Desiree and the Spinster Sisters
by Mary Brunini McArdle
Charlotte Moore Jernigan
“Something’s not right about that house,” Miss Geraldine said.
Miss Amanda blew her nose. “You’ve been saying that for years, but neither of us has figured out exactly what.”
“The children never ring that doorbell on Halloween.”
“Geraldine, you wouldn’t ring that doorbell yourself when we got a piece of Mr. Stetson’s mail. You slipped it in his mailbox in the heat of the day when nobody was outside.”
Miss Geraldine dropped the corner of the lace curtain on the living room window. The sisters spent hours in the living room, gossiping, mending, watching TV. Miss Geraldine had beer and chips around five, contributing to her plump figure, and Miss Amanda took a single dry martini before the elderly spinsters fixed their supper. They retired to the upstairs bedrooms after carefully locking up. Miss Amanda was a restless sleeper; she sometimes heard a car start up in the driveway next door in the early hours of the morning.
“Can’t understand why a single man living alone has two new cars, anyway,” she muttered under her breath. “Course he’s right peculiar. Never saw a black man before with blue eyes like that.”
“Comes from the Northeast somewhere,” Miss Geraldine said, her sharp ears picking up every word coming from her sister’s pursed lips.
* * *
Daddy came to visit only to inform Desiree he would be away for several months. “I have back-to-back trips planned for Europe.”
He handed her a large box. “This should do you for clothes and such.”
Well? Desiree thought. He’s gone most of the time. He’s never even taken me home for the weekend.
Daddy was a dark man with a mustache and incredible blue eyes. His deceased wife had been a large blonde woman. That graced their only child with olive skin and chestnut hair, but Desiree also had the unlikely blue eyes which drew attention to her face. She was eleven before she began to catch on that she was not nearly as handicapped as she had been told. One leg twisted inward below the knee, a condition which could have been corrected. She had also been led to believe she was below normal intelligence — ruses contrived to institutionalize her.
Too young to be aware of state licensing practices, she didn’t realize she was housed in a place that was illegal. It was so far off the beaten path as to have escaped the notice of the authorities. When she was addressed as “DeeDee,” she responded, assuming this was laziness on the part of the staff. She didn’t know Daddy had created a false name for her — “DeeDee Myers.”
But despite the fact that at twelve Desiree was not the least retarded, there were gaps in her schooling. She was somewhere in the South — she guessed that much, but where? Snow fell only every other winter or so; ice storms were random and scattered. She had a book that identified trees; she pored over it constantly. “Sweet gums, red maples and pin oaks,” she mouthed softly, “magnolias and mimosas and crepe myrtles and pines.”
Desiree loved trees. Flowers were nice, but trees were more comforting, like big arms that could wrap around you, branches that could rock you to sleep.
Magnolia Manor was a small, two-story structure that housed sixteen residents. The staff was small, too — mostly country people who walked to work or shared a few rundown trucks. This Desiree had figured out because first, the staff all talked alike, and second, she had eyes and could observe the parking lot.
She sighed. She never approached anyone with questions. There wasn’t much conversation at meals; several residents had to be fed, some drooled. None appeared normal to Desiree — the contrast between herself and her companions had much to do with her self-image which grew more definite over time.
There were flashes of herself as a young child: hotels, constant travel, an endless string of tutors and nannies, until she was around nine. She had been here ever since.
One particularly unpleasant memory stood out — the time Daddy took her dress. He had entered her room after she was asleep and demanded her lavender polished cotton.
“But it’s my favorite,” she protested.
“I need to borrow it — you’ll have new clothes.”
The next morning she discovered all her clothes had been replaced.
Then followed the flight from Europe in the middle of the night, and stopovers in strange places and she had ended up here.
“They’ll take good care of you, Desiree,” Daddy said. “You need a special place because of your handicap.”
But there were no exercises and whirlpool baths for her leg, like there had been before.
* * *
“I wish you wouldn’t do that. Looks like a cornstalk walking a mosquito. Don’t you think a Chihuahua gets enough exercise inside, Amanda?”
“That’s how we discovered the two cars, Geraldine. If I hadn’t walked Bitsy just when that man opened his garage door I wouldn’t have seen the blue Lexus.” Miss Amanda started to express her resentment but bit her lip. She was six feet and bony; all through school she had been called “Tall Amanda.” Geraldine doesn’t object when I change the light bulbs and reach the top kitchen cabinets, Miss Amanda thought. She finished adjusting Bitsy’s harness and started for the front door.
