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They were young, and in love, and it was their first married night together. He propped himself up on one elbow and watched while she undressed slowly, pulling a nightgown down over her slim, firm figure, fumbling with her hair so that it framed her face and spilled over ivory shoulders. She glided towards him in the glow of the little yellow room light and slipped into bed beside him. Eyes closed, he smelled her sweet breath as she kissed him and swept her hair across his chest.

“Open your eyes, my darling,” she said.

Warren Diederich read the letter over several times, checked postmark and return address, then stuffed the pages back into the envelope and stared out the window at brown corpses of petunias killed the night before by the first hard frost of the season. It didn’t seem possible, but there it was, addressed to Warren and Corinda Diederich, in honor of their fiftieth wedding anniversary, an all-expenses-paid week of luxury at the Owl Haven Lodge, where they had spent the first two weeks of married life together. Music, parties, dancing, good food, walks along the lake listening to the loons calling each other. A second honeymoon. All free.

All too late. It was five years since he’d put dear Corinda into the ground at Augsburg Memorial Cemetery. Her stroke had come sometime during the night and when he’d tried to awaken her beside him the next morning, she was stiff and cold.

Liebling; my Corinda. What times we had together over those years, and so I really shouldn’t complain. How many men have had what I had, and isn’t it natural I wanted it to last forever?

He read the letter again, imagining her excitement. They would have gone, of course. Corinda would have insisted on that, and despite her arthritis she would have danced the night away, then taken him to her bed every night. He had never stopped wanting her, and he wanted her now.

There was a number to call, but the idea seemed crazy. There would only be couples at the lodge, and what could he do but sit around and feel miserable? Better to stay home. On the other hand, what better way to remember her, walking the shores and wooden paths they had explored together so long ago. Or was it yesterday? Time is irrelevant; it’s what happens that counts. A time to be alone with memories, perhaps dinner for one at a table set for two and her favorite dry sherry before the meal? A silent toast.

The idea became impulse, pulling at him furiously. He went to the phone and dialed the number given in the letter. A woman answered, and he explained his situation to her, how he would have to come alone, and although he had dealt with his grief he wouldn’t want to mess up a pleasant vacation for anyone else by moping around. The woman surprised him, urging him to make the trip, to be with others who would also be coming alone. By the time he hung up the phone, he had given his address and been told that a bus would pick him up that very night. Suddenly, he was shivering with excitement like a child with an unexpected day off from school.

He packed a suitcase, including a good suit and black shoes polished to mirror finish, then wrote a note to Darlene, stamped it and put it out for the mailman. His daughter would only try to talk him out of doing it, so let her find out too late. David was two thousand miles away, raising those three beautiful grandchildren, too busy to worry about old dad, and this was something old dad intended to do regardless of objection, anyway.

And so at ten o’clock on a foggy night he found himself waiting impatiently in front of his locked house, peering into the swirling mist, waiting for headlights to appear. The bus arrived on time: a big bus, marked CHARTER, darkened interior so at first it looked as if there were no driver. It pulled up slowly beside him and the door hissed open. He stepped up to the black maw of the entrance as someone said, “Mister Diederich?”

“Yes. I’m Warren Diederich.”

“Ah, good. You’re my last pickup, sir. Find yourself a place to stretch out and put the suitcase in the rack above your seat. We’ve an eight hour drive ahead of us.”

Warren stepped up, peering into the gloom. The driver was young, chiseled features with deep-set eyes. He smiled, then the door hissed again as the bus moved forward and accelerated smoothly. Warren felt his way back along the darkened aisle past empty seats and a few figures huddled against windows or each other. Diesel fumes and stale cigarette smoke; the smell of a bus hadn’t changed much in forty years. There was light over a seat in the back, and he steered for it, surprised when he found it occupied by a tiny man with tufts of white hair sprouting from a shiny skull, a mummy’s grin on his face as he looked up from his book.

“Easy to find a seat this trip.”

“So it seems.” Warren heaved his suitcase up onto a rack and sat down in the aisle seat opposite the other man. “You going to Owl Haven?”

