Nature never made another creature as beautiful as Arcela. It wasn’t just her looks, though in Johnny’s mind she had always been exceptional. She loved life; he had never seen anyone with such a desire to taste every experience there was to be had. He used to joke that she would drink the air if she could. The way they met was so stereotypical he was almost embarrassed to tell people. On the first day of his freshman year of high school he had found himself in a graphic arts class behind a girl who seemed excited to be in school. It wasn’t anything she said, it was the way she sat in the front row, closest to the board, closest to the lab tables, closest to the teacher and Johnny had thought what’s she so happy about? He was grouchy that day but by the end of the class he was curious about her.
His curiosity was satisfied at lunch. She stood in the courtyard looking confused, her long, slender fingers twisting themselves in her ringlets. Her eyes were large and she was clearly out of her element. He recalled, she looked like a frightened deer with those doe eyes and her fight-or-flight stance. As she scanned the room nervously, clearly vainly looking for someone to identify with, her eyes locked onto his. They’d spoken briefly in class when their teacher had everyone walk around and introduce themselves. Before he could look away and then get away she launched toward him, propelled by what he would later find out was a terrible fear of being alone in crowds. Exhaling with dismay, he stood where he was and determined to be polite in case she might be good at helping with homework.
“Um, hi. Are you, um, eating with anyone? I’m new and I don’t really know anyone. I’m-“
He cut her off “Angela, right? From graphics class. You sit in front of me.” He threw his head to the side and sipped his soda. Truth be told he was kind of nervous too, he’d always been on the fringes of the social scene and this year he wanted to be cool. He figured high school would be a whole new start. He’d spent the summer working out and cultivating a really laconic speech pattern, hoping he’d be noticed by the cool kids, most notably the girls. He wasn’t sure what it was doing to his image right now talking to this gawky brown girl with all of that hair.
He wasn’t prepared for her reply. Her face took on this kind of shocked look, mouth fell open, eyes bulged. She made some kind of noise. He shook his head, thinking of that noise. The first time he heard it he half thought there was a bird in her throat. She blinked hard and shook her head as if to clear it. “A-Arcela. My name’s Arcela. Morrall.” She thrust her hand at him as if she planned to stab him with it. “You’re uhm, Johnny, right? Parrish?” She talked as if she were in an incredible rush. Her voice evened out as she spoke, though, as if she were soothing herself. She kept her hand out and kept talking and he stared at her hand because he wasn’t sure he wanted to let her think he was allying with her right away.
That’s exactly what happened.
The first time he’d visited her home was a few days into the school year. He had to stop by her house to drop off some homework. They shared several classes and she turned out to be quite good at helping with homework. This day however, she had gone home early. She’d fainted in class. He’d missed her for the rest of the day and volunteered to take the papers to her house just to see her. By some lucky happenstance she lived a few streets over from him. The distance wasn’t very far but it was enough to transition from “nice,” where Johnny lived, to “probably rich” which was where Arcela’s house was. He cursed under his breath when he tripped on one of the too-big stone stairs at the front door, hoping nobody had seen him. Arcela’s mother opened the door when he rang and he could see where she had gotten her chocolate skin and those waves of red-black hair. She was nice and invited him in and Arcela had come down and she looked fine and he was happy to have seen her. There were more visits than that over the years, not all of them precipitated by her fainting spells.
Now Johnny made his way across the crowded sidewalks of New York City on his way to the train. A note of nervous excitement trilled through him. I’m actually going to see her. For the first time in 6 years. That thought was quickly followed by a flash of fear, a tinge of desperation. 6 years ago she had vanished. Simply disappeared from his life. They were in college by then and they were everyone’s favorite couple. It was assumed by the general populace of the campus that they would marry. Johnny had decided they should. A meeting with a mutual friend of the couple had convinced him to take the next step and ask her. He was sure Arcela and her parents would be delighted. Janice and Arthur seemed to have an initial resistance to his dating her, they were very protective. Over time they had grown to accept him and welcome his presence. Arcela would joke “it’s resignation” and chuckle ruefully, shaking her bodacious curls.
“So I’m going to ask her,” Johnny recalled saying after a big swig of beer.
“Ask who what?” Lewis was glued to the tv.
