Preston stood in Kristine Markley’s office early Monday morning. He had made his way there as soon as he and Anne had arrived after he’d escorted Anne to her office. He had just finished relating the events of Saturday evening, all except one of a more personal nature of course, that had taken place after he had picked Anne up from Kristine’s home, and thanked her for all that she’d done, her assistance having been instrumental in successfully pulling off the event. He had then informed her that he and Anne would be tendering their resignations and would not be returning the next academic year. The news had come as quite a shock to Kristine. He had given her the same cover story he had given Anne the day before that had been crafted for him to use, that he had been recruited by a company based out of Nevada and offered quite a sum of money and extraordinary benefits to take a position travelling to various locations giving lectures and workshops in his field of expertise and to write and edit texts on the subject. Anne would be painting full time and hopefully in the near future opening her own gallery.
He recalled how Anne’s face had lit up with joy, she having been somewhat uncertain of the legitimacy of the offer as it seemed too good to be true and the proposition of giving up the security of her position at the university until he had assured her that he had done his research and it was on the level and mentioned it would allow her to finally do what she had so often spoken of doing. It was almost worth dying...almost...Preston had thought, to see her reaction to the news as she had been nearly as thrilled by it as she had his proposal.
“So when’s the ’big day?’” Kristine asked, “I suppose with you both moving to Nevada, it’ll be there.” Kristine conjectured, Preston hearing the disappointment in her voice.
“Actually, no. We were thinking in two weeks, after the end of the semester after grades are in and everything’s wrapped up here. I know, it’s not much notice, but we’ve decided not to do anything extravagant. Just a few people. Neither of us have any close family. No bridesmaids or groomsmen or any of that. Perhaps dinner afterwards at Chartwells. We’ve been living together longer than some other people’s marriages have lasted. It’s not as if anything will change all that much except we’ll have rings on our fingers. That will probably take me the most getting used to. I’ve never been one for them.” Preston said. He thought back to the two rather gaudy rings that had adorned Roberts fingers when last they’d seen each other in the Bell and Candle.
“Things always change...but don’t let that unnerve you, it doesn’t mean for the worse. It’s just a fact. You’ll get used to the ring. After awhile you’ll forget it’s even there. Well, I hope you don’t forget it’s there...you know what I mean. If there’s anything I can do to help...”
“You should talk to Anne about that. I’m leaving the details up to her. Weddings seem to be more for the bride than the groom.” Preston replied.
“I’ll give her a call, see if she wants to do lunch.”
“She should be in her office for another hour.” Preston said. He grew quiet, as if contemplating. “I suppose I should be going.”
“What is it? I’ve been in this field for twenty five years. There’s something else you want to talk about.” Kristine said, concerned as her intuition told her that whatever it was, it was not as pleasant a topic as his impending nuptials.
“What if I told you I’ve been...I’m not sure how to describe it exactly...I guess you could say ‘seeing things?’” Preston said nervously.
“What kinds of things?” Kristine asked, troubled. “Please, sit down.” Preston seated himself in the chair at her desk across from her.
“When I was in Afghanistan...there was a friend of mine there, Whitby...Charles Whitby. I knew him in school, we weren’t really friends, we were friendly, but we didn’t spend time together outside school. We only became friends after we both joined up, went through training together, were both sent there. He was only a couple of months younger than me but he acted as if he looked up to me, like an older brother I suppose. He was killed right in front of me. I was wounded by the same piece of shrapnel that took off the left side of his head. If we’d been in opposite places I wouldn’t be talking to you now. I’ve seen him...three times now in the last few weeks.”
“My god….I can’t even imagine. That must have been horrible. Have you talked to anyone about this before? Did the military or anyone else ever screen you for PTSD?” Kristine asked.
“Yes, and I was given a clean bill of health all the way around. Honestly, I never thought all that much about it afterwards. A few times. I was just happy to have survived. I didn’t dwell on it. It was a war. Everyone that’s ever been involved in one I’m sure has seen things, lost people. Shit...sorry...I mean things happen in war.”
“By all means, swear all you want. You’ve certainly earned the right. You don’t need to censor yourself or apologize. You say you started seeing him within the last few weeks?”
