Gertrude held the present in two hands and gently shook it. The pink ribbon swayed in the handmade breeze, but the blue and white stripped cube made no other concessions to her senses. She put it back down and stared at it, wishing she had Superman’s version of x-ray vision.
“Come on Gertie, just open it,” said Brantley. He was like a kid at Christmas, except it wasn’t his present to open. That made him even cuter than normal, especially when he was dressed up with his purple bowtie that almost made his blue eyes look that same shade of purple. Normally she would be taking off his glasses and suggesting they eat in tonight, but this darn package just bothered her.
Brantley had found the package with no return address on her doorstep when he stopped by to pick her up for dinner. Opening it up revealed the present and one of those lame happy birthday novelty tags with her Gertrude’s name and no other information. It wasn’t even close to her birthday, and she really couldn’t think of who would send her a random gift, beside Brantley of course. This was a true suprise.
Gertrude didn’t like surprises. That probably had to do with her floating through various group homes and foster families until the age of seventeen. Surprises usually meant packing up and heading out, or even worse, you find out your new “family” wasn’t all it was promised it would be. Or there would be bonus possible unwanted male attention. That sent a physical shudder down her spine.
Brantley noticed that. “Are you okay?” he asked.
Gertrude banished those memories back down deep where the light of conscious thought rarely shown. “I’m fine. Just a bit of excited about going out on our date tonight,” she said hopefully convincingly. She looked into his eyes and put on a genuine smile. Those eyes were so damn cute. Okay, she meant what she said about being excited now.
“Well we can get going after you open it, Gertie,” Brantley said. “I really want to see what you got.”
“We can open it later,” Gertrude said. “Unless you were the one who left it.” She let her voice trail off, hoping that he would confess.
Brantley shook his head. “Nope, not this time. Come on. You must be curious, at least a little.”
Gertrude couldn’t shake her sense of dread. “Listen, why don’t we go out and then I’ll open it when you drop me off. I don’t want to be late for our reservation.”
“Really Gertie? You want it to wait? Come on, this is killing me,” Brantley said.
“Killing you?” Gertrude asked. “It’s not even your present.”
“Gertrude, open the present,” Brantley said.
Gertrude looked into Brantley’s eyes. They seemed even more purple now, but not at all cute. Another shiver escaped down her spine. Brantley noticed this one too and deflected his gaze at his hands.
“I’m sorry Gertie,” Brantley said. “It’s just as a kid growing up I always wanted someone to leave me a mystery present and inside have it be something cool that I always wanted. Maybe even something magical.” His eyes danced at the thought.
“I don’t believe in magic,” Gertrude said. The sparkle in Brantley’s eyes died. Gertrude immediately wished he hadn’t said anything. She decided to smooth things over. “What kinds of things did you want?” she asked.
“Oh the usual boy stuff. A new baseball mitt signed by Rodger Clemens,” Brantley said. He paused for a second and laughed a bit. “Of course that was before the whole steroids thing. Then there was a new synthesizer. I was going to be a rock star. If I could have had a staff like what Gandalf had, now that would have been cool. Of course in high school the best would be a cute red headed girl’s phone number.”
Gertrude involuntarily reached up and touched her raven ringlets. Brantley saw that and immediately continued. “That was a phase I was going through,” he said. “Now I appreciate a woman’s smile and who she truly is inside. That is the essence of magic to me today.” He reached over the cursed present and stroked her cheek. “I got lucky and found a wonderful woman who has beauty to go with that smile and that something magical inside.”
A blush bloomed on Gertrude’s cheeks. What did I do to deserve such a wonderful charming guy? What did such an amazing man ever see in her? She leaned forward and kissed him gently on his lips. There was almost a spark of electricity that passed between them.
“Okay, on that note let’s get going,” he said. With one fluid motion he was standing and reaching into his pocket. “We can eat dinner and maybe catch a show. We can wait till I drop you off.”
Gertrude summoned up her resolve. “Nope, I’ll open it first, then we can go.”
