FAR ABOVE THE CITY STREETS

By Karen Mason-Richardson


"Hello?"

"Hi, it's Russ." The slight woman winced and held the receiver a few inches away from her right ear.

"Hi, and you don't have to talk so loud. I'm OK."

"Sounds like it. I take it everything went smoothly."

The masculine voice on the other end of the line dropped in volume to a normal tone, and she returned the receiver to her ear.

"Yes. The specialist worked his magic. Dr. Tarrant was quite... correct to insist I see him."

"It was about time you did something."

The woman shifted uncomfortably and tugged at the neckline of her green Japanese silk kimono. "Please, let's not go into that again right now."

"Yeah, you're right, I'm sorry. Listen, how about a little celebration? I know this great place in the Village where --"

"That sounds nice, but could we maybe make it some other time? I'm just not in the mood tonight."

Silence fell, and she heard him sigh. "You can't keep hiding, Lydia. Not forever. It doesn't work, you know that."

"I know. Not for forever, just... I need some time. There have been so many changes lately. I just need to get used to things."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"No. Not really. Please don't worry, Russ. I'll be fine, but thank you for thinking of me."

"Listen, if you change your mind, just give me a ring. I've got no real plans tonight."

"I'll do that."

Russ' rich tenor softened with concern. "You take care of yourself."

"You, too."

The light click of the telephone receiver settling into its cradle sounded so... strange. Really, everything did. She was so used to the quiet.

Finely boned fingers caressed the telephone stand. The intricately carved antique mahogany table gleamed with rich red undertones, the wood lustrous and well cared for. It was just one of the many things collected on their travels. This piece was from... Calcutta wasn't it? Or was it Jaipur? She couldn't remember.

How could she have forgotten that? Have forgotten any of it?

It felt like a betrayal...

Thank God for Russ. He had been a rock during the past three years. He had always been there for her, lending a hand in any way he could, supporting her. She didn't know what she would have done without him, how she would have coped.

Her refusal of his invitation had hurt him. She knew that. He asked for so little and gave so much. And he wanted so much more. He tried to hide it, but she knew him too well.

She squared her shoulders and turned to face the apartment. It seemed so small, especially now, crowded with haphazardly placed furniture and unpacked boxes. The living room ended in a raised dining area, one that received bright morning sun through French doors. To the left of the dining area was a tiny kitchen. White louvered doors led to a large bedroom and ensuite bath, and another set of French doors leading to the balcony.

It was the perfect apartment for a single person.

* * * *

The sun was setting and the balcony was in shadow, but some heat still remained, radiating from the concrete floor. Catherine wriggled her bare toes against the warmth appreciatively.

It felt so good to be outside! Air conditioning was well and good, especially in the soaring heat of late July, but the air always seemed so... dead. Her balcony was a refuge on such days. Morning sun beamed directly into the apartment, but as the day wore on the building blocked the worst of the afternoon heat and the balcony stayed relatively cool - a fact that in winter wasn't the greatest, but in summer was wonderful.

She set the tray and its heavy glass pitcher of iced tea carefully down onto the metal table before turning to close the French doors. It would be full dark soon. Anticipation gave her movements a leashed tension as she placed thick green and white striped cushions onto the new chairs. Her old stuff, quite feminine and chic, had not been very comfortable to sit on for long. No wonder they had often ended up using pillows on the floor! Last year, when she had bought her rosebush at the garden center she had noted the large display of patio furniture. A sale flyer in Saturday's newspaper had been a timely reminder and she had placed an order that morning. The new set had finally been delivered yesterday. The heavy iron rockers were a good choice, substantial enough to easily support the weight of a large man.

The note she had received with her lunchtime sandwich was safely tucked away in her purse. He was coming above tonight.

Ice chinked as she poured herself some tea and settled into one of the chairs to wait. Moisture condensed on the glass and dripped a bead of cold water onto her bare leg as she lifted the glass for a long swallow. It was still hot. This July had been a real scorcher. But after a long winter and damp, chill spring spent wrapped in layers for warmth, it was nice to be able to lounge about in just a light T-shirt and cut-offs.

And, although he would never admit it out loud, she knew Vincent liked to see her in cut-offs...

