From the outside, it looked like a decent enough place. Sure, whoever designed it was very much into excessive Doric, but it had a well-kept feel about it, so Jonathan turned the engine off as the first step towards summoning the courage to go in. He'd parked his new but persnickety car as deep within the prescribed parking area as space would allow, and looked through the impressive but shedding oaks that seemed to surround every available square of land where they could find any reasonable purchase. Autumn had arrived in south Jersey, and Jonathan didn't think that the main building would be visible in the heart of a leafy summer.
Six long months since the stroke and he'd proved them wrong. "We're talking about two or three months just to get your brain used to the idea of even wanting to take charge of things again. Jon." his doctor had told him when the fuzziness and immobility had subsided enough for Jonathan to be moved from intensive care and into his own private room. "Three months of rigorous training and exercise, and then we'll reevaluate you, old man."
Old man. The talky neurologist seemed to enjoy that ever so cavalier Brit way of slipping in those insensitive references to age, and even though he tried to pull it off with the casual air of some homey English Brigadier turned surgeon, it still came off as a clumsy slap in the face. Not that Jonathan didn't know that he was well on his way to being an old man, but did everyone have to so brazenly wave the specter of senility at him?
Forty-four years on the stage, and stroke or no stroke, Jonathan still had the talent to smile back at that condescending quack and allow him to think what he may about who was indeed an old man. Forty-seven if you count the High School drama plays; those clumsy awakenings of the love that was to grow into Jonathan's life's work and singular passion. Not counting for Maggie, of course. They'd met in the spring of '58, he a just getting noticed understudy in what was to become one of the greatest Broadway plays of all time, she an aspiring Guenevierre to be, and they found a place for one another within the love they'd both had for the Play.
Thirty happy years of sharing that love, and it ended the day they told Maggie she had breast cancer. Oh, she put on a good enough face for the crowd, that was a given. Maggie could act her way into and out of most anything, and none of them, not the doctors not the nurses, not even her surviving family had any idea of the pain she was going through. Neither the pain, nor the simple fact that from the moment they said those two doom inspiring words, Maggie had decided to give up.
But she didn't fool him. Maggie could act rings around any of those self-described divas, but she never fooled him, not for very long. 'Couldn't fool her either.' Jonathan muttered aloud as he continued to stare at the big, mansion-style house that loomed a hundred yards away from his vantagepoint in the suddenly cramped and confining Volvo. Everyone handles the concept of their demise in their own way, and Maggie's way was to eliminate all of the fuss and go quietly into what awaited in her own particular darkness. Wasn't her way to complain about the role, no, she took what she was cast for and stood them all on end with her grace and beauty.
"Jesus, you are getting senile." Jonathan said from behind the steering wheel of the stuffy car that he had recently indulged himself with as a sort of person al going-away present, and was surprised by the rich echoes of the baritone he imagined was lost for good. Sixty-three years old, alone for the last eight of them, and sitting parked outside of a prospective retirement home and dreaming of two lost loves, must be a harbinger of something bollixed, mustn't it? Jonathan cleared his throat, and after taking a quick look around to assure himself that he was alone with whatever impending madness was inspiring him this day, softly uttered aloud a short passage from the Play of Plays.
"What do the simple folk do?" He voiced with some of his old passion and style, and laughed as the acoustics from within the closed car amplified him back to within a semblance of his old self. "What do you say, Mags, think there's a call for Drive-In Theater Of The Arts?" Jonathan laughed aloud just as the gentle tap on the glass shook him from his reverie.
"Mr. Morgan? Jonathan Morgan?" The voice that wove through his befuddlement wanted to know. He resisted the urge to fumble for his other glasses to get a clearer look at the young woman who stood outside of the car, and cursed himself for not doing something, anything, to hide the tremors that came unbidden to his trembling hands.
"Well hello, yes, I'm Jonathan Morgan." He managed to say as his betraying fingers found enough purchase to turn the ignition key enough to allow him to lower the power window. How had she snuck up on him like that, he wondered as the heavy glass made its annoyingly grinding descent. He was absolutely certain that no one was around for as far as his eyes could see…ah, yes, the rub, as far as his nearsighted, stroke-scourged eyes could see…
"Pleasure to meet you sir. I'm Genny, and we've been expecting you. Checking out the building from afar, are we?" The young blonde woman said as he settled into a much-practiced squint and worked his way past the fuzziness to actually see the features of who it was that had surprised him so.
The woman was stunning. Glasses or no glasses, stroke or no stroke, the twenty-ish looking female smiling in at him was beautiful enough to catch a younger man's breath. He gauged her height to be only an inch or so under his own six-foot-two, and the combination of long blonde hair and snug fitting blue dress cut just above the knee was enough to assure him that not all of his senses had gone on hiatus since the stroke.
"Under different circumstances I'd say the pleasure was all mine, Genny." Jonathan began, once he remembered that it was his turn to speak. "It is all rather imposing and somehow…too much evocative of the end of a road, if you catch my meaning." He said with a wave to the admittedly impressive building that beckoned just a football field's distance away. So close, but so…far to go.
"Well, I don't know how imposing we all are, Mr. Morgan, but I know enough about Broadway to know how imposing you are." Genny said to him with a smile…where had he seen that smile? Chalk up another good reason to curse one's frailty when a young woman's smile is unremembered…
"We can drive closer, or walk if you'd like. Usually I'd recommend the walk, but to be honest, my feet are killing me today and I wouldn't mind a ride back if that's okay with you, Mr. Morgan." The still smiling and familiar young lady offered, gracious enough to understand how difficult such a walk might be for a man of his health and years.
No. And ego be damned, but if the doctors were in agreement with anything, it was the opinion that he may very well be in a calm-before-another-storm phase, and that walking was something to do whenever he felt up for it.
"Thank you for the recognition, Genny, and your poor feet notwithstanding, if it's all the same to you, lets walk." He told her as he pushed the button to elevate the cranky window.
"Oh, my feet are okay, Mr. Morgan, to be honest I just wanted a ride in your nice car." She grinned as she shook his offered hand.
