«by Gayle O’Brien Hookline Books Bookline & Thinker Ltd Published by Hookline Books 2011 Bookline & Thinker Ltd #231, 405 King’s Road London SW10 ...»
Her door creaked open, and Annie held her breath. Her mother appeared at the bedroom door, an apparition in the gray light on the upstairs landing.
“I heard a noise,” she said, her voice almost imperceptible against the sound of the rain.
Annie released her shoulders from where they’d crept up to her ears.
“Sorry. I stubbed my toe.” Her mother turned and slowly made her way back down the stairs, not noticing that Annie was in bed and therefore couldn’t have stubbed her toe. If they’d been in Virginia, Annie might have told her mother she’d had a bad dream, because then her mother would do what mothers do – take Annie into her arms, rock her back and forth, and tell her everything was going to be okay.
Instead, Annie fell back onto the bed and yanked the quilt over her head.
Her empty stomach woke her several hours later. She glanced at her
13 father’s watch – it was 2pm, a full hour before she usually allowed herself to eat.
Annie had been scrutinizing what she ate since the night everything changed. It wasn’t that she was deliberately starving herself or trying to make herself ill – it was pure necessity. She and her mother had a fixed amount of money and when it ran out they would have nothing. Eating one meal a day was her way of making the money last longer.
Still, she couldn’t deny she liked the effect this regime was having on her shape. Her jeans were looser, she could count her ribs and her cheekbones dominated her face. When she stood with her feet together, there was a few inches of space between her inner thighs. She could just imagine Jenna and Marcy’s reaction when they saw her again. “Oh my god, you’re so skinny!” they’d shriek. They would notice and they would be jealous.
As she lay in bed, she imagined herself returning home, the center of attention, the past year nothing but a good story that everyone wanted to hear. Both guys and girls would admire Annie for surviving it all, even Jenna and Marcy, and they would envy that Annie got to see the country while the rest of them were stuck in high school.
Who am I kidding, she thought. Even if she could go back to Virginia tomorrow, all her friends would be on the verge of graduating, something she could not do after missing a year of school. She’d have a lonely senior year while all her friends went to community college or Virginia State. No matter what happened now, her life was ruined forever.
Her friends had forgotten her already anyway. It was obvious. No one had posted anything on her old Facebook page for months. On the night everything changed, almost everyone she knew posted something.
Where R U????
I just saw your house – WTF?!?
Please call me. We’re all worried sickkkkk.
I just want to know that you’re okay. Please know that NO ONE believes your dad could have done such a thing. Get home safe.
Within a month, the posts stopped. These days, when she had access to a computer, she devoted her time to her other Facebook account.
She reached into her jeans and pulled out the memory stick, holding it in the palm of her hand. This flimsy piece of plastic was the only thing that had kept Annie going over the past year. But it was useless without a computer. Maybe Theo, the boy at the Store at Five Corners, would know where to find internet access in this town.
14 Annie spent hours replaying their meeting in her head. Could she have acted more rudely? More foolishly? He’d been so nice and full of smiles, and she’d reacted the only way she knew how: by running.
Her only comfort was that had she been a normal girl, with a normal life, she might have been able to carry on a normal conversation with a perfectly normal boy.
At least, this is what she kept telling herself.
Annie forced her feet to the cold floor and got up, taking the quilt with her like a shroud. She knelt over her small pile of clothes and searched for anything that did not smell. Except for one clean pair of underwear and a pair of mismatched socks, everything else was dirty.
“Guess I need to do some laundry,” she said to no one.
As Annie scooped the clothes into her arms, she could hear Jenna’s reaction to the thrift-store clothes she now wore – “Since when are you going for the homeless look,” or “I think you need to return those to the trash can where you found them.” Annie carried the clothes downstairs, past her mother sleeping on the couch, and to the basement for the first time. Each step down felt like it might give under her weight. There was no railing, so she ran her hand along the wall.
The basement was one large space, exactly the same size as the first floor above. A pile of defeated boxes littered one corner; in another stood a set of rusted metal shelves. A washing machine and dryer sat against the wall at the bottom of the stairs.
Annie blew at the dust on the washing machine and lifted its lid. The drum inside was old, but intact. She pulled the dial to Normal. Nothing happened. She pulled out the mini flashlight she kept in her pocket.
Cobwebs clung to her arm as she reached behind the washing machine to retrieve its plug and put it into the one socket she could find. The machine rumbled to life. No sooner had Annie turned around to retrieve her clothes than a loud pop sent the basement into blackness and silence.
“Great,” Annie groaned. She scanned the room with the flashlight and located the fuse box. As soon as she flicked the errant switch the fluorescent lights came back on, but the washing machine did not. Annie pushed and pulled at the dial until it came off in her hand.
She stared at the piece of plastic in her fist. Why were things that should be so simple so difficult? All she wanted to do was get out of the house and do what she needed to do, in clean clothes. And now she couldn’t, because nothing was working. She thought about her father. This – fixing a washing machine – was his job, not hers. He should be here, 15 doing what dads were supposed to do, but he wasn’t. He’d done what he’d done and no amount of wishing was going to change that.
Then she thought of her mother upstairs: why wasn’t she down here doing the laundry? Why was Annie, by default, the responsible one?
