“You mean you aren’t coming home for Thanksgiving?” Eddie Yates whimpered like he had a toothache, but Annie was unmoved. Yes, it was true that months ago, before she left for college, she’d said to him, “If we’re both still virgins when we come home for Thanksgiving, then – fine. We can have sex.” Well, they both were still virgins. Yet some promises were made to be broken.
Annie had only told him that because she’d been sure she would find someone desirable to deflower to her. She was living on a college campus, for God’s sake. Except, she hadn’t counted on keeping company mostly with females. She lived in a girl’s dorm; she was an English major and heterosexual guys – for the most part – stayed away from classic literature; and, outside of class, Annie spent most of her time working with the campus group for women’s equality.
“I can’t leave,” Annie now told Eddie, over the phone.
“The women’s group I belong to is serving Thanksgiving dinner at a women’s shelter. Dozens of women who had to flee bad situations are relying on us to make their holiday great.”
Annie walked as she spoke. The afternoon’s rain had turned to sleet, and now, wet, white clumps of slush clung to the red and orange leaves lining the path. It was November on campus, and Annie’s boots paid the price. Her worn-out Uggs were dark and damp, with soggy Maple leaves sticking to her heels.
“Come on, Annie, that’s not like you.”
Annie, shocked, stopped in her tracks.
“What’s that supposed to mean?
“Just that you’re not the sort of person to disappoint your parents and your sisters, just so you can take part in some woke feminist good will mission. It’s not who you are.”
She answered through clenched teeth. “I don’t need you to tell me who I am, Eddie.”
Fact was, Annie never given a second thought to her own identity.
It was like how she never questioned that winter followed autumn, or that Eddie Yates adored her. She was Annie, the middle daughter of Dwayne (an accountant), and Charlotte (a dental hygienist). Neither of her parents had much intellectual curiosity, but they loved their three daughters equally and often took them camping. Annie knew she was smarter than her older sister and better looking than her younger sister, and that she could often get away with stuff because she had a serious nature, and also because neither her looks nor her personality were unpleasant.
Yet, she’d never been in love or felt passion. Annie hadn’t experienced the desire to share her heart, her soul, or even her bodily fluids with another. She did feel lust at times, but only for fictional men, like the werewolf in Twilight. Real-life guys were too elusive. Or maybe the problem was her. With her wavy, dark blond hair, pretty enough face and pretty enough figure, she ought to have attracted someone by now. But only Eddie Yates ever came calling.
“I have to go,” Annie told Eddie.
“Aren’t you on your way back to the dorm?”
“No. I’m going to the library.”
Annie had reserved a book, an old and rare version of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte. She’d read it before, because it had the reputation of being the first feminist novel, since it’s about a woman who leaves her husband. While Charlotte was the most prolific of the Brontes, and Emily the most brilliant, Anne had been underrated and ahead of her time. The husband in her story was a drunk opium addict, and in addition, could be a real prick. Back then, women didn’t write about stuff like that; it was considered improper.
But Annie wasn’t feeling generous enough to share any of this with Eddie. He’d only pretend to listen anyway.
There was a gust of wind and the air felt damp and heavy, like more sleet could fall at any moment. “I’ll call you later, okay?”
Eddie grunted a response, and Annie ended the call. She turned her back to the wind and walked briskly. Soon, she was mounting the wide, massive steps to the library. For Annie, going to the library felt like visiting church, and this library may as well have been one. With its super-high, arched ceiling, golden wood study carrels that resembled pews, stained glass windows, and chandeliers that seemed like they were lit with candles, this was a building worthy of worship. Annie made her way to the fifth floor, which housed the rare book collection. The help desk was toward the back, lit under an orb of light radiating from the chandelier. She approached the person sitting there, a young woman with thick-rimmed glasses. “Can I help you?” the woman asked.
“Hi. I reserved an illustrated version of The Tenant Wildfell Hall. The hold should be under ‘Annie Brookes.’”
“Just a moment,” the woman said, and she rose and went toward a large shelf that stood behind her desk. She retrieved the book and came back. “Your student ID, please?”
