|Description:||Michael Sullivan returns to the US, from Britain. He wants a fresh start, and that’s what he gets. There’s even a girl for him, if he can handle it. But his past is still haunting him, especially when he finds that another little boy is being abused. Can he do something to help?|
He was walking into a bar. Not for the first time, but he didn’t recognize the surroundings. Again, this was nothing new. At the bar he stopped and sat down on one of the stools along the counter. Catching the bartender’s eye, he ordered a scotch on the rocks and settled down with that. It was good to finally be able to relax.
Half-way into the drink, he became aware of a tall blonde walking into the room. She sat down on the stool next to him, and shook out her hair, giving him a look that shot right through him and made him feel hot all over.
Five minutes later, he was walking out of there, with the blonde attached to his arm. At least one of her hands was. The other was too busy fondling him. They kept getting more and more intimate in the car during the short drive to his place. By the time they were upstairs, they were ready to toss their clothes to the floor, and ended up naked together on the bed.
Her hair was faintly scented with a fragrance he couldn’t place, but he loved it. This what he had waited for all his life. His hands moved eagerly across her silky smooth skin. He couldn’t remember ever being this excited before.
Suddenly, she exploded into action. Now she was on top, pinning him down, and he wasn’t nearly as excited as only moments before. Her hands turned rougher and – The face looking down on him was transformed into another one, a twisted mask of violent lust. He opened his mouth and tried to scream, but a hand pressed down over it, and he couldn’t make a sound.
No. No. No. No. A scream made its way across his lips, and he came awake covered in cold sweat.
Nothing had changed. He was still trapped in the memories of his childhood. All the way across the world, and Sean Noakes still haunted him every single night. Michael sat up and rubbed his eyes, trying to clear his head. It was ok. He was safe. Noakes was dead, and it was over. All of it. Past history. Except nothing had really changed. It was still going on, night after night.
Burying his head in his hands, Michael wept silently. His escape hadn’t achieved anything. What was the use of hiding out here on another continent? He might as well return home to his own country. It might be too painful to face his friends and what was left of his family. Not to mention Carol. But it would be good to be among his own people again.
The British looked at him and expected him to be the outgoing American. He just couldn’t live up to the expectations. Women came on to him, hoping to have a wealthy American boyfriend, or at least that was what he tried to tell himself. It was still too difficult to imagine himself being the object of someone’s attraction. And when he failed to deliver, he knew they were whispering about him behind his back. In fact, some of them even told him to his face that he should make things easier on himself and come out of the closet.
But he wasn’t gay. How could he explain to them that what he wanted more than anything else in the entire world was to find a woman he could open up to? Someone whose touch he could bear. That wasn’t so much to ask, surely? But if he told anyone about it, all they’d say would be, then why don’t you just do it? There was nothing easy about it, that’s why.
Each time another human being came close, he’d shy away. The feeling of someone else’s breath on his skin made him jump. Maybe a therapist could have helped him, but his trauma was too deep-rooted and far too painful to bring out into the open. It was enough that his friends knew and Carol. No one else had access to his innermost thoughts. And that’s the way it had to be. Anything else would be too emotionally harrowing.
All day at work, Michael kept returning to the idea he’d had after his sleep had been interrupted. He was beginning to think it was time to go home. Three years in a strange country was enough. There was after all, no place like home. Or at least nothing like your own country. Michael had tried and tried to fit in. Just after arriving, he had considered moving on, to France, Germany or Italy. But if he couldn’t make things work in Britain, why bother looking for something he couldn’t find here? He knew he wouldn’t find it anywhere else either.
His pensive look attracted some attention from his colleagues, but he evaded their questions, and threw himself back into his work. When he decided to go, he’d inform his superiors, but not until then. At the end of the day, he had convinced himself that he would go. All that remained to do was finding a new job. That shouldn’t be a problem. With his qualifications, there were law firms all over the world who’d be happy to have him.