I didn’t ask for this, she thought. I didn’t ask for any of this.
Annie took one step back and kicked the washing machine with the flat of her foot. It rocked slightly, then settled back in its place. She kicked it again, harder this time. Before it had the chance to settle, she kicked it again and again and again.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she chanted with each blow. It rocked and rocked, until it finally fell sideways onto the floor, hitting the edge of the bottom step as it fell.
The door to the basement creaked.
“Is something wrong?” Her mother’s feeble voice.
Annie cleared her throat. “No, Mom. I’m doing laundry.” “I heard a crash.” “Just the drum vibrating.” The door closed. Annie sat down on the stairs and put her face in her hands.
That was when she noticed the gap between the bottom two steps and the rest of the staircase.
Annie turned on the flashlight, got up and crouched down to look through the gap. The sight of something white made her throat tighten. She angled the flashlight down to the floor, but couldn’t see anything else. She reached her hand through and pulled, falling backwards when the bottom two steps came away from the rest of the staircase.
Underneath was a space about six feet deep. A small ladder led to the ground. She put one foot onto the first step and bore down to assure herself of its solidity, then she slid through the hole and climbed all the way in.
Annie crouched in the middle of the small space. The white she’d seen through the gap was a rectangular piece of canvas. A mixture of hay and green dust trickled out from underneath. A gray blanket was folded at the foot. A sunken pillow, yellowed with age, lay at the head.
“A bed,” she whispered.
Next to the bed was a wooden crate. On top of it was a lantern, its glass black with residue, and a small Bible no bigger than the iPhone Annie used to carry everywhere. She got on her knees and picked it up carefully like a rare piece of china. Flashlight in one hand, she opened it, the pages as delicate as dry leaves on autumn ground. Her eyes marveled at the minuscule print and the familiar names it formed: Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy.
Annie blinked, as if blinking would transform the handwriting into an idea she could understand. Bible passages? she thought. A code? She flicked to the back cover to look for more. As she did, a small, unsealed
envelope fluttered to the ground. A faded but perfectly curved script read:
Mr Sanford WestonMont VerityNr. Beckwith StationVirginia
Annie was almost afraid to touch it. It seemed otherworldly, like a ghost or a phantom. She scooped it up gently, as if it were a baby bird.
“Virginia,” she whispered.
Inside the envelope was a folded piece of paper. Annie struggled to steady her hand as she slid her fingers in to pull it out and unfold it.
March 27, 1861 Dearest Papa, There is so much I want to tell you that I don’t know where to begin.
Firstly, I want you to know that I am safe. For now. It has been a long journey here and I have seen places and people I’m not sure I could have even dreamed of. This is a beautiful country, Papa – do you know this? The beauty runs in the rivers and over purple mountains; it is in the soil on which animals graze and food is grown. And the people who 17 inhabit this country, Papa – they, too, are a spectrum of colors. Our world is more than black and white. I know this now.
I cannot tell you where I am. I do not want to endanger those around me. No doubt this letter, when it reaches you, will have a postscript. I will be long gone by then, so please do not try and find me here.
I have changed, Papa. I am certain you would not like what you would see if you were here. I have had my eyes opened to the real workings of the world, in all its cruelty and wonder.
We will probably never see each other again. After all that has occurred, there are many reasons why a return to my old life in Virginia is impossible.
But what I really want you to know is that I am in love. Never did I think the love of my life would come in the shape and form that it has. I do not know what will become of this love, but just to know that there exists in this world someone so kind, so strong, so extraordinary – that is enough for me. Loving him, being able to love him – it has made me happier than I can describe. Know, Papa, that whatever happens to me now, whatever you may think of what I have done, the last few weeks have been the happiest of my life.
I love you, Papa. None of this is your fault; nothing you or Mother could have done would have changed the outcome. Please ask her to forgive me. And if it’s appropriate, please tell the Fabres I am sorrier than I can say, and that I await God’s judgment on my actions.
All my love, Samantha “Samantha,” said Annie, running her finger over the name.
She sat on the bed and read the letter again, willing it to tell her the rest of the story. Then she looked around the small space, the hidden space, wanting the room to have more to say.
So many questions flew off the page in her hands. They whirled around Annie’s head, so loud and demanding it was as if they could be reached for and held.
It felt like some kind of trick. How could this have been here, all this time, and no one ever noticed? She half-expected a television personality to jump out and tell her she was on candid camera. “Ha, ha!” he’d say.
“You fell for it! You thought you’d found a letter written by a Virginia girl, just like you. And you thought it funny that the some of the contents of the letter could have been written by yourself? Fooled you!” There was no television personality. Of course there isn’t, she thought. The longer she sat in the room, the more real it became.
18 She carefully put the letter back in its envelope and inserted it in between the pages of the Bible. As she crawled out of the room and put the two stairs back into place she felt guilty, like she was closing the door on a newly discovered friend. She let her hands rest on the edge of the stairs and pressed her fingertips into the worn wood.
There were many things that Annie did not know. How long they would be in Vermont? Where they would end up next? When would she see Virginia again? Would it ever be possible to go back to her old life?
But this is what she did know: a Virginia girl named Samantha had written a letter over 150 years ago and never sent it.
Annie had to find out why.