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Early August 2007

Another one of those days. Those days had been every day for just over five years, so Alice wasn’t surprised that today was patterned after yesterday and yesterday was patterned after the day before. If you put all the pieces together, her life had stopped making a quilt.

She was half-way in the door when she realized she had meant to go to the market to get eggs, having used the last two that morning at breakfast.

“Damn it,” Alice murmured to herself, pulling her key out of the lock and kneeing the door open enough for her to slip inside. She didn’t bother locking it again as she took the stairs up to the first floor, which was bright with the late afternoon sun filtering through the giant terrace windows. She set her briefcase on the kitchen counter and knocked off her shoes. Wiggling her toes in her nylons, she headed upstairs to her bedroom, peeling her jacket off as she went. That it was a pleasant enough day, weather-wise, was at least a benefit of having to go out again. She had been looking forward to a bath, however, after a very long day.

She untwisted her hair from its tight knot at the back of her head and let it fall free as she did a little dance out of her skirt and walked back downstairs in her buttondown. Checking her messages was a compulsion that even being half-dressed wouldn’t stop. If she had more errands to run or people to see, she wanted to know now.

Banging her thumb into the button, the machine beeped and a robot voice told her she had no new messages. Another beep. Mild disappointment. She unbuttoned the shirt and went back upstairs.

Alice had lost a fair amount of weight since Robert left, suddenly putting her at the size she had been when she met him. It was ironic, she supposed. The only difference was in the length of her hair. He had never seen her grow hers out. She had always said it was too difficult to maintain, but the truth was just that she always liked to cut it. Now she didn’t really care. Who else would be affected?

She pulled a black knit dress over her head and walked into the bathroom to twist her hair in a looser, freer version of the bun she had at work. The face looking back at her was wan and tired and the year of no sleep was catching up to her. She had faint but obvious dark circles under her eyes. It was easy to see them when her skin was so pale. But it was always pale. Robert had known every inch of it and he had touched the skin she so wished to scratch her way out of.

Grey sweater, as long as the dress. Her Earth Day bag. A scarf. Layers, even when her legs were bare, felt better than professional facades.

She grabbed her wallet out of her purse and counted her bills as she slid her feet into a pair of sandals and left the room.

Alice had moved into the Notting Hill home five years earlier and it still didn’t feel lived in. She had converted one of the bedrooms into something her young granddaughter would want to play in, though it hadn’t yet been tested, and every inch of space was cluttered with the things that had made their old London home a refuge from the city. She had the masks she had bought in places she would never see again. They hung along the walls by the terrace windows. The walls were vibrant enough to be works of art alone. Her furniture was warm and soft and comfortable. She had photos where she could bear them to be.

But it still felt like a house, not a home, and every time Alice came from the narrow garage she felt as though she was being shown around someone else’s dream home by an invisible agent. It was all clean. Immaculate. She had her odd collections here and there, a fridge covered in quirky magnets she had found over the years, notes stuck to a bulletin board and some cards someone sent her, but the rest of the personality was gone. She wondered if maybe she had lost hers.

It wouldn’t have surprised her in the least; Alice knew she wasn’t the same. She jingled her keys as she walked back down the stairs to the driveway and walked out to the pavement. A few other people seemed to have the same idea. It was too sunny to stay inside. A summer day with something to show for it.

Alice smiled at a neighbor and shouldered the bag, sliding a pair of sunglasses on when she found herself narrowing her eyes rather hard, until her temples pinched. A young man waiting for a bus on the corner gave her a looking over that made her cheeks go red, especially when his eyes lingered on her thighs.

Her dress was rather short. Suddenly she felt like tugging it down.

She didn’t, only because she didn’t want to draw even more attention to herself.

And it was hot, walking to the market. Hotter than it looked. She wondered if she should have taken the car, as walking three blocks with dairy in 80-degree weather wasn’t the best idea, but she had already walked two blocks and she would have had to pass the man again if she turned back. No, Alice decided, she was going to stay the course.

All the way into the front doors of the tiny organic market.

She pulled off her sunglasses and dumped them in her bag. A salesgirl gave her a little smile and she smiled warmly in return. They knew her name because they knew her family; everyone knew her family. They knew her because she came in here every week. What she didn’t know they knew was that she was rather sad. But Alice didn’t watch her reflection in the glass doors or in glass bottles or glass freezers. She didn’t really know.

What Alice did know was the layout of the shop, and she headed to the dairy without stopping anywhere else. She was here for eggs and eggs alone and then she was going back to her home and doing some work. Taking that shower, which would now be required as she would be sweating by the time she got back.

