And so it was. Anastasia and James were to be divorced, but not until the following year or so as not to shock her parents or create much speculation. It took awhile for it to dawn on Anastasia as it felt too surreal. She thought a lot about her misery as being a married woman tied down to a man, but never had she contemplated what she would do if she were on her own. Now that the possibility was more realistic, her mind was going in circles thinking about what the next chapter in life meant for her. No doubt in her mind did she know that James was going to get back together with Charlotte and she often found herself thinking back to the time she saw them together, how right they seemed for each other even after witnessing them just for a moment. And somehow, after they made the agreement to divorce, it was as if they were more civil with each other, perhaps because the burden of staying with each other now had a loophole. Though still smug around each other, they found that they needn't be so irritated at one other like before, as they both would be out of their marriage soon enough.
It was all down to timing. Charlotte was finishing up grad school and gave James the remaining time to make up his mind by the time she was done. So the arrangement was convenient indeed. And that was all that James was willing to tell Anastasia, and this, Anastasia was more than okay with. But she often wondered what made him change his mind, as he sounded so sure of himself when they were in New York, speaking of such things like how life goes on, and that when people make decisions, especially in love, there was no going back. But then she also thought of Mitch, and even if what she learned through her Mother affected her feelings about him, she wondered how he would have reacted upon learning of her getting divorced. But the thought of him outside, Milton's saying all the words he said brought her back to reality, the reality that he had chosen his family. She thought about all this as she sat on a stool in the kitchen, one elbow on top of the island, her fist in a ball as her cheek rested on it. She gazed outside the window, her other hand stirring a glass of lemonade in front of her with a spoon as she sighed. She stayed that way for a moment, stirring slowly as she saw Mrs. Hutton picking various kinds of vegetables from their garden, a giant basket dangling from her arm. Just then, she jumped, looking at what had suddenly emerged through the back door that Mrs. Hutton often kept open. She gasped as she got off the stool, laying her eyes on a Beagle who was now also looking at her with a wagging tail and a protruding tongue.
"Oh goodness," she exhaled, her shoulders dropping. "You nearly frightened me to death."
The dog tilted its head, as if reacting to what she had said. She sat back down on the stool, her mind set on ignoring the dog until maybe it would find no reason to stay and go back out the way it came in. Instead, it sat down, panting quite loud and fast while looking at the glass of lemonade in front of Anastasia. But after ignoring the dog for a while, she could still see it from her peripheral vision. She looked back at him, raising an eyebrow.
"What?" She asked him, as if he could understand her. She then waved a hand at him, gesturing for him to disappear. "Go on, run along now."
But the dog continued to stare at her, not getting the idea. Anastasia stared straight ahead, avoiding eye contact so maybe he would really go this time. But all she could hear was his panting, and it was distracting. She sighed in irritation, getting up and walking over to him and when she stood in front of him, she crossed her arms and tapped her foot, looking down at him. She stopped, crouching down face to face with him instead.
"What is it? What do you want?" She whispered as they gazed at each other. Her eyes fell on his tongue, which was bone dry. She looked out the window to find the sun blazing bright. Then, she looked at the dog again, putting two and two together that he might have been parched.
"Alright," she said, sighing and standing up before walking to the sink. She then said firmly, "but just this once."
She filled a small bowl with water before setting it down in front of the dog who then began lapping it up within seconds. Anastasia watched him, seeing that he also had no collar. She bent down again, reaching over and slowly caressing his cheek.
"I see you've got no collar." She said. "Do you belong to anyone?"
She took the now empty bowl, placing it in the sink. But when she turned back around, she found that the dog had gone. She looked around, but he was nowhere in sight. She shrugged before chuckling slightly.
