Throughout the sanitarium, speculation was rife about the chess player's disappearance. The usual explanations for a patient's sudden absence—discharge or demise—would hardly have caused a stir. "Missing," however, was a rare, almost exotic category—with Mr. Papp's reclusiveness contributing to the general curiosity. No one really knew him. Opinions, thus, were prone to the most ridiculous hypotheses, in accordance with their spokesmen's misconceptions, ranging from, "He's run away to Flagstaff hoping to get himself a decent meal," to, "He returned to the ghostly haunts of the walking dead"—this latter from "Stone-deaf Seth," St. Francis's oldest and least endearing resident. But of all the reactions, one stood out as being the most distressed, the most profound: Melanie's.

She sat in her room alone, her sketchbook in her lap, struggling to express her dismal emptiness. She felt cut off, abandoned. And lonely. And angry at his obvious indifference. He had left without a word to her, as though she scarcely mattered. Where had he gone, anyway? Was he lost? He was too smart for that. She was half convinced his exit was deliberate, and a personal affront to her. So what if she did have to cancel one measly class? Was that any reason to run away and hide? Besides, she had been there right on time.

The pressure made her charcoal snap on another of her portraits, another one of him. She had amassed quite a collection: Julian looking condescending, Julian looking mean, Julian poised to make a chess move, Julian pointing at her hair, Julian somber, Julian sad. And now this latest—Julian left unfinished. She tossed the sketchbook on the bed. His cheek and chin and lower lip, part of his forehead, and one umbrageous lens, lay facing, indistinctly, toward the ceiling.

She looked out the window. A team of searchers was wearily returning. She strained to see if Julian was among them. No. Like all the others throughout the day, they trudged back empty-handed.

The sky was breeding clouds. Another storm was due. It was getting dark. What if he really was out there lost, or maybe worse? The way he dressed, he would not have lasted long. This would be the third night. And what about his seizures? She knew he needed medicine every day. What if he had left his pills behind?

Large flakes began to fall again. They drifted slowly, steadily, reclaiming the footprints tramped below. The volatile emotions she had experienced of late recommenced with a pang of mortal fear. What if…

Like the spectral figure of hooded Death, Julian appeared. His step was plodding. His frozen pant legs knocked against his shins. Clutched about him, a blanket trailed two rigid flaps that scrawled twin indentations in the snow. They wound down through a stand of pine like paralleling skis.

Her heart was racing. He was real again.

The impressions she had fashioned in his absence, pro and con, seemed merely fantastical compared to this, his actual return. All her apprehensions returned as well. There was something ominous about this man. As he drew near, in the failing light, his silhouette looked hauntingly foreboding. Secrets lurked inside that cold-stiffened shroud, secrets she might never want to learn.

Her cheeks grew flushed. The window clouded over with her breath. Nervously, she wiped it clear. He had reached the common. There he paused. He turned his shadowed face in the direction of her room. Attracted and repelled, Melanie stood suspended in anticipation. Then, just when she decided she could bear his stare no longer, off flew the blanket cape-like, and Julian—grinning—described an ostentatious bow.

She jerked the curtains closed.

 

"So Mother Dear...

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