The old man stood there staring at the large portrait that adorned the hallway of the empire he had created and touched it with his heart. The woman gazing back from it was a classic beauty, impressive and stunning in all her glory, but the camera had not been invented that could have captured her perfection as she really was.
He sighed as his mind transported him back in time to the days of Hollywoodland when the fans did their best to cool off in the heat of the summer afternoons. He didn’t remember the listless heat, but he did recall in every detail her.
She laid back on the chaise looking every inch the movie star he had created, dressed in a silk chemise that set off the eyes that just took in your soul and devoured it. She was covered in a thin layer of sweat, glistening in the afternoon sun and she smiled sweetly.
“It’s hot.” She purred. “Get me something to drink.”
Young again, he stepped to her and breathed her in. She reached out as he bent and put his lips to the satin fold of her neck. She rolled back her head as his lips touched her and giggled.
She grabbed his ears, sinking her claws into the flesh, pulled and bellowed at the top of her lungs. “I said get me something to drink!”
The old man snapped back to reality with a gasp. He shook his head and looked at the floor. Did he love her? Absolutely…with all his heart. Did he hate her? With every fiber of his being.
He turned to head back to the office. There was work to do. The empire wasn’t what it used to be, but he knew that somewhere in the building was the answer.
As he leaned on his cane to make his way back to where he had come from, he smiled to himself. One of these days he was also going to figure out what the little bitch had done with the keys to the rest of the kingdom.
There he stood, the changes in his life happened so fast, alone in the dark, in a strange place. It was beautiful, much more than he ever imagined would be his, but it was—lock, stock and staccato floors.
It was obvious that he and Clair were in the final stages of relationship when the offer came, a new job, a new place and a new life without her—or any one he had come to know. He was confused, angry, ready to chuck it all and start anew. He did.
And now he stood in his own home, something he thought he’d never have. After a full days work at a new job, paying more than he’d ever dreamed, he stood dazed, if not firm in a new city on the other side of the country far, far from the mess that had become what he once was.
His Aunt Hil had once told him that if he stayed true to his own heart that one-day every piece of the puzzle would fall into place and the finished picture would dazzle him beyond even his wildest dreams. As he stood there in the midst of it, he knew she was right.
Faster than lightning bolts and instantaneous Internet connection his life was now something he didn’t recognize. It still hadn’t settled in. It still wasn’t comfortable, but it was all his. He just knew that everything was finally, finally right. It would just take some getting used to that was all.
Like the job, the house seemed to come out of nowhere and just the right time. The elderly woman appeared at his new office and shuffled right up to his desk, accidentally mistaking him for a realtor. Her husband had passed away and she was moving across country to live with her granddaughter. She and her husband built the house with their own hands, every corner, every crack and crevice their dream come true. Now she was alone, and she wanted it to go to the right person. She stressed that she was in no hurry; it just had to be the right person.
As he escorted her back down to the lobby, hoping they could get her to the correct place, she took an instant shine to him, regaling him with stories of her beloved Herman. They had built this dream together with love; and how leaving broke her heart, but staying hurt even more. She only hoped the right person would come along. She wanted to make sure the house would be a new start to the one destined to carry on their legacy.
As soon as the lobby desk clerk assured them she’d be taken care of, the old lady kissed him gently on the cheek and thanked him. He was so kind, and so lovely. He reminded him or her dear Herman.
He turned a little red and thanked her. He explained that he, too, had just uprooted and was starting over. He told her that he considered it an honor that one of the first people he encountered in his new life was someone with a legacy of love so great that it gave him hope for his own future. He squeezed her chubby arthritic hands and returned to his desk.
He had barely sat back down, when the woman appeared again. She had changed her mind and didn’t need a realtor after all. She handed him a set of keys and asked if he could drive her home. She had chosen him to buy the house.
He laughed kindly at first, saying no, but she was insistent. Finally the acting director of his department came over to him to see what was taking all his time. It was obvious that the elderly woman cared for his “boss” even less than he did. To his surprise, the usually virulent shrew smiled and told him to take whatever time he needed. As they left, he turned to assure his “boss” that he’d return to his duties as quickly as he could but she had quickly skittered away.
As soon as they pulled into the driveway, he was overwhelmed. The house was beautiful. Before they even got out of the car, the old lady handed him the keys again. “Come inside, my child.” She said looking him deep in the eyes. “This is where your dreams come true.”
Within the hour a deal was made, affordable via his new job, only the paperwork needed to be drawn up and signed. Within days his “angel” was off to her new home and he had moved in that morning. Everything happened so quickly as if it all been pristinely orchestrated. He was still having trouble believing it was true.
