One Second to Midnight
It was New Year's Eve at Chez Pierre, one of the oldest and finest restaurants in Puritan Falls. A waiter led Beth Shannon to a table where her parents, Bernard and Claire Marshall, were waiting for her. For as long as Beth could remember, the Marshall family had gone to Chez Pierre for the restaurant's annual New Year's Eve party. Once she reached the legal drinking age, she, too, started attending the yearly celebration; after all, it was a family tradition.
"Hi, Mom, Dad," Beth said, kissing them both on the cheek.
"Where's Ross?" Claire asked.
"He had an emergency at the hospital, but he said he'd meet us here as soon as he could."
The main dining room of Chez Pierre was festively decorated with brightly colored balloons and crepe paper streamers, and everyone had donned party hats for the occasion. The band, which had the style and sound of every dance band Beth had heard perform at countless weddings and parties, started playing "Proud Mary," and several couples ventured out onto the dance floor.
Beth sat down, sipped a glass of white wine and chatted with her parents while she waited for Ross to join them.
* * *
Through the marble and oak foyer of Chez Pierre came an attractive, well-dressed young woman, leading an older man--her husband--in tow. As she joined a group of young friends at one of the larger tables, her husband quietly slipped away and headed for the bar in the Marseilles Lounge.
"Melanie, you made it!" one of the woman's friends called out.
"Yes, I pleaded, begged, bribed and threatened and finally he gave in and agreed to come," Melanie confessed as she reached for a glass of champagne. "Honestly," she laughed, "getting my husband to go out to a party is like pulling teeth."
One of her friends put a glitter-festooned crown on Melanie's head and pulled her out onto the dance floor when the band started playing "The Macarena."
* * *
"It's almost nine o'clock. Why don't we start eating?" Beth suggested. "I'm sure Ross won't mind if we begin without him."
As Bernie, Claire and Beth went to the buffet for their salads and appetizers, they all hoped Ross would arrive before they were ready for the main course.
"I guess the emergency room is pretty busy tonight," Bernie said.
"I would imagine so," his wife agreed. "The roads are quite slippery. I'll bet there has been more than one accident out there tonight."
Too late, Claire realized it had been the wrong thing to say.
Beth glanced at her watch again and began to worry. "I hope Ross doesn't have too much trouble getting here. That bend on Old Bridge Road can be pretty treacherous in this weather."
"Don't worry, dear," Claire said, attempting to reassure her daughter. "Ross is a good driver. He'll be careful."
Beth listened to the band's rendition of "Yesterday" and silently prayed for her husband's safety.
* * *
Melanie was dancing with Bruce Finlay, a computer sciences teacher who taught at the same high school as Melanie did. Bruce, who had made more than one pass at her during the years she'd known him, was dancing a little too close, and Melanie pulled away slightly.
"I just don't understand what you see in him, Mel." Apparently, Bruce had already had a bit too much to drink. "I'll admit he's rather handsome for a guy his age, but he's what? fifteen? twenty years older than you?"
"I really don't think you need to worry about me, Bruce," she said, laughing off his blatant rudeness.
"But you're so young, so full of life, and he seems so stuffy and serious. How can a man like that make you happy?"
"And I suppose you think you can do a better job?" she teased him.
"I'm only suggesting that if you ever feel like getting out of the house and having a little fun, you might give me a call."
"How thoughtful of you! I can't thank you enough for your generous offer. I just might take you up on it someday. But Bruce," she said as he looked hopefully at her, "don't hold your breath waiting."
Melanie turned from away from Bruce and walked off the dance floor. As the band began playing "Mambo No. 5," she walked off in the direction of the Marseilles Lounge in search of her husband.
* * *
Again Beth looked at the clock. She and her parents had finished their main course and were deciding on dessert. Still, she had received no word from Ross. The band had taken a ten-minute break, and the restaurant was eerily quiet. From the street outside, Beth could hear the sound of a police car's siren followed by the wail of an ambulance.
"Oh, God, please don't let that be Ross," she prayed silently.
Her parents, who could see how worried she was, did their best to lift her spirits.
The band returned for their next set, and once again the sounds of music and laughter reigned at Chez Pierre. When Bernie and Claire Marshall got up to dance to "You've Made Me So Very Happy," their daughter went to the large window in the foyer to check on the progress of the storm and to peer anxiously into the snowy night for any sign of Ross.
* * *
"There you are," Melanie called to her husband, who sat alone at a small table in a dark corner of the bar. "You know, when you finally agreed to come here tonight, I thought you would join in the party, not spend the evening trying to hide from everyone."
"I'm sorry, Melanie. But you know how I feel about this place."
"That was thirty years ago," she reminded him, taking his hand in hers. "I do know what you're feeling. I went through it too. Don't you remember? But at some point in your life you have to let go of the pain and grief and join the world again."
"You sound like Dr. Vogel," he laughed.
"If it weren't for Dr. Vogel, you and I would never have met."
