The setting Anne, with Kristine’s assistance, had chosen for her and Preston’s nuptials was within the city park, the site of the flower garden and the fountain, the same where Preston had parked his car the day he had learned of his diagnosis and what his ultimate fate at some point within the next few years was to be. Preston had decided not to argue against it when Anne had informed him. To do so he would have had to come up with a reason to reject it and he could come up with nothing believable other than the truth. They had been to the site many times together over the last few years, it being a favorite of both of theirs, which was perhaps why he had felt compelled to drive to it that day before he’d experienced his emotional release.
He also couldn’t think of a better alternative. Anne was right...it was a beautiful, peaceful setting, the flowers already planted and in bloom there meant that they could forego purchasing their own other than her bouquet, and reserving the area for the short time they would have need of it was unbelievably inexpensive. Not that money was any object really, not anymore. Preston attempted to think of it more positively, that what was to happen there would wipe away the negative taint that dark day had left on it.
The day having arrived, Anne’s only concern about the venue, that it could possibly rain, she having obsessively checked the weather forecast each day for the week preceding, proved to be unfounded as the day dawned bright and sunny with nary a cloud in the sky. Preston stood at the site in his best suit, near the fountain, listening to the hypnotic, soothing splashing and bubbling sounds it produced as Kristine oversaw two other men that he knew worked in the maintenance department of the university as they assembled folding chairs in the grass, creating an aisle between them that one of the men then covered by unrolling a long, blue aisle runner.
Preston felt a bit light headed, somewhat in a daze. He knew it wasn’t the result of his last treatment, which he had ducked out of his office in the afternoon three days previous to undergo. There had been no need to be seen again by the doctor whose name Preston still could not recall. He had simply been escorted back to the same room as before, by a different nurse this time, the IV inserted and he then left to while away the time either in thought or reading. This time he had brought along with him an anthology of short stories he hadn’t yet had the chance to read. He had felt far less fatigued afterwards than after his first experience and had even had somewhat of an appetite...enough to fool Anne into thinking nothing was amiss at dinnertime, he simply taking smaller portions than usual without her notice.
He had never expected to ever see this day...not because, unlike Anne, he had ever had trouble attracting the opposite sex, not because he believed he would never find anyone he loved enough to spend his life with, though he had always known it would be difficult to find a woman who would be willing to forego that ring on her finger after a certain amount of time together.
Anne had never been as vociferously against marriage as he had previously been, she more neutral on the subject, but had agreed with him in the few discussions they’d had about it in years past on the negatives of it. He was aware now she had merely accepted his stance, even if she didn’t entirely share it, because it was far better to have him, even if it wasn’t as a husband, than to not have him at all.
“Nervous?” Preston heard Kristine ask from where she now stood beside him. He hadn’t noticed her approach as he stood lost in thought and mesmerized by the sounds of the fountain.
“Somewhat. I think it’s more akin to a novice actor waiting for his cue to take the stage, hoping not to flub his lines.” Preston replied.
“The only line you have to remember consists of two words, ’I do.’” Kristine told him. Preston noticed a car pull up and park in one of the open spaces. None of the few guests they had invited had arrived yet, perhaps this was the first, though Preston didn’t recognize the vehicle.
Preston could hardly believe his eyes as the door opened and the occupant exited, seeming to immediately spy him by the fountain and raised a hand in a wave.
“Robert?!” Preston said in disbelief, walking away from a smiling Kristine towards the parking lot, so dumbfounded by the appearance of his old friend that he forgot to excuse himself. “Robert...how...surely you didn’t come all this way...?” Preston said as he approached Robert as Robert, dressed in a suit that was obviously more expensive and higher quality than Preston’s, met him halfway, a smile on his face.
Preston hadn’t invited Robert to the wedding as he didn’t wish for him to take the trouble of traveling overseas and especially at such short notice for such a low key event and had figured Robert would be too busy anyway. He had gotten no reply from him after the mass email he’d sent out announcing their engagement. He was also unsure after their last meeting whether Robert would feel comfortable attending.
“Alan!” Robert said as the two met, embracing. “Anne rang me up and invited me. I already had plans to be in New York. I simply delayed my return. I thought you must have gone bloody barmy after what you’d told me when I’d asked you about it when you were back home. I had to come and see for myself.” Robert said, grinning.
“Maybe I have.” Preston responded.
“I have to admit, I was gobsmacked, not just the reason...when we last saw each other..”
“As I told you, it makes no difference to me. Aside from that, though I’d say if you’re unsure next time you should just ask the bloke what side of the fence he’s on and save yourself a possible arse kicking, as Anne and I both agreed, you thought to take a chance. I can’t fault anyone for that. No risk, no...” Preston said, trailing off as his eyes caught sight over Robert’s shoulder of the car in which his friend had arrived where it sat parked yards away. It appeared that another person sat in the passenger seat. “Is there someone else with you?” Preston asked before his brain fully registered who it was that stared back at him with one eye through the windshield.
