What If You
She is humming to herself as she brushes her hair out, the two of them wrapped in lamplight in the late evening, late home from the paper. It’s peaceful and quiet, the light patter of rain on the roof the only soundtrack around them.
Looking in the mirror at just the right angle, she can see Charles sitting at his own desk with a mirror set up in front of him, and a bowl of heated water set before him. She smiles at the sight, and places her brush down in its spot, content to watch him for a moment. He has been distracted today, but she’s not sure why. He will tell her in his own time, she knows, but even so he’s been quiet and she doesn’t like it. She and Charles usually talk half the afternoon away when they work late together; it was strange to sit in such silence.
“Dammit” he hisses, tilting his neck to look at the reflection of the small, clean cut he gave himself. Using a straight razor was just one of many skills he had to pick up here, among a myriad of other foreign concepts, like no hot showers and learning to steer the horse and cart. He’s not terrible at shaving, but some days his hand slips just so, and it can be so damn frustrating.
Laura smoothly gets up from her bureau, approaching him from behind and smiling at him in the mirror. Her hair is down and fluffy from being brushed, and she is dressed only in her floor length nightgown. It looks opaque in the soft light, the hint of her figure underneath. Her reflection is an absolute vision.
“Here, let me” she says softly, almost whispering. She gently takes the straight razor from his hand and coaxes his head back with a single finger. He arches his head and looks at her upside-down, grinning.
“So you can slit my throat and run off with my fortune?” he jokes, relaxing immediately as she lathers his other cheek to give the cut a moment to stop weeping. He holds a small square rag of linen to the spot.
“And just what fortune would that be?”
He barks a laugh at her and she grins in response, bopping him on the nose with the brush. He even leaves the little blob of froth right there for her own amusement, which makes her roll her eyes at him.
“You know, if you did this in the sunlight it would be much easier to see” she says, placing the brush down in its bowl as she addresses his reflection.
“I don’t have the time in the morning. I’d only rush it and end up cutting my whole face”
She hums at him in vague amusement, not disagreeing. It’s late – just before bed – but he likes to shave in the evening rather than in the morning. He is not so scruffy that it makes much of a difference anyway, and this way he can take the time with the unfamiliar technique. Plus he never has to leave the house with a bleeding face this way either, and for the sake of his dignity alone it’s preferential.
Laura leans over his head to watch the blade carefully as she rests it at the bottom of his jaw and slowly scrapes upwards. The blade glides under her practiced touch, never once catching on his skin. Charles thinks she may have done this for Will too, but he’s never asked and she never tells, and though she wouldn’t lie if he posed the question, it feels irrelevant. Whether it was Will, Walt or her father who taught her, it’s him sitting in the hot seat now, trusting that his wife won’t accidentally kill him.
It’s almost erotic, this trust exercise.
He watches her face as she watches her hands, and feels the glide of the blade as it moves in clean patches across his face, row by row of foam coming off and being rinsed in the bowl in front of him. She is relaxed but concentrating, doing her best not to nick him. Her eyes are crinkled just so. She looks stunning, he thinks.
“You are beautiful” he says between swipes.
She hums at him with a wide grin. “So you tell me”
He does tell her that an awful lot. And he likes to draw her a lot too, which she finds perplexing. She supposes it’s a form of flattery – his never ending appreciation for her is wonderful. But she still feels a little self-conscious when she looks up from reading her book and there he is, tracing the curve of her neck or the crock of her finger, scrutinising every little detail. She is not so shy that she dislikes it, but she’s never been in a relationship with an artist before. Suddenly all those love poems seem oddly voyeuristic. Every drawing is a piece of him in tangible scratches, forming his thoughts and feelings on paper. Showing his love for her.
She finishes quickly, and smooths her fingertips over every inch of his throat, cheeks, jawline, searching for spots she missed. Her touch is also very erotic; sensual. He closes his eyes and takes a moment to appreciate it, knowing that what’s on his mind will probably kill this wonderful mood they are in. He sighs to himself as she leans over him to collect the bowl of frothy water, which she promptly tosses out the window into the garden bed below. Her mother would pitch a fit for doing that, but her window faces the other side of the property, so what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.
Laura turns around to find him staring at a spot on the wall, his eyes unfocused, his mind elsewhere.
“You seem awfully pensive. Is something the matter?”
“What? Oh, no, I… no”
Her brow furrows and she walks back over to him, placing the bowl back and resting her hands on his shoulders. “Charles, what is it?”
He sighs, and hangs his head. He needs to discuss this with her, but it’s so hard to get the words out. More than that, it’s hard to figure out how to sort his thoughts – he’s all jumbled inside. He stands and starts pacing the room next to her, his hands on his hips.
“I’ve been offered a permanent job by correspondence – my own cartoon column in a daily paper in the city”
He stops, looks at her, then looks back to the floor.
“They want me to go to their offices to meet with the editor and pitch a character idea – have a running story or tone, work out the details, sort out a contract”
She is positively beaming at him, so proud that his freelance illustrating has yielded such a great result. She takes a seat on the edge of the bed and pats the space beside her. He pretends not to see, and she can see he is so tense. She doesn’t understand it.