“Don’t do it,” Brantley said. “I was being a jerk.”
“Nope, I was making a big thing out of nothing,” Gertrude said. “I have nothing to be afraid of because I have you here with me. There’s no need to worry about surprises because I have my big knight in shining armor.”
Gertrude caught an almost guilty look pass across Brantley’s face so she quickly stood and gave him a hug. “Really. I love you,” she said. He stiffened. Crap, went too far. Time to do more damage control. “Let’s see what my mysterious benefactor left for me,” she continued.
Gertrude moved back to the couch and undid the bow. She smiled and twirled the bow in the air. Brantley watched her, a small smile bloomed. Next she pulled back the wrapping paper, trying to preserve it the best she could. Folding it nicely and setting it next to her she then turned her attention to the present box itself.
“Well?” Brantley asked. It startled her since he had come up close while she had been folding the wrapping paper. To cover her surprise she picked up the package and put it in her lap. She slid her nail along the tape, separating the two box flaps. She opened up the flaps while holding her breath. Inside she was what looked like a photo album.
“Well? “ Brantley asked again.
Gertrude took the photo album out of the box and placed the box on top of the wrapping paper. “Don’t know.” She said as she opened the book. The first page was a birth certificate for a girl who weighed seven pounds, four ounces on May twenty-fifth, nineteen eighty-two. The name on the certificate was Cassandra Powel.
“Who is that?” asked Brantley.
“I don’t know,” Gertrude said. “I wonder if this is for one of my neighbors.” She closed up the book.
Brantley looked at the book with a look of hunger. “The tag had your name on it,” he said. “Maybe it will make sense if you look a bit more.”
Gertrude held the book tight. “I think this is a really bad idea. Let’s go to dinner. I shouldn’t have opened it now.”
“Look, you’re frazzled,” Brantley said. “I’ll order takeout and we can pick up a movie from Redbox. This way you can have a chance to detox.”
“I would rather go out,” Gertrude said. When she heard the words come out of her mouth she knew that that lie would never stand on its own. “Okay, maybe takeout is good. I’ll take Szechuan.”
“Okay, I’ll call it in and we can go get it,” Brantley said.
Gertrude shook her head. “You’re right. I’m frazzled. Why don’t you go get it and I’ll just detox here. This way the evening won’t be a total loss,” she said.
Gertrude could tell that Brantley wanted to say more, but he knew there was nothing more he could say without destroying the rest of the evening. “Okay, he said, “I’ll be right back. Don’t do anything crazy without me.”
“I think I was crazy enough already,” Gertrude said.
Brantley put on his cutest smile, leaned in, and kissed Gertrude. This time the kiss was almost cold, but Gertrude hid her reaction. That smile had lost a lot of firepower all of a sudden.
“Love you, Gertie” Brantley said. He then tuned and let himself out the front door, leaving Gertrude holding onto the album, still stuck on the couch.
Gertrude counted to ten before she opened back up the album. The second page was a series of baby pictures. They were all solo pictures with no hint of another being present, except for the record of the photos themselves. Page after page chronicled the child getting older. Still no other human being was depicted. Suddenly Gertrude lost her breath. The girl had grown into her! She remembered that outfit. It was her favorite purple dress that she wore every other day to kindergarten. The pages almost turned on their own. Picture after picture of her caught in various candid moments on her own. All the towns, all the different houses, all her and only her on each page.
Gertrude flipped to the first page again and read aloud the name on the birth certificate, “Cassandra Powel.” It sounded so natural to her. She looked at the box. Inside was still a note and a small box that had been hidden by the larger album. She took out the box and opened it. There was a silver heart locket on a thin chain. The locket didn’t want to open, so she set it aside and looked at the paper. Unfolding it she revealed a hand written letter with an old polaroid picture of a woman who looked so much like Gertrude, but with a lot more wear and tear on her face..
