include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Neath The Red Umbrella by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Neath The Red Umbrella

Copyright 2019 J.T. Evergreen


Published by J.T. Evergreen

at Smashwords


This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

















Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Khris Lawrentz for his tireless proofreading.


Neath The Red Umbrella


As told by Annabella McCarthy


We were married at seventeen and divorced by twenty-one. Charlie and I came to the sad conclusion early on that we had nothing in common. We were more like brother and sister. We made the effort to make it work but in the end, it was having an ill effect on our friendship which we cherished.


I hung up on my mother the day she said ‘I told you so’ and haven’t spoken to her since. I’m not sure if I will ever resume that relationship. What I need now, more than ever, is a little understanding . . . on what my needs are.


We kept the Victorian house we renovated and rented it to a nice family. Then Charlie suggested something I never would have thought of. It was his unreasonable reasoning that convinced me it was the right thing to do. We had a lawyer draw up an agreement stating that whichever one of us got married first would relinquish his or her ownership of the house to the other one. We did not want to make another mistake – this was an incentive to restrain the impulse to marry again.


I did a fair amount of soul searching before moving back into the social scene with a few single girlfriends who were more than happy to help. But, I didn’t care much for the bar scene. All we seemed to do was sit around analyzing the male patrons. Marge was the most verbal. She’d start and keep going until the last one fell to her judgment. “Wimp, loser, loser, major loser, too angry, too vague, too desperate, too happy, total sleaze bucket . . .” I wasn’t having much fun.


And then one rainy afternoon, I took an early lunch and headed for the Lola Palooza Soup and Sandwich Bar on Lake Street in downtown Chicago. I had gotten to know Claudette, the barista. We always enjoyed chatting with one another as she busied herself with her patrons.


“Afternoon, Annabella. What’ll you have this beautiful rainy autumn day?”


“Oh, I don’t know, Claudette. Something to cheer me up. Give me a minute.”


“Okay, take your time.”


As I pondered the overhead menu, someone sat on the stool next to me.


Claudette moved the used dishes out of the way and wiped the counter, “Morning, Roy. The usual?”


“Yes, please.”


The usual? That caught my attention, so I looked at him. “The usual? You must eat here often?”


A handsome, mature face framed with curly jet black hair, and the shadow of a heavy beard replied in a low beguiling slightly accented voice, “Yeah, just about every day. Haven’t seen you here before.”


“I usually come later in the afternoon. So, what's your usual? I can’t make up my mind.”


He turned slightly on his stool and flashed a lopsided smile, exposing gleaming white teeth, “Onion Soup and the Flank Steak on Texas Toast.”


I looked up at the menu and found it. “What is chimichurri?”


“It’s a spicy sauce they marinate the steak in. Claudette’s chef is from Argentina and knows exactly how to make it.”


“Argentina? Have you been there?”


“I get around.”


I thought to myself, ‘I’ll just bet you do.’ I was charmed and I think he knew it. “Hum.”


“It’s pretty filling. With your figure, I suggest the Potato Leek soup and Turkey Avocado sandwich.”


“You’ve tried it?”


“I’ve tried them all. Claudette gives me perks for pushing certain combos.” His lips pinched slightly and nostrils flared as he attempted to hide his grin.


I began to laugh. “What?”


His mischievous smile answered my question before he did.


“Just kidding.”


“So, Annabella. Have you decided?”


“No, but he has.”


“Roy? What has he decided?”


“He thinks the Potato Leek and Turkey Avocado is for me.”


“Roy, what have you been up to?”


He smiled and said nothing.


“Okay . . . comin’ right up.”


“Annabella. An unusual . . . beautiful name.”


I smiled at the compliment, “Thank you.” I noticed his big hands resting confidently on the countertop. There was no wedding ring. “That’s funny.”


“What’s funny?”


“Your name . . . Roy.


“What’s so funny about that?"


"I had a crush on a Roy when I was a kid."


"Anyone, I know?"


"No, it was a long time ago. Roy Rogers. He was a western singing movie star.”


“Lucky man.”


Was he flirting? “Do you know who that was?”


He smiled and shook his head.


“He had a horse named Trigger.”


“Do you still have a crush on him?”


I sighed, “I suppose so. Do you ever get over a childhood crush?”


He didn’t answer but I could tell he was paying attention.


Claudette delivered my meal. “Enjoy.” She paused a second, giving us a knowing look which caught me off guard. Roy was right. The combo he suggested was exactly what I needed.


As I finished my meal, I thanked him for the suggestion, took a sip of water to rinse my mouth, blotted my l with a napkin, left a tip, swiveled around and dismounted the stool. Then I heard his words nestled in the noise of an elevated train passing overhead. “Hope to see you again.”


I wasn’t sure whether to respond or not. The noise of the elevated train made my decision as it rumbled along. I waved to Claudette and exited the building. As I walked away, I glanced into the diner and was pleased to see him looking in my direction.


I didn’t give the incident another thought until the next day when it was time for lunch. I toyed with the idea of going back to Claudette’s place, then decided to go somewhere else only because I 'wanted' to go back to Claudette’s place. I had enjoyed the encounter with Roy but did not want to encourage him should he be there. It would serve no useful purpose. It was just one of those things.


I completely forgot about the incident until a week later when, Marge, my friend and a co-worker, and I decided to take our lunch break together. She asked if I knew of any other eatery around that was a little more interesting than those close near the office. I immediately thought of The Lola Palooza Soup and Sandwich Bar. “It’s a little out of the way, but I think you’ll like it.”


Without hesitation, “Let’s go.”


