Ann felt like an idiot.
She hated costume parties. And she hated parties where she knew very few of the attendees. Yet she was preparing to endure both for the next several hours.
As she parked her car, she wondered again if she could get away with being a no show at the party. She decided it probably wouldn't be too wise. Having started a new job only the week before and having been informed that the Halloween Party was the most important company social event for the entire year - even more important than the annual Holiday Party at year's end - she knew she had to at least make an appearance.
"Just stay a few minutes." She told herself as she switched off the engine. "Say hello, have a cup of punch, then leave. Fifteen, twenty minutes. Half an hour at most."
While children were welcomed at the Holiday party, the Halloween party was strictly adults only with each employee allowed to bring a spouse or date. She had asked a couple of her friends to accompany her but both had already made other plans for the night and she was forced to arrive alone. This only increased her sense of awkwardness as she pushed open the car door.
Taking a deep breath to bolster her lack of enthusiasm, she snatched the hat off the passenger seat and placed booted feet on the pavement. Standing, she tucked her keys into the pouch that hung on the leather belt around her waist and straightened the loose fitting coat and linen shirt of her costume as best she could. Out of reasons to delay her entrance any longer, she shut the car door and set out across the parking lot to her office building where the party was being held.
"Great costume." A man dressed like Count Dracula scurried by, anxious to get inside before the storm clouds that had been threatening all day released their heavy burden.
"Uh, thanks." Ann said self - consciously, looking skyward as thunder rumbled overhead.
She quickened her steps. The only thing worse than having to wear the costume would be to walk into the party drenched to the bone with the costume sticking uncomfortably to her.
She climbed the steps to the foyer, hurrying across the wide landing and through the glass doors into the building's lobby. Unlike her normal practice, she did not bother to pause to enjoy the carefully tended flowering plants that decorated the spacious area. Instead, she walked straight for the bay of elevators. The door to one of the cars opening just as she reached for the panel of buttons.
"Step right in, m' lady." A man dressed like a nineteen century English footman bowed at the waist.
"Thank you." Ann was relieved to find the elevator empty except for the doorman. She stepped to the back of the car and turned to face the front.
Ann gasped in surprise.
A woman was standing on the opposite side of the car smiling at her. While she wondered where the woman had come from, she was even more curious as to why the doorman had not acknowledged her. Ann was just about to do so herself when two costumed couples ran between the closing doors and stood in the center of the elevator car talking loudly.
Unable to be heard over the other passengers, Ann studied the woman as the elevator moved upward. She was, unlike everyone else in the elevator, dressed casually in a pair of khaki slacks with a light brown polo shirt tucked into her waistband. She wore little no makeup, her tanned skinned hinting of someone who enjoyed healthy, outdoor activities. Short auburn hair covered her head in thick, untamed waves and the woman would occasionally run her hand through the unruly locks. She stood with a smile teasing her lips.
Although the woman's brown eyes never left the front of the car, Ann was sure the woman was observing her as much as she was observing the woman.
The elevator doors opened and after the enthusiastic party goers poured out in a rush of laughter, Ann was surprised to find she was again alone with the doorman. Wondering how the woman could have exited so quickly she stood frozen in place, a puzzled look on her face.
Ann looked at the doorman, an unspoken question in her expression.
"Aren't you attending the party?"
"Oh." She shook herself out of her bewildered state. "Yes. I am. Thank you."
She stepped out of the elevator into what normally served as the building's cafeteria/dining room. It was quite large, taking up an entire floor in the building. During a normal day, tables and chairs were scattered about in groupings of different sizes and shapes. One side of the room housed the kitchen facilities and was separated from the dining area by a long counter of shelves and refrigerated sunken bays that would display, buffet style, the meal offerings for the day. The surface of the buffet counter was covered with overflowing trays of snacks, cookies and cakes, bowls of punch and pitchers of water and soft drinks.