Oddly enough, the same dog would come back everyday at the same time, whether it be for a drink or a few scraps, it never failed to make an appearance. And if Anastasia wasn't there, they would find it asleep next to the open back door. Mrs. Hutton and the others besides James would eventually know of the little Beagle, who always kept a sunny disposition and a wagging tail through Anastasia. And though she wasn't accepting of the dog nor did she act friendly with it or give it a name, she still expected his usual arrival and did not mind providing him with something to eat or drink. But one particular afternoon, the dog insisted on staying, and since it had become a routine that Anastasia would no longer find him there, after his usual drink, she didn't pay any mind and did not notice him following her around the living room upon walking out of the kitchen. But as she heard his feet click-clacking against the wood floors, she looked down to find him attached to her feet.
"What-" she was taken aback. "What are you doing here? You're not supposed to be here."
With this, she walked to the direction of the kitchen hoping he would follow. And when he didn't, she turned around and looked at him. They kept their eyes on each other for a moment before Anastasia walked over, picking him up but keeping him at a distance away from her. She walked to the kitchen then to the back door where she set him down on the steps leading to their garden.
"Now, go. Be on your way." She said to him.
"It's because he's starting to take a liking to you." Mrs. Hutton told her as she dried the dishes with a towel one day. "He's obviously a stray and you give him the necessities he has no access to. It's only common sense that he would want to stay eventually."
She sighed at this, not exactly knowing what to do. She could keep the back door closed and that would be the end solution and she would never have to visit the problem again. But when they kept the back door closed one day, she found herself thinking about the dog when the usual time came that he appeared. And when they kept the door closed again the next day, Anastasia found herself peering through the glass portion of the door, trying to see if she would find him waiting. When she saw nothing, she walked away slightly relieved that may be he had gone for good. It wasn't until the next week, in which she found herself being able to forget about the dog, that harsh rain pounded against the roof for the rest of the afternoon.
And Anastasia, who strangely remembered the Beagle for a brief moment, stood over the sink as she watched water trickle down the window overlooking the yard, wondering where he was taking shelter at a time like this. But her eyes caught a glimpse of something white with streaks of black and tan laying in a puddle of muddy water next to the big bush of gardenias. In that moment, she felt a sense of urgency, noticing that something wasn't right. And never mind the whole week that had gone by without seeing him, she found herself scrambling out the back door without an umbrella. The rain poured down like mad, soaking her completely even before she made it to him. And when she did, she dropped to her knees, seeing a trail of blood flowing away with the water. Her eyes then fell on the wound on his leg.
"No," she whispered, putting a hand over her mouth as she shook her head, her hair now wet all around her. "No, no, no, no."
The dog was whimpering helplessly, as if waiting for a slow death. Without thinking for another second, she took the dog in her arms and ran back into the house.
"Mrs. Hutton! Mrs. Hutton!" She called out frantically, the both of them dripping wet. "Blankets! Please get some blankets!"
Mrs. Hutton came rushing out into the kitchen, her face dawned with the look of concern as she eyed the sopping wet and bleeding dog in her arms. With this, she gasped, wasting no more time and going into the laundry room, pulling out a stack of blankets from the cabinet. They spread each one on the floor, laying him down on it and covering him with the rest.
"From the looks of the wound, he may have been struck by a vehicle." The dog whimpered and shivered as Anastasia rubbed him for warmth. "Do we have any gauze? Or some sort of first aid kit perhaps?"
"I think so." Mrs. Hutton stood up and disappeared through the kitchen door.
When she came back with a first aid kit, Anastasia took some gauze and applied pressure to the bleeding wound as Mrs. Hutton tried her best to distract the dog from reacting. Once the bleeding subsided, they wrapped up his leg and rushed him to the local vet. Fortunately, they learned that although his wounds were far from superficial, his chances of recovering were very likely. So after his leg had been treated, they were sent home with careful instructions of close monitoring and treating his wound for a successful and quick recovery. Although Anastasia never showed affection or came to terms with the fact that may be she had an underlying care for the dog, she still found herself gripping onto her seat when she waited to hear whether the dog was on the verge of death or survival. And a sense of worry that sent her on her toes was something she couldn't ignore as she held onto the dog on the drive home. But she put all pride aside as she built a corner in the kitchen for the dog consisting of a basket layered with blankets and pillows, carefully checking on his wound from time to time and reapplying medicine if need be.
