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Chapter no 25

Hidden Pictures

I wake to the smell of butter and cinnamon. Adrian’s already dressed and moving around my kitchen. He’s found the granny smith apples in my pantry and he’s standing over the range with a spatula, flipping some kind of pancake. I glance at the clock and it’s just past seven thirty in the morning.

“Why are you awake?”

“I’m driving to Akron. To see Dolores Campbell. If I leave now, Google says I’ll be there by two.”

“It’s a waste of time. You’re going to drive four hundred miles to meet a woman who can’t even recognize her own nurse.”

“It’s our last lead. Let me bring the drawings and the library book. I’ll show them to her, see if they trigger any kind of reaction.”

“They won’t.”

“You’re probably right. I’m going to try, anyway.”

He’s so determined, I feel obligated to go with him—but I’ve already committed to spending the afternoon with Teddy. “I need to stay here. They’re planning a party for me.”

“I’ll be fine. I just downloaded a new audiobook, Heir to the Jedi. That’ll get me all the way to Akron and back.” He carries over a mug of tea and a plate of apple-cinnamon pancakes and encourages me to sit up in bed. “Now see what you think of these. It’s my father’s recipe.” I sit up and

take a bite and yes, in fact they are remarkable—sweet and tart and buttery and delicious, even better than the churros.

“They’re incredible.”

He leans over and kisses me. “There’s more on the stove. I’ll call you from the road and let you know what I find out.”

And I’m a little sad that he’s leaving. I have a whole day to kill before the pool party starts at three o’clock. But I can sense there’s no talking Adrian out of the trip, that he would chase every lead to the end of the earth to keep me from leaving Spring Brook.

 

 

I spend the morning packing my things. It doesn’t take long. Six weeks ago, I arrived in Spring Brook with a secondhand suitcase and a handful of outfits. Now, thanks to Caroline’s generosity, I have a much bigger wardrobe—but nothing to carry all my new clothes. So I fold her five-hundred-dollar dresses very carefully and place them inside a ten-gallon kitchen trash bag—what my friends at Safe Harbor liked to call a sober-living suitcase.

Then I put on my sneakers and go for one last run around the neighborhood. I try not to think about how much I’ll miss Spring Brook—all the little shops and restaurants, the ornately detailed houses, the beautiful lawns and gardens. I’ve been to Russell’s condo in Norristown, and his neighborhood isn’t nearly as nice. He lives on the tenth floor of a high-rise that’s next to an office park and an Amazon fulfillment center. The complex is ringed by highways, many miles of steaming asphalt and concrete. Not a pretty place by any definition, but apparently it’s where I’m meant to be. The pool party is a nice gesture, I guess. Caroline hangs some limp streamers around the back patio, and she and Teddy string up a homemade banner that says thank you mallory. Ted and Caroline do a nice job of pretending I haven’t been fired. We all act like I’m leaving by choice,

which makes the afternoon less awkward. Caroline stays in the kitchen, preparing the food, while I swim in the pool with Ted and Teddy. The three of us compete in a series of silly races that Teddy always manages to win. I wonder aloud if Caroline needs any help—if she’d like some time to swim— and then I realize I’ve never actually seen her in the pool.

“The water makes her itchy,” Teddy explains.

“The chlorine,” Ted says. “I’ve tried adjusting the pH balance but nothing works. Her skin is super-sensitive.”

By four o’clock, I’ve still not heard anything from Adrian. I’m thinking about texting him, but then Caroline calls from the patio that dinner is ready. She’s arranged the table with pitchers of ice water and fresh-squeezed lemonade and an abundance of healthful food—there are grilled shrimp skewers and a citrus-seafood salad and bowls of freshly steamed squash and spinach and corn on the cob. She’s clearly put a lot of care and effort into everything, and I sense she feels guilty for sending me away. I start to wonder if she’s reconsidering my future, if there’s still a chance she’ll let me stay. Teddy speaks in an animated voice about his day trip to the beach and boardwalk. He tells me all about the fun house and the bumper cars and the crab in the ocean that pinched his tiny toes. His parents chime in with their own stories, and it feels like we’re all having a terrific family conversation, like everything has gone back to normal.

For dessert Caroline brings out Chocolate Lava Volcanoes

—miniature sponge cakes filled with gooey warm ganache and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. They are baked to perfection and when I take my first bite I literally gasp.

Everybody laughs at my reaction.

“I’m sorry,” I tell them. “But this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”

“Oh that’s wonderful,” Caroline says. “I’m glad we can end the summer on a high note.”

And that’s when I realize nothing has changed.