Much to Jonathan's satisfaction and surprise, exiting the Volvo was without drama, and he shook the soft but strong hand with a genuine, but polite vigor. He had seen hundreds of beautiful women, and surely the mere presence of just another attractive young lady wasn't enough to bring back a bounce to his step. He hadn't sunk that deep into the graceless embrace of age to even think about preening in front of a beautiful girl. Had he?
"Okay, I'll give you the quick history spiel while we walk." She said as he beeped the car into locked and alarmed awareness. "WinterHaven was originally built in 1742. The main part of the house, that is, the garish old middle that was the original building, is where Washington, of course, slept on his way back from the battle of Monmouth."
It was without a doubt that the original section of the huge house was grand, Jonathan thought as they took their slow walk through a well cared for lane of shrubs that grew taller than he. Moreover, it was also without a doubt that the owners of the Artist Retirement Community knew their arses from their elbows when selecting the people they sent to meet and greet the potential clientele.
"The place is impressive enough, Genny even without our founding Father's proclivity to sleep in every available bed up and down the eastern seaboard." Jonathan said to her, resisting the sudden impulse to take her hand as they walked. "I've done some homework and know about the who's-who back when Hector was a pup, but I am most interested in the…residents? Is that the right word?"
"Residents is a good word." Genny answered, not losing an inch of her genuine smile. "The residents of WinterHaven are probably some of the most private people around, Mr. Morgan. I guess all those years of being in the spotlight kind of makes a body want to relax and let the hair down a little."
Jonathan prided himself on being able to spot an ingenious emotion from the proverbial mile away, but could sense nothing but sincerity in the young woman's attitude.
"Quite the dichotomy, eh, Genny? We spend all of our formative years begging for people to notice us, and when they finally do we beg them to leave us alone." He said to her as he quickened his pace, again surprised when his body did not protest the briskness of his stride.
"Everyone has a right to a certain amount of privacy, Mr. Morgan. Even the simple folk know that." Genny said, and Jonathan jerked his head to the side and looked into a suddenly elfin looking pair of blue eyes.
"You, um, you heard me? Back in the car, I mean." He asked, incredulous that so young a woman would recognize the words.
"No, I saw you sitting there, looking for all the world like you were getting ready to take on a root canal without anesthesia, so I said to myself that I better get this man out of that car before he makes a mistake and drives away. But, no, I didn't hear a thing. Why, Mr. Morgan, were you thinking of the simple folk too?"
The stroke, it had to be the stroke, Jonathan thought. Here he was, practically mooning over a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, and imagining that she could hear him through the thick window of that ridiculously expensive car.
"So does everyone here hold up behind a barricade of private rooms, or what?" He asked, wanting to change the subject before another gaff of his ruined what was becoming a good mood.
"Nope." Genny answered without missing a beat. "Once you are a resident, then you get to mingle and meet whomever you wish to. Not to be presumptuous, Mr. Morgan, but if you don't mind me saying, you don't seem like you're ready to retire."
"To explain would be a long and quite boring foray into the gobbledygook of medical terms, Genny." He answered as they reached the very white and very clean looking steps that led up to the main entrance. Had they really walked so far so soon? "Bottom line is the fact that no matter how they try and sugar coat it, I'm between strokes. Had one six months ago, and made a quick recovery, or at least the medical people seem to think so. I do the workouts, take the pills, and let them poke and prod me till I'm sore and tired of it all, but the prognosis stays the same. The arteries to the brain are shot, and it's only a matter of time before I'm back to sitting in an uncomfortable chair with large wheels while contemplating the complexities of a bare wall. I thought that at the very least I could select my own wall, so here I am."
"Here you are, Mr. Morgan." Genny said without a trace of false sympathy. "And I think you're going to like our walls. Unless you want otherwise, I get to pick the colors myself."
Jonathan realized that it wasn't an urge to commit lechery that was attracting him to Genny, and with a mental sigh of relief knew that he was starting to like her just for her.
"What exactly is your job here, anyway?" He asked as they paused at those white steps, knowing that she tarried to allow him a moments respite. "Besides coaxing silly old men out of their cars?"
"Hey, Mr. Morgan, don't knock it. Official coaxer means I get to meet and greet interesting people like you." She answered with a laugh that told him that yes; she was attuned enough to sometimes read minds as well. "Seriously, Mr. Morgan, I'm one of the trustees for the estate. I know, I know…" She offered, raising a hand in defense of what was sure to be his immediate retort. "I look too young to be a trustee for a kindergarten let alone a property such as this, but lets just say that I inherited the responsibility, okay?"
Jonathan bit back exactly the response she had outlined, and wondered just how deep this young woman really was. For a moment, he stood alongside of her taking a moment to ponder that before gesturing towards the steps with a much-practiced wave of his arm.
"After you, Genny. Let's go see the dentist."
"I promise it won't hurt." She answered as she reached down and squeezed his hand.
Jonathan Morgan, the dying Tony award winning Broadway actor, took the offered hand in his and turned with her to walk up the steps.
Chapter II: To Play's The Thing
The front door opened into a foyer, and Jonathan gave an involuntary squeeze of Genny's hand when he saw a dark blue carpeted hallway that revealed only one, half-opened door, and from the casual conversational buzz he could hear coming from inside, he was immediately brought to mind of a waiting room in an exclusive men's club.
Jonathan felt that the inside was impressive in a tasteful blend of new versus old, which worked rather than clashed. The light blue walls were adorned with small and tastefully framed oil paintings, and mercifully, there wasn't a Washington crossing the Delaware print in sight. There wasn't any formidable front desk to breech, and that meant no dreadful, "Hi everybody, I'd like to check out one of your upscale dying rooms" confrontation that he would probably walk away from before he even finished filling out the little card while he fumbled to remember his license plate number.
"Off to the right there, is our common room, Mr. Morgan," Genny said as she read his mind again, still holding onto his hand with a sisterly touch as if trying to assure a younger brother that the movie wasn't really all that scary.
