Here’s a short story partially inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem Annabelle Lee. Hope you enjoy it.
by Silas Champion
Everything smells unpleasant today, Annabelle thought, but no one else seemed to notice. They chattered about the upcoming party as they folded origami ravens. She sniffed the air again. Something definitely smelled musty, but she’d always had a sensitive nose.
“The decorations look wonderful,” a bubbly voice sounded behind her. Annabelle turned to see Gwen holding a tray of elaborate cupcakes. Each cupcake had a small black bat perched on orange icing.
“Thanks.” Annabelle pointed at the cupcakes. “Those are cool. Did you make those?”
Gwen laughed. “Oh no, I got these from Sweetcakes. I could never make anything like that.” She laughed again. Gwen laughed too much, but she was a sweetheart. Those cupcakes had to be expensive. It wasn’t like the Library Club had a big budget. Annabelle decided to let it go. Sometimes it felt like she was the only one who worried about this stuff.
“Just put them on the table over there.” She pointed. Gwen giggled and scurried away. Annabelle watched Portia walk toward her with a bag in each hand. Her long brown hair bounced on her shoulders that were covered in a perfectly puffy sweater. All she needed was a pumpkin-spice latte and she would be a walking cliché.
“Annabelle!” she called. Portia always sounded excited, even when she made a shopping list. “Everything looks great!” She waved at the decorations covering the library meeting room.
“Thanks, Portia,” Annabelle said. “Did you get the prizes?” Portia’s bubbly smile changed to a frown.
“I got some.” She held up the bags. “But not as much as we hoped.” Annabelle stifled a sigh. The prizes were the only way they raised any money at this event. The old people ponied up for those prizes.
Portia shrugged her perfect shoulders. “I don’t know. I went to the same store as last year, but they were mostly sold out. Sorry.” Her voice regained its customary perkiness.
“It’s okay.” Annabelle forced the irritation from her voice. “We’ll figure something out.”
“Where’s the tables?” Portia asked.
“Oh, Allie’s boyfriend is bring them in his truck.” Annabelle searched for a solution to the prize problem. She didn’t need a bunch of angry senior citizens. At least you could distract children with candy, but candy would mess with the seniors’ blood sugar. She faked a smile.
“Why don’t you put your prizes over there and help the others with the decorations?”
“Okay.” Portia joined the other girls with her usual cheery hello. Annabelle tamped down a curse. Would anything go right tonight? A chilly blast of wind told her someone had opened the side door. Hopefully the tables had arrived.
A moment later, a burly guy lugged a table into the conference room. He stopped in the doorway and blinked in the glare of the lights. Annabelle blinked as well. She’d never seen someone that young wearing flannel without a trace of irony before. This guy was Allie’s boyfriend? He looked like the Brawny Paper Towel guy’s son. The table clanged against the doorframe as he stepped inside. Everyone turned to look at him.
“My bad.” He grinned. “Where do you want your tables?” Everyone looked at Annabelle.
“Over here.” She stepped forward. “Thanks for bringing them.” He lugged the table toward her and she met him halfway.
“No problem,” he said. “We got a bunch more.” He sat the table on the floor and leaned it against his legs.
“I’m Annabelle Lee.” Annabelle extended her hand.
“Nice to meet you.” He shook her hand. “I’m Cale.”
“Hi.” What kind of name was Cale? Was he really named after a vegetable?
“So it’s nice to meet finally Allie’s boyfriend.” It wasn’t that nice, but she needed something to say.
He laughed. “Oh, wow, no, no, no.” He shook his head and laughed again. “He’s still outside.” The relief in Cale’s voice made Annabelle laugh with him. She liked Allie, well, kind of liked Allie, but being Allie’s boyfriend had to be difficult.
“Just put the table over there.” She pointed at a large empty area.
“Okay,” he said. “What is this anyway?”
“Oh our club does a Halloween bingo night here every year to raise money.”
