It was an effortless landing.His arms were just as sturdy as she thought they’d be. And soft. The little gold hairs on his suntanned forearms glistened like the brown-gold hair on his head; glistened like the crystal flecks in his ocean-blue eyes; shone like his southern, white teeth. It seemed, in this fraction-of-a-moment, that every part of him… glowed.
And then she remembered. Her mouth dropped open, but it took a moment for the sound to come out as her eyes adjusted to this familiar/unfamiliar face. It couldn’t be… “Teddy?”
He smiled, “Hello, Annie.” God, those eyes.
This was the boy-now-man, whom she’d known (though not well) for six summers in a row as nothing but a short, chubby, big-toothed and kind-eyed kid whose father owned the general store. At the risk of betraying her sudden infatuation, Annabell quipped, “Well, didn’t you shoot up like a beanpole!” and thought she sounded awfully mature, and not-at-all condescending.
Here he stood, gathering her up in his arms as though she weighed no more than a down coverlet. Which she probably didn’t.
“Mercy! We have our very own hero!” Mrs. Mason’s voice rang out as she scurried in from the dining room, having caught the tail end of the excitement.
Annabell nearly lurched out of Teddy’s arms– instantly embarrassed, certain she was flush, and feeling terribly insecure. Nessie stood nearby with her head down, so as not to appear impertinent; her eyes, however, were most definitely up, as were the corners of her full mouth. Teddy’s eyes sparkled in a mix of satisfaction and charm.
Mrs. Mason extended her hand, “Good afternoon, Mr. Wentworth!”
“How’d you do, Mrs. Mason,” his voice bellowed. “I appreciate your finding some work for me here.”
“Well, your parents are dear friends,” she said in a tone that only Annabell knew to be dripping with insincerity; then turning to her daughter, “Annabell, what on God’s green earth–?”
Junior shouted down from where he was peeking his eleven-year-old head through the now-infamous upstairs railing. “She was trying to get a good look at him,” pointing a grubby finger to Teddy– as if his words weren’t embarrassing enough.
Annabell buried her head into the collar of her sea-green dress, and she could smell the sweat from under her arms that had been brought on by chasing her devil-sibling around. She chastised herself for behaving like such a… a… child, for she wasn’t one any longer, she told herself. You’re a woman now, Annabell! Act like one!
She decidedly lifted her eyes to Junior and said calmly, “I’m sure you’re mistaken, Gin.”
Junior bit his lower lip, and his green eyes widened and filled with tears. He hated when she called him that digging reminder of his unlucky red mop, and how he was so different from the rest of the Masons (and Joneses, for that matter). He dashed off into his room and slammed the door. Annabell grinned slyly and smoothed out the dress around her legs… the dress… which she suddenly realized Teddy must have seen straight up while she dangled from the banister. She audibly gasped as her face and ears grew bright red.
Mortified, Annabell tried to remember which set of undergarments she had stepped into this morning…
The cotton cream chemise and plain white panties.
Annabell scrunched her face up in disapproval as her embarrassment grew. Of all the lovely lingerie she had brought in mischievous hopes of someone seeing them, at last, and the only way they were seen was strewn about the lawn.
Dorothy looked at her daughter with eyebrows raised. “Annie?”
Annabell’s mouth went dry as her fumbling tongue found a little white lie. Her hand shot up to her earlobe, “I– I’ve just realized I lost an earring out in the woods.” And just like that, she was scurrying out the door as fast as her little feet would carry her.
She ran until she was out of earshot, and then let out a good squeal, stomping her feet a few times to help fight back the tears. She’d get Junior back, she swore it. Catching her breath, she thought of the Wentworth boy, who was now a man. All of those summers she had spent ignoring him (and his painfully-obvious crush on her), wouldn’t do her any favors now.
