They stood near a raised bed in the kitchen garden, a study in contrasts. She was small and round, and he was tall and gaunt – so thin that he would have appeared comical, had it not been for his serious aura. Though the comparison may have seemed apt, not one of their friends would ever have called him “Lurch.” They respected him too much for that.
Both of them were dressed in black – he wore a light linen shirt over jeans, she wore an old-fashioned dress with a full skirt that ended mid-calf. She unconsciously smoothed the tatted lace at the neckline, and whispered to the man: “I think I’m a little overdressed.”
“Nonsense. The other women are underdressed.” His gaunt face smiled a secret smile just for her. “Besides,” he said, “It’s my favorite.”
Still touching the lace, she looked down at the bed of vegetables. “The lettuce is bolting.” She sighed.
“It seems a shame – it’s dying now, all of that beautiful lettuce just going to waste.”
He shook his head, a gentle reprieve, his razor sharp cheekbones cutting into the evening breeze. “No, it’s renewing itself. It’s going to seed so that it can live again next year.”
She nodded almost imperceptibly. Of course he would see it that way. “Maybe we should mingle.”
He laughed softly and offered her his bony arm. They headed further into the garden, toward the clumps of chatting people, the rose bushes, the climbing jasmine. Strings of lights twinkled from the trees; the hosts were master gardeners, and had set the scene with great care.
Amongst friends and strangers, one pair of eyes never left her – though not the pair you might imagine. Another man had waited for her entrance, and once he spied her, had waited for an opportunity to speak privately. He came to her as she examined an unfamiliar purple flower, though he could see it was just her excuse to take a break from the crowd. He fancied it was for his own benefit, but it was really to recover in peace from the performance this sort of gathering required. It took a toll on her, but in his enthusiasm to speak, the man did not see this.
“Please tell me,” he said with no preamble, “Whether I’m imagining this or not. I know you have feelings for me. Please, just tell me the truth!” His whisper was desperate, and indeed, he had begun to feel this way as soon as he saw her that evening.
She sighed and moved to a nearby bench, settling herself for the inevitable. “It’s not that simple,” she said.
“But it is that simple!” The man came and sat beside her. He was not tall, he was not gaunt – he was handsome and self-assured, but he was too wild to be as kind as she wanted him to be.
She looked across the yard at the lanky figure dominating a small group near the water feature. His smile was wide and open, he gestured grandly. He was about to reach the crescendo of a familiar story, a story she knew well, and the corners of her mouth tugged up at the same moment as the group erupted into laughter around him.
She knew the punch line, whether she could hear him clearly or not.
“He’s killing you by degrees,” the man said. “You’re just a shade of your former self. I can’t stand to see you like this – just fading away before our eyes.”
She knew how monstrous her companion must have seemed to him, how he imagined a hood and a scythe over his spare form and skeletal face. “You’re right,” she said. “I am fading away. I am a shade of my former self. But have you ever considered that he’s the only thing keeping me from fading away entirely?”
This was not the answer the man wanted, and his handsome face drew up into a scowl of contempt. “You’ll come to regret this.” It wasn’t a threat, just wounded posturing.
“I regret everything,” she said with a strange smile. “I’m bolting, just like that lettuce by the kitchen door – going to seed before your eyes. I’m already dead, and like the dead I speak only in riddles. Only the reaper understands the dead.
“He understands me. You don’t,” she said.
The handsome man walked away in disgust, made his excuses to the hosts and left. She did not see him go because she closed her eyes and listened to the hum of the party, the soft whir of insects in the trees, the wind knocking against distant chimes. She smelled flowers, the turned earth of nearby beds, and she finally relaxed.
When she opened her eyes, he was standing beside her bench, looming as a tree would. His eyes twinkled. “Feeling better?” he asked.
She nodded, all resistance gone. “I’m ready now.” As simple as the statement was, she truly meant it.
The thin veneer of muscle and skin above the bones of his face split into the widest, kindest smile a skull could manage. “Then let’s go.”
She took his bony hand in hers, and they walked back into the crowd, hand in hand.