 

 

I offer to help with the dishes but Ted and Caroline insist on tackling the cleanup. They remind me that I’m the guest of honor. They encourage me to go play with Teddy. So he and I return to the pool and cycle through all our favorite games one last time. We play Castaway and Titanic and Wizard of Oz. And then for a long time we lie side by side on the raft and we float.

“How far is Norristown?” Teddy asks. “Not far. Less than an hour.”

“So you can still visit for pool parties?” “I hope so,” I tell him. “I’m not sure.”

The truth? I doubt I’ll ever see him again. Ted and Caroline will have no trouble finding a new nanny, and of course she will be pretty and smart and charming, and Teddy will have all kinds of fun with her. I’ll be remembered as an odd footnote in their family history—the babysitter who only lasted seven weeks.

And here’s the part that really stings: I know that many years in the future, when Teddy brings his college girlfriend home for Thanksgiving dinner, my name will be a punchline around the dinner table. I’ll be remembered as the crazy babysitter who drew all over the walls, the one who believed Teddy’s imaginary friend was real.

He and I lie back on the raft and watch the gorgeous sunset. All the clouds are tinted pink and purple; the sky looks like a painting you’d see in a museum. “We can definitely be pen pals,” I promise. “You can send me pictures and I’ll write you letters.”

“I would like that.”

He points up to an airplane soaring across the horizon, trailing long streaks of white vapor. “Do people take airplanes to Norristown?”

“No, buddy, there’s no airport.” He’s disappointed.

“Someday I’m going to ride on a plane,” he says. “My daddy says the big ones go five hundred miles an hour.”

I laugh and remind Teddy that he’s already been on a plane. “When you came home from Barcelona.”

He shakes his head. “We drove from Barcelona.”

“No, you drove to the airport. But then you got on an airplane. No one drives from Barcelona to New Jersey.”

“We did. It took us all night.”

“It’s a different continent. There’s a giant ocean in the way.”

“They built an underwater tunnel,” he says. “With super-thick walls to protect you from sea monsters.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” “Ask my dad, Mallory! It’s true!”

And then over on the pool deck, I can hear my telephone ringing. I have the volume turned all the way up, so I won’t miss Adrian’s call. “Be right back,” I tell Teddy. I flip off the raft and swim to the side of the pool, but I’m not fast enough. By the time I reach my phone, the call has already gone to voice mail.

I see that Adrian has texted me a photograph. It’s an elderly black woman, wearing a thin red cardigan and sitting in a wheelchair. Her eyes have a vacant stare but her hair is neat and trim. She looks well kept and well cared for.

Then a second photo arrives—the same woman posing next to a black man in his fifties. He has his arm around the woman and he’s directing her attention toward the camera, encouraging her to look at the lens.

Adrian calls again.

“Did you get my pictures?” “Who are these people?”

“That’s Dolores Jean Campbell and her son, Curtis. Annie Barrett’s daughter and grandson. I just spent two hours with

them. Curtis comes every Sunday to visit his mom. And we got everything wrong.”

This seems impossible. “Annie Barrett was black?”

“No, but she’s definitely not Hungarian. She was born in England.”

“She’s British?”

“I’ve got her grandson standing right next to me. I’m going to put Curtis on the line, let him tell you firsthand, okay?”

Teddy stares at me from the swimming pool, bored, anxious for me to come back and play. I mouth the words “five minutes” and he climbs aboard the raft and starts kicking with his tiny feet, propelling himself around the water.

“Hey, Mallory, it’s Curtis. Are you really living in Granny Annie’s cottage?”

“I—I think so?”

“Spring Brook, New Jersey. In back of Hayden’s Glen, right? Your friend Adrian showed me some pictures. But you don’t have to worry, my granny’s not haunting you.”

I’m so confused. “How do you know?”

“Here’s what happened. She moved from England to Spring Brook after World War II, okay? To live with her cousin George. They were on the east side of Hayden’s Glen, which back then was very white and well-to-do. Now my Pop-Pop Willie, he lived on the west side of Hayden’s Glen. In a neighborhood called Corrigan. The colored section. He pumped gas at a Texaco, and after work he would walk down to the creek to catch his supper. Pop-Pop loved to fish. He ate trout and perch every day if they were biting. One day he sees this pretty white girl walking barefoot. Carrying a sketch pad. She calls out hello and Pop-Pop said he was too afraid to look at her. Because again, this is 1948, remember? If you’re a black man and a white woman smiles at you? You look the other way. But Granny Annie comes

from Cresscombe, in the UK. A seaside town full of Caribbean migrants. She’s not afraid of black people. She says hello to Pop-Pop every afternoon. Over the next year they get friendly, and soon they’re more than friendly. Soon Pop-Pop is creeping through the forest in the middle of the night, so he can visit Granny in your cottage. Do you follow what I’m saying?”

