LOVE IS AGELESS
“You want to open up a store in your hometown? I think that’s great,” Charlotte said as she handed Shannon a glass of wine.
Shannon nodded her thanks. “The location is all Jarod’s idea. But it’ll give us a chance to check in on our mother more often.”
“So you’re going to move her into the assisted living facility after all?” Tracy asked as she joined them on the patio.
“She’s not happy, but that’s the eventual plan,” Shannon said. “Jarod’s been going down there once a week as it is. The cancer is in remission but it took its toll on her this time. She’s fatigued. There’s just so much she can’t do anymore.” She took a sip of wine and put the glass on the table. “While we’re getting the store up and going, we’ll stay with her but once that’s over, then we’ll have to move her.”
They’d put it off as long as they could. Her brother had taken on the role of caregiver. Not that Shannon refused to. It’s just that she didn’t dare spend more than one day there at a time for fear she’d run into Madison.
Charlotte stared at her for a moment and Shannon wondered if she was slipping into her role as psychologist.
“You’ve been very vague as to why you rarely go to take care of her,” Charlotte said.
Shannon smiled at her. “Are you intending to put me on your couch, Dr. Rimes?”
Charlotte shook her head. “No. I promised I would never do that to you.” She grinned. “Although you would make an excellent study. But I was simply curious if it was something keeping you here or if there was a particular reason you avoided going there.”
“What is it you’re fishing for, Doctor?”
Charlotte laughed. “Tracy and I have known you for six years now, Shannon. Yet you remain a mystery.”
“I’m not a mystery,” she insisted. Not intentionally, at least.
“Why didn’t you bring Ally?” Tracy asked. “You are still dating, aren’t you?”
Shannon reached for the wine bottle, adding a bit more to her glass before answering. She hadn’t seen Ally in two weeks and hadn’t spoken to her in at least six or seven days. Were they still dating?
“I’ve been busy,” she said evasively.
Charlotte gave her slow smile that said she knew she was lying. “And yet another one slips away.”
Shannon shrugged. “It wasn’t serious, as you know.”
“They never are, are they?”
“We like her,” Tracy said.
“Only because she and Charlotte can talk doctor stuff.” Shannon raised an eyebrow. “Have I really known you guys for six years?”
“Six years and countless dinners, yes,” Charlotte said. “But we still know so very little about you.”
Shannon paused, her glance going between her two closest friends. “What do you want to know?”
“Why do you avoid going home? Why is it your brother insisting you open a store there and not you?”
Shannon leaned back, wondering why she’d never told them about Madison. Truth was, she hadn’t told anyone about Madison.
“I avoid going back home for fear I’ll run into Madison. Madison Lansford.” Saying the name out loud brought back a rush of memories.
“An old lover?” Tracy guessed.
Charlotte relaxed in her chair too, a slight smile on her face. “Tell us your story.”
Shannon didn’t know where to begin. Five years ago when she’d last seen Madison? Ten years ago? College? High school? Their first kiss? The first time they met?
“The Lansfords were the richest family in town,” she said. “They lived in a huge mansion on the outskirts. Well, outskirts back then. The city has grown around them now and it’s quite an estate. Anyway, my mother worked for them. She started out as a maid and ended up supervising the rest of the staff by the time she retired.”
“So Madison was someone you knew as a child?” Tracy asked.
“Yes. After my dad died, we were struggling. My mother couldn’t pay the rent. Jarod’s ten years older than me and he had already joined the army, so he wasn’t around to help. It was just me and my mother. The Lansfords were kind enough to allow us to move there. There were servant’s quarters downstairs, just off of the main kitchen,” she said, remembering the four small rooms she shared with her mother. “I was ten.”
“It’s so big,” she whispered, looking up at the mansion as she stood beside her mother.
“It’s just a house.”
Shannon grabbed her mother’s hand and followed her around to the back, all the while looking over her shoulder at the massive building.
“Mrs. Fletcher, I see you made it finally.”
“Hello, George. Yes. My car is stuffed to the brim. I’ll need to make one more trip, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll help you unload it.” He stood back. “And who is this pretty lady?”
Shannon looked up at him. “I’m not a lady,” she said. “I’m just ten.”
He laughed and bent down to her level. “Well then, what should I call you?”
Shannon shifted nervously and gripped her mother’s hand a little tighter. “Shannon,” she said.
“Well, Shannon, that’s a pretty name. I’ll never call you lady again.”
“Thank you, mister.”
“You can call me George.”
Shannon glanced at her mother for permission and she was rewarded with a nod and a smile.
