This short story is meant to be read in conjunction with All the Yellow Posies.
Chapter 16—it’s spring of 1921. Holden and Lou, unable to reach a decision on their relationship status, have decided to just stay friends. So we find them here, in this liminal space, one rainy afternoon in April…
Holden grabbed his blazer from the coat rack, cigarette dangling from his mouth, as he made his way to the back door of the dimly lit shop. Its quiet stillness—free of traffic and the clicking of shoes across the wood floor—was a mood he rarely witnessed. He’d come to love mornings, always pining for the relief that sunrise brought him, and this morning in mid-April was no different, except that it was. This morning held promise. As he reached for the door, he couldn’t wipe the smile from his face; he didn’t even mind that he’d be smoking in the rain! And then—
Where he’d expected to see the vacancy in the flooded parking lot, there was Marceline, who’d been reaching for the same doorknob.
“You startled me,” she scolded, looking equally shocked in her brimmed hat, raindrops bouncing off the top. “What are you doing?”
He plucked the cigarette from his lips and looked at her. “I’m—ah, I was just going out to smoke,” he stammered, aware of how frazzled he must’ve looked.
She turned back to the parking lot, its veins overflowing with water, and then back to Holden. “I meant, what are you doing here?” she prodded. “You’re never here this early.”
“Just needed to take care of something,” he said.
She smirked. “Sure thing.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me,” he added, squeezing past her as they exchanged places in the doorway. “I’m off to enjoy this beautiful morning.”
He walked to the neighboring building and posted up at its side, waving to Marceline from under the cover of the neighboring tree. Taking the slam of the back door as his signal to relax, he lit his cigarette and exhaled, his eyes following the building up its ivory wood shingles, at last landing on the upstairs window. He smiled at his view of the second floor, humored by his bungled attempt at explaining himself to his sister. Beautiful morning? He’d been caught off guard and just blurted it out, but he couldn’t fathom telling the truth just yet—that the reason he was there so early was because he’d never actually left, and that only an hour prior, he’d been in bed upstairs listening to the cadence of spring rain on the windowpanes.
He had not slept well, but not because of any sort of nightmares; rather, it was the desire to be present that caused him to stir so prematurely.
“Louisa Elizabeth, I love you.” His voice had been the barest whisper. He’d resisted the urge to wake her for as long as he could, but time was slipping away, and he couldn’t help himself. She’d sighed, clasping her arms around his neck. He leaned over her, feeling especially smitten as she opened her sleepy green eyes and traced his face. “Hi,” he murmured.
“You know,” she began, playfully pulling the curl at his forehead and letting it spring back up, “I think you might actually be on time to work today.”
He’d pulled her in closer, resting his hand on her bare back. “I think that would be a little suspicious of me, don’t you?”
Holden certainly hadn’t expected to run into Lou yesterday when he’d stayed late at work. He’d become adept at eavesdropping on plans so he could properly avoid her, but unbeknownst to him, the rain had cancelled her and Marceline’s plans early that evening. So, when he’d heard her unlock the front door and walk into the foyer, he froze.
“Hello?” she called out.
Lou had been equally flummoxed by the sound of his voice and how much she’d missed it. She carefully laid her coat and hat over the staircase bannister and walked to the end of the hallway. Holden was leaning over a table reading a measurement, his sleeves rolled up, as she peeked into the back room curiously. He couldn’t have known that her feelings for him had grown like invasive weeds in his absence, and Marceline had helped to water them that day. When he turned to greet her silhouette in the doorway, she said the first thing that came to mind. “It’s raining out.”
“April showers,” he mumbled, looking to be absorbed in the notes in front of him.
Lou laughed a little and looked down at her feet. “Right. I’m sure the flowers are appreciative.”
“Hopefully you got some sunshine earlier—uh, you went to the park, right?”
“We did,” she replied. “It was nice.”
A few seconds of excruciating silence passed. Holden cleared his throat, feeling awkward in her presence and guilty for even being there. Finally, he worked up the nerve to speak again. “I’m sorry. I’m about finished up—I’ll be out of your hair soon.”
“You don’t have to leave on my account,” she assured, fiddling with a strand of hair that had fallen in front of her face. “Actually, I—I’m glad you’re still here.”
A painful awareness of how alone they were accompanied her words, but Holden wasn’t sure what to make of them. He’d accepted their fate that day in the parking lot when he’d realized she’d never be able to cross that threshold with him. He had too much baggage—a whole deck of shitty cards—and deep down, he was certain he wouldn’t have been able to make her happy. If his marriage to Bette was any consolation, she would’ve been miserable with him. At least that’s what he told himself anyway, to soften the ironic blow that he’d bared his heart for the first time in his life, only for it to amount to nothing. “Lou, you can’t say things like that,” he mumbled dismally.
