Content warning for: talk of suicide, talk of animal abuse (nothing shown or carried through with).
At least it wasn’t interpersonal failure too.
Oh she wished.
Annette finished her cup of mint tea and refilled it herself. The espresso machine on the other side of the room provided plain hot water too. The hotel staff kept the tea bags and stevia packets just a foot away from it. Those herbal drinks did little to numb her mind (her tongue was a different story). After reminding herself that she was a moral fuck-up, that didn’t address the bigger issue: being an interpersonal fuck-up.
She’d admit it. She carried herself in an abrasive manner. Plenty of others told her that she was off-putting and needed to re-learn basic kindergarten manners. But for a while, those close to her seemed to put up with it. And not just Bill. All the adults living in the Waverly house seemed to like their strange landlady, for more than just how she fed them.
But alas, she had a few stories about those she alienated.
Franco grew up, like kids tended to do when given enough time. About a year after Dennis’ death, his parents had to come to terms with it. Their little boy was going to be a big teenager. Coming that August, everything would change! They looked forward to leading a kid through the normal tribulations of teenagerhood. Underage drinking, discovering sex toys in his dresser, going to juvie, experiencing the sex industry first hand…
…No, they realized that those words were only for their experiences as teens. At least they hoped! But Annette liked herself a party, and an August birthday party meant an opportunity to entertain guests by the pool. She’d get cake and booze for herself, and Franco could have all his school friends over.
She crouched down at the coffee table to draft out invitations, only to get stuck. Who would get them? She never asked Franco about his friends much. He never talked much about his life either. He preferred to scowl at dinner, or talk with adults he didn’t hate. Perhaps she should have tried earlier, but easier to get it out of him then than at 18, right?
Good thing Franco wandered into the living room at that moment. The narration to the documentary on Egypt playing on the telly as background noise might have drawn him in.
“Mum?” he asked.
“You could do that in the dining room.”
“Sorry, I just didn’t want to miss this show either. Did you know that you’re a quarter Egyptian? I think? It’s hard to trace our ancestry, but I’m pretty sure Egypt popped up in there when I did it.” Franco looked her blankly. “Look, I actually need you now.”
“Yeah?” He took a seat on the sofa closest to Annette.
“So, you have any friends at school?” she asked Franco.
“Sure,” he answered.
“So how about we throw a birthday party, and I’ll invite any friend you want me to?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Franco got up from his seat, just to sigh in annoyance. “All their parents think you’re a bad influence.”
“And they won’t allow their kids over here or something?”
He scowled at his mother. “Of course they won’t. It’s not like I’ve brought a friend over here since that sleepover!”
“I can make this better,” she said. But she was cut off.
“Just…just lemme do what I want for this,” Franco said. “You’ve messed up enough.”
She could have just held her foot down right there, but his 13th birthday would come only once in his life. And she had a lot of future summers she could fill with pool parties and swilling beer in the hot summer sun.
“Fine, kiddo. Just do what you want,” Annette said.
That day came and went. Annette dedicated it to canning pears from a poor harvest. Syrup and spices had to improve them enough to make a quick dessert on a future day. And for a day alone, she loved it. Working in her favorite kitchen, getting to stay in her pajamas, and getting to play whatever music she wanted over the speakers. Due to being alone in the house, not knowing where anyone else was, every sound caught her attention. Even as she played the audio from one of Maria Callas’ performances of “Casta Diva” at a high volume, she still heard footsteps as they approached the arch to the kitchen.
She turned her head to see Franco, sneaking in. He was a teenager. A big, burly teenager who kept most of his usual fashion sense. Dress pants, oxford shoes, and a stylish jacket for the cool night. It brought a lot of mixed emotions to her heart.
“Nice to see you back tonight,” she said, arms upraised in a friendly gesture. “And just in time to see my new jars of pears!”
