A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story

A Stranger’s Hands – Part Two

Read Part One here.people-2557423_1280

A Stranger’s Hands

By Carrie Sue Barnes

Part Two – Breathing Again

“Today is my anniversary too,” Cora shoved the words out before Gil could move away.

Gil sat down, as if he knew this was not a minor remark on a coincidence of the date. He waited.

Cora met his eyes and waited too. She waited to sort out the jumble of words tying her tongue and filling her mouth. She examined him, distracting herself momentarily.

His eyes were the color of dark chocolate. His hair was only a shade lighter. Seated this way, with the table in between, it was slightly less obvious that Gil stood a full eight inches taller than Cora’s five-foot-six-inch height.

Before she’d untied her tongue, she saw him glance at her bare left hand and his brows drop into a low V.

“I didn’t think you were…”

“Married?” Cora finished for him.

She lifted her left hand off the table, turning it palm up, then back again. She then slid from her right hand’s ring finger the slim, diamond encrusted band she’d worn there for exactly two years. Her wedding band. The gems glinted in the sunlight when Cora set the ring on the table.

“I’m a widow.” Over two years, and her voice still trembled when she said it. “Today would have been our eighth anniversary.”

“What was his name?”

Cora smiled. Gil hadn’t said, “I’m sorry,” or “oh, how awful,” like every person before him. Questions about her husband, especially questions other than about his death, didn’t typically come up until much later in the conversation, if at all.

“Theo. His name was Theo.”

“Did he like coffee as much as you do?”

With a laugh, Cora shook her head, “He drank one cup every morning but no more than that. He was always trying to convince me to drink more water and less coffee.”

“How did the two of you meet?”

“My uncle’s retirement party. Theo worked at the same company as my uncle.”

“What line of work?”

“He was an engineer. He designed motors on robotic medical equipment.”

“Can I ask one more question?”

The conversation felt like an instructional in breathing freely. Cora needed it to continue until her lungs were full.

“You can even ask two.”

Gil raised an eyebrow. “Two. Well, I’ll need to choose another good one.”

She took a sip of her drink. Glanced out the window at a passing dogwalker. Returned her eyes to Gil’s pensive gaze.

“What were your favorite things to do together?”

“We both loved movies. Our dates usually included a movie. We volunteered at our church for service projects whenever we could. He loved fishing. I loved the peace and quiet of sitting at the lake with a book, so I usually went with him.”

Cora felt a calm smile stretch across her face. Simple, ordinary memories came in slideshow flashes.

“We had a tradition for Saturday mornings. It started almost immediately after we were married. We both worked hard through the week. Sometimes one or both of us worked into the evening. Saturdays became sacred for us, especially Saturday mornings.

“Neither of us slept late. We were too programmed to be up early during the week. I’m sure you know what I mean.”

Gil nodded.

“We had a routine for Saturday mornings. One of us picked a movie to watch. The other was in charge of cooking breakfast. We’d alternate each week. Well, we were supposed to alternate. Theo often volunteered to cook so I could stay in bed longer. He could always tell when I was especially worn out or stressed after the work week.

“Anyway, it was the same each Saturday. Eggs, over-hard for me and scrambled for him, English muffins, whatever fruit we had on hand, and coffee. We’d stay in our pajamas all morning, sitting on the old love seat in our bedroom, eating our breakfast and watching favorite movies we’d seen a hundred times before. It was perfect.”

And there it was. The first time Cora had spoken of Theo without tears, or discomfort, or the words being entirely focused on the end of his life. Something had unlocked inside of her that she hadn’t realized was locked. She fell into a stunned silence.

She could feel Gil’s eyes on her. Even without looking back at him, Cora recognized the same sensation she’d felt earlier. She liked his eyes on her and his attentiveness to her, the same way she liked the idea of the stranger’s hands at the gym.

But do I like that I like this? Cora’s pink lips settled into a frown. It seemed a silly, adolescent point of analysis, and at the same time, it seemed the most pivotal point.

“Ok, last question,” Gil said, his fingertips drumming the tabletop.

“Last question.”

His brow furrowed and his features took on the solemn expression of a quiz show host setting up the final round.

“Ready?”

Cora fought back laughter, trying to match his demeanor. “I’m ready.”

“When’s the last time you went out and enjoyed yourself?”

The words came easily.

“Two years and thirty-three days ago.”

“Do tell.”

“Theo and I attended an ethnic food festival downtown. We walked and sat and ate for the entire afternoon. The weather was flawless. The food was delicious. The musicians set up throughout the festival were superb. We’d made no plans ahead of time to go to the festival. That morning, Theo spotted a flyer for it on the community bulletin board at the grocery store. He came home and asked if I would be his date for the day. It was something we did frequently while we were dating, spontaneously picking a nearby festival or fair or outdoor concert to attend. It’d been a while though. A long while. And it was a perfect day together.”

“It does sound perfect,” Gil said.

Cora smiled at him. A grateful smile, filled as she was with gladness at having recollected that day.

“Two years and thirty-three days,” Gil repeated.

“Yes.”

“That’s a long time.”

“Maybe.”

“How long was it before…,” Gil’s voice trailed off but he held her gaze.

“Theo died one week later.”

Still he didn’t ask about the how of Theo’s death. She wanted to tell him though. Her eyes dropped to her hands folded on the table.

