Johnny Came Home


“Johnny’s coming home to me…….”

In the end, the decision had been a practical one. When Johnny Walters didn’t want to married to Eleanor anymore, he divorced her.

When he didn’t want to pay alimony and her shrink’s bills anymore, he simply killed her.

The problem was, she kept coming back.

“Johnny’s coming back to me…….”

Ah, here it was again. Eleanor’s dismal calling card. That goofy Irish love song that she played and sang far too often during their dismal married years. A song about a sailor so fair that the very soul of the sea fell in love with him. Lured him to a watery death so as to possess him forever.

In their good days, he’d thought the song cute. He’d lamented that he’d not heard any love songs with his first name in them. But then, Eleanor had found this one. Yes, at first, it had been cute, flirty, fun. Then, as Eleanor became tiresome, so had the song. Then, as she became hated, so had he begun to hate the song.

Perhaps that was why she never stopped singing it to him………

Tonight, the last thing he wanted was another vile visit from his former, now dead wife. He had other plans, important plans. Tonight, he had planned to turn his mistress, Anne Roseby, into his fiance. A table was laid at his beach-side home with the finest tableware. He had a perfect meal cooked and waiting to be served by caterers. Her favorite music to be played over hidden speakers on the patio where the meal would be served. The mood would be perfect. Unless this unwelcome visitor arrived……

Anne was so unlike Eleanor. She was 14 years younger, a divine, ethereal beauty who knew her place. No histrionics or neediness. No clingy jealousy. None of what Eleanor had been. She was a breath of fresh air.

However, to be fair, Eleanor hadn’t been like that at first.

For some reason, all the women in Johnny’s life eventually seemed to go mad. One by one, despite his heartfelt struggles to help them with their issues. He hoped that this time, he had found the right woman. He’d dated her the last year he was married to Eleanor, and throughout their contentious divorce. He’d lived with her the year after Eleanor’s death.

Eleanor had never saw fit to haunt Anne, only him. However, Johnny thought Anne would be able to handle it, if Eleanor tried. She would see it as one more pathetic attempt to manipulate, and laugh at the specter. Yes, maybe Anne would be the right one after all.

“You’re such a good boy, John. None of these women deserve you. Why can’t you find a good one? Settle down?” The voice, in memory, was that of his mother, long gone and missed these last 9 years. She hadn’t approved of Eleanor, nor of any of his previous three wives, or a long chain of girlfriends. She never felt they were worthy of her only child.

She had died in a boating accident about the time that problems began to show themselves in his marriage to Eleanor. That day, they’d all been together, spending the day at the beach house. Elizabeth, his mother, seeming nervous and unhappy.

Finally, he had taken her aside and said, “Mom–what’s going on? You act like you’re at a funeral!” He’d learned to be direct with her, almost parental. In the years since his booze-hound father had left them, he’d had to step up and help out. Sometimes he felt like a father, son and a husband to Elizabeth. But he didn’t mind.

And she’d always seemed so grateful.

“Johnny’s coming back to me…….”
Closer now, in the next room, maybe.

“Why don’t you just get it over with?” He yelled into the stillness. He was alone in the house. Anne was driving down from Tallahassee, where she worked as a paralegal at a law firm. She would not be there for another hour. It was time, he knew, to have it out with Eleanor, for once and for all.

It was always the same, whether she came by dream or visitation. He would hear the song and then, there she suddenly was. Eerie light all about her. Paleness that was strangely becoming. Every hair in place….at first.

Then, all of the beauty would melt in front of him, and she would become the ragged mess that she’d been when her body washed up on shore some three days after he reported her lost in the tragic boating accident. Seaweed in her hair, eye sockets hollow, her eyes eaten away by fish. The smell of salt and decay everywhere……a grim skeleton standing in front of him….

“Johnny……” He heard her sing out.

Eleanor had always had a flair for the dramatic. So her way of haunting him shouldn’t have surprised him. She often knocked at the door with ghostly raps, the sound carrying through the house, making it impossible to ignore. He’d come to the door, and there she would be, her skeletal smile greeting him, bony arms reaching out for him, dripping, dead, but there.

Only tonight, she wasn’t. Just the song. The song sang over and over by Eleanor until Johnny thought that he would tear out his hair. Anne would be arriving shortly. Couldn’t Eleanor have her fun and let them alone? He’d even act frightened if she liked, if she’d just go away.

It was such a burden. The worst one yet. Worse than the burden of his mother, and then, of his wives. Worse than how hard he had to work to make all the earlier women go away quietly.

Only Eleanor would not go away. Even in death, she wouldn’t, Johnny thought, resentfully. What was wrong with her?

He remembered that day, the day of the boating accident that claimed his mother. He’d asked her what was wrong. She’d wept and told him that she thought his latest marriage, to Eleanor, was a huge mistake. When Johnny tried to defend Eleanor, Elizabeth had broken down and wept. “I think she’ll be trouble for you, son. I just know it! I don’t think she’ll make you happy! I want you to be happy!” She had not settled down until Johnny had agreed to take her sailing, leaving his new bride, Eleanor, alone and confused at the family house.

He’d had a lot to drink that day, and later, when questioned, he wasn’t sure. One minute his mother had been in the sailboat, helping him steer. The next minute she’d been gone. Had she jumped? Was it a suicide? Surely not, Johnny’s mother had every reason to want to live. The death had been ruled accidental, and since her body was never found, no one knew for sure.

If only he’d been so lucky with Eleanor.

He’d gone home, and Eleanor had tried to nurture him, help him over his grief. And slowly, as time passed, he found that she was as tiresome as the others had been. Stifling to him. His mother had been right. Eleanor couldn’t make him happy. She just couldn’t. And she, like the others, would have to go. When he suggested divorce, in their 5th year of marriage, Eleanor hung onto him by attempting suicide. When she tried it again when he filed the papers in their 8th year, he almost let her complete it before calling 911. At the last moment, he’d relented. Divorced her anyway.

She’d not gone quietly, like the other ex-wives, content with fat alimony checks and homes bought for them in distant places. She’d kept begging him to take her back. Demanding for him to do so. One night, during an angry phone exchange, she compared him to a modern-day Henry VIII, a heartless womanizer and user of women, with no hope of change. This actually managed to wound him, because he knew himself to be a caring and sensitive man. That night, he’d made his decision about what he had to do.

His mother had helped him. That night, in a dream, she’d come to him, covered in seaweed and smelling of salt. “Maybe you should take her sailing” She said, meaningfully. “The same way you took me…..sailing.

He’d woke up, his heart in his throat. He’d been drinking the night his mother drowned. He loved her. He cared for her as if she were the child and he, the parent. Surely he didn’t push her overboard? He just couldn’t remember…….

The better part of a fifth of vodka quieted these questions. His fear went away. He’d made his plans.

And then, he’d done it.

Johnny had made an effort, after their last angry phone call to court her, to appear to have forgiven all, to want her back. He’d suggested a romantic dinner aboard his sailboat, named the Elizabeth, after his sainted mother. He’d overcome Eleanor’s objections, and she never came back alive from that boating trip.

But, now, she wouldn’t stay dead.

“Johnny”

Damn it all, he thought, stepping out on the beach…Eleanor seemed nearby. Where was she?

Her ghostly apparitions had been horrifying at first, then just alarming, finally boring. His blood pressure didn’t even go up. Last time, he’d cocked an eyebrow at her change from wifely angel to sea-raggled murder victim. “Is this the best you can do?” He mocked.

She’d smiled wanly, if a corpse could do so…and evaporated. He’d gone back to bed and slept soundly.

Tonight, though, she had yet to re-appear…where was she? Damn it all, she was being just as tiresome in death as she had been in life……

He went to the end of the pier where the boat he’d murdered her on was tied. “Why don’t you take her sailing?” He heard Elizabeth, across time, ask once more.

