Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Piece 3–“Beauty’s Beginning”

Melanie Magaña

Please read the Introduction first. Then continue reading each piece in order.

Click on the following titles to be magically transported to each piece of the triptych.

  1. “Beauty and the Beastess”                        2. Beast’s Beauty”

3. BEAUTY’S BEGINNING

Crappy Ending

“Once upon a time…” That’s how the stories opened.  And we believed it, she and I.

“…and they lived Happily Ever After.”  We believed that too, every word.  But then she met Him.  She believed he was her Prince Charming, the one who would make her the princess in the fairy tale.  I thought at first that he might be too, but soon I knew better.  I don’t know if she ever really got it, but it doesn’t matter now.
The day of Isabel’s funeral dawned bright and sunny, lovely as Isabel herself.  It was ironic and completely unfair. In my head, the storms raged and the clouds hung heavy and dark, blocking every trace of the sun.  She was my best friend, had been my best friend, closer than a sister, the person who knew me best in the world.  Now she was dead.  She’d been beaten to a pulp by an unknown attacker on her way home from serving soup to the hungry at church. She stumbled home somehow, where she died in the tender arms of her grief-stricken and loving husband: that was the official story.  Bullshit!  I know damn well who this “unknown attacker” is. He winked at me during the graveside service, the bastard.

She was excited when he asked her out.  “Mags,” she said, “He’s The One!  He’s Prince Charming!”

“Really? Real-life Prince Charming?” I teased. “Does he have a brother?”

“No, only an older sister. I can’t wait for you to meet him!”

And then I met him.  He was handsome, I’ll grant him that, and he went out of his way to be charming. But this guy was no prince. There was something a little off about him and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“I don’t know, Belle,” I told her later. “I think you can do better.”

“Better? There is nobody better than William. He’s the prize at the bottom of the crackerjack box,” she effused. As for me, I thought he was the prize at the bottom of something, all right, but it wasn’t caramel popcorn. I kept my own counsel though. I’d already made my opinion known, and she was having none of it.  “Oh, Maggie, when I’m with him, I feel like I’m the most beautiful and fascinating woman in the world!  You’ll see…one day you’ll meet someone who makes you feel that way too, and then you’ll understand!”

Ok, sure, I’d never been in love.  Certainly nobody had ever been in love with me.  I couldn’t even imagine feeling pretty, let alone like the most beautiful woman in the world.  But Belle really was beautiful, and truly in that fairy-tale princess kind of way, all sweet and delicate femininity, like a dusky china doll.  And I could see why she’d feel so fascinating when she was with him; William had a way of schmoozing that made people feel important.  It was part of his charm.  But something lurked underneath that wasn’t quite wholesome, and I was always relieved when he turned his attention away from me.

Wedding

Their wedding promised to be a gorgeous affair: it would be at a swanky church on Ward Parkway, with all of William’s swanky lawyer friends attending.  His sister would not attend.  On Belle’s side there was basically just me, her brother from out West, and a few of her coworkers.  Former coworkers, I should say, since William made her quit her job.  Oh—I mean, she wanted to quit her job so she could concentrate on being the kind of wife that he needed.  At least that what she told me (and herself).  Of course she looked beautiful.  Radiant!  I’d never seen her look as happy as she did on that June afternoon, yet I felt a chill I just couldn’t shake.

The ceremony was horrible.  I about choked when I heard him speak his vows:  “I promise… blah, blah, blah… as long as we both shall love.”  Are you kidding me? I laughed out loud! Belle turned toward me and gave me a look I’d never seen on her face before.  It was identical to the look on his face!  My laughter froze immediately.  Before I could stop the words, I blurted out, “Did he really just say ‘I’ll love you until I don’t?’ What’s the point? A promise like that is no promise at all!”  Out of the corner of my ear, I heard some of the older ladies in the congregation murmur agreement, and I saw the look on the face of the priest which concurred.  But the looks on the faces of Belle and William would have killed me instantly if that were possible.  Was I really so wrong?

After the honeymoon, Belle defended the oath she and her new husband had sworn.  “It’s modern!” said the most old-fashioned person I know.  “Why would I want him to stay with me if he decided he didn’t love me?” she asked.  “But isn’t that the point of the vows?” I asked her.  “That you’ll both stay, even during the times when you don’t feel the love?  That you won’t leave him even when he keeps leaving his dirty socks on the floor, and that he won’t leave you even when you’re PMSing so bad that you’d happily kill him over a bar of chocolate?”
“William feels—and I agree—that we should always be completely honest with each other, and since nobody can honestly promise to be one hundred percent committed every second of their life, we didn’t want to start our marriage off making hypocritical vows.”
I had no idea what she was even talking about, and I suspect that she didn’t either.  “Since when are you all modern?” I asked.  “You didn’t even sleep with him before the wedding!”

She grinned, “But I walked myself down the aisle, didn’t I?  I don’t subscribe to patriarchal ideals!” She struck a pose meant to imitate her mother.

A scathing retort burned my throat but it would have served no purpose except to hurt her, so I changed the subject and listened to her rhapsodize about the Cayman Islands until she had to leave.  Time to go fix dinner for Mr. Can’t-Commit-Even-On-His-Wedding-Day.

Snoopy

Belle and William wanted to start a family right away, so they bought a big, old house with a fenced-in yard and plenty of extra bedrooms: one for a home office for William, and several more to fill with children.  It was in an older area of town, not far from William’s downtown office by car, and an easy walking distance to the church where Isabel seemed to be spending more and more time.  When she wasn’t being all domestic-goddessy, she took on all sorts of committees at the church, most involving children or seniors.  William volunteered there too, though less frequently. He tended to donate his time to pursuits more directly related to his practice. Mostly his paying clients were students whose visas were in jeopardy due to academic probation, or corporate interns whose companies wanted to hire them but couldn’t move fast enough to satisfy the government; his pro bono clients tended to be people seeking political amnesty for some reason or other.  I was surprised that there was such a need for that in this part of the country, but William had no shortage of stories of the people he’d helped to avoid deportation.  Belle’s grandparents, and even two of my own, had landed here in the Heartland out of necessity, but that was another century; the people were different, the laws non-existent.

Belle was excited about the house and I was excited for her.  When she asked me to help her get it in order, I knew I was in for a very long day of unpacking and putting away wedding presents and Belle’s clothes and dishes and the few things she’d managed to salvage from her parents’ house.  One thing she was thrilled to find hadn’t been damaged in the fire was a little glass bank in the shape of Snoopy.  Her grandfather had given it to her when she was a little girl because she loved the Peanuts comic strip so much.  She used that bank to save up for a bicycle, for art supplies, for a prom dress.   It had sat in a place of honor on her dresser her whole life, and when she found it intact in the rubble, she had it cleaned so that it no longer smelled like smoke, and it shined like it had the day she’d opened the gift.

Since it was one of the few pieces of memorabilia she had from her childhood, she wanted to give it to her own child one day, and she set it up on top of the baby dresser she’d found at a consignment shop.  It looked pretty, gleaming in the light coming in from the east-facing window, nestled in between an old teddy bear that had been William’s and picture frames intended to eventually hold pictures of little Belle Jr.

We got a ton done in that one day, and when she invited me for lunch the next week, there wasn’t much to do except relax and enjoy the homey environment she’d created.  She’d been doing some more work on the baby’s room and led me in by the hand after making me promise not to peek until she said it was ok to open my eyes.  We both laughed as I bumped into the door frame, awkward and groping even though I trusted Belle implicitly.  “Ok, open now!” she said, grinning from ear to ear.  “Ta-da!” she gestured toward the mural she’d painted of fairies frolicking in a glade with unicorns, friendly-looking dragons and happy, dancing elves giving toasts with bejeweled goblets.  I noticed that three of the dancing elves by the window looked suspiciously like her, her brother Raime and me.  There were two unicorns that reminded me of her parents, and another set of three over the crib to represent herself, William and a baby unicorn.

“My God, Belle,” I breathed, studying it in awe.  “You’ve outdone yourself with this!  Why don’t you do this for a living? People would pay a mint to have your artwork in their homes—and you certainly run in circles with people who can afford it!”

“Thanks,” she said modestly but still smiling.  “I like how it turned out, but I don’t think I could do this for other people.  Besides, William likes for me to have a hobby, but I don’t think he’d like me making money off of our friends.”

“Oh, come on, Belle!  You’re not friends with everyone in the metro area.  When people see what you can do, word will spread like wildfire and you’ll have more clients than you handle!”

She blushed and beamed.  “Thanks, Mags.  Once the children come though, I won’t have time for a career.”

“They’re not here yet; until then, look what you can do!” I turned back to the wall, and that’s when my eye caught the dresser top, with the teddy bear now holding court over the empty photo frames. “Hey, where’s Snoopy?”

A shadow crossed Belle’s face, but only briefly.  If I hadn’t known her for most of my life, I would have missed it.  “Oh, that.” she gave a regretful laugh.  “I’m so clumsy!  I bumped into the dresser and knocked it off.  It fell down and broke.”

“Broke?  Oh, Belle, that’s terrible!  How could that happen when it was so bottom-heavy?”

“I bumped into it pretty hard,” said the most graceful person I know.  “But look, did you see here? I painted him in the corner.”

“You did a good job.  I know how much Snoopy meant to you though, especially coming from Abuelito Macias.”

“Well, it didn’t really go with the room anyway.”

The teddy bear didn’t either, but did that matter so much?  I wondered.  Neither of us had grown up with a themed room like Belle had put together for this child who hadn’t even been conceived yet.  Mine had been haphazardly put together with hand-me-down furniture whose origins I never knew.  I put posters on the walls:  first of kittens and rainbows, then later of comic book and game characters.  Hers had been painted pink, and the white furnishings all matched, but that was the extent of the decorating.  She had posters similar to mine, but with much more of a girly timbre to them than mine had.  What difference did it make if fairies and Snoopy didn’t go together, as long as each item was placed there with love?

The Mask Slides

Overall, William wore his good face:  “Maggie, welcome!  A friend of my wife’s is a friend of mine!”  or “Maggie, of course we’d love to have you over on Christmas Eve!”  He did let his good face slip once.  Once.  It was a doozy.  I was at their house helping Belle prepare for a party they were having: some mucky-mucks were coming over to celebrate some promotion or—hell, I don’t know, but it seemed important to him to have these people over, so I helped her clean the house.  Anyway, he came home in a foul mood which even Belle could see.  He had lost a case, and it was his first loss ever.  His only loss, for that matter, and I could tell he’d had a drink or two already.  Belle greeted him as was customary with a big hug and a kiss.  He kissed her back and held her close, nuzzled her hair, then looked up at me and narrowed his eyes.  He kissed her again, more deeply, then looked at me and smiled, shark-like, all teeth but with cold eyes.   “Isabel, be a darling and fix me a drink,” he said, staring at me hard and patting her on the butt.  Eww, I didn’t need to see that; the kiss was awkward enough!  But she giggled and went obediently to the kitchen.  “Want something too, Mags?” she asked over her shoulder.  “No, thanks,” I said, my eyes not leaving William’s.

When she had disappeared behind the kitchen door, he crossed the room in two steps, getting much too close for my comfort.  “So what have you been doing with my wife?” he asked.  Was it my imagination, or did he emphasize those last two words? I stepped back, nervously.  “We were cleaning for your party tomorrow night.”  He stepped closer to fill the space I’d made and bent down in my face, the fumes from the gin he’d been drinking stinging my eyes.  “Just the public rooms though, right?  Not my bedroom?”  I stepped back again, but felt the sofa against the back of my legs.  “You don’t expect your guests to go into your bedroom, do you?” Where was he going with this?  Could he not see that the living room was spotless?  “I’m just saying ‘stay out of my bedroom,’” he said, dead serious.  “What?” I asked, not sure if I’d heard him correctly. “You heard me,” he said, “and keep your fucking hands off my wife!”  “Excuse me?” I said, incredulous.
“’Excuse me?’” he mimicked, his face distorted into a hideous grimace.  “You are so in love with Isabel it’s disgusting, but she is mine, Margaret, do you understand me?  Mine!”
What the hell?  “My name isn’t Margaret,” I heard myself say, stunned.
“Like I care what your goddamned name is!” he spat at me.  I drew back and put my hand against the wall so I wouldn’t tumble on the couch.  At that moment, Belle came back into the room with a smile on her face and a drink in her hand.  “Here’s a drink for the sexiest man on earth!” she sang.
“I need to get going,” I said, stepping away from her objectionable husband and picking my keys up from the table where they lay.  “Good night, Belle!  Good night, William,” I said with my eyes averted and sidled out of the apartment like a hermit crab.

On the drive home, I thought about what he had said.  Was I in love with Belle?  Of course I loved her, but he was implying something more than I’d ever thought of.  Was I?  I didn’t think so.  I was interested in guys.  Men: in theory anyway.  It’d been ages since I was interested in any specific man. The main problem was that men weren’t interested in me, and who could blame them? Was he right though?  I tried to picture myself with an imaginary woman.  I tried to picture myself with Belle.  I couldn’t see it, not either scenario.  The idea didn’t freak me out or disgust me, but it didn’t turn me on, either; there was simply nothing there.  If I were so deeply closeted that I didn’t even know I was a lesbian, wouldn’t the idea of being with a woman freak me out?  He must be wrong then, right?  I tried to picture myself with a man, but who?  I didn’t meet too many men in person.  Jimmy, the guy who owns the game shop downtown? No, thanks.  Chuck, the one nice guy at work?  He’s married, but even so…nah.  Lucien, the fantasy man from my game?  Well, he is a fantasy, so maybe.  William?  Now that freaked me out and disgusted me, but I’m quite certain that I harbor no secret desires for that filthy piece of scum.  I switched my thoughts quickly back to Lucien.  The good thing about making up a fantasy man is that you know he’ll never hurt you. Or your friends.

The more I thought about what he’d said the angrier I got.  Even if it were true, what the hell was it to him, anyway?  She’d married him, after all, even taking that stupid vow.  “As long as we both shall love,” I mimicked angrily to the windshield.  Does he think she already doesn’t love him? That she’d leave him for anyone else in the world?  Maybe he should have opted for a more meaningful promise.

*****

Later, she told me about his court loss and how broken up he’d been about it.  She said that he was so passionate that night that he’d bruised her inner thighs and breasts.  My initial reaction was revulsion, because the last thing I wanted to think about was what they did in bed, but when I paired what she’d said with the cold way he’d looked at me that night, I started wondering what sort of violence he might be capable of.

Family

From what Belle had told me about when they’d met, William’s sister Sandra did not like her one bit, and did not offer her blessing for this marriage.  Looking like a dried-up prune (I imagined), she’d eyed Belle coldly down her nose, sniffed and said “My baby brother always did have a soft spot for hard-luck cases.”

“What was that supposed to mean?” I asked Belle.

“She thought I was one of his pro bono clients.  Or that someone in my family was.”

“Why would she think that?”

Belle cocked an eyebrow and gestured at herself.

“Because of your ancestry?”  She nodded in affirmation. “Oh, I understand,” I said.  “She’s a bigot.”

“No, Maggie, no!”

“Yes, Isabel, yes!”

“She’s just looking out for him.  He’s so kind-hearted that people try to take advantage of him, you know.”

