty pair, her hand on his shoulder as she looked adoringly into his eyes. He'd rebounded very swiftly from his deep humiliation, hadn't he?

Good riddance,
I decided
. Let the Cummings family rule their mighty vineyard and leave us be
. I hoped Davis and Christine would be happy as clams. They deserved each other. Even Anna had given them her blessing:
Everyone in town knows Christine Moody has been crazy about you for ages. She's the one you should be with, not me
.

But the snub devastated Daddy. My father's elaborate plot to reunite us with those eighty lost acres had failed through no fault of his own, and it hit him hard. He turned into an old man overnight, his salt-and-pepper hair going white, his walk more a shuffle than a stride.

“It's not your fault,” I assured him, even though Mother had told him the opposite; but he waved me off.

I wanted to confess about the dress, but how could I? My father was a realist who based his actions on facts, not whims. Even if I'd tried to explain, he would never have believed me. And why should he? I knew firsthand what the dress could do, and I hardly believed it myself.

So, while Daddy pined for the union that never was and my mother wept for her long-lost daughter—and the rest of Blue Hills gossiped about my disgraced sister—I knew the reality of the situation. A mystical black dress sewn of silk spun by spiders had cast its spell upon her, causing her to see the future and chase it; and to preserve itself, the dress had revealed its power to me as well.

Maybe it was wrong, but I decided that I'd rather have everyone deem my sister flighty or wanton than hear the truth. I had no intention of making things worse by babbling about Gypsy sorcery, not even to Jonathan. If there was one thing my parents didn't need right now, it was another member of the Evans family gone off the deep end. For the moment, I felt like I was the only sane one in our gloomy old house.

For a pall had been cast over the old Victorian as surely as if there had been a death. I missed the sound of my sister's voice, her high-pitched squeals and laughter. Instead, the only constant was the strident ticking of the grandfather clock as it counted off the passing minutes and hours. I grew increasingly grateful for the rambunctious fifth graders in my classroom when September finally rolled around and for Jonathan's convivial company in the evenings when he got off work and took me out.

Since that fateful day in March, we'd become inseparable, although I kept him away from the house and my parents as much as I could. While my father had withdrawn from his gregarious self, rarely smiling or laughing, my mother had simply withdrawn. Too tormented by migraines to do much but lie in her darkened bedroom, she wasn't often up and about. More frequently, she hid herself within her womb of drawn drapes, a perpetual grimace on her face.

But after six months of courtship, I figured it was time that Jonathan broke bread with my family, or what was left of it. So I invited him to the Victorian for dinner, which would have seemed quite a simple thing under normal circumstances. I hoped that having a new face around would shake my family out of its funk. Besides, I had to keep living my own life, even if my parents had stopped living theirs.

It all started out well enough with Jon showing up at the door precisely at six with a bouquet of yellow mums for my mom and a tin of Prince Albert pipe tobacco for my father. My mother had suggested bringing in the help to do the cooking, but I declined graciously. It was important that I make this meal myself. So I spent the better part of the afternoon in the kitchen under my mother's watchful eye, preparing her famous brisket. Despite the screened door open to let in the air, the oven's heat and hardly fall-like warmth turned my cheeks ruddy and stuck my hair to the back of my neck.

But it was worth the trouble. The house filled with the scent of smoky barbecue as well as a nice breeze by mealtime. Sheers billowed at the open windows, and the temperature cooled by a dozen degrees. The table had been set, and I had donned a boatneck blue dress I knew Jon admired. In the background, Sinatra crooned about fools rushing in from the speakers of the RCA stereo.

“Thank you, Jonathan, you are so thoughtful.” My mother managed a smile as she took the flowers from him and promptly headed to the kitchen to put them in water.

“You're welcome, ma'am,” Jon said to her departing back then extended a hand to my father. “How're you doing, sir?”

“Fine, son, just fine,” my father lied and tapped a finger on the tobacco tin. “I'll make good use of this after supper. Very thoughtful of you.”

“You're most welcome.”

My folks had met Jon briefly before, but I'd never invited him in, not for more than a minute or two of quick chitchat. They knew he'd grown up in Ste. Gen, that his mother was widowed, and that he was a mechanic by trade, mostly working on boats and barges; but if his background or job disappointed them, they didn't show it. Perhaps they appreciated that he always appeared freshly scrubbed and clean-shaven, no visible grease beneath his fingernails, and boots carefully polished; or else they were simply relieved I'd found a man to court me and might not end up the spinster they'd doubtless envisioned.

Whatever the reason for them acting on their best behavior, I basked in the vague sense of normalcy that momentarily descended. Mother had done her hair and applied powder and rouge over her strained features, and Daddy's scowl disappeared as he played the sociable host, something he hadn't had the chance to do in quite a while.

“How about we sit down and have a drink while the ladies finish up in the kitchen,” my father said, clapping Jonathan's back and settling him into a club chair in the living room.

Jon glanced back at me helplessly, and I grinned to encourage him. He could hold his own, I was sure of it. And still I stood and watched them for a moment before I dared leave them alone.

I could hear the chatter of their voices as Mother and I worked in the kitchen, side by side, something we rarely ever did.

“He's a good catch for you, Evelyn,” she said without prompting, her eyes on the green beans she carefully drained in the sink. “Anna always had so much attention from the boys in Blue Hills, maybe too much.” A faraway smile slid across her lips, though she still didn't look at me. “You were her opposite, caught up in books and solitary pursuits.” She nodded to herself. “Jonathan is solid and nice enough looking, but you are smart and better-bred.”

Her words froze me in place. I stopped putting warm rolls into the lined basket and puzzled over what she meant. That Anna could have had her pick of suitors, but I was not so fortunate? That Jon brought reliability and decent looks to the table, but I was educated and reared to have better manners? Was that how she saw our match?

“You're right, I am not Anna,” I said, feeling the faintest quiver running through me. “I don't need the attention of all the boys in Blue Hills. The only man I care for is Jonathan, and I believe he cares for me equally.”

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