Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying. - Robert Herrick
I was eight years old when I first met Edward Masen. It was the spring of 1909, and we were moving into our new home. My father had recently secured employment in Chicago, and my mother and I were now joining him that everything was settled. I do not remember much of that first meeting other than he presented me with a gift, as his mother presented my mother with one. She mentioned something about how nice it was to have us as neighbors, and how lovely it was that Edward and I were nearly the same age. I honestly wasn't paying much attention, as I was itching to open the little package with the such pleasant weight. When my mother indicated that it was permissible for me to do so, I opened it eagerly, and was very happy to find a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland hidden beneath the thick, brown paper. He asked me if I liked to read, and when I answered yes, he smiled at me, and answered that he did too. I remember thinking how pretty his smile was, and how he could light up the entire street with it if he so desired.
It wasn't long before our mother's became close friends. Mrs, Masen was a kind woman, quiet and gentle. She was often in our parlor, chatting with my mother over tea. I thought she was incredibly beautiful, even more so than my own mother. She had copper hair and eyes that conveyed both warmth and a fierce intelligence. How I envied her copper hair. I was also a redhead, but I had more carrots than copper. Her voice was musical; I loved the way she said my name: Evelyn. It sounded so elegant coming out of her throat, not plain at all. Sometimes Edward would come over with her, and we would go out on the front steps and read together. We would take turns reading to one another. He would often read more than I would, but I didn't mind. His voice was nearly as musical as his mother's. Edward could bring the characters to life, giving each word careful attention, making it dance in the space between us.
He turned eight soon after we arrived. I had my mother help me make him petite fours. She indulged me, and together we created a nice stack of eight pretty little cakes to take to him. I drew characters in icing from The Jungle Book on each of the cakes, knowing that it was one of his favorite stories. There was Father wolf, Hathi the Elephant, Baloo the Bear, Bagheera the panther, Shere Khan the Tiger, Kaa the Python, Tabaqui the Jackal, and Mang the Bat. I was so proud of those eight little cakes. When I brought them over, he smiled at me and thanked me. Our mothers thought it sweet, and his mother set up a small table for us on his porch. We each ate a cake and had homemade ice cream as we talked about who knows what. He always seemed to know exactly what I was thinking, so conversation always seemed to flow. I didn't have to worry about being awkward or gawky, because Edward never thought of me that way, I stopped thinking of myself that way.
That summer, every Sunday, we would picnic in the park together. Mrs. Masen and my mother would always put together the most fabulous picnics. There were all of our favorites. Nothing was too good for our Sundays out. Our fathers would talk politics, our mothers about society happenings, and Edward and I were free to do as we pleased. That first summer we read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and continued on though The Marvelous Land of Oz. If we weren't reading, our favorite thing to do was to lay on our backs on a thick quilt and pick out shapes in the clouds. On rainy days we would go to the Art Institute, and Mr. Masen and my father would tell us about each and every exhibit that caught Edward and mine's eyes. Those nights I would go to sleep dreaming of all of those lovely paintings, and what could have inspired them.
It was perfect. I finally had a companion, as did he. We were both only children, and it was heavenly to have someone my own age to talk to. It seemed hard to imagine that I had lived so long with out Edward in my life, I looked forward to those Sundays, even as a young girl. My life before Chicago seemed to fade away. There was no need to cling to it when something so serene had taken it's place. I had a true friend, and that was well worth the move.
Summer became fall, and our families settled into a new tradition. We would still share a meal together on Sunday, however, we now alternated between our homes. When it was our turn, my mother would let me help her cook. She would always tell me: "Evelyn, we must make this the best meal ever" in a conspiratorial voice. It was fun and games, seeing who could create the most elaborate dinner. I took a special pride in knowing what Edward liked, and what he didn't. I wanted to learn how to cook his favorite dishes, I wanted to make him happy. I wanted to see that same look on his face as when I brought over the petite fours.
