An excerpt from

No Story to Tell

Victoria glanced quickly behind her as she grappled with the mangled ring of keys Pearl had given her. Her hands trembled visibly as she searched for the long-unused one that would unseal the ballroom doors. She was irritated by her nervousness. It wasn’t as if she were doing anything wrong, she chided herself. Bobby knew full well what her plans were for the studio. They had discussed it again just the night before. Vehemently. Now, standing alone outside the massive double doors of the ballroom, she began to wonder if she shouldn’t have considered his objections a little more seriously.

Fumbling the key ring, she accidentally scraped the ornate carving beveled into the thick oak panel of the left door. A sprinkling of filigreed gold fell to the burgundy carpet. Rubbing it invisible with her foot, Victoria suddenly became aware of the complexity of the doors. Over the years she must have walked right past them hundreds of times. But, she had never really paid them any attention, saw them without seeing them. The way someone who grows up in the shadow of a mountain may never truly encounter its raw majesty.

That seemed impossible to her now as her eyes explored the imposing and intricately carved doors. They rose at least three feet above her head. Even with both her arms stretched out, she would not be able to encompass their span. Stained a depthless indigo, the carvings in the raised panels had been brushed with a now-crackled and flaking gold. Sturdy brass hardware held the doors firmly in place.

Her fingers toyed with a long, jagged key. Even without looking she knew it was the brass one that would unlock the door. She hesitated, her mind raging with a searing question: Who was she to open these doors? Who was she to disturb these hopes and dreams and fears, so silently sealed away? The carefully carved pictures on the door captivated her as she vacillated between expectation and anxiety. Demure ladies in kimonos, ferocious dragons, snowcapped mountains, a collage of symbols she could not understand.

The key slid easily into place, but she could not turn her hand. She felt paralyzed. Suddenly, she wanted the whole crazy idea of the studio to disappear. She thought about sliding the key back out. She could return it to Pearl. Say the room was unsuitable. It was too big. That it would be impossible to control the children in such a large space. It would be pandemonium at least and chaos at best.

She would simply tell Bobby she had changed her mind. Not that the idea couldn’t work, as he insisted, just that she didn’t feel like pursuing it yet. And Elliot. She felt an unexpected rush of rage course through her. Why had he even suggested such a thing in the first place? He knew nothing about her. She hadn’t danced in years. Not really. Not since she’d come home from the failed dance audition, thrown her shoes in the basement, buried her albums and pictures in a bottom drawer and hissed to her mother that she never wanted to dance again. Even to herself it had been a surprise how perfectly able she had been to alienate herself from the only thing that caused the blood to course through her veins. She had felt she had no other choice. Bassman had stolen far more from her that night than he would ever know. Her dignity, yes. But far worse was that without the protection of her arrogant facade, he’d managed to expose her to herself.

Her eyes lingered on the gently spiked motif in the center of the door. A flower: foreign, mystical. Certainly not anything that could ever survive in Hinckly’s inhospitable climate. A lotus flower, Victoria thought, surprised she could identify it. She wondered at the workings of the mind, how it could hold so many random bits of information, able to dislodge and float them forward at seemly obscure, unimportant moments.

Her thoughts turned to Lily. Fresh, beautiful, innocent Lily. Her protective affection for the child puzzled her. She felt her hand turn the key. She knew she turned it not for herself. She turned it for Lily. For a promise made which she felt compelled to keep.

 

The door slid open easily. As if it had been merely awaiting her decision. A gust of damp, musty air escaped past her like a desperate sigh. She wondered again how many half-lived dreams had been sealed up behind these doors. For a moment she again faltered, then the sound of someone entering the lobby coaxed her quickly forward. Sliding inside, she closed the door behind her and was instantly encased in darkness.

Keeping her hand on the cold doorknob, the sound of her shallow breathing filled the room with a rapid, audible pulse. Shadows evolved into shapes. Gloom hung as tangibly as the tattered blankets nailed across the tall windows. She was surprised to discover the room was not expansive at all. A dividing wall, unpainted and none too straight, had been slapped up somewhere over the years, consuming at least half of what had once been a palatial space. The room was suffocated with boxes, crates, bottles, jars, bed frames, sagging mattresses, broken televisions and bent bicycles. Partially used rolls of silver duct tape littered the floor. Like the elephants’ elusive graveyard, Victoria realized she had just solved the mystery about what Bud did with the copious amount of stuff he was constantly dragging home from the dump. Sinking onto a broken-backed chair, she pulled her knees up to her chest and closed her eyes.

