And Oh! How They Danced
"Where's the wife?"
"They can't get a hold of her. Not at home, they say."
"Find her! He's only got a few more hours..."
It wasn't their first dance, but the butterflies were there all the same, the feeling that maybe, just maybe she wouldn't show up this once. He would be would left standing there like a foppish fool, all dressed up and nowhere to go. She had never stood him up before, and she had never been quite so late as this. Reginald checked the great grandfather clock towering above its dusty corner of the ballroom. No, she had never been quite so late.
At least, he thought, there was music to occupy his ears, punch to occupy his mouth and nose, and other couples to occupy his eyes. But the music was unfamiliar, the punch tepid, and the other couples snobby, arrogant, and strangers to him. And he had nothing to occupy his hands. No warm paw to hold, no body to pull close and dance with, spinning, twirling, losing themselves for hours in the glow of the music and the moted lights streaming down from the high rafters of the old ballroom. His hands found his pockets, fiddled with the lint and the ticket stub and the note she had sent him inviting him to the dance.
A Bruce, a stranger, waddled up to the punch bowl and ladled himself a cup of the warm drink. He was sweaty and greasy with an ill-fitted black toupee and a suit two sizes too small. Reginald could not bear to look at him.
"A Lupe." The Bruce's utterance was a statement rather than a question, a mere acknowledgment of Reginald's existence. "Enjoying the party, Lupe?"
"Reginald the Lupe." The Bruce took a drink of the ill-tasting red liquid and considered the name. "Tell me about yourself, Reginald the Lupe. What do you do?"
The question was a queer one. Reginald could not remember what he did. It was the lights and the music and the butterflies perpetually tap-tap-tapping away in his stomach that made him forget everything about himself except one, irrefutable fact. "I'm waiting for someone."
The Bruce drank again. "Waiting, huh? Not much of a job, is it?"
"It's the only thing I can remember."
"Waiting for who, then?"
"Her name is Millie."
"Is she a Lupe too?"
The Bruce tilted his head back, drained the last of the punch, and threw the empty cup at Reginald. It bounced lightly off the lapel of his suit and fluttered to the floor. "Your life's kind of like that cup, it seems, Reginald. Empty, without meaning, used up. Waiting for some janitor named Millie to come sweep it far away from the people who matter."
Reginald fumed silently, but by the time he thought of a retort, the Bruce had disappeared back into the throng of dancers. He was alone with the punch bowl and the cups and the tiny mushrooms that no one wanted to eat. Perhaps the Bruce had been right. Perhaps he had better just leave the dance and forget about Millie. It seemed she would not show after all.
His fingers found the worn note in his pocket again, and he smiled at the remembrance of the words written upon it. They were warm words, kind and gentle and loving, words that made promises Reginald knew could not be broken. He would stay for those words, then. He would stay until the dancers left and the arrogant Bruce hobbled out the door and even the janitors finished sweeping the remains of the gaiety into the trash cans. He would stay for Millie.
Reginald's happy reverie was interrupted by the sudden reappearance of the Bruce.
"Still here, Reginald the Lupe? I thought you'd have left by now."
Reginald no longer resented the Bruce's manners. He was buoyed by his confidence in Millie and the few short words written upon the note. "Oh, no. I've decided to stay."
The Bruce raised a finely-trimmed eyebrow. "Stay? What would you do a thing like that for? Stay? There is nothing left here for you. You do not eat, you do not drink, you hardly move. You're certainly not dancing. Why not just leave and save yourself the pain?"
"I shall stay. If all the dancers leave, I shall stay. If the janitors tell me to go, I shall stay. If the dawn breaks through the windows, I shall stay. I have made up my mind."
The Bruce shrugged and popped a tiny mushroom into his beak. "Suit yourself, Reginald. Can't say I didn't try. These mushrooms are awful, by the bye." And he was gone almost as suddenly and without notice as he had appeared.
And then, it was time. The punch was gone. The music was winding down. Half of the dancers had already left, and more were reaching for their heavy coats with every passing minute. The butterflies, multiplied tenfold, had reduced Reginald's insides to ribbons, and he felt faint as he leaned against the punch table. He would wait, as he had said, but he felt sick and lightheaded and did not know if he had the strength to tell the janitors that no, he would not be leaving.
Reginald was not surprised to see the Bruce tottering his way towards him through the dispersing crowd. "Reginald, my Lupe. It's time to go. Everyone is leaving, you see, and the party's over. Your Millie is not coming. She's gone."
"No, she's... she'll be here. She'll be here... She'll be here." Reginald repeated this mantra as the Bruce took him gingerly by the arm and began walking him towards the door.
"Don't worry, Reginald. Party's over. You won't have to worry about Millie the Lupe not showing up anymore."
And then there was light and music, streamers falling from the sky and a soaring feeling as though gravity itself had been turned on its head! The Bruce's door, the door away from the party, had been flung open and there, standing in the doorway like a beautiful ghost, was Millie. The Bruce's hand was gone as Reginald ran to her and embraced her. There were no spoken words that passed them between, but there was much unsaid, much that couldn't be said. But it was not a time for talking; it was a time for dancing.
And oh! how they danced. The once-dying music sprang to life again in a roaring blend of all their favorite songs. The spotlight beamed its heat on the two of them as they held each other close and whirled across the dance floor, laughing, crying, howling to the dusty air of the near-empty ballroom. She spun through the air, dipped to the floorboards, held him at arm's length only to twirl right back into his arms. The crowd disappeared as the two only had eyes for each other, two Lupes amidst a background of light and joy and memories and the details blurred and bled as only one thing remained for each of them. Their tears of joy mixed with something else, a sorrow, perhaps, at the knowledge that the Bruce had been right. The party was over, and this was their last dance. But oh... how they danced.
And the music stopped.
And the lights went out.
"He's gone, doctor. Time of death...11:14 PM. 16Th, Month of Eating, Y10."
"Come... let us give Mrs. Jones some privacy."
"Did you see that, doc? Soon as she walked in the room, I swear I saw him smile."
"Ah, well, comfort can still be given to those who are unaware of their surroundings. She held his hand in his last moments, and I'm sure that, even if he wasn't conscious of it, he appreciated it all the same."
"Kinda touching, isn't it, doc?"
"Kinda touching... now, who's next for today?"
"McDonahue in 414. Says his arm feels funny."
"Oh Fyora... come on, let's go."