That first Christmas was delightful. We were at the Masens and it was Christmas Eve. It was so beautiful. I remember how the candles sparkled on the tree, and how gracefully the mantle was trimmed with boughs of evergreen. Edward played the piano, leading us in Christmas carols. Mrs. Masen took over while Edward ran upstairs for something. She played marvelously, it was easy to see where her son received his talent. He was back as soon as I started to wonder just where he had run off to. He looked at his mother, and then at my mother, and after seeing them nod, he took me by the hand. Edward then led me to the base of the staircase, away from the noise of our parents playing and talking.
He told me that he had been thinking of what to get me for Christmas, and then the idea came to him. He had wanted to give me my present much earlier, but he knew he must wait until that night. With that smile, and his green eyes ablaze with anticipation, he handed me my gift. It was some what clumsily wrapped, obviously he had done it on his own. I opened it slowly, wanting to prolong his smile, and my gratification of making him smile. It was a copy of The Adventures of Pinocchio. My hands ran along the cover, reveling in how soft it felt under my fingertips. He asked me if I liked it and I answered of course I did. He said he knew that I missed my marionette, my most favorite doll, that had been broken when we moved, He thought that this might cheer me up. And it did. I leaned over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, then pulled away, blushing at my imprudence. He reciprocated after his eyes flashed around the room, making sure the adults wouldn't see. If my mother or my father saw, they never said anything, nor did the Masens.
Later that winter, I slipped on some ice and broke my ankle. Without fail, Edward came over everyday to keep me company. Sometimes he read to me, sometimes we played cards, and sometimes we would simply talk. It was during this time that he took to calling me Evie. It gave me great pleasure when he would do that, as he was the only one who ever shortened my name. He was careful to only use it when we were alone, and that only increased my satisfaction. It was our secret, something that was only for us. Something that was special. Sometimes that winter his mother came along, and she would teach me how to knit. I never really got the hang of it. I was much better at the crocheting my own mother had taught me. After Edward and his mother would leave for the day, I would work on the afghan I wanted to give him for his birthday. It would be a late thank you gift, but I wasn't a fast crocheter, and I wanted it to be perfect for him. I wanted to show him how much I appreciated him saving me from dying of boredom that winter.
Time went on quite happily. Edward and I became closer and closer, more and more on the same wavelength. We still saw each other nearly every Sunday, and during the week we would leave messages for each other in the door frames of our homes. Mostly we were working on a story, taking turns writing sections of it. It was about a family of mice, and all the misadventures they had living in a great mansion. The family in the mansion was very large, as was the family of mice. Perhaps it was out of our desire to have large families, each of us only having a mother and a father. Nevertheless, it was a delightful game, and I greatly looked forward to reading his installments. He was so much more creative than I was.
I was disappointed when we finished our story about the mice, as I was afraid that we could never find something as special to do again. Yet, he surprised me, as he always did. He decided that he was going to teach me piano. I had never learned, which I suppose was quite odd, but I never had the inclination to do so, and my mother never pushed the issue. She wasn't musical either, and thought that we would all be better off if the Masens handled the music side of affairs. I didn't mind the idea of learning how to tame that great black and white beast, so long as I could do it with my very best friend. So we began, simply at first. Sometimes he would show off, teasing me. I would get back at him by purposely mangling a piece, just to get a reaction out of him.
His efforts did not go to waste, and that following Christmas, I was the one who was playing carols. Granted they were very basic, lacking the elegance of Edward's or Mrs. Masen's performances, but they were mine. I was so proud, not only of myself, but of Edward for being able to coax such a thing out of me. We exchanged gifts again on that bottom stair. He gave me a copy of Little Women. I gave him a copy of The Call of The Wild. This year I didn't kiss him on the cheek, however, he did kiss my hand. I smiled, and so did he. He always made me feel like a lady, even though I was half way between a girl and a woman. The rest of the night we talked about what it would be like to live in Alaska. Somewhere so cold and so remote seemed nearly impossible.
Edward was, without a doubt, my favorite person. Even as we grew, and we both came to have different friends, he was still my best friend. Oh, my girlfriends were nice, and kind, and intelligent, but they could never hold my interest as long as Edward could. They didn't seem to understand me the way he did. I felt like I could tell him anything, whereas I felt as if I had to hold to certain topics with my girlfriends. It wasn't lying, exactly, but rather playing the game that I was expected to play. I loved them dearly, but I lived for Sundays when I could see him, tell him about my week, hear about his. He was so smart, and kind, and gentle. He loved to talk about nature, and for his thirteen birthday, I gave him a book on the various habitats of mountain lions, his favorite animal.
