Lee lost Faith the moment she touched her open-toed shoe to the Old West Brick Road. A gibbering fit, a stranger in a sedan. Witnesses saw her run into the Eldridge but she never came out. Not in an hour, a day, a week.
In rare moments of honesty he admitted he lost her before that. When Faith closed her eyes as the shuttle pulled away from the airport he told himself she was tired from the flight. She never traveled well, suffered odd phobias and made peculiar demands. But her eyes remained resolutely closed even after the van stopped at the Oread and the driver swung open the door to wet summer heat wilting clothes and hair and spirit. Lee nudged her shoulder. “We’ve arrived, dear.”
She blinked and stared at the driver’s extended hand as if it were a wolf’s jaws. “The Oread is all new, isn’t it?”
“Yes ma’am.” The driver waited with the serenity of a small town man, places to be but no particular time to be there. “Just opened a few years back.”
“No salvaged cornerstones?” Her fingers wavered just out of his reach. “No antique beds or old portraits?”
He wiped the back of his hand across his sweat-beaded forehead and hid, Lee thought, a moment’s puzzlement. “I can’t speak to that with certainty, but everything I’ve seen looks new.”
She leaned out and peered at the ground. “Asphalt,” she muttered. “Concrete.” Lee breathed a small sigh of relief as she laid her manicured hand in the driver’s and forced a fixed smile to her face. “Thank you.” Tapping a tentative toe to the pavement as if afraid its heat might swallow her shoe, she planted her heel with a decisive click and strode into the Oread without waiting for Lee or her luggage.
In rarer moments still Lee admitted he was, perhaps, at fault. He enjoyed an unusually successful career as a historian and leveraged his small fame to indulge a love of travel, a love Faith did not share. Perhaps he should have let her stay home. But his business at the university coincided with their fifteenth anniversary and wouldn’t it be lovely to celebrate where they’d met and fallen in love? No it wouldn’t, Faith said, but Lee wheedled and pleaded and finally presented her with a fait accompli: two tickets to Kansas and reservations at the Eldridge, the most elegant hotel in Lawrence.
She insisted on rebooking their rooms but otherwise met his determination with a resigned lassitude. That was not a mood habitual to her but Lee found any number of causes to blame. Suppressed fear of flying, fretting over loss of cherished routine, early onset menopause: any excuse would do, so long as it didn’t involve him.
Faith perked up briefly after they checked in and refreshed themselves. But as afternoon wore toward twilight (she had changed their flight from evening to early afternoon landing as well, without explanation) she tried to coax him to dine at the Oread, or trek to the bland outskirts where some dreary national restaurant chain squatted in exile.
Lee would have none of that. “Mass Avenue is long.” Petulance crept into his tone, condescension a faint supporting chorus. “We can celebrate our anniversary in college town chic and still indulge your antipathy for the Eldridge.”
Relief that the fight went out of her came back to haunt him later. The intimacy he coveted over falafel and dolmas Faith rather spoiled with her funereal airs but she redeemed herself after dinner with the suggestion of an evening walk along the Old West Brick Road. Unaccustomed heat and a long day’s travel could dampen anyone’s mood, even Lee’s. But the cooling air and lengthening shadows fomented forgiveness, especially on their anniversary.
She hesitated when the concrete sidewalk turned to brick. “There’s a story, you know,” she said. “That Lawrence tried to pave all their roads but every night a man with no legs crawled along the streets ripping up the asphalt and putting the bricks back.”
Lee laughed. “I’ve never heard that one.”
“They finally made a bargain. They’d leave him these few streets if they could have the rest.”
He peered at her face in the gathering darkness, disconcerted by the tenebrous certitude he found there. He’d seen that expression before, when she fled from Pike’s Place Market in Seattle and refused ever to return. “Look.” Across a wide expanse of shadowed grass tiny floating points of light winked on and off and on. “Fireflies.”
It was the fireflies that transfixed her so. Her hand rose to her mouth in remembered girlish delight, not in response to the faint, fetid smell bubbling from the seams between the bricks. “They all crowd in here now. Along the Old West Brick Road.”