* * * *

"Lydia Naughton?"

The voice had been strangely familiar, but she hadn't been able to place it. Theirs was an unlisted number. The only ones who knew it were friends, and it was seldom she received calls from someone she didn't know right away.

"Yes."

"This is Dr. Tarrant calling. I'm afraid I have some bad news..."

That had been the beginning of the nightmare.

Mark had collapsed in his office and had been rushed by ambulance to St. Vincent's hospital. She had raced to New York, driving through the night, accompanied only by the fevered repetition of prayer that it would please please please all be a mistake and nothing really serious at all.

Prayers that went unanswered.

Making her way to the kitchen, she absently filled the kettle with water, set it on the stove, and turned the burner switch to high..

Cancer. The very word held such horrifying overtones. It raised the specter of a long, wasting death, one that stole your vitality, inevitably squeezing it out of you in a prolonged day-to-day battle for life. One for which the cure was sometimes worse than the disease. Everyone knew the horror stories about chemotherapy; of the sickness and agony it caused. Everyone shuddered at the thought of having to go through that, of having to take a chance that the cure was worth it, if it worked at all.

It had been cancer, a tumor in the upper cervical spine, pressure against nerves and blood vessels leading to loss of consciousness.

The cardboard box on the counter held an assortment of kitchen items, and she rummaged through the contents until she found the tea tin.

Mark had been having headaches for that last year or so. They had both chalked it up to stress. The import business they had worked so hard to build up had been coming under pressure from competitors and over the last few years sales had suffered. The decision to sell out had been difficult but they both were getting older. Personally she had thought the need to sell wasn't such a bad turn of events.

She had been after Mark to retire for years. Most people wanted to travel when they retired. Not Mark. He had loved being able to spend time at the Vermont house. Their business had necessitated extensive travel; after years spent in hotel rooms and airports, they had both looked forward to staying home, working in the garden, and not having to go anywhere.

The Vermont house was gone now. She had tried to keep it, for him, for them both. For the memories it held and the dreams it represented.

A lot of things had had to be sold: the business and the antiques, as well as the Vermont house. Insurance had only paid for so much. Drugs, doctors, equipment, tests -- everything was horrendously expensive. Those costs had multiplied for over a year as they grasped at any possibility for recovery. Finally, near the end, it was just to keep the pain... manageable. Not that the money mattered. She would do it all again, twice over, if it would make a difference.

The abrupt whistle of the kettle startled her badly and the box of tea plummeted to the floor. Tea bags scattered as the metal tin burst open on impact. With a huff of disgusted impatience she shut off the burner, set the kettle on a hot mat, and bent to gather the bags off the floor.

The green tea tin had come through its mishap unscathed. The tin, an old Harrods' biscuit box, had been purchased during her and Mark's first trip to London. It had been on sale and she had simply had to buy it, not for the cookies it contained, but just for the container with its trademark name and seal.

It was almost two years now since Mark had died.

* * * *

Catherine heard the plants rustle behind her and couldn't suppress a smile. Moments later, strong hands bracketed her shoulders and a furry nose rubbed against her ear. The soft bristles tickled and she flinched away with a gust of laughter.

"Vincent!"

"Yes?"

"That tickles!"

"I know."

His voice was rife with smug amusement. "Meanie."

"Perhaps."

The warmth of his hands trailed up her shoulders and wrapped around her neck. Claws lightly tapped underneath her chin and she obligingly tipped her head back to look up at him. Blue eyes laughed into hers as he bent down to nip her nose and drink in her answering laughter with an upside down kiss.

"You're in a good mood tonight."

"It's been a good day. The problem with the water main has finally been resolved."

"Permanently?"

He sighed and lifted his head, gazing out over the park at the bright lights beyond. "No repair is permanent, but this should hold for a reasonable length of time." He released his grip and straightened, glancing in askance at the new furniture.

"Do you like the chairs?"

"They look... quite nice. Sturdy."

"They are." Catherine leaned forward to pour iced tea into the second glass and gestured for him to sit.

Vincent removed his cloak with an audible sigh of relief and draped it on the coat rack conveniently placed in the far corner for just that purpose. His light cotton shirt clung damply with sweat, molding to his back as he returned to sit down. Gingerly he settled his large frame into the metal chair, which tipped backwards beneath his weight. He stiffened reflexively, eyes widening in surprise.