He sneaked away fast, as if scared of her. Annette’s voice trailed off, and she knew how grumpy he got if she sneaked off into his bedroom.
It might have brought her mood down, but it didn’t even surprise her that things turned out that way between them. After all, they were both Rackets.
If Annette wallowed in her misery in the hotel’s common room during a snowy early April, then one of the darker nights of her recent life happened less than two months prior to that. Half a year or so after Franco’s birthday, if she was counting right.
A lot had gotten her to think that her whole life was a black void of morality. And while that was once something she held pride in, she had one moment in her life when that void became a horrible place for everyone. Even for her. She became a little reclusive, going to work or coming home to curl up indoors during the autumn and winter. Unhelpful. Unable to see the big picture. Put another complaint out there, it must be true!
Someone besides Bill came to her side often, though. When Annette seemed down and unable to hide it, she could predict it. With little failure, Amy would come to her side with a mug of mint tea and ten minutes of mindless conversation. And it comforted Annette in the same way that hugging a pillow did. Empty, but helpful in the short-term.
It bugged her too. She did little for Amy, wrangling her into an uncertain and strange life with little reward. At least she made Bill find love. She got Shark and Sinbad to make something of their lives. Even Harwood had a resurgence in his career, and such an end, in theory, could have happened without her. But Amy would have done fine without Annette. Better than fine, even. She had loads of friends and a promising skill with painting before the two of them met.
The worst part was how naive Amy seemed to…everything that went on. Unbothered, or just unknowing of what Annette did. Of course she didn’t talk about it to outsiders…with Amy soon becoming the only outsider to that business in the house. Not knowing a thing about what Annette did in the underground kept her close, and delivering hot drinks and friendship to Annette on the regular.
So Annette appeared to return the favor at first. “It’s a nice night to take a walk,” she said. “And I have some cool things to show you.” Amy nodded and skipped along, eager to show off her new favorite jacket and enjoy the beauty of a snow-covered Twinbrook. There was still a short layer from the last storm.
Annette led the two of them to the fishing hole, where her secret cellar was. It was under the pretenses of a simple walk until they got there, when Annette had to be honest with her friend. “I hide a lot,” Annette said. “Some of it’s coming back to bite me.”
“You seem to have done pretty well anyways,” said Amy. “So why’re we here?”
Annette pointed down to the cellar doors. “I have a lot of bad things down there…and it’s something everyone but you seems to know about already. So I have to be honest now.”
“I like turning a blind eye to things,” Amy said.
“It’s just one of those things I’m hazy on. I know you’ve done some bad things…everyone does. But that’s it.”
“Well, I have some cool books down there-”
“I think I’m fine. I’m sorry we never talked about this.”
Amy sulked off, towards the wedding arch. The lights close to it were on, which meant that Annette could see Amy’s pained face illuminated. She stood in front of it.
Annette ran over. “I dunno what there is to say, though. And what does it have to do with this?”
“Sinbad and I are still engaged,” Amy said.
“Yeah, I got that much.”
“And I really do want to marry him! He’s been my best friend for years, and he’s such a sweetie to me, but I don’t like him when he’s angry at everything else. Like, I kept wondering what I was doing wrong. But…he’s working for you, isn’t he?”
She breathed an internal sigh of relief. No mention of possible affairs at all, something that Annette also felt guilty for. “Kind of an obvious choice, isn’t it?”
Amy turned towards Annette, timid and pouting. “I wanted better for everyone. And maybe you did too.”
“I got this same spiel from Lolly last year,” said Annette. “I get it. I was supposed to be a better person. But, I gotta be honest, well…it’s supposed to be a grey area.” Annette knew she was lying to herself about that. The grey darkened a lot, but black is just a dark grey in the end, isn’t it? And she could think of plenty of “grey” examples of what she did. Cause a lethal gas leak to stop a sex trafficking ring. Bribe a police officer to stop a white supremacist killer. Simply forget to help a suicidal friend until it was too late.
