Ryder rubbed his eyes. No wonder they felt so sore—one glance at his watch told him it was almost two in the morning. Although he could still hear well, the loud music seemed to have whittled his sensitivity to about 85 percent, as though he’d wrapped his eardrums in cotton.
After dinner, he’d allowed Chase to drag him to a nightclub, which was where Ryder had last seen his friend before returning to the hotel alone by way of a taxi. They would find each other before the art show opened that morning at ten o’clock. Chase might push his limits, but he was never late.
Now, upon entering the hotel, he found the lobby empty except for a concierge at the front desk. The room’s silence rivaled that of a funeral parlor. Ryder made a beeline for the elevator bank and pushed the round button to hail a ride upstairs. With a glance around the corner, he found the doors to the art show shut and locked. He detected no pulsating rhythms, which meant the wedding reception had ended, as well.
Ryder heard the elevator tone—followed by the swish of fabric coming from his left. He halted. Listened.
Another swish, like the chiffon of a bridesmaid’s dress.
When the elevator doors opened, Ryder wasn’t standing in front of them. With one eyebrow furrowed and his ear cocked upward, he eased toward the far end of the elevator bank, then peered around the corner.
More rustling of fabric, then tiny sobs. Step by step, he followed the sounds. On his right, he noticed someone had left open the door to a dark room. Another sob came from inside that room. A female voice.
“Hello?” Ryder whispered. His eyes adjusted to the dark as he brushed his hand along the wall in search of a light switch. At last, he located the switch and flipped it on.
The room was small. He wandered to a far corner, where a desk topped with random clutter sat, a four-star hotel’s answer to a dumping ground. When he peeked behind the desk, he discovered a young woman. Weeping, she sat crumpled on the floor with her back against the desk. A peach-colored rose trampled by life.
Ryder darted around the desk.
“Excuse me, are you okay?”
His heart rifted. When he knelt beside her, the first thing he noticed was the scent of alcohol that permeated her dress.
Ryder could tell she was drunk. And so alone.
A few inches away sat an upright wine bottle, which he grabbed by the neck and jiggled. Empty. A glass sat beside her, tipped over, its contents also empty, save one last drop, which had begun to dry along the glass’s glistening edge. Remnants of cabernet sauvignon had left a burgundy stain on the side of Lily’s dress and, judging from her current condition, upon her heart.
Ryder’s heart cringed each time she inhaled for another sob. He could tell she’d tried to keep her sniffles quiet and wondered if he’d invaded her privacy. Then again, she hadn’t asked him to leave.
Where was the guy with whom he’d seen her earlier?
“Lily, are you okay? Do you need help?” Ryder asked, leaning in to see if he could read her eyes since she didn’t want to speak. When she peered into his eyes, Ryder couldn’t help but notice a stark departure from the clear, bubbly visage he’d observed near the elevator bank. Now, as he tried to decipher her needs, her eyes welled up with tears. They trickled past her mascara and down her cheeks, leaving behind dark trails. She must have sat here for quite a while before he’d found her, because her corneas had turned a shade of pink—a contrast with the intense, cobalt blue of her irises. In fact, her eyes reminded him of a sapphire necklace on display at a jewelry store. He considered how their tone matched her mood.
On second thought, he was wrong. Such a rich shade of blue spoke of royalty. It befitted a young woman who deserved happiness in life.
And where was her date? Was he the reason she sat here broken and alone?
Ryder sat beside her on the floor and took in the full sight of her face. One glance into Ryder’s eyes triggered in Lily a fresh onslaught of tears, and from his soul, Ryder responded before logic could convince him otherwise. He slid his arm behind Lily’s back and, to his surprise, she leaned into his partial embrace. And wept.
Ryder drew her closer to his chest, nestled his chin upon her head. The locks of her hair, perfectly styled a few hours earlier, had loosened and fallen to her shoulders. He could tell her hair wasn’t naturally curly. He picked up the scent of hairspray. Taking a closer look at her hands, he noticed a slight discoloration of her fingertips, a rust color. A light stain, it appeared more prominent in contrast with skin as fair as hers.
Lily drew her feet underneath her wrinkled dress and wrapped one arm around Ryder’s belly. She tried to form a word but grew dispirited and gave up.
