Grace’s heart burst with incredible joy when she saw Ethan Bartlett step into Hamilton Hall out of the snowy world like some kind of dark angel. He wore a dress shirt, slacks, and a winter jacket all in black with no tie with his dark hair was combed in a very attractive style she thought quite sexy.
His eyes, like an ocean in the early hours of dawn, were locked onto hers.
At that moment, she thought he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen and she was so enthralled with the sight of him she had not noticed his bird, which had been resting on his shoulder until he began to take off his jacket and the bird flew off.
The loyal old retainer Francis, who was the son of the previous loyal old retainer Martin who had worked for her family in the 1950s, was walking up to Ethan nervously and saying, “Sir! You can’t come in here! Sir!” The last “sir” came when Ethan walked past him. Although Francis was shorter and only half as big, even scrawny when compared to his large, powerful father, his voice sounded so much like his him at that moment it was uncanny.
“Relax Jeeves,” he said as he tossed his jacket onto a series of empty chairs. His bird casually came down back onto his shoulder. “I’ve just got a little business to take care of.”
Francis was starting to get ruffled, which was hard to do. “Sir, this is a funeral,” he said with forced calm and quiet.
“I know,” he replied.
“A funeral for a child,” he added.
“I know.” Ethan did not seem to care that most of the black-dressed people were staring at him and many with hostility.
Darcy, who was sitting beside her in the corner, was watching Ethan approaching her with a strange, sad smile on her face and Grace saw the unhappiness in Ethan that had nothing to do with the tragedy that had brought them all together.
She had told Grace that he had gone to California to see his family for Chanukah, at his grandmother’s request, and though she didn’t illuminate much, it was clear that it went pretty badly. He was further irritated by his repeated attempts in meeting her, which, until Darcy had told her, she had no idea it had been attempted and was disappointed she had not seen him.
It was Franklin’s mean older sister Beth’s fault. Her pretentious attitude, one of automatic moral, physical, social and intellectual superiority, had been grating on Grace’s nerves for a while but lying to Ethan about her whereabouts without telling her was utterly unacceptable. Grace desired nothing more than to see Ethan’s event come to its end for better or for worse and as soon as possible but that woman was going out of her way to draw it out. When she had asked about whether he had come around looking for her, Beth had actually looked Grace straight in the eyes and lied. Franklin had been so busy with work he had not known either until Grace had told him and Beth did not even bother to deny it.
Darcy leaned her head on her left fist and that smile grew amused in some mysterious way. She looked very solemn in the black mature woman’s dress that covered every inch of her with her hair tied behind her head but that smile lit up her face with an unearthly sensual glow. Grace had not been able to get it out of her but she strongly suspected Darcy was half in love with the boy. It was one of the few things that Grace and Darcy had in common.
Ethan ignored the obvious hostility he was seeing from almost everyone else. Grace supposed many were offended. Most of the Andersons were except Angela who was dressed in something scandalously low over her large breasts and was staring at him with undisguised lust.
Grace knew they had a right to be upset. Ellen Anderson Beckford, Angela’s aunt, had left her wealthy upper-class lifestyle to support herself and her daughter in a pleasant middle-class life in a small town Grace had never heard of maybe only once or twice a little ways northwest. She had a trust fund but she rarely used it because she wanted her daughter to be normal, lest she turn into her cousin Angela who was, by all accountants including Grace’s own intuition, a great slut or, even worse yet, that little monster Lana Creed Grace kept hearing about. Despite the fact that her husband had divorced Ellen, she had been doing quite well on her own until two days ago: December 14th, 2012.
On that particular day, a madman had gone through an elementary school armed with firearms and shot children and teachers alike in some kind of crazed unnecessary rampage that reminded her of the 1927 Bath School Bombings. It was insane. A storyline so foul and cruel that she would not have willingly read a book or watched it in a movie, and for its final climactic end when it was sure the killer would have to get what was coming to him, he shot himself. It seemed that he lacked the nerve to even look at a human being over four feet tall and equally armed.
Ellen’s six-year-old daughter Lori-Anne had been one of the victims of what they were then calling the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting.