For the party, the normally sterile looking room was decorated in the standard orange and black colors of the occasion. Paper bats and witches hung from the ceiling on invisible threads. The building's air - conditioning making them appear to be flying about the room under their own power. Spider webs with monster - size spiders occupied the corners of the room while clouds of dry ice curled and rolled about the floor. Jack - o - lanterns, each hand - carved face unique from the others, were set out in straight lines to mark a cleared square in the middle of the room. The tables and chairs had been rearranged on the outside of the dance area.
"You look great." A woman dressed like Annie Oakley strode up to Ann. "Glad you decided to come after all."
"Not sure I had much choice." Ann smiled at the woman with whom she shared an office.
"Believe me, you'll be glad you did." The woman held up a hand, twirling her index finger in a circle. "Let me get a look at you."
Ann followed the unspoken directive and turned in place so Annie Oakley could see her entire costume.
Dressed in the colorful attire of a pirate captain, Ann wore thigh high black leather Buccaneer boots over a pair of skin - hugging black tights. Around her shoulders, a knee length, purple velvet frock coat hung open exposing a white linen shirt with dropped shoulders, ruffled cuffs poked out of the coat's sleeves and the shirt was loosely laced up the front. A leather belt and purple satin sash encircled her waist and a felt tri - corner hat sat atop her head, her blond hair hanging down her back in a pony tail. The ensemble was enhanced by a stuffed parrot sitting on her left shoulder.
"Parrot is a bit much," Annie Oakley laughed.
"I know. But its feet are sewn into the coat." She was glad that she had decided against the eye patch, having left it on her dresser at home.
"Come on, let's get you something to drink and I'll introduce you around."
Ann had been on the job such a short time that she'd had little time to meet most of her co - workers. She knew a few by sight and even less by name.
"Hey, Annie Oakley," a woman dressed as the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz called across the room as Ann and her workmate walked towards the refreshment counter. "Get your butt over here and settle an argument for us."
"Sorry. I better go see what she needs. If I don't, she'll be screaming at me all night. Grab yourself something to eat and a table and I'll be back as soon as I can."
Ann watched Annie Oakley walk away. With a sigh, she turned to walk to the snack counter alone.
She stopped abruptly when her eyes fell on the woman from the elevator standing directly in front of her.
"You look like you could use some of this." The woman smiled, holding up a plastic cup.
"What is it?" Ann took the cup, looking suspiciously at its contents. She wasn't much of a drinker and didn't need or want any spiked punch.
"Witch's Brew." The woman grinned. "Completely non - alcoholic but very lethal." She laughed. "My own special recipe."
Ann took a sip. "It's good. What's in it?" She took another swallow.
"A lot of this and a little of that. I always liked to throw whatever was handy into it."
"Well, it's good. So whatever you threw in it tonight was some pretty good stuff."
"Shall we sit?"
"Sure." Following the woman across the room, Ann tried to remember where they had met before. Had it been in the office? It must have. Otherwise, why would she feel so comfortable in her presence? "Interesting costume for a Halloween party." She pulled out a chair at an unoccupied table and sat down.
"I'm afraid that my days of wearing costumes have come to an end." The woman scooted her chair closer to Ann so they could hear each other over the noise in the room. "I don't usually attend these anymore. But for some reason I felt I had to come tonight."
"Here you are."
Annie Oakley walked up to the table causing Ann to look away from her companion.
"Why are you sitting here all by yourself?"
Ann was mystified by the comment. "I'm not by myself. I'm talking with . . . " She turned back to see only vacate chairs around the table.
Ann realized she had never asked the woman her name. "I'm not sure. She's not wearing a costume so she shouldn't be hard to spot." She looked around the room hoping to see the woman in the crowd.
"I haven't seen anyone not wearing a costume." Annie Oakley took a cursory glance around the room. "It doesn't matter, she's gone now. Come on, I want to introduce you to some people. Maybe we can even get your empty dance card filled for the night."
Annie Oakley tugged Ann to her feet.
"I doubt you'll be able to do that."
"Oh, you might be surprised at how many lovely ladies have been asking about you." Annie Oakley giggled pulling Ann across the dance floor to a cluster of women on the opposite side.
