Within a few minutes, Anna wished she had followed her first impulse and grabbed her coat instead of her jacket. The night was more raw than cold, but the brisk walk was doing little to compensate for the chilled humidity. She glanced over her shoulder at the sidewalk that looked even darker now than when they had turned down this street a few blocks earlier. Taking a deep breath, she looked ahead and jogged a few steps to catch up with the other freshmen.
“Are you sure about this party?” she called ahead to the trio. The other two girls made sloppy giggles when they looked back at her while clinging to Troy’s arms.
Troy gave her a crooked smile. “Come on, I grew up here. And if there’s no party, we’ll make our own.” He winked and opened his jacket pocket to show the flask of some cheap liquor he had managed to buy off an upperclassman. Or maybe Troy had gotten it from his parents, Anna thought to herself with a grimace as Troy went back to flirting with the two girls.
Not for the first time, Anna told herself she could find her way back to the dorm on her own if she had to. The darker the streets got, however, the less sure she felt. She wondered briefly if Troy had some Trojans in his other jacket pocket, then amused herself with the associations for a couple blocks.
When Troy stopped in front of a dilapidated house in the middle of a dilapidated street, it was obvious there were no parties here. It was unlikely there had been any parties here in under a decade. The girls’ giggles were more nervous than sloppy now as they exchanged looks between themselves and the frowning would-be ladies’ man.
“This is your haunted house party?” Anna asked in a dubious tone. By now she had drawn her hands into her jacket sleeves and crossed her arms in an attempt to stay warm.
Troy interrupted his frowning contemplation of the dark house to glare at Anna. She knew he was about a year older than she was, so nineteen. Maybe twenty. Definitely not twenty-one yet, or he would never have bothered with the freshmen girls and mere rumors of a party. In Troy’s mind, that probably only made her challenge seem even worse. While warning bells chimed softly in Anna’s subconscious, machismo took over Troy’s. He shook off the two girls on his arms and climbed the creaking steps to the front door, which seemed to be standing more by habit than by any architectural integrity. He pulled at the door handle, then jumped with a yelp when the rusted hinges screeched in protest. He all but fell back down the stairs in an effort to get off the porch. The girls giggled again, mentioned the parties on Frat Row, and started to inch down the sidewalk the way they had come.
Troy scowled at Anna again as if she had personally upset his plans. Anna shrugged, then glanced up at the house. It had seemed there was someone watching them, but her search of the windows only found missing glass and the moth-eaten remains of a lace curtain that moved slightly in the draft of a window upstairs.
The boy donned a fake smile and raised his arms as he went back to the gigglers. “I promised you a haunted house, didn’t I?”
Their whines about food, music and dancing faded as Anna approached the front door, still hanging open and a little askew from Troy’s earlier attempt. A small voice in her head argued this was stupid. She should get a cab and find somewhere with interesting people and harmless fun, maybe one of the dozens of Halloween parties on campus, some more lame than others. A more primal voice replied the moon was bright enough to take a peek. And there was something calling her inside.
Anna could hear Troy swear as she stepped through the door into the devastated remains of a foyer. He probably considered this a humiliating test of his masculinity. Somehow he convinced the other girls to come with. By the time he got past the creaky door, Anna was examining the living room.
Mold and decay were everywhere, and litter had accumulated in every corner she could see. Anna was surprised at the lack of nests by human or animal. The appearance of the other freshmen startled her out of her exploration. The other three held their sleeves over their noses and looked around them with expressions ranging from fear to disgust.
“Can we go now?” one of the girls asked. Troy looked directly at Anna, perhaps hoping she would consent.
She would have laughed if not for some instinct that told her laughing would be dangerous. Instead, she looked at the three and shrugged again. “Go if you like. I want to look around.” The flash of rage in Troy’s face was enough to confirm her instincts.
Anna had no interest in Troy. He was just one more pea in the pod of all the pretentious boys she had known in high school, full of their own importance and power, and fearful others knew it was all a front.
She had no interest in the two girls, either, both of them easily fitting her caricature of the idiot girls who followed the pea pod boys. She had only wanted to hang out with other people for the night. Attend a party. Possibly meet people she could tolerate better. Troy’s offer had seemed fine at the time.
The truth was, she enjoyed challenging the fake people of the world. She loved watching them squirm under their own pretensions and insecurities. In Troy, however, she saw a hint of danger from someone who might cross that line between contention and violence. Anna wondered if he had ever raped anyone. She then frightened herself with an urge to ask him. Instead, she turned away.
