Thursday, 26 June 2014

'The Ties That Bind' - A New Short Story

It's been one of those funny weeks where time keeps getting away from me, rendering me unable to post as frequently. I promise I will rectify that, but in the meantime, here's another short story.

It's called "The Ties That Bind" and is set in NYC, a few weeks after V-Day.

As always, let me know what you think.

Mucho Love,

Vicky xoxo

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She sat at the dresser, minimally listening to her husband make small talk from the other side of the room. Instead, she studied the features of her face. They had set at a young age and time had done little to them since. She mentally traced the arch of her cheekbones, the swell of her lips, up her slim nose, spreading out across her oval eyes. Green, like emeralds. She was staring at her greatest asset.

Her caramel hair fell in soft waves around her shoulders as she evaluated the reflection in the looking glass. Her face rested in the palm of her left hand, complemented by the glittering rings of engagement and marriage. Leaning back, she stretched her arm in order to admire the diamonds more clearly, as she often did to make herself feel better. She would think of the rough carbon such a treasure had come from and marvel at how something with such origins could be yielded to form such beauty. Twisting her hand delicately, she allowed the light to catch and dance, it’s brilliant sparkle dazzling her momentarily. But the more frequently she completed this ritual, the less effective it was at making her feel better.

“Darling, where’s my cufflinks?” Arthur asked her. He always expected her to know the answer to the minutest of details; the location of his cufflinks, if there was any more scotch in the house, the unsent letter he left somewhere. At first, she had met these queries with a “I don’t know, did you ask Louise?”. But apparently, despite having a household staff of five, she was who Arthur expected answers from.

She momentarily toyed with the idea of telling him to find his own damn cufflinks; but if they fought before they had even arrived at the party, she would pay for it later. Instead, she lit a cigarette, inhaling and exhaling deeply before making her way to him.

“Which ones?” she asked sweetly, padding her way over to him. He stood in front of his dresser and the ornate mirror reflected their dual image. She was reminded of what a handsome couple they made. Arthur was the All-American-Prince, in more ways than one. Even within high society, the VanDerBill’s were a league unto themselves, a dynasty that had a finger in every profitable pie across the land. Arthur, the first-born of Julie and Christopher VanDerBill, was quite literally, their golden-haired boy. Tall and athletic, for most of the 30s he had been the season’s most desirable bachelor. Until Edith nabbed him. Their children, of which it was assumed they would have two at least, would be beautiful. But the topic of them procreating was not one Edith wanted to discuss right now. It would only bring more frustrations she could not express.

“The square gold ones” he replied, deftly tying his black bow around his crisp white collar. Looking at her for the first time, he asked “Why aren’t you dressed yet? It’s already half past”. She strode to the velvet lined drawer in the bureau where Arthur’s watches and paraphernalia lived. Without trouble, she located the requested cufflinks and returned to her husband, threading them through the space on his shirt sleeve.

“It won’t take me long” she replied as she felt his gaze sweep across her youthful body, covered in nothing but a pearl slip and stockings. She had barely finished securing the second cuff when  Arthurs arms wrapped around her waist. “I don’t mind us being late, if it’s for a good reason” he murmured, brushing his lips against her neck as his hand wandered south. Her body stiffened at his touch and to compensate, she purred “Later”, as she broke away from the embrace.

As she walked away from him in favour of her gown hanging expectantly on the screen, he said “We’re still newlyweds, Edith. People will understand if we get distracted en-route”, chuckling to himself while putting on his dinner jacket.

“All good things, darling” she replied, hurriedly stepping into her dress. “It would be rude to be late to a party for serving men” she added. Arthur’s desires would be dealt with later, when she was drunk enough to comply.

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The Truells’ townhouse was swollen with people.. A scaled-back orchestra seasoned the air with an upbeat tempo, although there was no need, Edith thought. She hadn’t seen people so light and carefree since before Pearl Harbour. Unlike other soirees, the party wasn’t confined to one set room; instead, people buzzed around the entire townhouse. As a servant wordlessly took their coats, Edith spied young ladies guzzling never-ending supplies of champagne. Soldiers clad in freshly pressed and starched uniforms lit one cigarette after another, appreciating the scenery now that they no longer had to discuss the problems of the world, for they had solved them.