"Relax, they're supposed to do that."

Claws retracted as he loosened his grip on the metal chair arms and rocked experimentally.

"What do you think?"

"They're very comfortable." Eyes glinted as he glanced sideways at her through tousled mane. "Did the old set need replacing?"

"Strictly speaking, no. But I decided it did, and I bought these for you. The old set is in the basement storage room. Someone Below can take it if they want." She noticed him draw breath to speak and could guess what was coming. "Don't say it! Don't you know by now that I like buying you things? It's not like I don't have the means. So don't get all embarrassed on me. I enjoyed doing it. Besides, you were getting pretty sick of sitting on the floor, weren't you? I know I was."

Silence descended, broken only by the swish of heavy denim trousers against the stiff chair fabric as he rocked quietly.

"Yes. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

* * * *

Steam bathed her face as she poured boiling water over the bag in her favorite tea mug. The hot moistness reminded her of the baths in Baden-Baden. A wonderful place, a German city founded on the healing qualities of its mineral springs.

She could still use some healing. It had been a long, hard road and she hadn't reached the end yet.

Deanna had done her best, but there was only so much her daughter could do. She had two children of her own now and lived with her military husband in England. She couldn't leave them for long. Still, she had managed several visits after the diagnosis, and of course the whole family had come for the funeral. Afterwards, both Deanna and Jim had pushed for her to move to England, to be close to them. She had adamantly refused. She didn't want to live that life any more, moving every few years. She just wanted to stay home.

Besides, she wasn't totally alone - she had Russ. He had taken over the business while she devoted herself to Mark's care. He had always been there for her, for them - a helping hand, a buffer against the world, a shoulder to cry on.

They had been best friends since high school. She, Russ, and Mark - the Three Musketeers. Inseparable. Russ had been Mark's best man, and the three had remained fast friends through all the strange curves life has a tendency to throw at you. He had even lived with them for a year, after his divorce.

It had been Russ who had finally convinced her to sell the Vermont house and move to New York. The house was far too isolated for her to live in alone and too big for her to maintain. It had been a haven after Mark's death, a quiet place where she didn't have to deal with sympathizers and their intrusive concern.

Intellectually, she knew the decision to move had been the right one. But it hadn't been easy. It still wasn't. But, to be truthful, she had needed the money garnered from the sale. It had made more sense for her to keep this apartment and sell the house.

They had bought this place when the building first been converted to condos, over twenty years ago. It hadn't been cheap, but they had needed a place to live while working at their main office here in Manhattan. Once the business took off and they bought their dream house in Vermont, Mark had still needed to do business in the city and had stayed here several days each week. Sometimes she would pack up Deanna and come into the city instead of him having to travel home - a mini-holiday for them both. There was so much to see and do: shopping, museums, and Broadway theater. Those visits had tapered off as Deanna had grown older. Once she had left home for college, they had pretty much stopped altogether. As the business matured, and with fax machines and computers, Mark had only needed to spend one or two days a week in New York anyway.

Then, the illness...

This place carried memories too. The picture on the mantel: a Paris street scene purchased from an artist near the Eiffel Tower. The carved wooden mask from Kenya. A pink stain on the sofa, almost invisible unless you knew where to look; from a glass of red wine knocked over on their tenth anniversary when they --

The walls were closing in on her.

The place was so small...

* * * *

Catherine hid her smile with a sip of tea as Vincent's eyes closed and he leaned his head back against the striped cushion. The chairs had definitely been a good idea, and a good choice. For someone who spent his life underground, being outside was such a pleasure. Vincent loved this balcony - that was the biggest reason she kept the apartment. He had told her once it satisfied a need in him to be high and look down over the city. Of course, as they got older, that would eventually have to change. The trip upwards, even on top of the service elevator, would become too risky and difficult. But, for now, she loved to watch him enjoy the breeze and the fresh air.

"Court should be done by three. I'll just need to drop off some paperwork to Rita and then I'll be free for the weekend. How's your schedule?"

He sighed heavily. "I've neglected other duties since the water problem began..."

