"Friend of yours?"
George looked at the girl who had spoken, as if surprised to see her there, sitting at the table with him. Lost in a reverie, running in his head through the events that had brought him here, to this small café, he'd been sitting there for a long time now, looking through the window into the thick fog, and trying to force his eyes to see the entrance to the place that once had been his home.
Many years had passed since his father, a man of comfortable means, had moved his commercial interests to the United States of America, taking with him his wife and his adolescent son.
He could certainly not complain. At forty-five lived a comfortable life and provided handsomely for his little family--his beloved wife Jane, and Sharon, the teenage girl they both adored--with a small business that practically ran itself. He would have lived a uniformly peaceful life, but for the dream.
The dream--or rather, the nightmare--had begun many years ago. It was a short one, but no less frightening for that. In the dream, he stooped on his knees in the bathroom of his home, helping someone whose face he could not see, to fill the void beneath the bathtub with sand. The rest of the space, he knew, was taken up by the body of a woman, whom he was helping to bury. Although he never saw the woman clearly in the dream, he knew with absolute certainty that she was there. The exasperating part of it was that he always woke up, often in a sweat, just before--he knew--the reasons for his acts were to be explained to him, in a manner that would make them look perfectly rational.
He'd had many other nightmares over the years, some of them recurring at various frequencies. However, this particular one carried that quality of reality that he did not sense in all other dreams, and that had remained unblemished for decades. At last, he had come to the realization that there was no way to exorcise the spell, other than to go back to his old neighborhood. Now that he was here, he didn't know what to do.
The girl seated at the little round table near the window had attracted his attention. She was looking around with uninterested, yet deep black eyes. She was small and young--maybe twenty-two or twenty-three years old--with chestnut hair fastened into a wavy pigtail, and an evening dress unsuitable for the cold evening weather of the early fall. He had been looking at her for a while, almost hypnotized by her elegant figure. He didn't think that she had noticed him. But he could not take his eyes off her; how fragile she seemed. He wondered what she was doing there all alone.
Time passed without her giving any sign of preparing to leave. It looked as if whomever it was that she was waiting for, had stood her up. Quite a jerk, he must be, letting such a nice girl wait.
He hadn't had a real conversation with anybody for too long now, and had started to feel lonesome. He resolved to approach her and, having built up the courage to do so, got up and walked slowly to her table.
"May I join you, Signorina?" he asked.
She looked up briefly, barely taking the time to size him. "Please do," she answered, looking back at the tablecloth again, without any display of interest, or show of surprise.
"I saw you looking out of the window at that building," he started out apologetically, "and I wondered--I lived there as a child."
"You did?" she asked, without managing to show surprise, or an interest. "You sound like a foreigner, though."
"I have been abroad for over thirty years now. I guess that makes me sound a little funny. Tell me, if it is not too rude of me to ask, what are you doing out here at night? This is not a place for a nice girl like you, and may be dangerous too. It used to be crowded and festive, when I was young, but now--"
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