They had paused just inside of the entrance, or rather, Jonathan had paused and Genny hadn't urged him forward.
"Where do I, you know, check in to talk to the manager and all that rigmarole," he asked, willing his hands not to perspire and reveal the terror that was beginning to well up inside of him.
"Mr. Marlin's office is just around the bend there." Genny answered, pointing down the hall and off to their left. "And there isn't any formal checking in, Mr. Morgan. You would not have been invited to come and visit us if your bonafide had not already been looked into, so the only rigmarole is you deciding if we meet your needs."
"Genny, not to get you into a protocol bind with any of your bosses, but with all of these Mr.'s flying around left and right I'd appreciate it if you called me Jon, or at least Jonathan, okay?" He asked, and was rewarded with another reassuring squeeze of the hand.
"Of course, Jon it is then." She answered. "Most of the residents prefer to be on a first name basis, and to be honest, whether they like it or not I usually come up with a pet name for them anyway," she confided with a grin.
"So that's it then? I just take a tour of the place, and if I like it all then I can stay?" He asked, not really believing that anything could be so easy in the red tape temper of the modern world.
"Just like that." Genny snapped her fingers for emphasis. "No pressure, no hassles. From here on in its all up to you, Jon."
"Okay then." He said with an exhale that he knew sounded too much like a tired old sigh. "Might as well get it over with, so drag me to this Marlin's office and I promise I won't make any fish jokes."
"Right this way then, good sir." Genny answered with a delighted laugh, and a gentle tug on his hand. "And don't worry too much about the fish jokes; Wally's heard every one of them a million times before."
One foot after another, Jonathan thought as the conversational buzz grew as they passed by the common room. He took a quick glance inside at a large and brightly lit room, half full of seemingly happy and busily chatting men and women, and was surprised to see that many of them didn't appear to be much out of their twenties.
"Visiting day, today?" he asked Genny once they had turned left down the long hallway and out of earshot.
"You could say that." She responded. "Not that we have any prescribed visiting days, per se, but today is a very special person's day and by early evening most of the residents will be out to celebrate."
"Exactly how many people live here?" Jonathan asked as they came within sight of another door at the end of the corridor. "A place this size must hold, what, forty, fifty people?"
"No jumping the gun now, Jon," Genny said with a no-no wave of her finger. "I tell you everything, then poor Wally has nothing left to offer and we wouldn't want to ruin any of his wonderful speeches."
"Oh, please don't tell me that this Wally is just another pontificating bag of wind," Jonathan groaned as they approached the door. "Fair warning, Genny, even when I was younger I didn't have much patience with self-important little dictators, and if anything I dislike them more now."
"Shush, Jon," Genny admonished, not letting her verbal counsels reach those smiling eyes. "Everyone adores Mr. Marlin and it's just that he is the one better suited to give you a more detailed account of all that WinterHaven has to offer."
"Fine then. For you I avow to be nice to whatever haughty old fool awaits me," Jonathan promised, clutching his hands to his chest in a dramatic flourish. "But only if you will answer me a single question without suspecting this haughty old fool to be hitting on you."
"Alright, Jon, not that I'd believe such a thing, but go ahead," Genny said as she took back one of his gesticulating hands. "But only if you don't upstage me by chewing up the scenery so often," she added with a wink.
"Things are suddenly more than a little passing strange here, Genny." He began. "I haven't felt this good in years, but right now that's almost besides the point because I have this unshakable feeling that you and I have met before. Now hear me out before you say anything." Jonathan continued and raised a hand to hold off the response that he saw forming on the young woman's lips.
"Once again, let me reiterate that this is not a sexagenarian prelude to my place or yours, okay? Moreover, aside from your obvious physical attributes, and that charming smile and quick wit, I really believe that we've known one another, somewhere, somehow. I mean, for me this is patently absurd. Here I am, feeling my oats and holding hands with a beautiful young woman, while facing what amounts to checking into a place that I'll probably never check out of. I should be reluctant, worried… hell, young lady, I should be scared to death right now. But instead, I'm blissfully walking arm in arm to sign some papers that in essence means I've given up the very last vestige of any hope.
"That should frighten me more than anything, but for some unfathomable reason I either don't care or have simply given up, and neither of those reasons describes the real me. But I digress, so back to basics. Where have we met before?"
For the first time since he saw her standing alongside of his car and tapping upon the window, Genny's smile left both her face and those incredibly blue eyes.
"There is so much I don't know about you, Jonathan Morgan," she said, stepping out of her former vivaciousness and looking into his eyes with an intensity and seriousness he wouldn't have thought possible from one so young. "Do you believe in a deity, or deities, Jonathan?" she asked as she let go of his hand and squared herself to face him.
"A god?" he asked, somewhat confused by what his religious beliefs had to do to the present scheme of things. "Well, yes, I believe in God." He went on. "I am not a devote Christian by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe that there is a God. Why do you ask?"
"Do you think that there is just one God, Jonathan? And do you think that we each live our short little lives and then move on to nothingness, or do you also believe in a heaven?" Genny asked as she cocked her head slightly off to one side and assumed a little of her previously bemused expressiveness.
"I'm far from a theologian, Genny, but I guess there's only one God. And I'd like to believe that there is something akin to a heaven, too. Now can you please tell me what any of this has to do with whether or not we've met before?" Jonathan asked her, feeling a sense of wonder that he admitted his true beliefs to her instead of professing to agnosticism as he usually did when confronted with similar questions.
"Maybe we have met before, that's all," she said as she turned back the voltage on her mesmerizing smile. "But we'll have plenty of time to talk of such things…after you've met and spoken with Mr. Marlin." Another wink, and she reached for his hand again to lead him the short distance to the awaiting Marlin.
It had been so many years since Jonathan had anything remotely resembling such a discussion with so charming and beautiful a young woman, and he didn't know if he was too old and sick, simply out of practice, or separated too far by the several gaps in generation to truly understand her. But minor mysteries aside, he felt good this day, and better to have done with recalcitrance and meet with this Marlin character in order to come to his final decisions. If he did decide to stay, hopefully he'd have enough time to plumb the depths of this somewhat strange young woman, but there remained a Marlin to be bearded in his den.