“He was driving home from work. We used to carpool, but a few weeks earlier I’d launched my independent consultant business and began working from home. The driver in front of Theo crossed the center line and almost struck an oncoming vehicle. Instead of only correcting his direction, that driver panicked and slammed on his brakes. Theo had no time to slow down, nor did the drivers behind him. It was a domino effect and Theo’s car was pinned, crushed really, between the first vehicle and the one behind him. The firemen and paramedics were able to extract him and get him to the ambulance but he died on the way to the hospital. Blunt force trauma and internal hemorrhaging. That was the official cause of death.”

Cora had spoken quickly. Her chest rose and fell with the need for air. A multiple-vehicle accident, that was her usual answer when someone asked how her husband died. But Gil hadn’t asked. Cora had told him because she wanted to tell him. She wanted him to know what she’d been through, not for the sake of pity but for the sake of being known. The shock, the pain, the snail’s-pace recovery. They shaped who she’d become in the last couple years.

As she caught her breath now, she chanced a look at Gil.

“I wish you never experienced that, Cora.”

The compassionate words came quietly and brought tears to Cora’s eyes for the first time in the conversation.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Gil cleared his throat. “It’s understandable, perhaps, that the festival over two years ago was the last time you went out.”

His return to the original question scattered the tension hanging in the air between them.

“No,” Cora said with half a smile, “you asked how long it’d been since I went out and enjoyed myself. I’ve been out several times in the last two years. My sister has made sure of that when she comes to visit me every few months. It’s the enjoying myself part that continues to elude me.”

“Ah, I see.” Gil tapped his chin, contemplating her remark. “That is helpful information.”

“How so?”

He hadn’t yet suggested that they go somewhere together. Would he? The entire exchange had already been so unexpected that she didn’t dare assume to know where it might lead. Cora scrambled to know her own mind. If he did make such a suggestion, did she want to say yes? She tried to imagine doing so but was stopped short by Gil’s reply.

“It’s helpful because now I know what we should do tonight. Meet me back here at 6:30 this evening. Dress, um, smart casual?” He cocked his head in an increasingly familiar way. “Is that a thing?”

“Sure,” Cora nodded to put him at ease.

“Yes? 6:30?”

She replied immediately, with the first answer that came forth before she could think too hard on it, “Yes.”

A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story, Writing

A Stranger’s Hands – Part One

A Stranger’s Hands

people-2557423_1280

By Carrie Sue Barnes

Part One – Unknown

She could not look away from the man’s hands. Wide palms. Long, sturdy fingers. Strong. They looked capable of holding her, all of her; something she hadn’t thought of a man in years.

Two years and twenty-six days. Cora didn’t keep track every day. That stopped shortly after a year. Every few months though, she added it back up.

Two years and twenty-six days and suddenly (anything new since Theo’s death felt sudden), she was staring at a stranger’s hands, thinking of how they would feel holding hers across a restaurant table, or on the small of her back, guiding her through a busy airport. Ordinary tasks of her husband’s hands.

This was not her husband. This was not Theo, but a stranger. At the gym, no less. What was wrong with her?

Less than yesterday.

That’s what her sister Tessa would say. Tessa thought Cora should move on, that it was time. Cora thought Tessa didn’t know what she was talking about.

She made up her mind to switch to a different treadmill in a different row, away from the stranger and his capable hands. Tessa’s next question would be, was he attractive? Cora realized she couldn’t have answered. She’d noticed nothing except his hands.

It’s a start, Cora heard her sister say in her mind.

“It’s an ending,” she whispered as she began to run.

Cora pushed herself hard. She ran until her calves burned and sweat coated her neck. She ran until her head cleared. Afterward, she showered in the locker room even though her townhouse was only a half mile away. If something could be done elsewhere, instead of at home, that was what she preferred.

From the gym, she walked to Second Street Coffee. She set up her laptop and files in her usual spot: a booth beside the large front window, three tables away from the door. It had the finest morning light.

“Happy Anniversary.”

Cora’s breath caught in her throat. Her hands went cold.

“I thought it was safe to assume your order today.” Gil, the café’s owner stood beside the table, a mug and two bowls balanced in his hands. “Black coffee, apple cinnamon oatmeal, and fresh fruit.”

She watched him place the dishes on the table, but still could not speak.

Gil’s warm smile became a frown. He cocked his head, looking down at her from his considerable height.

“Are you well, Cora?”

“How? How did you know?” she asked in a barely audible voice.

“Know what?”

“That it’s my anniversary?”

Gil only looked more perplexed. “It’s two years since we opened. You were our first customer.”

“Oh!” Her cheeks went hot. She tucked her hair behind her ears, giving herself a self-collecting moment. “Two years, wow. Happy Anniversary.”

She smiled finally and Gil’s brown eyes brightened. Two years. For two years, she’d sat at this table every weekday.

Gil sat down across from her, something he’d never done before. “It’s alright. I didn’t expect you to remember that fact. I’m sure that day was a bigger deal to me than to you.”

“I doubt it,” Cora mumbled.

“What do you mean?”

“Um, nothing, nothing at all.” She unzipped her bag to retrieve her wallet. “Thank you for bringing over my breakfast. That was thoughtful of you.”

When she held out the cash, he shook his head. “Today’s breakfast is on the house. No argument. You were our first customer.”

“Thank you, Gil. I appreciate it.”

The bell over the door dinged as another customer entered and Gil left her table. Cora sat wondering over the same question that filled her mind at the gym. What was wrong with her?