So far I hadn’t seen any evidence of a kind heart, or a propensity to be walked on, but I knew she wouldn’t hear it, so I said, “Belle, don’t marry a man who was raised by a bigot.  And don’t marry a man whose only family doesn’t like you.”

“I know I can get her to like me eventually.  After all, we both love William more than anything!  And besides, Maggie,” she chided me gently, “would you want to be judged on the basis of how you were raised?”

Well, she had me there.  New subject—sort of.  “When will you introduce William to Raime?”

“He’s coming in the week before the wedding.”

“That’s not much time.”

“Don’t worry, Mags—William and Raime will love each other.  I just know it!”

Raime—Ramón! 

I was the first to arrive at the restaurant.  Within a few minutes I was approached by a handsome young man wearing expensive clothing and an expensive haircut.  Younger Belle, with a man’s clothes and hair.

“Good to see you again, Mag,” he said, putting an arm around me and kissing my cheek.

“Raime!” I said, hugging him back.  “I’m so glad you could come.  How are you?”

“It’s Ramón now,” he said with a grin.

“You’re all grown up!” I said, “Look at you! No heavy metal t-shirt?”

He laughed, “I still have them.  No skinned-up knees any more though.”

“You clean up good, Raime—Ramón,” I corrected myself.

“Raime!” We heard Belle call out from across the parking lot.  Turning, I saw her and William making their way toward us, Belle glowing like a moon beam.

William had his arm around her and his company smile on his face.  Belle broke free and embraced the prodigal brother as if they hadn’t seen each other in years.  Oh right: they hadn’t.

“Raime, I’m thrilled for you to meet my fiancé, William,” Belle absolutely shimmered with pride. “Honey, this is my brother Raime!”

“Ramón,” corrected Raim—Ramón! offering his hand.

“It’s a pleasure meeting you, Ramón,” William said silkily as they shook hands.  “Isabel’s told me so much about you that I already feel like I know you.  We’re so happy you could join us for our special day.”

Dinner started off pleasantly enough.  William is always at his best when there are new people around to charm and impress.  And of course it was great seeing Raime—Ramón! again.  It was strange to think of him as a grown-up.  I hadn’t seen him since his high school graduation.  It was the only time other than their parents’ funeral that I’d been back.  Like me, Ramón had left town and never looked back.  He’d gone to Oregon immediately after his graduation, went to college there on a full scholarship and stuck around, like I had in Lawrence.

William did a lot of the talking, and was charismatic as he always is in company mode.  Belle gazed at him adoringly, Ramón listened attentively, sometimes interjecting his own opinions or asking questions, and I ate and drank and watched the scene unfold.

“We bought matching luggage for our honeymoon today,” Isabel gushed after Ramón asked about her day.  “We’re going to the Caribbean for three weeks!”

“Three weeks, huh? Long honeymoon,” remarked Ramón.

“That’s nothing,” said William, putting his arm around Belle. “Our whole life is going to be a honeymoon,” he kissed her cheek and she giggled and blushed.  I tried not to gag.

“Where will you go?” asked Ramón.

“All over! We’ll stay in Cartagena for the first few days, then go up to Costa Rica, Belize, Cancun.  I cannot wait!”

“I may be able to pull some strings and get us into Havana, too,” said William.

“Oh, I’ve been there,” said Ramón. “It’s beautiful and the food is to die for.”

“Is that right?  How did you manage to get in?”

“We went from Veracruz.  Pedro has family in both places and I guess they ‘pulled some strings’ to get me a visa as well.”

“And Pedro is…?”

“My partner.”  Huh.  That was news to me, but not much of a surprise.  In fact, it explained a few things.  Growing up in our small town, Raime didn’t have many friends and didn’t date, but at the time I didn’t think much of it because I didn’t have many friends either and also didn’t date. Still, on some level I think I’d known.  Unlike me, Raime wasn’t ugly or socially inept; he only kept to himself.  Small towns in the Bible belt are not known for embracing those who dare name the love that dare not speak its name—not when we lived there, anyway.

Innocently, “Oh, your business partner?” Geez, what a dense question.

“My boyfriend,” Ramón said, at which William got a strange look in his eye, so briefly that had I not already disliked him, I would have either missed it or figured I’d imagined it.

“And how long have you and er, Pedro been together?”

“Three years now,” Ramón smiled.

“Is that right?” William smiled back and put his arm around Isabel’s shoulder again and gave her a tiny shake.  “How about that, darling?  Three years. I don’t believe you mentioned Pedro,” he smiled broadly.

“Oh, I’m sure I must have,” Belle mumbled, snapping her locket open and closed, as she did when she was uncomfortable.

“I’m sure you did not,” said William, then turned back to Ramón.  “But hey, why aren’t you two married by now?  I’m sure Isabel has told you about my pro bono work.  I do a lot for human rights, and I worked hard to make sure you people could get married.”

I cringed, appalled.  “You people?”  Is that how he talks to his pro bono clients? Or only about them?

“And yet, it took a federal act before same-sex marriage was legally recognized in either Missouri or Kansas,” Ramón pointed out.

“Yes, well, things move slowly in the legal system,” William said easily.  “But there you are.  The Supreme Court snaps its fingers and boom! you can get married.  Although,” he said with a glint in his eye, “Oregon was a holdout state as well.”

“That’s true,” Ramón nodded.  “And I believe that the law only says that we may marry, not that we must,” he smiled.  “Pedro and I have merely chosen not to, like so many other people do.”

“But you can, so why not let love prevail, right darling?” He squeezed Belle, who simpered.  Yuck.  “I know I can hardly wait to put my ring on this one’s finger!”  I raised my glass to my mouth again, trying to hide my involuntary eye-roll.  “Speaking of which, why didn’t you bring Pedro with you?”

I listened to Ramón explain that he had wanted Pedro to come, but Pedro had wanted to give Ramón time with his sister, since it had been so long.  It occurred to me to wonder why Ramón wasn’t staying with Belle and I made a mental note to ask her later.  For now though, I was torn.  I had the distinct feeling that William hated the idea of a gay brother-in-law (or pair of brothers-in-law), but why did Belle seem embarrassed?  And while I wanted her to open her eyes to who William really was, Ramón didn’t deserve this condescending attitude, no matter how dressed up it was in faux goodwill.

Belle being Belle, she used the opportunity to neatly steer the subject to the upcoming nuptials: music, flowers, attendants, etc.  For once, I was glad she was such a girly-girl, as it smoothly transitioned the conversation to a safer place.  The rest of the evening passed relatively quickly, and Belle and William eventually said goodnight, leaving Ramón and me to our own devices.

“Maggie, what do you think of this guy my sister’s marrying?” Ramón asked after we’d moved over to the bar.

I hesitated.  “I’ve never seen Belle this happy,” I said, bringing my glass to my lips.

Ramón intercepted it neatly, setting it down on the bar without even sloshing it.  “That wasn’t the question,” he said, looking me square in the face.

I eyed him back, wondering how much to say.  He had kept his distance all these years. Did he really care what went on in Belle’s life? But then, Ramón was the only family Belle had other than me.  Maybe he could dissuade her where I couldn’t. Finally I said, “He’s a first-class, grade-A—“

“—bastard,” Ramón joined me in finishing the sentence.

“Yep,” I nodded.  “Waste of human skin.  I didn’t know about his anti-gay attitude until tonight though, and honestly it’s the first concrete thing he’s said or done to put himself in a negative light.  Although come to think of it, it wasn’t that concrete, was it?”

“It was obvious to me,” Ramón agreed, “but possibly a disinterested observer wouldn’t have noticed.”

“So it wasn’t just me then.  He’s charming and does all that pro bono work and is active in the community, but I never liked him from the start.  I just couldn’t put my finger on why.”

“Maybe because he’s a big phony,” suggested Ramón.  “Everything he says and does is calculated to benefit himself, even if that benefit is only to make himself look good.”

“Yes…” I said, swirling my glass and staring into it as if it might provide the answer.  “But it’s not just that.  Not all phony people are evil, and I think William is evil.”

“Evil,” Ramón repeated thoughtfully.  “That’s a strong word, Mag.  But I think you may have hit it.”

Until that moment, I realized that I had been hoping that I was wrong about William.  I mean, I don’t get out much.  I could be misjudging the man, right?  But Ramón has after all spent only a few hours in his company and no doubt been fed all sorts of propaganda by Isabel–propaganda?  Did I really think that?  Yes.  Yes, I did—so to have him come so rapidly to the same conclusions that I had gave me knots in my stomach.

“She asked me to give her away at the wedding, you know.”

“What did you say?”

“She asked last week, over the phone.  I wanted to meet the guy first though.  I also wanted to know what you thought of him.  You were always good at seeing through people’s bullshit, Maggie.”

I was?  If prickly reserve and general distrust equal seeing through bullshit, then maybe so. The knots in my stomach got tighter. “Are you going to?”

Ramón gave a deep sigh.  “I wish I could. I know it would mean a lot to her, and I know our parents would have wanted me to step up as family.  I just can’t do this.”

“Do you think your parents would have approved of the marriage?”

“I think my dad would have sent this guy packing just like he did that jerk-off she dated in high school!”

“Which one?” I asked, “And what do you mean, your dad sent him packing?”

“That jock guy that all the girls were ga-ga over, Justin.  The one she was supposed to go to prom with.”

“Yeah, I couldn’t stand him.  He called Belle and me ‘Beauty and the Beast.’  She cried so he quit doing it around her, but any time she stepped away for a minute, out it came,” I said bitterly.  “Dickhead!  But they didn’t go to prom: he stood her up.  She was all dressed and made up and he never showed.”

“Um, yeah, he did. Dad opened the door before he could ring the doorbell, and he told him that Belle was not going to the prom or anywhere else with him, and certainly not to the hotel room he’d rented for after the dance.  He got right in his face and told him that if he ever came sniffing around Belle again, nobody would ever find his body.”

“What?! He did not!”  I said, stunned by this revelation.  “What made him do that?”

“I guess I did,” said Ramón, with a devilish smile.  “You remember my friend Jesse?”

I nodded.  “His sister Raquel was in Belle’s and my class.”

“Right. So we were at his house about a week before the prom, and I heard her talking on the phone about how Justin had bought a party-pak that he was planning to use with Belle after the prom,”  Ramón struck a pose here imitating high-school Raquel,  “’I said, “Justin, you’ll never get that chastity ring off her finger!” but he said it didn’t matter if she was willing or not; he was going to use them anyway, and Belle wouldn’t be able to walk for a week.’  I was, like, ten or something, and even though I didn’t know exactly what was going on, it didn’t sound good.  So I told my dad.”

“Raime!  I mean Ramón—“ I gasped, “She had no idea!  She cried for a week! Why didn’t you ever tell her?”

He shrugged.  “I figured she’d have cried a lot longer if she’d gone to the prom.  I’d rather she find out the easy way that he was an asshole, than the hard way.”

“She didn’t though.  She still thought he was soooo great, and didn’t understand why he suddenly wouldn’t talk to her anymore.  She thought she’d done something terrible to offend the almighty Justin. He couldn’t even take five minutes to officially break up with her and she still thought he was everything she ever wanted.”

“Yeah, well, I’m still glad she only got hurt this way instead of the other way.  Oh!  And before Dad pushed him off the porch, he said, ‘One more thing, Justin.  Quit ad-justin’ yourself!  It’s not going anywhere and nobody wants to see you touch yourself all the damn time!’”

We both laughed at that, and made a silent toast to the senior Mr. Delgado.  Ramón continued, “I’m going to tell her I can’t give her away because that’s catering to the patriarchal society’s notion of women as property.”

I chuckled, “Now that sounds like something your mom would have said!”  We made another toast.

“I don’t like the subterfuge,” he commented, “and if I could stop her completely from marrying him, I would rather do that than just weasel out of playing a major role.”

“I was hoping you could,” I said in a low voice, looking into my drink.

“I’ll try,” he promised, “but remember, I’m just the kid brother. My opinion may not even matter.”

*****

Ramón tried to get through to her right up to the very last minute, I’ll give him that.  Belle and I were alone in the dressing room, the other attendants—wives of William’s partners, who were undoubtedly the right kind of friends for his wife to have—had already gone out to their places in the atrium.  I had stepped into the powder room when he approached his sister.

“’Vela,” I heard Ramón say, using her childhood nickname, “it’s not too late to back out.”

“What? What do you mean?” Belle looked behind her at her train, as though he’d suggested she’d stepped on it and crinkled it.

“Don’t do this, ‘Vela.  Don’t marry this guy.”

“How can you say such a thing, Raime?”  She asked, wounded.  “Wait–“ she put her hand up.  “No, forget it.  I don’t want to hear it.  William is the light of my life! He is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I belong to him, mind, body and soul.  This wedding ceremony—it’s just public acknowledgement that we are already one being.  If you can’t accept that, then you need to leave this church immediately.  Leave town, in fact!  If you can’t accept who I am now, then I don’t need you in my life!”   With that, she swept past him and went to take her place in the atrium.

“That’s supposed to be my line!” I heard him mutter to himself as he too left the room.  I buried my face in my hands, smudging my professionally-done makeup.

Neither of us could look at the other as he escorted me down the aisle, but his hand clutched mine with the same intensity that mine clutched his arm.  I felt as though we were in a funeral procession rather than a wedding.

When the priest got to the part about objections to the marriage, Ramón’s eyes met mine with a look of paralyzed helplessness that I was certain mirrored my own.

Maggie

In the months ahead, I saw less and less of Belle, which I suppose was to be expected.  She was busy being all married now, and socializing with the people who could help William’s career.   We talked on the phone maybe once a week, and while at first we texted several times a day, that tapered off.  Evidently, Mr. Big-Wig Attorney couldn’t see fit to buy his wife a plan with unlimited texting.  Oh well, that’s just me being bitter.  Oh—and she lost her phone, so he replaced it with a flip phone.  I wanted to ask if he was having her churn butter now too, but she probably would have turned my sarcasm into a lovely idea for being organic and healthy.  Whatever.

I still had my blog and my game.  When I was still in school, I started blogging about what’s new in the gaming world.  A few years back, it had actually started making some money for me, which was unexpected and exciting.  It wasn’t exciting enough that I could quit my day job, but it was a nice little source of secondary income.   Besides that, I had also spent the last two years designing a video game:  Empire of the Sea.  It’s a role-playing game, an undersea adventure which begins on an island in the Pacific, where the player faces several devastating hardships. Their response to the hardships determines their options for moving on; the better choices they make, the more assets and life they have available to take with them when they take to the water. By means of the ocean, the player goes all over the world on a variety of quests, the ultimate goal being to explore all seven seas. For the story, I drew liberally on the legends and folk tales that Belle and I had grown up reading. It’s an open world multi-player game. The player can choose to co-operate with other players to solve a multitude of puzzles, or compete with others, vanquish them and beat them to the treasure.

I knew that my blog would be the perfect place to introduce it, and it was!  Within weeks, the traffic had increased exponentially, and an impulse search found me a dedicated chat room—one I hadn’t even set up!  On a whim, I had created a crowd funding page for it, and it really took off!  I was in awe over how much financial support it had received.  I scarcely let myself hope that it could continue, but it lay in the back of my mind as a distinct possibility.

