Sunday, October 28, 2007
Sleep Before Evening
By Magdalena Ball
Link to buy book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/A4WMZWTXVNQZ2/ref=cm_blog_blog/105-9326603-7885261
“Mathematical logic holds great promise for an understanding of the world.”
Marianne looked up from the game. “Check.”
Her grandfather's eyes were more intense than usual, a cobalt blue which, just for a moment, was otherworldly.
He reached out a hand to touch her hair, and then twitched.
“Imagine a comprehensive list of all true sentences. This would be an adequate representation of the world as a whole.”
She leaned closer to him as he moved his king out of check, trying to absorb his tremendous knowledge by proximity. His damp pipe tobacco scent comforted her like a warm blanket.
The room was warm, but a light breeze blew in through the open windows, filling the room with the astringent salt of the Long Island Sound beneath them. She imagined herself on the deck of his boat, sitting in her own special co-captain's chair, protected from wind as he turned the steering wheel with his capable captain's hands.
The thought of Eric's boat instantly made her thirsty. Without her asking, Eric passed over her half-drunk glass of orange juice. Then she saw it again. Another twitch, which caused some juice to spill out onto the chessboard, orange flowing like a stain over the black marble square. The twitch lasted long enough for her to note how the upper right side of his face distorted grossly, pulling his eyebrow down towards his mouth.
She stared, unsure of whether he was teasing her or checking to see if she was paying attention, and took the glass from his momentarily frozen hand. Then he moved his king out of check again, oblivious to the spilled juice.
“Grandpa?” His face relaxed and he yawned, ignoring the lightning strike of violence which had just passed through his face. “I'll get a paper towel.”
Eric smiled as she returned from the kitchen. “You're a good girl, Mari. I'm so proud of you. I know you'll achieve great things.”
She moved her knight, putting Eric in check once more. His eyes suddenly cleared and he looked his old self - stolid, nurturing, able to counter her move. He whispered. “Never be afraid of check.”
Marianne leaned back in her chair and sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. She must have imagined the twitch. Eric would counter her check as he always did. She opened her eyes to see where he moved his king, but it was still on the same square, next to the sticky spot where she'd tried to clean the juice. Eric sat still in his seat, staring at her vacantly, his arms dangling at his side.
“Grandpa, it's your move.” Her throat tightened as he fell forward, slowly crumpling on the floor. She waited a moment for an uncharacteristic 'surprise!' or some other indication of a test or unfunny joke, but he lay still on the sisal, his breathing expelled in labored snores.
“Grandpa.” She stared at him, her eyes bulging from their sockets. “It's your move.”
“Breathe, damn it!”
Marianne's own breath was fast and heavy, the fingers on her left hand squeezing Eric's in time to the ambulance's flashing light.
“Come on Grandpa, please.”
He lifted his head slightly, blue eyes watering and bulging with the effort. “I'm sorry, poppet.”
“Oh, Grandpa, I'm the one who's sorry. But you'll be okay.”
She turned to the paramedic behind her. “He's talking. That's a good sign isn't it? Do you have water? He's thirsty.”
Eric's hand stopped twitching. His face was suddenly still, his eyes closed.
“We were just playing chess.”
“We play every Friday.” Her voice squeaked as it moved up the soprano scale. “It was his move. I was sure he'd counter my check, but he sat there doing nothing, his hands were hanging. I thought he was teasing.”
“Mr Cotton,” said the paramedic loudly, holding Eric's shoulders. “Can you smile for me, Mr Cotton?”
Marianne leaned over. “It's Doctor Cotton.”
“Can you squeeze my hand, Doctor Cotton?”
Eric's hand lay still against the stretcher, the pauses between his breathing increasing.
The paramedic tapped Marianne on the shoulder as they began to prepare Eric for movement, tucking his sheets and lifting the bed. “It's okay. You did the right thing. It was good you called us so quickly. How old are you, Marianne?”
“Seventeen. It wasn't checkmate. I'm sure he would have countered my move. He never loses.”
The ambulance slowed to a stop. Marianne followed the paramedics and Eric out and through the glass doors of the hospital. Before she could continue down the hall with them, they motioned her over to the waiting room, ignoring her outstretched hands. “Wait,” she called; but they were already gone.
Sitting in the waiting room, Marianne rubbed her hands, blowing into them for warmth. She looked around, but everything was unfamiliar. Busy strangers with their own tragedies knocked into her as she sucked on the end of her sleeve, a habit she'd kept from childhood. She caught herself and looked up to find Lily walking through the entrance, the sunlight coming in through the glass temporarily blocking Lily's face so that all Marianne saw initially was the flap of her mother's floral scarf, which mirrored
the violet of her perfume.
“Oh god, honey, where's Grandpa? Are you okay?” Lily's voice was louder than the general hum of the waiting room and she moved about manically and without purpose, blowing her nose and asking random questions of any staff members she could find, her voice pitched on the edge of hysteria.
Marianne didn't know whether she was relieved to see Lily, or embarrassed at her mother's usual overt energy. Her stepfather Russell arrived a few minutes later, kissed her gently on the cheek, and tried to corral Lily, who was undoing and redoing her hair while continuing to grill her.
“Was he breathing? Did he hit his head when he fell? Was he still conscious? What did he say to you?”
There wasn't enough pause between questions for Marianne to answer.
Russell was used to Lily's chaos, keeping his own voice measured in comparison and asking no questions while he led Marianne to an empty waiting room chair.
While Lily flapped about within the limits of Russell's containment, Marianne sat silently, her mind rummaging through the final minutes before Eric's stroke. After several hours in the teeth-grinding panic of the waiting room, a doctor arrived to tell them what room Eric was in and then disappeared quickly while Russell led them towards the elevator.
As they entered Eric's room, Lily fell quiet, her restlessness stilled by the regular whoosh-click of a ventilator as the three of them stood dumbly.
Marianne took her grandfather's hand, stroking the raised blue veins and the papery softness of his transparent skin. Would he come back to her? Marianne touched Eric's fingers and there was no response, none of the warm, reassuring squeeze that had gotten her through everything from skinned knees to fatherless birthday parties.
She held his hand and took herself back to the conversations in his study, the piano lessons and gifts, while hissing, almost without consciousness: “Don't do this to me, Grandpa. It isn't fair.”
She felt his pulse, which coincided with the jagged lines on a monitor screen. He was nothing; just another dying patient. Marianne tried to reconcile the body on the bed with the famous Eric Cotton, lecturer, author, confidant.
A doctor entered the room and Russell introduced himself, putting out his hand: “Russell Wilkinson.”
Russell spoke slowly, smiling to an imaginary television camera, his white teeth catching the light. He collected toiletries - hair gel, aftershave, skin tonic, deodorants. Even his tan was out of a Coppertone container, although he spent plenty of time on the beach in the summer.
“Nice to meet you, Russell,” the doctor said. “You're a lucky man to have such a beautiful family.”
Marianne watched Russell's smile tighten and could almost read his mind as the word 'lucky' hit him in the face. Luck was in the eyes of the beholder, she thought. Marianne knew that if he felt anything at all, it was unlucky. He swaggered backwards from the doctor a little, running a hand through his shoulder length hair.
“How serious is he?”
“I'm sorry,” said the doctor, shaking his head. “Did Eric have any directives?”
Russell wrinkled his brow in confusion. “What?”
“Wishes about whether he wanted to be kept on life support in the event of, you know … this. I'm afraid there is no viable brain activity.” He pointed to a machine nearby.
He dropped his voice and the hospital followed suit, the clinking and rushing about from the hallway and other visitors silenced while the doctor's whispers filled the room. “The damage was too extensive. I'm sorry.”
Although she tried to follow the discussion, Marianne was having difficulty working out what was meant by the dissonant words that floated by her; kidney dialysis, ventilators, drips, antibiotics, oxygen, tube feeding, infections. The words felt removed from their normal meanings.
“In a way, death is easier.”
Lily looked sharply at the doctor, her eyes beginning to water, and she sniffed: “How? How is death easier? Easier for us? Or for him?”
The doctor backed away slightly. “We could put him in hospice, of course, if his insurance will cover it. The setting is more pleasant than the hospital, but you know, it would only be prolonging the dying process. Insurance rarely covers long term support, and it can be expensive. He's in what we call a persistent vegetative state. We have a counselor who can talk you through the options.”
Marianne wondered whether her grandfather could hear them debating his life. Did he have an idea that there was something before - a nagging tug of person and meaning? Or was his world now the sum of whatever senses were still working; the repeated beep, the room's smell, the squeak of nurses' shoes and rush of exhalation as they fixed his pillows, turned him and cleaned his body.
Could you still call it life if it went on like this for years? Would he be the same man? Marianne moved as close to Eric as she could and tried to breathe along with him, taking in his breath with her inhalation and blowing towards him with her exhalation. She knew he was there. Alive. Listening and angry. His eyes were closed, but she could still see him looking at her, pleading with her. “Don't let them turn my equipment off. Help me, Marianne. Please help me.”
“Yes,” she whispered back.
“Okay. We'll speak to the counselor and let you know what we decide. Thank you, doctor.”
Russell put his hand on Lily's shoulder. His satin shirt shimmered in the hospital lights and his heeled boots chinked loudly on the yellow and white floor tiles. Leading Marianne and Lily out of the room, away from Eric, he looked ready for the rodeo. Marianne looked at him, the new head of their family. He looked uncertain of the stance he should take - sad or officious.
Marianne heard Aaron Copland faintly up the hall; Appalachian Spring. Was someone else's visitor carrying a boom box on the FM channel? It was probably her own crazy imagination, adding wide open grassy spaces and rolling rhythms to the starched scene; a way of removing herself. She could even
smell grass but, of course, there was a small patch of garden in front of the building, the cheerful daisies mocking them with their perky white and yellow brightness. The flowers felt wrong under the circumstance. If no one was looking, Marianne thought she might stamp on them.
“C'mon, let's go home now. There's nothing much we can do today. We need time to think and talk. Eric won't miss us.”
“Of course he'll miss us,” Marianne said. “We need to stay.”
