He hadn’t even met her yet, and Hugh was already in love.
Just the name sent a warm wind through him that made his heart flutter. He didn’t know a thing about her, not even what she looked like, but as he stepped through the gate and stood looking up at the grand house, a comfortable certainty filled him. It was a feeling. A premonition of sorts. He’d had them before, but those had been embers. This was a roaring flame.
The three-story Queen Anne towered, with gray roofs and gables, pale blue walls, and white trim. Green and gold trees crowded to its left and right. A straight path of stone led through a charming garden bursting with marigolds, begonias, zinnias, and hydrangeas. Flowering jasmine clothed metal benches and crawled over arching trellises; ivy draped upon bird baths. The fragrant air was so perfect and the sun so benign that Hugh had to force himself to go onward, up the elaborate front steps and into the shade.
The porch was just as alive, however, with cushioned wooden rocking chairs and a glass-top table upon which he could just see a pitcher of lemonade awaiting him. There wasn’t any lemonade—not really—but Hugh could picture it. He had always been one for vividly imagining things.
He rang the doorbell. Lemonade wouldn’t be appropriate now anyway, a summertime refreshment in October. Come to think of it, how was the garden so vibrant at this time of year? He turned to see it again, but it was too far away, and besides, the door was opening. Hugh faced the entrance with a smile, ready to finally meet Alma.
It was not she who answered, but a man who must be her father. He knew his name but it slipped through his memory. It evaded his tongue. Manfred? Marten?
“You are Hugh, are you not?” The man grinned. “I am Manuel. Charmed, I’m sure, I’m sure …” His skin was a rich brown, his hair carefully parted down the middle, his mustache pristine, and his silken shirt luxurious. He looked like he had just stepped off a boat in the Mediterranean.
“Yes, I’m Hugh.” He offered his hand, but Manuel was already turning.
“Come in, come in!”
Alma’s father beckoned him inside, shutting the door against the autumn chill.
Hugh removed his coat, hung it on a stand, and was about to ask Manuel about the garden when a woman stepped out from behind him.
“Meet my lovely wife, Caroline!”
“Pleased,” said Hugh, his throat dry. If Alma took after her mother, then she would be a lovely sight indeed. A slim dress clung to the woman, her body gracefully thin, like a maple branch or a violin, hair falling in waves to her shoulders, delicate metal spectacles embellishing her eyes.
Hugh’s gaze didn’t linger. Already he was looking past her, beyond her husband, past the dim, vast elegance of the home’s interior toward the grand, beckoning staircase. A cluster of footsteps echoed down, and a male voice boomed, “Who’s there, Manuel? Is it him?”
He knew that Alma lived with several relatives, but Hugh was not in the mood to meet anymore just yet. He wanted to see her.
“Where’s Alma?” he asked Manuel. “Is she upstairs? Is she coming down?”
“Now, my dear boy, let’s not rush it!” Manuel wrapped an arm around his shoulder and steered him toward a doorway to the right. As they passed into the next room, Hugh cast a glance backward just in time to see a pair of legs appear on the stairs.
They stood in a sitting room. Frail curtains, cozy chairs and sofas, patterned lampshades.
“Have a seat, Hugh,” Manuel insisted, taking the biggest armchair.
He sat stiffly on a sofa across from the man.
“Caroline, be a doll and make us some coffee?”
With a brief smile, Alma’s mother went off, presumably toward the kitchen.
Manuel leaned back and sighed as if nothing in the world pleased him more than sitting. Through the sheer curtain, Hugh could see a bare oak bent over in its age.
“So Hugh—tell me about yourself! Where do you come from?”
Hugh cast a nervous glance back toward the doorway. Whoever had descended the staircase had still not appeared. “Well, sir, I’m finishing a woodworking apprenticeship at Stanson’s. In my third year.”
“And how do you like that? Is it fulfilling?”
“Quite fulfilling, sir. I love using my hands to craft, to create. Nothing like looking at something you’ve made.”
“I should say so!”
Caroline returned with the coffee, served in a porcelain flowery tea set. She took the seat beside Manuel and they traded questions. The coffee tasted of caramel and nutmeg. It went on like this, Hugh telling them about his parents back in the city—one a doctor and the other an engineer—his childhood dreams of being a sailor, and his affinity for horseback riding in the country.
