House of Shadows

 

by

 

Walter Spence

 


 

     I lay in darkness on cold dank stone and remembered the day I died.

     Prior to death I did not appreciate true darkness, the total absence of light. It is like drowning in a limitless ocean of black ink. And with the absence of light came the absence of sound. No noise, not even the ringing of the ears for company, as though my head had been stuffed with clay. In my mouth my tongue lay desiccate, like a worm pulled from the earth and left on a hot sidewalk to broil. No scent either, not even the odor of my own flesh as the process of corruption began.

     But then came sensation.

     It began as a sense of pressure against my back, stronger even than the winepress of the dark. From there it spread to the backs of my thighs and buttocks, my arms and palms, the prickling of grit against bare skin.

     Following this came sound, the soft whispering of many-legged insects growing steadily louder as they approached my body, locked in rigor mortis. Soon they would crawl over my hair, my face, my eyes.

     I lay there and remembered, it had been my choice to die. . . .

 

*          *          *

 

     I first met Penelope Ember on a hot overcast day in July of 1975.

     I was standing knee-deep in the garbage dumpster of the Sneadsville Fruit and Produce Company while sifting through trash in search of gold, cardboard boxes containing cans and jars of food (many broken but some still whole), pickled eggs mostly that day. A wholesale distributor to convenience stores, the occasional damaged box had no retail value and so it was almost always thrown away. The rumor was that Marvin Snead (the owner) would not allow his employees to keep any unbroken items remaining from a dropped box on the theory that doing so might encourage vandalism for scavenging purposes. So the oxen were muzzled and everything was discarded.

     It was a Sunday afternoon, so the warehouse was closed, but my sister stood watch just in case. At eleven she was two years my junior and too short to clamber into the bin, so that job fell to me. Our mother had left that morning for the beaches of Kitty Hawk with a ‘friend’, and there was little in the house to eat except for a loaf of bread and a jar of salad dressing. In a better neighborhood the sight of two unsupervised children rummaging in a dumpster might have prompted intervention from someone, the police or maybe Social Services. But this was East End, a thatch of decaying rental houses dotted by the occasional homeowner. You could identify them easily enough, their yards were more frequently mown and their front porches decorated with large orange and black plastic signs that read ‘No Trespassing’, mostly elderly couples who minded their own business with missionary fervor.

     But not always. Which was why, when I heard the voice, I clambered out of the trash bin in a hurry.

     “Hey, little girl!”

     Before she could even think about moving I got between Barb and the speaker. He was of medium height and broad, with thick fingers and a barrel chest, his brown hair cut so close to the scalp you could see the white skin underneath. He stood beside the driver’s door of a long silver car with smoke-tinted windows. I had never seen a Mercedes, but I recognized the emblem.

     “Get in the house, Barb,” I told her through clenched teeth.

     She looked at me, then back at the stranger. “But--”

     “NOW!”

     She turned and fled. Since we lived next door to the warehouse, it did not take long for her to reach safety. She looked over her shoulder, one small act of rebellious defiance, before disappearing inside.

     The man watched her vanish, then turned back to me with head lowered, bull-like, as though about to charge.

     “I don’t know what she was doing here, I told her to go home. She didn’t do anything,” I said as convincingly as I could.

     “Charles?”

     The lilting feminine voice confused me. I refocused on the car, still keeping the Sherman tank of a man in the corner of my peripheral vision. The rear window on the driver’s side, too dark to see through, had slid down about halfway.

     The man turned. “Yes ma’am?” he said deferentially.

     “Charles, you are scaring the poor boy half to death and that will not do. Just step back now. You!”

     My shoulder muscles tensed and I ducked my head, ready to run. “Yes ma’am?” I said, mimicking the almost reverential tones of ‘Charles’ in the hope that a soft answer would turneth away wrath, though the voice did not sound angry. If anything, it sounded amused.

     “Please come over here, young sir. Now don’t dawdle, I’m not going to bite. Though I have been known to take a little nip now and then.” She chuckled at her joke. “There now, that’s better.”

     I peered into the car, still keeping half an eye on Charles. In the rear seat a young woman sat, watching me. She wore a cream-colored summer dress decorated with small pink flowers. A short veil hung from the brim of her white straw hat, though it did little to obscure the cotton candy pink of her cheeks and her cherry red lips. A pair of Wayfarers hid her eyes. Over her freckle-dotted shoulders flowed hair the color of a sunset, a dark red mane as full of waves as the incoming tide. She looked like a catalogue model, as fresh as an April morning.

     “Please pardon my driver, he was hired for his predilection for paranoia,” she said. Her accent was as southern as my own, but it danced with her vowels as lightly as a sunbeam, nothing like the molasses thick drawl of most of the people I knew.

     “It’s okay,” I said with a nervous shrug.

     She tilted her chin in the direction of my house. “Your sister?”

     I tensed again, but kept my voice friendly. “Yes ma’am.”

     She lifted her veil and removed her sunglasses, then turned the full weight of her gaze on me. Her eyes reminded me of a late evening sky full of stars. “You love her very much, don’t you?”

     “I suppose so,” I replied, wondering what answer she might most want to hear, what I could say that would keep those violet eyes fixed on me forever.

     She nodded, then fumbled with her purse. My heart sank as her attention focused on something other than myself. “My driver and I are new to this area and he is still learning his way around.” She pulled a piece of paper from her purse and checked it. “Do you know where 362 Berry Street is?”

     Take me with you and I will guide you right to the front door, I wanted to say. Instead I told her, “Just keep straight until you come to a T-intersection, then make a left, then take the next right. That’s Berry Street.”

     She smiled, and the darkness of the car’s interior shredded like cigarette smoke in the wind. “Well, you are just a lifesaver, aren’t you?” she gushed. “And though it’s small reward, please accept this token of my gratitude.”

     Before I could move, her fingers caught my hand and pressed something into the palm. She wore white gloves of elbow length, silk or maybe satin. Her fingers gripped mine with such strength that I experienced a moment of terror (hope?) that she would not let me go.

     Then she returned her hands to her lap. “Charles?” she said. “Back in the car now, there’s the boy.”

     The man took his place at the steering wheel with no wasted motion as the lady smiled at me once again. “Please pardon me for my lack of good manners, but we have yet to be properly introduced,” she said. “And by what name are you known, my young white knight?”

     It took several attempts to clear my throat. “My name’s Eugene,” I told her, choking on every syllable.

     Her bright laugh sent a raw red flush from my collar to my ears. “My, my, your mother must harbor a sincere grudge against you. Or your father.”

     “I wouldn’t know. We’ve never met him,” I said through clenched teeth, wanting nothing more at that moment than for a hole to open beneath my feet into which I could disappear forever.

