Starless Skies

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Peter looked at his sleeping wife.  The streetlight’s glow caught the outline of her hand resting against his pillow.  The rings on her left hand cast a shadow on the pillowcase that almost touched her lips.  The rest of her was in darkness, hidden from the soft light that would have played upon her face, highlighted her dark hair.  He could still feel her soft warmth; still smell the gentle fragrance that was hers.

    He’d been lying beside her for some time unable to sleep, not moving lest he disturb her slumber.  She needed more sleep, the doctor had said, otherwise, she was fine.  “They were fine,” was how he’d phrased it.  Carefully, so as not to wake her, he’d slid to the edge of the bed.

     Standing, he stretched, released immobility’s stiffness, walked to the window that faced the street, looked out.  Gazing up, he could see nothing above the eerie glow the city lights reflected back from the clouds of the approaching storm.  Against this haze, the oak trees that surrounded the house extended naked, gnarled branches in protest, as if the mere lifting up of undressed limbs would ward off the impending storm. 

Peter missed the stars.  He wondered that people could not mind not seeing them.  He missed the country’s night noises, hearing instead late night traffic moving down Dodge Street a block and a half away.

He shivered.  The room’s chill penetrated his pajamas.  He hoped the approaching storm wouldn’t be severe; he was anxious to get home.  Another day of this place, of this inactivity was about all he cared to endure.  He was ready to be away, to be about the task of establishing his own home, of supporting his own family.  He reflected on the fact that January storms can sometimes be cruel, fierce, intense.  His anxiety heightened.

Glancing back to his sleeping wife, Peter reviewed their week.  Once again he was glad their stay was nearly over.  It would be better for them both once this visit was behind them.

     His thoughts drifted back to the surprisingly warm reception they had received.  Marie had informed them shortly before they’d left for Omaha that she’d written to Henry, had explained their changed circumstances hoping to save all parties the unavoidable awkwardness their news would engender.  She’d wisely mailed the letter to the bank so that Henry would have time to assimilate that news himself before deciding the best way to explain it to Margaret.  Marie’s tactful plan had worked.  By the time they’d arrived, Henry, though disappointed to be losing Elizabeth so soon, had grown excited about having a grandnephew.  He was convinced the baby would be a boy.

     Margaret was another matter.  Peter’s expectation of open warfare hadn’t materialized, but she’d been cool as a January morning towards him,  held her tongue in check, pampered her niece excessively, and pretended he did not exist, especially at bedtime.  Remembering her discomfiture their first night concerning sleeping arrangements, Peter smiled. 

“Margaret, they’re married,” Henry had said quietly to settle the matter; but he doubted she’d slept that night knowing he shared Elizabeth’s bed.  Judging by Margaret’s tired stare the next morning, he was convinced of it.

     The days since had been scarcely bearable for him.  Elizabeth had agreed to work the week while they began training her replacement.  He had not wanted to stay, but agreed they owed Henry that much consideration.  Not used to idleness or to city life, his days had been long; but in fact, a part of him was glad they’d stayed.  He and Henry had spent several very agreeable hours discussing Peter’s future plans.  Henry had been favorably impressed, had offered sound financial advice.  Peter understood now why Beth had always cared so deeply for him.  He appreciated the innate goodness of Henry Harrison and soon realized that, where Elizabeth was concerned, Henry was a true ally.  If it hadn’t been for earlier that evening, their stay may have ended pleasantly—may have.

     Turning back towards the street, Peter leaned his forehead against the cold window and replayed the end of their day in all its unpleasantness:

    

     “Why do I have to escort what’s her name?”

Elizabeth smiled at his exasperation. “It’s done this way in polite society, Honey.  It’s only for dinner, OK?”

     Elizabeth’s eyes sparked with good humor.  He, on the other hand, couldn’t so willingly accept the innocence of her aunt’s dinner party for them.  He feared some deeper motive behind everything the woman did, could not conceive her wish to honor him or their “hasty” marriage. 