Once the decision was made, he felt better. Making plans, seeing to the arrangements, packing, putting the apartment up for sale – all that kept him busy, and when he fell into bed at night he was too exhausted to dream. Now that things were set in motion, events moved almost too quickly. On August 15, he boarded a plane for home. New York.
But he wasn’t staying. Not for one single night. He was just there to change planes and go on to his new home. In a way, this was as new to him as England had been. It was funny, but he’d never set foot in one of the mid-western states. Now he’d know it as well as he knew the city where he’d grown up. Or at least he hoped so. Maybe this was his chance to begin a new life. Home, but not quite the same as his old home. The change of scenery would do him good, he hoped.
It was always easier the first couple of months in a new place. When he was too busy getting the hang of things at work, settling into his new home, and in general, trying to get to know new people. Before they began to wonder why they’d only be allowed so far into his life. No going to bars in the evenings, no barbecues in the weekends. Just ordinary social relations at work.
In most of the places he’d worked, he’d been respected, but not liked. Michael knew that, but he had no way of changing the image he projected to the outside world. Cool, aloof, rejecting all friendly advances. But that too, was as it had to be. On the few occasions he’d tried to get closer to someone, he’d been forced to retreat when he felt his safety zone was being invaded.
For some reason, he’d decided that this time he wanted a house, not an apartment. It was cheaper than his apartment in London had been, and probably less expensive than anything he could have found back home, not to mention both more spacious and luxurious. Amazing how far his paycheck would go in this little town.
There were apple trees in the backyards, kids had built tree houses here and there, and paper boys still made the rounds, tossing rolled up papers onto people’s lawns. Just like in a movie. It was reassuring, and still just a moving canvas, not real enough to threaten him.
The law firm where he’d found a job was located in a large wooden house, looking just like a private residence, if somewhat larger. That was new. Michael had never worked in a place like that. His colleagues looked a little less slick and well-groomed than he was used to. The secretaries tended to wear cotton dresses with floral patterns, and from time to time they would call home, or receive calls or even visits from their children at work. Most of those ladies worked part time, and the entire firm appeared to take the lack of efficiency for granted.
There were only two senior partners, and one of them was a woman in her late 50’s. The junior partners, of which Michael would soon be one, if his trial run turned out satisfactory, were four. Two women and two men. No one seemed inclined to be nosy about where he’d worked earlier or what his background was. They all seemed prepared to accept him as one of the team, no questions asked. All this was pleasant, and boded well for the future.
The first couple of weeks Michael was kept busy buying furniture and whatever else he needed for his new home. He had never given much thought to what the running of a household might entail. For the first time in his life, he was fully responsible for keeping a house. No one else was around to do all the domestic chores he’d taken for granted as a child, and as an adult dispensed with by eating in restaurants, sending out his laundry and living in the type of apartment building that came with maid service included in the rent. Now he had to learn a number of new skills and to his surprise, he quite liked it, even doing the laundry, the dishes and the vacuuming.
After he’d begun to settle in and was getting used to his new skills as a housekeeper, he started to get a little bored. So he went out and bought a tv and a cd player. Starting his collection of music and movies kept him busy another few weeks, but he soon found that most of the movies bored him, and though listening to music soothed his nerves, he was looking for something else to fill his life. In college, he’d always loved reading. Not just textbooks for exams and papers, but fiction for his own amusement too.
There was a small book store in the town, but there wasn’t much to catch his interest there. Before long, he found his way over to the library. This proved to be far better than he’d expected. Apparently, reading was what occupied the residents of this town.
While returning a few books, he caught sight of a young woman who was entering the library, followed by a crowd of small children. Michael assumed she was a teacher. The little boys and girls seemed to hold her in high esteem, and only one or two of them were straying out of line. One of those boys wasn’t looking where he was going and accidentally ran into Michael. The boy looked up at the tall stranger with an apologetic look on his face.
