Spying on Annie Bly

Spying on Annie Bly

Spying on Annie Bly 750 492 Lisa Voorhees

The lemon glaze on Irene’s freshly baked yellow Bundt cake hadn’t even begun to dry as she stood in her galley kitchen and gawked at the colorful disturbance outside her second story window. 

Annie Bly, her across-the-street neighbor, flounced down the steps of her yellow-fronted townhouse. Her layered peach skirts fluttered in the early afternoon breeze and her auburn hair spilled over her shoulders – her bare shoulders – that she hadn’t bothered to cover with a sweater or even a shawl. 

The woman was shameless! Trouncing around in public with what amounted to no more than a strappy red skin-tight camisole and red heels with a thin buckle around the ankle. In her hands, she carried an oversized green trunk that was apparently much too heavy for her.

She stumbled over the last step, hauled it to the curb, and set it down next to her vintage candy pink Volkswagen Beetle with matching hubcaps.

Irene scowled, untied her apron, and tossed it aside. She assumed her usual furtive position by the window and squinted for a better view of the street. 

After a few test swings, Annie Bly tossed the trunk onto the wire roof rack of her car with one great heave. She gripped her stomach afterward and exhaled through cherry red lips to catch her breath. 

What did the infernal woman think she was doing? She had no sooner returned home than she was leaving again, no doubt with a different gentleman caller than the one who had visited earlier in the week. 

Did the woman even have a respectable job, like teaching, perhaps, or secretarial work, or did she mooch off her rich lovers?

Irene pursed her lips. 

As if she didn’t have enough to worry about living alone as a widow without the scandal surrounding Annie Bly. None of the ladies in her quilting circle wanted to visit her anymore. None, that is, except Viola Sprague, but Viola didn’t count. She lived in the apartment across the hall. 

A knock sounded at the door. 

Irene crossed the room to open it. “Viola, I didn’t expect you this early. Please, come in.”

Her friend stepped inside. Deep shadows clung to the hollows of her eyes. The vivid green of her lightweight sweater accentuated how haggard she appeared, how shrunken. Despite the ghastly contrast, her dark hair was coiffed perfectly in the latest style, parted down the side, with slightly upturned ends.

“Is everything all right?”

“I’m fine.” Viola gave her a weak smile. “Really.” 

Irene trusted Viola to be honest with her. Her friend had never been anything but, as long as she had known her, which was a considerable length of time. Irene’s husband, Harold, had passed away of a heart attack eight years ago, and the two of them had lived in the apartment building ten years prior to that. She’d never had another neighbor across the hall; Viola had been it. They’d seen each other through the first pangs of widowhood, which Viola had suffered a year prior to Harold’s passing. There simply were no secrets she and Viola hadn’t shared, no gossip they hadn’t delighted in together.

If there was one quality of Viola that Irene loved, it was her ability to enter into a hearty discussion over the state of others’ affairs, neighbors and acquaintances alike. Though Viola often rounded out the sharp edges of Irene’s criticisms, she felt she could unburden herself on Viola without fear of judgment or repercussions. Lately, however, a change had come over Viola, one Irene couldn’t quite put her finger on. She worried their friendship might be transitioning. An insufferable thought. She stuffed it away, determined not to let it undermine the moment.

Irene steered Viola toward her invisible spot by the window. “What do you make of that?” she sneered. “Who do you suppose she’s hoodwinked into traveling with her this time? And with a trunk that size, for how long?”  

Viola squirmed out of Irene’s grasp, lifted her arm as if in slight annoyance, and backed away from the window. “I wouldn’t know,” she said. “If Annie wants to skip town for a few days, what difference does it make? She can do as she pleases if it makes her happy.” 

Irene narrowed her eyes at Viola. “It makes a huge difference,” she said. “To us. To the reputation of the neighborhood.” 

Viola rolled her eyes. “Please. No one’s as concerned about what Annie does as you, trust me.”

Irene stiffened. “Where is this coming from?” 

