Fireflies light up the cobblestone road as, here and there, the roar of a Dodge or Ford clamors its way up or down the lane. One grows accustomed to the muggy, breathless evenings of the South. The rabid mosquitoes swarm, the scent of magnolias is dizzying. The Spanish moss, which in the sunlight is an ethereal charm, now hangs, looming in the bug-lit night and hiding war-torn ghosts in its shadows.
The Cape Fear River laps up against the rotten wood and stone below the backyard gardens of No. 21 Ann Street. In the distance there is a delicious murmur of some gay affair– music, chatter and the occasional, irritating laughter of that one inevitable party guest who is three sheets to the wind and determined to capture the attention of the crowd. If you were to have peeked your little face over that rotten wood and stone, you would have seen this very thing.
And, if you had known what you were looking for amidst this blithe flock, you would also have seen the subtle exchange of a note, from the hand of an overweening young man holding a match, to the end of gold-lacquered fingernails clutching the cigarette in play, and belonging to a young, brunette female. Her eyes are all fire and wit, her skin is porcelain and powdered, her red lips stretch around a crooked and coquettish smile; her hair is, her dress is, her shoes are everything they ought to be for a vogue of 1929. She is the clear belle of the ball, and he –her swaggering, cigarette-lighting young man–, is one of many admirers this evening, but the only one enterprising enough to approach.
Our couple share a impassioned glance as those long, gold fingers curl around the little page in her palm. And as she tucks the note into the strap of her gown, a new hand, attached to a Mr. Hayworth, slides around her waist. She breaks her gaze with our vain young man, and her eyes shift into a new personality all together; she is now the doting bride, demure and gracious, innocent in all her charms, and wholly focused on the man who is pulling her close to his side and saying to a stout and gawking couple, “I’d like to introduce you to my wife…”
And it is for this reason that in a few short hours, Annabell Hayworth will be lying still on a marble floor with a bullet in her stomach, and blood draining all over that expensive, pretty little gown.
It was at the beginning of summer, 1929, when Annabell’s family (“The Masons,” as they were referred to by the locals), came here to escape the sounds of the bustling city. They’d been driving out this way for years now, for the peace and quiet; it was the kind of quiet that was enough to drive the crickets mad, really, but this is exactly why they liked it– or so were the rumors.
A ginger boy, branded with the palest skin, greenest eyes and most bothersome freckles, sat halfway out the window of the moving vehicle. He was using his embroidered pocket knife to scrape the paint off of the automobile belonging to Mr. Mason, his father. Always doing wrong, Junior was.
“Get down, Junior!” said the burdened voice from the driver’s side. “Don’t go scratchin’ things that you don’t have the know-how to fix!”
Walter Mason was right. The young boy was attracted to trouble and if this hunk of metal was going to last to be his son’s inheritance one day, “Then the boy had best be gettin’ his wits about him,” the father grumbled to himself.
“It’s my blood and sweat that makes this automobile take this family to and from,” Walter proudly announced. “And there you are– wreckin’ it for no good reason. I should shake you out the window, boy.”
Junior saw now that his father’s voice was becoming deep, stern and heated. He thought on it when Annabell demanded, “Daddy’s right. Get inside, you rascal! You’re gonna fall out one of these days,” she glared him in the eye, just like any big sister would.
“Sis, hold your tongue,” he snipped back. “I don’t need to take orders from the likes of you.”
Mrs. Mason, calm and poised (and very much alert of what could come from a squabble such as this), declared, “You two, no fightin’ now. Our time here in the country is to be peaceful– for your father’s sake, if nothing else.”
“Sorry, Mother. But it’s not my fault that she’s crabbier than a pile of Maryland blue,” the Ginger snapped back. “No wonder she can’t find a man,” he whispered just so that his sister could hear.
Annabell had heard this kind of provocation from her bratty kid brother before, and she’d be damned if she had to hear it again. Everyone was always on her about, ‘marriage this’ and ‘settle down that.’ It was as if the world had marked itself an enemy to her on the day she had become a woman.
“Well, you wouldn’t know nothin’ about what a man wants, would you? You’re a boy. Keep to your riff-raff, and I’ll keep to mine.”
Junior smirked. He’d got her. “Sure, I’ll keep to my riff-raff, Sis. And, maybe I am a boy– but I’ll be a man one day. And I’ll know then, like I know now… every respectable man avoids you like the plague.”
She fought to collect herself. Because, in all honesty, he was right. Regardless of her feminine design and youthful good looks, Annabell was far from what a man truly wanted– or at least, so she thought.
“And good riddance, then!” She wrinkled her brow in disapproval. “I don’t need a man. Not now, not never. All I need are a pair of eyes to see that you’re a pesky weasel, and a spoiled one at that.”
Mr. Mason’s eyes stole a glance into the rear view mirror. The family sat in tense quiet until the car turned to putter down a long driveway. A tire swing, thrown together in a boyish fashion, was the only proof that a good time could be had here on the grounds. The Help stood waiting along the edge of the porch, reluctant to wave. They were, of course, employees– not friends.