“Yup. Got a freebee for being married fifty years. Actually it’d be fifty-five now, ‘cept Ruth went and died on me four years ago.”

Warren felt a sudden constriction in his throat and studied the worn carpeting in the aisle.

“You too?” asked the man.

“Yes. Five years ago.”

“Sorry,” said the man, closing his book. “Sorry for you and sorry for me. It’s hard enough getting old in this country, without doing it alone. You sorta get used to it, but God, I still miss that woman.”

Warren’s eyes were stinging, now. “Yeah, I know about that.”

“I’m Aaron Burke,” said the man, leaning over to the aisle and reaching out with a bony hand. “Wife or not, I’m gonna have a good time on this trip.”

The hand was cold. “Sure, why not?” said Warren, then introduced himself. They made small talk a while. Aaron was a retired bank president, but Warren couldn’t visualize him in that role. The man looked all used up, like a corn stalk shriveled by winter, but his eyes twinkled in a way that made him seem devoid of seriousness. Warren had sold the hardware store several years back, and they talked about small business loans and why they were so hard to get these days. When that line petered out they talked about children trying to run their lives and the government controlling the purse strings and the women they had been married to, between the two of them, for ninety-five years.

They laughed and sniffled at memories, then Warren asked, “Have you met anyone else on the bus?”

“Not many to meet. The Olesons got on with me in Minneapolis. Jorg was a farmer for sixty years. When he and his wife found out I was in the banking business, the conversation ended. There was another couple and a few singles already asleep when we got on board.”

“I thought it would all be couples.”

“You gotta be old to be married fifty years, Warren.”

“The way divorce rates are going, we might be the last of our kind.”

“So now we’re getting our reward for it,” said Aaron, reaching up to snap off his light, “and I’d better get some sleep before I do any serious drinking or dancing. Nice to meet you, Warren. See you in the morning.”

“Night, Aaron,” said Warren to darkness. He leaned back in his seat, only to relax, and fell quickly asleep while the bus droned on through the night under steady hands of the young driver who steered softly and opened his window, peering into the swirling mists ahead. In only a few minutes he turned off the main highway onto a dirt road winding into thick woods filled with shimmering fog. The bus crawled along, the sound of its engine muted as mist swirled into the cab and the vibrating floor rocked tired, old passengers deeper into sleep.

Warren’s chin banged down on his chest and he was suddenly awake. The bus door hissed.

“Owl Haven Lodge and hot springs! Everybody up! Come on, sleepy-heads!”

The driver was pulling luggage from the overhead racks, and Warren looked at him curiously. Awful young for a regular driver. Must be a college kid. He looked outside and immediately saw the lodge, just as he remembered it, but it was a foggy day and he felt cold to the bone.

“Hot breakfast and a fireplace waiting for you inside! Let’s get checked in first!”

Warren was the last one off the bus, closely following Aaron, who shivered and grumbled about the cold. “No wonder it’s free; look at the weather. We’ll be lucky to see the lake.”

“Can’t even see the end of the lodge,” said Warren.

Their spirits rose when they entered the warm building with a crackling fire in a mammoth stone fireplace, smelling wood smoke and coffee, and bacon frying. The plush leather furniture draped with Indian blankets was the same as he remembered. The rifle and musket collection on the log walls was the same — and the reception desk — and the staircase winding upwards by the dining room entrance. All the same.

“It’s exactly the way I remember it,” said Warren, as the driver put down his suitcase at the reception desk.

“Why change a good thing?” said the young man, then gave Warren a key. “I’ll take your baggage upstairs, Mister Diederich, while you have your breakfast. Have a good time, now.”

Warren looked at the key. The room number was two hundred and twenty. He stuffed the key into a pants pocket and went into the dining room.

The memories came back with a rush.

