"From that time on her front door remained closed, save for a period of six or seven years, when she was about forty, during which she gave lessons in china-painting." A Rose for Emily.
A Rose for Miss Vick
The first thing I noticed about Edward Anthony Cullen was his eyes.
They were narrow, green, and full of annoyance. Yes, they were disarming, but that was because they were full of anger, mistrust, irritation, and later, lust. There was nothing fresh or innocent in their depths; they were murky and full of secrets.
When I was a little girl, my aunt warned me to shy away from swamps.
'You never know what might be lurking underneath a lily pad, Bella. It might be a reed or it could be a snake.'
My aunt, as ever, was often correct.
And always wise.
The second thing I noticed about him was his laugh. It was harsh, bitter and barked out like an aggressive dog. True, he knew how to adjust it to his audience, but I'd caught him unguarded and I couldn't stand the sight of his snarl, the curve of his smirk, or the sound of his growl.
The third thing I noticed about him was his stingy nature; the way he shoved his receipt in my hand for the tow, and then later, the way he bellowed at me when I asked him if he was able to do the repair. "I want my money up front …" I'd like to give him something up front … well; I'd like to give him something.
What I didn't see, was the unexpected sweetness he had hidden underneath his prickly exterior.
Until his little girl with the red hair and countless freckles, came charging down the stairs and straight into his heart.
"Oh Daddy, stop being so silly; you know I'm only playing dress-up! Did you stop and get some more cherry suckers; you ate my last one. I better not catch you smoking behind Miss Vicks' Magnolia because if I do I'm going to tell Papa Carlisle and Mama Esme on you. Oh, and can we get a dog? You said we could get one as soon as we moved out of the hen house, and now we have, so …"
"Lillibet …" He groaned. "Get your tail upstairs now and put your own clothes back on, or I'm …"
But before he had a chance to finish, his daughter was in his arms, giggling and peppering his scruffy face with kisses and little girl squeals. My own childless heart thumped in response. She was certainly adorable, albeit, quite precocious.
"Mama Esme and I found the cutest little puppy in back of Burger, Daddy! He's with her and Pawpaw right now. Pawpaw said he's a little shit."
"Whoa … Paw-Paw said what?"
"He said he was a little shi …"
At that, Boots put his finger on her lips and shushed her.
"I'm sure you misunderstood, Betsy. Pawpaw doesn't talk like that. Besides … we just moved into our new house, and I work all kinds of crazy hours. And you have school to attend. I-"
"But Daddy … you promised! You said …"
"Bip … we'll talk about it later."
Her chin began to dimple.
"Oh no … I'm not falling for one of your hissy fits; not this time. Lord. You sure do take after your two crazy Ants.
Now hightail it up there and find Miss Vick. I want to go home."
She let out a sigh, tugged down her makeshift bra, and straightened her shoulders, and with a tiny huff, began to head up the stairs. About four steps in she suddenly stopped to face us.
"Daddy, who's that lady with you, is she going to be my new Mama?"
I watched his face go pink. I'm sure mine was on fire, too.
"Lizzie, we'll talk later; now-get!
He turned to me, face flushed, hair rumpled from dragging his fingers repeatedly through his locks. Despite my obvious embarrassment, I had to bite my lips to keep from smiling. I watched his eyes narrow.
"Now don't you go getting any ideas; I'm off women for the time being. What happened earlier was …"
"A big mistake," I completed his statement for him.
He lifted his eyebrows, walked towards me slowly, and then grinned.
"Was it now? Huh. Well, I kinda thought you enjoyed it, sugar. I mean, your heart was racing and the way you wrapped your legs around my waist …"
"Oh, shut-up, or I'll."
"Or you'll … what? You're going to show me some more of that Northern Aggression?"
He came over to me and ran his finger over the back of my ear, down my neck, and snaked it underneath my shirt tracing gentle circles with the pad of his thumb. My breath caught in my throat.
"I know how to tame a wild Yankee …" he chuckled, softly. "It's in my blood. Why my great-great-great- granddaddy …" I shut him up by placing my mouth on his. He tasted like cherries.