Although everyone in the household came to know of the dog, James was the only one who wasn't in the known and they made sure it stayed that way, at least for a little longer. But eventually, it became too tedious to keep transferring him back and forth whenever they knew James was on his way to the kitchen. So he found himself in surprise when he finally noticed the Beagle staring at him from the corner across from him midway into putting a forkful of bacon into his mouth, as to which sent the dog in a fit of a sniffing episode. His eyes remained locked on him for several minutes, still not registering in his head that there was a dog in his kitchen, indeed. When he finally blinked, he set his fork down, prepared to call out to anyone and ask what was going on.
"Mrs. Hutton!" He sighed before shouting. "Margot!"
Just then, Mrs. Hutton appeared through the back door with a basket full of herbs and flowers from the garden dangling from her arm. She untied the bow on her chin before taking her sun hat off and set the basket down on the island.
"Yes?" She asked.
But all he had to do was look in the direction of the dog and Mrs. Hutton couldn't play dumb any longer. She exhaled loudly, as if she let out a secret that weighed on her like a ton of bricks.
"Oh, alright. He's a stray who happened to make appearances here once in a while after Miss Anastasia gave the dog some water. Then she found him badly wounded laying out on the yard a few nights ago, and oh, James, you should have seen it! Anastasia wasted no time to take him in and we brought him to the vet-"
"That's all good and fine, Mrs. Hutton. But that isn't what I'm-"
"It isn't Mrs. Hutton you should be interrogating, she isn't responsible for it one bit." Anastasia said coolly, cutting him off when she entered the kitchen. "Take it out on me."
"Alright." He said, watching as she knelt down to stroke the dog, who reciprocated the gesture by rolling onto his back for belly rubs. "What is a dog doing here? And why wasn't I informed?"
"This isn't just your house." She answered without looking at him, instead she kept her focus on the dog. "What's wrong with taking in a stray?"
"There's nothing wrong. I would have just appreciated it if you talked to me about these things first."
She turned to him, raising an eyebrow upon hearing what he said.
"You really thought I had the time while he was bleeding to death in our yard? And besides, why do I have to stay out of your affairs but I have to let you know every single time I lift a finger?"
"This is different, this is something that affects our living situation. I don't mind us having a dog, just that you checked in with me about it."
"We've got a dog now. There." She picked him up, careful not to touch his wound. "Is that good enough?"
To this, he could do nothing but shake his head and sigh, knowing his wife's usual behavior might have been a lost cause. With this, he gathered his things and headed to work.
Anastasia thought about a name for the Beagle, and decided on the name Clover, for he had a spot on his side in the shape of a clover. He was recovering in a timely manner, now able to wag his tail and act upon his excitement, though he would still whine a little if he played too rough or landed on his feet quite hard. And although Anastasia never expressed happiness towards finally having a companion whenever she stayed home, they became attached at the hip, as if he had been there all along and it wasn't something to be surprised about. No matter what she did or where she went, he would always be at her feet, just a scratch away at the extension of her hand while she read or brushed her hair. She couldn't stand people, but if there was anyone or anything that she could tolerate, it was definitely animals. As long as it didn't disgust her, of course.
After carefully unwrapping his healed leg late one night, Anastasia watched him drift off to sleep to the feeling of her stroking his head. James came through the kitchen door after arriving from a day full of work, opening the fridge and scanning the contents to see what he could eat.
"I find that you stay up quite late often." He said as he saw her kneeling down in front of Clover, who was now fast asleep. He unwrapped a pie dish with half of an apple pie still in it. Opening a drawer, he pulled out a fork and started eating it straight from the dish.