One and a half coffees later, Cora visited the restroom. She stared into the mirror over the sink. Her dark blonde hair had dried into the natural waves she used to straighten with a flat iron every morning. She wore no makeup – no blush, no mascara, no lipstick – another unpredicted change. Her body, always slim, was now toned with tight muscles from the almost daily visits to the gym. She wore bootcut jeans, a long sleeved black t-shirt, and gray canvas sneakers. A Saturday outfit, as she used to call it, instead of her former workday uniform of a pencil skirt and blouse.

No one but she knew it was all different.

“I miss being known,” she whispered at her reflection. The intensity of the feeling caught her by surprise.

Cora’s steps were slow across the hardwood floor from the restroom back to her booth. She watched Gil sweeping crumbs from under the tables. The initial rush was long over. The line of early-morning commuters had hustled out one by one with their steaming to-go cups and bagged muffins. The last of the breakfast regulars, mostly retirees lingering over their conversations and egg sandwiches, were migrating toward the door. Goodbyes were called out to Gil and his employees.

She knew all of the regulars’ faces, and several of their names from overheard conversations, but they did not know her.

On Wednesdays, a group of cyclists came in after their early morning ride, arriving around the same time as Cora at 6:45. They were jovial, young men, younger than Cora, who never failed to greet her with a “good morning” or a comment on the weather. It brightened her day each time she saw them with their smiles and their carefree conversations, but they did not know her.

Twice a month, a dozen mothers gathered in the coffee shop for Bible study sessions. There were new moms still fresh-faced and eager, and wizened, older mothers who listened quietly and offered careful advice, and middle-aged, over-scheduled moms bolstered by the ninety minutes of adult conversation and camaraderie. They discussed verses and chapters, children and husbands. They laughed and cried together. Cora savored hearing the stories they told each other, witnessing the way they united around one another’s struggles and victories.

A handful of times the women invited Cora to join them, despite her explaining the first time that she was not a mother. Twice she had splurged and paid for their beverages. She couldn’t explain why. Perhaps because she wished she belonged with them. She didn’t though, and they didn’t know her.

Not even her clients knew her. That was the nature of online financial planning. Everything was accomplished via emails and shared files. If a client needed any communication beyond that, Cora made phone calls, or a video conference call on rare occasions. No, they certainly didn’t know her.

The anonymity was not intentional. It arose from a gradual, subconscious retreat from everything that reminded her too poignantly of Theo and their six years together. Six and a half years if she included their whip-speed six months of dating and engagement.

No, the anonymity was not intentional, but it was too complete for Cora to see any cracks to climb through the walls she’d built. She initially welcomed those walls, curled up inside them and functioned only when she remained there. Lately though, she began to wonder how long she could keep them up. She began to wonder if she wanted to keep them up.

Her unhurried thoughts were interrupted by the swish of broom bristles sliding beneath her table where she was seated once again. Out of habit, she wordlessly raised her legs and Gil swept the spot beneath her feet.

“All finished?” he asked, gesturing at the empty fruit bowl on the table.

Cora had eaten the oatmeal first while it was still hot, and one of the servers collected that bowl earlier. The fresh fruit she’d saved until she grew hungry again, then savored each juicy piece. She handed the bowl to Gil.

“Thank you again for breakfast.”

“You’re very welcome, Cora. Thank you for being the only person who is here almost as frequently as I am.”

“You put extra pieces of baked apple in the oatmeal, didn’t you? There was more than usual.”

Gil looked pleased. “You always leave the bits of apple until the end when you order that one. I figured that was because they’re your favorite part.”

Surprise tingled in her nerves. “You noticed that?”

“I did.”

The insight into her habits produced a concoction of feelings in Cora. It was tiny. A simple observation. It did not feel tiny though. It felt warm and comforting and kind and strengthening. What else do you know, she wondered as Gil walked to the front counter to deposit her bowl and fork. When he returned for the broom he’d propped against her booth, Cora was suddenly desperate to speak.

Read Part Two here.

Fiction, Short Story, The Summer Holiday, Writing, Writing Prompt

The Summer Holiday – Part Three

Part One

 

“Good evening,” Michael greets us. “You both look lovely. I am glad to see you.”

He addresses Aunt Rita too, but his gaze remains on me and I am surprised to see a touch of nervousness in his friendly expression.

“Good evening, Mr. Gable. I hope you are well tonight,” Aunt Rita responds.

“I am.”

I blush under his attention. He is even more handsome in this glittering, giddy atmosphere than in the midday sunlight. His black tuxedo is well tailored, with a pop of color in his emerald green pocket square.

The band begins another high spirited tune. Dancing couples cover the open space on the large, raised patio where the band is arranged, facing the ocean. The harmonizing notes fill the silence that falls between us.

Aunt Rita clears her throat. “I’m going to find some acquaintances.” She finishes her wine and places the empty glass on a passing footman’s tray. “Enjoy yourself, Mary.”

While I am wondering what I might say to encourage her in her mission for the night, she is already striding away with her chin high.

Michael looks toward the band and back at me. “Would you care to dance?”

Again, I am struck by his nervousness. It is slight, and if I did not have his self-assured demeanor of this afternoon with which to compare, I might not notice. Somehow, the alteration in him bolsters my confidence. This man, this stranger who feigned friendship in order to speak to me today, has a unique effect on me.

“Perhaps we could walk first and see the grounds,” I suggest. “I can’t say I’ve ever been to a party quite like this one. Have you?”

“Only here.”

He offers his arm and I slip my hand into the bend of his elbow. We begin to walk the circumference of the lawn and the crowd it contains.

“Do the Colemans host many of these?”

“Twice a year. This is their annual end-of-summer garden party.”