They were distantly related by blood and Ellen Anderson was Franklin’s younger sister Sarah’s best friend. The two had apparently been inseparable since kindergarten that the O’Briens saw her as another daughter. Grace had seen Lori-Anne herself when they came over for a quick visit on Thanksgiving while on their way to the Andersons’ home. She had been a very sweet pretty girl with bright blue eyes and long, straight dark hair and a smile that never left her face. Grace distinctively remembered thinking that she would grow up to be a real beauty.
Her funeral that afternoon had been a thing of nightmares. An old person dying was a calm, dignified affair with well-recollected memories and easy acceptance but a murdered child was like a scene out of a horror film. Many had been crying quietly but Ellen broke into loud weeping as they lowered the coffin shrieking about how her girl was claustrophobic and how she would panic and it wasn’t until her older brother Jonathan pulled her off the coffin and held her that she stopped shrieking, her crying turning into muffled agony in his chest.
Jonathan, painfully beautiful and painfully homosexual, had been the only member of her family who could calm Ellen when she reached panic. As the eldest of her siblings, he had functionally become Lori-Anne’s father figure after her father had left her mother. He had also been the only stranger to visit Grace in the hospital and he did it carrying flowers and asking all sorts of wonderful questions about Hollywood in the 1950s, especially Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Rock Hudson and Truman Capote who she had all met at one time or another. It had helped her calm her more than she would have believed.
Ethan had not been invited to the funeral so it had been in the evening afterward when he appeared. Dinner was over and they were all still together, all trying vainly to remember something about Lori-Anne but it was hard. She had only been six and had not lived long enough to make any serious memories for herself or others and it seemed to Grace that without them, there was nothing to remember she had ever lived at all.
When Ethan reached Grace, she felt her heart beat faster in her chest. She tried to get up, found her strength wasn’t there, and was about to speak when another voice, a higher-pitched nails-on-chalkboard type of voice, preceded her.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Beth had said loudly as she walked up to Ethan through the crowd wearing a black dress that seemed both appropriate but somehow just low enough on the chest to be inappropriate. She had been quite stunning once, at least as a very young child when Grace had last seen her, along with the various pictures of her in her youth scattered around the O’Brien household. Yet she had grown into a scrawny, unpleasant-looking spinster with light, straight brown hair and dark eyes who, despite the very high quality of clothing and hairstyle, somehow still emanated as “cheap” to Grace. “I do not recall, under any circumstances or stipulations, even thinking about inviting you, Bartlett.”
“Yeah, I don’t care,” he said simply. “I’ve got something to do and I’m damn well going to do it.” Grace felt her heart soar. “I already know the contract has been written so why don’t why you do something useful and go collect it?”
“Oh, you do, do you?” she replied, ignoring his last question. “That was just to comfort my cousin but I see Darcy has no problem spilling out whatever she knows to any pretty boy who comes along.”
“Don’t you think that’s calling the kettle black, Beth,” said Darcy with a laugh and Beth sneered at her.
“What you just say to me?” she asked softly. It had instantly become so quiet that a pin drop could be heard. The woman had once been that “queen bee” type of person and many of her old slaves were still in that room, albeit married and far less annoying individually. They would probably turn on Darcy, even at a funeral, if Beth demanded it but knowing Darcy, they would soon come to regret it.
“I honestly doubt this is the place or the time for this,” said Ethan as he rolled up his sleeves.
“Who asked you, exactly?” Beth asked in that pretentious voice of hers.
“Nobody,” he replied with a shrug. “It’s just basic common sense I’m surprised a woman of your age does not have.” There were some smirks and laughs, mostly from old enemies and people who just hated her or wanted her miserable, but Ethan didn’t really care.
“How dare you,” said Beth coldly.
“Are you implying that he has crossed a line even as you insist on making a scene at a funeral?” asked Darcy.
“I ought to know you’re standing up for him,” Beth hissed. “Any man with a pretty ass gets your support.”
“You think I have a pretty ass?” asked Ethan with a grin. He did, Grace noticed easily enough, and she bit her lower lip shyly as a smile formed behind her veil.
“Bartlett. Leave. Now.” Beth’s eyes were like two daggers. “I’m not joking.”
“Of course, only, wait—no.” He turned back to Grace.
