Authors: Amanda Lance
I stepped off the staircase and inhaled the scent of amaryllis and gladiolus. They seemed to be nearly everywhere. It was a wonder they didn’t make someone sneeze. The arrangements were mostly in different arrays of red and white with ivy and all sorts of decorative foliage to assist its beauty. Even though I knew better, I leaned into one of the arrangements, looking around to make sure no one was looking in my direction before inhaling its fragrance. As I did so a stray piece of baby’s breath fell from the vase to the floor. Without hesitation, I picked it up and twirled it around between my thumbs. It seemed like a shame to waste such a valuable article, so I secured the bloom underneath the golden clip.
I scanned for Charlie but I didn’t see him among the small groups of people beginning to mingle. I felt confident enough to reveal myself from behind the waist-high arrangements and started wandering about the room. Almost immediately one of the caterers tried to ply me with stuffed mushrooms. No more than twenty seconds after that, another one tempted me with some sort of fried shrimp. As I wandered around I had to refuse four of them before they got the general idea I wasn’t a biter. The incoming guests, though, were happily plied with appetizers and overwhelmed the poor bartender within minutes.
I smiled and nodded at a few people but quickly became nervous by the filling room and the lack of familiar faces. I could hear Elise greeting people at the front door as they came inside. I figured Ben was with her, but I couldn’t figure out where anyone else was. It made me anxious. I strolled around as casually as possible while looking for Charlie or someone else to socialize with. Honestly, at that point I would have just been happy to go up to Tyler’s room and catch up with Dr. Seuss, but I didn’t want to seem completely rude and ungrateful to Elise’s hospitality.
Judging by the oversized banquet table and its growing popularity of the guests, Elise went overboard again. It was surrounded by white icicle lights and covered by an ivory tablecloth. Almost immediately people headed straight to the outrageous fruit display and chocolate fondue, which was alluring to the senses. If they weren’t interested in that, there were a variety of entrees that I spotted on people’s plates, including braised rabbit, Cornish hens, stuffed peppers, couscous, glazed lamb, and a slew of other dishes I couldn’t even identify.
I leaned against the wall as far away from anyone as I could be while still
being in the room. The entire scene made me feel trapped and outnumbered. And though I was aware that I wasn’t in any physical danger, nor was I breaking any rules that wouldn’t permit me from being there, I couldn’t help but think of some of those confusing moments on the
The biggest difference between now and then was that I was the only one standing against the ends of the earth; the only one who stood out of place. Yet right then and there, among the happy party-goers and smiling faces, I wasn’t entirely alone. It was probably because he was just another outcast. But I thought it was impossible not to notice him as his silence seemed abominable in such a loud place.
I stared at the stranger as he emerged from the kitchen, more casual than most. And that made him even stranger, because so far, only Elise, the catering crew, and a few females, I assumed were designated friends of hers had dared to make their way into the room of smoke and chaos. I could tell from the detailed stitching of his black suit and silk tie that he couldn’t have been with the catering company. Given his formal demeanor and clear-cut appearance, he had to be one of the guests. Yet there was a mere off putting of his display. As he stepped over to the wall beside me, I couldn’t help but notice the way his eyes took in every corner of the room, every sight and obscene joke. It was in those movements I instinctually knew, like me, he didn’t belong.
It did not take long for the stranger to take notice of his fellow interloper.
“It is difficult to pick one, yes?” The stranger’s accent was eastern European, though I had no way of knowing any difference between the dialects. Even as he looked at me with the same indifferent interest someone my age might express, he was clearly old enough to be my father, yet with the eyes of a young man wearing the expression of wiser one, he seemed more dangerous than not.
After my lack of response, the stranger nodded toward the buffet table. Still, it didn’t quite register, and I stammered, grateful, that although he looked at me, he also watched the guests move about the room.
“Yeah, a lot of options,” I said eventually. “Elise really outdid herself.”
At the sound of Elise’s name, his head perked up, his eyes narrowing just slightly. “Ah, that is the hostess?”
What kind of guest didn’t know who was giving the party? I could feel my body tense, backing further into the wall, trying to become one with the painting just above me.
I skirted myself away from the wall and wandered to a slightly more crowded area on the floor. I began contemplating going upstairs when Elise ran over to me—how she managed to do that in those shoes was beyond me.
“Oh my goodness, you look fantastic!”
With champagne glass already in hand, Elise looked her usual smashing self in a lengthy strapless black dress. She had her hair down in long curls. At last, she seemed to be relaxing and having fun.
I looked down at myself. I thought I looked good, but hardly fantastic. “Meh,” I argued, accepting her hug “You look fantastic.”
“Not if I’m standing next to you. And what are you doing hiding away in this corner?” She shook her head at me. “No. This is not okay at all. Come on.”
She took the last sip in her glass and took my arm in hers. I felt relieved that at least I had someone to talk to, though if I was completely honest with myself, her natural enthusiasm in the social sphere was no less than frightening.
“I want to introduce you to some people.”
“Say, Elise, have you seen any of the guys around?”
She led me into a mingling group and ignored me entirely. “Addie, these are some of Healdsburg’s town counsel.”
Within the hour, Elise introduced me to half of Healdsburg’s fire department, the mayor, every adult member of her and Tyler’s Mommy & Me class, public works commissioners and their wives, police officers (go figure), half a law firm of criminal defense attorneys, her and Ben’s accountant and every attendant of the Healdsburg municipal airport.
“And of course, you remember Jimmy, uh Dr. Harmen…”
At the sound of his name, the doctor jumped noticeably and nearly dropped the large plate of food he held within his hands. He looked up at the both of us with wide eyes that darted back and forth nervously and chewed on the crispy end of an eggroll.
