by Samantha De La O
Althaea admired her own form as she slipped into the silk dress that had been left for her. She felt strong but light, lovely, but not exquisite. The dress was crimson, a shade that flattered the porcelain undertones of her complexion. Her reflection smiled, and she sensed the subtle duality that lay between the glass and her own physical presence.
“I’m an invention,” it seemed to say, “yet I’m more real than you are.”
A chilled glass of champagne appeared next to her. She picked it up and allowed the coolness to subdue the heat of her fingertips. The room which had previously been nothing more than a pastel haze began to unfold around her, and she now marvelled at the delicate intricacies of the wallpaper.
“Do you like it?” a voice, masculine, sounded behind her.
“It’s wonderful,” she turned to face him, “and you..I know you. I’m terribly sorry I can’t seem to recall just how.”
The voice belonged to a man, tall and thin with long, wispy hair ill-suited to the contemporary fashion. His expression shifted from cold-stoic to a warm, inviting gaze as he looked Althaea over.
“My name is Ambrose. You do know me, yes. One could say you have always known me.”
Althaea smiled, unquestioning, as only a creature newly minted can.
“I like you, that I know for sure. Everything feels so much more real with you here,” she paused, a furrow forming in her pretty brow. “Something is wrong, isn’t it? You and I, we’re here for a reason.”
Ambrose placed a hand on the small of her back, and guided her towards the door of the bedroom.
“That’s what we will have to find out.” Ambrose smiled, and Althaea let his gentle touch defuse the panic which had momentarily found her.
Everett Blaine awoke to a searing pain in his head. It was the same, intense throb that had plagued him for the past three weeks. He was exhausted, angry and weak, and it took all his energy to get up and fix himself a drink. The harsh Boston winter had infiltrated the shabby walls of his apartment, and Everett had to wrap a blanket around himself and drag it alongside of him to keep from freezing.
He had long since drank the last of the pre-prohibition bottles he’d stashed—all that was left was the medicinal whiskey he’d bought at the drugstore before the severe cold shut him in. It wasn’t enough.
Whiskey in hand, Everett sat down at his kitchen table and focused his attention on the notepad and pencil he’d left there a few hours earlier.
“Damned pain,” he directed at the pencil, and then nowhere in particular. “No point in it anyway.”
It was three o’clock in the morning, and he had been stuck in this routine since the headaches started. His shot at writing was slim once the pain began, this he knew, but lately the time in between bouts had been just as fruitless. At one point he had even begun composing a letter to Jeanne, the once love of his life, just to get a few words on paper. That too, had proved pointless.
He thought of Jeanne now, until the pain made it too hard to think about anything.
“I’ll always love you, you know that? It will always be you.” she’d promised him, the day before he left.
“Then you’ll wait for me?” He’d looked intently into her deep brown eyes and ran his fingers through her chocolate-colored hair.
“Forever, if it takes that long.”
She didn’t wait.
Following the brutal winter, the streets of Boston gradually began to fill up again. Jazz music flooded the once quiet flats, and people talked, loitered, and bustled on every corner. Everett Blaine went for more whiskey.
The morning air was crisp and biting, and Everett regretted his rather foolish decision to go out without a coat on. Entering the drugstore he felt an immediate sense of relief—for both the warmth, and the promise of whiskey.
Whiskey, toothpaste, bread, eggs. He ran through the list in his mind. He wanted milk too, but milk had become a delicacy reserved for the weeks when he had a little more in his pocket. He’d been out of work for months, and he knew the check his mother sent would not last him much longer. It was time to get a steady job, but he couldn’t bring himself to look for one. ‘Just one more rejection slip’, was the line he’d used when his mother had phoned, asking him why he wasn’t working. He hadn’t been rejected enough yet. He had to know for certain that he wasn’t meant be a writer, and he would only know that, when the door slammed in his face more times than he could count.
Everett had begun to take writing seriously when he was twelve. He wrote a play, and convinced the Junior High principal to allow him and his classmates to perform it. It was a less than successful endeavor, as the girl he cast in the lead wound up getting sick, and her understudy was forced to take on the role the night before the play opened. He took this as a minor setback, and when the student reviewers called it “PROMISING, BUT POORLY EXECUTED,” he wrote another play and had it performed the following year. It too, was less than successful, and Everett switched to writing short stories.
The first story Everett Blaine wrote was autobiographical. He wrote about himself and a character he called the “angel” on his shoulder. The angel was tall and thin with long, wispy hair. Everett called him Ambrose.