He deepened the kiss. I felt his fingers twist in the back of my hair as he gathered it into his fist and pulled on it hard causing me to throw my head back with a groan. His mouth found my throat and I felt my leg once again lift on its own accord. He hoisted me up, flush against his chest. I felt myself beginning to pant, although it might have been him; he was murmuring all sorts of nonsense in between kisses, smooches, and sweet little pecks.
A creak on the stairs made us both jump, and he nearly dropped me as a result. I removed myself, quickly, from his grasp, and did my best to straighten myself before I turned, chest heaving.
I looked up at the stairs, expecting to see a freckled-faced little girl coming down the steps.
Instead, I saw someone quite different.
A slender woman, of advanced age was poised at the top of the stairs. Her hair was pulled upwards in some kind of elaborate bun; a pompadour? Two ornate chopsticks stuck out of the coil, resembling a set of television antennas; rabbit ears. Tendrils and wisps of snow white tresses surrounded her face like a halo. Her skin was even whiter than her hair, if possible, but her cheeks were lavishly painted with rouge, as was her tiny, rosebud mouth. She was dressed in a long, gray, velvet robe with wide sleeves that festooned at the wrist. I noticed her hands were small, gnarled, and adorned with diamonds and rubies that glittered, despite the fact that sun had long gone down and the lamplight was weak.
Her other hand clasped a brass cane that was intricately embossed with jewels, which spiraled upwards towards the head of some type of bird, a parrot, perhaps?
"Well, look what the cat dragged in."
Her voice was low, cadenced, and quite musical. I stood there enthralled. It was almost like a scene from a Faulkner novel come to life.
I watched as Boots stood ramrod straight before he squared his shoulders and took off to the stairs, climbing them one measured step at a time until he reached his destination. He offered her his arm as if he was assisting royalty. She let go of the railing and took his arm; her fingers circling just above his elbow. She gave him a small nod, no more than a slight lift of her pointed chin, to indicate that she was ready for her descent.
"Edward, I believe Elizabeth requires your attention in the blue room," she stated, as soon as they reached the landing.
She turned to me, (My mouth sufficiently open to let in a swarm of flies) and said:
"You must be the young woman Mary Alice and Rosalie were discussing with me earlier. Do come into the parlor so we can get better acquainted."
With that, she let go of Boots' hand and walked steadily towards me, pausing for a moment to check her footing.
Boots' eyes never left mine during this exchange and I wondered what was going on. Why his eyes changed yet again, as they flooded with color and possibly concern. Concern for whom, I was not certain, but I heard him murmur, "Will you be okay?"
At this Miss Vick spoke, her head held high, "If you're speaking to me, then yes, I shall be perfectly fine. As for this young woman, well, we shall see.
Please take Elizabeth home and put her to bed; her need for a brassiere has worn me out; the child doesn't need one, but she wants one. Take her to Goody's tomorrow afternoon and have Pauline Pig fit her for a trainer so we can all get some relief from this delicate subject.
Oh, and Edward?
The child has been blathering non-stop about a little dog that Carlisle and Esme found this afternoon behind the restaurant. Carlisle is under the impression that it's some sort of a Shih Tzu. Apparently, Elizabeth has decided he's her new baby; she asked me if I had any of y'all's old toys or bonnets lying around in my attic. Please take the dog down to Doc Wolf's office in the morning and get him his shots."
"Never mind, but. You told the child she could have a dog when y'all got settled and now you're settled, so, in short, it's settled; subject closed."
And in those two simple words, I felt the warmth spread through my being. Boots not only had manners; he had a natural grace that belied his coarse language and his loutish habits.
But then he ruined the moment by giving me a devilish wink and mouthing the words, "Northern Aggression," just as he turned toward the stairs and took them three steps at a time.
I would have laughed had it not been for the steely gaze of Miss Vick's eyes. She stared at me for a second too long for comfort and I shifted my feet self-consciously.
I was just about to ask her if I could use her phone to contact Jasper, (the hell with James) and have him come and rescue me from this southern Gothic novel I'd stumbled into, when she spoke.