We increased our stride and before I knew it, I was holding the door of the diner open for Marge to enter.


“Oh, Annabella, this is so charming. It’s like stepping back in time. How delightful.”


I pointed out the overhead menu and suggested several combos I was familiar with, and then introduced her to Claudette.


“I’m so happy to meet you, Marge. Now, what would you ladies like?”


We ordered, and while waiting, we commented on the 50’s architectural appointments of the shop that had been beautifully preserved.


Claudette was serving our meals when Marge piped up. “I hope you don’t serve dessert.”


“We do. But it’s only ice cream. I just got some Tutti Frutti in yesterday. Would you like…”


“No dessert, Claudette. On pain of death, no dessert – ever. I’m in love and my body needs some reshaping.”


Claudette laughed, “I understand. I’ll never offer it to you again. How about you, Annabella?”


“No, I don’t think so. I’m not in love but I want my body to be prepared just in case.”


We had a good laugh, and then Claudette remembered something, “Speaking of love, do you remember the man who suggested the combo for you the last time you were in?”


“No . . . oh, wait. Roy, wasn’t it?”


“Yes, it was.”


“What about him?”


Marge interrupted, “Wait a minute. Who are we talking about?”


I smiled, “A rather good looking man with an accent.”


“Accent? What kind of an accent?”


“I’m not sure. Claudette? You know him better than I do.”


“I’m guessing Eastern.”


Marge was all smiles as she sat up. “Eastern and handsome you say. How exotic.”


“I thought you were in love.”


“I am but there’s no harm in having a plan B ready just in case.”


“Marge, you are too much sometimes. I remember now, he suggested the Leek Soup and the Avocado sandwich. So, what about him, Claudette?


“He’s asked about you . . . several times.”


“You’re kidding?”


“Annabella? Sounds like you have an admirer. Any more details I should know about?”


“There are no details, Marge. It was just a chance encounter." I looked at Claudette, "Wasn’t it?”


“Evidently he didn’t think so. Should I pass the word to him that I saw you today?”


“No, of course, not.”


Marge could not contain herself, “Well, you can pass the word on to him for me.”


“Marge?”


“I know, but I haven’t made a lifelong commitment. At least not yet.”


“Well, I wouldn’t get my hopes up.” Claudette smiled.


“Why is that?”


“Once, when he first began coming in here, I saw something which didn’t mean much at the time.”


“And what was that?”


“Well, his coat was partially open and I saw a black shirt and one of those white collars priests wear.”


“Oh . . . how disappointing.” Marge, however, was all aglow. “A priest and he’s interested in you. Okay, Annabella. What have you been up to? Some sin which needs confessing and forgiving? How convenient. You could have lunch and confess at the same time.”


“I haven’t been up to anything. He sat next to me for half an hour – end of story if there was one, and there isn’t. And besides, what would I do with a priest?”


"Oh, honey, I can think of a dozen things."


"Finish your lunch, Marge. We’ve got to get back.”


“Perhaps he wants to save your soul.”


“From what?”


“Loneliness?”


I laughed. “I’m not lonely.”


“Of course, you aren’t.”


We laughed about it on the way back to the office, but I realized Marge knew me better than I thought she did. I also realized I found the notion of someone remembering me – interesting, albeit a priest. So interesting, I was half tempted to tell Claudette to pass the word to him. But, again, a priest, and to what end? He’d probably try and sell me raffle tickets to a church bazaar. I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind and get on with my life.


On several subsequent occasions, Marge dangled the idea of going back to the eatery for lunch.


“For an update on Father Whatshisname?” I asked.


“I didn’t say that.”


“That’s what you were thinking.”


She laughed and then admitted she was no longer in love and was playing the field again. I encouraged her to go to the sandwich bar but declined to accompany her. She scowled and whispered, “Buzzkill.”


In spite of my determination to forget ‘my admirer,’ he kept coming back to mind. Though we only spent a few minutes sitting side by side, there was something about him that was very calming. It was probably my imagination and my loneliness running away with themselves. And then again . . . maybe not. So, I finally gave in to my inclination to have lunch at the sandwich bar – without Marge in tow.


It was late afternoon when I entered the bar. The lunch crowd had mostly gone, leaving multiple empty stools and used dishes still on the counter.


“Annabella. What a nice surprise. It’s been a busy day. We’re out of a few combos but your favorite is still available.”


“My favorite?” I could not keep from smiling.


“Potato Leek and Turkey Avocado. Interested?”


“Sure, why not. Bring it on.”


“Comin’ right up. And I have a bit of news for you.”


“Oh, goodie. I’m always available for news . . . provided it’s good.”


From the chef’s window, she hollered, “It is.”


I thanked her when she returned with my order. “Now, what’s the good news?”


“He was in yesterday and asked about you – again.”


“He who?”


“He, Roy, who. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about him?”


“No, I haven’t forgotten but there doesn’t seem to be any point in thinking about him. Was that your good news?”


“Yes, it was. I really think you should give him a chance. I’ve gotten to know him much better since your encounter with him. He’s charming, polite, intelligent, generous…”


“Perhaps a little too charming?”


“Maybe. And maybe he’s not a priest after all.”


“Claudette?”


“I only saw him once with that collar. I could have been wrong. He’s a good person and I think you should take a chance and meet with him.”


“You said he was generous.”


“He contributes to the homeless table on a regular basis.”


“Claudette, you’ve lost me. What are you talking about?”


“About two years ago I caught two homeless men going through our garbage containers. I invited them in and gave them a meal. I told them they could come back after we closed and there would be a meal for them. Roy makes contributions to the fund.”