Mrs. Mason sat patiently while her husband put a stop to the automobile, opened his door, and took a step out. After pausing for a moment, he sauntered round to get her door. He appeared tired, Walter Mason did– and tall and chubby. His belt was stretched, and beads of sweat made their way through his beard as he reached for a handkerchief to pad them dry. His eyes could only be described as faded. Distant. He moved slowly, as if to concentrate on every step. Here stood a man who sought respect, but years of wear-and-tear had broken him down to a quieter version of himself. And, this all was obvious with just a solid stare.
The Ginger took off running as Annabell slowly stepped down, letting the thick Georgia heat settle on her brow. Closing her eyes and taking it all in, she remembered the salty smell of the Savannah all too well. Annabell was reaching for her luggage when, “Oof!” a racquetball nipped her squarely in the back of the head, which sent her bags violently to the ground. The Help clamored around their mistress to collect the unmentionables that were now strewn about her, quickly returning them to the confines of Miss Mason’s luggage.
The Ginger, realizing with equal parts relish and horror the result of his wayward sport, saw the wrath on his sister’s face and took off running. With little hesitation she flew screaming after him, “You wretched, good-for-nothing scoundrel!”
She chased the vermin off the extensive grounds of their summer house. Her fury grew stronger with every step, and she vowed that she wouldn’t stop until she had him by the collar. The wild goose chase lead her blindly into the woods.
This was not how she’d planned her first day in town.
Annabell’s eyes darted back and forth, eyeing the terrain for any sign of the culprit. Nothing! He’d vanished. He was one to hide– he was the master of skulking. She was stewing in her rage as she scanned the wooded area, with her blood boiling and her fists clenched, when she suddenly noticed the odd change around her.
The clouds had shifted ominously, and a strange coldness had crept in– she could even see her breath in the air. Annabell paused, taking a moment to let her pounding heartbeat settle, when she felt an unaccountable chill up her spine.
“This isn’t funny, dirtball. I don’t want to spend my summer chasing you!”
Glancing up again, she found that the clouds were swallowing up the sun. Unnerved, Annabell vented half-heartedly under her breath, “Where IS that little creature? Isn’t all that crouching under a rock cramping up his legs by now? I didn’t think that little twerp could sit still for this long!”
It was then, out of the corner of her eye, that a shadow crossed in the distance. Annabell gasped– the perplexing idea that she might not actually be alone here in the forest scared her.
She stared at it, trying to figure out what it was. Feigning calmness, Annabell called out, “Junior?”
A faded giggle echoed in the distance.
“Junior this isn’t funny. Come out here– NOW!”
The forest remained still, growing darker and chillier– and more silent. It was suffocatingly silent. Where did that devil of a boy go? Annabell’s heart jumped to a race when suddenly she saw the black image again… and this time, the ghastly shadow was edging toward her.
Unable to hide the shakiness in her voice now, Annabell exploded. “JUNIOR! Goddammit– stop this stupid insanity! Enough!”
She was nervous– fighting a panic in her throat. The Shadow was closing in upon her, relentless and increasingly steady. It was as if it –whatever it was–, were drawn to her and had come for her. Her eyes widened in horror, and gulping her breath, she stood frozen with fear.
A hand grabbed her from behind, releasing the scream which Annabell had been fighting to keep down. Whirling around to face her second mystery-attacker, she lost her balance and crashed helplessly to the ground.
Junior nearly fell too, laughing uncontrollably. The ginger pest, who had sprung out from behind Annabell with a classic and well-timed, “Boo!” was ignorant of the assistance he’d just been granted by the Shadow in delivering this supreme prank so well.
“Ha! Scared ya! Oh, you should have seen the look on your face!” He laughed harder. “Turns out you’re a girl after all! Aw, Sis, are you sure you don’t need a man? Not even to rescue ya from being scared straight out your pretty little dress?” He caught his breath, still lost in laughter. “Oh, but I forgot there ain’t a man in the world that’d be interested in the job.”
He tumbled to the ground. She glared at him. Fuming. She’d had enough. “You wretched excuse for a carrot top, I wasn’t much more than startled… but I am considerin’ how much of a burden it would be to clean up your remains, if a coyote were to take you. And, boy I do wish one would!”
Annabell struggled to her feet– her thoughts of the Shadow momentarily dismissed thanks to her renewed fury with the boy. She was covered in leaves, and the mess of the forest was sure to take hours to lift from her skin. Dusting herself off, she groaned, “You imbecile. Look what you’ve done to my dress!”
Junior tried to defend himself, “But I–”
Annabell cut him short, wanting to hear none of it. “Quiet! Not a peep out of you, boy, if you know what’s good for you!”
Grabbing the red-headed demon by the ear and leading him out of the forest, Annabell snarled low in his ear, “You’re going to clean up the mess you made after throwing my luggage about, and making me hunt you down all over kingdom-come. It’s not even noon, and I already despise you.”
The Ginger squirmed in his vice. “OW! Get off me, you harpy! Annabell, let GO!”
Making their way back toward the house, a cold wind whipped past Annabell again– driving that same chill down the back of her neck as before. Stealing one last look behind her, haunted by the memory of that dark forest’s edge, she tried to stuff the question back down from where it came: If that Shadow hadn’t been her brother, then what was it?