Not long after that, my mother seemed to shy away from allowing Edward and I to have so much time unsupervised together, yet I knew that we were allowed more alone time than nearly all of my other friends. We still saw each other quite frequently, but it seemed now to be contained to the parlors, or walking with our parents. While I found it quite annoying, I also saw my mother's reasoning. After all, we were no longer children, and it wasn't proper for us to go off by ourselves, dreaming up stories or simply talking about what was buried in our hearts. While I knew our parents trusted us implicitly, I knew that times were changing. I was a young lady now, and Edward a young man. We had to figure out a way to navigate our relationship given our new roles. It took us a while to do just that, but once we did, it was just as comfortable as before.
I can remember exactly the moment that it changed for me. It was the October of 1916, and we were both fifteen. Mr. Masen had suggested to Edward that he take me to some social function that the Masens were required to go to. I eagerly accepted Edward's invitation, excited to be a real grownup lady going to a real grownup ball. My mother was delighted, and that next day she swept me off to the dressmaker. I was to have the most elegant dress we could afford, nothing was to be spared. That dress is still my favorite of all the ones I have ever known. It was a deep cranberry color, and made this highly satisfying swishing sound whenever I moved in it. My mother arranged my hair in the most sophisticated manner. When I looked at myself in my full length mirror, I could not believe my eyes. For the first time I saw myself as a woman, not as a little girl in transition. Every last detail was perfect, from the custom combs in my hair to the dainty slippers I wore on my feet. I felt as if I could take on the world. I was ecstatic that I could take it on with Edward. It wouldn't be right if he wasn't there for what I considered to be my leap into full-fledged womanhood.
Edward came to my door, his mother and father right behind him. He took my breath away. The cut of his tuxedo emphasized how muscular he had become, how taut his body was. His eyes were bright with excitement, as if he held some secret behind them. His bronze hair was still untamed, and it made me smile to know that no matter what, some things never changed. My father lovingly wrapped my shawl around my arms, and my mother gave me a quick hug. Edward promised my parents that we would be home as soon as the ball was over, and the Masens nodded their heads affirming what Edward had just said. He offered me his arm, and together we descended the stairs of my porch.
The ball was wonderful. We dined on the finest foods I had ever tasted and drank the finest wines. I loved the way I felt that night, so giddy, so full of life. It was as if I was seeing everything for the first time. When it was time for dancing, he took me in his arms with the most gentle touch. He was smiling like a fool, and when I asked him why, he told me that he had learned how to dance just for this. I was taken by surprise. He was so graceful, it was as if he had been doing it his entire life. When I asked him how he managed to do it, he replied that he never stopped counting. So we twirled though the night, laughing and talking and telling stories about the other guests in whispers. It was such an odd conjunction of our old lives, and our new. That night, when he said my name, it sent shivers up and down my spine. It confused me, but I couldn't fight it, I didn't want to fight it.
The evening was over much too soon for my liking, even though it was well past midnight when Edward walked me to my front door. He tucked my arm comfortably in his, and as we walked, we looked up at the stars. He pointed out the Little Dipper, and in turn I pointed out the North Star. We made our way up to my porch and I desperately wanted to say something so prefect to end the evening, but before I could manage, my father opened the door. Edward smiled at me, and kissed my hand, and bid both my father and I goodnight. When I walked in the door, I saw my mother was waiting for me in the parlor. She beckoned me over as my father climbed up the stairs to go to bed. My mother and I stayed up until dawn talking about every detail of the ball, right down to what was the pattern on the china.
When I retired up to my room, I felt oddly restless, even though I knew I should be incredibly tired. There was a dark liquid fire in my bones, and I could feel it spreading. I closed my eyes as I slowly pulled the pins out of my hair, letting it tumble down the middle of my back. It was naturally curly, but the pins made it even more so. My nearly violet eyes were bright the the glory of my first foray into the world of adulthood. I looked almost pretty. I closed my eyes and once again thought of Edward holding me close as we moved around the dance floor. As I unzipped the back of my dress, a thought startled me. What if it was Edward's hands that were undressing me? The image only made that liquid fire burn hotter, and it was alluring. It didn't stop as I peeled the corset away from my body, fully exposing my nakedness to the mirror.