"Please allow me to introduce myself; my name is Victoria Masen, and you must be Annabelle Crow; is that correct?"
She raised her eyebrows and frowned.
"I meant to say, yes, Ma'am."
She nodded her head in acceptance.
"Crow? Did you say, Crow?"
"Yes, Ma'am, Annabelle Crow."
I looked at her shocked; surely I misunderstood! However, she only continued to stare at me with her sharp black eyes, eyes that could apparently read the truths in one's soul, and smiled.
"Humph, no matter … I'll get to the truth momentarily.
Now, I believe Mary Alice and Rose have provided us with light refreshments near the fireplace. Shall we?"
She extended her frail, bejeweled hand and I took it lightly in my own as we moseyed towards the front parlor. Once there, she nodded her head regally in the direction of a purple velvet settee and we sat side by side.
A platter of tiny sandwiches and a pitcher of amber colored liquid, with two, heavy crystal goblets, were laid out on a dark, mahogany, occasional table.
"Tea?" she asked as if she were the Queen, tossing a few alms to the poor.
"Yes, please," I humbly responded. I had no idea who this woman was, nor in truth, where I was, other than being in a small town name Masenville. I began to feel very much like Alice must have felt when she plunged head first down the rabbit hole and landed in Wonderland.
To her credit, Miss Vick poured a tall glass of iced tea into the goblets without the slightest waver of her ancient hand. I reached for the glass, but she waved her hand dismissively.
"Go over to the little cabinet; not the one with the Bible atop- the smaller one with the ivory inlays, and fetch the crystal decanter with the monogram B."
I gave her a puzzled look, but she only stared back at me, impassively. I stood as instructed, walked the considerable length of the room and found the cabinet she described.
"Open it," she commanded.
I turned the tiny latch and the door swung open. Inside stood a myriad of crystal decanters that were adorned with tiny, pewter monograms. The cabinet was deeper than one would suspect, given its height and I navigated through the glass until I found one adorned with the letter B. I plucked it out carefully, walked back over to Miss Vick, and placed it in her outstretched hands.
She poured a fairly large amount of the golden liquid into each goblet and handed it to me with a blank expression.
I looked at the mixture in my hand and paused; what if this was some kind of weird elixir that rendered me senseless, or worse, helpless?
"Oh don't be a ninny, child. Go on and drink; it's nothing more than sweet tea spiked with a bit of the Colonel's bourbon. You look like you could use a bracer, and Lord knows, I could do with one myself."
I nodded my head in defeat and took a tentative sip. The second the liquid hit the back of my throat I began to cough; it was sweet, yes, but extremely powerful! Although I was accustomed to the usual rounds of beer with Jasper on many Friday nights, and glass after glass of cheap wine that was served with regularity at various faculty functions, I was not one to imbibe in hard alcohol.
I cleared my throat as discreetly as I could and accepted the white, damask napkin Miss Vick proffered, with a choked thank you. From the next room, I could hear Boots' cackle as he exited the house with a giggling Elizabeth on his heels. My cheeks burned knowing that I was likely the cause of his guffaws.
"I see you have made quite an impression on Edward. Take care with him, Missy; his heart is precious to me; I guard it more fiercely than a blood-sniffing hound howling under a full moon."
At this, I actually did choke; what on earth was she implying? The liquid ran down my chin and onto the top of my blouse. I dabbed at the stain and frowned. Oh no, my buttons were noticeably out of place. That lout must have done that while he was pretending to remove the grease from my neck. Why of all the nerve!
My expression must have caught Miss Vick's attention because she tossed her regal head back and began to laugh, uproariously, like a hyena.
I stood, aghast, and reached for my purse. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew I couldn't stay in this madhouse with this crazed person another moment.
"Oh, sit down, girl and finish your tea; you've nowhere to go anyway. You might as well stay long enough to hear my story. I promise you, it's a good one. Besides, you can't leave until Mary Alice and Rose return. That would be the height of rudeness after they rescued you."
Flustered, I looked at her; she was right, I couldn't leave without at least thanking the girls for assisting me, besides, she was correct; I had nowhere else to go. I sat down on the far edge of the sofa and sighed.