“Yes. The first time was at my grandmother’s house. We were staying there for the funeral. I’d just had a nightmare about that day. I saw him in the bathroom after I’d woken from it. I had a fever...was down with a bug, and with Nan’s death and all...it was unnerving to say the least but I didn’t think too much of it afterwards. I thought perhaps I was...what’s it called…when you're awake but you're still dreaming?”
“Yes, I think that’s it. Anne thought I was hallucinating due to the fever or perhaps it was a bit of both.”
“You’ve seen him again after that?”
“Twice. The day I called you, the day I bought the ring. Later that day, after I got home. I forgot something in the car. I went back out to get it. He was in the back seat. He said something...that someone is coming, Sheol is naked and Abaddon has no covering...something like that. It didn’t make any sense.”
“And the time after that?”
“Saturday...after I’d proposed to Anne and she’d accepted...he was standing across the room.”
“Do you have any sort of religious background?” Kristine asked.
“No, not particularly. I’ve been to church in the past, as a child, but not since then. Of course I’ve taken all the usual courses at university and religion plays a large part in many works of literature. I would say I’m agnostic...atheist even...I suppose atheist when it comes to any of the religions man has come up with, but I can’t of course prove there’s nothing that could be called a god or gods or a higher power so I suppose that makes me agnostic. After what I’ve seen and experienced, what I know others have, I’m with Epicurus. “Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?’”
“I have to agree, though of course in my field one has to be respectful of others’ beliefs. I’ve seen all too often, however, how those beliefs have directly led to mental illness. For all the good others claim religion has done in the world, I’ve seen mostly the bad, the negative effects it’s had on people and society. I’ve often thought if we just had one “religion” and that was to treat others the way we would want to be treated and followed that, we wouldn’t have any need, or desire, for all the other dogma. I always did think it interesting though that in that quote, Epicurus seemed to be arguing that the nature of a being that he accepted existed was not what others thought it to be, not so much attempting to argue that it didn’t exist.
But anyway, the reason I asked...Sheol as I’m sure you know is the place of the dead mentioned in Jewish texts and the Old Testament, some interpret it to mean hell, but that’s not accurate really, it was considered to be more like Hades in Greek myth, just a place the souls of the dead went, where they gathered and existed after death, not a place of punishment. Abaddon...that’s the interesting part. I haven’t heard that word in ages. Abaddon is the bottomless pit, in some way connected to Sheol, a place where all comfort, light and joy are extinguished, and also the name of the angel of destruction that reigns there. It’s also mentioned in a few other books of the Bible, perhaps most notably Revelations.”
“The most nonsensical of them all. It reads as if whoever wrote it was on a bad drug trip.” Preston said. Kristine chuckled.
“It certainly does. I’m not sure why your hallucination would be quoting scripture to you seeing as you have no religious background or belief. Perhaps something you read at one time, it could have been years, even decades ago, that stuck with you for whatever reason that had been long buried in your psyche. Considering you were seeing a dead man, it would make sense for your mind to have connected the two and given him some dialogue to deliver. Of course, all of that’s conjecture, as most things are when it comes to attempting to unravel the workings of the human mind. In a way it’s sort of like interpreting a work of literature. Unless the author came out and said he meant a specific thing, and if he or she didn’t and they’re dead there’s no way to ask them or to know for certain, it’s open to interpretation.”
“I’d never made that connection between our professions.” Preston admitted.
“What I find interesting is the timing of two of your three sightings. The day you bought the ring and the day you proposed. You could have knocked me over with a feather when you called and told me. Here’s my interpretation...even after you had your change of heart, there’s still a part of you that views marriage in a negative light, that equates it with a sort of death. That part of you is ‘freaking out’, if you excuse the American vernacular, and throwing this image before your eyes to attempt to dissuade you.” Kristine explained.
Preston was silent for a moment, considering her words. His past experiences with marriage, not his own of course as he had never been, but that of others, had been far from a ringing endorsement. Robert had been married and divorced twice and he and Preston were the same age...he now had some idea as to one possible factor, though he was sure not the only one (he hadn’t been exaggerating, much anyway, when he’d told Anne of Robert’s first wife’s promiscuity) that could have figured into why they hadn’t worked out.
