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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Horror/Scary · #2298508
A classic romance has an unexpected ending. Winner of Quotation Inspiration, June 2023.
2023 Quill Nominee2023 Quill Finalist2023 Quill Winner2023 Quill Honorable Mention


Adèle watched him as he stood patiently at the counter, waiting to be served. There was something about him that made him hard to ignore. He had that appearance once called “distinguished,” tall, with dark hair greying at the temples, his face clear cut but lined in all the right places, an older man but not too much.

His turn came and the attendant placed the makings of a simple meal upon the man’s proffered plate. She noticed how calm and composed he was about the whole process, just pointing to the items he wanted and quickly satisfied. So absorbed was she that, when he turned abruptly and began to move toward the till, she was slow to look away and their eyes met. Too late, she switched her attention to her meal.

So she was not watching as he approached her table, eyes searching the busy diner for a vacant seat. Adèle knew that the only place available was the second chair at her table. She waited as he came to the same conclusion.

There was a brief pause before he spoke. “Do you mind…?”

He was standing with arm outstretched, indicating the empty chair. The voice was deep and unhurried, the expression neutral, neither aggressive nor appealing. She nodded in agreement and looked down at her plate again, saying nothing as he slid into the seat.

Silence descended as they busied themselves with knife and fork. Adèle was just pushing the food around the plate, hunger satisfied and trying to think of a way to get conversation started. In the end, it was the man who spoke first.

“Yes, I seem to have lost my appetite too.”

She looked up. “Oh dear, was it that obvious?”

“Not at all.” He smiled. “But we seem to be having lunch together so perhaps we should be introduced. I’m Will.”

“My name’s Adèle,” she answered. She could see now that he was rather older than he had looked from a distance. The neck was the giveaway, it being rather more tautly strung and knotted than one would expect. She guessed he would be in his fifties, perhaps as much as ten years older than herself.

“Have you been here before?” he asked.

“Well, yes, I suppose you could say I’m a regular. The food’s honest, I like being able to serve myself, and they don’t mind if you don’t eat everything on your plate.” There was a pause and she added, “And you? I’ve not seen you here before.”

“Not for many years. I moved away in ‘98 and haven’t been back since then. When I had to visit on business this week, I thought I’d see if Charlie still runs the place. I gather he’s retired and it’s his daughter in charge now.”

“Yes, Maria has kept the food as good as ever. I don’t know what I’d do if they ever close down.” Adèle found herself relaxing easily into the conversation. Will seemed so at ease with himself and the world that it was impossible for her to feel unsafe in his company. They had been talking for an hour when she realised that the restaurant was almost empty.

She was going to be late returning to the office. With a few words of explanation, she rose to go but he was on his feet too, asking whether he could see her again. In haste, she scribbled her phone number on a napkin and was gone.

But there was little work done that afternoon. Adèle spent much of the time watching the leaves dance on the trees across the street and dreaming of what might be in her future. That evening she walked home rather than take the bus. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts.

The phone was ringing as she entered her apartment. It was Will, inviting her out for that night. She said yes and then danced in the bedroom as she readied herself. It seemed impossible but surely, after all these years, it was happening at last.

Their date that evening was all she had imagined and even more. They dined at an exclusive Greek restaurant and followed that with a visit to the theatre, a light-hearted comedy that dispelled the last formalities between them as they laughed in unison, building on the natural understanding of each other they knew already. Afterwards, he walked her home and they had coffee and conversation in her apartment. He left with no more than a peck on her cheek and a date for their next meeting firmly established.

That summer was a happy train of memories made for the future as their romance prospered and deepened. In the autumn he proposed formally, on one knee, and she accepted, hardly able to believe how her teenage dreams had come true so late in life and unexpectedly.

A few weeks later, the wedding was a quiet affair, with just a few friends and her relatives attending. He had no family apparently, his parents having died long ago and no siblings or cousins ever mentioned.

That night, they lay quietly in bed together after celebrating their union. She asked him about his lack of family members.

“Well, I was an only child,” he explained. “I believe my father had a brother somewhere but he never spoke of him or mentioned his circumstances. My mother came from Bulgaria and had left all her family behind. So, when they died within a year of each other, I was left alone in the world.”

“My poor orphan Will,” she sympathised.

He laughed. “Not so much of the poor. I’ve been lucky enough to have built a respectable fortune in my time. As I’m sure you guessed from our whirlwind romance and the wonderful time we had.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “All that matters is we’re together now and that’s enough for me. I’d given up hope of you ever coming along, you know.”