Althaea had been following Ambrose for what felt like forever. The world around her was hazy again, she could could only make out the shapes of things they passed. She longed to ask him questions, only refraining because something inside her told her she must. She knew he was taking her somewhere important, but her thoughts refused to change into concrete ideas.
When things began to grow clear again, they were in what Althaea knew to be an apartment building—a strange piece of knowledge, for she was certain she had never seen one before.
“We’re here.” Ambrose told her, and he ushered her down a long, drab, hallway.
“It’s familiar. I suppose everything is vaguely familiar to me. We’re here to see someone, aren’t we? Someone special.”
“Special indeed. Just through that door.” He motioned, and Althaea opened it and stepped inside.
The room itself was certainly familiar to her, as if she’d been there dozens of times before. Once again, she knew she hadn’t.
“Where is he?” She heard herself ask, not knowing why, or who she was asking for.
But then she saw him. Lying in bed looking as beautiful as she remembered him, down to the almost-a-beard, mostly stubble on his chin. His expression looked pained, as if he was suffering some sort of terrible nightmare. She reached out to him and placed her hand on the side of his face, his expression softened in his sleep.
“There, that’s better.” She stroked his head.
“He has terrible dreams. It’s very normal, for anyone who has been through the war.” Ambrose looked somber.
“Poor darling,” she replied, “I’ll stay here with him. I want to be here when he wakes up again.”
Ambrose nodded, and stepped into the other room. Althaea sat down beside him, and lightly stroked his back.
“I’m here now, Everett. And I’ll stay as long as you need me.”
When Everett opened his eyes, he was surprised to find that his pain had subsided. It was the first time he had woken after sun-up in months, and he took a moment to revel in it. He nearly jumped out of bed a few seconds later, when he turned and saw a woman asleep beside him.
She wore a dress, red, a striking if not fashionable color. Her hair was a sort of chestnut that he’d previously thought of but had never really seen. Her beauty wasn’t obvious, yet in that moment it overwhelmed him, how enchanting a subtle attractiveness could be.
Though he tried, he could not for the life of him remember what had transpired the night before. He’d been drunk. That was all. But bringing a strange woman home wasn’t his style—not recently, anyhow. He reached for the whiskey he’d left by his bed and found that it was gone.
She stirred, and he grew anxious. He stood beside the bed and watched her. Slowly, she opened her eyes and blinked at him, momentarily dazed.
“Oh. I’m terribly sorry. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep. How rude I must seem to you…I’m sorry.” She looked flustered.
“Well who the hell—” he paused when he saw she was startled, “Who are you?”
Then Ambrose stepped back into the room. It took less than a second for Everett to recognize him, his angel, his best friend. His heart nearly broke at the thought of him.
“Hello, Everett. It’s nice to see you,” he paused and glanced at Althaea, “I see you’ve met Althaea. Though I don’t know if met is the right word, under the circumstances.”
“He doesn’t know me, Ambrose. It’s quite alright…but, he doesn’t know me.” She sighed, but Everett remained focused on his friend.
“What are you doing here? Where have you been? It’s been…years. Why haven’t I seen you?”
“I’ve missed you, Everett. I’m glad I’m here. But as to your questions, I believe you would know that better than I would.”
“Okay,” Everett took a deep breath, trying to comprehend the scene in his bedroom. “But who is she?”
“She’s your angel, or something like that. Whatever you liked to call me. You have two. One for each shoulder, as you put it.”
“This is insane. I’m hallucinating, that’s all. I knew the lack of pain couldn’t be real.”
“Oh no, that’s very real,” Althaea responded, “I helped you with that.”
“I’m dreaming, then.”
“Perhaps, but if you are, I hope you never wake up.” Althaea gazed at Everett, somewhat adoringly. Her expression was simultaneously that of a mature woman and young girl. It intrigued him.
“There is something oddly familiar about you. I think I dreamed of you once. In that dress. I seem to recall…”
“Shh,” she put her finger against his lips, “don’t think about it. So much is ruined when you stop to analyze it. I’m here now, with you. That’s all that matters.” She smiled, and something lit up inside of him.
Overcome by exhaustion, Everett felt himself fall back down onto the bed.
“That’s right,” Althaea said coolly, “Rest. You have a lot to think about.”
But Everett was already fast asleep.