They had eaten all their meals here, walked along the lake and then gone upstairs to make love — a long time ago. They had wanted to be alone, choosing a corner table. He looked for it, and it was still as he remembered, but there was a woman sitting there alone now, eating her breakfast. He looked for Aaron and saw him at a table, talking to a pleasant-looking woman with long hair and an enormous diamond ring on one hand. Aaron looked up and wriggled his eyebrows at him. Warren smiled back. Old age hasn’t slowed you up much.

He found a table near the center of the room and ate breakfast alone, feeling out-of-place.

The upstairs hadn’t changed any, either, but his knees had, and they protested painfully when he climbed the stairs. He had hoped by some accident to get the room they had spent their honeymoon in, and it was close, only three doors away, at the end of the hall. A corner room. The room he got was nice enough, with a view of the lake, but all he could see now was fog. He unpacked quickly, putting his clothes away in a varnished bureau and open closet, then decided to go for a walk. As he opened the door, the woman he had noticed in the dining room walked past, smiling, head nodding in brief greeting. She went towards the end of the hall and entered her room two doors down from his. He locked his door, buttoned up a heavy sweater and left the lodge, walking through cold mist until he reached water’s edge and sat down on a bench to look out on the lake.

The lake was not as he remembered. The water was milky, gently lapping at the shore. The view only extended a few yards in the thick fog, and beyond a bright, shimmering band of light faded in and out as if the sun were trying to burn its way through. He listened for the cry of the loons, his favorite wild sound, and heard nothing. The water looked polluted — dead, and the fog was suddenly a cold hand over his face, suffocating him. He stood up, taking quick, deep breaths to stifle the panic, and walked along the lake, head down, fighting back self-pity. It’s not the same — alone. I’m only torturing myself; this whole idea was a mistake, and the lake seems to go on forever. I don’t remember it being this large. After an hour of walking he turned back, retracing his steps, stopping twice when he thought he heard someone walking ahead of him, but seeing nobody. He thought about the table again. It should be free, now, and he’d claim it early for lunch. He hurried on to the lodge, and went straight to the dining room.

The table was still occupied — by the same woman.

Warren Diederich felt quietly angry, until the woman saw him and smiled. Feeling a little silly, he walked over to where she sat, at the only table occupied in the entire room, sipping a cup of coffee. She looked up at him expectantly: bright blue eyes, hair tied neatly in a bun, slender — very good shape for a woman who was probably near sixty, at least. It showed around the eyes, the tiny lines and wrinkles of worry, sadness — caring of a lifetime.

Warren cleared his throat, suddenly embarrassed.

“Excuse me for the intrusion. It’s just that fifty years ago I had my honeymoon at the lodge, and we took all our meals at this table.”

“Oh, you’re with the fiftieth anniversary group that came in this morning,” she said brightly. “Well, you and your wife should certainly sit here again.” She pushed back her chair and started to get up.

“No, no, please don t. My wife passed away years ago. I’m here alone.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, settling down again. “Memories?”


“I have them, too. Would you join me for a cup of coffee?”

“Oh — I couldn’t.”

“Please? This isn’t a good time to be lonely.” Her voice was soft, friendly — persuasive.

“Well — I suppose — well, yes — thank you.” He sat down opposite her; a waiter magically appeared, and he ordered coffee.

“They make it very Norwegian here,” she said. “very black, and very strong.”

“That’s the only way, even for a German like me. I’m Warren Diederich — from Minneapolis.” He looked at her expectantly, and she smiled shyly.

“I’m Ester.”

No last name? Don’t ask. “Were you on the bus this morning?”

“Oh, no,” she said, amused. “I’m a hostess here for this week. It’s just a temporary job, but it gets me out of the house and with other people. I lost my husband some years ago, so I know what you’re going through, Warren. I’ve missed him terribly.”

“Corinda was everything to me,” he said miserably. “But they’re gone, now — and they were loved.”

“Oh yes, they were,” she said as coffee arrived. In a little while, they ordered lunch.

