Annie on My Mind: Chapter 14

When the door handle rattled, Annie and I both froze and clung together.

I have never been able to forget the look on Annie’s face, but it is the one thing about her that I would like to be able to forget—the fear and horror and pain, where a moment before had been wonder and love and peace.

“It’s not either of them,” I whispered to Annie, glancing at the clock on the night table. The clock said half past six, and Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer had said they’d be home around eight.

“Maybe if we just stay quiet,” Annie whispered, still clinging to me—I could feel her shaking, and I could feel that I was shaking, too.

“Open this door,” commanded a loud female voice. “Open it this instant, or I’ll call the police.”

My legs were made of stone; so were my arms. Somehow I kissed Annie, somehow moved away from her and reached for my clothes.

She sat up, holding the sheet around her. A kitten, I thought, looks like this when it’s frightened and trying to be brave at the same time.

“Stay here,” I said. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be feeding the cats—it’s okay for me to be here.” I was pulling on my jeans, trying to button my shirt—there wasn’t time to put on anything else.

The door handle rattled again and there was more pounding. “Just a minute,” I called as calmly as I could. “I’ll be right there.”

“Liza, I’m coming too,” Annie insisted. “You can’t go alone.”

“It’ll look worse, don’t you see, if you’re there?” I whispered fiercely, pushing her back, her face breaking my heart. “I’m coming,” I called.

Annie reached for my hand and squeezed it hard. “You’re right,” she said. “But be careful. And—Liza? You were right before, too. I wouldn’t have gone home and told my parents.”

I tried to smile at her, and then I ran downstairs in my bare feet, trying to make sense out of my hair as I went, and trying not to fall over the saucepan helmets that were still on the floor.

I switched on the light, opened the door a crack, and said, “Yes?” I tried to make it sound casual, but my voice was shaking so much I’m sure I sounded just as terrified as I was.

There on the steps was Ms. Baxter, and behind her, staring at my bare feet and at my not-very-well-buttoned shirt, was Sally.

For a minute I think we all just stared. Then Ms. Baxter steadied herself by holding on to the door frame and cried, “Oh, dear heaven, Liza, are you all right?” And then she barged right in past me, glancing quickly around the two rooms, and then I guess she saw the light in the upstairs hall, which of course neither Annie nor I had been calm enough to think of turning out; Ms. Baxter headed for the stairs.

I ran in front of her without even trying to be polite about it, but she brushed me aside.

It was awful, like some terrible farcical nightmare. As soon as Ms. Baxter reached the stairs, I realized Annie should probably have gotten up after all, and I prayed she’d hide in a closet or something. “You can’t go up there!” I yelled, to warn Annie—but then Sally pointed to the head of the stairs and said in a choked voice, “What—who is that?”

I looked up and Annie, white-faced, bare-legged and barefoot in just her lumber jacket, ran past, trying, I realized, to hide in the second bedroom. But it was too late. “Stop!” Ms. Baxter shouted. “Who—who are you? Eliza …?”

“A—a friend of mine,” I sputtered. “It’s all right, Ms. Baxter. We’ve—we’ve been taking care of Ms. Stevenson’s and Ms. Widmer’s cats this vacation, we …”

But Ms. Baxter, her face now set like an avenging angel’s, was halfway up the stairs.

“You come down!” I shouted crazily, afraid she might hit Annie in her righteous fury; Annie, realizing she’d been seen, was cowering uncertainly at the head of the stairs. But Ms. Baxter just brushed past her, going into the main bedroom.

Annie came downstairs and stood next to me, slipping her hand into mine. Sally was staring at our hands, I noticed, but I realized that couldn’t make any difference now.

We all three stood there, listening to Ms. Baxter stomping around, snooping.

“Dear Lord, dear Lord,” we heard her moan as she went from one bedroom into the other.

I looked helplessly at Annie.

Sally was still staring at us. “I—I went over to your house,” she said to me finally, like someone in a dream. “I thought you might be sick or something, since you didn’t come to the meeting this morning …”

“Oh, God,” I said. I had completely forgotten about the third committee meeting, the one at which I was supposed to rehearse my speech.

“Chad said you were here,” Sally was saying, “but I knocked and rang and yelled …”

“We didn’t hear you,” Annie said unnecessarily.

“… and when no one came even though it looked as if there was a light on somewhere upstairs and maybe down here too, I got scared it was robbers or that something had happened to you, and I didn’t know what to do till I remembered Ms. Baxter lived across the way, so I looked her up on the big directory at the gate and she was home and she said we better check before we called the police, so we both banged on the door and—and—Liza,” she said, looking at Annie, “you and she, you were—weren’t you?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sally” is what I think I said.

