As she waited for her mother to answer, Annie heard the tick of the large clock, seated on the mantle to her left, above the hearth. The clock chimed, quarter to the hour; Annie guessed it was coming towards midnight.
Laura finally responded with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh please, I shouldn’t have to connect the dots for you. You’re much smarter than that, dear. Please – ” she pointed to the antique map above the hearth – “complete the picture for me.”
Annie stared up at the map, the fire hissing at her feet; as much as her mother’s coyness annoyed her, she nevertheless felt coldly satisfied with the confidence expressed in her abilities. A vision of her two uncles, one on either side of the river, came to her as she studied the map. She swallowed. “Uncle Joe, Uncle Tom – they’ll probably lease the land, rather than sell it.”
“No doubt,” her mother’s voice dripping with impatience.
Annie scratched her chin, her habit when nervous. “They can find tenants – ” she stopped scratching her chin, turned to her mother – “they won’t need to find tenants, really.”
“If it connects to the interstate and the new bridge, that area will become a really prime location. Tenants will come to them.”
Laura raised her eyebrows. “And how will your uncles chose among so many potential business partners? Will the highest bidder always win?”
Annie shook her head, turned back to the map. “No. Uncle Joe talks about that all the time, said he’s not always looking for the best deal now, but the one that puts him in the real best position for – ”
Annie turned back to her mother, the older woman’s face radiant in a broad grin.
” – the next deal.”
“Precisely,” Laura’s face celebrating her daughter’s discovery. “The next deal.”
“And what is that next deal?”
“Oh, who knows, dear.” Laura turned her attention back to the antique map. “But whoever does lease that land from your uncles – they’ll owe our family a favor. And the favors we accumulate will perhaps benefit someone from your generation – Sierra, perhaps, maybe one of your cousins – to pursue your own ambitions.”
Laura turned back to her daughter. “Perhaps even yourself, Bunny. Perhaps this night is the start of your political career.”
Annie turned away from her mother, stared down at the floor shaking her head. “That’s nuts. How – ”
“Do you really expect me to believe,” Laura’s voice a sharp accusation, “that you were named captain of the fencing team tonight by accident?”
Annie found her eyes darting over to the fencing mask and foil she had laid on an armchair across the room. She heard the clock ticking above the hiss of the fire.
“I never asked – ”
” – of course not, dear. But, if I’m reading between the lines of some conversation I heard this evening, you asked to speak to your coach when that Double-J boy insisted on being the captain?”
Annie couldn’t look up at her. “Yes. Told him Double-J would be a really terrible choice. He’s our best fencer, but he’s no leader.”
“And did I hear correctly that your coach also asked you about Rex being captain?”
Annie turned towards her mother, sighed heavily. “Yeah. And I said with all the stress in his life because of his family, he really didn’t need the added pressure of being captain.”
Laura’s face erupted with mock surprise. “Well then, dear – of all your friends who were here tonight, that leaves two experienced fencers, I believe. Paul and Jenna’s son, Rune – ”
Annie shook her head. “He isn’t interested.”
“And let me guess – that is a good thing. At least as far as the team is concerned, yes? At least in your opinion, anyway.”
Annie closed her eyes, nodded slowly.
“You’ve followed your father’s example very well, dear.” Laura’s back straightened. “You never asked to be fencing captain before your promotion – just the same as your father showed no interest in politics before the Chamber of Commerce approached him. Yet both of you positioned yourselves to look like the only logical choice. Some might call it a passive-aggressive strategy; I call it, subtle genius.”
Annie glanced over at the fencing mask and foil, then back at Laura, and wondered if anyone else that evening had detected her stealth campaign, her secret ambition. Perhaps, she thought; but then again, she realized now that she really didn’t care. “Fencing’s one thing, but what you’re talking about – this plan you have, if Father wins the election – that’s something really different.”
“Of course, dear!” The older woman laid her hands on Annnie’s shoulder. “And it will be wonderful!”
“For our family, certainly.” Annie lifted her hands, grabbed her mother’s wrists, lowered her arms. “But, why all the scheming? Why not be direct, let people know about our plans?”
Laura frowned, tutted. “Dear, do you remember when Uncle Joe ran for town manager?”
Annie glanced up at the ceiling, then nodded. “I remember, I was five – ”
” – do you also remember how badly he was clobbered?” Laura Hutchinson shuddered. “We don’t speak of it much anymore – 18 percent is not a pleasant memory – but we learned, oh we learned from that defeat. We learned that people, for all their talk about wanting honesty, don’t really want to know the truth. What they want is – a good story. And Uncle Joe learned that people didn’t want to hear the Stevens’ story, because we are so direct, we can’t help but tell the truth that’s so terrifying to the masses.”