As I pulled my nightgown over my head, I imagined what it would feel like for him to be the one running his long fingers over my torso. Again the fire surged, and I couldn't deny it. I became even more restless, itching for my images to be reality. I crawled into bed and continued to think about his fingers, his hands, his forearms. They appeared most clearly to me, perhaps from all those years of watching him play the piano. I ran my fingers up my leg, replacing them with his in my mind. Up and up they went, over the full of my thigh and the swell of my hip, tracing the curve of my ribs. They stole around my breasts, wickedly dancing over the hard points, sending shudders though me. My other hand stole down my body, delicately tickling the soft of my belly, lingering near my bellybutton, tracing it. In my mind, this Edward loved my bellybutton, fascinated with it being an outie. I arched my back, aching for more of my marrow to be consumed by fire. Slowly I worked downward, exploring myself for the first time. I imagined us laying on a blanket, having our own private picnic as he loved me. As I turned into my pillows, gasping in pleasure, I imagined it was his chest, and he was holding me closer than any man had ever held any woman in the history of the world. All the while he would be murmuring Evie over and over again.
That evening, the Masens came over for our regular dinner engagement. It made me blush to see Edward now, after thinking what I had. I felt as if I was burning up, and quickly excused myself into the fresh, cool air. As I stared out at the deserted street, I tried to refocus my thoughts. There had to be some way to discipline my mind into avoiding that suddenly addictive dark liquid fire. I sighed, and pinched my fingers around the bridge of my nose. Suddenly, Edward appeared, my shawl in his hands. He wrapped it around my shoulders silently, and leaned against the rail next to me. He asked me what was wrong, and I said it was nothing more than feeling rather warm. It was true enough. He ran the backs of his fingers across my forehead and down my face, concern etched in his forehead. He said he thought I felt a little warm, and offered to help me to the porch steps so I could sit down. So we sat, his arm casually draped over my shoulders, comforting, supporting. I could tell he was dying to say something, but thought better of it, and as a result, maintained his silence. It was maddening. It seemed as if he could read my thoughts with ease, while I still had trouble deciphering his. In bed that night, I dreamt of nothing but his warm weight though my flimsy shawl.
It wasn't long before I was able to separate the Edward of my days from the Edward of my nights. The Edward of my days was much the same as always, my wonderful, predictable Edward. The Edward of my nights loved me, and kissed me, and touched me, always adding fuel to that dark liquid fire. Life became entirely pleasant once again. The ball became a memory I held close against my heart. There were other things to attend to as fall tumbled into winter, and winter into spring. That Christmas, I gave Edward Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and he gave me Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, knowing my love for her novel O Pioneers!. We sat on the stairs as was our tradition, and it was comforting to know that the Edward of my days did love me, he just loved me in way different from the Edward of my nights.
I will always remember the day I turned sixteen. It was April 6, 1917, the day America entered the Great War. Although I suppose that is reason enough to remember that particular birthday, I remember it for a completely different reason. That was the day my Edward changed. He took me to a movie, I was so excited. We saw The Poor Little Rich Girl, staring Mary Pickford. I thought it agreeable to be without a chaperone, not that it would matter either way. Edward was nothing if not a gentleman. Besides, I was much to interested in the film to think of much of anything else. It was only the second film I had gone to, so the whole thing was quite novel to me still.
As we walked down Michigan Avenue, I noticed a shift in how he held himself. It startled me to see such a difference in him in such a short amount of time. Finally I begged him to tell me the matter, what was weighing on him, just how we used to. It was then he spoke the words that shook me to the core. He was going to join the Army. He wanted to be a solider. My heart just about stopped beating. My breath caught in my chest. The Earth rolled ever so slightly underneath me, just enough to make me unstable. I didn't have words. There were things I knew I should say about duty and honor and patriotism, but I couldn't muster them up. He was still fifteen, surely he was too young to be serious about it. Surely the war would be over by the time he came of age. It had to be. Instead I settled for weaving my arm though his, my fingers lightly touching the back of his hand. I knew that it was the only touch I could give him, and I hoped that it would be enough to convey what I was feeling.
