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Late June ushered in the sluggish calm of heat exhaustion that mingled with the faint cool of reminiscence in the Barton Memorial Home. Emma and Simone sipped luke-warm tea on the east-side parlor and conversed politely over their knitting.
“I told him to save the hope chest.” Mrs. Tinsdale’s pale lower lip quivered in sync with her translucent fingers. “But that is men for you.”
“Neither hope nor chest.” Emma murmured. Her eyes wandered to the persistent buzzing of a blue-bottle fly trapped between the glaring window panes.
“We lived on a farm. I had three boys. Fine, strong boys they were.” Mrs. Tinsdale’s faded blue eyes sparkled from the dullness of her face like stars glimmering for the last time. “Then there was the fire. I told Garfield to save all he could. Even Mama’s silver was lost.” She surveyed the mass of periwinkle wool she was knitting into expert stitches. “There was one thing, however, I really wished that he would have saved. That redwood hope chest…” Emma looked at her companion.
“But you were married, Simone.” Emma smiled teasingly. “When you are married there really is not much need left for a hope chest now is there?”
“It was not really a hope chest just for marriage, you know.” Mrs. Tisdale sighed. “I used to save money and tuck it beneath the linens in the chest in hopes that one day…” She drifted. Emma patted Mrs. Tinsdale’s hand in comfort. “I just can’t remember now…”
“Perhaps it’s for the best.”
“Perhaps you ladies would like a spot of iced tea?” The nurse leaned into the sitting room playfully. “It’s a bloody hot day.”
Emma was fond of Nurse Daniels. A rather plain young woman of the British Isles, she had an undying flame behind her spirit that jolted life into any promising corpse in her presence. She briskly trekked from sitting room to sitting room, spewing out compliments that were laced with chuckles, and some of England’s most colorful expletives. “You bloody well know that fuchsia will always make you the bell of the ball Mrs. Perkins…” or “Blimey…you’re snarkier than a horny pole cat this morning, Colonel Horton!”
“Some iced tea would be lovely.” Mrs. Tinsdale smiled timidly.
“I think that I would rather go up to my room for now.” Emma rose, the creaking of the chair giving her the illusion that her bones were groaning in protest of her sudden movement. “Do pardon me, Simone.”
“Nurse Daniels,” the glimmer in Simone’s eyes returned. “Did I tell you about the farm? It was many years ago…” Mrs. Tinsdale’s voice faded as Emma proceeded down the thickly carpeted hallways that were enclosed by hideously floral wallpaper. Near the end of the identical rows of doors were her quarters. She insisted that she be placed on the outside because she wanted a pleasant view from her window. She turned the faded brass knob.
Her room was small and sufficient. The drab purple of the sensible curtains was the extent of color in her décor. She sighed in sync with the room’s final gasps of air that sometimes disrupted the dust that collected on the knotted oak dresser. Like the rest of the world, it seemed to be encouraging her to fade into the dusk.
Emma collapsed onto her bed with the weight of the room sinking her shoulders. Slowly her eyes traveled each corner of the meringue walls in futile hope of discovering something she had never noticed about them before.
She sat there for half an hour in such still silence that she herself began to wonder if she had passed on without noticing. Her finger twitched in reassurance. It was then that she noticed it.
“That’s curious.” Emma squinted at a glimmering spec in the corner of the room. Slowly, but daringly, she lowered her body from the high bed and let her knees sink into the thick carpet. The stifling smell of dust made her gag with mock sneezes. Putting a handkerchief to her mouth, she let her eyes fall on the spec’s taunting glimmer once more. With consciously absurd caution, she carefully pulled her body across the floor until she could see the spec more clearly.
It appeared to be a sequin. She clumsily picked at the spec until she could admire it in the light between her fingers. What a dazzling ornament that seems so gaudy until its radiance bounces from thousands of others on a graceful evening gown! She held it tight between her fingers and let the world fade into the dazzling red and gold train that she glided across the forest green marble floors of Austin Manor.
