Authors: Brenda Barrett
Arnella put down her fork and giggled. "How old was I when I did this?"
"Ten," Alric said. "That's what everybody in the neighborhood said about you."
"And I told him not to listen to gossip," Joy interjected.
Arnella picked up her fork again. "I am not slow witted when I eat." She cleared her plate. "Are you going to eat, or are you going to try to solve the mystery of Arnella?"
"Eat," Alric said, scooping up a forkful, "I have a feeling the mystery of Arnella would take years to solve if the mystery can even be solved."
Arnella snickered. "I have heard that rumor before: that I smoked tons of weed. It's fascinating though. My neighbor to the left, Tommy Turner, must have come up with that one. I caught him smoking weed, so of course I told him I was going to tell his mother. He told on me first and what a whopper it was."
Alric raised his eyebrows. "Really?"
"Really," Arnella giggled. "Cross my heart. I have never tried to smoke, or drink. I am a clean living girl. Vanley would kill me if he found out I was anything other than upstanding."
Joy chimed into the conversation. "You know, Alric, I have never believed a word I've heard about Arnella."
"Not even the story about how she ran away from home when she was fourteen," Alric said, "and lived with a Catholic priest as his girlfriend?"
Arnella laughed. "You sound so offended."
Alric shook his head. "Not offended, disgusted! Disgusted at the priest for having a girlfriend and at you for being his girlfriend. You were underage!"
Joy interrupted her son, "Arnella, I heard that your cousin Marcus got married. That's nice."
"I heard so too," Arnella nodded. "It was a quick thing. Only close relatives were asked to attend. Deidra did not want to have a circus for a wedding, with a million and one of her father's political buddies, so she kept it to just immediate family and their closest friends, especially because Marcus is a celebrity. Kylie said it was really romantic. She keeps me in touch with all the family news."
"I saw Adrian the other day; his wife had a son," Joy said, steering the conversation from Arnella's supposed wicked ways, but Alric was itching to take it back up.
Arnella nodded. "Yes, Cathy had a boy. He is super cute. Looks just like Avia, their daughter. I really like Cathy."
"You would," Alric snorted. "Wasn't she an exotic dancer or something? Sounds like something you'd do."
"I can't dance around a pole to save my life. I think it has something to do with my lack of coordination. I've tried it though." She winked at him suggestively and then laughed when he grimaced. "I like Cathy because she is a genuinely nice person. Last Christmas, when I stayed with my uncle, I spent a lot of time with her."
Joy turned the topic to other neutral things while Alric studied Arnella. He drank in her features; he didn't care if his mother saw how intently he was doing it.
Without her heavy mascara on, he could see that she had natural eyelashes that were so thick that they looked like they were clumped together. They shielded big brown eyes that were the deepest brown, almost black. She had a straight little nose and a generous mouth, which was brushed with the faintest pink. Her skin was light and blemish free, except for a birthmark on her lower right shoulder. He remembered seeing it at the pool party.
Why he remembered that in such stark detail after all this time was a strike against him, he berated himself. He preferred higher standards in a woman, and Arnella was obviously free with her favors and didn't care who knew it. He still gritted his teeth when he thought of that guy, David, with his hand on her buttock, cupping it in an intimate way. He had seen him around campus this summer. He had been doing summer classes. They were all in the same faculty of science. He had been tempted, several times, to ask them where they had disappeared to with Arnella but had decided against doing so.
"I have to go now." Arnella stood up after they had sung happy birthday to Joy and had a slice of cake. She got another slice to take with her on her journey as well. "Thank you so much for lunch. You may have saved my life."
"So, who are you going to stay with at Mount Faith?" Alric asked, standing as Arnella made to leave.
Arnella shrugged. "I have no idea. I could stay with my brother or my uncle or my cousin Micah. His house is finished and it looks gorgeous; he has room. I saw it in December. He is the most laid back of my cousins—should be fun to stay with him."
Alric wanted to prolong his conversation with her, and he didn't know why. They had reached the front of the house, and the question that was eating away at him like termites in wood popped out involuntarily. "So how was it with three guys? Is it something you do regularly?"
Arnella stopped abruptly and spun around to him. "I don't want to talk about that ever. You hear me? Stop bringing it up! What's it to you anyway?"
"I have never met a more morally bankrupt person in my life," Alric said simply, "you are like fire, dangerous and beautiful. You can't help but stare at it but you know you should keep far from it because you can get burnt."
Arnella hissed her teeth. "Then don't get burnt, Alric. Tracy is a lovely rich girl who is not morally bankrupt. Be fascinated with her. She likes you."
She walked to her car and got in jerkily. She had to slam the door twice for it to close. She hung her head outside the front window, and said, "See you around," then drove away.
Alric stood in the driveway inhaling her car's exhaust fumes and wishing that his fascination with her wasn't burning brighter than ever.
Arnella paced outside the president's building for what felt like hours. She had finally arrived at Mount Faith, but she didn't want to face her uncle. He was particularly stern with her because in December, when she spent the Christmas with them, he had strongly encouraged her to come up to Mount Faith for school.
After Kylie's wedding, she had sneaked out of the house and went back to Santa Cruz without telling him goodbye. She just could not take the constant nagging about her lifestyle, but now she was desperate.
She glanced at her watch; it was three o' clock. If she didn't stop the pacing, she would make herself hungry. She slowed down, took a deep breath, and walked into the building. Better face the music now while she still had the strength.
The receptionist looked up at her enquiringly when she leaned on the desk.