Beth took one step forward, her face red with rage, and she would have said something Grace assumed would have been very mean, but then Darcy’s father Reginald appeared. He barely had any of the Hamiltons’ handsome features but he had that brutal, unforgiving yet honest quality she saw in Darcy and her own grandmother’s eyes. He was short, squat, with a dark mustache and short dark brown hair wearing a conservative black suit with its jacket off making his upper half look painfully white with a black line for his tie. He had a cigar in his hand that made him look somewhat sophisticated for a man who usually looked like he belonged in a bar complaining about how his foreman was not giving him enough hours.
“Beth,” he said simply, “I know you didn’t just call my daughter a whore.”
“You misunderstand,” she said uncomfortably. Darcy was just a young girl, Ethan a pariah, but Reginald Hamilton was a high-ranking member of the town’s elite and his words had weight among everyone.
“I certainly hope so,” he said. “This is a funeral for a child, my dear. I think you can drop your arrogance for one such night in your life.” Beth’s lips went tight. “We’ll deal with this later but for now can you please restrain from calling my child a whore and leave Mr. Bartlett alone.”
“Bartlett is not invited.”
Reginald gave her an amused look that seemed to say she was just the stupidest child around.
A hand caught Beth and spun her around to reveal a very angry Sarah looking up at her. She was gorgeous in the same way Grace had been while young. Statuesque, buxom and blond. Ellen was standing next to her wearing a veil to hide her endless crying, as pretty as her friend was but in a slender, elegant dancer’s sort of way with dark hair and dark eyes. She was heavily damaged emotionally by the loss and her black clothes combined with her grief seemed to say she had become as old inside as Grace was outside.
Franklin was behind his sister looking unhappy and Sarah’s husband, Ellen’s brother Austin Anderson, was next to him. The two had been drinking last night and Franklin had stopped while Austin had not but he was a drinking sort and he seemed okay if he didn’t speak. Ellen’s divorced husband was out west somewhere dealing with his grief privately and had not come to the funeral.
Jonathan was behind all of them, extremely quiet for a man who was generally very outgoing, and he somehow made his black and dark gray somber funeral suit very appropriate, dignified and fabulous all at the same time. His dark gold hair was combed straight back, his hands behind his back and his sculpted, beautiful face seemed to stare out at nothing.
Beth jerked away from her sister’s hand and looked back to see Ethan had held out his own for Grace. She took it, her soft-gloved right hand wrapping around his and he pulled her up to her feet carefully. She quickly put her arms around him not meaning to make it sexual but unable to help herself, although she doubted he knew, and she instantly became aware of his hard, sculpted form against her withered body.
“Contract,” said Ethan.
Franklin looked at him for a minute, his face very cold which Grace had recently learned that, like his father, meant he was really angry. He said nothing, though. He simply turned around and went back to where the contract had been kept by her things. Grace kept a copy of it everywhere she went in case Ethan had popped up out of nowhere, which he just had.
Ethan moved Grace over to the chairs where he tossed his jacket but she resisted the idea of sitting. She liked being held up by him.
No one followed but Beth glared at them from the same spot.
“You seem like you’re in a bad mood,” said Grace and she moved a hair out from over his right eye. “Are you alright?”
“I had some problems with my family,” he replied with a distant smile. “My grandmother wanted me there now that my grandfather, who hates me, is too ill to have a say. She is, for the first time ever, in charge. Even paid for my ticket.” He smiled sadly. “She collects articles they printed out about me in the Bay City News and its online counterpart. It’s the first time she’s had any real power and it’s—it’s nice.”
“What went wrong?” she asked.
His smile melted off his face. “I appeared,” he said bitterly. “My uncles saw me and made their displeasure known to everyone. They call me the Son of a Psychopath, like a title, and they always tell me I’m not a real Jew, which is particularly potent coming from a rabbi, but I told them the Ku Klux Klan thinks I am a real Jew, so there.” He grinned for a second without it touching his eyes before becoming sad again. “My maternal grandmother is my only family out there but I still like California all the same. I miss it.”
Oddly, his bird who was hanging out on the back of one of the chairs was quiet and somber. She remembered then that his name was Mickey and she had been told that he never shuts up.
“So why exactly didn’t you just stay there?” asked Beth who was then approaching angrily. “You know that you’re not welcome here, don’t you?”
“Really?” said a cold voice and she looked over to see Peter Wellington. He was old, almost ninety, and a far cry from the dashing young man Grace knew in her youth, but he had aged well and had become the equivalent of the dashing, handsome man for his age. “Are you aware that he saved my great-grandchildren’s life?”