Indeed. Perhaps…it was time.

He stepped in the boat, and took it out. On pretty much the same route as he had the night he and Eleanor had gone out. It occurred to him that this was the first time he’d used the boat since she’d died. Neighbors thought that it had been too traumatizing for him to use the boat, to remember. It hadn’t been really. He’d just been otherwise occupied with Anne, who hated sailing.

He thought about the night he killed Eleanor. He’d planned to simply have her overdose. But the storm had come up and it fit perfectly into his plans. He’d turned and saw her, terrified, fumbling for a rope to try to help him get the sails straight. She looked up and him, and he’d been horror-stricken.

It hadn’t been Eleanor’s face looking at him. It was his mother, Elizabeth. Alive again, eyes accusing. And he remembered back to night his mother died. He had pushed her. He had wanted her to stop talking to him. To leave him alone.

Elizabeth had been shocked because he’d never laid hands on her. She seemed to go down in the water that day without a struggle. But now, Elizabeth was there, in the place of his ex-wife’s body. She would never leave him in peace…unless…..

That night, Johnny had found his fingers around the throat of the woman who had his wife’s body, but his mother’s face. He’d felt her fingers clawing his arms, but weakening as he cut off her air supply. Then, just as he thought he’d won, Eleanor (?) gained new strength. She’d fought with the strength of two women. She’d almost gotten away. Then it was over.

He’d won. But then, Johnny thought, he always won.

And it was Eleanor who was lying dead on the sailboat. Eleanor who he’d tossed overboard. Eleanor, who when she washed up later, was too picked over by sea creatures for authorities to see that she’d been nearly strangled before she drowned.

However, no one considered it any more than a tragedy. Johnny and his family had been peaceful occupants of the coastal area for years. It was tragic that his ex-wife had died in the same manner that his mother had done, but no one asked questions. Even about why his ex-wife was in the boat with him.

“Johnny…..”

His memories were swept away by the siren-song seeming very close and loud now. Johnny turned in the sailboat and saw that his house was just a light point on the beach now. How had he gotten so far out? And the water seemed to be getting rough. He shook his head, and laughed bitterly. If Eleanor needed to haunt so much let her. He was foolish to go out this far, chasing a singing spirit. He would turn about and go home. Not give Eleanor one more moment of attention, attention that she seemed to crave even in the after-life.

“Johnny, you’ve come home to me……”

Then, he saw her, just in front of the sailboat. This time, however, Eleanor looked different. Not like herself at all. Oh, it was Eleanor, all right. But she had a different quality. An innocence, combined with something else…. A contentment somehow….that bordered on smugness. It infuriated him. His decision to go home was forgotten.

Johnny stepped off the boat, not even thinking, reaching for her, to shake her, to tell her that this had to stop. She had to stop. Yes, he’d killed her. Yes, he’d even gotten away with it. But her haunting had to stop. He had moved on. He wanted to be with Anne. She, Eleanor, needed to move on as well. And after tonight, he would simply ignore her if she’d tried to sing to him or haunt him again. He knew this would hurt her worst of all.

He felt Eleanor’s arms go around him, as his feet touched the water and sunk in. Too late, he remembered that he wasn’t an expert swimmer, and he had forgotten his life-preserver that he always wore, in his hurry to confront Eleanor.

In the last few seconds before the water closed over his head, his horrified eyes locked to the now empty eye-sockets of his former wife, he wanted to scream, but found that he could not.

“They say I washed up on the shore, Johnny,” The seaweed-covered skeleton said to him, clutching him even tighter. “But, I never left. And now, I’ll never leave you again.”

Two months later, Johnny Walters washed up onshore, near his home. Strangely enough, he wasn’t alone. The coroner noted that he seemed to be in the skeletal embrace of another corpse. The arms looked tightly about him. Later investigation determined the remains that seemed to be embracing him were that of his mother, Elizabeth, long-lost at sea.

The day of the gruesome discovery, footprints in the sand of something…not animal, not quite human, went from where the bodies washed ashore all the way to the front door of Johnny’s house. Seaweed and pools of salt water were in regular puddles all the way to his door, which was ajar.

Anne, who had taken to spending nights at the beach house while the search for Johnny continued, woke to find a trail of seaweed and salty water that came right up to her side of their bed, as if someone had come up and watched her sleep.

On the bedside table, encased in seaweed, was a jewelry box with an engagement ring inside.

Screaming uncontrollably, she’d had to be sedated, and never, after that day, chose to spend another night there.

No one could explain it. However, if asked, perhaps, Eleanor might have.

Johnny had come home. To stay.

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In the Final Moments


by Laura Kathryn Rogers

@2009

It was late, and Robert had been drinking again. Too much.

Jessica Tyler watched as Robert, her husband of 25 years walked to the driver’s side of their Green Honda Escort. He was trying too hard to be careful, to over-correct when he made a mis-step, and they’d already had a skirmish at the Harrison’s party when she asked if she could drive. He was fine, he insisted. Just fine. And he didn’t want to hear another word about it. He would drive them home.

Jessica was just too wiped out to argue, really. She’d spent most of the evening trying to keep a watch on how much Robert had consumed, angry that he’d broken his promise not to go past a three drink limit. Broken it by about seven drinks. And what was worse, he didn’t seem to care.

She got into the passenger side, slamming the door a bit harder than need be. The sound was very loud in the quiet driveway that was mostly still full of guests cars. Why had they gone to this stupid party, anyway, Jessica pondered. She had wanted to soak in their hottub, take a book she was almost done with to bed…especially as the night was drizzling with a promise to turn into something worse. A hot soak, a good book, some hot tea with milk and lemon….and rest. But Robert insisted. Clients would be at the Mortimier’s party…..he could build on his contacts…..but he had instead made a fool of himself by drinking too much, being a bit too loud, and finally agreeing to go home after she repeatedly asked him to either stop drinking or leave.

Robert sat in the car, waiting, silently. Jessica knew what he was waiting for. Not a tongue lashing. There was no point. He was waiting for her to put on her seat belt. Robert was an insurance salesman, one of the top men in his part of the state. He could rattle off statistics until you felt your eyelids drying out from the strain of trying to concentrate and listen to him. It was fascinating to him, however….and in just over two decades of married life, Jessica could almost quote what he often ranted about back to him, verbatim.

This time, her inner fury would not be placated by anything other than defiance. She usually put on her seatbelt, though she hated doing so. She had gained some weight around the middle after their third and last child was born, a child that died just a few days later of birth complications. She had fed her grief, and never quite gotten down to her youthful weight. Robert didn’t seem to notice. But she noticed when she put on a seatbelt. It cut into her, made her have a hard time breathing. Tonight, she just wouldn’t do it. Robert could sit until Doomsday, and she would not put her seat belt on.

However, this night, he gave up shortly. He sighed, deeply, and said “You know you’re being childish.”

Before she could make a sharp comment about his state of inebriation, he’d turned the key and the engine roared to life. In silence, Robert steered his way out of the driveway. It was amazing that he did it so well, because by that time, the drizzling had turned to a hard, driving rain which got harder as they made their way down the road. They should have been going much slower………yet, Robert, seeming to be totally in charge of his facilities, drove at the legal limit, though it was getting very hard to see.

Jessica looked at her middle-aged, paunchy husband, and thought about what she had waiting for him at home. Tonight was as good as any other time to do it. She’d put it off for a month. Divorce papers.

Their children, twin daughters, were both gone, and had just graduated college. Both had great jobs, good lives in other parts of the state. And in the summer after they had gone, Jessica had known. It was more than just empty nesting on her part. There was an emptiness in her heart. Somehow, in the years of taking care of the girls, dealing with the loss of their son, and just living life, a cavity had formed in the heart of her marriage. Now, there was just nothing left.

