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“Excuse me? Are you waiting for someone?” I looked up, surprised. I hadn’t heard anyone coming- then again, I wasn’t exactly in my most attentive mood. The speaker was a pretty thing, a girl around my own age, with freckles and soft cascading waves of copper hair. If I’d been in a better disposition, I might have even flirted with her, but as it was, it didn’t look like that would be happening anytime soon.
“No- just drowning in my misery,” I attempted a weak grin, a sad attempt at bravado. The girl looked questioningly down at me with curious soft brown eyes.
“Care to spill it with a freaky strange girl you’ll probably never ever see again?” She smiled and hesitated before sitting down on the park bench beside me, as if unsure I would let her. Well, at least she had a sense of humor. Better to “spill it” as she put it, than to silently sink in my own private cesspool of despair.
“If you’ve got a moment,” I said with a heavy sigh.
“I’ve got more than a moment,” she smiled again, white teeth flashing. “Why else would I be here listening to a tortured soul?” Tortured soul, huh? I guess that’s what I was. I frowned at that, but I put it behind me and looked ahead, concentrating on the coastal view in front of me. The smell of brine whisked around me, clearing my head temporarily.
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name,” I looked back at the redhead beside me curiously.
“Oh! I’m sorry! It’s Tess!” She blushed, and held out her hand.
“Andy,” I said, shaking her hand with a small smile. At least this smile wasn’t forced.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” I started, glancing at the girl beside me. “It’s a difficult story to tell for me.” The girl bit her lip and nodded. I brushed the unruly brown locks out of my eyes, and turned back to the ocean. Seabirds soared around two dark points of rock jutting out of the water, flying like that was their only care in the world. Lucky birds. One banked into a tree growing out on the top of one of the rocks, sitting like he owned the sea itself, not to mention every fish in it. Gray water crashed at the base of the rock, startling a crow from his unstable perch on the stone. The gulls crooned in delight, spiraling through the salty mist until they came to rest in the swells.
“My half-sister was born two years before me, in 1989. Anne was my father’s daughter from his previous marriage. When he married my mother and I was born, conflict arose. You see, my father was not what one would call a poor man. So who would inherit my father’s fortune? I was younger, but I more closely resembled my father. Anne was two years older, but she was a girl. Really, it’s stupid that people still argue over that stuff,” I paused to take a breath of the salty sea air, and continued.
“Before I was six, the pressure was already on. We were both strained to the breaking point- some of my earliest memories include my mother hurriedly instructing me to mind my manners and only speak when asked. I didn’t have the most pleasurable childhood,” I said with a frown. “If I’m remembering correctly, we got spanked just for bringing home anything less than an ‘A’ on our report cards. Andy Smith and Anne Williams could be no less than model students. We were both encouraged to the breaking point.
Anne was constantly ushered into various dates with rich young men whereas I was propelled into a fast moving world of lacrosse and sexy women. Not necessarily bad positions for either of us, but our own personal wishes were cast aside like leaves in a hurricane. If we ever asked why, the answer was always ‘no reason’,” I smiled wistfully again. Tess considered this beside me, apparently deep in thought.
“I always wanted to be a sailor,” I motioned to the choppy waves in front of us, “but Mother would have none of it as my father was terrified of drowning. Of course, she never said that aloud, but it was almost written on her face. It was that intense,” I frowned.
“We weren’t allowed to do anything Father never would have decided for us, so Anne was on a fast track to a modeling career while Mother prepared me for paper shuffling in a cubicle as an editor for the New York Times.” I stopped to look out at the sea again. The trees wavered in a particularly strong gust of wind, but stayed anchored onto the rock while birds coasted on the winds, carried by the invisible current of air.
“It didn’t happen that way, did it,” Tess murmured beside me.
“Not exactly,” I hung my head and scuffed the dirt with my foot. “Two weeks after Anne left for her career, we stopped receiving phone calls from her. Mother and Father were terrified, but they tried not to show it. What if their gorgeous daughter had found herself with a child? The whole family would be a laughingstock in the social world. Quite the scandal... or, even worse, what if she had forgotten her morels? They both assumed what they considered was the worse, shallowly ignoring the immediate danger they had been building up since we entered kindergarten.”
Tess’s shoulders slumped. “She killed herself, didn’t she?” Tess murmured. “The pressure was too much.”
“She did.” I burrowed my face in my hands, and felt to my shame, saline moisture on my cheeks. Far below us, the waves crashed against the cliff’s base. “She didn’t even bother to write a note or anything. The last time any of us saw her was during Christmas break. She’d convinced our parents she only forgot to call, but before she left she pulled me aside to talk to her. What was it?”
I tilted my head up to the cloudy sky, ashamed as I wiped the salty tracks from my cheeks. “‘If Mom and Dad ever ask why, tell them it was no reason. Maybe then they’ll know.’ I had no clue what she was talking about, but I tried not to show it. I think she saw through me though,” I shook my head. “She only laughed, in that little you-don’t-know-anything way. And then she left. Three days later, the school called saying that our dear little honor-student-Anne hadn’t attended school for the last two days.
Mother and Father even came down themselves, going so far as too pay a private detective. We found her just yesterday,” I closed my eyes, trying to rid the image from my head. “Down by these very cliffs.” I shuddered, and tried to stem the flow of tears.
“I’m sorry,” Tess murmured, patting my knee. “Here.” She placed a handkerchief in my hand, smiling sadly. “It’s old fashioned, but it works better than almost anything- trust me.” When I looked up to thank her, she was gone. I sat on the bench, considering the conversation. Tess was right, whoever she was. It felt good to talk. I looked down at the linen hankie in my hand, trying to figure out how to get it back to Tess. It was simple, with only ‘T.W.T’ embroidered in the right corner.
With a sigh, I got up and started towards the small convenience store behind the bench. From my experience, if anyone knew the people around here, it would be the man behind the desk. As I entered the door, I knew I was right. Old men gossiped by a big metal stove, warming their hands as they tried to outdo everyone else’s tall tales. A back door led to a small café where the soft, alluring scent of baking bread wafted through the doorway. I looked after it hungrily, but tore myself away to face the guy behind the counter. He didn’t notice me for the first few minutes, as he was wildly engaged in a heated conversation with a brunette, concerning something about a harbor. When he did notice me, he winced and walked over.
“Sorry ‘bout that. Are you looking for something?” He chuckled. His glasses were slipping down his nose, though he seemed not to care as he fussed with his neat, white hair, which was the exact shade as his mustache. I nodded, and slipped the handkerchief over the counter.
“A girl named Tess gave me this. Do you know where she lives so I can return it?” The question was entirely innocent, but the guy’s eyes widened as he heard my words.
“Tess? Tessica Taylor? A pretty redhead with brown eyes and freckles?”
“I guess so...” I mumbled, shoving my hands in my pockets awkwardly.
“She jumped of the cliff out there five years ago because her family didn’t let her live her own life.”