44. My Footsteps Echoed

I figured Doris was somewhere in the house.

It took a while to check. The kitchen, the dining room, the pantry. The parlor, the downstairs bath, the library. The office, the crannies in the main hall. The secret passage beneath the stairs with its hidden door. The shaking porch, the side sunroom. Nothing and no one.

Then, upstairs. All the while calling her name, my voice swallowed by the carpets, the drapes, the empty space. Four bedrooms. The nursery. The walk-in closets. The bath with its steam room. The second-floor solarium. The linen closet.

You’re never alone like you’re alone in your mansion.

I ran a finger over the dust on the bannister. Doris had cut the cleaning crew down to a day a week.

Duke’s team had worked full-time, costumed in his idea of a French maid’s outfit. He put them up in a garden apartment behind the wine cellar. “His fantasy, not mine,” Doris announced about thirty seconds after we moved in. She had them in Carhartt work pants and t-shirts. She jacked their pay so they could afford an apartment. I didn’t squawk, there being no percentage in that. Though truth be told, it had been like watching hummingbirds flit through the rooms. 

All that remained was the third-floor ballroom. I’d been there once since we moved in. Doris and I were still in the giddy stage, not quite able to believe all this was ours. (The realization that it was actually hers had not weighed on me yet.) 

The stairwell was painted with a mural, a Russian aristocracy scene, men in top hats, women in gowns, a haze of smoke, dancers in each others’ arms. A gilded door opened to the ballroom. There, polished wood floors. Mirrors. Pale blue walls. Cherubs peeking out of the corners at ceiling height.

Empty.

I dropped into a chair pushed against the wall. I groaned. I sat. I stared. I listened to the endless ticks and creaks that came from our heap of bricks.

She could be anywhere. The grocery store. Getting her hair cut. Out for coffee with a friend. 

And yet…

I pulled myself back to my feet. I made my way to the kitchen again.

There on the counter, finally, I saw her note, scribbled on the back of an insurance offer from AARP.

“Charles,” it said. “Need time to think. We both do. Try not to worry. Will be in touch.”

Tomorrow: Think?!

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