“Yes, but how do you feel about music?” said a loud voice from behind him.
Hugh turned, and there stood a short man, his sleek hair wavier even than Caroline’s, his mouth wry beneath a thin suggestion of a mustache. He extended a hand toward Hugh, then seemed to think better of it, gesturing at himself instead. “Roberto. Uncle Roberto.” He winked.
Hugh looked toward the doorway leading to the staircase. Was that not where the man had come from, down the steps? How had he failed to notice him enter?
“Pleased to meet you—”
“Let’s go into the kitchen, dear,” said Caroline.
When Hugh swiveled, she was on her feet, already making her way toward the room from where the coffee had come. He made to grab his teacup, to carry it through, but Manuel lifted it.
“Not to worry, I’ve got it. You’re our guest, after all—relax!”
Hugh followed a warm, spicy scent into the kitchen, which despite its high ceiling was cozy, everything painted white and blue, gleaming in the light pouring from a large window to the left. On the island, a silver tray of square pumpkin tarts invited his eyes. He wanted one, but his stomach was also beginning to clamp in his frustration.
“Where’s Alma?” he asked Uncle Roberto, trying to mask his impatience.
Roberto waved a hand. “Still upstairs, champ. She’s not ready yet.” He put a hand to the side of his mouth. “Between you and me, she’s shy.”
His stomach unclenched and flipped. Shy? Alma? So she was nervous to meet him too? Did she have the same feeling then—that certainty, that undeniable magnetic pull?
“She’s just been feeling a little under the weather,” said a voice, and when Hugh turned, a plump woman was removing a sheet from the oven. On the sheet was more pumpkin tart, and it smelled glorious. She set the sheet to cool beside the tray and doffed the oven mitt, dusting her hands and smiling. Her dark hair swirled elaborately upward, and the glasses perched on her nose were the kind Hugh associated with reading.
“I’m Alma’s Aunt Flora. Very nice to meet you, Hugh. Don’t be shy, take one of these tarts! Not the hot ones, mind you. I promise you I wouldn’t poison you.” She gave a great braying laugh and closed the oven.
“Thank you.” As he took one—it was as delicious as it smelled—he looked behind him and was startled to see he was alone in the kitchen with Flora. Where had Alma’s parents gone? Her uncle?
“Don’t those warm you right up?” Flora cried with glee.
“They are wonderful.” He took another bite.
Music floated from somewhere.
“That’ll be Roberto.” Flora nodded toward the next doorway.
Hugh drifted through after her, finding a dining room rich with oil paintings, glossy wood, and spice-scented candles. To the far side, Uncle Roberto crouched over a piano, playing a lively piece that sounded like Chopin or Liszt. He turned as they entered, fingers still at work on the keys, and grinned. “Come and join the music!”
As they stood beside the instrument, Flora said, “He’s always in these moods.” But she seemed to be enjoying herself, swaying to the sound.
For a wild moment, Hugh was sure she would grab him by the hands and turn him into a dancing partner.
“Listen,” he said, talking over the piano and Flora’s incoherent singing, “I really appreciate you showing me around and being such good hosts, but… Well, is it too much to ask that I see Alma now?”
Roberto didn’t stop playing, but his smile faltered, his fingers slowing. Flora’s flamboyant movement regressed again to swaying.
“Well, Hugh,” he said, “I don’t suppose it would hurt”—he exchanged a glance with Flora—“if we visited upstairs, see how things are going.”
Back in the entry-room, they started climbing the steps, feet muffled on the faded red runner. When they reached the first landing, Hugh turned and looked below; the ground level seemed much farther than he had expected. Beside him were Caroline and Manuel, the latter holding a pumpkin tart to his mouth as they walked, eating it over a napkin. He must have just come from the kitchen.
“Where’s Roberto? Flora?” Hugh looked around.
“Aunt Flora went back to baking, dear,” Caroline told him gently. “And you know Roberto; you can’t pry him away from that piano.”
Now that he listened, Hugh did hear the music again, but this time slower, like the most somber of Beethoven’s sonatas.
They turned right, into an endless second-floor hall. Door after door greeted them, and he wondered which was Alma’s.
“Is this him?”