I laugh in disbelief. “Garden party?” Images of the garden parties I’ve attended flash through my mind: small gatherings of intimate friends; tea and finger sandwiches; quiet conversation.

“They like to take something average and raise the bar,” he remarks with a laugh. “Their other annual event is the Christmas party. That one is indoors, of course, and even more grand.”

The reality that I know nothing about Michael is dominant in my thoughts. “How do you know the family?”

“I am a second cousin. Mrs. Coleman’s maiden name was Gable.” He greets someone as we round a back corner of the courtyard, then returns his focus to me. “And you, Mary? If this is your first Coleman celebration, how did you happen to be here tonight?”

I admit, “We weren’t invited.”

“Do tell.” His eyes widen with curiosity.

“I don’t think I can.”

“You are more a mystery than I expected.”

“I’m not, truly, but it turns out my aunt might be.” I leave it at that, unwilling to confide Aunt Rita’s secrets.

Michael stops beside a stone fountain at the end of the courtyard. It is a circular structure with a tall statue of a heron perched on a pedestal at the center. The bird’s wings are spread as if about to take flight. Water flows from the backs of its wings and around its feet down into the tiled bowl below. We admire it in silence. The band segues into a softer, slower melody.

“You’re a bit of a mystery yourself, Michael.”

“Tell me about yourself, Mary.”

“I was about to make the same request.”

“You first. Tell me anything you’d like.”

He lets my hand slip off his arm and takes a seat on the edge of the fountain.

“My full name is Mary Eve Harper and I have lived in Boston all my life. I have an older brother and sister, both married. I teach piano to schoolchildren, which I rather enjoy. I paint, though I’m terrible at it. I have a collie named Jasmine and a nephew named Paul, and I love both of them dearly.”

I ignore the wave of embarrassment I feel over the bits of autobiography that tumbled from my mouth without forethought. “It’s your turn.”

“Fair enough.” He thinks for a moment. “I live in Manchester. I’m a civil engineer for the city, as is Tommy, whom you met this afternoon. I have four sisters, two older and two younger. I have a spaniel named Devlin. He’s my bird hunting partner even though he’s fairly useless. I’ve vacationed here in Hampton Beach with my family every summer of my entire life except when I was eight years old and sick with the measles. I almost didn’t come this summer, but I am exceedingly glad I did now.”

My cheeks blush madly and I’m thankful for the low light of the lanterns in the courtyard behind us.

“I do have to add one more thing.”

I wait.

Michael fiddles with the buttons of his jacket, diverting his eyes from mine. “I’ve been watching you all week.”

My mouth drops open and I take a step back. “Excuse me?”

“No! No, I said that all wrong.” He half groans, half laughs. “I’m sorry. I mean, I’ve seen you around the town throughout the week. I mean, I’ve noticed you several times this week.”

I bite my lip, unsure if this is an improvement.

Michael leaves his seat on the fountain and stands in front of me. His voice softens. “I first saw you on Sunday, walking with your aunt on the boardwalk and wearing a blue hat. I was drinking coffee at an outdoor table at a café. You passed right by me,” he refuses to drop his eyes from mine, “and I wanted to follow you then and there. You were conversing with your aunt, but your eyes watched everything around you. You looked like you wished for nothing less than adventure.”

I remain stunned and speechless, but also thrilled in a manner that makes me anxious.

“Then you were in the crowd at the concert in the park on Tuesday evening, and I saw you again the next day when you were eating lunch with your aunt and someone else, one of her friends, I guess, at the same café where I had coffee on Sunday. I just finished brunch with my parents and aunt and uncle when you arrived there. That’s when I promised myself I’d speak to you somehow the next time I saw you.

“I waited for my next opportunity, watched for you everywhere we went. I had Tommy on the lookout for you too,” he says with a chuckle. “You can imagine how relieved I was this afternoon when I realized it was you and your aunt walking so closely behind us on the boardwalk. I’d begun to wonder if you’d left town already.”

He raises an eyebrow. “You didn’t notice me even once before this afternoon, did you?”

“I’d be lying if I said I did.”

Nerves threaten to disband the gumption I’ve somehow possessed since meeting Michael today. Behind the fountain is a gravel footpath extending away from the house and toward a manicured maze of tall hedges. I walk to the path without a word and hear Michael follow. Our feet crunch on the stones covering the narrow lane. Rosebushes laden with late summer blossoms in an array of hues – red, pink, white, orange, yellow – line the length of the path. I stare at one perfect, pink bloom and am overcome by the beautiful unexpectedness of this night.

Before we reach the entrance to the hedge maze, I stop and Michael comes around in front of me. I want to tell him every thought in my head. I want to tell him I’m flattered, but that is an entirely inadequate word for what I feel. I want to say I wish we’d met on the first day I arrived instead of a week into my stay. I want to ask if he ever visits Boston for any reason at all, and if I might be a reason to visit if he does not. My search for words lasts longer than I’d like.

“Have I scared you off?” he asks, hands in his pockets and eyes on his feet.

I inhale the intoxicating fragrance of the flowers, then I lay my hand on his smooth cheek. The feel of his skin against my palm startles me, as if I didn’t realize I was touching him. He frowns when I drop my hand back to my side. I do not want to make him frown.

“Does your invitation to dance still stand?”

The party, the patio, and the band are all behind me. He looks over my shoulder and asks, “You want to go back?”

I shake my head.

He surveys our spot here on the white gravel path, with its rosebush walls and high-rise, starry ceiling. His smile reappears and, with a deep bow, he extends a hand. “Would you do me the honor, Miss Harper?”