Nan and his grandfather had had a long, and according to his grandmother, harmonious marriage, but he didn’t remember a great deal about it since his grandfather had died when Preston was still young. He, of course, had no recollection of his paternal grandparents and the state of their marriage, though they were still together when they died. It seemed to him all the supposedly “happy” and successful marriages were before his time, or before he had any memory of ‘his time.’ He’d known of many others that had gone through painful divorces, a few even getting word that their marriage was over while risking their lives deployed in a war zone. He’d seen grown men who had faced bullets, mortars and IEDs without flinching, had witnessed friends injured and killed without shedding a tear, weeping after receiving the news. But perhaps the example that stood out the most was his mother and father.
He didn’t remember his parents together, though he considered the possibility that he could have some sort of memory of their arguments he had surely witnessed or at least heard as a toddler buried somewhere in his brain. He had been two when they had separated, the divorce becoming final within the next year. Nan had confessed to him when he was much older, in his teens (and he was sure as a veiled warning to either keep it in his pants or keep it wrapped if he couldn’t) that his mother had become pregnant only months after she and his father began dating. She was only nineteen, still half a year shy of twenty. Both of their parents had pressured them to marry. Nan had tearfully confessed to Preston that she regretted doing so. His father had given in. Despite the fact that it had been a grudging proposal and marriage, for the next few months they had seemed to get on well. Then came his birth. By the time he was a year old, his parents’ marriage was in shambles. They limped along for another year before his father finally decided to pack up and go.
His mother had come home from work, a two year old Preston in her arms after having picked him up from Nan’s, only to find his father’s dresser drawers and his closet empty. He saw his father sporadically after that. His mother had held out some hope for a reconciliation, as far flung as those hopes were, until two years later when she got the phone call that he had been found dead, sprawled on the kitchen floor of his flat.
His mother had dated a few men after the divorce, it being difficult to find men who were willing to date a divorced woman with a young child, most had only been a single dinner or movie, she never hearing from them again. She had walked in on the second of only two that had progressed beyond a single date, a man she had thought much of and had believed she could see herself someday marrying, with his penis out and holding Preston’s hand around it after he had offered to put the sleeping tot to bed, an event Preston, thankfully, had no recollection of. He only knew it had happened because Nan had told him of it. His mother had been afraid to bring another man home after that. Lonely and despairing, raising a son alone, a son that Preston was sure reminded her daily of his father, the only man she had ever loved, she began to drink more and more heavily until she too joined his father in the grave four years later.
“But the first time I saw him, I didn’t know I was-” Preston said before stopping himself, having come within a hair’s breadth of giving away his secret. “I hadn’t even been considering marriage.” Preston told Kristine, questioning her assessment.
“Are you sure? Your grandmother had just passed on, you’ve said she was the only family you had left. Perhaps that gave you the idea, you just hadn’t consciously realized it yet.”
“It’s also possible that the first time I saw him it was merely a leftover from my dream brought on by the fever...if you’re correct about the rest, perhaps it was just a convenient representation my brain latched onto, the first sighting being so recent.” Preston theorized.
“That could be as well. I would say that over time as that part of you gets more comfortable with the idea, I doubt this Whitby will trouble you again. I would also advise you that if you’re having second thoughts, you should deal with those now. Be honest with her and talk to her about them.”
“No second thoughts. Now that it’s done, the ring’s on her finger, the feeling I have is a bit like the feeling of being at risk of being deployed again and then the war coming to an end.” Preston said.
“I think I understand what you’re saying. I think I would use a more romantic analogy. The weary traveler having been lost finally finding home for instance, like Odysseus. Anne waited for you to come along nearly as long as Penelope waited for him.” Kristine said with a smile.
“Thankfully I didn’t father any children with a witch in that time to later seek my death.” Preston said without thinking, before going silent, looking grim, Kristine taking note of the change in his expression.
“Is there something else you want to talk about? I still have an hour before class. We’re reviewing for the final so I don’t have anything to prep really.”