Anastasia rolled her eyes, ignoring this as she continued to caress the dog.
"His wound has finally healed. I just came here to unwrap it."
They didn't say anything for a while as James continued to eat, watching her gentleness against the dog, something he couldn't quite believe, and something that slightly amused him.
"You think he's happy?" He asked.
"Well how about you? If you lived off nothing but scraps your whole life and had no decent roof over your head, and you recently almost got killed by a car, wouldn't you feel like this place was heaven sent? Others haven't had the privilege that we had growing up."
"Yes..." He looked at her strangely. "But I have to say, I'm quite surprised, hearing this come out of you."
She looked at him briefly before shaking her head and chuckling.
"There's a lot of things you don't know about me."
"I'm sure that's true." He replied, dropping the now empty pie dish in the sink before turning to her and leaning against the counter.
She continued on to soothe the dog as it twitched slightly, deep into a dream.
"I had a dog when I was young. But when it passed away, I decided I wasn't ever going to have one again." She said softly, her robe sprawled out around her and spilling onto the floor, her hair in a braid draped over her shoulder. "I didn't like the feeling of losing something like that. Even now, I'm not allowing myself to get completely pulled in by this little guy."
"Yes, because it isn't completely obvious." He said, nodding his head. "But I want to know, how did you become such an expert in caring for an injured animal, or for anyone for that matter?"
"Like I said, there's a lot of things you just don't know about me." She answered, looking at him. "But... well, they're completely helpless. Animals, I mean. Their lives and well-being depend on us, so why deny them of that? They're innocent souls, and while I, myself, am not, I still will never turn my back on one in need. I mean, even when they're hurt, they don't know what's going on or what's causing it. All they know how to do...is be close to you and make you happy."
He didn't say anything to this, listening intently. He just looked at her as she continued on.
"Their love. It's unconditional." She said. And then all of a sudden, she looked up at him ever so slowly. "Something I don't know about, but wish I had."
They held their gaze for a moment, James slightly baffled at what he had heard. For so long, he had seen her as no more than a young woman who was as naive and foolish as she was lovesick about silly things like unrequited relationships and the need to escape her unwanted life. He almost couldn't quite process the contrast of her words. It was then that he thought maybe, just maybe, she possessed a side to her that no one, not even her hard headed self, underneath all that exterior, was aware of. And if he didn't know any better, he'd have realized that it opened up a different, if not new, perspective of her.
Anastasia hated having to make an appearance at James' office, but because his Father was visiting the Newport factory, she had to join them. So it was on a gloomy Thursday afternoon that they rode back together from the office, a package wedged between them wrapped in brown paper that Anastasia knew nothing off. Since Mr. Linwood went off to take Mr. Lockheart to the airport, James drove the both of them home. At least, that's where she thought they were headed. But as he turned left on a stop that they usually turned right on, she was confused as they rode over a bridge, passing vast lakes dawned with cattails and lily pads, a few white egrets here and there. They turned onto a couple of dirty roads, huge trees with Spanish moss swaying from the branches coming into view with little houses nestled in between. Then, they made one final turn onto a very narrow road and onto a little bridge with a murky pond underneath, a small, run down, yellow colored house on the other side. There was a huge tree in front of it with a rope hanging down the largest branch, a worn out tire attached to the end.
"Where are we?" Anastasia asked as James cut the engine and grabbed the package.
"Wait here." He told her as he got out of the car, his trench coat swaying with the wind behind him, his hand placed on top of his fedora to prevent it from flying off. He walked up the steps of the front porch and pulled the screen door open as he knocked.
Anastasia watched as she saw a balding old man open the door in his bathrobe, smiling at the sight of James, who handed him the package. She saw them exchange a few words before they turned to the car, James gesturing at her, catching her by surprise. The man then nodded as James turned back around to face him. Anastasia assumed that he invited James to come in but politely declined since Anastasia was waiting for him. Moments later, the man closed the door and James walked down the steps and back to the car.