Elizabeth, once again, couldn’t conceive anything as sinister so, for her sake, he’d quietly accepted his role.  Peter tugged self-consciously on the tie Henry had loaned him.  Henry’s jacket confined his shoulders unnaturally; at his waist, Peter could have wrapped it twice around.  He felt ridiculous, felt he didn’t belong in a banker’s coat no matter what the fit.  Simply said, he felt foolish.

     “You look fine,” Elizabeth whispered as if she read his mind.

     “I don’t feel fine,” he said quietly.  His eyes moved around the room, stopped on a man with wavy dark hair wearing a navy jacket and slacks.  He looked to be a few years older, twenty-four or five, Peter would have guessed, and while Peter wouldn’t have called him handsome exactly, he did have a certain bearing, a confidence easy to recognize.  The man greeted Henry and Margaret.  Then his eyes found Elizabeth.  He smiled and headed their way.

     “Elizabeth,” he said taking her hand.  “You look radiant.”

     Elizabeth touched Peter’s arm.  Her eyes met his uncertainly, and she said, “Peter, I’d like you to meet Sidney Bishop.  Sidney, this is my husband . . .”

     “Peter.  Nice to meet you.  I’ve heard much about you.”

     Poker-faced, Peter replied, “Yeah, I’ve heard about you, too.”

     During the meal, Peter had taken pains to use the fork others used, until, deciding he didn’t care, he tried to enjoy his meal.  He’d even contemplated removing Henry’s jacket but conceded that minor infliction.  At first, he’d been polite in his conversation with Felicia Abbott, his dinner partner.  Gradually, his attention had been drawn to the conversation at his end of the table.  Felicia’s father, Edward Abbott, and Henry were discussing the war in Europe, a topic Peter felt a personal stake in.  After all, if the country entered the war, not a wife and a child, not even a farm would keep him from it.  The longer conflict raged, the more credible that inevitability became.

     Henry Harrison was for neutrality at almost any price.  Abbott countered that the United States had no choice but to enter the conflict, the sooner the better. 

“Surely, Henry,” Abbott said, “You can see I’m right.  We must help England; and even you must admit, it would be the economic boost we need to finally pull out of this Depression.” 

     Peter glanced at Elizabeth at the far end of the table.  Sidney Bishop had her full attention, which didn’t bother him.  What bothered him was the closeness of his shoulder to hers.  Elizabeth nodded absently as he spoke.

     “But at what cost, Edward?” Henry countered. 

     Peter felt Henry’s eyes and picked up the thread.  “Do you have any sons, Mr. Abbott?”

     Abbott lifted his water glass.  “No, Felicia is our only child.  Your point exactly?”

     “I was only wondering if you’d feel the same if Felicia,” his eyes found hers, “were a boy?”  The pretty brunette smiled her admiration.

     “Are you a pacifist, Peter?” Bishop asked from the opposite end of the table. 

Peter looked over, noted Bishop’s arm draped over the back of Elizabeth’s chair.  He noted the ashen color of her lips, a color he’d seen only once before—the night she’d arrived by train from Omaha.

     “Are you a pacifist?” Bishop repeated.

     “No,” Peter said with forced reserve.  Elizabeth’s eyes met his.  “But if I have a choice, I prefer spending the next years at home with my wife, not backpacking across Europe.” 

     Something had transpired.  But what?  Elizabeth’s mood was altered, had fallen to this, whatever this was.

The flame of Peter’s temper ignited.  He kept it on simmer, but from the set of his jaw, the smoldering blue of his eyes, Bishop took the warning.  His arm moved.

     “We can’t blame you for that,” Henry said.

     Peter forced his eyes from Bishop. 

     “Peter has a good point, Edward.  After all, you and I aren’t the ones who will be called up.”

     “In other words, Peter,” said Abbott, “if your neighbor’s barn was burning, you’d sit quietly at home with your bride rather than come to his aid?”

     Peter’s anger notched up at the implication.  He looked over again and saw Elizabeth’s eyes move from her aunt to Bishop.  Both seemed to be pressing a point.  He had no clue what they were saying, but from her expression, he knew he wouldn’t like it any more than he liked the look on her face.  Turning back to Edward Abbott, he said, “Your analogy doesn’t hold water, Mr. Abbott.  We don’t generally get shot at saving someone’s barn. 