“That story is crazy!” said Beth passionately but she was nervous too because he was far more respected than even Reginald Hamilton was. “A hag in a candy house? It’s retarded! It’s bullshit!”
“My grandson is not a liar,” he said coldly but there was something in his eyes, some truth, and it flickered there just long enough for Grace to be certain she saw it.
He knows… her mind’s voice whispered. He had seen that house or that hag or something that gave Ethan’s crazed story weight in his head.
Ethan looked at her when she touched his face. “Will you dance with me?” she asked him softly. “When this is over I want to dance.”
“I’ll dance with you but not today. This is not a dancing occasion.”
She nodded and felt really stupid for forgetting that.
Franklin came back with the contract on a clipboard and he handed it with a pen to Ethan blankly, his eyes locked on Ethan’s in that cold suspicious rage that Ethan either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Grace carefully stepped away using Franklin to lean on for support and let him go through the contract. He went through it quickly and competently, nodded, signed it, handed it back, and then looked up just in time to see Ellen move at him.
Grace had the instinct that Ellen would be furious, hate him for intruding and want to hurt him and maybe even slap him across the face, and it seemed almost certain she was right when she saw Beth smiling as the same idea crossed her mind, but Ellen wasn’t angry at all. She threw her arms around Ethan, startling him, and then kissed him in the cheek and whispered something in his ear.
He whispered something back and then Ellen kissed him again and that time let it linger. No one heard them despite everyone straining their ears. She rested her head against his shoulder for a moment, then took a deep breath and backed away.
Beth took a step forward to find her arm snatched by her younger sister. “Beth,” said Sarah coldly. “You be quiet! You be quiet right now!”
“Why exactly should I take orders from my father’s bastard?”
Sarah’s face was a hard frown that barely masked the pain there. She had never been comfortable with being an illegitimate daughter, her mother a young woman seeking a casual sugar daddy relationship with Franklin’s newly widowed father who found herself accidentally pregnant. She had not been ready for motherhood then, although presently she was an accountant living in Florida with a family of her own, and Beth, who was fifteen at the time, was said to have violently railed on her father in an attempt to rid the family of the girl.
It never happened and when their father died and Grace’s father Mitchell had come out of retirement to raise them, Mitchell had fallen in love with Sarah instantly. Sarah told Grace that when he died, she had asked him why he was so kind to her, and a small part of it was that she reminded him of his own daughter, sleeping her life way in a coma.
Sarah had struggled to act as an equal in her family all her life and had success only with Franklin and Grace’s father. Darcy had been the only one who told her that story too.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” asked Jonathan in an earnest, calm voice. “I mean it, Beth. What is your problem?” She gave him a hard look and opened her mouth to insult him. “I’m not afraid of being called gay; I’ve made a fortune out of it, so go right ahead.”
She said nothing to him. Jonathan also had respect as a self-made millionaire after personally designing one successful magazine and then collaborated with various others to create more magazines typically geared toward homosexual and lesbian fashions but also various heterosexual ones as well.
Franklin stepped forward out of the group of people and held out his hand toward Beth. “Come with me, Beth. Now.”
“Beth,” he said again in that same cold tone, “I’m not going to ask you again.” His eyes were like two black daggers. “We’re going to leave. Now.”
Beth usually could push her younger brother around but not when he was like that. He, who was in charge of all the finances of the family, was dangerously close to cutting her off and she knew it. “Fine!” she cried suddenly, making everyone but him and Ethan jump. “You know what, brother, why don’t we make this public! If you want him to cruelly fuck over Mitchell’s sweet little girl while simultaneously ripping out her heart and killing her then go ahead! Let’s see this ‘youth’ potion, boy!”
“Do you hate my family like everyone else?” asked Ethan. “Because, in all honestly, you would fit in perfectly. I see you sitting in the seat right between Anne and Jane Bartlett.” That, as it turned out, had been the most insulting thing Beth had ever heard. She walked up to him and slapped him across the face as hard as she could. He laughed as he stumbled, unimpressed, and then she snatched Grace’s arm. “Woah, careful!” cried Ethan.