Michael couldn’t help smiling a little. The boy reminded him of another little boy, who at that age could have had no idea of what path his life would take.
Suddenly she was there, the young teacher, smiling at him, and apologizing again for her young disciple. Michael heard the sound of her voice and turned to face her. Their eyes met and –
“I’m sorry, sir. Mickey just has to learn to watch where he’s going.”
Even the name was the same.
“That’s quite alright. No harm done.”
Michael realized that he was staring into those eyes and for some reason he couldn’t look away. What would this lady think of him? Shaking his head, he returned to the counter to leave the books and go.
“Are you new in town? I don’t think we’ve met before.”
She was still there. And now he was becoming aware of her scent. Something light and floral. Not the sophisticated perfumes his colleagues usually wore.
The books forgotten, Michael turned and faced the woman again.
“No. We haven’t met before. I just moved here last month. My name’s Sullivan. Michael Sullivan. I’m an attorney.”
“Pleased to meet you, mr Sullivan. I’m Ramona Hadley. As you can see, I teach elementary school.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of children’s voices raised in some kind of argument. Ramona excused herself and returned to her students.
Having sorted out the quarrel, she called out a greeting to Michael, as he was leaving.
“It was nice meeting you, mr Sullivan. I hope to see you again soon.”
“Yes. Me too.”
The meeting had made a deep impression on Michael, he wasn’t sure why. He could hardly remember what the girl looked like. What stuck in his mind was the way she had handled the children, and the sound of her voice. Whatever it was, something about her caught his interest, and he found himself looking forward to meeting her again.
It really was a small town. Now that Michael had noticed Ramona, he seemed to run into her all the time, along with various students of hers. It turned out that the little boy, Mickey, lived down the street from Michael’s house. From time to time the boy would be playing in a neighbor’s garden, riding his bike in the street, or just running back and forth.
It was like looking through the mirror and back in time to more innocent days. Ramona, when she spotted Michael in the store or in the street, would stop and say hi, inquire about his health, or merely nod cordially. Michael assumed that this was the difference between a city and a small town.
Now that he’d met Ramona, he became aware of something new. Expectation. Anticipation. To begin with, he didn’t even see the warning signals. It was as if he’d been transported back in time to more carefree days. Ramona appeared to be as happy to see him.
It didn’t take her long to suggest that they go and see a movie together. This was what usually ended any attempts at getting to know him better. For some reason, though, Michael saw no reason to back off. He really wanted to get to know Ramona better.
On the night of the meeting – Michael took great care not to refer to it as a date even inside his own mind – Ramona offered to pick him up, since she knew her way around the town. Some stubborn shred of pride made Michael insist on picking her up instead.
In the weeks he’d been living in the town, he’d become familiar with most of the streets, and felt fully capable of finding the movie theater. Ramona seemed to have no objections. They hadn’t discussed anything beyond watching the movie. Michael liked it best that way. No promises, no disappointment.
By now, he had started paying more attention to various details about her appearance. She had shoulder length curly red hair, well, not exactly red, but that was as close as Michael could determine the shade, blue eyes of a shade he’d never seen before, and a thoughtful, yet decisive manner. He got the impression she wasn’t in any way pushy, but it would be better not to make an enemy out of her. What he based that assumption on, he wasn’t sure. She had never appeared confrontational or aggressive around him or her students. There was a calm certainty about her, that he liked.
Though it would have been just as easy to walk, Michael decided to bring his car to pick Ramona up. If someone had asked him why, he might not have been able to answer, but on closer reflection, he thought the comfort of his own car gave him a sense of security.
Ramona was waiting outside her house, and when she caught sight of Michael, her face lit up. It was a rare experience. Usually no one was that pleased to see him. Actually, he was almost never this pleased to see anyone either.
Women’s clothes meant nothing to him, but he had to admit that Ramona’s skirt and top were very becoming. He vaguely thought that the color of them were something along the lines of blue or purple. Whatever it was, it looked good on her.
“Hi. I’m not late, am I?”