“Shhhh,” Ryder whispered in her ear as they rocked back and forth. When she trembled in his embrace, he tightened his arm around her, which he hoped would make her feel secure.
This is a convergence of strangers, he had to remind himself. Nothing more. Given her drunken state, he doubted she would remember his presence by morning.
Yet she’d captured his heart.
And someone had broken hers. How?
He felt his adrenaline surge, anger toward whoever had treated her with cruelty and left her in this drunken mess.
Lily. A broken flower.
“Lily, can you stand up?” He waited for a response, but she closed her eyes. “Do you know where you are?”
A soft giggle, momentary and laced with pain, escaped through her rosebud lips before it disintegrated into another series of sobs. An emotional rollercoaster of an evening, Ryder figured.
Lily shivered. The flesh of her shoulder felt a tad cool when Ryder touched it with his knuckle. With one glance above, he found a heating vent blowing hot air, which seemed to cool by the time it reached the ground.
Ryder rose to a crouch.
“Tell you what: Stay here, and I’ll try to find someone from your group. You’re in the wedding, right?”
Lily nodded, then leaned back and appeared to drift to sleep.
Though hesitant to leave her alone, Ryder didn’t know what else to do. He couldn’t carry her throughout the hotel, drag her from door to door, until he located her room. Rising to his feet, he took one final glimpse to make sure she was safe, then slipped away. He turned out the light so no one else would disturb her before he returned.
By three in the morning, Ryder had left Lily with her relatives and parted ways with her. The thought of never seeing her again chafed his heart as he walked down the hotel’s ninth-floor hallway and stuck his key card into the electronic lock of his own room. As he walked inside, his eyes moved toward one side, where a table lamp kept everything aglow.
He wouldn’t sleep at all tonight. He couldn’t. The thought of Lily lingered in his mind and swayed within his soul. Even at her low point that evening, as dismal as she’d appeared, Ryder had seen an angel when he’d gazed into her eyes.
In his room, he plunged into a sea of plush cushions on the sofa and grabbed a tiny, five-dollar bottle of mineral water from the mini bar. As the carbonated liquid tickled his throat and settled into his belly, its bubbles danced and brought a grin to his face. An unexpected end to the evening. Ryder hadn’t stepped foot in his room since morning and noticed he’d left the curtains open. From his vantage point on the sofa, he gazed out the window at the Cleveland skyline, where he noticed lights glowing from a nearby office tower.
Something stirred in his soul, but he couldn’t identify its source. Invigoration, perhaps? No, on second thought, he felt…alive. Alive, fueled by the memory of her.
Something about her had created in him a longing.
The stirring wouldn’t cease. An artist’s vulnerability. An abstract impression that begged manifestation.
She had disappeared from his life. Dejected at the realization, Ryder sought to keep her memory alive.
With a beckoning in his heart, he moved to the writing desk. From his satchel, which he’d placed beside the desk when he’d arrived that morning, he retrieved a small sketchbook and his favorite pencil. After flipping through the book in a hurry, he found a crisp, white page and focused his attention. With soft, careful strokes, he sketched a figure on the paper.
With careful attention to detail, he sketched her countenance based on what he remembered from the first time he’d laid eyes on her, when the bridesmaids had gathered near the elevator.
A glad Lily, content in life. That’s who she was.
He wished he had his paint and canvas with him, because this black-and-white sketch could never do justice to those bright, cobalt eyes and the tone of her hair, its auburn shade more red than brown. Creamy porcelain skin and light freckles on her cheeks.
As each detail re-emerged in his mind’s eye, Ryder added it to his sketch. He maintained one detail from her latter state: He kept her hair down, so it rested upon her shoulders.
Feature by feature, he emptied his soul upon the paper, where it became one with hers in a manner only an artist could perceive. Ryder savored the friction of his pencil as it scratched the paper’s surface.
Absorbed in what unfolded before his eyes, Ryder lost track of time until he sensed a change in the atmosphere around him. He sneaked a peek at the window and discovered the inky night sky had grown a shade lighter.
Sunday morning. The emergence of a new week.
And a new era for the artist.
Excerpt Copyright 2019 John Herrick