They walked into the biggest kitchen she had ever seen. She stopped and looked around with wide eyes.
“Shannon, don’t touch anything,” her mother warned.
She turned, hurrying after her mother. Down a short hallway, George held open a door for them. Her mother went inside but Shannon stood at the doorway.
“Is this where we’re going to live?”
“Yes. You’ll have your very own room,” her mother said.
She bit her lip. “I already had my own room.”
“Did you have a TV in your room?” George asked.
Shannon shook her head.
“Well, then. I bet I can rig one up for you here,” he said.
“Now, George, don’t go promising things,” her mother said. “I can’t afford another TV and Mrs. Lansford might not want—”
“Alice, Mrs. Lansford said to make you feel at home. If adding a TV cable in your daughter’s room will help, then it’s no problem. And I happen to know where I can get my hands on a spare TV.”
Shannon looked from him to her mother, waiting with hopeful eyes. Other kids at school had TVs in their rooms. Now she could be cool like them.
“Well, I suppose if it’s not too much trouble,” her mother conceded.
Shannon smiled brightly up at George. “I can help too. My daddy taught me how to do all kinds of things. I even know all the different types of screwdrivers,” she said proudly.
“Is that right? Well then maybe you can be my assistant.”
“Shannon, George is going to help me carry boxes in, then you can start unpacking. Okay?”
“Okay, momma,” she said.
Before they left, her mother turned back to her. “Don’t wander upstairs. The Lansfords are nice enough to let us move here but up there is their home. You won’t be allowed up there. Understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” she said, not really understanding.
As soon as her mother was out of sight, Shannon went back into the kitchen, still amazed at the size. Who needed two stoves and two refrigerators? Beyond the kitchen was another hallway, this one much wider than the one that led to their new rooms. She went toward it, noticing a staircase in the back. Her eyes followed its length and she gasped as her curious gaze was met by one equally as curious.
A girl about her age stood at the top, watching her. Her blonde hair was long and silky looking and Shannon just stared at her. The girl finally moved, coming down toward her.
Shannon stood at the foot of the stairs. “Who are you?”
The girl put her hands on her hips. “Who are you?”
“Shannon Fletcher,” she said.
“I’m Madison Lansford. I live here.”
Shannon smirked. “So do I.”
The girl frowned. “No you don’t.”
“Shannon?” her mother called and Shannon grinned.
“See? That’s my momma.”
“Alice is your mother?”
“But Alice doesn’t live here.”
“We do now,” Shannon said and hurried back to their new rooms. She was surprised to find the girl following her.
“Why, Miss Madison, what brings you down here?” George asked.
Madison looked around George to where her mother was already unpacking a box. “I was hungry and wanted a snack,” she said. “What are you doing?”
Her mother smiled at her. “We’re going to be living down here. Didn’t your mother tell you?”
Madison shook her head.
“Well, this way, I’ll be here all the time, not just during the day,” her mother said. “In case you need something late at night, then I’ll be here for you.”
Madison looked at Shannon. “And she’ll be here too?”
“Yes. Shannon will have a room here too.”
Madison smiled. “Good. Then we’re going to be friends.” She took Shannon’s hand and tugged her back out. “Let me show you my playground.”
Shannon looked back at her mother for confirmation.
“Yes, it’s okay. It’s outside.”
Shannon nodded and followed Madison, only to turn back around at her mother’s voice.
“Don’t get into any trouble.”
“She always says that,” Shannon mumbled.
“I don’t know.” Then she smiled. “Sometimes things break.”
“You can’t hurt anything out here,” Madison said, breaking into a run when they rounded the corner of the back garage.
Shannon stopped in her tracks. The playground was as big as the one at her school. And all for just one person. Wow.
“You want to swing?”
Shannon nodded, joining Madison. She pushed off with her feet, noticing how dirty her shoes looked compared to Madison’s.
“We have the same hair,” Madison said.
Shannon looked at her pretty blonde hair but shook her head. “Mine gets darker every year,” she said.
“I don’t know. My momma said I’m going to have brown hair like her.”
“Oh. How old are you?”
“How old are you?”
Shannon smirked. “I’m already ten. Much older than you.”
Madison laughed. “That’s not much older.”
Madison stopped swinging and stared at her. Shannon stared back, her young mind marveling at the color of Madison’s eyes.
“Okay. If you want to say you’re much older, you can. We’re still going to be friends.”
“I’m smarter too,” Shannon said confidently. This time, Madison smirked.
“But I’m prettier.”