Annie cleared her throat. “But Father – the Hutchinson family story – ”
“The Hutchinson family!” Laura threw her hands up in the air. “The good people of Bark Bay love the Hutchinsons, admire how the family acquired its wealth over the generations, respect our civic involvement, the legendary Hutchinson philanthropy. People want to believe the story of our family, so much that they’re willing to ignore its more illicit sides.”
“That – and more.” Laura smiled as she returned her gaze towards the hearth. Annie turned as well, mother and daughter standing side by side in front of the dying fire.
A log engulfed a pocket of air that had formed under it, sending an orange tongue of flame licking above the fire.
“It’s a wonder,” Laura’s voice soft as the dying flames, “that the family hasn’t dabbled in politics until now.”
Annie crossed her arms across her chest, turned and looked bemusedly at her mother. “All we needed was somebody willing to – ” she paused to allow her mother to complete turning in her direction, Annie noting the expectation in her face ” – cash in on the family’s name.”
“Exactly.” Laura’s eyes were wide with an excitement that waved from her face, only to crest and expire on the shore’s of Annie’s stoic face. “Oh dear, you look so upset, Bunny. You must understand, this is just politics, business. What upsets you so?”
“It’s – ” the teen ran her hands back through her hair – “I just don’t like all the deception, the dishonesty. It’s not what we’ve done, not what this family is about.”
“Please, Bunny. Who, exactly, do you think we’re deceiving?”
Annie’s left arm shot out, pointed in the direction of their home’s front door. “The people of Bark Bay, Mother. All the people we’ve known all our lives, our neighbors. They’re my friends – ”
“They’re sheep!” The word shot out of Laura’s mouth like a bullet, as her arm grabbed Annie’s, pulled it down. “People like the parents of your friends this evening – belligerent drunks like Paul Banks, religious dimwits like the Goodmans, all those absent fathers and weak mothers! Do you honestly think that people like them, have any idea what’s good for them? How should any of them have a say in the future of this town? What they need, is someone strong enough, wise enough to make decisions for them, save them from their own incompetence! Bark Bay needs people like your father, Annie, if this town is to have any hope of survival!”
Annie stood frozen, both eyes and mouth wide with disbelief. The teen knew she needed to respond, but the pat phrases that came to her mind all seemed inadequate in comparison to the enormity of what she had just heard. It sounded wrong, all wrong to her, but in her mother’s searing gaze she detected no hint of uncertainty. Annie knew she wasn’t prepared to win this fight, not on this evening at least; yet that didn’t mean she had to concede.
“It’s late, Mother.” Perhaps she would accept a delay. “It’s been a really long evening. I don’t know about you – but I’m kind of tired.”
She saw a hint of disappointment in her mother’s face, replaced momentarily with a bemused grin. “Of course, Bunny. I understand.”
Annie smiled, raised her arms and hugged her mother warmly. Breaking the embrace a moment later, she kissed her mother on the cheek as the separated, stepped back as she held her mother’s hands – “I love you, Mother. I will always love you.”
“And I, you.” All traces of the scowl she’d displayed when discussing her schemes had vanished, replaced with a maternal smile of blessing. They hugged again, Laura following by asking if her daughter was coming to bed. “Not yet – ” she took the poker from the stand next to the hearth, parted the chain-link screen in front of the fire – “I’d like to stay until the fire goes out.”
With a final reminder to her daughter about closing the hearth when she was done, Laura Hutchinson strode out of the room. Annie opened the hearth screen, poked at the smoldering fire, orange sparks rising from the gray bark of the nearly consumed log; she watched the log collapse, erupting into small orange-blue flames.
She closed the hearth screen, stepped back from the warmth, looked up at the antique map again. She located the approximation locations of her uncle’s lands, and thought of what her mother had said that evening. Annie hadn’t liked the tone of her mother’s voice, detected a mendacity she had never suspected. She had meant what she had seen at the end of their talk, she did love her parents, knew with a certainty she felt as certain as the beating of her heart that her love for them would never change.
But she could not trust them anymore, not nearly as much as she had before this evening. Annie could love them, but not trust them – the thought sounded odd to her, but correct, like a perfect recital of a poem composed in a language she did not understand.
Annie looked around the room. She saw the fencing mask and foil that her mother had found, the one Butch had left behind by accident. She remembered the rush of excitement she’d felt when Rex recommended she be named captain. She turned back to the antique map, and in the dim glass that covered it, saw her reflection. She was Annie. Annie Hutchinson, captain of the Bark Bay High School fencing team. And for the first time that evening, that title sounded right and good to her.
End of “December”