It was her sister Maisie who noticed him first.
She double patted Annie's shoulder just after the bells rang over the door of Father's General Store. It was their silent signal for, "Look now but don't say anything." And no wonder her older sister tapped her, Annie smiled.
A city man, to be sure, by his suit. Well-off city man, or she was no judge of a cut of cloth. Probably traveling out West, as they all seemed to be these days. There was money out there, and certainly none to be had here in an old trading post in Missouri.
Annie glanced in the glasspane behind the counter, smoothed a few curls, and turned back to watch him. She tried not to linger her gaze, careful not to let the few other townspeople in the shop notice her watching him. She needn't have worried. Mrs. Hadley, the undertaker's wife, held up two choices of cloth to her distracted husband. Jimmy Bailey was almost drooling over the jars of candy that lined the shelves. No one bothered to look at her.
The man was thin and lanky, his movements stiff, a shuffling walk; but that was to be expected when traveling distances by coach. His hair must have been a gentle brown, but was slicked and oiled in the city-style of the day. His hands lingered over canned foods, bottled goods, as though he meant to pick them up, but he did not.
Maisie pulled their shared school-slate and chalk closer, wrote, and passed to Annie: "ASK IF HE'S PASSING THROUGH OR STAYING."
Annie reddened and shook her head. She was never so bold as Maisie. She giggled and tittered at the thought of such presumption.
"A good evening to you, sir. Is there something special we can help you find?" Maisie hailed him as Annie quietly pressed her own shoe onto her sister's foot.
Maisie pushed her hard away, sending Annie into the suspended scales. Annie righted herself, bit her tongue to avoid speaking the words she'd have liked to have said to Maisie, and watched the man's reaction from the corners of her eyes. There was none.
She moved toward the board, erased it with the dusty slate-rag and wrote, "FOREIGN? OLD COUNTRY?"
Maisie shrugged and tossed her head. Annie choked back a laugh. She knew Maisie's spurned look. There weren't many young men in town who would ignore Maisie Anderson's attention. She sulked when she found one who would.
Annie turned her attention back to the inventory books, pausing occasionally to watch the man. His skin was pale as clotted cream, almost a grey. He was probably a scholar. Or a clerk. Perhaps a banker. Yes, a banker. That would explain the fine fabrics he wore.
At last, the silent man approached, set a small pair of thread snippers on the counter and placed two coins into Annie's hands, pennies. "Thank you," she said, still too shy to look in his face until just as she handed him his purchase. She looked up at him and stopped breathing.
The man's eyes held no color. They were cloud-white. He held Annie's gaze a few moments, then stretched the tightest grin full across his face. A brown thread hung from the corner of his lips. Her insides iced over. He took the snippers, opened them slightly, and ran their twin blades between his lips, brown threads dropping to the counter before her. He turned and left the store as wordlessly as he'd arrived.
Maisie spoke over her shoulder, still petulant. "Cat got his tongue, I s'pose. Too good for town girls." She sniffed and went back to straightening cans.
In the back corner of the shop, Mr. Hadley cleared his throat. Annie jumped, realizing he had been studying the scene. "May I see those coins, Miss Annie?" he asked her.
She pulled them off the shelf of the till and held them out to him. He pulled them closer, examined them.
"That's what I thought," he told her. "Same ones I placed on his eyes late last night." He handed back the coins and moved to the front window, looking up the road where the traveler had walked. "Mebby you girls want to lock up shop and head home for the night."
Laura Lovic-Lindsay left Penn State University with a literature degree in hand in 1993, having written no more than a few poems at that point. She has won poetry and fiction contests (PennWriters Poetry Contest, writerstype.com, writersweekly.com, Writing Success writers' conferences), had pieces accepted for publication (Fireside Fiction, Fine Linen Magazine, Boston Literary Magazine).
Laura lives and writes in an old farmhouse in a small Western Pennsylvania town, but her heart roams realms both real and imaginary.