“So what did you do?”Amy asked. Annette could have provided any of those examples.
Her voice went flat. “I killed Dennis Racket.”
“He’s dead because I’m an evil idiot.”
Amy started to walk away after that sentence.
“I guess that’s what you think of me?” Annette asked.
“No. I like you…and I don’t know what to think of you too.”
In spite of her horrible, swirling thoughts and guilt over what she did to Dennis, Annette and Shark stayed close and friendly for about a year after his dad’s death. It turned out that he dealt with death well under most circumstances. He just couldn’t apply those coping skills to the place he needed to the most, but still. It was sad that Dennis was gone. But they had grown distant and Shark shrugged off the grief and didn’t let it get to him.
Annette held her tongue over the discrepancy.
A year after that, and Shark hit middle age. Or at least he couldn’t deny it for any longer, as strong laugh lines formed on his babyish face. But the realization hit around his birthday in July, as did the possibility of the dreaded mid-life crisis.
Maybe a cake will stop that, Annette thought. He liked chocolate cake, didn’t he? Annette had a recipe and a few variations for that. She baked and iced a full-size layer cake, only for Shark to look at it with disinterest and dread. Too late.
“Okay, it was the thought that counted,” said Annette, as she stood in the archway. “It looks too good to go stale, though.”
“I’m sure you’ll eat it regardless,” Shark said.
“You know, I’ve hit this point too. You just have to feel new again,” said Annette. “Why don’t I indulge you with material goods and pray that it works?”
“I do like material goods.”
“And that’s what I’m best with. Clothes and a haircut?” He nodded, with the sort of enthusiasm Annette hadn’t seen in a while.
The next day turned out to be a good one for going to the shops. It was Tuesday, which meant that Shark didn’t teach and Annette didn’t have to get into the kitchen until six. She hung around the men’s section while her nephew browsed for anything fashionable and colored-red. And it seemed to take forever, which gave Annette time to play a generic balloon-popping game on her phone. Once the soothing charm wore off, she planned instead.
Annette fit in with the old Racket adults due to her collection of tattoos. She had yet to get a huge eagle on her back, but she had plenty more. Before that day at the shops, she got a new tattoo on her left forearm. A teal octopus wrestling a red shark? The symbolism was not lost on her and she thought that the idea was hilarious. Therefore, Shark and his immaculate skin just looked weird by comparison. He had so much of a flesh canvas to work on, and didn’t even put it to use.
Once he paid for his new material goods, she jumped the idea on him. “Tattoos are a great Twinbrook tradition,” she said.
“Yeah, I’ve seen more of them than I’d like to,” said Shark.
“Never even crossed your mind?” His eyes seemed to light up with an idea.
“Now that you mention it, there’s lots of room for a chest piece.” Shark’s face melted into a daydreaming smile. “Holy shit, that would be great.” He even gave her a thumb’s up.
“You’re an artist, I bet you have something great in mind…wanna get that haircut now?”
That lasted on until close to six, when Annette had to scram for the night shift. But next chance they got, she headed down to the tattoo parlor with Shark, telling him that the process didn’t hurt that much. She herself would go through it again!
She never explained why she spoiled Shark that way, beyond the surface. I thought it would take his mind off…things. Come on, you wrote about them. See how well THAT worked. It made sense for Annette. Instead of being helpful, she resorted to a weird scheme. But the specific choice of spoiling him with material goods and turning a blind eye to deeper issues confused me.
She stuck with it until that day.
“And I don’t even have to shave it!” The tattoo artist approved of that hairless canvas. She was also Brenda, the bartender/stripper that Annette met some years before. Brenda fulfilled her immediate goals of inking others, and she could thank Annette for that. “So what’re you looking for?” she asked Shark.
He gave a reference pic, which Annette didn’t get a good look at. She zoned out for the conversation, and didn’t put much thought into what a “Middlesex Sword” was.