     She smiled once again, a curling of the lips that reached all the way to her eyes. “Well, we are--none of us--responsible for the sins of our parents. Never forget that! And to prove this is so, I hereby rename you Ace! That sit well with you? Ace?” The smile again.

     I shrugged, unable to hide a grin as it fought its way out. “Sure.”

     She nodded, apparently satisfied, then looked past me again. “You do love your sister, don’t you?” she repeated.

     I nodded. “Yes.”

     “And family is everything, isn’t it Ace?”

     I nodded again, fiercely this time. “It ought to be.”

     And though the wattage was lower, the smile she gave me then seemed to run deeper, down to the bone. “My name is Penelope Ember, Ace, and I have a feeling we will be seeing more of one another, you and I.” And with that she leaned back as her window closed, separating us. I stood by our narrow one-lane street and watched as that silver dream of a car disappeared into the distance.

     Only then did I look at the crumpled green wad in my hand and unfold a one hundred dollar bill.

     That was our first meeting. Our second came a little more than a year later.

 

*          *          *

 

     I was walking down a deserted highway on a blazing hot Friday in early September. The hundred dollar bill I had been given the previous summer was long gone, but some leftover change still jingled in my pocket. From that I had found a dime to ‘loan’ Jimmy Saunders while we stood in the schoolyard waiting on the bus drivers.

     Once the dime had changed hands and Jimmy (along with his shadow, Richard Satterwhite) had walked across the street to grab a candy bar, a hand had fallen on my right shoulder. “Come with me.”

     It was the vice principal, who firmly escorted me to his office where he accused me of ‘matching dimes’ (i.e., gambling). I told him that I had simply given Jimmy the coin (no pretense about loaning), and after continued protestations on my part he finally released me. I ran back to the parking lot and discovered that my school bus had already left.

     When I returned to the vice principal to inform him of this, he asked for my address, consulted his schedule and told me that Bus 32 would be returning shortly and that Cedar Street (where I lived) was on its second route, so I needed to take it.

     There were few students on Bus 32, the pleasant circumstance of which allowed me a seat alone for a change. I watched while the other students got off at their respective stops, ultimately leaving me as the last passenger.

     A few minutes later, as we drove down a country highway I did not recognize, the driver slowed to a stop at a crossroads. Back then students did most of the bus driving, and this one -- Calvin Jason Hobbs -- played offensive tackle for the Sneadsville High Vikings. “Here you go.”

     I looked around. “Huh?”

     “I said we’re here, genius, Cedar Lane.”

     I shook my head. “I live on Cedar Street. I’ve never heard of Cedar Lane.”

     “Well, Cedar Street’s not part of my route and you’re the last one on this bus. I’ve got a football game tonight and you’re damned sure not going home with me, so hop off.”

     He did not look happy, so I exited the bus and watched it disappear down the road. Since I had no idea where I was, I started walking in the same direction for lack of a better one.

     There was little room on the narrow shoulder, just a few feet between the shimmering asphalt and a deep ditch thick with weeds, broken beer bottles and other assorted trash. My choices were limited to the risk of being sideswiped by a car due to walking too close to the highway or getting tetanus from a rusty beer can if I stumbled into the ditch, so I paced the middle ground as best I could.

     A strong wind ruffled my sweat-soaked shirt, and I looked over my shoulder. A dark thunderhead had raced up behind me and now filled the sky. Lightning flashed deep within its interior, and a curtain of rain hung from its leading edge. I faced front again, picking up my pace.

     It had just occurred to me that it might be safer to cross the road and face oncoming traffic when the ridiculously loud blare of a horn behind me caused me to spin, fists clenched defensively as I fought to avoid a spill into the aforementioned ditch. Heart thumping a mile a minute, I faced a familiar mirror-bright Mercedes sliding to a halt next to me. The passenger window, still sunglasses dark, lowered.

     “Well well now, if it isn’t my young white knight!” said Penelope Ember from the far side as she gave me the up and down. “Though not so young anymore. My word, you look as though you’ve grown a foot! And what, pray tell, are you doing walking down this god-forsaken country highway begging to become yet another depressing traffic statistic?”

     My breath caught in my throat and it took a moment for my lungs to relax sufficiently to allow speech. I had forgotten how intoxicating that melodic voice had been. “Wrong bus,” I choked out, feeling like an idiot for my situation as well as the fumbling coarseness of my tongue in comparison to that lilting soprano.

     She frowned, a pretty little moue with a hint of a pout that made my heart flip flop. She wore a lemon yellow sundress with matching sandals baring her slim white feet. A straw hat with lime-green ribbons sat perched atop the auburn cloud of her hair. “My dear sir, do you even know where you are?”

     I shrugged. Since I already looked the fool, I could hardly do myself greater harm in those luminous eyes. “I figured I would keep walking till I found a store where they might let me call home.”

     Penelope tsked. “Ace, the closest Quick Mart is another four miles. How you managed to end up abandoned on this wayward lane is a tale to be told over the ice cold Coke Charles will fetch you once we arrive there. Now hie thee into my chariot, young sir, and mind you open the door only so far as is absolutely necessary for egress. My eyes are very sensitive and cannot handle too much light. In fact, bide a moment while I put these on,” she said as she removed a pair of sunglasses from her purse.

     I waited until she motioned impatiently for me to get in. Cracking the door just enough to slip inside, I huddled against it while Penelope looked on, obviously amused, as the window shut once more.

     The interior was dark and blessedly cool. The car accelerated so quietly it took me a moment to realize we were in motion at all.

     “Yes, Ace, you certainly have grown,” she said with a nod as she looked me over again. “How old are you now?”

     I swallowed. “I turned fifteen a week ago. My mother told me I was born on Labor Day.”

     Penelope laughed, almost a bark. It was the only less than perfect thing about her, though I was more than willing to overlook it. I had read once that Persian rug makers would always include a flaw in their work since perfection belonged to God alone. While not a true bray, it did make her a bit more human and thus almost approachable.

     “Oh my dear Lord,” she said once she had regained her breath. “And how many days did it take for you to grace our presence?”

     I grinned with her. “Three. Practically four she says when she’s piss--uh, ticked off with me.”

     She shook her head. “Don’t believe a word of it. We women are deceitful and manipulative creatures with husbands and children, though few of us have yet to master that trick where lovers are concerned.”

     I was quite thankful for the shadow-drenched space as it hid the flames of my burning cheeks at her use of the word ‘lovers’. “Um, where have you been keeping yourself, Ms. Ember? I haven’t seen you since last summer.”

     “Miss, if you please. I despise the modern convention of obscuring a lady’s marital status. I wish there to be no doubt as to my availability where romance is concerned. And to answer your question, I have been spending considerable time abroad, mostly in Europe where much of my family yet resides.”