"Oh."

"But perhaps they can wait a few more days. Everyone could use a rest." His voice warmed with undisguised anticipation. "Shall I tell William to expect you for dinner on Friday?"

A whole weekend together? One with no chores or responsibilities? "I'd like that."

"So would I." White fangs glimmered in the spare light as he turned and smiled at her. His furred hand slid across the table to take hers. "Would you like to --"

Claws dug sharply as his hand tensed around hers, and his eyes focused intently on the brick wall behind her.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

His voice dropped to a rumbling whisper. "There's someone on the balcony next door." His whole frame tightened as he released her hand and rose slowly from the chair. Eyes narrowed as the feral, protective side of him surfaced and prepared to meet a potential threat. "A woman." His voice was a barely disguised growl.

"It's OK!" She reached up to grab his cotton shirt and tugged, drawing his attention. "Vincent, it's OK. I'm sorry, I should have brought it up right away. There's no danger, really."

"There's never been anyone there before." He was rigid, body vibrating with alarm, but he lowered his head in response to her touch.

"I know. I had almost forgotten another balcony adjoined mine. Since I moved here the next apartment has almost always been empty." She released her grip on his shirt and sank back into her chair. "Sit back down and I'll explain."

Slowly he resumed his seat, tension still evident in his grip on the chair arms.

Catherine sighed and took a sip of her tea. "It's not going to be a problem, trust me. The apartment next door has been owned by the Naughtons for as long as I've lived here. Mr. Naughton used to use it sometimes during the week for business, but I hadn't even seen him in years. Tuesday morning I met a group of movers in the hallway taking boxes into the apartment. I was worried about having neighbors, so I stopped to introduce myself and see what was going on. It seems Mr. Naughton died two years ago. His wife sold their country place and was moving into the city. And Vincent, Mrs. Naughton's practically deaf. You have to shout at her to get through at all. We don't have to worry."

"You're sure?" His grip on the chair was loosening and he sat back, still eying the brick partition wall with concern.

"I talked to her myself. Yes, I'm sure."

"It's going to be difficult, getting used to another presence so close."

"Hmmm. But we're lucky, we still have our privacy."

* * * *

The temperature was comfortingly warm after the cool of the air-conditioned apartment. She had spent so much time outside in Vermont, tending her flower gardens in the fresh country air. It would take some adjusting to get used to city life again.

Perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing. Perhaps she needed the change of pace. Yes, this place held memories, but here the memories were good, of the good times. The upstairs bedroom in the Vermont house, even two years later, had still carried the scent of sickness. Granted that was probably just psychological, but that didn't make it any less real to her.

She set her teacup on the glass tabletop and turned to look out over the park and the glittering lights beyond. The city had its own aura, a living pulse of energy, of excitement. Hopefully, all that life would draw her back into life again.

Russ was right. She had been hiding, secreted away in her country home where no one would come to bother her. At the time it had been what she needed. Once the funeral was over and things had settled down, she had been left alone, except for Russ. He had come almost every weekend to mow the grass, bring groceries, and badger her about rejoining the human race. His persistence had finally paid off &endash; here she was.

The pressure in her ear was becoming annoying and she reached up to adjust the soft plastic. It felt strange to wear a hearing aid again, but this morning when she had her final fitting the doctor had told her to wear it constantly so she could get used to it again. She had needed a hearing assistance device since she was quite young, but when her last one had broken, two months after the funeral, she hadn't bothered to replace it.

Getting this new hearing aid had been one of the hardest things she had done in a long time. She had seen enough doctor's offices and hospitals to last a lifetime. Just walking into one again had stirred up a fog of sick anxiety. She had almost turned and fled. After all, she had functioned fine in the country with reduced hearing. But roses didn't talk much. In the city, being able to hear made a big difference.

It wasn't quiet any more, even when she was alone. Small noises reminded her of other people living their lives, of something missing from hers. Reminded her of loneliness.

Maybe she should get another kitten. Mortimer had had to be given away during Mark's illness, when she had spent so much time at the medical centers in California. She still missed the big marmalade tabby. A cat would be good company. Perhaps a visit to the Humane Society would be in order. Knowing her though, she'd come home with more than one creature. Maybe she would turn into one of those dotty old ladies with 20 cats who talked to them all day long and never left her apartment...

