It was a remarkably sunny day, one in which the frost was burned off the grass in the moment of an hour and the birds were busily working towards their winter preparations. The light glanced off lacquered headstones, crosses and blocks, their names but shadows under the glare. A young woman crouched before a columbarium of thick granite surrounded by diamond-patterned tile, her fingers resting lightly on a plaque. In place of flowers in the holder, was a handkerchief tied to it, now tattered and yellowed from the weather and the sun, the monogram shredded. She traced the letters; she slowly spelled the name in the whispers of her touch on the chilled metal. Tears froze to her cheeks as a brief blast of wind whipped about her long, pale-brown hair.
She remembered the day like a nightmare, remembered the hospital staff rushing her from the room as they tried to revive him. He had fallen asleep; he had promised he would not when she visited. Yet, he had, and he fell into an asthmatic crisis, gone within moments. She could imagine the birthday present she had never been able to give him, the one that had arrived a day later, that which he had worn in his death: a plain silver chain with a pendant. He had had a strange fascination with portrait pendants.
His image haunted her. She had kept all his pictures, his drawings, his art, the centre being his portrait in the spray of silken lilies she had carelessly crushed when she had thrown her body on his coffin as they went to take him away after the service. If she tried hard enough, she could still smell their perfume, but she was not supposed to try to remember that anymore, or what had led to that point. It only brought them back, the voices that had so ill advised her in their ignorance, and those men who had whispered in her ears and inspired her for so long that she once thought them to be real. She had seen glimpses of them in crowds, in shadowy places, and it took all her efforts in her therapy to move on from them and from him.
Straightening from her crouch with groan, her knees as stiff as the frost-dusted grass, she spied that man watching her from the opposite side of the columbarium and froze. She could see the dark head with its dark blue eyes in a face white as the moon under the broad-brimmed hat, half pinned up and spilling with black and white ostrich plumes. She violently shuddered. The tears came harder and faster, whimpers fighting themselves free from her lips.
“No,” she begged, “No... Please...” He came towards her around the granite block, and she buried her hand deep into the pocket of her coat, fingers fumbling.
“Just leave me alone!” She struggled with the small plastic bottle with its tiny plastic lid that slipped under her sweaty digits and refused to open. She glanced up quickly and saw that he was taking his time with slow, easy steps like those that one would make when trying not to frighten an animal or when trying to hunt it. The bottle’s lid popped off and spilled the key to her salvation over the tiles. She dropped down, scrambling to get one, just one little plastic coated piece, anything to stop the nightmare. A boot, black leather with a thick wedge heel and a gleaming spur stopped her and pressed its toe on top of two of her fingers that held a pill.
“Vous n'avez pas besoin de cela.” She could not remember the last time she had spoken French, but his words echoed cavernously in her ears.
“Leave me alone,” she pleaded. “You have done enough. You took him away from me.”
“Ce n'était pas mon intention.” How could it not have been when she had watched this vision sit up from his corpse in these dated, ridiculous clothes and leave without a backward glance?
“You are not real. All you are is a product of my imagination from when I was lonely and desperate. You’re a hallucination, just like the other three.” She went to pull her fingers back with her prize, but his toe ground harder on them to stop her.
“I don’t want to listen to any of you anymore! Go to hell!”
“Ma’am, are you alright?” She whipped around on her knees to find herself facing a groundskeeper, who watched her with nervous and curious intent. Wiping at her eyes and forcing a smile, she stood quickly to face him.
“I’m fine, sir. Thank you. Grief is a funny thing sometimes.”
“Are you sure? You were shouting and I didn’t see anyone—.”
“Was I? I’m sorry. Excuse me.” She marched away, leaving him standing there still puzzled, and returned to the car she had left parked on the roadway that wound its way through the cemetery. Sitting numbly in the driver’s seat, she gripped the steering wheel with her right hand in an effort to alleviate her shaking and reached into her coat pocket with her left. The pill bottle was there, capped and seemingly untouched, and when she looked at her hand, the first two fingers were bruised.