I don’t know if anyone reading this will remember, but almost six months ago I posted the second installment of a short story that I had titled Strangest Whimsy. I left it on quite a cliffhanger and then just never finished it, but last night I was suddenly struck with the inspiration to finally wrap it up, and so here it is. I wanted to get it completely finished so this installment is a little bit longer than the other two. Since it’s been so long since I posted the last two segments of the story I’ll link part one and part two here so you can go back and refresh on what’s happened previous to this. It’s definitely not the best thing I’ve ever written, and it’s a little cheesy, but hopefully you enjoy it. I’d love to hear any thoughts or feedback in the comments below!
“Oh my gosh.” she said aloud. “Graham, is that really you?”
“Grace Archer.” he spoke wonderingly, the deep timbre of his voice causing a warm nostalgia to fill her soul. “How long has it been, eight years?”
Grace nodded, suddenly unable to speak, as he stepped forward and took her hand.
Graham Woods had been the quiet boy at Waldorf High school, the one who sat in the back of class, head bent over a sketchbook. Grace had always sensed he was a really interesting guy behind his thick framed glasses and his shyness, but she didn’t find out just how interesting he was until the day she sat by him in art class. They had started talking, a friendship slowly blossoming over time, until his shyness began to subside. One day, he had been standing at the bus stop with her, waiting for the bus to come and pick her up. As it pulled up to the curb, she’d worked up the courage to kiss him, a quick peck that landed on the corner of his mouth before hurrying onto the bus.
After that day, it hadn’t taken long for the two of them to become inseparable. Nights were spent talking on the phone until two in the morning, and when she woke up for school the next day and got on the bus he would always be waiting for her in the corner of a seat, and they’d fall asleep in each other’s arms on the long ride to school. He shared his art with her, and she shared with him her aspirations to become a writer. They planned to take a road trip together the summer after they graduated, to stay in a little house on the beach and dedicate themselves to painting and poetry, spending mornings in coffee shops with crumbly pastries and evenings having beachside bonfires and dreaming.
Grace’s eyes had closed briefly as the wave of memories long buried hit her with an almost painful force. She opened them again to see Graham looking down at her with the same wondering expression. He held her hand in his a moment too long, and the warm pressure felt familiar. Slowly, she remembered that she should probably say something.
“I’ve just been here interviewing Bethany about her dress collection. It’s for an article in the Local Buzz.” For the first time since Graham had entered the room, Grace remembered Bethany’s presence. She glanced back at Graham’s wife who stood very still with a confused expression on her face. Barnaby squirmed halfheartedly in her arms.
“Graham darling, how do you know Miss Archer?”
“We uh, we went to high school together,” He had the same soft way of speaking, almost as if you had to strain a bit to hear what he was saying. Grace had always thought when he talked like that, that he didn’t quite want to commit to the words as they came out of his mouth.
“Oh, what a lovely coincidence!” Bethany exclaimed, flitting over to stand beside her husband. “It always amazes me what a small world it is here in Boston. I swear Graham knows every other person we run into.”
Grace glanced from Bethany’s hot pink smile to Graham’s serious eyes, the way his otherwise neat dark hair curled against his neck. He was wearing a charcoal colored suit that fit him so well it could have been made for him, and it probably was, she realized, remembering with a start how much money he had. How on earth had he ended up with a woman like her?
She felt a sudden pain beneath her ribcage, and it was a familiar sensation just as much as Graham’s handshake had been. “Well, it was lovely running into you, but I really must be going. I’ve got an article to write this afternoon.” She held up the notepad she held in one hand with a feeble smile.
“Let me see you to the door.” His serious gaze hadn’t left her face.
“Oh that’s alright, you don’t have to…” she began.
“I insist.” he interrupted with a firmness that surprised her out of protesting.
“Oh…alright then. Thank you again for the interview,” She nodded in Bethany’s direction, and followed Graham down the long hallway to the front door, ignoring the sour expression that had suddenly come over his wife’s face.