When had it started? She thought, as Robert took a curve a little too fast, and almost went into a skid. Swearing, he managed to get the car right again, and kept going, a little too fast for the increasingly nasty weather.

She thought of when they’d met, both runners in a 5k race. They’d never ran a race before, and were joking about it. They decided that they would run together, take their time, and just try to finish, not try to take any prizes. During that race, she had fallen in love with this man….listened as he told her his dreams of being a prosecuting attorney, possibly a senator someday. He was about to take the LSAT exam he told her. She told him about her dreams of being a sculptor. About how some of her works would be in a gallery showing in the next month. He was wonderfully encouraging. She was admiring. He would later say he had fallen in love with her the same time she had him.

Six short months later, they were married at the town’s courthouse. Neither were religious, really, thought Jessica had been taken to church as a child. They set up housekeeping, and to get them through Robert’s law school, they took jobs that were available. He in insurance. She as a saleslady in an art store. Her gallery showing hadn’t been very promising, and in time she’d stopped sculpting. He didn’t pass the LSAT and didn’t try again. So he didn’t become a lawyer. She didn’t become a sculptor. Life went on, and suddenly, it seemed, years passed, and they were in this car in driving rain, him too drunk to drive, her too angry to know what to do about it.

She wondered if it would even phase him when she gave him the divorce papers. It had been nearly a year since he’d done more than touch her arm in passing. He’d taken to sleeping on the couch…falling asleep to whatever late show he chose that night. She had taken her beloved art books to bed. It had seemed, sadly, a reasonable trade off for each other after a time. Then, it seemed that they’d never done things any other way. Too late…..Jessica thought…maybe they could have saved things….but now…it was too……….

There was a bright flash of lighting, it seemed, or perhaps bright light. Screeching. Wind, though the windows were power controlled and definitely not down. She felt a crunch around where the seatbelt normally encased her stomach, and felt suddenly very light. She was outside the car somehow. Walking. And then she saw what happened.

They’d been in an accident. Yet, she was not hurt. She looked down, and saw no evidence of injuries. Robert, however, was another matter. She saw him, cut horribly, pinned in the driver’s seat by the damnable seat belt, making horrible sounds of agony, moving his hands to try to clear the stream of blood which was freely flowing into his eyes. She raced to the driver’s side of the door. But it would not open. Stuck. She looked around for her purse in the car. For a phone….but the car was crumpled so many ways there was no way in.

She heard behind her approaching sirens. And from nearby, a car’s horn going off with mournful intensity. She looked at the car with which they collided for the first time. It was a white sedan, its front also horribly mangled. Had they hit head on? If so, how had she escaped? She saw the police approach and the paramedics come running up. She called to them to help Robert.

They ignored her.

She cried out again, just as one of them got to the car. “He looks pretty much done.” One of the paramedics said to the other as they prepared to open the car with a prying device that Jessica had heard referred to as the Jaws of Life. Robert had said something about them once……

“Okay Barnett, you’ve done it this time.” Jessica saw the Sheriff, a short, burly fellow walking towards the other driver. “How much did you have tonight?

“Only a few drinks, man, it wasn’t me! That fellow crossed the line. It wasn’t me this time, I swear to God!”

“You’d better hope it wasn’t you.” The Sherrif was saying, turning back to look at Jessica and their wrecked car. “If we find that it was, you’re going away a long time….remember that three time loser law? This will be your last felony.”

“You gotta believe me…..it wasn’t…..” Barnett’s voice trailed off and Jessica turned to look at the progress the paramedics were making. Robert was out of the car, looking horribly injured, too injured to live. On a stretcher, they were checking for signs of respiration, of pulse. Both there. Thank God…..

It occurred to her that she should be soaked, but she wasn’t. Just a bit damp. Everyone else was thoroughly wet. She didn’t ponder it long….would her husband live?

It occurred to her that this wasn’t the way she wanted it to end. Yes, she’d planned to end it a different way when they got home that evening, but not like this….not like this. She heard them say that he’d stopped breathing….and watched in horrified, mute fascination as the two paramedics tried to save him…….no, not like this. Please God, no………

She wondered what life would be like as a widow. She had no worries about being provided for. Robert was as strict as a Scotsman in his saving habits, and had more than enough insurance. But what would her life be like? She saw herself going through all the business of the funeral, the days after. The days when all the friends were gone, the flowers had died and been thrown away. The food had been eaten or given away that had been brought. When the girls had gone back home. And Jessica, would be alone in a home that really hadn’t been a home in many, many years….

In time, people would expect her to go out socially again. The people at work would find some nice man, possibly another widower or divorced to introduce her to. They would expect her to get on with life….and she supposed eventually she would…….but these final moments were telling her that maybe she’d been wrong about the way she’d been ready to dispose of her marriage as if nothing mattered except her boredom and her feelings of being ‘done’ with how things were with her and Robert.

Maybe, just maybe, she might want to try again. Maybe, the love was still there, just neglected, buried, wounded….like her husband was…….from the place she was standing, she saw the paramedics still working on him……and all she could think of was wanting him to live. She wished with all of her strength that he would live……..that he would. She would go to marriage counseling, she was try to be kinder…..she would be more encouraging….she would try to help him past the drinking…..if he would just live…..

Just then, he began to respond. Jessica covered her mouth with her hands, at the point of weeping. She heard the policemen that had driven up talking to the Sheriff. They walked past her, shining flashlights……ignoring her.

“We saw a purse in there……but no one else there…..have you looked everywhere?” She heard the Sheriff asking one of his men.

A horrible feeling hit her just then. “Her purse was there…….she wasn’t. They ignored her……could it be? And then, she turned, just as a flashlight fell on a bright blue object, crumpled in the ditch. She knew what it was before anyone said anything. The blue was the blue of the dress she had worn to the party. She’d been thrown from the car. Yet, she was walking around……..hearing everything….so very strange……….but then, she knew.

It would not be her that would be the widow. Not her that had to learn to live alone after the funeral was over. Not her that concerned friends would play matchmaker for. It would be Robert. Robert, who was coming around, vital signs steady, being loaded into the ambulance.

She walked over to him, not sure what to say or do. As she climbed up into the ambulance, she saw a door open behind him. A door to something…else. Full of bright, warm, welcoming light. ….a door that was tugging at her to enter into it……

Robert had opened his eyes, and gave her a half-hearted smile. “Guess I really messed up this time, didn’t I?” He said. She shook her head, tenderly and touched his cheek. “You just get better, don’t worry about it.” She said.

“What will I do without you?” He said….and then, suddenly, she realised that neither of them had stopped loving each other. It had been lost, forgotten, pushed to the side, but never had it ever stopped….and the love was there still inside her.

“You’ll do fine.” She said, and gave him a gentle kiss.

Then, with one last loving look, she turned from him, and stood up to walk towards the door which was pulling on her even more strongly. She had ceased to resist. As she walked to the door, she carried that love with her– for her husband, her children, for all that had been part of her life, and found that in the final moments, it was all that was worth keeping.

-30-

 

The Girl Who Danced With The Prince of Wales (Short Story)


By Laura Kathryn Rogers @2012

“The most important thing you need to know,” Julia Parway said, “Is how to deal with Nella.”

At the age of 42, I, Anthony Bainbridge, son of a stone mason, had been hired as the youngest administrator  that Sedley’s Place, an elite retirement home had ever had. I was eager to start off on the right foot.

“I know you are wondering why its priority that Sedley’s top man needs to know about a specific resident.” She said.

“Indeed.”