“No. I wish there were. It was a bloody boring drive. It would have been nice to have someone to talk to. Why…?” Robert asked, turning his head to look over his shoulder at the car where Preston’s gazed was now locked. Preston closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, opening them again as Robert turned his head back to Preston.
“Must have been a trick of the light.” Preston replied. Robert looked at him with a touch of concern.
“Are you alright, mate? You look a bit off colour.” Robert said, Preston putting on a smile.
“I’m fine. A bit anxious I suppose. Seeing as you’re here...we weren’t going to do the whole bridesmaid and groomsman thing...but I can’t think of another I’d rather have stand with me.” Preston asked Robert, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“Of course...I’d be honored.” Robert answered, sounding shocked at Preston’s request. .
“Hold onto this until the time comes for it. That’s all you need to do.” Preston said, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and removing a ring box, handing it over to Robert.
Another man, an older gentleman with a receding hairline stepped out of another car that had just parked in the lot. Kristine, who was choreographing the event, made her way towards him, Preston recognizing the man as the justice of the peace that would be conducting the ceremony as neither he nor Anne were religious.
Cars began to file into the lot, Preston recognizing most of them as colleagues from the university. Kristine, after conversing with the officiant, had made her way over to the two men.
“It won’t be long now. You should get up there.” she said to Preston before moving off to greet the guests making their way to them from the parking lot.
“I guess that’s our cue.” Preston said
Not long after all the guests had been seated and Preston and Robert had taken their places, another car entered the lot. As Preston had not had much to do with planning, he was as surprised as the others as his eyes fell upon the shiny, black, fully restored 1930s era car that rounded the parking lot and pulled up along the curb. Kristine made a hand signal to a man standing near two speakers that had been set up, shortly after music beginning to play, another song from Anne’s collection of Al Bowlly, Preston recognizing it as ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing.’ Kristine walked over to the car, opening the door and assisting Anne from the backseat.
Those seated stood as Anne, in a long vintage lace dress in a style of the same era as the car, flowers in her hair, a small bouquet of blue tinted carnations and white roses in one hand, took the arm Kristine offered. Kristine led her up the aisle. Reaching Preston, Kristine handed her charge over to him, she taking Preston’s hand, looking into his eyes with a bright smile, he returning to her his own, the offiant.
“Welcome all who have gathered here today to celebrate the uniting of Anne Elizabeth Tuley and Alan Paul Preston in marriage. We witness today the beginning of the next chapter of their lives together.”
The vows were made, Preston sensing his heart skip a beat at the mention of and as he repeated the vow ‘in sickness and in health’ hoping that nothing in his expression would clue Anne into the particular pertinence to him of that part. He felt dishonest and guilty that she was going into it without full knowledge of what was to come, somewhat like selling someone something that was defective without disclosing it. He knew he would never have been a successful used car salesman. He was certain, however, that knowing the truth would not have dissuaded her.
Next the rings had been exchanged, Robert handing hers to Preston to slip onto her finger to join the engagement ring Preston had just recently placed there, Anne retrieving Preston’s from Kristine to slide it onto his awaiting finger, both repeating the accompanying words, after which the two found themselves proclaimed husband and wife. Preston thought it had taken longer for the two maintenance men to set up the chairs and there hadn’t been all that many. After sharing their first kiss as a married couple, they had made their way down the aisle and after a few pictures had been taken by Kristine and a couple of other guests, climbed into the antique car that remained parked at the curb, waiting to chauffeur them to their next destination.
Despite what Preston and Anne had originally envisioned post ceremony, Kristine had gone further, reserving the large meeting room at the best restaurant in town for dinner and a short reception. After the catered meal and the cutting of the small wedding cake, the same man who had been charged with the music at the ceremony had set up his small sound system, A few tables had been moved aside to provide a space for dancing. After their first dance, Robert had, somewhat to Preston’s surprise, asked Anne for the next, Preston then pairing himself with Kristine.
“I wanted to apologize...back home...I thought things, said things I shouldn’t have. I was wrong. I just want him to be happy. That’s all that matters to me.” Robert said, looking somewhat discomforted after a few moments of silently dancing.
“That’s what I want, too.” Anne replied.
“Treat him right, not like others have done me.”
“I will. I promise you.” Anne said as they continued dancing. She had the distinct feeling from the troubled expression on his face that something else was on Robert’s mind. “What is it? There’s something else...”
“It’s silly, really.”
“It was just a dream...an old friend...Alan’s and mine. He was killed at the same time Alan was wounded over there. It just came to mind. He told me something but it’s obviously not true...said he was going to visit you, but of course he never knew you. Maybe I was just thinking of him being here today in spirit as they say. Just take good care of him...Alan...you know, In sickness and in health...all that.”