But Lily and Russell walked ahead, talking together without her. To them, Grandpa was already a ghost, like the Copland Marianne could no longer hear, its echo drowned by the backfiring of their car and Russell's cursing as he drove them home.
When she was little, Marianne was allowed to put her feet up on the dashboard, chalky footprints scattered across vinyl as she danced in time to the music on the radio. Now the car was clean, except for a candy bar wrapper and a half open pack of cigarette papers on the floor. Russell wasn't allowed to smoke in the house, but you could smell ashes in the car. Marianne coughed, breaking the oppressive silence, but an unspoken question still hovered in the air. She wondered who would say something first, when Lily began knocking her fist against the air vent.
“The heating's broken again. One day, I'm hoping we'll be able to afford a car that actually does everything all at one time. If the heating works, the engine stops. If the engine works, the heating stops.”
“Sorry, Lil. Wish I could afford a better car for you.”
“It'll be spring soon enough I guess. It's so damn cold today, though. I just can't get warm.”
“Apparently this is the coldest March on record in New York since 1892.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Can't remember. Maybe the news last night.”
“Everything is always a superlative, isn't it. The coldest spring. The hottest summer. The tallest building. I don't need a weatherman to tell me it's cold. And who cares whether 1982 is as cold as it was in 1892?”
“Oh dear. Excuse me for filling your precious brain with useless facts.”
Marianne sat in the back, her hands pushed under her thighs, which were moving up and down in an effort to keep the circulation going. Had they given up on Eric already? Marianne didn't dare ask. The tension around that question filled the car. She could hear her mother's unspoken plea. “Please don't ask that.”
Marianne kept silent, as usual, not wanting to cause a conflict.
“We should go to Dad's place.”
“Eric's? Why should we go there?”
“I need to look through his papers to get some idea of what he would want. Maybe he's left some kind of will.”
“I doubt it, Lily. Besides, he isn't dead yet. Isn't looking for a will now a little grubby?”
“I'm not looking for a will to see what he's left to us. For god's sake, Russ, I just want to try and find out what Dad wants. I want to do the right thing by him.”
“I don't think you'll find the answer in his house, Lil. This is a decision we have to make. You can't defer to him this time. Daddy isn't here to tell you what to do.”
“Don't give me that shit. He has a right to have us follow his directives, especially if he's taken the trouble to write them out.”
“And why wouldn't he have given you a copy already?”
“I don't know.” Lily's voice dropped to a whisper. “We didn't really discuss things like that.”
“No. He probably thought he'd live forever.”
“You're a prick.”
“I'm sorry, hon. That was callous. This is hard for all of us. We'll go to his house and I'll just wait in the car with Mari while you go in and have a look.”
“No way. I'm going in with you, Mom.” Marianne watched as Russell made a sharp left onto Waukena Avenue. She could just see the entrance to the Middle Bay Country Club where Grandpa occasionally played golf. He took her with him once and she swam in the big white pool. For members and their guests only. No one swam seriously, dressed in designer suits and lounging on the deck chairs. She wanted to materialize him there now, playing golf in his plaid dockers, joking with colleagues from the University.
Russell turned the radio on. Marianne had changed it to the FM station last time they were out. It was Chopin's Prelude No4 in E Minor, which filled the car, easing the rough spots and changing
the mood from fear to sorrow. Marianne felt as though it had been chosen especially by Eric to describe how she was feeling. The music, with its repetitive minor E, was so soft that she had to strain to pick up how beautiful it was, like the warmth of a paternal hand across her shoulder. She closed her eyes, feeling something almost like joy, pleasure and desire, even though the music was unbearably sad.
“Sorry Mari, time for the headlines,” Russell said, abruptly flipping the channel. The presenter's voice intruded into her bittersweet mood, speaking blankly of the Soviet versus US arms race and potential nuclear war.
Marianne pictured her family huddled in an ineffective bomb shelter waiting for their world to become an x-ray image before disappearing in a mushroom cloud of chemical fission. She shivered, remembering her first grade fallout shelter drills; lining up in the hallway with books on her head, the ubiquitous orange and black triangles of the shelter sign permeating her dreams.
Marianne closed her eyes, blocking out the meaning of the words and tried to sleep, but the hospital was only ten minutes from Eric's house. Beyond the billboards advertising designer jeans and surfboard wax, she could see the big elms and grand houses as they drove towards Parkside Drive. Their own house belonged to Eric too. He bought it for them as an investment. The top half was rented out to some of Lily's friends to cover the taxes, but Lily and Russell lived rent free. Marianne remembered a
conversation held shortly before Eric's stroke.
“He doesn't have to keep reminding me. I know it's his house.”
“You shouldn't let it bother you. It isn't like he spends much time here. He declined my dinner invitation again.”
“Thank Christ. You should have asked me first.”
“I have to ask you before I invite my father to dinner?”
“Not for permission, but it would be nice to be included in the decision process. What if I was planning to take you out to dinner as a surprise?”
Lily snorted, coffee running out of her nose. “Ho, that's a good one. A surprise dinner? Sorry, hon. I'm afraid I didn't consider that option. He isn't coming anyway, so you can go ahead and surprise me now.” She laughed bitterly.
“It's demeaning. I hate the way he calls me Jock and talks about the jobs I haven't done - right in front of me, like I'm not there.”
“He isn't coming, okay? Forget it, Jock. The last place he wants to be is here. My work doesn't interest him, and neither does my cooking. If it weren't for Mari, he'd probably never speak to me.”
Marianne walked out, slamming the door, and headed straight for Eric's in protest against their lack of gratitude. Every penny he gave was treated as an act of cruelty.
She always walked the forty-five-minute trip to her grandfather's home, across the busy main street with its shops, cars and not a single sidewalk. People hardly walked anywhere now. They would stare at her out their car windows as if she was doing something odd. Maisy from school once laughed at her: “I
saw you walking. Walking. Imagine that.”
But Marianne knew the route under her skin, her footfall coordinating with her breath, left foot doing rhythm, right foot beat. She'd hum, dum-de-dum-dum and practice her piano pieces with her whole body, ignoring the cars as she moved up the well groomed streets towards Eric's place overlooking the Long Island Sound.
Eric's boat bobbed off the jetty behind the house. He took her out on day trips when she spent the summers with him on Long Island. She was Little Miss with a kerchief in her hair. It was a forty-minute train ride from New York City to Eric's house. Lily let her come out on her own, dropping her off at Penn Station. Marianne boarded the train, an eight-year-old grownup with her book held tightly against her chest.
The train was nearly empty between commuter hours. Marianne felt at home on the Long Island Rail Road, looking out the window and enjoying her invisibility, only a little envious of the tree lined blocks, the small, picket-fenced houses and the 'normal' families she imagined inside them, her nose pressed against the glass of the grimy train window.
Then one day she was in one of those small, picket-fenced houses - Lily, Russell and Marianne, only two blocks from the beach. It was Lily's dream to get away from the city and live in a real house with her own studio. She was sick of having to squeeze her work into their everyday life, with half-finished paintings on the kitchen table, on the tops of their radiators, filling up the nonworking fireplace, stepped on by cats and ruined by spilled drinks.
The apartment was small, although not too bad when it was just the two of them and one cat, but when Cinnebar suddenly proved he was a she by mating with the neighbor's Persian, and Russell began staying the night, leaving his own cartoons on the table and radiators, home suddenly was impossibly small.
Plus, there was a man with a gun hanging around the playground and when Ramona the big black girl from her school teased her everyday - “I'll whup your butt, white girl” - moving near her grandfather wasn't such a bad idea.
Marianne knew she would miss her tiny room where she watched people, invisible behind the home-made Marimekko curtains on the fifteenth floor. On the street below was the endless play of life, with her the only one in the audience. There were arguments in the middle of the night, spontaneous dance parties or conversations that floated up to her as clearly as if she'd been an intended recipient. She hardly ever went outside but felt in the thick of it behind the curtains, tapping a symphonic beat with her
fingers on the windowpane.
Russell pulled the car into the driveway of Eric's house, squeaking the brakes as he came to a stop in front of the garage doors. The small front garden looked well tended, bright green lawn enhancing the white siding of the two story house. Eric valued neatness and mowed every Sunday, although the vivid colors of her grandmother's bulbs had long since given way to easy care shrubs.
If she squinted, Marianne could see her grandfather in front of her, waving happily while he pushed his electric mower across the green patch, his white baseball cap tilted jauntily. He would surely be back in time to keep the grass down, she thought, a lump gathering in her throat.
The house smelled of roses and cinnamon: the potpourri Eric's housekeeper put in little jars on the fireplace. It was mock hominess, a subtle reminder of the real cooking smells that once filled the house when Grandma Cotton lived in it.
Lily opened the refrigerator and poured herself a glass of orange juice. Marianne frowned. “Mom.”
“Why waste it? I'm parched. Now, where does Dad keep his papers? In his study I guess.”
Marianne walked over to the piano and ran her hand lightly across the keys. The chessboard was still there in the living room, scattered black pieces pointing towards her in accusation. While Lily went into Eric's study, Marianne sat down on the living room couch, her head spinning as she leaned forward to pick them up, whispering: “I shouldn't have checkmated you.”
“Hold your horses, poppet. I saw your knight would check me. I had a counter move. Don't forget, there are no external influences in chess; no acts of fate. You only have yourself to blame if you lose or win.” Marianne heard the deep rhythm of Eric's melodious voice, his words echoing in her own head, an imagined conversation.
“But a stroke is an act of fate, Grandpa, isn't it?”
“There are no acts of fate. I lost for a reason.”
“Of course, you won, Grandpa. You always win.”
“No, I didn't win this time.”
She closed her eyes, holding onto the edge of the couch, and remembered the way he looked as he leaned forward, his pale blue eyes simultaneously kind and thoughtful. “I once tried to teach your mother to play chess. She lasted for two moves. No concentration at all. Except when she was painting. I could have
used her touch here. It's too bland now Grandma's gone. All these neutrals. Don't you think?”