“Arcela. I’m going to ask her to marry me. How can she not say yes?” John was feeling warm and buzzed and at one with the chair he was slunched deeply in. Inside he was making a great pronouncement. The moment of his proposal was running through his head. He was on his knee, Arcela was standing before him, those luminous eyes wide and shining with tears. Her father and mother were standing off to the side beaming approvingly. The ring was sparkling in the sun and everything was bathed in a golden light. This would be the beginning of their wonderful life together. They would have children and have parties and go on vacations to beautiful and exotic places. They would open their own firm and do artwork for lots of money and he would grow old in the arms of this girl whom he loved more than he thought was humanly possible. He could hear her singing and hear the laughter of their children and the chatter of the holiday guests was just beginning to recede when he was jarred by a sharp thwack on the back of his head.
“Parrish wake up. Don’t go buying John Jr. a baseball glove until you ask her.” Lewis laughed raucously and plopped back onto the couch before returning to his phone call. “Here,” he held the phone out a moment later, eyes still on the screen. “Elaine wants to talk to you.” He popped a nut into his mouth.
Elaine’s voice was shrill through the phone. “Ask her what?” Johnny moaned inwardly. Lewis’ girlfriend was desperate for conversation. When there were sports on television Lewis couldn’t be bothered by anything or anyone. The only annoyances were running out of beer or someone standing between him and his field of dreams. Elaine needed someone to talk to at night when she got home from work and when she couldn’t have Lewis, she would chat up anyone within his arm’s reach that would take the phone.
“Laney, this is top secret, okay?”
“Mmm-hmmm” she sounded sincere.
“I’m going to propose to Arcela.” John measured his words as he spoke them, avoiding rushing them all out the way he wanted to. He needed to practice being brave, he was going to need it to petition her parents. “Oh God, I’m so nervous, I mean I know her mom and dad will say yes. We’ve been together for 6 years. I mean we’re not going to get married right away but, well just to have her say yes. Just to know that she’ll agree to seal the deal and be mine until we’re old.” John felt cold and hot and fidgeted in his seat. The cozy embrace of the alcohol was shaking itself off him as he realized the truth of what he was saying. He sat up straighter, took in a deep breath.
“I mean, Lane I love her. I can’t imagine my life without her.”
“Omigod I have to plan a party!” Elaine was an enthusiastic celebrator. If there was an occasion, even a tiny one, Elaine wanted to make it count. She wasn’t a heavy drinker or a big party girl, she was just genuinely happy for people. She gushed with enthusiasm at even the smallest victories. This outweighed by far her need for constant human communication.
“Just don’t tell anyone, okay? Nobody. You know how her parents are. You can’t be as rich as them and be as casual as we are. I have to do this perfect. Just right. Please Elaine. Just wait until I give you the go ahead before you plan anything. It might not even happen soon.” All Johnny could think of was the moment being better than perfect. He just couldn’t wait to see that look on her face.
He banged his fist on the wall he was leaning against. Why did I tell her? Why did I even tell Lewis? Anger and confusion loomed over him and he stewed in it, mechanically making his way onto the train when it arrived. Eschewing a seat, he stood, holding onto a pole and riding the bumps. What had he done so wrong? He’d played it over in his mind a million times. There was nothing there. Nothing at all that had told him what was going to happen. The tunnel lights and the graffiti-adorned walls flew by without making an impression on him. He was lost in the past, momentarily oblivious to the future he was speeding into.
He’d arrived at the Morrall residence with a ring box in his pocket and a written list of things he wanted to say to her parents. He didn’t intend to whip out the list in front of them but he thought he might excuse himself to the restroom for a quick review. He didn’t really see how they could say no to him. He’d been a good and true boyfriend for 6 years. He loved Arcela. In the two weeks since he’d decided to propose, he’d shopped for and purchased a ring and written a thousand speeches to give her parents, and then her. He’d thrown himself into it. He was baffled when he saw what appeared to be a large delivery van outside the house. He hadn’t recalled Arcela saying anything about having anything new brought to the house, and she usually told him of her mother’s extravagant purchases.
“Hey, what giant thing are you dropping off today?” Johnny was cocky, buoyed by his good spirits.
The slight man in the rumpled coveralls looked at him quizzically. “Not delivering anything, mister. These folks are movin’.”
He was still making his way down the front walk, and got one foot up on a stone stair before stopping suddenly, the mover’s words catching up to him.
“They’re movin’. Rush job, got the call last week.” He jerked a thumb toward the open front door. “Nobody in there, see for yourself. Just my guys and some dust bunnies.” He walked off to the truck and disappeared into the back of it.