A soft tap on the door startled her upright, hands swiping hastily at tears. She held her breath, heart thundering as she stood transfixed, eyes riveted to the doors, willing them not to open. Another tap, firmer this time, then a sliver of sharp light shot in at her. She froze, praying the darkness was capable of transforming her into just another piece of inanimate junk. Her lungs strained wildly for air. She allowed herself a thin whisper of breath as the door opened wider, and a silhouetted figure stepped toward her.

 

“Hey, you in here?”

“Um . . . ya. Hi,” she ventured, voice gravelly with emotion. She barely suppressed a giggle as Elliot flinched ever so slightly.

“Jeez! Scared me. Didn’t see you there. What are you doing standing in the dark anyhow?”

“Well . . . I don’t know where the light switch is.”

“Has to be around here somewhere,” he murmured, hands already sweeping over the wall like quick black spiders. “Here.”

Victoria ducked her head as a tight snap brought the room to life. The addition of light did little to brighten her mood.

“There, that’s better,” Elliot congratulated himself. “Oh. Maybe not. Wow,” he whistled an exhalation. “This place is a bit of a disaster.”

“No argument there,” Victoria agreed wryly.

“I saw your car out front. Thought I’d stop in and see how it was going. Rumor around town has it that you’re going to turn the ballroom into a dance studio. That true?” He grinned over at her expectantly.

 

“It was. Until I came in here and discovered it’s Bud’s dumping ground for his dump treasures.” She hated the thin scrape of her voice. The way her words so easily extinguished the playfulness from his face.

“Ya,” he frowned as he surveyed the piles of debris. “It’s going to take quite a bit of work, that’s for sure. He’s quite an interesting old character, Bud, isn’t he? You should see some of the things he’s got welded together back of his garage. He’s actually pretty clever in some ways. How you figure he manages to get all this stuff back here from the dump with just his bike?”

Victoria shrugged. Discouragement was stealing over her thoughts as she looked around the room. So, Bobby would again be proven right. Maybe the studio had been a stupid idea after all, she thought. And rising thickly on the tide of her disappointment, she was surprised to feel an enormous sense of relief.

 

“This will make a fantastic studio, though. Won’t it?” Elliot offered, edging his way through the maze, stopping to flip open a box, thumb through a magazine.

 

“Would have.”

He ceased his rummaging. “What do you mean, would have?”

 

“It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?”

 

“Not to me, it isn’t.”

 

Victoria sighed and nudged a basketful of ratty towels with her foot.

 

“Well, obviously I can’t have a studio in here. Look at this place, Elliot.”

“You want me to look at it? Okay, Victoria. I’ll look at it. And then I’m going to do you the profound favor of telling you exactly what it is I see, because apparently your vision is still impaired by the darkness.”

Victoria started to object, but he softened his remark with a wink. Swinging around theatrically, he opened his arms expansively and silently surveyed the room. She grinned nervously at his antics, half fearing he was going to break out in song.

“What I see is twelve-foot ceilings iced with moldings as ornate as hoar frost on a wintery window. A delicate center rosette giving flower to an exquisite crystal and brass chandelier, which will once again sparkle after it is unburdened from decades of dust.”

He pointedly ignored her amusement as she looked up at the bare light bulb dangling from the center of the yellowed ceiling. “Oh, and look over here,” he continued, as he leaned over to her, gently took her hand and guided her toward the shabbily draped window. Picking up half of a broken crutch from the floor, he swooped the tired blanket aside and revealed a rather ornate but filthy window.

 

“Have you ever seen such a resplendent Gothic arch? And do I have to note how incredibly rare it is to find such masterful stained glass outside of a cathedral?”

He grinned down at her, releasing the blanket and handing the crutch to her with great flourish. Moving quickly, he scooted several items away from the center of the room and gestured to the floor.

“And, just in case you were not sufficiently impressed by all that opulence, have a look at this.”

Victoria shook her head and laughed as she glanced at the floor.

 

“No, you have to look at it.”

 

“I am looking at it.”

“You have to really look at it. Up close.”