He smiled, crinkling his eyes into slits. Marianne had plenty of concentration. It was the intensity of her attention span that set her apart from other children. He tapped her shoulder as he told her so, and she felt warmth spread through her chest as she smelled the tobacco Eric tamped into his pipe. She was taken back to a memory of herself as an eight-year-old child.
“I made the invitation myself. It isn't a lot to ask, is it? Just once a year for a father to attend his daughter's birthday party?”
“It's okay, poppet. You didn't really think he'd show up did you?”
“No, I guess not.”
“He's to be pitied, Mari. We only give what we can take. Somewhere along the line someone must have hurt him. His rejection of you is just a rejection of himself, you know?”
She shook her head. “How can you defend him? I thought you hated Daddy.”
Eric laughed. “Of course I don't hate him. But he hasn't been much value to us, has he, leaving your Mom before you were even one? He could pass me on the street and I wouldn't even recognize
him. He gave the world you, though, and that's something for which I will always be grateful. Here, let me tell you a story.” Eric took down a brown leather book of Aesop's Fables. He spoke in a sonorous voice and Marianne found herself sitting up straighter, leaning forward towards him as she furrowed her brow in
“An ant nimbly running about in the sunshine in search of food came across a chrysalis that was very near its time of change. The chrysalis moved its tail and thus attracted the attention of the ant, who then saw for the first time that it was alive.”
Eric raised his voice to a falsetto. “'Poor, pitiable animal,' cried the ant disdainfully. 'What a sad fate is yours. While I can run hither and thither at my pleasure and, if I wish, ascend the tallest tree, you lie imprisoned here in your shell, with power only to move a joint or two of your scaly tail.'
“The chrysalis heard all this but did not try to make any reply. A few days after, when the ant passed that way again, nothing but the shell remained. Wondering what had become of its contents, he felt himself suddenly shaded and fanned by the gorgeous wings of a beautiful butterfly. 'Behold in me,' said the butterfly, 'your much-pitied friend. Boast now of your powers to run and climb as long as you can get me to listen.'
“So saying, the butterfly rose into the air and, borne along and aloft on the summer breeze, was soon lost to the sight of the ant forever.”
He snapped the book shut and put it down on the table. “So …”
“Things aren't always what they appear to be at first?” She looked at him hopefully.
“Yes. That's it, exactly, dearest clever Mari.”
Eric's skin was summer brown and his blue eyes icy in contrast. He brushed a lock of hair off his forehead. “Your father was a good looking guy when your mother met him. He spoke well and dressed in fancy clothes. But it was an illusion. He gave up the important things in his life and ran towards the meaningless. The loser, of course, was him.”
He stood up and put a record on his old gramophone. “Listen. This is the piece you're working on.”
He moved his head from side to side. “Largo.” He hummed along with the music, which rose and fell like Eric's breathing.
“Hear how the sound feels like the sensation of longing, the horns answering one another. It's a call from far away that moves closer and closer and increases in intensity without ever speeding up.
“Coming home. There is no quick way. You have to journey to get to any destination.” His head nodded appreciatively.
It was her second grade exam piece, but it was hard. She couldn't resist the urge to go faster as the piece progressed.
“Slow down, Mari. You have to call and answer. The most poignant parts are measured. Draw out the longing. Draw out the sad knowledge of a traveler. Capture the birds flying. Hear the flutes twittering in your head as you make your way back to where you began. That repeated sound is what conveys the nostalgia of the piece. It's critical.”
She tried her best, working across the black and white keys of his mahogany piano, but her small fingers couldn't sustain the sound long enough. She got a B-plus on the exam, but she knew that she had failed to please her Grandfather. Her tears made a similar pattern to the notes, falling in order on the piano keys: E, G, G, E, D, C.
She wanted to draw out the longing from each note, to convey the beauty he kept pointing out to her, but she just played more quickly, her fingers burning as they flew, jarring, destroying the music as the song transformed itself into something else, nostalgia giving way to bitterness.
She could hear Eric's voice, a deep echo: “What a sad fate is yours, imprisoned in your shell.”
“Marianne. MARIANNE, are you OK?”
Citrus replaced the musty pipe smell as she tried to sit up. “Just lie still, honey. You're pale as a sheet.” Lily held a cold cloth against her head and pressed her lips against Marianne's cheek while pulling her gently up. “Here, drink this juice slowly. Are you okay?
“Russell!” Lily yelled out the window.
Marianne rubbed her head as she drank the juice. “I'm sorry. I… I don't know what happened.”
Lily stood up. “I'll open a window. It's hot in here. You're probably exhausted.”
Russell stood in the doorway, his hair a lion's mane around his face. “What is it?”
“Mari fainted. Come and give me a hand.”
“I'll get some water.” Russell set a glass of water next to the juice and put his arm around her. “What happened?”
“I need the toilet.” Marianne lifted Russell's arm off her shoulder and walked off in the direction of Eric's bathroom.
Sitting on the cold toilet seat she wondered whether Eric was just in his chrysalis phase; a temporary moment of silence before breaking his cocoon and flying out. She was still dizzy and leaned
forward to put her head in her hands, crossing her fingers.
“Please let him wake up,” she said repeatedly under her breath, the whispered sibilance flushing away with the water. She washed her hands and returned to the living room.
“Your color's back, Mari. How do you feel?”
“A little better.”
“I want to stay here. Or maybe we can go back to the hospital. I need to speak with Grandpa.”
“He isn't really there, Mari. You heard the doctor. Anyway, we'll go back tomorrow. Russell and I need to talk.”
“Don't I get a say? Are you two going to discuss it without including me? What about what Grandpa wants?”
“Mari, you heard what the doctor said.”
“He isn't dead yet. You can't just turn your back on him. He hasn't even been in the hospital for one day.” Marianne's voice competed with the loud 'chchch-chee-ree' of a warbler outside.
“Listen, hon. I know that you and Grandpa were close. But he's my father too. I know that he wouldn't like to lie there in - what did the doctor call it - a persistent vegetative state? He's a vegetable, Mari. He'd hate that. You aren't the only one who understood Grandpa.”
“Oh, sure. He'd rather you killed him off as quickly as possible. What if he wakes tomorrow or in a week or two? How can you make that decision?”
“I haven't. We haven't made any decision yet. But we need to talk about it.”
“Did you find anything, Lil?”
“No. Nothing except the book he was working on. We'd better go home. We have a lot to discuss.”
“Let's go.” Russell sighed. “I feel uncomfortable here without Eric. As if we were trespassing.”
“I'm staying.” Marianne picked up one of the chess pieces still on the floor and put it on a starting square.
“Honey, please.” Lily took Marianne's hand and pulled her towards the door.
“We're lucky this happened on a weekend. Next week is a horrific one for me. I'm presenting to the Board on Tuesday,” Russell said.
Lily pulled Marianne into the car and Russell took off while she closed the door.
“How can you say that, Russell? Dad didn't have his stroke to suit you. Slow down.”
“You know I didn't mean it that way. Ah, shit, I just went through a red light.”
“Lucky there aren't any police around. What's that about there never being a policeman when you need one?”
Marianne wondered how you determined whether you were lucky or not. Could you take a scale and simply put the good stuff on one side and the bad on the other and see which one was heavier? How would you know where to put things if they weren't clearly good or bad? Some things start off looking good but turn out bad.
Like when she was shortlisted for the Chopin award. You might put that on the good side of the scale, but Lily cried about her own lack of music, and her father didn't even knew about it. Grandpa wanted her to begin practicing right away and then it was the 'competition' all the time and she had to prepare and everyone had expectations and she had to wear the label 'prodigy' like a sign around her neck, even though she was only fourteen and just wanted to go swimming or something where there was no pressure to win.
Marianne knew she would lose in the end and hurt everyone except her mother who was secretly pleased but held her close and said it didn't matter. Of course it mattered. But you could probably find good and bad in everything that happened, which meant that there was no such thing as luck, only perception. This was just the sort of question she would have to ask Grandpa about when he woke. He would know the answer. He always did.
Eric handed Marianne a book of Chinese silk. The cover was delicately embroidered and there were blank music staff lines inside. It was tied with a string.
“This is for your secret music. The wild stuff in your head. Write it down. You never know when you might need it.”
Eric's hair needed a cut. It stuck out in a wing on the left side. Marianne flipped through the rice paper pages carefully. She wanted to leave it pristine. Once she began writing, her clumsy penmanship would ruin it.
“What you create matters, Marianne.” He reached out to touch her arm.
“Yes, Grandpa. It matters,” she echoed, believing that he would always be there to cheer her on. She was only seven years old but she was already writing her own music, her chubby fingers trying out different combinations on the piano before rushing back to capture them in arched handwriting, along with Italian words indicating how it should be played: arpeggio, rit, staccato.
“Let me see, Mari.” Lily leaned over the pages, but she had no ear for music. Everything was visual to her. The notes were only pictures, black ink against beige. They were soundless; contrast and texture. Lily was tone deaf, but Eric could read Marianne's music and always knew what she was trying to say.
She copied out the first page of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as practice, humming each line before entering it into the book. Freude, schöner Götterfunken Tochter aus Elysium. She could almost capture the exuberance; the pure joy, shouted from the rooftops, which Schiller might have been striving for as she then began her own piece, called 'Joy', and didn't eat or drink until it was finished, ten hours later.
When she played it for her piano teacher, Mrs Hendrix looked at her with shocked eyes. “Did your Grandfather make you do this?”
She was usually annoyed at Eric's interference and accused him of pushing her too hard. She praised the piece, though, and told Marianne she had a great future and from then on let her move as quickly as she wanted, rushing through six or seven pieces a week to get to the next level.
“This one can't be rushed Marianne, take it slowly. You might need a few weeks.” But Marianne was back the next week, her fingers aching from hours of practice - despite her mother's urging to get outdoors and play - ready to move on to the next song.
“She's so good,” she overheard Mrs Hendrix saying one day, shaking her head. “She needs her own piano, Eric. She's outgrown me. What are you going to do with her?”
Eric patted Marianne proudly on the shoulder. The book in her hands gave off a musty odor. She shut it, wondering why it mattered, and to whom. Her grandfather's pride was gone and her own talent wasted. The delicate silk was stained with ink, the pages brittle with a decade of neglect, and her handwriting was nearly unreadable.