Shannon blinked at her. “My momma says I’m pretty.”
“You are. Just not as pretty as me,” she said with a sweet smile.
Shannon nodded and pushed off with her feet, starting the swing again. “Okay, you’re prettier.”
“So you lived in a mansion?”
Shannon laughed. “God, no. We lived in the servant’s quarters. The house was on a slope so from the front, it appeared to only be three stories. It was actually four. We lived on the first floor. So did George. At the time, I didn’t understand the perception of servant’s quarters. But I was not allowed upstairs. Well, not at will. If they weren’t having company and no guests were around, then Madison was allowed to have me up to her room. Provided, of course, that none of Madison’s real friends were there. It wouldn’t do to see the maid’s daughter up there.”
“My, what snobs,” Charlotte said. “Are there people still like that?”
“What? The separation of classes?” Shannon asked. “The Lansfords were old money,” she said. “Candice Lansford followed every social rule. She was quite serious about their status in the community.”
“I know you said Brookhaven had grown but is it large enough to support one of your stores?”
“Brookhaven and the surrounding area has over a hundred thousand people. My fresh market concept should go over well there. The closest Whole Foods or other organic grocery is two hours away.”
“This will be your fourth store?” Tracy asked.
Shannon nodded. “Yes. I still can’t believe how successful we’ve been. But the big superstores, they only go into major cities. Even though our stores are much smaller, we can still offer organic produce, vegetarian and vegan options, bulk grains and beans.” She had to stop herself, knowing she could talk forever about her stores. “It’s just been a huge success in the smaller cities where we’re their only option other than driving a few hours to get to Whole Foods.”
“You’ll only be gone during the inception then? You’re not planning on relocating, are you?”
“No. I can’t see myself ever living in Brookhaven again.”
“So tell us more about Madison,” Charlotte prompted. “You became fast friends, I imagine.”
Shannon nodded. “At first, her mother was horrified that she was slumming with the hired help. Of course, they had been so supportive when my dad was ill; they basically took my mother under their wings. I’m convinced that’s the only reason I was allowed into Madison’s life.”
“I’m assuming you didn’t go to school together?”
“Oh, no. We were in the same grade, but she went to the private school in town. We had no mutual friends at all. But at first, we only played outside, or in the kitchen, or in my room. It was a while before she took me upstairs,” she said. “I was twelve.”
“Are you sure it’s okay?”
Madison took her hand and tugged her up the stairs. “I just want to show you my homework. You said you were good at math,” she reminded her. “I promise I won’t force you to play with my Barbie collection.”
“Your mother might get mad,” Shannon said. Actually, she had no idea if that was true or not. Mrs. Lansford rarely made an appearance down in the kitchen so Shannon had only seen her a few times since they’d been living there.
“It’s my room,” Madison said as if that made all the difference.
Once she pushed the door open to the main floor, Shannon stood still, looking around in awe. Antique furniture, sculptures, huge paintings—all things she’d never seen before.
“It’s like a museum,” she said quietly so as not to disturb the silence.
“Yes. A museum,” Madison agreed.
Shannon didn’t understand the sad look on her face. “You don’t like it?”
Madison shook her head. “I can’t touch anything. I can’t sit on the furniture. I don’t really live down here.”
She started walking again and Shannon followed her to another staircase, this one wide and curving along the wall as it rose to the third floor.
“That’s some big stairs,” she said.
“There is an elevator too. My parents usually take it. I like to walk on the stairs though.” At the top, Madison led her down a short hallway that opened up into a small sitting area. “I live here,” she said as she spread out her arms. “My parents’ rooms are on the fourth floor.”
“You have all this,” she said, turning and looking around, “to yourself?”
She opened a door, letting Shannon look inside. It was a bathroom, larger than her own bedroom.
“This is for my guests,” Madison said. “But you can use mine if you want. It’s in my bedroom.”
“So you have different rooms?”
Madison nodded. “Playroom. Study room. Bedroom. Bathroom. TV room.”
Shannon’s mouth dropped open. “Wow.”
Madison shrugged. “You want to look at my homework now?”
Double doors opened up into what was a small living room—the TV room, Shannon guessed. Madison crossed the carpet silently, going to another room. Shannon followed, her eyes darting around in awe. It was bigger than what she and mother shared now.
Madison opened the door to her study room. It contained a desk and chair, two bookshelves . . . and a phone. Shannon pointed at it.
Madison shrugged again. “Mother says one day I’ll have boys calling me.” Shannon made a face and Madison laughed. “I know. They’re so . . . gross.” She shuffled through some papers on her desk and handed Shannon a page. “Algebra.”