Sighing, she settled into a chair and took a careful sip of tea.

"You're sure?"

The raspy masculine voice took her by surprise and she startled, nearly spilling the hot tea onto her lap. Automatically she reached forward to catch the drips on her hand as she lowered the cup to the table.

The sound had come from the next balcony - Catherine Chandler's place. Such a lovely young woman; she had graciously stopped in the hall to welcome Lydia to the building, a kind gesture that had been very much appreciated. Even Russ had given Catherine a glance of masculine approval as she had continued on her way to work, a look that had resulted in his receiving a sharp jab in the ribs.

"Yes. Trust me. There won't be a problem."

Silence fell, and Lydia wondered if they had gone inside before the soft conversation resumed once more.

"So I'll come down around five, if that's OK."

"Yes. I'll come for you."

"You don't have to, you know. I can find the way myself."

"I know. But I'll still come for you."

What was the protocol for adjoining balconies? Surely they must have heard her come outside? Did she call out and advise them of her presence, or was that considered rude? A breeze might make a difference, but in the still air the voices carried clearly.

"Oh, that reminds me, I have to bring silver thread for Rebecca's dress. I forgot to get it last week. So, what's on tomorrow night?"

It's Michael and Brooke's turn. I assume they are still performing, I haven't heard differently. It should prove... interesting."

"I take that to mean Brooke's still upset?"

"I believe she is. Michael seems to think so. He came to me for advice yesterday."

"Don't shake your head! Why do you find that so hard to understand? People respect you and value your opinion."

"But Catherine, for someone to come to ask me, me, for advice on a relationship? It still confounds me."

"Michael looks up to you. You were his teacher, his mentor, it's only natural he would come to you. What did you tell him?"

"Merely that some women might find it upsetting if their partner spends a lot of time alone with another attractive young lady, even if she is a study partner."

"Maybe that'll teach him not to go around bragging."

"He didn't brag, Catherine. He merely mentioned to some of the other young men the ample availability of... female company at his college."

"No, he bragged."

A muffled masculine chuckle rolled through the air. "Regardless, he and Brooke have been on the schedule since last month for tomorrow's performance."

"Do you know what they're planning?" Catherine's voice glowed with amusement.

"A scene from The Taming of the Shrew."

Laughter rang out, bright and uplifting. Lydia smiled to herself in response. She and Mark had seen that play in high school, a performance of the drama league.

"That's appropriate! Who chose that one?"

"I believe Brooke did."

"So how much will be acting, and how much scripted verbal assault?"

"I'm not sure, but it will certainly ensure a spirited performance."

That voice! Amusement deepened its timbre, adding an underlying rumble. It was worth the trouble of getting the hearing aid just to experience it. For a moment, she felt a flash of guilt for listening in on the conversation and considered returning inside. But this was her balcony, and she had every right to be here. She hadn't been sneaky about it, or attempted to conceal her presence in order to eavesdrop. Deliberately she shifted her chair, scraping the wooden leg against the concrete loudly, and cleared her throat.

"Ah, the path of true love never runs smooth... They'll have to muddle their own way through, just like we did."

"Yes."

The voice turned sad, quiet.

"What is it?"

"Father. He used to enjoy these events so."

"The Friday night performances were his idea. He looked forward to them all week."

"I still feel as if he's there, watching with us."

"Maybe he is. Perhaps a part of him is always present on Friday nights."

"They were his finest hours, with his family gathered close. He loved us all. In odd moments, often when I least expect it, the specter of his loss still rises strong. For a time, it overwhelms me." The voice was quiet, a telltale catch in it speaking of deep sorrow. "I still don't feel right, taking his place at these gatherings, or in council."

"Vincent, believe me. Somewhere, somehow, I'm sure he's glad that you are there to fill his place. He knows that the people he loved are safe and cared for, and they will continue to thrive. He left them in good hands."

"Still, it feels so strange. In council, when a question is raised, I still find myself automatically turning to him, to hear his opinion. It's almost a surprise to not see him there. I think it always will be."

"He was a part of you for a long time."