Melanie looked at her husband. How different he was from Wayne, her first husband. Wayne had been a drummer in a rock group playing the college circuit when twenty-year-old Melanie Crane first met him. It had been love at first sight for the both of them, and in less than a year she and Wayne were married. They had been so young, and they had had so many plans and dreams.
Before long, Wayne's band got a recording contract, and Melanie graduated from UMass with honors. They had put a down payment on a house and began dreaming of the day when its rooms would echo with the laughter of their children. But one night on the way home from a concert in Ohio, the plane carrying Wayne and his group crashed in a cornfield in Pennsylvania. There were no survivors.
Melanie had been devastated. Three weeks after Wayne was buried, she tried to take her own life. As part of her psychiatric therapy she had to attend Dr. Vogel's grief support group. That was where she met the man who was to become her second husband.
"It's New Year's Eve," she reminded him gently. "Won't you dance at least one dance with your wife?"
As Melanie led her husband out onto the dance floor, the song the band started to play was, quite appropriately, "My Heart Will Go On."
* * *
"Maybe I should call the hospital and see if he's left yet," Beth said, getting more distraught as the minutes ticked by.
"Now look," her mother stated firmly. "You're not doing yourself or your baby any good by worrying."
The expectant mother put her hand on her swollen abdomen. "You're right, Mom. My obstetrician always says a nervous mother gives birth to a nervous baby."
But Beth couldn't help once again looking at the clock. It was already after eleven.
Bernie stood up and extended his hand to his daughter. "Since your husband isn't here yet, how about a dance with your old man?" he laughingly suggested.
As she danced with her father, Beth vaguely heard the band playing "Time is On My Side," but the sound most dominant in her mind was the echo of the ambulance siren.
* * *
"That wasn't so bad now, was it?" Melanie asked her husband as the dance came to an end. "Come on, honey, let's join the party and have a little fun," she urged, pulling him toward her group of friends.
"Well, look who's here," Bruce declared, still smarting from Melanie's rejection. "So you finally decided to join us. To what do we owe this great honor?"
Bruce, who had been drinking steadily since he arrived at Chez Pierre, had long since stopped being pleasant company.
"Bruce," Melanie said with a note of warning in her voice, "why don't you lighten up?"
"Me lighten up? I'm not the one who walks around here with his nose in the air like he's better than everyone else."
"I'm terribly sorry if I gave you that impression, Mr. Finlay. Let me assure you that that is not the case at all. It's just that this place--this day--I have such horrible memories of them both. You see I lost my first wife on this date exactly thirty years ago. We were supposed to celebrate New Year's Eve right here at Chez Pierre."
Melanie watched the familiar signs of agony steal across her husband's handsome face. He had attended sessions with Dr. Vogel for almost twenty-five years, but he had never truly learned to manage his grief. Oh, he and Melanie had had quite a few happy times during their marriage, but the ghost of his first wife's memory was always there waiting in the wings.
"Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't know. No hard feelings?" Bruce asked sheepishly, as he held out his hand in apology.
"No hard feelings," the older man replied, shaking Bruce's hand. Then he looked down at his wife. "In about fifteen minutes it will be a new year, a new century, a new millennium. Why don't we also make it a new start for us?" he asked.
"Yes. Oh, yes," Melanie cried, burying her head in her husband's tuxedo jacket to hide her tears of joy.
* * *
Pierre himself approached the microphone. It was his privilege and pleasure every year to lead the countdown.
"Will everyone please stand?" he instructed with his slight French accent.
Checking his wristwatch, he signaled the band for a drum roll.
Beth, by that time, was near the point of tears. In a few seconds a new year would dawn. The year in which her baby was to be born, the year in which her book was to be published. Was it also to be the year in which she would become a widow?
The drum roll stopped.
"Ten...," Pierre announced into the microphone.
* * *
Melanie looked up at her husband. He looked so pale. What was wrong with him?
"Melanie," he cried as he grasped his chest and fell to his knees.
* * *
Where are you? Beth thought anxiously. Oh, please, Ross, get here soon.
* * *
"Five.... Four.... Three...."
Melanie took his hand and felt for his pulse--nothing!
* * *
"Beth?" he called.
"Ross! Oh, Ross! Thank God, you're all right. I was so worried."
"Happy New Year!" Pierre yelled.
As the band started playing "Auld Lang Syne," lights on the back of the stage lit up the new year: 1970.
* * *
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Shannon. There's nothing more we can do," the doctor informed Melanie.
"I never should have made him go to Chez Pierre tonight," she cried.
"Don't blame yourself. Your husband would have suffered this heart attack no matter where he was," the doctor assured her.
"No. It was that place. You see, thirty years ago Ross, his pregnant wife and his wife's parents were on their way to Chez Pierre to celebrate the New Year. It had been snowing all day, and the roads were slippery. Ross was driving down Old Bridge Road and lost control of his car going around the bend. His in-laws were killed instantly, and his wife, Beth, died in the emergency room at one second to midnight."
Our neighbors dread midnight because that's when Salem serenades his lady friends.