"How old is this guy, anyway?" he stage-whispered as Genny raised her hand to tap on the big oaken door.
"Well…" She paused her hand before it completed the arc. "Older than you, but under two thousand I'd say. It's hard to tell with Wally. That's just another thing you can ask him."
Chapter III: To Play's The Thing
Jonathan bit back his exasperation as Genny's knock was answered by a muffled "Come in please", and allowed her to circumnavigate chivalry by following her ushering hand and entered before her. The room was a study in ebon. The walls were paneled in a dark and somber woodtone, with the desk and furniture careful repetitions of what had to have been a deliberate attempt to match black with dreary. The lone exception was the oval rug that centered on the floor; its swirling patterns of dark blue evocative of those paintings that Jonathan had seen where one must stare deep to evoke the hidden picture within the picture.
A short, wiry white haired man of indeterminate years arose from behind the large cluttered desk, and without waiting for introductions offered Jonathan an enormous and callused hand.
"Mr. Morgan, delighted to meet you, sir, I am Wallace Marlin. I trust you found us without too much difficulty?" the little man with the twinkling eyes and big hands asked as he offered Jonathan a seat.
"Look in any reference book for the definition of 'off the beaten path', and I imagine you'll see a picture of WinterHaven, Mr. Marlin," Jonathan said as he sat down in the proffered antique chair. "But no, not really. The directions I received in the mail were quite specific and very accurate."
"Good, very good. And I see you've met our Genny, so now one more person knows how lucky we are to have such a delightful creature on the premises," Wallace Marlin chuckled as he sat back down behind his busy desk.
"Yes, she met me out by my car and was kind enough to escort me in. I was just telling her how strikingly familiar she was to me and we were discussing if we'd ever met before," Jonathan said as he tried to ignore the discomfort of sitting while a woman stood in front of him. No matter how many times he told himself that the times and the mores had marched, and would continue to march, on without asking or caring about his opinion, it was still uncomfortable to keep up with the constantly changing flow or what society deemed to be appropriate behavior.
"Now that's an odd thing about our Genny, Mr. Morgan, an odd thing indeed. So many people tell the same story," Marlin began, then paused as he stopped to fuss about lighting an old and worn Meerschaum pipe.
"As I was saying, oh pardon but old habits die hard, do you mind if I smoke?" Marlin asked as he puffed a bluish gray ring of smoke from the corner of his mouth.
"Of course not, Mr. Marlin, please continue." Jonathan assured him as he took a closer look at the off-white Meerschaum bowl that had been carved to resemble a miniature dragon's head.
"Yes indeed, our Genny seems to be everyone's idea of the universal woman, Mr. Morgan. Can't say that I recall a week going by without someone telling me that they remember her from someplace or another." The strange little man said as he grinned around the pipe that was far too large for his face.
Jonathan was about to protest that it was more than that when he noticed that Genny hadn't seemed to move an inch since they first entered the room. She stood several feet away from the front of Marlins desk, hands clasped together in front of her and still smiling her world class smile, but so calm was her repose Jonathan couldn't be certain if the woman even breathed. Hoping that he was not experiencing some sort of stroke induced after-effect, he was about to say a word to her when Marlin rapped the dottle from his pipe and the room rang with the sound of it striking the metal ashtray.
"I know," Marlin said as he worked a pencil into the bowl to ream the reluctant dregs. "Seems like an awful thing to do to such a work of art, isn't it? But old Meerschaum turns to stone after a while, at least this one did, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was all but indestructible after all these years. Now, down to brass tacks, Mr. Morgan. We've taken your application under serious consideration, and the ball is in your court, sir. I'll show you around the facilities that we have here at WinterHaven, but I'd like to get a feel first for your seriousness in this matter."
"My seriousness?" Jonathan asked, unsure of what the man was referring to. And Genny still hadn't moved, so perhaps he should…
"Yes indeed sir, your seriousness." Marlin interrupted before Jonathan could finish his train of thought. "WinterHaven caters to a very select clientele, Mr. Morgan. We specialize in fulfilling the needs of, how shall I put it, special people? We are far more than just an old actors home or anything so plebian as that sir, I can assure you."
"I am aware that this is a particularly upscale facility, Mr. Marlin, at least that's how it was described to me by my late friend Roger Farnsworth. He told me of his visit here, and raved about what he considered a combination state of the art medical facilities as well as a graceful ambiance that was second to none," Jonathan replied, getting yet another jolt as Rogers's face swam before his memory for the first time since the stroke had erased bits and pieces of his short-term recollections.
"Oh yes, the dearly departed Mr. Farnsworth. Such a sad incident, he being involved in that horrid traffic accident. What has it been? Nearly three months since his passing?" Marlin asked as he tapped those incredibly long and thick fingers to a riff staccato on the top of his desk.
"Nearly four," Jonathan replied, blinking his eyes in an attempt to disrupt the almost hypnotic rhythm that the mans hand was having on him. "As you probably know, Roger had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and was planning on retiring here."
"Quite so. We had rejected Mr. Farnsworth's application and the notice was literally in the mail when he met his untimely demise," Marlin said with a casual wave of his tapping fingers, snatching Jonathan from the depths of a lassitude he could not have escaped from on his own.
"Rejected? Roger Farnsworth? But, Roger was the preeminent Broadway producer of his era. Maybe for any era, and he was ecstatic about the possibility of coming here." Jonathan protested as soon as he regained the strength that seemed to flow back into him as casually as the flip of a switch. "On what grounds could you possible exclude the Roger Farnsworth?"
"Oh my, there were very many reasons why he was…ill suited for residence in WinterHaven, Mr. Morgan. To say that we are an extraordinary assemblage of talented people would be an unimaginable understatement, sir. And poor dear Roger would have been but a commoner amongst royalty here. All in all, I would say that matters turned out rather for the best, and I am sure that even Genny would agree." Marlin said as casually as if were reciting from a menu at an unsavory restaurant.
