Strangers

Strangers

by Christopher Wyman

Strangers

Ms. Elizabeth Brockridge was as sharp as a tack. As an attorney, she never missed a trick in the courtroom or anywhere else in her life. Of course, she had to be, because she did not have much else going for her in the beginning. Her parents had nothing but a small farm they could barely pay the taxes on, and when it came to her education she was largely on her own. She showed all the naysayers, though. Her legal practice proved an astounding success and she raked in more money than she knew what to do with. More money than she was even comfortable having, if truth be told, so she ended up giving most of it away.

The only indulgence Ms. Brockridge ever gave herself, aside from spoiling her kids, was her annual vacation. Sometimes she and her husband would take a winter trip to the Caribbean, or a spring jaunt to Europe, or a summer trek across Canada. A patriot at heart, Elizabeth made sure to travel within the country at least every second year. One of her favourite childhood memories was of a family trip to the Rocky Mountains – the only trip her parents had ever been able to afford – and she stopped there whenever she journeyed out west. The view was stunning and she always imagined that she would retire out there, when and if the day ever came.

Elizabeth was not so sure about her choice of hotel this time around. Sure, it was nice to have the staff wait on her hand and foot, but they were just a little too overbearing. It seemed like she couldn’t go anywhere without somebody popping up to ask if she needed anything. Elizabeth had worked hard all her life and she didn’t feel comfortable letting others do everything for her. The view from her room was rather poor as well. The neighbouring buildings obstructed her view of the mountains so that she had to stand in the corner of her room if she wanted to see them at all. To top things off, the food was bad; all overcooked and mushy. Next year, she would be sure to find a better place.

Elizabeth intended to while away the morning in bed with her book. It was an old book that she had first encountered the summer before she started law school. By now, she practically knew it by heart. She had only to let it fall to any page, and she could know instantly what was going on. It was a friendly, comforting book. Elizabeth was only just beginning on the second page, when there came a knock at the door and one of the young ladies from room service came in with her breakfast on a tray.

“How are you doing today, Ms. Brockridge?” the girl asked as she set the tray on her bedside table. “Are you enjoying your book?” She was very nice. Elizabeth wanted to give her a tip, but she couldn’t see her purse anywhere. “Do you know you have a visitor? He showed up about twenty minutes ago, but he says he doesn’t want to disturb your breakfast, so he’s going to wait for you down in the lobby. Such a considerate young man.”

“I hope he’s handsome too,” Elizabeth joked. Who could he be? A client? A colleague? Neither seemed likely. The firm would call the hotel if they really needed to get in touch with her. Perhaps a friend from the area, somebody she’d met on a previous trip? She didn’t recall giving anybody the address where she was staying, but she’d been on so many trips that they were starting to run together in her mind. Maybe she had invited somebody, and just forgotten about it until now.

#

The receptionist smiled as Elizabeth entered the lobby. It was a small room, hung with various motivational posters. Matching chairs were lined up against the far wall, behind a small table stacked with newspapers. Elizabeth’s visitor was sitting near the receptionist, chatting amicably with her. He was handsome, in a way, but Elizabeth found his appearance strangely unnerving. She was quite certain that she’d never met him before, yet there was something undeniably familiar about his face. He wore a crisp suit and a grey briefcase sat next to him. He leaped to his feet upon seeing Elizabeth, and before she knew what was happening, he had pulled her into a tight embrace.

For a moment, Elizabeth was too stunned even to react, then she pried his arms off of her and pushed him away. “What the hell are you doing?”

He stared at her blankly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just…” he trailed off, turning away from her for a second. “Look, is there somewhere that we could talk privately?”

“Here’s as good as anywhere,” Elizabeth replied, glancing over at the receptionist.

The stranger followed her gaze. “If you insist. I came a long way to see you, though.” He turned away and went to fetch his briefcase.

Elizabeth was flummoxed by the man’s strange behaviour. He acted as though he knew her, as though she ought to know him. But that was impossible. Elizabeth didn’t forget faces. She could picture every one of her clients in her mind, every lawyer at the firm, and all of her friends from law school. All of them. Yet she had no idea where she had met this man before. Could he be a friend of her husband? No, she knew all of his friends. Somebody who worked at her kids’ school? A parent of one of their friends? But such people would never act so inappropriately familiar with her, or if they did, she would definitely remember it.