Then Ms. Baxter came downstairs and Sally made everything a whole lot worse by bursting into tears and moaning, “Oh, Liza, Liza, you were my friend, and … and you …”

“I was afraid for a moment I would find young men up there,” Ms. Baxter whispered, actually trembling as she put a maternal arm around Sally, “but what I did find—oh, dear heaven—is far, far worse—though I should have known,” she moaned, dabbing at her forehead with her handkerchief. “I should have realized right away.” She shook her head sharply, as if ridding it of something unpleasant, and then spoke more firmly. “I almost wish I had found young men,” she said. “Sodom and Gomorrah are all around us, Sally.” She looked with growing disgust at me. “We must face the truth. There is ugliness and sin and self-indulgence in this house—as I have long feared. And to think,” she said, regarding me as if I were a toad, “that the president of student council is a—a …”

I was so upset, so hopeless at that point, that I just looked right at her, ignoring Sally, and said, “A lesbian? So the …” I stopped myself just in time. “So what?”

It was at that moment that I heard Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer come up the steps, thumping their suitcases down outside the door and wondering loudly but without any alarm yet why there were lights on. Then they realized the door was unlatched, and while we all stood there frozen, Ms. Widmer said, “I think we should get the police, Isabelle,” and Ms. Stevenson said, “Nonsense, Liza probably left it open by mistake—maybe she’s still here. After all, we’re early.” Then she called, “Liza?” and Ms. Baxter said, “Oh, you won’t want the police, Ms. Stevenson; it’s Miranda Baxter,” and the two of them came in.

Ms. Stevenson nearly dropped her suitcase, and Ms. Widmer, suddenly very pale, did drop hers.

“Good evening, Ms. Baxter,” said Ms. Stevenson coldly, looking around. “Sally—Liza …” She looked inquiringly at Annie.

Ms. Baxter sniffed and shepherded Sally toward the door. “Isabelle Stevenson and Katherine Widmer,” she said, sounding as if she were trying to be a judge pronouncing sentence—or as if she were trying to be Mrs. Poindexter, whale herself now. “I have long feared that the relationship between you two was—is immoral and unnatural. I will not embarrass us all with specifics, but we are neighbors and it has been clear to me for some time that you are not as distant toward each other at home as you are at school. But naturally I hoped I was wrong—oh, I hoped so very much—and I tried not to notice what—what was before me. And I told myself that as long as what you were didn’t affect the students, I could be charitable and hold my peace, that I would not cast the first stone …”

Here, as I remember, Ms. Stevenson glanced wryly at Ms. Widmer and said, “Good for you, Miranda, how very thoughtful.”

“But now—I come in here and find these two—these two young women practically—in flagrante delicto—having been given leave to feed your cats and obviously, given your choice of reading matter—I will not call it literature—having also been given leave to use your home as a—a trysting place, a place in which to …” Ms. Baxter took out her handkerchief and dabbed at her forehead; I could see that she was sweating and that maybe she even knew she was saying terrible things but that she felt she had to say them anyway. “… place in which to indulge in—in unnatural lusts …”

“That,” said Ms. Stevenson, eyes snapping, “will do, I think, Miranda.”

“Easy, Iza,” I think Ms. Widmer said, putting a hand on Ms. Stevenson’s arm.

“Look,” I said in a voice that immediately sounded much too loud, “I offered to feed their cats. They didn’t even ask me to. They don’t even know …” I realized just in time that it might be a good idea not to use Annie’s name. “… my friend here. I didn’t even know …”

“Liza,” Ms. Stevenson interrupted—thank God, because I think in my confusion I was starting to say I hadn’t known Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer were gay. “Liza, the less said, I think, the better.” She didn’t say it in a particularly friendly way, and I felt worse than I had when it was just Ms. Baxter and Sally who’d walked in on us.

“All right, Miranda,” Ms. Stevenson was saying, her voice taut, like a lion on a leash, “would you mind telling us, very quickly before you leave, just what you were doing here in the first place?”

So Ms. Baxter explained about Sally, who was still staring at me and Annie as if we had at least five heads apiece, like end-of-the-world monsters. “And this poor child,” Ms. Baxter whined, nearly choking Sally in her protective hug, “this good, repentant child who has given so much of her time and of herself to Foster’s cause these last months—this child who may at times in the past have been misguided and unwise but who is, thank the good dear Lord, normal, with a normal young girl’s love for her young man—this child had to be dragged into this—this ugliness, this—this nest of …”

“But,” I protested angrily, “but it’s not ugly, there’s nothing …”

Ms. Baxter cut me off with her look.