“Well aren’t you just radiant, Mrs VanDerBill!” she heard someone say in a booming voice, before connecting it to their host, William Truells. "You scrub up well yourself, Will” she replied, exchanging a polite kiss on the cheek with his wife, Elizabeth, as her husband and Will slapped each other on the back.

“You do look delish, young one” Elizabeth told her as she signaled for a waiter. Elizabeth was thirty to Edith’s twenty-four, but having already been married for seven years with three children securely in the Truells nursery, she was by-far the more seasoned of the two.

“Wonderful to see you, Elizabeth. How are the children?” Edith asked politely. She genuinely liked Elizabeth. Edith was one of those people that was able to convince others they were dear and special to her, even when they weren't. It was a valuable gift in the never-ending carousel of society events. But she never needed to utilize it with Mrs Truells. She held genuine affection for this woman who came before her and did her duty; which was just as well given the deep friendship between William and Arthur.

Edith would always remember Elizabeth at hers and Arthur’s official engagement party. After expressing the expected “Congratulations”, Elizabeth embraced Edith tightly and whispered “Good luck kid, you’re going to need it with him”. It was exactly how Edith felt and as they shared a conspiratorial laugh at the veracity of the statement, Edith knew she had found an ally.
“Horrors, absolute horrors. I only see them once a day thanks to Nanny but even then I need a stiff one before hand” Elizabeth replied as Edith smiled and shook her head. It was all joke, Edith had never seen a mother so devoted to her children as Elizabeth was to hers. While motherhood was the de facto role of the women in her class, devotion to ones offspring was not as common.

“Well, send them my love” she said as a terrified waiter stood straight-backed beside Elizabeth. “Yes, of course, they do love their Aunt Edith. Now, onto a far more important subject - what do you want to drink?”
A quick glance around the room told Edith that this was a special privilege afforded only to her, everyone else was swilling bubbly. “Honestly? Have you got any gin?” she asked.

“One gin martini and one vodka gimlet, and keep them coming” Elizabeth barked to the waiter.
“It’s a wonderful thing and all, and of course I told William it was a wonderful idea to have this party to welcome home the troops - but my, there’s no way we can get through this sober” she said, linking her arm through Edith’s.

“Now, let me show you off, my dear. You’re far too precious to spend the night languishing at Arthur’s side”. Edith turned to tell her husband that she would be back to him, but he and William had found some old college buddies and were already cutting cigars at an oak side table. With a great sigh of relief, she pushed her shoulders back as her muscles relaxed. Elizabeth watched this change, barely visible to the untrained - but she saw the glint return to Edith’s magnetic eyes. She squeezed the young girl’s forearm as the waiter returned with their drinks. Leading her in a toast, she told Edith “Let’s go have some fun.”

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After a few martinis, Edith was feeling nicely buzzed. It was only a few weeks since the armistice and the joy from it still hung in the air. Awaking to the news, Arthur and her had shared a rare moment of equal delight as their pressed newspapers yelled “VICTORY” across the front pages. The US had been largely untouched by “the troubles in Europe” as so many of their peers referred to it before Pearl Harbour. At parties and gatherings, Arthur would loudly voice his opinion that the war was something the US should stay out of and that he didn’t even know any of our men fighting on the continent, not personally anyway.

Edith kept her mouth shut during these outbursts. The more the war dragged on, the more she inwardly screamed at his callousness and crassness. But nobody, especially not Mrs VanDerBill, told Arthur VanDerBill how desperately wrong he was. Instead, she did what was expected of her; stood beside him, his silent ornament, listening with feigned interest. She never contradicted him, never let on to her own personal connection.

Until one night, it was dropped into the conversation. Arthur was giving his usual monologue, only a few weeks before December 7, about how he would be personally addressing his displeasure to Roosevelt if more service men were deployed. If she recalled correctly, the term “Throwing bad money after good” was used. Discreetly, Edith had downed a couple of glasses of champagne to deal with the obnoxiousness of it all.