"Is Doctor Bancroft in?" she asked, hoping perversely, that the receptionist would say "no". That way, she could say that she had tried to see him but it didn't work out.
"He is in," the receptionist said, "but he won't be for long. He is heading out for a meeting shortly."
"Okay," Arnella heaved a sigh. "Could you tell him Arnella is here to see him?"
"Yes," the receptionist nodded. She spoke briefly on the phone and hanged up. "His office is the last door down the hallway."
Arnella sighed again and headed to the office. She had been to the office before and didn't need the receptionist to tell her where it was. She had just been stalling for time.
She opened the imposing door and stepped into the plush interior. The decor was changed to red and gold. It was beautiful. The red was bold and warm and somehow tamed by the gold. She stood at the door and Ryan Bancroft coughed.
"Ehem, the run away niece," Dr. Bancroft said, removing his reading glasses and folding his arms over a swathe of papers.
"The stating of the obvious uncle," Arnella said fearlessly, going further into the room and sitting before his desk.
"You are here in my office, my territory," Dr. Bancroft said a hint of pleasure in his voice, "so you must want something."
Arnella nodded, "I do."
"You look slimmer," Ryan said, "too slim. Like you've been starving yourself or are you trying to get into the modeling world?"
Arnella shrugged. "I heard that you can't be too rich or too thin, and I am too short to model."
Bancroft chuckled, "I see you have come with your acerbic wit. You are not playing the humble card even though you want something?"
"No," Arnella said, "I don't think people should play around with humility, it's either you are, or you are not. You and I are not humble people."
Bancroft nodded. "Good point. So tell me; what do you want?"
"Money," Arnella said, "for art supplies and a place to crash for a while until I can get my paintings done."
Bancroft started shaking his head. "No!"
"Why not?" Arnella asked, a touch desperately. He had never told her "no" before. He had always tried to help her and Vanley because their father had died when they were little, and he had felt responsible for them. He had been their sole provider for years, until he found out that their mother was drinking away the money he sent to them for food.
"Because," Bancroft got up and reached for his jacket that was on a stand, "you need to do something for me. The money will have to come with strings attached."
"What?" Arnella growled. "I hope it's nothing illegal."
"It is not illegal, on this side of the world, for women to attend university. So no, it is not illegal." Bancroft sneered. "You are going to do an associate degree in general studies for two years. That's all I ask."
"That's unfair!" Arnella shouted. "Why can't you just accept that I don't want to go to school? High school was enough. I passed all my subjects with high honors"
"Only because I insisted," Bancroft leaned on the desk, "and let it be known that I was so proud that you finished. I feel I have a responsibility to you, like I do for my own daughters, and it would be grossly unfair if you did not get a chance to do at least an associate degree. The General Studies associate degree here is pretty flexible. You get to do courses in English, mathematics, biology, physics, computer science, history, philosophy, art, and a foreign language. Maybe you should choose French as your language. The summer Olympics will be in France next year, and Marcus is hoping to participate. You can go support your cousin and get a first hand feel of the language."
Arnella was about to rant, but she loved the sound of going to Europe and learning a new language. Her uncle was dangling that in front of her like a carrot.
"Did you say art?"
"Yes." Bancroft glanced at his watch. "There are some art courses in the general studies line up. I am sure you will shine there, and the best part is that if you ever decide to do your bachelor’s degree, I will help you."
"I won't want to," Arnella said sullenly.
"But you'll do this?" Bancroft asked impatiently.
"Yes," Arnella said reluctantly. "The things people have to do for money."
Bancroft chuckled. "Your problem, Arnella, is that you have no concept of what people have resorted to for money, and my hope is that you never will."
Arnella got up, "I am not staying with you and Aunt Celeste for two years."
Bancroft put his hand in the small of her back and they walked to the door.
He turned back, grabbed his checkbook from a drawer, and scribbled on it swiftly. "Here; this is enough money to cover your art supplies and whatever else you may need in the short run. I don't care where you stay, once you take care of yourself properly. I will put an allowance in your account for the first year. The second year you better find yourself a job."
Arnella exhaled and took the check; he was more generous than she expected. Tears crept into her eyes and she batted them back. What was wrong with her? She did not usually cry.
"Thanks, Uncle Ryan."
Bancroft hugged her around the neck and they walked to the door. "Don't you dare stay away so long when you know you need help," he said gruffly. "You are Oswald's only girl. I often wish I had taken you and Vanley from that mother of yours when you were growing up."
He reached the office door. "Stay out of trouble. Classes for the next semester officially start the first week in September, three weeks from now. If you are not there, I am going to hunt you down and drag you here kicking and screaming."
"Yes, Sir." Arnella smiled weakly and headed out of the building, feeling a little brighter than when she arrived.
Next stop would be a house on Mount Faith Drive. She drove slowly toward it.
The house did not have any room that would be conducive to painting, but despite her forced school attendance, she was not going to neglect her first love. What was she going to do?
When she drove up to the house, the gate was open, and a late model Mercedes was in the driveway. Deidra was standing beside it, talking and laughing with Kylie, who had one of those designer puppies under her arms.
"Hey," she waved to them when she got out of the car.
"Hey," both Kylie and Deidra said to her at the same time.
"What are you doing up here?" Kylie asked, hugging her when she came closer to them. "You never told me you were coming, I could have arranged for us to hang out."
"Uncle Ryan demanded that I come to school for two years, so we'll have all the time in the world to hang out." Arnella sniffed. "What are you two doing here, especially you, the new Mrs. Bancroft?"