“Got you.” Cale picked up the table. “So are you in charge?”
“Kind of,” she said. “Allie and I organize it together.” Together, in this case, meant doing whatever Allie wanted.
“Oh,” he said, and the way he said it meant he understood about working with Allie. He carried the table across the room as another guy came through door with a table of his own. A battered cowboy hat perched precariously on his head and a black shirt hung on his lank frame. He didn’t look like Allie’s type either, although she might like the novelty of a cowboy thing.
“Thanks for your help,” she said to him. “I’m Annabelle.”
“No problem. I’m Roy,” he replied. “You want them all over there?” He pointed his hat to where Cale was unfolding the legs of the table.
“All but one. We’ll put it in the kitchen for the extra snacks.” Annabelle looked down at her buzzing phone. It was a text from Allie telling her why she was late. Annabelle didn’t read it because Allie was always late. Instead she typed her own text.
“Portia couldn’t get the prizes. What can we do?”
After a moment her phone buzzed. “I have no idea.” Six frowny face emojis followed. Annabelle gave Cale a fake smile as he walked past her to get another table. Then she went to check on the snacks. Of course, nobody had bothered to mix the drinks, so she called Portia over and the two of them mixed lemonade and instant tea. Annabelle did her best to follow Portia’s bubbly conversation, but her mind returned to the problem of the missing prizes.
“Is this the one you want in the kitchen?” Cale interrupted her thoughts. The two boys stood holding a long table between them.
“That would be great. Follow me.” She led them through a narrow hallway to a cramped kitchen. The smell got worse in here. What was that anyway? She jumped as loud clanging filled the room. Turning she saw Cale’s face turn crimson and three empty pans rolling on the middle of the kitchen floor.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Watch what you’re doing, boy,” Roy said. “You scared the poor girl to death.”
“I was.” Cale turned to look at his friend. “You just rammed it through the door like you’re in a hurry.”
“I didn’t ram it through. You’re just a bad driver.”
Cale snorted. “Like you’re one to talk about driving, Mr. Mailbox Destroyer.”
Roy didn’t respond but looked past Cale at Annabelle. “You’ll have to watch Cale, he’s likely to destroy this place.” Cale started to say something but then he shrugged.
“I can’t argue with that.” He grinned. “Sorry to scare you.”
“Hey, it’s almost Halloween, right?” Annabelle’s heart rate was slowly returning to normal. “I’m okay.” Cale picked up his pans while Roy wedged the table into the corner of the kitchen.
“So people pay you guys to play bingo?” Cale nestled the pans onto the stove.
“Yes, they can win prizes,” Annabelle said. “At least, they were supposed to win prizes.”
“What do you mean?” Cale asked. He checked the leaning tower of pans before stepping back.
“We don’t have enough prizes this year. I don’t know what we’ll do.” She wasn’t sure why she was telling two strangers her problems, but she needed to tell someone. They looked at each other, and then Cale spoke.
“What kind of prizes do you need?”
“Little stuff.” Annabelle shrugged. “Like knick-knacks. Stuff old people like.”
“Oh,” Cale said. They looked at each other again. Roy gave the “sorry nothing I can do” shrug. He was ready to go. Annabelle sympathized and wished she could leave as well.
“Wait.” Cale held up a hand. “What about all that crap Vance brought in yesterday?”
“Hmm, maybe.” Roy nodded.
Annabelle raised an eyebrow. “You make it sound so tempting. How can I resist?”
“No it’s good stuff,” Cale said. “Well, good for your purposes. Not really good. You know what I mean.”
“Not really. What do you mean?” Annabelle said.
“One of our roommates goes out and buys stuff from people. Like antiques and stuff.” Cale looked at the pans again, obviously still unsure if they would stay put.
“Buys junk mostly.” Roy looked up from his phone.
“Anyway, he brought in this huge box yesterday and it’s full of like little animal statues and bird clocks and stuff.”
