Funhouse

Clarisse Yankovic’s faded blue eyes scanned her surroundings without recognition, the house she had lived in for almost fifty years now an alien landscape. She had fallen in love with the brick-clad, French Revival home the first time she laid eyes on it and, with help from their families and a large mortgage, she and David had moved into their dream house immediately after getting married. That had been forty-seven years earlier. The three children who’d filled the stalwart edifice with life had moved out decades ago to raise their own families, only visiting on holidays, birthdays, and her and David’s wedding anniversary. The house had quietly been invaded by cleaning and maintenance crews supplied for a monthly fee by a property management company. They had lived as tenants in their own home for too many years, a situation tolerated because of its simplicity. All that had changed when David died suddenly of a heart attack the previous year. 

It had suddenly dawned on her that there was no longer any reason to remain in St. Louis, dealing with the cold winters and an army of professionals keeping the house in perfect working order; their home had become nothing more than a repository of fond memories, not to mention a money pit. Her dream home was a museum. And she was a mannikin, part of the display, brought to life for special occasions like Christmas–Sacajawea in Night at the Museum

Today was the day. She informed the house of her decision. “I’m moving to Florida or maybe Southern California and I’m afraid I won’t be able to take you with me.” She waved her arms expansively and continued, “I have plenty of memories stored in my diaries, countless photo albums, and in the cloud, so I don’t need daily reminders from every corner of your beautiful interior. I’m sorry but that’s how it has to be…”

She paused but the house didn’t respond.

“Very well then. Let’s spend our last few months together pleasantly. I’m going to start sorting out the physical memories while my children and several charitable organizations pick your bones clean. But don’t worry because a new family will soon move in and I’m trusting that you will shelter them and keep them safe, right?”

Still no response. 

Clarisse danced up the stairs as she continued, “We’re going to start in the attic. Get the worst part over first was always my motto. I know that’s your most personal area but don’t worry, I won’t violate your privacy. I’m just going to remove a lot of what you probably see as clutter but which, to me, represents memories stored away for many, many years.”

She reached the second-floor landing and used an extendible hook to pull down the attic door recessed in the ceiling, revealing a folding stair. The maintenance people had kept it in perfect condition over the years, so she confidently climbed the sturdy treads. Reaching the top, she flipped the light switch that had been expertly installed decades ago, bathing a space defined by steeply dipping rafters bathed in high-efficiency LED lighting. She spent several minutes identifying the contents that had been randomly stored over the decades. It was like a library where the books had been arranged using a classification scheme based on a dead language, something like the Dewey decimal system. With no one to argue with her, Clarisse made an executive decision. She turned off the light and carefully descended the steep attic stair, closed the ceiling door on its hydraulic pistons, and called the property management company to request a couple of able-bodied young men to move the attic’s contents to the ground floor. 

*      *      *

“Where do you want us to put everything, ma’am?”

A pair of strapping young men appeared at Clarisse’s door the next day, ready to haul heavy boxes and to whatever manual labor she asked. “Would you mind rearranging the furniture in the living room to make space for everything? I’m moving out and it doesn’t matter where it all goes as long as it can be removed by the people who are coming from Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity…”

The young Hispanic man glanced around, shrugged indifferently, and said, “No problem.”

Clarisse stayed out of the way while her house became a three-dimensional, full-size version of Tetra. She watched in amazement as the dining room became a storage facility, the chairs carefully stacked on the table’s unblemished surface, covered by bedding from her ample linen supply. The living room was emptied in a few minutes, before being filled with the contents of the attic, which included open cartons containing items piled haphazardly which it made no sense to have saved. None of it was intimidating when exposed to the sunlight streaming in the front windows. She thanked the two men after several hours of hard work and offered them a tip for their services.

“You two have worked so hard, catering to all my stupid whims…”

The older man waved his tattooed arm and said, “Just doing our job, ma’am. We’re glad you’re happy with our work.”

Clarisse wouldn’t be satisfied with just telling them they’d done a good job. She wanted to give them a tip. “As a token of my appreciation, I would like each of you to take one item you like from the house, but of course not my memorabilia.” Their confused expressions prompted her to elaborate. “Anything you can carry with you…” She glanced out the window at the moving van parked in her driveway and added, “Anything that will fit in your truck.” 

She waved her arms as an invitation.