“I do have one question...something Anne said Saturday night, I hadn’t thought about it before. You’ve been here longer than Anne and you’ve been friendly with her for quite awhile...she said that I was the only one to have a conversation with her that night. It sounds like that was the case at most other events for long before that. You’re well liked here. Why didn’t you ever sit with her? Maybe if you had, especially back when she was new here, others would have joined you and they would have been more interested in getting to know her. Perhaps she would have had an easier time of it.”
“She asked me not to.” Kristine said.
“Why?” Preston asked, somewhat taken aback by her answer. As lonely as Anne had appeared the night he met her and that he had learned she’d been for quite some time, he couldn’t imagine her actually asking someone to not sit with her.
“She’s never told you about Lynn?” Kristine asked, sounding almost as surprised as Preston had been at her answer.
“No. She’s never mentioned anyone by that name. I’m sure I would remember if she had. Her stories are hard to forget, quite honestly.”
“Ask her. I think after you hear her story, you’ll understand.”
“Alright. So you don’t think I’ve gone batty? Whitby?”
“Not at all. If you ever have anything you need to talk about, you or Anne, I’m here, even after the move, give me a call. If you do see this Whitby again, though I doubt you will now that you’ve talked about it, let me know.”
“Speaking of Anne, you were going to ask her to lunch…” Preston reminded Kristine as he stood, finding it a convenient reason to end the conversation.
“Oh...yes. Let me give her a call now.” Kristine said, grabbing her phone from her desk. Preston turned, making his way to the door of Kristine’s office and opening it.
“Anytime. Oh, by the way, I meant to ask you, young man, did you heed my warning?” Kristine said with a sly smile. Preston appeared confused at her question. “No hanky panky?” Kristine reminded him.
“Most definitely not.”
“Good.” Kristine grinned. Preston sported one of his own before closing the door behind him as Kristine scrolled through the contacts on her phone, seeking Anne’s number.
After arriving home that afternoon, as usual before Preston as her classes ended an hour earlier than his on Mondays, Anne set about doing a quick once over of their home’s two bathrooms. Neither were overly spacious, the master bath of course being the larger of the two, and it was in it she now stood before the sink twisting off the pump of the soap dispenser, opening the cabinet below the sink and grabbing the large bottle of soap to refill it. As she did so, the soap from the refill bottle began to flow faster than she’d anticipated, some leaking down the side of the soap dispenser over her hand and into the sink.
“Damn it.” Anne said, setting the refill bottle next to the sink. The dispenser now nearly full, she screwed the top back onto it, rinsing it under the sink and drying it with the hand towel hanging nearby before putting it back in its place. Replacing the cap on the refill bottle, she lifted it and placed it back under the sink, closing the cabinet door.
“You’re always making a mess! Can’t you do anything right?” a voice familiar to her said, the sound of it like a whip across her back or a knife slicing into her heart. Looking up quickly she saw in the mirror not a reflection of herself but her mother, as she had appeared around thirty years earlier, scowling at her. “Fat, ugly, stupid….he doesn’t want you! How could any man want you? He’ll do what Joe Michaels did. It’s all a big joke. You’ll see.”
As Anne looked on in amazement, her mother’s face distorted, becoming monstrous, grotesque, demon-like. Her hair went from brunette waves to thin and stringy, her face had elongated, her chin now pointed, her nose hooked. She raised two long fingered, claw like hands to either side of her head and screamed, a piercing, hellish screech.
Anne bolted from the bathroom, through her and Preston’s bedroom and down the stairs, almost losing her footing near the bottom, just as Preston came through the door. Crying hysterically she flew to him, clinging to him.
“What’s happened? What’s wrong?”
“The mirror….my mother...she’s a monster!” Anne sobbed. Preston stood confused and concerned as he stroked her hair as he held her.
“She certainly is. She was here?”
“Upstairs...in the bathroom...she was in the mirror…” Preston appeared even more confused upon hearing her answer.