There was only one chair so Shannon sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall. She was surprised when Madison joined her.
“These are pretty easy,” she said. “What don’t you understand?”
“None of it. It makes no sense to me.”
“We learned this last year. You mean that fancy private school is just now going over this?”
Madison bumped her knee with her own and smiled. “We have more important things to learn there than algebra.”
They spent the next thirty minutes going over Madison’s homework until she somewhat understood. There were ten problems. Madison only got one right.
“So you won’t be a mathematician when you grow up,” Shannon teased her.
“You really are smart, aren’t you?”
Shannon shrugged. “Yes.”
Madison was quiet for a moment. “My birthday is coming up.”
“I know. I remembered from last year.”
“I’ll be twelve, just like you.”
“I’ll always be older.”
“Five months is not older,” Madison said as she playfully punched her arm. But the smile left her face. “I’m having a party.” She looked at Shannon with sad eyes. “My mother said you can’t come.”
Not that Shannon expected to attend but the hurt look in Madison’s eyes made her own heart ache.
“That’s because I’m not one of your real friends,” she reminded her.
“You’re my best friend,” Madison said. “My mother says you can’t be though. She says I should pick someone else.”
Shannon was old enough to know what that meant. Madison couldn’t possibly be friends with their maid’s daughter. She needed to stay within her social class. When no one was looking, when no one was around, then Madison could stoop down to her level. That hurt Shannon but she knew it wasn’t Madison’s fault. She couldn’t be mad at her.
“How about I ask my mom to make you a small cake and we’ll have our own party?”
Madison’s eyes lit up. “Just me and you?”
Shannon nodded. “Yeah. Just us.”
And two weeks later, one day after Madison’s real birthday party, they sat outside, not far from the playground they had outgrown. The gazebo was rarely used as it was too far from the main house for guests. When her parents entertained, they used the more formal patio area that faced the backyard. Of course, Shannon knew all that because she helped her mother in the kitchen preparing appetizers and sometimes she helped the other cooks with the meal itself. The gazebo had become their place.
“You have to make a wish,” Shannon instructed.
When she asked her mother to make a small cake, she’d done just that. It was barely bigger than a saucer. Her mother had produced a single candle and had given Shannon some matches to light it with.
Madison stared into her eyes and Shannon felt an odd sensation in her stomach. Madison nodded slowly.
“Okay. I made my wish.”
Shannon tilted her head. “What was it?”
Madison leaned down and blew out the candle, laughing. “I can’t tell you. Then it won’t come true.”
Shannon handed Madison a fork and they both dug into the cake. It was chocolate with a thick layer of creamy icing—her favorite. She didn’t know what Madison’s favorite was.
“Do you like it? I didn’t know what kind to ask for,” she said.
Madison licked chocolate from her lips. “This one.”
“Good.” She swallowed her bite, then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “So how was your party yesterday?”
“It was okay, I guess. My parents rented the pavilion at the country club. They had an ice cream machine. We went swimming too.”
“Did you have a big cake?”
“Yes. But it wasn’t nearly as good as this.”
That pleased her and she smiled. “Fancy dinner too?”
Madison nodded. “I would have rather been here with you though.” She put her fork down. “Stephen Cole was there.”
“The boy your mother likes for you?”
“Yes. He kept tickling me in the pool. He says we’re going to be dating soon.”
Shannon rolled her eyes. “You’re twelve. You’re not going to start dating.”
“When will you start dating?”
Shannon swung her foot back and forth, searching for an answer. “I hadn’t really thought about it. I don’t really like any of the boys at school.”
“Me either. But that’s all Tamara talks about now. Stephanie too.”
Shannon knew Tamara and Stephanie were two of her friends but of course she had never met them. She wondered if they even knew she existed.
“I guess maybe we’ll start liking them too,” she offered, wondering if that was true.
“You knew you were gay when you were twelve?”
Shannon laughed. “I didn’t know what gay meant, I just knew I didn’t like boys.”
“You already had a crush on her then?”
Shannon nodded. “I’m not sure I knew it though. I was just the friend she had to hide from everybody. I know it drove her mother crazy and she tried her best to keep us apart.”
“She didn’t like you?”
“Not so much that. She was always cordial to me. But the friendship that Madison and I had, she wanted that for her with one of the country club group. She made sure Madison spent plenty of time with them. Tennis lessons, swimming lessons, riding lessons. Dance. All activities that didn’t involve me.”
