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Chapter Two: Departures


Edna outdid herself on this wedding cake. I take another bite—light, buttery, and sweet—but not too sweet. Looking at the dessert plate in my hand, I’m amazed I came up with sixty-two small plates for today’s reception. If my mother were alive, she’d be mortified by the hodgepodge of salad, sandwich, and dessert plates we handed out. She needed everything to match perfectly. I can’t remember the last time I raided the depths of my china cabinet for a party. Our last big event must have been my husband’s forty-fifth birthday. I never imagined it would be his last. I run a finger along the pink and green floral pattern encircling the scalloped edge of the plate. This china belongs here, in Henderson House. I won’t need it for my new life in New Jersey. My son, Robert, and his wife, Lucy, already have more than they need for entertaining. My place settings and serving pieces would sit idle in Princeton. I should leave it all here for Frank and Bessie. I sigh a happy sigh, imagining Frank and Bessie setting the dining room table together. The house sighs with me. It’s settled then. The china stays.

The clinking of a fork on a crystal punch glass interrupts my thoughts. The guests quiet down and I’m surprised to see Bessie’s father step up to speak. In the dozen years I’ve known the Blackwells, this is the first time Mr. Blackwell has been invited to Henderson House.

“As the father of the bride,” he begins. Even in his late seventies, Mr. Blackwell’s voice is rich, steady, and commanding. There are plenty of stories about him being a master storyteller.

Florence rolls her eyes. “Oh, no. Here we go,” she mutters. I don’t know what happened to the Blackwell children when they were young, but I sense Mr. Blackwell’s desire to set something right with them.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mildred Henderson for her hospitality this afternoon.” He raises his glass in my direction.

“Here, here,” the crowd toasts to me.

My cheeks warm with the compliment and I smile. It’s been a lovely reception with wonderful friends who don’t give a darn about mismatched dessert plates.

“I also want to offer Bessie and Frank a special blessing on their wedding day. A Cherokee blessing,” Mr. Blackwell continues. Florence groans quietly.

“Today, we honor Bessie and Frank as they pledge their hearts and lives to each other,” he continues. “We honor mother-earth and ask for their marriage to grow stronger through the seasons. We honor fire, and ask that their union be warm and welcoming. We honor wind, and ask that they sail through life safe and calm. And we honor water, to cleanse and soothe them so they will never again thirst for love.” He raises his punch glass to the newelyweds. “Three cheers for Mr. and Mrs. Frank Davis.”

Bessie brushes a tear from her cheek as her brother Eddie leads the crowd in “Hip, hip, hooray! Hip, hip, hooray! Hip, hip, hooray!” The cheer morphs into a chorus of, “Throw the bouquet. Throw the bouquet.” The guests chant in unison as they migrate from the dining room to the foyer. Bessie climbs a few steps on the staircase and turns her back to the guests.

“What’s happening, Mrs. H.?” Johnny asks, appearing at my shoulder.

“Your Aunt Bessie is going to throw her bouquet,” I respond. He raises an eyebrow at me in confusion. “It’s a wedding tradition,” I explain. “All the single ladies crowd in front and the woman who catches the bride’s bouquet will supposedly be the next to get married. But I’m not sure there are many single ladies here.”

Three young women who work at Phillips with Bessie move to the front, ready for the big throw. Louie, tail wagging, wanders into the foyer to observe the scene.

“One, two, three,” the crowd counts down. On cue, Bessie launches her small bouquet over her head with both hands. It sails through the air above the outstretched arms of the three single ladies, and Louie jumps up, catching it in his mouth. The three young women attempt to chase him, but Louie runs directly to me, sits, and drops the bouquet at my feet. I sweep up the flowers and clutch them to my chest. All the guests, minus the three single ladies, cheer wildly.

“What does it mean?” Johnny asks over the commotion.

Edna clucks her tongue. “It means Mrs. Henderson will be the next to say, “I do.’”

I hear Johnny chuckle as I inhale the rich scent of the bouquet and look down at my sweet beagle. Louie sits proudly in front of me, the white tip of his tail swooshing back and forth across the marble floor. I stare into the dog’s deep brown eyes. If anyone knows my heart, it’s Louie. “Good boy,” I whisper, crouching down to stroke his velvet ears. I sense Albert’s gaze and raise my eyes to lock with his across the foyer. Professor Albert Rutledge gives me a wry smile and my cheeks warm for the second time today.