“What fund?”


“See that apothecary jar on the shelf?”


“Yes.”


“That’s the total in the fund right now. I subtract my cost for the food I give to these men. When it runs low, I put my tips in.”


“That’s a pretty big amount. Our friend has contributed all of that?”


“Oh, no. Some of my other customers have made contributions as well. Small change, but it adds up.”


“Well, I want to make a contribution. It’s a wonderful idea.”


“Oh, no. I didn’t tell you about it for that reason.”


“I know you didn’t, but I’m glad you did. Here, put this into the jar.”


“Annabella, that’s very generous. Thank you.”


“On second thought, my opinion of our friend may have softened. Claudette, you should hang another sign on your front door entitled – Lunchtime Matchmaker.”


“Does that mean you’ll give it some thought?”


“I will. But I’m not going to make an effort to meet him here. If it’s supposed to be, he’ll show up at the right moment somewhere. Okay?” As soon as I said it I could see the wheels turning in Claudette’s mischievous little mind.


“Okay. We’ll leave it to Kismet.”


I didn’t go to Claudette’s eatery every day, but when I did, it was usually between one and three in the afternoon. With the holidays approaching, I decided to take an afternoon off and do some Christmas shopping. It was on a Friday, several weeks before Christmas when I showed up at 10:30 just as Claudette was opening for the day.


“Good morning, Annabella. You’re early.”


“I’m doing some Christmas shopping this afternoon.”


“For anyone in particular?”


“Charlie is meeting me at Fields at noon.”


“Charlie? Oh, your ex.”


“Yes, I want to get him something he can use.”


“Really?”


“Yes, really. I know it sounds odd, but he and I have always been friends – close friends. We just made the mistake of getting married.”


“Well, I’m very happy for you. Make yourself comfortable and I’ll be right back to take your order.”


I didn’t think anything of it as she pulled her cell phone from her pocket and hurried away. I could see her talking to someone through the Chef’s window. When she returned, I ordered the Potato and Wild Mushroom soup with the Avocado BLT. We had a delightful visit before the lunch crowd began showing up.


Charlie and I met under the Field’s clock at State and Randolph, before going into the men’s department for ideas on what he would like for a gift. I let him point out several things with the understanding that I would make the final decision and surprise him on Christmas Day.


We were laughing and having a good time catching up while we poked around the men’s accessories section. I was somewhat taken aback when Charlie touched my arm and said, “I think we’re being observed.”


“What? By whom?”


He glanced across the island counter, and then I saw him. It was Roy from Claudette’s eatery. He smiled and came around the counter to where Charlie and I were standing.


“Forgive me, Annabella, for interrupting but I was hoping to see you again since our meeting at the sandwich bar.”


“Yes, Claudette mentioned it the last time I was in. This is Charlie Porter. Charlie this is Roy…Roy, I don’t know your last name.”


“It’s Martindale. Pleased to meet you, Charlie.”


“Roy is a priest at a local parish.”


“What?” The surprise on Roy’s face was inescapable. “Where did you get the idea I was a priest?”


“Claudette mentioned it.”


He began to smile then broke into laughter. “I’m not sure how she got that impression but it’s not true. I can't imagine what I was wearing that would have given her that impression."


"Mistaken identity. Ask her about it the next time you have lunch there."


"I definitely will. By the way, the Park District is opening a holiday display at the Botanical Gardens and I was wondering if you would like to join me for a visit. It’s supposed to be very good. And Charlie, you may also be interested.”


“Roy, this is such a surprise, I…”


“No need to make a decision now. Here’s my card. If both of you should be interested, let me know and I’ll send you the details. Again, I apologize for the interruption. I’ll be on my way. Nice seeing you again, Annabella; and you, Charlie. Goodbye for now.”


“Thank you, Roy. I’ll be in touch.”


“Looking forward to it. Bye.” He stepped away and was out of sight before I realized it.


Charlie declined the invitation. "I think you'll have more fun without me."


I laughed, "Oh, Charlie, you'd fit in anywhere." I felt a twinge of melancholy that our marriage hadn’t worked out. He was such a good person.


I did email Roy and wrote that I would very much like to visit the gardens with him. He returned the information about the Holiday Botanical showing and offered to pick me up but I declined. I told him it would be more convenient for me to meet him there.


We spent a delightful two hours together, culminating our visit at the gift shop where I picked up two Christmas gifts. Roy spent considerable time looking at a Brazilian Food book, so I purchased a copy when he wasn’t looking and placed it in my bag.


“Hungry?” he asked.


“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. There’s a café here in the gardens.”


“Nope. I have a better idea. Come with me.”


He was so pleased with himself I didn’t hesitate in accepting his offer. “So, where are you taking me?”


“Francesco’s Hole In the Wall, and don’t let the name fool you. It’s superb Italian home cooking.”


It was obvious he had eaten there before. When we arrived, I admitted I didn’t know that much about Italian food and suggested he order for me which he was more than happy to do. I could not have been more surprised when he ordered in fluent Italian and chatted with the wait staff like they were old friends.


“I apologize, Annabella.”


“For what?”


“Speaking Italian. It was rude of me.”


“No, it wasn’t. I quite enjoyed listening to you. Italian is such a beautiful language. Where did you learn to speak it so well?”


“I learned in school.”


“Quite an accomplishment. I tried learning French in school. It never took. I'm convinced you have to immerse yourself in the culture in order to capture the finer points of the language. Your example proves me wrong.” I could not help but note a slight accent in his English and I wondered about it.