“Charles, this is fantastic” she says, voice cheery. “What is the matter, you’ve worked so hard for this. Aren’t you happy?”
“I thrilled. I mean, it’s what I’ve been hoping for, sending off all my little letters to people”
“Then why do I get the feeling there is something more you’re not telling me?”
He huffs to himself, his frustration growing, not sure how to articulate his anxieties in a way that sounds sane. Then again, given how he came to be in her life, perhaps Laura would be open to some insanity. He’s not sure. Also, he’s afraid. He knows he is confusing her, and that just frustrates him more.
“It’s in St. Louis, Laura. Their offices are in the city”
“In the city” he says again. “I’d have to go there. To the city”
“Of course you would – Charles, you’re not making any sense” She shakes her head at him, watching him run a hand through his hair. Frankly he sounds a bit mad.
“On a train” he says, louder now, his hands stretched before him. He has stopped pacing, and is standing right in front of her. His eyes are wide, and a little bit wild, and she knows she’s missing a vital link but she cannot figure out what. “I’d have to take the train to get there, Laura. I’d have to stay overnight”
“That’s alright, we can manage that-”
“No, it’s not the time, I mean… it’s… the time”
She reaches a single pacifying hand out to him, palm open, so confused and worried that he’s suddenly looking so panicked. This is not her Charles – this frazzled and flighty creature is so far removed from the man she married that she thinks he might actually be ill. She tries to calm him, unsure what he even means.
“Charles, you’ve travelled before-”
He suddenly rounds on her, his expression fierce and intimidating, his eyes bearing into her in a way that feels much less romantic than earlier. She is uncertain around this strange creature. She remains firmly in place, her shoulders instinctively leaning back just a fraction.
“What if I don’t come back” he says, all but yelling at her, cupping her shoulders. He is practically shaking her, though he is not hurting her. His eyes are piercing, his voice cracks, and she is almost afraid of him. But he’s not being particularly violent; he’s trying to articulate a fear he doesn’t understand. He is trying to make her see. He holds her in place until he can tell that the pieces have started to fall into place in her mind.
He huffs lightly, his face crumbling, and she softens under his touch as she finally understands. She cups one hand behind his neck, and one behind his back, and she pulls him close. He folds into her and around her – his face buried in the crook of her neck and shoulder, and his arms wrapped tightly around her back, clutching her nightgown between his fingers. She shushes him lightly as she sways him side to side. Tears well in her eyes as she rests her chin on his shoulder, and she looks up and blinks them away, refusing to let her grief show when he is so beside himself. This Charles is a foreign creature to her; reticent and unsure, and he is shaking with the fear of losing her. She can feel him tremble around her frame.
“I can’t lose you” he says, his voice choked with emotion. “I couldn’t bare it again”
She sighs at his confession, overwhelmed. They have never really discussed his discovery of her death – nothing beyond it being the reason he came back so frantically. They’ve never explored the terror of knowing she was taken from him; that he had cause it, if unintentionally. She thinks they should have, but it never really mattered before – in their safe little world in the country, they were happy and peaceful. There was nothing to upset the life they have made, beyond the daily routines and the occasional disagreement. It has been wonderfully idyllic.
“You are never going to lose me, Charles” she says. Her voice sounds much stronger than she feels. It sounds positively resolute, as though she’s the one who knows the future this time. “You are not. Never, you hear me? That’s never going to happen”
He sniffles as he pulls back from her, and he holds her face in his hands as he looks at her. He looks quite desperate, and just about broken, and she whimpers as he kisses her. She grips his shoulders and lets him look at her as much as he likes. Suddenly this voyeurism doesn’t feel wrong, it feels necessary.
“You are my whole life, Laura. Being here, this home, this life, with you and Mary, and God knows I even love your mother too” She scoffs at him, smiling. “You are my world”
The way he is looking at her tells her much the same, and her eyes flutter shut for just a moment. She pulls him to her again, and this time the embrace is far less broken.
“You don’t have the watch anymore” she tells him, her voice still strong.
“That conductor told you it would be the last stop, didn’t he? That Somerville was your last stop”
“I know, I know”
He sighs against her. She knows he understands all this logically – or as logical as time travel can be. But that’s what makes this fear so potent; it’s irrational and visceral. It can’t be touched, and it’s an unknown threat. They don’t even know if there is a threat. If it was indeed the pocket watch that brought him here, then the possibility of him leaving again is gone; the watch is with the conductor, wherever he may be.
“Do you want me to come with you?” she asks. If it will assuage his fear, she’ll do it. After all, she has never been to the city, and he has promised her a trip. Of course, he did promise her a weekend for their anniversary, not an overnight business stop, but even so, she can manage that.