“That’s what I promised and what I plan to do.” Anne said, the song and their dance ending. Robert escorted Anne back to Preston and Kristine. Reaching the two Robert put a hand on Preston’s shoulder.
“I’m returning her to you where she belongs. I have to be on my way, mate.” Robert said.
“Are you sure? It’s getting late. It’s a long drive. Anne and I can put you up for the night.” Preston said.
“I have a plane to catch in the afternoon. I’d rather get back tonight and then sleep until I have to get up for it instead of having to get up early. I could rent a whole floor of any hotel in town if I wanted. I wouldn’t think of putting you to the trouble... definitely not tonight. I doubt you want an audience….or maybe you do…” Robert said with a sly grin.
“No.” Preston said, himself grinning.
“Maybe next time. I’ll bring a friend...” Robert said, still grinning. Preston assumed he was joking, he hoped so anyway, but Robert had been serious when he’d invited Preston back to his place with Isabelle and Erin. With Robert he could never be entirely sure. “I suppose I’ll see you when I see you.” Robert said, he and Preston embracing.
“Let us know when you make it back. Kristine, would you join me to see him out?” Preston asked.
“Yes, of course.” Kristine answered, knowing Preston’s invitation meant he had something he wanted to speak with her about away from the other guests and Anne.
“I’ll be back in a moment.” Preston told Anne, Anne assuming that it was Robert to whom Preston wished to speak outside of her presence.
After seeing Robert to the car, all waving to each other as he drove off, Preston and Kristine stood outside the entrance.
“You saw him again.” Kristine said before Preston had a chance to begin the conversation.
“For a few seconds, in Robert’s car, after he arrived at the park. He was sitting in the front seat. I don’t think it has anything to do with my feelings, past or current, conscious or subconscious, about marriage. I’m completely at peace with my decision. I’m happy...very happy. I didn’t know I could be this happy. Seeing her step out of that car, putting the ring on her finger, making those vows, I meant every word of them.”
“So why do you think you’re seeing him?” Kristine asked.
“There’s something I have to tell you. I hadn’t planned to, not yet. I haven’t told anyone else. You can’t either. You can’t tell Anne. Promise me.” Preston told her.
“I promise you, anything you disclose I’ll keep completely confidential just as I would if you were a client. I suppose now that we’ve established a sort of pseudo-therapist/client relationship, you are one.”
“I’ll tell Anne in my own time when the time’s right. That’s not up for discussion.”
“I understand. What is it?” Kirsitine asked.
“I’m dying.” Preston said.
“What?” Kristine asked, taken aback at Preston’s confession. The news of him and Anne resigning and their impending move had been enough of a shock. She now felt as if she’d been hit by a truck.
“I’d just found out a few hours before I called you about proposing to Anne. I have a condition called myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare form of it. The only chance for a cure is a stem cell transplant but it’s very unlikely they’ll find a match and even then it’s only about a 30% chance of remission. I have around three to five years depending on how well I respond to the treatments. They seem to be working so far. I’ve been feeling much better than I had been.”
“Oh my god...I’m so sorry, Alan. So that’s the ‘circumstances’ you were talking about having changed.” Kristine responded.
“I wish it had been what I’d originally thought.”
“I never wanted to be a father, but I have to say, so do I.” Preston said, looking down at his feet.
“You think you’re seeing this friend of yours because you’re dying?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It makes as much sense as anything else. I think he may be trying to tell me something.”
“If you see him again, if he says anything, try to remember it, word for word if you can. Whether it’s really him, though I’m not sure I believe in that kind of thing, or your own mind using visions of him as a proxy, maybe together we can figure out what it is. My god...poor Anne….”
“That’s why I’ve asked you not to tell her. I want her to be happy for as long as possible. To just know what that is. I asked her about Lynn. She told me the whole story. We’ve been together as long as she’d been friends with her when she was-” Preston’s voice broke, “when she said having a friend was all she had ever wanted and then she was gone, just gone, in the blink of an eye…” he put a hand to his mouth, tears beginning to well in his eyes. Kristine put her hand on Robert’s back before moving it to his shoulder.
“Take a few moments... then you’re going to go back in there and dance one more dance with your wife. After that you’re going to take her home and make love to her and you’re going to spend the entire day with her tomorrow, your first full day as husband and wife, doing whatever she wants to do and you’re not going to think about it until I call you on Monday and we meet somewhere. Alright?.” Preston nodded, lowering his hand from his mouth to his side taking a few steadying breaths. “Are you ready?” Preston nodded again.
“Yes, I think so.”
“You are a very lucky man and she’s a very lucky woman. Most people will go a full lifetime and never know what you both have. Remember that.”
Kristine took Preston’s arm, leading him back inside.