* * *
Desiree woke trembling from an all too familiar dream. Never able to decide if the dream events had really happened, they still frightened her.
She was in bed in the hotel in Madrid when she heard voices. Her nanny was sound asleep; curious, Desiree crept to the suite’s living room — just in time to see Daddy and another man pulling a lady feet first through the front entrance. The lady had on pale blue; her long red hair was sticky with blood. The other man, a big, golden-skinned man with a single stud earring, looked up and saw Desiree standing wide-eyed in the doorway. She scrambled back to her bed, her bad leg dragging behind her.
Then she heard voices again, Daddy and the other man.
“I think she saw too much. And I know she saw me.”
“She’s only nine years old.”
“You’re going to have to get rid of her, Stetson.”
“She’s my daughter!”
“See to it. She’s dead, do you hear me?”
And in the dream, her Daddy pointed a finger at her and whispered, “You’re dead. You’re dead.”
* * *
Miss Amanda and Miss Geraldine lived in a small community in north Mississippi, consisting mostly of Victorian-style cottages or dainty two-story houses. The sisters frequented the antique shops on an old back road that led down toward Tupelo. The road was hilly and shaded; the sisters liked it because there was little traffic, although Miss Geraldine was nervous about being there after dark. She refused to go unless the car was in tip-top condition. “We mustn’t break down on this road, Amanda,” she warned. “It’s much too isolated.”
Miss Amanda had to concur; a person could get lost down here and never be missed. She felt reassured by Bitsy’s presence; the Chihuahua had a protective instinct. Miss Geraldine brought her sturdy umbrella, regardless of the weather.
The sisters would return to their house, ecstatic over their finds–usually tea cups or vases or lace doilies. Nobody made nice doilies nowadays. Then the two women would have tea and glance out at the house next door, dark and silent. A yard service kept up the lawn, shrub beds, and rose trellis, but no sounds ever came from the house — no voices, no TV, nothing. No lights, either. Even the neighborhood cats avoided the property. Miss Amanda and Miss Geraldine figured their neighbor was gone for long periods of time, except for the nights when there was the sound of a car engine, or an occasional sighting of Mr. Stetson by the mailbox.
“He must go somewhere he doesn’t want anybody to know about,” commented Miss Amanda. “To leave in the wee hours of the morning like he does, always in that blue Lexus. He uses the other car during the day, the rare times we see him.”
“He certainly keeps to himself,” her sister agreed.
“Yes — like he has something to hide,” Miss Amanda added.
September ambled toward October, then a crisp November overtook north Mississippi. Soon desolate rainy days alternated with blustery winds and an icy winter sun.
Miss Amanda woke again to the sound of the neighbor’s car engine warming up. She looked out her window. To her surprise, after the Lexus left the garage, a small white van outlined by the misty street lamp quietly maneuvered into position several hundred yards behind the Lexus. It was too dark for Miss Amanda to identify the driver. She would have been flabbergasted to know that it was a man wearing an earring.
“My!” Miss Amanda exclaimed. “Oh, my goodness!”
But in the morning she forgot to tell Miss Geraldine about it.
* * *
Several days later Miss Geraldine remarked, “We’d best go to the antique shops before it gets any colder, for Christmas shopping. We can’t drive on bad roads and Gertrude and Doris would love one of those hand-crocheted throws we saw.”
Miss Amanda yawned.
“Unless you’re too tired, dear. Did that car engine disturb you again last night?”
“Yes, but I was already awake. It was around six a.m. If we get an early start — it’s only eight.”
“It won’t take me a minute to get ready. Don’t let me forget my umbrella.”
They turned the corner ten minutes before the police responded to the 911 call. So Miss Geraldine and Miss Amanda missed the excitement of the ambulance coming for their bludgeoned and bleeding neighbor. He was found in his garage lying beside a tan Camry, a cell phone in his hand. He died en route to the hospital. An unidentified white van was parked on the side street.
* * *
Desiree sat near her bedroom window after breakfast, relishing the view of fallen leaves and the nearly bare branches of the deciduous trees outside. She was already dressed in a navy skirt and pink sweater, loafers and knee socks.
