Traverse City, Michigan
For the third time in less than ten minutes, Annie’s mom rushed into the bathroom to redo her makeup. It was definitely weird behavior. Her mom had a routine that never varied. She was the assistant manager of one of the big resorts near Traverse City and always looked perfect when she left for work late in the afternoons. Today was her day off, so Annie figured something was up. On days like this, her mom usually dressed pretty grungy. Sweats. Tank tops. Old T-shirts. But this afternoon, she was so incredibly wired, rocketing back and forth between the bathroom and the bedroom, that Annie wasn’t even sure her mom knew she’d come back from the mall.
Annie Andrews was thirteen. She and her mom lived in an apartment complex not too far from the Miller Creek Nature Preserve, which was a way cool place with lots of great walking paths. This was the best place they’d ever lived. There was a workout room, a playground, and even a putting green. Annie had taken up putting after her mom bought her a used putter for her birthday. If she did say so herself, she was getting pretty good at it.
But best of all, the apartment was close to the Grand Traverse Mall, where Annie met her friends almost every day during the summer. Her mom had always worked resorts, starting with her first job as a house keeper at the Boardwalk Plaza in Rehoboth Beach, the town where Annie was born. Over time, she’d moved up the ladder all the way to management. After Annie’s dad died of cancer—when she was five—they’d lived in a whole bunch of places. One time, Annie attended three different schools in a single year. But that was a while ago. Annie’s mom promised that they wouldn’t have to move again for a long time, which was good because Annie adored her current school. She was working on her first boyfriend and couldn’t bear the thought of ever leaving.
Making strangling noises, Annie’s mom wiggled into a tight pair of white jeans, examined herself in the full-length mirror in her bedroom, pressed a hand to her stomach, and let her shoulders droop. “Ugh.”
“What’s up?” asked Annie from the doorway.
Her mom jumped. “Honey, you scared me. I didn’t know you were back.”
Pulling on a pink lace camisole, she stood with one hand on her hip, nervously turning one side, then the other, to the mirror. “I got a call while you were gone.”
“There’s someone—a man—coming over in a few minutes. He’s . . .” She hesitated, easing down on her bed.
“Well, actually, he’s somebody I met a long time ago. We’ve been writing each other for years.”
“You have? How come you never said anything about it?”
“This is kind of hard to explain, honey. He’s . . . been . . . in prison.”
Annie arched her eyebrows.
“Nothing violent. He just made some bad decisions and ended up in jail.”
Annie didn’t respond, mainly because she had no idea what to say.
“I . . . care about him a lot,” continued her mother, gnawing at a fingernail. “His name is John. Johnny Archer.”
“Uh-huh.” It was a dumb response, but it was all Annie could manage.
“See, I knew he was getting out of prison this month, but he never told me the exact date. And now he’s here. In town. He wants to see me. And you, too.”
“You said you care about him. Does that mean you, like, love him?”
Her mom gazed down at her hands. She’d taken off her wedding band years ago and replaced it with a red garnet set in silver. Annie thought her mom had bought it, but now she wondered if this Archer guy had given it to her. “Yes, honey, I do.”
“Does that mean you want to marry him?”
“Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
“If you do marry him, do I have to change my last name?”
“Oh, honey, I’d never make you do something like that, not against your will. We’ll have a lot of time to talk. Nothing’s going to happen right away.”
The phone rang.
“That must be him,” said Annie’s mom, leaping up and dashing past her into the kitchen. “Yes?” she said, snatching the receiver off the wall, sounding breathless, excited. “You’re here. I’ll buzz you in. We’re on the east end of the complex. Third floor. Turn right when you get off the elevator.” She listened for a few seconds. “Yeah, she’s here.” Turning her back away from the door, she whispered, “Me, too. Fingers crossed.”
Annie walked into the kitchen. She had big ears and had picked up everything her mother had said, but she wasn’t quite sure what it all meant.
Her mom hung up the phone. Slowly, she turned, her face flushed, her eyes darting nervously. “You’re gonna love him, I know you will.”
“Where does he live now?”
“Well, ah, when he was a kid, his family lived all over.”
“But what about now?”
“Like I said, he just got out of prison.”
“Is he gonna stay with us?”
“Would that be such a bad thing?”