As they walked, Ann looked for the mysterious woman but was unable to spot her among the growing number of party guests.
"Hey, everyone. This is Ann, my newest victim."
"Welcome, Ann." Several of the women answered at the same time.
"Sorry to hear you got saddled with Sharon." A woman dressed like Cleopatra extended her bejeweled hand. "Her average for driving newbies screaming from the building is about five days."
"I guess I'm safe then." Ann clasped the offered hand lightly. "I've made it that long already."
"Then she must think you've got some potential." Another woman, this one dressed as Lizzie Borden, extended a bloodied hand. "The ones she thinks are a waste of time, she usually goes out of her way to make as miserable as possible."
"Leave her alone, girls," Sharon broke in. "Tonight is a party, no shop talk. Remember Jodi's rules."
"Here's to Jodi." Cleopatra raised a plastic cup and the others joined her in the salute.
"Jodi is the woman responsible for all of this," Sharon swept her arm across the room. "She worked in our office."
"She loved Halloween."
"And she organized the first Halloween party. It was such a hit that it became an annual affair."
"It was a big deal before Jodi left us, now it's even more important." Again the cups were raised in salute.
"Where did she go?"
Just then the speakers came alive with the creepy tones of the Monster Mash and everyone looked to the dance floor.
"Okay, who is going to be the newbie's first dance partner?"
A woman dressed like an alley cat stepped forward. "It would be my honor, Ann."
"This is Charlene." Sharon introduced the women. "Obviously, the only gallant one in the group. Show her around, Char. I need to go find out what trouble my hubby has gotten into. Remember what happened the year he discovered the Witch's Brew."
The women laughed as Sharon rushed away.
"Shall we?" Charlene held out her arm.
Not really wanting to but not knowing how to refuse without it being taken wrong, Ann placed her hand on the extended arm and allowed herself to be led onto the dance floor. She spent the dance nodding politely to her dance partner's unheard chatter as she unsuccessfully sought out the mysterious woman in the crowd.
Several dances later, Ann insisted she needed time to catch her breath. As music blared and the dance floor became crowded again, she walked toward the empty table at the far end of the room.
Ann turned to the familiar voice. "What?" She was startled to see the mysterious woman walking beside her. "But where . . . ?
"I thought you could use some." The woman held out a cup of ice water.
She accepted the cup and took a long swallow. "That hits the spot."
"You looked really good out there."
"Thank you. I haven't danced that much in a long time." She dabbed her sleeve against her sweat covered brow.
"It's warm in here. Would you like to go outside for a few minutes?"
"Is it raining? I would love to get some fresh air but I don't want this costume to get wet. I don't think I could afford the damage fees."
"It's not raining."
Ann expected the woman to head for the wall of windows at the end the room and the balcony that overlooked the city. But instead she was led behind the buffet counter and through the kitchen. The woman opened a fire escape door, holding it for her to walk out onto a much smaller balcony.
Ann stood with her hands braced on the railing. A light breeze was blowing and she could smell the scent of rain it carried. She tilted her head back, allowing the brisk air to cool her overheated skin.
"Beautiful." The woman said as she joined her at the railing.
"If you like thunder and lightening." Ann laughed, thinking the woman was describing the angry sky.
"I was talking about you." The woman placed her hand on top of Ann's.
"Oh." Ann blushed at the unexpected compliment and touch but left her hand where it was.
"You haven't been with the company long, have you?"
"No. I started just last week." She was thankful for the change of subject. "What department do you work in?"
"I left the company a few years ago."
"But you're here. I thought the party was only for employees?"
"This party has always been a favorite of mine and I come back every now and then. They don't seem to mind." She lifted Ann's hand, wrapping it in both of her own.
"I see." Ann said but she really didn't. Questions about the woman were spinning around in her head but all she cared about was how good their hands felt clasped together.
"Would you like to dance?"
Ann glanced at the door that would allow them to return to the party.