“They love the twilight, and the cool grass,” he said. “It’s pleasant to see them again, isn’t it? Since we don’t have them in L.A.” Where to this day she wouldn’t go to old Olvera Street. A dreadful premonition tickled at his brain. The lawn beside them glowed eerie in the afterlight. Why did the red and white impatiens ringing the poplar trees remind him of bloody pale maidens? The odor of rot grew more pungent. Fertilizer, certainly, but still he felt an urge to be away.
He cupped Faith’s elbow in his hand and tried to hurry her along. Her sandaled foot moved forward, leaden, until it rested on the first half-sunken brick. “He should have let them pave it all.”
It was the fireflies. Lee pretended the gathering darkness obscured the tilt of Faith’s head, that her gaze fixed on the fireflies, not on the path. In Wyoming, Knight’s Hall was taboo. “Let’s move on,” he said. “We’re not used to the humidity, and this manure – the smell is getting to me too.”
“Manure?” Her brittle laugh chilled his bones even in the heat. “You know better than that.”
“Not this again.” He propelled her forward with rougher vigor. Colleagues whispered about Lee’s mad wife and her obsessions. Her dread of the old, her harrowed insistence that someday some price must be paid for Lee’s rooting around in the past, her dark intimation that the burden of payment would fall on her.
“One hundred and eighty dead men and boys. Seeping up through the cracks.”
Lee threw up his hands in despair. They had been here before. Pike’s Place Market. Olvera Street. The year he taught in Colorado Springs she barely set foot outside the house. “The victims of Quantrill’s raid are not slushing about disembodied beneath the bricks of Old West Lawrence. No one made a bargain with an ambulatory torso to – ”
“I shouldn’t have come.” A last tentative step and she turned to him. “You don’t know what you’ve done.”
“What I’ve done? I only tried – ”
“It’s too late.” Her breath grew shallow and rapid. “Too late.”
He seized her shoulders, shook her with as much gentleness as he could muster in his growing agitation. “Too late for what?” They had stood here before, at some shadowed precipice, some somber borderland between sanity and madness. Always she drew away, back to terra firma, back to him.
Tonight she darted into the grass-tufted brick street before Lee could stop her. Brakes squealed, stability control chattered but a horrified driver skidded the car to a stop in time. The man’s anger softened to worry at the terror in her eyes, and he had the passenger side window rolled halfway down even as she rattled the door handle. “Please, can you take me to the Eldridge Hotel? I need – I need to get away from here.”
Lee tried to approach but the driver shot him a hard glare and patted his breast pocket, an all too meaningful gesture in a Shall-Issue state. Rendered impotent by the mere possibility of a gun Lee stood at a helpless remove while his wife and the stranger engaged in a clumsy pas de deux over the locked door, a dance concluded only when Faith sucked in a breath and forced her trembling hands to still. “What about him?” The driver jerked a thumb in his direction as the window sealed away his wife. “Should I call the police?”
Lee’s fear abated enough to pursue her, too late. “No,” she replied. The revving motor and rising glass slowly drowned her words. “Just take me to the hotel.”
He followed the straightest path to the Eldridge at a run, flinging himself through the door of the hotel and babbling to the concierge about his missing wife from halfway across the lobby. He knew the impression he made, red-faced and wild-eyed, trailing garlic-stinking sweat past the cherry wood paneling and cool captain’s leather chairs, but urgency overrode propriety. The concierge’s nostrils flared in disgust and contempt and his hand twitched toward the front desk. An attendant eyed the exchange with a hand on the phone but as Lee’s anguished demands trailed to a gasping conclusion he drew near. “There must be some confusion, sir,” he said, cool and professional in the face of Lee’s damp agitation. “Your – wife – has had a room booked here for weeks.”
“That’s impossible,” Lee said, “she specifically avoided – ” He took a deep breath, reached for his wallet and extracted a business card. “Her mental state is very fragile. You must tell me what room she is in.”
The concierge grew more conciliatory after examining the card but no less unyielding. “I’m very sorry, sir, but if you haven’t booked the room jointly we can’t possibly divulge that information. I will call up and ascertain if she will speak to you, if you’d like.”