     “Europe?” I could feel my brain shifting gears. “But I thought you lived . . . I mean, that you were from--”

     “Oh, I have resided in the South for sufficient years to acquire a touch of its accent in my speech, which has given my Ma--my mother no end of amusement. That white haired lady can sit like a stone listening to me jabber for any length of time. And speaking of time, we have arrived at our destination. Charles, fill the tank, then get my young man here a Coke and something sweet. Fruit pie?”

     I did not care for fruit pies, but did not want to appear ungracious. “That’ll be fine.”

     “Fibber. Make it a Twinkie. God forbid I serve you anything with even the remotest hint of nutritional value. No, nothing for me, I shall break my fast later.”

     “So,” Penelope continued, “How is your sister? Barb, I seem to recall you having said. Is that short for Barbara?”

     “Um, no ma’am. Don’t tell her I said so, but it’s actually short for Barbie.”

     This time Penelope laughed until her eyes streamed. “My, my,” she finally managed. “I suppose ‘Eugene’ is not quite so bad then, is it? Sounds to me you narrowly missed becoming a ‘Ken’!”

     I could not help but laugh with her. “Yes ma’am.”

     “Oh please, let us lose the ‘ma’am’. I already feel old, let’s not go from ancient to antique.”

     “You’re not old,” I said in a rush without pause. “You’re beautiful.” And as soon as the words left my lips I almost choked beneath a wave of self loathing. Who was I to tell this literal goddess she was beautiful?

     But before I could sputter out an apology for my effrontery, she gave me a smile so coy and unpretentious that my throat clamped shut. “Really, Ace? You think I’m beautiful?”

     I have had considerable time to ponder the events of my life of late, and I have often reflected on those snowy woods moments where two paths diverge, this being one of them. Had I given a different response, how might that have changed the future course of events? Where would that less-travelled road have taken me?

     But no, I took the easier path, and here I now lie.

     “You are the kind of woman men die for,” I said, giving my hormone-soaked brain free access to my mouth. And though every ounce of common sense told me I was seven kinds of a fool for admitting it, I could not regret saying so. Even now, as I listen to the rustle of some multi-limbed creature in my scalp, part of me still believes those words.

     I am the proof of it, after all.

     She stared into my eyes. “Strong words, Ace,” she said finally, a shadow of her smile returning. “But let’s not talk about death today and return to my question, which you still have yet to answer.”

     A fog had claimed my brain and I could not think clearly. “What question was that, ma’am?”

     She sighed in mock exasperation (at least, I hoped it was mock). “Again with the ma’am! From now on Ace, you will refer to me by my God-given name, Penelope.”

     I could not suppress a smile. “God-given?”

     “You have no idea. Now, once again, how is your sister?”

     “She’s fine. Growing past her years, our mother says.”

     “Is she now?” The driver’s door opened and Charles slid wordlessly inside, then handed Penelope a brown paper bag, it’s bottom dark from the moisture of the sweating bottle it contained. “Here’s your soda, thank you Charles,” she said.

     “Thank you,” I repeated to her driver, who gave no indication by look or sound that he acknowledged my presence, much less my gratitude.

     “Girls mature faster than boys--I should know--so I can understand your mother’s concern,” Penelope continued. “What about you, Ace?” She gave me an appraising look. “Do you have any concerns?”

     My sister was already quite pretty, attracting attention not only from boys her own age but even the odd glance or comment from my mother’s ‘friends’. Usually the remarks embarrassed her and she would flee to her room and hide for the remainder of the evening, which disturbed our mother not at all. But there were times when my sister would blush in a way that bothered me, as though she found the attention not completely disgusting, which angered and confused me.

     I came out of my reverie to Penelope’s slow nodding. “Girls need male approval at that age, not to mention guidance, and if I remember correctly you said your father was in absentia?”

     I nodded. “We’ve asked, but mom won’t talk about him. She just says that he doesn’t care about any of us or he would be helping out.”

     “Well, there are always two sides to every story and oftentimes more than that,” Penelope said. “What about other family? Grandparents? Uncles? Third-cousins twice removed?”

     I smiled despite the depressing topic. It felt good to talk with someone who seemed to care, though I knew the answers Penelope sought could only lower me in her eyes. Still, she listened without appearing judgmental and even conveyed the impression she gave a damn. “No relatives I know of. We have an aunt somewhere but the way mom talks, they don’t like each other.”

     “That’s too bad, Ace. Family should be the center of a person’s life, those whom one can count on when the world itself is against you, people whom one is connected to by bonds which death itself cannot break. Do you not agree?”

     I do not know where they came from, and later I would recall their sudden appearance with a sense of shame and self-recrimination, but tears started flowing down my cheeks. I refused to openly sob, so instead I sat there and wept in rigid silence.

     “Oh, Ace,” I heard Penelope say. She placed one slim arm over my bony shoulders, and that almost made me lose control right there. But I had had considerable practice in my life containing misery, learning how to cry on the inside in the presence of others, which had served me well in life.

     As it does now in death.

     My tears burned runnels into my skin and more than anything I wished for a moment of privacy so I could dash them away. Instead Penelope held me even closer, the fingers of one slim hand stroking hair I knew to be in desperate need of a trim.

     “Ace, my heart goes out to you, and to your sister as well. We live in a very unfair world, you and I. There are wonderful parents out there, men and women of means and status who are saddled with the most ungrateful and selfish brats for offspring, while deserving young men like yourself--well, it’s a shame. No, not a shame. It’s a crime.”

     Part of me wanted to speak up, to defend my mother against the unspoken allegations that hung in the air between us. But memories of being left alone for days at a time while our mother kept company with her ‘friends’ rose in my throat like bile, and I remained silent.

     “A crime, truly,” Penelope continued. “Someone should do something about it. And you know what? Someone damned well is!”

     “Excuse me?” I said.

     “Yes indeed.” She removed her sunglasses, then looked down into my eyes. The smile she gave me then would have chased away any night’s worth of darkness. “You and your sister have now become my personal pet projects. I will see to it that the doors of opportunity are thrown open for you both. I will not carry you, mind, I expect you to walk through them under your own power. And if at any moment I sense you attempting to take advantage of my generosity, then away I’ll fly and that will be the end. Do we understand one another?”

     The seriousness of her tone and her mien cowed me, and I nodded without speaking.

     “Very good. Oh, one other thing, you must keep this a secret between the three of us.”

     “Why?” I asked, despite the thrill of terror running through me that my question might cause her to retract her offer as quickly as it had been made.

     “Well Ace, I could repeat the biblical admonition about giving in private rather than in public, and there would certainly be truth in that. However, I must confess that self interest plays no small part here as well.”

     “Huh?”