A few suitcases, not yet unpacked and a small crate of boxes was all that looked familiar in these surroundings. She had left almost everything, insisting that it was part of the deal, exactly what she wanted. Her eyes misted over as she told him she was taking “only a few baubles, for the best memories were locked inside her heart where neither man nor time could take them away.”
It was now Friday night, his second week at work complete, the coming Monday would bring on another zap of changes. He was shocked yet enervated by how quickly he was adapting, how eager he was for control. Gone was the trepidation and hopeless discouragement of the past. Now, he had an entire weekend ahead of him to no longer be a stranger in his own life.
He had already familiarized himself with the main floor. He had roamed through in giddy awe, touching everything, moving little. He stared at the painting in the front entry by a spiral staircase leading upstairs and allowed himself to get lost in the swoosh of swirling color and splashes of sparkling gold. Like the painting, he would allow touches of himself in the house evolve. He sighed with contentment. Now it was time to explore the second floor.
The front of the house was deceiving. It looked small and quaint, like a cottage in the woods, rather than a stately home at the furthermost point of a cul-de-sac. It wasn’t even until you had climbed that spiral staircase to the second floor that the true magnificence of the house made itself infurled.
The staircase landing opened to a luminous master bedroom almost the entire length and width of the house. To the left was a large comfortable bathroom, and a huge walk in closet, both larger than the meager shack he had grown up in. To the right was a muted glass partition paneling off a second room, a private getaway for two complete with a wet bar, furniture and, to his surprise, an octagonal hot tub of what appeared to be handmade red oak.
There were curtains that hid the entire south wall of the bedroom and “playroom”. It wasn’t until now he found what he realized was a remote control on the nightstand by the biggest bed he’d ever seen. Half dazed and in awe, he picked up the remote and began pressing buttons.
The first button dimmed the lights. The second operated an overhead fan and third, the third ended up taking his breath away. His knees gave way and he sank to the bed as the third little touch of a button seem to make the draperies disappear unveiling a south wall made entirely of glass. It was if the room and the bed he was now half lying on for support seemed to be free floating in the night sky.
He could see the tops of the trees and shrubs to the east of the west of his backyard and in front of him just the top of an old wall of stones dividing his property across from him. The railings of the balcony just beyond the glass wall added to the illusion of being about to just step right out into the heavens.
He eased back on the bed propping himself up on his elbows and stared out. As he shifted his body he heard an electronic click and was wafted over by tendrils of fresh air. His weight had touched another button of the remote and the wall turned into glass panels that opened, beckoning him outside. He stood and walked through them.
The balcony he now stood on spanned almost the entire back of the house. To his left was another staircase, leading to the deck below. Leaning now on the railings, perfectly matching the red oak hot tub, he could see the small pool below, its still blue waters reflecting the night sky as if it were just another layer of stars and moonlight. He gazed into the water, and reflected upon his past.
How Clair would have loved the pool, but hated everything else. She would have insisted on redecorating everything, removing all its personality until it resembled one of the perfectly lifeless layouts in those cosmopolitan home magazines she so adored. Oh, she would have allowed him to make love to her in the pool and the hot tub, and gloried in the posh neighborhood, but as soon as she got bored the whining preceding the fighting would have begun.
A soft breeze ran across his chest and fingered his hair. He felt warm and comfortable knowing that this time none of that would happen—the good or the bad. He had broken the cycle and was, at last, in control.
His eyes slowly glided across the backyard. That must be the old gate Mrs. Elysian talked about meaning to have torn down. It stood rotting and alone in the middle of the stone wall, the only mar in the perfection of the landscape. She was right; a little work to the yard and the place would be perfect for him. Yes, he would get up tomorrow and see what needed to be done to rid himself of that eyesore, maybe even the whole wall.
He reached in his robe pocket for the remote, turning the lights off entirely as he retreated back inside. He opted to leave the glass wall open and just crawl into bed. It wasn’t long before he drifted off. Worn out by the new job, but relaxed in his new surroundings that were without a doubt truly his.
And he had no dreams, just peace for those few hours. The house was silent. All that could be heard was that of nature playing quietly in the backyard through the open glass, Occasionally, the air would bounce off the moonlit water of the pool, dance for a time with the leaves of the tall tress and then caress his bare chest and he lay sleeping.
All seemed to protect and love him, as he slipped into its arms and rested for the first time in years. A rotting gate at the center, the only imperfection to his new life, would be taken down tomorrow. He was at last finally and totally in control.