“Have you come down with something? Did you take something for it? Did Dr. Waller start you on something new?” Preston asked, the only explanations he could come up with for what she was telling him. She had been to see him on Friday to refill her medication for another year. Maybe there was a new type of treatment for her condition he had decided to try and she was having a reaction to it, Preston thought. Despite the situation, he couldn’t help but think of the scene in the movie Ghostbusters, Bill Murray’s character Venkman questioning Alice, the librarian, after she had seen a ghost whether she was menstruating at the time. He definitely knew better than to ask that particular question.
“No! I’m not sick...and no, I’m not on my period either!” she exclaimed, sounding frustrated. Preston again wondered if she could read minds. “I was cleaning the bathroom...I spilled some soap…” she said as she began to calm in his arms.
“And then you saw your mother...in the mirror?” Preston said.
“Yes! She was there! Then she changed into something….like a witch…”
“Changed into a witch? I’m sure she already was one.” Preston joked.
“I’m serious!” Anne cried.
“You do realize how this all sounds…” Preston said, though he was sure he would have sounded just as crackers if he’d come running to her after what he’d seen in the backseat of the car.
“I know...but I saw her. I did.”
“I believe you.” Preston said, still stroking her hair. Her sobs had ceased, though she still slightly trembled. Preston took hold of her shoulders, moving her back from him and then took her hand. “Let’s have a look, shall we?” he said, leading her to the stairs and ascending them.
Reaching the bedroom, Anne hung back near the bed as Preston crossed to the bathroom, standing in the doorway, peering inside, the light still on. The soap that had been spilled into the sink had foamed up when Anne had rinsed off the dispenser but that was all that Preston could see that was in any way amiss. Turning to Anne, he motioned for her to join him. Hesitating, she finally, timidly did so, he putting an arm around her.
“There’s no one here. Just us. When you spilled the soap it likely triggered a memory, like when you broke the glass. You said then that for a moment you felt that you were back there.”
“This was different...I saw her...here..in the mirror, it wasn’t just a memory of something that had happened before. She said things...she said that you don’t really want me...that it’s just a joke, like Joe Michaels.”
“If I were Kristine, I would say that was your own fear talking. Your mind decided to use her image to express them. A good casting choice I’d say, as she would be likely to say something that insipid. Whatever the case, that’s most definitely not true. That reminds me, we need to take your ring to be resized before they close.” Preston said, attempting to reassure her and at the same time redirect her mind away from the vision. Anne turned, making her way to the bed and sat on the edge of it.
“I know you’re right. I must sound crazy. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. It’s amazing after what you’ve been through that you’re not completely crackers.”
“‘Not completely’…so I’m a little crackers.” Anne said.
“Only crumbs.” Preston said, smiling. Anne couldn’t help but return her own. “I was talking to Kristine today. We were reminiscing about the night you and I met. I asked her why she’d allowed you to sit alone, why she didn’t join you. She said to ask you about Lynn.” Preston saw the smile drop from Anne’s face. “But maybe this isn’t the best time. We can revisit it later.”
“No...it’s alright. I should have told you before. I guess a reason just never came up.” Anne said, bowing her head. Preston moved to the bed, sitting down beside her.
“You never have to have a reason to share anything with me.” Preston assured her.
“Lynn was my best friend….my only friend, when I was in middle school, the first two years of high school. She was the only real friend I ever had as a kid. I met her in sixth grade, the first day of school. I’ll never forget it. I walked into my first class, Mr. Goldman’s science class. I’d been assigned the seat behind her. She’d gone to a different elementary school and lived on the other side of town so I didn’t know her. I didn’t know most of the other kids, but it was the same as always. Everyone either ignored me or teased and bullied me, even that first day. They’d just met me, they didn’t even know me yet. Anyway...after I sat down, she turned around and said, “Hi. I’m Lynn!” She was the first person to ever do that, to introduce themselves, to act like they were interested in me, that they wanted to be my friend. From that day on, it was like we’d known each other forever. I finally had a friend...a real friend.
We did all the typical things, passed notes in school, sat together at lunch, told jokes, goofed off, went to the mall, had sleepovers, she’d do my hair and make up. She was so good at it. I didn’t even look like myself. It was like she was magic...she could take...this….and make it pretty. She had other friends too, lots of them actually, so many loved her...and because I was her friend, they were nice to me and we all did things together, went places together...it was like I had friends for the first time in my life.