Then magically, two things happened in one day:  First, when I looked at my crowd funding page, I realized that the donations had gotten to the point where I could quit my day job and dedicate myself solely to the game and to the blog.  I sat down hard, barely able to believe the numbers I saw.

Next, I received an email with the subject line: FanFaire next Fall.  I was on a lot of mailing lists for conventions and festivals, and I usually went to them whenever I could, with Belle patiently in tow.  I opened it expecting a flyer but instead I read:

Hello, we have been following the development of Empire of the Sea with great interest and would like to include its presence in our Fall FanFaire at Bartle Hall on September 15.  We would like to feature Empire of the Sea in our section of up-and-coming games…

I couldn’t believe it!  I skimmed the rest of the email:  “blah, blah, blah, details, details, If you’re interested in having Empire of the Sea featured this fall, please contact…”

If I was interested?  Hell yeah I was interested!  I read it again from the top, more slowly this time, taking note of all the details and then flipping to my calendar and marking the date.

Clue

I couldn’t believe it! It was amazing enough that other people were so interested in my game as to keep sending money my way, but being invited to the Fall FanFaire just made it all seem very official.  Plus, Belle was already on her way over.  I couldn’t wait to share my news with her!  Belle wasn’t drinking these days, just in case, so I poured myself a glass of wine and toasted my own good fortune.

As soon as Belle walked in the door, I pounced.  “Guess what? Guess what?!” I crowed, “Empire of the Sea is like, a real thing now!  Look at this!” I showed her the crowd funding page and pointed proudly at the total dollar amount.  “I can quit my job and just work on making improvements to it, and to blogging!  Oh, and guess what else?  I’ve been invited to take part in the FanFaire next fall!  I know it’s almost a year away but oh my God– I can hardly wait!”  I jumped up and down a bit in my excitement.

She smiled and gave me a long hug before taking a seat and letting me warble on.  “Oh!  And I’ll need a costume too.  Will you make it for me?”  I asked.

She smiled wanly, “Sure, Mags.  Whatever you want.”

I went on, “There are so many possibilities!  I could be Odyssea, who welcomes players on their journey, or Lorelea, Queen of the Mermaids–Oh! or Hydrophiinae, the serpent that guards the treasure in the Great Abyss!”

“I’m not sure how I could make a convincing seasnake costume for you. Better to go with the figurehead or the mermaid,” she said quietly.  I was so euphoric about the email I’d just received that it took me a while to realize how subdued Belle was as I continued to blather away.

“It’s great, Mags,” she said without enthusiasm.   I hesitated a moment.  This wasn’t like her. Isabel and I always took pleasure in each other’s triumphs. Why was this different?  I know I wasn’t very enthusiastic about her marriage to William but I thought I hid it well—better at any rate than she was hiding her indifference now.  Belle wasn’t a vindictive person; this wasn’t payback.  What was going on with her? Was it because she wasn’t pregnant yet?  Was she still upset over the recent false alarm?

“Are you ok?” I asked, looking at her closely.

“Sure!” she said, forcing a smile. “I’m really happy for you, Maggie. You deserve this.”

Somewhat mollified, I stood up to refill my glass.  “Thanks, Belle,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder and giving her a small squeeze.  I felt her stiffen slightly.  “What?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said, looking away and cringing her shoulder away from me.  I crouched in front of her and looked at her directly.

“Isabel, something’s wrong. What is it?” I demanded.

She put on a bright smile and said, “Oh, I hurt my shoulder yesterday.  I was cleaning out the closet in what will be the baby’s room, and a box fell down on me.  It’s fine, really.”  I stared at her, hard. Because the thing was, the bright smile and the casual voice didn’t chase away the shadows in her eyes, which she now sidled away from mine, saying, “You know, I think I will have a glass of wine after all.  It’s not like I’m actually pregnant yet, right?”

I started to stand up again when my eyes fell upon her wrist.  “New bracelet?”

At this, her eyes brightened for real, “Yes!” she said, holding it up. “William gave it to me last night. Isn’t it beautiful? He’s the most thoughtful and wonderful husband anyone could ask for!”

“Last night, huh?  What was the occasion?”

She smiled more broadly, if possible.  “He said it was because I’m the most beautiful, perfect woman in the world!”

I looked at her for a long moment.  “That may be true,” I said, standing up.  I patted her shoulder as gently as I could, and went to get the chardonnay and a second wine glass.

“So I’ve been babbling on and on about my news,” I said as I handed her her wine.

“Yes,” she said, taking it.  “Here’s to you, and your exciting news, Maggie.”  We clinked our glasses together.  I tossed mine back; she took the tiniest of sips.

“But how has your week been, Belle?”

“Oh, it’s been terrific!” she said. “Last night William and I went out for a super-romantic dinner at Le Fou Frog, just the two of us.  We sat at the same table where he proposed to me, and he gave me the most gorgeous yellow roses, and of course, this bracelet,” she gushed.

“Uh-huh,” I said, watching her.  “And the night before last?  How was that? What did you do?”

Her smile faded slightly and she looked down. “The night before last wasn’t so great.  But you know,” she said brightly, looking up at me again, “married life can’t always be perfect every minute!”

“Really,” I said, neutrally.  “What happened?”

“Oh, we went out to dinner with one of William’s partners and his wife.  It was Rick and Rochelle; you remember them from the wedding?  Dinner was lovely!  I had the lobster bisque.  It was scrumptious, but I guess I shouldn’t have ordered it.”

“Why not?”

“Well, Rick made a comment about shellfish and pregnancy, and when I said that we hadn’t yet been so blessed—well, I’m not really sure what was happening—he looked confused, and William would barely look at me the rest of the night.  I mean, he acted the same as he always does, and I’m sure they didn’t notice, but I know him so well that of course I could tell I’d said the wrong thing.  Rochelle said something about having eaten shellfish during both of her pregnancies and it all turned out fine, but—anyway, after dinner I asked William why he was upset with me.  I guess he hadn’t told his partners yet that it was a false alarm and I let the cat out of the bag.”  She shrugged with false nonchalance.  “Me and my big mouth!”

“Ok, first of all, why would he trumpet this news before you’d even been to the doctor? Second, why would his partners be so interested? Third, mistakes happen, so why was it even a big deal?” I ticked each point off a finger as I tried to make sense of William’s bizarre thought process.  “So did you have a fight when you got home?”

“No! No, nothing like that.  He was absolutely right; I shouldn’t have said anything, and I’ll definitely have to be more careful of what I eat.”  She put down her glass with a guilty look.  “We didn’t fight,” she insisted.  My glance went involuntarily to her shoulder.  She flushed.

I took her hand in both of mine.  “You know you can tell me anything, right?”

She squirmed a little and looked at me all wide-eyed and innocent.  “Of course!” She gave me a faltering smile.

“Belle, what really happened to your Snoopy bank?”

“I told you what happened,” she said, looking away.  “It wasn’t him, it was me.”

I folded my arms and glared at her.  That had always worked before to get her to admit to things she didn’t want to admit to, but this time she got defensive. “I know he’s got a temper, but I provoke him sometimes too.  I can’t help it. He should be with someone better and I know that.  I really try though!”

I could not believe what I was hearing!  “Isabel!”  I exclaimed, “Are you listening to yourself?  This has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with him!  This is who he is and who he’d be no matter who he was with.  He’s sick and he needs help.”

“I know!” she pounced eagerly on my words.  “You’re absolutely right, Mags; it’s not his fault and I can help him!  I know I can be the person he needs me to be.  Then he can be the person I know he is inside, the man I fell in love with.”

“The man you fell in love with doesn’t exist.  He was a façade that William wore in order to lure you in, and now that you’re married, he’s torn off the mask.”

At this, she gave me a sad, sweet little smile.  “Don’t you remember that my favorite story was always Beauty and the Beast?”

“Ah yes,” I said, “but mine was always The Five Chinese Brothers.”  Those boys were there for each other when it counted, each offering his unique talent to make sure the others were ok.  That was Belle and me, or at least it always had been.  But now it seemed that William was dividing us and conquering. “Family looks out for each other, Belle.”

“Maggie, he is my family now.  And to use your analogy, I’ll use my strengths to save him,” she said, her cheerful smile unable to hide the bleak look in her eyes.

What did she think she was saving him from?  I just hoped that my strengths could save her, but of course in the end, I couldn’t.

Meet

The day for the FanFaire finally arrived and I was beside myself with nervousness!  I was wearing the costume that Belle had made for me, a simulation of Lorelea, the mermaid queen from my game.  The bodice was uncomfortably tight, but the skirt part was amazing:  rather than try to create a mermaid’s tail (hey, I still have to walk on land!), she just made it tight around the butt

Come on, Belle!” I’d argued petulantly, “Nobody needs to see my big ol’ butt!”  She just laughed her Belle laugh and reminded me that it wasn’t my butt at all, but Lorelea’s that people would see

and attached long strips of diaphanous fabric in greens, blues, yellows, purples—all the colors of the ocean—thick and plentiful enough that my legs didn’t feel exposed, and that swirled when I walked—or should I say “floated?”  Attached to the uncomfortably tight bodice, using the same diaphanous fabric as the skirt, were the wing-like fins that Lorelea sported, making her the greatest sea-goddess of all!  I felt powerful as Lorelea!  Except for the bodice, which itched.  And did I mention it was too tight?  Belle had promised to let it out some, but hadn’t gotten around to it before she—well, I wasn’t going to think of that right now.  Right now was the time for me to enjoy the fruits of my labor.  My game was being featured as one of the best new games of the year!  The whole thing was surreal:  me, dressed as a mermaid queen, sitting in a prominent spot where everyone in the exhibition hall could see my imagination come to life.   Holy shit.

The set-up was great!  I sat at the table with a demo of my game going on behind me.  People could play it for five minutes if they were interested.  I sat forward for a minute, admiring the graphics—Damn! I’d done a good job! then I turned to watch the pulsing crowd.  There was something for everyone at this Faire: comics, of course, fantasy and RPGs were represented, and movies that portrayed characters from both, not to mention booths where you could buy pretty much anything under the sun.   And the people!  They came dressed as DC & Marvel characters, as Star Wars & Star Trek characters, people representing steam punk, video game characters, anime characters, characters I didn’t even recognize!    A mustachioed Luigi had his arm around a Princess Peach; a foursome representing the houses of Hogwarts strode authoritatively down the center aisle, looking neither right nor left.  There was a female Jay and Silent Bob on one side of my booth, while across the way, a slave Princess Leia with a scraggly beard posed for photos with a grin.  Several Doctors Who conferred near a Tardis mock-up, admiring each others’ costumes.  I thought briefly about trying to keep track of how many of each character I’d see, but then I noticed the growing number of Harley Quinns coming in, and gave that idea up as lost.  Across the room, an Amazonian Wonder Woman stared longingly at a Han Solo.  If you asked me, she was more Prince than Diana, but eh—whatever.  At least the height was right.  Hey, maybe next year there’d be more Queen Loreleas! I thought briefly of what I’d have told Isabel about all of this, but when the tears pricked my eyes, I pushed that thought away vehemently and centered my attention entirely back to the room I was in.

That’s when I saw the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen in real life. I could vividly picture him as Lucien, the swashbuckler who loves Lorelea.  Not in costume, and looking a bit like a tourist, he was standing across the room holding a camera and looking around with a bemused expression.   He had the same blond hair as Lucien, wavy and a little longer than was currently fashionable but too short to be making a statement, an open, boyish-looking face, his light-colored eyes wide and lips slightly parted with wonder as he took everything in.  I could see the muscles in his arms as he adjusted the camera and equipment bag more comfortably across his broad shoulders.  His jeans were old and worn-looking but as with the hair, they didn’t look like he was trying to either be fashionable or make an anti-fashion statement.  They also didn’t leave much to my imagination as the faded denim wrapped itself like a lover around his thighs, muscled and powerful, like his arms.  Like Lucien’s. Wow.  I’m not usually a sucker for a pretty face and form, but I was riveted, and I have to admit that my mouth watered just a little bit.  Just as I realized that I was staring at him, he looked over at me, made eye contact, and smiled.


Asshole.  Without changing my expression, I gripped Lorelea’s trident more firmly and let my gaze fall to the table, fuming.  I am sick to death of good-looking guys who go out of their way to make fun of me! Sorry we can’t all be perfect and beautiful like you, jerk! I thought. Just because I’m not pretty doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings.  When I snuck a furtive look back, he was gone, thank God.

“Hello, excuse me,” said a voice to my left.  I looked up with the start of a smile, ready to greet the next visitor.  My smile faded instantly as I saw who it was.

“Hi,” he said.  “I’m Chris,” he said.

So what? I thought.  Out loud, I said, “Is this your first event?”

He grinned sheepishly.  “Is it that obvious?”

So obvious! “Lucky guess,” I said.  He laughed at that, a magical sound if I’ve ever heard one.  Damn.  Up close, he was even more gorgeous.  I could see now that his eyes were the palest blue and shone like he carried the sun inside him.  I could feel myself getting warm.

“I just, um…that’s a great costume,” he offered.  “Did you make it yourself? It must have taken forever.”

“No, a friend made it for me.”  I stood up and admired the skirt once again. How about that?  For a few minutes I had forgotten I was wearing this uncomfortable thing.  Then I remembered my butt and sat back down quickly.  Besides, who cares what this sun god thinks?

“Well it’s really great.  Love the trident, too.  And the game looks interesting.  Is this your booth?”

“Yes. Would you like to try the demo?” I asked in a bored tone.

“Demo?”

“Of the game.  Empire of the Sea.” I gestured to the banner behind me. Good grief.  Pretty and stupid.

“Oh!  Yes, I’d love to.  Only I need to get over to the D section.  I’m doing the photo-ops for the big names.”

“Ok,” I shrugged.  So go already!

“So, what’s your name?”

What’s it to you?  “Maggie.”  Now why didn’t I say Queen Lorelea?  Duh!!  I gripped the trident harder and let it lean forward, almost pointing straight at him.  I wished he’d leave.

“It’s nice meeting you,” he smiled, and once again the light emanated from his eyes.  I was captivated. “Do you have a card?”

“A card?” I repeated, blankly.

“A business card,” he said.  “I’d like to get in touch later and learn more about Empire of the Sea.”

“Oh…” I faltered, unsure how to respond at first but I took hold of myself.  “No. I don’t have any cards.  Fresh out!” I said brightly, as though the doors hadn’t just opened a few minutes ago.

He looked disappointed.  “Well, can I get your number? Website? Email address? Follow you on Twitter?”

“Um, sure,” I said.  “My website is Magnitudinous.  Dot com,” I added unnecessarily.

“What?! Are you The Mage?” he asked, seemingly astounded.

I nodded, taken aback that he would be familiar with my blog persona.

“I can’t believe this! My sister already loves you! She’d be thrilled to meet you.”

“Um, sure,” I said again.  “Send her on over.”

“She couldn’t come today.  She’s going to fall out of her chair when I tell her I’ve met you.”  Christ, another dude with sister issues?  What’s wrong with guys, anyway?

“Ok, well, yeah, just… there’s a ‘Contact Me’ link on the site.  She can write if she wants to.  No one ever does though.”