He smiled and said nothing as the wine arrived. The waiter handed him a glass with a little wine. He sniffed it, took a small sip, swished it in his mouth and smiled. “Perfezionare.”


The waiter filled two glasses and set one of them before me. Roy lifted his glass.


I raised my glass, “To a delightful evening. Thank you, Roy.”


His face lit up as he touched my glass with his.


He ordered for himself and then for me, warning me that Italians take their time dining which I discovered as the waiter brought portions of the meal at intervals which only added to the pleasure I was having. It gave us the opportunity to discuss the meal we were experiencing but also our time at the gardens. He asked several personal questions which I was happy to answer. But I noticed he hedged when I asked where he was born and diplomatically dodged a few other questions I asked. I wasn’t suspicious at the time, but I didn’t ask any more questions.


We lingered over the delightful three-part dessert as the evening came to a close. First, something sweet was served, accompanied by a dessert wine, next came a delicious espresso, and finally, a liqueur was served. The waiter brought two kinds. Roy let me taste each one. The first had a bitter-sweet taste but the second had a grape flavor which I found most agreeable.


As we departed the Hole in the Wall, Roy held my hand and paused as he bade farewell to our hosts, squeezing my hand gently in apology. He drove me to my apartment, walked me to the entrance of my building, thanked me for a delightful evening, kissed my hand, and quietly said, “Thank you, Annabella. I’ll leave you now so you may rest.”


I stood at the entrance slightly dazed as he waved, got into his car and drove away. As I entered my apartment I smiled to myself as I wondered if I was dreaming.


The next day at work, Marge was all over me for details. “He actually kissed your hand?”


“Yes.”


“And then?”


“And then he drove away.” When I saw the disappointment on her face, I exclaimed, “Marge! He was a perfect gentleman.”


“You mean he didn’t make a move on you?”


“No, he didn’t.”


“Maybe he’s gay?”


“I doubt it.”


“How do you know?”


“Just the way he looked at me. And stop asking me so many questions. “


“Are you going to see him again?”


“If he asks . . . probably.”


“Well, he sounds too good to be true.”


I laughed at her comment but strangely enough, I thought the same thing. Given it was the first real date I had since my divorce, I felt very good about it and hoped he would ask again. I suppose I could ask him myself since I had his card. But no, I’ll wait.


And wait I did. Christmas and the New Year came and went. I finally confided in Marge, “Do you think I should call him?”


“Why not. Let’s see what the louse has to say for himself.”


The next day she met me at the office door. “Well?”


“His number has been disconnected.” The sad look on my face kept her from one of her usual wise-cracks. “I’m sorry, Annabella. I really am.”


“Thanks.” I decided to take lunch at the bar and cry on Claudette’s shoulder for a while. Maybe she knew something that would help. She didn’t.


“Annabella, I haven’t seen him in weeks. Now I’m sorry I encouraged you to see him.”


“Don’t apologize. You didn’t know.”


“Maybe he’s a double agent for a foreign country and they called him back. You said he speaks Italian.”


“Yes, I did, but I found out he learned it in school which eliminates an Italian accent. But still, there is an accent when he speaks English. It may be nothing more than an area accent . . . like people who live in Brooklyn. It's probably just a twang I'm hearing.


“Annabella, I’m sure there’s a logical reason for his disappearance … short of being dead.”


“Oh, Claudette! Stop!” I had to smile at her illogic.


“Give me your phone number and I’ll call you if boy wonder appears.”


“You mean like the time you phoned and told him I was going to Fields to Christmas shop?”


She stood there with her mouth open.


“His timing was so perfect it took me a while to put two and two together.”


“I thought I was being helpful. Sorry.”


“That’s Okay. I do appreciate the gesture. I enjoyed visiting the gardens, and the Italian meal afterward was such a delight. I didn't realize people eat like this all the time. But the next time you get the urge to match-make, please make sure it’s someone a little more predictable.”


She laughed and agreed.


I had a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with Baked Potato soup and went back to the office feeling better. Not much, but enough to survive the day.


I could hear distant thunder as I left work and headed for the elevated. By the time the train reached the Division stop, the rain had begun. All I had with me was one of those emergency raincoats, nothing to cover my head, and a well used red umbrella. My apartment was two and a half blocks from the station.


The cracks of thunder and lightning unsettled me as I turned onto North Cleaver Street where I live. I began to run as the rain increased and panicked when a bolt of lightning shot overhead, then I heard, ANNABELLA! I stopped and suddenly his arms were wrapped around me. “Roy!” The umbrella fell to the ground.


“Annabella. I’m so sorry. I can’t explain now but I will. Please forgive me.” I could feel his beard stubble pressed hard against my face as he turned and our lips met. Flashes of lightning lit the rain streaming down his face and dripping from his locks. The heat of his body flushed through his open shirt collar embracing my face in its warmth as I breathed in his scent and felt his strength holding me gently.


I heard a car speed up and skid to a stop. “AZEEM . . . Gotta go.”


“Don’t give up on me, Annabella. Please.” He released me and rushed to the waiting car which sped away as he slammed the door; suddenly I was alone, standing in the pouring rain. I stood there for a moment, as what just happened hit me. I began to giggle and then broke into laughter as I walked slowly to my apartment, wiping the rain from my face as the thunder and lightning played merrily overhead.


“He what?” Marge was incredulous as I told her what happened. “You could have caught your death.”


“I didn’t feel the cold. It was as if heaven swooped down and engulfed me. It was perfect.”


“I am so jealous. Why can’t something like that happen to me? Have you told Claudette?”


“I’m telling her this afternoon.”


“I’m going with you.”