“Anything?” the younger man asked.

She nodded.

“The big-screen TV?”

“It’s yours,” she replied nonchalantly.

The sixty-inch TV and sectional sofa disappeared into the truck with as much alacrity as the attic’s contents had been transported to the living room. Feeling that the house was glad to have its attic emptied, relieving it of supporting so many memories it couldn’t possibly comprehend, Clarisse was compelled to rush to the side of the van as it was about to leave. She pushed two crisp hundred-dollar bills into the tattooed hand and said, “Someday, you’ll be my age—what I mean is that you did a lot more than move some boxes out of the attic…”

The two young men responded in unison, “Yes, ma’am.” 

*      *      *

The first thing Clarisse found among the attic’s displaced contents was a sealed box labelled, “Clarisse’s Diaries.” It had a date, just like several other boxes closed as tightly. But there wasn’t enough space to move the cartons around, to find the first diary she’d ever written, a record she had forgotten about long ago. Unable to find space in the crowded ground floor of her dream house, she had to wait for the removers, the men who would take away all the furniture that made it impossible to expose her memories to the light of day. She was certain the stoic house was looking on, taking no more than a passing interest in her efforts. 

“I hope you’re having as much fun as me,” she proclaimed, waving a glass of wine poured from a bottle discovered amongst the attic’s treasures. 

There was no answer. 

The next day, the game of Tetra continued. The moving men, representing competing philanthropic enterprises, arrived within minutes of each other, creating a tense situation and forcing Clarisse to make decisions about which charitable organization got what. Not having given it a lot of thought beforehand, she used a simple rule: Habitat for Humanity got anything made of wood whereas the Salvation Army got everything else, including David’s clothes, which had been hanging in the closet for more than a year. Having a set of rules in place, the house watched silently as its contents were systematically removed, leaving only Clarisse and the minimum necessities: a single bed from a guest room; an armchair; a folding TV tray; a few pans that neither of the charitable organizations wanted; some random plates and bowls; and the contents of the attic.

Clarisse breathed a sigh of relief as the last team of mercenaries left, transporting the bulkiest evidence of her previous life to unknown places. She sat in the sole remaining chair and looked at the blank walls, no longer adorned with expensive decorations, and expressed her feelings about the day.

“Thank god that’s over with.” 

She was certain the house breathed a sigh of relief.

*      *      *

“I don’t understand, Thomas,” Clarisse began, gazing questioningly into the sharp blue eyes of her father’s younger brother, now ninety-three and still living in the same house he’d occupied for more than sixty years. 

“My diary repeatedly refers to you as not being welcome in our house. There are countless entries talking about how you forced your way in but papa was too polite to call the police. But that isn’t what I recall at all. You were always visiting—spending all day on Saturday—taking me to the park. You showed me how to throw a baseball for Christ’s sake!”

Thomas’ pearly teeth gleamed, matching the twinkle in his bright eyes, as he responded to her despondent query. “First off, your first diary entry is accurate. Ivan went nuts when I told him I was gay and it was on Christmas Eve, 1954, and he called me a lot of names. I seem to recall throwing some back at him as well before storming off, swearing to never set eyes on him again. But we cooled down. He got over the initial shock and so did I. He had trouble accepting that I was gay—I had to fit his idea of a proper, manly brother. But, like I said, Ivan and I got over our first reactions and patched things up. So, your memory is more reliable than the diary you wrote when you were a young girl, almost seventy years ago, probably because your memories haven’t been transformed into words.” He patted Charisse’s hand and added, “A lot gets lost in translation.”

Clarisse was glad to have Thomas verify her recollection of events so many years in the past, which only served to remind her of so many other ambiguous entries, recorded when she was older. They talked about her diary while sitting on his front porch, occasionally interrupted by neighbors passing by, and eventually concluded that neither of their memories of past events was perfect. They argued about several of her diary entries, recorded through the decades, and each came to recognize the frailty of what they had assumed was reality. Thomas wrapped up the long conversation, lubricated by coffee and tea, by standing up suddenly.

“I think we have established that the written word isn’t very reliable. I’m just glad that the camera was invented, giving us visual proof of events and more importantly, the existence of our ancestors and thus ourselves.”

