Marie nearly missed a step when she saw Frank. Her heart skipped a beat, and a look of surprise mixed with pleasure crossed her face before a blush colored her cheeks. She composed herself as only a confident woman can: she whipped her hair out of her eyes, threw her shoulders back, lifted her chin, and strolled to the dining table, stopping next to Sister Arnalita. The men rose as she approached.
Sister Arnalita turned to meet her and clasped Marie’s hands. “Well, hello, Marie, we are so glad you could come.”
“Hello Sister Arnalita. Hello Father Michael. Frank.”
She paused when she saw Will, her head cocked to one side. “Hello, I do not believe we have met. I am Marie. How do you do?”
“Fine, thank you. I’m Will McBride. I’m happy to meet you.”
“I am sorry I arrived late, Sister Arnalita,” Marie said as she walked to the refrigerator. “I have not missed anything, have I? May I bring you anything, Frank? A bottle of water, perhaps.”
She knew Frank had noticed her blush, and could see him suppressing a smile as she recovered her composure. Her mind still reeled from seeing him so unexpectedly; what was he doing here? She was glad to see him, but she did not trust herself around him. ‘He is so handsome, and so self-assured. Not at all cocky and arrogant like Edward. That bastard.’ She kept her head in the refrigerator while a second blush passed over her face. She tried to appear nonchalant, but couldn’t help feeling transparent.
“No, thank you. I’m fine.”
‘Yes, you are. Ohh, stop it. What is happening to me? Why am I thinking like this? I hardly know him. Besides, we seem to conflict each other too much. The last thing I need is another heartbreak. But there is something about him. I would like to….’
Sister Arnalita’s voice broke into Marie’s train of thought. “Well, Marie. So, you know Frank? No, you have not missed a thing, dear. We will be painting this afternoon, and just happen to have an extra brush for you. Will you join us?”
“Thank you. I will enjoy helping out. Yes, Sister Arnalita, Frank and I have met. We had some rather interesting conversations, full of twists and – ninety degree turns. Didn’t we, Frank?”
“Yes, we did. I never thought we would meet here, though.”
“You don’t think I belong here, Frank?”
“Not at all. I’m just surprised at meeting you again so unexpectedly, that’s all.”
“I come every chance I have to help the sisters.”
“She does,” said Sister Arnalita, “and she is a big help. The children love her, especially when she takes them to town in her automobile. I think they love her most for the ice cream she buys them.”
“It is the least I can do after all you did for me when I lived here.”
“You lived here, Marie?”
“Yes, I came here as a four-year old after my parents died. The sisters cared for me until I turned ten and moved to Manila with my new parents.”
“I had no idea, Marie. I’m sorry for the loss of your parents.”
“Thank you. I have few memories of them. I was so young when they died, and came here so soon after, I had little time to wonder what happened. I missed my parents for a while, but soon forgot them as I came to love the sisters. Everyone here treated me like a princess – I am afraid you spoiled me, Sister Arnalita.”
“Yes, we did. But you have grown into a wonderful, beautiful, intelligent young woman despite our best efforts.” She smiled and patted Marie’s cheek, and said to Frank “She is like a daughter to me.”
Marie clutched Sister Arnalita’s hands to her lips and kissed them.
Sister Arnalita shook her head. “But, Marie I worry about you sometimes. Why you do not marry and bring us children to play with. To play with, not to care for; there are far too many orphans in the world. When will you find a husband, Marie? When?”
“Oh, Sister Arnalita, you always want to see me married. Would you have me marry Frank just to give you children?” She caught herself and spoke quickly. “I meant marry any man, not only Frank. Oh dear.”
She blushed again. Her words seemed to please Frank.
She attempted to recover and made light of her slip of the tongue. “Would you like that, Sister? What do you think, Frank, shall we marry and bring children for Sister Arnalita to dandle on her knee? Will, you know Frank; will he be a good husband?
“You know, Marie. I think he would at that.”
Frank grinned and said “I suppose there are worse fates in the world. If I had to marry Marie so Sister Arnalita could have children to dote on, why, I guess I wouldn’t mind.”
“How kind of you, Frank. Thank you.”
The chaplain piped in, saying, “Well, to hasten that day, I’ll perform the ceremony and Will can be best man. Little Lucy will be the flower girl, and all the sisters and children will be the honored guests; when do we start?”