“I remember when he gave you that music diary. You took it to bed with you every night. I was jealous of your relationship with Grandpa. You were kindred spirits.” Lily blew her nose while stroking her daughter's shoulder with her other hand. “I wish I was able to talk to him the way you could. You should take up the piano again. You play so beautifully.”
“I still have a relationship with him. He isn't dead yet.” Marianne stood up, dropping the book onto the faded pink carpet, a childhood concession to femininity. “I can't read it now anyway. The writing's a mess.”
Marianne left Lily alone on the bed and went into the kitchen. She could still see her in the window reflection above the sink as she washed the dirty dishes. Her mother's golden hair was wrapped in two chopsticks, the loosened tendrils curling around her face; a white splotch of paint on her cheek. Although Lily was crying, her face was clear. Even her neuroses were attractive.
In contrast, Marianne saw herself as a shadow; Lily's mousy daughter. Her dark hair was frizzy, her skin wan and her breasts too small to attract the attention of boys. She could never figure out how to wear makeup and she always somehow stained her clothes. There wasn't even an iron in the house. Lily didn't need one for the stretchy bodysuits and slinky tank tops she wore under her smocks.
“Oh honey, you have a perfect body,” her mother would say, absentmindedly, her mind full of some abstract image of her daughter - a multicolored Picasso in profile or one of the sketched nudes she had lying about the studio. Lily was warm and loving when she wasn't depressed under her covers or running around the house in a fit of hysteria. But Marianne sometimes wondered who Lily saw when she looked at her.
Marianne dried her hands, went to the stereo to put on a Chopin record and closed her eyes, letting the twinkling piano sound flow around her body, her fingers moving softly in time against her cheek. Her mother was right. It had been long since she'd played. She pictured herself walking on stage to a cheering audience. She'd worked hard but somehow it all occurred without her involvement; an act solely for the sake of the performance until she took her bow and the curtain went down.
The real Marianne came out then, an empty vessel for a talent that had already begun to fade. She was too old now to be precocious or cute. Moving her fingers around her eyes, her nose and mouth, she tried to get a blind man's sense of what she looked like. Her features were nondescript - large eyes, a small
uninteresting nose and simple mouth. No high color like her mother or beautiful shining golden hair. How could she live up to the expectations of her grandfather?
Then she got up, the music still playing, and finished washing the dishes. She could see her face reflected in the window, but her features were floating away from one another, distorted by a crack running down the left hand side of the glass. They needed a new window, a new kitchen, a new house. Her
mother was always saying it.
“Do you want to talk?”
Russell stood in the doorway of Marianne's room like a pelican, balancing a foot against his knee and then shifting to the other side. Stepping in, he picked up a small glass swan off the bookshelf. “I remember when I bought this for you at Adventureland in that mock Bavarian village by the flume. You wanted it so badly.”
He turned it around so that the thick glass reflected blue beams of light on the wall opposite. “Do you remember? After your mom said no, you cried so hard I snuck it up to the register when she
wasn't looking. Not much of a father figure, eh? One tear and I'm lost.”
Marianne looked up from the bed. “I gave you away with my squeal when you slipped it to me in the car. Mom was really pissed.”
“I told you not to say anything.”
“I was always a lousy liar.”
“She was wrong anyway. You're not exactly spoiled.”
“Long time ago now. God, it's gone fast. And look at you. All grown up.”
“Yeah. It's like another life altogether. Sometimes I wish I could get back to that little girl.”
Russell laughed gently. “When a glass swan was your biggest problem?”
“Mmm.” Marianne shook her head, drying her eyes with the back of her sleeve.
Lily was in her studio, a converted garage attached to the house. Paintings were scattered around the limited space with unframed finished work around the periphery and canvasses in varying states of evolution in the center.
Marianne adjusted her eyes to the strong light, blinking until she could make out the whole room in a glance. Like Picasso, her mother had different periods, and the paintings were roughly grouped accordingly. In the right corner she could see the series of empty cereal cartons, some vividly colored and some in muted siennas. Marianne imagined herself eating through the mountain of boxes Lily took in here to copy. Cereal was an easy meal. You only had to add milk, and not even that if you were hungry enough; just put your hand in and start eating the vitamin fortified pieces. She could live off those boxes for years, reaching into the canvas and pulling out something sweet and crunchy.
Lily liked to paint the same thing from different perspectives with small variations of shade or texture.
Then there were the cartoon animals, crying, laughing and socializing. Lily could work for days at a time, not stopping to eat or sleep until she ended up sobbing on one of the canvasses, paint on her face. Then Russell or Marianne would take her, floppy and lethargic, to bed while she muttered about how she was wasting her time, her life, had no talent, no worth, wasn't a good mother, while Marianne stroked her hand and whispered “it's not true” in her ear until she fell asleep.
Marianne always knew what would happen and how. It was a play in which all the lines were memorized, all the parts issued. Still, Marianne never knew whether maybe just once the plot would vary, or her mother would decide to do something stupid and unchangeable. She couldn't take the risk. Couldn't just say “oh shut up already”, though she sometimes thought it, while gentle, kind words flowed from her mouth and the show went on.
“Do you like them, honey?”
There were beads of sweat above Lily's mouth as she stood in front of her latest monochromatic work. Marianne tried looking closely and then from a distance. The paintings had shadow and depth and she could see things in them; curled up bodies, ghostly faces and buildings on top of other buildings. Marianne felt dizzy and uncomfortable, as if something ugly had been exposed in her. There was paint on Lily's shirt, hands and in her hair, which was loosely tied up in a clip.
Marianne tried, but she couldn't say how she felt about them. She felt the work's pull, a kind of gravity, but it was a painful one. Looking at them she thought of Kandinsky, of Baudelaire, of a saxophone playing an intense high note. She felt the power of the art in her gut almost as a loss; a cold wind moving through the tightly packed buildings and black scratches on the canvasses. The work contained her pain, her mother's pain, and other things that couldn't be said.
Marianne wondered whether this kind of talent was passed on through the DNA. She would like to be able to pick up a paintbrush and capture the chaos in her brain, creating meaning that others could see and feel. She imagined people standing in front of her work, tears rolling down their faces as they instantly understood her in an effortless hit. Was this what Lily was aiming for, she wondered. It was the same thing Marianne felt when her fingers moved across the piano; a wordless desire that suddenly changed her individual and meaningless experiences into something bigger, universal, spiritual.
Marianne suddenly wanted to hug her mother, to return to those days when they would whisper in one another's ears as confidantes.
“Mom, have you and Russell talked about Grandpa yet?”
Lily looked pretty in her smock, concentrating on a single point of light on one of the canvasses. She took up painting shortly after Marianne was born, bringing her young child with her to art courses. The teachers always made the same jokes - “she's starting early” - while Marianne drew pictures or wrote out simple stories.
Lily was the child with a child. Marianne's grandparents lived close by and were always there to baby-sit, their house still the place she associated with the concept of home. It was a subtle association, tied up with the smell of coffee in the morning or home-made pancakes with applesauce and Canadian maple syrup. They were her grandmother's smells, no longer real except as memories.
In the corner was a faded painting of an abstract apron, white against blue, with no one in it. It reminded Marianne of her recurring nightmare, banging on the bathroom door trying to get her mother to open it. She could see the door moving, the vibrations making tangible impressions in the air, but her voice was soundless, the pain in her cramped hands radiating down her arms. She couldn't get the door open or work out the nature of her fear until the scene ended with the clean smell of Grandma Cotton's apron.
Lily's paintings conjured that dream - the mixture of fear and helplessness followed by comfort.
“Not really. We haven't decided anything yet,” her mother said.
“I feel like Grandpa is trying to communicate with me.”
“What? Oh, Marianne, you're still upset, I know. We all are, but it doesn't help to go loopy.”
“Sure, you're always sane and rational.”
“Don't start now. I have a show coming up and a load of work to finish here.”
“You told me you'd include me in the discussions.”
“When? When have you?”
“Look, this isn't easy for anyone. You're not the only one who's suffering. I miss him too, but …”
“But what? He doesn't want you to turn off his life support. He doesn't want you to kill him. I know it.”
“Oh, shit. Listen, this isn't a good time for me. We'll talk later.”
“Sure we will. When you and Russell have already made the decision. I'm not a child, Mom. Grandpa was like a father to me. I don't want to lose him.”
“It's too late, Mari. You've already lost him. I mean, he's already gone. It isn't something you or Russell or I have any control over. This is only an administrative decision.”
“That's a crock. Grandpa's life isn't an administrative decision!” She pushed an old chair over while Lily kept painting, concentrating on the canvas.
“Don't ignore me.”
“I'm sorry. Look, I don't mean to ignore you, but I've got to get this painting done. Can you please just give me some space?
We'll talk more later, okay? I promise. We won't do anything without talking to you first.”
“Yeah, sure. We'll talk another time.”
Marianne went outside, kicking sticks along the ground, swallowing her anger.
It was one block to the end of Mission Street and another to Pacific Boulevard where she walked up the steps to the gray wood boardwalk and down the ramp onto the sand.
Marianne lay on her back without a towel. It was still cold enough for the beach to be empty aside from the silhouettes of a few dedicated surfers out in the waves. She closed her eyes and imagined herself disappearing forever into the grains of sand beneath her until she was no more than an outline, blown away by a gentle breeze. Then she would be a memory too, like Grandma.
She lived with the fear of losing Lily for most of her life, but not Grandma, who looked immortal in her white apron, making another batch of cookies while her Grandfather wrote in his study. Lily's years of self-abuse meant nothing versus an aging body. Marianne could see Lily laughing in her studio, coming out of her stupor to pick up a brush, splashing more paint on another picture.
“Smelling of roses,” Russell would say, “while I continue to shovel the fertilizing shit.”