Not that long ago, Arthur’s ideas on the matter were echoed by the majority. But as more and more whispers of the horror occurring made it’s way across the Atlantic, people’s attitudes changed. The conversation shifted from a stance of distance, to the view that the US had a duty to actively intervene. But Arthur held onto his outdated belief, unwilling to part with it.

And then, so innocuously, the moment Edith had been dreading arrived. An old classmate from Wellesley called out “Edith darling, weren’t you going with a soldier? Before Arthur, obviously” she added, laughing. She must have seen the colour drain from Edith’s face, for as soon as her chum looked at her, she realised the error. Their group became silent as all eyes, including those of her soon-to-be husband, turned to look upon her.

“Oh hardly - a few dates years ago didn’t make us steady” Edith replied lightly before draining the dregs of her glass. Arthur carefully watched his fiancĂ© - for that was then what she was - and in the narrowing of his eyes and the clench of his jaw, she knew this would not be the last she heard of it. But, he was a VanDerBill. His whole life had been a discipline in social grace. He put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close to him. Not in a loving manner, but in the way a child does to mark a possession as his. “Ancient history” Arthur proclaimed, loud and clear; as if it was nothing, as if he knew all about it.

Gazing adoringly at him, Edith placed a hand against his chest, “That was before I met Arthur. I find that all life was quite meaningless before that” she told the watching crowd before tiptoeing to place a soft kiss on his cheek. There were whoops and sighs followed by “Young love!” as they played the part of the perfect couple to a tee. But as Arthur pressed his cheek against hers, he hissed “We’ll discuss this later” and she knew she wasn’t out of the woods yet.

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He at least restrained himself until they were ensconced in the back of Arthur’s chauffeur driven car.

“What was all that about?” he demanded, angrily slamming the door before Richard, the driver, could even close it.

“What, darling?” she asked as she huddled beneath her furs, the cold winter air biting at her exposed skin.

“You know exactly what” he impatiently replied as Richard took his seat behind the wheel. “That soldier business. I thought you said you never had a serious beau before me?”

Feeling a little light-headed from the alcohol, Edith resisted the urge to laugh. She had never said such a thing to Arthur. But men did always like to wrap themselves in lies that would boost their ego. Arthur had gone with a plethora of beautiful society belle’s before spotting Edith at the sidelines of a polo match and deciding he would pursue her. But of course, the idea that Edith had a man before him was incredulous.

She decided that to soothe troubled waters as quickly as possible, it was best to not air that view. “I didn’t, my love” she purred, sliding herself across the stiff leather seat. “She’s as dotty as anything. I went on a couple of dates with this chap when I was bored one Spring. Nothing to it and nothing more than a bit of handholding” she said as she forced his arm around her, positioning herself in its crook.

She gazed up at him with the best doe eyes that she could muster. For a moment, she thought he was going to push the matter; she could see the calculations taking place in his mind. Leave it, leave it she mentally willed him. And suddenly, her wish was granted as she watched his jaw relax and he allowed himself a cautious smile. Squeezing her, she rested her head against his shoulder, grateful.

“I don’t mean to be a grouch, sweetheart” he said, brushing a stray curl off her face. “I just can’t stand of the thought of you with another.”

“Well there’s no need to think such things because there never has been another. You’re my only and in a week’s time, we’ll be joined together for all our days” she heard herself say convincingly as she returned a sudden kiss from him with as much passion as she could muster. The entire time, one word, or rather, a name, rang in her head - Charles.

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The party was sublime. Free from Arthur and caught up in the infectious atmosphere, Edith found herself actually enjoying it all. She floated like vapour around the room as she and Elizabeth drifted from one group to another.

The mask that Edith had cast upon her face began to crack. Unarmored, she was a different creature altogether. She tenaciously debated politics with men she didn’t know, she excitedly discussed dashing movie stars with the girls. Her and Elizabeth, intoxicated and bored with the orchestra, unceremoniously booted them out and instructed one of the waiters to find a phonograph to play jazz.

With her husband somewhere else, Edith allowed her hips to sway and swing with the music as she sat on the arm of a chair, until Elizabeth insisted that their group get up and dance.

“But there’s no dancefloor!” exclaimed an unknown girl - she couldn't have been more than 18 - who was hanging on to a soldier as if he would disappear at the loss of her touch. Looking at the uncomfortable expression on his face, Edith thought he probably would.

