Copyright © 2017 Lacy Williams
Alexandre Dubois made a practice of avoiding people.
Especially women tourists.
Nosy, irritating, stubborn women tourists.
Tourists who parked themselves on the step outside his door at all hours of the day.
All right, he was a bona fide recluse who avoided everyone. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d stepped outside his upstairs apartment. Maybe seven… eight years ago?
The fact that she’d parked herself there was an irritant. A missing comb in the dainty song of a boîte à musique—a music box.
Yesterday, when he’d opened the door to the boy who delivered his groceries, he’d heard her soft bonjour, uttered with an American accent, from his upstairs landing. A flight of stairs between them and the sound of her dulcet tones had hit him hard and low in his belly. A resounding gong that still echoed inside him today.
It was unsettling.
She was unsettling. And he hadn’t seen anything other than a glimpse of the back of her head.
He hated being unsettled.
Why did she stay? Surely his neighbors, the busybodies who lived and worked on his street, had warned her that he never emerged. After the first day when he’d ignored her knock at his upstairs door, she hadn’t knocked again.
What did she want?
He’d had tourists knock before. One had come back a second day. He’d never had anyone sit on his stoop for eight days in a row.
Exactly how long was her holiday anyway? Americans’ vacations were shorter, no?
He peered through the drapes. He’d seen the cobbled street thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of times. Tourists used words like “quaint” and “very French.” Which one would expect, as the village of Riquewihr nestled in the hills of northeastern France. The two- and three-story buildings were connected all the way down the street. An antique store that only had sporadic traffic rested at street level next door. On the corner across the street was a bakery that Alexandre hadn’t been to since he was a very young boy. If he dared crack his window—he rarely did—and if the breeze was just right, scents of baguettes and croissants, the scents of his childhood, filled the flat and sent him spinning back to the joyful days of his youth. But only in his head.
Today, a soft rain was falling. The late-spring afternoon was cool. And she was still there. Earlier he’d watched from the window, sure she would go back down the street toward her hotel.
He left the window and cracked open his door. The passageway was dim, and rain sheeted outside like a curtain, the sound echoing against the hewn rocks that lined both walls of the narrow stairwell.
She was there, huddled on the bottom step with her knees to her chest. All he could see was the curve of her back and a hood she’d covered herself with.
And then she turned her head.
He froze, only able to see out of one eye through the one-inch crack between the door and the jamb.
The line of her nose and the sweep of her lashes against her cheeks—elegant.
And then her eyes lifted. Bright blue, curious, filled with emotion. Her eyes spoke to him.
He snapped the door closed and leaned one shoulder against it, chest rising with each breath as if he’d run up flights of stairs.
He was half afraid she would come up and knock.
She came back the next day. And the day after.
And he had enough.
Pulse pounding in his temples, he threw open the door, startling her where she sat. She spun until her knee pressed against the step above.
Her vivid, expressive eyes—surely it was a trick of the sunlight streaming behind her that made them look almost violet today—were wide and open.
She was younger than he’d thought. Mid-twenties, maybe. A decade his junior.
She wore a brightly pink T-shirt, and her mahogany hair spilled over her slender shoulder and down her back.
“What do you want?” he growled. He injected as much menace into his voice as he could. “Did you want to see what the recluse of Riquewihr looks like? Here I am.”
He threw the door as wide as it would go—wider than it had been in a decade. His knuckles whitened as he clutched the edge of the wooden portal. His breath rattled in his chest.
He hadn’t been this exposed in years.
What must she think of him? A beanpole, slim when it was trendy to be muscled. His brown hair was nothing but a tousled mess, cut by his own hand. He wore his beard long, down his neck until it nearly reached the collar of his shirt. And his dark eyes must reflect the wildness he felt inside.
What had possessed him to take such a risk?
She looked at him with solemn… sad?… eyes.
Her silence chafed against his insides, already raw with her constant presence.