“Nella is special. A resident for twenty years. No living family. Only child of Lord Patrick Lipton, former Labour M.P. He was fairly outspoken during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

“Infamous, you mean.” I said, smiling. “Probably the most loathed man in the Isle. Sided with Kruschev if I recall.”

“Nella made her debutante debut that year. She was  reigning debutante, but she never married.”

“Very unusual.” I commented.

“Well, she didn’t feel it necessary.  Lord Lipton left her very wealthy when he died. She was only 30, then, and very adventuresome. She didn’t like the men who wanted her money, land and her father’s title. So she stayed single. Traveled widely. She came to us after she broke her hip when she was 68. She’s totally mended since then.”

“You said, adventuresome?”

“Very much so. And quite lucid. Nella is almost 89 years old. Lovely. Charming. Intimidating if crossed. A great conversationalist. Some would also say…..she is bewitching.”

Julia gave me a long, keen look, and lowered the boom.

“Nella is house royalty. But she shares her father’s extreme labour-oriented views. Don’t coddle her. She despises it. She is very private and independent. Never enter her room, or even knock unless invited to visit. And if you hear music inside her room, you must not knock at all.”

“Nothing difficult so far.” I said.

Julia wagged a finger at me. “Ah, here’s the twist.”

Of course, I thought. There had to be something. I considered possibilities. Did Lord Lipton’s daughter have a penchant for setting fires? No, hadn’t read any accounts of geriatric arson or latent pyromania in The Mail..….Did Lady Nella tipple from a private stash? Possibly….but one could deal with oft-drunken 88 year old…..

“The thing you must humor Nella about….is her belief that she danced with the Prince of Wales.” Julia said, carefully.

“Pardon?” I frowned, trying to understand. “Perhaps, Julia, she did. Not, as a debutante….he wasn’t invested then….but later, perhaps? In the 70’s? Or in the Diana years?”

“Not that Prince of Wales.” Julia’s eyes shone with impish satisfaction.

“Ah, then, I’m afraid you have me at a loss,” Seeing the smug look on Julia’s face frustrated me. ” Well, are you going to let me in on this delicious little secret?”

“The bonnie Prince David…the Late Duke of Windsor. That Prince of Wales. ”

“It’s possible.” I said, stubbornly. “He was a contemporary of her father. The Windsor’s came back to England occasionally after the abdication. Or, she might have gone to France, and been received in their home.”

“Not last month.” Julia said sweetly.

Now, it made sense. I nodded. “Then she’s mad.” I said. “Lucidly mad.”

“Perhaps you should meet. She’s expecting us.” Julia said. She turned on her smart black heels and walked away, leaving me to follow her.

No matter how often I walked the facility halls, I always admired them. The light peach paint with understated rose and greenery border made for a cheerful atmosphere. Also, there was the  tasteful use of Monet prints, and reproductions of a few Rodin statues. All very charming. Well-tended greenery and cool looking, white marble floors completed the picture.

We came to a mahogany door, which led to Nella’s suite of rooms. I’d been told that no expense had been spared when she committed to living at Sedley.

Julia, paused, knocked. No answer. Tentatively repeated. Still, nothing. She waited.

On the other side of the door, I heard a feminine giggle.

“She likes to take her time. ” Julia said. “We’ll wait.”

The door opened to a tall, stylish woman who could have easily passed for 50. She wore a turquoise evening gown, with a light scattering of seed-pearls around a scoop-necked collar. There was one perfect strand of pearls with a matching bracelet and earrings. A tiara set off masses of white curls elaborately pulled up and falling about the sides of her head in a feigned disarray. She wore just enough makeup without seeming garish. Her eyes were ageless sapphire. She was breathtaking.

“How do you do, Ma’m?” Julia said. Her voice held an implied curtsy, although her body did not provide one. A twinkle of amusement lit Nella’s bright eyes.

“Julia, my dear.” Nella seemed unaware that I existed. I was suddenly filled with a childish impulse to do something to get her attention.

Then, there! She was looking at me, as if bestowing grace. Indeed, that was what it felt like.

“Is this the new director? ” Nella’s voice was proper Oxford-scented English, with a deep, husky quality. I could see why she’d been a leading debutante.

“Yes. This is Anthony Bainbridge, Nella.”

Nella extended her hand. For a moment, I felt confused. Should I gently shake it, or kiss it? I took the small, slender hand, unblemished with age. Lost in her charismatic gaze, I forgot her age or my own. The moment passed. Julia cleared her throat behind me.

“I’ve spoken well of you. You mustn’t let me down, Anthony.” Julia said, with an irritating lilt in her voice. But I forgot that quickly. How could one be irritated in the presence of a goddess?

“I’m sure that Julia has told you that I value my privacy? Other than a few hobbies, I rarely leave my rooms. I have no need, you see.”

She opened the door so that I could see a bit of her sitting room. It was not cluttered with knick-knacks as were most elderly patron’s rooms. Instead, there was tasteful art, china, delicate antique furniture, bright throw pillows…a comfortable home.

“Beautiful.” I said, not sure whether I was speaking of the room or of its occupant.

“Wallis and I became good friends, later….” Nella was saying. ” In spite of David’s prior allegiance to me.” She turned, to signal the end of the conversation. “You’ll have to meet her sometime. She’s very stylish. Wicked sense of humor…..tasteless at times, but she is………..American. No doubt, you’ve met a few.”

“Yes.” Then, the ethereal ancient goddess slipped behind the door and it closed. Reality and common sense came back with unwelcome harshness.

“How far do we tolerate her delusion?” I asked, helplessly.

“Anthony.” Julia said, reprovingly, “All the way.”

She began to walk back towards the office, still talking. “She’s harmless, really. Just follow her rules. She gets very upset if she is disturbed at the wrong time. When the music is playing. When she is dancing.”

I shook my head. “Dancing…alone.”

“Not in her view…….and a few people…… well…….never mind. I’ve never seen anything.”  After that, Julia became strangely unwilling to discuss Nella further.

Weeks passed and I settled into the new job. I made sure the new staff were aware of Nella’s rules. Af first, I rarely saw her, but I often thought about her. What had happened to this breed of woman? Intelligent, spunky, beautiful, but natural.  She seemed the last of a dying breed. Why had she never married?

I became acquainted with a young woman, Gina Barnes, who I had known slightly at university. Gina was divorced, just starting to date.  We were both vegetarians, avid gardeners and rabid Manchester football fans. Gina was a banker and enjoyed talking shop with me.  Soon we began to date and became very close.

She helped me find a lovely cottage within walking distance of work. We decorated it together. We enjoyed the ample yard which included a brook with an ancient stone bridge. We often sat in the yard and enjoyed Chardoniet while watching magnificent sunsets.

I didn’t love her, but that didn’t bother me. To me, compatibility and mutual interests were more important. Love wasn’t necessary. I knew, however, that Gina loved me, and sometimes, I felt guilty. That guilt made me double my efforts to treat her well. In time, I even considered marrying her.

We only disagreed about one thing. Nella.

At first, Gina enjoyed hearing about her. Some quaint story or thing she had said. Then, Gina seemed a bit distracted when I brought Nella up. Then, Gina’s smile became forced, and she would change the subject. As time went on, Gina seemed irritated when the subject of Nella (though not about any other aspect of my work) came up.

Confused, I tried not to bring her up as much. I wondered if Gina could be jealous of the decades older grande dame. The idea was too ridiculous. I pushed it out of my mind.

As time went on, Nella had started coming out of her rooms more frequently. She would seek me out, and I was always delighted to see her. She always had some interesting tale. Some urbane comment that Wallis or Thelma Furness had made…at the last dance.

I had learned to keep a straight face and just listen. I wondered if Nella was a history buff. The tales she told about the late Duchess and the equally late Madame Furness were so detailed. If one didn’t know better, one would think that she truly had known them…..although the later had died before Nella was born.