If there was one thing Althaea knew for certain about her own existence, it was that she was not meant to fall in love. She’d been advised by Ambrose to leave Everett alone for at least two days. He needed time, Ambrose had explained to her, to process what any normal person would take for insanity. This she already knew. There were a lot of things Althaea already knew. But she let Ambrose explain them to her anyway, as she found his voice to be soothing, and his wisdom, strengthening.
Ambrose had explained Everett to her, until there was not a single thing left she could know about him. Sometime between hearing about Jeanne, Everett’s first love who had gotten engaged only a month after he left for the war, and the mistake he’d made not long after, Althaea felt something well up inside of her that she could not identify.
It wasn’t until she saw Everett again that she knew what to call it. He was sitting alone, on a park bench lost in his own thoughts. She felt compelled to approach him.
“Everett,” she stood a few feet from him, awaiting an invitation, “it’s nice to see you.”
“Althaea, was it?”
“So you’re my angel, huh?”
“If that’s what you want me to be.”
“Do all angels look at people like that?”
“Like I look at you?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Huh,” They sat in silence until Everett spoke again, “I know you’re not real.”
“That’s the one thing you do not know.”
“I created you. Made you up inside my head.” He ran his fingers through his ash-blonde hair.
“Who’s to say that isn’t reality? Is Ambrose not real to you?”
“Ambrose is different. Ambrose is real. He’s always been real. I wasn’t the only one who saw him.”
“If you say so,” She reached inside the red coat she was wearing, and felt for the lining, “I have something for you.”
She pulled out a small vial of wine and handed it to him.
“Ambrose says you shouldn’t drink, but I thought you could use a little something.”
Everett grinned, “If I were to an invent an angel, it would certainly be you.”
“Tell me something about you,” Althaea focused her attention on a strand of Everett’s hair that disagreed with the rest. She wanted to touch it.
“Anything. No, not anything. Tell me something no one knows,” she focused on his eyes, sparkly swirls of blue-green mist.
“Why don’t you tell me?”
“What do you mean?”
“If I made you, you already know everything about me. Tell me something about myself that no one knows.”
“Well, alright,” she hesitated, “In the third grade you put a frog in Mrs. Patterson’s desk drawer, and you let Henry Wilks take the blame for it.”
Everett chuckled briefly, unimpressed by her recollection. Althaea had more to say, but she was hesitant to push him.
“Tell me something better.” His gaze fell somewhere around the curves of her delicate mouth, and she willed him to make eye contact with her
“Your name isn’t actually Blaine. You stole that from F. Scott Fitzgerald. I like him, you know. The character I mean. Amory Blaine,” she paused for Everett’s response, but he remained silent. “Of course, you and I aren’t the only ones who know it. Your mother knows, because she still writes to you, and your father, well, he may know, but you…you aren’t exactly on speaking terms.”
“What of it?”
“I want you to know that I understand…what you did. And I do not think you are a coward.”
“Me? A coward? No. I’m a man who creates himself an angel just to ease his own guilt ridden conscience.”
“You can’t carry the weight around forever. At some point you will have to let it go.”
“Says a creature who doesn’t even have her own memories.”
“Perhaps not, but I have yours.”
“Well that’s deeply unfortunate for you then, isn’t it,” he paused, “At least Ambrose has his own life. His own memories. You have the misfortune of only existing because I do.”
“You’ve got it all wrong. Ambrose and I, we aren’t so different. You wanted me here for a reason. Well, here I am. What’s the point of fighting?” Althaea reached out and ran her fingers over his forehead and down to his chin. He let his head rest in her hand momentarily, then pulled away.
“How much do you know?” He asked her.
“As you said, I know everything about you.”
“What are your wise, angelic words for me? I’m sure you must have something to tell me.”
Althaea inhaled noticeably, and folded her hands in her lap.
“I think that it is time for you to let it go. Stop revisiting it. It’s over now. Why must you always dwell on what is wrong in your life?”
“Because nothing is right. And it’s my own fault.”
“You made a mistake.”
“I’m a coward. I shouldn’t be alive. I wish I wasn’t.”
Althaea placed her arm around his shoulder and he slumped into her embrace.
I love you. She thought to herself. I really love you.
Everett Barnes awoke in the middle of the night. The earth was shaking and heavy fire fell from the sky. He lunged into a corner, crouching down as low as he could. The men around him were pale, terrified. A shell landed in the trench, resulting in a devastating explosion. Some of the men had vomited, others remained petrified, moved only by the earth’s tremors. Everett bit his lip until it drew blood.
He knew it was time to move. Slowly, and then rapidly, he began to inch through the trench, grimacing and gritting his teeth. The bombardment continued until the trench was nearly gone, but Everett no longer felt fear. He was numb. He continued crawling, well aware that at any moment he could go in a wrong direction. A move like that would cost him his life. He didn’t care anymore. A shell crashed behind him followed by piercing screams. He kept moving forward. There was a sudden clamor, followed by a flash in the corner of his eye. Motion. A loud noise. A German soldier. On instinct Everett reached for his dagger. The soldier moved closer and Everett did too. Knife drawn he began stabbing. Over and over the knife punctured the soldier’s flesh. Red, everywhere. He didn’t stop.
It wasn’t until the sun rose that morning, when the explosions subsided and the chaos resumed to silent torture, that he quit breathing, that Everett realized the soldier was a man. A man with a heart and a mind and family. A man like he was. More of a man than he was, because Everett had murdered him like a rabid animal. A sense of panic overcame him. Maybe he wasn’t dead. Maybe Everett could save him. He rushed to unbutton the man’s vest, to give him water, anything—just to get to get him to breathe again. His uniform was stained crimson. Everett choked. Reaching inside the man’s shirt, he felt for something that would identify him. His tag revealed that he was Erich Hoffman. The photo of Hoffman with a lovely, dark-haired woman holding a baby with something in German scribbled on the back, revealed that he was a husband and father. Everett puked.
It was the first time Everett Barnes had killed a man with his own hands. He knew it had to be the last. So he did what he had to do.
The scene had consumed Everett in the form of nightmares since the night he deserted. No matter what he did, or how much he drank, it had played on, crippling him. He’d tried to forget. Changed his last name, started writing again. But nothing had worked. Now Ambrose was back. Something he’d never expected. And Althaea…Althaea. What was Althaea? It was as if she had always been there, in the back of his mind. Her face was etched into his memory as if he had known her forever. She was the manifestation of his most pleasant dreams, and she wanted to help him.
Everett sat at his table, whiskey in one hand, pencil in the other. He wrote Althaea. Her wavy chestnut hair, big, brown eyes. A red dress. She was always in red. He wrote her into the room with him.
“You called?” She approached him and placed her hand on his shoulder.
“You were right. I need to move on. I want to forget that night.”
“You will never forget. But you can move forward. You have a new life, Everett. You should enjoy it.”
“I’m a terrible coward. I killed a man and ran away from a war. I don’t deserve to be alive.”
“There is no deserving. No one deserves anything. But here you are, alive, human…real. Why would you waste that?”
“I don’t feel human.”
“But you are. I’d give anything to be that.”
“It’s my fault that you are here. It’s my fault that you even exist.”
“Please don’t be sorry for that,” she took his hand. “To never have existed at all would be far worse. Besides, to you, I am real. And you are all that matters to me.”
“You said you would stay as long as I needed?”
“Yes, of course.” She stroked his back. The smell of her soothed him. He tried to describe it but he had no frame of reference for it. He focused on her smooth, delicate lips.
“Then don’t leave.”
The next morning, Everett felt a desperate urge to get up and write. He showered, dressed, packed up his notepad and pencils, and stepped outside. The air was crisp still, but much warmer now, as spring had finally rid Boston of the last bits of winter’s chill. He wanted to write in a cafe. Something he did quite often, before the war. He thought the coffee would do him good now.
The cafe was at the end of Washington street, and he walked there from his apartment. The smell of coffee beans overtook him the moment he stepped inside. It was wonderful. He found a small, round wooden table by a window in the corner. He sat down and pulled out his notebook. The words poured out of him.
In front of him, a little girl was twirling in circles and giggling. It made him smile. She ran up to his table and waved at him. A woman followed after her.
Althaea? Everett dropped his pencil.
“Anna! Come here. Leave him alone,” She called to her daughter in an accent that was faintly German. “I’m so sorry. This is where we usually sit. She thinks it belongs to her.” The woman smiled at him. He couldn’t speak.
“I’m…I’m sorry.” He said abruptly as he pushed the table away from his body and walked quickly to exit the cafe.
He ran home.
Althaea stood in the bedroom of Everett’s apartment, facing the mirror, and combing her hair with his comb. Ambrose appeared behind her.
“Hello, Ambrose. It’s a beautiful day today, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s quite lovely.”
“Why do you look so sorrowful all the time? There are so many things to be happy about.” Althaea smiled and put down the comb.
“You and I have some things to discuss.”
“Oh?” She twirled a strand of her hair.
“Althaea, it is almost time for us to leave. You do know that, yes?”
“What do you mean? Everett asked me to stay. I want to stay.”
“You were never meant to stay. We are here for a reason, remember?”
“I want to stay. If you must leave then you should leave. But Everett needs me, and I need to be there for him. Can’t you see that?” She was tugging at the strand now, there was strain in her voice.
“I will not argue with you. You knew this time would come.”
“How could I have known?”
“You know as much as I do.”
“But I can help him. Me. I’m real to him, and that’s all he needs. He doesn’t have to know everything.”
“You’ve fallen in love with him.” Ambrose’s gaze was stern.
“So what if I have?” She was near tears.
“You and I are not a part of this world. We never can be. We may belong to Everett but he does not belong to us. You know what you need to do.”
“I don’t want to go back to not existing, Ambrose. How could you ask that of me when I have a chance to stay here, and be real?”
“Of course. I cannot be real now because I never was. I am an illusion, a manifestation, a fragment of his memory. Call it whatever you like, and I will still be left miserable.”
“But you have helped him. You did what you were meant to do. Does that not mean anything to you?”
“Yes, of course it does! But I…” She paused, and straightened her shoulders. “But I am being foolish. You’re right. It’s time now. I’ve known it all along.” She reached for his hand.
“Then you are ready?”
“I do believe I have to be.” She smiled, and all traces of crying were gone from her sparkling eyes. Ambrose took her hand, and as they walked out of the apartment, the world Althea had so deeply admired grew hazy once more.
Everett Blaine sat at a table next to the table by the window in the cafe at the end of Washington street. He did not know if the woman would be there, but she had called it their “usual” seat, so he had strong hopes that she would return.
That is, if she even existed. Her chestnut-colored hair and big, brown eyes had haunted him for a week, and he had to know. He’d spent so long thinking of her he’d only barely noticed that Althaea and Ambrose hadn’t been around. He was too focused to wonder why. He’d scarcely drank any of the coffee he’d been served, and he wished he had the option to order something stronger.
Just when he thought for certain he had imagined her, he heard the laughter of a little girl and the hint of German accent. His heart raced. He picked up his coffee and put it down again, without drinking it. The woman and her daughter made their way over to the table next to the window. Everett stared at his cup.
“Excuse me?” She looked down at him, smiling politely. She held Anna’s hand. “You are the same gentleman that was here last week, yes?”
“Yes, yes, I am,” he nearly stuttered. “I’m terribly sorry for rushing out before, it must have seemed very rude.”
“No…no, it’s alright. It’s just that, you left this here when you ran out,” she pulled Everett’s notepad out of her bag. “I didn’t want to leave it to get thrown away. I’ve kept it with me ever since. I was hoping you would come back here.”
“That was very kind of you, thank you. Please, sit.” He motioned to the seat in front of him. His heart continued to race. Anna had pulled away from her mother’s hand and was now playing with a small toy on the surface of her table.
“I read a little of it,” the skin on her porcelain cheeks flushed pink. “I hope you don’t mind. It’s very good. Very honest.”
“No, no, I don’t mind. Can’t say that I agree with you, though.”
“It made me think of my husband.”
“Your husband. Then he was in the war?” The image of a tattered family photograph shot through Everett’s mind like an artillery shell.
“He was. We were meant to come to America as a family, before the war. But he decided to send Anna and I alone instead so he could stay and work to pay for a good home for us. Then the war broke out and he had to fight. This is my and Anna’s home now.”
“And your husband?”
“We lost him, in the war.” The photograph again. He blinked hard to push it away.
“I’m, sorry. Terribly sorry.”
“Things happen for a reason. War does horrible things to people. Even if my husband had lived he may never have returned to us. He died giving us a better life. Anna and I are very happy here.”
“You are a very strong woman. I admire that strength. I wish I had it.” Everett felt the weight of a hundred years of guilt lift and sink back onto his shoulders repeatedly.
“But your story, it was so strong. Moving. You have a gift.”
“Would you like to keep it?”
“I couldn’t take your story. It’s your work.”
“I’d like you to have it. It’s the least I could do. Really.” He handed it to her and the woman smiled with her smooth, delicate lips. Something lit up inside of him.
The woman moved to join her daughter at the table next to him. She looked happy, complete. She picked up Anna’s toy, a wooden elephant, and made it speak in different voices, inciting the little girl’s laughter. Her wavy chestnut hair shone in the sunlight from the window. Slowly, Everett set some money on the table, gathered his things and left the cafe.
He thought about stopping for whiskey, but decided against it.