“I think so.” I glance over to the pool to check on Teddy. He’s still drifting in circles on the life raft, and I feel guilty for ignoring him on my last day, but I need to hear the rest. “What happened?”

“Well, so one day Annie goes to cousin George and says she’s pregnant. Only she wouldn’t have used that word back then. She probably said she was ‘with child.’ She tells George that Willie is the father, that she’s going to elope with him. They’re going to move west to Ohio and live on Willie’s family farm, where no one is likely to bother them. And Annie’s so stubborn, George knows he can’t possibly stop her.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, George is furious, obviously. He tells her the child will be an abomination. He says their marriage won’t count in the eyes of God. He says Annie will be dead to him, and the family will refuse to acknowledge her existence. And she says that’s fine, she never really cared for them anyway. Then she packs her things and disappears. Which puts George in a very embarrassing situation. He’s a pillar of the community. He’s a deacon of the church. He can’t tell people that his cousin has run off with a colored man. He’d rather die than have the truth get out. So he makes up a story. He goes to a butcher shop and buys two buckets of pig’s blood. There was no forensic science back then, blood was blood. He sloshes it all over the cabin, knocks over the furniture, makes it look like someone ransacked the place. Then he called the police. The town had a manhunt and they dragged nets through the creek but they never found a

body because there never was a body. Granny called it the Great Escape. She spent the next sixty years on a farm near Akron. She had my mother, Dolores, in 1949, and my uncle, Tyler, in 1950. By the time she died, she had four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She lived to eighty-one.”

Curtis tells the story with confidence and conviction, but I still can’t believe it. “And no one ever learned the truth? People in Spring Brook still think she was murdered. She’s the local boogeyman. Little kids say she’s haunting the forest.”

“My guess is that Spring Brook hasn’t changed much since the 1940s. Back then it was well-to-do, now I bet you just call it ‘affluent.’ Different words for the same thing. But if you drive over to Corrigan you’ll find plenty of people who know the truth.”

I’m reminded of my conversation with Detective Briggs. “I think I’ve already met one. I just didn’t believe her.”

“Well, I hope this puts your mind at ease,” Curtis says. “My wife’s waiting for me in the car, so I should put your friend back on.”

I thank Curtis for his time and he passes the phone back to Adrian. “Incredible, right?”

“We were wrong about everything?”

“Annie Barrett was never murdered. She’s not our ghost, Mallory. All those pictures have to be coming from someone else.”

“Teddy?” I look up and see Caroline Maxwell standing at the edge of the pool, calling to her son. “It’s getting late, honey. Time to rinse off.”

“Five more minutes?” he asks.

I wave to Caroline, signaling that I’ll take care of him. “I gotta go,” I tell Adrian. “Do you want to come over when you get home? Since it’s my last night?”

“If you don’t mind staying up late. The GPS says I won’t get back until midnight.”

“I’ll be waiting. Drive safe.”

My mind is reeling. I feel like I’ve run right into a brick wall. I realize I’ve spent the last few weeks chasing a dead end—and now I need to rethink everything I know about Anya.

But first I need to get Teddy out of the pool. “Come on, T-Bear. Let’s get you rinsed off.”

We grab our towels and walk across the yard to the outdoor shower stall. There’s a tiny bench outside the stall, and Caroline has set out Teddy’s fire truck pajamas and clean underwear. I reach inside the door to turn on the water, adjusting the faucets until the temperature is warm. Then Teddy goes inside and latches the door and I stand outside holding his towel. His swim trunks hit the concrete floor with a splat, and then his tiny feet kick them out to me. I twist the polyester fabric in my hands, wringing out all of the water. Then I glance across the yard to Mitzi’s house. The lights in the kitchen are on, and Detective Briggs has returned to the scene of the crime. She’s walking around the backyard with some kind of metal pole, poking at the dirt, taking measurements. I wave hello, and she comes over.

“Mallory Quinn,” she says. “I heard you’re leaving Spring Brook tomorrow.”

“Things didn’t work out.”

“That’s what Caroline said. I was a little surprised you never mentioned it, though.”

“It didn’t come up.”

She waits for me to elaborate, but what does she expect me to say? It’s not like I’m proud of being fired. I try to change the subject.