Viola sagged into a chair at the table. The sinking arch of her neck reminded Irene of a drooping houseplant. She poured a glass of ice water and placed it in front of Viola. “I’m exhausted,” was all Viola said. 

“Are you sleeping well?” 

“I’m sleeping fine.”

Irene slid into the chair opposite Viola. “Well, what is it, then?” There was something Viola wasn’t telling her, and she was determined to ferret it out. No secrets between friends, she and Viola were living proof of that. 

“I spoke with Annie the other day.” 

“You what?” Irene blubbered. “Since when are we on speaking terms with that…that–” She waved her hand at the window.

Viola lifted tired eyes to her, her cheek pressed into wrinkles from propping her chin in her palm. “Annie’s not who – what – you think she is. She’s a good person. You shouldn’t judge her.” 

Irene folded her arms and cocked an eyebrow. By the looks of it, she had every right to judge Annie Bly. One conversation with Viola had apparently swayed her friend’s opinion of her so far afield, Viola’s mind was no longer open to her, their afternoon conversation so regrettable as to be decidedly not theirs. 

“So you’re friends with the likes of her now?” Irene hedged, clicking her tongue after. She huffed and turned aside, muttering, “What’s the world coming to?”

Viola sighed, then took a small sip of water.

Irene watched as she set the glass down. Viola’s fingers trembled slightly. Irene glanced back up at her friend’s face, unable to catch her eye. 

“Who visited whom?” Irene asked. 

Viola met her gaze. “What do you mean?” 

“You said you spoke to her. Did Annie visit you? I’d like to think she has better sense than to come traipsing over here like that.”

“Irene.” 

“What? I don’t like the idea of that woman setting foot inside this building. It presents the wrong image.”

“Irene, please!” 

“Please, what? You still haven’t answered my question. Who visited whom?”

“I visited her actually, to drop off an assortment of homemade breads.” 

Irene’s ears began to burn. A red warmth crept up the lobes and along the sides of her face to her hairline. Embarrassment or a sign of early rage, she wasn’t sure which, but underneath the table, she pinched her fingers together, tight. It would do Viola no good to holler at her. She seemed meek today, less resilient than Irene was used to thinking of her. More tender, like overripe fruit, and easier to bruise.

She lowered her voice, kept it even and steady. “Homemade bread? What was the occasion?”

“It’s what we do after our Monday night support meetings. We exchange names and surprise each other with small gifts during the week.” 

Irene’s eyebrows drifted up. “Support…meetings?”

A small smile tugged at the corner of Viola’s mouth but did nothing to dispel the sadness welling in her eyes. “Yes, Irene. You heard correctly.”

Irene plunked her hands down on the table. She would have to wipe away the imprints later, along with the circles of water from the condensation on Viola’s glass. Placemats would have prevented the issue, but Viola had arrived earlier than she anticipated.

“What are you talking about?” She stood up. The chair scraped on the floor behind her. Irene jabbed a beringed finger on the table. “What trouble has that woman gotten herself into? What sob story of hers guilted you into feeling you have to volunteer your time to help her?”

“Stop it!” 

Viola cut her gaze sideways and pressed her lips together; the skin around her mouth blanched. Her chest heaved as the first hint of color touched her cheeks. She was the most upset Irene had seen her in days, weeks even. 

Viola turned to look at her, her eyes glassy, her lower lip trembling. “Annie is not in any trouble, not the kind you’re thinking, anyway.” 

Irene dropped into her seat. Why was Viola so worked up about this neighbor of theirs? It made no sense. The woman had bewitched her. God knows how she’d done it, but Annie Bly had snatched Viola right out from under her nose when she wasn’t paying attention.

“For God’s sake, Irene, it’s a cancer support group. Didn’t you have any idea?” 

Viola sunk her fingers into her hair and slid the wig off her head. She set it on her lap, cradling it gently like a tiny living thing, and glanced about shyly at first. A moment later, her gaze settled on Irene. 