"Why you incredibly pompous and irreverent ass," Jonathan said as the bile of indignation rose and merged with the profound loss for an old friend to overwhelm his sense of propriety. "Roger Farnsworth was a veritable bulwark of class and dignity whose presence would have not only graced your…your community, but enhanced its reputation the world over, you boorish simpleton. Thank you, but no thank you!" Jonathan continued as he made to rise from his chair. "I see that Roger made one of the genuinely stupid mistakes of his life by recommending so crass an institution such as yours, and you needn't bother yourself with showing me out, I can find the…"
"Sit…Down," Marlin intoned in a voice that could not have been driven deeper into Jonathan's brain had it been magnified tenfold by the most modern of amplification apparatus.
Sit yourself back down and I warn you, Jonathan Morgan, or whomever you really are, I shall not be as gentle should you again try my patience with such rudeness," Marlin said, his voice back to normal and his hands steepled under eyes that had seemed to enlarge to twice their previous size.
Without remembering the simple process of lowering himself back to the cushioned chair, Jonathan blinked and found himself seated again, and could not help but imagine that he had suffered another episode of some type of neurological spasm. Unlike the previous occasion where he had merely experienced the room slowly fading into a semblance of twilight, Jonathan's brain writhed with an amalgam of searing pain and pulse-throbbing intensity. He could see, hear, and breath well enough, but try as he might, could not utter the cry for help that remained frozen behind his numb and immobile lips.
"Now, isn't that much better?" Marlin said rather than asked as he rifled through a desk drawer until finally locating a worn and somewhat tattered pouch. "You see, my friend," he went on as he flared a match into flame to light the thick and greenish chunks of whatever it was he had stuffed into the Meerschaum bowl. "It really is better for the both of us if you calm yourself down and listen to what I have to say without resorting to such unseemly histrionics, dear chap, eh?" The foul smelling tobacco caught with a hint of silvery sparks and Marlin paused to take a deep draw on the chipped and much chewed upon stem before continuing.
"Better for you of course, since I do not imagine that my venting into you like that was anything to write home about…heh, heh, don't you just love the modern idiom? Well, where was I, yes, yes, to be truthful dear fellow I have reached a point in my life where it is rather a strain to summon the necessary strength for so demanding a display."
Jonathan had no choice but to listen to what he imagined his blood-starved brain was making out of whole cloth and forcing him to witness, but by sheer strength of will he found the energy to turn his eyes to the still unmoving Genny.
"Hmm? Oh yes, our dear gir,." Marlin said as he caught the shift in Jonathan's focus. "She's been somewhere else since the two of you first entered my office. Of course you must remember our powers of quiescence? No? Jonathan Morgan I really don't know what to make of you, I really don't. Alright then, if I return you your speech will you at least promise to listen to me without causing such a fuss?"
Jonathan used all of his remaining strength to edge his eyes back to the speaking man, but whatever vigor he tried to summon failed him before he could nod a yes or no.
"Well, call me a trusting old fool with a heart of gold, but I'm going to restore your speech to you," Marlin said, and before he finished uttering those words Jonathan exhaled with a heavy sigh and felt as if someone had just removed a block of wood that had been painfully forced into his mouth.
"I…need…some help." Jonathan gasped as soon as the barrier was lifted. "Think I'm having a…stroke…"
"There, there, old chap, its nothing of the sort now, so don't compound my intrusion by working yourself up and into a cardiac displeasure of some sort," Marlin said with genuine concern. "Here, I'll give you back everything and you'll see that there is nothing at all the wrong with you."
Jonathan's body shook from the piercing needles of energy that cascaded through him as if his entire body had fallen 'asleep' like a errant foot, only to be reawakened by the returning flow of blood that heralded its return with a vengeful and maddening tingle.
"Now take your time, and as I've asked, just listen to me for a short while, okay Jonathan?" Marlin said as he sat stoking his pipe to full bloom.
"You don't understand," Jonathan croaked the words from a dry and suddenly sore throat. "I may be having a stroke and I need medical assistance at once…"
"No, no, you are not having something as elementary as a mere stroke, so please be so kind as to put an end to the mewling and listen. My, my, but I expected more from one of us, you really disappoint me, Jonathan," Marlin said as a touch of aggravation crept back into his voice.
"If not a stroke, then…what?" Jonathan asked as the terrible shivering mercifully began to subside.
"Its simple. I intruded, and as well as immobilizing you, the process was intended to…awaken, shall we say, some if not most of the dormancy that has had you in thrall all these years. I really must have a sharp word or two with that bumbling doctor of yours, as he assured me that a mere jolt or two would return you to full consciousness. Now it seems that I must resort to other measures and that's just a ridiculous amount of time and effort to expend when all along you were supposed to be adjusted for the restoration."
"Marlin, look, I don't know what in heavens name you are talking about, but for the love of God, man, I have been the victim of a stroke and am prone for others to follow. Talk all you will, but could you at least please call emergency services?" Jonathan pleaded as his body slowly returned to normal. The tingling had subsided to a mere distraction, and the pain and throbbing had been reduced to a faraway memory inside of his ravaged brain.
"I will have a word with that incompetent fool." Marlin put down his pipe and fussed with the ashes that had tumbled out and onto his suit jacket. "Well, well, now we are at an impasse, and as irritated as I am with all of this, it would not be fair to place the blame solely on your shoulders, Jonathan. No, not at all fair. I reiterate…you are not having a medical problem, so breath deeply and get yourself back in order while I try and explain what is happening to you."
Jonathan nodded back as calm a nod as he could muster, and with his strength nearly back in full stride decided to humor the madman until he recovered sufficiently enough to get up and leave on his own two feet. Genny still had not moved from her spot in front of Marlin's desk; she stood there with the same, now eerie-looking smile, and the only logical explanation Jonathan could come up with, was the probability that this most latest stroke had induced him into some type of hallucinatory stasis, and he should not believe the in the integrity of the communication link between his eyes and brain.