But the world couldn’t read her mind.

She made the mistake of pausing in the breads and condiments aisle. A dreadful mistake, really, as a salad dressing had caught her eye, but she had caught someone else’s.

“Have you tried nasturtium vinaigrette?”

Alice started. Her attention had been wandering towards it when she heard the man’s voice far above her left shoulder. She looked up. He had to be as tall as her father, but he looked nothing like him. Dark brown hair, a handsome face, and all too focused on her.

“I’ve made one,” she said, trying to look pleasant instead of frightened. “Have you?”

“No,” he said, his grin favoring one side of his mouth, giving him a sort of lazy, puppydog look. It was rather sweet but mostly just unwelcome.

“I don’t mean made one—I mean, have you tried it?” She shouldn’t have been engaging him in conversation.

“No. Forgive me for my lame attempt at a conversation piece.”

How could she not laugh a little?

“I’ve heard lamer,” she assured him, though by now her skin had begun a race to crimson.

“I’m not surprised. I’m probably running with the pack.”

“What pack?”

“The pack of men who must be ringing you at all hours.”

Alice looked at the nasturtium vinaigrette. “I can assure you that the only men calling me at any hours are my brothers.”

“Ah, so I’m pulling out ahead!”

Alice’s hands were shaking.

She didn’t want to be asked out. She didn’t want to give it a thought. It would be six years in just a few months, Robert was never going to come back, but she didn’t want to feel anyone else touching her the way he had. She didn’t want to feel intimacy ever again. Eventually, they would leave. They would never be enough. Robert had set the bar and set it high. Impossibly high.

But he was gone.

“If you call being the only one competing ‘pulling out ahead’, then you are,” Alice said, “but I’m afraid I’m not competing, myself.”

“Oh, I should have known you’d be taken,” the man said, shifting his basket a bit. Alice couldn’t help peering in. He had good taste in food, at least.

“Widowed,” Alice corrected.

The man’s tune changed almost immediately. She liked him, whether she was supposed to like him or not. But he wasn’t Robert.

“I’m sorry. I’m being much too forward. I had no idea.”

“I know. It’s all right. I’m probably silly for carrying on about it after five years, but, well, I am.”

“Five years? You don’t look old enough to have been widowed, much less five years ago. But ignore me. You and the heat have got to me.”

Alice smiled a little self-consciously and rubbed her neck. “I wasn’t expecting to be widowed at all, if it makes any difference. Timing was funny.”

“I imagine. And I’m sorry for your loss. But.” He fidgeted with his basket again, this time so he could reach into a pocket. He pulled out what was confirmed a business card. “If ever your grief needs one more step in the healing process, I would like nothing more than to take you out for lunch.”

Alice looked at his card. Kenneth P. Brighton, it said, in fancy scrawl.

“What’s the P for?” she asked him, avoiding the question.

“Paul.”

“You work for an insurance company.”

“You’re very astute, miss. Lunch?”

Alice waved the card a bit, looking at anything but Kenneth P. Brighton’s face. “I really couldn’t,” she said to the air. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable.”

“It’s me, isn’t it?”

He was still joking. She still found it refreshing.

“No, not at all! I’m not ready, that’s all. But I’ll keep your card, and if ever I need insurance or lunch, I’ll know where to go.”

He smiled a little. “All right, all right. I won’t push you. But don’t let the world wait much longer. It’s clear that the only reason a man would ever leave you is by force.”

Alice had been flushing a moment earlier, but she paled as she looked at the bottles. By force. Or because he was sick of her, sick of living, wanting her to live in limbo for the rest of eternity.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” she said, looking at him again.

She wouldn’t.

“Take care.”

He smiled at her in a way no one had smiled at her in a long time. A warm, almost caring sort of way not at all in keeping with someone who had asked a near-stranger (what Fitzwilliam was a total stranger?) in a grocery aisle. There was nothing wrong with his mannerisms. She found them sweet and bearable. He wasn’t the problem. She would never find love the way she had before. She would never be satisfied the way she was before. No one would ever understand her. He wouldn’t believe she was sixty seven.

But did she really care? One moment of intimacy after so long without it. She needed it. A hug. Anything.

As he left the aisle, she felt a strong desire to run after him. She didn’t want to go home alone. She didn’t want to spend another evening wondering what would change to make her life fulfilling again. If she didn’t correct it herself, it would never be corrected. She would never be happy again. She hadn’t asked for this.

She didn’t want this anymore.

Kenneth P. Brighton’s card went into her bag. She grabbed a bottle of nasturtium vinaigrette. Salmon for supper, then. She would need more than eggs.

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