“Well that’s generic,” Brenda said.
“It’s my first one, okay?” Shark said to her. “Doesn’t matter that it’s on my chest.”
“You’re paying for removal surgery if you hate it.”
Brenda still did her job, and Shark was soon out of the chair and admiring the new ink on his chest in front of the long mirror. She and Annette caught up on happenings in the world.
“So Blanchard got shanked in prison. After they found out that he also got nabbed with helping a dog fighting ring, it all went downhill,” Brenda said.
They both laughed about it. “Guess Sagebear was right about him all along,” said Annette. “So how’s the business here treatin’ you?”
“I can stay here for a good, long time.”
“How am I the only one who doesn’t know what a Middlesex Sword is?” Annette asked.
“I dunno,” said Brenda. “It’s a simple design. A lot of people have told me it used to be a political thing there in 1993 or so, but now that design is everywhere from Bangor to Silicon Beach. And it’s so easy to remember. Silver sword, brown handle, some vines choking it.”
Annette’s eyes went wide with some fear and disgust, before she slapped her face with her palm.
“That…that kid is a piece of work,” Annette grumbled.
“Found yourself on the opposite side of them?” Brenda asked.
“No. His ex had that tattoo, right on his chest. He’s…he’s had issues getting over that guy.” Brenda could be spared the gritty details.
“Yeah, that is the worst tattoo idea ever,” said Brenda. “The new boyfriend makes a killing in laser tattoo removal, though. Funny how we got together…”
Annette kept her lips sealed to Shark about her opinions. Maybe he needed some tough love now. And who better to be tough for Annette than her red-headed henchman?
She led Sinbad downstairs to the Artifact Room, or so she was calling the place with the weird humming orb. The sound made Sinbad’s ears ring. “Can’t you turn that blasted thing off?” he asked Annette.
“That’s not how esoteric demon bullshit works. It never rests,” she said. “But you’re down here for a reason.”
“This sounds awful.”
Annette reached her arm out in the direction of one of the corners, where she kept a short table filled with artifacts. “Do you see those rings?” she asked Sinbad.
On the table, there was a display with three brown jewelry boxes. One was open and bearing a slim gold ring with a 1-karat diamond in the center. “Take a close look at them, they’re pretty nice,” she said.
Sinbad squatted down to get a closer look at the rings. “They look expensive,” he said. “Why do you…BITCH.”
“Excuse me? Save that for a woman I don’t respect.”
He got up in her face, with a strained grimmace. “This better not be a ploy to get me to feel sentimental over my dad’s things.”
Annette backed herself up against the wall in defense. “I’m not here to show you the stuff in the box. That thing’s his, but I stole those rings.”
“Westingate Jewellers. They have a shop in Pearlbrook…bad security too. But I need you to get me the ring I want to complete that.”
“Seems like you’re able to get whatever you want yourself,” he said.
“You spend more time in Shark’s room than I do. Pretty sure he has this ring I want. It’s a bishop’s ring, made of gold, and it has a huge amethyst in the center.”
“Is it some Racket treasure?”
“Yeah, of course!” While the Racket men all wore rings, their gems of choice tended to be emeralds. Hopefully Sinbad never noticed that. “Obviously, that’s why he has it. But I stole it years ago, which makes it mine. I made the mistake of showing him the way down here, or not locking the door, and now my ring’s gone.”
“Alright.” Sinbad replied with an uncharacteristic smile. “It does sound easy enough.”
It was another Tuesday afternoon, when Annette staked out near Shark’s open bedroom door. She had heard worse foreplay before. While those awful things happened, she laughed and marveled at shameless clickbait on the internet, and daydreamed about the ring. God, she missed having that ring as her trophy. Heck, she could wear it once she got it back. Harwood was a small guy, with fine and bony fingers, and a ring to fit them. Therefore, it couldn’t be far off from Annette’s size. She never had an amethyst ring before, and was curious to see how the purple stone meshed with the rest of her wardrobe.