Clarisse added, “Not to mention the internet and social platforms, where we can…” Her words trailed off as she recalled when she’d discontinued writing in her diary because of the easy access of a multimedia platform like Facebook to store her memories. No more need of a diary, photo albums, or scribbled notes in the margins of letters and newspaper clippings. It was all digital now. 

She found her voice and added, “Oh my, that’s another can of worms, Thomas. I think I may have propagated my myopic, self-centered view of reality into the digital age.”

He looked at her comfortable shoes and said, “Are you up for a short walk?”

She nodded and waited for him to continue.

“Let’s go for an early dinner or late lunch, what do you say? We can discuss how you’re going to reconcile your treasure trove of historical documents with your mind’s unique point of view.”

Clarisse stood up and, nodding emphatically, said, “That’s a great idea, Thomas. Talking to you is mentally challenging and I think I’ve burned at least a thousand calories already. I’m famished.”

Her arm naturally entwined with his as they stepped off the porch. Suddenly self-conscious she grasped his bony forearm and said, “What will your neighbors think, with you walking with…I guess I’m a younger woman?”

He patted her grasping hand and admitted, “I was so excited about your visit that I told the entire neighborhood about my niece coming to visit. I don’t know if they expected a young girl or not, but you will always be Jackie to me.”

Clarisse squeezed his arm and said, “You called me that until I quit playing softball after high school. It was your private way of telling me how much you loved me…” She stopped, unsure if she’d stepped over a forgotten line.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Thomas quickly kissed her forehead and said, “Damn right, Jackie, that’s exactly what I was doing.”

She felt like a child again, memories of throwing a baseball awakened, the feel of the glove on her right hand, Thomas laughing as she threw the ball past him, too fast for him to catch, him standing behind her showing her how to hold the bat, his excited cheering from the four-tier bleachers at the middle-school fields where she’d played. The memories were so overwhelming that Clarisse stopped, her eyes filled with tears, and stammered, “I remember everything now, Thomas. I’d forgotten how close we were until just now. Can you forgive me for abandoning you for so many years?”

He took a handkerchief from the pocket of his tweed blazer, dabbed the tears from her eyes, and said, “You didn’t abandon me, Jackie. We both had happy and fulfilling lives. Now we are back together, sharing old memories of younger days filled with promise. We both lived our dreams and now…here we are, given a rare opportunity to be reunited after such a long separation. My eyes are filled with tears of joy too.”

She loosened her grip on his arm. “I feel like a little girl right now, walking with you like this, Uncle Thomas…”

He stopped and, tossing his long arm around her shoulders, looked into her eyes. “And I feel like a young man, so let’s avoid mirrors for the rest of the day.”

They laughed together. 

*      *      *

Clarisse had considered putting her diaries in storage because she definitely wasn’t going to haul them around the country with her. She had mentally committed to leaving St. Louis for a warmer place, but she hadn’t yet decided where exactly she was going. She was going to travel light, taking whatever fit in a large suitcase. During their late lunch and the drinks that had followed, Thomas had convinced her that she should have a cleansing ceremony, with a bonfire as the central theme, and then and there burn her diaries. She had at first been mortified at the idea of tossing her precious memories into flames, but he had persuaded her by sharing his own experience with loss. When his lifelong companion had died ten years earlier, Thomas had followed Edward’s wishes and destroyed all evidence of his existence. As Thomas had explained it, they had shared a beautiful life in this world and there was no reason to expect more than that. His argument had been so eloquent and deeply emotional that Clarisse had acquiesced, with the condition that he would attend the ceremony. He’d accepted the responsibility but made a request that had sent her into a panic: She had to invite the entire family to attend as well, presenting it as a celebration of life and renewal, like a wake for the recently deceased. 

“Everyone?!”

He’d nodded confidently and answered, “RSVP of course. No one will attend except me, but you will have declared your freedom from the past, and your intention to live as you wish.”

She’d been convinced by his argument, and now found herself standing in front of the firepit in the backyard, its blackened stones reminding her of the decades of joy this place had given her. What had seemed like a good idea was starting to look like a desperate plea for attention. The diaries, which had been so overwhelming in a house filled with furniture, comprised a pathetic pile next to the firepit, whose flames they were supposed to feed. They wouldn’t last five minutes.

Her mental anguish was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Thomas, accompanied by a very old woman Clarisse didn’t recognize, who clung to his arm as if it were a life preserver in a stormy sea. 