Annabelle’s spirits lifted. “He doesn’t want it?”
“No, he had to take it in order to buy something he wanted. So he’d let us bring it.”
Annabelle glanced at her phone. She didn’t want to text Allie again. Hopefully, these guys had good stuff. If not, it wouldn’t really hurt anything. Why not have them bring it and then see if it would work? It was better than what she had now which was nothing.
“Can you get it?” She looked at Cale, then Roy. “It’s a lot to ask, I know. I understand if you can’t.”
“Oh, it’s no problem.” Cale stepped forward. Then he looked back at Roy who was doing his best to hide his emotions. He looked from Cale to Annabelle and she knew it was his turn to stifle a sigh.
“I guess, maybe.”
“Let me text Allie our plan.” Annabelle knew he couldn’t say no once she involved Allie. She typed hastily into her phone while the two boys remained silent. Allie responded immediately with several happy face emojis.
“Allie is all for it,” Annabelle said. Roy’s eyes tightened, but he kept his smile in place. Cale’s grin got bigger.
“Okay,” Roy said. “I’ll leave Cale here to help you set stuff up. I’ll be back in a bit. Just keep him away from breakable objects.”
“I’ll keep him away from the fine china.” Annabelle smiled. Nice play, Roy, she thought. Leaving your friend here to flirt with me as punishment. At least Cale could carry the heavy things. Roy stepped out the door leaving her alone with Cale in the kitchen. Cale smiled and she cleared her throat.
“So what do you need me to do?” he asked. Annabelle licked her lips. She hadn’t really expected him to do anything.
“Why don’t you help Portia decorate the tables?” She handed him a long, orange roll of paper tablecloth.
“Okay. Which one is Portia?”
Annabelle picked up two pitchers of lemonade. “The bubbly one with dark hair and white sweater. You’ll know her when you see her.” That should keep him occupied. Though Annabelle found Portia a bit too much, she had to admit she was pretty.
“Okay.” He sniffed and furrowed his brow.
“It stinks in here, doesn’t?” Annabelle almost grabbed his arm.
“No, it’s fine,” he said.
She smiled. “You don’t have to lie. It’s not my house.”
“Well, maybe we should find a candle or something.” He grinned.
“I’ll look for that. Get the tables ready.” She stepped aside so he could go out of the kitchen. It took no time at all for him to find Portia. Annabelle meant to find the candles but got sidetracked by the million other details. There was only half an hour left and Allie still wasn’t here. Annabelle glanced over once and caught Cale looking at her. He looked away quickly and she did her best not to look over again.
When she couldn’t stall any longer, she went over to inspect the tables. Portia had wandered off, but Cale remained looking pleased with himself. Annabelle had to admit they’d done a good job. Black bats and the origami ravens dotted the orange tablecloth and the candy was scattered nicely. One table stood out from the rest. A crudely constructed cardboard castle sat in the middle, surrounded by tiny plastic fish.
“What is this?” she asked.
“This is for your kingdom by the sea.” He grinned.
She shook her head. “So you’ve read the poem.”
“Yeah.” He was still grinning. “Are you surprised?”
“No,” she lied. “You really did all this just for that joke?” Usually people would say something immediately if they noticed that she shared a name with a famous Edgar Allen Poe poem. Cale had taken it to the next level.
“To be honest, it wasn’t that much work.” He adjusted a tower on his lopsided castle.
“I can tell,” she said. Cale laughed. He had a deep, rich laugh that made you want to join in.
“So your parents were big Poe fans?” he asked.
“No. I don’t think they read much Poe in Hong Kong where they grew up.” She watched the first of the bingo players shuffle through the front door of the library. “They would never have named me after someone who dies young like she does in the poem.”
He nodded. “That makes sense.”
“How about you?” she said. “Your parents eat a lot of kale?”
