Maria smiled at the customer and handed the wrapped parcel to the couple,
“Please come again,” she chanted.
They chuckled as they left, “Always, Maria. You know you are the best.”
Just as they left, the bell over the entrance of the bakery signified that someone else had entered.
“Hi, welcome to Maria’s Bakery. What can I get you?” Maria asked with a cheerful smile.
“Uh… yes,” Maria heard someone clearing his throat and then, it was followed by a male voice, “Can I please have some croissants?”
“Sure. How many do you need, sir?” Maria asked as she smiled once more.
“Uhm… right uhm…” the customer stammered.
Maria quirked an eyebrow as she asked, “Are you okay, sir? Do you need some water? Anything?”
“No, uh… I mean, yes, uhm.. Can I...?” The customer stammered yet again.
This time, Maria chuckled lightly. “Make up your mind already, will you?” she asked with a grin.
“Yes, I am going to do that right now.” The man paused, probably thinking, Maria thought.
She smiled widely at the man. “You know what? Why don’t I recommend a couple of croissants and a coffee? Sound good?”
“Yes, sure. It sounds good.”
She could hear the smile in his voice and she smiled back. “So, are you eating it here or it’s to-go?” Maria asked him and she immediately regretted doing so. He took so long deciding on what drink he wanted and how many croissants. How long would he spend deciding whether he was staying or going? She heard a rumble and smiled. “I think that was a mixture of your stomach growling and rain approaching.”
The man laughed heartily and Maria had no idea why she felt butterflies in her stomach when he did.
“Very true on that. I am absolutely starving. My plan had been to rush in here and grab some grub but things certainly don’t go as planned. Something stopped me,” the man said. There was a moment of silence between them, an awkward pause and then the man cleared his throat again. “So, what do you suggest?”
“Uhm… well… to prevent yourself from fainting due to hunger, and to prevent being trapped in the incoming rain, you should eat here,” Maria told him. She had started feeling nervous and very self-conscious suddenly.
“Great. I will take your advice. What’s my bill?” Maria told him. “Well, here is a dollar bill,” he said.
Maria nodded. She pulled out the cash drawer and systematically moved her hand over the money bundles inside till she found the bunch that held the amount she needed for his change. She dropped the dollar in the proper pile and gave his change to him.
“No, it’s okay, keep it. I insist,” the man said.
Maria shook her head and pressed into his hands. “Thank you but no. I do not take more than what is fairly mine.” She pulled out a cup from the stack and pressed the coffeemaker. When the cup was full, she placed it on a tray along with a bowl of sugar and cream. She pulled out two croissants and placed them on a plate which she placed on the tray as well. “Here you go.”
“Thanks. Uh… I’m sorry, this might sound rude, but, you are blind,” the man said it as a statement and not a question.
Maria chuckled and said, “I know that already, good sir, thanks for stating the obvious and no, you don’t sound rude.”
“No, no, that’s not it. What I meant to say was, uhm… How do you handle the money? I mean, what’s your guarantee that people actually give you the correct payment?”
“Oh, I understand what you mean. Well, sir, It’s only someone with an evil heart that would choose to swindle another person. Don’t you agree?” She smiled at the man.
“Yes, I completely agreed with you. I’m going to go feast on my food.” He nodded and carried the tray off the counter.
“Great. Enjoy your meal,” Maria said cheerfully.
“Hi, Maria,” a voice said. Maria’s head shot up. She was sitting at the foot of the fountain in the park, just taking in the fresh, sweet smell of spring. Winter was over and Spring was here. Today was actually her twenty-fifth birthday. She did not have so many friends so she had chosen to come out for a stroll and enjoy some ice cream not prepared by her. She knew very few people and she doubted they visited the park. Still, the voice sounded awfully familiar.
“Um… hi. Do I know you? No, that’s not true, I think I know you, but from where? That’s the question.” The man laughed and realization dawned on Maria. “Oh, it’s you. The man who has visited the bakery every day for the past two months, right?”
The man chuckled as he sat down beside her, “I see, you recognize me by my laughter not by my voice.”
Maria shrugged, “You can’t blame me. Believe me when I say that your laughter is very distinct.”