“This house must have been gorgeous once,” Anna said as she stepped into the small kitchen, still full of its old ceramic and stainless steel. She heard Troy sigh before he fell into a fit of hacking from the dust and mold.
“This?” she heard one of the girls ask, contempt filling her voice. Anna turned back to see Troy’s hard stare. She was about to say something when a voice came from the floor above. No one else reacted. Anna wondered if she had imagined it.
She started to move back towards the living room. Troy could not quite mask his relief as he tried to shepherd the girls back outside. Anna started to follow, questioning her secret reluctance when she heard the voice again. The others continued into the foyer.
Anna stared at the landing on the second floor. There were steps missing from the curved staircase where the weather had rotted away the wood, but the banister looked sound, and the remaining stairs seemed solid enough. She announced over her shoulder that she was going to look upstairs. She heard Troy swear again, but she was already moving toward the staircase. It almost felt like something was tugging at her, luring her.
She was only on the second step when Troy stopped at the bottom of the staircase and grabbed her arm. “Knock it off,” he said in a near growl. “We’re getting out of here.”
Anna stared down at him, neither pulling away nor submitting. For a heartbeat, she thought Troy was going to hit her, but instead he threw her arm away from him with a nasty smile. “Suit yourself, bitch.” Troy stomped out to the porch and grabbed the other two girls on his way down to the sidewalk.
When one of them protested about leaving Anna behind, he must have done something to stop the argument short. Their voices cut off, and their footsteps soon disappeared.
Anna continued to stand where she was, suspended between emotions. As she looked up the remaining stairs, she heard the voice again, more distinct and with a quality that could only be called seductive. She swallowed once, then step by step, she made her careful way to the landing.
The second floor had fared far better than the first. There were rotting corners where rain or snow had collected, but only dirt and dust cluttered the floors and windowsills. It was dark here, but she could see into what must have been the master bedroom where the lace curtains fluttered feebly in the single window. Heedful of her footing, she continued through the open door.
Furniture decorated the room, almost undisturbed by age. Dust coated everything. There was a tall wardrobe, its painted birds stained but intact. An old leather trunk lay in front of a four-poster bed frame, though the mattress and box spring had rotted away to almost nothing but old wood and rusted springs. A settee near the door was still covered in leather that looked like it had been quite fine and supple in its time. Anna reached out a hand to trail her finger over its arm, leaving a smudged trail along the embossing.
Next to the lace-framed window, a simple writing desk faced the wall. A small, backless chair was pushed neatly underneath. An ornate jewelry box sat at an angle in one corner, and two crystal perfume bottles stood behind it.
Anna felt drawn toward this desk more than anything else in the room. She approached it slowly with a feeling she was intruding, trespassing, but she felt unable to resist the urge. Despite the years of grime, she rested her fingertips on the wooden surface and stood there for a long moment, just staring at the desk, at the box, at the bottles. It felt so familiar all of a sudden.
“I wondered when you would finally ditch those fools downstairs,” said the seductive voice.
Anna jumped with fright, jostling the desk enough to make one of the perfume bottles topple from its corner. She barely caught it, then replaced its stopper with shaking hands before looking up. Though the perfume had long since evaporated, the scent of jasmine still poured out of the bottle for that brief second. It seemed perfect for the stunning woman who leaned so casually against the nearest post of the bed.
The woman wore a silk evening dress of dark green that almost seemed darker than her narrow eyes of mahogany, and her long black hair fell in waves to the small of her back. Aside from the dress, she resembled the women in the more fanciful paintings scattered throughout the small tourist traps of the American Midwest. Despite the dress, she seemed just as free. Just as exotic.
She began to approach Anna, whose feet felt frozen both from fear and curiosity. When the woman took the perfume bottle, Anna blinked and stared down at her hands. She moved out of the way when the woman returned the bottle to its clear circle amid the grime.
At once, Anna began to shiver, finally remembering the raw night. Still, she made no attempt to leave. The woman watched her with the intensity of expectation, waiting for Anna. To do what?
“You must recognize me,” the woman said, though sounding uncertain. She took a step toward Anna and held out her hand. “I’ve been calling to you for years. And for two months, to be so close…” Her voiced trailed off as she dropped her hand. Anna realized with a start that the woman had no shadow. She had no more substance than a daydream. Real fear set in. Her eyes drifted toward the door as the woman took another step.
In a heartbeat, the woman was standing directly in front of Anna, blocking her path to the door. Anna’s breaths quickened, shallow and ragged. “Anna,” the woman whispered. Anna’s breaths stopped altogether, and her eyes grew wide. She finally looked at the woman’s face, really looked, and the familiarity intensified.