"Will they be long?" I inquired, quietly.
"Well, that depends. I sent them to Dyer's store for a pack of Pal Malls and a banana Moon Pie.
It's a night for vices, don't you agree?
Of course, I happen to know that Dyer's closed an hour ago. I also know that those two silly gals will drive clear to Charlotte just to indulge me, so I think it's safe to say that, yes, they'll certainly be awhile.
Now then, I fancy a bedtime story. Why don't you tell me yours, and then, if I'm feeling so inclined, I'll tell you mine."
I had no idea what to say, I thought to myself. This entire afternoon was the most surreal experience of my entire life!
The exception being the episode with James, of course, I thought to myself.
I remember shuddering as I glanced uneasily out the long window. I still jumped every time his piercing blue eyes crossed my mind; I knew that he'd make good on his word and eventually track me down.
Tears flooded my own eyes, and I dabbed at them, furiously.
Suddenly I knew what I had to do and I couldn't waste another minute!
"Miss Vick, may I use your phone? I need to call the police. My purse was stolen earlier today and I was unable to get in touch with my mother or my friend. I-I need to call the authorities, immediately … people will be worrying about me and I-"
I looked at her stunned; did she just tell me no?
"That's right, I said no. The police will still be there tomorrow if you feel the need to call them. As for those who are concerned about your well-being, well, they'll just have to fret a little bit longer. According to Mary Alice, you are in a world of trouble, and believe me, if there is one thing I know about, it's trouble with a capital T."
She paused momentarily and reached for the crystal decanter.
"I declare, we should just go ahead and take a swig out of this old thing instead of diluting it with this morning's sweet tea. I've always preferred to take things as they are instead of disguising them under the pretense of being something they aren't, don't you?
She brought the decanter up to her lips, took a swig, and then passed it to me.
I looked at the bottle for a second and inwardly shrugged. I supposed if I had to be left with an eccentric old lady who both fascinated and terrified me that I might as well get well and truly incapacitated. I was probably going to wind up dead anyway. I took the decanter out of her hands, brought it to my mouth and took a long pull. This time I didn't cough or choke. I felt the fiery liquor course through my veins and miraculously began to relax.
"Well done, Miss-As-the-Crow-Flies. Take another sip and then spill. I don't have all night, and from the sounds of it, neither do you."
"I don't even know where to begin," I confessed.
"Well, in my opinion it's always best to start with the end and work your way forward when telling a story. That way, your audience can determine for themselves if it's worth their investment to hear about; there's nothing worse than getting one's hopes up only to have them dashed by a weak or boring ending."
"I don't know the ending," I admitted. "I suppose it will probably end with my death."
"Wonderful! Oh, I simply adore stories that include the demise of a beloved character. How are you going to meet your end? No, don't tell me, let me guess; there's a handsome man dressed in sheep's clothing who'll hunt you down and send you home to Jesus. Am I correct?"
"Probably," I hiccuped. I was getting tipsy, no doubt about it, and the absurdity of the situation began to tickle my funny bone. I started to giggle, helplessly.
Miss Vick frowned, removed one of the chopsticks from her bun and poked my knee with the dull end.
"Now stop this nonsense right this minute. You see this here chopstick? I can poke that silly fool's eyes out in a heartbeat and he wouldn't even see it coming, pun intended. So don't you go worrying your little head about him coming after you while you're in my domain, you hear?
Now tell me your story while you've still got enough wits to recall and before you fall asleep on my divan and ruin the upholstery."
So, I did.
I told her everything, in between my tears, fears, her constant jeers, and the occasional jab of her chopsticks.
I didn't begin at the ending or the beginning. Rather I allowed it to pour out of my mouth as freely as I poured in the bourbon, which was offered to me with regularity, by an impatient Miss Vick. She kept tsking as I told my story, telling me I was the "stupidest old thing" she'd ever met first hand, and did I care for another ham biscuit, lest I became too drunk to finish the tale.