But Grandma, who took nothing worse than a cup of coffee and occasional piece of cake, had her insides eaten away by cancer. It wasn't the kind of dream death dissolved into the gentle ocean which Marianne imagined. It was hard work, Grandma running off to throw up after a session of chemotherapy, tired always; and towards the end, those sharp hospital smells and the endless visits where no one knew what to say. Eric put on a brave face, covering sorrow with work and ineffectual speeches about the impermanence of matter.
Marianne could hardly remember the actual day. What she did remember was that impending smell of death, the leaked urine which the antiseptic couldn't cover up and her grandmother's papery hand on hers while she stifled the urge to yell “don't go! I need you, Grandma.”
Sweat poured down her head as they lowered the coffin. She wore her favorite pink dress that Grandma gave her for her birthday. But it was no comfort, especially since everyone else wore black. Grandpa suddenly looked old, his philosophy no help to him.
Everything changed after that. There was no more coffee in the kitchen. No more waking to pancakes with applesauce and maple syrup. No stacks of Vogue and National Geographic magazines to cut pictures out of. Eric hired a cleaner and Marianne went home to her mother and Russell.
After Grandma's death Lily wouldn't even take an aspirin. She held onto her manic energy as long as she could.
“You want me to have a lobotomy like Frances Farmer? Keep me quiet? I could maybe paint portraits or still lifes of flowers and fruit?”
“At least that would be lucrative.”
“You think I don't want to sell my work?”
And now Marianne could do anything she wanted. Lily and Russell were too busy with their own lives to worry about her. Grandpa still paid for piano lessons, helped her with homework, sent her to summer camp, took her out on his boat, read to her and played chess, backgammon and Parcheesi with her. He helped with Lily's attacks too. When he was there it wasn't so awful when Lily was down. He'd roll his eyes after bringing Lily a plate of food that Marianne prepared and they'd giggle, cutting intricate snowflakes from paper to hang on the windows just before Christmas.
Without Grandpa's logic and firm hands, it felt like the edges of her world had slipped. Lily's depression went on for days, Russell was always out and Marianne sat alone in her bedroom, biting her nails so hard they bled. She could skip school and swim at night in the ocean or even drown in the waves, eaten by a white shark like a scene out of Jaws, and still her mother wouldn't leave the bed, shivering and asking in that quiet voice for more covers and apologizing again and again for how bad a mother she was and how it would be better if she were dead. Marianne held her mother's hand instead, saying nothing, wiping Lily's eyes, her nose, and letting her rant. It was just a matter of waiting out the blackness.
Then Lily would be up again, tidy her hair, dress with casual elegance, and laugh at everyone, even herself. Lily could pull herself together in a way that appeared effortless and Marianne wondered with a pang of guilt whether at least some of her mother's tears were put on. She looked terrific no matter how long she'd been lying in bed, no matter how much crying and pillow banging she'd done.
As for Russell, he was out, as always. That was the way with men, Marianne thought. They could leave any time they wanted; walk out and start over or slip away and disappear, shedding the past like a lizard's skin. Marianne hadn't disappeared though. She sat up, lifting her hands and feet out of the sand and brushed herself down while looking out at the ocean. Dark teal faded to a hazy gray at the horizon, the water blending imperceptibly into the sky.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Secrets and Sacrifices
by Diane M. Wylie
Late Fall 1861
Charlotte “Charlie” Garrett, crouching uncomfortably behind a boulder, swallowed the lump of fear in her throat, adjusted the position of her beloved army-issued Springfield, and waited. All snipers had been ordered to come before the main body of the regiment and pick off any Yankees they could. The moment of truth had arrived. Since disguising herself as a young man to join the Twenty-Fifth Virginia Infantry, following her husband Joshua into war, Charlotte had never shot a man. She was now a sharpshooter for the regiment, having been ordered into this maligned group of men due to her ability with the weapon she clutched tightly in her hands.
From where she was hidden she could see Clarence, the older man who had taken her under his wing, and a few of the other soldiers selected for this job. He was lying on the ground behind a huge log, and two of the younger snipers were up in the gnarled oak trees that overlooked the ground below. The others were invisible through the falling snow.
The weather had gotten progressively worse up in the mountains, and the soldiers had been growing more and more discontent. The Confederates held this part of the Allegheny Mountains and were to defend Staunton-Reidsburg Pike from Union forces who hoped to take the summit from them.
The idea that the officers were counting on her and the rest of the sharpshooters to draw the enemy out from behind their artillery made her stomach feel as though it were full of nervous butterflies.
Taking off her spectacles, she looked down at the valley while she polished the smudged glass ovals on her shirt. No Bluecoats were visible at the moment. Charlie's stomach twitched. Where are the damn Yankees? Smoke belched out of the slightly raised tree line, and a loud boom echoed across the ground.
All of the time spent drilling and marching had not prepared her for the mind-numbing terror beginning to claw its way up her spine. Today something was going to change…her life was going to change…history was going to change. Two armies were going to clash, and people were going to die just like they had already died in the time since Fort Sumter and Bull Run.
Oh, God! She was starting to tremble at the very idea that she was here doing this! She wished she had not joined the snipers. It came as a surprise when she found out most of the other foot soldiers didn't like them. Jeers of “sneak” and “murderer” were sometimes directed toward her group. The soldiers who fought out in plain sight didn't appreciate the skill of those who perched in trees or behind rocks to pick off their unsuspecting targets. Many considered the sharpshooters to be coddled or even cowardly when they were allowed to shoot behind cover while the others marched headlong into battle.
It would have been so much easier to stay with her husband. If she were beside him, with his comforting presence to draw strength from, she was sure her heart would not be pounding as hard as it was. Joshua seemed to have gotten over the rage she had seen him display on the practice field when he recognized her, despite the baggy uniform, dirty slouch hat, short hair, and glasses.
* * *
All during training camp in Virginia, Charlie had managed to avoid direct contact with Josh. They were in the same company and, with Josh's natural ability to cultivate new friends, she knew it would only be a matter of time before he made the rounds of the entire regiment and knew each one of them by name.
She had carefully studied the actions and habits of the men around her and had gotten very adept at burping, spitting, and scratching when the time seemed right. By acting like a man, dressing like a man, and keeping her hat pulled low, Charlie had managed to avoid detection. Even Clarence, who kept a close eye on his “adopted” son, had not picked up on her gender. Fortunately, he respected her need for privacy whenever she could get it.
Then one day it happened. Charlie lined up with the rest of the troops on the practice field as usual. Standing beside Clarence at attention, she waited for the officers to give orders. She remembered looking around and searching for Josh, as usual. Her husband was the whole reason she was here after all. She just couldn't bear to be so far away from him. All she needed to get through the day was to see his handsome face, but she had to make sure he didn't see her. He was somewhere in the ranks of soldiers that had gathered on the muddy field.
“At ease, men,” Captain Weaver had yelled. Then he'd moved closer to the rank and file. “Tomorrow we march to our destiny, gentlemen. We must rise above the oppression of the Federal government and, with your help, we will persevere against the Northern aggressors.”
A chorus of whoops and catcalls had erupted all around and swelled to a thunderous noise.
“Hear that, lad?" Clarence had clapped her on the back hard, almost knocking her over. "We're gonna whip them Yankees. We are gonna whip 'em and send them running with their tails 'tween their legs.” He had grinned at her from under his grizzled, scraggly beard.
“We sure are, Clarence, we sure are!”
Suddenly, the trumpet had blown, and they had all settled down and stiffened to attention again.
Captain Weaver had been trying to speak once more. “Everyone has done a bang-up job these past weeks. Some of you have never handled a rifle before, while others have obviously been hunting many times and know exactly how to handle a gun. One such young man has proven himself to be a very good shot. He will be part of the sharpshooters in our regiment. Charlie Garrett, please step forward!”
With no choice, Charlie had come forward then turned and, with a start of surprise, she had found herself locking eyes with Josh in the crowd. That was the heart-stopping moment when she knew her husband had seen her, really looked closely at her.
The thunderous cloud appearing on Josh's face the moment he realized the real identity of “Charlie” Garrett had been obvious to her, even yards away from him. She
had watched him reach for his powder charges and prepare to load his rifle. Terror had swept through her. He'd glared angrily at the soldiers all around him The other Augusta County boys had seen Josh's strange reaction, encircled him immediately, and Billy Kaufman, the largest man in the regiment, had taken Josh's gun away with one massive hand, then pinned Josh's arms to his sides. As soon as she had the opportunity, Charlie had escaped the practice field. She just hadn't been able to face him.
Joshua had not come anywhere near Charlie when the regiment marched into the Allegheny Mountains, which was fine with her. She had really needed the time to think.
Then, just this very morning, Josh had just walked up to the cook fire, introduced himself as her cousin, and they walked off to talk.
“You need to go tell Captain Weaver you're my wife and that you joined up without my permission or knowledge. I'll give you my wages, and you can buy passage home,” Josh had said as soon as they were out of the other soldiers' earshot.
Startled by his blunt command, she'd nearly tripped over an exposed root. He had not considered for a moment what she wanted or even why she was here. Fighting tears she had quickened the pace, leading him down a ravine to a spot where they might have a little privacy.
“Stop, Charlie.” Josh's hand had landed on her shoulder gently but firmly. “You heard what I said, but I will not be the one telling the Captain anything. You will.”
“Oh, no, I won't.” Facing him squarely, she had raised her chin and crossed her arms over her chest. Clenching her jaw, she'd given him her best stubborn glare. Only he hadn't blustered and blown as usual. He hadn't even huffed. Not once. The sad expression on his face had been thoroughly confusing to Charlie. It was so unlike her husband to react this way. His hand had come up toward her face, and she had flinched involuntarily. Josh's woeful expression had deepened. “Charlie, oh my darling, is this what you think of me now?” He'd dropped his hand. “Do you think I would raise my hand in anger to the woman I love? Though it seems plain you no longer love me.”
“What? Why do you say that, Josh? I joined this army because I love you. It is the only reason I am here.”
“If you love me, why are you sleeping with all of these men?”
“Josh! No one has touched me! They think I am a man, like they are!”
“If it weren't for big Billy, I would have shot them all! What about your parents? Where do they think you are?”
