I wandered the dusty streets of Chicago, not knowing what I wanted to find. Saying that, I knew what other people wanted me to find. Anna – my fiancée (I shuddered; I hated that word, especially when it was coupled with Anna) had left earlier that day, and my parents, practically frantic for me to get married and out of their hair, had sent me to look for her. I wasn't surprised she left: she had been yelled at and insulted, and I even demanded the ring back.
I knew looking for her was a lost cause, so I simply trudged to the bar on 37th Street: the bar who thought I was old enough to buy strong liquor. Sitting at the bar, I lazily greeted the bartender, who, recognizing immediately who I was, slammed a glass of whiskey on the counter.
"Thank you, sir," I mumbled to the bartender, grasping the glass and draining it.
"Mr Masen," he said, looking suspiciously at my ragged appearance, "is there anything the matter?" I reached for a second drink that had been placed in front of me. "You don't normally drink this much, and it's only 6 o' clock."
I shut my eyes for a moment, trying to clear my head and get my thoughts straight.
"It's my parents. They're forcing me to marry a girl I can't stand." I rested my head in my hands.
"Parents?" I stared at him. This man was easily readable, and I answered his question before he asked it.
"I'm twenty-one," I insisted, "and, yes: I still live with my parents."
The man just laughed. "I'm surprised, Mr Masen. I would have thought you'd have girls falling over such a handsome young man like you."
I sighed, taking a sip of whiskey.
He was wrong. People, once they got to know me, tended to avoid me, because of my uncanny ability to anticipate what they were thinking or what they were about to say. It would make a person uncomfortable, I reasoned.
"Another one?" The bartender sounded shocked when I slammed down the glass and pushed it towards him.
"No, I'm feeling better now." I put a five dollar bill on the table. "Thank you." I left the bar, and ambled along the street, watching yesterday's newspaper, now in several pieces, swirl around in front of me. I trapped a sheet with my foot, and then bent down to pick it up. The headline read:
"LOSS OF RUSSIA? NO NEED TO WORRY: WE HAVE USA
KING GEORGE FEELS GRATEFUL: 'WE OWE THE AMERICANS'"
I read the article, smiling proudly. I carried on walking, torn paper in hand, heading down the road towards the new munitions factory. I didn't notice the girl walk out of the brick arch of the factory, about my age, carrying a pile of folders. The pile reached up to her face, obscuring her vision. Neither of us were paying attention to the other and we collided, sending papers flying above our heads and to the ground.
Both of us gasped and rushed to collect the files and papers now beginning to fly away in the chill breeze. Eventually, we collected them up, and I took half of the pile for her, flashing a crooked, white smile. I never meant to be charming; I was just born with it. It was a curse, really. She smiled back, and now I got a real chance to see what she looked like. She had brown hair tied up in a bun, with strands coming out of it and falling in front of her pale face. Her eyes were big and brown, but looked stressed; her smile sincere, but nervous.
"Thank you, sir," she said, glancing at the pile I had picked up for her, "but I can take those for you." She had a sweet voice, with a slight hint of a southern accent.
"No, really," I smiled again, but then kicked myself internally; "it's not a bother." I looked down at the street for a moment, thinking. I wondered: perhaps if I brought back a different girl, my mother and father wouldn't be nearly so angry about my loss of Anna.
"May I walk you home?"
"Oh, you are too kind, sir, thank you." She smiled shyly again, her brown eyes meeting my green ones. A snowflake floated down from the rapidly darkening sky and landed in her untidy hair, followed quickly by another. Soon our heads and shoulders were frosted with tiny ice crystals, and the road in front of us carpeted with snow.
"Where do you live, if you don't mind me asking?" I said as we walked along the white-blanketed street.
"I don't mind," she replied, glancing at me. "It's a perfectly valid question, seeing as you are walking me home." She gave a tinkling laugh. "It's just a few blocks north from here."
We walked in silence for a moment, watching the snow swirl around.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Helen Trusscott." She gave her best attempt of a curtsey, being hindered by the folders.
"Nice to meet you, Miss Trusscott." I paused. "I'm sorry, are you a 'Miss'?"
"Yes," she said, a hint of regret in her voice. She paused, gazing sadly at the ground, before continuing. "Et tu? What is your name?"
"Edward Masen, mademoiselle," I replied, awkwardly lifting my cap off and bowing.
"Enchanté," she said, smiling again. "Do you know much French?"
"Not a lot. I'd love to learn, though. It's a beautiful language. Yourself?"
"Half the people in Baton Rouge speak it," - she was homesick, I could tell - "so it's good to know."
Even though I already knew the answer, I asked her, "Is that where you grew up? Baton Rouge?"
"Yes." She gazed sadly ahead.
"Why did you leave?" I asked softly, trying not to sound nosy.
She paused, her brown eyes unhappy.
"There was trouble." Her face was suddenly serious. "There were…" she struggled to say it, "…killings in the big cities. Serial murders. My father…died…when the murderers came to Baton Rouge. My mother and I moved after that, because we were afraid." A tear leaked out of her eye.
"That's terrible. I'm so sorry."
"No, I'm sorry," she wiped her cheek, "I shouldn't be opening up so much to someone I just met."
She'd already told me much more than she thought she had. I didn't admit this to her, though: I didn't want to scare her off.
"There's no need to apologise." I gave a small smile. She smiled back gratefully.
We walked in silence for a moment, her eyes still sad. We turned a corner, and she told me that it was her street. The bottom of her off-white linen dress was now soaking with snow, her hair damp from the flakes. Stopping at the third house down, she curtseyed awkwardly again, and then walked up to the steps leading up to the door. I offered to take her pile for her while she unlocked the door, and she gave her half of the pile to me, flashing a flushed but grateful smile. Once all the folders were safely inside, she came back out onto the step.
"When do you go to work tomorrow morning? Maybe I can walk you there…?" She blushed, her cheeks going pink, and hot blood pulsing to the surface of her skin.
"Well, I leave at seven-thirty…" she trailed off, glancing at me through her long lashes. I smiled again, running my fingers through my auburn hair. I reached out to gently grasp her hand, and then kiss the back of it, not breaking my gaze from her eyes. Her porcelain skin was like silk under my lips, and shivers went down my spine, like electric shocks.
"I'll be there."
"Edward Anthony Masen! What time do you call this?" my mother yelled as I came in the house. I sighed, not taking a lot of notice. "And where is Anna? Didn't I tell you to go find her?"
"Mother," I said calmly, walking past her, "I've forgotten about Anna." I paused at the bottom of the stairs, looking dreamily into space. "I have a Helen."
Silence filled the front room for a moment.
"Edward," my father put a hand on my shoulder, "she isn't a…" he struggled to say it, "…a prostitute, is she?"
"No, father," I rolled my eyes, "she isn't." I turned to go upstairs. "She's just a girl I met."
"That's not entirely the point, son. Anna's father was an important business client of mine…" I wasn't listening. I just drifted up the stairs, knowing that my parents would be glaring disapprovingly at my retreating figure.