“Nothing to say? Did you lose a bet with your friends over beers in the tavern? Every single night? What? What brings you to my step?”
He ended with his voice hoarse, unused to speaking so much and knowing his accented English was surely difficult for her to understand.
He wanted to rage at her more for interrupting his quiet existence.
He wanted to weep at the brush of the breeze, barely reaching his upper landing, the sweet smell of flowers. Her scent?
She cleared her throat, a dainty sound that sent a tremor through him, head to toes.
“Je suis désolé.” Her French was as horrid as his English, but she soldiered on. “I came about a music box.” She stumbled over the words.
And yet, he felt each note of her words like the tiny tinkling tones inside the boîte à musique she mentioned.
She opened the hands she’d had cupped in her lap to reveal a small metal box, curlicues making it instantly recognizable. He had a similar one on a shelf inside his flat.
“I can understand Anglais,” he barked. He did not like the swoop in his stomach when she spoke.
He liked it too much.
Her eyes fluttered closed and then opened again.
“My grandfather gave me this music box,” she said, in English this time, “on my tenth birthday. He fought in the war. And brought it home with him.”
He shrugged. So?
She went on, rushing a little this time. “I did some research and discovered the man who made this was from Riquewihr. Jean-Luc at the bakery told me you were his grandson. And I wanted…”
Her words trailed off, one hand fluttering above her lap. The other still cradled the boîte à musique on her thighs.
“I wanted to make a connection.”
Make a connection? What did that mean? Was it American slang that he didn’t understand?
“Why does it matter so much?”
This time, not only did her eyes lower, her chin tilted down and away from him, hiding her expressive face.
When she lifted her chin with a stubborn tilt, tears sparkled in her eyes. Her mouth trembled.
“My grandfather died.”
He’d almost been caught up in her story, her musical voice and the cadence of her speech like a tinkling song from a boîte à musique.
Her words snapped the lid closed, silencing the moment.
His words emerged sharp as shards of broken porcelain. “I cannot help you.” Assez, aller.
He couldn’t push the words that would send her away past frozen lips.
But maybe he’d made his point, because she flinched.
He closed his door with a resounding thump.
This time, he didn’t stand at the door, listening like a mendiant—a beggar.
He went into the inner room, his bedroom, and turned on a radio, filling the apartment with music and chatter.
But nothing touched the void in his heart.
She did not come back the next morning.
He slept little and watched from a crack in his drapes beginning at dawn.
He couldn’t say why.
In the dark of night, as he’d replayed the encounter over and over in his mind, he’d realized he didn’t know her name.
He could sketch every line of her face, every wave of her fine hair. He could recall the slightly haunted look in her eyes—violet or blue?—in his mind’s eye, but he didn’t know her name.
It shouldn’t bother him. Why should he care?
It bothered him.
Everything seemed wrong, out of tune since that first morning when she’d knocked on his door.
Why should he be burdened with her grief as well as his own?
He wanted to resent her intrusion into his solitude.
He wanted to see her again.
Mid morning, when the boy arrived with Alexandre’s basket of groceries, he found himself asking, “Have you seen the young woman from my step?”
The boy raised wide, frightened eyes. “Non.” He rushed down the stairs, nearly tripping on his own feet.
Alexandre stared after him
Had it really been that long since he’d spoken to the boy? No merci or bonjour from the recluse of Riquewihr.
What must she think of him?
Or did she even think of him at all?
He put away his bread and cheese and apples and paced back to the window.
He touched the break in the drapes with one finger, but instead of only using his finger to measure a crack, he reached up with both hands and pulled back the drapes completely.
Sunlight streamed in the room, and he winced from the sudden brilliance. He coughed at the dust he’d stirred up. It had been years since he’d opened the drapes. The light illuminated spots on the floors, a wood surface worn by years of his pacing.
She was there! Across the street, talking to the cobbler. Or… was it still a cobbler’s shop? He didn’t know.