“No. Not at all. The movie doesn’t start for another forty minutes. We have plenty of time.”
She got into the car, and he drove off. He should be saying something, making conversation. No. Not yet. Shouldn’t he start out by giving her a compliment? Michael’s only experience with dating came from movies, and he hadn’t really watched that many of that kind. Romances weren’t really his thing. Suddenly, he realized that he was on his first date. The palms of his hands felt clammy, and his mouth dry. Anyway, it was too late for regrets and doubts now. They were getting close to the movie theater, and it was time to park the car.
“Here we are. Why don’t you go on ahead? I’ll just park the car.”
“Ok. See you soon.”
From what little Michael knew about women and dating, he thought Ramona was unusually normal. No. That wasn’t the word he was looking for. Like a guy. But that wasn’t right either. What he had in mind was more to do with being demanding. And Ramona seemed to take their date, if that was what it was, in a matter-of-fact, down-to-earth way. She didn’t look like the kind of woman who’d be making unreasonable demands.
It occurred to Michael that she might prefer to pay for her own ticket. How did he bring up that delicate subject? If he offered to pay, and she hadn’t expected that, his offer might be interpreted as patronizing. On the other hand, if he merely assumed she was going to pay her own way, and that wasn’t what she’d had in mind, he’d come across as stingy.
Phew. Dating seemed to be a mine field. He’d better just ask her. That way, he might seem a bit awkward, but he didn’t think she’d be offended.
As she caught sight of him, she waved. Apparently, she was holding a place in the line of people waiting. She seemed to know most of them, and was smiling and saying a few words to them.
Michael felt slightly reassured. Why was he making such a big deal out of this? He had been to movies with friends before.
“Look, this might be a stupid question, but did you want to pay for your own ticket or will you let me do it?”
There. He thought he’d managed to think of a way of phrasing his question that didn’t sound too silly. Money wasn’t important. If she wanted him to pay, he’d be glad to. But the last thing he wanted was to offend her.
“I was thinking we pay for ourselves this time, if you don’t mind. Maybe some other time, ok?”
“Ok. I just thought it was best to ask.”
“Absolutely. Never hurts to ask. Shall we?”
While they’d been discussing the arrangements, the line had moved on, and it was Michael’s turn. He hurriedly paid for his ticket and waited while Ramona did the same. When was the last time he’d done something like this? Four, five years ago? Why hadn’t he bothered making a few casual acquaintances in England? This wasn’t so tough.
After the movie, Ramona suggested they go out for a cup of coffee or something. Michael didn’t have to think for very long to discover that he’d really like that. He liked to talk to her. Her conversations were always interesting, and Michael had found that he felt comfortable in Ramona’s company.
When they were sitting in a small café having their coffee, Michael remarked that this was the first time in years he’d felt so relaxed and unconcerned about anything. He’d been right to come here, he was sure of it.
“Have you lived here all your life?”
“Yes, pretty much. I did go away to college, but other than that – What about you?”
“I was born and grew up in New York. But in the past couple of years I’ve been working abroad.”
“New York? And you picked this little town to go to work in? We should feel honored.”
“No. I’m the one who’s grateful. This town has made me feel really welcome.”
“I’m glad you like it. It might not look like much, but it’s home. And I could never imagine living anywhere else.”
“I can understand that. There’s something peaceful about it.”
“Yes. Peaceful is the word. At least on the surface. You’d be surprised how much is going on underneath.”
“I suppose that’s true. About things going on under the surface. But it seems to be a good place to live, and that’s what matters, isn’t it?”
“You could say that. That’s certainly why I could never leave.”
“What made you decide to become a teacher? Isn’t it emotionally straining? I mean, all those kids, that you have to get to know and look after and -“
“I see what you mean. It can be. But it’s worth it.”
“May I ask what made you decide to become an attorney?”
“I don’t mind you asking, but I guess I don’t really remember why. It seemed like a good job.”
