Annie Crow Knoll: Sunset by Gail Priest by Gail Priest - Read Online

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Annie Crow Knoll - Gail Priest

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Moonrise

Annie Crow Knoll: Sunset

Copyright © 2014 Gail Priest

All rights reserved.

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ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

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This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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Also by Gail Priest

Dedication

Map

PART ONE

Chapter One: Summer 1980

Chapter Two: Fall 1980

Chapter Three: Winter 1980-1981

Chapter Four: Summer 1981

Chapter Five: Winter 1981

Chapter Six: Summer 1982

PART TWO

Chapter Seven: Summer 1986

Chapter Eight: Fall 1986

Chapter Nine: Summer 1987

Chapter Ten: Fall 1987

Chapter Eleven: Winter 1987-1988

Chapter Twelve: Spring 1988

Chapter Thirteen: Summer 1988

Chapter Fourteen: Fall 1988

Chapter Fifteen: Spring 1989

PART THREE

Chapter Sixteen: Spring 1995

Chapter Seventeen: Summer 1995

Chapter Eighteen: Late Summer 1995

Epilogue: Fall 1995

Acknowledgements

About the Author

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For Laurel, Patricia, Anne, and Linda

And Always

For Gary

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NATE BIDWELL HEARD KIDS’ VOICES as he bicycled near the abandoned barn on Swamp Road, which bordered the small African American community of Coletown. When he realized someone was pleading to be left alone, he rode off the pavement and across the grass at top speed, circling behind the dilapidated building. There he saw two familiar boys, Rusty Watson and Froggy Ferguson, shoving a young Coletown girl back and forth. They had isolated her where no one would see them. Anger shot up from Nate’s gut when the girl fell and Rusty pinned her to the ground.

Quit it, Nate hollered.

He drove his bike across the dirt straight toward Froggy. Surprised, the boy jumped out of the way. Nate turned around, and Rusty lumbered to his feet, while the little girl stayed on the ground crying. Now Nate could see that it was Ivy Green, whose mother occasionally worked cleaning cottages at Annie Crow Knoll, the community of summer cottages where he lived. Ivy’s eyes were filled with panic, and her flat chest heaved up and down with sobs. She wasn’t more than seven years old. Rusty and Froggy were twice her age and older than Nate.

Assholes, Nate said out loud.

Despite the bigger boys each weighing a good twenty pounds more than Nate, he barreled his bike toward Froggy, who caught hold of the handlebars and stopped Nate as if he had ridden into thick mud. They were face-to-face.

We always knew your family loved nig... Before Froggy finished the word, Nate delivered a clean jab to his stomach. Then he felt Rusty plow into him from the side, and he smashed to the ground. Froggy jumped on the front wheel of his bike.

Run, Ivy, run! Nate screamed as both boys fell on him. He punched wildly. His fist struck bone or teeth before he was hit in the face several times. Pain shot straight to the back of his head. Another blow landed on his chest, and Nate was gasping for air. Somehow he focused enough to look for Ivy. Thankfully there was no sign of her. Before Nate could defend himself, Rusty knelt on his shoulders while Froggy kicked him in the ribs. Nate struggled to free himself until another kick knocked the wind out of him, and he went limp. The weight holding him down released. Thank God, they’re done with me. There was silence, and then the last thing Nate felt was one final, solid blow to his head.

When Nate woke up, it took him several moments to clear his mind enough to sit up. Blood trickled down his face from his nose. His right eye throbbed. When he closed his left eye, he could barely see, and there was blood running into or out of the injured eye; he wasn’t sure which it was at this point.

At least Ivy had gotten away, he consoled himself as he stumbled up to examine his bike. Nearly half the spokes on the front wheel were broken, and the rim was so badly bent, he wasn’t sure he could even roll the bike home. That hurt worse than his physical injuries.

Nate staggered as he canvassed his surroundings with his good eye. The other was quickly swelling shut. Because he felt unsteady on his feet and unsure if the boys were really gone, Nate was cautious as he lugged his bike around the barn and back out to the road. He found no one to hurt him more, but saw no sign help, either. With no choice but to start walking home, Nate lifted the twisted front bicycle wheel so it stayed off the surface of the road. His mother’s property of rental cottages on the outskirts of the small Chesapeake Bay town called Promise was several miles away.