“I’m sure you had plenty of offers. Why didn’t you accept one of them?”

“I told you,” she grinned. “I was waiting for you. Only the best would ever do for me.”

He looked into her eyes and said with all seriousness, “I hope I can live up to that.”

“You have done already,” she replied.

Later, when they had celebrated a little more, she broached the matter of age.

“I meant what I said about waiting, Will. From a very early age, I had promised myself that I would settle for only the one I knew was right. And, if that was never to happen, so be it.”

She paused and he waited to see if there was more. Apparently there was, for she continued, “You could have got here a bit earlier, you know. After all, I’m forty-six now and you must be ten years older than me. It would have been nice to have many more years to look forward to.”

He considered this for a while before answering.

“Actually, there’s a few more years than that between us. I suppose I should have told you before we married but there never seemed a good moment to do so.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” she reassured him.

“It might,” he replied. “I was pulling my punches when I said, ‘a few more years.’ The truth is, it’s a lot.”

“Oh, come on. Look at you. You’re in your prime and looking great. There’s no way you have more than ten years over me.”

He gave her a quizzical look. “Looks can be deceiving. You won’t believe how old I am.”

She realised he was being deadly serious and said nothing as she waited for him to say more. When he remained quiet, only watching her reaction with something almost like fear in his eyes, she spoke.

“How old are you, Will?”

His face did not change as he replied. “I’m three hundred and ninety-eight.”

She grasped one last remaining straw before going under. “Don’t joke, Will. I’m serious. How old are you?”

He repeated the impossible number.

“You know I can’t believe that.”

“I did warn you. My birthday is 17th April 1625.”

“But how, Will, how? It’s just impossible, you know that. At least pick something that might be true. Like a hundred. I think I could believe a hundred.”

Will shook his head. “Can’t do it, Adèle. I promised myself never to lie to you and this is the absolute truth. But listen - you asked me how and I can tell you that. It might help.”

She nodded in helpless confusion.

“My parents died when I was quite young. No more than late teens, in fact. And I had to make my own way in the world. It was a hard time to do that, Dell, but I learned quickly and I was determined to make something of myself. There were certain things I wanted out of life and I knew that, if I worked hard enough, I could have them.

“In fact, I was so sure that I could do it that I wrote a long list of the things I wanted to achieve. I believe it’s called a bucket list these days. I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled upon the secret to long life. If you can want something enough, so much that all your attention is focused on it and nothing else, the years begin to pass by without your noticing and, eventually, your life begins to extend beyond the accepted bounds.

“I wanted those things, Dell, more than anything in the world I wanted them. And they began to come to me. One by one, those dreams came true and I moved from one to the next, checking them off my list as I went. It took a long time, much, much longer than I had imagined, but they fell to my assault, one after another, with the advancing years.

“There came a day when I was taking stock and realised how old I was getting. It didn’t take long to work out that it was my determination to achieve my goals that was causing it. I could feel how my strength and will to live remained as powerful as ever and it had to be this that was allowing me to go on living. I heard a quote from somewhere that expresses it perfectly.

“‘A million dreams are keeping me awake.’

“And that’s why I’m here now, Adèle, alive when I shouldn’t be, still working on my bucket list as I head into the future. I am old, yes, but my body is still young and strong, no worse than it looks to you and everyone else.”

He stopped and waited for her reaction. She was looking at him with wide eyes, somehow open to believing the impossible and wanting it to be true.

“How, how many,” she stammered. “How many dreams do you have left?”

Will smiled back into her eyes. “That’s the thing,” he said. “I only have one left and I have it now. It’s you. I wanted all my life to marry the lady of my dreams and now I have.”

Adèle’s face dropped. “But Will,” she said, “If it’s your last, what have you now that will keep you alive?”

A shadow of disbelief swept across Will’s face. He opened his mouth to speak but, even as he did so, his lower jaw hung slack and enfeebled, unable to shape the words. His skin began to flow like melting butter, drooping and dripping to the sheets until there remained only a grinning skull staring back at Adèle. His body collapsed downward into the bed, the blankets falling in stages as the body beneath changed into dust.

In moments, Adèle was left alone in the silent bedroom, sitting aghast as her husband’s ashes drifted weightlessly from the bed to the floor.

Word count: 1,980
For Quotation Inspiration: Official Contest
Prompt: "A million dreams are keeping me awake."
-- Pasek & Paul, from The Greatest Showman.

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