He laughed at that, and the sound made my skin tingle.  “She’s written you a few times.  Said you never answered.  She thought maybe you weren’t a real person, like maybe The Mage was made up by a conglomerate or something.”

I blinked, a little stunned.  I’d never gotten any mail there, only a few comments posted until the recent explosion, mostly guys.  Shitheads, mostly.  But wait—

“Your sister wouldn’t be… Ezekiel2320?

“Yeah, that’s her!”

“Oh!” I said eloquently, not knowing what else to say.  When the comments section first opened, Ezekiel2320 was one of my few supporters, valiantly handling the male shitheads.  “Wow…that’s cool.  I—I’d like to meet her. I never got any emails though.”

He handed me his phone, those Mazda-light eyes gleaming.  I averted my own.  “Here,” he said, “give me your contact info and I’ll pass it along to her.”

Not knowing what else to do, I took it.  Shit.  ShitshitSHIT! My hands were shaking so badly I could barely hold the phone.  I put it down on the table, my hands flat on either side for a moment while I silently willed them to let my head control them again.  I lifted a finger over the phone for a moment.  Still shaky.  How mortifying!  “Know what?” I said, pretending to suddenly remember, “It turns out I do have some cards left.”  I reached into a box under the table and fished out a pile, slapping one onto the table next to the phone as though it were contagious.  I hoped he hadn’t noticed me shaking like a Chihuahua!

“Thanks,” he said, still smiling as he read the card.  “Are you from around here? Where’s a good place to eat that’s close by?”

“I’m actually from Lawrence, but if you head south on Broadway, there are a lot of great Mexican places all over Southwest Boulevard.”  Impulsively, I threw out, “You’d probably like Power & Light though.  Lots of cool places there,” I said slightly derisively.  Now why’d I do that?  He didn’t come off as a hipster and he might actually be sincerely nice.

“What do you like?” he asked.

“Mexican of course.”

“When are you going to lunch?  Maybe you could show me the best place? Or for dinner?”

“I won’t be able to get away; I don’t have a backup for this booth.”

“I could bring you something?”

I laughed a little at that, “You probably won’t be able to get away either.  I brought my own food but there are food trucks on the other side of section F if you’re worried about lunch or dinner.”

“I wasn’t really,” he smiled.  Then it sank in.  This gorgeous man just asked me to lunch or dinner.  Huh. Seriously?  He hadn’t sounded sarcastic, didn’t seem like he was mocking me.  Weird.  I must be wrong.   “So, Lawrence, huh? Do you know the Winchesters?”

“Yes,” I deadpanned.  “They were my next-door neighbors until their mother died.”

He threw back his head and laughed at that, once again charming my senses.  “Funny,” he said, “I wouldn’t have pegged you as being so old. Is there a portrait of you in an attic somewhere, growing older and more wizened each year?”

“Yep,” I said.  Huh. Well-read. Making an Oscar Wilde reference.  Maybe not stupid then, but it might explain why he’s being nice to me.  “And all my sins are written across its face.”

“Yo, Chris!” came a voice.  We both looked over to see one of the volunteers waving at him through the crowd to come over.

“Darn it, I have to go, I’m up.  But I’ll see you later, maybe?  Anyway, I’ll be in touch,” he said as he waved my card at me, pocketed it, and hurried off to his post.

*****

The day passed in a blur, as I was busy with the almost constant visitors to my booth.  I couldn’t believe how well-received my game was!  It was thrilling to realize that other people were just as excited about it as I was.  My costume got tons of compliments and lots of people wanted their pictures taken with me because of it.  Normally I despise having my picture taken and distrust attention, but I wasn’t me today—I was Lorelea, the mermaid queen!  I didn’t even think any further about my butt, or Lorelea’s either. In the frenzy of snapshots and selfies, I couldn’t help but look around for that guy, Chris, and his eyes.  Was he this busy over in the celeb booth, or had he packed up and left?  Or was he wandering around the place, checking out all the skimpy costumes?  I wanted to stop thinking of him, certain I’d left his mind as immediately as he’d left my booth.  Luckily, each new person who showed an interest in Empire of the Sea was another opportunity to ground myself back in the present, and in reality.  By the day’s end, I was both exhilarated and exhausted.

All in all, it had been a great day—the only truly good day I’d had since Isabel’s death.  I wanted to think about the success of my game, and gloat about how popular it had been.  I wanted to relive the moment when I’d been presented with the Newcomer of the Year award, and how instead of stumbling to the presenter and blushing like the dork that I am, I turned to the crowd and saluted them with my trident like the sea goddess that Lorelea is.  I wanted to think about Isabel and what she might have said about it all.  Instead, all I could think about was him.  So beautiful, and so nice!  Let’s face it: I was a bit of a bitch at first, but he was still nice.  Huh.  I kept shaking my head to get the thoughts of him out of it, certain that I’d never see him again.  But still, he managed to hijack my entire day and I fell asleep with memories of his luminous eyes on mine and with a smile on my face.

Contact

I slept in the next day, waking only when the sun was fully in my face and even hiding under the pillow couldn’t help me.  I stretched lazily and smiled, thinking again of all the excitement that yesterday had brought.  Eventually I got up and padded out to the kitchen for some coffee.  As I sipped it, I admired my game banner which now dominated the wall above the couch.  When I came home last night I was still flying high, so instead of dumping everything in a corner I actually put things away and hung the banner on the wall.  Now I was glad I had, since just looking at it made me smile.  I turned on my computer and looked at the website for the Faire.  There were more than a few pictures of me—I mean, of Lorelea.  How I wished I could share this with Belle!  The costume really did look terrific and I had done a decent job with the makeup too, something I’ve never really been good at.  I actually looked comfortable and like I was having fun, unlike most other pictures I’ve been in, where you can totally tell what a doofus I am.  There were several photographer credits listed.  I wondered who had taken the pictures of me.  Was it that Chris guy?  Probably not.  I hadn’t even seen him again after he left my booth.  I pulled up my email and started scrolling through it.  Junk, junk, crap, junk—how did I get on so many lists? A bill, more junk—wait, what was this?

Subj: Nice meeting you.  Fan mail?  Smiling, I clicked to open it.

Maggie,

          Hi, it’s Chris, the photographer from the Faire.  I had hoped to talk with you again yesterday but every time I got a free moment you were surrounded by your adoring fans.  Congrats on your award, by the way!  It was really great meeting you.  I’d love to get together another time and introduce you to my sister, Megan.  She’s 14 and as I mentioned she’s an avid reader of your blog.  Please call me at 314-555-6673.

     Christopher McDonald

My eyes nearly popped out of my head.  A guy—a very good-looking guy—wants to get together with me?  “Belle, what do I do?” I whispered.  Call him! I heard her giggle.  I looked around, half expecting to see her grinning impishly at me.  Abruptly, I shut my laptop and stood up.  What was I afraid of?  A guy–a very good-looking guy—wants to get together with me!  Oh sure, why not?  This happens to me ALL the time.  Ha.  I walked into the kitchen and poured myself another cup of coffee.  I had probably dreamed that email.  My fingers itching, I picked up my phone and checked my email account.  I hadn’t dreamed it!  I opened the message.  Again, it read:

     Maggie,

         Hi, it’s Chris, the photographer from the Faire.  I had hoped to talk with you again yesterday but every time I got a free moment you were surrounded by your adoring fans.  Congrats on your award, by the way!  It was really great meeting you.  I’d love to get together another time and introduce you to my sister, Megan.  She’s 14 and as I mentioned she’s an avid reader of your blog.  Please call me at 314-555-6673.

     Christopher McDonald

Only this time, the phone number was underlined.  From the phone, all I had to do was hit the link.  I switched to my game app and nervously took my character onto the high seas as long as I could stand it.  This wasn’t working.  I put the phone down, picked up my coffee and stared out the window.

I spent the next hour nervously putzing around the apartment trying unsuccessfully to distract myself from thoughts of this Chris dude.  What did he want, anyway?  I knew Belle would say, “He wants to talk to you, of course! He wants to get together again and have you meet his sister!”  Belle never had an ulterior motive in her life, so what did she know anyway?  But then, what sort of ulterior motive could this guy possibly have?

“Fine!” I said to the air.  “I’ll call him.”  There.  That decision made, I reopened the laptop and tried to work.  Belle’s face floated into my consciousness, an eyebrow cocked.  “I don’t have to call him now,” I told her peevishly.  “What if he thinks I have nothing better to do than sit around waiting to hear from him?”

I heard her laugh.  “So what if he does?  He contacted you the very next day after he met you.  He’s not playing silly games!”

“Okay, okay!” I conceded, exasperated.
Hi Chris.  What do you want?  Maybe not so abrupt.  Even I could tell that sounded rude.
You have disturbed Queen Lorelea of the Undersea realm! What wantest thou, mortal?  Heh.  Ok, no.
Hi Chris, can I just look at your face again?  Double no!
Hi Chris, it’s Maggie.  I got your email. How are you?  Better.
Hi Chris, it’s Maggie.  I got your email. Did you enjoy the Faire yesterday?  I should just go with that.  Before I could change my mind, I hit the link to the phone number and immediately prayed for voice mail.

“This is Chris,” came the voice.  I froze.  “Hello?” it came again.

In a flash, I hit Disconnect, then switched to text mode.  Hi Chris, it’s Maggie.  I got your email. Did you enjoy the… I began, but got interrupted by an incoming call from 314-555-6673!  I took a deep breath and chose Accept.  “Hello?”

“Hi, Maggie?” said the voice I had just hung up on.

“Uh…who’s this?”

“Hey there, it’s Chris McDonald!”  Well, duh.

“Uh, hi. I was just texting you.”

“Oh, yeah I’ve done that before, accidentally made a call when I was just trying to text.  It’s great hearing from you though! You must have gotten my email.”

I looked down at my aborted text.  “Yep,” I confirmed.  “How did you know it was me?”

“It was the area code,” he said.  “I don’t know anyone else in Kansas, so I took a chance that you weren’t a telemarketer.”  Yipes!  Caller ID is officially the worst invention ever! Too late, I wondered why I hadn’t just responded to the email in the first place.

“Is that her?” I heard a female voice in the background.  “I want to talk to her!”

“Shh! Stop it!” I heard him say before muffling the phone.  “You just keep on with your math and I’ll be right back.”  Then to me, “Sorry about that.  Listen, I’m right in the middle of something right now.  Can I call you back later?  Like nine-thirty or so?”

“Heeeyyyy!” the background voice protested.

“Sure,” I said, relieved.

“Great! I’ll talk to you then.” And the call ended.  And my stomach remained in knots until the appointed time.

Part of me didn’t believe that he’d actually call me back.  Maybe he thought I was someone else he met yesterday, and then put two and two together… but no, he had congratulated me on my award.  And then he called, and the conversation began remarkably comfortably for me.

“Sorry I couldn’t talk to you earlier,” he said.  “I was helping Megan with her homework.  She goes to bed early though because otherwise she’s impossible to get up in the morning.”  Did he live with his parents??  “Anyway,” he went on, “you were quite the center of attention yesterday.  I told you that I was doing the photo ops for the celebrities.  Some of them were total divas and completely jealous of the crowds around your booth.”

“How did you get to be the celebrity photographer?”

“There’s sort of a hometown connection.  My aunt knows someone who knows someone…It’s a tenuous connection, but it got me a cool gig, right?  Do you do a lot of these shows?”

“I go every year, but this is the first one where I wasn’t just there as a fan.”

“And now you have fans of your own,” he commented.  I couldn’t help smiling widely at that. I had fans of my own!  I wasn’t sure which pleased me more: the fact that traffic to my site had tripled since yesterday, and that I really did have some fan mail that wasn’t from him, or simply that he’d made the remark.  “I’ve never known anyone who did that before,” he went on.  “No game creators.  Have you done quite a bit of that?”

“No, this is my first,” I said.

“Ok, Megan was right, then,” he said.  “I should have known that she knew what she was talking about.”

“Ezekiel2320 posts fairly regularly,” I commented.  “Her posts are thoughtful and insightful.  I wouldn’t have guessed she was fourteen.  In fact, I thought it was middle-aged gay guy posting.”  Oh crap, did I just say that?  Amazingly, he laughed out loud.  That sound reverberated in my ears and melted my insides a little, just as it had at the Faire.

“What made you think that?” he wanted to know.

“Well, just, there are a lot of idiots who like to sound off, you know, and Ezekiel2320 manages to put them in their place without sinking to their level. She comes off as very mature.  And she doesn’t write in text-speak; she uses real words, not just like U-R, she punctuates, doesn’t write in all caps…” doesn’t brag about sleeping with anyone’s mom.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Chris said.  “I don’t have time to monitor what she does online, even though you’re supposed to.  Tell me about you though.  I’ve never been to Lawrence, but I hear it’s nice. Did you grow up around there?”

“No, I grew up in a small town out in western Kansas. Came to Lawrence to go to KU and never left.”

“Is your family still in western Kansas?”

“No, it’s just me.  My parents have been gone since I was a kid.  How about you?”

“Something similar, but I was in college when my parents died.  I went back to Des Moines to get my sister and brought her down to St. Louis with me.  It’s been just the two of us ever since.”

“Sucks about your parents.  What happened?”

“Sucks about yours too.  Mine were killed by a drunk driver.  What about yours?”

“My mom had cancer and my dad froze to death.  And then I ate them.”

“What?”

“Just kidding.”

“Oh, I get it–it’s a reference to your game, right.”

I smiled, pleased that he’d gotten it.  Also that he didn’t believe I was a cannibal. “You’ve gotten pretty far if you’ve made it to the Arctic Ocean.”

“Actually it was Megan, not me.  Don’t dodge the question though. What happened to your parents?”

I considered just telling him about the fire and claiming Belle’s parents for my own.  He sensed my hesitation.  “What’s wrong?  I’m sorry—you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” he said.

“No, it’s ok,” I answered.  “My mom walked out when I was ten.  I’ve never heard from her since, so she’s pretty much dead to me.  My dad spent the rest of his life drunk and angry with me for not being her.  His liver caught up with him during my senior year in high school.”

“Sorry to hear it, Maggie.  That must’ve been awful for you.”

“Pretty much,” I agreed. “But I was already eighteen, so I got to stay in the house, and my best friend’s family made sure I ate more than just Hot Pockets.  It was fine.  I spent most of my high school years over at their house anyway. They were good people.”

“Were? You’re not in touch with them anymore?”

I gave a short laugh. “They died in a fire when Belle and I were juniors in college.  She went back to take care of her brother Raime, who was thirteen at the time.  She tried taking some online classes and finishing school remotely, but it didn’t work so well.  She never finished college.”

“She just hasn’t finished yet.  It took me an extra two years to finish because I was parenting my sister.  I’m sure she’ll finish if she wants to.  What’s she doing now?  Is she the one who made your costume?”

My heart hurt at his ignorant and innocent question, and my throat seized up.  “Maggie?  Are you there?” he asked.

“Yes,” I managed.  “Yes, she made my costume.  Look, I’ve gotta go, ok?  It was nice talking with you.”

“Oh! Ok,” he said, bewildered.  “Can we talk some more tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I gasped.  “’Bye,” and ended the call abruptly.  I went to bed that night trying desperately to feel nothing at all.