Nate would have to tell his mom he had been on Swamp Road. Years before he was born, her parents had been killed in a car accident on that road. Nate grimaced, anticipating her expression when she found out where he had been riding. He loved soaring down a series of hills out there past trees covered with kudzu vines that made them look like giant green topiary monsters. His dad understood his attraction to speed and to those hills. Nate thought his mother should get it, too. After all, their friend and employee Bo often told the story about Nate’s mother riding her bike right off the end of the pier and into the bay when she was only nine years old. But his dad had asked him not to mention riding on Swamp Road in front of her, so Nate hadn’t before now. As with most things, Nate deferred to his father’s advice.

After the first half mile of practically carrying his bike, Nate’s shoulders began to ache, and his chest hurt when he breathed deeply. The moment his back tire also went flat, he tossed the bike down. In a fit of anger and frustration, he considered jumping on the back wheel and simply putting the bike out of its misery, but his head hurt too much to do anything that strenuous.

Just as he was about to start walking the rest of the way home without his bike, Bo’s Ford pickup truck came down the road from Coletown and pulled over. The sheer relief of seeing the big man jump out of the cab with concern written all over his face nearly made Nate cry, but he swallowed hard to get control.

Why aren’t you on the Knoll? Nate asked. Bo lived in Coletown, but today he should’ve been working at Annie Crow Knoll, as he had since Nate’s mother was a baby. Bo had become a surrogate father to his mom when her parents were killed, and he was like a grandfather to Nate.

Never mind that. Are you okay? Bo put his hands on the boy’s shoulders.

Been better.

Good Lord, Bo said as he examined Nate’s eye and pulled a clean bandanna out of his back pocket. Here, put a little pressure on the cut under the brow, but don’t press directly on your eye.

Yes, sir.

You sure are gonna have a shiner. Let’s get you back to the Knoll. Bo picked up Nate’s bike and put it in the truck bed.

Why aren’t you there today? Nate rounded the cab and got in.

Your over-protective mother sent me home early. Man coughs a few times, and the hen starts clucking. Bo shook his head.

Nate knew both his parents were concerned about their friend’s health, but he sensed Bo didn’t want to talk about it. Instead he asked, How did you know to find me?

Bo started up his truck, put it in gear and pulled out onto the road.

Mrs. Green came to me. Poor little Ivy was more upset about you than herself. Kept telling her mama to make sure you were all right. You weren’t at the barn so I kept driving toward the Knoll.

It was Rusty Watson and Froggy Ferguson.

Thanks. Ivy wouldn’t tell her mom who they were, just that Nathan Bo Bidwell had saved her. Bo remembered the day Nate was born, when the boy’s parents gave him the honor of using his own name for their son’s middle name.

I’ll tell whoever needs to know who they were, Nate insisted.

Now, Nate, you did your part. I’m proud and grateful, but Mrs. Green doesn’t want any trouble.

She can’t let them get away with this.

I agree with you, but Ivy won’t say who the boys were because she’s scared. She and her mother are alone out there, and things could get ugly if she names the sheriff’s son.

I don’t believe this. Nate clenched his jaw.

When you were about to be born, Rusty’s dad pulled me over when I was driving your mother to the hospital. Wanted to know why she was sitting in the front seat with a Negro.

What happened?

Your mama had a contraction and yelled bloody murder. Scared Bunky Watson half to death, and he let us go. Recalling it made Bo chuckle to himself.

But that was twelve years ago. Things are different.

Not that different.

Still.

I don’t agree with Mrs. Green’s decision, but I have to respect it. I’m asking you to respect it, too. Since you stopped them, let it go. If it’d gone further, then she’d have to speak up.

How am I supposed to explain my eye and my bike?

Tell the truth but leave out the girl’s name.

My father—

Will come right to me, I know. I’m going to do the lying, not you.

Nate was silent.

After a moment, Bo added, Ivy’s older cousins will take care of this during football season now that I can tell them who it was.

When Bo saw Nate turn to him and smile, he laughed. However the laugh quickly turned into a deep cough that seemed to come from the big man’s toes.

Don’t ever smoke, Nate, Bo said when he could speak again.

No, sir.

I’m serious.

Yes, sir.

Good boy.

When they reached Promise, located on the tip of the peninsula between the Elk and Sassafras Rivers overlooking the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, Nate turned to Bo. We both realize the minute I tell my parents a Coletown girl was attacked, my dad will be out at your house asking questions. So you’d better drop me off here, since you’re not supposed to know anything.

You still have a half mile or so to walk out to the Knoll.

I’ll be all right. I’d rather go in alone anyway.

Okay. Bo pulled his truck over on Center Street.

Nate jumped from the cab to help Bo get the bike out. It hurt his head to move so quickly, but he didn’t want Bo to start coughing again.

