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“I have to tell you,” said Jess, “I’m really thrilled.”

She was looking as she’d looked every day of the twenty years I’d known her: plain, sensible clothes, not a scrap of make-up, her only ornament a thin, barely visible gold chain she’d gotten as a birthday gift from her parents.

Jess hadn’t been interested in college. After high school, she’d volunteered to teach in some godforsaken village in Africa.

“Isn’t it dangerous there?” I’d asked.

“Oh, crossing the street is dangerous,” said Jess, “I’ll be doing good.”

In somebody else’s mouth, that might have sounded pretentious or naïve. But it suited Jess. She was earnest about her charitable projects, whether collecting food and clothes for families who’d lost everything in the latest super storm or promoting better conditions for shelter dogs.

She’d married a darling guy. Maurice was a musician, high on talent, low on drive and luck. They lived in something very close to squalor. I was always glad to escape after a visit. Everything looked dusty, felt grimy. Wisps of fur from their latest rescue pet drifted along the floor.

“We couldn’t just leave him,” Jess declared about an enormous, grouchy tomcat stalking through their rooms as if he owned them. “He was due to be…you know.”

I smiled vaguely, unsure of what I felt. Maybe sadness. Maybe admiration.

Then, out of the blue, a clip Maurice posted on YouTube went viral. It was simple, silly and appealing. Maurice picked out a tune on his guitar as big Tom crouched beside him yowling his heart out. People noticed, important people, producers. Appearances were offered, an album made. The money poured in.

How will those pure souls handle it? I thought. It’ll be gone in a wink, even faster.

That’s when something odd happened. Jess and Maurice invested in a home. Not something modest and unassuming, but a two-story penthouse in The Missouri, the ritziest old building in the city, popular with princes and movie stars.

Now here was Jess, placidly sipping coffee, wearing her sensible clothes and thin gold chain, eyes glowing as she bashfully confessed how she’d been seduced by the building’s splendor: the glittering chandeliers in the lobby, the apartment’s spacious rooms, the heated pool, the carefully tended grounds.

“I couldn’t believe the roses, wow, the roses, those huge, showy ones that look like velvet.” Her mouth formed a perfect O. “They bring you a fresh bouquet every morning. You can even have a butler if you want one.”

“I know, darling,” I said. “Tom’ll live well.”

Jess frowned, a small, puzzled frown that quickly vanished. “We had to have him put down. No pets allowed. Well, maybe a small, pedigreed dog, but not, well, Tom.”

She stretched her fingers out to stroke a plump red rose. The labyrinth of petals at its heart was such dark crimson it was almost black.

“Labyrinth” was published in MacQueen’s Quinterly.


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