“No, no. I can’t ask you to give up your business for two days because I’m being silly, your competitor will have a field day”
“I’ll do it”
“I know, I know you would, Laura. And I love you for that. But it’s more than just me” She strokes his hair as he continues, glad to hear he has come back to himself. “Say you come, and it does take us back - what then? Leave Mary with no explanation? No parents? Leave your life behind, stranded in the future? Or say we bring Mary with us too and all three of us leave – what about your mother, the paper. And, as you say, that’s assuming it even does anything”
She pulls him towards the bed and they sit, hip to hip, still holding each other. He sighs to himself again and plants a kiss against her hair, and she watches closely to see the tension melt away; see the resignation take its place. There is no decision to be made, of course – he must go, and it’s just not possible for the family to go with him for the sake of one night. But it worries her to see him so upset over it.
“It won’t happen” he whispers, mostly to himself. She hums and nods against him.
“You must have faith, Charles” she replies softly. “The conductor brought you here to stay – he gave you a chance to come back, and you did. He does not seem like a cruel figure in your tale – he wouldn’t allow you to make your decision only to take you away again. And it seems as though the watch is the key, and you no longer have it”
He nods against her again, nuzzling her neck in comfort, running his hands over her to reassure himself again that he is here with her.
“You must have faith in us, Charles” she whispers. The emotion in her voice betrays her; reveals just how much she has come to rely on the fact that he will be around. His fear has put her life into perspective, and for just a moment she had entertained it, and envisioned what it would be like to get the news that he wasn’t coming back to her. She imagined standing on the platform, waiting for him, only for the station master to tell her the train was cancelled – that it was never coming. Watching every train after that pull in, and no Charles.
She clutches him just a little bit tighter, and they stay that way for a moment, just holding each other.
“I love you” he says. His voice is stronger. He sounds sure again. “I will come back to you”
“Of course you will” She pulls back just a fraction and runs her hand against his chest, patting it with her fingers. “You will have a wonderful meeting with the paper men, and broker a marvellous deal, and you will get back on the evening train and come straight back here. Back to me”
He kisses her suddenly, firmly. A promise. She whimpers against him, but leans in closer all the same her hands clutching at his shirt.
“You will come back to me” she whispers against his lips.
“Every time” he replies. She runs her fingertips over his face, searching – memorising, he thinks, or maybe this is just her own version of painting a picture to keep with her forever. He can see now that despite her strong voice and firm spirit, she is just as terrified by the thought of losing him. He can see in the way her fist still holds his shirt while her other hand traces his jaw; in the way her eyes flick over every inch within reach. She has already lost one husband. She already knows the pain of seeing an entire life stretch before her that will no longer happen; the empty side of the bed and the shirts that don’t fit right but still hold his scent. He won’t be the reason she feels that pain again. He vows that she will never again have to worry about bearing all her burdens alone.
He rests his cheek against hers and feels her sigh, her breath teasing his ear.
“Come on” she ushers, gently nudging him away and towards the head of the bed. He grunts in question, but she methodically stands and round to the other side of the bed, flicking the covers back. He gets the hint. Quickly he slides in on his side, close to the middle, propped on one elbow to watch her. She walks over to the lamp by his shaving bowl and snuffs it out – does the same with the one on her dresser – so that the only light in the room is from the small candle on her bedside to guide her.
He opens the covers and extends his arms, and she slips in beside him, touching him from head to toe, body aligned as close as two people can be. He pulls her even closer to drape her over the top of him, and she snuggles her head against his chest and sighs when his arms encircle her and squeeze affectionately.
She lifts her head, her eyes glowing in the faint light from the candle, and looks at him. He kisses the tip of her nose.
“You will come back to me, Charles” she demands.
“I will come back to you”
She kisses his chest, just under her chin, and then props herself there to watch him. His eyes study her, much as hers do to him. They stay still for a long time, with his hands running the length of her back, saying nothing.
After a long while his touch becomes more insistent, his caress at her back and sides more appreciative and less affirmative. She sighs, and blinks long and hard, and when she opens her eyes again she leans in and kisses him, her hands framing his face and holding him close. It’s passionate and encouraging, urging him on, and when he starts to pull her nightgown up in bunches she moans against his lips but doesn’t pull away. He rolls them over, and they leave the small candle burning.
They make love that night frantically and deeply – quicker than many previous times but no less meaningful. He needs the reassurance, she knows, and she is overwhelmed by him. They don’t even get their clothes off – just shift them out of the way while their hands roam any patch of skin they can find and their lips stay connected.
She has to believe that the conductor has brought him here to stay, and she knows that their love is strong and secure; anchor enough to hold them together. As the night drags on, and they are finally resting back in each other’s arms, she has no fear. She is physically spent and emotionally fulfilled, and as Charles wraps himself around her she thinks he is too.
She knows in her heart that nothing untoward will happen while he is away, and she dedicates her mind to worrying only for his job prospects. Tomorrow she will sit with him at lunch and run through ideas with him – help him build an original portfolio to show the city men. Tomorrow she will make him laugh, and kiss him in the back room while Fred is off stacking the first editions outside.
For tonight, she kisses his brow and snuffs the candle, and lets the warmth of his body lull her to sleep. Tonight they are together, and she counts that as blessing enough.