Thanks for coming to get me.

I’m glad Ivy’s mama told me.

Bo climbed back into his truck and made a U-turn to head back out of town. He waved when he passed Nate.

Before ending at the town beach, Center Street ran past the Promise United Methodist Church, Turner’s Market (which also held the post office), and the new fire station, so Nate took the back streets. He cut across to Baycliff Road in order to avoid people who might be picking up their mail or groceries or coming up from the beach. He couldn’t begin to deal with the questions anyone would ask. Nate regretted not trying to sneak into the doctor’s office across from the market. Maybe if he arrived home already checked out by Doc, his parents would be less alarmed. But he had to dodge people.

Baycliff Road skirted the Chesapeake along a steep bluff. There were fewer houses down this stretch and none were on the bayside of the street. Above Nate’s head, a Turkey Vulture soared along the currents rising up the hill, rocking back and forth in its distinctive fashion. A flock of gulls floated lazily in the bay below. The bright sunlight reflecting off the water hurt Nate’s eye that wasn’t swollen shut.

Closer to home, the road curved away from the bay, and Nate was relieved to reach shade trees that lined properties on both sides of the street. An American Crow cried out a warning from a nearby oak. Nate wondered what it would be like to raise a pet crow as his mother had done. He heard stories about her crow going everywhere she went, consequently coining her nickname Annie Crow and eventually the name of her establishment. Nate’s grandparents’ sloping hill property had always been known as the Knoll, but the ‘Annie Crow’ moniker was added after their death, when Annie had fought to save the cottage community from her great-grandmother, who’d planned to sell it for development.

When he reached the last property in Promise before his home without detection, Nate breathed a sigh of relief. He knew that if their neighbor Packard Marlboro saw him in this condition, he would help and not ask a lot of questions. Nate lugged his bike further along Baycliff Road to where Packard’s Schoolhouse Studio stood in the field next to the Knoll. Over thirteen years ago, the artist had rescued the old Locust Creek one-room schoolhouse from demolition by moving and restoring it for his workspace. Nate had grown up going there with his father from the time he was an infant in a stroller.

Maybe Dad’s in Packard’s studio right now, Nate thought. Lately he’s there, or at his office at Queen Anne College more than he’s home. This realization brought a burning feeling to Nate’s throat, and although it hurt to do it, he took a full breath and swallowed hard to tamp it down. Maybe I should sneak into the studio and see if Dad or Packard can help me. However the plan was short-lived, because Beth Ann and Petey came running from behind the refurbished building and caught sight of him.

With her blonde ponytail swinging, Beth Ann raced toward him first. I saw a new bird this morning, she said before registering that Nate didn’t look right.

Can you take us fishing in your skiff? Petey asked simultaneously.

These two kids were the closest Nate had to siblings. Grace, their mom, and Annie, Nate’s mom, had been best friends since childhood. Every summer Grace and her children flew in from California to spend three months on the bay. Normally, Nate was happy to go along with anything the younger pair wanted to do. He enjoyed playing the role of big brother, but not today.

I think it might have been an oriole of some kind, Beth Ann explained as she reached him. The smile on her cute face disappeared when she realized Nate was hurt. What happened?

Petey caught up and noticed the damaged bike first. What happened to your wheel?

I got in a fight.

With your bike? Petey asked, wide-eyed.

Nate pushed ahead toward the entrance to Annie Crow Knoll without answering. Both youngsters raced past him, sprinting between the two stone pillars topped with cement crows.

Nate trudged on behind them. He spotted his mother repairing a screen window on the porch of Cockatiel Cottage. Last night Petey had managed to hit a softball right through it. Grace, whom Nate affectionately called aunt, was helping Annie with the job. Beth Ann reached their mothers first, squealing about Nate getting into a fight. Petey, clamoring to be heard, chimed in about the bike and the blood on Nate’s face.

His mother’s concerned eyes met his as the broken wheel spokes repeatedly hit the drive that ran down the middle of Annie Crow Knoll, dividing the property with seven pale yellow cottages on each side. The Slims, an elderly couple who had rented the first cottage on the right since Nate’s grandparents founded the Knoll, watched from the porch of Slim’s Secret with concern. Old Mrs. Waters, another long-time tenant in Hummingbird Haven, thankfully was napping.

Nate! His mother ran to him. What happened? She tried to touch his face.

Not now, Mom, he said and pulled away.

