Erin remembered thinking, even in the early days, that the most gruesome tragedies often had innocent beginnings. Perhaps therein lies the tragedy, when the Fates realize that a pure love has flourished in an unseen corner of the world, tangles of blossoms drawing life from deepening roots in the shade of fallen trees only to emerge, radiant, when the shadows could contain them no longer. The balance must be restored; the cycle continues.
When she met Charlene, Erin had already spent four months as a gatekeeper of sorts, the aide to a general, tasked with keeping her graying ward on course despite his proclivity for disrupting her best efforts at timeliness. She kept watch like a sentry posted by his door, turning away all who would seek to derail him from his track, whether in person or by phone, through email or post. Without exception, however, he was the greatest challenge to the good order and discipline of his own life. His appetite for bourbon, cigars, and the attention of women other than his wife ensured that Erin’s role required every ounce of vigilance she could muster.
Erin’s world moved like clockwork, even if the general did his utmost to throw the time. She rose in the morning, took advantage of the time difference to speak with her husband and children before they slept, enjoyed a quiet period of exercise, and ate breakfast with the morning news babbling like a gentle brook in the background. Every morning was the same, down to the count of raisins dropped into her bowl of oatmeal. She arrived at her office not long after sunrise and—in her structured time—blocked off until well after sundown as a generous window within which the only task was wrangling the general. Her evenings brought less ceremony than the mornings, only another phone call with the family before bed. She slept her six hours and began the cycle again, the ticking of the clock resonant as she turned through her days.
She couldn’t remember the first time she saw Charlene, not specifically. She knew they had met at her desk, where she spent her waking hours, and that she had filed the encounter mechanically in the delicate spin of cogs and ribbons. When she looked back later through the faded albums of her memory, however, her earliest images showed moments of prolonged contact, just the faintest hesitations to break away. Eyes that sometimes held a moment too long, fingers that lingered in a tender handshake, feet that stood a moment longer in the doorway after mouths had spoken words of farewell. What the mind could not yet touch, the body had already begun to embrace.
Although they worked in separate buildings and rarely had professional reasons to cross paths, Erin found Charlene more present by the day. Charlene worked on the general’s team of legal advisors, tasked with keeping his decisions within the bounds of law and regulation. Despite his personal appetites, he had a well-earned reputation for sound leadership at the helm of the organization. Erin suspected that his private weaknesses, a vulnerability in his profession, drove him to vigilance in the proper execution of his public duties. As a result, his legal team remained underemployed and out of sight, chiming into the office by phone only when a matter required his immediate attention.
Erin quickly identified the persistent presence of this lawyer as problematic. Regardless of whether the latter’s aim was to increase exposure to the general for professional advantage or to join the starry-eyed flock that he groomed, she floated into the office like warm breeze and presented a source of friction to the clockwork of the day, not to mention a possible liability from which Erin would need to shield the general in the future. Neither her well-honed charm and wit, nor the interest that she showed in Erin, could hardly have been authentic. That Charlene lingered outside the general’s office long after meetings to sit on the edge of the desk to chat with Erin or brought small tokens to leave behind like a benevolent raven only heightened Erin’s suspicion: clearly, this one understood that to get to the general one needed to win over the gatekeeper.
And, as with moments of revelation, one day that all changed. On an autumn Sunday, the general left for home to attend to a death in the family, and the news that he would be away for the week raced through the organization. In his absence, Erin was to keep up with his extensive correspondence, repackage the week’s events into the days beyond, and plan his life months in advance. When Monday morning arrived, she observed her rituals in their proper order, tick-tock, and entered the office on schedule. In her four months in the seat, the general had never missed a day, so when she discovered how productive she could be without the constant improvisation required by his presence, she found that she was no longer fighting to stay above water but rather peacefully afloat. In that quietude, the reverberating tick-tock through her mind demanded more.
As Erin descended into a pool of chilling anxiety, Charlene entered once more. Off-balance and ambushed, Erin hastily dismissed the intruder, reminding her that the general was away. Charlene smiled, stepping closer with an unbroken gaze. If Erin had been off-balance before, now she flew in free fall.
They spoke for hours. No one disrupted the splendor of their discovery. Morning passed into afternoon, lunch forgotten in such satiating company. Erin sat transfixed by the woman on her desk, by her light and grace, that potent mix of levity and gravity that promises to both divert the course of one’s life today and alter its flow forever. She sipped from this cup and then drank it in deep. A faint shade of blue settled over Erin’s eyes, casting the world about her in a permanent twilight, a fragile in-between state where she would come to reside. Charlene suggested they step out of the office to continue the conversation elsewhere. Still reeling, Erin nodded, mechanically rising from her post, and followed Charlene through the halls to exit the building.
Over the course of the general’s weeklong absence, the clockwork life that Erin had so meticulously assembled and maintained slipped into a new rhythm, a rambling and major-keyed harmony dancing over the minored monotony of her melody. Her calls home grew shorter, rescheduled, and less frequent. Her breakfast lost its exactitude and now served simply as rushed sustenance. Her exercise consisted of walks, runs, and stretches—never without company. Her sentry post had become vacant beyond the essential hours and increasingly decorated with miniature mementos that underscored shared wonders. Erin maintained her daily gatekeeping duties with the same vigilance as before, but her life had grown a new dimension that flooded her experience in an unsounded depth.
The week passed, and the general returned. She felt the drumbeat of clockwork within her striving to rein her back, but she could not unhear the harmony to her melody. She kept guard at the general’s door, managed his correspondence, and planned his days, but his idiosyncrasies that she had addressed as a natural nuisance no longer factored into her role. Whatever meaning she had found in serving this man, the emergence of love had eclipsed. Passion had so gripped her that she directed all her resources towards it, withdrawing from her family and abandoning her rigorous clockwork. Charlene had captured her spirit—no, she had willingly ceded it.
The exhilarating magic of those early months, their purity, carried Erin and Charlene through many darker ones. In time, Erin’s husband had pressed others in her organization with concerns about her changes in behavior, and their tryst was revealed. A prohibited relationship on several levels, theirs became a spectacle in the kangaroo court of public opinion. At first, their crucifixion brought them closer together, channeling the spirit of burned witches condemned by frightened men of power that failed to understand them. As time passed, however, pressures weighed heavily on their hastily laid foundation and began to reveal cracks.
Three days had passed when the cleaning staff disregarded the knob-hanging sign to enter Charlene’s room and discover her body. That she had not suffered physical pain in her last moments provided no solace to those who loved her, knowing the emotional and psychological burden that crushed her. Since the military had pushed her and Erin out of its ranks, she had been unemployed and drifting between shelters and motels, with no family that would claim her after the scandal and no place to call home after knowing only the service through her adult life. She died alone.
Erin visited the gravesite a few days after the funeral; her husband had not wanted her to attend the service. Standing alone over the softly tamped soil seemed more appropriate than mingling with others who had met her anyways. Erin had thought she might weep. She moved to sit down on the grass by the stone cross-legged, staring intently at the inscription. She felt no loss as she passed her eyes over the stony words. Instead, Erin felt closer to Charlene than she had in years, the purity of their discovery freed from the intervening years and left to shine in her heart as a precious stone, catching the sun and casting a gentle twilight over her infinite blue.