Beth yanked Grace away from Franklin, who had been caught off guard momentarily as he turned his head away toward Ethan, and then she half-dragged her across the open floor, her legs moving as awkwardly as crutches. “You’re hurting me!” cried Grace and everyone gasped in horror except Ellen who burst into fresh tears. Grace wanted to kick, scratch and bite as she would have in 1959 but she was too tired, too weak and too old, and Beth knew it as she pulled her along. Then, before anyone could stop Beth, she grabbed Grace’s veil and headdress with one hand and ripped them off.
Grace immediately began to weep, covering her face weakly with her hands. She could not help it and everyone began to look away, all feeling ungodlily uncomfortable. She heard Jonathan take a deep intake of breath while Darcy calmly moved up behind her to help support her if she lost her balance.
“That woman,” said Mickey from a nearby chair’s back, “Is a serious cunt.”
Reginald laughed in an unhappy way. “You’re an incredibly horrible person, Beth,” he said simply.
Murmurs of agreement from both comments drew very harsh looks from Beth. “Oh you hate me but he is the one scamming our cousin at a funeral!”
Grace hid her face behind her hands until she felt fingers touch her chin and then she lowered them to see Ethan.
He looked into her wrinkled, elderly face, and she felt instinctively, and horribly, self-conscious because he was so beautiful by comparison. Yet, he smiled at her with no disgust to be found in his eyes and gave her another red potion which immediately cured the hurt she got from a minor twist she had five days ago. She looked down for a moment, unable to keep his gaze, and then he lifted her chin back up.
“Doesn’t look younger,” said Beth and, to Grace’s surprise, she sounded relieved more than anything else.
“That was just a Heal potion, Beth,” he said and then he reached into his left pocket for something else.
“Beth,” said Franklin in a very slow, very cold, very calm voice, “We’re going to have a very special talk later tonight.”
She looked at him and Grace could see she didn’t like him at all. A conversation she had overheard while watching Gone with the Wind in the O’Brien home came back to her.
“Father always liked you better!” Beth had cried. “So did Mitchell! I’m the eldest but they gave me no power, no love, no respect, no anything all because I don’t have a cock! They thought that it was all that mattered in the entire universe and because of it, you were so much more qualified to do anything than me!” Her voice had turned bitterly, sarcastic.
She had looked over from the couch she was sitting on and saw Franklin was tired as he so typically was when speaking to his sister. “They thought I was better qualified because you are not nearly as smart as you think you are and you spat on every single one of their values.” With her whoredom implied to her face, Beth had punched her brother in the arm and angrily walked away.
Grace put her hands on Ethan’s shoulders and wanted to say something wonderful to him but, “You remind me of an actor,” was the only thing that came out.
“Oh yeah!” he said with genuine happiness. “Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, James Dean, John Wayne—”
“Rock Hudson!” cried Jonathan.
“—also great, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, let me in on it. Who do I remind you of?”
“Yes!” he said excitedly. “An underrated great! The Princess Bride is one of the greatest films of all time!”
Mickey burst out laughing. “You’re a monster,” Ethan said.
Grace laughed, the only time after waking that she could remember doing so, and wrapped herself into him and rested her head on his shoulders. She had fallen in love with Cary Elwes when she saw The Princess Bride herself, a film Franklin had correctly deduced she would love, and after that, she saw virtually every film he had made she could find including Georgia Rule which she found incredibly depressing.
“Are you ready?” Ethan asked.
“I’m only twenty-two,” she whispered into his ear.
“I know. Are you ready?”
“I’m scared. I’m scared you’re lying. I’ll die if you’re lying.”
“I’m not lying even though holiday seasons do bring out the worst in me. My father killed my dog on a Christmas once.” There was a hush of stunned silence and Ellen was even surprised enough to stop being miserable and look into his face to see if he was lying. “Used my baseball bat because my grandfather, James, who some of these people knew, was very proud of my success in baseball. We won the big game against the Westlake Warriors and my father never won any baseball games, James’ favorite sport don’t you know, and he rather resented me for it.” Grace looked into his eyes and saw he wasn’t lying at all or if he was, he was a very good liar. “That was actually the single closest thing to a Christmas present my father had ever given me.”
Grace saw Jen Everson, the woman who raised talking animals, not far away looking absolutely horrified.
“I’m—I’m sorry,” Grace said when words came back to her.
“Don’t be,” he replied. “I killed something he loved too.”