"I would prefer to stay here." She reached up, removing the tri - corner hat from Ann's head and tossed it aside. "I think we can do without that." Then she slipped her fingers into Ann's hair, pulling loose the ribbon that held her ponytail. "Your hair is much too beautiful to tie up."
Ann blushed. The breeze lifted the released strands off her back to delicately waft about her face.
"Shall we?" The woman took a step back holding out her arms and waiting for her invitation to be accepted.
Ann was about to mention that they were unable to hear any music through the closed door when a few notes drifted to her ears. As she stepped into the woman's waiting arms, the notes multiplied and the music grew in volume. It was a slow song and, not caring where the music originated, she allowed herself to be led around the balcony.
Their bodies melted together, swaying to the music as if they were one. They danced, pressed together in a loving embrace that seemed as natural as time. Even after the music faded they remained wrapped in each other's arms.
"I've waited a lifetime to feel this way." Ann whispered, her head resting on the woman's shoulder. "I can't believe what I'm about to say." She tilted her head to look into the eyes that reflected the feelings she was about to reveal. "I know nothing about you and, yet, I think I'm falling in love with you."
The woman leaned forward, just enough for their lips to meet. It was a sweet, tender kiss but both their bodies reacted to the touch.
"I knew if I wanted long enough, you would come into my life." The woman whispered. "You are who I want to spend forever with."
"How can you be so sure?"
"When you've lost everything, you are left with only hope. The hope that something good will come along to replace all you have lost. I hoped for you."
"But . . . "
"Shhh." She placed her fingers against Ann's lips. "Now is not the time for questions. You need to go back inside before they miss you."
"But . . . "
Thunder rumbled overhead and a bolt of lightening cracked loudly as it burst out of the dark clouds on a jagged path to the ground.
"There will be plenty of time for answers." The woman pressed her lips against Ann's. This time, the kiss expressed all her longing and love. When their lips broke apart, she smiled tenderly at Ann for a few moments before guiding her back to the door and inside the building.
"Aren't you coming with me?"
"No. It's time for me to leave."
"When will I see you again?"
"That's up to you."
"But . . . "
The woman gazed lovingly at Ann. "Go now." She turned her around and gave her a gentle push in the direction of the party.
Confused by the feelings the woman had stirred within her and by her parting comments, Ann slowly made her back through the kitchen. She clutched at her heart when a faint whisper was heard from behind her.
"If you remember nothing else from this night, remember that I love you. And I will wait an eternity to be with you again."
Ann turned but found herself alone.
The mysterious woman who had stolen her heart in the few moments they had shared together had vanished.
"Goodness, I was beginning to think you had skipped out on us." Sharon said when Ann rejoined the party.
"No. I . . . " Ann glanced around anxiously. "Look, can we go somewhere and talk? Someplace private."
"Um, sure." Sharon shrugged at the questioning looks from Lizzie Borden and Cleopatra. "Let's go out by the elevators. That should be good."
Ann waited until they were standing alone and out of earshot of the party - goers before she told Sharon of the woman she had met and danced with.
"You must be mistaken." Sharon shook her head violently.
"Because the woman you just described can only be Jodi.
"And it can't be her."
"Why not?" Ann stood rigidly beside the wall glaring at Sharon who was staring back at her.
"Ann, Jodi died. It was a couple of years ago on Halloween. It was a nasty night, just like tonight. She left the party, this party, to walk home. She lived just a few blocks away." The words tumbled out of her mouth. "She was hit by a car as she crossed the street. A bolt of lightening blinded the driver of delivery truck and she probably didn't even know what hit her."
Ann's knees collapsed and she fell back against the wall. "But I've talked to her. I danced with her. She held me in arms. I felt her. I smelled her."
"You couldn't have."
"I kissed her." She wrapped her arms around herself needing the comfort of a loving embrace even if it were her own.
"I'm sorry." Sharon looked on the verge of tears. She could see how devastating her words were to Ann.
Ann sighed deeply and when she spoke it was with a soft but determined voice. "I fell in love with her."