The Great War had become his favorite topic. It was all he ever seemed to talk about. Whenever he would bring it up at dinner, his mother would channel the conversation into some other topic, one that obviously distressed her less. I wanted so much to thank her for doing so, because I loved her son too. I didn't want to think of him dying some painful death, far away from his home, all alone. He was safe here, and that is all that mattered to me. For his sixteenth birthday, I gave him Vickers The Google Book. Yes, it was a children's book, but I thought it might call back memories of how happy and safe he was, how there was no need to run off to war. He thanked me politely, but I could tell he wanted something else, something to do with that damned war.
I soon took the same route as his mother did, rerouting his conversation when he began to talk of being a solider. I told him it scared me when he talked like that, that I wanted him to be safe. It was then he lectured me on duty and honor and patriotism. It made me want to spit. It made me want to curse. It made me want to scream. Most of all though, it made me want to cling to him, to bind him fast to his home, where nothing could ever touch him. The Edward of my nights would never go off to war to fight unless he had to, unless he was defending his family, unless he was defending me.
Edward took me to another ball that summer. It was so hot in that ballroom, it felt even hotter when he held me close to his chest. The dark liquid fire was back with vengeance. He couldn't hold me tight enough, or close enough. We talked all night as we danced, and mercifully, war did not come up once. Rather he talked of taking me to another movie sometime, as we both got great enjoyment out of it. He smiled at me, and whispered in my ear that everything was going to be alright. In that moment, I nearly believed him. He could be most persuasive.
It was fall once again, and as I sat out on my porch, I delighted in the coolness of the air. The summer was much too hot, much too muggy at the end. It was a blessed relief to have crisp, dry air fill up my lungs. I was rereading The Picture of Dorian Gray when Mrs. Masen came up to me. She sat down next to me, and I set my book aside. She told me how much she appreciated me trying to talk Edward out of becoming a solider. She spoke of her love for him, and how it was reassuming to know that she was not the only one fighting for him to stay home. She talked about how she dreamt of him growing up, becoming happy and successful, finding a wife and starting his own family. Then she made me promise never to give up dissuading him, and I quickly agreed.
Little did I know that was to be our last Christmas together. If I had, I would have committed every last detail to memory. I remember the color of Mrs. Masen's dress. It was a rich forest green with sliver embroidery. I remember Mr, Masen accidently popped a button on his suit jacket as he leaned over to pick up his napkin. Edward had just had his hair cut and I hated it. It was much too short. Edward and I played a duet together on the piano, It was God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. My playing never reached the level of his, but I was content to play the simple melody while he weaved in a rich and complex harmony. At the base of the stairs I gave him On Growth and Form, a work dealing with mathematical biology by a man named Thompson. I didn't understand it, but I know Edward would devour every last word. He gave me James' Wings of the Dove, which turned out to be quite ironic in the end. Our last Christmas together, and he gave me a book which dealt strongly with death. He kissed my hand as they left for the night, and as I looked into his green eyes, I could see sadness, and realized that he was mirroring back my own thoughts.
On Valentine's Day, I got it into my mind that I was going to make Edward petite fours. Naturally, I couldn't do it just for him, so I disguised my efforts by making enough for both the Masen's and my family. It felt wonderful to bake, to do something I knew he would appreciate it. He loved my petite fours, and had since I made them all those years ago. I decorated them in pinks and reds, each one getting a heart on top. I packaged them carefully and wrapped the whole thing up with a thick burgundy velvet ribbon, and brought them over to the Masen's that afternoon. Mrs. Masen opened the door, and when I explained what I brought over, she invited me in. She explained that Edward was out, but he would be back shortly. While we waited, she made some small talk about how funny it was that Russia was switching over to the Gregorian calendar, and how an entire country just lost two weeks of time. We idly wondered where that time could have gone, until our thoughts were disrupted by the opening of the front door.
