His Last Gift – An original short story

A/N: I wrote this twenty years ago. :o)  I intend to rewrite it and publish it again for free, but until then I thought my lovely readers would like to see how far I’ve come in my writing.  Keep in mind, I stopped writing fiction for several years because of real life, only starting again Oct. 2010.  I wrote this when I was about 20ish.  It has numerous errors that I am aware of, but I’m presenting it as is.  Brave me.  Enjoy!  
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 It had been an eternity since she had held hope to her breast, a long time since she had felt its fire course through her.  Existing without it for such a time corrodes a person’s esteem, their reason for being.  Katherine had been absent from hope for far too long.
One does not suddenly abandon their hope to the winds; they do not cry out in surprise when they find it missing.  It erodes away in small bits and wounds.  Actions from one’s self and others pulls hope apart like a jigsaw puzzle, easy to destroy, difficult to repair.  Katherine possessed a few pieces fitted together, however loosely.  Even now, her pieces slowly pulled themselves apart, pushed to the limits with momentum speeding the process.
Katherine had very little hope left.
She sat staring at her reflection in her polished metal mirror, oak framing her once beautiful face.  The sallow tone of her skin and lackluster hair, previously shining blond, betrayed her hardships.  In age, only two and twenty years had passed, but the fine lines etching around her eyes and lips increased her appearance.  Eyes, once observant, missed salient details of her life.  All but one.
He was gone. 
Five months ago, in fact, reduced her to a wretch of a woman, happiness torn away.  Gone without notice, she woke one morning, alone.  Had he given a warning?  Did he speak of it, even subtly?  Such memories belonged to the servants of the house: the maids, the cook, even the butler who pretended ignorance of household gossip.
Knowing those below her station knew before she used to anger her, but now it took too much energy. Now rational thought mixed with her cloud memories, allowing her vision through her blindness. 
He was gone.
Chattering voices drifted to her chambers from the public rooms below.  They were probably talking about her again.  Gossiping over her troubles, it was a story to be repeated to old and new ear until all avenues were tilled over.  Just a sad, slightly humorous fiction to them—a devastating reality for her.  Their incessant chattering … would they leave her be?
Sighing, Katherine stood from her vanity and walked to her only window.  Carved from rose marble, its design was a casement for her entire world.  Often staring for hours from its window seat, she watched others pass by, occupied in busy comings and goings a few stories below.  Though she still watched daily, the world shrank to the size of her window. 
As a young girl, Katherine had dreamed of the world’s enormity beyond the rose marble; now she shied away.  Caressing the carvings, a stone bird flying in her hand, she leaned towards the ledge.  Hot air, dusty from the rushing feet puffed up from the city street.  It tickled her nose, making her pull back into the familiarity of her chambers.
“Miss Katherine?” a friendly voice called from the hall, and Katherine quickly spun around.  Mrs. O’Connell might see her too close to the edge and scold her.  “Miss Katherine, what’re you doin’ now?  Come away from the window; there’s nothing ya’d want to see out there.”  Mrs. O’Connell’s voice was laced with pity. 
Katherine disliked her personal maid and refused to say anything of importance directly to her.  However, Mrs. O’Connell never seemed to notice or care that her charge openly detested her.  She seemed to thrive on their mutual static.  After all, her parents paid her wages. 
“Now, Miss Katherine, ya know the evenin’ meal is upon us.  Ya should’ve started dressed already.”  Mrs. O’Connell approached her and before Katherine could step away, she grabbed her arm and pulled her to her vanity.  Katherine experienced, for the hundredth time, the strength of her keeper and knew escape was pointless.  She allowed the heavy-set, older woman to dress her.  As the tangles were combed from Katherine’s hair without regard for the pain, Katherine observed her in the mirror, as usual.
She stood stoutly, her salt-and-pepper hair pulled in a severe bun at the crown of her head.  Mrs. O’Connell appeared to have been scalped by those New World savages she read about.  Those eyes, raptorian, always watched her with a nerve-ranking squint.  She decided her dislike was absolute hate, but her parents felt she was good for her, keeping her correct since the awful episode five months ago. 