How could I forget the familiar face? How could I forget the physician who had helped save Charlie’s life, when in doing so, he had saved mine? I extended my hand to Dr. Harmen, not unhappy to do so for the first time that night.
“Hi, Dr. Harmen. It’s nice to see you.”
As startled as he was to hear Elise, he was even more alarmed by my greeting and flinched away. I glanced at Elise but she only shrugged.
“Ah yes, hello there.” He cleared his throat loudly, shoving a vegetable puff into his mouth and staring at the floor. “Lovely party, Mrs. Walden.” It was difficult to hear him as he chewed. His small, beady eyes dashed from spot to spot on the floor, making it even more difficult to understand exactly what he was saying. “Lovely, just lovely.” He pushed a large piece of roasted potato in his mouth and backed away from us.
Elise huffed into her glass. “Don’t call me that, it makes me feel old.” She started giggling again, and I joined her for politeness’ sake, but I couldn’t help but notice the thin sheen of sweat forming on Dr. Harmen’s forehead, the way he continued to stuff food into his mouth as if it were an impulse.
“Uh, are you okay?”
He raised his eyes up from the floor, wider than ever. “Yes, yes. Excuse me, ladies.”
Elise and I nodded simultaneously and watched him waddle away, accepting each offering from the waiters as they passed.
“Maybe he ate a hot pepper?”
Elise shrugged again and said something about getting a drink before leaving me alone once again. I didn’t want to seem pathetic by begging her to stay with me, nor did I want to tag along and bug her, so I strayed over to one of the only empty tables where the candle inside the wine bottle was all but out. The fresh wax felt hot on my fingertip but hardly hurt at all—I felt myself smile. Once the small droplet of wax dried, I peeled it off and felt the fresh hurt there. I was planning on inserting the next finger of my hand for a treatment, but a rough hand pulled it away from the candle before I had the opportunity.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?”
I felt his breath on my neck before I saw him. His arm overtook mine, not roughly, but I could feel the aggression there. He smelled of sulfur and aftershave; his breathing was deep against me.
“Just trying not to attract attention to myself.” My heart stopped and restarted again.
He chuckled quietly. “Maybe you don’t realize this,” I could feel his eyes all over me, “but with the way you look right now, I’m figuring that ain’t possible.”
Charlie took my hand into his and began examining it closely. “But I meant, why are you doing
? Tryin’ to test my reflexes?”
“I told you my overthinking is contagious, not to mention how overprotective you are.” I feigned annoyance, but he just laughed and kissed the end of my fingertip.
I looked over my shoulder and smiled at him. He was wearing a long-sleeve white button down with a black jacket and jeans. I was both jealous and relieved that he wasn’t putting on airs.
“Hey, not fair. Why didn’t you have to dress up?”
He laughed into my ear. “Oh trust me, I’ll hear ‘bout it later.”
“Don’t worry.” I pulled his arms to me, a forced hug—he seemed happy to comply. “I’ll protect you.”
“Good to know.”
“Where have you been, anyway?”
“Outside.” He nodded to the front door. “Not a lotta people are out there, but Polo was having problems with the fireworks.”
I twirled so I was facing him. “Really? I didn’t know there would be fireworks.”
Charlie nodded and encircled his arms around my waist. “You know we can’t do nothing around here without blowing something up.” For a moment, his eyes left me and looked at the front door. His smile faltered for the slightest of seconds before I pulled his attention back to me.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” He smiled slightly and took my face in his hands. “You wanna get out of here?”
I buried my face in his chest. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Since Elise was hot on our trail, we ran out the front door without bothering to say excuse me or grab my jacket. But before my body could respond to the cold, Charlie draped his jacket over my shoulders, and I happily slid my arms in the sleeves, laughing when I realized how they overwhelmed me.
“Come on.” Charlie pulled me towards the white tents, glistening with the lights of the icicles surrounding them. Underneath them, only a few stood, mellowing to the slow music that came from the small speakers on the side of the house. Most were smoking various kinds of cigars and sipping at their glasses. Two older couples dawdled around the champagne fountain and talked merrily amongst themselves.
On the artificial dance floor, Charlie held me close, and we pretended that we could dance. Although we hardly moved, I still managed to step on his feet—for which I profusely apologized—but he just laughed at me and eventually pulled me onto his feet.
I laughed along with him. “This might not have been the greatest idea.”
Charlie shook his head. “If I get to be with you, then it can’t be bad.”
I began to think about the implication of perfection, and all of the common clichés associated with the lack of it in the world. If there was no such thing as perfect, then what was I experiencing now? Charlie skimmed his thumb along my neck until I shuddered. My head was foggy and mystified by the effect he had on me. No, I decided. There simply couldn’t be anything better than this.
We stayed just that way for a lot longer than was probably appropriate. I felt the eyes of the elderly women on us, judging, I guess, that our behavior was too affectionate for public, but I simply didn’t care. Every so often I would trace the outline of the serpent when Charlie least suspected it, and laugh at his reaction. I loved that I could have that kind of hold on him. Yet as midnight approached, more people began wandering into the house, and the music paused so that someone could make an announcement or joke. And though I was aware of the life taking place around me, the gala humor and the excitement of a new year, it flew over me like a plane in the sky.
Charlie peeked over my shoulder. “Sounds like they’re having fun in there.”
“I’m fine just where I am.” I sighed into him.
“Good,” he said. “’Cause I don’t want you going nowhere…except—”
As I looked up at him, the Charlie grin was already there. “I got an idea.”
I bit my lip and tried not to appear too excited. “What kind of an idea?”
I followed him to the east side of the house where the large in-ground swimming pool rippled colorful water in lights matching the fountain just in front of the house. Unlike the other sides of the house, this end was completely deserted and didn’t even show signs that life had been there. I stared at the crisp water and watched as it transformed from blue to pink to yellow to green, and then back again.