Laughter rolled through the dining hall at the thought of Sister Arnalita dandling little children on her knee. The good sister never dandled children on her knee. She managed the orphanage with a steel will, and treated the children with tenderness and compassion. She tousled their hair and patted their cheeks. She wiped their noses with her handkerchief and read them stories after tucking them in for the night. She saw to it that every child had a birthday gift, and a gift to give as well on Christmas. Her ability to bring in financial support for the orphanage had made her a legendary figure among religious communities in the Philippines and beyond, and she put that support to good use. The good nuns of the Sisters of Our Lady of Lourdes may have taken vows of poverty, but that didn’t mean the children had to live in poverty. But oh no, Sister Arnalita did not dandle children on her knee.
“Go ahead, make fun of me, but one day Marie will bring her children to see me. When that day comes, I shall retire and spend my days taking care of her children. Maybe Frank’s children, hey? Hey? What you think?”
Sister Arnalita’s brown eyes softened and crinkled, and her shoulders shook as she laughed. The other nuns smiled to see Sister Arnalita laugh; she worked so hard they thought she should laugh much more.
“Marie! Marie! Look what Will let me wear. Isn’t it pretty?” Little Lucy ran in from the playground, covered in dust and holding the medallion high with a relatively clean hand.
“Ohhh, hello, dear Lucy.” Marie knelt and hugged Lucy, who danced on her toes in her excitement. “Now then, let me see; what is it Will is kind enough to let you play with?” Marie squinted to see the medallion up close. “Why, it is beautiful Lucy. I love it. The jewel looks like it is alive. How odd. Do be careful not to lose it, now.”
Lucy beamed at Marie’s admiration. She lived for the attention Marie gave her and would speak about her for hours after she left. “Okay. I won’t.” Lucy ran outside again, still holding the medallion above her head.
“Okay, come, we have been lazybones enough.” Sister Arnalita clapped her hands and shooed everyone out of the dining hall. “Back to work, now. Frank, you shall paint with Marie. I can see you want to be near her, and her eyes look at you often. Yes, yes, I see it; I know you too well, young lady. Come, Will. Bring Little Lucy and we will clean up the dispensary.”
“Will?” Marie’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “Are you the Will of whom Lucy speaks so often?”
“Yep, that would be me.”
“Susanna was your wife?”
“Ohh. I have heard so much about her. I am sorry for what happened; everyone here tells me how much they loved Susanna.”
“Thank you. We had planned to adopt Little Lucy before she died.”
Marie placed her hand on Will’s shoulder and squeezed him tenderly. “I am so sorry, Will. She must have been a wonderful person. I think Lucy would have been so fortunate to call you and Susanna father and mother. I am sure I would have felt that way.” Marie called for Lucy.
“Come, Lucy, we had better join the others.”
Little Lucy ran between the two and caught their hands in hers. They swung her between them as they walked, a painful memory for Will. He was pleased by Marie’s touching words and resolved to match her with Frank. Like Susanna would have done.
“Oh, Will. I nearly forgot; I must speak to Sister Arnalita. Please go ahead with Little Lucy. And tell the others I will be right there.”
She waited as Will and Little Lucy walked on then said “Sister Arnalita, may I speak with you?”
“Of course, Marie, what is it.”
Marie looked around to make sure they were alone. “Edward is having me followed.”
“Oh, dear. Does he know you are here?”
“I do not think so; I saw nothing unusual on the drive here. He knows I am working at Maricel’s – he came by the bar last night – but I do not think he knows I came here today. I would not be surprised if he comes looking for me, though.”
“Shall we close the gate to deny him entrance?” She pursed her lips and frowned. “No, I suppose we cannot; it would be dishonest. Well, we will just have to go on with our work. If he comes, he comes. Do you know why he is looking for you?”
“No, I have no idea. As far as I am concerned, our relationship ended when he and that woman were together in my house. The last time I saw him I threw a shoe and cut him above his eye. That was two years ago as you know so well.”
“Yes, my dear, Marie, I remember it well. What a sad time for you. What will you do now? Does Edward know where you live? Would you like to stay here for a few days?”
“Oh, thank you, Sister Arnalita; I would like that. I do not want to have to worry about seeing him in town. Maybe he will get the idea – if he has not already – that I do not want to see him, and will go away. Though, I cannot believe he would come all the way from Baguio to have a drink at Maricel’s. Now, I am even more concerned for his intentions. I hope nothing has happened to his parents; he may be a bastard – sorry Sister – but I adored his parents, and they loved me. They were nearly as upset over the breakup as I, maybe more so since they lost not only me, but a measure of respect for their son.”
“We will make up a bed for you. If you would like your own room I will ask Sister Annabelle to move into the girl’s ward.”
