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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Steele Agosta

A Little Fantasy Between Friends

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

Part 3 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions

It was a cold February morning when Nance Winslow stepped out on the deck of her cottage with a fresh cup of coffee. The sun was not quite risen, but a red glow lit the horizon, bisecting the blue-grey of the lake and the sky. She breathed in the cold, fresh air and thought, yes, it would be a good day.

Nance’s cottage was the oldest one on Juniper Row, built in 1957, and named Swallow’s Nest. Only two bedrooms and one bath, nevertheless it was completely adequate for her needs. The living room had a lovely large window overlooking the water, but her favorite room was the former side porch, which had been enclosed and now featured multi-paned windows and lots of built-in bookcases where she kept her travel books.

Nance loved to travel. In her youth, she’d been everywhere – backpacking through Europe, by train across Canada, on the back of a motorcycle around Australia, and she’d even hitchhiked the length of Route 66 across America. Ah, the good old days. Now she only traveled vicariously, through books and videos and Google Maps streetview. It was better than nothing, she thought, but definitely not the same.

Today, she was embarking on a trip to Belgium, thanks to Rick Steves’ Europe. Rick Steves was not her favorite tour guide – he was too relentlessly cheerful and sexless. Now, if Harrison Ford could be the guide . . . then again, he could be pretty grouchy. Someone was seriously missing a real opportunity here – some handsome guy with a sexy voice, maybe a hint of an accent.

She’d watch that kind of travel guide any day. Dude could make some big cash on YouTube. She missed traveling. She missed the company of a red-blooded man even more. She’d take any of those guys on Yellowstone for company. Not a dud in the bunch, not even the old guy with white hair. Maybe especially not the old guy.

She’d had her Belgian waffles for breakfast, so she was all set to go. Amazon Prime Video on her wide-ass TV, Rick Steves all lined up, recliner in the most comfortable position, and coffee mug at the ready. All set, and then her cell phone made its vroom-vroom sound of a motorcycle revving up, and she saw that Vonna was calling. “Girl,” she said into the phone, “What are you doing up so early?”

“Can I come over?” Vonna asked. “I need to talk to someone. I called Antonia last night, inviting her to come visit, and I haven’t been able to sleep ever since.”

“Hallelujah! Come right over!”

She’d been bugging Vonna for ages to give her cousin’s daughter a call. The girl was 24 years old; she didn’t have to get Papa’s permission. And although Vonna always said she wanted to talk to her about maybe inheriting the property, Nance knew there was more to it. Something to do with Vonna’s spooky powers, which she always insisted she didn’t have. Like hell. Nance was no fool.

Plus, there was that day . . . back in December. Nance had been down in the dumps, having lots of back problems for the past few weeks. After her car accident five years ago, her spine had never been right again, despite two surgeries and tons of physical therapy. In fact, PT was how she met Vonna, in a water aerobics class at the Y. They’d hit it off right away, despite their different backgrounds. And gradually, Nance had become aware that Vonna had an effect on people. Especially when she turned her peepers on them. Not a stink-eye, but something intense. Hypnotizing. Like Kim Novak in Bell, Book & Candle, but without the cat and the humming. More than once, she’d given Nance a little pep talk with that eye gaze, and every time, Nance found herself filled with a sense of direction and the confidence to carry through with whatever was necessary. It was invigorating, but sometimes Nance couldn’t help but wonder if Vonna had her own purposes to fulfill, too.

That day in December, she’d been moping about, reminiscing about her last trip to France and walking along the Champs Élysées with Hugo, the man-hunk from Holland. “I want to be there so bad, I could chew tire chains,” she said. “My life has dwindled down to deciding what to have for lunch. Why go on? Sometimes I think I should just walk out into that lake and end it all.”

“Don’t say things like that!” Vonna responded. She touched Nance’s arm across the kitchen table and said, “You should get a rest. Take a nap and dream of France. Nothing wrong with traveling through your memories. Relax, and think about what it was like that day on the Champs Élysées.”