"Who was that?" She asked him as he turned on the engine and reversed and drove out of there.
"Mr. Bradley," James replied, his eyes on the road. "He's worked with the company for more than half his life. His wife died about two years ago and his kids all live out of state with families of their own. So I drop off seafood to him every week, you know, to try to help him out any little way that I can."
"I see." She said, turning to her window.
"I used to go to his house when I was younger, when all his family still lived there. Especially when my Father was away on business, I came to him whenever I had any questions or needed to talk. I feel I kind of owe it to him." James shook his head and smiled, remembering. "The fella lives alone so he always invites me in."
"Well, why didn't you go in this time?" She asked, looking at him.
"And have you wait and grow irritated? I know how you get, Anastasia."
She rolled her eyes at this, not saying anything else as she knew he was probably right. So they rode in silence until he spoke again.
"I'll be going to Hartford Foods tomorrow morning."
With this, she turned around and looked at him suddenly, uncrossing her thin arms. She was about to show her detest in his decision until she remembered that she had cost them a very expensive deal so she kept her mouth shut.
"You... don't mind, do you?" He asked as their house came into view. Anastasia tried to focus on how big and grand it looked as they got closer to it, the gate opening for them. She did not want to answer that kind of question.
"Look, I know you aren't comfortable with it." He began, as he drove the car into the garage and parked it. "But they called this morning, and it didn't work out with the other company, so they're reconsidering us. The opportunity is too big to-"
"James, you don't have to explain a thing." She held out her hand in front of him, hesitant to support it but knowing better this time around. "If you think that this will be good for Lockheart & Sons... then I trust you."
He eased up upon hearing what she said as they looked at each other. Although she stood by her opinions on the Hartford name, it wasn't in her place to decide and therefore, swallowed the growing ball inside her that was her pride. She then got out of the car in silence, walking out of the garage and into the house. He sat there, watching her through the rear view mirror. He shook his head and chuckled as he got out and followed her into the house.
"You know, I have to say, James, your company came this close to beating out Fredson...but other factors came into play." Mr. Hartford told James in his vast office overlooking the city, the rings on his fingers gleaming as he tapped them together, a smirk on his face.
"I'm sure it did, Mr. Hartford. But I fully understand and bear no ill feelings." James gave a nod. He sat in front of his desk face to face with him, his usual cigar sitting on top of an ashtray in front of him. James began to say something else when he pressed a button to his right, his secretary's voice coming through a speaker.
"Maxine is on line one and the President of Ishikawa industries is on line two for you, Mr. Hartford."
James looked around his office, noticing countless awards and placards on the walls, including a picture of him shaking British prime minister Clement Richard Attlee's hand. And next to it, was a picture of him walking with President Harry S. Truman at the white house, along with other pictures of him with celebrities and other important people which James didn't bother looking at. Mr. Hartford was many things and modest wasn't one of them. Not to mention, a huge portrait of him that took up almost half of the wall hung over his desk so it was the first thing you saw upon walking in.
"Tell Maxine to call back in a few hours-"
"Sir, she's called three times now-"
"Ms. Harley, do as I say." He iterated slowly and firmly, a hint of disapproval in his voice. With this, she was silent for a moment.
"Very well." She said finally before hanging up.
"Ishikawa can wait, as this is a much more important engagement, is it not, Mr. Lockheart?" He raised an eyebrow, his signature smirk reappearing.
"Of course." James replied, unscathed. He watched as Mr. Hartford got up from his seat and walked over to the glass wall, where you could see the skyline perfectly.
"You know, James, that wife of yours is-"
"I apologize, on behalf of Lockheart & Sons, for her comments. I truly hope it isn't a testament to your view of our company."
"Oh, it wasn't her comments, no, no." He laughed, turning around as he blew out a cloud of smoke from his cigar. "She's a hard headed girl, that wife of yours."