The woman met Anna’s stare, unblinking and unyielding. She was still waiting. Seconds went by as long-dormant cogs turned in Anna’s mind, in memories that did not entirely feel like her own. At last, a name surfaced, and it passed her lips with her next breath. “Isabelle.”
Delight broke the woman’s expression as she smiled. Anna felt hands grip her shoulders. She expected them to be cold and was surprised they felt so real. “I knew you would remember,” Isabelle said with happy tenderness. When she brushed her fingers across Anna’s cheek, Anna closed her eyes and turned her head toward the caress. She could smell the perfume on the woman’s wrist. She suddenly felt a familiar surge of dormant grief wash over her.
Like falling dominos, so many things began to make sense. How the scent of jasmine could awaken feelings of longing and anguish that never seemed to be her own. How for years she had been aware of a need to find some missing piece of herself, with no clue as to what it could be. How within minutes of first arriving in this city, she knew she had to move here, had to choose that school, had to be close.
Close to what? Her eyes opened again. Isabelle wiped away the tears that had dropped onto Anna’s cheeks. She raised a tentative hand to Isabelle’s face and brushed it with her thumb while beginning to feel that for the first time in her life, she felt complete. Isabelle took her hand and kissed it. Anna’s breath caught as she studied Isabelle again. Was that a faint shadow? Why did it seem that was new? The thought dissipated into the comfort of Isabelle’s touch.
Anna had not really known those other students in the hallway of her dorm and had known Troy only by reputation. His invitation to a “haunted house” had been an impulse on his part. Both Troy and Anna were surprised when she agreed on the spot to join them. It had all been instinct, fate, or some intertwining of the two. That felt perfectly normal, though Anna could not say why. Again, the thought drifted away from her.
“I’ve missed you so much,” Anna found herself whispering to this woman, this ghost of a woman she knew she had never met. This woman who seemed more real than most people she saw everyday. Anna felt as if this woman had been her companion for an eternity.
“Yes,” Isabelle whispered back as she leaned in, her fingers twining through Anna’s hair. She leaned her forehead gently against Anna’s while her fingers combed and caressed, then curved around the back of Anna’s neck. Anna’s hands brushed across the woman’s hips to press against the silk-covered small of her back, where Isabelle’s hair tickled her hands.
There was definitely a shadow. Anna could not remember why this should surprise her.
Isabelle smiled and tightened her own embrace. “Remember.” It was both question and command. She tilted her head, and her lips met Anna’s.
Heat flooded Anna’s body. Intense pleasure and pain filled every cell until she felt she would burst. Her arms tightened around Isabelle’s body, tightened until surely she must crush the woman, tightened with the strength of every possible emotion, tightened until she could no longer tell where her body ended and Isabelle’s began. She felt the heat seeping out of her in tendrils, transferred from her lips to the other woman’s. Heat surrounded them both, encasing them in an invisible cocoon.
In a flash, she saw the two of them in one scene after another, one age after another, always together, embracing, holding hands, kissing, caressing. She knew it was inevitable they should meet again, that they should be together again as they were meant to be. Always.
Isabelle drew back from the kiss, shattering the reverie. Anna gasped for breath and was stunned to see tears on Isabelle’s cheeks. She kissed them away, fervent with the desire to comfort and please. Her hands found Isabelle’s, and she held them tightly and kissed them as she fell to her knees and looked up at Isabelle with pleading. With love. “I never should have left you,” she heard herself say as Isabelle brushed her fingers through Anna’s hair. Anna pressed her hands against Isabelle’s back and felt her own tears fall.
“You could not have followed,” Isabelle said, her voice barely above a whisper as she knelt in her dress. She brushed her lips against Anna’s once more, but it was fleeting. “I found a way, but it is not your journey to take this time. I will not ask it of you.” The last was an anguished whisper against Anna’s hair before she kissed the top of the girl’s head.
“Why?” Anna asked, anger and heartache tearing the question out of her. Understanding had nothing to do with this. Fact drifted through the lace at the window and disappeared into the night.
Desperation and desire took over as she held Isabelle’s body against hers. She kissed Isabelle’s forehead and cheeks, and heard the woman gasp when she kissed the soft, olive skin of her neck. Isabelle’s hands clung to her back as Anna continued, her lips trailing intensifying heat and passion along the exquisite jaw line to those dark lips. Isabelle’s perfume filled Anna’s mind and soul. She lowered her head and kissed the delicate skin above the line of the dress.