He squinted, his eyes unaccustomed to the sunlight. Yes, there were boots lined up in a decorative display in the shop window.
The girl broke away from her conversation with a wave and a smile. Had she smiled at Alexandre yesterday? He didn’t think so.
She walked slowly down the street, and his heart pounded as he waited for her to glance up. Surely she would notice him in the window—he’d hidden behind closed curtains far too long for his sudden appearance not to be noticed.
But she kept her head down while she fiddled with a strap on her backpack.
He hadn’t seen her wear a backpack before. Was she leaving? Had he driven her away? Or was her time here up?
He willed her to return to his staircase. Even if she didn’t climb the stairs to knock, he would open the door again. Speak to her again.
But she passed by on the opposite side of the street, and his stomach swooped low. He was suddenly short of breath.
She’d passed by.
Did he dare go after her?
He didn’t know why he would. Why should a tourist matter to him?
Just the thought of stepping foot outside made his heart race. Anxious thoughts spun like a crank on a boîte à musique wound too tightly.
He panted short breaths as she wandered into the bakery on the corner. If he closed his eyes, he could remember the taste of the croissants, hot from the oven, as each bite melted on his tongue.
Grand-père had loved them.
The memory, one that had formerly cut like razors, didn’t sting as it once had.
Alexandre watched as the girl emerged from the bakery, carrying a small white bag.
His heart thumped as she stood on the street corner, gazing in his direction. Could she see him from there? Was she going to leave?
But no, she walked slowly toward his apartment, his staircase. Was she coming back?
She didn’t cross the street.
Her head was bowed, giving him only a glimpse of the crown as she settled on a doorstep across the street.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away as she pulled an eclair from the bag and plucked off a piece, then popped it in her mouth.
Her head moved, and for one moment, everything in him froze. Would she see him? But she tilted her face up to the sun, bathing in its light. Her lips spread in a smile, and he saw her throat work as she swallowed.
She was… happy.
Or if not that, at least she wasn’t drowning in grief. Not like he had.
It was as if he had only the last, the finest bubbles of oxygen left inside his lungs. He didn’t know whether he could find the surface again, he’d sunk so deep.
And then her head lowered and her eyes opened.
And she met his stare.
Surprise crossed her features, her mouth forming a small O and her brows jumping before she schooled her expression.
He might’ve expected a frown or even an American finger salute after how rude he’d been yesterday.
But she only stared at him for a long moment that stretched to two, and then three.
And when she smiled, he read the genuine emotion on her face, joy and, mixed within, sadness.
She raised her hand in a wave.
He whirled out of the window, putting his back against the wall beside it. Breathing hard again, as if calisthenics had caused his body’s reaction, and not a simple gesture from a stranger.
This was fou. Crazy.
He wanted to pull the shades and go back to his solitary life.
He wanted to know her name.
She wouldn’t come back, not after he’d told her to go. Somehow, he knew that to be true, even after only one conversation with her.
He didn’t want her to leave.
His palms began to sweat as he forced his feet to move to the door.
He stared at the portal for a long time. Long enough that she’d probably finished her eclair.
That thought galvanized him.
He opened the door. The stairwell was empty, and sunlight beckoned from the arched doorway.
The first step down felt momentous. As if a loud crash or cymbal should accompany it, though none came.
The second step came faster, and then the next, and then he was standing on the ground.
He wanted to flee back up the stairs.
He reached out with both hands, anchored himself beneath the stone arch. Preventing himself from going back up? Or protecting himself from being fully exposed?
She was still there, still sitting with her elbows propped on her knees. Her bakery bag was crumpled in a ball beside her.
She caught sight of him, and her face brightened.
He was trembling so badly he was afraid his voice would quiver. He spoke anyway. “What is your name?”
She smiled, a genuine smile with no hesitation. And gave him a gift. “Barbara. My name is Barbara.”