Then, not long after, Nella took ill. I had missed her visits and was told by her nurse that she had double pneumonia.  It was dangerous to move her, so her doctor visited her, sometimes several times daily. The staff were frequently in her rooms, sitting with her, reading to her, encouraging her to eat or drink something.

I had found that she liked Shelley and Wordsworth, so I would read their poems to her, even when her fever was high, and she didn’t seem to know that anyone was there. I was vigilant that her pillows were kept plumped up and her bedding was comfortable and fresh. Sometimes, I would pray for her, although my last prayers had been as a schoolboy. And slowly, Nella came back to us.

One day while I was reading Wordsworth, I felt a light touch on my arm. Nella’s bright blue eyes smiled at me. “I especially love that one. How did you know?” She asked.

“I didn’t.” I stammered, tempted to claim the opposite. But how could I? The truth was, I just wanted to please her, bring her back to her old healthy self. She had become very important to me, and her illness had made this clear to me.

I spent the rest of the day with her, and was delighted when her doctor came in, and pronounced her past the crisis place. Returning to my office, I found that Gina had called four times. Annoyed, I wondered what she wanted, and grudgingly called her back. I was somewhat brief on the phone and was relieved when the conversation was over.

Soon, Nella was well enough for rides in her wheelchair. I would push her through Sedley’s magnificent gardens, or even into the small town nearby of the same name. Any errand she needed, if I couldn’t personally see to it, I would make sure someone immediately took care of it.

I personally prepared her tea the way she liked it, and made sure her favorite magazines were within easy reach of wherever she happened to be sitting. Soon, she was walking again. Not much longer after that, her doctor pronounced her fully well. The dark cloud that seemed to hang over Sedley’s was gone.

Then, I realised that I had neglected Gina terribly. I had been slow to return phone calls, and had canceled most of our dates. I had not called, telling her only that Nella was ill and I was needed at the facility. However, the worst part, was I hadn’t missed Gina. This troubled me. I had considered, early on, asking Gina to marry me. Now, I rarely thought of it.

Not sure what to do, I called Gina, and suggested dinner. Gina seemed distant, but agreed. We decided that we would prepare a meal together, as had been our custom before Nella became ill. The evening came, and I found myself procrastinating, not really wanting to go. However, I showed up on time, and looked my best.

Gina was not affectionate that evening, and this surprised me. She was quiet, tentative. The silence was heavy as we prepared the meal, the opposite of how it once had been. After a dozen derailed attempts at conversation. I found myself wondering how long I had to stay before I could politely make an excuse to go home. To my embarrassment, Gina caught me looking at my watch.

She smiled, though the expression seemed contrived. “So, how is your favorite resident?”

“Hmmm? Oh, she’s on her feet again, good as new. We were quite worried.”

“I know you were.” Gina said gently, setting down a wonderful smelling lentil soup. “I didn’t see much of you while she was ill.”

“Oh, sorry…..” I said, smiling, patting Gina’s hand.  I was shocked to see her recoil from my touch. “It’s just…….she’s so special, she’s our most colorful resident………so interesting, so…..”

An wistful look crossed Gina’s lovely face. “I wish I could compete.”

“Pardon?” I sputtered, “With who?”

Her………Nella. You talk about her so much….so lovingly.”

“Dont’ be absurd! I do nothing of the sort!”

“You don’t hear yourself. I do. If it were your Mother, I’d understand. Or a beloved Aunt. Something, anything to make me think that it’s not more……..”

My face flushed, and I felt defensive anger rising. “Gina, I know I’ve been away a lot. I was just concerned about her. She’s got no family, She’s outlived them all! I promise we’ll spend more time together………I don’t mean to talk about her……”

“Like an infatuated boy?” Gina asked gently. “I wonder if your work is about its own merit anymore…….or if it’s just a chance to spend time with her. You’re devoted.”

I got more defensive. Gina, more insistent. It became the most dreadful row.

When I left Gina’s home later, she was no longer my girlfriend. I walked the short distance to the facility, wondering how Gina could be so foolish. Nella was 89. I was 42. How could she be anything to me except a special resident? How could Gina be jealous of something that was clearly impossible?

To my surprise, Nella was sitting in one the oversized wicker chairs at the front. She was sipping a glass of white wine. There was an empty glass next to her. She smiled fetchingly. “Please sit. I knew you’d be coming along.”

“Did you?” I asked, sitting obediently.

“Yes, just instinct. I even knew you’d be troubled. And, here you are, and that is how you look. Like you lost your best friend.”

“I’m minus a girlfriend, actually.” I said, smiling at her humbly. “You wouldn’t believe what we argued about. And I dont’ think I want to say.”

Nella poured me a glass. “There, drink. Don’t say anything. Enjoy the breeze. Relax.”

It was easy to accede to her wishes. Easy to forget that this ancient, charming hostess was, in fact, ancient.  A pleasant hour passed with very little conversation. Far too soon, she stood up, after re-filling my glass. “Enjoy. I have a dance to attend. I’ll see you soon.”

A bit tipsy, I stayed, intending to go to my office. Instead, I found myself walking the hallway, towards Nella’s suite. To thank her, for being kind, and to return her wine glass……..

To my surprise the door to Nella’s rooms was ajar. Alarm seized me. Was she unwell?

I stopped at the threshold and pushed the door open just enough to see in………

The room was hung with tapestries, rich with vivid colours. There were several women wearing tiaras, priceless jewels and exquisite gowns from Worth and Chanel. They milled about what was not Nella’s rooms, but a crowded ballroom. Escorts, in vintage clothing, expertly guided them.

In the center, a ravishing blonde woman, in a turquoise, flapper-style dress was extending a gloved hand to an equally dapper, blonde young man. He wore a gray, cutaway coat, in excellent taste, again vintage. For a moment, he glanced my way. I froze as our eyes met.

Old film. Photos. It was him, Dancing with Nella.

Nella looked as she must have in her twenties. She glanced at me, smiled flirtatiously. Then, she lowered her eyes, and began to dance with the Prince of Wales.

Gulping, I stepped back, and pulled the door shut. The sound of closing seemed terribly loud, like a thunderclap. Then, silence was total. The music in the room beyond ceased.

Moments later, a tall, slender banshee issued forth from the room. Nella.

“Who did it? Who?” She was every bit of  a graceful 89 again. Lovely, elderly…and furious.

Stammering, I managed……”It was I, Ma’m. I’m sorry, I must have been intoxicated….I saw, I thought I saw……..I most humbly apologize.”

“You made him go away……We were at the Fort! It was the week before he met Wallis! I had a chance…….do you understand what you did?” She cried out, plaintively.

What could I say to her? How could I comfort her? Then, I realized that I didn’t want to. That I was jealous. Of him. I didn’t want her to dance with him. Anyone who knew history knew what David Windsor was! A womanizer, a user of women, careless and uncaring about the hearts he broke. Only Wallis had been different. After her, for the remainder of his life, he never looked elsewhere. Didn’t Nella know what she’d be getting? Why set herself up for heartbreak?

“Its alright, Anthony.” Nella said gently……”Maybe it can’t be changed.” She turned on a slippered heel and went into her room, and shut it firmly. I stood there for a moment. Cold realization flowed over me. If Nella was insane, I was right with her. Why be jealous of a delusion?

I went home, stared at the cold fireplace until my eyes were sore, then dozed. My sleep was filled with odd dreams, some of Nella as a young woman, some as she currently was. In the dreams, I was dressed in vintage clothing, and I was dancing with her.  Then, the alarm clock broke it all up for another day.

