Smart Man Online: Gerry Murak
Jane is Fit to be Fried

Sunday Fiction Feature: The Haunting of Annie Whipple: Part III

Dear Readers, our Sunday fiction feature will extend into Monday...to allow us to recover from our long weekend. We hope every one of you enjoyed Pics_from_old_pc_072 Easter with family and friends, as we did.

Meanwhile, let's see where Annie is this week. Has she discovered who the ghost-girl is, or...are there other surprises in this episode--surprises that are both sad and happy? Read on... (to refresh your memory, find Part I here, and Part II here)

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July melted into August. The apartment began to look and feel comfy. Yellow café curtains hung on the kitchen window, a new multi-colored throw-rug softened the living room floor, a shower curtain with pink and white seashells hung over the tub, and Marge splurged on a small fan, to help Annie on those humid nights Marge was working and Annie couldn’t go out of the apartment.

In mid-August, Steve came over for his usual Thursday night dinner, the only weeknight that Marge had off, and presented them with a brand new, 21-inch color TV.

“Isn’t it wonderful, Annie?” Marge clapped her hands and leaned over to kiss Steve on the cheek.

Annie didn’t say anything. She wished she could get excited about it, but-- it was just another sign that Sam was gone-- maybe for good.

The night he brought them the TV, Steve and Marge sat together on the sofa, holding hands. Annie moved to sit Indian fashion on the rug in front of the TV. Gilligan’s Island was on. Annie turned the sound up as loud as she dared. It was better than listening to Marge and Steve whisper like teenagers behind her. Her mother laughed at something Steve said. Annie gritted her teeth. Behind her, the laughing and whispering continued.

And through the endless days of heat and boredom, the ghost-girl made regular appearances. She showed up just as day met darkness, always disappearing into the empty night. Annie called to her, chased her, begged her to wait up, but no matter how fast Annie was, the ghost-girl was faster.

Then, one Saturday, Marge dropped the bombshell Annie had been trying to prepare herself for all summer.

“Steve and I think it’s time for you and Kimberly to meet. We thought we’d all go to the zoo today. Have a picnic.”

Annie dunked her toast into her fried egg yolk in slow motion. If she pretended not to hear, maybe her mother would stop talking.

“I’m making potato salad,” Marge went on, bringing eggs and potatoes to the table. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

A glance out the kitchen window showed a serene sky with tiny traces of thin, white clouds. If I pray real hard, Annie thought, will God turn those clouds into rain? She knew the answer, all right.

I’d rather meet the ghost-girl, she wanted to tell her mother. But Marge wouldn’t even talk about the ghost. Why, just last night Annie had chased the ghost-girl around the front of the building and onto the busy street. Where the little girl had disappeared to this time, Annie just couldn’t figure out. Last week, Annie had heard the floorboards in the front hall creaking and she hurried to unbolt the door, finding a ball and jacks, but no ghost-girl.

“It can’t be a ghost, Annie” Marge had said that time. “Ghosts don’t jump-rope and play jacks.”

But, maybe they did. How did Marge know? Had SHE ever seen a ghost? If there wasn’t a ghost, why did Annie still feel eyes watching her? Curious eyes, caressing eyes; eyes that might belong to Mrs. Allen, the grandmother who had died of grief several months after the accident, so Annie found out from Mrs. Gomez on another trip to the grocery store; or eyes that might belong to the little girl who had died so tragically.

Sometimes, waking up in the middle of the night with dreams of Sam fresh in her mind, Annie wondered about the ghost-girl. Where was she now? Was she in the room, watching Annie and Marge sleep?

On those nights, she would listen to Marge’s quiet, even breathing, and try to will the ghost to show herself. But nothing ever appeared, except dawn.

That Sunday, rain clouds did not appear, but the picnic was postponed anyway. Kimberly, it turned out, had a sore throat. Annie felt smug. She, herself, never got sick. She took after Sam. Sam had a constitution like a Braham bull, so Marge had said often enough. Okay, sometimes he would lie on the sofa with an ice pack on his head, but that was a hangover, it wasn’t being sick. Annie liked to think about that. That Sam never got sick. It meant he wasn’t lying in a hospital bed somewhere, too sick to come home. She liked to think he was just trying to get settled somewhere. Then, he would call, or write. Or something.