"Yes, yes, she is quite something to gaze upon, but if I could have your undivided attention please, Mr. Morgan?" Marlin asked, definitely irritated that Jonathan was concentrating on the motionless Genny.
"Am I hallucinating, or is she…frozen somehow…" Jonathan asked as pleasantly as he could so as not to incur the ire of this obviously insane individual who seemed far more interested in inhaling the odious green tobacco than anything else.
"You are either very astute or very canny, Mr. Morgan." Marlin answered as he cocked his head to one side and peered at Jonathan through the rising cloud of greenish smoke. "But I'll be magnanimous and err on the side of caution if need be. Yes, it would be accurate to describe her as being frozen. For like each and every one of us here at WinterHaven, our exquisite Genny is in reality, neither here nor there. Oh, the features do bear a suitable enough resemblance to her former incarnation, but with the proper expenditure of energy she could either find another or create a new one for herself without all that much difficulty. None of us are as…energetic as we once were you see, and she would have reverted to her true state of being in a matter of minutes if I hadn't accelerated the process so that you and I could speak alone."
It wasn't just the stroke, Jonathan thought, this man was definitely mad. "So then, what exactly is it that we must talk about, Mr. Marlin?" He asked, feeling his strength returning with each passing moment and readying himself for a bolt to the door.
"Have you figured out why it is that she seems so familiar, Mr. Morgan?" Marlin asked as his clenching mouth smiled around the stem of the pipe to reveal broad and uneven teeth.
"I was…mistaken, I suppose." Jonathan answered as he looked back to the tall woman. "In my work I see so many attractive young ladies that perhaps I simply thought she resembled someone I'd met over the years. These sorts of things happen all the time, Mr. Mer…"
"No, no, no, drat and drek, Morgan, look at her, you fool. Picture the girl to be several inches shorter in stature, and her hair cut high upon the nape of her neck. Our Genny was ever the vainest of us all and as soon as she could she gave herself a length of bone, but look closely."
Jonathan continued to humor the madman and discourteously kept his gaze fixed upon the long blonde hair, then slid it down past the impossibly tiny waist, to the long and shapely legs, and for a moment was reminded of…
"Aha…even for the blind a dawn may break.," Merlin chortled as he caught the change of expression on Jonathan's face.
"She…bears a passing resemblance to my, no, she's much taller and Maggie was slender but this woman has a much lankier look about her…"
"You are a blind old fool!" Marlin exclaimed with a snuffling laugh. "To think that one could live with a woman for all of those years and not recognize her just because she's a wee taller? I said for you to look at her, you addlewit, not cook at the loins over a shapely turned leg."
"Enough of this nonsense, Marlin." Jonathan again lost his temper and shouted as he rose from his chair. "I've been more than pleasant with you during this ridiculous charade, and I'm leaving…'
"Leave if you must, Morgan." Marlin answered with another broad toothed grin. "I won't stop you this time my friend, but humor an old body and look deep at what was once the object of your love and desire. Look at the woman and tell me she isn't who we both know her to be."
"You're not only mad, you're pathologically cruel, Marlin." Jonathan said as he looked towards Genny in spite of himself. "My wife has been dead eight years, man. Does that mean anything to you? Eight years gone, and for the love of God she was fifty-two when she passed away. This…girl, or woman, can't be older than her early twenties."
"Look at her, Morgan," Marlin said with a voice that seemed to come from every corner of the room. "Look into the essence of life and love and tell us what you see," the voice intoned from the rug, the chairs, and the walls of the increasingly shrinking room.
"She can't…she can't be…" Jonathan protested as his strength began to fail him once more. "She can't…"
He stood in the suddenly stifling room and gasped for air as he gazed upon the woman who still looked so, so familiar to him…
"We've known about you for quite some time now, Mr. Morgan." The voice said to him as he wavered on shaky legs. "Mr. Jonathan Arthur Morgan."
"No…it's not Maggie, it can't be my Maggie," Jonathan continued to protest until Genny turned her head and widened her smile as she looked into his eyes.
"No! God no! Please God, please don't let this be happening to me…" Jonathan cried aloud as his strength failed him and he fell to his knees upon the madly patterned carpet.
"We've followed you for decades, Arthur. Hoping the hope of the lost that it was indeed you who had finally been returned to us," Genny's voice echoed from the carpeted floor that he cringed upon.
"Oh, but we weren't sure, not sure at all," Marlin's voice muffled to him as if the man were under the very carpet itself. "We knew you were, or had been, one of us, Mr. Morgan, but even after thirty years, Genny herself remained uncertain of your true identity. Can you feel it, Morgan? Can you feel it welling inside of your very soul and yearning to break free?"
"I…am, I am Jonathan Morgan," the man on the floor gasped aloud in a cry that denied the implications they had heaped upon him. "I am Jonathan Morgan, and you people are sick, demented bastards…"
"We finally were at our wits end, weren't we Genny?" Marlin's suddenly amplified words rang into Jonathan's head, rekindling anew the throbbing burst of agony. "We decided to hurry the matter along, and pardon us if we were a trifle overzealous with you, Morgan. Tell him, my dear."
"My love, we didn't mean to cause you harm, but we have been waiting for so very, very long. Surely you can understand that our actions were designed not to hurt you, but to bring you back to us," Genny said to him in her own, normal timbre.
"Genny? Maggie? Who…why, why Genny, why…" Jonathan said as he let flow the tears that would bide no longer behind the wall of pain and loss. "Who do you think I am…why did you lie…"
"Now, now, Genny didn't really lie to you at all, Arthur. Every word of love was spoken true and from the heart, so don't go getting your infamous temper all abroil," Marlin said to him, he back to his own voice as well.
"Who…who are you people and what is this place…" Jonathan sobbed through the tears, feeling all of his sixty-three years and for the first time in his life, not wishing to fight the urge to surrender.
"Arthur, Arthur, you know who we are. Blast it all, man, it's been a very long time, that I'll admit, but we can't waste our time rolling around on the earth with you like a patchwork party of layabout vagabonds. Not anymore at least," Marlin answered as he relit the pipe once more.