     Penelope clucked her tongue. “My dear sir, how to explain to one of your tender years? Blunt is best. You see, I am a lady of no small social standing in the world, and were it a matter of public discourse that I was playing benefactress to a very handsome and very underaged young gentleman, the consequent wagging of tongues would stir a breeze from here to the borders. Have I made my concerns plain? Or must I be even less decorous?”

     “No, no ma’am!” The sliver of disappointment that shot through me at the line she had drawn between us was ameliorated in large part by her emphasis of the word ‘handsome’.

     “Very well. Now, let’s get you home. Keep an eye on the mail for anything with the return address ‘Light’s Hope’. It’s a charity of the Ember family, but sounds enough like a religious organization that it should not arouse too many suspicions. When we get to your home have your sister step outside. I’m a good judge of sizes and I think we can do the two of you better than these Salvation Army hand-me-downs.”

     I did as she asked. When we arrived at my house I ran inside and searched for Barb. I found her at the kitchen table with a package of Saltine crackers and a jar of peanut butter. Just the sight made my mouth dry out. I motioned for her to follow me, then sauntered outside with her in my wake to the open car window. “Barb, this is Penelope Ember. She wanted to meet you.”

     “Indeed I did,” Penelope replied as she lowered her sunglasses. “Bend forward dear; let me get a good look at you.”

     My sister blushed, but did as she was told. “What a little beauty!” Penelope exclaimed. “I see your family’s good looks were not completely exhausted on your brother. Why, you look delicious enough to eat with a spoon! And so petite! I’m guessing, what, a size zero? If that?”

     Barb shrugged and looked over at me, her gaze puzzled and a bit panicky. “Sounds about right,” I said, even though I had no idea what a size zero was.

     “Well, I do enjoy a challenge,” Penelope said. “And as Charles here can attest, shopping for me is more than a hobby, it is a vocation. Take that little cupcake back inside Ace, before the sun fries that milk white skin to a crisp, and I shall be in touch with both of you very soon now.” And with those words her window closed, separating us.

     I stood in my front yard for quite some time after she left, staring into the distance in which she had disappeared, my heart floating in my chest. I knew, in the way only the faithful do, that an angel had come into my life and changed it forever.

     Three years passed before I saw Penelope Ember again.

 

*          *          *

 

     Of course I had no way of knowing this ahead of time. June came each year warm with promise, followed all too soon by the cool disappointment of autumn and still no Penelope.

     How did I know she would come only with the summer’s heat? I cannot say. I simply knew.

     The first packages came three weeks after that last visit, one for Barb and one for me, both full of clothes for the coming winter. And brand new, not used with stains that refused to come out or zippers that frequently stuck halfway up, when they worked at all. Shirts, sweaters, jeans, socks, shoes, all packed between crinkly sheets of tissue paper into two enormous leather and brass footlockers sturdy enough to stand on, with locks that were not merely decorative but actually functional.

     Two more packages arrived four weeks later and each subsequent month afterwards, over time establishing a pattern. Every three months we received packages with new clothes for the upcoming season, the sizes always right. Other months the boxes were smaller ones which might hold any number of surprises (as well as money, always discretely hidden). Once Barb’s included a small bottle of perfume, and as soon as she opened it I recognized the scent. The container was crystal, as elegant as an orchid, the label a mystery in French. Barb was tightfisted with it, but would sometimes relent (though never when our mother was home) and dab a bit behind her ears before sitting next to me on the sofa to watch television. I would close my eyes and imagined Penelope sitting between us dressed in silk, her slim legs clad in shimmering hose, one knee resting against my own, that familiar knowing smile on her face.

     The sender was always listed as ‘Light’s Hope’, as she had said it would be. Nothing else, not even a return address. The packages were postmarked, however, and displayed a wide variety of cities: San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Boston. Los Angeles appeared multiple times. And cities outside of the US as well: Milan, Venice, Cork, Athens, and one place called Livoire se Andolé.

     Our mother’s brow furrowed when the first packages came, though she accepted my story readily enough about a charity list I had signed Barb and I up for at school. We could see the reduced strain Penelope’s generosity placed on Mom’s pocketbook when we were no longer being sent into the Quick Mart with one dollar food stamps and instructions that each of us purchase a nickel piece of candy so she could buy a pack of cigarettes with the remaining change.

     But no matter what other wonders we might find in our monthly packages, books were always included. Leather bound editions gilded with gold, volumes upon volumes by such authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, and many, many more.

     I devoured them, then turned to my sister’s stacks: The Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and others whose names I cannot recall.

     But I will never forget that first book, primarily because the main character was also named Eugene. It was Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. And though no note had been included, I was convinced that Penelope was sending me a message with its inclusion, that I need not be ashamed of my name, a name that (at least in my case) had led to more than one schoolyard brawl.

     Prior to that first parcel from Light’s Hope I had slunk into my classes, avoiding the eyes of my instructors and barely acknowledging my classmates who were almost all strangers to me (Sneadsville was our seventh move over the past ten years). This too had become part of a pattern. New kids are typically bullied when coming to a new school, but I was no one’s victim and had avoided that fate by savagely attacking anyone brave enough (or stupid enough) to test me. I did learn early not to wait till after school for a fight when the buddies of my fourth-grade classmate and would-be tormentor Eddie Pritchett decided to join in after his victory appeared questionable, bloodying my nose and face as well as knocking out a tooth (thankfully not an obvious one).

     So the next year, after one more move to yet another school, when the kid behind me started thumping the back of my head, I simply leaped out of my seat and bore him to the ground, my remaining teeth in his ear. The presence of the teacher (who dragged me off to the principal’s office) saved me from a possible group beating, and I suffered the week long suspension with relief. Eventually, at each subsequent new school, I would be left alone as too much trouble to bully, instead being simply ostracized.

     But when I got on the bus that following Friday morning after receiving my new wardrobe, I noticed a difference in the looks I got as I made my way down the aisle. The glances continued all the way to my first class. The teacher, Mrs. Brannigan, looked up from her desk and actually smiled. “My, don’t you look nice today!” she said.

     My cheeks flared at the unexpected compliment, and I mumbled a reply before slinking to my seat. Someone tittered and I slouched as low as I could without hitting the floor.

     As soon as I got home I dug into the non-fiction selection of Penelope’s books, which I had so far only glanced at before setting to one side. I found the one I was searching for and sprawled on my bed with its squeaking springs to stare at the huge volume’s cover: A Gentleman’s Guide to Dress & Deportment.

     I spent a good part of the weekend reading it. Much of it was a blur, since I could only absorb so much, so I took to skipping back and forth, focusing on whatever caught my attention. At one point I put the book to one side and stepped into the bathroom where I examined my nails and thatch of hair, both ragged and unkempt. How was it I had never seen myself before? And if I saw this, then what the hell had Penelope Ember seen to make her take an interest in me?