"In more ways than one." James uttered as Mr. Hartford walked towards him.
"How she could turn down even the best thing that would have happened to her, and your company as well, if you think about it, is quite absurd to me." Mr. Hartford sat back down in front of his desk, looking at the stack of documents sitting on top. He shuffled through them as James looked at him strangely, not quite sure if he was understanding what he was trying to say.
"Now, to the paperwork-"
"I'm sorry, turn down? Turn down what, exactly?" James asked, as to which Mr. Hartford looked at him, bewildered, as if he were talking to an imbecile.
"Why, this." Mr. Hartford gestured to his whole office, with its spaciousness and unnecessary lavishness. "All of this."
"I... I don't quite understand." James spoke slowly.
"Before you left at the company dinner that night, her and I...had a little chat." He uttered, a quizzically sarcastic expression on his face. "Let's just say...that my company and I weren't the only ones to be offered a proposal that night."
James froze in his seat, fearing how bad the worst was as he thought it couldn't have been more disastrous than what had happened that night.
"Now, I'm no fool, James. I know you don't love that girl, much less her being in love with you. I think that's something we can both agree on."
Mr. Hartford held the documents out to him for him to take, but James didn't budge, instead keeping his gaze on Mr. Harper, a sense of defense coming from within. Still, he said nothing, allowing for Mr. Hartford to continue.
"So I gave her the best offer a woman like her would have ever encountered." And then, just like day turning into night, Mr. Hartford's tone suddenly darkened, remembering the rejection that he faced that night. "But she had the audacity to turn me down. Foolish woman, really. You think she'd know any better."
In a matter of seconds, it all made sense. It made sense that he lost the deal so unexpectedly and so quickly when moments before, he was the top, if not chosen candidate. But then he remembered Anastasia, and a deep sense of regret weighed on him, remembering the exchange of words they had when they went home. He wondered why she hadn't told him, because he might've understood from her point of view.
"And... that's why you chose Fredson?" James muttered, the truth unraveling in his head.
"Now, I wouldn't go right into that kind of assumption, but-"
Just then, James stood up, about to do something he never thought he would in a million years; throw away such a grand merger that would have changed his business. On any other day, he would have consumed his pride for the good of the company, but oddly enough, he found himself not being able to go through with it.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think Hartford Foods will be good for Lockheart & Sons." James put his hat on and grabbed his briefcase, walking towards the door.
"What? Now don't tell me that you're as foolish as that damn wife of yours. No better offer will come again in your lifetime." Mr. Hartford stood up from his seat, his glare ever so deadly.
James turned back around one last time, his hand on the door handle as he looked at Mr. Hartford.
"Good day, Mr. Hartford." He gave a nod, his face expressionless. He opened the door, walking out and never to return again.
The night breeze was warm, the summertime making its appearance once again. The giant trees swayed in the air as couples took their seats underneath their branches and onto their thick trunks, jutting out in different directions while some sprawled blankets on the grass before laying on them. The open field was vast, hundreds of people present on a Friday night, some coming from cities away to see a screening of 'Any Number Can Play' on a colossal projector at the biggest park in Newport. The sound of chatter and young women swooning over Clark Gable as he appeared on the screen were audible, the smell of cotton candy and popcorn wafting in the air.
Anastasia held the ice-cold bottle of cola in her hand as she tucked her legs in her arms, her hair flying softly as she sat on a blanket of her own in the far corner of the field, Clover asleep next to her while she scratched his head. She took a swig of cola and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, her eyes scanning her surroundings before looking up at the screen again. She found herself in her thoughts once more and took every opportunity to run away from them, finally finding an excuse to get out of the house even if it meant joining strangers at the park to watch a movie by herself. Although it helped divert her state of mind a little, she couldn't help but feel slight nostalgia as couples took their places around her. She was no longer miserable about being married, for she was to be divorced eventually, but somehow, a big question lurked inside her of what she was going to do and who she was going to become when the time of separation came.