And Nance had fallen into a dream. Fallen into it, deeply, like dropping backward into a pool of water. She was there, walking along with Hugo. She could feel a breeze on her face and the sun on her shoulders. People walked by and she heard snatches of conversation in French, English, Italian, Japanese, and every language spoken by tourists excited with discoveries. Her legs were strong, her back was straight, her breasts were high. She felt alive in a way she hadn’t for years. The Arc de Triomphe loomed ahead, and along the way they passed restaurants and boulangerie, and she smelled croissants and espresso and le hot dog Americain. Hugo held her hand and looked down in a way that let her know he was ready to take her back to their hotel room and make love. She was there. My god, she was there.

When she woke from the dream or the hallucination or trance or whatever the hell it was, she almost cried. To be alive like that again, to feel the old ache in her – well, not her stomach, for sure – it was magical. Magnificent. She wanted it again and again. Vonna was gone and she was just sitting in the kitchen and, yes, according to the clock on the microwave, an hour had gone by.

She tried to talk to Vonna about it, but when she did, her friend’s eyes changed. Their bright blue turned silvery and it was as though Vonna was somewhere else, mentally. It wasn’t that she glanced away, because she didn’t. It was more like some kind of filter went down over her gaze, a thin wall of separation between her and Nance. Not like how other people’s eyes looked when their attention wandered. It was deliberate. Freaky. Frustrating. Whenever Nance tried to get her friend to do it again, to cast a spell or whatever, and send her on a fantasy trip, Vonna always played dumb. “You had a dream, hon. That’s all. I’m just happy you’re feeling better.” She just wouldn’t admit a thing.

But now Vonna needed her. She’d taken that step, called Antonia, and either the shit would fly or magic would happen. Nance wasn’t sure which she would prefer. It would be lively, at any event, and liveliness was always welcome.

“When is she arriving?” Nance asked. She and Vonna sat out on the pier, despite the cool temperature. It seemed appropriate, watching the water and feeling all the open air around them. A single fishing boat skimmed across the lake with a mosquito’s whine and birds darted through the sky.

“This weekend. I’m all rattled. I thought I’d have more time, but she sounded eager to get here, so . . .” Vonna’s voice trailed off and she stared across to the opposite shore. “Oliver’s going to have a cow.”

“Let him. She’s an adult. How long does he think he can call the shots? What will you tell her?”

“Oh, Nance. I’m such a fool! I thought this would be tricky, but now that I really think it over, it’s impossible. I can’t begin to make her understand. I don’t understand it myself.” She shivered, despite her heavy coat and scarf.

Nance threw an arm around her shoulders. “It’s cool. Don’t worry. Maybe just start by showing her around the place. Show her all those old photo albums, give her some family history. Take her to dinner at The Dining Room. What are you afraid of?”

Vonna didn’t respond for a moment, but finally said, “It’s just – this is making me think about things that I’ve kinda avoided, or just kept pushing away. It makes me really consider what my responsibilities are, and I’m not sure how to deal with them. You have to understand,” she said, turning her face toward Nance but not meeting her gaze, “I wasn’t given any kind of preparation for my . . . responsibilities . . . prior to my Mom’s death. I mean, I took care of certain things for her, of course, but I didn’t deal with, well, her legacy. Family history. Stuff like that. Didn’t know one thing about it. I always knew Mom was a very special person, but. . .and now I don’t know how much I should prepare Antonia.”

“For being a special person too?” Nance prodded when Vonna ran down. “Like you are?”

Vonna blinked and became so still that Nance wasn’t sure she was breathing. Finally, she said, “I’m not so special. I mean, I’m just . . . what do you even mean?”

Nance mentally debated how much to throw at her. In the end, she relented and just said, “You’re very special to me. To all of us who know you. Ultimately, doesn’t Antonia have to find out for herself what kind of person she is? Maybe this visit of hers is an ideal way to figure out exactly what you want to do. Get to know her. See what she’s really like. Give her a few hints and see how she responds. It could at least be more information than you got before your Mom died. What was it with women of our mothers’ generation, anyway? My mom didn’t prepare me for anything, not one thing, unless you want to count the one best way of ironing a man’s shirt. Which I certainly don’t count.”

Vonna smiled at that, but still seemed troubled. After a moment, she said, “You’re a good friend, Nance. You always give practical advice.”