     She saw something no one else ever has, a voice in my head replied. She saw potential. And we are not going to disappoint her, are we?

     I shook my head and tightened my jaw. “No, we are not.” I swore that when Penelope did finally return, she would find a gentleman waiting for her, not some poor white trash lacking the self respect to take decent care of himself. For all she had done, and for all she continued to do, I would demonstrate with word and deed that her efforts were neither disrespected nor unappreciated. I would prove beyond the shadow of any possible doubt that the seeds of her generosity had been scattered on fertile ground.

     So I scrubbed myself well, trimmed my nails, then took some of the money she had sent and walked with Barb to the closest hair salon I could find. The two women made much of my curls, but went into ecstasy over my sister’s long blonde tresses, pulling out one fashion magazine after another while debating how best to do them justice. By the time they were done (and with our new clothes) I almost did not recognize either of us, the transformation was that dramatic.

     When I returned to school the following Monday I attracted stares once again, but not like the previous week. Those had been tinged with amusement, as if a chimpanzee had suddenly shown up at school dressed in a tuxedo. Not this time. These were a series of open mouthed gapes that, over the day, evolved into hostile glares from other males and amazed (and sometimes coy) glances from the girls. I pretended not to notice any of it while secretly exulting.

     I allowed myself a week to revel before getting back to work in order to match the inner man with the outer. I threw myself into my schoolwork as never before, my hunger surprising even myself and dumbfounding my teachers, who stared at me as if I was some curious new life form. I saw myself as a lump of clay being molded into a sculpture worthy of Penelope’s interest and attention.

     Suddenly the world expanded into a much larger place, filled with both mystery and promise. I opened my textbooks with new eyes and saw things I had never seen before. Math became a puzzle to be solved, History a novel in its own right, and English Literature a drug with infinitely addictive properties.

     When I returned as a junior, the difference from the previous year was noticeable. People who had looked through me before now spoke to me in the hallways, asking me to sit with them during lunch and on the bus. And the gazes of the girls (which had once slid over me without pause) now occasionally lingered as they spoke to one another in hushed whispers accompanied by shared giggles and smiles completely unlike the ones I had grown accustomed to. A few even flirted openly, which confused me. How to respond? What would Penelope’s reaction to my having a girlfriend be?

     That I saw this as something to be concerned about says something about my level of naiveté. Deep in my heart I knew that Penelope’s interest in me went no further than her show of compassion (though ‘pity’ might have been more descriptive.) I also knew that the idea she might harbor feelings for me as a man (other than amusement at the notion) was ridiculous. But despite this I could not rid myself of the impossibly slim hope that one day maybe, just maybe. . . .

     So whenever girls flirted with me I casually flirted back but never took things any further. A few of them appeared to consider this a challenge and grew quite bold. It got harder and harder to keep saying no (and a friend warned me that at this rate people were going to start talking), so after a while I came up with a story about a summer love I was saving myself for (a tale with more truth in it than fiction.) And while this tale did not completely discourage those (mostly) unwelcome attentions, it did have the benefit of not alienating the majority of the girls, who over time grew to admire my steadfast loyalty to my ‘true love’. Which did not prevent some of them from testing it, though.

     As time went on, I spun many a tale to explain Penelope’s continuing absence, each more fantastic than the last. I daydreamed about running away to search for her after finding a clue that she might be in trouble, then rescuing her from any number of perils, each more outrageous than the last, ultimately basking in the fullness of a gratitude that (as time went on) required me to lock my bedroom door for privacy’s sake.

     Senior year came, then high school graduation, but still no Penelope. That was the worst, and for the first time I grew angry at her. While many of my classmates had taken off for a weekend celebration at Myrtle Beach, I spent that time at home, my temper flaring. Barb, who knew my moods better than anyone, kept her distance while I brooded. Here I was, hanging on the hook of a dream after three years for someone who did not care enough to show up for what was (at least, up until now) the most important day of my life?

     So I kept to my room and fumed. What now? While my friends (well, classmates) had been busy making post-graduation plans, I had done nothing but watch the horizon for the ghost of a silver sedan.

     Then, when the next package arrived, it included something none of the others had, a note. Granted it was not much of a letter, just one single word.

     Soon.

     And with each following monthly delivery came other messages of similar brevity:

     Patience.

     Trust.

     The one which broke me came with the cooling days of fall, and when I read it I wept.

     Delayed.

     For months my life had been on hold. I had believed, had been convinced, that my relationship with Penelope meant something wonderful was about to happen now that I was a man, something incredible. I had believed this as people of faith believe in God.

     And now? I wallowed in the mud of my own self pity, flagellating myself.

     Moron! Imbecile! Idiot! You really think she ever shared any of your feelings for her? You deserve to be abandoned. Oh, no doubt she intends to come back one day, but something will come up like this past time, and then something else, on and on, and as the years go by she will just forget about us, not even remembering to tell whoever is sending those packages not to bother anymore.

     I got drunk that night (in those days the legal age limit was eighteen). I sat on the steps of my front porch next to a growing pile of empty beer cans and stared out into a darkness as empty as my future prospects, wondering what I was going to do now.

     Then the screen door banged open and my sister stuck her head out. “Telephone.”

     The weight on my chest vanished and I leaped to my feet. It had to be Her, if for no other reason than no one else ever called for me.

     I raced to the phone, then paused to catch my breath, unwilling to sound as anxious as I felt. “Hello?”

     “Eugene Evans?”

     The voice was male. “Yes,” I replied, heart sinking to the floor beneath my feet. “Who is this?”

     “This is Mr. Price.”

     Then I recognized the voice, with its nasal cadences and theatrical flair. Mr. Price taught English, Speech and Drama at the high school, and I had taken several of his classes. His amazement at my grasp of the works of William Shakespeare (stemming almost entirely from repeated readings of the annotated edition of his collected works Penelope had sent) had both pleased and embarrassed me. There were rumors he had once performed on Broadway, which I questioned. Why in the name of God would anyone leave New York City to teach English Lit in Sneadsville? “Yes, Mr. Price?”

     “Interested in taking a trip to New York?”

     Though still heavy, my heart rose to belly button level.

     Every year Mr. Price organized a trip to New York City during the fall. Those trips had become the stuff of legend in our small town. “One of our group had to drop out suddenly, and I remembered you saying in class how much you wanted to see New York,” he said. “The bus ticket and hotel room are already paid for and non-refundable, though you’d have to pay for your own meals and personal expenses. What do you say?”

     For a moment I stood, phone in hand, jaw frozen.

     What are you waiting for? He’s offering you a free trip to New York! Stick a crowbar in your mouth and say yes!