Annie got out her ID and gave it to the woman in exchange for the book. When the tradeoff occurred, Annie felt an electric current shoot through her fingers, and for a moment she was lightheaded.
What was that? Annie thought to herself.
Annie shook the sensation off, and noticed that rather than scanning her ID, the woman had tucked it somewhere underneath her desk. In an officious tone, she told Annie, “You have until 7PM. When you return the book, you’ll get your ID back. Under no circumstances are you to leave with the book. Understand?”
“You mean I can’t check it out?”
“Oh.” Annie rubbed at the back of her head, a nervous habit of hers when she was perplexed. “I guess I thought…never mind. But, umm, why can’t I return it at 11, when the library closes?”
“The rare book desk closes at seven.”
“I see.” That gave Annie only an hour with this book.
The woman pushed up her glasses, which had been sliding down her nose. “Also, there’s no food or drink allowed up here.” She scowled and glared at Annie’s tote bag. “You don’t have snacks in there, do you? We don’t want Cheeto dust smeared onto anything.”
“Of course not,” Annie responded, offended.
“And you can’t make Xerox copies either.”
“Fine!” She hugged the book to her chest and started off, eager to get away.
“Careful!” The woman hissed. “Please avoid any grease from your clothing getting on it.”
“My clothes are not greasy,” Annie answered, yet she held the book more delicately, and made her way to an empty table. She wondered if she was allowed to take pictures of the book with her phone but was afraid to ask. Maybe if she didn’t use a flash? But the light in there, while lovely and atmospheric, was not especially bright. Still, if she used a reading lamp…
Annie fiddled with the reading lamp that sat at the end of the table. Oh, whatever. She pushed the lamp away and paused, looking at the book in front of her with reverence. She couldn’t explain the tightness in her chest, or how her breath caught, like this was the moment before her life would change in some fundamental way. And when her fingers touched the book’s cover, made soft from time and wear, she felt another shock, similar to the one from before.
I hope I don’t have some degenerative nerve disorder. Annie quickly abandoned that concern and began paging through the book’s illustrations. The first one was of a young woman, her hair in a bun, her cheeks rosy, her lips puckered, and a beautiful pendant hanging from her neck. A tall man with thick eyebrows and an ascot stood so close that he might whisper into her ear. But instead, he stared at her shoulder like it possessed all the wonders of the universe. Annie already knew the story of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall well, although this edition, published in 1929, had an introduction by a Mrs. Humphrey Ward which she’d never seen. She was in the middle of deciding which should take priority – the illustrations or the introduction – when a stunningly handsome man sat down across from her.
He was everything a Bronte fan could hope for: dark, tousled hair; heavy-lidded, soulful eyes; high cheekbones that sat above a rugged, carved out chin, and a smoldering intensity that made him belong roaming the moors. “Helen!” he said to Annie, his gaze burning into her, “here you are. Finally! I can’t believe –” he cut himself off, clearly choked up, but then found the strength to continue. “I can’t believe it.”
She shared his disbelief. He thought she was someone named Helen. For a moment, Annie’s vision literally blurred as she struggled to respond to this dreamy yet delusional man.
And then, he reached across the table, grasped Annie’s hand, and brought it to his face. This dream-like man pressed his lips to her palm, sending an electric wave of desire that was far more powerful than anything Annie had ever experienced, even when Eddie Yates had ineptly tried to make out with her. When dream-man’s lips were done, he shifted her hand, so it cupped his cheek while his fingers grasped her wrist. It was the most intimate gesture Annie had ever experienced, despite having let Eddie Yates get to second base.
“I forgive you,” dream-man said, and he spoke with a swoon-worthy British accent. “You were right to have left me, Helen. I was a mess. But I’m now a changed man. I can own my mistakes. Everything that went wrong between us was my fault.”
Annie bit her lip, and he gazed at her as if she’d just offered him a profound response. “You see,” he continued, “I went to rehab, and I got therapy. I have learned how to treat you well, and I abhor that I ever caused you a moment of pain.” He paused, letting out a wistful sight. “I have spent weeks searching for you, Helen. Your parents wouldn’t tell me where to find you, and neither would either of your sisters. So, I went looking everywhere I thought you might be.” He laughed softly. “I should have gone to this library first. You’ve always loved libraries, especially beautiful ones that look like a church.”