He had moved closer then. Slowly his big hand had come up and gently removed her hat and glasses. “There now, you look more like yourself.” His fingers played with the short, dark curls. “I miss your long hair.”
“It will grow back,” she had informed him tersely. “I told my family I was going to visit Aunt Betty in South Carolina. I told them I couldn't bear to stay at the farm without you…and it was true. I couldn't, Josh.” She had needed to pray for control and the right words. “You have to understand…I like it here…where I know you are close. I like the army. It's like camping out. I always enjoyed the hunting trips we went on with my brothers.”
He had frowned even more sternly, if that was possible. “You liked hunting? Why did you refuse to kill the doe on the last trip we made?”
Fiddling nervously with a button on her uniform, she had watched Josh lower his long-limbed body to a moss-covered log. “That was different--uhh!” Josh had yanked her down onto his lap. “--That was different. It was a beautiful animal with two young ones. They were so darling. I just couldn't kill their mother.”
Josh hadn't looked at her face. He had kept his eyes down in the vicinity of her chest. “Honey…those Yankees may not be beautiful, but chances are good that some of them will be daddies to young ones, too.” He'd raised his face then, so handsome and so familiar, and had looked at her somberly. “Are you prepared to shoot somebody's daddy, somebody's husband, or somebody's child?”
* * *
His words came back to her now as she looked down on the scene below and waited for a glimpse of blue. She put on her glasses and wiped her perspiring hands on her gray woolen pants. Was she prepared? Could she shoot somebody's husband?
“Clarence,” she called softly.
He didn't turn around. He too was busy scanning the ground below. The spyglass glinted in the sunlight. Would the Yankees see the reflection off the glass? Her
heart jumped into her throat, choking her and increasing the trembling of her hands. How could she shoot now?
The grizzled face swung around to face her. “Charlie? You okay, boy?”
She motioned with her hand and, after a quick look around, Clarence came in a crouching run to join her.
“Whatsa matter? You got a case of the jitters?” he asked amiably. Then he glanced down at her hands and up again at her face. “Yah sure are jumpy, Charlie. Yah gotsta calm down and keep your mind on one thing at a time. Jus' remember what I taught you. Tear open the cartridge, git the powder down the barrel, put the bullet in--don't forget that part,” he gave a short chuckle, “then ramrod it down, put the cap on the nib under the hammer, and ya'll is ready to go again.”
“Sure, I remember it all,” Charlie retorted indignantly. “I'm not stupid, you know, just scared.”
Clarence chuckled again. Reaching down at his side with steady hands, he offered his canteen. She looked at it, puzzled. “I have my own water, Clarence, I don't need to drink yours.”
“Mine is special. Have a drink, boy,” he insisted, thrusting it at her.
“Okay.” She took the canteen and tilted it up for a large mouthful. “Gak!” She choked and finally swallowed the stuff that burned all the way down. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she pulled out a blue bandana to wipe under her glasses.
Clarence laughed softly again. “Ain't you never had no strong drink befo'? A little shot of courage, that's all.
My grandma set a great store by her own shots of courage. Said they were the reason she lived so long…my grandma was ninety-seven when she passed on.”
A shot rang out. They threw themselves into position. The other snipers were taking shots at a group of Bluecoats picking their way through between the rocks and scattered trees. A cry echoed up the mountain, and Charlie saw one man fall, holding his hands up to his neck as a stream of red appeared, visible even from this distance.
Clarence sighted down the high-powered scope of his special-issue Whitworth rifle and easily picked off another soldier from a distance of almost four hundred yards. He turned away to reload with a precious .45 caliber bullet then took down another man before Charlie could squeeze the trigger of her ordinary rifle once. The Yankees were running back in the direction they had come. One man was lagging behind the rest, having a more difficult time maneuvering the natural landscape. He would be so easy to shoot. The snipers continued to fire all around her. She took a bead on the clumsy soldier.
“Shoot, Charlie! Every man you take could save the life of one of ours.”
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and pulled the trigger. Opening her eyes again, she saw the man fall to the ground. She'd killed a man! No…wait…the man sprang up and began running again. He had only tripped and fallen.
“Come on, boys!” Clarence called to the sharpshooters. “Stay sharp now. The real fighting is about to start. The snow is lettin' up!”
Sure enough, no sooner had the words left his mouth than the now-familiar Rebel yell sent goosebumps skittering along Charlie's arms. With an explosion of noise, the army in gray erupted from somewhere below them. Hoards of men came screaming out into the open--some falling over their own feet in their haste and others nimbly leaping over the obstacles in their path. The Confederate flag, like a beacon of light, drew them toward their enemy in a stream of humanity.
“Here they come!” Clarence shouted. “Pick off as many Yankees as you can before they reach our men!”
As if they were magically summoned, the tide of blue flowed out of the trees heading directly for a clash with their boys. Spurts of gunfire now accompanied the war cries of the Rebels and the screams of men being hit.
Charlie hurried to reload, tasting the powder as she ripped open the cartridge to put it down the barrel. No time to waste. Josh is down there! Don't think. Just aim and fire. She listened to the voice in her head directing her to pick out a Bluecoat through the pall of smoke, pull the trigger, reload, pick another one, fire, and load again. There was no time to watch them fall, no time to see how she had put a bloody hole in a living, breathing human being. A strange kind of trance fell over her, and her actions became mechanical, repetitious, and unthinking. Over and over she hit her mark.
But gradually, confusion began to mount, and her anxiety grew. It was getting harder and harder to sight her targets. She could no longer see the Bluecoats clearly! Pulling off her glasses, she flung them aside and continued to peer down the gun barrel. Nothing! A quick rub of her eyes…still nothing. What was the problem?
“Charlie! Charlie!” Clarence was tugging at her arm. “We have to go down! The smoke is too thick to see from here anymore!” Grabbing up her wire rims again, she followed the angular figure of her mentor as they made their way down to join the fighting below.
Sliding down the steep incline with rocks rolling under her brogans, Charlie strained to see what was happening. The noise was horrendous. The high-pitched whine of bullets, the lower booming of the cannon fire, and the screams of injured and dying men filled her ears, blocking out sensible thought. Everywhere, soldiers were running, stumbling, and crawling in the opposite direction.
A bugle's faltering tones rang out, sounding the retreat. “Back! Go back!” An officer on horseback gestured to their group. “Retreat! No use, boys. There are too many of them!” The captain had lost his hat, and blood ran from a rent in his sleeve. The distinctive whine of a cannon ball grew louder, and Charlie dove for the ground. It hit behind the horseman. He was gone in a shower of dirt and debris that exploded up then came down on her head.
Quickly scrambling to her feet again, fear gripped her with a horrible force, and she forgot to follow Clarence. She had to find Josh! Where was he? Charlie began to run.
“Charlie, come back! We have to retreat!”
Clarence was calling after her but she paid him no mind. The smoke lay in a thick blanket over the valley. Soldiers appeared out of the fog, stumbling and
staggering past her. Searching and searching, she ran, tripping and jumping over obstacles. Some of them appeared to be human. Bile rose in her throat as she peered with dread at each torn and bloody man who lay on the battleground or crawled past. Some plucked at her sleeve and pleaded for help, while others were beyond helping. There was no time to spare for any man, no matter their rank or need.
“Joshua Garrett! Have you seen Josh Garrett?” she pleaded with the soldiers who ran, hobbled, and crawled past her. But they ignored her frantic words in their quest for safety. Bullets whined past Charlie's head and plucked at her clothing as she made her way deeper onto the smoky battlefield, but she cared little.
Vintage Romance Publishing
0-9785368-5-1-Secrets and Sacrifices
Links to purchase:
Barnes and Noblea
Title: The Blue Lotus
Author Name: Marisa Chenery
Wiping the sweat-dampened hair from her eyes Kendra Miller cursed the rush hour traffic on busy Beale Street. Being stuck in traffic, in a car with no air conditioning during a hot Memphis summer day, was far from being pleasurable. Having just left the art gallery on Beale where she worked as a receptionist, Kendra now headed for home after a long day.
Finally breaking free of the heavy traffic, she felt some of the tension leave her body. Though she did this drive day after day, she still hated having to drive at a snail's pace in the busy downtown.
Pulling into the drive of her modest two-story house, Kendra parked her car then made her way to the front door. Before she unlocked the door she flipped open the lid of her mailbox. Grabbing the collection of envelopes, with a mix of junk mail, she let herself into the house.
With a shove on the door, Kendra closed it behind her, kicked off her high-heeled shoes and began going through her mail. There were the usual bills, but one heavier envelope stood out from among the rest. Throwing the others on the small side table in the entrance hallway, Kendra wondered who had sent her this one. Spying the return address, a smile spread across her lips. What could her brother be sending her this time?
Markus was two years her senior, twenty-six to her twenty-four, and was the world traveler of the family. Somehow, he managed to make a career out of it. At each of his destinations, he would search out items of interest and buy them. When he returned home to Memphis, he would sell them to shops that dealt in such things. Sometimes Markus would send her a present if he were going to be away for an extended period, which was the case this time. He was away on his annual trip to Egypt.
Deciding to change into more comfortable clothes before she opened what Markus had sent her, Kendra went up to her bedroom. She shared this house with her brother when he was home between trips. Since she would be the one primarily staying in the house, she had claimed the master bedroom as her own.
Once free of her restricting dress clothes, Kendra slipped into a more comfortable tank top and shorts. Moving to the bathroom attached to her bedroom, she released her long, light brown hair from the tight bun she had confined it to. Pulling out the pins one by one, she let her hair fall to its full length, reaching the middle of her back.
Catching a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror, Kendra stuck out her tongue. She was not the type of woman to stare at herself for any great length in a mirror. She knew her looks were far from spectacular. The best way she could describe herself was average. Her most distinctive feature was her eyes. They were a startling light green in colour. At the sound of the phone ringing in the background, she quickly gathered her hair up and into a ponytail.
Going to the cordless phone sitting on the nightstand beside her bed, Kendra picked up the handset. “Hello?”
“About time you got home,” said the woman on the other end of the line.
Kendra smiled at the sound of her best friend's voice. “What do you mean, Tory? You know this is the time I come home from work.”
