Only You Will Find Me
by Jeffrey Greene
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
He stumbled back up the hill in a euphoric daze, hardly knowing, or caring, in the black, starless night, where he put his feet. He tried to re-create in his memory every moment he’d spent with Elspeth since he’d first glimpsed her on the road ahead of him, the things they’d said to each other, her odd ways, and how his wariness and curiosity had so quickly turned to fascination, and now, somehow, love. And yet, that house, the bamboo, the toxic stink of mold, the deathly silence of lives slowly ground down by some horrible, collective inertia...
Even as they were making love, he’d experienced a brief, shuddery impression that none of this was real, that he was, as ever, alone, writhing in the close confines of a damp hole or coffin. In the ecstatic, wholly unexpected suddenness of it all, he hadn’t cared about anything, but now he knew that he had to get Elspeth out of that house. Staying there was nothing less than a living, if not actual, death for her.
Now that he was away from her, once again alone with his thoughts, he tried to piece together, in his rational way, how this wan young woman, in a single afternoon, had so easily conquered him. Then he laughed out loud and swore at himself. Thinking instead of feeling his way through every experience was one of several traits of his that had gradually alienated Sarah’s affection. If he really wished to climb out of his well-upholstered grave and live again, he would have to be willing to risk everything for Elspeth. We’re each trying to save the other, he thought wonderingly, from a different kind of death-in-life.
* * *
When he got home and took off his coat, he was shocked to see greenish-brown smudges covering the area where he’d let it drop to the floor in her bedroom, and when he tried to brush them off, he saw that the air under the too-bright hallway light was clouding with particles of what his nose identified as mold. There were more smudges on his shirts and pants.
He hastily stripped off all his clothes and put them in the washing machine, then took a shower. The discolored water that collected in the drain was a disgusting reminder that her bedsheets were no cleaner than any other surface in that terrible house. Being a rather fastidious person — another trait that Sarah had at first found endearing, and later, repellant — it mystified him how anyone, even Elspeth, could live in such a sty, and he was more determined than ever to cut whatever misplaced bonds of fealty still held her there.
He slept little that night, waking often out of near-nightmares, one toward morning in which he was lost on a Caribbean island inhabited by sickly, emaciated people who leered hungrily at him and offered vague directions that only seemed to lead him farther away from the airport and his flight, which he was now certain to miss in spite of his increasingly frantic efforts. It was so dark the next morning that he overslept, and when he looked out the window he saw that it was snowing heavily, the first significant November snow in a good many years.
While shoveling his front walk and driveway, he greeted his nearest neighbor — who lived a quarter of a mile away — passing by in his pickup truck. Norman Holdridge had lived in the county most of his life, and if anyone knew the story behind the Waldron house, it would be him. But just as he was about to broach the subject, something — a kind of interior whisper — warned him to keep silent. Sometime, perhaps, he would ask him, but not now, when matters were still unresolved with Elspeth. No sense in fueling gossip until they were actually living together, at which point it would become unavoidable. Instead he asked Norman when their street was due to be plowed. Hopefully by midday, was the answer.
* * *
Dunworthy Road, he knew, was never plowed, being an unpaved road with only one family living on it. He would leave his car at the top of the hill and hike in. Nothing short of a blizzard could keep him away from her, and certainly not a moderately strained back, which he’d managed to get while shoveling the driveway. Very soon, he told himself, while icing his back on the couch, they’d be together.
It finally stopped snowing around noon, but another hour passed before the plow came and cleared the street. He took some pain medication, then bundled up, donned his snow boots and drove to the top of the hill. Leaving his car in the small lot of the county park, he stuck a small flashlight in his pocket, then hiked down Dunworthy Road through wet, heavy snow a good five or six inches deep, and by the time he reached the old mailbox, he was out of breath and sweating under his heavy clothes.
The bamboo grove, always quieter than the surrounding woods, was forbiddingly dank and silent now, except for the muffled thuds of snow falling in clumps from the light branches. He waited only a few minutes for Elspeth before heading into the grove on his own, too impatient to put off seeing her any longer.
Half a foot of new-fallen snow, however, has a way of not merely erasing landmarks but vitiating one’s sense of direction, and Alan soon found himself wandering in a white and green labyrinth, unable to decide whether he was making his way to the center or wandering in concentric circles around the fringes. He was getting colder and more frustrated by the minute and had almost decided to turn around and find his way back to the mailbox, when he came upon something unexpected.
It was the hoary, nearly snow-hidden ruin of what appeared to have been a house, the roof long since gone, the walls almost completely tumbled into piles of red bricks, some still bearing charred signs of the fire that must have destroyed it, and all around and through the space that had been the house grew the towering bamboo. He thought it strange that Elspeth had never mentioned another house on their property. Maybe it was the razed house of the land’s previous owner. Odd, though, that the Waldrons wouldn’t have had these bricks hauled away.
Once he tried calling her name, but the silence here seemed inimical to anyone daring to disturb it, and he didn’t do it again. He closed his chilled hands around one of the larger culms and gazed up into the snow-covered canopy of thin-leaved branches that so effectively blocked the light. Being here gave him a claustrophobic feeling, as if he were underground. He should push on in his search for the Waldrons’ house and, picking a direction that he was fairly certain he hadn’t tried yet, he turned to go.
