Effie Wickes finds herself struggling to deal with her mother's death...
The horrors of an unseen intruder and the nightmares she had been suffering behind her for the moment, Effie tied her boot-laces and zipped up her jacket. Vincent had invited her to the Apple Picking Ceremony at the Anderson Estate Orchard, and she had (with a bit of huffing and debating) agreed to meet him, and his young nephew, for a day of apple, orange, and berry picking. It was an integral part of the town’s Autumn Celebration, and she had always attended as a child—her mother had loved the Apple Picking Ceremony, almost more than the masquerade in the Andersons gardens.
‘I’ll be home later this afternoon, Nimbus. I promise to bring you something fun to play with from the orchard.’ She said to the kitten, who was resting on the arm of the couch, watching her as she closed the door. Effie always felt a twinge of regret, leaving her feline friend behind when she left, but she wouldn’t be able to focus on the kitten’s safety during the apple picking. She intended to keep her promise of bringing something for the kitten to play with—perhaps a feather, or a bag of leaves?
The Anderson Estate sat against the hills across the lake, a forest to one side and an orchard opposite; the front gardens were filled with colourful flowers, and in the centre of the turnaround sat a water fountain. Effie parked her car with the others, on the side of the road leading onto the grounds, and met up with Vincent at the entrance.
‘I’m glad you decided to come, I was afraid you would change your mind at the last minute.’ Vincent laughed, holding his nephew’s hand. ‘This is Wyatt,’ he introduced the boy, ‘Wyatt, this is my friend Effie. She is really nice.’
The child was silent—his wide brown eyes were sad, but he offered Effie a smile without removing his thumb from his mouth.
‘Don’t take his silence too personally, he hasn’t spoken much since my father passed. It was hard on him, losing another person.’
Effie understood how the child felt, and though she wanted so badly to console him, she kept her distance so as not to invade his space—if Wyatt warmed up to her, she would be there to talk, and if not, she would accept that.
They followed the rest of the guests to the orchard, where the Andersons stood, piles of baskets on either side of them.
‘Welcome, and merry Autumn!’ Mr Anderson called once the entire group was present. Effie glanced around, seeing many faces she recognised from her childhood; Effie caught herself looking for her mother’s face. It pained her to know that Theola wasn’t going to appear out of the crowd, dragging behind her a red waggon ready to hold every apple she and Effie would pick.
‘There is face painting, a pumpkin patch, and a booth to vote for your choice of the first slaughter of the season to the right, there,’ Mr Anderson pointed toward a tent that had been erected near where everyone had gathered, ‘and here are the baskets if anyone happened to forget to bring one. Take your time picking the apples, and remember that the best of your harvest will be offered tonight!’
With a cheer, the group split up, most heading into the tent to vote for their slaughter choice or get their faces painted (Effie wondered where the pumpkin patch was, but after obtaining her basket and heading into the orchard, she noticed a few rows of pumpkins behind the tent). She followed Vincent and Wyatt into the trees, swinging her basket by her side, humming to herself. Vincent lifted Wyatt onto his shoulders and pointed to an apple; Wyatt picked the fruit from the branch and handed it down to Vincent, who placed it into the basket with care.
It was a quiet affair, for the most part—there were a few times when children would weave between the trees, shrieking and giggling as they raced to find the next perfect apple to pick. Effie smiled at the children, unaffected by their volume and their lack of attention as they chased one another. She reached above her head and picked her first apple, inspecting it to make sure it was ripe and uninhabited by any critters.
‘My mother used to inspect every apple she picked—she would look at it, feel it, and then smell it. I always thought it was silly, but now that she isn’t here to make sure they are good, I’m sorry for doubting her expertise. I wish I had her knowledge.’ Effie confessed. She held the apple to her nose and breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet scent of the fruit. Vincent turned around and smiled at her, Wyatt’s face wet with juice which dripped onto Vincent’s hair. Effie laughed loudly, dropping the apple into her basket.
They continued down the rows, and by the time Vincent suggested they head to the tent, Wyatt had warmed up to Effie and was walking, hand in hand, with her. Vincent led the way, and Effie smiled down at Wyatt, who had a grin on his face that was infectious.
‘Mr Wyatt, what is your favourite colour?’ She asked, reaching to pick one last apple.
‘I like black and red.’ He answered, taking another bite of his fruit. Though she found his choices odd, Effie nodded in response and continued to follow Vincent through the trees, back to the Anderson Manor.
The tent was lavish, though tasteful, and as Effie walked through the opening, she drew in a deep breath. The material of the tent was a thick canvas, and while it was cream outside, the walls within were the colour of pumpkin pie; small yellow and white bulbs were strung between and around the poles that formed the structure, and there was a warmth enclosed inside that was inviting and calming. Lanterns and candles burned on the tables, Autumn leaves decorated the surfaces and the floor, and the soft giggles of the children filled the air as their faces were painted or their pumpkins carved (with help from their parents, of course.