It had all started so simply — so easily, that day, and now, as the end of the week at Owl Haven approached it seemed like they had been together forever. Warren asked Ester how she could spend so much time with him. She laughed and pointed out there were very few guests as the gloomy weather continued, and besides, he was very nice to be with. And then she took his arm and they walked to the lake, huddling close on a bench to watch the milky water and strange band of light shimmering far out from the beach.

They had supper together each night, drank some wine and even danced a little, but mostly they talked. Ester was a good dancer and Warren shared her with some of the other guests, but she always came back to him. The music was taped, but nobody cared, and the few couples on the floor pressed close, swaying dreamily to the melodies — time irrelevant.

Aaron was having the time of his life, and one evening, while Ester was out on the floor with a little man who likely hadn’t danced in fifty years, he came over to Warren’s table with a drink in his hand, face flushed, a little drunk — happy.

“That is some lady you’ve hooked up with,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows lecherously.

“You’re doing okay, yourself. Where’s the brunette?”

“She had to go to the little girls’ room. Were having a private party for two upstairs tonight.”

Warren looked at him incredulously. “You must have a lot of faith in yourself.”

Aaron examined a fingernail. “I have considerable confidence in my abilities, my man.”

“I’m sure,” said Warren, watching Ester. The little man could scarcely move his feet, and she was trying to guide him. Except for three couples, the floor was empty.

“Where is everybody?”

“Some of ’em left this morning,” said Aaron. “Guess they got too lonely, or couldn’t stand the weather. Anyway, they didn’t want to be here, so they left. Then, of course, there’s the Olesons. They took them away very quietly in an ambulance last night.”

“What happened?”

“Dead, I guess. I went up to change my shirt, and two gurneys came out of their room and down the hall. I’ve seen body bags before. They hustled them quick out the door.”

The music stopped. Ester was helping the little man back to his table, and the brunette had appeared again, waving frantically to Aaron.

“Gotta go,” said Aaron evilly. “Duty calls.” He slapped Warren on the shoulder, walked somewhat unsteadily back to the pretty woman, and they left the room.

Ester came back to the table, took one look at Warren, and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I just heard the Olesons died last night.”

“Sometime yesterday, yes.”

“It’s depressing. I don’t want to think about death now.”

“Are you afraid to die, Warren?”

His heart skipped a beat at the question, but then he thought for a moment and said; “No — I don’t think so. just don’t want it to happen now — not here — not with you here.”

The music started again and she squeezed his shoulder. They went out on the dance floor and stayed there for an hour, pressed warmly together, her cheek against his, swaying to music barely heard, and then finally she whispered in his ear, “I have to take the desk early in the morning, so I’d better go up now and get to sleep.”

Arm around his waist, head on his shoulder, she went with him up the stairs and down the hall to her room, turning to face him at the doorway, and he put his arms around her. “Only tomorrow night is left,” he said.

“I know,” she said, “but it’s there.”

She put her arms around his neck and gave him a sweet kiss, then opened the door and looked back at him standing there smiling sheepishly.

“Breakfast tomorrow?”

“If you can make it.”

“Of course I can. See you at seven.”

The door closed, and he was still standing there. Strangely, he felt no guilt, but he was feeling another thing as he walked the few yards to his room, confessing it to himself as he unlocked the door.

Face it, my man, you have more than a crush on the lady. And there’s something else, too, you devil.You are getting horny again.

He undressed quickly, and went to bed.

She was waiting for him.

Warren felt terrible. He had been awake most of the night, awakened periodically by pain, and a squeezing sensation in his chest, but towards morning it had gotten better, and he wasn’t so frightened now. Still, he felt all worn out; it must be the week of dancing, and staying up late, he thought. You’re not a kid anymore, Warren. Take it easy. He felt sweaty, and wobbly as he walked to the table. Ester put out her hand to touch him as he sat down, and suddenly the pain was gone. Just like that. Nothing. He felt fine.

“I was thinking of you last night,” she said.

“I didn’t sleep very well myself.”

Ester smiled, and then the waiter was there, so they ordered breakfast. Afterwards, they walked to the lake again and looked out on the strange water and still swirling fog, and the flickering band of light far out from the beach. The fog never lifted, and they never saw the other side of the lake.