Edward came in and joined us, and the three of us talked for a few moments. Mrs. Masen then remembered something that she had to take care right away, and then left us alone. While her sudden exit was awkward, the conversation between Edward and I could hardly be classified as that. We talked about what movie we were going to see next, and how we should try and see a drama this time, as we had already seen two comedies together. I really didn't mind what we saw, I enjoyed pretty much anything. After thinking about the Edward of my nights, and dancing with the Edward of the days, going to the movies with Edward was perhaps my most favorite thing. I left not long after we made our plans, wanting to be home early enough to help my mother with dinner. I was happy there was no talk of war.
As I lay in bed that night, I thought about Mrs. Masen's sudden exit. Could she want us to have even more alone time than we usually had? Could she be pushing us together, hoping that I was enough to make Edward stay? He would be more than enough for me to stay, but I wasn't him. I smiled at the thought of us getting married. It would be perfect. I loved Edward, and surely there was some affection on his part, after all we were so close. Then his mother would really become my other mother, and his father really my other father. We could have a large family, and we could be happy. The war couldn't go on forever, and when it was done, everything would go back to how it was.
My birthday that year was a quiet affair. I was sick with a cold, so Edward didn't stay long, just long enough to give me my present. It was a book of poems by Edward Carpenter. We sat in my parlor for a few minutes, and talked about how soon the flowers would be in full bloom, and the world would be alive again. He kissed my forehead when he left, and told me to feel better. I wanted to tell him that the soft press lips did wonders, but I didn't. Looking back on it, I wish I had. It was foolish, but that didn't make it any less of the truth. Laying in bed that night, once again collapsed in to my pillows, catching my breath, I resolved to tell him how I felt. It might take me a while to build up that courage, but I was determined to do it. I couldn't see any other way of existing. As I drifted asleep, I heard my father mention to my mother something about another case of the Spanish Influenza, but I was much too spent to pay much attention.
I agonized that spring over what to do. The weeks dragged on endlessly as I wrestled with my options. Before I knew it, it was his birthday again. I gave him Booth Tarkington's Seventeen, thinking it was fitting. Not long after that, we left for over a month to visit my mother's sister in Cincinnati. While I loved to be with my family, part of my thirsted to be with Edward. It was if they were offering me hot chocolate, thick and rich, when all I wanted was Edward's water, cool and pure. I wrote to him once, but at the last minute decided against posting my efforts. I burned the letter, not wanting anyone to know what I had done. I had to be sure before I made any further moves.
It was the beginning of August when we returned. That first Sunday back, Mrs. Masen made the finest dinner, welcoming us back. Edward hugged me and whispered: "Welcome home, Evie" into my ear. My heart raced. Maybe he had missed me as much as I had missed him. I couldn't take my eyes off of him at dinner, every time we made eye contact, I felt my stomach leapt. It was the sweetest homecoming I could ever imagine.
It took me another few weeks to become resolute, but I decided that I was going to talk to Edward about how I felt about everything. I picked a Thursday, thinking that if this ended badly, we would have a few days to compose ourselves before Sunday dinner. I left him a message, just as we did as children, telling him to meet me in the back corner of our yards, at eleven thirty. I knew by then my parents would be asleep, and so would his. We would be able to sneak out with ease. So at eleven twenty, I slipped out of my house, a thick quilt flung over my arm. When I got to the appointed spot, I spread the quilt out and waited. As I did, I looked at the stars, and settling on Orion's Belt, I told myself his story. I was just about near the end when I heard Edward's footsteps approaching. I took a deep breath to steady myself, and put on my most serene smile.
He sat down and smiled back at me, wanting to know what all of this cloak and dagger business was about. So I told him without preamble. I told him that I was in love with him. I told him of how I had loved him for the longest time, but I knew for sure when he took me to that very first ball. I told him of the dark liquid fire he stirred up in me, and how I could never get enough of being around him. I told him how I wanted to keep him safe from harm. I told him that a little part of me cried every time he mentioned the war because it scared me so much. There was no reason to be coy, he would see right though me anyway. The words were spilling out so fast I could hardly believe it, but once the floodgates were opened, there was no stopping it.