… When he left …
“There now, don’t ya look better?  One should always dress for dinner.”  She grated on Katherine’s nerves, fragile as they were.  Did she constantly have to speak any thought which entered her useless mind?  “Come along, Miss Katherine, follow me to dinner.”  Reluctantly, she obeyed her keeper to the much spoken of dinner one should always dress for. 
Her parents seated themselves she entered the dining room.  The large, hardwood table sat twenty with the finest chinaware, silverware and crystal.  The place settings always epitomized her dislike for dining with her parents; they held the upmost importance in tasteful appearances. 
“Katherine, it’s lovely you decided to join us for the evening meal.”  Her mother’s smiled did not reach her eyes, and Katherine heard the sting of sarcasm in her mother’s voice. 
Taking the seat farthest away, she said, “I am quite sure the pleasure is all mine, Mother.”                          
“I will not tolerate anger at my table,” her father said, strained.  “Either quell yourself this instant or you will be spending the evening confined.  Understood?”
“Of course, Father,” Katherine bowed her head, “I always do as you say.”  She didn’t bother masking her derision, yet he refrained from further comment.  She knew he was quite aware of her resentment; she refused to accept his reasoning for the decision, regardless if he thought it best. 
Brought in silence, the servants laid out the meal while she kept her eyes downcast while her parents were unwilling to disturb her into raving again.  At least from their perspective, she knew.  The sound of tapping, clinking silverware echoing in the spacious room as few words were exchanged causing Katherine’s meager appetite to flee until she only picked at her food. 
Nothing interested her since he left, since Father drove him away.  Life grew suddenly hollow without his love to fill her.  Why couldn’t she have seen the signs sooner?  Were there signs?  
“You’re barely eating; you’ll lose all your strength.”
“I’m not hungry, Mother.”
“You rarely been hungry since—”  She bit her lip before the next words slipped out.
“Before what?”  Katherine jumped at the opportunity.  They avoided the subjected as if it was the Black Death and she grew increasingly frustrated.
“Well …”
“Since what?  Since he left?  Is that what you were going to say?  He left without a word to me and you can wonder why I’ve barely eaten?”
“Katherine!” her father said, slamming a hand on the table.  China and crystal chimed in protest.  “We are not to speak of him.  He is no longer of any interest to this family!” 
“But he’s of interest to me!  You’d rather I forget him, pretend he never existed!” Her face warmed as blood rushed to the surface. 
“Nothing happened!” he shouted.  “It was just a horrible misunderstanding!”
“That’s a lie!  You just want things to look perfect and proper, but they’re not!” 
“Katherine!”  He stood, his fists resting on the table, wrinkling the lace cloth.  “I heard enough.  You know how your mother and I feel about this.  It is time you erased him from your fantasy and moved on with reality.  He is never returning and that’s the last I want to hear on the subject!”
“You’re a hypocrite, Father!  This is reality; you’re the one who’s living a fantasy!  I love him and he loves me and you can change that no matter how far you distance us!  You can’t change our reality!”
Her father took a deep breath as her mother gasped, scandalized.  He flushed from scarlet to purple and spoke through clenched teeth, his jaw spasming.  “You will return to your chambers and remain locked inside until I summon you.” His calmness did nothing to belie his anger beneath his veneer of civility. 
“Confining me won’t change the truth or stop the servants’ gossip,” she said, rising from her chair with as much dignity as possible.
“Then you may remain there for quite a long time,” he whispered. 
She turned back.  “At least the truth is there.”  Before either of her parents responded, she left them only to have Mrs. O’Connell join her partially up the staircase.
-o-
Warm flowed between them, their intimacy a strong bond of love surrounded by misunderstanding.  Katherine snuggled closer, content to be held only by him and ignore the outside world.  Feeling her shift, he tightened his embrace, pulling her closer.