If Aunt Grace, Beth Ann and Petey hadn’t been watching, he might have let her take him into her arms. He needed reassurance, but he preferred to get it from his father, who must have been in Sunrise Cottage writing his latest textbook on American Folklore. His mother let Nate go. It was a weekday, so some cottages were unoccupied. Nate glanced anxiously as he passed Tockwogh and Kingfisher Cottages. The last thing he wanted was mouthy Cathy Martino and her new friend Chicky Zebler discovering him. Hopefully they were down on the beach. When he reached Sunrise Cottage, he threw his damaged bike to the ground and ran inside.

After saying good night and closing Nate’s door, Annie headed to bed, drained. Although Doc had assured her Nate had no concussion, no broken ribs, and his eye would be fine once the puffiness went down, she hated to see her boy’s handsome face bruised and swollen. She had to release the fist her hand was in so she could open the bedroom door.

Her husband was reading on their bed, still in his clothes.

Aren’t you going to sleep? Annie began changing into her pajamas.

Drew put his book aside. I want Nate out of public school and away from those boys.

Please, keep your voice down. He’s still awake.

Why won’t you budge on this, Annie? Private school would be good for him. Drew’s blue eyes flashed. You certainly can afford it.

Between her concerns over Nate’s injuries and Bo’s serious cough, Annie didn’t think she could handle much more. It irked her that Drew was bringing up his resentment against the inheritance her great-grandmother had left. Annie paused in an effort to remain civil.

We can afford it, Drew. The money is ours, not mine, she said barely above a whisper.

So you keep reminding me.

No, she told herself. Don’t engage in the money argument. As much as we want to, we can’t protect him from the world.

He’ll have opportunities that public school doesn’t offer.

As appealing as escaping jerks like Rusty and Froggy sounded, Annie was unsure about sending her son to school with some of the wealthy snobs he’d run into when competing in Chesapeake Bay sailing regattas.

Annie climbed into bed. Look, can we talk about this later? We don’t have to decide anything right this minute.

It’s always later with you, Annie. Drew got off the bed. I don’t know why you insist on living in this wasteland. He pulled open their bedroom door and slammed it on his way out.

Annie felt her stomach flip. What’s happening to us? she asked herself. She heard movement in Nate’s room. He must have heard them arguing again. Annie groaned and leaned over to turn off the light. She fussed with her pillow to try to make it feel comfortable. She couldn’t worry about Drew right now. She’d deal with that later. Nate and Bo were all she could think about as she tried to go to sleep.

Nate picked nervously at a loose piece of wallpaper on the wall adjacent to his parents’ room in their tiny cottage. This wasn’t a new argument. Nate had heard his parents disagreeing on private versus public school before; however, they never asked for his opinion. It was a favorite wound his parents reopened in order to avoid a more serious issue between them. Something that Nate sensed but didn’t like to think about.

A door slammed. He didn’t know which parent had given up and left to clear their head. His mom would go out to the end of their long dock and sit watching the water. His dad always headed over to Mr. Packard’s. Nate went to his bedroom window to see the shape of his dad’s figure hop over the railing to do just that. Why they’d never put a gate in the fence between the properties was a mystery.

Nate settled back into bed, exhausted. He felt a little reassured because his father always seemed in a better mood after a cigar and a game of chess with Packard. He’d grown up listening to the men discussing art, history, philosophy, literature and occasionally politics in the studio. The friendship grounded his father, and the sense of that now helped Nate fall asleep despite his physical pain and worries over his family.

The next morning, Nate was inundated with concerned Knollers. Just as Mr. Slim was leaving, Dr. Maizie from Sunset Cottage arrived.

How are you feeling today, Nate? she asked. Her silver-streaked strawberry blonde hair was pulled up in a casual knot.

Doc says I’m fine, ma’am.

Actually, he still has a little headache, his mother said.

Let me double check. Dr. Maizie retrieved a small flashlight from her medical bag.

Nate submitted to the check-up in the dining room of Sunrise Cottage. After all, Maizie’s parents and siblings had rented Sunset Cottage and Sun-swept Cottage for over thirty years. At least her husband, Dr. Sam Waters, Mrs. Waters’ son from Hummingbird Haven, was in Baltimore at his office, or he’d probably be examining Nate as well.

By the time Nate escaped the house, the noon whistle was sounding from the new fire station in town. He didn’t get very far before he ran into Cathy Martino, whom he privately called Chatty Cathy for reasons that were obvious to anyone who spent time around her. She was accompanied by the new girl, Chicky Zebler.

Wow, you really were beat up. Cathy stared at Nate’s black eye and bruised face.

Nate flushed at the thought of these girls making