Sybil Bruncheon’s “Strange Stories from Suburbia”...

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….it had all started so cheerfully. Marjorie had been shopping for a new hat for her first Spring in the big city... at Madame Whimsey's Chapeau-zeree on Fifth Avenue... when the nice young man came up to her and smiled oh so politely and introduced himself. He wasn't on the staff but was a customer himself and indeed a hat-designer too, or so he claimed. Gerald (or at least he introduced himself as "Gerald") whisked her quickly out of the shop in front of the vexed manageress. He brought Marjorie to his studio in a dingey corner of the East Village...At first she was concerned, especially when they descended the ramshackle staircase of loose boards and chipped paint in the back alley...but when he jiggled the rusted padlock loose and finally pried the creaking door open, she was stunned at what she saw.

An immaculate… no! ...A sparkling studio of polished shelves with beautifully carved hat stands everywhere made of exotic woods from the most extraordinary foreign lands. And on each one, a hat of such complexity and grace! Detailed and rich in both color and materials, but still timeless and not cheap or faddish. Truly works of art! Art, but meant to be worn, actually worn! Was it possible?!?

Gerald was thrilled at her delighted gasps and amazement and offered her tea and honey biscuits while she studied them all. Her questions tumbled out, about those silk flowers or these feathers, the gorgeous ribbons, netting, the velvets and satins....every detail,  and none of it escaped her attention. He seemed very pleased with her, and the afternoon went beautifully. After an hour so of laughter and chat and shared stories, he delighted her with the invitation to wear one of his wonderful bonnets for the Easter parade the very next morning! Marjorie was stunned! And what was even more wonderful?... he would make a bonnet especially for her!!

He sent her home and went right to work. Needless to say, Marjorie spent a sleepless night in great excitement and expectation! You see, she'd never had someone design something just for her! For her!...Little Marjorie May Merriweather from Mills Corners, Montana. And here she was in the big city of New York, on her first Easter parade in a special hat designed and created just for her!

And at 9 o'clock in the morning, there was Gerald smiling brightly, as brightly as the perfect April sun that shone down on them, holding the big striped lavender and lilac hat box proudly in front of him; holding it out to her! He placed it on the broad stone bannister of a townhouse staircase on the side street where she waited, and with a flourish, he swept the lid away to reveal his masterpiece. At first, she was confused, as if someone was playing a joke on her but not letting her in on the fun. She wasn't hurt, per se, but. ...well... baffled. And his warmth seemed so genuine, his delighted pride so winning, and his deep green eyes danced so merrily, she couldn't resist. It wasn't quite the hat she expected. ..or hoped for, but it WAS a gift, and her upbringing had been so very strict about courtesy, about "please" and " thank you"....She stood stock still as he carefully fitted it at just the right angle to flatter her eyes, her adorable ears, her shining auburn hair, her glorious skin....oh, he knew everything to say... and in minutes, she knew she was the loveliest girl going to the parade that morning. He stepped back and sighed admiring her and his "masterpiece"! That's what he called it... his "masterpiece".

Gerald escorted Marjorie down the block on that sparkling morning past the stern stone stoops of the townhouses standing in the early quiet, but as they neared the avenue, voices, music, laughter, and the bustle of New York began to drift towards them...towards their ears and their smiling faces. Gerald offered Marjorie to the gathering throng with the same flourish he had used on the hat box, and she spun out of his hands with a charming little pirouette and a girlish chuckle. She felt beautiful! Beautiful! ...beautiful as she had never felt before. Ever.....and then she moved into the gathering crowd of nodding smiling people, passing and chatting and smiling. She didn't even notice that Gerald slowly fell behind, still smiling, eyes sparkling...and knowing...something.

As Marjorie moved down a block or so, she saw that people as they passed, would smile, say "hello", and study her bonnet, glancing at first, but then study it. She felt flattered, even a little excited that she was creating what seemed like a bit of a stir. She moved on and on, suddenly remembering Gerald, but when she turned, he was gone or, no! There he was, standing on a stoop but too far back on the block. Too far back for her to call out a "thank you!" and too far back for him to hear her if she had. She could still see him,  and even at that distance, she could see that he was watching her, still watching... and smiling. She smiled and waved... and Gerald nodded and smiled back... and then, how funny! He gave her a thumbs-up sign and waved again. And then she moved on and lost him in the bustle and growing crowds... or was she lost herself?

And as she moved on, smiling and nodding,  in the glorious morning light, she didn't notice her hat had begun to change, slightly at first... only slightly. The large floret on the side had begun to turn, ever so slightly... and slowly, perhaps like a dial..or a wheel... or a gear. And the light lavender netting that rose out of the crown of the bonnet ruffled a little in the breeze, and  billowed... almost, was it possible?... like... smoke? It was... smoke. Smoke...rising, slowly rising... and the gear.. was that a faint clicking... or was it ticking?... ticking and a faint whirring. .. inside... whirring away inside. Little machine parts, clicking, and ticking, and whirring... and, was it possible? Were they... counting down? Was there counting down?...

That's what Marjorie felt... counting down... right before the sunlight, so bright and warm! Before it all became brighter and warmer... so bright! So very bright! Brighter than the sun itself. Brighter and hotter even than the sun itself.

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