Edna slipped her liver-spotted hand into her purse, touching the velvet box nestled between her address book, prescription bottles and wallet.
You won’t mind, will you, Walter? she silently asked the ghostly presence riding at her shoulder.
The bus’ blasting air conditioner and struggling engine replied, both surging her through town with rugged determination.
A smile crept onto her thin lips as the vision in her mind’s eye beamed a paternal grin. Withdrawing her hand, Edna clasped her purse closed, and rested her arms upon the supple, chocolate-hued leather. She played with the now-lone ring on her left hand with her right’s wrinkled fingers, and adjusted to the changed weight.
Outside, the blocks passed, store fronts and apartment buildings blurring at each of the bus’ accelerations.
Edna checked her slim watch, and then noted the street signs. As the expected time and destination neared, she pressed the stop-request cord, and began assembling herself for the rendezvous.
Swaying up onto her sturdy flats, she shook out each pant leg in a vain attempt to rid the oatmeal colored linen from wrinkles. Her off-white blouse clung on her shoulders, and she made sure her twist of salted blonde hair remained securely clasped. Slipping her purse into the crook of her arm, Edna made her way to the front, stopping with her toes touching the yellow line.
The driver, squeezed behind the wheel like an about-to-be-crushed tomato, kissed the front tire against the curb, and then braked at the blue sign with a bold number 32.
Beside the sign, stood Ned, his lanky arms and legs sprouting from a sage polo shirt and pastel-checkered shorts. He ran a hand through his shaggy hair, and swayed to either foot like a metronome.
The driver pulled the lever, opening the door.
“Thank you,” said Edna.
“Have a good day, ma’am.”
Edna grasped the railing and descended, the humid summer afternoon cradling her exit.
“Hi, Mrs. Blaine.” Ned stepped up to the curb, and then paused a pace away, as if unsure how close manners allowed him to stand.
“Oh come now,” said Edna. She gestured him forward, and coiled one arm around his neck while he bent and gave her a delicate hug. As they parted, she noted the youthful anxiety pouring out of him as easily as the sweat at his brow. “Where’s Gail?”
“Shopping with Vicki.”
“And what’s your cover story?” Edna started for the nearby stretch of awnings and their shade, Ned quickly matching her stride with crackling flip-flops.
“I’m hitting the hardware store. The kitchen sink’s been acting up.”
“I see,” said Edna, her mouth firming.
Ned stuffed his hands into his pockets as if to take back his slip referencing their domestic arrangement. His shoulders tightened.
From Edna’s memory came Walter’s voice. “He’s a good catch for her.”
“You’re right,” whispered Edna.
“Hum?” asked Ned. His mahogany eyes filled with concern.
She waved him off, and stopped by a towering shelf of wilted ferns by the hardware store’s automatic entrance. “Be sure to make that repair or else she’s going to suspect something.”
Ned’s smile bloomed. “I will. I won’t be able to make her dinner with a busted sink.”
“Is that when you’re going to ask?”
He dropped his gaze to his flip-flops, head bobbing like a dribbled ball. “I’ve got it all worked out. Roses, music, wine-.”
Edna raised a hand, and he stumbled into silence. “Let her tell me the details.”
“I think she’ll like that.”
“It seems like you have many things to do so let’s not be dallying.” Edna opened her purse and dug for the box. Although rust flecked the hinge, the rest of the dark blue velvet shone from the fresh brushing she had given it before heading for the bus.
Opening the lid, Edna rested the box in her palm, and offered the interior for Ned’s inspection.
He licked his lips, and his whole body stiffened. “It’s beautiful. I mean, it was always beautiful, especially when you were wearing it, but, ah….” Wincing, he ceased his rambling and found a point. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
His brow creased. He opened and closed his mouth like a desperate fish.
“Her father wouldn’t either,” said Edna.
Ned sagged, as if melted an inch by the heat. With a snap of the lid, Edna passed over the box. He took it in two trembling hands.
“Thank you,” said Ned, “I know it’ll mean a lot to Gail.”
“I was honored you asked.” Edna folded her hands at her waist, and caught him in a stern stare. “You have to promise me something though, before we’re done here.”
He gulped. “Yes Mrs. Blaine?”
“You promise me you’ll be as good to her as you have been all these years.”
“I’ll be even better.”
“Good. Or else I’m going to be coming back for my ring, Darryl and Martin in tow.”
“If you or your sons feel you need to knock some sense into me, then I’m sure I’ll deserve it.”
“Well, I’ll let Gail have the first crack. That’s a wife’s prerogative.”
“I’ll remember that.”
Edna held his gaze for another heartbeat. Ned didn’t waver.
She softened her scowl into a faint grin. “I should be off, but I’ll be expecting a call soon, tissues ready.”
“Did you want to get a drink? Iced coffee or something? I feel bad that you’ve come all this way just to turn around.”
“Nonsense, I have errands to run, and so do you.”
“Right.” Ned gave the box an extra look before slipping it into his pocket. “We’ll see you soon, I’m sure.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
She encompassed Ned in another hug, this one returned with greater ease. With a wave, Ned strode around the stack of ferns, vanishing through the hardware store’s doors.
“Now,” said Edna to herself, “what’s next?”
Scanning the nearby businesses, she spotted a drugstore and set off across the street with a furtive dab at her eyes. Within the store’s arctic air, Edna set her sights on procuring the necessary tissues and a card of congratulations for whenever Gail’s moment arrived.