Wyatt broke free from Effie’s hand and ran to the face painter, the glee in his voice filling the tent. Vincent appeared beside her, laughing. His arrival drew her attention away from the boy, and she watched as his eyes lit up at the child’s delight
‘He is a joy, Vincent. I would have never thought he has suffered so much.’ Effie patted him on the arm and smiled at him.
‘He has come a long way, Effie. When I first took him in, he was distant and cold—he cried, constantly, but he was inconsolable.’ Vincent kept his gaze on Wyatt, who was laughing and pointing at the leaves in the painter's sample book. ‘It was difficult, at first, but I’ve worked hard to get him to where he is now.’
‘I can only imagine the effort you’ve put into helping him—you have a lot of willpower, Vincent.’ She offered another smile but found his attention had remained on Wyatt. There was a strange glint in his eye, not the typical look of a guardian over his ward but more of a father watching his child. She let the thought go, realising that any proper person would view a child in their custody as their own.
Wyatt’s laughter drew her back to the present and she giggled at the smiling leaf before her. His entire face had been covered in the realistic painting, and his smile broke the illusion the design had created. Effie noted that the artist had a distinct skill, and recognised her as the local gallery owner. As she looked at the woman, Effie thought she was familiar—her stringy brown hair falling over her face as she bent over a blank canvas (another child’s face, that is), and the way she bit her lip in concentration, the soft hum that rose from her throat floating under the sounds of the children.
‘Ilaina has grown into quite the celebrity, hasn’t she?’ Vincent spoke; Effie nodded, watching the woman wield her paintbrush as if she were a master creating something spectacular.
Effie saw, in place of the woman, the shy, quiet girl with a sketchbook, the girl who had tried to teach her how to draw and paint, hoping to succeed where her mother had failed—for the life of her, Effie never did learn how to draw or paint. Her attention returned to the present, and she offered to her hand to Wyatt.
‘Why don’t we pick a pumpkin?’ Wyatt wrapped his hand around her index finger and led her away from Vincent, to the patch behind the tent.
Effie watched as Wyatt weaved between the rows of pumpkins, his laughter ringing in the crisp air. She offered a smile and a nod here and there when he looked up for approval, but stood back from the selection process. She had no use of a pumpkin at her forest cabin but had made the decision to buy the squash, whether Vincent approved or not.
As she stood near the edge of the patch, she let her eyes wander to the tree line across the field—the sun was dipping and dancing behind clouds, casting odd shadows in the trees, but as her eyes focused, she picked out the figure of a woman dressed in white, just beyond the closest trunks. The woman seemed to be facing the patch, and though Effie had no intention of running off, leaving Wyatt alone, she felt a tug of curiosity in the pit of her stomach.
She was grateful when Wyatt appeared at her side, tugging at her jacket.
‘Miss Effie, I found my pumpkin. Can I go get some hot chocolate?’
‘Of course.’ She reached down and took the squash, ruffling the child’s hair. He giggled and ran into the tent, shouting to Vincent that he had made his choice and was going to get a treat. He waved the boy on, but remained at the entrance, waiting for Effie. She glanced again at the tree-line, saw that the woman still stood in the shade, and decided to feed her curiosity. At the entrance, Effie handed the pumpkin to Vincent and leant into his ear:
‘I’ll be back in a few minutes. I want to make one more pass through the orchard, just to make sure we have all the best apples.’
Vincent laughed and offered her their basket, but she declined, already halfway through the tent to the front flaps.
Effie made her way down the outer row of the orchard, but instead of proceeding forward for apples, she made a sharp right onto an overgrown path, heading toward where she assumed the woman was standing. As she neared the woman, Effie saw the twigs and leaves matting her hair, the dirt that covered her skin—the woman lifted a finger to her mouth, signalling Effie to stay quiet.
There was an eerie similarity between the strange person and her mother—her eyes, the shape of her mouth, the way she watched everything; it struck Effie in the heart, tearing away the fragile silk she had begun to grow over the wounds caused by her mother’s death.
She ducked between the bushes, into the trees, and out of sight. Effie followed but had lost sight of her before she had cleared the bushes. She looked around, frantic to find the person, but was alone, on an overgrown path that led away from the Andersons orchard and deeper into the forest.
She followed the path around trees and rocks and through dense patches of trees—when she finally found the end, there was a stone mausoleum surrounded by bare trees and covered in brown, dead vines. To the left of the door, there was a bronze plaque; Effie closed the distance between herself and the oddly placed structure.
Here lies Arnaud Guillaume,
Founder of the Beaume Settlement,
Beloved Father and Husband,
May he live forever
On the land he so dearly loved.
Effie read over the epitaph a few times before taking a step back to admire the mausoleum once more. She found the placement of the structure rather odd—shouldn’t a mausoleum be in a cemetery?
Her cell phone rang, jarring her back to reality—checking the screen, she found a text message from Vincent offering to pick her up before the celebration. She typed a reply (yes, thank you!) and tucked her phone back in her pocket. She turned from the structure and took a few steps away, but could not make herself leave the presence of the stone building. There was something alluring about it, something enticing that drew her back.
She had to pull herself away from the area, down the path toward the Andersons property, before she was caught on what she could only assume was private property, off limits to trespassers.