 

Victoria held his eye until she realized he was actually quite serious. Bending over slightly, she again looked at the floor. Slowly, it began to dawn on her what Elliot was trying to get her to see. The floor, although abused and water stained, was a lovely oak parquet.

“This is perfect, Elliot! This would make a perfect dance floor!”

 

Victoria laughed wondrously. It was as if Elliot had created a different world by the mere force of his enthusiasm. They stood grinning at each other for a long moment, their eyes sparkling with excitement before Victoria felt compelled to look away. She wondered if he had any idea of the strength of his charm.

She surveyed the wreckage of the room again slowly, her mind flipping between Elliot’s vision and the reality staring her in the face.

“Your brother is right. You really can dream a castle up out of an outhouse, can’t you?”

“I consider it a gift, thank you,” he smiled, stepping directly in front of her, placing his hands softly on her shoulders as he held her with his eyes. “Okay, so you want to tell me what you see now?”

 

“Elliot, I . . .” she stepped back, unnerved by a sudden urge to slip her arms around his waist. She felt both frightened and intrigued by the casualness of his touch. With him it was as if the traditional, unspoken boundaries that should have prevailed simply ceased to exist.

Sensing her confusion, Elliot busied himself rearranging some boxes up against the wall, producing a makeshift chair. “Come here. Let’s sit down and you can wax poetic about the many fine attributes of this exquisite room.”

“Wax poetic? I doubt it.”

“Try,” he whispered dramatically as he positioned himself on top of the boxes and patted the empty space beside him.

 

A million cautions crackled in her mind. A million desires snuffed them out. She grinned over at him, her mind vacillating, her body tense. She marveled at his easy composure.

 

Propped on top of the broken boxes, his lean blue-jeaned legs swung loosely to an inaudible song. He again patted the empty space beside him and raised his eyebrows.

“Your turn.”

 

Mentally, she glanced around. The windows were covered; the door was closed. Taking a deep breath, she stepped toward him, maneuvering somewhat awkwardly through the maze of items as she felt his eyes on her. Edging gingerly past a looped anaconda of rusted chain, her foot toppled over a chipped mason jar displaying a morbid collection of dried spider carcasses.

“Oh,” she said distastefully and almost instantly felt Elliot’s hand hot against her back as he steadied her. He helped her over a pile of pails, and they sat down in a perfectly choreographed move. They burst into laughter, dissipating the tension sparkling around them. Sitting silent for a moment, their legs swinging in tandem, they pretended to study the contents of the room. A wafer-thin line of respectable space ran between them.

Surreptitiously, she slid her eyes up his legs to the navy T-shirt loosely tucked into his jeans. She scanned his denim jacket for bleached-out grease stains, mended tears or resewn buttons. Finding nothing, she wondered how long it had been since Elliot had had someone in his life to take care of such things. A stab of jealousy flashed through her.

A dangle of dark laces flicking out from his pant hem caught her attention.

“I think your shoe is undone,” she offered.

 

“Yup. Both of them are,” he said as he pulled up his pant legs to reveal the loose laces of his brown suede shoes.

Victoria scrunched up her nose. “Doesn’t that bug you?”

“Nope. It bugs me when they’re tied up and my feet feel like they’re choking. I’m actually more of a barefoot-in-the-sand kind of guy.”

 

“Ha! Well, what on earth are you doing in Hinckly, then?”

 

“Not quite sure, yet. But I think I might be very close to finding out,” he twinkled her a grin. She shifted her position, slightly increasing the space between them.

 

“You have really long legs.”

“What? Oh, ya, I guess so,” Victoria murmured, pulling them up toward her and wrapping her arms around them tightly.

 

“You guess so? Well, look at them. I have to be a good two inches taller than you and our legs are almost the same length.”

“Maybe you just have short legs,” she cracked.

 

Elliot nudged her softly sideways, his arm remaining pressed up against hers.

“Okay. Quit stalling,” he grinned. “What do you see?”

“Junk.”

He nudged her sideways again, a little farther this time and she reached out and grabbed onto him to keep from tumbling to the floor. “Okay! Okay!”

 

She turned serious, skimming the room in a desperate attempt to see beyond the tangle of cast-offs. They sat in comfortable silence, Elliot patient as she struggled to form her thoughts. Finally, she cleared her throat and spoke aimlessly into the room.