     But what about Penelope? What if she shows up while I’m gone?

     Good! You’ve spent the entire summer and half of fall waiting for her to grace us with her presence. Let her wait on us for a change. Then maybe she’ll show some respect and not keep taking us for granted!

     An angry rush of heat sent a flush from my neck to my cheeks. “When?”

     “The bus leaves from the school parking lot at eight am this coming Wednesday. We’re staying at a hotel in Manhattan, near Times Square, and will head back Sunday after breakfast.”

     I took a deep breath to silence the niggling doubts bubbling below the surface of my so-called brain. “I’ll be there.”

 

*          *          *

 

     I rested my forehead against the glass of the tour bus window while recalling my departure; Barb’s nervous questions (You’re coming back, aren’t you?), my mother’s angry demands (When you bring your sorry ass home, you’d better march it right back out that door and start looking for a job so you can help out around here!), and Penelope’s continuing absence.

     She’s going to come while I’m gone, I repeated to that inner voice which had now gone silent. She’s going to come back and I won’t be here. Then she’ll meet someone else, somebody better, smarter, more deserving of her time.

     Maybe she already has, the voice whispered back.

     The thought made my throat close up, and I spent the rest of the trip imagining one such scenario after another.

     Then skyscrapers peeked over the horizon and I lost myself in the wonder of New York.

     When we arrived at the hotel, I marveled over the cavernous lobby. And when I reached my room, I marveled again at how small it was. There was a lesson there, I knew, but I would think about it later.

     We ate at a local restaurant, then gathered back at the hotel for the first of our events, a showing in Greenwich Village of New York’s oldest running musical, The Fantasticks. Mr. Price told us that the production had been active for so long that the actor who played the son had returned decades later to play the role of the father. The smallish theater surprised me, and I wondered how they could sell sufficient tickets to pay the performers enough to live on.

     When the show was over we were told to meet the following evening in the lobby of our hotel after dinner, and from there we would walk to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theater. Till then we were left to our own devices, and I spent that next day exploring the city and staring in amazement. Everywhere I turned someone was selling sex in one form or another. Adult bookstores, topless bars, live sex shows, posters for a play called Oh! Calcutta! I gawked at it all.

     We met at the hotel as a group, then wagon-trained to the theater to watch the play. After all I had seen that day I had half-expected the actors to shrug out of their clothing by intermission, but the closest thing to nudity I saw occurred when the ingénue, a beauty by the name of Roxanne Hart, stripped down to her underwear.

     Once the show ended and the audience left, the actors kindly showed up for a brief question and answer session with our group. After that we went to a local restaurant. It was very crowded and noisy, full of people talking and laughing. I had never seen anything quite like it. The prices were high, though, requiring me to be careful with my dwindling cash.

     I ate while alternating between listening to the talk at our table and people watching. I saw the redheaded actress who, two hours before, had been traipsing about the stage in her bra and panties. She waved at some people she obviously knew and made her way to their table. I followed her with my eyes, trying to be inconspicuous, and wondered how one might survive long enough to live in this fascinating and exciting city.

     Then I saw Her.

     I cannot say how I could possibly have missed her until then. She made her way from the bar, a small clique in her wake, and headed for the exit. I watched as one of her retinue, an elegant man in his twenties, opened the door while smiling at her in a smitten way I was very familiar with. Penelope smiled in return and stepped out, leading by the hand a young woman who was as beautiful as the man was handsome.

     I was out of my seat and through the door in a moment, looking around frantically, no idea what I would say even if I did catch up to her.

     There! At the corner, next to the open door of a taxicab, the young man and woman both chattering away with Her as they slid inside.

     “Penelope!” I cried.

     I saw her head tilt, like a bird’s, as her eyes turned in my direction.

     And stared straight through me, as though I was a windowpane.

     Then she was gone.

 

*          *          *

 

     I do not remember much about the trip home. I could think of nothing but the beautiful couple, so elegantly dressed and so very far above my station. I remembered how they hung on Penelope’s every word, their faces glowing with the joy of simply being in her presence.

     At some point we arrived back in Sneadsville. I retrieved my suitcase and walked home, then closed my bedroom door and sank into a black depression. My mother grew so worried that she almost stopped yelling at me.

     I do not remember how long this went on, the blending of day into night into day again, until one evening my sister grew brave enough to stick her head (just barely) into my room.

     “Someone’s at the door,” she said before vanishing again.

     I dragged myself out of bed and walked through the shadow-strewn hallway without raising my head. And when I did, there She was.

     I blinked to clear my vision. Still there.

     She nodded at me. “Hello, Ace. Let’s take a stroll, you and I. We need to talk.”

     Without waiting for a reply she turned and strode away. The night was chilly, and all I had on was a t-shirt and an old pair of Levi’s. Barefooted, I followed her into the night.

     We walked to the edge of the street, where Penelope turned to face me. She was dressed in black evening wear, a choker of pearls circling her throat, a small black purse clutched in her hands, her hair piled high like an auburn thunderhead.

     “I thought we had a deal, Ace.”

     Her voice was cold, almost devoid of emotion. And I knew I should be quailing in the face of her obvious anger, but I wasn’t. I was angry myself.

     “Well?” she said, her jaw tight, her eyes as black as her dress.

     “Well what?” I said, not intending to sound as ill-tempered as I felt, but failing.

     “The deal was that you would not make public any connection between us. I had already told you I was coming, eventually, but no, you somehow managed to chase me down to New York where you started yelling my name across Times Square. You have no idea how fast I had to talk to convince my companions that they were mistaken, that no, I had no idea who that was yelling after us, and that no, the so-called gentleman in question had not been crying out ‘Penelope’, for if he had and if it had been anyone I knew, I would certainly have had the good manners to acknowledge him. I despise lying in others, and even more from myself and those who force me into such. And while I believe myself fortunate enough to have convinced them of their mistake, I cannot say the same for any other large ears which might have overheard you braying ‘Penelope!’ all across downtown. So tell me,” she said, folding her arms, her voice even colder, “How long have you been stalking me?”

     “Huh?” I replied, now genuinely confused. “Stalking?”

     “Don’t lie to me, Ace.”

     “I’m not lying!” I said. “How could I stalk you? I don’t even know where you live!”

     “Really? So you just got hungry and decided to drive to New York for dinner? Ace, do you take me for a complete fool?”

     “I was with Mr. Price’s group! They go to New York every year! Somebody canceled and he asked me if I wanted to go! I didn’t even know you were there! I’ve been sitting around here waiting for months, for years, for you to come back, and I. . . .”