He laughed once more as he said, “I do believe that. And now, to prevent you describing in such a long way, let me introduce myself. My name is Arthur. Arthur Folley.”
“Hi, Arthur.” Maria smiled as she shook the hand that he stretched out. As soon as she did, he raised her hand to his face and she chuckled as she felt it. “You have a really small nose.”
“Oh come on,” he groaned. Maria laughed and withdrew her hand. He took her hand once more. “I have something for you.”
“Why? And what is it?” Maria asked. She tried to pull her hand away but Arthur held it, gently but firmly.
“Happy birthday to you, Maria.” Arthur placed something in her hands. Maria lifted it up and felt it. It was a locket. She looked at Arthur and surprise was written all over her face.
“How did you know?” she whispered.
“Well... I happened to be in the bakery when the girl from the post office brought your letters last week when you were a little ill. She read them out to you and…”
“And you heard when she read the part where my friends wished me a happy birthday because you were eavesdropping,” Maria teased him.
“No, I wasn’t, I wasn’t eavesdropping. I was…”
Maria’s chuckle interrupted him. She poked his cheek as she said, “I do not have to see your face to know that you are speaking an untruth.”
“Fine,” he sighed. “I am sorry. It truly was not my intention, at first I mean.”
Maria chuckled as she said, “That’s okay. Will you please clasp it around my neck?”
“Sure, I would love to.” When he was done clasping it around her neck, Arthur turned her around, “You look absolutely beautiful. I mean, it’s not like you don’t always look beautiful. You always do. What I meant to say, is just that…”
Maria chuckled again. “You really are fond of making me laugh, Arthur.”
Arthur smiled back at her. “Quick question, you play the violin, right?”
“Yes, I do,” Maria nodded. “How do you know that?”
“Oh, I’ve watched you perform at the grand hotel occasionally. Actually, it was before I ever met you at the bakery.”
“I see… that explains why you were automatically a stutterer once you saw me,” Maria teased him as she stood up.
“I was not a stutterer. I was…” he saw the disbelieving look on Maria’s face and he sighed. He stood up as well. “Can you blame me? I felt like I was falling into your beautiful baby blues.”
Maria could not help the chuckle that escaped her lips. “Oh, Arthur. Baby blues that are closed to the world?”
“It doesn’t matter. You may be blind but to me, you are an incredible, beautiful and talented woman. You see the world in a way that is different from others. You help others a lot and you may not say it, but I can feel that there is a weight on your shoulder. Something that makes your smile disappear whenever it does start growing.” Arthur took her hands in his.
Maria quirked a brow, “And how do you know that?”
“It’s because I have been studying you anytime that I come over to the bakery.” The further quirk of Maria’s brows made him rephrase his words, “I don’t mean in a creepy way. No, that’s not…”
Maria laughed, “You don’t have to explain yourself, Arthur, believe me. And you are right. There are some things that have happened in my past that even till today, whenever I am happy, they lure their ugly heads up and quell my happiness.”
“Can you please tell me?” Arthur saw the hesitant look on Maria’s face and slowly pulled his hand out of hers. “I’m sorry, you don’t have to tell me. I am truly sorry for being a pest. I mean, you probably think that we cannot be friends, we come from two different worlds, I am black, you are white and…”
Maria placed a finger on Arthur’s lips and that shut him up. She held his hands and said, “Oh Arthur Folley, you are one funny man. How on earth was I supposed to know that you are black? I am blind, remember? And whether I am white or black, blind or otherwise, I honestly do not see why a race should be looked down on for one reason or the other. I have always had that mindset and it is never going to change. So, silly, I am going to tell you what my problem is. So, would you stop being a baby?”
“I am not being a baby,” Arthur said in a defiant tone.
“Really? Are you completely sure about that? I mean, you are beginning to sound like a baby,” she teased him.
He laughed and stroked her hair. “I am not. Now, before you say anything else, can I take you out for a birthday dinner?”
Maria tapped her chin with a finger as she pretended to think about it,
“Are you courting me, Arthur Folley?”
“What do you think, beautiful?”