And for the first time in her life, she felt a sense of worry at the thought of how her parents might react. But still, she decided she was going to be brave this time and take charge of her own life. After all, she would be a divorced woman, and in her eyes, she found people who have gone through failed marriages to be much more experienced and adult like, for only adults made such decisions. But she could hear her Mother now, 'but adults who are in the right state of mind take responsibility and work things out.' But wasn't she allowed to make her own choices? She certainly didn't need her family's approval for anything; she had left that safe but limiting mansion and that was that.
That evening, James took off from work quite early, disturbed at the events that had taken place in Mr. Hartford's office. When Anastasia was nowhere to be found when he got home, he asked Margot and Mrs. Hutton where she had gone. And when they told him, he grabbed his coat and set off to find her. The reason as to why, he didn't quite know, just that he felt foolish for the way he went off on her after the company dinner upon finding out the truth. If he couldn't muster up an apology then she had to at least know that he was no longer upset. But when he finally found her in a sea of people, he found his sense of urgency coming to a halt as he stood close to a huge tree, his hand resting on its bark.
He looked out to her, observing the perplexed expression on her face, which seemed to stare off into something he knew not of. Her hair flowed gently with the breeze, the reflection of the screen making her eyes gleam and dance even from afar as she shifted her gaze onto the movie. He sighed before finally making his way to her. It was then that she pulled her cardigan closer around her, still oblivious to him approaching her. It was only when he was finally a few feet away from her, did she look away from the screen before laying her eyes on him. She was startled and caught off guard as he stopped in front of her, looking down at her as she looked up at him. James read the startled expression on her face and as if reading her mind, answered the question in her head.
"I got off work early. Margot and Mrs. Hutton hinted that I might find you here." He looked around, observing the scene before turning his attention on the screen. "Funny, I didn't take you as someone who watched movies much less be seen at an event like this."
"Well, it isn't like you know me all that much." She told him, darting her familiar gaze as she shifted to the side to make room for him. He then sat down, taking off his coat and hat, laying it beside the still snoozing Clover.
The two sat in silence as they stared up at the screen, watching Clark Gable be told that his character had been diagnosed with a heart disease. Just then, James spoke.
"I stopped by Hartford and Company today." He said slowly while Anastasia kept her attention to the film. "And I... uh... spoke to Mr. Hartford."
To this, she looked at him, catching her attention altogether. She waited as he began to utter more words, but something caught her eye in the distance, and it was something, or rather someone, that almost knocked the wind out of her. Suddenly, whatever James had to say became irrelevant and her surroundings became blurry, as if who she saw from far away unconsciously demanded her undivided attention. A lump grew in her throat and she swallowed, trying to get rid of it, but her racing heart was unstoppable. James, who finally turned to her and noticed the blank but daunting expression that left her immobile, looked in the direction her eyes seemed to be glued to. And when he looked, he saw a man with blonde, neatly combed over hair and dressed in a gray plaid suit assisting a woman who looked to be in the late stages of pregnancy, helping her sit down onto a blanket before taking off his jacket to drape over her shoulders. When he did so, she smiled, placing her hand on his which rested on her shoulder, and then, like a dagger piercing through its victim, Anastasia watched as their lips met in a kiss. Anastasia quickly looked away, looking back up the screen briefly as she turned her gaze onto them once more. As if connecting the dots altogether, James looked at Anastasia, feeling a confusing pang as her face bore the expression of vulnerability and, for lack of a better word, defeat. But just as if Anastasia realized her own weakness, she swallowed once more and straightened herself out, her expression morphing into one that made her seem unaffected.
"I find it kind of odd," he said, still eyeing the couple. "He seems to be the total opposite of what I thought you would go for."
"He wasn't always clean and proper that way." Anastasia cleared her voice as she joined him in observing them. "Behind that pretty face was a man who knew how to take your breath away without even touching you. Unkempt. Messy. Rugged. Oh, women lived for it, and they hated me because of it. Quite the rebel among many, maybe that's why we got along well."