Continuance

Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed to focus on my work the next day, but focus I did to the exclusion of all else.  Eventually, my growling stomach reminded me that I hadn’t eaten since yesterday, so I saved my work, put my computer to sleep, and went to the kitchen to see what was available.  Damn, the cabinets were nearly bare and my grocery delivery came on Tuesdays.  That was tomorrow, but until then I still needed to eat.  A can of green beans (gross, why would I have bought that?), a box of cake mix (though I have no eggs), a jar of grape jelly, some ramen.  Amen! Then the phone rang and thoughts of food went out the window.

“Maggie, I hope my questions last night didn’t bother you,” he said.

“No, don’t worry about it,” I told him.  “I’m the one who brought it up by asking about your parents.”

“Ok.  It just seemed like you were upset, and I hope I didn’t cause it.”

“Not really, no.”

“Not really? Or not at all?”

My god, he was a tenacious one, wasn’t he?  “You said that Belle could finish college if she wanted to, and asked what she was doing now…”

“Your friend?  Yeah,” he said.

I took a deep breath.  “She won’t finish college, she’s not doing anything now, and she never will again.” All at once, the whole story came pouring out, about how she was looking for Prince Charming and got taken in by the foulest beast who ever lived, how he wore one face in public but I got to see his true nature early on, and she didn’t understand until it was too late, if even then.  Had she died still convinced that the person killing her wasn’t truly the man she’d married?  Was there really nothing I could have done?  If only, if only…  I rambled on and on until I ran out of words.  “I’m sorry,” I said finally.  “I only meant to give you the SparkNotes version, not the Tolstoy version.  I’ve never talked to anyone about this before.  I didn’t mean to bore you.”

“I’m not bored, Maggie,” he said quietly, “I’m sad.  You’ve had a lot of loss in your life.  So have Megan and I, but at least we had each other, and some extended family too.”

Now I was embarrassed.  I probably came across as a total loser with no friends.  I tried to think of something to say other than, “I’m not a total loser with no friends!” Except that I really didn’t have any friends, so that would be a lie…

“Speaking of Megan though, she wants to meet you, and I’d like to see you again too.  If you’re not doing anything on Saturday, can we come out to Lawrence to visit you?”

Really?  After listening to that emotional diarrhea he wanted to come see me and bring his sister to meet me?  “Sure, if you want to.  I’d like that.”

Chris and I talked every day after that, late into the night.  I was surprised by how easy he was to talk to, and that he even got my jokes!  Or at least, he laughed in the right places, which was a better response than I normally got from people who weren’t Belle.  He asked a lot of questions: about my life growing up, about my work, about my opinion on things I didn’t even have an opinion on!  I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had been so interested in getting to know me in any way.  I learned a lot about his life too, about his sister, their cats, his photography, books he was reading—he tended toward non-fiction, so I had never even heard of most of the titles he mentioned.  Sometimes when we were talking, I even forgot what he looked like because I was so interested in what he was saying!—and the sound of his voice too, of course.  I always avoided FaceTime and wasn’t about to start now, even if it meant I could look at him again.  I’d see him on Saturday, and even though I was beside myself with impatience, Saturday would come.  And finally, it did.

Sister

The doorbell rang and I froze.  They’re here! He’s here! Calm down, I told myself. He’s only here because of his sister.  It’s not like he’s interested in you or anything.  Seriously! Just ten minutes ago, I had hurriedly ripped off my Space Jam t-shirt and pulled on a pink low-cut t-shirt that Belle had given me for my last birthday.

“A shirt?” I had said, confused. “Pink?”
She’d laughed.  “It’ll put roses in your cheeks.  Try it on, Mags! It’ll look great!”
I did what she asked and she was right:  it did put roses in my cheeks, and it did look great. And it was so soft! I loved just touching it. But at the same time… “It sure shows off my boobs,” I said, crossing my arms self-consciously.
“Oh come on, Maggie,” she’d said, pulling my arms apart.  “You look terrific! And what’s wrong with showing off your boobs a little anyway?” she grinned.
“Thanks, Belle.  I think I’ll save it for a special occasion,” I said, peeling it back off and reaching for the Minecraft t-shirt I had been wearing.

Today I smiled a little as I put the pink shirt on, admiring the lacy cutouts on its sleeves and neckline.  “Hey, Belle,” I said to the air, “an actual guy with a penis is coming to my apartment! This is a special occasion, right?” Then I caught sight of myself in the mirror.  “Who do you think you are?”whispered a nasty voice in my head. “Sticking your chest out like that! It will never be bigger than the flab underneath it!”  I sucked in my stomach and turned to catch a side view.  “No, not from that angle either,” the voice continued. “He’s coming here for his sister, not for you. He couldn’t possibly want you and he never will.” I ran both hands down my sides. It was true. Who was I kidding?

I glanced at the clock. Crap, they would be here any minute. I peeled the pink shirt off and dropped it on the bed.  Damn it, now my pits were damp.  Hurriedly, I grabbed a deodorant stick and swiped myself with it, then reached in my drawer and pulled out a black turtleneck, wincing at the crackle of my hair as I pulled it out of the neck of the shirt.  Damn static!  I rushed to the bathroom to dampen my hands and ran them through my hair hoping to tamp down the flyaways, and that’s when the doorbell rang.  They’re here! He’s here! Calm down!  A quick glance in the medicine cabinet mirror showed me hair that behaved.  I flew to the door, checked the peephole and saw Chris standing there. Alone? Just as good-looking as I remembered him, but with a haircut.  Oh well.  He lifted his face straight to the door and the helio-force of those eyes made my knees weak.

Taking a deep breath, I opened the door.

“Hi Maggie!” said a voice below my eye level.  I looked down and saw a girl sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a t-shirt that said “I’m a Dean Girl but I’m Sam Curious,” and beaming as though she were meeting a movie star.

“How did you get up here?” I blurted thoughtlessly.

“Chris brought my chair up and then he came down for me.  Has the ADA not yet reached Kansas? Like evolution?” came the tart reply.

“Megan, stop it,” scolded Chris.  “Maggie, I’m sorry to inform you that this ill-mannered urchin is my sister Megan, and your biggest fan.”

“Hi Megan, it’s nice meeting you,” I stuck my hand out, and she took it with a grin, pumping it up and down enthusiastically.  “Please come in,” I said, moving out of the doorway so they could enter.  I hadn’t spent all that time cleaning the place for nothing!

She wheeled herself in, with Chris following close behind.  She gasped, “That is the coolest thing ever.  EVER!” she said, pointing at my wall.

“Oh, hey it’s the banner from your booth,” said Chris.  “I wondered what people do with those when they’re not doing shows.”

“I don’t know what most people do, but yeah, mine lives here.”

“Until the next show,” he offered.

I smiled and shrugged.  “That’s not until next year.  By then Empire of the Sea will probably be old news—this version of it will be, anyway.  I may donate it to the video game shop.  There’s a really nice one here in Lawrence.”

“Are you going to give us a tour?”

“Of course! I usually walk, but I thought we could eat at the brewery, and that’s on the other side of downtown.  I don’t know if you want to walk that far—“ I faltered, looking at the wheelchair.

“I don’t plan on walking anywhere,” said Megan pertly.

“We’ll probably do a lot of walking—and rolling!“ Chris smiled at his sister, “once we get downtown.  Let’s just drive there.”  We bundled ourselves and Megan down the stairs and got in the car.

As we pulled into the street, Megan asked for the radio.

“Hey,” Chris said playfully, “Driver picks the music…”

“Shotgun shuts the piehole!” sang out Megan in answer.

Chris looked at me with a grin, “That doesn’t go for you though, Maggie.  Music?”

“Either way,” I said.  Were they going to make Supernatural references the entire afternoon?

Amazingly, we found a decent parking place in short order and were soon meandering down the main street, seeing the sights and enjoying the day.

At one point, we approached a group of college students, one of whom was wearing a t-shirt with the logo LFK, variations of which were in many of the downtown store windows for sale.  “What’s LFK?” Megan wondered aloud.

I opened my mouth to tell her, but the look on Chris’s face made me change track.  “It’s some lesser-known Kennedy brother:  JFK, RFK, LFK…”

As the students passed by, one of them tossed back, “Lawrence Fuckin’ Kansas, kid!”

“Yes, very nice, thank you!” called Chris, annoyed.

“It’s not like I’ve never heard that word before, Chris.  Lawrence Fuckin’ Kansas!”  Megan repeated.

“Ok, but that doesn’t mean you need to talk like that.”

“Amber talked like that.”

“She did not!”

“Not when you were around!” came the smug response.

“Who’s Amber?” I asked.

“Chris’s stupid girlfriend.” I should have figured.  Why would a guy like him not have a girlfriend?  Or several?

Ex-girlfriend,” Chris corrected her quietly with a sideways glance at me. “But I’m telling you that I don’t want to hear you talking like that.”  I wondered how recent of an ex this Amber was.  I also realized that I should watch my own language too, which I definitely wasn’t used to doing.  Shit.  I mean, shoot!

Megan gave a little shriek of joy as we approached the bookstore.  “Look!  Look at the kitties!” she squealed.

“Yeah, they live there in the store,” I said.

“That one looks just like Zeke!” she cried, putting her nose against the glass as the cat pawed the glass in greeting.  “Hello little Fake Zeke!” she crooned.  “Aren’t you just the third-cutest thing ever?”

“Third-cutest?”  I asked.

“Behind the real Zeke and Cas,” she explained, all the while practically putting herself through the window.

“We can go inside, you know,” said Chris.  “Through the door, I mean.”  We did, and ended up staying for over an hour, with Megan dividing her time between loving on the cats and browsing the shelves.  It turned out that the kid was a voracious reader, just like Isabel and I had been at her age.  I couldn’t help but wonder if she would have been friends with us, had she grown up when and where we did.  By the time we left, she had an armload of young adult horror novels and Chris had a biography of some eighteenth-century French intellectual I’d never heard of, along with the new Jon Krakauer book.  I couldn’t believe I’d originally thought he was stupid!

At the restaurant, we sat outside watching the passersby and feasting on onion rings until our real food arrived.

“I like your shirt, Megan,” I said, making conversation.

“Yeah, they’re my favorite,” she replied, happily licking the grease from her fingers.  “When do we get to meet them?”

That was a joke, right?  I was becoming less and less sure with these two! “Um, I think they’re on the road.”

“Ok. Can we drive past their house?”

I leaned forward and pointed to both of them with two fingers.  “You two do know that they’re not real, right?” to which Chris gave me a look that clearly said “Don’t count me in this!”

“Oh, they’re real, all right,” Megan pointed at her head.  “They’re real in here!”

“There is something to be said for that,” I conceded.  “By the way, your screen name, Ezekiel2320…”

“It’s for the cat,” said Chris.

I looked at the young girl next to him.  “You know,” I said carefully, “it’s also a bible verse.”

Chris laughed, a sound which I was beginning to look forward to.  “We’re not religious people,” he said.  But Megan’s eyes got wide and imploring. She cut her eyes at her brother and gave me the slightest shake of her head, blushing furiously.  “Ezekiel is the cat, and our birthdays are the 23rd and the 20th, right Megan?”
She smiled innocently at her brother.  “Yep!”

“I see,” I said, watching her.  “That works out pretty well then.”  She smiled at me, clearly relieved.  I wasn’t a religious person either, but twelve years of Catholic school had gotten me pretty darn familiar with the bible, and maybe Chris didn’t know that particular verse but his fourteen-year-old sister certainly did.  I chuckled to myself.  I never had an older brother, but I think I’d have enjoyed putting one over on him like that if I did.

When we’d finished eating, I excused myself to go to the restroom, and Megan followed along chattering away about everything under the sun.

“…and I also think it’s cool that you don’t wear makeup.  I don’t think anyone should.  When Hamlet told Ophelia, ‘God gives you one face and you make for yourself another,’ he didn’t mean it as a compliment!”

I’d actually meant to put some on for this occasion, but forgot about it because of the shirt/armpits/hair excitement.  Wait—Hamlet?

“Are you reading Hamlet in school?” I wondered. Megan had just started ninth grade. Wasn’t Hamlet taught in the later grades?

“No, we’ll read Romeo and Juliet later this year,” she made a face.  “I’ve already read it and it’s dumb.  That whole dying-for-love bit…I don’t think it’s romantic at all!”  I had to agree.  She continued, “I read Hamlet last year for fun, and then Chris and I got to see a local production of it.  It was great!”

“You read Hamlet for fun when you were 13?”

“No, it was before my birthday.  I must have been 12.”  What??  She was a reader after my own heart! I’d preferred the comedies though; there was enough tragedy in real life.

“Megan, about your screen name… It’s rather, um…”

She grinned, “Sophisticated, huh?  Thanks for not ratting me out to my brother.”

I’d been thinking “racy,” but nodded at her assessment instead.  “I just, um… you know there are a lot of creepy people out there who might make assumptions about you based on your screen name.”

“I know, I know,” she waved her hand.  “The internet is a dark and dangerous place.  But have you seen the screen names of some of the guys who post on your site? MaestroChoad. Dongdinger69. Ballzak.  I’m going to make some assumptions about them too: they’re idiots.  But that assumption is based on the kind of things they post and not necessarily on their screen names alone.”  She gave an arch look, and again, I couldn’t disagree.

“Just…be careful, that’s all,” I said.

“You sound like my brother!”

“It’s nice that you have someone watching out for you.  I never really did.”

*****

After lunch we headed down to the park.  At the entrance, someone had tied a bag of sidewalk chalk to the iron pergola and left a note asking people to leave a positive message.  “Cool!  I want to write something,” Megan proclaimed, choosing a bright green chalk. Chris moved to assist, but she stopped him.  “Not you, Chris! I want Maggie to help me.”

Although I felt a bit awkward, I helped her out of the chair and onto the ground.  We’d had rain earlier in the day, so the pavement was a blank slate.  I watched as she scrawled in large letters spanning the sidewalk, “Cherish new friends so they can become old friends,” and decorated it with swirls and flowers.  She looked up at me.  “Do you like it?”

“I do,” I said, pleased that she’d asked.  “I think people walking by will like it too.”  I looked at Chris, who was looking at both of us with an expression of … affection?  Those eyes met mine and he gave me a soft smile that warmed me clear through to my toes.   Startled, I clutched up the bag of chalk.  “Do you want another color, Megan?”

“No, thanks.  I’d like to get back in my chair, please.”  As I helped her into her chair, I noticed the bracelet she wore.  “Are those photos on your bracelet?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said, slipping it off and proudly offering it to me for inspection.  It held a picture of her brother and some older people who I assumed were their parents.  “Christopher gave it to me last Christmas.  There’s him, and that’s my mom and my dad, this is my Aunt Jen—she’s Mom’s sister—and her husband Uncle Dave, and this is my best friend, Katie,” she explained, pointing at each picture.

“Very nice,” I said, handing it back to her.  Seeing the family photos on jewelry reminded me of Belle’s locket which held photos of her parents.  I had desperately wanted to have it, but it had disappeared when she was killed, nowhere to be found.  I even traced the steps from the church to her house, hoping against odds that I might spot it.  Since I didn’t have any photos of the Delgados myself, and since Belle had worn that necklace at all times, its loss weighed heavy on my heart.  I beat myself up constantly, trying so hard not to think about how she looked at the funeral, with the mortuary makeup so skillfully done that she looked completely different from the crime-scene photos they’d shown me, and how the necklace she’d been buried with didn’t even look like hers.  Where could it have gone to?