“What did he love?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“His legs,” he replied and then he kissed her. It was a kind, sweet gesture and she was stunned both by the act and by how much it emotionally moved and comforted her. Then he backed away a bit and maneuvered around to show her what was in his pocket and her eyes went wide.
“Is that your ‘Youth’ potion?” asked Beth in a voice filled with bitter unhappiness and just a pinch of fear.
“No, it’s hers,” he replied. “I’m going to give it your cousin and she’s going to be young again and then I’m going to help myself to the bar and if I get drunk enough to forget this is a funeral, I request now someone stop me from doing Snoopy Dance and Mickey the Woodstock Dance, despite how hilarious it might be. Maybe I’ll pick up on some girl who is randomly here too who is, hopefully, really beautiful, but I may be too drunk to care.” He took out what was in his pocket out from the black leather wrapping he had covered it with and then everyone saw it.
It was a potion that glowed a white color so brightly that the tips of every finger on his left hand had turned red. When Grace saw it, and the way it glowed, she realized she could feel its magic somehow emanating off the potion and she knew he had not lied and she was going to be young again.
Beth suddenly snatched at his hand like a viper using all her fingers, his thumb instantly covering the top to keep the potion from possibly popping open. It was a vicious, knee-jerk action that was violent enough to break almost every nail on both of her hands. There was then about a blink’s worth of time before a dozen older women rushed forward and as many as could feasibly fit grabbing at the same fist for the same prize.
Grace started screaming just before she felt herself being thrown back by some fat old woman. Had Darcy had not been there to catch her and help her back up she would have fallen onto the ground and probably have broken something, maybe even died. She found she could not stop screaming and watched in horror as Ethan tried to free his hand out of the pit of forearms and painted claw-like nails created by greedy, vain women who already lived their lives.
Franklin, Jonathan, Austin and Reginald, each grabbed a woman, Franklin personally getting Beth, and then yanked them off and pulled them to the ground. Ethan held up his right hand and cast small lightning bolts into women who let out loud feminine shrieks but most didn’t let go.
“Somebody, get these bitches off me!” Ethan cried, still holding onto the potion.
Once Grace was safe, Darcy went up behind several of the women and slammed her fists into their backs like a professional boxer. She took down three quickly and then a fourth screamed as Mickey flew into her face and pecked at her face around her eyes. The fat woman who had thrown her was knocked back by Ethan, hard, and fell onto a bunch of chairs and cried out mournfully.
Ethan yanked his arm free and held out his right hand covered in orange electricity at the remaining hesitant women. His left hand looked like a bloody mess cats had tried to tear apart. “You will not like what happens to your faces if you ever try that again!” he snarled angrily.
“Ethan!” Beth cried suddenly, her voice high in fear and desperation. “Wait a minute!” He looked at her. “Please wait!”
Grace knew what she would ask, saw the desperation and greed in her eyes, but she also knew Ethan wouldn’t give it to her. She found she had absolute faith in him, something she had not had in any man since her father.
“Beth,” Ethan said, “Just because both you slept through your youth doesn’t mean both of you get to be young again.” There was laughter all around from the men and remaining women who weren’t bitches and Grace felt tears of gratitude running down her face as he approached.
Ethan wrapped his right arm around her, pulled her close, popped open the potion and poured it down her throat. “You’re not twenty-two,” he told her. “You’re six or thereabouts.”
The liquid moved down seemingly of its own accord and tasted like some kind of fruit. She could not discern what kind at first and then decided it was like all the fruits she had ever tasted all at one time. The feeling that accompanied it was far better. It was a strong, massage sort of feeling that started at first in her neck and stomach but then instantly grew and expanded out to where it reached from the hair follicles on her head down to the tips of her fingers and her toes. It was the most wonderful thing she had ever experienced in her life and she did not think she would ever be able to describe it in any way that could do it justice.
She felt it working, changing her from the inside out, and she quickly took off her gloves and saw the boniness in her hands shifting around becoming younger and shapelier. She went from her eighties to her seventies like years were seconds going in reverse and she felt the muscles and flesh of her body firming up and pushing out against a dress built for a smaller, older frame.
She looked at him and he gave her a cocky smile. “And they didn’t believe me,” he said.
The dress ripped at her arms and stretched at her hips and she felt if she moved too much the thing would rip off. She felt her back straighten with a distinct crack sound and while it did hurt, it hurt in a wonderful way that reminded her of a time she pulled of a scab as a girl.