When I got to the part where I grabbed Foghorn and shoved him inside my Michael Kors bag, she burst out laughing, slapping first her knee, then mine, and declaring:
"That a girl! I've always been partial to cocks, myself. When I was a belle, my daddy, (God rest his soul) had a cranky old rooster named Mr. Jane who gave every suitor I ever had a fit whenever they attempted to kiss me on the south veranda."
"Speaking of Foghorn, where is he now? I should probably check on him ..."
"Why, he's sound asleep in my bedroom. No need to wake him now; he'll be crowing his head off in a few hours anyway.
So, your friend, Jasper, is he the one you want to get in touch with? I love him already as if he were one of my very own."
"Yes, he's my only true friend at Haworth-Adams."
"Well, as silly as you are I'm not at all surprised; he's probably more your social worker than a friend at this point."
"Yer probly right" … I slurred, with a drunken chuckle. "You know the worse thing about all this?"
"That you didn't double tap his sorry ass while you had the chance?"
"Yep," I burped.
It took me a second before I realized that she echoed the exact same words that Jasper used when I told him the story back in New Jersey.
"Hey, how'd ja know bout double tappin?"
"I'm a shut-in, Miss-Phony-as-a Three-Dollar-Bill-Annabelle-Crow; television is my lifeline to the outside world, apart from the Cullens. I have all the premium channels at my disposal. I love The Walking Dead; it sounds like my own biography."
We both burst into laughter.
But soon after the last giggle left my throat and the final snort exited my nostril, I started to become emotional and weepy.
"I should have killed him when I had the chance; does that make me a horrible person for wishing I'd killed him? Because I do. In fact if he were here right now I'd kill him with my bare hands."
"What is your real name; tell me quick before I stab you dead with my chopstick."
"Isabella Swan. But my friends call me Bella," I confessed.
"You mean Jasper calls you Bella; everyone else calls you Dr. I. D. Ot, at least behind your back."
"Yeah," I wailed. "And they'd be correct; I am an idiot."
"Oh, shut your mouth with that talk."
"But you just said I was an idiot."
"No, I did not. I said you were the stupidest thing I'd ever met in real life, but I never called you an idiot, not once. I did say that everyone else calls you an idiot behind your back."
"Oh, okay," I sniffed.
My head was swimming at this point; I was beyond drunk.
The clock in the hall began to strike eleven and we both jumped as it clanged and sang its woeful warning about the passage of time.
"Well, that's all she wrote, I guess. The girls will be back any moment. If you think they're going to allow your head to hit the pillow before they get to the bottom of your yarn, you are even dumber than I thought.
I suggest you run on upstairs and take a good hot shower; you smell like a pole cat. And don't think for one moment I don't know the reason behind that; young Edward smelled exactly the same. I'll let the girls drag that story out of you; I'm too damn tired and fresh out of estrogen to give a rat's hinny about that stuff anyway."
"Yes, Ma'am," I responded automatically. I tried to get up but kept falling back on the sofa. I finally gave in and just dropped to the floor on my knees and used the leg of the nearby chair to hoist myself upright.
"Be careful; that chair has been in my family since the War Between the States; why General Lee presented it himself.
"Was it a baby gift given to your parents when he heard the news of your arrival?"
At that, she poked my rear end hard with her chopsticks and laughed heartily.
"And here I thought I was going to have to ask Carlisle to remove the stick from your ass come morning. You're going to fit in here just fine, Miss Bella."
"But exactly where is here? You never did tell me your story," I reminded her.
"Psh … my story is far too long and complicated for this night. Besides, if I told you now, you wouldn't believe me anyway. And why would I want to spoil the townfolks' joy by ruining their chances to tell it for me; not that any of those simpletons would recognize the truth if it bit them on their asses.
But I will tell you one thing."
"What's that?" By now I was on my feet and wobbling towards the hallway.
"It will require you to stumble in the other direction; come with me," she commanded.
She walked the length of the room to a set of French doors and proceeded to open them.
"Mm, smell that scent? It's the smell of old money."
"It smells like boxwoods to me," I said wearily. My stomach began to twist and churn and I feared I was going to be sick.