They finished the sexy parts. Now Sinbad just needed to do his job, so Annette could teach Shark a lesson about attachment and obsession. And about sneaking into private rooms. Neither were good practices.
“What the shit is this? You’re burning a candle for him?”
Well, she hadn’t ever noticed that.
“Hey, get out of there!”
“Uh, no. I doubt this ring is even a Racket treasure…it’s his, isn’t it? What other things have you kept from that prick? Got that tattoo for him too?”
“Oh, a cheater’s gonna try to talk to me about-”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP OR I’LL ZIPPO YOUR STUPID CATS.”
That last line caught Annette off guard, and she held her chest until both of the cats came bounding out. At least they were safe from being…the guy just threatened to set two innocent cats on fire. What a wreck of an afternoon that was turning out to be.
She heard something that sounded like a strong smack against flesh, and Sinbad stepped out.
“I can’t believe the shit he keeps in there,” he told Annette.
She crossed her brows in anger. “Dude, don’t threaten animals. Get forty from my cookie jar and get out of the house for the day.”
“Wait, the ring!” But he was downstairs already. Maybe he had it smuggled somewhere else, and would give it to her tomorrow. Whatever. She didn’t plan for things to get so violent.
Annette crept inside Shark’s room, finding him sitting cross-legged on the floor and holding his cheek. She could still see the purple bruising on it from between his fingers.
“There’s a lot we need to talk about,” Annette said. She knelt down in front of Shark to get on his level.
“No one knows what it’s like,” he mumbled.
“Is this another thing about Harwood?” she asked him. “Because…I’m gonna be honest today. It’s been over a decade. That toddler you two sang to on the night before his death is gonna be a teenager in a couple of weeks. I…sad to say, I worry about you.”
“It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with,” he said. “We’re adults–Hey! Get out of my dresser.”
“I’m walking near it, totally different.” She stopped in the corner, in front of a picture frame and a burning white candle. The photo in the scarlet-red frame was of him and Harwood. Shark was giving him a hug from behind.
“Fuck, he was right,” she muttered.
“This is my stuff. You shouldn’t even be in here.”
“No, I’m worried sick about you.” She opened the top drawer of his dresser. Nestled the folds of a shirt, there was a bottle of clonazepam. Deadly when overdosed on, and also without a prescription label.
“I know you don’t need klonopin,” she said. “I’m…I can’t do this to someone else. No more of this! You can’t even see how far this is going.”
She was about the call for professional help when Shark swatted the phone out of her hand. With his strength, it landed on the floor hard and a crack formed on the screen.
He yelled to her face. “Can’t do this to someone else? You could have stopped that from happening to him? It’d be fucking great right now if you did!”
“You know, I chose some bad words. I knew how he was feeling, but…I can stop an adult now…I didn’t know what I could do then.”
“Then what could you possibly do to help me?” he asked, seething. “If you couldn’t even wrangle someone you bragged about being one of your closest friends?” Annette reached her boiling point with Shark.
With her hands raised in the air, she screamed to the ceiling. “I…DON’T EVEN FUCKING KNOW. I’m not a therapist. I thought you’d get yourself help. And…material goods…”
“…Thanks for nothing,” he said, his voice lowered.
“Fine, but I don’t need this again.” She fetched the clonazepam bottle and stormed out of his bedroom. Annette recalled that she threw the bottle in the river, but it was long in the past. Shark didn’t seem to bring any more of it into the house either.
Maybe he just wanted to shock or grab attention. Winter came and went, and in the snowiest April any of them had witnessed, Shark was still alive and well. He went to the gym on the regular, worked four days a week, and spent most of his spare time brooding and making grouchy faces at Annette.