Annie truly didn’t know. But she had a suspicious feeling that it would. She and her mom were a team. They didn’t need anyone else to make them happy. Her mom had never dated after Annie’s dad died. Annie asked her about it once. Her mom said she was too busy earning a living to worry about romance.
Annie was still deciding what to say when the doorbell rang.
“How do I look?” asked her mom, searching Annie’s face for reassurance.
“Okay, I guess.”
She rushed to the door.
Out in the hall stood a dark- haired guy wearing a red-and-blue plaid shirt and jeans. He held a beat-up suitcase and a paper sack.
“Mandy?” he said, letting the suitcase drop. He whipped off his sunglasses. “God, you haven’t changed a bit.” He grabbed her and squeezed her tight, his eyes closed. He opened them while they were still hugging and looked at Annie. And then he winked.
Annie frowned. The wink made her feel weird.
Tugging at Johnny’s arm, her mom led him into the living room, where they all sat down, Johnny and her mom on the couch, and Annie in a chair across the room.
“Johnny, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Annie.”
Johnny nodded, grinned. That’s when Annie decided he was sort of good-looking. His skin was really pale, and he wasn’t much taller than her mom, but he was built. And he had twinkly eyes and a smile that promised something fun.
“Hey,” said Johnny, reaching around behind him for the brown paper sack. “I brought you both a present.”
“You didn’t need to do that,” said Annie’s mother, although she looked pretty darn happy about it.
“Here,” he said, handing her a small box.
Her mom acted a lot like a dog they’d once had. When you said “treat,” he wagged his tail so hard that his entire body shook. That’s what Annie’s mom looked like. She was vibrating. Annie wasn’t into obvious emotion and thought the reaction was pathetic. Old people could be so uncool.
When her mom opened the gift, her eyes lit up. She held up a tiny bottle of perfume so Annie could see it. Unscrewing the cap, she sniffed. “It’s wonderful. I love it.”
“So do I,” said Johnny, one eyebrow raised at her, another grin spreading across his face. “And for you, Annie.” He pulled a paperback out of the sack and tossed it across to her. “Do you like novels?”
“Sometimes,” she said nonchalantly, one leg draped over the other. He wasn’t about to get some stupid overreaction out of her.
“What’s the title?” asked her mom.
“Catcher in the Rye,” said Johnny.
Her mom’s smile dimmed. “You think that’s an okay story for a thirteen- year- old girl?”
Johnny shrugged. “I read it when I was thirteen. It was my favorite book for years.”
Sensing that there might be something off -limits about the novel, Annie got up. “Think I’ll go down and sit by the putting green.”
“Honey, I’m not sure—”
“Oh, let her have some fun,” said Johnny.
Annie had just opened the front door when Johnny added, “Take your time. Your mom and me, we’ll just be up here getting reacquainted. And hey, I thought I’d take you both out for pizza later. That sound good to you?”
“Johnny?” said her mother. “Can you afford that? I could make us something here.”
“Hell, woman, if I can’t afford to take my two favorite ladies out to dinner, they might as well shoot me right now.”
Favorite ladies, thought Annie. Pathetic beyond belief. But she glanced back at him because the defiance in his voice connected with something inside her. For the first time since his name had been brought up, she found herself smiling.
As Jane saw it, there were several possibilities. For one, she would turn forty-five in the fall. Her mind froze as she mentally tiptoed around the numbers. It wasn’t all that long ago that she thought thirty- five was the departure lounge. Now sixty was only fifteen years away. Not much time. But time, as she’d learned, was a malleable concept. It often depended on where you were standing.
At the moment, she was standing in the dry-storage room at the Xanadu Club, a restaurant she owned in the Uptown area of south Minneapolis. A pipe had burst, flooding the room with several inches of water. Jane had planned to spend the day at her other restaurant, the Lyme House, but just as the lunch rush began, she got a call from Henry Ingram, her maintenance man, with the bad news. She arrived shortly after one and found him in the basement hallway, dragging a wet/dry vac toward the storage room door.
“It stinks,” she said, waving the foul air away from her face.
The old guy flipped on the light to reveal the disaster.