“I think that you have not asked me if I want you to court me,” Maria replied with a grin.
“Okay then, Maria. Can I please court you?” Arthur asked, a smile playing on his lips.
Maria’s smile disappeared. She tried to get away but Arthur caught her hand.
“What’s the problem, Maria?” he asked her. He could see the distress that she felt written all over her face.
“I am blind Arthur. How can you be with someone like me? I don’t want to be a liability to you and…”
This time, it was Arthur who placed a finger on Maria’s lips. “You can’t ever be a liability to me, Maria. I don’t care about the fact that you are blind. You are no less human than I am just because you are blind. I accept you as you are. I fell for blind, beautiful Maria. Blind or not, I care about you, so… I ask again, beautiful Lady. Can I court you?”
“Yes, Arthur Folley. You can court me, that is if you are sure.” Maria nodded.
“I am perfectly and completely sure, Maria. So, everything is perfect, let’s go get something to eat, shall we?” Arthur helped Maria pick up her cane from the wall she had laid it against. He unfolded it for her and gave it to her.
“Thank you, good sir,” Maria chuckled.
They walked out of the park and Arthur hailed a hansom cab. He helped Maria into the cab and he called out their destination to the driver. They got to the restaurant and Arthur helped her into a chair he drew out for her. The couple made their orders and there began the start of a very long conversation. They spoke for a long time about everything. Arthur told her about his life growing up. His parents had been slaves who had been freed after the civil war. So, he had never been a slave. He had a glass and construction company. He had inherited the glass company from his father and had expanded it to be what it was now. He told her how he still faced roadblocks in his work because of his skin color.
Maria told him all about her childhood, where she had grown up and what her real name was. She told him about how she had fled her father and left to find a better place for herself. She told him all about the incident with the slave and the hand her father had in it. She told him about the voices and the torment she had faced there.
The couple talked for a very long time and by the time they stepped out of the restaurant, it was very dark. Arthur walked Maria to her house and after ensuring she was safely locked in, he left. They had both had a wonderful and fulfilled night and both could feel it in their guts that it was just the start of something great.
“Arthur? He was the guy she got married to right? The one in the picture in the hallway?” Elijah asked excitedly.
“Oh, yes. They had a beautiful life together before it was all cut short. Well… I think that we are done for the day, Elijah, my boy. We will pick this up tomorrow. These old bones need rest.” Professor Boxton stood up and stretched his legs. It was already evening. In the time since when the professor had resumed telling the story, the two men had eaten lunch as well supper. It was already dark outside.
“Wait, I don’t understand, what do you mean by it was cut short, professor?” Elijah jumped up as it struck him. Professor Boxton chuckled as he patted his shoulder.
“The story continues tomorrow, Elijah my boy.” He walked out of the den, leaving a puzzled Elijah. The boy knew that he was not going to be able to sleep a wink that night because his mind was going to be forever stuck on what had happened between Maria and Arthur till the professor told him.
He sighed and retired to his room. Elijah sat on the side of his bed and as he did, he could not help but think about his brothers. Where were they? How were they doing? Were they being treated with love or they were despised by those who had taken them in. He hoped with all his might that it was the former.
The events of that night those years ago flashed before his eyes and he closed his eyes to try to shut them away but all he felt was his heart bubbling in pain at all his parents had put he and his brothers through. Then, a memory of his father teaching him how to ride a bicycle flashed before his eyes. The day he had returned home with a bruise on his knee because he had fought and his mother had scolded him for fighting. After that, she had nursed it till he felt better. They equally had some great times, he thought to himself. Where had it all gone wrong? When had it started going downhill? Was there any possibility of their family being saved if his father had not killed his mother that night?
Elijah sighed to himself as he plopped down on the bed. He had no idea why he was thinking about all these things. Why exactly was he torturing himself by bringing up the past? He wondered. Unable to sleep, Elijah stood up and headed to the closet. He pulled out the backpack that he had not completely unpacked and pulled out the photo frame. There had still been some good times with the Greys. It was just so sad that it had not lasted. He placed the frame on the bedside table and returned to the bed. He hoped that this time, sleep would visit.