Mirroring the smile while suppressing a giggle, I curtsy. “It would be my pleasure, sir.”

We sway and turn with the distant music. His hands, one wrapped around my fingers and one on my waist, are warm, like the inside of my chest where my heart beats at a doubled pace.

“If you tell me you are going home tomorrow, my summer will be utterly ruined,” he declares.

I laugh aloud, setting a sparrow flying from its hiding spot in a hedge. “We are here another week.”

He twirls me out and back in again. “May I take you to lunch tomorrow?”

I nod.

“Tomorrow, I’ll ask to see you on Monday.”

I nod again. Anticipation tingles in my fingertips.

We slow our dancing though the music’s rhythm does not change. “On Monday, I’ll ask for Tuesday, and then for each day that remains.”

“We’ll have a splendid week.” I am breathlessly aware of how near his face is to mine. I almost ask about after, about letters or telegrams or visits, then I tell myself to enjoy tonight. Tomorrow, I will enjoy tomorrow. I’ve never felt that the days ahead must be known before they arrive, and I don’t wish to start now.

As if reading my thoughts, Michael winks the way he did in the first minute of our first meeting. “Maybe I’ll take piano lessons in the fall, in Boston.”

The song comes to an end and we stand still. Statues sculpted in a dance. I try to remember what it was like to be unfamiliar with his smile. We are both holding our breath until we laugh in unison at ourselves. He releases my hand and my waist.

“Would you like to return to the party? You haven’t even tasted the food, have you?”

At the mention of food, I realize I am famished. Back at the hotel, Aunt Rita only ordered a light supper for us while we prepared for the party. Knowing all I know now, I realize she was likely too anxious to eat.

“Food does sound good, thank you.”

Before we can step from the shadows of the tall hedges though, we hear footsteps. Two people deep in conversation, and clearly assuming they are alone, approach on the gravel path. I freeze.

“It’s okay, Mary. We won’t be in any trouble for walking back here.”

I shake my head. I know immediately the identity of one of those voices, and I feel certain in my guess at the other. Grabbing Michael’s wrist, I pull him through the entrance of the maze. There are only the stars to see by now, tucked away behind the eight-foot-tall, two-foot-thick hedge.

Michael peers at my face in bewilderment. “What’s wrong?”

How can I explain? I cover my face in my hands, realizing how ridiculous I must seem. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “It’s my aunt and Miles Coleman.”

To be continued.

Read Part Four here.

