The ground was uneven and making my way along the last 100 feet took longer than I expected. It was twilight, if luck held out I would make it to the entrance unseen. I paused, gathering the strength I needed to continue this arduous journey. If I hoped to see my beloved Alistair again, I had to make it through the portal by the light of the blue moon. It was tonight, or… never.
* * *
“I hate it here.”
“Honey, give the place a chance. We just got here.”
“I’ll never like it here and I’ll never make any friends. I want to go home.”
“This is our home now.”
Mother wisely didn’t address the issue of friends. She knew I would either find one, or not.
* * *
I didn’t find any friends. The kids at school were all silly, doll-playing fools who read below grade average. Perhaps the entire area was like that; filled with morons who only read the funny pages. Moreover, I still hated it here.
I came across the portal while trying to avoid the groundskeeper. We shared a mutual dislike of each other. I knew him to be a thief and he discredited me every chance he got by informing my stepfather every time I entered the rose garden.
“But, Papa, what is the point of having such lovely roses if no one can appreciate them?”
“Charlotte, do remind your child that she is here on sufferance only.”
He barely tolerated me, and I merely tolerated him. It irked me to call him Papa, but Mother insisted. I knew why he didn’t want me or anyone else in the rose garden. His precious Beatrice had cultivated those roses and no one could ever replace Beatrice and no one should ever enjoy what was once hers, including my Mother.
I quickly understood that their marriage was an arrangement for appearance’s sake only. He would never love anyone other than Beatrice. However, as Mayor, Papa had to entertain on a regular basis and he needed a hostess for all his oh-so-grand dinner parties. Mother missed Father dearly as did I, but when he died unexpectedly he left us almost penniless. Mother did what was necessary and married the first decent man who had proposed.
“She is far too precocious for a six year old child. I’m sure it’s all those books you encourage her to read.”
“Reading broadens one’s mind,” I couldn’t help myself; “you should try it sometime.” I ran off before the anticipated scolding could forestall me, but I still heard his harsh retort and my Mother’s muffled sobbing.
I ran straight to the portal that I had discovered earlier that morning. I got down on all fours and wriggled through. In seconds, I was in another world and had just barely escaped being run through by a dangerous looking sword, wielded by an unlikely knight.
“Halt, who goes there; friend, or foe?”
“Well it would hardly matter much once you dispatched me with that…,” I couldn’t stop myself from laughing, “lethal, foil covered, cardboard sword.”
He lowered his weapon, finding it impossible to maintain an authoritative stance and laugh at the same time.
“I know who you are. You’re the new girl who doesn’t talk to anyone else.”
“Meredith Allen, and you have me at a disadvantage sir,” I curtsied.
“Sir Alistair Cartwright, at your service.” He bowed.
We both giggled and spent the afternoon enacting various scenes from books we both knew and loved. One thing happened repeatedly that I didn’t enjoy; I was the one who always died.
“Why do I have to be the one who dies all of the time?”
“It’s your name; Merry Death.”
“It’s Meredith, you dolt!”
“I know.” He bent over, kissed me, and ran off.
I didn’t see him for a week, regardless of when I slipped through the portal.
* * *
Alistair never mentioned that kiss on the cheek, nor did he attempt to kiss me again.
I suspected that eventually our three-year age difference would seem insurmountable, at least until we were much older.
For now, we were content to frolic in that expanse of woods behind the portal. Completely ignored except by two well-read children with vivid imaginations; it was our Shangri-La.
* * *
“Where is that girl?”
“She does have a name, you know.” Mother’s weary tone was telling.
“I know she does, and it’s a damn fine one. Why does she insist on calling herself Allen even after I went through the formality of adopting her?”
“Meredith doesn’t want to lose what little she has left of her Father. She did hyphenate her surname to please you.” Actually, I had done it to please Mother; I didn’t care how he felt about it one way or another.
“Well it doesn’t please me at all.”
“Graham, please… ”
“I’m here, Mother.”
“Good lord, look at the mess you are. You do realize that this event is for you, in honor of your sixteenth birthday.”
“Sorry, Papa; Mother, I will be ready immediately.”
I had not asked for, nor had I expected, a sweet sixteen ball. In my opinion a ball of this nature was as archaic as a hoop skirt and I had no expectation that either one would find itself back in vogue in this century or the next. What’s more, I had no friends, no one to invite save Alistair and his name was conspicuously missing from the invitation list.
I showered, dried myself and slipped into the beautiful and completely unsuitable gown that Papa had chosen. I pinned up my hair as I had seen Mother do countless times, and sparingly applied make-up. As I was the guest of honor, I could not make excuses and escape early. There would be no slipping out the bedroom window to meet Alistair tonight.
“Darling, you look beautiful.” Mother’s eyes welled up.
“For God sakes woman, pull yourself together before you have to reapply your make-up.”
I think I loathed Papa more in that moment than I thought possible. I knew that Mother had very little joy in life these days and he took great delight in depriving her of every second of happiness that she did manage to find.
I was in a semi somnambulistic state throughout most of the event, wishing it to end as painlessly as possible for all concerned. The elaborate meal could have been mac- and- cheese for all I cared and I would have enjoyed that more. I was permitted to drink a glass of champagne in honor of the event, and took no pleasure in that either.
When I danced, I took great care to tread on my partners’ toes, thus ensuring each victim did not ask me a second time.