“We dance anyway!” Edith heard herself say, her voice a sing-song of joy, twirling herself over to the mahogany floor in front of the phonograph. Joining her, Elizabeth danced with her friend, crying “See, dancefloor!” and with that, the space became dense with bodies, moving their liberated limbs to the liberated music.

Edith surrendered herself to the melody and danced; with Elizabeth, with servicemen, with her friend’s wives. She even got the terrified waiter to attempt a few awkward moves. She laughed unbridled and smiled widely as she worked up a sweat she could feel running across her clavicles, dripping down her cleavage. Her hair was damp at the neck and her shoes covered in unidentified marks but she did not care.

There was a moment, when she felt like she was being watched. Her eyes darted around the room, searching for Arthur. But he wasn't there.

When the music stopped so the record could be changed, Edith made her way to the bathroom to freshen herself up. Walking from the revelry, across the marble hall, she knew beyond a shadow of doubt that she was being watched. She had learned what it felt like to be under observation from an early age, and although she didn’t look behind, she knew she was being followed too.

Edith pushed past the tipsy occupants of the stairs with swerves of her body and a chorus of “Excuse me”, gathering her pace as the throng thinned out at the top. Hitching a right, she walked the empty upper-landing, her step deliberately quickened. The noise of the party faded behind her and in it’s place, she heard a set of footsteps closing in.

Her heartbeat reached a crescendo as she entered the children’s playroom, allowing the heavy oak door to close behind her. It had barely touched the frame when she heard it swing open again, before closing for definite this time. She steadied herself against a white set of drawers, dotted with children in bonnets playing with animated rabbits and ducks.

“Edith”

The breath she drew in felt like a knife to her abdomen. Shock ravaged her face into a silent scream as she turned around, her eyes on the brink of overflow. Carefully lifting her gaze, she attempted to exert control over her shaking body.

“Hello, Charles.”

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“You were watching me downstairs” she said, a statement, not a question. Her mind raced to catch up with the turn in events.

“Yes” he replied, sitting himself down in the rocking chair by the window. He took out his cigarettes, lit two and offered one wordlessly to her. Still in shock, Edith walked over to him slowly. The gentle crackle of tobacco and flame the only noise in the room. She would not look at him. To look at him, to gaze upon his face, would make it real. And this couldn’t be real.

Taking the cigarette, Edith felt his thumb flick over her finger and reflexively, she stared at him. There were lines in his face that hadn’t been there before. He looked tired. His eyes, still blue, held something new. She realised it was the knowledge of human cruelty. His dark hair had been freshly cut and gelled. The uniform, tailored to fit the exact structure of his body; a rainbow of medals hanging upon his label. She looked at his hand as he took a drag. It was scarred and burnt.

He caught her gaze. “It’s nothing compared to some of the others” he replied evenly, but she saw the flicker of pain in his eyes that the recollection cost him.

She heard a glass shatter downstairs followed by roars of laughter and it brought her back to where they both were.

“Charles, what are you doing here? How are you here?” she asked, attempting to keep her emotions in check. She hoped  her shaking frame wasn’t giving her away.

“That’s a nice way to welcome back a man who just served your country” he said ruefully, opening the window and flicking the ends of his cigarette onto the city streets below.

“I would think a mannered lady such as yourself might open with a ‘Welcome home, Charles’, but perhaps Arthur’s gruffness has rubbed off on you” he added.

At the mention of her husband, Edith felt the room swim around her and she grasped for something to hold onto. Quick as a flash,Charles had an arm around her waist and was propelling her towards the rocking chair.

“Now now darling, take it easy. I haven’t made myself known to Mr VanDerBill” he told her, ushering her into the seat.

“But I have been observing him. Strange fellow, isn’t he?” he said as leaned against the window-sill. “Just goes to show you, money can buy you the girl but it can’t buy you personality.”

“Stop it Charles, please. Why are you here?” she asked again.

“The thing is, war makes peasants of us all, Edith” he replied with a grin. She sat in the chair, pacing her breathing, a confused look in her eyes.