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” the elderly matron began. 

Clarisse was at a loss for words.

Thomas filled the silence with an informative comment. “I reckon it’s been more than fifty years since your college graduation, Clarisse. As I recall, that was when you and Helen last met…” 

“Aunt Helen?”

The elderly woman suddenly became enervated. “Where is the drink you promised me, Thomas? I’m thirsty and I have a feeling this bonfire is going to look more like a book burning and I hate destroying literature. Don’t light the fire until I’ve had a couple of drinks.”

The young man Clarisse had hired to bartend this exclusive event appeared with a cocktail, which he offered to the centenarian woman. She sipped it and looked at Thomas before saying, “You always were a sly fox. You could have made a fortune on Wall Street. But you never were a greedy man.”

Clarisse was overcome with memories. Again. This was a woman who, like Thomas, had made a profound impression on her, telling her at her college graduation party to forget all that sports bullshit because she wasn’t that good, and focus on making money. Clarisse had followed the advice she’d been given that day by the wife of her mother’s brother, Aunt Helen. Memories flooded into her consciousness and she lunged toward the frail, elderly woman, her assault stopped by Thomas’ surprisingly strong arm. 

“Don’t get carried away, Clarisse.”

She felt foolish when she realized that Aunt Helen, who had inspired her to pursue a business career rather than sports, was physically frail because she was more than a hundred-years old. Clarisse accepted the glass of sparkling wine offered by the server in lieu of hugging her aunt. 

“Hold this, Thomas,” Helen said, passing her glass to the younger man without looking. “Give me a hug, Clarisse, I’m not as brittle as he thinks.” She opened her arms wide enough for Clarisse to fit between them.

They hugged but Clarisse made a point of not squeezing too hard, as much as she wanted to compress five decades of missing affection into a single moment. She was crying again, a fact noted by Helen as she retrieved her drink from Thomas. “I’d join you in a good cry if I could, Jackie—yes, Thomas told me about that, centuries ago, but you don’t recall any of that, you were too young—but the truth is I don’t have any tears left…”

Clarisse wiped her eyes, sipped from her glass of wine, and tried to sound understanding in her reply. “I guess you have cried a lot of tears, losing so much, people you loved, I’m sorry—”

Helen waved her hand dismissively as Thomas helped her into a chair that had been placed near the fire pit. “No, Jackie, I mean that I can’t cry anymore. I’m too old and I don’t have any extra moisture to waste on emotional displays, or at least that’s what the doctor told me. I’m all gummed up inside, nothing working like it’s supposed to. I’m surprised I can still think; in fact, my memory is as sharp as a tack…” Her mouth emitted a shallow, hoarse cackle that grated on Clarisse’s nerves, the residue of a hearty laugh that her body was no longer able to reproduce. 

The bartender appeared with fresh drinks for everyone.

Clarisse took a moment to examine Helen as she pulled a pack of Marlboro cigarettes from her jacket pocket and removed one with fingers as steady as a surgeon’s. Her hair was as white as snow and cut short, but she wasn’t balding. Faded blue eyes peered out of sockets no deeper than Clarisse’s, shadowed by white eyebrows without a wisp of eyelashes for adornment. The smooth face was broken by no more wrinkles than Clarisse confronted every morning in the mirror, moot evidence that reaching Helen’s age was the result of factors having nothing to do with personal habits. She proved that when a lighter appeared in Thomas’ hand to light her cigarette.

“Thank you, Thomas. Now, let’s burn these books and get on with the real fun!”

The bartender lighted the prepared fire and retreated discretely, leaving Clarisse to supervise the proceedings. She tore some pages out of the first diary she’d ever written and threw them into the small flame to applause from Thomas and Helen. Encouraged, she became more daring, tossing pages and even entire diaries into the flames, feeding the fire with wrinkled newspapers used as packing for some of the other contents of the attic. 

The three elderly people watched the funeral pyre, feeding its appetite for paper, while the bartender kept their interest fueled with alcohol. When the last of the diaries had been consumed in flames, Helen lit another cigarette and offered one to Clarisse. At first offended, then confused, she accepted it and followed Thomas’ advice to not inhale but just puff it enough to keep it burning, instructions enthusiastically supported by Helen. It was somehow relaxing to hold the burning cylinder, a weed wrapped in paper, a habit that hadn’t killed Helen after more than forty years. Clarisse laughed and choked at that thought, that Helen hadn’t started smoking until her husband had died of lung cancer, when she was sixty. 

