She unfolds the dress, shakes it out, and slowly glides her hands into the pockets, hoping that there might be something there. A surprise. A memento. A glimpse of the happy day she wore it for the first time. The only time. She recalls so clearly standing in sunlight The bouquet left golden streaks of pollen on her hands and she worried that if she wiped her hands on the cream linen, it would stain. She recalls the voice of the female justice of the peace, how surprisingly deep it was. The black flutter of the justice's official garment. The cooling breeze that dried the sweat left along her forehead and between her thighs. She recalls how earnestly he gazed into her eyes, until everyone and everything else dissolved. And she remembers the catch in her throat when she said those old-fashioned words “Til death do us part.” She had suggested they write their own vows, speak aloud in front of witnesses, voice at last what was burning in their hearts, but he laughed at her. “Write vows, whatever for?” What she can’t remember is how they got from the courthouse to the party afterwards. It is all a blur. Champagne. Surely there was champagne? Did she eat? Sometimes joy or fear made it hard to swallow. She vaguely recalls how they embraced for a photographer’s flash. She can’t believe that it has been already six years since she left him behind after he cheated on her. She can’t believe there is nothing in the pocket, not a dried lily petal, not a handwritten note (she remembers they would write each other notes and leave them on pillows or in the fridge), not a trace of sugar, not even a wrinkle where the ring lay just before she pushed it onto his finger.
Smoke billows thick and black from the chimney of the deserted house but instead of running away, she walks closer. Astonished. After all the twists and turns, saving for months from her paycheck, the scramble to get her birth certificate in order to get a passport, the days of planning and phone calls and emails to the couple renting her a room through airbnb, she can’t believe that she is so close and now it is going up in smoke. Or at least something is going up in smoke. She pauses and squints, follows the plume rising into the cold air. Only a fire in the fireplace, not a house fire then. How can this be a coincidence? She knows from the letter of the bookseller in the village that the house has sat deserted for years. He wrote that even the windows were intact. The house’s reputation and the proximity to the vicarage protected it from vandalism. Who is inside the house? She doesn’t want to think about why someone is there. Waiting for her? The manuscript and the map are inside that house. She hopes the keys are there as well. The diary indicated that they are. The diary from her Uncle Jack, found in the bottom of a pile of faded photographs, scrapbooks, bills, half torn calendars, and then a series of sketches was the impetus to set her off on this mad goose chase. She has risked everything to get here. She isn’t going to stop until she has answers. But her quick pace slows to a more thoughtful one as she approaches the house. The house is covered in ivy and cracks run under the windowsills. The front steps sag, the paint peels away, leaving splintered wood. The windows are grimy and brass doorknob tarnished. She tries it in her hands. It turns and the door swings open. “Oh, it’s you,” she says, and pushes past him into the foyer.