"Merlin is right, my love." Genny said as she reached down to touch his cheek in what she hoped would be received as a gentle gesture of love. "The Black One is also renewed, my King, and we need you if we are to combat his treachery."
"Listen to the girl, Arthur," Merlin offered as he blew his greenish smoke rings. "And try to curb that temper of yours and see what's there to be seen. We don't know where he is, but all of the signs point to his return, my boy, so its time to get off of your arse and back to the fold."
"You…both of you are crazy." Jonathan said as he tried to regain his composure, wiping the tears from his cheeks, and lingering upon the spot that Genny's hand had brushed her silken fingers across. "If I can make any sense out of your madness, then why aren't we in England? For God's sake, Marlin, this is New Jersey!"
"Of course its New Jersey, you addle-arsed oaf!" Merlin retorted. "We had need of a place to regroup and re-enter the fray, you idiot, and the Isles were the last place we'd wish to be if the Black One was ready to make his presence felt again in this world. Genny there took good care of you for quite a long time, Arthur, longer than anyone could have expected her to retain that guise, so at the very least she should expect a modicum of thanks, don't you think?
"I wish not your thanks, my King, only that you join us again as we go to mark our foeman." Genny smiled at him, and in spite of himself, he wished she'd reach down and touch his face just one more time.
"How can you expect me to believe all of this?" Jonathan asked, although he knew that in some way or some how, the woman standing before him was indeed his darling Maggie.
"Don't have to believe a cursed thing, Arthur. If you are really still too befuddled over all of this then all you need do is open your mind and let me intervene again. And don't look at me like that, you cowardly dunce, I won't intrude so vociferously this time. See, Genny, I always knew that the boy was grand shy of even the wee touch of pain."
"Merlin speaks the truth, my King. If you are still afar from us then he must needs enter your spirit again and free you from this bondage of ignorance," Genny agreed, and she did touch his cheek with the back of her fingers.
"Genny…Maggie, sweet Jesus, whoever you are, I am not who believe me to be. Wouldn't you think that I'd have some inkling by now were I really this long lost King of yours? Everyone else seems to known their place quite well, so why would I be the only one not aware of my true status?" Jonathan asked, reluctant to take any of their words as the truth and join them in their madness.
"You try my patience, my boy, you try and test it to a fair-thee-well." Merlin said as he pointed his pipe at Jonathan as if he could stab some sense into him with it. "But you always did make me want to blast you like a toad from a rock, so try and listen to me this time. All of us left this earth under one impetus or the other, but it was yours and the Black One's fate to carry the most powerful of banishment's. It wouldn't do to have one or the other, or light forbid the two of you popping in and out of this realm on a whims notice, so of course you are having a difficult time remembering. Blast that doctor and his promises…anyway… I promise that I won't hurt you, and I also avow that if after I am done and you still want to walk out that door, then we will both allow you to do so without prejudice. There. Is that so hard or unreasonable a thing for me to ask of you?"
Jonathan didn't know whether to laugh or weep as he listened to the raving lunatic who somehow held him captive in this otherwise normal-seeming room. It had to have had something to do with hypnosis…the ability to conjure forth some superhuman power of suggestion, but whatever it was, he didn't think they would let him leave this place unless he did as they asked.
"Will you at least make the try, my King?" Genny asked as she stroked his cheek. "Try for us, please?"
"Tell me what I have to do," Jonathan said as he rose on shaky legs, hoping to regain his strength again and somehow make it back to the car where he could use the phone the salesman convinced him would be of use in such an emergency.
"Do? Why, you do nothing, Arthur," Merlin said as he tapped out the charcoaled green remnants of his now extinguished bowl. "Might be better off though if you sat down again, my boy. I promised I wouldn't hurt you, but a deep intrusion may leave you a trifle woozy."
It wasn't until Merlin asked him to close them that Jonathan took his eyes away from Genny, and he sat back in the old but still comfortable chair and prayed to God that this was all a dream, and he'd soon awaken to laugh at the silly nightmare of an old man who had always secretly wished for the impossible.
"Remember now, Arthur," Merlin's voice entered his head to remind him. "Just allow your mind to go as empty and free from strife as you can, and relax, just relax…"
Jonathan relaxed, but his thoughts refused to stray far from the memory of Maggie. He had never seen a more beautiful bride, and she made him so happy and proud when she walked down the aisle to take his arm…
"Easy does it boy…I'm getting there…" Merlin's voice intruded but he shunted it off to the side and remembered how she'd fuss and worry over any problem he might have had, while at the same time never bringing any of hers to the light of his day.
"…soon, my boy…soon."
"How can they have the gall to demand that you think of switching from Lance to Arthur?" Maggie ranted when the day finally came for him to allow for the passage of time and assume a different role in his most favorite play. "You were born to play Lance, Jon, and where is it written that the character has to be some adolescent young fool?"
"Breathe a little deeper, Arthur…that's my boy, I'm in and this won't hurt…"
"…don't act like more of a goose than you already are, Jon, if there's The Play, then of course they'll call you for Arthur. Who could imagine staging The Play without Jonathan Morgan and his definitive Arthur…"
"Arthur? You there boy?" Merlin shouldered Maggie aside to ask.
"My King, are you well, my Lord?" Genny's voice pierced through the confusing haze that swirled his thoughts like a runaway Carousel, speeding through a moonless night in ever faster circles that threatened to unbalance and hurl him body and soul into a widening chasm of madness and despair.
"Arthur! Open your eyes. Listen to me and open your eyes…"
Jonathan Morgan bolted upright, nearly toppling himself back over and onto the floor as he opened his eyes. Grasping the arms of the chair so tightly they creaked from the strain and threatened to break free of their moorings, he searched for his tormentor, and began to breath normally again as the form of Merlin swam back into view from out of the blackness.
"Gave me a start there, boy. You back with us again?" Merlin asked as he stared into Jonathan's eyes.
"Arthur? Arthur, its me, Genny, are you well my Lord?" The tall and familiar woman asked as she stood there in obvious concern.