Weeks passed and the incident was forgotten. Nella seemed to have forgiven me, and would come by, talk to me about her latest dance or social event. I only half-listened because I was gearing up for the annual board of goverors meeting at the facility.  This would be where I got my ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ mark as an administrator. Our facility being filled or having satisfied residents meant little compared to whether the board approved of me.

I planned a detailed report of my accomplishments since I began work there, but knew more was expected. The governors board meeting was the social event of the year for the area. There had to be exquisite food, dancing, entertainment. Julia, my predecessor, had been explicit on this. Planning and hosting such things was definitely not my forte. Nella saw that I was distracted and commented.

“Oh, I had forgotten. It’s that time of year again. The governors’ meeting? Don’t worry. You’ll do fine.” She said.

I smiled, feeling some of my anxiety go as I listened to her calming words. She could do that for me, without even speaking. I had often noted that just sitting next to her on the porch had a peaceful effect. “You seem very confident in me.”

“Remember how long I’ve been here? I know the board. Wankers all.” I raised an eyebrow at this sudden crude comment from such a lovely face. She raised her own brow, and I saw that she was teasing me, try to get a rise……again, it hit me, how delightful she was, and how all those years ago she would have been hard to resist……even now………

“The evening that Thelma Furness canceled out and I had to hostess……..oh, David loved the menu I made up……..”

I’d learned to keep my face stoic when she mentioned her time with the Prince.

“I’ll rescue you, Tony.” She said, smiling impishly. “I’ll plan the perfect evening for you, right down to the recipes. I have friends in the area who will come, provide the music, everything you need. Just call them and tell them that Lady Nella would like them to be here.”

“I thought you didn’t like to be addressed that way.” I said, teasing her.

“I don’t.” She said. “But they like to address me that way. So, when it works for me, I let them. Ta for now, dear one. I’ll bring you all the details later. I’ll even ask Wallis for advice. She’s horrible, but a genius with these things. I’ll tell you what she suggests.”

Then, she was gone, leaving me to ponder my fate. Nella and the ghosts from her parties planning the most crucial event of my career? Risky, possibly insane. But how could I tell her no?

Hours later, she brought me, in her delicate, careful handwriting, a full plan for a delightful evening. In blue pencil she had “W” for ideas that she said Wallis Simpson had contributed. I looked at the items for the suggested meal, and the names of the people who she suggested entertain. A renowned violinist, a virtuoso pianist. After she left, I called the phone numbers, expecting agents. Instead, I had their direct lines. They were eager to accept. Every bit of Nella’s plans seemed perfect.

I went over the menus with Ward Thanner, the lead chef of Sedley’s dining department. He was joyous over Nella’s contribution. “She never does this! Why, all of a sudden?” He smiled mischievously. “I think the old girl is getting mellow, at last, and you’re a great influence on her! Before, she’s didn’t give anyone the time of day…..too busy with her imaginary romps….”

“They’re not imaginary!” I shouted. When I saw Ward’s startled expression, I forced myself to be calm. “Not to her, they aren’t. As long as they are not harmful to anyone, we shouldn’t tease her. About anything.” I put enough firmness in my voice that Ward immediately dropped the subject and went to look for some of the items the recipes required.

Ward and his staff carried out Nella’s recipes to perfection. Everything she had suggested was done, and even I was astounded by how our dining area seemed to be transformed to a palatial appearance. I had considered bringing a date, but Gina wasn’t speaking to me, and no one else seemed appropriate. I stood, greeting all the governors, feeling stiff and uncomfortable. In my heart, despite the perfection around me, I felt something crucial was missing.

Finally, I realized what it was. Nella wasn’t there.

It was only right. I could see her in a tasteful ballgown, walking around, chatting with the board, looking beautiful, charming everyone. Making everyone feel comfortable, while I would be proudly in the background watching my wonderful…….

I stopped myself sharply. This was mad. Nella was 89 years old. I was 42. Gina might have been right. Perhaps there was some sort of infatuation for her. If so, I would simply have to get over it. The whole thing was impossible. I was the facility director. She was a lovely old woman who entertained the notion that she could escape, at will, to other times, and dance with notable men of her choice.

And yet, I had seen it. With my own eyes. I had seen them. Together, dancing. It had been completely real. And then, it had been….gone.  Again, that horrible sensation of jealousy lurched around in my gut.

The board meeting was a success, and the governors told me that my tenure at Sedleys was assured. I mechanically responded to them, doubting their words. I thought of what I had witnessed in Nella’s room, the delusions that provided part of the basis for this evening. How long could I function and believe these things true?

Instead of going to my office, I went to talk to Nella. I needed to reason with her. Try to extricate myself from everything. Thank her for her help, but put distance between us. I got to the door, and saw that it was open. Again, I heard laughter, music, and celebration.

I didn’t waver. I walked in. This was a different room, perhaps in a palace. Nella, looked divine in a sea-green gown. Beside her, stood David Windsor. Beside him, stood a tall, Olive-Owl looking woman who I knew to be Wallis Warford Simpson.

The butler took a coat that I didn’t know I had. I looked down, and saw my tuxedo was gone. Instead I wore the same type of vintage garments the other men in the room wore.

Behind me, there was no door to the other place……the world where I’d grown up. It was gone.

Another man would have panicked. Begged to go back to the world that birthed him. However, Nella began to walk towards me, and I forgot everything else. The Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson followed closely behind her.

“Grand to meet you, Tony!” The Prince of Wales said enthusiastically, his voice that odd mix of upper-class English, New York Bronx and Cockney. I recalled the last time I’d heard it, as a student, listening to his abdication speech. When he gave up his throne for Wallis….the woman he loved.

I looked at Nella, wondering what I’d be asked to give up for her. It occurred to me that there was nothing, other than her that I was interested in keeping.

“Nella told us all about you!” I heard Mrs. Simpson saying. “You’ll have to be a good boy and stick around. I’m sure David can help you get things sorted out…..a good situation, digs, all that….” Wallis said, pumping my hand as strongly as a man.

The Prince seemed delighted with her suggestions, or perhaps, orders. I thanked her, and felt Nella’s hand on my arm. I felt like an anxious schoolboy who’d finally found the right school to attend.

“You two should dance. Nella is delightful that way. I’ve danced with her many times….” David Windsor said, a big grin across his face.

So, not missing the old world at all, I took Nella’s hand and led her to the ballroom floor and we started our first dance.

 

 

These days, each morning is a wonder. Nella personally makes my coffee, and often sits with me on the porch. We are fortunate to have our health despite being in our late eighties. Occasionally, we still indulge in a bit of ballroom dancing.

I know that I have been blessed in life and in love. To think that, I, Anthony Bainbridge, with no title, no inheritance, nothing, was able to steal the heart of Nella Lipton, the most eligible debutante, in England in 1933! After we married, our friends were very kind to us, and helped me get my start in banking. A very successful career followed.

Nella and I became active in philanthropy, and towards the end of my fifties, the Queen granted me an honorary knighthood. We were not able to have children, but copied our dearest friends Wallis and David Windsor in adopting Pugs. We adored the creatures, and always had one or two in our home until illness and age forced us to move into our suite at Sedley’s retirement community.

It has been a good life.

“Sir?” I turn my head, and see the departing Administrator, Julia Parway. I thought Julia too ingratiating, and was relieved when I found she was being replaced.

“I’d like to introduce you to Tony Bainbridge,  my replacement. It’s an amazing coincidence! Did you know you share the same name, first and last?” Julia said.

The young man seemed startled to see me. However, I must confess to you, the feeling was mutual.

You see, he reminded me so closely of myself, that he could have been my twin at the same age. Julia continued with her comments. “The difference, of course, is he likes to be called Tony. And you, don’t.  But Tony, I’m sure, knows how to address a peer of the realm.