“Maggie?  Don’t you think so?”  Back in the present, I realized that Megan had been asking me something.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”  She patiently repeated the question and I managed to re-join my companions.

“You were pretty far away back there,” Chris observed, as Megan scooted ahead of us to inspect the gazebo where bands played on summer evenings.  “Where were you?”

“Nowhere good,” I said as casually as I could.

“Then stay here in the park with me and Megan,” he said, smiling and giving my shoulder a small squeeze.

*****

Too soon, evening arrived and they needed to head back home.

“Thanks for having us over, Maggie.  We’ve both had a lot of fun today.”

“When are you coming to St. Louis?  You’ve got to come to our house and meet Zeke and Castiel!”

“Um, I don’t know,” I began, pleased. “I’d like to come sometime…”

“Yes, please,” said Chris.  “And we’d love to come back again too.”

“Definitely!” I said, trying not to show how excited I was at the idea.

I closed the door behind them and sighed.  Wow!  What a nice day!  Whodathunkit, right?  I mean, it’s not like he’s interested in me, interested in me, but he at least finds me interesting, even if only on his sister’s behalf.  And what a cool person she is!  I mean, even if she didn’t think I was as cool as she thinks I am, I liked her a lot.  And they both want to hang out with me again!  Wow!  I walked over to the windows to close the blinds and saw myself reflected.  I looked happy.  Well, I was happy, and except for the Faire last weekend it was the first time I’d felt happy since Isabel died.  I had a pleasant expression on my face, my hair was smooth and didn’t look like I’d never met a comb as it often does, and there were white stripes of deodorant on either side of my black turtleneck. What?!?  I looked down, and sure enough, there they were, mocking my contentment. Oh god, those must have been there all day long.  I yanked down the blinds and stomped into my bedroom, ready to end this horrible day.

*****

Over the next several weeks, I heard from one or the other of them daily: Chris and I texted back and forth frequently, Megan and I occasionally, and she continued to post in the blog comment section at least once a day.  It was fun to read her posts and have a real face to go with the webname instead of just an avatar, and know that the people who wrote jerky comments had no idea they were being put in their places by a young girl and not a mature man.  Chris and Megan came back to Lawrence each weekend too!  Except for one, and on that weekend I drove to St. Louis to see them and meet the famous felines Zeke and Cas.  That’s when I realized that Chris drives much faster than I do, since it took me at least an hour longer to get to their house than it ever did for them to get to mine.  We were always a trio though, so any nascent fantasies I may have held about him having an interest in me other than friendship soon died of starvation.  Still, I was enjoying myself, enjoying getting to know them both, and enjoying having now not just one real friend, but two.  Interestingly, I noticed that when I was with them, I didn’t think about how ugly and awkward I usually am.  I thought about what Belle had said about feeling like the most beautiful and fascinating woman in the world.  Although “beautiful” was a bit strong, I felt normal at least.  Like I didn’t embarrass myself just by existing.  And I was interested in both of them, and they were interested in me, and well, that helped a lot.  Added bonus: with frequent visitors to look forward to, my apartment had never been so clean.

After five or six weeks of this, Chris mentioned that Megan was going to Girl Scout camp for the coming weekend.  I was disappointed knowing that I wouldn’t get to see them, but glad that she had something fun to do, even if I didn’t.  “Is that hard for her to do? How does she navigate in the woods with her chair?” I asked.

“It’s not that rough,” he said.  “It’s woodsy but they stay in cabins, not in tents, and the paths are solid enough for the chair.  Still, they don’t baby her like I sometimes do.  Sometimes it’s just easiest on me to do things for her, but at camp she has to do everything for herself.  Besides, there’s that element of positive peer pressure: she wouldn’t want the other girls to see her as a baby or as a burden, and she usually comes back with a renewed sense of independence.”

“It sounds great,” I said, a little glumly.  “I’ll miss seeing you both this weekend though.”

“Oh no, I can still come!” he said quickly.

“Really?” I said, brightening.  “I’d love that!”  I thought of his eyes and got warm all over.

“I mean, I didn’t know if you had other plans, but I was hoping we could see that William S. Burroughs exhibit that’s on campus.”

“Burroughs exhibit?”

“Yeah, it’s the anniversary of the obscenity trial for Naked Lunch.  It’s a collaboration between KU and UMSL:  an exhibit and lecture series that opened here earlier this year because he was born here in St. Louis.  It’s closing in Lawrence because that’s where he made his home and died.  Phillip Heying’s photography is a big part of it, and he’s one of the lecturers too. I’d love to meet him.  And I’d love to have some grown-up time with you, too.”

Grown-up time with me!  I didn’t know what to say to that, so I asked, “Did you see it when it was in St. Louis?”

“No, I never had a chance to go when it was here.  I mean, Megan’s a precocious reader, but she’s not ready for the Beat writers, and I’m not going to be the one to introduce her to them.”

Well, neither was I, and I hadn’t read any of them myself.  Of course I knew who William S. Burroughs was but the Beat writers were much too, I don’t know… real for me.  Still, Chris was real too, so I could stand an afternoon’s exhibit if it got me his company.  I smiled.  “But don’t you think that not taking Megan just because of the content is exactly what the obscenity trial was about?” I couldn’t resist asking.

“Ha-ha, that’s very cute. I’m not saying she can’t ever read his work; I’m just not going to hand my sister sex, drugs and murder at age fourteen.”  I liked that answer. And I liked the fact that he wanted to go with me!

I could barely contain my excitement for the next few days, and my wonder.  I studied my reflection in the mirror for the first time since I was a teenager and saw what the rest of the world saw:  a gawky, graceless girl, too tall for her age, slope-shouldered and desperately out of shape from too much sitting around reading, gaming, dreaming; a heavy brow over eyes of a nondescript brown which matched the nondescript hair, a fat nose and thin lips with wispy hairs overhanging the top one when I forgot to get rid of them, the weird gap between my front teeth.  At one point, Belle had shown me an article about celebrities with gap teeth, but it didn’t do anything to erase what my dad had said to me when I’d asked for braces, a memory I’d been hiding from ever since.  I had tried at one point to fix the eyebrows too, but not only was it a disaster, it didn’t erase my chunky forehead.  Is it any surprise that I avoided any but the most cursory glance in mirrors after that?  And is it any surprise that I spent this time before Saturday trying to see myself as Chris might see me, wondering why he wanted to come see me on his own?

Date?

On Saturday morning I pulled out the special-occasion pink lacy t-shirt, determined that today was its maiden voyage.  I mean, it’s not like it was a date or anything.  I knew it wasn’t a date.  Still, Belle would be proud of me for breaking out the shirt.

When Chris arrived, I smiled and opened the door wide.  “Hey there, Sunshine!” he greeted me with a half hug around my shoulder.  Huh.  Although he’d touched my shoulders, back, arms many times during the times we’d spent together with Megan (I counted and filed to memory each one), he’d never gone so far as to hug me.  And ‘Sunshine?’ Now, which one of us glowed from the core? Surprised, I patted his back a bit before stepping away.  I didn’t want him to think I thought it meant anything other than a friendly hug.  “You look nice,” he said.  “That’s a pretty color on you.”

“Oh! Thanks,” I said, blushing with pleasure. I sent a silent thank-you to Belle too.

I have to admit that the Burroughs exhibit was a lot more interesting than I’d expected it to be.  Like I said, the realism wasn’t my thing, but Chris knew a lot about it and when we went through the photographic exhibit, he told me a lot of extra details which gave me a little more appreciation for the genre.  We both listened attentively during the lecture, and he asked what sounded to me like good questions.

Me, I was just happy to be spending the day with him, and I savored every moment of what was the best afternoon of my life so far.  We had a nice dinner downtown, and he insisted on paying for mine, which was both discomfiting and pleasant, since it didn’t happen to me too often.  Ok, ever.  And oddly, there were a lot more of those light touches than usual.  There was a crowd at the art museum, so those were probably accidental, but the restaurant wasn’t crowded at all.

After dinner, we went back to my apartment.  We sat on my sofa and listened to the wind and rain outside.  He picked up his beer and took a swig, putting a foot up on my coffee table at the same time.

“Do you mind?” he said, gesturing to his foot.
“Of course not, why would I?”  I asked.
“Some people don’t like feet on the furniture.”
“Oh, that,” I dismissed his concern.  “You see the state of my coffee table, right?”
He smiled. “Still, I wouldn’t want to offend you.  I’ve had a great day today,” he said easily.
I smiled back, trying to hide the full extent of my pleasure at his comment.  “I have too,” I murmured and sipped my own beer slowly.

He put his beer down on the side table, laying his arm casually on the back of the sofa, nearly touching my shoulder.  I shifted slightly.  I wouldn’t want him to think I thought he was trying to make a move on me or anything.  My knees were facing him more squarely, but my shoulder was safely away from his hand.

He shifted toward me and put his hand on my shoulder.   “I really like you, Maggie.  You’re probably the most interesting person I’ve ever met, and I’d like to see a lot more of you.”
Oh shit, what should I say to that?  I love you!  I thought—No, stupid, don’t say that!

I grinned idiotically as these sophisticated thoughts blew around in my head; then I felt his thumb caressing my collarbone.  Omigodomigod! My insides turned to liquid and I white-knuckled my beer, trying desperately not to make a mess all over the sofa.  He smiled softly into my eyes.  Why is he doing this?  Men don’t do this to me—I’m so gross! His fingers traveled lightly up the back of my neck, he put his other hand on my arm, and leaned in.  He leaned in! Before I knew it, his lips were brushing mine lightly, enquiringly, and oh, so sweetly!  And I sat there like a stick. So that’s what it’s like, I thought dumbly.  He pulled back a little, opened his eyes and smiled again.
“Is that ok?” His eyes asked me, and I could see the yellow and green flecks dancing in them, luring me in.
I responded with “Errggghhh.”  At least I may have. That was the only thought in my head at the moment and I hoped I hadn’t voiced it.  Either way, he took my drink out of my hands and put it on the coffee table, then turned back to me.  His fingers felt cold from the bottle as he touched my chin to lead my face back to his.  Once again his mouth was on mine.  This man is actually kissing me! This man’s tongue is inside of my mouth. This is real, it’s happening, it’s not an avatar, not a wish! What do I do?  Kiss him back, dummy! What do I do with my hands? Anything! Something! You’ve seen movies, stupid. Don’t just sit here like a lump!  With that little pep talk, my mouth molded itself against his, and my hands began to move of their own accord, first touching his upper arms, then moving up his shoulders to meet at the back of his neck. So this was what it was like to touch him, and be touched by him.  Heavenly and delicious!  I could taste the beer on his tongue, or maybe on my own, or on both, and—oh no. I could feel it in my chest, heading quickly to my throat.
 No. NonononoNO! I pulled back in alarm and whirled my head away in horror.  “UUUUURRRRRRRPPPP!” Out came a belch that would have made Raime proud.  Horrified, I buried my face in my hands and squeezed my eyes closed tightly against the tears.  Through the haze of my humiliation, I heard Chris lean against the back of the couch, toss his head back and laugh.  He laughed! That sound that I courted just so I could bathe in its beauty was directed at me and my disgusting make-out etiquette!  Why did the floor refuse to swallow me up?  The tears spilled out hard and heavy down my cheeks, my entire body trembling with the effort I knew it would take to eventually look up and see the contempt and pity that would certainly be in his eyes.
I heard a keening, a desperate animal sound that I realized was coming from my own throat, and I scrunched down, burying my head in my own lap.
That’s when the laughter stopped.  “Maggie?”  There was bewilderment and concern in his voice.  “Oh Maggie, honey, it’s ok.” He put his arms around my shaking shoulders and tried to lift me up, but I shook my head, and cried harder.  He moved closer and simply placed his arms around my shoulders, rubbing me gently.  “Maggie, I’m sorry.  I wasn’t laughing at you though, sweetheart, I promise.  It was just funny!  One day we’ll look back at this and you’ll laugh too,” I heard him croon through my blubbering.  Funny?  My fondest wish right now was to be struck dead, so I seriously doubted that I’d ever find this moment funny.  As I cried, he kept rubbing my back and murmuring my name, “Maggie, it’s ok, really.  It’s ok, honey.”  Sweetheart? Honey? Nobody had called me those names since Belle’s parents had died.  It was a little startling, though not altogether unpleasant.  The compassion in his voice and in his touch helped me to relax a little as my sobs subsided. “Look at me, Maggie,” he said, trying again to pull my shoulders up.
Once again, I refused.  He stood up.  Now he’s leaving! Who can blame him? I’m such a disgusting freak! But he didn’t walk toward the door; he went into the bathroom.  I heard the water run for a moment in the sink, and then he came out and sat next to me again, rubbing my back lightly once more.  I rubbed my face on my sleeve, hoping to dry off a little bit.  The tears were still coming, but at least the wails had stopped.  I pursed my lips together and stuck my tongue through them to get rid of some of the salt taste, and that’s when the next moment of mortification happened:  with my tongue, I could feel the razor stubble from where I’d shaved my upper lip.  Could Chris have felt it when he kissed me? Dear God, could this moment get any worse?  Did I have b.o. too?  I pulled my shirt neckline up just enough to wipe my nose off on it–Sorry, Belle!  I’ll wash it first thing tomorrow!–and sniffed surreptitiously, but all I could smell was despair and my Summer Rain shampoo.  I knew this wasn’t over though. Was I going to let a silent-but-deadly fart next?   Or worse—a loud and deadly one??  Magdalena, you are one disgusting person! Can you not be normal for one freakin’ minute?

“Maggie,” Chris interrupted my stream of negativity.  “Look at me, please.”
Some women are very pretty when they cry.  Belle certainly had been: her dark eyes seemed even bigger and more mysterious with the tears; they would get daintily pink-rimmed, and the little tip of her nose would match it, inspiring men to fall all over themselves to get her a hankie, a tissue, a hug, whatever might make her look up at them with that helpless, damsel-in-distress look that came so naturally to her. Now me, I’m not even pretty when I smile, so do you think I got the gene that provides motivational tears?  Nope. I’ve seen myself cry and the effect is much less damsel-in-distress and more warthog-who-went-nose-first-into-a-hornet’s-nest.  I wasn’t about to lift up my face and show him that! But wait a minute—why did he want to kiss on me in the first place?  He hadn’t had that much to drink.  Could he be visually impaired?  No, that’s not right; he’s a photographer, after all.  In my confusion, I lifted my head to look at him.  He took my face in his hands, moved my hair away from my eyes and studied me.  Then he brought forth a roll of toilet paper and put it in front of me.  “I didn’t see any tissues,” he said, “but if you have some I can get them instead.”
I shook my head, reaching for the toilet paper and blowing my nose copiously.  Yep, very attractive, Magdalena! You sure know how to show a guy a good time!