“Justin, do you think they know?”
She heard his smile in his voice, the dark hiding all else.  “Darling, they don’t suspect a thing.  We’re safe.”
“How can you be certain? I’m sure they’ve schooled their expressions when I enter a room.” 
“Don’t be skittish.  The only servants you venture into your wing after dark are your personal maids and they’ve never seen us together nor have they spied me entering.”
She grinned.  “Yes, I’ve made sure they thoroughly detest me.  No one wishes to be near me for long.”
“One of the reasons I love you, Darling.  You’re so very devious and practice, so unlike any other woman there’s simply no comparison.”
“Thank you, my love,” she whispered in his ear.  Feeling a chill creep in, she tugged the duvet higher.
“Cold?”
“A bit.”
“Well, it’s my duty to keep you warm and I believe I know just the way.” He caressed her bare skin beneath the covers, and she felt her body respond instantly.  His eagerness pressed against her hip, stiff and insistent.  Their conversation degenerated into grunts and groans as he rolled atop her, his weight a delicious tease between her legs.  Katherine closed her eyes as pleasure pushed reality away, she moaned …
… And woke. 
Disoriented, she blinked at the blurriness; the chill of her bed was real.  She was alone.  Justin was still gone.  Her bed felt so empty without him, as did her life.  Hopeless…
“Justin, were you just a dream?  Did I imagine you loved me?” she whispered to the night.  Where did he go when he left?  Why did he not answer her prayers and letters mailed to random addresses, hoping for a reply?  Everyone but she knew when he left, the exact day and time.  Did she not deserve consideration?  Did he not truly love her after all?  Perhaps she invented the romance, expanded it to fill her needs.
Desperation forced her from her bed’s cold comfort to her oak vanity.  Proof, she needed proof his love existed.  Proof she didn’t imagine their connection.  In the dark, her fingers found the box, caressing the velvet shag of the small container.  Strange how the inanimate object felt warm while the floor felt icy. 
Carefully she opened it, for in the night she couldn’t see the contents but she felt for it by rote memory and withdrew an object smaller than her palm.  Walking to the window, she pushed open her shutters and studied it by moonlight.  The gems encrusting the brooch reflected muted fire causing her to squint as her eyes adjusted.  Gold filigree surrounded an oval ruby with teardrop pearls dangling below.
From him. 
“Why did you leave me to bear this alone?” she whispered, bringing the brooch to her lips.  “Was our love too weak to weather the scorn?  You could’ve told me.  I would’ve run with you.”
She pinned it to her nightgown, over her heart, then gripped the carved rose marble of the casement.  Bracing her weight, she climbed onto the ledge, her bare feet sliding along the smooth surface.  A crisp breeze swept in bringing dust from the city streets; it caught her nightgown and hair, tossing and tangling both. 
Straightening her gown and removing the strands from her face, Katherine kept a precarious position at the edge.  The height made her feel like she could swim from dizziness or maybe fly directly into the stars, forever.
“Justin …” She released her hold, flung her arms wide and leapt for the moon.
-o-
They found her at dawn, the gas lighters who put out the street lights.  They found her face down in the dusty, cobblestone street thirty feet below her open window.  They said her face was peaceful.  They said she looked almost happy, if you ignored how one side of her head flattened too far in a pool of coagulated blood. 
Katherine had been right.  Everyone knew her story therefore no one stole the brooch pinned to her breast.  Her father scowled when he saw it; her mother cried.  But they dared not touch it either, and so it remained on her body until her funeral just as Katherine would’ve wanted. 
Katherine and her older brother, Justin, remained the topic of gossips for years to come.  Her parents, not matter what the threat, couldn’t stop the servants from discussing their illicit relationship, though her father relieved any her caught engaging in it.  In the late hours, however, when the servants were alone, they speculated on whether or not Justin might ever return from his exile to find his sister dead by her own will.  A storm was sure to explode at that moment, but until then it was only speculation. 

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