What she hadn’t anticipated was the down time. This feeling of loss and emptiness. It felt as if the whole world were in danger of swallowing her.
"Is something wrong, dear?” Catherine’s voice broke Joy’s musings. "You haven’t seemed like yourself all day.”
"I’m fine.” Joy was supposed to be working on the invitations to the local writers’ group for the literary tea, but Joy’s mind had repeatedly gotten sidetracked. She tried not to think about Ted. She tried to make herself angry with him instead of feeling blue and dispirited about her life in general.
"Are you a little under the weather?” Catherine asked, and patted Joy’s shoulder affectionately. "I understand the flu bug’s making the rounds. You do look a bit peaked.”
"I’m feeling just great,” Joy insisted, forcing a smile. Physically she was, but emotionally she was searching for an excuse to burst into tears. A sentimental advertisement on television would do the trick.
"I understand you got Charles to agree to collect the donations for the library committee?”
"Yes.” Joy was rather proud of that accomplishment. During one of his more lucid moments, she’d talked to him, and the retired soldier had been delighted at the prospect. He seemed less embroiled in his fantasy world of late, and Joy wanted to believe that was because the present one was gaining appeal.
"Everything is coming together so nicely.”
"Yes, it is,” Joy agreed. It felt as though her life were in shambles but everything else seemed to be going along smoothly.
"Ted’s coming by this afternoon,” Catherine announced, studying Joy carefully. "He called and invited me to dinner with him.”
She said this softly as if testing the waters, looking for a response from Joy. Joy, however, was determined not to give her one. "I’ll get these invitations in the mail this afternoon,” she said, not being the least bit tactful about changing the subject.
Ever gracious, Catherine took the hint and followed Joy’s lead. "Do you really think any of the writers will agree to attend our tea? It would mean so much to us, but it is rather late notice.”
"We’ll find out soon enough,” Joy told her.
"I guess we will at that.” Catherine hesitated in the doorway. "Why don’t you stop at my apartment later,” Ted’s grandmother said unexpectedly. "We could have a cup of tea and a nice long chat.”
"What about the other committee members?” Joy wasn’t fooled. Catherine was hoping to detain her long enough so she’d be there when Ted arrived for their appointment.
"Ah, yes, the other committee members,” Catherine hedged.
"Catherine,” Joy said, shuffling through her emotions and planting both feet firmly on the floor. She needed to be grounded for this, because it was much too easy to let her romantic soul dominate what she knew was best.
"Yes, dear,” the older woman said hopefully.
"I know what you’re trying to do, and it won’t work.”
Catherine didn’t make a pretense of pretending otherwise. Her cheeks flushed with bright color. "Forgive me, child, for being an interfering old woman. When I spoke with Ted earlier, he sounded utterly miserable. I was hoping…”
"I know exactly what you were hoping. Now listen, Catherine, I think you’re one of the most delightful women I know, and your grandson isn’t half bad.”
"But,” Catherine said, and her eyes twinkled as she said it. "There’s always an exception amidst all that praise.”
"But,” Joy continued with a beleaguered sigh, "your matchmaking efforts won’t work.”
Catherine’s small shoulders sagged a bit as she graciously accepted defeat. "Oh, dear, I’m just not very good at this sort of thing, am I? Can you forgive a meddling old woman?”
"It’s just that it would do this old heart good if the two of you—” She stopped herself. "I’m doing it again, aren’t I? When I promised myself I wouldn’t.” Apparently angry with herself, Catherine pressed her hands to her cheeks and shook her head sharply. "I’d best leave now before I say or do something else equally mindless.”
Joy returned to the invitations. She wrote the address on one and paused when she noticed that Catherine continued to linger.
"Before I go,” Catherine said quickly, as though it were important to get all the words out as fast as she could, "there’s something I’d like to say. If I could handpick a wife for my grandson, I’d choose you.”
Joy’s heart gladdened with this compliment, but it didn’t take away the ache of knowing it would never happen. "Thank you, Catherine.” It was a sweet thing to say, and at the same time, although the older woman hadn’t intended it to be that way, it was cruel.
Catherine left shortly afterward, and it seemed a sadness had settled over them both.
Joy had finished writing out the invitations and left her office when Lucille Thompson stopped her. Lucille had suffered a stroke a year earlier and had made incredible progress since. She managed with a walker these days, her steps slow and practiced.
"Joy,” Lucille called, her eyes bright with the love of life. "Has the mail arrived?”
"I believe so.” Generally it was delivered around noon and tucked into the individual mail slots shortly afterward.
"I’m waiting for a word from my daughter,” Lucille said excitedly. "There’s a possibility she might be able to join me for Christmas.”