     At this point I lost my grip on all of my accumulated anger. A sob choked its way out of my chest, and I hated myself for it, but could not hold it in. “I didn’t even want to go, in case you came back while I was gone. But it’s been so long, and you didn’t even show up for my graduation, and I was so mad at you. So I went, and then I saw you with those other people, and I couldn’t help it, I . . .” And at this point my throat swelled shut and I stood there, silent and miserable.

     She stared at me. “Do you mean to tell me that your sudden appearance right under my nose was nothing more than a coincidence?” She shook her head. “I don’t believe it.”

     “It’s true!” I all but yelled. “You can ask Mr. Price. He called me!”

     And then Penelope’s face broke and she laughed. “Oh Ace, I didn’t mean--that is--oh this is just too much. . . .” She laughed, a merry peal that went on for so long I could feel a smile forcing its way to my own lips. “That is a tale of such outrageous proportions I am inclined to believe it must be true.”

     “It is!” I insisted, my own anger having melted away in the relief that she appeared to accept I was telling the truth.

     “Oh, of that I am quite convinced, Ace. No one could make up such a preposterous lie and expect to be believed.” She wiped her streaming eyes. “But that does not excuse you for violating the trust I placed in you,” she said, her voice serious once again.

     “I’m sorry,” I told her. “I really am. I’ve just missed you so much, and you kept promising to come back, and you didn’t, and when you sent that note ‘Delayed’ . . .” I trailed off, the misery returning.

     “That could not be helped.” She turned her back on me. I forced my mouth shut and waited.

     Then she turned to face me once more, a broad smile on her face. “It would seem I have underestimated the power of my charms,” she said as she stepped towards me, her long lashes shadowing her eyes. “And for goodness sakes, when did you grow so tall?”

     I swallowed the lump in my throat. “It’s been three years.”

     “So long? My, the days have just flown by, haven’t they?” She halted a breath’s distance away, standing well under my chin as she looked up at me. “And you have grown into quite the young man, haven’t you?”

     “I’ve worked hard,” I said. “I wanted to make you proud of me, to show you that you haven’t been wasting your money. . . .”

     “Oh pshaw, what is money?” Penelope said with a wave of her hand. “One day you will see its minor role in the grand scheme of things. Now, what I see is a young man who feels he has been wronged . . .”

     “No! I mean--”

     She waved her hand to cut me off. “No, no, I have treated you quite shabbily, and intend to make amends. Tell me, might there be an opening in your social calendar into which you could squeeze me? Say, tomorrow night?”

     “Tomorrow? I, ah, I think I could manage that,” I said, trying to match her humor.

     “Splendid! I will send Charles for you at, shall we say seven pm? And your sister as well.”

     “My sister?” I said, my voice sounding thick and stupid even in my own ears.

     “Yes. We are going to have a little dinner party, so dress accordingly. You see--” and here Penelope lowered her voice to a soft whisper. “There is something you and I must discuss, as one adult to another.” She rested her right hand over my heart. “Please assure me that this time I may have full confidence in your complete discretion?”

     I nodded fiercely. “You can count on me.”

     “We shall see.” She turned and walked back to her Mercedes, idling quietly as it waited for her. “Until tomorrow.”

 

*          *          *

 

     The next day I got up early to fix breakfast for Barb and me before dragging her downtown to Alice’s Beauty Den. She kept asking what the occasion was, but I had pledged silence to Penelope and had no intentions of breaking my word. So I told Barb to trust me (It’s a surprise!), and so she did.

     Fortunately this was the weekend, which meant that our mother had made plans that did not include either of us, which in turn meant no bothersome questions about where were we going and when would we return.

     The hours crawled by, but pass they did, and finally I heard a knock on our door. It was Charles.

     “Ready?” he asked.

     I nodded, then went to find my sister, whom I found sprawled on her bed writing yet one more letter to some boy she had met at school. I rolled my eyes and told her the guy was an asshole and she could do better. She snorted before muttering “Takes one to know one,” as she walked past me. I made to pinch her on the butt and she squealed “Leave me alone!” while flying out the front door past Charles, who simply stepped to one side and waited while I followed her out. He then opened the rear car door as I stood by and let my sister slide in before joining her.

     She turned to me. “We’re going to visit Miss Ember?” I did not reply, still holding to the letter of my promise, instead simply shrugging.

     “How long will it take to get there?” Barbie asked our driver, since I refused to say anything.

     “An hour or so, give or take,” Charles answered as he slid behind the wheel, then waited while tapping the steering wheel with the massive and ornate golden signet on his right ring finger. “Seat belts?”

     Barb frowned (she did not want to wrinkle her dress, the nicest she had yet received from Penelope), but she obeyed, as did I.

     It was already dark, and the air cold. We huddled in our coats until the heat finally kicked in. Charles took us out of town and onto a two-lane country highway I was unfamiliar with.

     After an hour of various turns and forks Barb nudged me and mouthed, “Where are we?” Since I had no idea, I shrugged again. Our mother rarely took us anywhere if she could help it, so our circle of familiarity pretty much ended at the city limits.

     Perhaps sensing our growing boredom, Charles reached over and switched on the radio. The music was unfamiliar, but soothing, some type of classical orchestra music.

     We knew we must be close when Charles turned off onto a gravel road. Trees bordered the narrow lane, huddling so close I wondered what would happen if we were to meet a second vehicle coming from the opposite direction. Barb looked out into the thick copse, the darkness at odds with the glare of our headlights, and visibly shuddered.

     After several minutes the trees pulled back and we spotted the outline of an enormous mansion, its lower windows filled with a golden light. I spotted a small structure on one end that looked for all the world like a tower. It was the biggest house I had ever seen.

     The circular drive led to a large set of double doors. Charles slowed to a halt, then got out and opened the rear door for us. I got out first, then reached down to help my sister, who was wearing high heels for the first time outside of our own home and therefore still a bit unbalanced.

     “Follow me,” Charles said before heading for the entrance. The steps were composed of large stone blocks, and worn smooth. I held Barb’s hand to steady her. We crossed the threshold and paused, looking up.

     The high ceiling left us both gawking. Huge timbers crisscrossed, real beams, not wooden planks nailed together to simulate such. A crystal chandelier hung glittering like frozen candle fire over the foyer. Multiple oil paintings hung on the walls in huge wooden frames, some of the portraits quite old. One in particular caught my eye, a young woman not much older than myself, with white blonde hair and eyes as blue as a winter morning. Her stare appeared to be focused on a spot over my head, and I resisted the urge to turn and look behind me.

     “Well, here you are!”

     I did turn then. Penelope, dressed in green satin, a necklace of red gems (Garnets? Rubies?) circling her white throat, approached us with open arms.

     “Barbie, my dear, how perfectly lovely to see you again.” She embraced my sister, kissing her warmly on each cheek. “Such an angel!”