Annie hoped he called or wrote soon. Before school began. The calendar on the kitchen wall had big red Xs where the days were marked off, and a big circle around Sept. 4th, the first day of school. Annie knew she would be walking to school this time. The school was only two blocks away, and there weren’t even any streets to cross. She and Marge had gone there once already.

Annie had glared at the faded brick exterior in horror. Her throat wouldn’t let her swallow. It looked exactly like her old school. How could that be? How can everything be so ordinary? she wanted to shout. Marge had commented that it looked like a nice school, and Annie had nodded, because what else could she do? On the way home she’d held Marge’s hand so tight, her fingers turned white.

August ended in mud and rain. Gray clouds hung like dirty gauze over the whole world. Weary of being weary, Annie sat on the back porch every afternoon, waiting for the mailman. He came at 2, every day, right at 2. One day, when the clouds were becoming black and a cool breeze promised a thunderstorm, Annie strained her neck to see if the mailman was on his way, afraid she would get caught in the deluge if she waited much longer. The familiar blue uniform came around the corner of the building and handed Annie the mail. He tipped his hat at her, as he always did, and continued on but, Annie didn’t notice. All she could see was the letter sitting on top of the pile of bills and junk mail.

The address was written in tiny misshapen printing. It was the wrong apartment number and the envelope, crumpled and folded in two at some point on its travels, looked as if it had gone to Antarctica and back. It was from Sam. Annie was sure of it! It was addressed to Marge, but Annie hesitated only a second before she tore it open and read the short note eagerly.

When the rain came, it stung Annie's arms and legs like hail. Thunder and lightning shook the clouds. The trees began to swish and wave in a wild wind. There were tears on Annie's cheecks, but she told herself they were really just rain. Hugging the letter to her thin chest, she clumped up the steps, clump, clump, clump, as if each step were a mountain to climb. Once inside, she found her way into the living room, sat on the sofa and stared at the floor. The letter, damp with bad weather, fell to the floor.

It was after midnight when Marge came in and found her there, sitting like a statue, arms at her sides, face turned to the floor. Marge entered the parlor, then stepped back, startled to see Annie sitting on the sofa in the dark with the TV on, turned so low you couldn’t hear it.

“Annie,” Marge went to stand in front of her, blocking the blue-glow of the TV, “is something wrong? Are you sick?”

Annie sighed. She bent down and picked the letter up, handing it to her mother.

“Oh Annie!” Marge recognized Sam’s scrawl immediately. The paper burned her fingers, like a threat from a thief. She moved to read the writing in the glow of the TV.

“Marge,” Sam had written, “I hope this letter finally gets to you. I’ve been trying to find you for awhile now. You seem to move around a lot. I’m writing to tell you that I’m getting married next week. She’s a nice girl, like you. Thing is, she has two kids, and we’re having one of our own soon. I wanted you to tell Annie, if you could. I want to get back east to see her, but, it’s hard, you probably already know all about that. Can you tell Annie I love her.  Maybe when we get a phone, I can call. Can you send me your number? I miss Annie a lot. Ask her to write to me, if she wants to. I promise to write back. I’m sorry about everything, Marge. No hard feelings, ok? Love, Sam.”

Annie's eyes watched her mother’s dim silhouette, framed by the light of the TV.
“He’s never coming back,” she said.

Marge tore the letter into pieces and threw them to the floor. She went to Annie and kneeled at her feet. “We don’t need him!” she said.

Annie sighed. “I miss him.”

Marge folded Annie’s spindly legs in a warm embrace, “I know you do," she whispered. "But, he’s gone, Annie. I can’t bring him back for you. I’m sorry. Listen, you don’t have to write to him. If he writes again, we’ll just throw it away. Ok?”

“16 Blackstone Lane, Apartment 4, Kingsblade, Iowa,” Annie recited. Marge hid her face in Annie’s knees. “I could, maybe, write him-- just a short note. He said he’d write back.”

“Yes,” Marge whispered. “Yes, he said he would.” She thought of all the other things Sam had said, all those other times, but a look at Annie's face forced her recriminations back down her throat. Not now, she thought. Not yet. She had to get Annie to bed. Tomorrow was the first day of school.

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