The Professor moved to Bartlesville four years ago. He left his teaching position at the University of Tulsa after his wife died and took a job as an overnight security guard at First National Bank. A friend of mine at the bank told him I had vacant room at Henderson House. Upon meeting him, I immediately sensed Albert’s desire to hide from his grief. When my Charles left us unexpectedly, I also considered running away. I fantasized about starting over where no one knew me. Where no one would ask how I was holding up or if they could bring me a casserole. But I couldn’t leave this house. Henderson House needed me and it needed people. Reopening our family home as a boarding house helped me work through my grief. And it helped Albert Rutledge through his, as well.

I notice the blue aura pulsating around Albert’s broad shoulders. My Charles was also a blue, but he was more like the sky and Albert’s color always reminds me of the sea. No one knows I see colors around people. No one except Edna, that is. Once I dial in to someone’s usual color, it’s easy to notice when it’s off. A darker shade might indicate someone is worried. A muddled color can be an indication of illness or deception. The day Charles dropped dead from a heart attacked, I told Edna everything about the colors speaking to me. I needed someone to understand my gift and how it failed me that day. I had no idea Charles was unwell.

Albert continues to grin at me from across the foyer. I’m sure he’s enjoying seeing me in the hot seat for once as the result of Louie’s little game of fetch. There’s no denying Professor Albert Rutledge makes a strong and imposing first impression—tall, stocky, muscular. But I know what’s inside—a tenderhearted soul, a passion for poetry and language, and decades of experience sharing his passion with students. It would have been an incredible waste if he’d never returned to teaching. I started nudging him to hunt for a position months ago. Did I set all this change into motion? How can Albert and I both be leaving Henderson House at the same time and both be heading to Princeton? It doesn’t seem possible. My son, Robert, has been begging me to move to New Jersey for years. Normally, Louie and I spend the month of August at Robert’s summer house in Spring Lake. After a month with my sons and their families on the Atlantic Ocean, I return to Oklahoma in September. But not this year. This year, Louie and I will embark on our usual trip to the shore and then we will take up residence in Robert’s carriage house. We won’t be coming back.

The air in the house pops and sizzles with anticipation as the wedding guests turn their attention away from me and my ill-begotten bouquet and back to the happy couple. Bessie and Frank run upstairs to collect themselves before their departure. Bessie’s wedding suit matches her aura. She always radiates a rosy color around her head and shoulders. Frank’s deep yellow gleams up the stairs behind him and intertwines with Bessie’s rosy shimmer as the couple disappears around the corner at the top of the landing. Since the day they first met, Bessie and Frank’s colors have reached out for one another. It’s a wondrous sight to behold.

With the bride and groom upstairs, the guests make their way outside and line either side of the walkway, preparing to bid the happy couple farewell. “Rice,” I call to Edna. Edna and I hurry into the dining room to collect two baskets of rice. I lined each basket with rose colored satin fabric to match Bessie’s outfit and her aura. I place Bessie’s bouquet on the dining room table. It’s a stunning, miniature collection of the same flowers from the altar—white gardenias, roses, and orchids. I rub one of the baby soft rose petals between my thumb and forefinger. I usually don’t put much stock in wedding superstitions, other than the fun they add to the day, yet as I take in the beauty of these flowers I can’t help but wonder if maybe I will marry again. After Charles passed away, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to share my life with anyone else. But lately, my fondness for Albert—

“Do you think the house put the dog up to it?” Edna interrupts my thoughts.

“What?” I turn to her.

“For the last twenty years, I’ve been listening to you talk about this house—how it sighs and hums, reacts to people when they enter, and guides your decisions. I just figured since the house couldn’t hand Bessie’s bouquet over to you directly, maybe it asked Louie to take care of things.”

“Oh, Edna. Henderson House doesn’t give instructions to people,” I pause, “or dogs.”

“Did you hear it make a sound when Louie caught those flowers for you?” Edna asks, her tone no longer joking but genuine. She picks one basket of rice off the sideboard and hands me the other.

“Why the sudden interest in the house making sounds? I ask.

Edna sighs. “I always thought your ability to hear the house was tied to your intuition and your, your other abilities,” she whispers. “But now that the house knows you’re leaving, something feels different. For the first time, I’m starting to believe what you’ve always said about Henderson House being a house that needs people.” Edna adjusts the lining in her basket of rice.

“What feels different?”