Hugh turned toward the voice; a small old woman stooped behind a half-open door. Her hair was spun cobwebs and her skin was burnished copper. Despite her frailty, her eyes were strong. When no one responded, she said, “I’m Margarita, child. Alma’s grandmother. No need to stare.” Before Hugh knew what was happening, the door swung wide and she was beckoning to him.
It was a bedroom, but it looked more like an aviary. Great golden cages lined every wall, and the space was filled with the kaleidoscopic plumage and mingled chorus of cockatiels, canaries, and macaws. Hugh found Margarita standing proudly in the center, like a child showing off a toy collection.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?”
Some of the birds roamed free, and one canary landed on her arm before alighting toward the window.
“They are.” Hugh turned to the doorway. He’d thought Manuel and Caroline had entered with them, but they must have continued along the hall, or went back downstairs.
“My, but you are antsy!” said Margarita.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You must learn to take each moment as it comes, child. Won’t you pass some time with a lonely old woman?”
Hugh didn’t point out that she had the company of her family to ease her loneliness. Instead he stood awhile, looking at the birds and petting a few with his finger.
“Sometimes I want to open the window and let them all fly away,” said Margarita wistfully. “Fly away into the sky.”
Hugh could find nothing to say.
Finally Margarita said, “Are you ready?”
Margarita lifted her chin, and Hugh turned.
There she was.
She was as heavenly as he had imagined—no, more. His imagination, although vivid, could never conjure something so wondrous as her. She walked closer, her steps so light and graceful it seemed she was floating. Her skin glowed in the window’s light, her hair falling in a single braid behind her. A modest but slim dress of elaborate white lace clothed her figure. As he stood speechless, her heart-shaped face offered a radiant smile.
“I’m glad to finally meet you,” Hugh said.
Her eyes held him. His heart sounded in his ears.
“Will you come with me?”
They were in the hallway now, just them, alone. Respectfully, Hugh kept a distance, but found it increasingly difficult. The magnetism was stronger than he had foreseen.
“Why did you hide away up here so long?” The words came before he could stop them. But even as he spoke, his anger faded, his frustration dissolving.
“Was it truly so long?” said Alma coyly, another smile playing at her lips.
“I spent a deal of time with your family before I even met you!”
“Naturally. How can you hope to know me without knowing them?”
At this, Hugh was silent. He couldn’t stop staring at her lips, at the soft artistry of her waist.
“I…I’m sorry. I was eager, I suppose.”
“As was I. But the moment had to be right.”
This moment was very right indeed. He felt his skin humming, his face flushing.
“Won’t you stay for dinner?”
His heart thumped once, twice. “Why, yes, I believe I will.”
Hugh joined the family at the large table. The piano was unoccupied, but a record somewhere washed them with waves of jazz. Dinner was a mix of cultures: sopa azteca, tamales, buttery rolls, roast sweet potatoes, fresh salad, and paprika-smoked chicken. The drinks were abundant, with warm apple cider, atole, and ceaseless wine.
Alma’s family was unusually attentive to her, as though she were a princess. Uncle Roberto pulled her chair out, before Hugh could even consider doing so. Manuel made her plate and Aunt Flora served her atole. Perhaps they—like Hugh—considered this a special occasion of great importance.
He could hardly concentrate on his food. He kept stealing glimpses of Alma over the rim of his glass, watching out of the corner of his eye for that starlight smile to reappear.
Everyone was talking, especially Roberto and Flora. Alma’s aunt told joke after joke, and their combined laughter resounded, bouncing off the walls. Alma’s was one of silver wind chimes and murmuring streams, and her voice was the sparkle of sunlight on water made audible.
Was it his overactive, desperate mind, or did her eyes find his repeatedly? He knew he shouldn’t feel so enamored so quickly, but the feeling was relentless.
Over the course of the evening, he learned of her inclination toward live theatre, her love of painting, and her longing for mountain landscapes.
“I’m a craftsman as well. I work with wood; it’s quite satisfying to have created something. A thing in all its uniqueness.”
“Isn’t it?” said Alma, with another of her wry smiles. Hugh’s heart skipped.
The dinner was over in a flash. Caroline carried the plates away, and in the flurry of movement, Hugh blinked before noticing that Alma was already through the doorway.