Jonathan stretched his arms and shoulders, then stood up from the chair and rubbed his hands vigorously long his upper thighs.
"How long?" he asked.
"Beg pardon? How long what? How long were you unconcious? Why…not for more than a few minutes…"
"No, Merlin. As usual you delight in reveling in the obvious and further obscuring the nebulous. How long has it been?" the man who was Jonathan Morgan asked.
"He's back!" Genny cried as she rushed to her King's side.
"Yes, it would appear so, and in no better mood than last I saw him," Merlin answered with a grumpy frown.
"Forgive me, Your Highness, but as the Christian calendar reckons it to be, we have traveled nearly thirteen hundred years. Some of us, it would seem to any gentle person, in better spirit than others…"
"Spare me the prattle just this one time, Merlin, and focus your self-described genius on the matter at hand. Are we in the Kingdom, and is this woman my wife?" The King asked of his court advisor.
"No, we are not in our Kingdom, sire, that, ahem, is a very long story indeed, but yes, its good to see you've regained your senses enough to at least recognize your true Queen. I thought for a time there that you had been addled beyond…"
"Silence," the man who stood as King demanded. "I would speak alone with my Queen, so I'll thank you to leave this…this room, and allow us a semblance of privacy for a time."
"As you wish, sire, but please take into consideration the fact that we are in desperate straits and time is of the essence, so just as a suggestion I'd ask that you…"
"Out, Wizard!" the man they called their King demanded with a shout. "And be thankful enough that I don't have you flayed as payment for the drums that pound my head to distraction. Out and leave me with my Queen."
"As my King wishes," Merlin said, giving a respectful leg to his past and future master as he opened the door. "My King is too kind, and I shall wait upon his summons in the hallway just beyond the door here…"
Anything else that Merlin wished to say was brought to an abrupt end as the man who entered the room as Jonathan Morgan planted a hand in his chest, pushed him out of the room, and slammed shut the door behind him.
"My Kingdom to be rid of that prattling old fool once and for all," their King said as he turned to face his long lost Queen. "Attend me my Queen, I have much to ask of you."
Genny tried to hold back the tears as she rushed into her husband's arms, but set free the sob of joy while she embraced the man she had longed for through countless centuries of yearning.
"I scarce believe such good fortune, my Lord," Genny whispered into the now strong and broad shoulder of the man who had once built a kingdom from the nothingness the Romans had left for Britain to rise upon.
"Nor I mine, dear Genny," her husband of the ages said as he lifted her chin to direct her gaze into his.
"Nor I mine…"
After nearly an hour of pacing and waiting, Merlin finally could no longer abide the pain that crept from his legs to insidiously transfer the ache to his lower back, and dignified or not, sat himself down on the floor outside of what scant minutes ago was his office.
He nestled his back onto the cool wall and grumbled aloud to the nothingness that surrounded him, careful to keep low his voice and not disturb the happy reunion that was undoubtedly proceeding with an unmatched vigor on the other side of the thankfully soundproofed door.
"Could have at least said thank you, Merlin," he muttered to the spirits that sometimes listened and sometimes did not. "Not that I expected it, but a pat on the shoulder and a 'job well done old boy' wouldn't have killed the man, would it? Well, at least we now know that it is indeed Him, and not some misplaced banquet fool that we'd forgotten about after all these years. In all the world, and in any time, only two men had anything that approached such brazen, egotistical insolence, and maybe I should just thank the stars that we found Him before the other one awoke."
Merlin snuggled himself comfortably against the wall, sighed as the pain slowly eased its way out of his aching back, and soon found himself in a doze as he sat there and pondered.
"…least we got Him before the other awoke…least we did that…" Merlin mumbled one last time before falling into a deep and dreamless sleep, his exhalations soon turning from whisper to snore as the weight of hundreds of years pressed down upon him and bore him up and away from the earthly vail of worry and woe.
The car started up so quickly that the newly wakened man jumped from the sound of the engine turning over and had to catch himself before his reflexes bade him flee from such a noisome beast. Calming himself with the still living memory that remained within the husk of his most recent host, the man let the engine idle as he watched the pretty flames caper about the roof of the moderately sized house in the distance.
It was a genuine shame that he could not bring the woman with him, but that regret was tempered with the knowledge that her aura would leave a trail for any who would wish to follow him, and marvelous shanks or not, it wasn't worth the risk. To be allowed to have sport and play was the thing, and he could hardly do either with the specter of a hunt forever nipping at his heels.
It was good to be truly alive and aware once more, and the Queen had provided diversion enough to sooth his newborn senses, so he sat contented for a time and watched as the flames grew to engulf the entire building before calling upon his host's memory to lift the cellular phone from its cradle under the dashboard. All he had to do was place the call, and act feeble and disoriented when the authorities arrived. No doubt they'd cart him off to a hospital for observation, and he was careful to arrange it so all they'd find when sifting through the ashes was a regrettable wiring mishap in a very old structure. And the bodies of the unlucky residents, of course; too aged or disabled to flee in time, and wouldn't the rumor mongers that this day and age referred to as the press have a field day over the substandard safety conditions within that rickety old building…
He took another long drag on the Meerschaum pipe he remembered to pocket from the old fool's desk, closed his eyes and called upon his power. The exquisite sweetness of its taint coursed blissfully through his veins as he sent forth his senses, and...there…yes…she was somewhere in the east, very far away, but to the east.
Just like her, the man chuckled as he dialed the three digits that would connect him to the men and women no less who would come to 'save' him.
Just like Mother to be awakening somewhere in Asia, Mordred chuckled again while he watched the pretty, pretty flames brighten the early evening with their cheery glow.
Bio: Born and raised in Manhattan with a lengthy detour to Southeast Asia, Robert Yosco grew up reading and loving Wells, Lovecraft, Poe, anything Camelotian, and Asimov. He then moved on to Zelazny and is now spending the time trying to figure out Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Robert is currently an industrial engineer who spends his off hours writing and then more writing.
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