She had reached her sixties and by then her breasts were filling up and pushing against the front of her dress. The men were leaning forward and looking but she did not mind it very much anymore and certainly not as much as their wives did. She soon hit fifty and her hands, which had looked so old before, looked recognizable hers for the first time. She pulled her hair out of its bun and watched it turn full, thick and gold and then, in a blink, she was in her forties and no longer felt any pain.
“Oh my God,” she said in the voice she had before her coma.
She hit her thirties and her breasts had become large and perfect, her body nubile again, and for the first time since awakening, she recognized herself. She grabbed Ethan’s face and kissed him deeply in the lips with strength she had forgotten she ever had, her body filling up with deep arousal.
She pulled back and saw that the hands holding him were even younger and she knew her body matched his age. For that one single instant, they were both nineteen-years-old.
Then the world started to get bigger. She left her teens, her breasts, which had become large and incredibly perky, sunk into her chest like two deflating balloons and she felt the disturbing and very unpleasant sensation of puberty reversing herself and the arousal that had grown wild from her kiss shut off like a light switch.
The feminine curves of adulthood and all the qualities that came with them were gone and the hands she held up were the pudgy hands of a six-year-old girl who was draped in overly large clothing. She tried to speak but nothing came out, overwhelmed in all ways, and overflowing with gratitude and love.
“Benjamin Button doesn’t have shit on me,” Ethan said and he faced them. “You may applaud now.” They just stared in shock. “Alright, fine, screw you. I don’t need your praise. I’m rich now and I can do whatever I want.”
“Yeah!” said Mickey.
Grace threw herself into him, wrapped her young arms around his waist and wept so loudly in gratitude that it sounded like wail but she found she could not stop. He had delivered what he promised. He had made her a girl again and given back the life, at least in the physical sense, that had been taken from her and even some extra years for her to adjust. When she went back to acting, she would be right back where she started.
“Hamilton,” he said and Reginald appeared, taller than she was as a child. “I’m going to your bar now.”
He nodded. “Obviously, I never saw you go over there as I would never serve a minor alcohol.”
“People are so accommodating to rich people,” he said and he started to walk toward the bar. She didn’t let go and when he looked down at her, she smiled up at him cutely. He ruffled her hair like a child and then tried to unlock her little hands with difficulty. “Let go, you.”
She giggled and said, “I love you, Ethan Bartlett.”
“No, you’re just grateful.” He took out another red potion, drank it, and she saw the cuts on his left hand heal up. Mickey then casually flew onto the top of his head. “Shoulder, you little bastard!”
Mickey laughed and went down onto his left shoulder. She laughed too and then felt Franklin take her by the hand and then she wrapped her little arms around his waist. “Well, I’ll—I guess I’ll—” he shrugged “—I’ll have Francis send for one of Mandy’s old black dresses. One should fit, I guess.” He sounded just incredibly stunned to her ears.
“Ethan!” hissed Beth and everyone looked at her expression of hate with narrow black eyes and jagged broken nails. She reminded Grace of a monster in a movie who was supposed to have been killed, luring the crowd into false comfort but was then revealed to still be alive and still dangerous.
But she’s not! thought Grace with satisfaction. I got the potion, not her! I win!
“What?” asked Ethan.
“You could have made more than thirty million!” she hissed at him, her face seething with hate and indignation.
“If I just wanted money, I would have gone to a billionaire in some foreign country and you would have never seen me,” he told her simply and then walked onward to the bar.
“Come on,” said Franklin who took her hand.
Beth looked at Grace with undisguised envy and Grace gave her back a wide smile filled with straight, white baby teeth and then continued with Franklin into the next room.
* * *
The black dress and socks left by Mandy O’Brien, who was then in her twenties, fit beautifully but the shoes didn’t fit very well at all and were a little uncomfortable. Her gold hair was tied behind her head in a simple ponytail and she walked through the crowd of adults already feeling that sense of being under the radar that permeated everyone’s childhood.
She saw Ethan was at the bar talking to Ellen with a very beautiful piece of arm candy clutched to him sensually. She wore an intricate white and gold mask and Grace thought for an instant that it might be Darcy’s Italian-American friend whose left half of her face was mutilated by some kind of acid but then the girl moved a bit and she recognized her.