He rushed through to find her, nimble on her feet, already climbing the stairs.
“Leaving already?” he cried, hating the desperation etched in his voice.
The waning sun found Alma on the steps, painting her like moonlight in pallid white veils. She turned to him, and now her smile seemed sad. “Leaving isn’t forever.” Before Hugh could respond, she continued climbing, and as she stepped out of the light, it was as though the shadows swallowed her, making her fade from sight like a memory.
Someone stepped up behind him, and he turned. It was Grandma Margarita. “Don’t worry, child. It was time for her to retire.”
“But I only just met her! We’ve hardly spoken.” He wasn’t a child, not anymore, but in this moment he sounded like one.
Margarita nodded with sympathy. “This I know, but there is time. Why don’t you stay the night?”
“Stay the night?” Hugh said, still looking at the steps where Alma had vanished. How could he? He had better be returning home …
“Yes, pass the night here,” said Manuel, appearing beside Alma’s grandmother. “We have plenty of guest rooms. I assure you, it would not be improper in the slightest. Great space all to yourself. What do you say, Hugh?”
They prepared for him a large room with a spectacular view of an apple orchard at the rear of the house. All night, sleep eluded him. Moonlight flooded in through the partially closed drapes, spilling silver blankets upon the wooden floor and the rug. He stared, watching dust motes spiral and dance.
His time with Alma thus far had been thought-provoking, to say the least. And the more his mind retread, the more uneasy he felt. Why had she taken so long to meet him? Why did she stay for dinner only, retire so early? Why had she seemed to melt into the shadows on the steps like a mist?
He shook himself. He was being foolish. He couldn’t even admit to himself the word that had floated to mind. They weren’t real. It was just this old house—this darkness, this aloneness—that was stirring his superstitious nature. He always had possessed quite a vivid imagination.
However, if he could just slip out of bed and into the hall, find whichever room was Alma’s…then, maybe, he would see. Then he would behold concrete evidence to ease his childish suspicions.
He lay there, as awake as ever, unable to quench these thoughts, watching the dust, until finally he did just that. In the hallway, darkness swam over every door. The shadows were eternal. He knew which door was Grandma Margarita’s—behind him—but the others were a mystery. He approached one after the other, but each time, his heart thumped and echoed off the wood. He listened, but dared not open them.
Hugh was about to return to his room, try another fruitless dance with sleep, when a passage ahead caught his eye: the hallway opened, and a metal staircase spiraled upward into blackness. He put a hand on the tarnished banister, one foot on the lowest step, staring up, trying to summon his courage.
To his left, a sliver of light drew his gaze. Pale light peeked through a cracked door. A moment later, he stood before it, hands pressed to the oak, his pulse filling the space of silence.
Slowly, the door creaked open at his touch. A large four-post bed with a white canopy dominated the room, but the bed was empty. Not just empty: neat, as though it had just been made. Hugh looked over the room and saw a half-finished painting on a large canvas, paintbrushes lying on an ornate wooden chair. The window was open and a cool wind scurried. He stepped closer. The painting, though in progress, clearly portrayed the house he now stood in, Alma’s house, at nighttime and bathed in moonlight. He shivered. The house’s right side had yet to be added. Leaning closer, Hugh discerned small figures on the front stone walk. They were hand in hand, a man and a woman, facing the house. Her braided hair trailed along the lace clinging to her back. And the man—
Why, the man was him! Alma had painted the two of them, as a couple, unless his eyes, his mind’s inventiveness, were fooling him. But as he stared, the image did not dissolve. Alma’s feelings were as strong as his own then, her desire as potent. Warmth simmered in his stomach, and he smiled.
But as he turned, his eyes grazed the empty bed. Where was she? Was she below, wandering the grounds, alone at night? Was she an insomniac?
Was she something else?
Still full of unanswered questions, yet of fresh resolve, Hugh returned to bed.
He didn’t see Alma until well after lunchtime. After stealing a few hours of sleep, Hugh had woken early. He had breakfasted with Manuel and Caroline—omelettes, toast, and coffee—and wandered the house, perusing the grand library-slash-bar which Manuel maintained, idling in the kitchen while Aunt Flora prattled on and baked casseroles, and listening politely as Caroline and Uncle Roberto performed songs together.