“Really? Shit! Here I was, thinking I’m a bad-to-the-bone type of girl. Practical advice? Seriously? Take that back!” They both laughed and Vonna’s tension seemed to ease, so Nance added, “Introduce Antonia to some of your friends, including moi. Let us get to know her too. And keep in mind. You’re seventy, not ninety. Nothing’s gonna happen for a long, long time. Don’t freak yourself out. Now, not to be all depressingly practical, I’m starving and it’s time to eat. Chick-Fil-A or Arby’s? Big decision.”

Nance saw from across the street when Antonia arrived. The girl was medium-tall, slender, with long hair in a ponytail. Not a glimpse of her face as she swung a patchwork duffle bag from the back seat of her Volkswagen Beetle. There was no telling how things would go, which drove Nance slightly mad, but that evening, at The Dining Room, Vonna held court. She happily introduced Antonia to all their friends and acquaintances. “I keep thinking of her as a niece,” Vonna said as part of the introduction, “but she’s actually my cousin’s daughter.”

“Which makes us first cousins once removed,” the girl murmured, with a crooked smile. She was a mousy-looking girl. Fair hair that wasn’t quite blonde, hazel eyes that weren’t quite green, even features that somehow didn’t quite add up to attractiveness. She wore a wrinkled cotton dress printed with tiny, faded flowers, and her posture suggested she’d prefer to quietly disappear into the woodwork. Nance almost felt a sense of relief. The girl was probably normal.

Nance was invited to sit with them, and after she ordered her meal, proceeded to explain The Dining Room’s origin. “Rona, the owner and chef, used to have a big place in Charlotte, but she got tired of cooking the same thing every night, so now she has an icredible YouTube cooking show, and only opens this place three nights a week – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Limited menu. Prix fixe. We never know what she’ll be serving, but it’s always fabulous and there’s always something new. I usually get a second meal as a carryout to eat later in the week.”

Antonia didn’t have a lot to say. She seemed happy to listen, but as the meal went on, Nance noticed she didn’t eat very much, either. Of course, maybe that was how she remained so slender. Rona herself came out to speak with the various diners and stopped by their table to be introduced. She noticed the amount of food left on Antonia’s plate and asked if she’d prefer something else. “No,” the girl said. “It’s delicious. I just had a big lunch.” Nance noticed Vonna open her mouth as if to speak, and then close it again. Hmmm. Anorexic? Vegetarian? A Kate Moss wannabe?

Nance saw very little of her friend over the next two days. She had hoped they’d all spend time together, but no beans. She saw them out walking slowly down the road together, with Vonna pointing at certain things, and once they drove off for a few hours, presumably into town, but that was it, and next thing she knew, Antonia drove away in her little car. Sayonara, y’all. Kiss my foot.

She was actually beginning to feel a bit peeved when Vonna showed up on her doorstep. “Hello, stranger,” Nance said as she opened the door. “Do I know you?”

“Oh, don’t be like that,” Vonna said, wiping her feet on the mat and entering. “I didn’t want to overwhelm her. But I do think it went well.” She looked up, smiling and relaxed. “I like her a lot. She’s a great kid.”

Nance closed the door behind Vonna and turned to fill the kettle and put it on the stove. “Did she tell you much about herself?”

“Oh, yes. She works at a bookstore in Asheville, plus she’s an artist. You should see her work.” Vonna sat at the table and pulled up a website on her phone. “Look, she sells things on Etsy.” She showed Nance pictures of delicate watercolors. Nature scenes on bookmarks and postcards and small lithographs. “I want to talk to Drew Wilkes about selling them at his store.” Vonna smiled fondly at the scenes of flowers and ferns and small animals. Very Beatrix Potter-ish except none of the animals wore clothes. “She’s very talented.”

Nance only nodded. They were a little too ‘precious’ for her taste, but clearly Vonna was besotted. “Can she make any money that way?”

“Not a lot as yet, but she’s just starting out.” Vonna put her phone away and added, “I think I’ll go visit her in Asheville one day. It’s not that long a drive. I’d like to see where she lives. Right now, she’s in a tiny studio apartment. She loved the cottages here. I wish I had a vacant one.” She gazed out the window. “You know, I might be able to squeeze another tiny home in at the far end, between Dee’s and the meadow. She’d like that.”

“Mmm, don’t jump the gun, girl. Get to know her better, first.”

