Ghosts of Romances Past
Alice Headley has a solid faith, a strong sense of family, and a business partner who shares her artistic ideals-a guy who just happens to be her childhood sweetheart. But she also has a "perfect" boyfriend-the man she's been dating for two years-so when he pops the question, she can't believe the answer isn't automatically "yes." Moments after his surprise proposal, Alice takes a tumble down the restaurant's staircase. A fall that leaves her with a nasty head bump and some very strange side effects: Visions of three female ancestors, figures who seem as real as the women Alice remembers from childhood experiences and family stories. They must be illusions, but she can't deny the truth behind their personal stories of heartbreak and love. Is this a trick of the mind? Or God's way of saying her heart belongs with someone else--the youthful love she consigned to the past?
Ghosts were watching Alice Headley.
Photos that crowded her mantelpiece, a cacophony of people and places. Smiling faces and somber expressions, a handful blurred by shadows or grainy blemishes. A black and white image of her grandmother hoeing a garden plot; a color one of her favorite aunt, wearing a smile and a yellow silk dress.
They were friendly ghosts, on whom Alice bestowed a smile as she designed creations for Storyhour Books, one of North Carolina’s most respected publishing companies. Right now, the ghosts were watching Alice argue with her collaborator. Or perhaps argue was too strong a word for the playful tones that laced their lively exchange.
“How about a rainbow?” Jamie Lewison leaned towards the canvas, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Or maybe a couple of beating hearts overhead—something I can animate with the CG software.”
“A little cliché, don’t you think?” Alice let her brush play between her fingers as she studied the image of two lovebirds in green and pink, perched on a branch with wings intertwined and cheeks pressed close together. “I mean, romance isn’t all sunshine and flowers.”
“Well this is for Valentine’s Day.” Her partner’s dark brown eyes sparked with good humor. “Or do you think the most romantic day of the year is a cliché, too?”
“Of course not,” Alice said, tucking a stray curl beneath her do-rag. “It just seems like art should reflect more about real life.”
He snorted. “We are talking about the same project, right? A cute, colorful motif that fits the bill of requirements for a kid’s storybook website?”
“Well, maybe we shouldn’t be encouraging hopeless romantics.” She spun her stool around to face him, her chin tilted in defiance. “That’s how it starts, you know. Kids see stuff like this and they grow-up expecting the fairytale to come true.”
“So what’s wrong with that?” A boyish grin cracked his features. “Some of us like believing in fairytales. I still make a wish on the occasional falling star, for instance.”
“That’s exactly what I mean.” She turned away from the crooked smile that threatened to break down her careful philosophy. “And I still say these little birds are perfect as is. It’s an image that conveys loyalty, security, affection. That’s all most people can really expect out of relationships.”
Jamie groaned and rumpled his spiked brown hair. “Isn’t there some rule about not letting your personal life bleed into your work? Because I’m pretty sure we’re talking about your relationship with a certain advertising executive.”
Here we go. She felt a flush spread across her cheeks at the mention of the man who shared the past two years of her life and countless experiences. “Warren and I are perfectly happy as we are, thank you,” she said, raising her brush to add a daub of blue to the skyline.
“Oh?” Jamie moved to the mantle, where among the family photos were pictures of Warren hiking beside Alice in the Blue Ridge Mountains and another with a professional look as he held the Salesman of the Year plaque for advertising. And the one where he was basking in the warmth of her smile as they embraced tenderly beneath the mistletoe.
“Why shouldn’t we be?” She blended different shades of white for the clouds. “After all, Warren is thoughtful and caring. He’s ambitious. He shares my faith and my values. “
“I just thought by now you’d have made a commitment if it was real. I mean, you’ve been seeing him long enough.”
“We believe in taking things slowly.” An abrupt answer, but then she wasn’t in the mood for a relationship analysis. Especially not from a former boyfriend turned co-worker.
“Maybe there’s a reason you’re hanging back.” Jamie’s voice was hard to read, as he came to stand behind her. “Maybe your heart’s saying there’s something else out there and you’re refusing to listen.”
Her brush slipped, sending a trickle of white into the tree foliage. Grabbing a clean rag, she covered her confusion with a playful comeback. “Thank you, Mr. Relationship Expert. But you haven’t exactly been burning up the relationship scene lately.”
“That you know of,” he teased, leaning over her shoulder. “Besides, I’m looking for a special connection. There needs to be a moment where you know you could share a lifetime together. And if there’s nothing to build on, then it’s not worth pursuing.”
An awkward silence fell, as Alice pretended to get lost in the design, contemplating the shading and texture of the clouds. She gasped with surprise as Jamie’s hands came around to lift the canvas, tilting it towards the trickle of afternoon light.
“Hey, watch those fingers.” She laughed, glad for the subject change. “I don’t want to paint over any marks from a careless observer.”
His face assumed an exaggerated hurt look as he returned the canvas to its stand. “Fine, I’ll leave it alone. Besides, what I really came for was to show off the finished graphics for the activities page,” he added, sliding the strap of his bag from his shoulder.
She adjusted her painting smock and followed him to a partially-cleared table, where he lifted the computer from its case. A few key clicks opened a program, depicting Alice’s last creation dancing across the screen.
A pink elephant in a ballerina skirt balanced on a high wire with an umbrella overhead. Alice watched it perform a careful pirouette before losing its balance and plunging into a net below.
“It’s adorable,” she said. “The administrator for Storyhour Books will love it.” The elephant was one in a series of characters she painted for the website, including alligator acrobats, a hyena unicyclist, and a ringmaster giraffe.
“At least it’s a living, right?” Jamie teased.
She glanced at the clock. Two hours until her weekly date night with Warren. “Listen, I—”
“Need to get ready for dinner,” he finished with a knowing smile. “I’ve sort of picked up on your social pattern by now. Warren isn’t exactly full of surprises.”
She bounced a pencil eraser off his arm as he shoved his laptop in its case. “Just go, if you don’t mind. And tell the editors we need more time on the lovebird design.”
Maybe her tone was harsher than she intended, because he looked almost ashamed as he ducked out the door.