Submitted Date 05/21/2022

In the great hall, the grandfather clock chimes, announcing the time.

"One more hour," the children tell each other.

"And then dancing," our daughter says.

"And food," says our son, smiling.

The dining table is set with our finest china. The linens are clean and pressed. In the light of the candelabras, the silver sparkles at every place setting. The crystal glasses glisten. The room is dimmed and intimate for all of our guests.

The doors to the garden are open where even now, the orchestra members tune their violins and cellos. The flutists practice their scales to the rhythm of our house preparing.

"Run along," I tell the children. "Go play until our guests arrive."

"One hour!" They cry running up the stairs to the balcony; up the stairs again to the nursery and I sigh, heavily. Looking over the rooms, I see the rugs have been shaken. The banisters and tables have been polished to a shine. The frames have been dusted, the curtains ironed and rehung. Every little decoration, vases and china trinkets, sitting chairs and pillows, it's all the little things that make me feel anxious. Everything is finally in place, and all of it to celebrate you. This is all done to welcome you home.

How lonely the days have been. The nights are nearly unbearable in this great house with all the wait staff moving in the early hours through empty rooms like ghosts. The gardens are always needing tending, the food being prepared and the sitting room becomes a tomb in which I wait.

So often have I seen you in the mirrors at the end of the long hallway, holding out your arms for me. I turn for you but there is nothing but cold air and memories. There are always little things that bring you to mind but your absence is a weight too heavy to bear.

The pendulum of the grandfather clock swings and the pianist runs his fingers over the keys. The tune is smooth and quick. The sky beyond him, beyond the distant hills darkens and the violins join in to the song. The deep voice of the cello sings and I look out the windows for you.

The lane is empty but I imagine you out there in your carriage. The horses trotting along at a good pace. The moon, full and bright over head to guide you home. And me, here I stand waiting to hold you; to ring in the New year with fine friends and good food and our children. Oh, how they've missed you. Every morning, they stand at their nursery window and watch the empty lane for your return or if not, a letter then; any piece of you they can get, they will savor. Like me, yearning for you. Willing to give everything away, just to have you always here.

Good smells waft from the kitchen door. The cook says dinner is nearly ready. The wait staff, they are bringing up the wine from the cellar. They seek my approval on each bottle.

"Yes," I tell them, "Actually, only reds tonight," I say. "White's with desert," I tell them, just as you have told them before.

I remember our first wine together. Our first dance on a New Year so long ago. Our hands entwined. Hands around waists, arms holding so tight, I never wanted the clock to chime.

And now I cannot wait for the chime of the grandfather clock in the hallway. The minutes are moving so slowly, as have all of the days between us. The hours that make me remember and rethink. Was it on the sandy beaches near the sea, that you gave me the beautiful necklace? Was it at the lake house or in the shops that you brought me flowers? When did you give me the garnet ring? Does it matter? I ask myself. None of those gifts matter. It was your hands that I remember, your kiss on my neck, your arms around me that I wanted. I would give everything back, just to buy minutes with you, to read books with you, tell you my stories and listen to yours.

The wait staff is preparing by the doors. Through the window, I see the first carriages arriving. Oh, it's Earnest and Virginia. What a lovely couple. They always want to see our house, comment on our fine things. "Give it to them," I say under my breath as they approach. "Take it all away," I sigh as I nod to the staff and they throw the doors open.

The orchestra begins to play with soft strings and I welcome our guests without you.

They look around. Their first words are of you. Where are you and when will you arrive?

"Soon," I tell them. "Any time actually." I say and looking over my shoulder, I see the clock hands have still not reached the hour.

My own hands are moving, trembling and anxious.

Our guests move into the house. "What I beautiful display," Virginia says loud enough for everyone to hear. "How lovely this would have been if only they both could have greeted us," she sighs.

It's true, it would be lovely to have you here, beside me.

More guests in lovely carriages appear in the lane; horses trotting gaily, the moon rising over them. Behind me the music swells and I look at the clock again.

There's still time.

Faces are smiling at me. I shake hands and hug these friends and acquaintances. Coats are handed to staff and everyone is ushered in. I stand outside the door and watch the lane for you. I think of warm nights with you, hands and legs splitting open for you. I close my eyes and think of your lips on my neck, on my breasts and your hands tangled in my hair.