Cancer? 

It wasn’t possible. Not for Viola, or anyone she dared to care about. Anything but that. Her vision swam before her and Irene pressed a hand to her temple, hesitating until her eyesight straightened itself out. The road would be such a long one, and fraught with difficulties, unpleasant side effects, countless trips to the hospital, and…what was she thinking? 

Her thoughts were spiraling and that was not something she ever gave herself permission to do, not when it was personal, anyway. She nipped the chain before another link could be added and felt the line drop away, out of sight. 

Good riddance.

She stared at Viola and in the depths of her friend’s eyes, encountered an unsettling boldness. The very awareness unnerved her. A strange tickle crawled up her spine, and she shivered. 

That Viola should keep a secret like this from her! 

“Of course, I didn’t know,” Irene said. “Why should I when you’ve been so uncommunicative?” 

Viola’s face tightened; fine wrinkles formed at the corners of her eyes. She set the wig on the table. “I suppose you’ll tell me the wig isn’t suitable for me, either, that I should have picked a different style.”

Irene had nothing to say to that. Viola had misunderstood. She wasn’t unsympathetic, she was profoundly hurt. That Viola had chosen to confide in a group of strangers before Irene, her own friend and closest confidante, was the real sting.

Rather than say something she would regret, she excused herself and went to the kitchen. The Bundt cake had cooled by now. She could take it out, along with a couple dessert plates, and they could resume talking about more pleasant topics. 

She reached inside the cupboard and heard a knock at the front door. Cake in hand, she peered around the side of the dividing wall. 

“Don’t worry, Viola, I’ll be right–” Her words caught in her throat; the cake platter grew heavy in her grasp. 

If it wasn’t the usurping queen herself, planted right at the threshold of Irene’s doorway, fresh from outside with her windblown hair, too bright lips, and pert, upturned nose. 

Viola had opened the door for her, and what was this? A quick peck on each cheek from Annie Bly, an amazed exclamation over her friend’s uncovered head, a bit of nervous laughter from Viola, followed by an extended hug from the woman in the peach skirt and red heels. 

“How lovely you look,” Viola said. She held Annie’s hands in her own. “Please, won’t you come in?”

With a gasp, Irene spun back inside the kitchen and set the cake down on the counter. Her heart fluttered painfully and robbed her of breath. That woman, inside my house! Damn you, Viola!

Irene’s pulse hammered in her head, but she kept silent, intent on catching every word spoken in the other room.

“Your bread was delicious,” Annie said in that breathy, shy voice of hers. The one she probably used on all her gentlemen friends to woo them in. “Thank you.” 

“You didn’t have to thank me,” Viola said. 

“Well, I didn’t come just for that. Here, this is for you.” 

A soft rustling ensued, the crackle of a paper shopping bag. 

Viola babbled something, confused.

“Turns out I drew your name this week,” Annie said. “We drew each others’ names, I guess. I stopped by your apartment and when you didn’t answer, the tenant down the hall told me I should try coming here, that you were probably visiting your friend.”

“How sweet of you! You should stay. I’d love to introduce you to Irene…”

God, no! Irene clapped a hand over her mouth. 

“Thank you, but I’m afraid I can’t. I have a flight to catch. I’m going away for a few days to the Bahamas.”

Another polite murmur from Viola, and a round of nauseatingly affectionate gestures. The door clicked shut, and Irene picked up the cake platter and strode into the other room. 

She placed the cake on the table and returned a moment later with the dessert plates, two forks, and a knife. 

“I hope you don’t mind that I answered the door,” Viola said. 

Irene’s gaze drifted down to the lime green shopping bag on the chair in front of her. The cloying scent of lavender hung in the air, a disturbing, unwanted remnant of the other woman’s presence. 

“What is that?” She pointed the serving knife at the bag.

“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t opened it yet.” A pleased smile stretched across Viola’s face. She settled in the chair with the bag in her lap and dug through the layers of tissue paper inside. 