“In the line of fire, that your family came over on the Mayflower or how big a hand they had in building up this very city doesn’t matter. And although your husband considers his class too-good to fight, not all his peers feel that way. I made some rather connected acquaintances in the war. Acquaintances who bring me into circles such as this one. As your one.”

Before she could answer, he took something from his pocket.

“I have something of yours, I’ve been meaning to return it for a while.” He paused. 

“Thing is, I’m not sure it was ever really mine”. He spat the last line out and with anger, tossed something at her feet. It was a small satin heart on a golden pin.

“I was going to send it as a wedding present, but I thought delivering it in person gave it a more personal touch.”

She picked the heart up in her hands, squashing the satin in her palm. Her shock was quickly being replaced by anger.

Jumping up out of the chair, she rallied. “So this is why you’re here? As a ghost to torment me?” she snapped as she began to pace the nursery.

“I’m here to get some answers, Edith. You owe me that much at least”

“I gave you your answers!” she cried before catching herself. No, she could not let anger take over. She had to remain in her senses.

“Ahh, there’s my girl - fire still intact, I see” he replied with a chuckle.

“I’m not your girl anymore, Charles. I made my choice.”

“Not what you wanted though, was it?” he said, lighting another cigarette. He was back by the window now, the yellow light from the streetlamp illuminating half of his face. 

The familiarity of his profile struck her. Time and circumstance had not changed that. She wondered how many lights had illuminated his face since they last met; how much darkness had his soul seen.

“Because I think if you had done what you wanted, you would still be in my arms and Arthur would have a different bauble on his.”

“What do you expect of me?” she demanded. “I don’t owe you anything - you’re lucky you even got a damn letter from me!”

“Yes, your letter, darling” he said softly, pulling an envelope from inside his jacket. The paper was lined and worn from being opened and refolded many times. Her heart tugged as she pictured him, reading her carefully chosen words, over and over again.

“As far as ‘Dear John’s go, it was rather bitter-sweet. Your sentiment oozes throughout - until you get to the bit about marrying another man.”

“You mean to mock me?” she hissed, her face aflame remembering the tender words she had sent to him. “Go ahead! I’m beyond your reproach. Whatever affection I once held for you has long burnt away.”

“Mock you? I’m the one who was made a fool of!” he thundered. “I went off to war, under the impression that we were in love! We were to be married, for Christ sake!”. She could now clearly see every inch of pain she had caused him, etched across his face.

“It was a castle in the sky, Charles. We both knew that from the beginning” she replied coolly. She imagined herself as a block of ice and no matter how much salt Charles leveled at her, she would not allow herself to melt.

Storming over to her, he grabbed her face, forcing her to look at him. “We did, did we? Did we know that the night we talked until dawn? When you burnt the eggs the morning after our first night together? When you pinned that trinket on my sleeve so I would always be wearing your heart?”

Breaking away from his grasp, she turned her back and tried to catch her breath. She felt claustrophobic in this room, with him. Her dress, suddenly too heavy; her shoes, now pinching her feet. She longed to cast it all off and run on the streets in the night-air - away from this torment.

“A castle in the sky” he whispered. “No my love, our dreams weren’t built on clouds - they were built on lies.”

“Charles, I was pregnant.”

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The words were out before she could even think to form them. She turned back to face him. Such a state of shock was he in, the smallest breeze would have tipped him over.

Clinically, she filled the silence of the nursery with the details. He had just been deployed. They weren’t married. She didn’t even know if he would be coming back. He couldn’t provide for himself, never mind her and a child. Her position. Her standing. The scandal would destroy her family.

His voice barely audible, he asked her how she got rid of their baby.

“I didn’t abort it, Charles. I had a miscarriage. 10 weeks in. Only my doctor knows.”

Relief flooded over his face and he ran towards her, wrapping her in the embrace of his arms. “My darling, my poor darling” he said into her hair. She shoved him off her, fleeing to the other end of the room to put as much space between them as possible.

“Stop it, stop it. Don’t you see, Charles? I would have aborted it! That was my intention, my plan! Nature beat me to it! I was never going to have your baby.” 

She did not know how she managed to not scream the words, but as she spoke them, she could hear her voice as if it were coming from someone else. It was a voice on the edge of hysteria.