“No. I do not want to trouble anyone. I will sleep in the girl’s ward if you do not mind.”
“Okay, but I warn you: it will be noisy.”
Marie smiled and patted Sister Arnalita’s cheek. “Dear Nanay. Are you forgetting I slept there for six years?”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Frank looked up from painting when Marie entered the room. Flecks of paint dotted his face, and his hands were virtually a different color.
“There you are. Ready to paint?” He handed her a clean brush and continued painting the office wall.
“Yes. I came prepared to help, although I had no idea I would be painting. I usually assist with the cleaning and preparing of meals for the children. Painting is a new exercise. Perhaps I will leave behind a masterpiece today.” She dipped her brush in the paint can, knocked off the excess with a flick of her wrist, and gave Frank her best innocent-eyed look. “Where do I begin?”
“The door jambs. Have you painted before? Shall I give you some pointers? It’s easy.”
“Judging by the paint on your face and the color of your hands, perhaps it is you who are in need of pointers. Are you sure you have painted before, Frank? Besides yourself?”
“There are two skills every Sailor learns early in his career, Marie: how to handle a swab, and how to paint. Oh, and a third: how to wash clothes.”
“How to wash clothes. Excellent; you must be an expert by now.”
“Haha. I had no idea you were a comedian.”
“Oh, Frank. I’m only teasing.”
She gave Frank a demure smile and began brushing paint on the door jamb. Her movements were graceful, her technique long, confident strokes. Several times Frank caught himself watching her from the corner of his eye. He liked this side of Marie. No ninety-degree turns, no barroom politics to hinder plain talk, only a pleasant afternoon dotted with light, airy conversation.
He admired her easy manner. On the one hand she could appear delicate, like she would fold into herself if shaken. But she also had a firmness of manner that he was sure could stare down a tempest. Frank determined to stay on her good side, the breezy, witty side with the lilting laugh.
He started to speak to her when she turned to him and spoke first.
“Frank. Tell me about Will and Susanna. I have heard so much about them, and Lucy shows me photos of the three of them every time I come to visit.”
“The love they shared is hard to describe, Marie. Had you known them together you would understand. Until I saw them together – you must understand that I knew Will long before he met Susanna – my idea of love was what my parents had. Mom and Dad’s love seemed like a constant striving for ascendancy, for authority of one over the other. Oh, they were in love, but it was the kind of love everyone has, a normal love. The kind of love you expect to be in when you marry.
It was different with Will and Susanna. It wasn’t like two people falling in love. It was like they shared the same love, like they were born sharing the same heart. They knew each other completely from their first conversation and were finishing each other’s sentences a week after they met. When people speak of love, they speak of the ordinary love that all people experience, the earthborne love; Will and Sam’s love transcended earthborne love. I wasn’t the only person to see it.”
“How did they meet?”
“While Will and I were stationed in Spain. Susanna worked as a bartender at the Matador Bar. The way they met makes for a funny story, almost a fairy tale, I’d say.”
“They both reached for the same apple in a street vendor’s cart.”
“He let her take the apple.”
“Please tell me he paid for it.”
“Yes. He did. Then she left. Will thought he’d lost her. He was despondent all day. He was afraid she was only visiting from out of town and he would never see her again. As it turned out, she had relocated from her home in Barcelona earlier that week.” Frank paused and pointed his dripping paintbrush at Marie. “Hey, you missed a spot on the door jamb. Do I have to show you how to paint? I will you know.”
“Frank! I will paint you blue if you don’t finish telling me about Will and Susanna.”
He raised the paint brush in a mock salute and said “Yes, ma’am!
“Well. That same night, Will and I were meeting at the Matador Club for dinner. Will arrived first. When I showed up, he and Susanna were already deep in conversation, both leaning on the bar, talking and laughing. I walked into the dining room to see another friend and glanced back. Susanna was patting Will’s cheek.”
“Ohhh, what else? What a good story. What else happened?”
“Will told me later that night that he was in love. He described the exact moment it occurred. It soon became obvious they had that love that transcends all other loves. They married a year later, but I’ve always believed they were married from that first night. Something clicked and it seemed like they had known each other all their lives. Like I said, it was like they were born in love with one another.”
“That is such a sweet story, Frank. I hope someday to feel a love that intense.” For a moment, she looked wistful, faraway, lost in thought, then “How did Susanna die? She died giving birth, yes?”