     Every human being I have ever known has drawn nothing but a look of scorn from my sister after hearing her given name fall from their lips. Everyone, that is, but our hostess. “Hello, Miss Ember,” she said demurely, while I looked on in frank amazement at her uncustomary good manners.

     “You do take after your brother, don’t you? Penelope, please dear. And speaking of the young man, well, my my. You do clean up nicely, don’t you?”

     My cheeks flamed as though they were on fire. “You flatter me,” I said in my best courtly manner, bowing slightly.

     Penelope looked at me as though seeing me for the first time. “Oh, you will do just fine, just fine,” she murmured. “Come; let us retire to my sitting room. And please pardon the furniture. I myself am a strong believer in the admonition that form should follow function, which one would never guess after an unsuccessful attempt to sit comfortably on one of these grand monstrosities. Yet I am an Ember, which means I am a slave to tradition, and these chairs have been in my family for more years than I care to count. There’s a dear, take your seat in that one, it’s by far the least uncomfortable of the ménage. No, Ace, you come sit by me.”

     I sat next to Penelope, across from Barb. “Miss--Penelope, you have the most beautiful home I have ever seen!” my sister said. “It’s like something out of a movie!”

     “Why thank you, my dear--Charles, please prepare our guests some refreshments--we stole the designer from Charles Biltmore. Or so I’ve been told, that is. After assisting in the construction of that lovely chateau in Asheville, many of those craftsmen settled there to live. If you ever visit the town, you will see their influence all over. My family persuaded one of his  budding young architects to come here and practice his magic. True, it’s a bit solitary -- we own all the land between the lake and the river -- but the Ember family has always preferred a quiet existence as far outside of the mainstream as possible. Thank you, Charles, please make preparations for dinner.”

     “How many rooms?” my sister asked, her head swiveling non-stop.

     “You seek to make a liar out of me, don’t you? I truly cannot recall for certain, but if you would like to try counting for yourself, please feel free to do so. You see,” and here she patted my knee, sending an electric shock through me, “I have some matters to discuss with your brother, quite dull but necessary, and while it goes against my sense of etiquette to leave a guest to her own devices, I do promise to take as little of his time as possible. With your permission?”

     “Huh? Oh sure,” Barb said. “You say I can look around?”

     “Pry at will, my dear. All of the family skeletons are securely locked away, so do not fret,” Penelope said as she stood. I immediately got up as well. “I recommend you make the library your first stop. The upstairs is far less interesting, but consider any unlocked room fair game while I steal your sibling away for a short time. Ace?” Penelope extended her arm, which I took. She looked up at me, her eyes sparkling, as she led me away.

     We turned down one hallway, then another, before pausing at a heavy wooden door. “We will not be disturbed here,” she said and stepped inside.

     The walls were wine red, the furniture dark wood and more modern than the gilded antiques filling what I had seen of the house so far. A cream-colored love seat rested beneath a huge window with dark green curtains. Penelope reclined into it and patted the cushion beside her. “Sit down, Ace. We have important matters to discuss, you and I.”

     I sat next to her, all nervous energy. “Okay,” I said and waited for her to speak.

     She leaned on her elbow against the back of the settee. Lamps with shades made from stained glass cast a soft glow over the room and her features. “You know, Ace, I have practiced this conversation, and how to begin it, multiple times over the years, and I must confess I am still at a loss how to begin. So I hope you will forgive me if I express myself less than elegantly.”

     I nodded. “It’s okay. What did you want to ask--uh, I mean, what did you want to say?”

     She sighed. “Well, quickly said is quickly done, and I know you are dancing on pins and needles, so no more procrastinating.” She placed a slim hand on my thigh and held my eyes with her gaze. “Ace, one of you, either you or your sister, is going to die tonight.”

     As I stared into Penelope’s unsmiling eyes, a familiar sensation stole over me, one that I remembered from a dream in which the world got smaller and smaller like a rapidly shrinking hallway, until I could not move. Animals during the Ice Age must have felt the same way after wading into a mirror bright pool of water to slake their thirst, only to sink into the morass of a tar pit, while a saber tooth tiger crouched at the water’s edge, its yellow eyes gleaming.

     “What?” I whispered after finding my voice. Wait, what was wrong with me? She was kidding of course. This was just her strange idea of a joke.

     “I know this is going to sound odd,” she said, “But as I have said before, I have issues with modern social conventions. You being the eldest, I see it as your place to decide which of you it is going to be.”

     I stared into her eyes, searching for something, anything, any reason for this sudden burst of madness. And found nothing.

     “Are you crazy?” I choked out.

     “No, Ace. Please believe me when I tell you that I am perfectly sane. Now granted, were I sitting where you are, I would ask the same question. In fact, you could say that--in a way--I once was in your position, though the circumstances were quite different.”

     I wanted to slide away from her, but I could not move. “I told you I was not stalking you,” I said with as much calm in my voice as I could manage, which was very little. “Ask Mr. Price. I swear! . . .”

     She laughed. “Ace, you think this is about New York? No, my dear, if it makes you feel any better, tonight has nothing to do with that. I have been planning the itinerary of this evening for the past three years. Well, maybe four. Now granted, your sudden appearance in the hubbub of Times Square has forced me to modify my schedule somewhat, but the end result has never been in doubt.”

     At this point my paralysis broke and I stood, backpedaling away from Penelope as fast as I could. “No!” I said.

     She shook her head. “Yes, Ace. Now, let me tell you how this is going to go. You have two options. You can pick whichever one of you is to die. The other will live, and I will see to it that the one who survives enjoys a life of such luxury that he or she could only dream of. The second and only other option is for both of you to die. Those are your choices. Now, I know that this comes as quite a shock, so I do understand that you are going to need some time in order to collect your thoughts.”

     I had stood next to this woman only minutes earlier.. She was almost a foot shorter than me and I had to outweigh her by at least seventy pounds. She had no gun, not one that I could see, and no place in that outfit to conceal one, so how did she plan to kill either me or my sister? I could knock her out or something  . . .

     She shook her head and chuckled. “Ace, you are as transparent as air, and I must warn you before you attempt something stupid. While I can assure you that the notion you might somehow overpower this fragile female sitting before you and attempt an escape is a foolish one, for a moment let’s assume you could, just for the sake of argument. You cannot seriously think you could overcome Charles? The man could snap you in half and we both know that. But before he did, I guarantee you he would take your sister’s life in a messy and highly unpleasant fashion while you watched helplessly knowing you were next. Really, Ace, this is not rocket science. One or both? There is only one sensible option. Now, I have heard that there are multiple stages of grief when faced with death, and had we a week or so to work through them I would be willing to grant you those days. But time is of the essence, and I require an answer now. Who lives, and who dies?”