By Susan Granade –
Fiction Editor –
When Bethany arrived late to the meeting, something was going on, and it revolved around Lionel. She emerged from the vestibule to find him being glared at by all the folks in the circle while Dr. Shipley tried to sum up the situation.
“I’m sorry, Lionel, but this group is based on trust, and you have broken that trust.”
“So go away and don’t come back!” shouted Iona Christopher, a thin middle-aged woman whose outrage showed in the trembling finger she leveled at Lionel. “How dare you?”
Lionel sat very still in his usual spot with his long legs crossed and his hands folded atop one knee. One eye was obscured by a fall of black curls. The other was looking in the general direction of Iona’s distorted face. It was impossible to guess what he was thinking.
Dr. Shipley got to his feet. “Now, Iona…”
“No!” she cried. “This man has made a mockery of our grief!”
“While I might not put it exactly that way,” said Dr. Shipley, “it is true, Lionel, that you are here at Soul Survivors under false pretenses. You never lost a wife.” Bethany’s heart rate spiked.
“Lionel, is this right?” she asked him as she approached the circle with incredulity all over her pretty face.
“It is,” whispered Elena Sandoval, a young widow like Bethany. She clutched a wad of tissue in a work-worn hand. Her husband Hector had been killed in a crude oil storage explosion.
“Lionel never lost a wife,” Bill Siskin called out, “because he never had a wife.” There was a rumble of resentment from others in the circle. “I found out from a friend of a friend who used to know him. Course, I never asked directly about Lionel, but his name came up. When I asked him about it, he didn’t deny it. I thought everyone here deserved to know.”
“Wait!” said Bethany, coming over to stand in front of Lionel. “This can’t be. Tessa was real. I mean, the way she looked, the things she said, how she…”
Her words hung in the air. They all knew if an answer came, it would be a response to Bethany. She and Lionel had a compatibility everyone recognized.
Finally, the source of everyone’s disillusionment rose from his chair and tossed his hair from his forehead. He jammed his hands into his rear pockets and looked up into the rafters of the St. Dunstan Episcopal Church parish hall.
“All right,” he said. “I lied—rather, misrepresented the situation—and for the most pathetic of reasons. I was once very ill and very lonely. So I created Tessa. I pulled her out of my imagination, gave her a name and a personality. She lived in my heart for three years. Then after my breakdown, they told me to get better I had to let her go—and it was tough, but I did. She is now really and truly dead, but I miss her. I guess I always will. I suppose I thought by talking about her, I could feel a little better. They say I’m well, but if this is being well, I guess I’d rather be sick.”
Aside from an audible sigh from Bethany and the gurgling of the coffee urn, there was silence. Some of the Soul Survivors looked around at each other. Others, including Iona Christopher, studied their laps. Elena looked utterly stricken. Even Bill Siskin had the decency to turn red, and old Dr. Shipley was obviously struggling to think of something helpful to say.
“I’m sorry about the whole thing,” muttered Lionel, holding out his arms then letting them fall to his sides. “I won’t be troubling you again.” He turned and strode rapidly away from the still-stunned widows and widowers, toward the door, his heels clacking on the old wood floor.
“Lionel, wait!” Bethany called out. “I’m coming with you.” She ran to him. The two disappeared into the vestibule where they removed their coats from hooks and flung them on. Then they hurried out together into the cold night.
When they reached the sidewalk, Bethany burst into hysterical laughter. She pulled Lionel close by his lapels and gave him a savage kiss.
“Damn, that was close!” she said. “But you were brilliant. Nobody beats you at thinking on your feet. That’s why I love you so much!”
“Uh-huh,” said Lionel, grabbing her arm and jerking her forward, “but it should never have happened. I was careless this time. Could have cost us everything.”
“Who’d ever have thought that fool Siskin knows anybody who knows anybody?” said Bethany in genuine disbelief.
“Did you get them?” Lionel asked her.
“Where’s the car?”
“Just around the corner.”
Then Lionel, who was really Charles, groped Bethany, who was really Katherine, not to savor her assets but those of their fellow Soul Survivors in the form of a half dozen or so billfolds and wallets concealed in her coat lining. If they were lucky, they had a good hour to make the most of them.
© 2015, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.