Claudette saw us coming through the door and knew instantly something was afoot. By the time we finished eating we had collectively decided he was either FBI or CIA.


“So, what does he do for a living?” Marge wrinkled her forehead and looked at me.


“I don't know. And there’s something else.”


“Uh-oh, here it comes.” Marge was on the edge of her stool.


“His name . . . isn't Roy.”


Claudette leaned forward, “It's not?”


“Someone from the car called him . . . Azeem. At least that’s what it sounded like.”


“That’s not Italian.” Claudette looked perplexed. “Sounds Middle Eastern.”


“Oh, my God. He’s a spy. An international spy.”


“Marge, will you stop. He’s nothing of the kind.”


"How do you know? This is so exciting. I can hardly wait to meet him.”


“Well, I'm not going to encourage him."


“Why not, for heaven’s sake?"


"Think about it. He's obviously involved in something . . . nefarious. I don't need anything like that in my life. And, I doubt he's into a long-term relationship. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but I like the idea of having my partner go out in the morning and at least come back … alive … in the evening. A male version of Mata Hari is not what I had in mind. And besides, Mata Hari wound up being shot by the French for spying.”


“So, you're considering giving him the heave-ho?”


“Don't worry, Marge. I'll give him your address if I do.”


"That's not what I meant."


"I know. I have no idea what I'll do if he shows up again. My hormones want him to reappear but my common sense hopes he doesn't."


"To hell with common sense. Let him appear and thrust himself upon us."


"Thrust himself . . . on us?"


"Well, you know what I mean."


"I'm afraid I do."


After a moment, Claudette suggested, "I say, give him a chance to explain. It may be completely different from what we think.”


“And, if it isn’t?”


“Cross that bridge when you come to it.”


I paused, then looked into their faces, “If he holds me again the way he did that night, I may not have the courage to give him the heave-ho."


Marge sank back and heaved a great sigh.


"Relax, Marge. Hey, Claudette, do you still have some of the Tutti Frutti ice cream?"


"I do."


"I'll have some and I think Marge is ready. Make it a double scoop for her."


"I think I'll have some also. It's on the house, girls."


We laughed as Claudette got the Tutti Frutti.


My hope for Azeem's return began to fade as the days and weeks began to accumulate into months, and still no sign of Azeem. Even Marge and Claudette stopped asking about him. I wasn't that lucky. He kept popping up in the recesses of my memory and the lingering question of what had happened to him?


And then a lovely pot of small blue flowers arrived with no card. I questioned the flouriest; he assured me it was anonymous. "But from where?" I asked.


"Europe. Let me see, I believe it was the UK. Yes. It came from the UK but that's all I can tell you." I thanked him.


I wasn't sure what kind of flower they were so I took a photo and brought it to work. As I withdrew the photo from my handbag, I briefly explained to Marge that they arrived without a card. "Do you know what kind of flower this is?"


She grabbed the photo as her jaw dropped open and her eyes widened. "Oh, my God. Those are forget-me-nots. Annabella, you know what this means don't you?"


"Well, I suppose they're from him."


"Suppose? You know damned well they're from him. He hasn't forgotten and is probably on the verge of reappearing. This is so exciting. What are you going to do?"


"Do? There's nothing I can do except wait, I suppose."


"Buy some new clothes, have your hair done, take a day at the spa – pamper yourself."


"For what? I haven't heard from him in over six months. He'll be lucky if I even talk to him."


"Yeah, you're right. The louse."


"Remind me never to talk to strangers at a lunch counter, ever again."


"But will you listen?


"Probably not, but that's beside the point."


Now, to the burden of anticipation was added the mix of when, where, how and if. Quite frankly, after six months of silence, a pot of flowers wasn't going to do it for me. There wasn't much of anything I could think of that would make a difference in how I felt. I'd be polite but keep him at an arms distance and do as Claudette suggested – give him the opportunity to explain. And it better be good, otherwise, it would be a verbal heave-ho he would likely not forget for some time.


I didn't have long to wait. It was a bright windy autumn afternoon as I turned onto Clever Street, and there he was in the distance, standing near the entrance to my apartment building. At least he didn't have a bouquet of flowers or a box of candy ready which would have really annoyed me.


Under other circumstances, I probably would have run to and flung myself into his open arms. Not this time, however. He seemed taller and more dashing than I remembered, his piercing eyes enveloping me as I approached. It was the deadpan expression on his face that told me he was more vulnerable than I thought possible – wondering what my reaction would be to his presence. It almost had me feeling sorry for him.


I smiled as I drew near. "Azeem."


"Hello, Annabella."


I wanted to know how he was but decided to wait.


"Can we talk?"


"Yes, of course." He turned to the entrance of the building. "No, not there. Let's walk." I lead the way to the park a few blocks away. He was silent for a few minutes.


"I stopped by the sandwich bar this morning."


"Oh? I'll bet you got an ear full from Claudette?"


"I got more than that. There's an expression you use in this country . . . ripping a new one."


I stopped and turned to Azeem and grinned from ear to ear. "She ripped you a new one?"


"Yes, she did."


I continued to walk. "Do you know what it means?"


"I found out later."


"Did you deserve it?"


"From her point of view, probably. But I'm more interested in what you think."


"The only reason I'm talking to you is because of some advice Claudette gave me a while back. She said I should let you explain before coming to any conclusions. So, the next time you see her, if there is a next time, you can thank her for that advice."


"I will, I will. And thank you for seeing me now."


His continued silence told me he didn't know where to begin so, I gave him a little help. "Azeem?"


"Yes."


"Where the hell have you been for the last six months?"