Annie gently pulled her hand from his grasp. Apparently, Helen, like Annie, had two sisters and a love for pretty libraries. That doesn’t mean anything, she told herself. Still, this beautiful, tortured soul seemed to need her, or he needed her to be Helen, which was the same difference. How could she bring herself to further devastate someone who already embodied devastation?
She opened her mouth to gently explain that she was Annie, not Helen. She would tell him that he seemed like a really nice guy and she was sure that when he finally found the real Helen, she’d give him a second chance.
But as her fingers slipped from his tender hold, a single, silent tear traveled down his cheek, and Annie wouldn’t have been at all surprised if steam rose from his skin, because when water meets something as hot as this man, chemical reactions might occur.
“Helen…” he whispered, as if making a plea to heaven.
“Where else have you looked for me?”
If the sound of her voice surprised him, he made no indication of it. “Oh, let’s see.” His face lit up with a sly grin. “I spent a lot of time at that coffee shop with the cats.”
“Cafe Meow?” Annie asked.
“Yes!” Dream-man said, beaming. “I got to know all the cats there quite well. And guess what? I adopted Dolly Purrton! She’s waiting for you, back at my place.”
Annie jerked her head back, her thoughts now as fuzzy as the cat who she adored. “You adopted her?” Could it be true? This went way beyond a coincidence at the library. Dolly Purrton, a curvaceous fawn tabby, had been Annie’s favorite cat at Cafe Meow, which in turn was her favorite place in her hometown. Annie’s younger sister had a dander allergy, so Annie, who desperately wanted a cat, could never have one. When the cat cafe opened only a few blocks away from her home, Annie spent all her ancillary time and money sipping lattes, waving around string toys, and petting any rescue cat who didn’t hiss at her. Before she left for college, she wept into Dolly Purrton’s fur when it was time to say goodbye.
But, how could this man know about Dolly Purrton and Cafe Meow? And what about Helen? If Annie’s doppelganger had been a regular at Cafe Meow, Annie surely would have noticed.
“Here, take a look.” Dream man handed Annie his phone. Its screen displayed an adorable picture of Dolly Purrton, curled up in a round, fleece-lined pink cat bed. “I got her that cat bed and she loves it. Everyday, she and I snuggle, and I say that I’m bringing you home soon. How she purrs when I tell her that!”
Suddenly and with the intensity of a wild, gushing river, Annie wanted to go home with this man, pet Dolly Purrton, and let both of them love her. But then, maybe her instincts were all wrong.
How to proceed? The moment felt delicate, and Annie paused, choosing her next words carefully.
Again, he spoke first. “I love that you sent me a letter, by the way, even though I hated that there was no return address. Still, only you would do something so old fashioned like sending a letter by post. I have carried it with me everywhere.”
“Do you have it now? Can I see it?”
He reached into the pocket of his black overcoat, and pulled out a worn envelope, handing it to her. Annie took it from him, and removed from the envelope a single sheet of paper and a photo strip, the kind one gets from a booth at a party. She looked at the sheet of paper first. In a handwriting exactly like Annie’s, it read:
I’ll always remember the good times, how you’d lay your head in my lap and I’d rub your temples and you would sigh, in bliss. How you rocked my world whenever you took me in your arms, or when you would use your finger to gently trace “I love Helen” onto my naked back. I’ll remember how you let me cry on your shoulder when I failed my driving test for the third time, or how tightly you squeezed my hand when we watched Stranger Things. You were so scared! And you could be so sweet. But you also knew how to hurt me, almost as well as you could hurt yourself. I can’t be with you anymore. It breaks my heart to say goodbye, but say goodbye I must.
Don’t come after me.
Reading this letter gave Annie the weirdest sense of dejavu. It was like reliving her engineered memories. She’d fantasized about this exact stuff – especially about having a shoulder to cry when she kept failing her driving test.
Then, Annie looked at the photo. There were four frames. At the top, she and Arthur smiled for the camera. Next, they made funny faces, sticking out their tongues. In the third frame, Arthur kissed Annie/Helen’s cheek, and in the bottom frame, she and Arthur were locked in a passionate kiss.