“Oh, my dear,” she said to Sally, “you can see now why Liza was unable to be a good enough friend to report you for that unfortunate mistake of yours last fall. Immorality in one way, I fear, leads to immorality in others. It’s a lesson we all can learn …”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” snapped Ms. Stevenson, her temper lost at last. “Miranda, I am not going to stand here and let you …”

Ms. Widmer quickly opened the front door. “I think it’s time for you to go, Miranda,” she said quietly. “You, too, Sally.”

“Oh, absolutely, Sally goes!” said Ms. Baxter, herding her in front of her. “And if you have a shred of decency left in you, you’ll send those two home, too. Liza and her—her friend.” She smiled thinly. “They are minors, I believe.”

I wanted to hit her for the way she said “friend.”

“Why don’t you go look it up, Miranda?” Ms. Stevenson said through her teeth.

“They are also,” said Ms. Widmer, “people—who at the very least have a right to tell their side of the story. To someone who will try to listen.”

I glanced at Annie, who was in the corner by the stairs, hugging her lumber jacket around her. It was wool and I remember thinking irrelevantly that it must be scratchy against her skin. But Annie didn’t look as if she noticed. She also didn’t look as if she felt any more deserving of a friendly listener than I did. The saucepan helmets, I kept thinking, and the bed; how are we going to tell them about the bed?

“I trust you realize,” said Ms. Baxter as Ms. Widmer held the door open for her and Sally, “that it is my duty to report this entire incident to Mrs. Poindexter.”

“Indeed we do,” said Ms. Stevenson coldly.

Then they Were gone, and the door was shut, and Ms. Widmer, who had been so collected, swayed a little and leaned against it. Ms. Stevenson put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Steady, Kah, we’ve lived through worse.”

Then she turned to me.

I wanted to touch her, to at least reach out to her—even, for one absurd moment, to throw myself at her feet and moan, “Forgive us—forgive me!” I wanted her to blow up, to yell unreasonably the way she had once in the studio when someone hid an unpopular kid’s drawing and then someone else spilled black paint on it by “accident.” But she didn’t do that. She just looked grimly from me to Annie and back again and said, “Let’s start with an introduction, Liza, shall we?”

“Isabelle,” said Ms. Widmer, “please. Let’s not …”

“Katherine,” said Ms. Stevenson, “what we have here along with a great many other things is a rather serious betrayal of trust. It doesn’t matter how compelling the reason,” she said, looking hard at me, “and I think you know now that Ms. Widmer and I can guess exactly how compelling it was—that’s still no excuse for the way you and your friend have used this house. No excuse.”

“No, Ms. Stevenson,” I said miserably. “I know it’s not. I—I’m very sorry.”

“And I am, too,” Annie said, stepping away from the stair-corner. “I—we both are. It was terrible of us, wrong—it’s awful, especially—especially since you’re like us—I mean …”

She was floundering; I was desperate to help her, but I couldn’t think.

“You are not,” said Ms. Stevenson, picking up a saucepan, “a bit like us. Even in our worst times, I don’t think we would ever, ever have betrayed anyone’s trust, not like this—not in a way that would give a—a person like Miranda Baxter license to—to …” I saw when she turned away that her fists were clenched, and then, horrified, I realized she was struggling against tears.

Ms. Widmer touched her arm. “Come on, Isabelle,” she said with amazing lightness. “At seventeen?” She turned to us. “Why don’t you go back up and get dressed—I gather you were upstairs?”

I nodded painfully, and Ms. Stevenson turned the rest of the way away. But Ms. Widmer went on, as gently as before. “Isabelle and I will go down to the kitchen and make some cocoa. Give us—yourselves, too—about fifteen minutes. Then maybe we can all talk about this like rational human beings.”

For a second I thought Annie was going to throw her arms around Ms. Widmer. But instead she just took her hand and squeezed it, hard.

Ms. Widmer pushed Annie and me toward the stairs. “Fifteen minutes,” she said. “Come along, Iza. Cocoa.”

“Cocoa!” I heard Ms. Stevenson exclaim as they went down to the kitchen and we went up to the third floor. “What I need is Scotch, dammit, not cocoa!”

“Well, then, darling, you shall have Scotch,” I heard Ms. Widmer say, and then we couldn’t hear any more.


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