"I was called home unexpectedly and had only moments to spare when I saw you last. I was desperate not to leave without letting you know how I felt."


"But your silence."


"I wasn't able to communicate with you."


"Not even an e-mail."


"We have no such thing where I'm from. There was no way. You have no idea how sick at heart I've been."


"No e-mail? Everyone on this planet has e-mail or nearly everyone."


He paused for so long, I stopped and looked at him . . . waiting for a response.


"That's just it, Annabella. I'm not from . . . here."


"Well, where are you from if not here?" His struggle was so obvious, I couldn't help myself. "For heaven's sake, Azeem. Spit out. Where are you from?"


"I'm from a place called Sakoon."


"I've never heard of it."


"I know. It's a place far away from here."


"How far?"


He turned and glanced toward the Sun. "Out there."


"You're not making any sense, Azeem."


He sighed. "It's a planet . . . far from here."


I think my jaw dropped when I heard those words. I almost whispered, "What are you talking about?"


He looked away from me and pointed toward the Sun. "There's a planet on the other side of that star almost identical to this one. We have been aware of your home from ancient times but only recently discovered a way to come here."


"Azeem, I hope you realize how difficult it is for me to believe you. There is no knowledge of such a planet."


"Yes, of course. I do understand. Our homes travel around this star . . . the Sun as you call it . . . at the same speed. So, it is quite invisible to you."


As ridiculous as the idea of this distant planet seemed, it was the expression on his face, pleading for understanding that kept me from simply walking away from him.


"What are you doing here? How did you get here?"


"Food."


"You're here for food?"


"No, the technology to increase its production."


"You have the technology to fly all this distance but no technology to grow food? Come on Azeem. You can do better than that."


"The crisis came about when the asteroid hit. We knew it was coming but had no means to stop it. Many of our people were taken, along with vast areas of food production when it hit."


I could have cried as he described the destruction and loss of life but I held steady. I wanted answers to all of my questions.


"We developed space travel generations ago but only recently discovered a way to enter your atmosphere with speed and relative ease but not without its dangers. Once I finished my business at home we were told we would not be able to return until the danger passed."


"Danger?"


Enormous serpentine clouds filled with space dust and gases were passing through the gateways we use to get here. I believe they are called wormholes by your scientists. There was no way of contacting you. I am so sorry about that. It's only recently the gateways were determined to be safe for travel."


"Well, you’re here now. Where are the ships you use to travel that distance and why hasn't there been any news of their landing here?"


"We land our craft in an area of your oceans, a space among your land masses south of here . . ."


"The Bermuda Triangle."


"The what?"


"It's probably The Bermuda Triangle. A mysterious area of the ocean about which no one seems to know anything. Things have been known to disappear when they enter this area. If I pointed out the area on one of our maps, would you recognize it?"


"Yes."


"Once you land, then what?"


"We submerge and go to underwater stations where we secure our crafts to avoid detection. We come to the surface in smaller craft we have waiting and then disburse to accomplish the tasks we came here for."


"How many of you are there?"


"This time, twenty-four."


"Did you tell any of this to Claudette when you were at the sandwich bar?"


"No, I didn't. She was so angry, and never stopped talking. I didn't think it was a good time."


"Good thinking. Her reaction will be interesting when I tell her what you've told me. That's a long distance between our homes. How long does it take to go from one to the other?"


"Only a matter of hours but there are, as I mentioned, only certain periods when the pathway is open."


He then told me about his home in details and with such emotion that only a homesick person would be able to do. As far-fetched as this possibility seemed initially, I could not help but begin to believe him as his narration of facts shifted to a pleading for understanding and acceptance. When he finished and turned to me with a forlorn expression, I drew him back from the other side of the Sun to where we were standing.


"So, why are you here? Why did you come all this distance?"


"Technology. You have advanced technology that we need. We were sent to retrieve some of it."


"Bombs and weapons of mass destruction I imagine?"


"Oh, no. Quite the contrary. We have no need of such things on Sakoon. There is no war there."


"Sakoon?"


"That's the name of our planet, my home. It is a beautiful place. I know you would love it."


"But lacking in technology."


"We were struck by an asteroid which caused considerable damage. Growing and harvesting food in a more efficient manner is our most pressing need."


"Ah. But why me? Don't you have women on your planet?


"We do. But I never met one I connected with as I have with you."


"You hardly know me."


"I know enough and hope with time we will get to know one another better and possibly find love for one another."


"You ask too much, Azeem. And if I should fall in love with you, what am I supposed to do . . . drop everything and move to . . . what was its name?"


"Sakoon. Is it too much to ask? I suppose it is, but I ask anyway. At least give it some thought. It is quite beautiful there, and there is no war, only peace. The village I live in is called Sakeena."


"Sakeena. That's a beautiful name. Does it have a meaning?"


"Yes. It means a state of serenity or bliss."


"Wow, I like that."


"Then you will consider the possibility?"


"I don't know, Azeem. I just don't know."


"There's no hurry. I am allowed to stay as long as I need to. There is much work that I need to accomplish. And there will be plenty of time for us . . . if you are interested."


"Well, I don't know if I'm interested, but I sure am curious."


"So, at least we are friends now, yes?"


"Friends?" I had to think about that. "I suppose, but nothing more – at least for now."


He gave a huge sigh and began to look like the man I knew.


"You can walk me home. I'm tired."


"Yes, of course. Are friends allowed to hold hands?"


"I suppose so." I had to laugh as I put my arm through his and leaned slightly on him as we turned toward my apartment building. We made plans to have dinner on Sunday evening; I hardly slept wink. It was the weekend so I didn't care.