He asked when Alma was joining them, but only once or twice. If it hadn’t been for last night, Hugh might have excused himself from the house, withdrawn to his home, his solitude. But he had witnessed tangible evidence of Alma’s passion. Why, then, did she not come? What was keeping her? Was it as simple as timidness? Surely, now that they had acquainted, she should feel more comfortable making his company.
Hugh tried to remain at ease. After a lunch of tortas and black beans, he lounged in the library, reading a book about boats.
“There you are.”
Alma stood in the doorway.
Hugh shut his book. “Here I am? I’ve been here all this time!” It wasn’t anger, but amusement that twisted his voice. “And what about you? You do love to keep a man waiting, don’t you?”
Alma smiled but offered no explanation, no excuse. “Won’t you join me in the garden?”
They walked among petunias, sweet alyssum, and pansies, along the narrow trail circling the house. Alma kept a distance behind him, and Hugh glanced back.
“Why don’t you walk beside me?”
She gave him one of her iridescent smiles. “I’m enjoying the view.”
“Why do you pretend indifference?”
This time her smile was small, knowing. “Indifference?”
Turning toward her on the path, Hugh abandoned caution. “I’ve seen how you look at me, how your eyes linger.”
Alma said nothing.
“You can’t hide your feelings, anymore than I can.”
“But we hardly know each other, my dear Hugh.” Yet in her words was an implication, a challenge.
“That may be, but there’s a deeper sensation. I know you feel it too. You’ve seen us together in your mind. You’ve painted us.”
Her eyes glittered, her mouth curling. “Have you been snooping in my room, sir?”
Hugh stopped, distracted by her lips. “I—” He recovered. “I couldn’t help myself. I was curious …”
When she said nothing, they walked on. Finally he reached toward her. “Let me take your hand. Only that, only your hand. Then we shall see.”
“And what shall we see?” Her voice was soft.
He stretched his hand out, and she withdrew.
In the blink of an eye, she had turned and was walking back toward the porch.
Hugh felt helpless. “Why do you shrink from me?”
Alma didn’t reply, but turned back, favoring him with that small smile again.
In the time that followed, Hugh tried again and again to break past Alma’s defenses, if defenses they were. This seemed more than ordinary shyness. It felt deliberate, personal. In addition, it became increasingly difficult to find alone-time with her. In the rare moments that they were together, her family managed to swarm in, drawing Hugh’s attention—or Alma’s—to another area, another task.
Hugh’s need for closeness only grew more insistent. It was more than attraction that fueled it; he longed for something tangible to dispel his nocturnal fears, the unspoken word to which his mind at last gave voice: ghost. He had to laugh; it was absurd. Preposterous. His mind was overactive. Not only were ghosts nonexistent, but even if they did roam the earth, Alma couldn’t be among them.
Still, he couldn’t help noticing that he saw her only a brief time each day, remaining for one meal, an hour or two at most, before disappearing. And Hugh could not shake the memories of her vanishing on the staircase, her empty room, the ethereal way she moved …. If he could only touch her—just once, just a brief touch—then he would know.
Despite these hindrances, their bond developed. In the scant time together, they shared glances, smiles, tender words, and playful quips. Hugh said how lovely her laughter was, and she gifted him with her radiant smile. Once or twice, she caught his gaze lingering on her waist, her legs, her neck, and her eyes found his, glittering. One occasion found them both relaxed and lounging in the library, Hugh reading aloud while somewhere, a record serenaded them with folk guitars; out of nowhere, Alma said, so softly as to herself, “You have quite a beautiful soul, Hugh.” He was struck mute for a while, until he finally returned the compliment, smiling. The connection—as electric as though wires spanned the distance between them—only served to frustrate Hugh more since physical closeness was still elusive.
Of all of Alma’s relatives, Margarita was his favorite. In the stretches of time when Alma would withdraw in solitude, Hugh often sought the company of the grandmother and her birds. The place became one of peace, more so than the warm kitchen, the dining hall fragrant with piano notes, or even the library. And Margarita was the one with whom it was easiest to speak, to reveal his thoughts.
One day, he started to say, without thinking, “Is Alma a…?”
Margarita fixed him with a sage look. “What did you want to ask, child?”