“Something in here,” she points to her chest, “started tingling ever since I agreed to stay on and help Bessie and Frank run the house as a bed and breakfast. The other day when I was polishing the woodwork, I started thinking back on all the years I’ve cared for this home. First, when you and Dr. Charles and the boys lived here and then after Dr. Charles died and we turned it into a boardinghouse. I can’t explain it, but as I was wiping down the banister, remembering all the years of cleaning, polishing, and scrubbing, I sensed gratitude all around me, like the house was trying to say thank you. I didn’t hear anything, but I felt something.” Edna shakes her head. “Made me think I was losing my marbles.”

“I think the house is reaching out to both you and Bessie to see if you can learn to listen to it, like I do. Keep an open mind,” I put a hand on Edna’s shoulder, “and hang onto your marbles,” I tease. When she first applied for a position at Henderson House, Edna was nothing but a skinny little country girl, now she’s a grown women and the closest friend I’ve ever had.

“Over the past twenty years, you’ve done more than take care of this house,” I say, “you’ve taken care of me, too. I’m going to miss you more than—"

“I’m not ready to cry, yet,” she interrupts, hugging her basket to her chest. “I’ll tell you when I’m ready, and it’s not today. Come on. Let’s pass this rice out.” I follow her purposeful stride out of the dining room and onto the porch.

Edna and I walk up and down the front walk, passing out rice while Eddie loads the luggage into Frank’s car and pulls it around front. Once the car is in position, Johnny and Waya race to tie strings of tin cans to the back bumper before Frank and Bessie reappear. I glance at Waya and Johnny crouched down next to each other, laughing as they hurry to complete their wedding prank. The image of them working together touches something deep inside me. This relationship is important, my inner voice confirms.

Johnny’s been out of sorts ever since Florence told him the truth about his parentage last month. He wasn’t sure where to sit today at the wedding—with me and Edna and the Professor, or with his grandpa and cousin. He ended up choosing the Henderson House pew, but I watched his light green color flicker around his face as he made his decision—he’s not sure where he belongs anymore. Maybe Waya can help him work things out.

“Is all this rice going to be bad for the lawn?” Florence asks, startling me.

“Oh, I don’t think so. It’s to shower Bessie and Frank with good luck and good fortune,” I say. Florence is hard to read. Her aura is an unusual shade of green and it turns dark and murky whenever she’s hiding something or stretching the truth. Her swirling color today makes me wonder if she’s worrying about something.

“We’re all looking forward to your house warming party in Tulsa,” I say.

Florence shakes her head. “Well, my house certainly won’t be ready for guests a week from Saturday, but with you and the Professor heading east, it’s the only possible date.”

“Have you thought about inviting your father and Cousin Waya to join us?” I know I’m pushing, but I can’t help myself.

Florence stares at me, eyes wide, mouth open.

“It seems like Johnny enjoys spending time with them,” I add, refusing to back down.

“Spending time with who?” Eddie chimes in as he reaches over my shoulder for a handful of rice.

“Mrs. Busy Body here is suggesting we invite Daddy and Waya to the house warming picnic,” Florence says with a laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand.

“You know, Sis, that’s not a bad idea. Daddy’s been super today. And that toast? Even you have to admit, he gave a great wedding toast. Plus, I think it’s nice for Johnny to spend time with him and Waya.”

I smile at Florence, buoyed by Eddie’s support.

Florence huffs. “Fine. But I’m not doing the asking.”

“Allow me the honor.” Eddie strides across the walkway to invite his father. The gratitude on Mr. Blackwell’s face as Eddie speaks almost brings tears my eyes. Eddie puts a hand on his father’s shoulder and the old man looks over at Florence and smiles.

“Happy?” she hisses under her breath.

“Yes. Very.”

“Here they come!” Bessie’s friend Anna shouts from the front door. Under a steady sprinkling of rice, Bessie and Frank run down the front walk, holding hands. Shouts, cheers, and whistles fill the air. Frank opens the passenger door for Bessie. She puts one hand on the roof of the car and turns back to the crowd, searching. Her face lights up when she spots me, Edna, and Florence standing together. She blows us a kiss before climbing into the car. Frank shuts Bessie’s door, runs around to the driver’s side, offers the crowd an enthusiastic wave and they’re off.

As the shiny Chrysler Imperial pulls away, it draws the wedding guests into the street after it. We continue to wave and cheer over the jangling sound of tin cans bouncing down the pavement. When the car turns out of sight the cheering stops, but the tin cans continue tinkling in the distance. At the moment the guests can no longer hear the tin cans, all the air goes out of the party, like a collective exhale. Our celebration is over, but Bessie and Frank’s is just beginning.

Next Chapter: Chapter Three: The Connor Hotel