     “Besides, you missed my point.  I didn’t say I wouldn’t go.  I said, I’d prefer not to.”

     Henry Harrison chuckled.  “He has you there, Edward.  Well done, Peter.”

     Peter saw invitation in Felicia Abbott’s eyes as she said, “You’ve done it now, Peter.  Daddy may never forgive you, but I think you’re grand.”

     “No!”  Elizabeth’s voice was a bitter blend of hurt and anger.  Her chair tipped backwards as she stood.  “How could you even think it?” she said breathlessly to her aunt.  Her anger melted into tears.  “How could you?”

Peter put down his fork.

She made it as far as the door before she collapsed.

     “Beth?” Peter said.

     “My god!” Margaret screamed.  “Natalie, call the doctor!”

     Both he and Bishop hurried over.

     “Move,” Peter said, forcing Bishop away.  “Beth?”

Kneeling beside her, he cheeked her pulse, her respiration, called her name again and then, at Henry’s direction, lifted her, carried her into the sitting room. 

“Elizabeth?” he said, having laid her on the sofa. 

When there was still no response, he turned angrily, looked at both Bishop and her steel-haired aunt, and said, “What did you say to her?”

     “Nothing.”

     “Nothing?  Beth doesn’t get upset over nothing.”

Peter stepped towards Bishop. 

“I may not be from polite society, Bishop, but where I come from, we know how to respect another man’s wife!  What kind of game are you two playing?”

“Peter,” Elizabeth said weakly.

With a determined glare at both, he turned, knelt beside her and asked, “What is it?”

“I can’t see them right now.”

“Elizabeth!” Margaret exclaimed.  “If you’ll just listen to reason . . .”

“You heard her,” Peter said.

Margaret ignored him.  “Elizabeth, we only . . . I cannot stand seeing you trapped in this . . . this hasty marriage.  There are other options, dear.  If you’d only talked with me first . . .”

Elizabeth turned her face towards the back of the sofa and shut her eyes. 

“Oh!” Margaret stammered.  “You’re just like your father!  So simple-minded about things!  No vision for the future!”

“Margaret!” Henry Harrison snapped.

     Peter lifted Elizabeth’s hand, kissed it and asked,  “May I?”

     At her nod, he stood and faced her aunt.  “Frank Beehmer was one of the most decent men I’ve ever known.  How can you call such a principled man simple-minded? 

     “And just exactly what ‘other options’ are we talking about?”  The righteous indignation in Peter’s eyes momentarily cowed Margaret Harrison.  Pointing at Sidney Bishop, he asked, “And how does he figure into this?”

     Margaret Harrison regained her steel.  Her face froze in anger.  “Look at her!  This is your fault!  She wouldn’t be . . . in that state, except for you and your . . . lack of self-control!”

     “Self-control?  Somehow, that was the furthest thing from my mind when I discovered you were playing matchmaker between my fiancé and him!”  He pointed at Bishop.  Blue fire danced in his eyes as he turned to Bishop and asked, “What upset her?” 

Bishop didn’t respond. 

Peter stepped closer.  His eyes narrowed.  “You better damn well tell me or I’m going to ask you to step outside, and then I’m going to take your head off.” 

     “If you think you can.”  Bishop was half a head taller but lighter by twenty pounds. 

     “I know I can,” Peter said with a shove.  The lamp on the table behind Bishop tumbled to the floor.

     Bishop looked at Margaret. 

“We . . . invited her for brunch tomorrow at my solarium.  It’s very pleasant, very private.  I thought Elizabeth might be more comfortable there—that it might be a place more conducive to discuss ‘choices’.”

     “What ‘choices’ did you plan to discuss with my wife?”  There was no mistaking the disdain in Peter’s voice.