"That’s wonderful, Lucille.”
"I’m on my way up to my room now. Would you check my slot for me on the off chance Clarise has written? I’d so love it if we could be together.”
"Of course.” She watched as Lucille slowly made her way to the elevator. Although she’d almost completely recovered from the stroke, Lucille had worked diligently to learn to read and write all over again. The retired schoolteacher had looked tired just then.
Joy dropped off the envelopes and checked Lucille’s mail slot. Sure enough, a fat letter was stuffed inside. Rather than sending someone else to Lucille’s room with it, Joy decided to deliver it herself.
She waited for the elevator, which seemed to be getting slower all the time. Once she saw to Lucille’s letter, Joy decided, she’d call it an afternoon. Not that there was any rush to hurry home.
The elevator arrived, and she stepped inside. The doors had started to close when out of the corner of her eye she saw someone rush across the foyer in an effort to catch it. She pushed the button to stop the elevator, and the doors yawned open reluctantly.
Ted Griffin stepped inside. He seemed even more surprised to see her than she did him.
"Hello, Joy,” he said smoothly.
"Hello.” Her voice was small and uneven. She focused her attention on the row of numbers above the door while her heart played a renegade game of hopscotch.
Casually, as if he’d planned their meeting, Ted punched the number to his grandmother’s floor. The elevator started to move, but not fast enough to suit Joy. However, the speed of light wouldn’t have suited her just then.
"It seems a bit odd that out of all the people living and working in this retirement center, I would walk into an elevator with you,” he said as if there weren’t the least bit of friction between them.
"Not really.” Generally the fates were kinder than this, but she didn’t say so.
"How have you been?”
Ted seemed determined to keep the conversation humming. "Fine,” she said in the same cool tones.
"Yeah, me too.”
A tense, thick silence filled the cubicle, until Joy found it nearly suffocating.
"This might not be the time or place,” Ted said abruptly, and it sounded as though his patience were on a short fuse, "but I’d like to remind you that you owe me a date.”
"That’s not the way I remember it.”
He took a moment to compose himself, she guessed, then started again on a different track. "I know you’re upset because you saw me with Blythe.”
"She has nothing to do with this,” Joy insisted. She closed her eyes and snapped her mouth shut before she was drawn into an argument with him.
"Of course she does,” Ted contested.
"Do you mind if we simply drop the subject?”
"I do mind…I’ve missed you,” he whispered, and his warm breath fanned her neck.
Shivers raced down Joy’s arms, and she moved away from him. All at once the elevator came to a sudden, abrupt halt, jolting them both.
"What was that?” Joy asked. The lights dimmed and then faded completely, swallowing them in a dark void.
"Wonderful,” he moaned. "Just wonderful.”
"It seems we just experienced a power outage,” Ted explained, sounding as disgruntled as she felt.
"We might be stuck here for some time,” he said next. "You might as well make yourself comfortable.”
"I’m fine. Just kindly stay on your side of the elevator and I’ll stay on mine.”
He snickered softly, sounding amused. "Don’t fret, you haven’t got a thing to worry about.”
Joe looked up from the television when Paul walked into the house. The visit with Madge Bartelli had left him mentally and physically exhausted. He probably wasn’t good company now.
"Where have you been?” Joe asked, and reached for the remote control, silencing the television.
"Anyone looking for me?” Paul asked, setting the evening paper on the kitchen table. He rarely read more than the headlines these days. The news depressed him. Killings, hate, crime. It wore him down in ways it never had in years past.
"Mrs. Johnson called,” Joe said. He stood and joined Paul in the kitchen.
Whatever Annie had fixed for dinner smelled delicious. Paul hoped his lack of an appetite wouldn’t insult his future daughter-in-law. He couldn’t visit the hospital and eat any time soon afterward. The institutional smells took away any desire for food. Leaving Madge and Bernard had left him emotionally bankrupt. He hadn’t the energy to sit down and chat the way he would have any other night.
"Did she say what she wanted?”
"No, she was hoping I’d know where you’d gone.”
"You know, Dad, it might not be a bad idea to inform Mrs. Johnson of your whereabouts.”
"I suppose I should.”
Annie stepped into the kitchen and smiled shyly in Paul’s direction.
"Hello, Annie,” he greeted her. He noted the way Joe’s fiancée gravitated to his son’s side as if she couldn’t bear to be away from him for more than a few moments at a time.
"Dinner smells delicious,” Paul said, "but unfortunately I’ve got someplace I need to be this evening, and—”
"You’re leaving again?” Joe asked, sounding disappointed.
"I shouldn’t be long.”