“I don’t want to be your friend,” she countered. “I can’t.”
He clenched his jaw, refusing to meet her eye. “So, this is it, then.”
“No—I mean that…” She paused and let out a nervous laugh. “I want to wake up next to you every day. I want to be the best friend you’ve ever had.” Holden had never once considered, not even for an instant, that she might change her mind. He started to smile but bit his lip, worried the miracle might disappear if he got his hopes up. “I want to read out loud and lie in the grass and spend every Christmas together,” she went on. “I want all of it. Everything you said and everything you didn’t.”
Lou would’ve elaborated more if he hadn’t stopped her, she would’ve told him that she wanted the darker parts too—the nightmares and the hard things—but now his tongue was in her mouth, and her fingers were lost in his hair. For a brief lapse in their history together, the stars had aligned just so, but not without a predetermined condition that this would only happen once. Holden ran his hands up her neck, kissing every freckle across her nose as he pressed her to the wall. “Do you really want to do this?” he’d asked, trying to catch his breath. But she’d been way ahead of him, and by the time he’d laid her across the bed upstairs, the match had long been struck—thrown deliberately into the gunpowder.
“I love you,” Holden whispered again. Lou kissed his cheek, well aware. He’d told her downstairs, he’d whispered it in her ear—the first time, the second time—he’d even mumbled it in his sleep. For three words he could never muster in the past, he couldn’t seem to stop saying them. But that was the difference between then and now.
“Are you afraid I’ll disappear?” Her voice was so soft it disappeared in the pitter-patter of the rain across the tin roof.
“Will you?” he asked, finally.
She looked at him as if he should know better. “I can’t leave until you do, remember?” He grinned, recalling how he’d joked with her on the portico of his parent’s house blindly that night, never guessing that their budding friendship would land them here, snuggled under the covers of the in between. “But you could always hold on to me just in case,” she added, inching closer.
It was equally strange as it was wonderful to have her cuddled up next to him, stardust still caught in her hair, and him still caught up in her. He glanced at the water droplets trickling down the outside of the window and thought of the way she’d kissed his shoulder, and how her nails had felt resting on the nape of his neck, digging in just enough to make a mark. “Lou,” he whispered, overcome with a sudden insecurity.
“It’s never been like that for me before,” he confessed. “Never with someone I…” He couldn’t see her face nestled in his shoulder, but she was grinning ear-to-ear. “I hope I was okay,” he murmured sheepishly. If the way she giggled and pressed herself against him wasn’t enough to satiate his self-doubt, what she said next certainly did.
“You’re really worried I didn’t enjoy myself?”
“You did, then?”
“I thought it was obvious.”
“I mean, I liked to think so…”
“I feel safe with you,” she admitted, adopting a more serious tone. “So safe. Nothing feels better than that.” Lou wondered why he was looking at her like that—his eyes the prettiest she’d ever seen them, their watery blue spilling over with thought. She didn’t know for sure, but she could subtly feel, based on his reaction, that she’d struck a chord.
Burying his face in the dipping valley between her neck and shoulder, he closed his eyes. He wanted to tell her that he felt safe too—in a way he never had—and that notion paralyzed him in a way she couldn’t possibly understand. She should know, though. She should know what happened to him if they were going to move forward together. He owed her that much. And if he had any foresight, he would’ve known that he’d never get another opportunity to tell her—not like this. The moment would never come because in six short weeks, he would be dead. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to ruin the last twelve hours with such a disclosure.
“What are you thinking about?” she inquired.
“I wish I had the words,” he admitted, turning onto his back. “I feel like I just woke up with everything I’ve ever wanted.”
“Everything?” She laid her head on his chest and looked up at him cheekily.
“Give me a few months—then I can ask you officially. Unless asking right now would assure you don’t turn me down again…”
“It might be in your favor to strike while the iron is hot.”
He laughed and reached for her hand, rubbing his thumb over her ring finger. “Well then—I guess off the books will have to do. Will you marry me unofficially?”
“If I say yes, what will we do in the meantime?”
Wrapping her in his arms, he gingerly laid her on her back, changing positions. “Read out loud, lie in the grass, take it slow,” he mused, playing with her hair.
“Take it slow!?”
“I just don’t want to cause you any more potential trouble,” he added. He slid his hand over her belly, and only then did she understand what he meant. “I wouldn’t want something to happen—not before things could be formalized. I wouldn’t want to be all sidetracked with…”
He smiled at her regrettably, and Lou nodded in agreement, clasping her hand over his. He was right and there was no arguing it—not this time. “Our unofficial secret then,” she whispered, brushing his nose with hers. “But it’s too bad.”
“You’re not making it any easier on me, do you know that?” he teased. Holden turned to the clock—there was still some sand left in the hourglass, but not much. He sighed dramatically into the pillow. “It’s eight-twenty.”