She jolted awake. Her eyes darted across the room only to see that it was exactly as it was 30 seconds before she dozed. And then she leaned against the dry, cracked walls and rested her eyes on memory once more. She felt herself gaining momentum as her eyes rolled into darkness.
She felt lighter than she had ever been, and fixed her gaze on a glimmer of light that appeared overhead that broke the tunnel of darkness she began gliding through.
The orb of light grew larger and larger as Emma moved faster and faster. Suddenly an overwhelming glee washed over her body and she realized that she desperately wanted to dance. Momentarily laughing at herself, she began to twirl and swing herself through the space around her. As she spun more rapidly, what at first felt like sand began to whirl around her body; scraping her withered skin. The fine sand became sharp, golden crystals that bloodlessly tore at her flesh. She squealed in pain that strangely mingled itself with ecstasy. The crystals began to shatter on contact with what she noticed was now young, plump, and slightly raw skin that enveloped her body in a snug, familiar embrace.
Her now bare feet suddenly slammed on a cold, hard surface. She blinked her eyes in bewilderment. There was a tray-bearing French maid standing in the middle of a flawlessly polished mirrored ballroom. Her mouth fell agape as she surveyed Emma’s sudden appearance.
“Pardon, Madame.” Her startled, saucer-shaped eyes clashed with the modest curtsy she offered Emma.
Emma returned the startled gaze and glanced down at her own silk night gown and free, chestnut tresses that rested gracefully on her quivering shoulders.
“Emma?” A handsome, slightly gray woman wearing a deep emerald gown that seamlessly blended with the marble floors, whisked into the ballroom. “What are you doing down here?”
“MOTHER?” Emma felt her body race to her mother’s hesitant embrace.
“Are you feeling alright? And what are you doing wandering around the house in your night-things? You should be getting ready.” She patted her head.
“Hush hush. Don’t you realize that your Father specially arranged this coming out party in time for Elwood to return from the University?” Her eyes twinkled. “We know that you will make us proud, darling.”
“Elwood? Mother, Elwood is dead…” Mother let out a delicate laugh that sprung from the gilded walls to the crystal chandeliers
“I’ll admit his conversation is less than stimulating...” She ran her fingers through Emma’s hair. “But he’ll make a fine husband. Now go, get dressed…time is running thin!”
“You mean…this is not a joke?” Emma glanced at her unfamiliarly young hands. Mother looked puzzled.
“A joke?” She smiled quizzically. “But when have we not taken your life seriously? Nikki, go with her upstairs and make sure she gets to dressing.” Mother raised her brow playfully at Emma and whisked from the room as suddenly as she had appeared.
Nikki stood helplessly in front of her, the silver tray still quivering in her hands.
“Madame…” but then there was a sounding screech that seemed to tear through Emma’s body the way the crystals had cut away her flesh. She clamped her hands tightly about her ears and sank to the floor.
But Nikki just stood in the middle of the floor, only phased by Emma’s reaction to the sound.
“Didn’t you hear that?!” Emma shrieked. Nikki opened her mouth to speak but the screech returned in ear-splitting intensity until it cracked into…
“Bloody hell! We’re going to need the paramedics!” Nikki’s startled gaze became blank as British expletives streamed from her mouth. “Emma, stay with me! Can you hear me? Emma, I’m here, try to respond!”
“….Nnnurse Daniels?” Emma’s eyes wandered around the domed ceiling of the ballroom. “Nurse!?”
But there was silence.
The early autumn months crowded the rippling heat that rested sluggishly on the parking lot behind Barton Memorial. Simone Tinsdale sipped her cooled tea beside Nurse Daniels in the heavily scented parlor.
“Come to think of it…” Simone’s eyes twinkled …”I had nearly seventy-two dollars saved up at one time.”
“Blimey…” the Nurse patted her glistening brow.