A Short Story by Matthew C. Woodruff
When Maria and her daughter Amy moved into the dilapidated old house, they did so in the hopes of opening a Bed and Breakfast. It had been a dream of Maria’s to do so, and when her grandmother passed and left her a small amount of money, it was just enough to buy the old place in Siena, Florida. It was an exciting time for Maria and Amy and a big change for them. They both had great hopes for the future.
Sadly, due to an unfortunate accident Amy left Maria before any of it could be realized. Amy had been only twelve years old at the time. (This story is told in ’26 Absurdities of Tragic Proportions’.)
Maria suddenly found herself bereft and alone in a strange house in a strange town. Sadness and depression claimed much of Maria’s first few months in Siena. She would wake up most mornings with no will to turn this old place into the Bed and Breakfast she and Amy had planned for. In the mornings she felt some small amount of energy to continue but it soon dissipated in the face of the overwhelming amount of things that needed to be accomplished. Completely out of character, poor Maria just couldn’t formulate a plan to forge ahead with.
The holidays were the hardest time. On Halloween, which they both had loved, Maria kept all the lights off all day and stayed in bed crying, refusing to answer the door to all the gaily or grisly or plainly costumed children. On Thanksgiving, Maria felt she had very little to give thanks for and had her normal dinner of soup and toast, having little will to eat.
Christmas felt particularly abnormal to Maria. In Florida there was no snow and no cold. The colorful lights, the Christmas music and the decorated palm trees seemed garishly out of place in the bright warm sunshine. Somehow Maria made it through, though without a tree and without any joy.
Maria’s friend Allison who was still in New Jersey, talked to Maria almost every day on the phone trying to be encouraging and supportive, always listening to and even crying with Maria when appropriate. It helped Maria immensely, probably more than even Allison realized. Allison encouraged and cajoled Maria to get on with her life and plans and slowly Maria started to turn her big old home into the Bed and Breakfast she had always wanted.
Funds were low, so Allison also encouraged Maria to go out and find a part-time job, something hopefully she would enjoy. Finally Maria got a job at the local florist shop three days a week, and Maria did enjoy the work. Maria especially took care in arranging the flowers in the funeral arrangements, which seemed a large part of their business. She wanted them to be just right. She and Amy both loved flowers The many flowers she received when Amy had passed had meant a great deal to her so she wanted to do her best for other grieving people. This helped move Maria toward the healing she so badly needed.
As it does, time passed and a little sunshine reappeared in Maria’s life. She started to make friends, though none particularly close. She started all the things she would need to do in order to open her Bed and Breakfast, and finally just before the end of the 2nd summer since Amy had passed, she opened with her first two rooms ready.
Disappointingly for Maria, in the beginning business was sparse and she struggled to keep everything afloat, but apparently Maria had a knack for hosting and it wasn’t long before a small local paper did an article about Maria’s Bed and Breakfast, which Maria had lovingly named The Lady Amy Inn. This publicity started to bring in some more clients, relatives visiting locals mostly and occasionally as a retreat for a couple’s romantic weekend, etc.
Soon enough, Maria had five rooms open for guests.
The second set of holidays without Amy passed a little less morosely than the first and Maria made it through as well as could be expected. After all, of all the holidays it was Valentine’s day that had always been Amy and Maria’s favorite. Every February 14th, Maria and Amy would spend the day together doing special things. Even if it fell on a school day, Maria would take Amy out of school for the day.
There would be indoor picnics and ice skating, walks in the snowy park or trips to a museum where they would sit together and watch all the couples enjoying their romantic day and make up stories about them. “He had been a great war hero and she the love of his life,” Amy would say looking at a much older couple who was still holding hands, giggling with her mother all the while, or “She had been a busy professional with no time for love until he came along and swept her off her feet,” Amy would invent looking at a stern looking woman and her doting husband.
Maria had never had much luck in the romantic love department and Amy hadn’t yet had her first special friend, so the Valentine’s Days they spent together were perfect for them both.
When Valentine’s Day again approached, Maria felt much of the old sadness returning and decided to close The Lady Amy Inn for that week. Allison invited her to fly home for that whole week, and spend it with her and her husband, both of whom were happy to include Maria. Maria was glad to be taking the trip home, her first since she and Amy had driven to Florida two and a half years ago; but was also feeling trepidation at the prospect. She could go to all the places she and Amy would have went, and knew it would make her feel closer to her lost daughter.
Just before the day of her departing flight from the Tampa airport, a huge winter storm, the type they call a ‘Nor’easter’, moved up and over the east coast and blanketed it in many feet of snow and ice. Allison’s home lost power for many days and Maria’s flight was cancelled and a regular flight schedule into the area wouldn’t resume for at least five days.
Once again, Maria’s plan was smashed and now Maria found herself home alone for the week of Valentine’s, feeling sad and lonely. At first, she thought she might go do a few of the things she and Amy might have done, but as soon as she saw her first loving couple and knew exactly what Amy would have made up about them, she fled back home to stay ensconced for the rest of the week.
The afternoon of Valentine’s Day, a loud knock and an insistent ringing of the doorbell roused Maria and she went to see who it could possibly be. She walked to the doo rwith a slight spring of hope welling up at the thought that perhaps Allison had come to her, though rationally she knew it wasn’t possible.
Framed in the double doorway, backed by the setting winter sun, Maria saw a lone man standing, but with no luggage. Maria saw that he was perhaps just a bit older than herself. He had dark, straight hair just slightly longer than fashionable. His deep, dark eyes were framed by a clean shaven tanned face, with high cheek bones and a square jaw. It took Maria a moment to realize it, but this gentleman was quite striking to look at- tall, dark and handsome most would say.