“What’s wrong?” Helen asked.

Struggling to get a grip on something she couldn’t identify, much less control, Clarisse stammered, “I feel lost, as if the floor just dropped out from under me…nothing makes sense anymore—where are my children? I mean, for god’s sake, I invited them personally, on the phone, it’s not like this is the middle of the night…” She glanced at her watch before continuing, “It’s only seven o’clock. They only live a few minutes away and their children are old enough to be left home alone for days if not weeks…” She was sobbing by the end of her tirade and collapsed into the chair next to Helen.

A shriveled, dry hand covered hers and a hoarse voice, coming from just before the grave, said, “That’s how it goes, Jackie. Don’t fret about it or you’ll go crazy. Let’s go inside and take a peek at some of the old family photos you’ve been storing in the attic. I have a feeling we may have another book burning before too long.” Her lively eyes didn’t have to look far for support because her mouth was twisted into a grin that reminded Clarisse of the Crypt Keeper

Thomas and Clarisse helped Helen to her feet as she threw her cigarette butt into the dying embers filling the firepit, floating on the soft breeze, reminders of the fragility of memory. Clarisse recalled a painting she’d seen once in a museum. The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali had made a deep impression on her even when she was only thirty years old, and now she was living that dream, or was it a nightmare? She accompanied the two people who seemed to be the only humans who cared about her and, holding tears of loss and pain deep inside her chest, made Thomas and Helen as comfortable as she could in the empty house she was occupying alone. 

Helen settled into the armchair, Thomas and Clarisse seated on folding chairs at her sides, and said, “I’m going to need another drink before I can deal with whatever your photo albums contain, Jackie…” 

Before she could finish her sentence, another whiskey sour appeared, delivered by the taciturn bartender, along with drinks for Clarisse and Thomas. Helen was in a good mood, so Clarisse wasted no time laying her oldest photo album on the TV tray, exposing images she only vaguely recognized to a centenarian mind as sharp as a scalpel.

*      *      *

“After what you’ve told me Clarisse, I would recommend Facebook Story instead of News Feed, and you aren’t a good candidate for platforms like Instagram or Snapchat because most of your contacts are on Facebook. They will eventually adapt to your new presence within the same platform whereas asking them to migrate their on-line presence—that’s highly unlikely.”

Jessica Holmes had been Clarisse’s internet consultant for almost twenty years. Intrigued by the unfamiliarity of the internet and the confidence exuded by a young black woman straight out of college, she’d become Clarisse’s first client. They had become good friends. Jessica had gone through Clarisse’s oldest photo albums (annotated with Thomas and Helen’s humorous comments scribbled on post-it notes) with her and digitized the images, including any comments as what she called metadata. It would all be stored in The Cloud for future retrieval, maybe by her children when they grew up a little more and weren’t so occupied with their own kids. Several boxes of memories were going to be reduced to a few gigabytes of data, according to Jessica, well below the storage capacity Google allowed at no cost. Clarisse would have been lost without her friend’s help, but she was confused.

“What’s wrong with just continuing with what I’m used to? It’s pretty straightforward, posting a photo or something and reading any comments, what’s wrong with that?”

Clarisse recognized the look on Jessica’s face, the same expression she used when she was about to explain something so obvious that anyone would know it, anyone familiar with the internet and social media. But she’d learned to listen to Jessica’s condescending lessons without getting defensive, so she bit her tongue as yet another example of warped perceptions, no more than the reflections from a funhouse mirror, was revealed.

“Of course, it works fine, but you want to get rid of false memories and inconsistent communications, especially to yourself, right?”

Clarisse nodded emphatically.

“I’ve analyzed your Facebook activity for the last ten years, Clarisse. That’s why I think you should switch to the Story paradigm.” Clarisse’s blank look prompted Jessica to continue, “A couple of people respond regularly to your posts, mostly with Likes rather than comments. A slightly larger group sees them but doesn’t react consistently. In fact—I don’t know how to say this, but you look at your own posts more than anyone else. They are a digital extension of your diaries and photo albums, a trip down memory lane and not much more. I’m not suggesting you disavow social media, only that you use it more effectively given your recent epiphany. And, by the way, I fully support your decision, in case I didn’t make that clear earlier…”

Clarisse was aghast. She swallowed hard and made up her mind. “So, this Story thingy is like gossip, I guess? I post a photo, maybe with an inappropriate comment, and it just disappears the next day? I don’t have to constantly check to see how it was received…one or two people might comment but then it goes away—could you show me how to do that?” 