Fiction, Short Story, The Summer Holiday, Writing, Writing Prompt

The Summer Holiday – Part Four

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

“Are you certain?” Michael tries to peek around the leafy wall.
I tug on his arm to come back. “I’m certain.” My brain holds an open debate on the best next move.
“And why is it that we’re hiding from your aunt and my cousin?” he asks in a whisper.
Sighing over the impossibility of avoiding an explanation, I step further into the corner we are tucked into just inside the hedge maze. The close quarters do not appear to bother Michael. Even in the filtered moonlight, I observe the playfulness in his eyes. He takes my hand and it takes everything in me to stay on task. I need to explain before Rita and Miles get any closer. Already, their words are becoming discernible. I can only suppose ours will soon be overheard by them as well. In haste, I deliver a summary.
“Rita and Miles knew each other many years ago. They were once engaged but Miles broke it off. They have not seen or spoken to each other since. Rita decided to seek him out here tonight.”
Michael’s eyebrows are arched high on his handsome face. He releases a low whistle that I silence with my fingers over his lips, which makes him smile.
“Sorry,” he says, “but this night keeps getting more interesting.”
“Tell me about it. I knew nothing of this until we were driving up to the party.”
“I still think we could have greeted them and went on our way, Mary.”
I shake my head. “Maybe, except it took every bit of courage for Aunt Rita to come here and speak to him tonight. That much was clear. I could be wrong, but I have a hunch that if they are interrupted before Rita says whatever it is she hopes to say, she’ll lose that courage.”
Michael nods.
“Couldn’t we walk further into the maze?” I ask.
He stares into the blackness of the tall, perfectly pruned hedges. When he turns back to me, his brow is creased with concern. “That isn’t a good idea. There is no lighting in there, and this maze has won awards for its cleverness and difficulty. I’ve ventured into it plenty of times and I still would not do so at night.”
I cover my face with my hands.
Michael squeezes my shoulders. “I’m sorry, Mary. I’m sure it wasn’t your intention to eavesdrop. Nonetheless, it seems our only options are to wait them out here or mysteriously appear back on the path with them.”
We are silent as Miles’ and Aunt Rita’s footsteps come to a halt on the other side of the hedge. Their voices reach our ears clearly now.
“I can’t believe this,” we hear Rita say.
“Neither can I,” Miles replies. “You really never knew I didn’t marry her? That I never married at all?”
“How could I have? We didn’t exactly live in the same social universe, Miles. My family and friends knew nothing of you, and I wasn’t one to read the society pages in my father’s newspaper.” After a pause, she adds, “Besides, my only aim was to avoid every thought of you.”
There is the crunch of footsteps on the gravel. Michael and I exchange a hopeful glance and put our faces up to the wall. It takes a moment to find adequate spaces between the leaves and branches to peer through to the other side.
“Are we in the clear?” I whisper.
Michael shakes his head. When I find a sightline through the hedge, I see it is only the sound of Miles pacing while Rita stands still with her eyes on him. The moment gives me an opportunity to observe him. He is of average height and a slim build. His face is pleasant and attractive. There is a peppering of gray throughout his black hair. He wears a black tuxedo, like Michael, but his bow tie is a bit askew. I see why when he tugs at his collar more than once.
I know I should back up, give them at least that much privacy, but I can’t look away from the quiet pain on my aunt’s face.
She swallows hard, wrings her hands, and asks, “Why didn’t you marry?”
Miles stops in front of her. He reaches for her hands but she folds them behind her back. Her expression clears and she lifts her chin. I see in her posture all the strength I used to mistake for mere hardness.
“I didn’t marry her, or anyone else, because she wasn’t you.”
“There had to be more than that. There had to be. We were so young.”
“Don’t do that.” His voice is harsh. “I had to hear all of that from my parents, non-stop until I gave in to their demands. I was so ashamed of myself, Rita. That’s why I didn’t contact you immediately after I ended the engagement they’d arranged for me. I couldn’t imagine you forgiving me.”
He pauses but Rita holds her tongue, so he continues. Regret laces through his words. “By the time I did seek you out, I discovered you were to be married that very week. It was too late. I did my best to accept it. In the next couple years, I checked up on you a few times. I told myself it was to make sure you were okay, that you were content, after what I’d done to you. Really though, I wasn’t ready to let go of you. I stopped after I got word your first child was born. I’ve known nothing of your life since then.”
“You checked up on me?” She looks stunned.
They watch each other, uncertainty filling the silent air between them until Miles asks, “Were you happy, Rita? With your husband, were you happy?”
“I was,” she says quickly, then adds, “eventually.” She swipes at her cheeks for tears that I cannot see from my hidden vantage point.
“I’m so sorry, Rita. I have never stopped regretting my choice.” He takes a step closer to her.
“We were so young.”
“I loved you. You loved me. That’s what is true.”
Rita releases her hands from behind her back and he immediately takes them in his. A smile breaks across his face.
“I remember these hands in mine. It’s like arriving home for the first time in over thirty years.”
She doesn’t match his smile though and he loses his.
“My love.”
Rita’s eyes widen at his words. “Am I, though?”
“Of course you are.”
“We have lived whole lives since then, Miles. So much has happened and changed. How can I be?”
“Did you love me?”
“With all my heart,” she admits without hesitation.
“And that heart is still in you.”
A smile now tugs at her lips and she stares up at the stars. “Maybe.”
Miles touches her chin, leading her to meet his gaze again. “You owe me nothing. Nothing. I understand if you never want to see me again. I understand if you wanted an apology tonight, and nothing more. Considering that you thought I was married all these years, I suspect that’s all you thought you might receive tonight.”
Rita nods.
“If, however, there is anything in you inclined to see me again, to speak with me again, I only ask that you consider it. Please. You say the word, and I will not contact you or try to see you for the rest of our years. Say otherwise, and I will be grateful for any time you are willing to give me.”
I glance at Michael beside me, having nearly forgotten his presence. I feel the sting of tears in my eyes. He grins at me before we both resume our watch through the wall of foliage.
Rita lays her hands on Miles’ cheeks. “It’s hard to say what I expected to gain by coming here tonight, but it was not this.”
His arms encircle her waist and draw her to him.
She hurries to add, “And I don’t know what to expect going forward. I don’t know.”
“I don’t need to know. There is possibility, and that is enough.”
Miles kisses her. It is a firm, needful kiss and when Rita’s arms wrap around his neck, I force myself to step back from the hedge.
Michael is grinning again and I cannot help but do the same. We stand side by side when, overhead, fireworks begin to fill the sky. I jump as the boom of the first ones catch me by surprise. A chorus of cheers floats to us from the party up near the house.
“Wow,” I whisper. Even when Michael takes my hand, I do not look away from the bursts of fiery color.
He kisses my cheek and I do look at him then. “Mary.”
“Yes?”
“I’m glad I pretended to know you today.”
I cover my mouth to silence my laughter. “Michael, it has been an unexpectedly splendid night.”
“The best?” he asks.
I lean into his side and he slips his arm around my waist. A red firework cascades across the sky, its sound thrumming in my chest. “The best so far.”
The End.
 
Fiction, Short Story, The Summer Holiday, Writing, Writing Prompt

The Summer Holiday – Part Two

Read Part One here.

We hear the music before we see the estate. Trumpets from the band herald the night’s arrival. A sumptuous night it is, too. Sky thick with stars, the day’s heat still hanging about but tempered by the salted breeze off the ocean. It is end-of-summer splendor.

Our hired driver putters up the driveway, behind and before at least a dozen other cars delivering guests to the soiree. The scene unfolding with each forward movement sheds new light on the preparations Aunt Rita insisted upon in the last several hours: new gowns in the most current style; hair curled and pinned to perfection; polished shoes and glittering, albeit modest, jewels.

I have spent the time trying and failing to ask my aunt not only why the party necessitated such measures, but why we are attending this party at all. Though the name feels intangibly familiar, I am not aware of any personal connection to the Colemans. I am certain Aunt Rita has never mentioned them before. Yet here we are, pulling ever closer to the front steps of their impressive mansion, readying our skirts and shawls to emerge from the car into the glittering crowd milling about the lawn.

Finally, entirely too close to our exiting the vehicle, my aunt rushes to explain.

“The Colemans,” she begins with a clearing of her throat, “reside in California. Their home, Grove Palace, is a vineyard. Their wines are among the most superb wines currently being bottled. This is their vacation home.”