“I just got off the phone with Annie Barrett’s grandson. A man named Curtis Campbell. He lives in Akron, Ohio. Claims his Granny Annie lived all the way to age eighty-one.”

Briggs grins. “I told you that story was a whopper. My grandfather grew up with Willie. They used to fish together.”

Teddy interrupts us, calling from inside the shower stall. “Hey, Mallory?”

“Right here, buddy.”

He sounds panicked. “There’s a bug on the soap.” “What kind of bug?”

“A big one. A thousand-legger.” “Splash some water on it.”

“I can’t, I need you to do it.”

He unlatches the door and then retreats to the far corner of the stall, getting out of my way. I reach for the bar of Dove soap, expecting some kind of nasty slithering silverfish, but there’s nothing.

“Where is it?”

Teddy shakes his head, and I realize the bug was just a ploy, an excuse to make me open the door. He whispers, “Are we getting arrested?”

“Who?”

“The police lady. Is she mad at us?”

I stare at Teddy, bewildered. Nothing about this conversation makes any sense. “No, buddy, everything’s fine. No one’s getting arrested. Just finish up, okay?”

I close the door and he latches it behind me. Detective Briggs is still waiting.

“Everything all right?” “He’s fine.”

“I mean you, Mallory. You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

I sink into a chair to steady my thoughts, and I say I’m still reeling from the phone call. “I’d convinced myself that Annie Barrett was murdered. I can’t believe people have been spreading this story for seventy years.”

“Well, the truth doesn’t reflect well on Spring Brook. If the town had been a little more tolerant, maybe Willie and Annie could have stayed here. Maybe George wouldn’t have felt the need to stage a crime scene.” Briggs laughs. “You know, there’s still guys in my department who think the

murder really happened? I tell them the truth, and they act like I’m trying to stir things up, a black woman cop handing out race cards.” She shrugs. “Anyhow, I don’t want to keep you long. I just had a quick question. We found Mitzi’s cell phone in her kitchen. The battery had run down but we found a charger and got it working again. Seems she was in the middle of sending you a text. It doesn’t make any sense to me, but maybe it’ll mean something to you.” She looks down at her notepad, squinting over the tops of her reading glasses. “Here’s what it says: ‘We need to talk. I was wrong about before. Anya isn’t a name, it’s’”— Briggs stops and looks to me. “That’s as far as she got. Do those words mean anything to you?”

“No.”

“How about Anya? Is that possibly a typo?”

I nod in the direction of the shower stall. “Anya is the name of Teddy’s invisible friend.”

“Invisible friend?”

“He’s five. He has an active imagination.”

“I know she’s not real,” he calls out. “I know she’s just make-believe.”

Briggs furrows her brow, puzzled by the cryptic message.

Then she flips forward a few pages in her notepad. “Yesterday I spoke with Caroline Maxwell, and she says

she heard Mitzi having an argument on Thursday night. She saw Mitzi leave her house in a nightgown around ten thirty

P.M. Did you happen to hear anything?”

“No, but I wasn’t here. I was at Adrian’s house. Three blocks away. His parents were having a party.” At ten thirty Thursday night, I was sitting in the gardens of the Flower Castle, wasting my time with The Collected Works of Anne

C. Barrett. “Does the coroner know how Mitzi died?”

Briggs lowers her voice so Teddy won’t hear. “Unfortunately it appears to be drug-related. Acute lung injury stemming from an overdose. Sometime Thursday

night or early Friday morning. But don’t go printing that on Facebook. Keep it under your hat for a few days.”

“Was it heroin?”

She’s surprised. “How did you know?”

“It’s just a guess. I saw some things in her house. There were needle caps all over her living room.”

“Well, you guessed right,” Briggs says. “You don’t hear about older people using hard drugs, but the Philly hospitals see them every week. It’s more common than you think. Maybe her visitor was a dealer. Maybe they got in an argument. We’re still piecing it together.” She offers me another business card but I tell her I still have the first one. “If you think of anything else, give me a call, okay?”

After Briggs leaves, Teddy opens the door to the shower stall, squeaky clean and dressed in his fire truck pajamas. I give him a hug and tell him I’ll see him in the morning, to say my goodbyes. Then I walk him over to the patio and send him inside the house.

I manage to keep my composure until I’m back inside my cottage and I’ve locked my door. Then I fall forward onto my bed and bury my face in my pillow. There have been so many bombshell revelations in the last thirty minutes, I can’t begin to process them all. It’s too overwhelming. The pieces of the puzzle seem more scattered than ever.

But there’s one thing I know for sure: The Maxwells have been lying to me.

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