“Julia.” I said, gently. “I actually do like to be called Tony. The Duke of Windsor started that….years ago. Young man! Most impressed with your education, I took a first in business at Magdalen University, myself, just like you…..is something wrong?”

The younger Mr. Bainbridge had gone sheet white. I was not sure why. Julia looked at both of us, for once, unable to think of something to say. I jumped in, hating the awkward feeling. “My wife, Nella, has gone inside to rest. I can’t wait for you to meet her. She is delightful.”

“Indeed.” The younger man was able to get out, relieving my concerns that he might be mute.

“Yes. She danced with the Prince of Wales, a few times, you know.”

The Image (@2009)


It may have been his best friend as often as he directed long, loving looks at it. And it never disappointed him. It was always there, always the same, always yielding a pleasant result.

Yes, Spencer Hawthorne and his dressing room mirror were pretty tight.

Awake. Two cups coffee, black. Meticulous shower. Shaving. Each use of the razor like the stroke of a lover. Care to combing and styling of hair to reflect a look suggesting that God just kept it in a tumbled mass of ebony curls.

Clothes, last. Clothes to accentuate bodily perfection. A strong, well developed chest from years of careful diet and exercise. An almost girlishly slender waist. Trim hips. Bow-shaped legs of a runner. All hinted at through clothing, yet still decently displayed. He preferred bright colors which brought out the velvet darkness of his eyes, and the olive color of his skin. His shirts always pressed, open just enough to show female passersby a tantalizing bit of curly black chest hair escaping over an impeccable white undershirt. Tailored pants, patterned socks, brown leather loafers, just old enough, always immaculate.

If he was always conscious of eyes upon him, it was because, generally, they always were. It made him weary sometimes, but he’d learned to cope with it. He’d been an almost seriphicially beautiful child, and now, as a man in his early forties, he could still be called ‘beautiful’ without it sounding foolish. The rosebud had simply turned to a mature and ripened flower.

If weather required, there was a Burberry trench coat of a warm chocolate color. Suitable to go with all that Spencer owned. He was never caught in the rain. No one had ever seen him look flushed, or even perspiring.

He grabbed a slice of whole wheat toast. Devoured it plain. Scrubbed his perfectly aligned teeth mercilessly and sweetened his breath. Grooming complete, Spencer Hawthorne stepped out to head to his office where he was a publishing executive, and had been for nearly seven years.

On the walk over, he allowed himself some time to brood. The last week had been very unpleasant. For the first time in his career with Byron and Bryon Publishing, he’d had a disagreeable encounter with someone. He’d always been able to get along with anyone. Now, it had happened. And, amazingly enough, it was with someone he normally would not even notice.

He thought of how it all started the Monday prior. He’d gone for a cup of coffee at the downstairs lounge when he heard the office manager, Betty Alberta, and another woman, with a disturbing, high pitched voice talking. Something had made him stop and listen. To his surprise and shock, they were discussing him.

“Does he even like women?” The squeaky voice asked.

“Oh, yes. Socialites. Famous beauties. Starlets. Models. That type.” He heard Mrs. Alberta say.

“Oh well, what a relief for us girls then….I mean it would be such a waste….”

“Well don’t let Mr. Hawthorne hear you discussing his looks, Kyra. He gets furious if you compliment him. Or do more than give him an admiring glance.”

“Why ever for?” Kyra, the owner of the high pitched voice, seemed almost miffed in tone. “It’s obvious he puts huge effort into his looks. Does he just like to tease us poor girls?”

“He gets the notice of the one who means the most to him, Kyra.” Mrs. Alberta said patiently. “You’ll soon see what I mean.”

Just then, steps coming close to the door made him back up and feign innocence of the conversation. Mrs. Alberta greeted him, in a way that suddenly struck him as superficial. The same as always, though—why hadn’t he noticed it before?

Kyra looked much like her voice suggested. Dull and limp ash brown hair, grey eyes, tiny and shiny like lumps of polished lead. No attempt at make up. A hopelessly out of date horror of a pink lacy shirt and grey skirt that showed how little nature had shown grace to her almost boyish figure. Sensible black shoes that seemed to shout to the world her seeming intent to be as plain as humanly possible.

Judgment passed, he gave her a brief and curt nod and went to the communal coffee pot.

That week, each time he had reason to be in the reception area, Kyra seemed to be overly aware of his presence. She would stop whatever she was doing, and stare admiringly at him. No one else seemed to notice but him. Spencer found it appallingly impertinent. Probably, he told himself with disgust, one of those ‘new women’ who felt free to be mannish and aggressive under all the frills and flounces that seemed to get more hideous with each days new outfit.

Normally, he paid little attention to people around him unless they were right in front of him, talking to him, or meeting with him. But this dull drab of a secretary, this Kyra, made it impossible not to notice her with all her gaping and voyeuristic interest. Once, when he met her eyes, he thought that he did know her from somewhere, and indeed, it seemed that she might have been waiting for him to remember, where…..but how would he have forgotten such a rude and presumptuous creature?

He was curious the early part of the week, and gave it some thought. But by Thursday, he found himself more irritated than curious. By Friday morning, he’d had enough. She’d taken to getting up and being in the coffee lounge at the time he always went for coffee, and standing there, just looking at him. It was time to stop this obsessive interest, or whatever it was, Spencer thought firmly. Stop it in its cradle before it truly got bizarre.

He went to her desk that Friday morning, quite aware of the discreet but admiring looks that Kyra’s coworkers gave him as he passed. Kyra looked at him steadily as he neared her. She never averted her eyes. So bold. With something like amusement on her lack luster, thin lips. Could she find him amusing?

The mere possibility of this threw him into a passion.

“Ma’m I must ask you to confine your attentions to the work you have at hand.” He said, more sharply than he intended to.

“What?” The squeak seemed more pronounced in Kyra’s surprised voice.

“Your attentions. You seem fascinated with me. Please direct that fascination elsewhere. It is not welcomed.”

“Is there a problem, Mr. Hawthorne?” Mrs. Alberta was on the spot, her face all seeming concern, but her eyes full of curiosity….or….. amusement…..her too? Whatever could the joke be?

“No, Mrs. Alberta. I think I’ve made myself very clear to Kyra.”

He turned on a finely leathered heel and went toward the glass walls and doors that surrounded the reception area. He noted as he drew near that the highly polished glass showed that his color was high, even for his olive skin. It was agreeable, although he didn’t approve of the means causing it.

The rest of the day passed without incident. As he was preparing for home that evening, he heard a girlish giggle from the hallway, and an answering chuckle from a man.

“Narcissus, you say?”

“Yes. One of my favorite stories.”

“I’ll have to watch what I do, Kyra. You’re quite insightful after only a few day’s observation.”

Spencer heard the giggle again. “Thank you, Mr. Phillips. I never mean it for harm, only a chance for the person to learn…..if they can. But looks like I have my work cut out for me……..with him.”

By the time, Spencer got to his door, the two were on the elevator. Suddenly the bit of conversation came together for him. Narcissus. Of course! A man in love with his image, in an ancient Greek pool. A quaint, cautionary tale about vanity. She was mocking him to Mr. Phillips, Spencer’s supervisor! All because he’d calmly set some ground rules with her, an impertinent mouse of a secretary!

He fumed most of the weekend, but managed to be calm by Monday. Maybe he’d misunderstood. Maybe he was wrong. Surely, he had to be. He would just go back in, do his job impeccably, as he had done for years. And if Kyra continued to be insolent, he’d discuss it with Mrs. Alberta, her boss. It was just that simple. Surely job security was more important to the young woman than indulging a curiosity that was almost….indecent.