I gaze out of the automobile’s rectangular window. Only two vehicles remain ahead of us. I can see the valets ushering the guests from their cars. The mansion is larger than any I’ve seen in the region. Three stories, a pillared façade, and as wide as the full city block that contains my family’s home in Boston. Candlelit lanterns flicker in every window and line the paved path to the lawn. Guests adorn the courtyard and gardens like sprinkles on a cake.

“Do you know them?” I ask.

When Aunt Rita doesn’t answer, I look her way. She bites her lip. She is lovely tonight – a description I have never applied to my aunt. Her usually stern features are softened by the dusting of powder and rouge, as well as the fetching arrangement of her hair. Looking past me and out the window as we roll forward, she sighs.

“I knew them.”

“When?”

“A lifetime ago.”

We move again and before the wheels are still, a man in a tuxedo opens my door and offers his hand.

We keep to the edge of the activity. I feel like a moth in a butterfly garden. A footman presents a tray of beverages. Aunt Rita chooses a red wine and I pick a crystal glass filled with pink punch. The first sip tells me it is not merely punch. It burns deliciously in my throat.

My eyes roam. Face after face, glowing in the lantern light, beautiful but unfamiliar. I watch for Michael and wonder if I’ll recognize him. His smile is the most lasting impression left from our boardwalk encounter.

Aunt Rita interrupts my search, “Miles and I were to be married.”

“Miles?” My deceased uncle, my mother’s brother, was named Otto.

“Miles Coleman.”

I stutter over this bit of information. “What, what do you mean?”

“We weren’t publicly engaged, but privately.” Aunt Rita purses her lips. Her eyes look wet. “Privately, we were promised to each other.”

I face her, the strangers’ laughter and conversations fading to the background. She has never spoken to me of her younger years. She is still staring into the crowd, or perhaps beyond it. For a moment, my eyes see her as a woman I do not know, another stranger at this party. She is not old, though I think of her as such. Fifty-two, healthy, her body trim and her hair still dark and full. It is her frowns and general air of disenchantment that ages her. And her walking cane. Her use of it is only a habit after requiring it for a year after an injury to her foot. She does not need it, and for the first time, she left it at the hotel tonight.

“I summered here for two years when I was very young, seventeen and eighteen, with my dearest friend and her family. They owned a cottage in Hampton Beach. I met Miles my first week here that first summer, and spent every possible minute with him. I loved him with my whole, naïve heart. For the year in between our two summers together, we wrote letters. Dozens of letters. Before the end of the second summer, he proposed to me. He was twenty at the time. We decided we would wait to announce it, we would wait to marry, until he finished university. He had two years of schooling left before he was to join his family’s business. That was the plan. That was the promise we exchanged.”

The remembrance, the revelation, thickens her voice. One shaking hand she presses to her chest while the other lifts her wine glass tremulously to her lips.

“What happened?”

“Three months after his proposal, he told his parents our plans. They objected. With each month that he insisted on marrying me, their objections grew stronger. Eventually, they demanded he make a marriage that was advantageous to the family. My middleclass roots and my father’s unremarkable financial standing didn’t fit the bill. They pressured. He slowly weakened. We were thousands of miles apart. There was little I could do. Nine months after his proposal, he undid our arrangement. Three months after that, he wrote a final goodbye and informed me of his upcoming marriage to the daughter of a family friend. I have not seen Miles Coleman in thirty-two years, Mary, but I will see him tonight.”

I try to respond. I try to sort out the right thing to say but my tongue is dry and my thoughts are foggy. The pink punch and the revealed secret are a heady combination. “Why now? You take your holiday here every summer. Why see him now?”

“Do you know why I take my holiday here every year?” She doesn’t wait for a reply. “To remember that girl. To remember that version of myself from those memories really existed, and to feel I might still be her. I come here to remember I did love like that once. I need to remember.”

Aunt Rita sips her wine, wine that, I assume, is a Coleman Family vintage. “I never tried to see him though, not once in the sixteen years I’ve come here. So, ‘why now’ is a terribly good question, Mary. Of course, the notion crosses my mind each and every year. To what end, though? That is the question that stops me each year.”

“Except for this year,” I say.

“Yes, except for this year.” She sips again. The glass, as she tips it to her mouth, seems to catch the moonlight itself and sets her visage aglow. Her eyes are dry now, and open wide. “When your acquaintance, who is clearly not your acquaintance,” she smiles a little, “asked if we were attending tonight’s soiree, I decided then and there it is time to meet Miles again. I cannot explain it better than that, I’m afraid.”

“You aren’t asking yourself, ‘to what end’ this time?”

“Oh, I certainly am. I stopped caring about the answer though. Even if it is only to see his face again, or,” she swallows hard, pushes out her next words, “or maybe meet his wife, I need to be here.”

As Aunt Rita falls silent, I see him. I recognize his smile in an instant, then every feature of his handsome face.

“You knew Michael was a stranger?” I ask.

My aunt casts a sideways glance at me. “I was not fooled.”

Michael is only steps away.

“Guard your heart, Mary, but not too tightly.”

To be continued.

Read Part Three here!

Fiction, Short Story, The Summer Holiday, Writing, Writing Prompt

The Summer Holiday, Part One

We are here for the day. Had rather be with you.
Mary H.

I scrawl the message in haste and add the stamp to the card. I’ll post it with the hotel clerk when I return there tonight. There is much more to say, but not on a postcard. Ann will understand, assuming she can manage to read my handwriting.