Before I retired, I sent an email to Marge, briefly outlining my visit with Azeem. At 7:30 the next morning my doorbell rang. I knew it was Marge and turned the coffeemaker on before I let her in.


We spent the next two hours going over and over everything he said and what I said.


Marge finally asked, "What about marriage? Did he say anything about that?"


"I did ask him but the bewildered look on his face lead me to ask – You do marry on Sakoon, don't you?" His answer only added to my astonishment of this man.


"And . . . what did he say?" Marge was on the edge of her chair.


He said, "Oh, no. There is no marriage as you call it. We are very honorable people. When we find someone we wish to spend our lives with, we simply agree to it."


"Marge? Are you crying?"


"Oh, Annabella, that is so beautiful. If you don't go with this man, I'll never speak to you again."


"And, if I do go with him?"


She laughed. "I guess I won't have a chance to speak to you again."


We made another pot of coffee and mused about how we were going to break the news to Claudette which generated howls of laughter as we guessed what her reaction would be. We decided to take Monday afternoon off and have a late lunch with Claudette.


Azeem called Sunday morning and wanted to know if I'd like to have lunch al fresco instead of dinner. It was a beautiful autumn day so I agreed. I had a basket, blankets, pillows, and linens. All we needed was food and drink. He said not to worry, he knew of a place where we could get everything we needed. He picked me up and we headed for the farmers market in Evanston where we did, indeed, find everything we needed. We laughed and spared over the many choices available. Then we headed north to his favorite place on the lakefront. It could not have been more perfect.


He asked many appropriate questions about my past, my likes and dislikes. Then he drifted into talking about Sakoon and his life in Sakeena. As the level of his voice softened it was clear he had left me and was home, roaming the hills he apparently loved.


I was so taken by his homesick demeanor, I placed a pillow next to him and nestled close with my head on his chest so I could hear everything he was saying. As the afternoon light waned, I sat up and smiled. "More wine?" He declined and suggested we gather our belongings and head back to the city.


We drove back to my apartment in mostly silence. Nothing really needed to be said after this perfect afternoon. He walked me to the building entrance and set down all my belongings. When he offered to carry them up, I declined and thanked him for a delightful afternoon.


As he took my hand and was about to kiss it, I withdrew it and pointed to my lips. The happy glow that washed across his face put a perfect touch to a wonderful day. The night he grabbed me in the thunderstorm flashed back as he took me in his arms, where he thought I evidently belonged. I didn't argue with him.


I stood at the entrance and waved as he drove away and then took my things up to my apartment. I wanted him to come in with me and make love but I knew he would decline, honorable man that he was.


Monday afternoon at the soup and sandwich bar, I was somewhat taken aback at Claudette's reaction to what Marge and I dumped on her regarding Azeem's return. She was, of course, interested and, asked all the right questions but did not appear to be swept up in the spirit of the moment as Marge and I were. It became evident to me there was something on her mind which she avoided mentioning.


As our conversation about Azeem began to conclude, I gently ask Claudette what was on her mind. "Oh, nothing," was her answer.


I didn't believe her but decided to drop it until Marge piped up in support of my initial question. Claudette bit her lip and thought for a moment. Marge and I looked at one another while we waited.


Marge ran out of patience and blurted out, "Come on, girl. Spill it."


Claudette gave out a deep sigh and began in almost a whisper. "Has he mentioned anyone, over there, that he is close to . . . you know like a friend or relative?"


I thought for a moment and replied, "No he hasn't but we didn't really spend that much time together for those kinds of details. Why do you ask?"


"Oh, nothing. I was just curious."


Marge jumped in with an observation I missed completely. "No, you weren't. You know something and you're holding back for some reason."


"No, I'm not."


I folded my arms, leaned back and stared at Claudette, waiting. Marge copied my posture and we both waited.


"Okay, there is something else. And I'm very reluctant to even mention it."


"Mention what, Claudette?" Now I was curious.

"It happened some weeks before he disappeared."


"And?" Marge and I spoke in unison.


"Roy stepped away from the bar, I mean Azeem stepped away with a phone call. He left his wallet on the counter during his phone call."


Marge couldn't help herself. "And you did what?"


"I flipped it open. There were photographs."


"Of who?" I sensed what was coming and knew I wasn't going to like it.


"I only saw two before I closed the wallet."


I could tell Marge was restraining herself from reaching across the bar and grabbing Claudette by the throat. "Okay, you saw two photos. So what??


I stepped in to help Claudette. "What did they look like? What did you think?"


"They looked like family photos. A wife in one and a wife and son in the other. I’m probably wrong. They mean nothing."


"Of course, they mean something." I didn't sound very convincing even to myself. Now all I had to do is find out what they do mean. Suddenly I found myself backing up in my mind to where I was when I saw him waiting for me after his long absence.


Marge was being altruistic when she mumbled, "I hope this isn't a deal breaker."


"Marge, there is no deal. He hasn't done anything other than two kisses which I did not discourage."


Claudette was more resolute, "Well, damn it – just ask him plain out and see what he has to say for himself."


"You're probably right, Claudette. But what if we're wrong? I don't want to be responsible for having him think we ganged up on him. I think his feelings would be hurt."


"Do as you think best, but if we're right, I'll be available to tar and feather the snake and drive him out of town."


"Oh, Marge, you say the funniest things sometimes. I have a feeling he'll have an answer that will meet all of your approvals." It was comforting to realize these two cared that much about my wellbeing. "We're having dinner together this weekend. I'll find out then."