He laughed that laugh again. “No, I don’t think my dad has ever had it. I spell it with a ‘C,’ by the way.” That didn’t explain anything.
“Okay,” she said. “Have you ever eaten kale?
“I’ve had it.” He chuckled. “Once, anyway.”
“I knew it.” She laughed and adjusted his castle. Why was she teasing him? He was going to think she was flirting. Anyway it was time to start. The door opened and Allie finally waltzed through the door, her dark brown hair bouncing with each step. Roy followed behind her, carrying a cardboard box.
“Oh hey, Allie is here, right on time.” Cale’s tone told Annabelle that they shared the same opinion of Allie. More pressing concerns came to her attention as a burning smell assaulted her nostrils.
“What is that smell?” she asked.
“Oh, the cookies.” Cale raced for the kitchen.
“The cookies?” Annabelle trailed after him.
“Yeah, I put some cookies in the oven to cover that smell.” He looked over his shoulder. “I found the dough in the freezer.”
“Well, you covered that smell for sure.” Annabelle grimaced. The burning odor got stronger as they got closer.
“They haven’t been in that long,” Cale said. They rushed into the kitchen where smoke wafted from the oven door. Cale grabbed an oven mitt and jerked the cookies from the oven. Smoke billowed out as he opened the door. Annabelle reached around him and shut off the stove. They stood coughing and looking at each other over a pan of half-baked cookies.
“They’re not burnt.” Cale brandished the pan to show it wasn’t his fault.
“Must have been something in the stove,” Annabelle said.
“Sorry.” Cale put the pan on the stove. “I guess I screwed everything up.”
“It’s okay. At least the smoke alarm didn’t go off.” It had been a good idea and he was just trying to help.
“I guess it’s broken. Maybe we saved lives with this little incident.”
Annabelle chuckled. “Okay, superhero, let’s close the door and hope for the best.” They left the kitchen door closed tight and returned to the open area. The smell lingered but was not as strong. She braced for the shriek of the alarm, but it never came. Cale must have been right. It really was broken. The old folks settled into their chairs while the girls passed out bingo cards. Portia would call out the numbers. Her perkiness was perfect for these activities.
“What’s that smell?” Allie asked.
“It’s the smell of good intentions,” Annabelle said. “Just don’t open the kitchen door.” Allie gave her a puzzled look but didn’t ask any more. She walked away to chat with the bingo players. Annabelle glanced around the room. Roy and Cale were scattering the knick-knacks onto the prize table. The girls mingled among the players chatting and laughing. For the first time that night, Annabelle relaxed.
Two hours later, the prizes were gone and the bingo players slowly filtered into the night. Annabelle finally opened the kitchen and cleaned up the cookies while Roy and Cale hauled the tables away. When she finished, she left a note about the fire alarm.
“Everything is cleaned up,” Cale said. “Do you need any help in there?”
“No, I got it,” Annabelle said. Allie and Roy sauntered over.
“Everything turned out great.” Allie gave her a thumbs-up. “Thanks for all your work, Annabelle.”
“No problem.” Annabelle would like to thank her, but Allie hadn’t really done anything. “So you got all your stuff?”
“We’re all set to go,” Roy said. Allie nodded.
“So are you sure you don’t need any more help?” Cale asked. “I feel like I should clean the kitchen or something.”
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it.” Annabelle realized that Cale was going to be a third wheel riding with Allie and Roy. That had to be awkward.
“You just want to eat the cookie dough.” Roy clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Don’t make up stories.”
“Not after whatever was in that oven,” Cale said. “I’m sworn off cookies for at least five minutes.”
“Do you need a ride home, Cale?” Annabelle surprised herself with this question. The relief on everyone’s face told her she’d made the right choice.
“Yes, that would be great.” Cale grinned. “Uh, we could stop for, you know, uh, food if you want.”
Why not? She was hungry. “Okay, but no cookies.”
If you’d like to hear a modern version of Poe’s poem click on the link.