When I was finished, Edward took me in his arms, and kissed the top of my head. It made my heart nearly burst with joy when he did this. To me it was a clear indication of how he felt, he just didn't know how to say it yet. Then I heard him sigh, and I knew. I knew that sigh, and I knew nothing good was going to happen. He took my shoulders in his hands and pushed me far enough back so that we could see clearly into each other's eyes. He told me that he did love me, but as a sister, not as a lover. That he cherished me above all other women, but as a companion, not a wife. That he wanted to spend forever with me as his dearest, closest friend. That he wanted our children to share the same friendship that we did. I could feel my heart shatter with every word he spoke. It was hard to find my breath, but I did, and focused on keeping it steady. I needed to be calm, I needed to be composed, I needed to find some shred of dignity to hold on to.
We talked most of the night, I remember he mentioned that he had a headache that didn't seem to want to go away, but there came a point when we both started to doze off. He helped me up and gave me a loose hug before we parted. He kissed my hands and held them to his chest for a moment, beckoning me to listen to him. He told me how sorry he was, but that he promised nothing would change between us. That we could still be how we always were, that this didn't have to mean anything. I went back to my room completely downtrodden, not knowing what my next move should be. I was such a imbecile to give him my heart so freely. I shouldn't have opened myself up like that. The thing was, he was the only person I could ever imagine opening myself up like that to. I had known him since I was eight years old, how could there ever be anyone one else who stirred me like he did? When my mother commented that I didn't look well in the morning, I told her I had nightmares. To have Edward in my life, but not mine, was a horrible tease. Dark and empty.
That Sunday, the Masens didn't come over for dinner. It was quite odd, as they hadn't told us that anything had come up. At first I blamed myself, mentally berating myself for scaring Edward away. I had been too forward, and now I had ruined everything. That evening, I picked at my food, too sick to want to eat properly. I wanted nothing more than to lock myself away and never come out again. I went to bed early, citing a headache. I climbed into bed and read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, reliving much happier times. We were young again, and everything was much more simple.
Monday morning was when my world started to fall apart. My mother came in to wake me, something she never did. She sat by my side and ran her cool fingers though my hair. She told me that the Masens were all quite sick. There were in the hospital. They had caught the Spanish Influenza. I couldn't do anything but stare into space, shocked out of reason. I knew that it couldn't be good. Spanish Influenza. The words echoed around my head. My mother pleaded with me to say something, but I couldn't form the words. I had made my Edward sick by keeping him out all night. I was the reason why he was sick, why his lovely mother was sick, why his solid father was sick.
As soon as I could slip away, I ran to our church. The street was flying underneath my feet, but it wasn't fast enough. I wasn't a particularly religious person, but I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. So I knelt all day in front of that great white marble altar, praying that my Edward and his parents would be healed. I begged and pleaded, cried and bargained. I offered any and everything in exchange for their health. They simply had to be well in the end. I couldn't handle any other alternative. To not have the Masens? No more picnics, no more dinners, no more Christmases? No more love? It was unimaginable.
My father found me that evening, prostrate in front of the altar, my face tearstained. He gathered me up his arms, handed me his handkerchief. We sat in silence until I had wiped my face clean of the tears. He didn't take it back when I offered. He told me that the Masens had died. Mr. Masen on Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Masen on Sunday night, and Edward in the early hours of this morning. My father looked at me as if he expected me to scream, or to faint, or to cry, or to do all three. Instead I simply sat still, desperately trying to memorize each of their faces. At that moment, it was of the utmost importance. I knew the details could only fade henceforth, and I couldn't bear that. My father eventually got me home, and as soon as I was in the door, my mother enveloped me with her arms, nosily wails escaping from her throat. She wept and wept. I couldn't summon up the internal fortitude to do so.
We sat around that evening, regaling each other with stories of the Masens, as if that was supposed to make it feel better, as if talking about them enough would coax them through the door and into our parlor. My mother asked me if I remembered when this or that happened, mostly when I was still a little girl. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't. I told stories that I thought my parents knew, but as the evening wore on, I realized that Edward and I had more secrets together than I had imagined. Wanting to protect that, I soon started telling stories that I knew were common knowledge. They were achingly dull and incredibly safe.