“I feel like I do! We talked so easily. She was fascinated by the family photos and some of my antiques. She’s vegan. She grows her own herbs and stuff. And did you notice her dress? Made it herself. Amazing.”

Nance began to feel sick at her stomach. Was she jealous? Or worried for her friend? Truthfully, she wasn’t sure. She put tea bags in the mugs and opened the fridge for some milk. “It sounds great,” she said slowly. “Just take your time. Be sure. She might not be everything she seems.”

“Don’t say that! She’s great! Why would she hide anything?”

She couldn’t help it – she had to laugh at that. “Good question,” Nance said, at Vonna’s surprised expression. “Family failing, maybe? You’re not exactly forthcoming, yourself. When it comes to answering questions, you dance around like Johnny Weir on ice.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Okay, then tell me this. What did you do to give me that dream last December? The one where I was in France.” Nance crossed her arms and leaned against the counter.

Vonna’s eyebrows went up and she stammered, “What? When? I don’t know what you mean.”

“Uh huh.”

“You think I’m some kind of dream weaver or something? A witch?”

“Yes, girl, I do. Witch, siren, enchantress, magician – whatever you want to call it. I don’t know, I don’t play Dungeons and Dragons. But you’re something, that’s for sure. And what’s wrong with that? We could all use a little magic in our lives. It’s just most of us don’t get the chance.” The kettle whistled and she turned to fill the mugs and add milk. “Don’t worry, I get it. You’re a good person. You use your powers sparingly. But let’s be honest. All this time, you keep saying you’re worried about pissing off Oliver by talking to Antonia, but really, you’re worried that she might inherit the same powers and not know how to use them in a good way. That’s the real truth, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”

“That’s enough.”

Nance turned back to the table, mugs in hand, to see Vonna frowning. “Oh, damn it! Come on, we’re friends. Why act coy with me? Just admit it. I won’t think you’re crazy and I won’t ask you to do anything bizarre on my behalf. Oh, maybe another fabulous dream like the last one. What’s a little travel fantasy between friends? It’s not like I’m asking you to break the bank at Caesar’s Palace.” When Vonna did not respond, she added venomously, “I bet you’d do it for Antonia, if she wanted. You don’t even know the girl!”

“I’ll thank you to leave Antonia out of it.” Vonna placed her palms on the table, spreading her fingers wide, frowning down at them. “Let’s just drop the subject.”

“Okay, sure, sweep it under the rug again – ”

“I said that’s enough!” Vonna’s eyes blazed and Nance felt an irrational moment of fear. “You will not cast aspersions on Antonia. You will not mention the subject of magic again. You won’t even think – ”

“Shit! You’re doing it right now!” Nance backed away and hot tea went splashing everywhere. “Stop!”

You stop.” Vonna stood up, suddenly seeming to loom over Nance. “We will never discuss magic again. Ever. You will make no disparaging remarks about Antonia, ever again. Understand?”

Nance blinked. She didn’t even feel the burns from the hot tea. She sat down, suddenly, stiffly, and stared at Vonna. They had been talking about something. What was it? Strangely, she found herself beginning to cry.

“You’re all right,” Vonna said softly, taking the mugs and wetting a cloth, placing it on Nance’s arms. “Shhhhh. Here, that’s better. Good thing you already added milk, or these would have been burns.” She bent to wipe up the floor. “Look, why don’t you get some rest. Take a nap.” She led Nance to her recliner and urged her friend to sit. “I’ll put the TV on for you.” She stood looking down at Nance for a moment and said, “I’m sorry I had to do that, but you made it absolutely necessary.”

Nance felt puzzled. Why was she watching TV? Oh, sure, PBS. Rick Steves. He was touring Munich and holding up a big beer stein. Looked like a good episode.

“I’ll let myself out,” Vonna said softly. “Let’s go to dinner at The Dining Room tonight. Rona’s making spaetzle and veal cutlets.”

Spaetzle. Spaetzle. Yes, Nance thought. That sounded good. What an excellent suggestion. After all, she hated making decisions about food. It was good of Vonna to take over. Such a good friend. She settled herself down to watch the show. Ah, yes. Oktoberfest. Excellent. Whatever happened to the tea she’d made?

By Carolyn Steele Agosta

To read the other parts of Strangely Satisfactory Obsessions, go here. Or visit my blog to find other stories here, and my books here.

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