While he waited an elderly man with a white beard and a kindly face waved to him from a nearby chair. “I couldn’t help but overhear,” he said, gesturing to the seat across from him. Mindful of his sweat-soaked back, Lee remained standing. “I saw your wife upstairs, on the fifth floor.”
“Did you see which – ”
The old man shook his head in warning as the concierge approached from behind. “She is not answering her phone at present, but I’ll try again later.”
“Not answering the phone?” Something cold clutched at Lee’s chest. “But – ” The old man’s shaggy-haired head wagged again and for reasons Lee couldn’t explain to himself he felt compelled to leave off his protest. The concierge departed without so much as acknowledging his companion with a nod.
“Sit down boy,” the old man said, and again Lee felt a compulsion to obey. “It’s not your fault, you know.”
“I don’t know who you are,” Lee drew himself up in stiff, injured pride, “or what Faith said to you – ”
“Call me Shay.” The man drew a cigar from the pocket of his suit coat, lit it and puffed with vigor in defiance of both city and state law. None of the hotel staff paid him any mind. “She said what she always says. That if people would leave the past alone, the past could be at peace. Then she walked into room 506. She’s gone now, boy. She won’t be coming back in your lifetime.”
Lee leapt up and lunged toward the man, meaning to pull him out of his chair by the lapels. A blast of cold air struck his face, staggering him backwards and stealing his breath. “You knew she meant herself harm and you – you son of a bitch,” he panted, “if she’s killed herself I’ll see you in jail.”
He spun toward the front desk but Shay seized him in an unyielding grip. Lee’s struggling should have drawn attention, but hotel patrons and staff alike went about their business as if a man wasn’t being held against his will in their midst. “She never killed herself. Quantrill saw to that.”
“Quantrill?” The sacking of Lawrence, 1864. “You’re a madman – you – ”
Shay shook him. “Look around you, boy. You’re the one talking to a man no one else sees or hears.” He sang a snatch of “John Brown’s Body” in a loud, resonant baritone without drawing a single curious glance.
He leaned in close. Lee smelled the faint odor not of cigar smoke, but of death; his legs felt weak beneath him. “You’re telling me I’ve been married to a nearly two centuries’ old ghost?”
“To memory made flesh, over and over in its despair.” Shay tentatively loosened his hold on Lee, stepped back and relit his cigar when the younger man crumpled into his seat and huddled there. “One hundred eighty men and boys, and one unknown, unremembered woman. She burned to death.”
Lee felt a rising mania at the absurdity of it all. “In room 506?”
“Of course not.” Shay’s dark eyes were stern. “But the cornerstone is there. The old places call to her, knowing where she belongs. Stray too near and she can’t resist them.”
“No salvaged cornerstones?” he murmured. “No old portraits?”
“She would fear any haunted place.”
Olvera Street. Pike’s Place. Knight’s Hall. “Who are you?” Lee asked.
Shay’s glance strayed to a portrait mounted above a white chimney. Unsmiling in a morning coat, flanked by a woman and three small girls in checked frocks with center-parted hair and sober eyes, Shalor Eldridge was much younger then but his lineaments were clear. “I was still alive when I first saw her. Having a fondness for the fair sex myself, her grief tore at my heart. She has saddened the hearts of many men since.”
“I loved her,” Lee swallowed back a choke in his throat. “Why wasn’t that enough?”
Lines of pity etched Eldridge’s face. “You couldn’t remember her. No one can. The she that she was is lost forever and she can’t bring herself to let go. But neither can she bring herself to stay.” He patted the younger man’s shoulder. “Go home. File a missing person’s report and go on with your life.”
Lee rose, resolute. “She came into my life once. She could do it again. I’ll take rooms here, I’ll wait – ”
“She won’t come back. Not in this lifetime.”
“I love her. I believe in her. I’ll wait.”
Shalor Eldridge shook his head, diffused into the smoke of his cigar and vanished. Faith didn’t return, not in a week, a month, a year. After her lease of room 506 expired Lee took up residence and remained there, a ghostly presence haunting the Eldridge and Lawrence, until his own death some years later. Elderly men and pretty young women along the Old West Brick Road claimed they saw him on summer nights, arguing with a legless man over whether the road should be paved.