It was crazy. Annie couldn’t have been the girl in that photo, yet she couldn’t not be. The small mole above her right eyebrow, the one errant lock of hair that was straight while the rest fell in waves, the way her mouth was slightly crooked – it was uncanny. And the blouse she wore! It was a sleeveless floral print that she’d made out of an old sheet, one Saturday when she was bored and had decided to teach herself to sew. There was only one blouse like that in the whole world, so how could Helen, and not Annie, be wearing it?
Was it possible she could be two people at once? Perhaps Annie, who’d never once questioned her identity, had been wrong all along. In some parallel universe, she was Helen, and she’d been living a life she only ever dreamt about.
Annie looked down at the copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, whose pages were now open to an illustration of Arthur and Helen’s wedding. That’s right, Annie thought, feeling as if she’d had an earth-shaking revelation. The main characters are named Arthur and Helen.
It couldn’t be a coincidence. And after all, the tragedy in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was that, unlike heroes such as Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff, men created by Anne Bronte’s sisters, Arthur Huntingdon was truly irredeemable. Sure, he didn’t keep his first wife locked in an attic or refer to his sickly son as “It”, but unlike the other dark, brooding Bronte leading men, Arthur showed no remorse for his devilish deeds. Yet, the Arthur who sat before Annie had reformed himself. How could she not let him have his Helen?
And how could she deny herself the type of passion that being with him promised?
“Helen?” Arthur leaned toward her, full of intensity. “I realize that seeing me must be a terrible shock, and I understand your relative silence. But I need to know: have my efforts been in vain?”
It was difficult to tear her eyes away from Arthur’s and their magnetic hold. Yet, she forced her gaze down, to the clock on her phone, which read 6:25. The book was due back in just over half an hour.
She had 35 minutes left with this book, and thus, with this man. They must be connected. The electric shock the book had given her, had somehow produced Arthur, had permitted him to climb from the pages of the novel. Annie expected that once she let go of it, she’d let go of him. But one thing Annie was absolutely sure of: what she wanted to do with Arthur could not be done in public.
Yet, if he truly was Anne Bronte’s Arthur, did he deserve even a minute more of her time? Wasn’t she an advocate for gender equality, and against men like Arthur Huntingdon?
“Helen” he said, as if he could read her thoughts. “I know you have doubts. But our love is so strong. It once consumed us, remember? We can have that back.”
“How do I know that I can trust you, Arthur?”
He gave her a crooked smile. “My darling, you’ll have to take a leap of faith. But I would sooner kill myself than hurt you again.”
She rubbed the back of her head, thinking hard. If she left with Arthur now, she could see Dolly Purrton. Perhaps she could even convince Arthur to help her sneak Dolly back to her dorm room. As for everything else, well, when it came down to it, she only needed one night with Arthur. And when she went home for Christmas break, she could tell Eddie Yates sorry, but she was no longer a virgin.
She packed her bag, putting in her phone and then the copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Finally, Annie stood and put on her coat. With a quick glance toward the rare books desk, she saw that the woman who was behind it was distracted. Now was a good time to leave.
“Let’s go, Arthur,” she said, smiling.
He stood and walked around the table, and in a swift gesture, took her in his arms. Then he kissed her, and Annie/Helen returned the kiss, succumbing to his power over her.
“I love you, Helen,” he murmured, his mouth a mere centimeter from her ear. “And I promise, this time will be different.”
“I hope so.”
Annie decided she would return the book the next day. Perhaps the consequence of keeping it overnight would be losing her ID, but if so, it was a fair trade. And there had to be a way to get a new one.
Hand in hand, they walked out of the library, and into the blustery night.
Laurel Osterkamp is from Minneapolis, where she teaches and writes like it’s going out of style. She’s been featured in Tangled Locks Literary Journal, Bright Flash Literary Journal, and Metawoker Lit, among other places. Her latest novel Favorite Daughters was recently released by Black Rose Writing. Find her on her blog, www.laurellit.com, on Facebook, authorlaurelosterkamp, or Twitter, @laurellit1.