We decided upon dinner together the following Saturday evening. When I asked him where we would be going, he smiled and shook his head. "You're not going to tell me, are you?


He smiled that crooked smile of his. "A surprise." I rather enjoyed his subtle way of taking charge. I certainly was looking forward to another adventure with him in dining. He picked me up at the appointed house and we headed north on the Outer Drive.


"Are you going to give me a hint?"


He laughed. "French. The Bistro Champagne."


I was surprised when he spoke English to the wait staff. For some reason, I thought he would also be able to speak French. When we had the menus in hand I discovered that I knew more French than he did when I had to interpret portions of the menu. He seemed very pleased I was able to accommodate him in that regard.


He attempted to keep the conversation focused on me and what I enjoyed but I would have none of it. I wanted to know everything about Sakoon and his village Sakeena to which he acquiesced. But I was somewhat sorry I had pressed him on the matter as there was a certain sadness about him when he discussed personal details of his life so far away.


I knew I had to find out about those photographs but wasn't sure how to go about it until I got an idea. "Azeem?" I pursed my lips into a smile.


His eyes and expression told me he knew I was up to something. He smiled. "Yes."


"Do you have your wallet with you?"


"Yes, of course."


"I'd like to see it and look through it . . . unless, of course, there is something inside you don't want me to see."


"No . . . there are no deep dark secrets. But why? It's a very unusual request."


"I know, but I ask anyway. It will tell me little things about you that will give me a more complete picture of who you are."


Obviously, he was taken aback by the idea but only hesitated a few seconds before he removed it from inside his jacket, laid it on the table and slowly moved it over to my side of the table.


"Thank you." Now that I had the wallet in my hand, regrets began to set it. It was rude of me to do such a thing, but I had to find out about those photos. I laid the wallet before me and opened it. There was nothing to see so I unsnapped a divider and folded it over, and there they were, two photos of a very beautiful woman and one with her and a handsome boy who looked like Azeem.


I looked up at Azeem and immediately saw the pained expression on his face. "Azeem, what is it?" He appeared to be unable to speak. I suddenly realized what a mistake I had made, closed the wallet and slide it back across the table. "I'm so very sorry for the intrusion."


"No, Annabella. I'm glad you asked. I've tried so many times to tell you about my wife and son but didn't know how to begin.


A chill shot through me when I heard the words wife and son. There was nothing I could add to my apology except to wait and see what he had to say.


He opened the wallet and laid his fingers on the first photo of the woman. "This is Wardah, my wife, and this is Nimer, my son.


The emotion in his voice had me on the verge of tears as I whispered, "Azeem?"


He looked up at me and smiled in spite of the grief he was feeling. "They were lost to me when the asteroid stuck Sakoon.


"Oh, Azeem, I am so terribly sorry. Forgive me."


"Forgive you? No. You needed to know and I was remiss in waiting this long. Thank you."


"You never told me when the asteroid hit your home."


"A little over two years ago. They were visiting her parents five days journey from Sakeena."


I had to dab my eyes to keep the tears from escaping.


"No tears, Annabella. Wardah would strongly object. She was so much like you in so many ways. That is why I've pursued you."


The crazy thought that ran through my mind when he said that was when he held me in that thunderstorm, was he holding me or was he holding her? I guessed I would have to wait to find out.


Dessert and coffee were served during which I let Azeem tell me everything about the two loves of his life. The evening ended on a very somber but not surprising tone. When he pulled up in front of my apartment building, I touched his arm and asked him not to walk me to the door. "Thank you for this evening. I appreciate it more than you know. Please call me when you're free and let's make plans for a . . . how shall I say, a happier time."


He agreed and managed to kiss my hand before I got out of his car. I didn't pause but walked directly to the entrance of the building and let myself in. When the door was closed, I stood there for a while trying to catch my breath over what had transpired.


He was so brave and stoic as he told me of Wardah and Nimer, if ever there was a question in my mind as to whether I cared for this man, it was answered in no uncertain terms. Now the question was if I was ready and willing to leave Mother Earth for a new home and new life far away.


I spent most of the next day going over every aspect of the time I had spent with Azeem. I called Marge in the afternoon and told her of the dinner at The Bistro Champagne. She was silent when I finished detailing the final hour of our dinner date. When she didn't say anything I asked, "Marge?"


She softly said, "Go with him. You'll regret it the rest of your life if you don't." She hung up without saying another word. It wasn't what she said, but the emotion in her voice that convinced me she was right.


I didn't wait for Azeem to call me, I called him and told him I was on board if he was still interested. He didn't say anything either. The line went dead. Within the hour he as at my door filled with so much energy and promise I was overwhelmed as we exchanged our pledge to one another.


He made all the arrangements for becoming a citizen of Sakoon. He anticipated my anxiety of being separated from him when he had to come back to Earth, and assured me we would never be parted again. I would be returning with him as part of the team.


It was several months before a return to Sakoon was planned which gave me the opportunity to ready myself for the change. A few days before departure Azeem and I met Marge at the Lola Palooza Soup and Sandwich bar and had lunch 'on the house' with Claudette.


One of the final things I did was contact our lawyer and made sure my interest in the Victoria home Charlie and I owned was turned over to him. I knew he didn't like the idea of losing me – which feeling was mutual, but he acquiesced and wished me the best ever.


And so the day of departure arrived. I stood on the landing where the small submarine craft waited to take us below to the space vehicle station. It was a beautiful windy summer day as I took my last breath of Earth air. Azeem held my hand and finally whispered, "Come Annabella. We're going home."


I turned to him and smiled, "Yes, home. Let's go."



Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-56 show above.)