When I’d finished, he put a damp washcloth to my eyes for a moment, then wiped the rest of my face off.  I took the cloth from him and pressed it to my eyes, reveling in its coolness and hoping it would remove some of the blotchiness that I knew would be there.   When my skin felt normalish, I blew my nose again, all the while avoiding his eyes.
“Feel better?” he asked.
No, I still wish I were dead!  I shrugged, but pretended to nod because that’s what he would expect.
“Good.  Now, do you want to tell me what all the waterworks were about?”
“You were there,” I said, feeling sulky.
“Are you upset because you burped while we were kissing, or because I laughed?”
I covered my face with my hand.  “Both.”
He sighed heavily.  “Look, Maggie,” he said firmly.  “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.  I’m a guy, got it?  To me, that’s high comedy.  That’s why I laughed.  I mean, thanks for not burping in my mouth, but I don’t think any less of you for something you didn’t mean to do and had no control over, ok?”
High comedy, right.  There was no humor in this situation.  None!  I nodded compliantly.
“Really?” he said, putting an arm around my shoulders and looking in my face.  I nodded again but still couldn’t bring myself to look at him.
“I’d like to kiss you again, is that ok?”
Now I looked at him, my eyes puffed up and sticky with tear residue.  He wanted to kiss me again after that show? And with the snot on my shirt? Apparently he did, because he put his other hand on my cheek and kissed me again, softly on the mouth, lingeringly but chastely.  No tongue this time. Damn!  He pulled back and smiled at me.
“That was very nice,” he said, “and that’s how I’d like to end this evening.  I still have a long drive ahead of me, you know.”
I was disappointed, but he was right.  And I certainly wasn’t prepared for him to spend the night.

Doubt

I held out a hope that I’d hear from Christopher in the morning, but the phone was silent.  Not even the customary text to let me know he’d gotten home safely.  I tried not to let it bother me.  After all, could I really expect him to want to see me again after last night? He was so nice about it all though, I let myself believe him.  But maybe it’s only because I wanted so much to believe him?  I kept replaying the end of the evening in my mind, the kind look in his eyes as he said goodnight. Wait, was it kind or pitying? He wouldn’t lie to me, would he?  Could those eyes have been lying to me? I remembered some of the guys that Belle had gone out with a time or two, who had seemed so sincere, and courted her intensely, but then disappeared without explanation or goodbye.  Could he be one of those? A disappearer?  But those were boys—high school, and college-aged.  Chris was an adult man.  Adult men don’t do that, do they?  I had no way of knowing, and nobody to ask.  I knew he was busy today, with driving out to pick Megan up at camp and getting ready for the week.  Resolutely, I refused to let myself think about it further:  either he’d get in touch with me or he wouldn’t.

Luckily, the week quickly got busy for me, so I didn’t have much time to dwell on things I shouldn’t dwell on.  Not too much, anyway.  Midweek came and I hadn’t heard from either Chris or Megan.  I shot a quick text to each of them.  To Chris: “Hi there!  I hope your week is going well.  I found out where the Burroughs house is.  I’ll show it to you the next time you’re here.”   Please let there be a next time!  To Megan: “Hey, did you finish the new season of Supernatural yet? How was camp?”  I told myself I’d hear back from one or both within the hour, and went about my business.

I had a full and productive day, so much so that it wasn’t until I was sitting down with my microwaved burrito that I realized I hadn’t heard from either one of the McDonalds.  I picked up my phone to call…which one?  Chris.  But then, maybe there’s a reason for the silence.  Maybe he’s bored with me.  I guess I can’t blame him, especially after that disaster the other day.  He probably told his sister what a loser I am and now she doesn’t want to talk to me either.  I put the phone down, discouraged. Why had I even thought they’d want to be friends with me in the first place?  I’m so stupid!  He could be with anyone he wants. He’s probably back with that Amber person right now.  Someone named Amber would never burp while he was kissing her.

An image suddenly jumped into my head that I had been refusing to let myself think of:
On Saturday, Chris and I had stopped in at the student union to get something to drink on the way to the art museum.    I sat down at a table while Chris ordered at the counter.  That’s when I heard the conversation behind me: “Damn, I’d do him!” “Did you see what he came in with though?”  “No, they are not together!”   Then some snickering.  “Him?  With that?”
Chris came back to the table and handed me my drink.
“Ready?” he said with a smile, oblivious to the coven behind me. I heard a gasp and a whispered “No way!”
“Very!” I said grimly.   

I looked at the burrito sitting there unappetizingly on the plate and made a face at it.  I stood up, went into my room and curled up on my bed, on top of the blankets while my dinner grew cold on the plate.

I spent the next day forcing myself to work when I had to, but mostly moping around the apartment.  I walked a fine line between constantly checking my voice mail (empty) and texts (same) and making myself ignore them for minutes at a time.  Why hadn’t I heard from either of them?  I knew I was making myself crazy, but didn’t know how to get out of it without Belle to talk me down.  Even her voice had been silent these past few days.  Where are you?  I need you!  I whispered angrily to the air.  Naturally, I got no response.  I wasn’t even sure who I was talking to anymore.  I suspected it might be Chris, but tried to tamp that thought down flat.  He obviously doesn’t need me, or even want to be my friend.  I really didn’t blame him.  But Megan still liked me, right? But then, she hadn’t posted anything online all week either.

The day after that, I let myself lie in bed until early afternoon, and then forced myself to clean up.  I guess it had been a few days since I’d showered.  I was starting to smell myself. Not good. I stood in the shower until it got cold, trying to clear my mind and make it blank, not think about Chris.  After toweling off, I put some clothes on—they were even clean ones I got out of a drawer instead of off the floor.  I looked around.  Maybe cleaning this whole apartment was just the trick.  That would take my mind off things.  I kicked all the clothes that were on the floor into a pile.  There, that was done. Time for a break.  I sat on the bed, tempted to crawl back under the covers.  Really, who would notice or care?  I heard my phone ping in the kitchen, signifying an incoming text.  Chris!  I raced into the kitchen to get it.  Not Chris, but a notification of some questionable activity on my website.  Oh yeah, the website.  I guess I still have that, and the game.  After staring at the phone blankly, I managed to decipher what the discussion was on the thread in question and put together a decent response. I put the phone down and went back into the bedroom, resolving to at least clean the one room.  At least I could pick up a little.  At least I could make my bed.   I pulled the covers up and was pounding the pillows into shape when the door bell rang.  I sighed, not wanting to see anyone right now.  It was probably some sales person with useless trinkets, snacks, religion, political views. But hey, at least I was clean enough to answer the door.

As I walked to the front door, I noticed various pieces of trash, dirty dishes and other debris in the living room.  I sighed again.  I guess that would be the next project.  Right after I get rid of this nuisance at the door.  I looked through the peephole and my heart nearly stopped.  It was Chris on the other side!  I froze, wondering what he was doing here.  Had he come to tell me to stop bothering him?  Or maybe I was hallucinating?  Honestly, he didn’t look so great: a bit haggard, actually, like he hadn’t slept in days.  Rumpled, like he’d been wearing the same clothes for awhile.  Unshaven—he rang the bell again, making me jump, and then he knocked on the door.  “Maggie?  Are you home?”

Fingers shaking, I slid the chain out, turned the deadbolt and fumbled the door open.  “Chris!” I managed to sound surprised, which I actually was, so it didn’t take much acting ability on my part.

He turned his thousand-watt smile on at me and sagged against the doorjamb, looking relieved.  “Can I come in?”

I nodded mutely and stood aside.  He stepped into the apartment and gathered me into his arms in a giant bear hug.  After some hesitation, I put my arms awkwardly around his waist and patted him on the back.  “I’ve really missed you,” he said into my hair.

“Have you?” I stepped back, bewildered by this turn of events.  Five days of silence and then this overly affectionate hobo shows up unannounced at my door?  I knew I shouldn’t be all judgy about rumpled and haggard (and I’ll admit: unshaven), but those things were per usual for me.  I mean, rumpled was practically my signature style but I hadn’t ever seen Chris with so much as a wrinkle.  I didn’t know what to think or even how I felt. Relieved to see him?  Hurt and angry that he’d been ignoring me? Worried because he looked so terrible?  Afraid he was going to hurt me further?  Offended that he could just waltz in after almost a week and smile as though nothing had happened? All of these feelings swirled around in my chest and all I could do was stand and stare at him.

He sighed.  “Let’s sit down, please.”  I nodded and he took my hand and led me to the couch.  He paused, looking around.  “Have you been sick?”  I shook my head.  Sick?  Good thing he hadn’t come before I got in the shower!  “I hope I’m not interrupting your work?”  I shook my head again.  Work? Ha! “Good.  I’m sorry I couldn’t call first.  Megan and I took an emergency trip to Des Moines and I didn’t grab my phone cords before we left, and she lost hers—she’s still pretty irresponsible with it, you know.  I guess I could have stopped by the store and bought a car charger but I just wanted to see you so I didn’t bother stopping.”  He leaned his head back against the wall and put his arm over his eyes. “It’s been a week of hell.  You can’t even imagine.”  I was quite familiar with a week of hell, but didn’t bother to argue with him.

His other hand still held mine and he wove our fingers together.  I finally found my voice.  “What was going on in Des Moines?”

He put his arm down and looked at me.  “I told you that I still have an aunt and uncle there, right?”  I nodded once more.  “Well, they’re old you know, relics, so they still get a newspaper, and my uncle reads it front-to-back, including the ads.  Last Sunday there was a public notice buried deep, announcing that the guy who killed my parents was up for parole.  He was sentenced to ten years on each count of vehicular homicide, and for attempted vehicular homicide, and five years each for DUI and attempting to leave the scene.  That was five years ago, Maggie.  Five years and he’s already up for parole!”

My head spun and I gripped his fingers.  “That’s terrible, Chris.”

“Yeah, well get this—Megan and I were supposed to be notified if and when he should ever be up for parole.  We were supposed to be notified by the court, not by my uncle happening upon a newspaper item.  That’s the part that really burns me up.  We high-tailed it out of town as soon as my aunt called, and  rolled into Des Moines about one in the morning, but we made it to that damned parole hearing at eight.  It was a long, long day and they continued it until Tuesday.  I finally got a chance to speak, you know, give a ‘victim’s statement,’ but the real victim is Megan and she wasn’t allowed to speak at all!  This asshole’s kids got to give their ‘we need our daddy at home’ speech, but my sister wasn’t allowed to talk about how he killed her dad and her mom, and devastated her future.  What a waste of human skin!”

“Devastated her future?”

“She was in the back seat when he t-boned them.  That’s why she’s in the wheelchair.  She almost died too, but thankfully she’s only paralyzed from the waist down, and has been since she was nine years old.  She’ll never walk again, or ride a bike or a horse, never do kick-boxing or play football or ding-dong ditch, or racquetball, never go ice skating, never have children either.”

Ding-dong ditch?  That was an odd criterion for a bright and fulfilling life, but then I’d never done that as a kid and I couldn’t say my life had been all that bright or fulfilling up until now.  Anyway, point taken.

“So what happened?’

“Nothing yet, nothing definite.  I spent the last few days making phone calls and petitioning the parole board, but it looks like this son-of-a-bitch could actually go free after killing my parents and paralyzing my sister.”

“Where is she now?”

“I left her in Des Moines with our aunt and uncle.  I hate for her to miss school, but she’s a bright kid; it won’t take her long to catch back up, and I think she needs to be with family right now.”

“You probably do too,” I commented.  “Did you need to get back for work?”

He lifted our hands up to his lips and kissed my fingers.  “I needed to come and see you.”

It was too much:  all the attention he’d been giving me for the last few months, then the silence and uncertainty, then the sudden display of affection, the terrible news and now this.  My eyes pricked with tears and I looked away.

He sat up straight. “What’s wrong?” he said, suddenly alert.

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out.  I don’t know what I would have said anyway, and a lump was forming in my throat.  Oh, god, I was going to cry again!  I turned away, fully mortified and furious with myself, and with him too.

“Maggie, are you all right?  Did I say something wrong?  What’s wrong?” he asked, letting go of my hand to put his arm around me, then taking my abandoned hand with his other one.

I stiffened, closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, trying to regain some control over myself.  He let go of me and sat back.  “Should I not have come here?” he asked.  I pinched the bridge of my nose and exhaled deeply, then turned to look at him.

“I missed you all week,” I was finally able to say.

“I missed you too!  That’s why I drove here non-stop.  I wanted all week to talk with you, tell you what was going on, and just hear your voice, but we were on the go up there constantly.  I left to come here the moment things wrapped up.”

“I wish you’d called me or something,” I managed, knowing it was unreasonable even as the words left my mouth.

“I know, Maggie, and I’m so sorry! I wanted to more than anything and I just kicked myself for forgetting my charger and I never got the time to go buy a new one.  Your number was in my phone or I would have called from my aunt and uncle’s house. Please believe me when I tell you that in the moments when I wasn’t consumed with what was going on up there, I was only thinking about you, and wishing you were there with us, with me.”

That’s when the tears broke free and ran embarrassingly down my face, which I immediately covered with one hand.  He tentatively reached out and rubbed my shoulder.  “What’s wrong now?” he asked.  I asked myself the same question, but using much a less kindly tone in my own head.   What’s wrong with you now, Magdalena?  You were crying when he left last week, now you’re crying again for no real good reason.  Yeah, keep acting like a psycho—guys love that!

He picked up and handed me the roll of toilet paper that still sat on my coffee table from last weekend, a testament to how I’d spent this past week.  I took some, wiped my eyes and blew my nose.  “It’s just that…” I trailed off, not wanted to explain my ridiculous behavior.

“Yes?” he prompted.

I sighed.  “Last Saturday was the best day I’ve had in a long time, and it ended so horribly…I felt so stupid! And then I didn’t hear from you, I just figured you found me disgusting and were sick of me and never wanted to speak to me again.”  I mumbled the last of it and turned my head away, shutting my eyes tightly.

I heard him give an incredulous laugh.  “Are you serious?”  he asked.  “Have you been worried about that this entire week?”

Now I felt even more stupid.  Here he and Megan had been dealing with real, actual troubles and trying to get justice for their dead parents and for Megan herself, while I’d spent most of the week feeling sorry for myself for being a pathetic loser.  I mustered some courage and turned to face him.  “I’m sorry, Chris. I had no idea what was going on in your life.  I didn’t mean to be so…” I swallowed, “self-centered.  I’m such a stupid idiot.” Just like I was last weekend!

“You’re not, Maggie, you’re not!  You’re not stupid or an idiot and I don’t think you’re self-centered either.  I just can’t believe you’ve been dwelling all week on what happened Saturday night.  I told you then that I didn’t think you were disgusting.  Why in the world would you think I wouldn’t want to speak to you again?”

I shrugged, unable to either look at him or come up with a reasonable answer.  He started again, “Maggie, I think you’re terrific.  You’re one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.  Don’t you realize that?”  I shrugged again, uncomfortable, and disbelieving but pleased nonetheless.  “Well, you are!” he repeated.  “I hated that I wasn’t able to talk to you all week, and now that I know how you were feeling, I hate it even more.  I would never ignore you on purpose!  I don’t play those kinds of games with people I care about.  You’re too important to me to be playing stupid head games with, even if what happened on Saturday had bothered me.  Which it didn’t!”  He took my hands.  “Saturday was the best day I’ve had in a long time too, and the contrast between that day and this past week just made the nightmare in Des Moines even worse.”