Barbara was beautiful and funny and intelligent.
He spent ten minutes talking to her from beneath the archway as she sat across the street. She didn’t seem to think it was strange to meet a hermit who hadn’t come out of his apartment in almost a decade.
Ten minutes of breathing fresh air—the wind was blowing the wrong direction, so he only got the faintest whiff of croissants. His nerves clanged, and, when he couldn’t stand it another minute, he made up an excuse to go back inside.
His shades remained open.
The next morning, he made it down the stairs, walked across the street, and sat on the step next to her.
Their knees bumped once. The first human contact he’d had in so long that he couldn’t remember the last time. Her touch sent quakes through him.
They didn’t run out of things to talk about, he in his stilted English and she in her botched French. He discovered that she was from a small city in Oklahoma, somewhere in the Midwest. She was intelligent, had a master’s in education. A special-ed teacher, she called herself. She’d come to France for a month, which was half spent now.
To grieve, he guessed, though she didn’t say as much.
They didn’t speak of her grandfather or his grand-père.
He almost mentioned the boîte à musique again, but the hat maker from down the street had passed by, offering a jaunty bonjour that ended in a squawk when she took a good look at Alexandre. She’d hurried past, no doubt eager to gossip to whomever she could find that he’d emerged from his cave.
He went in after that.
Five years ago, the small-town dynamics would’ve sent him spiraling into an anxious spell, locked in his bedroom inside his apartment.
While he hadn’t appreciated the thought that she was gossiping about him—he could be wrong, maybe she didn’t even care—it had only caused him a moment’s hesitation this morning before he’d come downstairs again.
It was cool and moist today, sensations he’d nearly forgotten. Early fog had covered the rolling hills and vineyards earlier, obscuring even the buildings across the street until midmorning. Clouds hung low in the sky, threatening rain.
He wore a sweater his maman had knitted for him so long ago that it had lost its shape.
And Barbara… she greeted him from the step with a wide smile. Already sitting. Always careful to present herself unthreatening.
It was an impertinent, American thing to say, but he found he didn’t care. He hadn’t recognized the man in his looking glass this morning.
He rubbed one hand across his jaw self-consciously. “Oui.”
Her gaze searched his face, and he told himself it didn’t matter what she thought.
He held a wild hope that she might find him passably attractive.
He chuckled, the feeling as foreign as so many others the past fourteen days, and sat next to her.
“I brought snacks.” A white bag he hadn’t noticed—had he even looked away from her once?—crinkled as she picked it up.
She pulled out a paper-wrapped eclair for herself and extended the open bag for him.
He steeled himself, feeling the heat of something through the paper against his hand. What would she have chosen for him? A pain au chocolat? Something else?
But when he peered down into the open bag, he found a croissant waiting for him.
The scent alone, hot and buttery and full of memories, was enough to make his mouth water and fill him with simple joy.
She licked some cream from the side of her thumb. “Jean-Luc said it was your favorite. I hope it’s all right.” A soft flush filled her cheeks as she waited for his answer.
All right that she’d bought him something he loved? Or all right that she’d told the baker she was meeting Alexandre?
“It is bien,” he said quietly.
It was a gift. The treat. The morning. Barbara.
Each bite was a reminder, a licking flame of remembered pain. Each bite was also a beat of hope, of spring joy, of a morning spent beside a beautiful woman.
He savored the last bite, crumpled the paper wrapper, and had opened his mouth to speak when the skies opened and a deluge of rain fell.
Barbara laughed her surprise.
He stood quickly, grabbed her hand before he thought better of it. “Allons!”
He pulled her across the street and up the first two steps of his stairwell. In the hallway, it was sheltered. Rain pattered on the cobblestones in the doorway, but it couldn’t reach them.
The space was narrow. Standing face to face on the same step, every warm exhale she made elicited gooseflesh on the damp, exposed hollow of his throat.