"He still is."

"I miss him, too. It was as if as if I'd gained a father again, only to lose him. At least we have each other to lean on."

The scrape of metal against concrete was a harsh contrast to the soft voices. Cool wetness coated her cheek and Lydia raised her hand to wipe the tear from her eye.

Would Mark know that? Know that the ones he left behind were safe and well? Know that she was OK?

"It's sad, isn't it, that it took something that tragic to wake us up to how quickly time was passing. That we didn't necessarily have forever. That we had to reach for whatever we could, when we could: that opportunity can be wasted and lost so easily."

"Mmmm... Catherine, are you sure this chair can take both our weights?"

"I guess we're going to find out. Be still now, I'm grasping at opportunity."

"Is that what this is called?"

Silence fell once more, punctuated by a soft moan and the wordless male reply. Lydia picked up her teacup rose from her chair. It was definitely time to go.

"Maybe we should take this... opportunity inside?" The voice had deepened to a low rumble, almost a purr. Shivers coursed down her spine. How long had it been since a man had spoken to her in that particular tone?

Years... years.

"Good idea. I have plans."

"Do you?"

"Oh, most certainly."

"Then far be it from me to thwart you."

"I hoped you'd see it my way." A muffled feminine squeak of surprise, underlined by masculine laughter, was followed by the soft click of doors closing.

Lydia retook her seat with a wistful smile. They sounded so happy, despite their loss.

To be honest, Mark would be disappointed with her: for her cowardice in hiding away from the world and for her fear of moving on. She had known that for a long time, but it was so easy not to think about it, to bury those thoughts in day-to-day routine.

Well, her routine was shaken up now, thanks to Russ. She cast a rueful glance at the boxes stacked against the balcony wall. Pots and gardening equipment, for a garden she no longer had. But, there were possibilities here. Several of her gardening magazines had featured articles on container growing, and with all the morning sun this place received surely roses would do well.

A breeze finally found its way onto the balcony. It was cool against damp skin, bringing up goosebumps. Gathering up her cup, she stepped back into the apartment and closed the doors behind her. She returned to the kitchen, poured the cold remainder of tea into the sink, and rinsed the cup.

Maybe there were more opportunities available to her than just some roses. She glanced around the apartment. Yes, it was small, especially filled with unpacked boxes, but there was just her after all. How much space did one woman need? Some new furniture might help. Scaling down on the volume and size of pieces might work wonders in the place, open it up.

'Opportunities can be wasted or lost, so easily.' Young Ms. Chandler was right. Mark had firmly believed in that sentiment. It was one of the very foundations of their relationship, one that had helped them reach for the dream of their own business, a conviction that took them to the far corners of the earth and had led to experiences most people only dreamed of.

She had forgotten that belief for too long. There were opportunities here. She just needed to open her eyes.

Russ would be proud of her.

Russ. She needed to open her eyes in that direction, too. Yes, he was devoted to her, had been since they were in their teens. But there was more to that devotion than friendship. She had known that for years and a little part of her had always wondered - if she had never met Mark, what would have happened between them? Russ felt that way too, she would put money on it. Never, in word or deed, had he ever hinted at any possibility of anything clandestine. He was far too loyal to Mark to even have considered it, as was she.

But, Mark was gone. And she, they, were still here...

Slowly Lydia wove her way through the boxes to the bedroom. Shifting past a wardrobe carton, she leaned forward to look into the dresser mirror. A small grunt of distaste heralded the reflection within. When was the last time she had had a decent haircut? Probably just before the funeral. It was hard to remember; those times were shrouded in a murky haze of grief.

She could barely recall the service. She knew she had stood up in front of the crowd of friends and associates and read a letter Mark had left for just that purpose. She still had the one he had written to her personally hidden in the back of her jewelry box, not that she needed to look at it to remember what it said. Short and so sweet: the fact that he had made the tremendous effort to write at all and leave her with a tangible expression of his feelings still brought a sheen of tears.

Yes, the words were ingrained on her heart.

My dearest Lydia:

I've treasured my time on this earth, a time blessed with your friendship and love. I will be eternally grateful that time was spent with you at my side. I would have wished for more, but I have never wished for other.