I looked in his face.  “Really?” I asked, more unsure of what was happening than I’d ever been of anything in my life.

“Really!” he insisted.  “Why is that so hard to believe?”  Geez, was he really going to make me explain this?  Maybe he was visually impaired, like I’d thought last weekend.  A blind photographer.  That had to be it.

“Christopher, look at yourself.  And then look at me.  Do you remember when we were in the coffee shop on Saturday?” he nodded.  “Remember those girls behind us?  They were talking about us, wondering how we’d ever gotten together.”

He shook his head blankly, confusion in his eyes.  “I wasn’t paying attention to anyone else.  And who cares anyway?  We don’t know them and they certainly don’t know either one of us!”

I exhaled hard.  “They don’t need to, Chris!  They can just look at us and know you should be with someone better!”

He looked as though I’d slapped him.  “What the hell, Maggie?” he said.  “Isn’t that what your friend said about the guy who killed her?  Is that what you think of me?”

Now I was the one who felt slapped.  “No,” I shook my head, hard.  “No, Chris, I don’t think that of you at all.  All I’m saying is that you’re so very beautiful that anybody would want to be with you. And I’m…not,” I finished.

He sighed and put his face in his hands.  “I’m glad you think anybody would want to be with me,” he said, and then looked up at me.  “The question is, do you?”

Did I want to be with him? Did I want to breathe air and eat food and live another day?  Did I want to drown in his eyes?  Did I want a different life than the one I’d spent nearly thirty years running away from, hiding in books and video games so I could avoid my own reality?  Could that really be a question? I gazed into those eyes, hypnotized, and nodded.  He visibly relaxed.  “Then what’s the problem?” he asked.

“But…” I faltered, “we were never alone.  I just thought you wanted me to be friends with Megan.  And I like her!” I hastened to add.  “I’m glad to have met her.  She’s a great kid!  But… I didn’t think you had any interest in me for yourself.  And last Saturday… I didn’t know what to think.”

He gave a sheepish grin and looked away from me, evidently embarrassed.  “Ok, I’m not gonna lie.  I used my sister as a way to get to know you. But what you need to understand is that everyone I’ve dated in the last five years—well, three years really, because I didn’t date anyone while Megan and I were trying to adjust to our new lives—but everyone I’ve been with, every single one of those relationships ended because of my sister.”

“What!?” I was incredulous. “What do you mean?”

“Some were intimidated by the wheelchair; others were jealous of the time that I had to spend with her.  That’s what happened with the last one.  But I couldn’t just ditch a wheelchair-bound thirteen-year-old in order to wine and dine some woman.  What was I supposed to do?  When I saw you, I was intrigued; when I talked to you and realized that you ran the site Megan kept talking about, I thought that if we got to know each other through her, maybe we could connect in a way that was more real than I was able to with the other women I’ve known.  So I used Megan as my ‘in.’ I’m not proud of it, but I thought it was win-win.  Or maybe win-win-win?”  He smiled disarmingly, clearly trying to charm me out of being upset.  It was working, damn it.

“But Chris, I don’t even know why you wanted to talk to me in the first place!”

He looked me in the face.  “Really?  You have no idea why?”

Startled, I shook my head mutely.

“When I saw you sitting in your booth at the convention, you looked absolutely regal. And fierce!  Like a warrior queen, looking protectively over her realm.”

Regal? Me?  Well I guess it wasn’t me, actually; it was Lorelea he’d been looking at that day.

“You held yourself with such authority that I halfway expected to be stopped by an entourage before I was able to talk to you.  You looked completely self-sufficient and in charge of your own life.  Your attitude was almost tangible.  I wanted to touch it, to capture it, and keep some small part of it for myself.”

In charge?  Self-sufficient?  I had been thinking about Isabel just before Chris approached me, wondering how I was going to manage the rest of my life without her.  Well, that and checking out his thighs. I looked down at what was left of my strip of toilet paper, shredded to bits. “If you liked the way I looked, why didn’t you just take my picture and call it good?” I mumbled, agog and embarrassed at the thought that anyone might actually like the way I look.

He smiled.  “Right? I’m a photographer, so that should have been the first thing I thought of.  But here’s a secret:  I knew that my camera couldn’t do justice to the nobility of your spirit, so I didn’t even try.  Those photos of you on the Faire website don’t capture a tenth of what I saw in that exhibition hall.”

The nobility of my spirit?  Boy, he’s really laying it on thick.  “You don’t have to say all that just to get me to go to bed with you!” I blurted.

He laughed that laugh I love so much and said, “Listen Maggie, I’m not going to say I don’t want that, but when I watched you get your award, and you saluted the crowd with your trident, I was honestly a little bit afraid of you.  But I also knew that you were a woman I needed to get to know.”

Confused, I asked, “So going to bed is off the table then?” Ohmygod you’re stupid—shut UP, Magdalena!

He chuckled deep in his throat, then leaned over and kissed me gently.  “It is definitely,” he kissed me again, on the forehead, “on the table,” kissed my eyelid, “or on the floor,” kissed the other eyelid, “on this sofa,” a kiss on the nose, “or wherever you want,” he smiled down at me and then kissed me deeply, passionately and lovingly.

*****

Reader, I married him.

Okay, just kidding.  This isn’t a Bronte novel.  But you didn’t really think I’d share the rest of that, did you? Can’t I have a little privacy?  I’ll just say this:  it was wonderful!

I lay there in the dark snuggled up against him as he slept, enjoying the newness and the rightness of feeling him against me while my mind wandered over the events and non-events of the week, and the events of the afternoon and evening.  And you know what?  Just like Belle had said, I did feel…almost beautiful.  But I wasn’t just thinking about myself.  Waste of human skin, Chris had called the drunk driver.  I remembered sitting in the bar with Ramón and chorusing that very phrase about William…who was, after all, an attorney.  An idea began to form.

*****

“Would that be a good idea?” Christopher asked when I mentioned it in the morning.  “Do you want to see him again?  And could he even help?  And would he?”

I shrugged.  “It wouldn’t be out of any personal favor for me, but he might do it to further his sense that he’s such a pillar in the community.  And he did go to Drake, so he may know some people up there.”

Chris’s hand tightened around mine.  “I don’t want you to have to face this guy if you don’t want to.”

“I’d do it for you.  And for Megan.  If I can get justice for somebody, I’d feel like my life was worth something.”

He put his arms around me and held me close.  “It would mean so much to both of us…I can hardly even hope for it.”

Investigation

Naturally, William had demanded a complete investigation into his wife’s murder, and the police talked to everyone who might conceivably have seen anything that night, including the priest, the head of the soup kitchen, and many of the regulars there.  None of them could think of anyone who might have wanted to hurt Belle.  How could they, when she’d been so sweet and kind to everyone?  The police officers were condescending when I told them who might have wanted to hurt Belle.  William was a pillar of the community!  Everyone knew how he doted on his wife, and didn’t I have some nerve accusing him?  They showed me photos they’d taken.  I could barely bring myself to look at them.  How could Belle be on a slab in a morgue?  How could she be lying there bruised, beaten and bloody? It made no sense, yet when I thought of her husband, I didn’t see any other ending for my poor, sweet, love-blind best friend.  They made me look at the photographs anyway, and I ran to the wastebasket, puking out my sorrow, despair and grief.  When I’d finished, one of them handed me some tissues and led me gently back to my seat.  The other one was putting the ghastly photos away when a thought occurred to me.  “Wait,” I said.  “Let me see those again.”  They glanced at each other and slid the envelope over to me.  My hands shook as I pulled out the topmost photograph and looked once again at Belle’s lifeless and battered face, her bruised collarbone, her bared chest.  I pointed.  “Where is her locket?”

They briefly glanced at each other again and then back at me.  “Locket?” asked the tall one, coolly.

“Belle had a locket that she wore all the time.  It held pictures of her parents.  Where is it?”

Tall Officer consulted some notes.  “Subject wears a wedding ring and no other jewelry.  Subject’s posterior cervix shows scrape marks consistent with ligature abrasion.”

“What?”  I asked.  “What does that mean?  English, please.”

Kind Officer answered, “The subject had marks on the back of her neck suggesting that a chain was forcibly removed.  Pulled off,” she added, as though I didn’t already have a visual.

“She wasn’t a subject!  She was a person! Her name was Isabel Delgado, so fuck you!”  I sobbed as the bile and tears rose again.  I stood up and retched once more into the trash can.  “Her name was Belle.  Fuck you!” I repeated.  I hadn’t before given one bit of thought to whether I wanted anything that had been hers, but now there was nothing in the world I wanted to have more than that locket.  Well, that, and to have Belle alive again.

Visit to William’s Office

Surprisingly, William actually agreed to see Chris and me.  We were shown into his office at the appointed time and he greeted us with his company smile. “Margaret! How nice to see you again!” he said, clapping his hand on my shoulder.  My name still wasn’t Margaret, but I was relieved that he didn’t try to give me a showplace hug, so I smiled back at him with equal sincerity and put my hand on Chris’s arm.  “William, this is Chris.”  He grinned more broadly and extended a hand.  “A pleasure, sir.  Please come in and let’s see what I can do for you.”  He propelled us to some chairs and then sat behind his desk, assuming a benevolent and lawyerly pose.  “So.  A drunk driver killed your parents and put your sister in a wheelchair,” he said.

“Yes,” Chris replied.  “It wasn’t his first offense, only his first fatality.”

“That’s terrible,” William clucked, shaking his head.  I tuned out and looked around his office.  He had a great view; I could see most of downtown in one direction, and nearly to the river in the other direction.  Belle had raved about the view after she had visited here for the first time.

Of course we hope the doctors are wrong, but the prevailing opinion is that she’ll always need the wheelchair…” I heard Chris say.  The office looked like a lawyer’s office you might see on TV.  Beside the windows with their fantastic views, he had very happy-looking plants.  I wondered who took care of them.  I was sure that Belle had probably had something to do with them at some point.

“… insurance which pays for the bulk of her needs, but…”  Belle would have loved Megan.

“…were not notified…not allowed to speak…” There was a non-descript painting on one of the walls, which prompted me to wonder who had decorated in here.  The furniture was of mahogany and leather, and despite its opulence, the chair I was sitting in was darned uncomfortable.  Was this really William’s taste or did it just look the way he thought it should?

“Who’s the prosecuting attorney?”  Behind the desk, the wall was lined with bookcases, filled with important-looking volumes.  Again I wondered if William really ever referred to them or if they were just there to look good. Everything is online now, isn’t it?  That makes for a less-impressive bookcase though.

“…were in school together.  Let me give her a call…”  Interspersed with the books were frames which held William’s diplomas, various accolades, photos of him with the mayor, the governor, other important-looking people I didn’t recognize. And Belle.  It was a candid shot, one I had taken before they got engaged, back when he was still trying to impress me since I was her best friend.  We three had gone to the sculpture garden on the lawn of the art museum for a picnic, and a stranger’s dog bounded up to Belle, giving her kisses.  She laughed and snuggled its neck.  William reached out to scratch the dog’s ears and their hands touched.  She looked up at him and that’s when I snapped the picture.  His face was obscured (perfect!), but it was obvious that he was smiling as he looked at Belle.  They had this happy dog between them, and she was laughing and looking at William with stars in her eyes, as though she were already imagining the future I know she had envisioned with him: the house, the kids, a dog or two.  In the picture, you couldn’t even tell it wasn’t their dog.

“…like to talk with you about a prisoner up for parole…” I heard William say on the phone.  Then I saw it.  There was a chain hanging on the corner of the picture frame, and propped up against the bottom of the frame was the locket that held pictures of Belle’s parents.

“…looking forward to hearing from you and catching up!”  William put the receiver back into its cradle, the click bringing me back to the present.  “Voice mail,” he said, shrugging.  “It’s inconvenient, but don’t you hate when it’s not available?  Anyway, I’ll let you know when she gets back to me.”

He stood up and so did Chris, holding out his hand.  “Thanks for your time today.”

“Happy to help,” William said smoothly, shaking Chris’s hand once more.  “Margaret, good to see you.”

I didn’t answer or even look at him as we walked out the door, only clutched Chris’s arm.  In the elevator, Chris asked, “Are you ok?  Margaret?”  I looked at him and saw that his eyes held a teasing note.

“Ha. Yeah, he never bothered to learn my real name, and I guess ‘Maggie’ was too difficult for him to say or something,” I said distractedly, my mind still reeling from what I’d seen and from the beast we’d left behind.  Like I care what your goddamned name is!

“I’m sure it was hard for you to see him, but if he’s actually able to help Megan and me, we’d both be grateful to you for setting this up.  I mean, I appreciate your doing it no matter what the outcome is.  You were brave in there!  And if something really comes of it…!” he let his words trail off.

“He did it, Chris.  I know now for sure.”

“He did…what?  Kill Belle?  I thought you were already sure.”

“Now I’m doubly sure.”  Once again, my stomach was tied in knots.  I wanted William to pay for what he’d done to Belle, but I wanted the guy who’d killed Chris and Megan’s parents to pay for what he’d done too, and it seemed that William was the key to making that happen.  Just a guess:  he probably wouldn’t be very helpful if he were arrested for Belle’s murder.

Within the week, Chris got a call from someone in William’s office, a junior partner.  William had transferred Chris’ case to her after it turned out that her uncle was a judge in Des Moines.  Things were looking good for Chris and Megan.  And for me and Belle too, because now I could act on what I’d seen, and pray unreservedly that William would get what was coming to him.

Happy Ending

After I visited the detectives again, I called the kind one several times.  I felt a little awkward about the whole “fuck you” bit, but she said she’d heard worse.  She told me that they had to tread lightly due to William’s status, but that they were building a case against him and expected to make an arrest soon.  “Things move slowly in the legal system,” William had said.  Each day seemed like an eternity. I set the news website as my home page and searched daily for any indication of movement on their part.  Finally it happened.

Attorney Arrested for Wife’s Murder

There was a video with it, showing William being led out of his office building by two officers.  He was hiding his face, but I’d know him anywhere.

I sat back in my chair, staring at the headline and the still shot for a long time, not knowing how I felt.  Vindicated?  Revenged? Happy?  Isabel was still dead, no matter what happened to the beast she’d married.  I’d love to have been there when they arrested him, love to have seen the look on his face, heard the fury in his voice when he realized he couldn’t charm his way out of this.  But this isn’t a fairy tale, so I was not a fly on the wall or an invisible presence.  Or maybe I was? I’m sure he could see my hand in his arrest.  There’s still the trial to go through, but I feel strong enough to testify against him, no matter how he tries to intimidate me.

So maybe there will be a happy ending, or at least a satisfactory one for Megan and Chris, and also for me. And maybe Christopher and I will have the happily-ever-after ending that Isabel didn’t get. Who knows? Maybe this is a fairy tale after all.

3 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Piece 3–“Beauty’s Beginning”

  1. Pingback: Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Re-imagining Stereotypes and Gender Roles | Minnesota English Journal Online

  2. Pingback: Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Piece 2– “Beast’s Beauty” | Minnesota English Journal Online

  3. Pingback: Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Piece 1–“Beauty and the Beastess” | Minnesota English Journal Online

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