I really should say dear Gertrude, but that was supposed to be just your middle name, an honor to your grandmother. I’m sorry I have to give this to you now. After so many years of only allowing myself to catch a glimpse of you now and then I had planned to stop in and finally introduce myself. I used to imagine your reaction from finally meeting your mother. I would fear the revulsion or rejection. I would get excited about the acceptance and unconditional love. So many possibilities, so many different ways it would work out in my mind. I’m now worried though that they have almost caught me. This is so dangerous Cassandra. Every time I snuck to see you I knew there was a chance that they would find you. If they did, everything would have been lost. As it is I worry they might already have their sights on you. I wish I was there to help you through the pain you are about to endure, but you must take up the burden on your own. Put on the locket and all will be revealed. If I can I will come to you, but if they do finally catch me know that I die with my love for you as my grave shroud.
Gertrude looked at the locket and wondered what made it so important. Just then she heard the front door open. Gertrude quickly hid the locket and letter away in her pocket.
She stood up as Brantley entered the room carrying the takeout bags. “No plates?” Brantley asked.
“Sorry, decompressing,” Gertrude said.
“Right. So you weren’t looking through the album while I was gone,” Brantley said.
“I’ll go get the plates,” Gertrude said as she brushed past Brantley and went to the kitchen. As she pulled plates from the cupboard she pulled back out the locket and looked at it again. Did she really want to put it on? What would happen?
Brantley came into the kitchen and saw the locket. “Where did you get that Gertie?” he asked. His eyes never left the silver heart.
Gertrude felt like she was being violated by the way he focused on the locket. “It was in the box,” she said.
“Can I see it Gertie?” Brantley asked. His voice seemed off, and his purple eyes almost seemed to glow with a reddish tinge.
Gertrude held the locket closer to her, defensively. “Brantley, you are scaring me.”
Brantley looked at her, but that other him didn’t really go away. “I’m sorry. It’s just that looks really, well I just want to see it,” he said. For every slow step forward he took, Gertrude took one back until she felt the sink behind her.
“Don’t be silly, Gertie,” Brantley said. “Just let me see the necklace.” That voice was so distorted in her ears. Every hair on her arms was standing and felt like they were screaming like the painting by Munch.
Brantley took another step forward and that snapped Gertrude into action. She went to put the necklace on as Brantley screamed, “No!” He moved faster than she thought he could, but he could only grab the locket as the chain settled around her neck and shoulders.
The world exploded into fire. Her mind heard the voices of thousands of people at once. The odd thing was she could make out each in turn and while the initial cacophony was deafening and confusing, it suddenly all made sense. She knew who she was and the family she had come from. The knowledge of generations settled upon her and took residence. Family members from recent and far past all welcomed her into the fold. It was as if all the memories for generations had taken up residence inside her mind. They told her many things, but especially of the creatures that would come looking for her and the locket. The creatures with the purple eyes.
Gertrude snapped back to the now and Brantley growled at her. His hand was smoking where he held the locket, but he didn’t let go. He looked at her with those purple inhuman eyes filled with hate.
“Give me the locket,” Brantley said. His teeth grew longer and she swore he grew like two inches and a hundred pounds of muscle.
Gertrude felt fear like she had never felt, even in those dark moments she had recently reburied. She felt so overwhelmed that she almost just gave up, but when that thought surfaced the family she just had been introduced to screamed a collective NO. Suddenly her muscles had memories that only a lifetime, or in this case multiple lifetimes could have mastered. She stepped into Brantley, crashing her heel into his foot while spinning and bringing her foot up and into Brantley’s jaw, snapping his head back. The momentum tore the locket from his hand and caused him to take a step back to regain his balance.
Gertrude settled into a balanced fighting stance. Brantley spit out a tooth onto the floor. “I’ll take that as a no,” he said. “Too bad. I was looking forward to having you for dinner tonight. Take care, Gertie. I honestly hoped you weren’t going to be the one.” With that he turned and left.
“My name is Cassandra and I was hoping you would have been the one,” she said to no one as the front door closed. “What have I gotten myself into?”
A voice in her head said, “This is just the beginning.”
For once Cassandra didn’t worry about what surprises may come. She had at last found where she belonged.