“Yet at the end of the day, Madison came home to you,” Charlotte said with a smile. “I’m sure that did worry her mother.”
“Madison never got any better with math so I tried to tutor her. But we couldn’t let her mother know. The first time she caught us, I was thirteen.”
“Shannon, it just doesn’t make sense to me. Why does it have to be so hard?”
“It’s not hard. You’re just not understanding it. You’re going to be in high school pretty soon. It’s going to get a lot harder.”
They were sitting cross-legged on the floor of Madison’s study room and Madison flopped down dramatically, one arm covering her eyes.
“High school? I can’t do basic math and you’re bringing up high school?”
Shannon’s eyes followed the length of her body, landing on her exposed armpit. She grinned devilishly, then attacked, tickling Madison mercilessly.
Madison squirmed, laughing as she slapped at Shannon’s hands. “Stop! I’ll get you back, Shannon Fletcher.”
“Promises, promises,” she said, finally relenting.
Madison grinned. “I hate it when you do that.”
“Yeah? Then why are you smiling?”
Madison sat back up, still smiling as she stared at her. “I don’t know. You make me happy.”
Shannon got a funny feeling in her stomach when Madison looked at her like that. She nodded. “You make me happy too.”
The silence lingered as they stared at each other. Shannon finally looked away and reached for Madison’s homework. She was about to go over another problem when Madison’s bedroom door opened. A few seconds later, Mrs. Lansford stood at the threshold to the study room.
“Girls? What are you doing?”
Shannon stared at the floor, speechless. Mrs. Lansford scared her. But Madison’s words made her raise her head.
“I’m helping Shannon with some homework,” Madison said. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Lansford slid her gaze to Shannon, prompting her into action.
“I needed some help in . . . math,” she said quietly. “Since Madison is so good at it and all . . .”
Mrs. Lansford nodded. “Yes, well our public school system is sorely lacking in that regard. Of course Madison can assist you, Shannon. She has a more formal education than you, it only stands to reason.” She smiled quickly, then it was gone. “I came to tell you that your father will have a business guest for dinner. You’ll take your evening meal up here, dear. I’ll have Stella bring it up.”
“Well, carry on.”
As soon as the door closed they broke into a fit of giggles. “It only stands to reason,” Shannon mimicked.
“Carry on,” Madison said in a clipped British accent, causing more laughter.
“So, Miss Smarty-pants, what are you going to teach me?”
Madison’s smile faded. “I’m sorry. But if she knew you were helping me, well . . . she would send me to a real tutor, one they would pay a lot of money to. It wouldn’t do for you to be smarter than me.”
“Because I’m just the maid’s daughter?” Shannon didn’t want to be angry but she was.
“Shannon, you know how it is.”
Shannon stood, intending to leave. “Yeah, I know. I’ll never be as good as you, no matter what.”
Madison got up too, grabbing her arm as she turned to leave. “You’re my best friend. Please don’t leave.”
Shannon stared at the hand that was holding her arm. Again, she got a funny feeling in her stomach and she didn’t know what it was. She did know, however, that she liked it.
“You just want to keep me around so that you don’t fail your test tomorrow,” she said, her anger fading as teasing took over.
“Yes. That’s the only reason I tolerate you,” Madison agreed with a smile.
She then surprised Shannon—and possibly herself—by pulling Shannon to her and hugging her tightly. Shannon was nearly trembling as her arms slipped around Madison’s small waist. The cartwheels in her stomach increased and she closed her eyes, wondering what was happening to her.
Madison had a funny look on her face when she pulled away. They stared at each other for the longest time, then Madison nodded as if she’d found an answer to an unspoken question.
Shannon nodded too, pretending she not only knew the question but the answer as well.
“You want to watch TV?”
Shannon looked at the papers on the floor. “What about your test?”
“It’s a lost cause,” Madison said.
Her protest was cut off as Madison took her hand and led her into the small living room that was adjacent to her bedroom.
“Just for a little while. Stella will bring my dinner up at seven. Your momma will be expecting you back down.”
Shannon plopped down beside Madison on the sofa, math forgotten. “Will your mother be mad?”
Madison shook her head. “She won’t come back in here. She’s getting ready for their dinner guest.”
Shannon tried to relax but she couldn’t even begin to focus on the TV. Madison had scooted closer to her and they sat there, their thighs pressed together, both glancing from the TV to each other. When Stella knocked on the door, Shannon and Madison both moved away from each other guiltily. Shannon had no idea what they should feel guilty about.
Still, with one last look into Madison’s eyes, she bid her a hasty goodnight.