Sharon could say nothing. She didn't disbelieve Ann but how could she believe her either. How could she have met, let alone fallen in love, with a dead woman. "I'm so sorry, Ann. I really am. But whoever it was, it could not have been Jodi. It's just not possible."
"I don't know." She knew everyone at the party and no one came close to matching the description of the un - costumed woman Ann claimed to have fallen in love with. "Let's go back. Maybe we can find her."
"No. I think I've had enough party for the night."
"But we've barely started."
"I'm going home. I need to sort all of this out and I can't do it here."
"Are you sure? Maybe you shouldn't be alone."
"I'll be fine. I need to think." Ann reached for the button that would bring an elevator car back to the floor. "Go back and enjoy the party." She tried to smile at Sharon to assure her but wasn't successful. Her mind was full of the woman who had held her so lovingly on the balcony.
A woman she needed to find again.
But was that even possible?
"Maybe I should go with you. At least as far as your car."
"No. I'll be fine. Please, go back to the party."
"I'll see you Monday?"
"You'll call me if you need anything?"
The elevator doors opened and Ann stepped inside before the doorman could acknowledge her. "Ground floor, please." Her voice held an unmistakable urgency causing the doorman to press the appropriate button without comment. She rode down in silence, her thoughts full of the woman who had disappeared from her life as mysteriously as she had entered it.
As soon as the elevator doors opened, Ann rushed across the lobby and pushed through the glass doors to the outside. Standing on the landing, she had a decision to make. She could go right to the parking lot and find her car. Or go left to the street where she could walk and try to sort out her thoughts and feelings.
She always thought clearer when she walked.
She hurried down the steps and across the smaller visitor parking lot to the street. As she walked a raindrop plopped loudly next to her booted foot. Then a second. And a third.
A clap of thunder exploded overhead and within seconds the rain was falling even harder, making it impossible to distinguish one drop from another.
She considered changing her mind and going back to the protection of her car. "To hell with what it's going to cost me." Since she would be drenched by the time she got to it, seeking out the safety of her car was not going to make much difference.
It wasn't until she pulled the frock coat tight around her body that she remembered her hat. It had been left on the balcony.
"Damn." She could go back for it.
She hesitated. She didn't want to return to the crowded party. And the costume would surely be ruined by night's end anyway and regardless if she had the hat or not, she would have to pay the cost of replacing it.
Ann approached the street, surprised to find it busy with unusual late night traffic. A quick look told her the opposite side provided more protection from the falling rain and she hurried for the closest crosswalk.
Waiting for the signal that it was safe to cross, she spotted a familiar form on the opposite side of the street standing under the cover of a canopy and smiling affectionately at her. Atop the woman's head was the tri - corner hat she had left on the balcony.
For several heartbeats, the women stared into each other eyes. All questions asked and answered without a word being spoken.
Ann sensed the air tingle with an electrical charge.
She nodded as the woman mouthed the words "are you sure?"
Without any hesitation she stepped off the curb into the street.
A bolt of lightening lit up the night blinding everyone unfortunate enough to be within its strike.
A scream pierced the air.
The sickening thud of metal connecting with flesh stunned everyone on the street.
Ann did not see the delivery truck's reinforced grill ram into her body. She did not hear the stomach - churning sound as her head struck the truck's windshield. She did not feel the crushing of bones as the truck's tires ran over her limp body.
In a puddle of rain and blood, she peacefully waited.
Ann smiled. Looking up she saw Jodi bending over her. She reached for the offered hand and was pulled out from under the truck and into a tender embrace.
"I said I would wait."
Ann cried at the words whispered into her ear.
"I couldn't wait. I love you, Jodi."
"I love you, Ann."
"I think we can do without this," Ann took the hat off Jodi's head, flipping it aside.
The hat floated to the ground, coming to rest beside the puddle under the truck.
"Let's go home."
"I don't live far."
Arm in arm, the women walked away, oblivious to the wail of sirens and flurry of activity around the empty shell that had once been Ann's body.