Reality fled from the room as Anna smiled, not quite herself. Isabelle had always put one drop of perfume in that delicious crevice between her breasts. To draw Anna back to her when the day was done, she had said. An appetizer. A lure. A torment.
Anna lifted one of those small breasts free from the silk and kissed the tiny, erect nipple. Isabelle gasped with that pleasure so close to pain. She bit her lip as her fingers tangled more tightly in Anna’s hair. Suddenly it was Anna’s turn to torment as she teased that nipple with the tip of her tongue, blew across it, nipped it ever so gently.
Through the haze of instinct and desire, Anna became aware of another scent. One that triggered so much more than mere memory. One so powerful and ingrained in her own soul, it amazed her she had not caught it before. A groan escaped her lips as she lowered Isabelle to the floor. Her hands trembled again, but not with fear. They caressed the woman’s legs, first through the silk of her dress, then sliding beneath to find skin so soft, so warm. So familiar.
Isabelle’s breathing turned ragged as Anna’s fingers trailed along a shin, hooked the hem of the dress as they circled her knee, bared those perfect thighs, teased their way along the sensitive skin.
Anna knelt beside Isabelle’s legs and bent down to kiss each of those thighs. Her tongue teased and caressed as she prolonged her own torment on her way toward that intoxicating scent, missing from her life for far too long. That scent that had nothing to do with perfume but had filled her dreams and fantasies for as long as she could remember.
Isabelle’s legs parted as Anna neared the source of that heavenly perfume. Anna’s fingers rested against Isabelle’s stomach as she reached out with her tongue and gave a first slow, teasing caress against those glistening, waiting lips. Isabelle jumped, but Anna was insistent. Her tongue continued to caress and tease, and Anna felt deliciously lightheaded surrounded by the scent of Isabelle. Her Isabelle. Her eternal love.
Anna’s tongue delved between those lips, traveled upward to reveal the core of Isabelle’s pleasure. Isabelle groaned as Anna took it into her mouth and suckled, gently at first, then intense, hungry. She flicked her tongue against the hard little nub, and Isabelle cried out, her fingers twisting painfully in Anna’s hair.
Isabelle pulled Anna toward her, insistent and yearning. As they kissed, Anna held Isabelle’s hips with almost possessive fervor. Her own hips thrust forward slowly, desire mounting with every new second. Isabelle’s hands sought out Anna’s breasts, fondling them, kneading them, but Anna was not to be distracted. She combed her left hand through Isabelle’s thick black hair, pulling Isabelle’s head up to meet her own as they kissed, tongues exploring, invading. She reached down with her right hand, fingernails scraping lightly up Isabelle’s thigh before slipping between their bodies.
Anna’s fingers found their mark with foreign and yet familiar ease. She covered Isabelle’s gasp with another kiss, then thrust with hips and fingers. Isabelle rose to meet Anna’s touch, the two merging in a rhythm that began to challenge the fevered pace their hearts were setting. Heat of a wholly different kind began to envelop them both, bringing a rosy tint to the pale olive complexion of Isabelle and a sheen of perspiration to Anna’s cheeks. Isabelle’s arms wrapped around Anna’s shoulders as she hung on, body lost in the rhythm of Anna’s thrusts.
Isabelle crashed over the brink with a scream that must have been heard a block away, but Anna did not relent. She increased her pace, her mouth covering Isabelle’s as her fingers teased, pleased, carried Isabelle ever higher until they were both lost to the passion, heat and exhaustion consuming them both.
By the time Anna slowed, Isabelle was clinging to her beyond all reason, her body quivering with sensory overload. Anna lowered herself to Isabelle’s side, unaware of the filthy floor as she gathered the woman into her arms and buried her face in Isabelle’s hair. Her last thought was if she could just fall asleep with Isabelle in her arms every night, she could easily be content for the rest of her life. For the rest of eternity.
* * * * * * *
Anna’s dreams were interrupted by the weak morning sun filtering through the broken, dusty window. This first November morning carried an abundance of frost after the clammy Halloween night. Anna’s clothes were stiff and crunched slightly as she sat up. She felt half frozen and could not stop shivering. Memories flooded through the haze, and she looked around the dirty, decaying room with a surge of fear and loss. “No,” she groaned again and again, eyes wide as she stared in horror at the empty room.