“Never mind. Now get dressed for a night on the town. I am taking you out.”
“Not tonight. All I want to do is sip on some wine and watch a bit of television.”
Tory groaned. “It's a Friday night. I refuse to let you sit at home alone feeling sorry for yourself.”
“I will not be doing anything of the sort like that. I just do not feel like going out, is all.”
“He is not worth it, Kendra. It has been a month. Time to move on.”
Kendra knew Tory meant well, but moving on for her was easier said than done. Being dumped by her fiancé two days before they were to get married had wounded her deeply.
“It has nothing to do with Greg, Tory. Just let it be.”
“All right, all right. You win. I won't push you anymore. I worry about you is all. That jerk needs a butt kicking for what he did to you.”
“And you are just the woman to do it, Tory.”
Her friend laughingly replied, “Damn right I am.” She let her laughter end and Tory then grew serious. “Promise me you won't let him win. Don't close yourself away because of what he did to you.”
“I promise. Now go and have your fun and I will call you later.” Having said that, Kendra bade Tory good-bye and then hung up the phone.
Reclaiming the thick envelope from the bed, Kendra returned to the lower level. Her stomach rumbled, giving her a good reminder that food should be the first order of business. The mysterious gift would have to wait the few minutes it took her to heat up a frozen dinner in the microwave.
Listlessly picking at her food, she shook her head. How low she had sunk. She used to be a good cook. One who enjoyed cooking a good meal, even if she was the only one who would be eating the food, but that was no longer the case. She only cooked when her brother was home now.
Gathering up the remnants of her dinner, Kendra poured herself a glass of white wine and with the envelope in hand, went to the living room. She switched on the television, then ripped open the padded envelope. Tipping it, she let the contents spill out into her hand.
At first glance, it didn't look like much, but once she spread it out Kendra could see why Markus had chosen this piece. She just didn't understand why he had decided to give it to her rather than sell it to one of his buyers. Hooking her finger through the chain, she let the pendant hang from its length. Though a bit on the grimy side, the necklace and pendant had the potential to be a beautiful piece of jewelry after a little cleaning.
Peering closely at the palm-sized pendant, she could vaguely make out Egyptian hieroglyphs etched across the whole surface of it. Some kind of black gunk seemed to have adhered itself to the finish of both the necklace and the pendant. With not much else planned for the evening, Kendra decided there was no time like the present to give the whole thing a polish.
Heading up the stairs once more, Kendra returned to her room where she kept her jewelry cleaner. Knowing this piece was more than likely an antiquity, she would have to be careful not to damage it.
Surprisingly, the black stuff came off more easily than she had thought. And what was revealed beneath the grime took her breath away. This was not some cheap piece of costume jewelry. What was slowly being revealed was pure gold. Not the gold plated junk either, but the real thing.
The thick rope styled chain would in itself be worth a fortune, but the pendant was that and much more. Kendra lightly traced the hieroglyphs with her finger. Any Egyptologist would die to get their hands on it, to decipher the glyphs and learn what they had to say, which sparked an idea inside her head. She could try to decipher them herself. Libraries were a wealth of information and there was always the Internet.
The more Kendra thought about it, the better the idea seemed. For the first time since the Greg incident she felt some of the lethargy, which had claimed her, dissipate. Tomorrow she would make a start. It would give her a reason to get up in the morning.
* * * *
Waking from a refreshed sleep, Kendra felt more like herself. She had a purpose now. After eating a quick breakfast of toast, she decided to try the library first, and the Memphis-Shelby County Public Library and Information Centre on Poplar Avenue was where she needed to go.
The library was just about deserted on this Saturday morning, so she had the pick of the tables. Pulling out a pad of paper and a pen from her bag, Kendra set them on a table. One of the library's computers was conveniently located on the counter directly across from her. Pulling the library catalogue up on the screen, Kendra did a search for books on Egyptian hieroglyphs. Making a mental note of where the books were to be found, she quickly grabbed three likely prospects and returned to her table.
She had thought it would be a no great feat to decipher the hieroglyphs, but she had been mistaken. There was a standard alphabet that translated each picture, giving it a corresponding letter, but some could be used as a phrase not just as a single letter.
After an hour of going through the books, Kendra decided to sign them out and work at home with them. She had not brought the pendant with her and she needed to compare the hieroglyphs directly if she was going to work out what they meant.
It was close to noon by the time she arrived home. Much to her surprise, she had a visitor waiting for her return. Stepping out of her car, Kendra went to greet the woman standing by her front door.
“What are you doing here, Tory? I thought after a night on the town you would still be sleeping.”
Tory Connor rolled her eyes at Kendra's comment. “It was hardly a night out on the town once you bailed on me. Thanks to you I had to stay in.”
“Well come inside and we can have some lunch.” Opening the door, Kendra motioned for Tory to go ahead of her.
Meeting Tory had been one of the best things to ever happen to her. At the time, Kendra had been a very introverted teen starting mid-year at the high school. After losing both their parents in a car crash, both Markus and she had gone to live with their maternal grandparents. Kendra had been sixteen. Losing her parents, and then facing a new school, had taken its toll on her. But there had been one bright light in her darkest time, and it went by the name of Tory Connor. A girl who refused to let Kendra lose herself to her grief. And for that, Kendra would love Tory always.
Following her friend inside, Kendra sighed with envy. Tory had a killer body that attracted men by the droves. Curves in all the right places, long golden hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a face a super model would die to have, summed Tory up. Unlike herself, Kendra had more of an athletic build and not much in the curve department. The only thing she had the same as Tory, was height. They both stood equally at five feet eight inches.
Today Tory had decided to go with a cutesy look that not many women their age could pull off. But Tory could and did. Wearing a soft pale pink baby-t and matching coloured short shorts, she could lure any man within fifty feet of her to her side with a glance. If Kendra donned that same outfit, she would look just plain ridiculous.
Noticing the stack of books Kendra was carrying, Tory asked, “What are those for?”
Plunking the said books down onto the coffee table, Kendra moved to the kitchen and opened the fridge. She began to pull out the makings for a salad. “Markus sent me a little something from Egypt.” She could hear Tory shuffling through the stack of books.
“You know, instead of getting these you should have called me. I know something a whole lot better than these books for translating hieroglyphs. This could take you all day using these.”
“And what is better than the books I got from the library?”
Giving Kendra a knowing look, Tory smiled. “It just so happens I know someone who works at the museum. He specializes in ancient Egypt. I could give him a call and see if he would be willing to help you out.”
Kendra hesitated in answering. She really didn't want an expert to see the pendant. She wanted to keep it for herself. “I don't know if that is such a great idea. Thanks anyway.”
“Okay, out with it. This something your brother sent you must be really special.” Tory had left the living room and now started to help Kendra make their lunch.
“You are right. It is something special. If Markus actually knew what he sent me, he would have thought twice before putting it in the mail.”
“Now you have me intrigued. Let me see it already, why don't you.”
Kendra laughed and then went to her room to get the pendant. When she returned, Tory had finished making their salads. With a flourish, she spread the pendant and necklace out on the kitchen table.
Tory let out a low whistle of appreciation. Picking up the pendant, she examined it closely. “Old Markus must be losing it. This must be worth a fortune.”
“Well it didn't look like this when it arrived. It was covered in some kind of black stuff. I had no idea what it was. When I cleaned it, this is what I found beneath the dirt.”
“I can see why you are leery about someone at a museum getting a hold of this.” Turning the pendant over, Tory admired the blue enameled lotus flower on the back. “This is magnificent.”
“The flower is beautiful, but what the hieroglyphs have to say draws me more.”
Returning the pendant to the table, Tory picked up her fork. “I still think Scott can help you. He knows just about all there is to know about ancient Egypt.” When Kendra opened her mouth to refuse again, Tory interrupted her. “I know, I know you don't want him to see it. But I think we can get around that. After we finish eating, I will call him and get him to translate this over the phone. I will tell him it is something I found in a magazine.”
“Won't he wonder at your sudden interest in hieroglyphs?”
Tory shook her head and chuckled. “No. He will think I am using it as an excuse to call him. I will have to go out with him on a date in return.”
Kendra raised one of her brows and gave Tory a questioning look. “Knowing you, he is already wrapped around your little finger. And he must be tall, dark, and handsome. Just how you like your men.”
“You got that right.” Tory laughed. “Scott is delicious. It will be no hardship for me to spend some time with him. So once we are done eating I will give him a call.”
True to her word, Tory called Scott a short while later. He was more than happy to translate the hieroglyphs for her. In no time at all he had completed the task and was dictating to Tory what the hieroglyphs meant. After writing it all down, she set up a dinner date with him for that evening.
Tory handed Kendra the piece of paper. “Scott said the first part is from the Book of the Dead. A spell for resurrection, the Lotus Spell. The rest, he had no idea what it was for.”
“It would have taken me days to figure this out on my own.”
“Think nothing of it. Now I had better go home and start getting ready for my hot date tonight.”
Shaking her head, Kendra walked Tory to the door. Scott was going to be well reimbursed for his time. With one last wave as her friend backed out of her drive, she shut the door. All she had to look forward to was a long boring evening plunked down on her couch watching television.
My Website: http://www.marisachenery.com
To Buy: http://www.liquidsilverbooks.com/books/thebluelotus.htm
Sunday, October 21, 2007
LADIES OF CLASS
Laura Clayton’s last day on earth was as ordinary as any other, right up to the few moments before she came to her messy end.
The only unusual thing about it was that she awoke to brilliant sunshine dancing on the bedroom window. March had been a spiteful month, not only coming like a lion but roaring its way through with no let up in the constant rain and lashing gales. It seemed to have no intention of going out like a lamb, but on this Saturday, the 31st, it finally relented.
"I don’t believe it!" Laura said aloud, scrambling into a housecoat and hurrying to look out at the phenomenon. But it was true and everything in the garden, which yesterday had looked dreary and sullen, was nodding and smiling and perking up in the unaccustomed brightness and warmth.
