A/N I apologize for the slow-ish update. I had a bit of writer's block with this chapter. I don't know why, but it wouldn't flow. Anyway, the next chapter is far more exciting, and perhaps where things come unraveled for Mary Alice, hm? Enjoy.

Installment 6 – homesick

Annabel had met Mary at the train station accompanied by her brother, a handsome young man by the name of Wesley. Neither Mary Alice nor Annabel knew anything about driving the loud, shuddering automobile that her family owned and so Wesley would be their chauffeur, much to his displeasure. Wesley was a soft-spoken man who wasn't too keen on transporting his overly talkative sibling.

That was all fine and dandy for Mary. She wasn't looking forward to having to sit still after spending hours upon hours aboard a train that only offered harsh wooden benches for sitting and sleeping on, for that matter. She would very much like the opportunity to stretch her stiff and cramping legs and she was quite certain that if she sat for even a moment longer she would develop a hemorrhoid. But Mary doubted Annabel would consent to the eighteen mile trek it would take to reach her home. So, it seemed Wesley was the only option.

The Givens's home, it turned out, had been a prominent plantation in the days prior to the Civil War. It was a sprawling estate that was the epitome of southern excellence. It even had a name at one point in time—Wyverly Valley, although there was no valley to speak of. Time seemed to stand still here. In fact, Mary was certain that if she paid close enough attention she would be able to see the workers stooped in the fields, hear the tunes of the women singing, and perhaps even catch the aroma of the evening meal being prepared. It was a welcomed change from the city.

Mr. Givens seemed to have been thinking along those same lines when he uprooted his family and settled them in rural Virginia. Mrs. Givens, Annabel's mother, had suffered something of a mental breakdown—a real hush-hush matter—and Virginia seemed to be a likely solution although she had never completely recovered in the years that followed the move. She was a frail creature, doing nothing but laying in bed for days at a time, avoiding all types of work that could possibly cause stress—that was to say, everything. Her husband had hired numerous doctors but bed rest seemed to be the consensus.

Annabel, as always, was full of chatter. She spent hours telling her childhood friend the gossip she had scrounged up—an exceedingly difficult feat in a place where miles separated even the closest of neighbors. Mary didn't quite understand the significance of some of these stories but she supposed she would have to live in the boondocks to really grasp it.

Annabel's favorite topic, like that of many women their age, was men—one in particular. His name was Collin and he lived in Atherton, the nearest city to their home. From what Mary could gather, he was a doctor, that was how they had met. He was one of the half dozen specialists Mr. Givens had hired for his wife. He was old enough to be her father but that didn't dishearten Annabel in the least, nor did the fact that he had never offered her a second glance. He had, however, arrived on one occasion, claiming that Mrs. Givens had an appointment that Mr. Givens didn't remember scheduling.

"He's just so perfect, Mary." She swooned, absentmindedly twisting a shockingly red curl around her finger. "He's brilliant and handsome and one day I'll be his wife. Mrs. Doctor Collin Bumble. It has a nice ring to it, don't you think?" Mary wanted to point out that Annabel Bumble didn't have a nice ring to it at all. It sounded downright ridiculous, and she couldn't help but think her friend was expecting far too much from someone who wouldn't give her the time of day if he was in possession of the only watch in the world. But she let her friend have her schoolgirl moment. Besides, was Annabel's waiting for Collin any different from her waiting for her imaginary Prince Charming. In fact, Mary's situation seemed even more pathetic.

"Yes." She humored her. "I think it's a lovely name."

Annabel flushed slightly, no doubt imagining what Collin would think of her name. She recovered quickly, however, and promptly changed the direction of the conversation. That's how it was with them. They skipped from one topic to another with no rhyme or reason whatsoever. Annabel dominated the conversation unintentionally. When she caught herself she began to interrogate Mary about every minute detail of her life.

"How's your family?"

'Same as always. Father's still working himself into an early grave, Mother's still as abrasive as ever, and Cynthia's headed for finishing school in less than a week."

"Does Madam Somersby still teach there?" Annabel recalled the toad-like mathematics teacher that had, at one point, attempted to have her expelled after a missing ring turned up in her room due to no fault of her own, she might add.

"Last I heard."

"Poor Cynthia," She shook her head for added effect. "She'd better hope Madam Somersby doesn't recognize her last name. She's done for otherwise." Aside from the ring mishap, the pair had done quite a lot to get on their ex-educator's bad side. She was not unjustifiable in her resentment of the girls.

Interrogation aside, there was gossip. Lots of gossip. Normally, Mary Alice wasn't one for gossiping, but news-starved Annabel had a way of coaxing it out of her.

"Felicity Marsh got married a month ago." She confessed after being pried for information on their old friends.

"To who?" Annabel squealed impatiently.

