Frank leaned back in his desk chair. He was in the dark office of Libellule. Only the desk lamp made a small warm circle of glow. An overflowing ash tray sat in the middle of the blotter next to a half full decanter and cut crystal glass. A chair opposite the desk sat empty as if it were waiting for someone to arrive. Down below a Christmas Eve party was wrapping up. The late night stragglers were delicately herded out as the help quickly cleaned the restaurant. They all wanted to return home to their families or make it to Mass.
Not Frank. He didn’t even play host that night. He sat alone in the office smoking cigarette after cigarette. He stood up and walked to the window. Snowflakes were floating past. They never really stuck out here, but managed to huddle in all the out of the way crevices of the buildings. From his vantage point he looked down at the boardwalk as holiday revelers hurried home. The sea was an angry iron gray. The waves were low and choppy. The dunes of the sand were collecting a white dusting. The telephone rang. Frank darted back to the desk and snatched it up with the agility of an eighteen-year-old.
“Hello?” he said. The sudden exertion made him follow the question with panting to catch his breath.
“Merry Christmas, Frank,” the caller purred in a near whisper. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, Caroline, of course not. I was waiting with bated breath.” He tried to joke, but the desperate tone of his voice wasn’t lost on her.
“And if I didn’t call?” Caroline took the telephone off the side table and slipped into the kitchen with it. The swinging door slowly flipped shut behind her. The house was dark and quiet except for Homer’s rhythmic gagging snore emanating from above.
“I’d be disappointed,” Frank admitted.
“And if I showed up at the Libellule party? I’m sure you had one, don’t lie,” she teased. Frank cringed.
“No, you can’t do that, Caroline. Don’t even think of it.” Frank knew the time had come to tell the truth. He had spent many nights going over and over how he would break it to her. On the other end of the line, Caroline flinched from his sudden answer. Her demeanor cooled.
“I see, you’re allowed to find someone new, Frank. I won’t hold it against you. I can still play nice when I want,” she said.
“No,” Frank replied slowly, “It’s not that.” He leaned on his elbows and started fidgeting with a pen. Caroline’s brow furrowed miles away in Philadelphia.
“What is it then? You wouldn’t want to see me?” Her pulse quickened as she prepared for the feeling of heartbreak all over again. The little voice in her mind screamed that she was ‘too old for this schoolgirl shit’. Frank paused for a moment before he finally blurted it out. There wasn’t anyway to explain it without a complete lie.
“It’s Cylus, he’s back.” There was no response. Caroline leaned against the wall in shock and slid to the kitchen floor. It was several minutes before she had the strength to lift the mouthpiece out of her lap.
“When?” she squeaked. Frank sighed and rubbed his eyes before answering.
“He’s been back over a year now…”
“A year!?” Caroline exclaimed as she cut him off. She clapped a hand over her mouth and looked up at the ceiling. Homer continued to snore.
“How is it he’s still alive after a year?” she asked in a scathing whisper. She had talked about what to do with Cylus before she left the coast. She felt betrayed. Frank had let her down.
“I know, Caroline. When he first walked in with his hang dog expression, I realized putting a bullet between his eyes would just put him out of his misery. So I’ve been having a little fun at his expense.” Frank was trying to play his transgression off as not so serious.
“Fun? Fun, Frank? Really?” she scoffed.
“Yeah, his first night back I had his brains battered out in a boxing match,” Frank laughed. Caroline held her tongue as she rolled her eyes. Frank continued, “Then I sent him out to the Farm as a grunt for Micky O.”
“I suppose tolerating Micky O. on a daily basis is a punishment,” she sighed.
“Now, Caroline, you need to give Micky a little credit. He’s been helpful with the cause. He had Cylus out combing the beach for lost cargo in a bathing costume. When’s the last time you managed to do that?” Caroline let out a barking laugh that she quickly stifled. She didn’t want to be found out of bed and on the telephone by her current husband, Homer.
“I suppose that might be amusing, but for a year, Frank? When were you planning to tell me?” she asked.
“I was…I was going to tell you when I last came to visit, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment. You seemed content for the most part and I didn’t want you to start to worry,” Frank explained.
“Worry? You’ve only delayed it. How can I be sure he won’t find me? How will I explain it to Homer if he shows up on my doorstep?”
“He won’t. I promise. No one knows where you are. There’s no record, no letters, nothing. Cylus can try as hard as he wants to find out, if he does, I’ll finish him off myself regardless of witnesses.” Frank made the assurance firmly and without question.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have left. If I stayed you wouldn’t have had a choice except to make him disappear and I wouldn’t be bored to tears in Philadelphia,” Caroline said in a heavy, wistful voice.
“Don’t start with the if’s, Caroline. We can’t change what happened, but I’ll be doing my damnedest to keep Cylus under control.” The conversation waned and they fell silent as they weighed out how possible that was.
“Is Philadelphia really that bad?” Frank finally asked.
“No, I suppose it could be worse,” Caroline began, “But it’s as interesting as sitting in a rowboat on a tiny pond.”
“And you want the waves of the ocean?” Frank finished her thought. Caroline paused, she shrugged on her end of the line as if he could see it.
“It’s what I’m used to, I suppose,” she said quietly. “I live here, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel like home.” Caroline felt her eyes start to sting.
“I understand what you mean,” Frank said slowly. Silence bloomed again as words that were needed were left unsaid. The door of the Libellule office burst open and Cylus charged in with wide eyes. Frank sat up straight and cleared his throat.
“Yes, Ruth, I am absolutely sure I’ll be fine in the morning. Please enjoy the holiday with your family,” he said cheerfully into the telephone. On the other end, Caroline stiffened from the loud noise in the background and the change in Frank’s voice. He continued, “Good night and Merry Christmas. Yes, Ruth, you too.”
Caroline stared at the telephone as the call ended abruptly. It was too soon. She slowly hung up the ear piece as she thought about the long year ahead. A whole year she had to get through before she made that call again.
Frank hung up and stared at the breathless Cylus.
“What is it, Cannoli?” he asked nonplussed.
“Who was that? It’s practically the middle of the night. I was trying to get ahold of you,” Cylus replied. It was not what Frank wanted to hear.
“Ruth, my housekeeper. I gave her the day off tomorrow, but she insists I need looking after,” Frank explained. Cylus’s brow furrowed.
“Your housekeeper calls you at Libellule this late?” He didn’t believe the story.
“What the fuck are you doing here, Cylus?” Frank barked. Cylus responded by spreading his hands out perplexed.
“Micky went missing again,” he explained. “Vern came back and said Micky took off while they were unloading!” Frank narrowed his eyes.
“What do you mean…again?” he said in a threatening voice.
“You said you wanted me to keep an eye on him. I assumed it was because he was flighty. What do you want me to do? Where would he go?” Cylus replied. Frank buried his face in his hands and took a deep breath.
“Go back to the hotel, Cylus and go to sleep. Micky will poke his head up sooner or later. It’s Christmas. I don’t think he’s up to anything.” Cylus watched Frank with a look of disbelief on his face.
“So just let him be?”
Frank glued his eyes on Cylus’s.
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Now if you don’t mind…scram!” Cylus backed out of the office and shut the door again. He sincerely hoped Micky wasn’t getting a free pass. He had spent the last month trying to sow seeds of doubt in Frank’s mind about Micky. He needed this to work to get closer to Frank.