"Indeed. Now if you think you might heave, please do so in the spittoon; it's located in the arbor under the Bleeding Heart and the Weeping Cherry."
Bleeding Heart and Weeping Cherry?
"Now come and stand over here; you can hold on to the pillar for support."
I did as she instructed and held on to the tall, white pillar as if it were my lifeline. I could hear the sound of spring peepers in the distance. It was a beautiful night; the sky was dotted liberally with stars and the moon hung low and full.
"Do you see this yard; how rich and profuse the grass and flowers are? Why, you could get drunk from the smell of the Gardenias alone, I swanny."
I nodded my head in agreement; it did smell lovely, although instinct told me not to breathe in too heavily, for fear that the contents of my stomach might leave my body when I exhaled.
"Why do you suppose that is?" She asked.
"I dunno … Miracle Grow?" I snorted.
"Pft … some might say that, but I happen to know better."
She turned to me then and commanded my attention with her dark eyes that shown larger and brighter than the moon.
"Not every man who went off to war died in battle, Isabella.
Some never left at all.
Others left and later returned, but they never saw the light of another day.
Ne'er do well brothers
Why, the backyard of every old southern estate is littered with their remains.
They may have served no useful purpose in life, but they sure do make the world a whole lot prettier when they left it.
They don't call southern women Steel Magnolias for nothing.
You asked me if I thought you were a horrible person for wanting that young scoundrel to be dead. Well, I am here to tell you that nearly every woman of my acquaintance has asked herself the very same question.
Some wouldn't tell you. Others could, but they can't; God has already called them home and questioned them himself.
His judgment is the only one that matters in the end.
In my life, I've known many men, but I've trusted few, and only loved one.
I shan't talk about that now … I'm too tired and too wrung out to recall.
But I will tell you that the men I've trusted have been my Daddy, Carlisle, and young Edward.
You'd do well to remember that.
Now help me back to the divan and run upstairs and take your shower. I'd ask you to assist me to my chamber, but I don't trust that you'd get me there in one piece. As it is, I hope you have the common sense to use the banister and take each step one at a time."
I removed myself from the pillar and took her frail hand. Together we dodged embroidered footstools, massive chairs, Highboys and Lowboys as we weaved across the stained glass colors of the "One-hundred-plus-some-change-oriental-rug" that was given to the family, "Ages ago."
Once I got her settled on the purple settee, I managed to navigate my way to the staircase that loomed before me.
I made it about half-way up, stumbled, and collapsed in its center.
The last thing I heard was the sound of a door opening and the cries of:
"Aw, hell, look at what's on the staircase! Where on earth is Miss Vick?"
"Oh Lordy, the poor thing is passed out on the divan … you get Annabelle upstairs and I'll tend to Miss Vick."
"Well, I guess the Colonel's bourbon is still serving its purpose even after all these years."
"Colonel's Bourbon, my ass; that decanter is full of Felix's white lightening … no wonder they're both passed out like a couple of bar flies at the Blue Moon Café on ladies night."
"What the hell is that sticking out of her back pocket?"
"It's one of Miss Vick's chopsticks, Ro."
"Huh. Well, if that's the case and she survived the cattle prod, then I think it's safe to say Old Annabelle Crow sold her soul to the devil tonight. I just hope she remembers what she said in the morning because it's sure as shit that Miss Vick will."
"You got that right, Ro. Now do you think we can manage them both or do I need to call Boots and tell him to get his ass back over here?"
"That Boots sure can kiss …
My ass …" I muttered, before falling asleep amid the shouts of raucous laughter.
Or so I was told, over four cups of steaming black coffee, three assorted pain relievers, and two expectant faces demanding to know every last detail of my night spent with Miss Vick.
My head still hurts, as do the faces of Allie and Rose, which they claim was caused by laughing themselves silly.
I might laugh myself, if I had the strength left to do so.
I do declare.
Author's Note:Thank you for reading. Kindly leave a review and Miss Vick just might send you a thank you note (in cursive.)
PS: Yes, Boots uses a variety of nicknames for his daughter. There is a reason for that which will be explained (along with his spitting) in subsequent chapters.