*      *      *

Clarisse woke up in a strange place, sunrise’s first rays streaming through the thin curtains illuminating the austere room sequestering her from reality. This wasn’t her bedroom in the house she had emptied of her worldly possessions. She wasn’t lying in the bed she’d become accustomed to but instead in a soft, twin bed, a stiff pillow supporting her head. Recent memory sharpened and she recognized her surroundings. She was in Thomas’s guestroom. 

She had sold the house to a young couple with three children and two dogs. She was certain it would be happy with the new family. 

The week she’d spent with Thomas had been like a vacation, getting up late, having brunch instead of breakfast, going for walks in the park, window shopping, and of course visiting Aunt Helen. When Clarisse had pressed her elderly aunt about her health, Helen had sworn on an old, dusty bible she dragged out of a closet that she was in perfect health for someone her age. Her only medication was an occasional sedative to get a good night’s sleep and Tylenol for aches and pains. She had patted Clarisse’s arm and concluded her medical summary with, “I’ll probably just die in my sleep with no one the wiser. Of course, spending so much time with you and Thomas will probably add ten years to my life.”

Clarisse sat up, suddenly alert. Today was the day. Thomas and Helen were taking her to the train station, where she would board a local Amtrak train to meet up with the Southwest Chief in Kansas City. She would occupy a private suite for the scenic ride to Los Angeles. Her bag was packed. Her morning shower seemed to take forever, and getting dressed was far more complicated than she remembered it, but she finally made her appearance in the kitchen, where she and Thomas had coffee and discussed the day’s activities. It was dark. She looked at the clock and realized it was only 5:30 a.m., not even close to their usual time to get up. 

Feeling foolish, she went to the living room as quietly as she could, not wanting to wake up Thomas. Feeling her way in the semi-darkness to turn on a table lamp, she was startled when the room lit up, revealing Thomas sitting in his favorite chair, a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Why don’t you join me, Jackie?”

“Whaaaa—” she began.

“I couldn’t sleep and I’ve found that when I have insomnia, it’s better to get up because otherwise my back hurts in the morning. It’s something about being asleep, is what my doctor tells me. I’m so excited about your adventure, it’s like I’m the one getting on that train and going to California…”

They finished a pot of coffee and walked to a diner for breakfast. At Thomas’s insistence, she had the Full Monty, a pile of pancakes topped with blueberries, surrounded by scrambled eggs and home fries, covered with a mix of gravy and syrup, with a plate of sausage and ham on the side, not to mention toast and homemade strawberry preserves. As she worked on the delicious pile of heart-stopping instant death, he explained that he ordered it about once a month, but he didn’t eat anything more substantial than fruit and salad for several days afterward. In other words, she might not like the food on the train. 

“I wish you were coming with me, Thomas. You could get a ticket because we would be sharing a suite. And you could come back anytime you wanted on a plane or the return trip of the Southwest Chief. Please join me?!”

“Eat your biscuits, Jackie, and don’t leave any of that gravy. Now, about your childish demands, I would love to accompany you, and I may visit you in a couple of months and ride the Southwest Chief, but this is your voyage of discovery and emancipation. You haven’t done anything this adventurous since you went to college…”

Clarisse cleaned up all of her plates with Thomas watching approvingly, while she contemplated his words. Sitting there with him, she realized he was right. It wasn’t that her husband, David, had been overbearing, only that they had done everything together. Every decision was a team effort. Cleaning out the attic was the first personal decision she’d made without his input. Thomas had recognized this because…because he was older and wiser than her, and he’d been through it all himself. This really was something she had to do alone.

“Can I get you to promise to come out for a visit after I get established, not necessarily in a house or whatever—I am going to get a two bedroom apartment, expecting a guest to appear at any moment.” Her gaze dipped as she added, “Please?”

Thomas examined her plate as if making sure a child had eaten their broccoli, before his hand gently lifted her chin, urging her gaze to meet his. 

“I already bought a ticket.”

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