“Of course. But do you enjoy it? Does it make you happy? I’m sorry. You weren’t expecting twenty questions.”
“That’s ok. You can ask anything you like. I don’t really know. In a way, I suppose I was looking for something else, when I quit my job in London and came back here.”
Her questions might have made him uncomfortable, if he hadn’t been dying to ask her some of his own. Happy? Probably not. He had long since given up hope of that. But Ramona looked happy. And contented. Not to mention totally at ease.
Michael couldn’t help admiring that. Their lives had taken different paths, and most likely she wouldn’t be able to relate to his experiences, even if he’d been able to confide in her. But her calm seemed to be infectious. For a moment, the past was just a distant whisper.
“Well, I hope you’re going to be happy here. And find what you’re looking for.”
“Thanks. Have you found what you’re looking for?”
Ramona smiled and put down her coffee cup. He really loved her smile and the way her eyes shone when she was passionate about something. It occurred to him that though she looked very quiet and subdued, that was only the way it seemed. Underneath the calm exterior, he imagined there were all kinds of emotions and convictions.
The more he saw of the young woman, the more he was intrigued. But he still told himself that she was nothing more than a friend. Possibly a good friend, and even that was close to miraculous. It had been probably been close to twenty years since he made a new friend.
“Some of it. Most of it, actually. I have a good job, my family, friends. There’s the house, my garden, my pets. Yes, I’m content. But I guess it’s good to have things to still strive for.”
“Like what? If you don’t mind me asking?”
“Well, I’d like to start a family of my own one day. And though it isn’t that important, I’d like to travel a bit. What about you?”
That question really threw him. What did he want from life? To sleep one night, without the Dream. Oblivion. As if that would ever be possible. Other than that, he just hoped that he’d be able to fill his life with work, and if he was lucky, something to pass the time when he wasn’t working.
But now, as he listened to Ramona talking, listing what she had, she made it seem as if they were all within reach. Something not to take for granted, but at least to dare to strive for. He had a house and a garden too. Maybe he should get a dog. A bit of exercise and fresh air would do him good.
Friends? He’d had friends. Still had them. But what was the use? Still, life was going on out there without him. Wasn’t it time he stepped outside his protective layers and once again exposed himself to danger? What if he didn’t get hurt this time? But what if he did?
And now Ramona was looking at him, expecting an answer. He had to think of something to say, or she’d begin to wonder what was wrong with him.
“I don’t know.”
“Then I guess you have to find out. It’s about time. You’re how old – if you don’t mind my asking?
“Not at all. I’m 31.”
“You look younger.”
“Oh. Is that good or bad?”
“I don’t know. What do you think? Good, I’d guess.”
“Never thought about that either.”
“Here I go again. Twenty questions. You must tell me to shut up.”
“Why? I don’t mind.”
“Well, at least you can pay me back. If you want to know something, feel free to ask.”
Yes. What could he ask? He wanted to know so much about her, but didn’t know how.
“There’s a lot I’d like to know, but I’ll have to let you know later.”
“No rush. You’ll be staying here for a while now, won’t you?”
“I hope so. This place is really something.”
For the rest of the evening, their conversation drifted to more general topics, including a discussion of the movie they’d seen. When he got back to his own house, Michael felt he hadn’t had such a good time since he was a child.
As he drifted off to sleep, he didn’t even worry about the Dream. If it came, he’d still wake up to this new place. Far away from all that had made his childhood a nightmare. He was safe. It was over. Case closed. And they won. Though how come he didn’t feel like a winner?
But he was too tired to think any more. Sleep came and took him away. And to his surprise, he didn’t wake up until the alarm clock rang at 6 in the morning. He had slept an entire night, without dreaming. That was probably a record of a kind. For some reason, he associated his undisturbed sleep with Ramona.