 

“I’m sorry, Elliot. It just looks impossible to me.”

“Why impossible?” he asked, laying his arm along her leg and gently squeezing her knee.

“Just with all this stuff,” she mumbled, her thoughts heavily distracted by his casually placed hand. “I’ll never be able to get it all out of here.”

 

“Are you serious?”

Victoria frowned at him, confused.

 

“You mean you would seriously let all this junk stop you from pursuing your lifelong dream?”

Victoria bristled.

 

“Have I offended you?”

 

She shrugged one shoulder.

 

“Good.”

Snapping around to face him, she was met by the smooth stroke of his fingers across her prominently protesting lips.

 

“Look, the last thing I’d want to do is offend you. But it’s good that you felt that way.”

“Why?”

 

“Because now you know where to look for the truth.”

 

She flicked her hair away from her face. “That was the truth, Elliot. Look at this mess. It’d be impossible for me to ever clean this up.”

“Impossible? Or just difficult?”

 

Her mind raced to all the other errands she wasn’t getting done. Bobby would be furious if she missed the grocery store and she had to drive all the way back into town again tomorrow.

“Okay, well not impossible, I guess. Look, I really should get going. I have to stop by the Lucky Dollar before they close.”

 

“Friday today,” Elliot smiled. “They’re open late.”

 

He reached over and she watched as her hand disappeared inside of both of his. He held her eye steadily. “So. What do you think might really be holding you back, Victoria?”

She shrugged, her mind a maze of confusion.

 

He sat patiently, cupping her hand in his, waiting for her answer. Finally, he sighed gently as he slowly spread open her fingers and began to analyze her glistening palm.

“Okay, well maybe we can find some answers in here,” he whispered secretively. She leaned her head against the wall, lulled into a hypnotic trance by the butterfly touch of his middle finger as he stroked the telltale lines of her palm.

“Oh, my. There are definitely some mysteries written here,” he said with playful seriousness.

Struggling against a deep desire to curl up into sleep, Victoria closed her eyes and smiled as he continued stroking down over her wrist and began to trace the inky veins which branched up the inside of her arm. Drifting in a moment of soft pleasure, she suddenly sat bolt upright, snapping her arm from him.

“Oh! That . . . tickles,” she gasped, roughly rubbing away the electrifying sensation which had erupted when his finger had found the small, concave depression at her elbow.

Elliot shook his head and cast her a sidelong look.

 

“Well, that’s really a shame, Miss, because I think I almost had the answer there. Now, I guess it’s up to you again.”

Victoria chewed her lip, struggling for a full breath. A racing fear replaced the calm in her stomach.

“Maybe I’m just scared a studio won’t work out, that’s all.”

 

“Or, maybe you’re scared it will work out.”

Their eyes met abruptly. “At any rate, I don’t think we can reasonably hold all this junk here responsible for holding you back. Right?”

Victoria shook her head slowly.

 

“Besides, we can get this place cleaned up in no time . . . with a little help.”

“We?”

 

“Ya. We can get your husband and his buddies, a couple of trucks and we’ll have you Swan-Laking in here in no time.” He snapped his fingers to accentuate the simplicity of his plan, jolting Victoria’s senses back to reality.

 

“No. That would never work, Elliot.”

 

“Of course it will. Believe me, I’ve cleared out worse situations than this one.”

“No, it’s not that. It’s just . . .” she hesitated, nervous about revealing any more of the intimate details of her life. Part of her was convinced that the more Elliot found out about her, the less attractive he was likely to find her.

 

“What?”

“Well, it’s just with Bobby. I don’t think he would be able to help.”

 

Elliot frowned a question.

“He, um . . . he doesn’t really want me to have a studio, at all.”

She waited for Elliot to say something, but in the void of his words her own tumbled out.

 

“He just doesn’t think it will be a success. Says he doesn’t want me to end up disappointed. I don’t know. Either way, he definitely won’t help me with it.” Her foot toyed abjectly with a rusty bread pan filled with orange nails.

 

“Well, I’ll help you then.”

“Elliot, no. I can’t ask you to do that.”

 

“You didn’t ask. I offered.”

Victoria released the tension between them with an exasperated laugh.

“Don’t you ever take no for an answer?”

“Only when I think someone really means it,” he grinned.