There was a knock at his door, and it was a Sunday night, and that wasn’t the time he usually received a knock at his door.
“Hello, Mr. Gold.”
She stood before him silhouetted by the setting sun, pinks and purples haloing her in such a way that made him squint. The whole thing took him off guard for a second, made him dumb and static while summer heat managed to sneak into his home from her sudden appearance at his door.
“May I come in?”
Belle French lived two doors down in a Victorian nearly as large as his own, hers a forest green to his salmon. She was the town librarian who’d married her sweetheart young but lost him ten years ago, a decade short of when he’d lost his own wife. He knew how her husband died but she probably didn’t know how Milah had gone.
Belle looked like she had something very important to say, and there was no reason to say no, so he didn’t. She stepped into his foyer, then his parlor, oohing and aweing at various trinkets and paintings he had on display, focusing on one with a black farmhouse cast in shadow from a thunderstorm up above. She asked about it, he answered, and then they were quiet. He thought of asking, Well What Is It You Want? because that was the easy and natural Mr. Gold that he knew best. But it would be better to hear it from her. Better and more interesting, unprovoked, in whatever incarnation she had it prepared.
He flexed his fingers over his cane, watching as she stood still while hugging one elbow. She wore a floral dress with a sweetheart neckline, dipping and hugging in the right places so her curves spelled the word pretty. Her hair hung in curls about her shoulders and hid her face when she looked down. His hair hung too, wisping around his neck, long for a man his style, brushing the collar of his shirt. He watched as the hand at her elbow pinched the skin, her eyes squinting, then she turned to face him.
“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here,” she said.
“Well. I didn’t think you came by to admire my paintings.”
She laughed, a single exhale through the nose. “No, I have a, a kind of proposal.”
“Proposal,” he said.
“Not marriage,” she smiled.
“That would definitely be shocking.”
“This might be shocking too,” she said, looking down, that hair covering her face. When she looked up at him again she breathed in such a way that seemed to involve courage drug up from the bottom of the feet.
“I’m listening,” he said. “Shock me.”
“I was wondering if you would consider sleeping with me sometimes, at night, in my bed.”
“Not sex,” she said.
“I didn’t think that.”
“We’re both alone. We’ve both been alone for a long time, years. I’ve been without Greyson for nearly ten, and I know you lost your wife far before that. And, well, I’m lonely. I thought you might be lonely too, and it would be good if we could sleep at night, together.”
He stared at her, curious. He’d never known Miss French to be the type to pull pranks. They had a good relationship; chats at the library, chats at his shop, chats at whatever silly social function Mayor Mills managed to whip up for the town. But pranks, no. They were too old for that, surely?
“The nights are the worst, don’t you think?” she said, edging closer. “I end up reading too much and too long and feel groggy the next day. I think I could sleep again if someone were with me.”
He nodded to indicate he was following, but couldn’t quite respond.
“Have I shocked you?” she asked.
“I suppose you have.”
“That’s nice,” she said, “to shock someone. Can’t remember the last time I did that.”
He licked his lips, looked down. “You’re assuming a lot, Miss French.”
She frowned, retreating. Her hand reached up to grab her elbow again. “Oh?”
“That I’m lonely. That I don’t sleep well.”
She sighed. That single exhale again, no laugh. “Am I wrong?”
He smiled, still looking at the floor. “Only a little. Let’s be very clear. You want me to share your bed?”
“ . . . yes. I want . . . someone to talk to in the night. I miss that. Someone to help keep the bed warm. The closeness, the dark. You know, companionable. Would you like that? With me?”
“Yes,” he said.
Her face lit up. “So,”
“So,” he interrupted, “I’d like some time to think it over.”
Her mouth hung open, mid sentence. “Of course,” she said.
She made her way to his door, paintings and trinkets no longer provoking awe or questions. “Just, well, call me when you have your answer. So I’ll know if I should expect you.”
He bid her good night. Then, holding the door open, “When would you want to start?”
She turned back around. “Whenever. This week.”
She left. He watched her walk down the street, moonlight catching in her hair, purples and pinks gone. Just a bleak black she’d disappear into after leaving the pools of the streetlights. Bobbing out and in again, light, dark, light. The moon accompanying her, keeping that shine on her hair.
He turned back around, not bothering to watch the door close behind him. Looking forward, he saw his night ahead of him: a quick look through tomorrow’s documents, a tallying of inventory, some flicks of a red pen, some sorting of shipments, a check for deliveries, who was late, who was on time, who needed help, who needed more of the calendar, who stared at the wall each night, who curled up alone in cold sheets, who hollowed out their memories, who curled deep into themselves, who desperately needed a drink.
He called an hour later.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “I’d like to.”
“I’m glad,” she said, and he could hear the joy in her voice. Funny. Funny thing.
“When do you want to start?” he asked again.
“How about tomorrow?”
“That sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
They hung up, and when he looked down at his hands, they were shaking.
He was being stupid again, he knew. Just looking down at his palms he could see the old marks he was about to reopen, ready to pour out blood and pretend his heart wasn’t the thing pumping it out.