As she waited for him to respond, she played with the rings on her finger, twisting her engagement ring in a loop; pushing it up to the knuckle and back down again. Her wedding band sat immobile beneath it. She had not taken it off since Arthur put it there. She didn’t even know if she could.

“Why?”

His question hung in the air; a thousands thoughts flitting across her mind. She could explain how she loved him, how she would always love him. That if there were such a thing as soulmates in this twisted world, their souls belonged to each other. She could tell him of the agonizing hours spent trying to think of a way they could be together. How her decision to marry Arthur was made with cold detachment, as if she were deciding to go to the supermarket because she needed milk. She could reveal that in the weeks and months after his departure, her heart broke fresh each day she woke and remembered what her life was.

She could even make a plea to his logic; the only commodity available to a woman in her world was her choice of husband - she had no skills, no idea how to function in a world outside of privilege and wealth. It was not as if the thought to leave had never crossed her mind. Indeed, after she found out she was pregnant, it was all she could think of.

The seed of running away had been planted as she plotted ways to nurture it into growth. But it could not grow. Even if she summoned the courage to turn her back on all she knew and embark on an adventure with Charles - what then? Life as a soldiers wife, an uncertain and lonely future? Even if he left the army - what would he do? A low-paying hard-working job, them struggling to always make ends meet? And with a baby? Edith didn’t even know how to take care of herself without the assistance of staff - how was she supposed to manage a husband and newborn?

It would only be a matter of time before she ended up resenting her child and hating him. Their love was strong. But was is strong enough to make her forget everything she sacrificed for it? Was it strong enough to withstand obligations and routine and the cold chill of winter when it came? She couldn’t take the chance. She wouldn’t take the chance.

But she would say none of this to him, for if he were to hear, he would coat his tongue with honey to attract the bee of her affection.

So instead, turning to the window so she wouldn’t have to see his face, she used the fatal weapon in her arsenal.

“Because to bear your child would have been beneath me. You, are beneath me. You always were.”

Once the weight of her words sank in, he left the room, wordlessly. Edith waited for a few minutes to insure he wouldn’t return for a final parting shot, before collapsing into a fit of crying.

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After she finally left the nursery, Edith found Elizabeth’s suite. She washed the mascara streaks from her cheeks and reapplied her lipstick. Smoothing her hair and straightening her dress, she tried out a smile in the mirror - she was a picture of happiness.

Making her way back into the heart of the party, she found Elizabeth with William and Arthur. In her absence, the revelry had climaxed and the room felt like a deflated balloon.

“Edith, darling, where have you been?” Arthur drunkenly asked her, pulling her under his arm. He smelled of whiskey and cigars.

“I told them you just went to freshen up, dear” Elizabeth intersected before Edith could reply, her eyes cloaked in meaning. Glancing at the clock on the wall, Edith saw she had been upstairs for over an hour.

“All the dancing my love, it wreaks havoc with a girls make-up” she told her husband.

“Guawf. You women lose all sense of reason once you hear a ditty tune” he replied.

Edith tinkled a laugh in response as she scanned the room, trying to see if Charles was still around. “We best be off, anyway” Arthur said to no-one in particular. Then, without lowering his voice, he turned to William and said “Want to get this one home and inspect her dancing for myself!”

Elizabeth shot the two men a look of disgust as they went to fetch the driver. "He’s gone” she whispered to Edith once they were alone.

Standing side-by-side, they viewed the dregs of the party around them. Confetti littered the floor, soldiers openly drank champagne straight from the bottle. New couples blossomed in badly-lit corners and a fog of cigarette smoke hung in thick strands around the room. Edith shaped her mouth to ask Elizabeth, “Who?” but before she could, she heard a rustle as something was pressed into her hands.

She looked down. Elizabeth’s gloved hand was holding hers tightly. She could make out her folded letter to Charles in between

“He asked me to give this to you.”

Edith stared at her letter for a moment before raising her gaze to once again, look around the room. Squeezing her friends palm, she asked “Will you dispose of it for me?”

“Of course” Elizabeth replied, taking it back and shoving it between her hand and her glove. “I’ll burn it myself” she added. The two women waited for their husbands return, holding hands in silence. There was nothing else to say.

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