With hope for a peaceful week, Spencer walked to his job. It was his habit each day to stop, chat a few moments with Connor, the ancient doorman who’d dutifully opened his doors for him each day of the seven-plus years that he’d worked for the publishing company. This day was like every other. Today’s topic…the gray weather, the smell of thunder in the distance…lighting bolts dropping from the sky, unusual for April…….and this day, Spencer had left his umbrella…perhaps the storm would pass by the time work was done.

In the secretarial pool, he stopped, went to look at the appointment book Mrs. Alberta kept for him and other account executives. Nothing unusual. A 10, a 12, a late lunch with a new client, a 4 o’clock staff meeting. He glanced over to where the plain Kyra usually sat. She wasn’t there. Someone else was.

And what a person. A vision of an angel. Mrs. Alberta was talking to her, apparently explaining the contents of a manila file. The woman looked up and made eye contact with Spencer. He was freshly amazed by what he saw. Long, thick blond curls. Large, doe-like eyes that were a heavenly shade of blue. She wore what appeared to be a smart, tailored violet dress/suit. She was petite, yet womanly. All this could be summed up quickly in one, awe-filled glance. He heard her answer Mrs. Alberta, and his heart began to pound. Her voice was like one long, joyful song. Something exotic about it, a trace of an accent…so familiar…where had he heard it before?

Spencer knew he was staring at this ethereal goddess, but he didn’t care. He glanced at his reflection in the glass wall, and, satisfied, stepped up closer, gaining the attention of the two women.
Suddenly her sapphire eyes met his.

Narcissus. The word hung in the air, like a child’s whisper.

He swore he’d heard it, but her lips hadn’t moved.

Narcissus………

Again, that lilting, musical voice…dragging the name out a bit longer, this time. Still, her mouth didn’t move. Was it some intricate practical joke?

Where was the girl from Friday? The obnoxious mouse who couldn’t keep her eyes to herself? “Where is Kyra, Mrs. Alberta?” He demanded, louder and more strongly than he meant to do.

Mrs. Alberta raised overly tweezed eyebrows in apparent confusion. “This, Mr. Hawthorne, is Kyra. Kyra Theodoridis…..Have you met before? This is her first day here. She wasn’t here Friday.”

“How ridiculous!” Spencer snorted, aware that he was attracting a lot of attention to himself. “They can’t be the same person! The other was……..” He almost said ‘ugly’ but managed to stop himself, “not at all, professional, I was going to say something to you, today about the matter….”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hawthorne. I’m mystified. But Kyra, here, is assigned to be your personal secretary. She will manage your appointment book, and take your messages. She comes highly recommended.”

Narcissus………

Again the voice, without lips…….could she be a ventriloquist? If so, why play such a childish trick? How could someone so beautiful be so mean-spirited?

Narcissus……….Now, the voice came from behind him.

Narcissus…….Now, it was to both sides of him. Then, like a chorus of rippling drops of rain, the name was pronounced, again and again.

“This is insane!” Spencer clapped his hands over his ears and fled, nearly running from the reception room. He didn’t need to look at the reflecting glass to know what he looked like. It was the image of a very frightened man.

He took the rest of the day off, a request easily granted because in seven years, he’d never asked for a single vacation or sick day. He found an isolated bar and drank until he didn’t think about Kyra or the multitude of voices. He fell into his bed and slept until late the next morning. Called in sick. Another request granted, seemingly without concern. He nursed a savage hangover throughout the day, slept more. Felt well again on Wednesday.

This day, he prepared himself for another typical work day. It would be embarrassing, he thought, seeing Kyra and Mrs. Alberta today, but he was a professional. Cool. Immaculate. Never letting anyone see him ruffled. He’d just been over-tired. It was simply explained if need be, but best to act as if nothing had happened.

He walked up to Connor, the doorman, ready to banter as he’d done every day for the past seven years. This time, he was astounded. The old man not only cut him cold with no greeting, he seemed to look through him and refused to even open the door for him. Puzzled and offended, Spencer opened his own door, and went to the coffee room. A woman he knew slightly from the mail room was there. She walked right past him.

As if he wasn’t……..there.

He swallowed this irrational thought and headed for the mail room. He always had prided himself on picking up his own mail.

His name was no longer on the box.

He’d gotten his mail at the same place everyday for seven years. In place of his name he saw Kyra Theodoridis, Sr. Account Exec. The name was stenciled in hard plastic, and showed signs of wear as if it had always been there.

Always.

In a fright, he looked at all the mailboxes. All names he knew. His was the only one, gone. He heard a rustle behind him. Mrs. Alberta–calm, unflappable, coming in to do whatever she did first thing in the morning.

“Mrs. Alberta!” He said, commandingly, “Something odd….can you explain why….?”

She went past him as if alone in the room, or more aptly, she went through him.

Panic began to tickle at his measured calmness. He called her again. She went out, a package in hand, no sign that she’d heard.

“Mrs. Alberta!” The voice was not his, but he knew it to be his. It sounded, however more like a high-pitched, squeaky scream.

He bolted down the hall. Running into and past countless co-workers he’d known for years. Yet, he seemed feather-light. No one was so much as jarred by his actions. It frightened him even more. He began to weep, tears that were not unlike that of a lost or terrified child.

He got to his (?) office and ran inside. Slammed the door shut. Relief surged through him. All was as he’d left it Monday. All except one thing…
..
There was a large book, open, weathered with age, yet still readable. It appeared to be a book of stories, more accurately, myths. Greek myths. Yet, as Spencer neared the book, he saw something was wrong. A large picture should have been on the page of the first tale. Yet, the picture was blank. Odd.

He looked at the story’s words. It was a familiar.

A beautiful young man saw his image in a quiet pool. He was bewitched and couldn’t look away. A nearby wood nymph Kyrissisa, fell in love with the youth, and longing to love him, was unable to leave his side. She pined away. The gods in their unpredictable and capricious judgment condemned the youth to be an image for all time…….all time…..

“I’ve never been real?” Spencer asked out loud, his head and heart full of what he now knew to be the horrible truth.

“Once.” It was the voice. Silvery. Like bells. Kyra….Kyrissisa. Spencer turned to her. Eons rushed backwards. She looked again as she did then. In flowing gowns befitting a wood nymph. He saw that he now wore the robes he’d worn then. White with silver trim.

“You knew it was me, didn’t you, my love?” She asked.

“Yes.” Suddenly, he did know. Centuries like days. Faces, identities swam before him. Achilles, Solomon, Arthur, Casanova. He had lived all these lives. And more…yet, always the same result. Always, Kryissisa had found him…….

“There was quite a wager going on this time.” She said, gently, a hint of sad amusement in her ageless eyes of blue.

“A wager?” He asked, confused.

“At Olympus. Hera knew I could find you. Bring you back. Father Zeus, not so sure. Especially when you seemed to notice me as a plain, unlovely secretary….we all wondered…could you finally love someone other than yourself?”

“More time…. I could have, with more time…..”

“No, Narcissus. Only when you saw me as someone close to your equal in beauty. Then, only as a possible ornament. Through the ages, you’ve chosen only beautiful ornaments for yourself. Only to use and abandon for something more beautiful…..”

The harsh truth of it hit him at a deep gut level.

“You’ll have another chance….in a few centuries….to redeem yourself……if possible….but now its time to come home with me……I’ve missed you.”

“Home.”

“You know where we’re going.”

The room was suddenly empty of people. Perhaps, no one had ever been there. On the desk, the aged book lay open to an old tale of eons before.

In a once empty space was a stunningly lovely picture. Of a wood nymph looking longingly into a pool. At an image of a man of seraphic beauty. Next to his image, her own, for eternity.

If the curious had looked closely, the pond seemed to ripple once…as if touched by a slowly falling teardrop of regret.

-30–

@LR 2009