The last guest departed and I took my leave. I was about to slip out of the window when voices drifted up from the open window below.
“Well, in spite of her trying to alienate the entire male population in this town and the next, Lucas Powell has asked for permission to court her.”
“Lucas! You must be kidding me.” My Mother apparently thought he was as unperceptive as I did.
“Do you think she could do better? She is both willful and opinionated in spite of my best efforts. We will be hard pressed indeed to find her a suitable husband.”
“At least she can form an intelligent opinion and express it coherently. The Powell boy can’t even speak in proper sentences. Furthermore, Meredith is far too young for marriage.”
“Be that as it may, I gave him my permission. He will take her riding next Sunday afternoon.”
“But Meredith doesn’t ride.”
“Then she had better learn before Sunday afternoon.” His tone offered no room for debate. As far as Papa was concerned, it was a done deal.
I ran to the portal and fell to the ground sobbing.
“Well I never thought I would see the day you cried.”
“It’s after midnight and I have to go riding with Lucas Powell next Sunday.”
“Is that all? I thought something bad had happened.”
“It’s bad enough and besides, I don’t know how to ride.”
“Of course you do.”
With newfound confidence, I realized that due to all of our role-playing as long as the horse cooperated, I probably could ride. Alistair had a way of shoring me up whenever I needed it the most.
* * *
The more disagreeable I was, the more determined Lucas was to win me over. I knew he wasn’t interested in me per se. Lucas stood little chance of success on his own, but as my husband he expected to inherit Papa’s vast estate.
* * *
“Lucas has asked for her hand and I have given him my blessing.”
“Meredith doesn’t want to marry him.”
“If she refuses, she is on her own. I will not pay for university or housing elsewhere. Let her find her own way.”
“You never had any intention of providing tuition nor housing for her, did you? Fortunately, Meredith can make it without help from you. I can too, for that matter.”
“You; what the bloody hell can you do?”
“I’ll wait tables or scrub floors if I have to.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. No wife of mine is going to work outside of the home.”
“Home? This is a far cry from a home and I am going to do something I should have done a long time ago.” As she turned to leave, he grabbed her arm.
“I’m not through with you yet. No one walks out on me.”
The vicious blow sent her backward down the stairs. I looked up to see a look of contrition on Papa’s face. I ran to my Mother’s side as he rushed down the stairs.
As soon as Papa realized that she was okay, his previous demeanor returned.
“This is entirely your fault. You will marry Lucas and I will hear no more on the subject. I have already planned the guest list, and will meet with the caterers tomorrow. It will be the wedding of the year, as befits the daughter of a politician of my stature.”
“I’m not your daughter and if you even try to force me into this marriage I will make sure that everyone in the State knows what you just did.” I stared him down.
I’m not sure what Papa said to him, but Lucas went east to university and I never heard from him again.
What I wanted was for Alistair to propose. While he did propose a great many things, marriage was never one of them.
Whether it was a change of heart or the threat of blackmail from my Mother, Papa relented and paid my expenses while I went away to university on a scholarship.
“At least all that reading she did wasn’t a complete waste of time.” He grudgingly admitted.
* * *
The news of the tragic car crash turned my world upside down. I actually felt a little sad that Papa died, but my Mother’s passing left me inconsolable.
I finally pulled myself together long enough to comprehend what the lawyer was telling me. I inherited the entire estate, in trust until I married or reached the age of thirty-five.
I knew which of those two events would happen first and in due course returned to university. I dated but never let anyone get too close, and once the news of my inheritance leaked out, many tried.
Over the next few years, I saw Alistair less frequently than I wanted to. When I eventually returned home and went to the portal, he was never on the other side. Had he finally moved on with his life? I couldn’t believe that he would leave without a word of goodbye and yet it seemed that he had.
* * *
I’m not sure when the years turned into decades but it was obvious that soon I would no longer be able to care for myself. I contacted the law firm that had initially administered the estate and made my wishes clear.
The estate became the Charlotte Allen Chronic Care Facility. I would remain in residence in my private suite until my death, which, according to my physician would be sooner rather than later.
I came to know the staff quite well and they, me. As often as I tried to slip out onto the grounds unguarded, they always found me and gently steered me back to my suite. Tonight had to be different, this was my last chance and I knew that this would be my ‘once in a blue moon.’ Alistair had to be there waiting for me or I would die without ever seeing him again.
I left my walker by the entrance of the rose garden, knowing the staff would think I slipped inside. Then I carefully made my way to the portal.
“Halt, who goes there; friend, or foe?” I heard his voice before I saw him.
I slipped my shawl over the monument I had draped sweaters and jackets over, countless times before. We were hugging and laughing as if the years hadn’t changed us, for indeed, they hadn’t.
I heard voices drawing near and cautioned Alistair. We slipped into the bushes as a flashlight played across the lawn.
“That’s her shawl on the tombstone, she must be nearby.”
I giggled until the word sunk in…’tombstone.’
I waited for them to leave and tiptoed over to the monument.
Alistair Cartwright, beloved son, called to Heaven at the age of nine.
“Alistair, what does this mean?” I turned to find a nine-year-old child where my elderly soul mate previously stood.
He bent over to kiss my unlined cheek.
“What took you so long, Merry Death?”
What indeed, I wondered and I chased after him through the trees as I had done so many times before.