"Gregory Thorn," She was referring to the foul-mouthed young man that always seemed to be in one sticky situation after another.

Annabel was incredulous. "I would've thought Fee had better taste in men than that.

"From what I hear, she didn't have much of a choice." Mary whispered as if they were back in school and someone might overhear. "There's a rumor going about that she's carrying, if you know I mean." She wasn't sure if this were true or not, but she had heard it mentioned enough that she repeated it anyway. It seemed to have the appropriate effect on Annabel anyway.

It took several moments before she was able to reply. "Ah, well, Fee always was a bit on the flagrant side." They burst out into fits of girlish giggles.

--

"Are you sure it's safe?" Mary chewed her nails nervously, an unladylike habit she had never quite let die. Her slate eyes flitted frantically from the massive creature to her friend uncertainly. This was a surefire a death sentence. Had she gone mad to allow Annabel to talk her into this?

"It's just a horse?" Annabel made it sound as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and she had to explain it, begrudgingly, to an invalid.

"I know it's a horse." Mary folded her arms crossly. Nervousness and aggravation was never a pleasing combination. "But what if it were to buck?" Her typical daring evaporated at the thought. Mary Alice was terrified of horses.

"Sprout's the gentlest mare we've got here." Annabel patted the old mare fondly. It certainly looked reliable, and far too old to attempt throwing Mary from its back, but she wasn't in much of a trusting state of mind when it came to horses. Mary recalled the first time she had ever attempted to mount a horse. It was at her cousin's sixth birthday party, and her parents had arranged for pony rides. Mary had been a bit too short to get atop the beast, but much too stubborn to accept any assistance. Rather than using the saddle for leverage, she foolishly latched onto the pony's mane. The pony, as it were, was not too fond of having a small child pulling at its hair and aimed a warning kick at her. The kick didn't connect, but it was enough to make her release the animal's mane and fall to the ground in a painful heap.

She had learned a valuable lesson: horses were dangerous.

"Just watch. I'll show you how to mount her." The redhead turned to her horse—a sand-colored mare by the name of Sparrow, if Mary could remember correctly—and gathered the reigns in her left hand. She quickly looked over her shoulder to make sure her friend was paying attention. She was. With practiced ease, Annabel placed her left foot in the stirrup while holding onto the saddle and swinging her right leg over in a single fluid motion. "See?" She grinned from her position several heads higher than her pupil.

Mary didn't think it was quite as simple as her friend made it seemed, but nodded warily regardless. Clumsy fingers collected the leather strips of the reigns, as she debated which way to best tackle the next step. She stepped into the stirrup, praying that she would not fall as she had before. So far so good. The next part proved more difficult. After five minutes of merciless teasing from Annabel, Mary Alice still hadn't managed to mount the horse. She simply couldn't swing her leg over.

"Wait a minute." Annabel managed between giggles as she slipped easily off Sparrow and traipsed back into the stables. When she returned, she held a large wooden box. "Use this," She instructed. "It's not as good as a mounting block, but ours is broken so this will have to do."

The makeshift mounting block made things considerably easier and Mary, admittedly, was quite frustrated that Annabel had waited so long before bringing it to her. However, this still didn't remedy the fact that she was still afraid of horses. Annabel was unsurprisingly impatient with her friend, but after a while accepted the fact that Mary had no inclination of going faster than a crippled tortoise.

"Honestly, Mary, I bet Cynthia has more of a backbone than you." It was an innocent enough joke, but at the mention of her sister's name Mary found herself picturing the girl. Dark hair, iron colored eyes, peaches and cream complexion, and her impish grin. But as soon as the image formed in Mary's mind, the picturesque grin twisted into a grotesque grimace. Cynthia was lying in her room, flat, rosy marks speckled her skin and her eyes were bloodshot and feverish. Incoherent words were tumbling from the girl's numb lips, and what Mary could discern made no sense whatsoever. Something was dreadfully wrong with her if she was fantasizing about something so terrible.

Mary shook physically—something she did when attempting to clear thoughts from her head. It seemed those sorts of actions weren't best suited for horse riding. She leaned dangerously to one side, her hands locked about the reigns in an attempt to regain her balance. If it weren't for bad luck she would have none at all. The saddle had slid with her. For a moment, it looked as if she would hold on, however peculiar of a position it might be. The horse had promptly come to a halt already, but her limbs, which were locked firmly, crumpled. She tumbled to the ground in an oddly reminiscent fashion. It wasn't enough to injure her, but enough to cause bruises.

Mary wasn't certain whether the fall or Annabel's laughs as she helped her home were worse. One thing was certain, sleeping would be no comfortable affair tonight with the unwelcome company of large—but not serious—bruises on her backside, hip, and shoulder.