James raised his eyebrows, nodding.
"But I suppose he's all cleaned up now." She continued. Just as if she was taken back to old times, she suddenly ached for a cigarette. "Would it be surprising to know that I don't even recognize that man?"
"Marriage will do that to you." James said simply. "And from the looks of it, he's got a baby on the way, maybe he finally saw the uselessness in maintaining such a ridiculous image and outlook on life."
Anastasia gave him an astonished look as to which broke into a smile, shaking her head in disbelief. It was all she could do not to well up with tears. She was the strongest that she had been compared to the beginning, but still, it stung. And the fact that he was starting his own family made it all that much real and all the more heartbreaking. She pulled herself together before looking at them once more and this time, they stared up at the projector, concentrated on the movie with Mitch's hand never leaving Sofia's shoulder.
"Say... how do you know when something changes... inside? How... how do you know if you've fallen out of love with someone or not?" She asked James, eyes still on them.
"Well, there are a million of ways to answer that. But each person is different, and we all perceive love differently." He answered. "Sometimes it's hard to separate head from heart. Therefore, a lot of people in this world either run from it not knowing they're in love while some rush into it mistaking their feelings for love."
Anastasia grew silent, running out of words. After all, what else was left to say? The past was the past and people go on with their lives, and for a moment she felt as if maybe she was holding onto something that had already slipped away from her. James noticed her attention still in their direction and looked at her, glassy green eyes tinted with melancholy and all. Then he shifted his eyes back to the screen.
"I'm the last person you should be talking to about matters such as this. And I might not be able to tell you exactly how to know if you've fallen out love with someone. However..." Upon hearing him speak, she laid her eyes on him. "I suppose one way to know if someone ever loved you is the greatest length they were willing to go just to be with you. If it was something honest and true, no obstacle is too hard to over come, not even an arranged marriage or family disagreements. I suppose they'd fight. They wouldn't consider giving up as an option."
Whether or not his words were directed towards her, somehow, deep inside, they weighed like a ton of bricks. So many details she overlooked about Mitch's affection towards her made her feel like a fool, as if she had fought and pushed herself onto him like a one-sided battle. Her face was blank and emotionless as she fell silent, his words branded in her head. And the part she hated most was that for once, she was close to admitting that his opinion contained some sort of sense. He made her think, and she didn't quite know how to handle it. But at least it ceased any desire she had to run up to him and make, yet again, a fool of herself in front of him. And yet, despite all logic, she would have been lying to herself if she didn't admit that seeing him in person made her realize that she missed him. Even just a little.
"I'm sorry... by the way." James finally spoke up, breaking Anastasia's train of thoughts. "I had no idea how Mr. Hartford had treated you, no matter how much I hold my tongue when it comes to work, one should never tolerate it to that extreme-"
"Hey," she looked up at him, her eyes piercing as her brows furrowed. "It's just business, right?"
"Picking up a thing or two, are we?" He said, shaking his head while chuckling slightly.
Just then, she saw Mitch get up while his wife stayed seated. He disappeared for a few minutes before returning with two bottles of colas, handing one to Sofia. Anastasia couldn't help but remember how those coke bottles used to be liquor disguised in a brown paper bag as they would take turns swigging from one bottle. But just as if he had finally felt her gaze, he looked up and somehow, from a distance, they locked eyes. A soft gasp escaped her tender and rosy lips, feeling a tug in her heart. He froze, his eyes never moving, the intensity radiating from afar. In an instant, even as far as they were to each other, he knew it was Anastasia. He always knew how to spot her in crowds as she was certainly hard to miss, for her aura was one that you just couldn't quite ignore. And for a brief moment, it felt as if both were looking back at an old piece of themselves. And when they looked away, the world went about the way it always did, bringing them back into the present.