“Can, can I help you?” Maria managed, dragging her eyes away from his, being unaccustomed to being over-whelmed with this type of feeling.
“Hi”, he said with a perfect and easy smile and a deep smooth voice with a slight Latin sultriness to it. “I certainly hope so. I’m stranded and need a place to stay. The owners of the drugstore said you might be able to help me. They speak very highly of your establishment. They said it was the best in town.”
Maria was momentarily unable to respond. Several thoughts swirled through her head at the same time. She was gratified to find out what other business owners in town thought about her Bed and Breakfast. The knowledge that her establishment was closed and she was being intruded upon also crashed into her mind. She thought of several snippy remarks, but knew she needed to remain polite. She would politely turn him away, regardless of his need or his deep, brown eyes.
“Of course, come on in,” she stated, aghast at herself, not knowing from where those words had sprung. “Um…,” she again started but was unable to complete the thought.
The handsome traveler stepped forward and Maria had no choice but to step back from the doorway and allow him entry. An aroma of heady masculinity momentarily surrounded Maria. Maria subconsciously ran her hands through her own long dark hair, hoping it looked okay and wishing she had put on some lipstick before answering the knock.
“Where, where is your luggage?” she managed to ask.
“I had to leave it with my car. I broke down just outside of town and walked the rest of the way. I was hoping to find a garage” (He pronounced it the New England way, as gear-age).
“Oh, there isn’t one in Siena,” Maria stated.
“That’s okay, I can call Triple A tomorrow. It’s dark so early this time of year, I thought I would just get a room and maybe a nice dinner somewhere. Do you have an available room?” He asked, with a lift of his brow.
Maria was going to say that her establishment was closed for the week. She wanted to say that, but instead simply said, “Yes.”
After seeing him settled into a room, she returned back downstairs and wondered what had come over her. She had never been the type to swoon in the presence of a handsome man before. As she was sitting in her small office off of the main entryway, he poked his head around the corner of the door. This surprised her so much she dropped the papers she was looking at and involuntarily said “Oh!” She hadn’t even heard him come down the creaky staircase.
He gave a small beautiful laugh and apologized for startling her.
“I was thinking of going out for dinner, and was hoping you would accompany me,” he said with no expectation in his voice but what instead sounded like hope.
“It’s Valentine’s Day, I can’t.” she said rather abruptly, immediately regretting it.
“Oh, of course, I understand,” he said obviously not understanding at all. “Can you recommend a place a single guy might get a good meal then?”
Maria considered what to do next. She bent down and picked up the papers she dropped earlier, lest he see her indecision. She really didn’t want to go out on Valentine’s Day… it was hers and Amy’s special day. But she did feel a strong sense of regret at not saying yes. It had been a long time since someone she found so attractive had asked her out.
“I could cook for us,” she heard herself saying.
In the end, they prepared the meal together, and enjoyed it with a good bottle of wine Maria had been given as a gift. They made small talk throughout and he learned quite a bit about Maria’s life.
After dinner, and after he insisted on doing the cleaning up, Maria was loath to think of him going back upstairs and leaving her alone once again. She was thinking of all the wonderful ways they might enjoy themselves for the night and was trying to think of a way to broach the subject. She had never been good at pursuit, but something about him made her feel like a giddy school girl anticipating her first kiss.
As he came out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel he surprised her by saying, “Maria, I have something for you, something Amy wanted you to have today on Valentine’s Day.”
Maria was totally stunned by this exclamation, especially because she had never mentioned her daughter’s name to him. Before she could object, he left the dining room and ran up the stairs. Maria was unable to explain to herself what was happening. How had he known about Amy? Was this something set up by Allison? Did someone in town tell him of her tragic past? She had no idea how she should react to what he said.
She heard him come back down the stairs and call to her from the main sitting room. She hesitated, wanting to go to him but her better sense telling her not to. He called again. Finally, she felt almost compelled to go in to him. What a strange day this has been, she thought to herself, a small voice in her head wondering why she suddenly felt so calm.
He was standing facing the fireplace when she came into the room. His back was strong and broad looking she noticed, her eyes wandering downwards liking everything she saw. She shook herself, wait this isn’t right, her mind was insistently telling her.
He turned toward her, his beautiful smile flashing. “Maria,” was the lone word that came forth from his lips and she went to him, loving the sound of his voice. He was holding out a smallish square box she noticed now as she moved toward him. It was dark red, the color of blood, a small voice in the back of her head warned her. The box was wrapped in a red velvet bow.
He held it out to her, and she took it gratefully, staring in to his dark eyes the whole time.
“Open it,” he said, “it’s for you from Amy.”
Obediently and hurriedly she unwrapped the bow and lifted the top off the beautiful box and gazing hopefully inside, screamed in horror.
Amy’s small desiccated heart lay within.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” was the last thing Maria ever heard.
Inspired by the illustrative works of Edward Gorey, this collection of
26 tales has been described as ‘spectacular’ and as ‘a true work of artistry’
For more information, or to receive a signed copy you may also visit my website.
Matthew grew up in upstate New York surrounded by books (and snow). After founding what became the most widely distributed alternative arts and entertainment magazine in upstate NY (based in Albany), Matthew moved to Greenville, FL where he accepted a position on staff at the University of Florida.
His first book, 26 Absurdities of Tragic Proportions, was inspired by his love of the macabre illustrations by artists like Edward Gorey. Selected as a finalist in the American Fiction Awards, 26 Absurdities may be the most unique collection of short stories ever written.
Matthew’s second book, Tales from the Aether, continues in the Dark Humor/Dark Fiction genre and is scheduled to be released November 1, 2019.