Crouching down, Jane touched the flooring. “This will all have to come out.” She looked up at the metal storage racks filled with canned and dry goods. “I’ll call Jimmy Mason and get someone out here as fast as possible to rip it out. Think we’ll have problems with the subfl oor?”
“Not sure there is one.”
“What about the pipe?”
“I been at ’er since eleven. We had some leakage last week. I called our usual plumbing guy, but he made a mess of it. This time I did it myself.”
“We need to empty the shelves right away.”
“I’ve already made a few calls. George and Terrance should be here shortly.”
George Anderson and Terrance Keegen were two of Jane’s waiters. “That’s all you could find?”
“On such short notice.”
Jane was glad she’d worn jeans and an old sweatshirt because she was probably going to be part of the work crew. As usual, disasters never picked a good time. She had two meetings this afternoon that might have to be canceled.
She took the measure of the loss one more time. “What a freakin’ mess.”
“That about covers it.”
There were other possibilities, of course, that added to her current malaise. It might not be her looming birthday that had pushed her toward the edge; it might be a full- blown midlife crisis. Whatever the cause, what used to get her up in the mornings and fuel the rest of her days simply didn’t work anymore.
Jane had spent the last few months examining her life and finding it wanting. Part of her current predicament was a kind of disharmonic convergence. She owned two popular restaurants in Minneapolis and had recently begun to develop a third. Due to some financial problems caused by the tanking economy, those plans had been put on hold. Instead of pushing harder, trying to work through the problems, she’d simply stopped and taken some time to look around. What she saw was a deep crack in what had always been her limitless career ambition.
The other half of the disharmonic convergence was a messy romantic breakup last November that had left her feeling uncharacteristically confused, sluggish, and depressed. Jane and her partner of two years, Kenzie Mulroy, had parted ways. Jane wanted to work things out, but Kenzie had thrown in the towel with such force that no amount of apologies or promises to change made a dent in Kenzie’s resolve. And yet Jane didn’t want to let go. There had to be a way to make this long-distance relationship work. One of Kenzie’s major objections was that Jane was too busy, that she never made enough time in her life for Kenzie. It was an arrow that hit the mark. Jane couldn’t argue the facts away. And so, because the breakup had been mostly her fault, she’d been fighting with a sense of personal failure that she couldn’t seem to shake. Even more troubling was the brutal suspicion that, in all her efforts to live the good life, she had somehow taken a wrong turn.
“Have you had lunch?” asked Jane.
“I’m full up,” said Henry.
Jane had skipped breakfast. If she was going to haul things around all afternoon, she had to put some fuel in her tank. “I need to grab something to eat and then I’ll be back.”
“Nothin’ in this room is goin’ anywhere without help,” said Henry, switching on the wet/dry vac.
Jane spent the next few minutes talking to her executive chef in the kitchen, all the while eyeing the daily specials. Before she left, she dished herself up a bowl of the minestrone she loved so much, along with a couple of slices of bread. By the time she reached the Speakeasy at the front of the house, her stomach was growling. She helped herself to a cup of coffee and was about to sit down at the far end of the bar, when one of the bartenders got her attention.
“There’s a woman here who wants to talk to the manager about a job.”
“Fine,” she said, easing onto a stool. “Have her talk to Len.”
“He wasn’t feeling well, so he ran over to Snyders to buy some ibuprofen.”
“Don’t we have any here?”
“Okay, then have her fill out an application and give it to Len when he gets back.”
“Where would I find the applications?”
She should have stayed in bed and hidden under the covers. “Where is she?”
He nodded toward the other end of the room.
Standing by the cash register was a woman wearing an army green wool sweater, brown cargo pants, and hiking boots, with a sheepskin jacket slung over one shoulder. She was tall, blond, and fashion model pretty.
“I’ll take care of it,” said Jane, hiding her groan. Leaving her stool with a longing backward glance, she introduced herself to the woman. “I’m the owner.”
“Oh, great. I’m Annie Archer.”
“You’re looking for a job?”
“Just something temporary. I need to make some money, but I won’t be in town long.”
Jane invited her back to end of the counter, where her soup was rapidly cooling. “Something to eat?”
“No, I’m fine. I’d be willing to do just about anything.
Excerpted from The Mirror and the Mask by Ellen Hart.
Copyright © 2009 by Ellen Hart.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.