She regretted her words to him. She regretted almost every single thing she did to Shark, good or bad. Sometimes Annette felt like kicking herself for dragging the young man into her life at all. But hell, it was just another life ruined. Another friendship down the drain. Who cared if list of simple allies dwindled down and threatened to become nothing?
Just another life ruined, that’s all.
She had to count her blessings. One strong ally was left.
Annette selectively thought about mortality. The prospect of Bill’s inevitable death was a huge mood-killer in bed, after all. And they turned to sex a lot more around that bad time for Annette. They turned to still being the bright spots in each others’ lives, and doing everything for smiles and snuggles from the other. 12 years before that, and she would have never guessed Bill to be like that. Warm and gooey-soft like a toasted marshmallow, and madly in love with her in the same way she was with him.
It wasn’t very often that she got reminded that his time would be up sooner rather than later. His exams and bloodwork came back with excellent stats for a big guy in his 70’s. He still worked for the city, was drafting a campaign to run for state representative, and could keep up with the young-ish Annette as well as a man her age could.
God forbid that ever change. God forbid it does, right?
A/N: Welcome to my first major foray into breaking up the usual format of chapters. Basically, I had a lot of events and ideas thought out, but no way to make them into a cohesive, chronological chapter. So I opted for episodes/vignettes.
Some parts of this turned out really well, some I kind of wonder about. Oh well.
Uh, yeah, Shark’s bit got long FAST. Technically, it counts as a Sinbad segment too, but still. I think that took up seven pages of the document while the other segments got a little over two.
My excuse is that I talk about those characters with Nessa a lot. She can confirm. 😛
Yes, Harwood had a chest piece of a sword. I spared you having to see him shirtless, and I dunno if he wore any shirts that showed the top of it.
So one comment that might come up is “how can Annette have only one ally left, when she didn’t really do much to Sinbad either?” Don’t worry, I have my bases covered:
- In short, he sure doesn’t act like an ally.
- Sinbad likely sees Annette as a complicated figure, but ultimately someone who might be bent on screwing him over. When he moved in (Chapter 18), it was a result of “admitting defeat.” On multiple occasions, he’s treated her as just another infuriating abuse apologist. When they get along, they’re not even that friendly.
- Annette sees Sinbad as a nuisance. He’s cheating on one of her friends, never has a good attitude towards her, and is stubborn to work with. In previous chapters, he violently assaulted her nephew, cussed out CHILDREN, gave her a bloody nose, has nearly sabotaged at least two missions with his panicking, and as mentioned, cheats on her friend and doesn’t treat Annette with much respect. It would be more surprising if he was still a true ally than that he isn’t.
I don’t know how universal the Zippo brand of lighters is, but Zippo is a brand of lighters. And that really was Sinbad threatening to light some cats on fire.
Oh, the other point I want to bring up is that the “Annette is really the one responsible for Harwood’s suicide” thing isn’t completely a baseless statement/accusation.
So if we go back to Chapter 11, the chapters ends with Annette knowing fully that Harwood might seriously be considering suicide. And one of her last lines to him?
You’ve had enough [alcohol]. I’m not turning you in to the hospital, but we’re going home. And you won’t mention a word of this to anyone.
Which translates to “I’m not going to get you some help, nor do I want anyone to worry and therefore proceed to get you some help. Also, I might think it’s the vodka speaking, not you.” I doubt Annette meant that (her intentions likely were “I don’t want to cause you or anyone else undue distress”), but it’s also easy to look back on that and say “I should’ve done something.”
Or in Chapter 12, where a lot of the signs were pointing to “shit he’s gonna do it tonight” and Annette didn’t step in.
It’s survivor’s guilt, and both Annette and Shark have it and it lingered BAD.
(And before someone says “but why is Shark being so mopey when he would’ve lost Harwood sooner or later anyways, given their age difference?”, you have a valid point, but the method of dying can affect grief. There’s a big difference between “he died naturally” and “he willingly OD’d to exit this world, and all over someone else he was in love with to boot.”)