“This is unreal,” said Warren. “Fog all week, and that weird light. I wonder if the lake is really out there.”

Ester hugged his arm. “My, you’re serious this morning. Questions, questions.”

“Maybe I’m having a second male menopause.” He smiled when she giggled, burying her face in his shoulder. He looked down into her blue eyes.

“Are you real?”

“Oh, yes.”

“What are we going to do about tomorrow, and the day after that, and —”

“—Let’s talk about it tonight,” she whispered.

“I don t want to lose you now, and I feel guilt about that, too.”

“How much you loved her,” said Ester, snuggling close.

They walked in silence a moment, then Warren said, “I don’t feel old when I’m with you. When Corinda died, I felt so old and useless, and all used up. Not now, but even last night, after I left you, I started having pains in my chest, and other things. God, I thought I was having a heart attack — but now, I feel fine.”

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

He looked down at her, but she said nothing else, only clung tightly to his arm and pressed her cheek against his shoulder.

When they returned for lunch, Aaron was leaving the dining room with his brunette, and Warren was worried by his appearance. Aaron looked terrible: ashen-faced, sunken eyes, stumbling along, the woman holding tightly to him. Warren waved to him, but he didn’t acknowledge it, and the couple disappeared up the stairs.

“I think the booze and late hours are catching up with him,” said Warren, but Ester gave him a disapproving look.

“He looked frightened,” she said. “He shouldn’t be frightened when he’s with someone he loves.”

Warren didn’t ask her what she meant by that, but he thought about it all through lunch and decided only that he was not afraid of anything — even death — when he was with Ester.

They played cards all afternoon in the dining room, never leaving their table, interrupted only once by a waiter serving them complimentary tea and cookies. In an instant, it seemed, people were drifting into the room for supper. All couples, but only a few. Warren watched for Aaron, but he never appeared. They ordered steaks, and a small bottle of wine. Warren poured while Ester watched approvingly, and then they touched glasses.

“To this moment,” said Warren, solemnly.

“And the next one,” said Ester.

There was even a chocolate mousse, followed by coffee and holding hands. The taped music started early, with several waltzes and even a polka, emptying the tables, and then the tempo slowed, and they swayed together, eyes closed, touching, lost in each other. Suddenly, Ester tugged at him, and he opened his eyes. They were alone on the dance floor, and the room was empty. She tugged at him again.

“Now,” she whispered.

They left the floor, and the dining room, and trudged up the stairs. Halfway up, Warren felt the pain in his chest again, but it was a dull thing and easy to ignore with Ester pressed against him, so he didn’t say anything. They passed his room, and went to hers. Ester unlocked the door and he followed her inside.

“Something I didn’t tell you,” he said, as she locked the door. “Just over fifty years ago, I stayed next door on my honeymoon.”

“I know,” she said tenderly, then smiled at the quizzical look on his face. “No talk, now. Time for bed.” She pulled back the covers.

“I don’t have any pajamas,” he complained, fumbling with a shirt button.

Nerves, he supposed. The pain was in his chest again, squeezing hard, and then he was sweating. Ester didn’t seem to notice; she undressed slowly in the yellow glow of the room light, pulling on a thin nightgown over her still-slim figure and touching her hair as Warren crawled into bed, afraid to lie down because his heart might burst and he would lose it all at a moment as precious to him as one fifty years before. He watched. Her hands moved, hair spilling down around her face and over shoulders. She glided towards him, a sculpture of serenity, pulling the covers aside. Warren gasped, eyelids fluttering.

She touched him as his eyes closed; the pain was there, then an ache, then a throbbing sensation filling his body, and he took a deep breath, feeling his lungs push against ribs. He felt her hair on his face, her lips on his, lightly, then firm, and her sweet breath as she spoke.

“Oh, my darling Warren — open your eyes, now.”

He looked up, startled, tears coming as he reached up to touch her face — to be sure she was real.

“Corinda,” he said.

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