He bit his lip, thinking how ridiculous this was. “It’s a silly thing to ask, but well—is she a ghost?”
She laughed in a good-natured way, petting a cockatiel and looking out the window, before turning to him. “Of course not! What makes you think that?”
“Well ….” And he told her all about Alma’s appearances and disappearances, her supernatural aura, her mysterious nature, and her aversion to physical touch.
“The girl is shy,” said Margarita simply. “Sometimes, these things just take time. Just wait. You’ll see.”
How long had he stayed in this house? It had all started with the first night he had lodged here, which hadn’t seemed out of the ordinary, but now—with the incessant company of Alma’s family, the ongoing activity—time had seemed to slip through the cracks. If it weren’t for her, he would feel no need at all to linger. Yet he did.
Hugh grew accustomed to Alma’s visitation patterns. He could sense when her hour of appearance was drawing near. And so, one day, he took a chance.
It was approaching dinnertime, and Hugh was sitting at the piano, trying desperately to learn how the keys worked while Roberto leaned over his shoulder encouragingly. He could hear Aunt Flora in the kitchen preparing four different dishes, but Alma’s parents were elsewhere in the house. He hadn’t seen Alma since well before breakfast, and his premonition filled him.
Hugh turned, standing from the instrument. “Thank you, Roberto. You’ve been most helpful. I think I’ll wander off to the library before dinner. Be nice to have a real musician at the piano now.”
Delighted, Robert sat and began a heartfelt performance of a song that struck chords of familiarity in Hugh: Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume.” While the notes drifted through the air like windblown leaves, Hugh did indeed wander … but toward the wide, inviting stairwell.
At the second floor landing, he looked to Margarita’s room, but for once it was shut. Even the birds seemed to be napping. Moving on, he approached his destination with galloping heart. Alma’s door was closed too, but the knob turned easily, smoothly.
Hugh was sure she wouldn’t be here, but there she sat, before her canvas, painting. She turned as he entered.
“Hugh! What are you doing here?”
She didn’t sound accusatory, only surprised.
For a moment, Hugh could only stand and stare. The window behind her allowed the dusk sky to bathe her in a silken light. Then he moved forward.
“Of course I’m here.”
“Why do you shut yourself away? You know I …”
She turned from her art, standing to face him. “What is it, Hugh? What troubles you?”
Even now, habit forced him to keep ten feet from her.
“This is the first time we’ve been alone. In ages.”
Alma nodded. “All right, so we’re alone. What is it you’d like to say?”
Hugh found his throat dry, his words timid. Still, he willed himself to move closer. On the canvas was Alma’s newest work: a scene bursting with color, the two of them, she and Hugh, in a sea of garden flowers, hand in hand.
He found her eyes again. This time there was no twinkle; she seemed to be measuring his every word.
“You keep painting us. Together.”
“Together, Alma. Holding hands.”
“So I do.”
He waited. “Then, why can I not …?” He stopped, feeling foolish even after all this time. “Why can I not touch you? Why can’t I reach for your hand?”
He reached now, hesitating; his chest shuddered as his breath hitched.
Alma watched him with a quiet wisdom. “What is it you fear, Hugh?”
For a long time he said nothing. How could he? Although he had asked Margarita, saying it to Alma was unthinkable. “I just … I’m afraid I can’t touch you.”
“Why can you not touch me?” she asked him softly. Her image shimmered, but it was only a cloud passing outside the window.
He forced himself to hold her eyes. “Because you … I mean, you … You might not be real.” He could only whisper the words, childish as they were.
“Oh, Hugh.” The hint of her coy smile returned. “Me—not real?”
“I know, I know.” He could not bear to look at her.
“And why should I not be?”
“I don’t know, you’re just so … so wondrous, you couldn’t be. Maybe I imagined or … or maybe you’re a …”
He couldn’t quite bring himself to say the exact word. “A spirit,” he said instead.
Her smile grew, widened. “You think I’m a ghost? Is that it?”
“I …” Now that it was out in the open, he felt very foolish indeed. With a great effort, he met her gaze again. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, I—”
“Why don’t you touch me then?”