And then my children's hands take mine. They are looking up at me and asking about you. "Where?" They whisper. "When?" they say, with anxious faces.

I have no words for them except soon. "Hopefully, soon," I say.

More carriages arrive. Doors open and footmen assist but none of them are you and no one matters. I look past them at the now empty lane.

The butler announces dinner. He holds the door for me and the children but I do not move and they do not move and the party begins inside our house without us. The children, they stand like little statues, although their tummies must be empty and rumbling. Their eyes were so excited to see the dancing and their mouths watering for all of the fine food but we all hold our breath as we hold hands, here in front of a house filled with people I would trade for you. People I love but at this moment, exasperate me, frustrate and annoy me.

"Madam," the butler says.

I nod and bite my lip.

"Should we serve?" the butler asks.

I nod again and bite my lip so hard I nearly draw blood.

A bat swoops in the twilight air and we watch it, manic and hungry. It turns this way and that, racing toward it's own desires.

"Madam?" the butler says once more, startling me. I jump but do not turn from the lane. "Will you be joining?" He asks.

This time, I shake my head. "No," I say, "Please begin without me and give my apologies."

"Very well," he says and I hear the orchestra change tunes, softly, welcoming the night that gathers.

Then, far away, a dark shadow rises on the lane. There is the distant sound of hooves on dry gravel.

"Daddy?" The children say. "Is that daddy?"

I can't speak. I can only hope. I can only remember every time you return; every kiss you give and how the children cling to you. The agony of the time I spend waiting to retire for the evening, remove clothes and remove the distance between us. Oh, the torture of it all, come nearly to a close as your carriage at long last arrives. The wheels turning slowly, coming to a stop before us and finally, finally I can breathe.

A footman descends and the door opens. Our children leap forward to welcome you. They call out to you but their voices drop. They gasp and rush back to my side.

It is not you but a lovely woman, dressed exactly like me. Her hair up and curled as I have done mine. The same necklace, the same dress fabric; she is nearly a mirror image.

"Hello Emily," she says, as if she knows me.

"Hello?" I reply softly.

I step forward and look past her into an empty carriage. "Is this my husband's?" I ask. "Is he coming?"

"Yes, this is his carriage," the woman replies. "But no, he will not be coming tonight." She smiles softly and the dazzling lights of our house spark in her eyes.

"I don't understand," I tell her. "My husband, he's due home by now."

"Yes he is," the woman says, "but he's been delayed."

Behind me, the children whimper. "Daddy?" they say, "Where's daddy?"

The woman bends down. She peers at our children and asks, "Would you like to see your daddy? Would you like that, my darlings?"

They both nod. They both squeeze my hands and nod furiously.

"Well," the woman says, "It'll be up to your mother if you see him."

"Me?" I ask. "I want to see him. I, I," I trip on my words. I trip, nearly reaching out for the stranger. "I'd do anything to see him."

"Anything?" she says.

I nod, anxiously.

"Very well," the woman says. "We trade places, you and I. You take the carriage, and your husband and a future together and me," she smiles, and tips her head. "I take your house and your fine dishes and your linens and the servants and all of your friends."

I turn and look at the bright house, hear the soft music, see all of our friends laughing and eating at our table. I love them, but I think of you; your dark hair, your eyes brilliant and loving. I feel your strong arms around me, saving me, always pulling me away from my worries and my fears. I know your words can always make things better and so I say, "Yes," to the woman. "Yes, Yes, you can have it all. Take it, please, all of it, just give me back my husband."

The woman says no more. She steps aside, allows the children and myself into our carriage and closes the door.

The driver flicks the reigns, the horses begin to move and behind us I hear the great crash of the doors closing firmly. I turn to see the lights grow brighter in all the windows as if the curtains were set on fire. I hear screams and the horses rear and begin to run up the lane. The children, their eyes frantic, search my face. "Mummy?" They say. "Mummy?" they don't even know what to ask.

The windows shatter somewhere behind us. The heavy beams of the house creak and break and the horrendous sound follows us as we race down the lane. We are running away from everything we've known. We're flying blindly through the night, manic and afraid.

I hold our babes close and I shush them softly. Looking out into the darkness, toward the unclear future, I call out to you with everything inside me. "We're coming, my love," I say. "Hold tight," I soothe myself, hoping, praying you are still there, waiting for me as I've waited for you.

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