Elspeth stood facing him a few feet away across the broken rectangle of bricks, looking impossibly tall, wispy and wraith-like, as if a human-shaped piece of the surrounding shadows had coalesced in front of him, her eyes closed, arms at her sides. She hadn’t been there just a moment ago, and his relief followed closely upon the bad scare she gave him. She was wearing the same clothes as yesterday, and must have been telling the truth when she said they were all she had.
She seemed, if possible, even chalkier and more undernourished than she had twenty-four hours ago, and it was only when she opened her remarkable eyes that she appeared to come to life. She didn’t smile or speak, just fixed him with her unsettling stare and opened her arms wide.
He hurried to her and, between their hungry kisses, she said over and over, “I did it, Alan. I did it.”
“My God, you must be freezing.” He took off his coat and draped it over her thin shoulders, then hugged her close.
“Didn’t you hear me?” she said. “I told you I’d find a way for us. I didn’t know if I could. But I kept thinking of you. It gave me strength.”
“Tell me what’s happened,” he said, leading her to nearby piece of a wall and sitting her down next to him.
“Not that I started the fire,” she said. “I couldn’t have done that.”
“What?” he asked in alarm, staring at her. “What fire? When?”
“Last night, I saw my mother passed out on the couch, a cigarette still burning in her hand resting on the carpeted floor. I started to go to her, to crush out the butt in the ashtray as I did every night. Then, I just... stopped. I looked at her lying there, dead drunk, a pathetic remnant of the woman who’d captivated my father, my brilliant father, Van Fitzhugh Waldron III. In his prime he’d been a trusted adviser to two Presidents, until the other party came to power and the phone went silent, and he slowly withdrew, first from public life, then from us. He tried and failed to write books, drank gin by day and whisky at night, and began the same slow fade as my mother, who’d decided that dying with Van Waldron was better than living without him.
“That’s when I knew, with a clarity that must have come from you, Alan, that nothing would ever change in our house, that the poisoning shade of the bamboo was slowly killing us. Hadn’t I tried to have it eradicated, and hadn’t my father laughed in my face at the absurd notion that his shy daughter could save the family from this curse of our own making?
“But I couldn’t just abandon them. No. I owed them everything. All that I was came from my beautiful parents, and my brother and I had been very close, once. But they wanted too much: they wanted me to surrender my youth, my dreams for them, until death, theirs or mine; there was no distinction anymore. And then you came, and everything changed.
“With a last look at my dear mother — though how could I have known it was the last time? — I picked up my car keys, went out the door, and drove away. I wanted you with me, then, more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life, but I didn’t know where you lived.
“So I just drove the back roads of the county, for hours, until I needed to buy gas to get back home. When I arrived, the police and the fire trucks were there, the grove on fire, the house already gone. No one could have survived, they told me. A terrible accident. Condolences. I loved them all. And I killed them.”
He listened to her with a sick feeling. “And you say this... fire, happened last night?”
She gripped his hands more tightly, nodded.
“And your parents and brother are dead?”
“I keep going over it in my mind,” she said. “I must have thought: it’ll be a mercy, the quick death of smoke instead of the slow death of mold and regret. But I know now that it was just selfishness. I did it for myself. For us. And feeling you here, now, touching me, I know I’d do it again. Does that shock you?”
“But darling,” he said, “I can’t see any evidence of a fire. Can you?”
“The bamboo grew back so quickly,” she said. “You can hardly tell there ever was a fire, now. Except for these bricks.” She gripped a blackened brick from the pile and then let it drop.
“Maybe you, well, dreamed that you did it,” he said. “The car I saw yesterday didn’t even look like it would start, much less get through the bamboo. How could it have happened the way you say it did? Surely not last night. And these ruins... I mean, does it smell to you like a fire happened here anytime recently?”
Her answer was to kiss him again, even more hungrily, and to slip her cold hands inside his shirt, and although he was confused and frightened by the intensity of her delusions, he couldn’t help responding. His desire for her was overwhelming everything, even his doubts.
“I want you to make love to me,” she said. “Here, now, on the grave of my old life. After this, we’ll never be apart. Never.”
My God, he thought, she thinks this ruin is her house.
But now she had pulled him down with her into the snow, and had somehow managed to get her clothes off without a pause in her fierce, almost scalding kisses. She undressed him, too, leaving the coat he’d draped over her shoulders for them both to nestle in and, for a long time, the heat of their two bodies was proof against the wet snow and freezing air.
And even after the darkness, falling earlier and harder here than almost anywhere else, enclosed them in its ever colder embrace, they lay together, joined skin to skin in what was surely the closest he would ever come to perfect union with another.
As it got dark, he realized he’d lost something he was grateful to lose: his lifelong servitude to Time, the chains of which had only grown heavier and more cumbersome with each passing year.
Sometime late in that warm and boundless season of lovemaking, his thoughts guttered, and even as he fell asleep, he could still feel her warm kisses, the sweet warmth of her breath on his face, her gentle hands cradling his head, gifting him with her inextinguishable warmth.
And just before he dropped off, his ungloved hands slackly falling into the snow, he understood what had happened to him, what he had not, until now, ever truly experienced or even believed in.
For this was happiness. It was love.
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene