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“I went into the bathroom and stared at my reflection, and for the first time, I realized how much my life could mirror his.” -Lorna Ashford
Lorna/Laura Ashford and Tristan Blake
Ever since a tragic accident took the lives of her parents, grief-stricken and lonely Lorna Ashford has buried herself by destroying everything left behind — objects, memories, relationships, and even her faith. In the backdrop of 1940s Cleveland, Ohio, Lorna sets out to begin anew after her brother leaves to fight in World War II. Living in a new house, she takes up painting and strikes up an unlikely friendship with the eccentric widower next door. But something is off about neighbor Tristan Blake, who lives in a house stuck in the past — his wife’s blackened out eyes stare out of picture frames, and dead flowers linger in her vases. Lorna can’t figure him out, as Tristan is both closed off, yet offers to help her at every turn. As Lorna’s life seems to be coming together, another tragedy threatens to undo all that she has worked to rebuild. Tristan becomes her rock. But with Tristan’s mysterious past, will Lorna be able to paint a masterpiece of love to become Laura again, or will everything she’s worked to create with Tristan be nothing more than a messy splatter of paint on a canvas?
“I wondered what his story really was. Was he just mentally unstable, or, like me, was he just sad and bitter?” -Lorna Ashford
My Bible was given to charity like a lot of other things I once owned when I packed what little I had left and sold the house I’d grown up in. For Christmas, I didn’t celebrate with family or open presents. Rather, the last memory I now had of my childhood home was when I’d lit up a fire and burned all the old photographs. I drank a whole bottle of cheap wine and forced their faces out of my mind as the fire consumed their paper smiles.
That had all been just three months ago.
Now, I sat in my new house gazing upon some sparrows as they spread seed over the hard earth. As I watched them in their messy eating from the picture window in my living room, I thought of the Bible and some vague scripture about sparrows, about God saying we’re more valuable than those small birds. I idly twiddled with my shoulder-length, wavy, dark brown hair and remembered old Pastor Wilson’s sermons on sparrows and the hairs on our heads being counted. I stopped playing with my hair and frowned at the sparrows. God had nothing important to say to me, not in nearly six years.
So I stopped speaking to him.
My thoughts and the sparrows fluttered away as my strange next door neighbor walked into view. He was muttering under his breath, like he always did. I’d never spoken to him since moving here, but he hadn’t bothered to come over and welcome me. Instead, the only time I ever saw him was when he made his trek on the narrow strip of green — well, on my side — between our houses and admired his rock garden. While it was odd for a thirty-something-year-old man to talk to himself outside, what was more unsettling was that his yard contained not a single living thing — no trees, no grass, no bushes, nothing. I assumed come spring, there would be no flowers. All he had were rocks, of all sizes and colors, but as for why, I had no idea.
Curiosity got the better of me that day as I stood from my only chair and approached the window. I turned the crank knob to open the window just enough to listen.
His lips moved vigorously, like he was delirious. His hands locked and unlocked in front of him. I leaned in closely to the cracked window and heard his voice for the first time.
“They need to take me away. They need to take me away. They need to take me away.”
I quickly withdrew, shutting the window and pulling the curtains closed before he noticed. I nearly jumped out of my skin when the phone rang, as if its trill demanded to know what I’d been doing.
I ran into the kitchen and breathlessly answered the phone.
“Lorna, where are you?”
“It’s four o’clock, darling. Or did you forget?”
“Sorry, sorry. I was just…” Just spying on my neighbor who’s probably got bodies buried in his basement.
“Well, are you coming over or not?” Macy’s voice rose in pitch by the end of her sentence.
“I’ll be right over. You’re sure you don’t want me to bring anything?”
“Just yourself. You could use some company.”
“See you in a few minutes.”
I hung up and went to the fridge and rifled through it, hoping to come across a peace offering. I didn’t think a half-eaten loaf of bread, a jar of mustard, or some week-old ham would do the job, so I closed the door and sighed. I wondered if a trip to the grocery store was in order after paying an overdue visit to Macy. Then I remembered that the grocery store would be closed.
I pulled on my Sunday coat over my house dress and dropped into the driver’s seat of my ten-year-old Cadillac. While I fretted and fought with Ol’ Bessie to start, I checked over my hair and smoothed it down. Looking like a fright show, I considered telling Macy that I was practicing for Halloween and that my costume was a lonely old maid.
When I pulled into her driveway ten minutes later, Macy greeted me outside with a hug.
“How are you holding up?” she asked.
I tried not to scowl at my friend’s concerned blonde brow. Her green eyes shone with a hundred questions as I replied, “Fine.”
“I thought maybe a walk since it’s, you know, actually decent weather for late March in Cleveland.”
“A walk’s fine.”
“So, have you heard from him?”
I kept my eyes trained on the pavement, the repetitive movement of my feet a nice distraction. “Not lately. It could be months.”
I stopped abruptly and glared at Macy. “It’s Lorna.”
“Sorry. It’s just…you were Laura for a lot longer to me.”
“That girl is dead.” I felt Macy’s stare, but didn’t acknowledge it. “Maybe a walk wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Lorna, come on. I feel like all I do is apologize to you anymore, but I shouldn’t have to apologize for worrying about my best friend.”
I gazed at Macy straight in the face. “I don’t blame you. You have a family, a husband who loves you and two great children.”
“I think you blame yourself.”
“We’re not talking about this.”
“Then when are you gonna talk about it, darling? You can’t live like this forever.”
“I’m not. I just moved into a new house, remember? I’m starting over.”
“Then when can I come over?”
I sighed and turned back toward Macy’s house. The breeze was dancing with the almost bare branches above us. Macy’s street was lined with what seemed like an endless amount of hundred-year-old oaks and maples. Tiny buds of hope filled the branches, the promise of new life that came every spring. But I couldn’t accept it. It was a gift that had been denied to me for the past six springs.
“The house isn’t ready.” I’m not ready.
Macy didn’t need to see the physical manifestation of my solitude in a house so spartan that anyone breaking in to loot the place would question if anyone even lived there. A bed, a table, my dad’s old armchair, my two favorite books by bestselling author B.R. Stevenson, a few items of clothing, and a small radio were all I had, all I needed, all I wanted.
I didn’t count the one photograph from my parents’ wedding day that I couldn’t burn.
“Then when? Maybe we could do some shopping? Decorate your new place?”
We arrived at Macy’s driveway. Her husband, John, waved at us from the front yard while he played catch with his young son, and his baby daughter sat in her stroller, giggling and clapping. It was like some Norman Rockwell painting, and I was a black spot that marred it.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Right now, I’m just making enough to cover my needs.”
Macy didn’t seem convinced. She grabbed me by the hand and yanked me toward her house like she used to when we were kids. “Maybe a walk wasn’t the best idea, after all,” she said, echoing my words from earlier. “Maybe some tea? Or something stronger?”
Remembering the elephant-ran-me-over-headache I’d woken up with the day after Christmas from my drinking binge, I shook my head. “No, tea’s fine. Just dandy.”
Macy was already bustling about her small bungalow kitchen like the perfect hostess. With her back to me as she filled the tea kettle, she asked, “Will you stay for dinner?”
“I-I don’t know if…” I searched for an excuse. I had taken up a new hobby — ballroom dancing, still life painting, figure skating, pottery — yes, pottery sounded interesting. “I have a pottery class this evening.”
Macy set the kettle on the stove over the heat and turned around, her eyebrows raised. “I’ve known you since before either of us can remember, Lorna. We’re like twins, and I know for a fact that you don’t have an artistic bone in your body. Besides, it’s Sunday.”
“Maybe part of my starting a new phase in my life involves exploring my creative side. Besides, maybe there’s a private studio in someone’s house that does pottery lessons, even on a Sunday.”
Macy just shook her head, her curls bouncing around her shoulders. “Speaking of Sunday, when’s the last time you stepped in a church?”
My face must have darkened as my thoughts did.
“Okay, bad topic. Hair. When’s the last time you went to the beautician’s? I’m thinking of maybe going a little shorter.”
“Your hair’s beautiful,” I said, annoyed at my own appearance. “I’ll kill you if you chop it off.”
“I didn’t say that. I said a little.”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m fine right now.”
The kettle whistled, ending our conversation for a minute while Macy poured two cups and placed two cubes of sugar in mine. She knew how I took my tea, how I was a creature of habit who didn’t change her hair, and how I was as stubborn as an ox. She knew me too well, in fact.
Macy took the seat across the table and pushed my cup toward me.
“Thanks,” I muttered, sipping the tea.
“Laura, look at me.”
“But you are.”
I sighed. Arguing with my best friend was getting me nowhere, except back at the beginning of the endless circle we kept running in. I half-wondered if I was running away from my past but really just forming a deeper trench in the mud as I ran that same circle, digging my plight lower into the ground.
“You are Laura Ashford. You were born February 29, 1916. You’ll have your seventh leap birthday next year. And somewhere in there is the girl I knew for twenty years before she decided to try to become somebody else. You might think it’s swell to pretend to play house with your new place and go to your job like we were just kids again going through the motions, but, Laura, I know you better than that. You haven’t talked, I mean really talked, to me in years. My God, this is the first time I’ve seen you since you up and moved. Do you know how many times I’ve tried calling you?”
“Yes,” I said in a tight voice. I could still hear the incessant ringing of the phone every evening at seven o’clock.
“You know what I think?”
“What’s that? I’m sure you’re going to tell me whether I want to hear it or not.”
“All of this — selling your house, changing your name — it’s just like when you refused to face what happened to your parents. You’ve been burying yourself for years, Lorna. You can’t keep living like this. I’m really worried about you.”
“Don’t you bring that up. You couldn’t know the first thing what it feels like, Macy. I showed up at that trial when I had to.” My insides tightened, from my stomach to my throat. I thought I might stop breathing. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to calm down.
“I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t mean to go to that place, but the question still lingers: What are you going to do, Lorna?”
“Are you trying to make me angry, or have you just taken up a new hobby?” I asked, making to stand. Enough was enough.
“You mean, like your supposed pottery?”
If there was one thing to be said about Macy Wells, it was she was twice as stubborn as me and ruthless, too.
“I should be getting to that class,” I said dully.
Without a goodbye or any promise to see each other again soon, I walked out of Macy’s house that late afternoon without looking back. I didn’t know if her eyes were on me, if she was sad or angry or what, but I didn’t care. At least that was what I told myself.
I humorlessly laughed as raindrops began pelting my windshield on the way home. How appropriate.
The pitter-patter drowned out in the background as my mind replayed a hundred memories of growing up with Macy by my side. We had taken countless walks down tree-lined streets in every season, our laughter echoing off the houses as we held hands. We’d skipped more than walked, actually. We’d jumped into piles of leaves by the road. We’d fallen to the ground in fits of giggles, sharing a secret joke. We’d blessed the neighbors’ yards with angels in the snow. That had been Laura Ashford and Macy Grace, two little girls who’d grown into young women, whose lives had become so different. It was a small miracle that they had remained tethered as long as they had.
I wiped a single tear from my cheek as I turned onto my street, careful to keep my other hand on the wheel. It wouldn’t do to have an accident like my parents had.
Just as I was about to pull into my driveway, having almost slowed to a stop, I saw my neighbor again. He was standing in his rock garden at the front of his house, staring up at the sky. He was soaked. Part of me wanted to yell at him to get a hobby, but then I wondered if the rocks and the freezing rain were his hobby. Just like mine was pottery.
One big lie.