Darzsa pulled the picture off the wall, perking up his ears to make sure his aunt was still searching through her copious drawers of junk. He slowly pried the back of the frame off to see if anything was written on the back of the photo.
Looping letters read, “D. Blake, J. Adams, I. Johnson, 1921.” Noting the background, Darzsa saw his grandmother’s front porch. Someone from home, then. The photo practically crumpled in his hands, thinking about home. He gingerly aligned it under the glass before any damage was done, clasped the backing, and hung it back on the wall.
Who was this man next to them? He wasn’t someone they grew up with. Maybe it was someone they met during basic training or after they got home. Judging by the proximity, they were close friends. Something about how this stranger clung to Josiah put hot coals in the pit of Darzsa’s stomach. He averted his eyes before the embers stoked him any longer.
His aunt shuffled back into the room, carrying a stack of envelopes in her hand. “Didn’t see anything for you. Who would be sending you mail, anyway?”
So, nothing. Figures. Darzsa didn’t expect any further communication, but the confirmation latched like a vice around his throat all the same. He swallowed it down and turned his attention elsewhere. “Say, when did you get this? I don’t remember seeing it the last time I was here.”
“You say that like you come by often.” She touched Daniel’s face through the glass. “Your mom has always conveniently forgotten to send pictures of you two to me.” Bea tapped her yellowed nails on the glass. “Don’t know about these two. All she said was that they were some friends of his. Oh, here you go.” She thumbed through the envelopes in her hand and pulled out a small photo. “This came with that one. I’m not sure if it’s for you, but you can have it.”
Darzsa swiped the picture from Bea. Studying the image, Darzsa noticed Daniel had on the same outfit, sitting on the steps alone. He was smiling. That same smile he’d give when they’d play games together and let Darzsa win or to cheer him up when he got teased at school.
The glossy finish burned Darzsa’s fingertips. He shoved the photo in his back pocket and slumped down in the armchair.
“Oh, you’re not running out to galavant around town? I heard some noise from the square the other day—some nonsense about a medium. I don’t see why these people mess around with these damn false prophets anyway. You mess around with the other side too much; it’s like a curse. It taints you. Did you know that my neighbor used to go down on St. Ann…”
Darzsa stopped listening to his aunt ramble on about unnecessary things a while ago. He rested his head on his fist as he watched her prattle on about what her priest or friends said. Through the door to her bedroom and back, and she was still going on about whatever came to mind. Darzsa knew him half-listening was better than her talking to the empty furniture.
“Well, I guess you best be off. No need for you to be around here after dark.” Bea lifted Darzsa’s jacket and peeked underneath. “I told you about these blouses. Wear a camisole under them.”
“I have nothing to hide,” Darzsa bragged.
Bea sighed and left the room again momentarily. “Take this.” She handed him a brown paper bag emanating warmth and numerous savory scents—his favorite foods.
Darzsa lifted the bag, feeling the weight of it. “Do you always cook this much?”
“Not always. You never know who’ll drop by.” She tugged on his sleeve, urging him out of the chair. “Beat it. Gotta see a man about a dog.”
“Watch it. This was a gift.”
Darzsa pulled his aunt into a hug when they got on the steps. She wasn’t one for kinship, but she had her own way of showing she cared about him. It was the little things that made his lowest moments worth bearing.
“By the time you visit next, the house might grow legs and walk away.” The lines on her face stretched with her grin. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“I’ll see you soon, I promise.” Darzsa kissed her on the cheek and trotted down the steps, home-cooked meals in hand. “You’re a doll.”
He waved to her at the corner, bidding her goodbye one more time, before returning to the heart of the city.
The Next Day
Darzsa sat on a bench near the outside of the square, shaking his leg. He and Josiah decided it would be their rendezvous point for today’s outing. The clock near the cathedral struck eleven times. He was an hour early, which was a feat since he spent half the morning in and out of half his wardrobe. He settled on a black sweater and shirt with a hint of red at the lips for prosperity and a matching dog collar necklace that he got from...well, that didn’t matter.
His shoes thudded against the pavement with every jerk of his knee. Was he too excited, showing up early? Josiah might be one to be fashionably late. No, he was in the army; he was used to strictly sticking to the confines of time. Darzsa’s eyes darted to every head that passed him. All the sights and sounds had his mind buzzing. Here he was anxious, nearly shaking at the mere thought of being out with Josiah. Darzsa had yet to conceive anything about where they were going or how they’d get there, only the prospect of meeting him outside of work.
The music and dancing around him halted when a red car came roaring down the street. Who was this egg with that loud old thing? Obviously, some mafioso or big shot rolling through to show off their hayburner. The car came to a stop in front of him, and the driver reclined the top down. A convertible. How much more auspicious could they be? Darzsa ate his words, and they cut his tongue like razors when no one other than Josiah hopped out in a navy suit and walked up to him.
“Nice breezer,” Darzsa observed, “is it new?”
Josiah greeted him with dimpled cheeks, holding his hand out to lead him to the car. “One of the new models from last year. Got it for a good deal in Milwaukee. One of the only good things to come of doing service.”
Darzsa never knew what to say when Josiah brought up his time in the army or being at war. He’d seen what being over there did to the men who were fortunate enough to come back in one piece, but they were far from whole. Smiling Jo, his brother, and the unknown man disrupted his thoughts. Darzsa was curious about his identity and what occurred between then and now, but that would have to wait. They had a date with the dead.
“Are you sure you wore enough black?”
The dust settled from the thoughts tumbling around Darzsa’s head at hearing Jo’s voice. “Excuse me?”
“We aren’t going to a funeral, Darzsa.” He chuckled, turning the key and bringing the engine to life.
“There’s nothing wrong with looking presentable. First impressions are important.”
Darzsa dug a mirror out of his pocket, checking his lips—clear pomade tinted ruby. He should have wiped it off before he climbed into the car. Josiah touched the necklace at Darzsa’s neck, adjusting it slightly. “You look nice.”
A hum in agreeance was all Darzsa could muster. Moments after the car took off down the road and onto Esplanade, he still felt the heat that seeped through his sweater from Josiah’s hand. He was thankful the top was still down; he needed the fresh afternoon air to settle him.