There were no bodies to bury, they had been quickly disposed of by the State as no one had claimed them. I don't know if that made it better worse. I am tempted to say better. That way I have them perfectly preserved as they were the last time I saw them in my memory. Mr. Masen was reading his newspaper, settled comfortably into his favorite chair. Mrs. Masen was playing on the piano, a Bach piece. Then there was Edward on the night of his birthday. Forever staying in my mind at seventeen. Young. Handsome. Perfect. He would never grow old to me, never suffer the afflictions of age, never lose the sparkle in his green eyes or the shine from his copper hair.
In the end, I inherited Edward's book collection. I had never dreamt that he had so many books. There were books on just about every subject, not to mention novels of nearly every genre. My parents thought that I might appreciate them, our relationship being based so strongly in reading. They rested on a special bookcase in my room, a haunting reminder of the beautiful boy I once knew and his magnificent family. I didn't sleep much for months after they died. I didn't laugh at all. When I would go up to bed, I would pull down one of Edward's books, and read. The tomes were fascinating in of themselves, but even more so were the notes that he took in the margins. I was finally able to see his thoughts, just as he was so often able to see mine. I felt like I was getting able to talk to him again in a way. I could almost hear his voice saying the words along with me. More times than not, I would fall asleep with one of his books clutched tight to my chest.
Two days before Christmas, I package arrived for me. It had no return address, and I didn't recognize the runic handwriting. There was a note attached in the same runic hand telling me not to open the package until Christmas. I did as the note told me, seeing no harm in complying. I put it up in my room, laying it on my nightstand. Those two nights I laid awake wondering what it could be, or what it could mean. I finally gave up as dawn broke on Christmas morning. It didn't matter much, I decided. Nothing mattered much those days.
That Christmas was miserable. I tried to plink out songs on the piano, but couldn't keep my focus long enough. My mother made too much food out of habit, nearly a decade of cooking Christmas dinner for six. My father read us the Christmas Story from Luke, but it wasn't the same with the Masen's doing the voices of the characters. We all retired early that evening, too depressed to prolong the day more than was necessary.
I opened my package after I had changed into my nightgown. The paper fell away easily, much more so than I had anticipated. My breath caught in my chest when I saw what was laying in my lap. It was Willa Cather's latest novel, My Antonia. While I couldn't comprehend how or why, I knew that somehow Edward was involved in this. No one else knew of my intense love for Willa Cather's work, no one else would think to give me a book for Christmas, no one else would have it wrapped in the same brown paper as all of his gifts came to me in. Part of me knew I should be frightened, but part of me was oddly comforted. I was able to have Edward with me on Christmas. A tiny fraction of my life was resorted, if only for the night. I smiled as I ran my hands over the cover, reveling in it's smoothness. I stayed up all night reading, enjoying the very last piece of Edward Masen I would ever receive. I stayed late in bed, greedily finishing the work. I cried when I read the very last line. "Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past." It was underlined. I ran my fingertips over it for what seemed to be hours, willing myself to hear him saying the words in his melodic voice.
I dreamt of Edward for the last time that night. We were young, and were out in the sunshine. We were laying on our backs, looking up at the sky, watching the clouds. The breeze was warm, as was the grass we were occupying. We were planning out what story we were going to write together next. He wanted pirates to be a part of the story. I agreed. We spoke of islands and treasure and the freedom of the sea. We named off places we wanted to go, and were going to explore though our characters. It was going to be a grand adventure, the captain, his first mate, and their pet monkey were sure to have the time of their fictional lives. All of a sudden, the wind picked up, and dark clouds blew in from the west. It started to pour. Edward helped me up, and together we ran, hand in hand, to shelter, laughing all the way. He kissed my cheek and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. We jumped when thunder rumbled though the sky, triggering a fresh attack of laughter at our silliness.
I woke up genuinely laughing. My belly ached, unused to the movements laughter induced, but it was wonderful nonetheless. I felt like I was breathing for the first time in months. I pulled the air deep into my lungs, luxuriating in the sensation. How long had it been since I had really breathed? I rose, and tucked My Antonia away with all of the other books Edward had given me. I smiled looking at the collection. Nearly a lifetime of memories, all tied up in those beautiful volumes. My Antonia was the perfect goodbye, I couldn't have asked for anything more. Edward, wherever he was at, still knew my thoughts, what I needed. It was with that assurance that I faced that day and every day forward.