Before she could ask him who he was, the stranger said, “There are some legal and financial matters that we need to discuss.” He motioned for her to have a seat. “I’ve been going through your old files, trying to get everything in order. No offense, but you left things rather disorganized—”

“Well I’m only gone a few weeks,” Elizabeth interrupted defensively. Then, realizing the implication of what he had said, “What were you doing with my files, anyway?”

“I just told you, I’m trying to get your affairs in order for you. I know you don’t like to think about it, but you’re on your own now, and somebody has to take care of these things. Now, as I was saying…”

“Look, I don’t know what you’re after here, but my affairs, as you say, are well taken care of. Believe me, I handled all the paperwork myself. If there is some problem, I’ll take care of it when I get back.” Elizabeth pushed herself out of her chair.

The stranger got to his feet as well, his face a mixture of confusion and pity. “Get back? Where are you planning to go? I thought we agreed…” he let the sentence hang.

Before he could marshal his thoughts again, Elizabeth went on the offensive. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I think you should leave now.” She spoke firmly, and with a finality that brooked no argument. She fixed the stranger with her most withering stare; a stare that had, in the past, induced some of the toughest attorneys to settle.

The stranger held her gaze for a moment, then slumped slightly. “Yeah, ok.” Without another word, Elizabeth turned away, leaving him where he stood.

#

After she returned to her room, it occurred to Elizabeth that the stranger might have had her confused with somebody else. Yes, that must be it. There was probably another Elizabeth Brockridge in the area. Nonetheless, she had better call work and make certain that nobody had been snooping through her confidential files. She picked up the hotel phone and punched in the number of her office, but got only a dial tone. Line must be busy. She would try again later. Elizabeth tried to put the stranger out of her mind. He just had the wrong person. No use dwelling on it.

#

Elizabeth slept late the next morning. Normally she was an early riser, a habit ingrained in her from growing up on a farm, but it didn’t really matter. Her only plan for the day was to sit in bed with her book. Elizabeth could not recall where she’d left off before, but she practically knew it by heart now anyway, so she simply turned to one of her favourite chapters. She was only a couple pages in when there came a knock at the door.

“Come in.”

The door opened to reveal the stranger, smiling and carrying her breakfast on a tray. “Good morning, sleepyhead,” he said teasingly. “Do you know that it’s almost eleven? This place must be agreeing with you.”

Elizabeth sat bolt upright. What was he doing in her room?

“The young lady with the cart was just about to bring you your breakfast, and I offered to do it instead. I’m glad that they’re taking such good care of you here.” He let the door swing shut and brought the tray over, placing it on her bedside table. “I think I may have frightened you yesterday. I didn’t mean to. It’s all been rather stressful, trying to get everything in order for you.”

“I think you have the wrong person,” Elizabeth said curtly, interrupting what sounded like the beginning of a rambling speech.

“The wrong person? Impossible. You are Elizabeth Brockridge: lawyer, philanthropist, role model, and setter of high standards.” He stepped in closer, standing directly over the bed. Elizabeth shrank back from him. “I’m not going to hurt you!” he exclaimed, suddenly. “Can we please just have a polite conversation?”

Elizabeth swung herself out of bed, deftly pulling on a robe over her nightdress, and turned again to face him. “I don’t think there’s anything to talk about.” This wasn’t exactly true. Part of Elizabeth really wanted to know who this man was and why he thought he knew her, but a more sensible part just wanted this nutcase out of her room, and that part was a lot stronger at the moment. “I would like you to please leave, or I will call security.” She placed her hand on the receiver of the phone.

“I can’t do that. If I can’t get this mess sorted out, then we’re both fucked—” He immediately looked aghast. “Sorry.”

“Language!” Elizabeth exclaimed involuntarily. She never could stand profanity. If she had ever caught one of her kids using that word, she’d have washed his mouth out with soap.

Suddenly the stranger began to howl with laughter. He flopped down on her bed, gasping for breath. “I should know better by now, shouldn’t I?” For a moment he looked sheepish, but then he was overcome with another fit of giggling.

Elizabeth glared down at him disapprovingly. He grinned up at her. Elizabeth felt more than ever that there was something inexplicably familiar about that face. She knew somebody who smiled just like that, somebody she had known a long time ago, but now only half remembered. And those eyes, the shape, the way they sparkled when he laughed, they reminded her of… her father? Unnerved, Elizabeth broke off eye contact.