She pushed herself to her feet and spun about, hands clenched as she pressed them to her temples. Her eyes welled with tears as she stared at the rotten remains of a four-poster bed, the ruin of an old wardrobe crushed by its own weight, the empty desk nearby that held nothing but more dirt, dust and frost. She stumbled toward it, rested her palms on its gritty surface, and stared at the empty corner that still showed the faint imprint of two clear circles, but there were no bottles. Nothing remained. Nothing but a hint of jasmine in the air. A memory of jasmine.
Anna slowly moved her trembling fingers to her face and breathed in as her tears spilled over, and she crumpled to the ground, unable to stand the avalanche of grief. Her lover’s scent was still as strong as it had been the night before. She breathed deeply until she felt dizzy, until she thought every inch of her must be infused by that scent she would never again forget.
* * * * * * *
It took Anna an hour before she could push her aching body back to her feet. She was covered in dirt made muddy by the frost. As she leaned against the desk, she held her right hand to her lips and breathed in that scent, then kissed her fingertips. Anna squeezed her fist against her lips as a last tear escaped. A dry sob wracked her chest, and she raised her face to the cracked ceiling, silently pleading with whatever power had allowed last night’s reunion.
Nothing answered her but the draft through the house and the sounds of the city waking up for a lazy weekend. Despair made her feet drag as she stumbled toward the stairs. Everything looked so drab in the sunlight. Broken. Fading. Anna clung to the banister that seemed so much weaker than the night before. She barely made it to the first floor without falling and staggered into the sunlight.
She eventually found her way back to campus, ignoring the questioning looks and comments. She fumbled for her keys as she neared her room and nearly ran into Troy, who was trying to close the door to one of her neighbor’s rooms without waking anyone inside.
He stared at her wide-eyed, then blinked. “Shit, Anna,” the boy said in a choked voice. “Uh… you all right?” It was obvious he was asking more out of guilt and concern for his own situation than anything that might have happened to her.
She stared at him until a deep blush covered his cheeks. She continued to stare as he hurried toward the stairwell and down to his own floor. Not until she pushed her door closed behind her did she crumple once more, barely able to drag her ruined clothes off her body before she collapsed onto her bed, wrapping herself tightly in the blankets to cry herself to sleep.
* * * * * * *
By the end of the next week, Anna was somewhat functional again. She attended most of her classes and made half-assed attempts at some of her assignments. She ignored the concerned questions from her instructors and avoided interacting with any of her peers. Mostly, she slept. Her dreams were the only place she could find Isabelle again, surrounded by the scent of jasmine and that perfume that was all her own.
Friday afternoon she took a seat at the back in her last class of the day. A new instructor was introducing herself, but Anna took no notice. She stared out the window instead and watched the increasing traffic crawl across the interstate bridge, taillights and headlights weaving a ribbon back into the city. The truth was, Anna was searching. Searching for that tug she had always felt before in her soul, though unable until now to describe or understand. Now there was nothing left but desire and loss.
The class droned around her with the banter of instructions, questions and answers, and the hour passed without Anna so much as looking at the other students. Finally the lack of noise drew her back to the present, and she jumped slightly, blushing as she stuffed her notebook and pen back into her bag. She shrugged into her coat and hurried toward the door, head down. As she passed the podium, however, her feet slowed. She stopped, eyes staring blankly at the floor as she breathed in again.
“Jasmine,” Anna whispered, hands clenching around the strap of her bag, eyes blinded by a rush of tears. After she blinked them away, she raised her head slowly and realized there was a woman still standing at the door watching her. Waiting for her.
Just as before, Anna felt frozen by the number of emotions flooding her. The woman closed the door and took a tentative step toward Anna, her narrow, dark eyes locked on the girl’s face. Anna felt her arms go limp and her bag slipped from her shoulder to drop to the ground, but she still remained frozen to that spot. Anna stared at the woman’s face, at her dark hair, at her small body, then she took a shuddering breath and filled her lungs with jasmine, and with the other scent. That heavenly perfume that filled her dreams.
“Anna?” the woman asked. Isabelle. Her love.
“You’re real,” Anna said, her voice a whispered groan. She took a few stumbling steps toward the woman, then fell into an embrace both desperate and welcome. She buried her face in the woman’s hair and laughed through her tears.
“I never should have left you,” Isabelle whispered against Anna’s shoulder as one hand smoothed the girl’s hair, tenderly pulling the embrace tighter. She leaned back to look into Anna’s eyes. Her lips trembled as she smiled. “It won’t happen again.”
Their kiss held only a little of the passionate urgency from that night. Instead, it carried an enduring tenderness and love that had withstood the test of time and had breathed life back into something lost far too long. It carried a promise to continue long after they were gone. Just as it always has.