Laura was a happy person and being a countrywoman at heart was never too affected by changes in the weather, but she loved her garden. As always, her eyes after the first quick look around, came to rest on the flowering cherry tree, thinking how much the buds would be enjoying the sun and picturing in imagination its glory when in full bloom. When her husband died five years previously, all Laura’s friends expected she would sell the house with its large garden and move into something smaller. She fobbed them off with vague promises to consider it.
To her son Alec she said, "they’d think I was mad if I told them I couldn’t bear to leave my lovely cherry tree, but that is the truth. I think it’d miss me if I went away." Alec wasn’t too sure if he understood his mother either, but his young wife said it made sense to her so being outnumbered by his women folk he wisely held his tongue.
Laura, bathed and dressed, went to the kitchen, picking two letters off the mat as she went. Looking at the handwriting with pleasure, she left them unopened until she was sitting down to her coffee, toast and marmalade.
One letter from Alec was short but the other, although reasonably brief, caused her to exclaim with surprise and needed another reading to grasp it. She was just coming to the end of it for the second time when the sound of the side gate closing dragged her thoughts away. A glance at the kitchen clock showed her it was later than she’d thought and here was Milly to prove it.
Milly Patcham, born a cockney and still with the dialect to prove it, opened the kitchen door and bustled in talking as usual. She always began the conversation half way down the path and Laura never knew what the beginning of the sentence was - in fact, sometimes it took her quite a while to guess what the topic of conversation might be. Thirty years of Milly’s ministrations had given both women a respect and affection for the other and allowing for a difference in upbringing they could honestly look on each other as friends.
"-said to ‘im ‘e ought to look after ‘er better. No business to be luggin’ them ‘eavy bags about and so I told ‘er too."
"Whom are we talking about this time?", Laura asked in a resigned tone.
"Bert the milkman, acourse. Yer know ‘is wife’s due any day. Two misses she’s ‘ad already and she didn’t ought to be takin’ any chances. Saw ‘er in the supermarket yesterday. You’ve been lucky this time, I said, don’t push yer luck. If yer doesn’t watch out, you’ll be ‘avin one o’ those mongrels!"
"Mongols, not mongrels," Laura corrected her patiently. "What a cheerful thing to say to the poor girl. Anyway, I saw her myself a day or two back and she looks perfectly well to me."
"That’s as may be, madam dear. But you read some funny things in the papers. Never ‘eard about all this when I was young - must be all to do with this population explosion I shouldn’t wonder."
Laura smothered a laugh and stored this new ‘Millyism’ in her memory to tell Alec.
"Sit down and have a cup of coffee before you start work and forget all the gloom and misery. I’ve had a piece of good news in the post this morning - well, two in fact - but the most important is that Alec’s coming tomorrow."
"Oh that’ll be nice, madam dear. Is ‘e bringing the wife and baby? ‘Ow long are they staying?"
"Only Alec and just a flying visit. He’s going abroad on Monday for the firm, starting early, so thought he’d break his journey here and stay the night."
"Bet you’re pleased about that. It’ll be like old times to ‘ave Alec all to yourself, won’t it?"
"Milly! You’ll make me feel guilty saying things like that," Laura protested. "I love my daughter-in-law dearly as you well know. But yes, I’ve got to admit it’ll be lovely to have him on his own. Anyway, I’ve got a little problem I want to discuss."
Milly’s eyes lit up with avid curiosity and Laura could have kicked herself. Milly was a treasure beyond price and as loyal as they came but she was an inveterate gossip. If anyone had accused her of being a mischief-maker she would have been scandalized but there was no doubt about it - her unruly tongue had caused more than one bit of bother in the town. Everyone knew Milly and Milly knew everyone.
Wisely, Laura made no comment but said briskly, "come on, drink up. We’ve got work to do - blankets and sheets to get out for Alec’s bed. I’d like his room ready before I go out. I’ve a full day ahead and dinner with the vicar tonight so there won’t be much time."
That got Milly moving and for the next couple of hours the two women worked companionably together until Laura glanced at her watch.
"I’ll have to be off. Hairdressing appointment. Will you finish up by yourself?"
"Acourse madam dear. Now, does yer want me to leave anything for yer lunch?"
"No thanks. I’ll probably get a bite at that new café in the High Street. Then I’ll finish the shopping - get a bottle of Scotch for Alec, too. Pity I don’t like it or there would have been some in the house."
Hurriedly she changed her skirt and top, threw on a raincoat and went down into the white-painted hall.
"'Ang on a tick! It’s turned cloudy. Yer needs an ‘ead scarf, ‘specially if you’re going to the ‘airdressers. I put one in the ‘all drawer the other day."
She rummaged about while Laura waited impatiently. In her haste she pulled the whole drawer out, scattering the contents on the carpet - amongst them a small dog collar.
"Oh blast!" She said, quickly trying to shuffle it out of sight but Laura had seen and the tears came into her eyes. She picked the little collar up, stroked it affectionately, sighed and put it back in the drawer.
"It’s no good. I’ll have to get another dog. When old Sammy died I swore never again but I do miss him about the place."
"Now madam dear! You know you said you wouldn’t and when young Alec was ‘ere ‘e told me not to encourage you if you started talkin’ about one. You nearly break yer ‘eart and make yerself ill when they die. Don’t do it."
Laura snuffled and blew her nose. Looking at Milly’s anxious face, she gave a watery smile. "I’m an old fool, aren’t I? But as a matter of fact, I’ve already broken the news to Alec that I’m thinking of having another. So far he’s made no comment but I expect I’ll get round him. Goodness! Look at the time. I must fly. I’ll see you on Monday."
Milly wasn’t to know it was the last time she’d ever see the woman whom she’d learned to love and respect.
Later on, when it became vitally important to work out Laura’s subsequent movements it was the easiest job imaginable. Practically every minute could be accounted for - she was so well known. More to the point, there was barely a minute when she was alone. Even taking a neighbour in while she was dressing for her dinner with the vicar, in order to complete plans for the next W.I. sale of work.
Laura lived in the oldest and nicest part of the town; the heart of what had been a village when she came to it as a bride more than forty years ago. But the tentacles of progress had stretched out greedily, snapping up farms, meadows and woods; spawning streets of Council houses, a factory estate and a shopping complex; swamping the charm and character Burshill once possessed. Her house was in one of four roads surrounding the original village green - now a more formalized park, with a covered-in swimming pool, children’s playground and made-up paths. But most of the trees had been left and cricket was still played in summer. The neighbouring houses had maintained their standards and although Laura was saddened by all the changes she still loved her house - and her cherry tree.
The Vicarage, to which she was headed for her dinner engagement, was diagonally opposite on the further side of the green, standing beside the parish church, half empty these days. The Reverend George Amberley and his wife, Julia, were old friends and the five minute walk across the grass was a two-way passage in constant use from both houses. This evening, mindful of her long skirt and high-heeled shoes, Laura kept to the paths; her W.I. companion walking with her as far as the Vicarage gates, where she said goodbye.
Julia Amberley opened the door before she knocked and greeted her affectionately. George’s melancholy face peered out from a door to the right of the hall.
"Hullo!" Laura said cheerfully at the sight of his woebegone visaged. "And what’s the matter with you this time?"
Julia laughed. "How well you know my dear old hypochondriac. But he really had got something to worry about tonight - a bit of bronchitis rattling around and he’s afraid it’ll keep him out of the pulpit tomorrow. As if it would! I’d be expected to produce a death certificate if George didn’t turn up on the dot."
George gave the two smiling women a reproachful look. "It’s nothing to joke about, my dear. I ought to be in bed resting for my big day. You know the Bishop’s coming for the evening service. I don’t want to be croaking away in his presence."
"Good thing Laura knows you, otherwise she’d be feeling most unwelcome. If you want to go to bed, go. We shan’t miss you."
With a martyred air George refused. "I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing when we have a guest in the house."
"Come now," Laura rallied him. "I’m one of your oldest friends and I shan’t mind in the least. You know how beastly your attacks of bronchitis can get. I’d hate to have it on my conscience if your voice deserted you for the all-important service tomorrow. Please go to bed, to oblige me."
George was finally persuaded and took himself off upstairs. By doing so he helped to forge the last link in poor Laura’s destiny. For this he’d never forgive himself.
After the two women had eaten and Julia nipped up to peep at the invalid - "Sleeping like a baby," she reported - they settled down by the fire, heavy curtains drawn against the chill March night, for a comfortable gossip.
"I hope we’ll see you in church tomorrow evening. Help to swell the congregation a bit and impress the Bishop."
Laura was apologetic. "I’m afraid not. Alec’s coming on a flying visit." She explained the circumstances, adding, "So you see I’d like to spend the evening with him. We’ll have a lot to talk about." She said nothing about the special topic she wanted his advice on. This led to a cosy chat about their respective families and time passed quickly. At ten o’clock Laura said she’d be on her way knowing her friend would want to attend to George’s needs for the night. When Julia opened the door to let her out, she uttered an exclamation. "Good grief! Look at that!"
To their equal surprise, a dense fog surrounded them, thick and impenetrable as a London pea-souper. Totally unexpected.
"Must have been all that glorious sun we’ve had today," Laura commented. The lunchtime cloud had soon gone away.
"You can’t go home in this. It’s horrible. Oh, why on earth did George have to get his rotten bronchitis tonight. He’d have escorted you back."
"Stop clucking. It’s only a five-minute walk away, for goodness sake. I’m a big girl now and not likely to get lost."
Julia wasn’t happy about it but Laura insisted; she went off with a cheery "Goodnight," and was immediately swallowed up in the fog. She kept to the paths which were as familiar to her as her own garden, but she found the silence more eerie than she would have imagined. Even distant traffic noises were hushed and she felt completely isolated in a strange world. She pushed doggedly on and without any trouble found herself turning onto the path, lined with tall trees, which would lead her out almost opposite her own house.
Suddenly, surprisingly, a figure stepped out from behind one of the great horse-chestnuts and stood in front of her. Laura wasn’t of a nervous disposition but she was startled. Then, coming face to face with the apparition, she recognized it.
"Oh, it’s you!" said Laura.
Available from Vintage Romance Publishing, LLC