The carry on clutched tightly to her chest, she walked swiftly and deliberately as she could. Old age was supposed to bloom gently, gracefully she mused. For her it seemed to have run screaming from the building.
When had she gotten so old? When the whole mess had gotten started, while they knew they were forsaking their innocence, it never once occurred to them that some day they would no longer be young. The innocence obliterated, tired and old, and yet still here driven be a series of small decisions made during the dream of youth.
Oh those marvelous dreams, she smiled as she recalled every single one of those enchanting dreams. That Carly Simon person had once compared them to clouds in her coffee. A resigned sigh of agreement came from deep within her as the old woman moved as quickly and as determined as she could.
Those dreams were so aromatic, she thought, wafting up into their brains, daring them not to take that first sip. Then that rich, full body of flavor only whetted their appetite for more. More? Hell…they wanted it all, she remembered as she scanned the concord for what she now needed.
And all of it they had, more than they had imagined, if not always quite the way they imagined it. It had been robust, wholly satisfying and yes, even at times, a little nutty. She almost laughed—and cried—as she recalled those times, swallowing the memories with her mind. Then there was all that lovely, lovely cream---rich, smooth and delightful all folded into that big hot, steamy mug of dreams.
She stopped and put her hand on the wall to steady herself, take a breath and let the quick girlish giddiness of flavor pass. “It was good,’ she closed her eyes murmuring, “It was so good.”
She opened her eyes back to reality and looked at her hand on the wall, withered, knarled and spotted. The cup was almost empty now and the coarse, bitter sediment of the final few sips hit her pallet.
“Are you alright, ma’am?” the man, a janitor she supposed, asked her.
“Yes…fine.” She said, hoping she’d remembered to turn on the twinkle in her eye. “I just thought I was younger and had to stop and let my age catch back up to me.” She explained although she realized she didn’t need to.
The janitor type person nodded his head. “Are you meeting someone?” He asked and then added, maybe a little too quickly, “I mean, do you need help with your bags? I could call a porter or something…”
“No need, young man.” She pulled up her strength and confidence with a smile. “I’m meeting some other old biddies, a reunion of sorts. We’ll muddle through somehow. We always do.” She lied, for oh so many reasons, except for the last part, which miraculously always seemed to end up the truth.
The man nodded and meandered on his blue collar barely above minimum wage way. She made sure he was out of sight before she headed for the sign that said “rest rooms”.
Once safely inside, she paused only at the mirror to check her face. She turned her head from side to side inspecting. She smiled, Herman had taught her well. She checked the stalls, and slipped in the last one, closing the door, shutting the seat lid down and using the commode as a chair. She listened intently for a while, contemplating her aloneness. It was almost over, she sighed.
She zipped open the little compartment of her carry on and pulled out the handy little gadget. She flipped it open and pressed a sequence of numbers she knew by heart. As the noisy little tones poured into her ear, she tapped her foot impatiently. “Pick up…pick up!” her voice echoed in her head as if she had said the words out loud.
The moment she heard the connection she blurted, “It’s Elizabeth’, maybe a little too loudly.
There was a slight pause at the other end of the connection. “Yes. I’ve been waiting.”
“It’s done.” She confirmed. She imagined the look on the other party’s face and the way she knew they would slightly drop their head. She knew them so well.
“Everything’s in place then.”
“One last little piece to throw in the box.” She said. “Then it’s over.”
“All we can do then is wait.” The voice on the other end replied.
Elizabeth nodded her head, knowing a vocal response wasn’t required. “This isn’t so much fun any more.” She said instead.
“I can’t remember the last time it was.” They said. “But we have to do this.”
“One last time.” She resigned.
Again there was a small silence between them, like the first jump into the pool. Elizabeth bit her lip and said it anyway. “What if he’s not the one?”
Confident and without hesitation the other end responded, “Then we’ll make him the one.”
She knew this was right. “If any one deserves it, he does.”
“By the time he finds the nasty stains at the bottom, we’ll be long gone.” There was a slight pause before the voice added, “hopefully.”
She ground her teeth. “I guess that’s all that’s left.”
“Finally”, was said with a sigh.
“You mean, again.” She corrected and then spewed on. “Consider that last puzzle piece taken care of.”
“I will” was said not coldly. “I always have.” Was added with a fondness that made her shudder.
“I’m finished after this…no more.” She said with finality. She started to touch the end button but the voice on the line called her name.
“Elizabeth…” they said. “Whatever happens, I’m prepared. I won’t run for cover.”