Suddenly Johnny was in the front door. The foyer was empty. The built-in fish tank in the living room was drained and empty. The red suede chairs were gone, the kitchen was devoid of the hanging pot rack and upstairs the bedrooms were divested of most of their contents save a few boxes and the large furniture. The house was empty and seemed so small and Johnny turned around and around in the mezzanine overlooking the living room and tried to understand what was happening.
The crush of passengers from the next station roused John Parrish from his reverie and he curled an arm around the pole and adjusted his stance. He suddenly felt cold, his excitement tempered with sudden doubt. What had he done to make them leave? Arcela hadn’t said a thing to him that indicated they were moving. Surely they’d have told him, they were in love! He was in love with her, she was in love with him, or so he thought. He had found out later Elaine bubbled over with so much happiness for him that she had slipped and told Arcela of his plans. She confessed to him, much later, that Arcela had gotten a stricken look on her face, which surprised Elaine. She had expected happiness. Arcela had tried to recover and put on a happy face but Elaine could see that something was wrong. The conversation dwindled to an uncomfortable silence and Arcela gathered her things, muttered something about a project she was working on, and left the coffee shop. She was sick all the following week. The week after that, she was gone.
Johnny couldn’t get any information from the movers about where the Morralls moved to. Nobody would tell him anything. He didn’t know any other of their family and their friends were just as clueless as he. Arcela was gone. After that Johnny withdrew. He stopped socializing with his friends and maintained a stony silence when he didn’t have to speak. There wasn’t anything anyone could do to break him out of his funk. Eventually he moved away, changed schools, stopped being Johnny and was only John. Arcela was the one who’d started calling him that and he ripped from his life anything that reminded him of her. Six years passed and John graduated college and went to work in advertising. He’d formed a graphic arts firm and found success when he took on the job of rendering virtual chat areas for a small company, VirTech, that was jumping on the bandwagon of a new technology.
The chat rooms exploded in popularity and money had practically fallen from the sky. VirTech was bought by a large, rich company, the Glaen Corporation. Now, at 26, John Parrish was on his way to the top and just as he was forgetting the past and throwing himself into some of his greatest projects the past came back to tantalize him. In the city, John met with some Glaen staff to discuss the future of the virtual chat technology and on the way out of this promising meeting he wandered the halls of the Glaen building, looking at the art on the walls and reading anything he could. It was raining outdoors and he was in no hurry. Besides, he reasoned, who could fault him for wanting to know more about this giant of the corporate world?
Near the front door he found a plaque with a family tree beginning with Eric Glaen, the founder of the company. As his eyes wandered over the giant bronze tablet, something caught his eye. Janice Arcel Glaen. Janice Arcel? Brow furrowed, John struggled to understand what he was looking at. Arcela’s mother’s name was Janice Arcel. Arthur had told him once how, upon seeing his daughter for the first time after she was born, he’d insisted they forget about naming her Catherine and call her Arcela, because she was the most amazing creature he had ever seen and he loved her immediately as much as he loved her mother.
Janice Arcel Glaen. Glaen. Her last name was Morrall, and everyone knew the Glaens kept it in the family. It was common knowledge that whoever married a Glaen married into the family. Glaens didn’t marry out. But what other explanation could there be? They seemed moneyed but not mega-rich. The Glaens were fabulously wealthy, high-society people. He doubted he’d have been allowed into their house as low-born as he was. Then again maybe Janice was a rebel. Had they gone back home to the family to keep Arcela from him? He headed home anxiously. He needed to do some research.
The relative dark of the tunnel gave way to the intense bright of John’s stop. He was there. He released the pole slowly, his hand aching somewhat from his tight grip. He became suddenly aware of the tension in his belly. It half-tickled but it was an uncomfortable tickle. He shuddered too from the cold, his muscles tightening against the invading chill. He slowly flexed the fingers of his hand as he walked, then transferred the bunch of expensive out-of-season sunflowers to that hand so he could flex his other fingers. He’d been clutching them for over an hour, lost in his reverie, and his fingers firmly expressed their disinterest at straightening from their curl.
Inhaling deeply once more, John tightened his lips and strode toward the nearest taxi stand with determination. He was going to go to the Glaen household and he was going to talk to Arcela. Even if she was married, even if she didn’t want to see him anymore, she was going to tell him why she left so suddenly. Someone was going to explain this to him. A cab pulled up and John settled into the backseat.
“Glaen Arcology, please.”