A Gift from a Stranger
The splash of water ran down his face. It was just a coincidence, Fred tried to convince himself. Speaking about the past with James must have done it. No. Returning to the Mysts had been a bad idea. He was connecting two different things because of a picture of a stag in a forest. Anyone who has a vivid imagination with a matching talent could paint a stag in a forest.
The eyes that stared back in the mirror saw only the painting. The animal resembled Electra’s forest friend too much. There has to be an explanation. It has to or he would go mad.
Fred wiped his face with tissue and stepped out of the restroom. His chauffeur pushed himself away from the wall he was leaning on. Tony had been waiting, his concern visible and genuine.
An unspoken question passed between them.
His shoulders shook in silent laughter. He felt like he was standing at the edge of a cliff. Another step and he would fall to insanity. His mom was aware of his secretive nature. She had warned him that some secrets have a way of eating you up until nothing is left. The only cure was for the truth to come out. Fred had lost something precious when Electra had unwittingly bound him to an oath of secrecy.
The chauffeur grew more agitated with his client’s behavior.
“I’m sorry,” Fred said, pulling a straight face. “I should’ve warned you about my mild phobia with enclosed spaces.”
Tony accepted though not wholly convinced with Fred’s lame excuse. The man looked completely spooked by one harmless painting. But the lie had been said, closing the subject before it even started.
Still numb with shock, Fred made a beeline towards the exit. Mr. Thomson, however, blocked him. Transactions and arrangements had to be made for the purchase of the paintings. Fred could see the man mouthing the words but failed to understand what was being said. His face blank, the chauffeur came to his aid.
“Are you still buying the paintings, sir?” Tony asked.
“Yes,” Fred managed to say.
Yep. He’s totally out of it, Tony thought. The lack of reaction to being addressed as ‘sir’ proved it. To the agent, he said: “Mr. Thomson, would you make an exemption for my friend by reserving the paintings he wanted? He’ll be back tomorrow to finalize everything.”
The middle-aged man looked from one to the other. Tony’s companion was visibly paler after returning from the studio. He nodded and let them through.
Fred was back in the park. It wasn’t his intention to return to the area so soon, but he had to strengthen his alibi. He had noticed that Tony doubted that he suffered from claustrophobia. The park seemed the best place – being nearer than the hotel. He could get some peace here as long as people continued to ignore him. Fred strolled through the park and admired its gardens until he found an empty bench. He sat and found it the perfect spot to relax. It shaded him from the mid-afternoon sun and offered a view of the cloudless blue sky.
The weather didn’t help lift the black mood Fred was in. It was unfair that the world looked so right when gales of wind were battering him inside. What was he looking for? Sympathy was the last thing he wanted. There had been too much of that for years.
The bench underneath him shifted as it took on another weight. From the corner of his eye, Fred saw he was no longer alone. The person deposited her bag between them. He closed his eyes, making it obvious he wasn’t interested in making short talk. The afternoon was quiet, save for the pencil scratching against paper. Fred listened to it for some time, finding comfort in something so trivial. When a gust of wind blew past him, carrying a familiar scent, he couldn’t help peek at the person sharing his seat.
It was the woman with the dark sunglasses from the chapel. He had no way of knowing if she caught him staring. The small frown on her face, however, told him that she was too engrossed in her activity to care. Not wanting to interrupt her, Fred watched a flock of birds circle the skies for a while until they were no longer in sight.
He closed his eyes once more. The second he reopened them, the sky was tinged orange. Fred looked at his phone and discovered it was almost six in the evening. Jetlag had caught up with him that he had accidentally fallen asleep. The woman had gone. A paper weighed down with a stone sat in her place. Curious, Fred picked it up.
The gift was meant for him. She had sketched him while he slept. At the bottom, a message written in flowing script said, “Sweet dreams, stranger.” What made him smile though was the drawing of a pair of sunglasses at the bottom-right of the paper.
Fred carried the paper with him to the car. Rock music blared from vehicle’s stereo, but abruptly stopped on Fred’s knock. The door unlocked, he slipped inside and asked to be taken back to the hotel. On the way, with the sketch still in his hand, Fred came to a decision. He said: “I want to meet her.”
Tony glanced at his passenger.
“I want to meet your friend, Tony. Could you set me a meeting with her?”