She smiled remembering. “You never do.” She closed the phone and stood up. Releasing the carry on from her shoulder, she dropped it on the toilet lid, gently sliding the little phone into its little zipper compartment. She opened the bag and reached for what she needed, exactly in the place where it needed to be. As she pulled it out and inspected it she wondered if she should have ended the call with “I love you”?
“Too late.” She said out loud as Elizabeth Elysian prepared for her final mission. “…Again.”
He opened his eyes softly a few hours later, feeling rested, yet lazy. The house and yard were dark. He pushed himself up on his elbows and smiled. Yes, this would do. He rose up off the bed, not bothering to cover himself for he was alone and shielded from anyone or anything but Mother Nature herself. No wonder they had loved it so here.
He stepped out onto his balcony naked and just enjoyed the damp night air as it glistened all over his skin. His eyes searched his yard, darting across the tiled apex below, noting the grass and the carefully placed flowers and shrubs. He then stared at that pitiful gate and made plans in his head to begin to replace it or even remove it. For the first time he looked beyond the gate wondering what was on the other side.
Obviously it was someone else’s back yard, and wondered if the fence and gate were put there to hide anything that might clash with the perfection the former owner’s had so painfully constructed. Perhaps it was simply for seclusion, the house beyond too close. It was then that he noticed, another balcony, beyond the gate, but at eye level.
It was barely the morning so the home was dark, but he could clearly see a balcony and a small glass wall, in comparison to his. He wondered who might live there and if they would be good neighbors. Technically, they lived on the next block, their backyards butting together, but divided by that wall. He wondered if maybe they were unfriendly, giving reason to the divide, and maybe the wall was theirs making its jarring raggedness a little more sensible in the pristine setting of his property.
It had been a lazy day, gone by in a whir. He unpacked and made the place a little more his own, basically spending the day getting to know his new home and finding the comfort of being in it. It was now late. He had showered, watched a little TV and suddenly felt fenced in.
Here it was Saturday night, in a new town, a whopping big metropolis to boot, and he was alone. Other than a few people at work, he had not had the time to begin socializing. He made a mental note to rectify that shortly. He lit the next in a day long series of Marlboros, deciding to just turn in and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.
His cell phone rang. He reached for it and flipped it open with the usual half forgotten “Hello.”
“Ian?” He recognized the voice, but didn’t place it immediately.
“Yeah, who’s this?”
“Forgotten me already have you?” The man chuckled.
“Yeah, dude. You haven’t been gone that long.”
“Sorry, man” he apologized, “Everything happened so fast, it seems like a year ago instead of less than a month.”
“No one has heard from you so I took a chance that you hadn’t changed your cell phone number. Guess I lucked out.”
“Good to hear from you, bud” he said. “What’s up in the sticks?”
“Well, I have to admit that I’m kind of curious about what’s going on with you.” Billy asked.
“Huh? I got a new job and moved. I just found a place to live and have been settling in today. I was planning on calling a few people back home in a few days.”
“That’s great, Ian, but I meant with Clair.” He said flatly.
Ian was confused. “I haven’t seen or spoken to her since that night I stayed at your place, end of story.”
Ian heard his buddy sigh, and knew from experience that he was probably rubbing the palm of his hand on his forehead and trying to figure out how to say something. “Billy, what ever it is just spit it out.”
“Okay, damn. Ian, Clair has a whole new side to the story and I thought you should be warned.”
“What are you talking about, Bill?”
“Well, the word she’s spreading around town is that you never broke up. You just got a cushy executive job in prestige Ville with a whopping salary and she’s moving out there with you.”
“Over my dead body.”
“There’s more.” He warned.
“Apparently, the two of you are getting married in September. She’s asked Renee to fly out and be her maid of honor.”
“Bill, I can assure you, it ain’t happening. She’s just flipped her lid.”
“That’s what I figured.” He seemed a little more at ease but not much.
“How did she even know about the job? You didn’t even know about that. Leaving town I could understand, but the rest…”
“Renee told me she went to your old office and your boss filled her in. Now why she was at your office I have no idea, but that asshole of a boss told her everything she wanted to know, including your new office phone number.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Billy. She wouldn’t have the nerve to call me. I made it very clear that it was over the night I left. I even waited until she was at work the next day to go in and get my stuff out of the apartment, so I didn’t leave a scrap of anything behind for her to ‘need to return to me’.”
“I understand that Ian, but there’s one other little bit of information I think you need to know. Clair turned in her two week notice and has told Renee that she’s flying out to live with you.”
Ian couldn’t help but laugh. He wasn’t surprised, but she would be. “Sorry, dude, I don’t mean to laugh, but Clair certainly has a surprise coming if she’s really quitting her job and flying out here to live with me.”
“Why, you already married, dude?”