His heart raced, but not from their mad dash across the street. And not from anxiety.
He still had her hand clasped in his, and that connection seemed so fragile.
He wanted to let go.
He wanted to put his arms around her and pull her closer.
He did neither.
“I was going to ask”—his voice emerged both shaky and raspy—”if you’d come up. To my apartment.”
She was silent. Only her breath on his neck and the flex of her hand in his answered.
That hadn’t sounded right, in his broken English. “Not for—only to show you something. About your boîte à musique. Your music box.”
He kept her hand as she followed him up the narrow stairs and inside.
He’d spent hours last night cleaning and rearranging. Throwing open the curtains days ago hadn’t just showed him the blemishes on the small space of floor. Once he’d noticed those, it had been impossible to ignore the peeling plaster on the walls and the gunk that had accumulated on the small stove.
Sort of like the blemishes of his reclusive life—his beard and pale skin and unstylish clothing the least of them. He hadn’t wanted to admit how bad he’d gotten. Then her presence had made it impossible to ignore.
He’d greeted the grocery boy daily and now received a quiet, serious greeting in return.
Maybe… maybe he could still find the surface from the depth of the ocean. He’d caught one more breath to try.
And this… Barbara’s grandpa and his grand-père were part of it.
She gazed around, more quiet than she’d been yesterday on the stoop. “I love these old buildings,” she murmured.
He followed her gaze, trying to imagine how she must see it. All he saw were the mismatched sofa and chair, the tiny kitchen area cluttered with too many pots and pans. On the wall near the window stood the shelves that he’d wanted to show her.
“Here,” he said. He moved closer and motioned to the array of music boxes.
“Before the war, my grand-père apprenticed with a clock-maker. That man was enlisted for the war efforts, and that’s when Grand-père began making the music boxes.”
She scarcely moved, barely breathed as her eyes roved the shelves of boxes. Round, square, porcelain, metal. Each unique. Each worth a great deal, now.
“My grandfather came across his shop—downstairs?—just after the peace treaty had been signed.”
The shop had been closed up since—
Closed for a decade, its counters covered in white sheets and dust.
He cleared his throat. “My father learned the craft from him.”
Her eyes—eyes that didn’t miss anything—shifted to him. “And you? Did you learn from your papa?”
He nodded, throat tight.
“But you didn’t want to make music boxes?”
He hesitated, and her gaze shifted away.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”
Relief. He didn’t have to tell her.
It was fou, but he wanted to tell her.
“I…” He let his gaze drift out the window, though he could only see the driving rain. Maybe it would be easier to tell the story if he didn’t look at her. He cleared his throat. “I was more interested in painting. My mother died when I was small, and my father and I were close, even though I didn’t want the family business. When… he was home from dropping me at university when a storm hit and he ran off the road. I came home for the funeral… and never left again.”
Never left Riquewihr, never left his apartment. Drowned in the depths of his grief and isolation.
Her touch on his forearm made him blink back to the present.
She watched him, sorrow turning her eyes violet. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Her words expressed more than sympathy—they evoked a shared sense of sorrow.
“Were you close with your grandpa?”
She smiled, even as tears filled her eyes and hovered on her lower lashes. “Oui. He was… we understood each other. My parents were… free spirits. When they left on adventures, Grandpa stayed home with me. Packed my lunch and helped me with homework and made me cookies when my eighth-grade boyfriend broke up with me. He died last year.”
“I’m sorry.” The words seemed so inadequate for the grief he knew she must feel.
She smiled through her tears. “He made this trip possible. Left me an inheritance and… he would’ve wanted me to chase my dreams.”
She leaned forward to examine one of the music boxes.
He studied her profile, fingers itching for his paints. He hadn’t painted in…
If not for their grandfathers, he never would’ve met her.
And if he’d never met Barbara, he would still be hiding in his darkened, dingy apartment.
He didn’t want her to leave.