And why was he working for them? Wasn’t the Wentworth family rich? Annabell seemed to recall her mother saying something in the car ride up about a family who had lost their wealth in the oldest son’s gambling debts. “Isn’t it a shame,” Mrs. Mason had gushed, and “mustn’t-we-try-to-be-Christian and-help-them…”
Was it possible Teddy Wentworth’s older brother, Jason, had brought this shame upon his own family? How strange. She’d met all sorts of folks whom her parents called ‘New Money,’ but she’d never known anyone who had lost money. Annabell strained to remember Jason’s face now. She thought he was handsome, but skinnier and shorter than Ted was now– and quite a few years older than him and Annabell. She’d only met Jason two or three times before, and always got the feeling of romance and danger when he was around… and, as a result, she had developed a small crush on Jason, the way all teenage girls are expected to do when in the presence of a carefree and unattainable older boy.
She shook her head, thinking again of her bankrupted Adonis. “Teddy Wentworth,” she said under her breath. And now she’d gone and rushed out of the house without even thanking him for saving her from some broken appendage– which would have absolutely ruined the rest of her summer. She was off to a very bad start.
By the time she returned home, Teddy was gone. Annabell poked her head into the kitchen to take a look at Nessie’s graph-schedule for the Help, which was posted beside the telephone on the wall. Her little finger traced the days of the week and matched them up with the “Gardening – Theodore Wentworth” box to the left… he would be back tomorrow.
Upstairs, Dorothy Mason sat at her vanity reviewing the guest list for the Mason’s annual summer dinner, which would be the next evening. She clucked her tongue at the misfortune they had of arriving in Savannah three days later than she’d planned, due to an extended lawsuit and trial Walter had been overseeing. Nevermind, Dorothy, she thought, just finish what you can. She continued the to-do list in her head… The Help had already been preparing before their arrival. The icebox had been stocked and the chickens had been plucked and butchered. The ceiling fan in the dining room had broken, however, and she hoped that Nessie had found someone to fix it soon, because she could not –simply could not– host her dinner in a stale heat and a swarm of flies.
She blotted a bead of sweat from her brow and glanced up at herself in the mirror. The face of a fifty-year-old woman blinked back at her. She wasn’t sure when her youth left her– a new wrinkle here, a new droop there… Looking at Annabell these days and seeing her fresh, dewy skin, she often found herself nostalgic for the days that had left her long ago.
She looked past herself in the mirror to a portrait of her husband on the wall behind her. He was young and smiling, with a hope in his eyes. From where she sat she could look to the left and see downstairs into Walter’s office. She noticed his unmoving legs slumped in the chair, which let her know he was drunk and passed out from what was most likely his fifth whiskey of the day. Right on cue, the grandfather clock in the hallway chimed to announce the arrival of four o’clock.
She thought of how they used to be– such a gay, young couple. “Dorothy and Walter Mason.” They had made an entrance at all the important affairs, and they had always been the first to exit so that everyone knew, “When the Masons leave, there’s nothing left worth staying for.” Dorothy used to set the fashion trends of her circle– Walter had been the exciting mind within his. A handsome twosome: he was, then, the envy of every man, and she the envy of any woman, who had ever desired such a ripe catch as Walter Mason or Dorothy Jones.
And, yes, they had shared an indiscretion or two in their 24-year marriage– hadn’t everyone?
She blinked hard at those memories of the men she’d have liked to forget, as a swell of guilt rose up and gave way to anger at those memories of the women she’d also have liked to forget– or see dead. They both knew about the others, but neither ever spoke of them. She remembered one woman in particular, who’d had the nerve to show up at their front door in Charleston with a batch of homemade madeleines and say, “Won’t you come join our Women’s Club?” when all she had really wanted was to get a good look at her competition. Dorothy had smiled and taken a bite of a madeleine while making polite conversation, and swallowed hard while subtly putting it back on the plate, acting as if she didn’t think the wicked woman would notice, but was pleased as punch when she did. And here she was, many years later and still having managed to hold onto her Mr. Mason.
She heard him snore and snort in his sleep.
She had won all right, though the prize may have lessened in value. Isn’t there some way back for us? she thought as another bead of sweat rolled down her scalp somewhere underneath her thinning, brown-grey hair. She fought through her disdain for who he had become, and searched her heart for a kind thought, a loving memory of her now-bloated and distant husband. A warmth began to work its way into her. A gentle breeze of loving-kindness barely began to blow. But, just as she softened her gaze, this rekindling of affection was stopped short by the piercing sound of a blood-curdling scream downstairs…