She pulled out a gauzy silk scarf with a golden background and purple irises printed all down its length, trimmed by a brown border. 

Viola held it up. The scarf draped past her knees, and she turned it this way and that in the afternoon light. Entranced, she passed it through her hands and admired the way it slid through her fingers. 

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” she breathed. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Have you, Irene?”

The Bundt cake sat, unnoticed and unremarkable, in the center of the table. The glaze had fallen in all the right crevices, perfectly formed. The best Irene had ever had a lemon glaze turn out on a Bundt cake. 

Viola stood up, the scarf entwined in her hands, her wig cast aside on the edge of the table. When in all this mess had her friend forgotten to put it back on? Irene wondered if she should say something. 

Viola stared outside the window. “I have to go thank Annie,” she said. Quick as a bird in flight, she whipped around, headed for the door, and left it open a crack. Her footsteps receded down the stairs. 

Irene set the knife on the table. The wig lay inches away. A despicable falsehood to cover up the ravages of a despicable disease. She didn’t want to admit it, but Irene hated the wig. Like the shed skin of an animal who’d long ago left it behind and migrated elsewhere, she felt it cling to her like phantom cobwebs. 

With one hasty motion, she swept the wig into the shopping bag and placed the bag by the door.

She moved over to the window. The downstairs door thumped closed. Viola launched herself out into the street and waved a hand in the air to get Annie’s attention.

Annie was fastening the green trunk to the wire rack on top of her car, checking the attachments. Her skirts twirled as she spun, and sunlight glinted off her hair. Viola held up the scarf, and the two hugged for the second time that day.

Irene wrapped her arms around herself and took a step closer. Bareheaded and unashamed, Viola stood there and embraced the most morally reprehensible element on the street, as if her life depended on the gift she’d been given. 

A bitter taste filled Irene’s mouth. 

Annie took the scarf from Viola and loosely wrapped it around her own head in a variety of styles, demonstrating to Viola all the different ways she could arrange it. At the last positioning, Viola smiled and laughed, “Yes, yes, that one! Show me how!”

Annie did, and spun her around after. While Annie admired and fussed over her, Viola smiled and laughed. 

Irene stalked back to the table, grabbed the knife, and cut herself a slice of cake. She flopped it on a dessert plate and forked a bite into her mouth. 

One bite hadn’t given her the fix she needed, so she took a second, a third, and a fourth after that. By the fifth bite, the cake hadn’t delivered, so she slammed the plate down. The fork clattered on the table. 

“Damn it!” 

Irene swept the cake platter off the table and carried it into the kitchen. She felt ashamed, and having something to hide eased the sting of it, the incalculable concession she’d made without putting up more of a fight. 

What was there to fight for? 

She’d lost Viola ages ago. To that damnable Annie Bly and her candy pink Beetle and her silk scarves and swishy peach skirts. Hard to imagine the woman had suffered anything close to what Viola must be going through, although damn it all if they weren’t out there in the street kicking up their heels and having a party over…what?

Hot tears sprang to her eyes and Irene swept them away. She reached for the hand mirror she kept by the side of the refrigerator, gazed into it, and squinted and pursed her lips. Then she let her features fall flat. 

Was that dark spot on her neck anything to worry about? It hadn’t altered in appearance or size that she was aware of, though she’d never bothered to pay it much mind. 

Her doctors had given her a clean bill of health after her last annual examination. She was in no danger, now or anytime soon. When had Viola first gotten sick? Irene had hardly noted a change in her, until today. 

Irene glanced again at the cake. 

The most perfect lemon glaze, falling along the lines of the cake in a perfect drizzle pattern. 

Her stomach lurched and she dragged the platter across the counter, opened the lid of the garbage can, and swept the cake aside. It hit the bottom with a dull splat.

Irene peered down at the remains of her decimated masterpiece. Ugly yellow smears of lemon glaze clung to the sides of the bag like days old rotten eggs.

Header photo by Dani Wojtalewicz.

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