A Valentine’s Day Story

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS RAGGED JANUARY

 

Author’s note: This is a long post-script to Sebastien’s story, Badges of Grief and Patience, and a bit of a precursor to his storyline in Iron Behind the Velvet. This version is slightly modified from its original posting at CABB’s Valentine’s Day Challenge to fit the Beyond the Stained Glass story arc here.

After stepping into the world again,

there is that question of how to love …

Was it the mirror making him look so … so … ancient? Losing more of its silver, maybe; it was old. Old already when they’d purchased it from that third-hand store off Washington Avenue. Carrying it home between them, they’d stopped at every corner to rest their arms. Left it leaning against the window outside Nyman’s Bakery while they went in to share a lemon-filled pastry, cheaper that late in the day since it was left over from the breakfast rush. He’d had enough cash in his pocket to buy two, but sharing with her, bite for bite … Those were the days, and there’d been too few of them.

He might have gotten rid of the mirror over the years – he could have afforded better once he’d gotten on at the Times – but the vision of Charlotte dodging the black spots to fix her hair, to check the tuck of her blouse into her skirt always made him smile, so it stayed, atop the equally old oak dresser in their Brooklyn bedroom. She’d watched him in it, too, when he practiced his magic, his sweet, gentle, best critic reflected over his shoulder. A chortle when his slight-of-hand was good, a soft ahem, ahem when it wasn’t up to snuff, but either way … always … her grin, amused and loving.

Would she smile at him today? Her last words had been a wish he’d not yet granted, hard to hear, harder to bear, impossible to imagine. Richard … Richie, please … Don’t go on alone. Not … forever. Promise me, Richie. Promise …

Thirty years … and he’d never even come close.

There was no guarantee he’d be in any different position at the end of the day either.

He went through his new routine one more time, disappearing the plain white scarf and reappearing the red one with a message lettered on it, the one he’d finally settled on having discarded two others, one far too forward (Be Mine), the other (Oh, You Kid)… just dumb, Mouse would probably say. And he’d be right. Righter than right.

With a series of accompanying sighs, he packed away his bag of tricks, gathered up the white paper packages of Valentine’s candy he’d amassed – the cinnamon hearts and Hershey’s kisses the children loved – the blow pops too, even though Jacob groused about them. Collapsed his wand. Buttoned up his vest and gave it a final tug, shrugged on his tailcoat … became Sebastien. His top hat collapsed and snagged under his arm, he shook his head at his reflection.

“There’s no fool like an old fool,” he muttered and left his brownstone for Below.

***

He spent a good half-hour on the Whispering Bridge, leaning into the sweep that carried the breathy voices from somewhere Above to … somewhere else … From beyond this place, beyond time even. He wanted to believe … maybe, one day, he would hear Charlotte’s voice again.

What might she say? Something to release him to go forward?

He didn’t want release.

Long ago he’d come to comfort with the knowledge he’d never forget – didn’t need to forget – their love to try again. At his age, any woman who might consider him a possibility would have her own memories – he’d want to hear them, would welcome them, part and parcel of the here and now and any tomorrow they might have. The path had been long, though, and his journey solitary, often rockier than he could understand the reason for … but Charlotte was always there. You can do this hard thing, darlin’.

“What would you say about this ‘this’, though?he murmured into the wafting.

From his pocket he drew the scarf he planned … well, hoped … to later pull out of thin air, if the moment were right, of course. Have supper with me? it read. 

“Up top, I should have added,” he grumbled. Hadn’t they had hundreds of suppers together in the dining hall over the years? He’d meant this to be different. He wadded the red silk to a ball, stuffed it back into his pocket. “Oh, what’s the point,” he spluttered. He’d meant the Winterfest dance he’d bowed before her to ask for to be different too, but he’d hardly even taken her hand when a minor emergency at the cake table called her away. “I’m an old man, gray as concrete and about as interesting. Who’d ever even think–”

Richie … 

What?!

Richie …

Charlotte?! 

Silence

Silence

Silence

Wishful thinking. He shook it off, a head to toe shiver. A trick of the wind. And besides, someone was coming … several someone’s from the sound of it, several young someones. He’d be mobbed soon enough – the children could smell chocolate on him three turns of the tunnels away. Better get off this rope bri–

Work your magic … 

Darlin’ … my darlin’ …

Then …

Silence

Silence

Silence

but for a sudden soft rush of wind – a new-fledged bird taking wing, half-happy, half-afraid1

… and on it, the scent of lilacs.

***

“Ah!” Father exclaimed, “our Pied Piper arrives at last! You brought your audience with you, I see.”

He pulled a foil-wrapped coin from behind the ear of the newest resident below, a still-quiet ten-year-old he had no doubt would be chatty by next Valentine’s Day, pleased to see her scamper off across the assembly hall, unwrapping as she skipped along. “They met me just past the bridge,” he said, keeping to himself the accounting of the candy he’d already handed out.

“Do you want some help setting up?”

Father led him to the area reserved for his show, a table cleared, but covered with a crisp-ironed cloth he recognized as her work, one appliquéd with red hearts and cupids and arcing arrows, one from the linen press in her chamber. He deposited his canvas bag on the stone floor, popped open his top hat and centered it on the table … turned to study the milling crowd. “Have you …” He took a breath and began again. “Have you seen Mary?”

____________

January Gill O’Nell. How To Love. (title and quotation)

1. William Cullen Bryant. The West Wind.

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