“Bethany told me you did all of these.” She gestured to the wall of color as they walked past it. “They’re beautiful.”
He shrugged. “Maybe, but they’re nowhere near where I hoped I’d be by now.”
Grace shook her head in wonder. “I thought there was something familiar about these, but now I realize what it was. The style, the colors, it’s so much like that painting you made for me at the end of senior year. I still have it, you know.”
Graham stopped in his tracks, his back stiffening. “You do?”
She nodded. “It’s come with me everywhere I’ve lived in the past eight years. I had it hanging above my bed in my freshman dorm.”
His gaze trailed slightly to his left, and she followed it, fixing on a bright sunflower painted in vivid gold against a royal blue background. “I’d really like to see that painting again.”
“Oh, uh I suppose I could bring it by..” she began awkwardly.
He laughed quietly. “No, don’t do that. I don’t think my wife is very fond of you. But don’t be too flattered, she isn’t fond of most women. Can you meet me for coffee tomorrow afternoon? I’d like to catch up.”
She felt that she should say no, but found that she didn’t want to.
“Why did you give up on the Royal College?”
She watched the deep crease form between his eyebrows as he pondered the question. In so many ways he hadn’t changed, and looking at his still young face was like looking through a window straight into the past. But in other ways, the clothes he wore, the immaculate neatness of his hair, the absence of the thick framed glasses, he might as well have been a completely different person. His frame had filled out a bit as well, and his face was no longer the face of a skinny young boy, but of a mature man who had a sense of success and wealth about him.
“I think every aspiring artist reaches a point in his development where he has to come face to face with what his actual abilities are, and I realized that mine weren’t what I thought they were.” Graham finally said.
Grace glanced down at the painting that sat on the table between them. It was of a field of golden sunflowers, reaching up to a baby blue sky. In the middle of the field stood a girl in a white dress, her hair the same color as the flowers, her face turned up towards the sun in perfect imitation of them. The girl’s face wasn’t visible in the painting, and Grace knew it was because Graham could never quite get a handle on human faces.
“What, because you couldn’t paint faces?” she asked teasingly.
He chuckled. “That, among other things. I paint nice little things for the house and I like to express myself through color, but that doesn’t make a great artist.”
“So you went into business instead?”
He nodded. “My sophomore year of college I had an idea for a business that I thought could be successful and I was lucky enough to get Bethany’s father as an investor. By the time I graduated I was making enough money to be completely independent. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I owe everything to Robert Duncan. He taught me so much about the practical side of running a business but he never gave me anything I didn’t strictly need to get started. He taught me the value of working for my own success, but he wasn’t above giving me a hand when I needed it. He has a fondness for taking young men under his wing and mentoring them, it fulfills him in a way I think.”
“Well you must have been special to him if he granted you his daughter’s hand in marriage.” she spoke lightly.
Graham let out a dry laugh. “Yes well, his daughter had something to do with that decision as well.”
“How long have you two been married?”
“Two years. We spent the first year and a half in London because I have a lot of business there and Bethany thrives in big cities. But when I had everything established the way I wanted it over there I convinced her to move back to my hometown. Boston suits me much better than London did.”
Grace smiled. Somehow that didn’t surprise her.
“And what about you?” he asked. “A journalist for The Local Buzz? You must be living the dream, right?”
“It’s okay. Sometimes I wish I could write about something more meaningful, but the work is fun and it’s stimulating. I write for the Culture column, which basically means I cover events, sometimes gossip. If there’s a new restaurant or bookstore or theater opening I’ll usually do a piece on it. And then there’s the occasional eccentric person with the world’s largest collection of dresses that moves into the town.” She winked. “I think Bethany’s article will be a big hit.”