He couldn’t ask her to stay.
Fourteen days were not enough.
Inside the bakery, Alexandre sat across from Barbara. The table was so small that their knees touched.
Beneath the table, their hands were linked on his knee.
Jean-Luc shot him a smug grin as he passed by, a tray of pastries on his shoulder.
Alexandre’s open drapes had been only the first strokes swimming toward the distant surface. Inviting Barbara into his flat had been another. Two days later, she’d convinced him to visit the bakery with her. Jean-Luc had been shocked to see him. Then he’d rounded the counter and embraced him.
Others who had been a part of his life with Grand-père before had seen him about town and welcomed him back, almost as if he hadn’t been absent from their lives for a decade.
And it was all because of Barbara.
Barbara, who’d cut his hair so he didn’t look quite so disreputable. Her hands in his hair had brought sensations to life that he hadn’t felt since university.
Barbara, who’d allowed her hands to rest on his shoulders. Who’d dared to lean down and press a kiss to his lips, breaking through the last walls of his heart. He broke the surface from the bitter depths of the ocean.
He loved her.
Barbara, who was leaving tomorrow to return to the States. He wouldn’t ask her to stay. She was young. She had her whole life ahead of her.
But he could give her something of himself to take home.
He squeezed her hand. “I have a gift for you. Will you walk with me?”
She agreed, and they strolled down the cobbled lane side- by side. He pulled her to a stop near the stoop where she’d sat the first day he’d come downstairs. Where it had all begun.
He reached into the satchel he’d slung over his shoulder and faced her, extending a small package that he’d wrapped in butcher paper from his kitchen.
A soft flush climbed into her cheeks. “I didn’t get you anything.”
The breeze blew strands of her hair across her cheek. They caught in her lashes. He reached up and swept the strands away, allowing his touch to linger. “Your presence in my life has been gift enough.”
She blushed more, and her smile was self-deprecating. He kissed her forehead and then moved slightly back. “Open it.”
She pulled back the paper to reveal a round gold-toned music box. The lid was inset with porcelain and had been hand-painted.
He heard her soft intake of air. “Did you—?” She barely glanced up to see his nod before she peered down at it again, one finger tracing the ornate designs etched into the sides.
He’d painted the small blue bird and a red rose on the porcelain, the first time he’d picked up a brush since his father’s death.
“It’s… lovely isn’t descriptive enough. Merci.” When she lifted her gaze, her eyes were wet.
“Don’t cry, my Barbara.” He cupped her jaw, edged closer. “I meant the gift to bring you joy, so you can remember me when you are back home in Oklahoma.”
She sniffled. “Does this gift have a particular meaning?”
Of course it did. He hadn’t spoken of his feelings. Didn’t want to make things harder as they parted.
“Je suis amoureuse de toi,” he said hoarsely.
Tears spilled down her cheeks.
“Oh, Alexandre,” she whispered. She slid one hand behind his neck as she lifted her face for his kiss. She still held the music box, it pressed between their bodies, a small separation.
She smiled against his lips, and the sensation brought an answering smile. She’d brought joy back to his life in many forms.
He lifted his head, not far. Used his thumb to brush the tear tracks from her cheeks.
“I love you, too,” she whispered.
Her words were a gift he’d never expected.
“I called my mom yesterday and… she asked me if I wasn’t making a huge mistake coming home now.”
Her meaning didn’t register at first. And then hope spiraled through him.
Barbara exhaled a wet laugh, probably at his expression.
“I don’t think Mom and I ever bonded like that before. I’m supposed to be the practical one, but… for the first time, some of my mom’s choices make sense.” She smiled diffidently. “I’d like to stay. Explore where our relationship goes.” She faltered. “If… that’s something you’d want as well.”
He kissed her cheeks, her forehead, the bridge of her nose. “My brave American girl,” he breathed. “Please stay. Je t’aime. Je t’aime.”
He kissed her again.