“Not quite. Susanna was a tiny woman, frail, fragile. I was always afraid the wind would pick her up and carry her away. She lost a lung to infection as a child after a bout of pneumonia. I guess her health was never the best and may have contributed to what happened after she gave birth – the autopsy was inconclusive. Anyway…,” Frank paused. “Remember the medallion Little Lucy showed you”
“There are two of them. The other is with Will and Susanna’s son’s adoptive family – more about that later. She was descended from royalty. The medallions were in Susanna’s family for generations. Susanna said they were cursed. The first holders died young. When the princess died in childbirth, the prince, who had the medallions made to celebrate the pregnancy, accused the medallions of being the cause. Identical imperfections in the rubies reflected light like two evil red eyes. He said they indicated the presence of evil and damned them to curse the wearer with the thing they feared most. Will told me the thing Susanna feared most was dying young. I’m not saying I believe in curses and things like that, but it makes you wonder. The prince died soon after the princess. All according to family legend of course.”
“Don’t scoff at beliefs such as that, Frank. For two hundred years, science has ridiculed home remedies, acupuncture, folk medicine and other things as old wives’ tales. Now they are finding out that there is more to them than they thought.
“Why, Marie. I never would have thought anything could scare you.”
“I do not take foolish chances, Frank. My own family has traditions and beliefs that would seem archaic and folklorish to outsiders. Besides, everyone seems to be cursed in some way. Some even seem to curse themselves. I would not recommend that Lucy play with the medallion, and certainly not wear it. It makes me nervous now that you have told me they are cursed.”
“Anyway, as I was saying. The birth itself was normal. It was three days later that things turned tragic. During dinner, Susanna complained of pain in her diaphragm and chest. The pain became so bad that Will rushed her to the hospital. She fainted on the way and never regained consciousness. She died in the emergency room.”
“Poor Will. And the baby. What happened with their child?”
“Will was beside himself with grief. Until that night, they had lived a fairy tale romance, I’m not kidding about that. To them it must have been a normal life; to everyone else he was Prince Charming to her Cinderella.”
“How beautiful. But what about the child?”
“It was difficult for Will to look at the poor thing without breaking down. The child looked just like Susanna. In every feature he was Susanna, even to the way his lip curled at the corner when he smiled. Poor Will. I felt so bad for him. Six months later he told me he had given the boy up for adoption. There was nothing to say. I understood.”
“Where is the boy now? What is his name?”
“Thomas Richard Nelson, named after their fathers. Will gave him up to a childless couple, Kate and with the understanding that they wouldn’t reveal who his birth parents are until he’s old enough to understand.”
“Poor Will. His heart must hurt every day. Does he talk about Susanna and his son?”
“No. He’s always kept quiet about both, and I don’t pry. He writes about her, but doesn’t share what he writes with anyone but me. His essays are quite beautiful, full of love and pain. They were quite an extraordinary couple. One other thing. She always called him William, never Will. She said they were Prince William and Princess Susanna in a previous life. The way she said it was romantic and mysterious at the same time. And I swear she was dead serious when she said it.”
Frank and Marie painted on in silence for a while. Outside, the children laughed and played, and, every now and then, the sharp voices of the Sisters could be heard recalling them to their chores.
Frank leaned down to stir the paint can, then dipped his brush in and started to paint again. He paused for a moment, holding the brush out until paint dripped onto his fingers. He whipped his hand behind his back hoping Marie hadn’t noticed.
“You know, I nearly had a heart attack when you walked in, Marie. I wouldn’t have been more surprised to see the Pope walk through the door.”
“Yes. I believe my heart jumped when I saw you.” She leaned down to dip her brush in the paint can and continued. “You left in quite a hurry last night; I was speechless when you walked away. Were you so upset with me?”
“No. I wanted to get a good night’s sleep free of the constant tension and fear of mortar rounds blowing me out of bed. Good. She didn’t notice. I wonder if there’s another rag around here. I’d probably still be asleep had I not promised the Chaplain I’d help out today.”
He found another rag in a bucket and wiped the paint from his fingers.
“You disappoint me; I thought you would tell me you left in a hurry because you didn’t trust yourself around me.” She applied more paint to the doorjamb, brushing up and down with long, smooth strokes.
Marie had turned away after she spoke. Could she be leading him on?
She hesitated, then turned and looked at him, now holding the brush the way Frank had done. “Yes, Frank.” She caught herself and quickly lowered the paintbrush.