“I—what?” His throat closed up, his heart leaping. He looked down and saw Alma’s hand—her soft, supple, perfect fingers—reaching toward him, as if in a dream. He had never been this close, had never seen the strands of her eyebrows, the curvature of her lashes, the timid disarray of freckles on her cheeks. Nor the soft glisten of her lips. “Truly?” he breathed.
“Touch me and see.” Still that same smile, as though they shared a joke.
Slowly, hardly believing it, still afraid, Hugh lifted his own hand and brought it toward hers, until … their skin made contact, their fingers first pressing, then entwining. He loosed a shaky exhale of relief. Her hand felt so good, so right. So real.
He looked up, and her eyes opened like pools of warm cinnamon, inviting. With her mouth, she only said again, “Touch me.”
Breathless, Hugh brought his other hand until he held both of hers lightly, feeling her gentle palms, her knuckles, her wrist bones. His fingers trailed upward, along the curves of her arms—but slowly, so slowly, as though to caress every wisp of hair there. His heart hammered and he found Alma’s face again, unreadable, but so vulnerable. Almost sad.
“Hugh…,” she whispered.
His fingers found the insides of her elbows, and farther up, her shoulders. Everything was soft, fragile beneath his hands, open to his touch. No wood he had handled had ever felt so important, so precious, so alive.
Something found his chin: Alma’s fingers, lifting his face—his eyes—to hers. For a moment he thought he had done something wrong, that she wanted him to stop. His hands had moved on to the lace covering her back, over her shoulder blades and along her spine. Her eyelids flickered as they looked at one another, her body trembling. And without saying it, he knew what she was asking.
Leaning in, he found her with his lips, and then they were on her bed, her bed so neat as though no one ever slept there. Their lips explored each other with a quiet familiarity, a feeling, a comfortable certainty. His hands never left her, trailing over her back, her waist, up to her neck and along her braided hair. The twilight gave way to moonlight, and they swam in its cascading white glow, their figures wrapped as though to lose themselves in the other.
He didn’t know how long they stayed this way, but then at last their embrace broke, and he pulled back. On Alma’s face he saw tears, and they were diamonds, constellations of glittering moonlight.
“Oh, Hugh. My Hugh …”
“Alma, what is it?” With a thumb he wiped a tear, touched along her hair, over her ear, wishing to still her trembling lips. “Everything’s all right.”
“Do you trust me?”
“Trust you? Of course I do, with my heart entire.” He gave a short laugh. “To think I believed you might be a ghost …”
She gave one of her small, sad smiles. “I want you to see something. Will you come with me?”
“Of course I will.”
Clutching hands, they left the shower of window-light and went down the hall, descending the staircase. The house was quiet.
“Is dinner over already?” he wondered aloud. “Where is everyone?”
“They’ve already gone.”
She moved ahead, opening the front door, and they stepped into the autumn evening. The trees beside the porch were bare, and in the cool shadows the garden was withering. How could that be? They were only just here a few days ago, when everything had been gloriously alive.
“What is it I should see, Alma? The flowers? What’s happened to them?”
But Alma was walking past the garden without a second glance. He followed until they stood, side by side, before the gate, staring at the quiet street beyond.
“Step out here with me,” she whispered.
“And go where? It’s a brisk night, what—?”
She opened the gate wide. Uncertain, Hugh looked at her, at the sheen of drying tears on her face, and took a step toward the street. He heard the click of asphalt under his shoe, and then—
He stood inside the house, looking up at the stairs.
“Hold on ...”
He looked behind him, but the door was closed, and Alma was beside him in the dark foyer.
“What just happened?” There was a tremble in his voice he didn’t like. “Why are we here?”
“We can’t leave. Not yet.”
“What do you mean, we can’t leave?” He studied her face. “Alma, tell me. Why can’t we?”
She fixed her eyes upon him. “Not until you’re ready.”
“Ready? Ready for what?”
She only looked at him with melancholy, then beckoned him into the dining room. Hugh had never seen it so empty, so eerily desolate. Abandoned. She indicated the piano.
“Play me something.”
“I—I’m not really a musician, you know. Where’s your uncle?”
“Not here. Go on.”
Hesitating, Hugh sat and ran his fingers lightly across the keys, playing a disjointed tune with few notes. “How’s this?” He turned to her.