When she saw the golden-skinned man approaching the lobby on foot, she didn’t quibble about whether her dreams had been real or imaginary. He was here, and he wanted her dead, and the smell of danger filled her nostrils. Without waiting to grab a jacket, she left her room and limped down the hall to the back stairs.
“You’re dead, you’re dead,” the whisper echoed inside her head. Was it her father’s voice or that of the other man’s? She didn’t care; the implication was there either way. “You’re dead, Desiree.”
She stumbled through the kitchen, knocking a mixing bowl out of the cook’s hands and letting the back door slam with a loud bang.
“Child, come back!” the cook yelled. “It’s freezing cold out there!”
“The magnolia tree,” Desiree gasped, ignoring her. “It’s a climbing tree. I can get over the fence if I can reach the magnolia tree.”
Still green, it provided some cover for the girl. She was on the other side of the fence and struggling through leaves and pine cones before she heard the shouts coming from the back door.
“Mister, what are you doin’ in the kitchen? You’re not on the staff.”
“Shut up and get out of my way.” This was out of reach of Desiree’s hearing, but provoked further yelling from the cook as she was knocked into a counter full of stainless-steel pans.
* * *
“Well, if that doesn’t — Geraldine! Isn’t that our neighbor’s Lexus — parked in back of the antique store?”
“Amanda, I’m sure there’s more than one blue Lexus in Mississippi.”
“Not with that license plate.”
“You memorized the plate?”
“His other car, too. The tan one.”
“Really. Well, no use dilly-dallying out here in the cold. Let’s go in.”
* * *
Desiree could hear the crunching from heavy shoes despite her own raspy breathing and the noise her bad leg made as she struggled through the woody area.
“He’s coming!” she panted.
“You’re dead,” came the reply in her mind.
I’m not dead, she screamed silently. I’m alive.
She had covered more ground than she realized. She had been moving diagonally from the back fence of Magnolia Manor toward the old highway. In the distance she could see a cluster of small buildings, solitary and dreary in the wintry countryside.
Move, she told herself, aware the crunching was getting closer. Move faster. One of her loafers came loose; she left it without a second thought.
* * *
Miss Geraldine and Miss Amanda exited the shop laden with parcels. Bitsy, wearing a bright red sweater, paced nervously in in the rear window.
Miss Amanda opened the driver’s side door and popped the trunk button. “Put those things in there, Geraldine, and hurry. I’m freezing. Bitsy! What are you doing? Get back here!”
The Chihuahua flew from the back of the car and out the open door. Then she made for the woods behind the shop, barking nonstop.
“She’s never run off like that,” Miss Amanda exclaimed. “Bitsy!
“Lock the car, Geraldine, we’ve got to go after her.”
Miss Amanda strode ahead while Miss Geraldine huffed along in her wake.
They heard the girl screaming even before they saw the man with his hands around her throat.
Bitsy leapt at him, sinking her sharp little teeth into his arm. He cursed and tried to slap her away, but she had embedded her teeth in his flesh; she held on as he flailed his arms, allowing Desiree to struggle to her feet.
Miss Geraldine needed no prompting; she stepped forward and began banging the man on the head with her umbrella.
The antique shop people heard the commotion — Miss Amanda replacing Desiree’s cries with a few shrieks of her own. Finally a brass spittoon crashed down on the back of the golden-skinned man’s neck, and a lone female customer took it upon herself to call the law.
Miss Amanda and Miss Geraldine — after retrieving the still snarling Bitsy — found themselves surrounded by police and shop owners, all talking at once.
When one of the policemen suggested calling Children’s Services to come for the bedraggled twelve-year-old, Miss Amanda reacted immediately. “Can’t you see what this poor child has been through?” she said sternly. “Look at her: she’s shivering. She doesn’t even have a jacket. Geraldine, give the nice Officer our names and address. We’re taking this child home for a bath and a good hot supper.”
“Biscuits,” Miss Geraldine agreed. “Biscuits and honey. What’s your name, dear?”
“Desiree Stetson.” Blue eyes peered anxiously from an oval face framed by tangled chestnut curls.
The policemen looked at each other. “Stetson?” one of them murmured. “Wasn’t he the—”
Then they looked at Tall Amanda with her determined expression and at Miss Geraldine with her hands on her hips and at the Chihuahua dancing around everybody’s ankles.
There was no further discussion.
Copyright © 2006 by Mary Brunini McArdle