His heart beat so hard he felt sure Marie could hear it. A host of thoughts raced through his mind in the space of time it took Marie to turn to him. He hoped he had not misinterpreted Marie’s signals. He couldn’t bear rejection. But his feelings for Marie could not be denied. Frank had never felt such a yearning for a woman so quickly in his life. A yearning greater than physical attraction. A yearning that had sprung to life in the moments before he left her so abruptly in the backroom, and had bloomed not thirty seconds ago. He dropped his brush and took Marie in his arms and kissed her. She did not push him away.
He was breathless when their lips parted and took a moment to collect himself.
She said again, “Yes, Frank? Did you want to say something, or do you want to kiss me again?”
He kissed her again, his heart racing. He held her by the small of her back, his other hand on the back of her head. He enveloped her, cocooned her with his arms and hands and the length of his body. She pressed into him, her arms around his neck, pulling him to her as she fell into him. The thought Thank you, Susanna formed in Frank’s mind.
Now he whispered in her ear, “Marie. I left so abruptly because I’m attracted to you, not because I had a busy day ahead of me.”
“I know, Frank,” she whispered in his ear.
“Not because I wanted to sleep in a nice soft bed.”
“I know, Frank.”
“I can’t explain why this happened so quickly.”
“It’s okay, Frank.”
“I don’t usually act like this.”
“I don’t mind, Frank.”
She interrupted him before he could speak again.
She whispered once more into his ear. “Wipe the paint off your fingers.”
He laughed and squeezed her in his arms then bent down and picked up the rag. A bucket of water stood nearby and he dipped the rag in the water and cleaned the paint from his fingers.
“I didn’t think you saw the paint drip onto my fingers.”
“I did. Then I did the same thing but noticed it before the paint could drip.”
“Marie. Do I need to apologize for kissing you?”
“Only if you didn’t mean it, Frank. Only if all I am to you is ‘just another barmaid looking for a rich American Sailor who will later turn out to be just another poor soul on a meager salary trying hard to make ends meet.’ I think that is how you put it, yes?”
Frank smiled and scratched the back of his head. “It does sound vaguely familiar. We’ll have to wait and see how it ends, though.”
“Will this dream have a happy ending, Frank?”
“Do you want it to?”
“I am sure of it, Frank.”
“You kissed me back, you know.”
“It must have been the paint fumes.”
“I’m sure of it, Marie.”
They were still laughing when George entered the office.
“Hey, what’s all this? I didn’t know you two made a date. Why does no one tell me these things? Damn, I can’t smoke my cigar in here. Last time I tried, Sister Arnalita grabbed it right out of my mouth and threw it on the ground. Said smoking a cigar was a nasty thing to do in front of innocent little children. I swear I saw one of those innocent little children pick it up and stick it in his pocket when she wasn’t looking. Anymore brushes? Marie, you are looking all kinds of beautiful today. I swear your cheeks are even rosy. Have you two been doing anything I should know about?”
“Hello, Master Chief,” Marie said.
“George! We thought you weren’t going to make it. What happened?”
“Oh, a young Sailor made some trouble in town last night and the police threw him in jail. I had to go sweet talk the police chief to let him out instead of keeping him locked up all weekend. He’ll have to pay for the damage he caused at the Brown Fox, and the Skipper may restrict him to base for a while along with assigning him some extra duties. I see a lot of swabbing in that Sailor’s immediate future.”
“Was he hurt?”
“Nah, only his pride. I had the guys in his work center take him to the barracks and put a drunk watch on him.”
“Jesus, he was that drunk? What a shame.”
“Yep. All too common over here. Seems like bases and bars are built together, doesn’t it?”
“It occurs at Maricel’s all too often,” Marie said. “Thankfully, Mama-san has an understanding with the chief of police; the Sailor is taken to the base and handed over to shore patrol rather than go to jail in town.”
“Well, I wish all the bars did that. It costs me a mint of money to get those boys out of jail. Oh well. So, what are we painting? Each other? Frank. How come all the paint is on you?”
George laughed his low rumbling laugh, a laugh that built up from a low chuckle to an all-out roar. Some of the children ran in at the commotion and joined in the laughter – they knew the Master Chief.
Sister Arnalita entered the room. She smiled at George and said, “No cigar, Master Chief?”
He wiped his eyes. “No ma’am, Sister. I have seen the light and given up those nasty things. Given them up in here, anyway.”
“Good. I do not want anyone to smoke around Marie. I want her and Frank’s babies to be healthy.”
Sister Arnalita winked at Marie and wagged her eyebrows toward Frank. A flush colored Marie’s.
George’s mouth hung open in surprise. “Babies?”