The scene along the seaside boardwalk differs little from the one captured on the postcard: busy, crowded, overdressed. I do not understand why people put on their best to visit the beach. Sand belongs between toes and dusted around damp ankles. Folks in their suits and dresses and high laced shoes can’t possibly enjoy the beach the way it deserves. My aunt, much to my dismay (though not my surprise), is one of those folks.

A week ago, I came up from Boston to accompany Aunt Rita to Hampton Beach. It is her annual summer holiday. The one about which we receive a four-page letter at the close of the summer, detailing every morning, noon, and night of her two weeks there. My mother insists on reading the letter in its entirety to the family. I have the same thought every year: Lord, if I ever can manage to take an annual seaside holiday, please don’t let it be as a dreary as Aunt Rita’s.

Now, here I stand, staring at the crowds and motor cars on the boardwalk, waiting for Aunt Rita to finish perusing yet another shop in which she will buy nothing and critique everything. The breeze is light today; too light. The humidity and heat of the unobstructed sunshine make me wish for my swimming costume and a dip in the water. My straight, auburn hair slips repeatedly from its pins. Pieces stick to my damp neck and cheeks. I wipe my forehead with a handkerchief and shade my eyes against the sun. It can be lovely here, under the right conditions. These are not quite the right conditions.

When Aunt Rita exits the shop, I supply a bright smile. I know she doesn’t want me here, so the least I can do is be cheerful. She has openly loved her independence since her husband’s death sixteen years ago. (Amazing how the possession of money renders such independence an enviable blessing, whereas my own state in life evokes only pity.) When her children insisted that this year she allow someone to accompany her to the seaside, Aunt Rita reluctantly agreed. At twenty-six and unmarried, I was the naturally chosen companion.

This is why the terribly short note on the postcard to my lifelong, dearest friend Ann will speak volumes. She knows. I don’t need to explain.

“They need to dust their shelves every day,” Aunt Rita says when she rejoins me and we step back onto the boardwalk. “Everything in there was gray with dust.”

“Mmmhmm.”

“Don’t mumble.”

My eyes flit between the blue water to my left and the two men in front of us on the walkway. They stroll at a pace too leisurely for Aunt Rita. She supplies a series of supposedly inconspicuous huffs and sighs as we slow our own steps behind the men. I tune my ears to the foamy waves instead.

Within a few yards, her less than subtle hints must be heard by the men, for they step aside and tip their hats as we pass. Yet, once we take the lead and regain Aunt Rita’s standard march, the men do likewise. I turn my head enough to be sure it is them so close behind us. The man behind Aunt Rita winks before I face forward again, and I cringe, imagining the lecture on rudeness that Aunt Rita will likely deliver if she realizes these young men are amusing themselves in such a manner. I walk a tad faster.

She taps her walking cane against the boards. “Mary! Whatever is your hurry?”

“Yes, Mary,” says the winking man. “How can you enjoy the views at such a speed?”

There is a sparkle of fun in his brown eyes. His smile is wide and unashamed.

“Do we know you, gentlemen?” Aunt Rita demands.

A blush spreads over my already hot cheeks.

“We’re friends of Mary.” Another wink comes my way.

A thrill with which I’m unacquainted possesses me and I play along. “Of course,” I say with barely managed confidence. “This is Mister…” I let my voice fade and he jumps in.

“Gable. Michael Gable.” He bows toward Aunt Rita. “This here is Thomas Lafferty, my colleague.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am. Lovely to see you again, Mary.” Thomas plays along too, though with less ease than Michael.

I nod. “Yes, it is lovely. It has been a long time since we last met. This is my aunt Rita.” There is no accounting for how widely I am smiling. I imagine describing it all for Ann in a proper letter.

The introductions complete, I am left wondering where we can possibly go from here. Michael continues the ruse without hesitation.

“Was it in New York that we last saw you?”

“No, no,” I say, aware that my aunt knows I haven’t been to New York in many years. “It was in Boston.”

“Christmastime, last year?”

“I believe you’re right.”

Michael frowns, though it is an expression in danger of reverting to a smile at any moment. “How is your mother?”

“She is well. It is kind of you to ask.” I mirror his seriousness.

Aunt Rita watches with her wrinkled mouth agape.

“How fortunate that we would see you here!” Michael says. “We must catch up properly. There is a soiree at the Coleman estate tonight. Will you ladies be attending?”

To this, I can make no reply, for Aunt Rita is the guardian of the daily schedule. When I chance a look at her though, it is clear Michael has peaked her interest. We all wait for her to speak, a collective suspense in the humid air.

“Coleman, you said?” Aunt Rita asks.

“Indeed.”

“The Grove Palace Colemans?”

“The same,” Michael confirms.

Aunt Rita smooths her skirt. “Yes, Mary and I plan to attend.”

“We do?” I ask.

“Yes, we do.”

“We do.” I repeat.

“That’s splendid.” Michael claps his hands together. “We will arrive by nine o’clock. I shall keep an eye out for you.”

I only nod, equal parts delighted and stunned by the exchange.

Michael lifts and kisses Aunt Rita’s hand. He takes mine next. His fingertips press into my palm while his thumb massages in a circle below my knuckles. He plants a soft kiss on the same spot. When he stands straight again, he tucks a loose piece of hair behind my ear. Aunt Rita clears hear throat.

“Until tonight, Mary.”

The men enter a shop after another tip of their hats.

Aunt Rita fires forward on the boardwalk, her cane tapping out her cadence. “Oh, we must hurry, Mary. There is much to be done.” I hear her whisper into the August heat, “A soiree at the Colemans. Surely, he’ll be there. Finally.”

To be continued.

Read Part Two here.