Lou had frowned, knowing she had to open the shop in forty minutes. “I don’t want you to go.”
“Hey,” he’d cooed, scooping her up and pressing his lips to her forehead. “It just means we’ll have to make the most of it, right?”
Now, standing in the pouring rain, Holden traced the outline of Lou’s window. She was up by now, surely. She’d begged him to stay when he finally got out of bed, knowing that he couldn’t, but trying to convince him for the sake of trying. What he wouldn’t have done to be able to. He recalled how her olive skin had looked against the sheets, and how he’d never seen something so lovely, not even in France. It was something he’d never tire of seeing, and he wouldn’t have to when she moved in with him—or maybe he would move in with her? Maybe they’d buy a new house entirely, or maybe they wouldn’t, just in case New York City panned out for her. He could find a teaching job in New York, maybe, if he was willing to reach out to Princeton and argue his diploma—or he could tailor there, or anywhere—he could work so she could write for a big paper. And they’d fall asleep together every night, and drink wine on Christmas, maybe plant a garden. She would like that. They could be happy together—so happy that he’d write stories about it, and he’d let her read every single one.
The sight of a lone dandelion against the gray climate shifted his memory from spring to summer, evoking his recollection of one muggy August meeting. He’d been grabbing his prescription from Goolrick’s that day—the day he’d seen her pass by the glass storefront, stopping him mid-sentence in conversation. She was pretty, but she wasn’t sultry, with petite features and hair color that matched his own. By all accords, she wasn’t his usual type but seemed to possess a mystique that demanded everyone around her, including him, to take note. The female patron sitting at the bar turned around to see what had stolen Holden’s attention from her, but Lou had already scurried past, and he had picked up his thought and tried to continue. Still, the image of the sunny brunette wouldn’t let go of him as he walked back to work with his paper bag, and maybe that was why he’d felt the need to embarrass her when he walked inside and found himself in the company of the same girl.
Holden was ripped from his reverie by a loud smash from the street over, causing him to drop his almost-finished cigarette in a puddle. Even in his bestframe of mind, he was still on edge, and not immune to triggers. Lou would have to get used to that too, he thought depressingly. New York City would be full of backfiring cars. Sure, she loved him now—but would she still when he lashed out? The potential made his stomach churn, but it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility on his worst days. She loved him, but over time, his burden was sure to wear down her vivacious spirit, just like it had with everyone else. He’d never felt more whole than when he was with her, but he was still splintered and fragmented, his remains scattered between here and there, held hostage by the past. Not even Lou could change that.
She could take him by the hand and shift his awareness, though. She could make him laugh—her own kind of medicine—by tapping obnoxiously on the glass to catch his attention from above. When he looked up, Lou was standing in the window with a coy grin and her finger over her lips, but she disappeared quicker than he could wave back.
Just as Lou reached the bottom of the stairs, Marceline was starting to open the curtains. “I’m running a little behind—sorry,” she said, joining her.
“Blame it on the rain,” said Marceline. “Days like this are meant for staying in bed. Rather gloomy, don’t you think?”
“It’s not so bad. Overcast makes everything else look so vibrant,” she replied, glancing toward the back door. Her thoughts were on Holden outside, how warm he’d felt under her covers, and how the prospect of sleeping alone would only make her want him more. Patience was a virtue Lou lacked, at least when she was really set on something, and that morning her thoughts were saturated with technicolor visions of the future they’d painted in bed. Things wouldn’t be easy with him—she’d never expected they would be—but her life would never be boring. He was everything she hadn’t known she wanted.
By the time Mr. Thompson had pulled into the back lot, Holden was on his way back inside, having picked the dandelion by the door for Lou.
“Here early and he still manages to be late,” scolded Marceline playfully as he walked in.
Holden ran his fingers through his dampened hair, which was much curlier than when he’d walked out. “I blame the rain,” he replied, echoing her earlier statement. Lou was leaning on the front desk, and he wrapped his hand around her waist, revealing their secret courtship. He laid the wet bloom across the top of the desk, still dripping with rainwater as he pulled her into him. “But the flowers appreciate it,” he whispered.
She eyed him, lowering her voice. “I thought you said…”
He couldn’t help but chuckle at her astonished expression. He summoned the memory of standing in her bedroom doorway, just as the last of the sand drained from the hourglass. “Well, off to go act normal. Wait,” he’d demanded, narrowing his eyes. “Before I go, how do I know you won’t change your mind again the second I walk out the door?”
Lou had sat up in the tangled blankets, clearly amused. “Because you had to have known!”
“Oh yeah?” he’d asked, crossing his arms smugly. “Had to have known what?”
She’d smirked at him, tucking her dark locks behind one ear. “That I love you all the time.”