It was our sophomore year, near the end of the school year...her and another of her friends went to the store. She’d called and invited me to go and then sleep over, but I was grounded like I was a lot, I don’t remember why. Something stupid I’m sure as it usually was, something that most parents wouldn’t have bothered with or at most just said, “don’t do that again” and moved on. It was raining and a driver coming the other way lost control of their car and hit the one she was in head on. She died instantly. The girl she was with had a few broken bones but survived and recovered.
I felt like a part of me had died too. I’d had what I’d wanted for so long...and I should be thankful I had it for as long as I did...almost five years...then it was gone...just gone, in the blink of an eye. At the visitation and the funeral, all her other friends were crying of course, on the verge of losing it...I thought to myself that I needed to be strong for them. They were my friends too, right? I bottled it all up and I didn’t shed a single tear. Not at the visitation, not at the funeral. I only did after it was all over, alone in my room. A few of them came to me and asked me to hold their hand, said that I was so strong and they needed me to help them be strong too, to get through it.
But then, after it was all over, I never heard from any of them again. I mean, I saw them in school, sometimes they’d say hi to me, they weren’t mean to me, but they never asked me to go anywhere, to do anything with them. I’d see them all out with each other, doing all the things they used to do that Lynn and I used to do with them, but I hadn’t been invited. They had never really been my friends. They had just included me because I was friends with Lynn. Once Lynn was gone, I was nothing to them. That’s why I asked Kristine not to sit with me. I want people to be my friend because they really want to be my friend, not because I’m friends with someone else.”
Anne ended her story, tears trickling down her cheeks. Preston found himself almost in tears. It was far from the first time. Once again, he couldn’t fathom the level of cruelty that she had endured over her lifetime, the darkness in the world.
“I’m so sorry, my love.” Preston said, taking her in his arms. “Why didn’t you tell me about her?”
“For the same reason I didn’t tell you other things right away, for the same reason that there’s many more I haven’t told you. Just like I don’t want people to be friends with me only because of someone else, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, to only be with me out of pity. I don’t want you to confuse that with love. People do that sometimes. I worry about that even more with someone like you who usually would have no interest in someone like me. If I can’t have the real thing, I don’t want it, I’d rather go without, whether that’s friendship or love. That’s why when we met...why I was still a virgin. If I’d just wanted sex I could have found that somewhere a long time ago.” she replied.
“I don’t feel sorry for you in the way you’re referring. Quite the opposite, actually. I feel admiration, your strength, that you’ve not let those things destroy you, haven’t let them make you into something wretched as so many others have. I’m not sure I could have done the same. You’re amazing, absolutely amazing and I find more reasons to be amazed and to admire and to love you every day.”
“Just waking up to find you’re still here every morning amazes me.” Anne said. Preston was once again reminded of his secret. How many more days, months, years would she wake up to find him still there?
Having recovered her composure after her vision of her mother and telling Preston the story of Lynn, she and Preston descended the stairs. As they did so, Anne caught sight of the package she had earlier sat on the table under one of her paintings in the foyer beside the doorway leading into the sitting room. Reaching the bottom of the stairs she walked over to it, picking it up and carrying it over to Preston.
“This came for you today. It was delivered to the wrong address. A woman from down the street brought it here. I’d never met her before. She said her name was Jill. She seemed to know you.”
“Oh, yes, Jill. I don’t know her well. She just moved in a couple of months ago. She’s out early in the morning for a run around the same time I am. We usually say hello to each other in passing.”
“She thought I was the housekeeper.” Anne said.
“I will have to set her straight the next time I see her.” Preston said. It wasn’t the first time Anne had been mistaken for someone in his employ or merely a colleague or something else along those lines instead of a romantic partner.
“I already did.” Anne replied. Preston looked curiously at the package and the return address. It was from his hometown in Britain. Opening the package, he pulled from it what looked like a book along with a letter. Unfolding the letter, he read it. “What is it?” Anne asked.
“It was found in a trunk from Nan’s house. It’s my mother’s diary.”