Preston had fulfilled all that Kristine had told him he would do, dancing a last dance with Anne before Kristine escorted them to Preston’s car, handing over to him his keys, she having had one of the maintenance people that had set up the chairs drive it to the restaurant after breaking everything down after the ceremony, as Preston and Anne had been driven to the venue in the car Kristine had arranged for in which Anne had arrived.
Upon arriving back home, after unlocking the door, Preston had followed the old custom of carrying the bride over the threshold. Setting her back on her feet, they both saw the trail of rose petals going up the stairs. Following them, they found their bed sprinkled with rose petals as well, along with champagne on ice, a corkscrew, and two champagne flutes engraved with their names and the date setting on Anne’s vanity, tealight candles in glass candle holders arranged on nearly every surface of the room and a long candle lighter setting next to the champagne.
“She should give up teaching and go into event planning.” Anne said, looking around the room as Preston lit all the candles.
“I think we’re a special case.” Preston said, putting the lighter back on the vanity and removing the cork from the champagne over the ice to avoid getting any on the carpet. Pouring a glass, he handed it to Anne before pouring his own.
Preston had almost not wished to remove Anne’s gown, wanting to hold onto that moment and that vision of her in it, wishing he could simply stop time around him and then sit and look upon her for just a while longer. No, she wasn’t thin, she wasn’t beautiful in the conventional sense of the word, but the person he knew she was, her heart, the look of happiness on her face, in her smile and her eyes, gave her what he would have described as an almost angelic glow that made up for it.
He had fulfilled the second of Kristine’s directives more than adequately, slowly unzipping Anne’s gown and sliding it down her body to the floor, leaving her in the silky slip she wore beneath it and removing that after leading her to the rose petal strewn bed, she assisting him in doffing his own clothing. Afterwards they had polished off the rest of the champagne before engaging in a second round. He found himself thinking that at least he didn’t have to worry about leaving her with a child to care for all on her own like his mother before putting the reminder of what he had been ordered by Kristine not to think about until the day after next from his mind.
Whether due to the champagne or his desire to keep such thoughts at bay or a combination of both, he had been more aggressive in his love making than usual the second time around. Anne had made no protest and had in fact seemed to take pleasure in it. Preston was sure had they still been living in his old apartment, not only would his neighbors have been banging on the walls but likely on his front door as well.
He awoke in the early morning hours, the sun still a couple hours from rising, most of the candles having by then burnt out, only a few still dimly flickering here and there throughout the room as they burnt up the last of their fuel. He found the space beside him in the bed empty, his arm stretched across where in his last memory before sleep had overtaken him, Anne had lain. Looking towards the bathroom, he saw the door open, no light on within. Rising, he had thrown on his robe and made his way out of the room and down the stairs.
He found Anne in her studio, the painting he had first seen the day she had broken the glass on the easel before her, she almost frantically gliding the brush in strokes upon the canvas before moving it to the palette and then back to the canvas. More of the image she had said she’d had in her head, possibly transferred there after being first viewed in a dream, had been revealed since last he saw it, even more as he watched her work, she seemingly unaware of his presence.
“Anne…?” he said, taking a few steps into the room, moving closer to her from behind. She gave no indication she heard him as she continued to paint. Now standing behind her, he looked at the canvas. What had once appeared to be a cave still looked to be so, at least the inner part of it, though in the center of it was now a black, shadowy figure. It alone for a reason Preston couldn’t identify sent chills up his spine, but that was nothing compared to his reaction to the rest of the scene before him.
The ‘cave’ was in fact a large hole in the side of the man’s head that stood in semi-profile, his head turned slightly towards the viewer so that enough of the other side of his face could be seen in order to be recognized...and Preston most certainly did recognize him. Other dark, shadowy vaguely human shapes appeared to be floating out from the hole or cave along with other strange silvery grey, green and blue demonic creatures, sporting fangs and claws and glowing red eyes.
“Anne.” Preston said more loudly from directly behind her. Anne startled, almost dropping the palette, as if being roused from a trance. She stared at the canvas in front of her, at the horrific images her hand had placed there. “What is that?” Preston asked in a more gentle voice.
“Alan? What am I doing here?” Anne said, appearing and sounding confused and frightened.
“I woke up and you were gone. I came looking for you and found you here. You were painting. I’ve heard of sleepwalking, but not sleep painting.”
“I was having a dream...it had to be a dream...no one could be alive...no one could be walking around with half a head…” Anne said, staring at the painting..
“Did he tell you his name?” Preston asked
“I think so. Charles….Charlie….something like that...Willowby?”
“Whitby? Charles Whitby?”
“Yes, that’s it. How did you know?” Anne asked, turning from the painting to look up at Preston, bewildered.
“Did he say anything else?” Preston asked.
“He said…” Anne began, looking as if she were trying to call up a difficult to retrieve memory or thinking on something that made no sense, “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied and never satisfied are the eyes of man.”