“Why are you really here?” she asked softly.

“I’m here trying to be a good lawyer. I’ve got a lot to live up to, now that I’m representing the best.” He did not look like a good lawyer to Elizabeth, with his crinkled suit and slightly off-centre tie, casually sitting on her bed without so much as having been invited into the room. “But, more than that, I wanted to see you. I wanted to see where you ended up and make sure that you’re happy.”

“I appreciate the concern. Did you have to travel far?” Elizabeth decided to try a diplomatic approach. Now that she was fairly confident that the stranger was not about to attack her, her curiosity gained the upper hand. She wanted to find out who he was. He clearly thought he knew her, even seemed to care about her, and Elizabeth had the strangest sense that she ought to know him too. Except she didn’t. She considered that it might be a trick, some kind of elaborate con, but that couldn’t explain his unnerving appearance.

“Just a province over. What, do you think I’d leave the family firm? You ought to know me better than that.”

Elizabeth really didn’t, but at least now she had something to go on. “Remind me what firm you work for?”

The stranger began to chuckle again. “Very funny. I work for the same firm I always have.”

“Which is?” Elizabeth pressed.

The stranger’s laugh froze on his face. For a moment he looked quite uncomfortable, but then his face relaxed into a smile once more. “Don’t worry, we didn’t take your name off the sign. You made your feelings perfectly clear when you left. It’s still ‘Brockridge, Sullivan, and McGillvary.’ We just tacked my name onto the end when I took over for you.”

“Took over for me?” Elizabeth said incredulously. “But I didn’t leave. I was just there a couple… a few…” How long had it been? Days? Weeks? What was today’s date? Elizabeth lunged for the phone and began pounding the buttons. “I’m calling the firm.” In her agitation, Elizabeth must have dialed the wrong number, because when she put the receiver to her ear, she heard only a dial tone. Elizabeth tried again, this time more carefully. Again she got a dial tone.

“Allow me,” said the stranger, directly behind her. He gently took the receiver from her hand, dialed the number for her, and passed it back.

“Brockridge, Sullivan, McGillvary, and Pritchard,” said an unfamiliar voice on the other end. “How may I help you?” The phone slipped from Elizabeth’s hand. The stranger caught it.

It’s a trick, she thought. It has to be. She took a step backward and stumbled into her bed. The stranger caught her by the shoulders to keep her from falling.

“Are you alright? Do you need some water?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “This isn’t real, is it? None of it is. You’ve set it up somehow. But I’m on to you now, so why don’t you just tell me the truth?”

Elizabeth felt the stranger’s weight on the bed as he sat down next to her. “You’re not making any sense. I could never lie to you. I learned that a long time ago, remember? I’m just trying to help, honest.” He clasped his hand over hers. “I know you don’t like it, but you can’t do everything yourself anymore. It’s time to let somebody else take on the burden. You can trust me, I learned from the best.”

Elizabeth shook off his hand. “I think you should leave now.”

Suddenly the stranger was on his feet. He stalked over to the window, leaning against the sill, his back to Elizabeth. “Why do you have to be so stubborn? Do you think we were happy about putting you in here? We stalled for years, made excuse after excuse.” Elizabeth detected a slight quiver in his voice. “If you had just asked for help, this whole mess could have been avoided, but no, you had to go it alone as always. I’m not sure even your husband…” He paused, taking a long breath. “I thought when he died, you would finally accept that you can’t take care of yourself any longer.”

“What?” Elizabeth was on her feet now too. “My husband’s not… Al’s not… I just saw…” When did I see him? She looked around, as though hoping he was hiding somewhere in the room. “I’m just on vacation! I’ll see him when I get back.”

“No, you won’t.” The stranger’s voice was raspy, as though every word were an immense effort. “This is your home. For God’s sake, you chose it! We did the research together, remember? After he died. I thought you had accepted it!” The stranger turned around, and there were tears in his eyes. In that moment, he looked like a frightened child, like Elizabeth’s own young son. Yet all Elizabeth felt was cold dread at his words. Al couldn’t be dead. But where was he? He had to be somewhere in the hotel. She would find him. Prove the stranger wrong.

“Where are you going?”