     Bishop’s eyes darkened.  “Margaret knows . . . I have a friend who . . . handles ‘problems’ like Elizabeth’s.  Very reasonably.”  He paused, looked at Elizabeth’s pale face, back to Peter and said, “Personally, I think someone as exceptional as Liz deserves—better.”  A peculiar light flickered in his eyes at the idea’s conception.  His voice ripe with implication, he added, “She’s been there before.” 

     “Liar!” 

Peter’s fist crashed into Bishop’s nose.  Bishop tumbled backwards.  Shaking with the need to protect not only Elizabeth’s reputation but his child’s very existence, he stood over the man he’d knocked to the floor. “Come on!  Get back up so I can hit you again!”

     Peter’s forehead ached from the cold.  He straightened.  Snippets of the mild-mannered banker’s tirade flitted once more through his mind:

     “I will not hear another word!  Options, indeed!  How can you even think it?  Elizabeth would never . . .

“That girl has given me more joy in the eight months she’s been here than you have in eight years!  No more!”

And so the evening had ended, dismally for all.  The only good news had been the doctor’s.  Stress was his diagnosis.  More rest his prescription. 

More rest and to be away from here, Peter thought.

It had been all of this and more that kept him from sleep, from hurrying back to bed in the chill of the midnight bedroom.  He glanced at Elizabeth’s sleeping form.  As much as he regretted their path, he was glad they were back on track.  She and the baby she carried were uppermost in his heart and mind—always.  He watched her sleep by the glow reflected back by the heavy sky and wondered if she would give him a son or . . . a daughter as beautiful as she was.

Turning, he crossed the room and lifted his pants from the chair by the south window.  As he bent to slip them on, a shadow moved outside.  Or, so it seemed.  Not certain, he stepped back and watched.  Something or someone was walking towards the house.  He noticed an older model sedan half a block away on the opposite side of the street.  Both the front bumper and the right front fender were missing. 

Grabbing his shirt, he slipped it on, waited.  The shadow emerged from another cast by a tall spruce in the adjoining yard.  It lifted a cigarette, seemed to be looking directly at Peter.  Ducking back so as not to be seen, Peter watched, saw the shadow flick the cigarette butt away, move towards the rear of the house.  Any doubt he’d had disappeared.  The man was Jess.

Heart hammering fiercely, he hurried from the room, down the front stairs.  Barefoot, he stepped out into the January night.  Jumping the porch railing, he landed alongside the brick steps, hurried around the side of the house.  As he ran, the ice-crusted snow cut his feet.  He saw the shape of the man slip behind the vine-covered wall that separated the garage from its neighbor. 

By the time Peter reached the spot, Jess had disappeared.  He stood for a long minute looking, straining to detect the slightest movement, listening for the faintest disturbance in the night sounds around him.  Nothing save the cold of the snow on his feet, the sound of traffic a block away.  Peter shivered as he made a quick check of the premises.  Nothing.  Back at the front door, everything was still.

Slipping quietly back inside, he checked the lock on the front door before going to the kitchen to check once more the rear.  He watched intently the spot where he’d seen Jess disappear.  Nothing moved; all was quiet.

Finally, satisfied Jess was gone, he descended to the basement and the warmth of the furnace room.  He opened the furnace door, tossed in a shovel of coal, watched while the red coals consumed it.  Warming his hands and back, he still listened for any sound that should not be.  In his mind’s eye, he saw a terrified girl lying bloody and abused on a hayloft floor, saw Jess at the bar, felt again his callous disregard of their friendship. 

And he remembered Jess, bloodied and beaten, lying in the straw as he carried Elizabeth past him.  His thoughts came full circle to the beautiful young woman sleeping upstairs, of her gentle eagerness when he loved her.  He watched the coals until warmed through, then went back to where she slept.  Before slipping into bed, he checked out the window.  The car down the street was gone.

As he crawled into bed, Elizabeth roused and slipped into his arms.  “Where were you?” she asked sleepily.  “I woke and you weren’t here.”

“Just feeding the fire, Sweetheart.  Go back to sleep.”  Peter held her close, kissed her.  Placing his left hand on the smooth contour of her belly, he laid his head next to hers on the pillow.  But . . . he did not sleep.

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