All my love, always,

Mark

Her pictures were on the bedside table. They had been the first thing unpacked. She briefly touched the photograph they had had taken together at Deanna's wedding, when she had worn that horrid taupe mother of the bride dress - what an unfortunate choice that had been. Taupe was definitely not her color, regardless that it had been the height of fashion at the time. Mark of course looked fine, although to be honest, even then he had gained a few pounds.

Next to that photograph was one of The Three Musketeers, taken on the day they had opened their first store. They stood, arms linked, under their sign, Silk Roads, Imports and Antiquities. Mark had been the main businessman, she had worked on décor and personnel, and Russ had been the accountant and co-investor. They looked so young, and so determinedly unconcerned
Really, Russ was the one who most resembled his current self in this photo from so many years ago. Well, except for the hair. He was almost bald now. Until the chemotherapy, Mark had still had a full head of dark hair. Granted his face had developed laugh lines and he had acquired a tummy, but he had always been so proud of keeping his hair and had teased Russ unmercifully about his lack thereof.

They had had such good times together.

Slowly she reached forward to pick up the last picture, a framed black and white photograph. Their wedding picture, Mark looking so handsome in his tuxedo while she...well that style of eyeglasses was dated at best.

There had to be some reason she couldn't get a decent picture of herself taken. She and Mark had laughed about that often.

She stroked the glass lightly. The couple in the picture looked so happy -- a joy that still glowed through the inevitable yellowing of the old photograph. . A trembling smile curved her lips as she raised the picture and lightly kissed his face.

She couldn't contain a self-deprecating chuckle. It would be so dramatic now, at this juncture, to punctuate her deliberations by putting this picture away, setting it into her bedside table drawer and closing it with a firm click. A tidy piece of imagery, one that would provide a clear dividing line between past and future. That's what would happen in a novel or movie, but....

She wasn't quite ready for that step. Not yet. But it would happen; the day was coming. Eventually. Soon. Just... not today.

Carefully she placed the picture back on her night table. Mark was gone. Nothing, no regrets, no warm memories, no denial, could ever bring him back.

The white telephone beside the bed gleamed brightly. She hadn't placed a phone call in a long time. Decisively, she picked up the receiver and dialed.

"Hello?"

"Russ? It's Lydia. I was wondering if your invitation was still open."

"My... my invitation?"

He stammered in surprise, and she couldn't help but smile. "Yes, to go out tonight."

"Of course it's still open! You've changed your mind?"

"I have. You've been right about a lot of things, Russ. I have been hiding, and I need to stop. My life didn't end with his, although there were times... Anyway, he would have wanted me to go on, to enjoy life."

She heard him sigh, and there was an unfamiliar catch in his voice.

"I understand completely, Lydia, don't think I haven't. I loved him, too."

"I know."

She heard him clear his throat roughly. "Well, I can be there in twenty minutes if that's OK?"

Lydia leaned back to look at herself in the mirror once more. A little makeup would be in order, and she would need to dig through the wardrobe carton that held her dresses. Definitely the judicious use of a curling iron was a necessity. She was sure she had seen her old one in a box... somewhere.

"Could you give me an hour? Will that be too late?"

"No, that's no problem. How about I'll pick you up out front in an hou?"

"Sure, that's fine. I'll see you then."

She hung up the phone gently. Maybe it wasn't much, but for her it was a first step. Didn't they say the first one was usually the hardest?

A thrill of nervousness danced anticipation through her, and she firmly quelled it. Abruptly she rose from the bed and started hunting for the remembered curling iron.

Really! To think that she was getting all jittery about spending time with Russ! How silly!

How... exciting.

She would have to make a point to thank Ms. Chandler. She wouldn't know why, but it was something that needed to be done. She should also make sure Catherine knew she could hear after all, to prevent potentially embarrassing situations.

With a yip of triumph, she finally located the curling iron under some folded towels.

Russ had admired the view from the balcony. It was a lovely one, and it would be a rather romantic spot when her roses bloomed next year and the summer evenings were warm and sweet.

She hadn't felt this alive in far too long.

Perhaps, by next summer, she and Catherine would need to work out some sort of arrangement. One that would guarantee each of them some private time on their respective balconies...