“I have no doubt of that. Very few people have seen the actual collection so I’m certain your audience will be enthralled to hear about it. I’ve told Bethany we should open up the warehouse for tours a few times a week so people can enjoy it but she’s too protective of them. Worried something would get stolen or damaged, which with the security I’ve installed for it is of course ridiculous.” He waved a hand dismissively. “But the dresses are her thing, I let her do what she wants with them.”
Grace wondered again what on earth had attracted him to Bethany. They seemed like the most ill suited couple in the world.
“What about you?” Graham asked. “Anyone special in your life?”
She dropped her eyes with sudden self-consciousness, shaking her head. “No, not now. Not for a long time.” she smiled weakly. “Closest I ever came was a guy I met in college in New York. We lived together for a year, I thought we would get married, but it never happened. And you know, the first day I found myself on my own again I felt this strange relief? I mean, I still get lonely sometimes but I guess I’ve just been enjoying my independence until the right person comes along.”
Graham nodded thoughtfully, his eyes clouded so that she couldn’t read his expression. “I hope you never compromise that. Don’t just give up your independence for the first nice guy that comes along because you think you should be married by now.”
Grace looked at him sharply. “I don’t plan to.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you. I guess what I’m really doing is talking to myself, although it’s too late for me. I’m sure your standards are much higher than mine.”
She was surprised at his frankness for a moment, but then the surprise faded away. Graham had always been scrupulously honest, even to the point of bluntness. Which must make marriage to someone like Bethany even more difficult, she realized.
“I’m sorry.” Was all she could think to say.
“No, I am.” His piercing blue gaze was upon her now, seeming to bore into her soul. “I’m sorry I never came back. It was the stupidest decision I ever made.”
That same stabbing pain came back to her, making her catch her breath. She hadn’t expected this. It had all happened so long ago now. She opened her mouth to say some platitude about letting the past be the past, but instead what escaped her lips was. “Why didn’t you?”
Graham sighed with all the heaviness of lost years. “I was afraid, to put it plainly. Afraid that you didn’t want me to, that you had moved on. I had visions of flying to Boston to see you and of you being with some other guy. It was so stupid, looking back on it but the pride of youth is the biggest obstacle to happiness I suppose. I felt like I had let you down when I went to New York that summer, that you wouldn’t forgive me for leaving you and ditching all our plans. Do you remember how we wanted to spend a month on the beach?”
Grace nodded, feeling unwanted tears stinging her eyes at the pained expression on his face.
“And then my father had to ruin it all by sending me away to work for my uncle’s firm. I was so angry at the time and at first all I could think of was how soon I would get back to you, but then you started mentioning that guy you worked with in your letters, and my imagination sort of ran away with me. I thought you had fallen in love with him and that you wouldn’t want me to come back so…I stayed. And then it was too late.”
She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t too late, not then anyway. She had dated Parker for a while, but mostly for lack of a reason not to. If Graham had come back at any point, she knew she would have chosen him. “And I was afraid that you didn’t want me to come to you, so I stayed in Boston. It’s ironic to think of it now, isn’t it?”
He smiled wryly. “Yes, it is.”
They sat in silence for a moment, their minds lingering on the past, on what could have been if they hadn’t been so afraid. Finally, Graham spoke.
“It was so good to see you again, Grace.” There was a note of sincerity in his wonderful voice that pulled at her heartstrings.
“It was good to see you too.” She smiled weakly. “Do you want your painting back?”
Graham’s eyes widened in surprise. “Of course not. It’s been a part of your life for so long, you need to keep it. I want you to have something to remember me by.”
“You know I would remember you anyway.”
He smiled slowly. “Yes, I know. I was your first love after all, wasn’t I?”
She laughed, mostly out of surprise again at his bluntness. “Yes, you were. And I was yours.”
He nodded, and for a moment she thought she could see a tear glistening in his eye. “And that’s not something you forget.”
Five minutes later they had both left the coffee shop, the only remnants of their presence a pair of stained white china mugs, and a linen napkin with a single tear soaking into the fabric.