Elizabeth was at the door. The hand that gripped the knob was wrinkled and ancient. The stranger’s hand closed around her wrist. Elizabeth twisted her arm against the stranger’s thumb, breaking his grip. She pushed hard against his chest, and he stumbled back, a stunned look on his face. She grabbed hold of the handle and flung open the door. The concierge was standing on the other side.

“Is everything okay? I heard shouting.”

“This lunatic,” Elizabeth gestured wildly toward the stranger, “is trying to convince me that my husband is dead. I want you to throw him out. Please.”

The concierge looked to the stranger, and Elizabeth saw an understanding pass between them. “Ms. Brockridge, why don’t you come sit down? I’m sure we can talk this out.” The concierge made to take Elizabeth’s arm, but Elizabeth was too quick for her, dodging out of the way. The two of them were standing shoulder to shoulder, blocking her way out of the room. Panic was rising in Elizabeth’s chest. They were in cahoots. She needed to get out of here, now.

“I’m warning you, whatever it is you’re up to, you’re not going to get away with it.”

“Please,” the stranger entreated. “I’m trying to help you. Why can’t you just trust me?”

“Because I don’t know you!” Elizabeth shouted. “I have no idea who you are!”

Suddenly the room was silent. The stranger looked as though he had just been struck across the face. Taking advantage of his distraction, Elizabeth made a mad dash for the door, ducking under the concierge’s arm as she tried to grab her. She ran out into the hall, yelling like a madwoman: shouting for her husband, for her children, for any familiar face. She ran blindly through the hotel, ducking between frightened staff and elderly guests. She had to find her family and get out.

She rounded a corner, and again found the stranger standing in her path. “Grandma, wait. Please. I can explain everything. It’s me, Phillip.”

“I don’t know you.” But Elizabeth did know him, or at least parts of him. She saw her father in his eyes, and her mother in his nose. His face was a composite of half a dozen faces she had known. And his voice, that was hers. When he spoke, she heard echoes of her own carefully cultivated mannerisms. He could easily be her grandson, except that it was impossible. Her children weren’t even fully grown. They were younger than him. Weren’t they? Elizabeth couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. She needed to get away from him. Her eyes fell on a glowing red exit sign. She ran for it. The stranger ran for it as well, trying to head her off. He was faster, but she was closer. Elizabeth threw open the fire door.

The stranger was still shouting behind her. “Wait! I can explain. I didn’t know before. I didn’t know!”

Elizabeth didn’t look back. She didn’t look forward either. She put her foot down, but there was no surface to take it. Carried on by her momentum, Elizabeth tipped forward into empty space.

#

Elizabeth Brockridge was not having a good vacation. Her hotel left a lot to be desired. The food was bland and overcooked, and she couldn’t even see the mountains from her window. The only thing that the hotel had going for it were the staff. They were so attentive and considerate. Elizabeth normally didn’t like being constantly waited on, but with her broken ankle, she needed all the help she could get. They told her that she had broken it falling down a flight of stairs, but Elizabeth would probably tell her friends that she hurt it skiing. She barely remembered breaking it, anyway. The pain meds were making her head all funny.

She’d had a visitor earlier in the morning. A young lawyer from her hometown by the name of Phillip Pritchard. They had talked for hours. He wanted to get Elizabeth’s advice on a case. An elderly client had been tricked into making some bad investments, and he was trying to recover as much of the money as he could. The client’s mental state had been deteriorating for some time, but because she was so fiercely independent, her family failed to notice until it was too late. It sounded to Elizabeth as though they were in denial, but she politely kept that thought to herself.

In the end, it was a relatively simple matter to resolve. Elizabeth knew she probably shouldn’t be giving out free legal advice, but she hated to see somebody taken advantage of, and Phillip seemed so worried about his client. He reminded Elizabeth a lot of herself. Phillip read to her from her favourite book, from his own copy that his grandmother had given him when he went off to college. What were the odds? He had to leave around lunch time, but he promised to come back and visit her again in the evening. Until then, Elizabeth would while away the afternoon with her old, familiar book. She just wished she could remember what chapter she was on.

About the Author

Christopher Wyman

Chris Wyman is a graduate student at the University of Manitoba. His fiction has previously appeared in Juice Magazine. He is a conceptual writer who enjoys exploring strange ideas, taking them to their full logical (or possibly illogical) extent.