She looked just like that damn Carrier girl, Loraine, who she knew in the 1950s. Her body and hair were so similar that it was disturbing and Grace was absolutely certain it couldn’t be natural. The woman would have to have been in her eighties or nineties by 2012, she had been older than Grace by a decade, and when she thought about it genetic resemblances were never that close.
That woman is a clone, she thought, using the word she learned from the movie The Island, but then shrugged it off. They were weird in the 1950s and they were weird in 2010s but who knew why and who cared. It made no difference.
Carrier could have him for the moment because her body was a woman’s body but time would pass and Grace would grow into the beautiful woman she knew she would become and by then the game would be in her court. Then she would be the young, nubile woman and Carrier would be older, in her thirties or possibly forties, and between the two of them, he would likely pick the younger, sexier female. She felt that he would be loyal to a girlfriend or wife but he didn’t particularly look like the marrying type. Of course, if he did change his thoughts on that, it would probably be in his thirties and coincidentally about the same time, she hit her late teens, early twenties.
She slipped in among them.
Ethan took a sip of his drink, Mickey resting casually on the bar nearby, and said, “So the house was made of candy. It had a—hypnotic element to it. I got that when I was killing the witch in the tower when I wasn’t prepared for it. It was strong. Really strong.”
“Come with me,” said the Carrier woman in the mask in a seductive voice clutching onto his arm.
“I would, truly, but I appear to have a fanny pack shaped like a little girl.” Grace giggled and looked up at him from where she was hugging his waist. “Hi Grace,” he said.
“Hi Ethan,” she said back.
Grace bit her lower lip mischievously. “I’m going to have that dance someday, Bartlett,” she told Ethan. “You promised me.”
“Did I promise that? I don’t remember.” He shrugged. “I’m pretty sure you don’t dance at a funeral.” He said all that with a smile and she gave him a cute little pout that her father loved. He grinned, liking it too, and ruffled her hair.
“Stop that. I’m a girl. You don’t ruffle girls’ hair.”
“Oh that’s probably right, now that I think about it,” he said with a laugh. “That might be why Jessica Downs is so irritated by my doing it.” He laughed again and then continued drinking. “Anyway, where was I?” Ellen leaned forward and looked at him curiously. “Oh yeah.”
He continued to tell his story and Grace rested against him quietly listening to the sound of his voice. Ellen Beckford had been devastated from her tragedy but helping Grace had filled up the hole a little bit and she was notably better. She liked Ethan and Grace thought it had something to do with what they had whispered about earlier.
“What did you two whisper about?” was the first thing Grace had asked when Ellen went to the bathroom at the same time Carrier had slipped away to grab a sandwich for Ethan.
“She asked me what I would I have done to Lanza if I had been at that school.”
“What did you tell her?”
He gave her a dark smile, one that if she had not known and loved him she would have found genuinely disturbing, and then said simply, “The truth.”
Later that night, she fell asleep in the room Franklin had set up for her before and the bed had become so big she felt like she was lying on clouds. Her mind drifted back and forth to Ethan until she lost consciousness and afterward she dreamed about him and her father but mostly him.
Oh, Ethan was truly a beautiful man but it wasn’t just that she realized. The world was full of beautiful men after all. He wasn’t a James Dean either or any of those other movie stars because he was an Ethan Bartlett. She found most people weren’t themselves; phonies J.D. Salinger had called them. James Dean was himself, which was why he was “James Dean” to begin with. Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable had that quality too and Ethan, in a very different occupation showed that same sense of self-identity. It was just that instead of pretending to be Spencer Tracy or John Wayne, his peers would pretend to be Lancelot de Lac or Beowulf.
That was they would be remembered.
She thought about how Carrier had eventually dragged him off, no doubt seducing him successfully, but she still didn’t care, or at least not a lot. All she had to do to beat Carrier was to wait. It was Darcy, who she suspected he genuinely liked or even loved, that she had to worry about. She had a boyfriend presently but he was a very beautiful moron named Paul she had seen only a few times who was so uncomfortable with her earlier condition that he could not look at her for more than a few moments without turning away. He was kind but he wasn’t strong and Darcy, like her grandmother Rachel, only truly liked strong men.
Before she had drifted off to sleep once again, she pressed her fingers against her lips and felt again in her mind the brief instant they were the same age and kissing.