He returned his eyes down to his hands, but although he still pressed on the keys, the white and black shapes barely shifted. No, they didn’t move at all. The sweet tinkle of the piano’s notes faded in the air, dying.
Hugh stood with a start, backing away from the piano. “What’s happening?”
Alma stayed where she was, and suddenly Hugh realized—no, thought he realized—that he had backed into the table. Right through the table. But that … this was impossible. He leapt away, retreating toward the corner.
“Oh, Hugh, my dear Hugh,” Alma sighed, taking his hand. She brought him closer, and her eyes danced in the shadows. “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? Alma, sorry for what?”
She lifted a hand and brushed it along his cheek.
“How can ...? Where are your parents? Where are your aunt and uncle? Your grandmother?”
“They’re gone. Dead, Hugh. Long ago.”
“Dead?” He almost shouted it. “No, but— How …? That can’t be, Alma. No—it can’t! I just saw them earlier today.”
“You asked if I was a spirit,” she said softly.
“I am.” Her lips quivered. “And so are you.”
He tried to back away, but she stayed with him, grabbing him by the arm.
“No, you’re …. Alma, that can’t be.”
“Shush, now. It is.”
“But your family—”
“—died a long time ago. I’ve been alone in this house for ages, waiting for you.”
How could she say this to him? How could this be true, any of it?
Her mouth opened in a wider smile. “Yes, Hugh. This is our Entanglement Point. We had to find each other.”
His brain was reeling, but if what she was saying was true, did he even have a brain? The thought almost made him burst out laughing.
“Alma—you can’t mean it. We’re not dead! We …” He reached out, stroked her face, her lips, her chin.
She lifted her fingers to his arm gently. “Yes, of course we can feel one another. We’re akin, you and I.”
Hugh was shaking his head. “But your parents, your family …. All of that was real.”
“Only my memories, I’m afraid. The food, the gardens, the music—I projected them into this space, and you were only too eager to believe them. You have quite the strong imagination, Hugh.”
“I’m alive!” he cried. “Why, I only just arrived here, and before …”
He trailed, and Alma watched him.
“You don’t remember traveling here, do you? To my house?”
Hugh didn’t admit it, but she was right. He only remembered stepping through the gate and approaching the door. But this was impossible, it could not be.
“Why even project them—all those memories? Why not just meet me, just the two of us, and have it done?”
“I needed you to trust me. Would you not be suspicious of a young woman living alone in this great house?”
Hugh could not respond for a time. “Then why distance yourself? All those times I longed to feel your hand, why not let me …?”
“If it happened too early, our hands would have passed one another. Our bond had to form first.”
His heart ached. “But then …. You were only pretending?”
“Everything we’ve done, all that we’ve experienced… You only wanted my trust?”
“Oh, Hugh. Of course our love is real. That tether is what binds us.”
Hugh swallowed, his mind still swimming. “But I ate. I drank! I … I sensed things. I sense things now. The air, the light, the smells …”
“Your mind makes it real,” said Alma gently. “It clings onto everything and makes it as firm as it can.”
“My mind? How can I have a mind if I don’t have a—a body!” The whole thing was ridiculous.
“Your mind stays with you, with us, at least for now. Until we … leave.”
Outside, the windows were growing blacker, the air quieter. The sound of the piano was quite forgotten by now, as though buried by tons of earth.
Alma put a hand to his cheek again. “Hugh, my love. It’s time.”
“Time for what?”
He held her eyes for an eternity, thinking how glorious her voice was, that musical voice of glittering light upon water.
“I don’t want to leave you.” It came out in a whisper.
Alma smiled, leaned forward, and kissed him. “You won’t. We’ll never be apart again.”
And she took his hand. Up the stairs they walked, lightly, weightlessly, until they reached the endless hall. Hand in hand, they drifted down it, to the very end where it opened onto the spiraling staircase.
Here they stopped, and Alma looked at him, her eyes twinkling in that familiar way. Hugh was afraid, but he tried to hold onto this image, this impression of Alma’s face, her smile, her wise eyes and soft features. Then she was leading him onto the steps. Together, they climbed, up and up, first into darkness, then into a growing light.
They ascended, two kindred spirits, into moonlight and into starlight, into shadow and color, into the wind and the waves, out of the earth and into the eternal sky … together.