The tension that had gripped Fred earlier was gone. A trace of a smile played on his face. Tony’s misgivings about the incident in the gallery completely vanished. He readily agreed, saying: “She’ll be glad to. Is there any specific time and place you’d wish to speak with her, sir?”
“I prefer the restaurant in the hotel. I’ll leave it to your friend to decide on when it’s convenient for her to see me.”
He gave Tony leave for the rest of the day when they arrived in their destination. They exchanged mobile numbers so Fred wouldn’t have to call through the chauffeur’s employer just to reach him.
Gravel crunched beneath Tony’s feet. He had left the car a few blocks away and took the path leading to his friend’s home at the beach, hoping to find her there.
The house was hard to miss. The walls surrounding it served as an ever-changing mural. The last time he visited, it was painted into a vast glittering ocean overlooking the house. What greeted him though were white-washed walls. As he got closer, Tony found the coat still fresh.
The gate hung wide open. Young people were leaving the house in twos and threes. Inside, younger children loitered about, eating fruit pies on paper plates. They were all members of the neighborhood. Some of them sported white splotches on skin and clothes. A few had gotten hold of rugs to wipe off the paint. Tony approached the nearest boy and asked, “Where’s Cheska?”
“Why?” The child returned, eyeing the new guest.
Tony knew an admirer when he sees one. The boy probably considered him a rival. Tony felt sorry for the poor lad had no idea how many admirers Cheska has.
“Because her best friend has an important message to deliver to her,” he said.
“What’s the message?” the woman in question asked from behind him. Tony turned to look at his friend. They nodded at each other in greeting.
Cheska gestured for him to wait and said a few words to the boy. The child beamed happily at her and ran to his friends.
“What did you tell him?” Tony asked.
“I invited him and his friends to help me paint a new mural,” she replied. Cheska waved at a child who was leaving with her father.
It was past seven. Most of the children were being picked up by family members. They watched until the last group left.
“You were saying something about a message?” Cheska asked.
“My client wants to meet you.”
“Ever heard of Dr. Fred Williams?”
“Haven’t heard of him.” Her thoughts were on the white walls. She never really cared about Tony’s passengers, except when they were nasty to him.
“Cheska,” he said. She could be so flighty at times that he was all at once amused and frustrated with her. Calling her name sometimes helped bring his friend back to reality, as it did now.
“Is he that miracle worker or Frankenstein-guy?”
“Fredenstein,” he corrected. “Both. It depends on who you talk to. Anyway, I brought him to your exhibit today. The doctor plans on buying your paintings and, now, he wants to meet you.”
“I don’t really like meeting with people right now, Tony.”
“Aww, Ches,” he used her pet name. “Don’t be like that. The man knows his art. He really admires your work – even picked a number of your favorite from the lot.”
“Tony,” Cheska groaned. If he continued in that manner, she wouldn’t be able to say no to him.
“If it wasn’t for his being claustrophobic,” he continued. “I bet he would’ve remembered to make a bid for the painting you’ve been hiding.”
“You what?” She rounded on him. “That’s not—”
The crimson streaks across her face were a warning sign to anyone who knew better than to cross her.
“Honestly, Ches,” Tony rushed on. “Why do you keep it in such a dull room? That painting deserves to be the exhibit’s main attraction. You should’ve seen the doctor’s shock when he saw it.”
“Shock?” Her brows drew together. “Could you describe it in detail, please?”
“Umm. He just stood there like wanting to touch it, but…he was too afraid?” Although grateful to have avoided Cheska’s anger, Tony frowned at her sudden interest in Fred’s reaction.
“Where did you say he wanted to see me?”
“I haven’t. The doctor wants it to be at the hotel’s restaurant. He says you can choose the date and time. Does that mean you’re going?” he added, after seeing her thoughtful expression.
“Of course, I am. I’ll see him tomorrow lunch.”
“Thanks, Ches. You’re the best.” Tony hugged his best friend.
“Can’t breathe,” Cheska gasped after suffering her friend’s tight embrace for several seconds.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly, releasing her. Grinning, he took out his phone and sent a message.
Fred’s phone buzzed. His pulse raced as he read the message. Before Fred could change his mind, he quickly sent a reply.
Copyright © 2014-2016 Cecilia Beatriz. All rights reserved.
A/N: Any ideas who Francesca “Cheska” Barbarossa might be? 🙂
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