“Oh, hell, no! But she can’t even get on the lot without my authority and that’s not happening, and if she comes on my property, I’ll just have her arrested. Luckily here in California there are very strict stalker laws.”
He heard Billy laugh. “I hadn’t thought of that. I almost hope she does try and land on your doorstep.”
“So…” there was a pause on the other end, and Ian could see in his head Billy chewing on his lower lip, “everything okay?”
“Yeah, just fine Bill. Thanks for asking…and the warning.”
“No prob,” he said. “You and me, too?”
“Yeah, we’re fine buddy, always will be.”
“So it’s okay that I called.”
“Yep, any time. But I think I’ll get my cell phone number changed tomorrow. Been meaning to anyway. I’ll call you with the new one.”
“Cool. So everything’s alright, then?”
“Just fine.” Ian looked at the clock. “Everything okay with you?”
“Sure, what makes you ask?”
“Well it’s after 11 here, Billy, has to be at least two on the East coast. Everything alright with you?”
“Yeah, was just lying here in bed and wondering when and how to tell you about Clair. Thought I should just go ahead and do it or I wouldn’t get any sleep at all.”
Ian sniggered, “Well, you feel better now?”
“Can you sleep now?”
“Then go to bed.”
Billy laughed, “Will do.”
“Hey, Bill? Thanks for calling man. It’s good to hear from you.”
“Yeah, good to hear your voice. I’ll spread the word that Clair’s an idiot.”
“I’m sure everyone will just say ‘Duh!”
“Probably. Take care, Ian. Talk to you soon?”
“Sure thing. Night, Billy.”
Ian closed the phone. He couldn’t believe Clair. Actually, yes he could and he was positive that she’d just show up at the office one day in the next few weeks, bags in hand expecting that nothing had ever changed. He shook his head is mock disbelief.
“Clair, Clair, Clair…” he said out loud, shaking his head. He took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair, roughing it up and flopping back on the bed. Of course, she didn’t believe it was over. She had always done the breaking up before, and he’d always pleaded he would change until she would consent to take him back. He had ‘changed’ so many times he didn’t even know who he was.
But he had told her he couldn’t take it anymore and it was over. She just looked him straight in the eye and said, “Right, you’ll be back.” He had thrown a few clothes in his gym bag and headed toward the door, telling her he’d be back for the rest of his stuff as soon as he had some new digs. She laughed and snorted, “No one breaks up with me.”
He shouted, “I just did” over his shoulder as he slammed the door behind him. She even had the balls to call Billy and tell him Ian was probably on his way and to tell him that she’d have breakfast ready in the morning. So Bill was expecting him when he showed up at his apartment door. He’d had time to tell Renee to take a hike for a few hours and tuck his daughter in bed early. Ian even noticed an unopened bottle of Scotch and two glasses on the coffee table when he walked in the door. Yeah, they’d both obviously been through this before.
They had been college roommates. They had pretty much seen it all and done it all together. They were so much alike, but different enough to keep each other endlessly entertained through ten years of friendship.
Ian knew it was definitely over between him and Clair. It was the only way he could save himself. He felt like there was this huge black hole sucking in and destroying everything around him. He knew Clair wasn’t the vortex, but definitely the apex, and in order to think straight she had to go.
Ian poured himself a scotch, popped open the glass doors and stepped out onto his balcony to drink in the fresh evening air, hoping it would keep him from going further in his mind. He stared down into the water of the pool below and thought, just thought...of Claire, of the past, of nothing at all.
He took one last long drag off his cigarette and flicked it in the air. He watched the red cherry somersault through time and fall, hidden somewhere in the lawn below. He sighed. When would he stop feeling like that, something discarded, hidden in the vast darkness until whatever heat was left died from lack of oxygen.
He stared into the almost empty scotch glass, for a moment. He knocked it back, turning inside and drifted off into a heavy sleep.
Standing in the shadows, a figure watched, satisfied. For a moment, they had been afraid to move. He seemed to be staring right at them. His figure was intoxicating, almost naked and mistakenly believing he was sheltered from the world.
The figure chuckled silently. Hot and mistakenly stupid, that’s how they liked him, and this man was plenty of both. The shadow smiled. This would be so easy. It would take time, and it would be complicated, but it was a piece of cake.
A dog growled from not too far off. The shadow had been there long enough to know it was at a safe distance, but why tempt fate? No need to get cocky, this guy would step right into it.
The figure in the shadows slipped away, but not before taking one last look as the lights on the second floor flickered out. “Welcome to my world…” was murmured quietly in the night, “…said the spider to the fly.”