After that first date, for want of a better word, they started seeing each other at least once a week. They’d have a meal together, go for a drink, watch a movie, once they even went to a concert. Or they’d just go for a walk. When Michael had grown used to her being around, he even accepted an invitation for dinner at her house. All things considered, he’d really surprised himself, by being able to deal with so much so quickly.
At times he wondered what Ramona would make of him. She didn’t seem to be dating any other man, though she did seem to have a number of close friends. He wasn’t very good at reading women, especially not when it came to personal relations. As clients or colleagues they were a different matter entirely. But as a friend, or in this case as a would-be girlfriend, if that hadn’t been so completely and utterly impossible, how did she look at him? What did she expect from him? And perhaps more importantly, what did he expect from her?
By now, even Michael was unable to think of any more excuses. He was attracted to her. For all good it would do him. And he was becoming more and more fond of her every day. It was time to pull out, before he ended up hurting her as well as himself. Was it fair to go on seeing her, when she must be hoping for more than he’d ever be able to give her?
But wise or not, he couldn’t stay away. And so he found himself on his way over to her house one evening, carrying a bouquet of flowers, dressed up as if for a dinner with an important client, and with a heart filled with foolish dreams that he knew deep down could never be realized.
He rang her doorbell, and when the door opened and he saw her framed against the light from inside, he felt his breath catch in his throat. A part of him totally uncontrollable by his brain reacted to the beauty of the vision, and for a second all he wanted was to pull her into his arms and kiss her. Just like any other guy would. Struggling with the conflicting emotions, Michael remained standing on her doorstep, dumbstruck.
“Hello. Won’t you step inside? Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.”
Idiot. He was standing around like a moron with his mouth open. If this was what ordinary guys went through in their teens, maybe he was better off without any of it. But he didn’t really believe that.
“Yes. Sorry. I was thinking about – Here. I brought these for you.”
Awkwardly, he held out the flowers.
With a smile, she took them and ushered him inside.
Though he knew she must be wondering why he was acting like such an idiot, he couldn’t think of any effortless small talk. Still, the silence didn’t feel oppressive. Maybe he was imagining things, but he felt distinctly welcomed and embraced by her calm.
She showed him into the living room, excused herself and left for the kitchen.
Left to himself, Michael began to discreetly scan her living room interior decoration. She had a small but nicely furnished house. The living room appeared to double as library and dining room. Unable to fight down his curiosity, Michael began to study the titles of her books, and when he got tired of that, he moved on to peruse her magazines and choice of objets d’art.
All in all, the image her house presented of her squared with what he’d already learned. There were a few surprises though. For some reason, he had expected her library to contain mainly educational books, but turned out to be filled with all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. Her interests ranged from gardening to philosophy and everything in between. Again, he was struck by what a multi-faceted person she was.
“Find anything you like?”
Like a little boy caught in the middle of some prank, Michael whirled around and faced his hostess, blushing in embarrassment.
“I was just -“
“That’s ok. I meant to show you around, but the place is so small, it’s not much use. It wouldn’t make much of a tour. If you’re done exploring, dinner’s ready.”
“Of course. Thanks.”
The food was delicious. Michael didn’t think he’d had this kind of cooking since he was a boy. And his mother’s cooking tended more towards the solid old-fashioned.
Their conversation circled around harmless, general topics. After dessert, which was quite delicious too, Ramona cleared away the dishes, and encouraged her guest to move over to the couch.
She returned so quickly, Michael guessed that she’d merely deposited the dishes in the dishwasher. His mother would vanish into the kitchen for hours after a family dinner, but then she didn’t really believe in household appliances. Personally, he wasn’t about to complain. He didn’t like to be deprived of Ramona’s company for long.
Not until she sat down next to him did he notice a line of framed photos standing on the small side table. One of the photos depicted a tall, dark handsome young man. What if that was an ex-husband or at least an ex anything? For some reason, that thought filled him with disappointment. Worse still, what if that was a current close friend, someone Ramona still considered an important part of her life? How could he possibly hope to hold her interest, when competing with someone that handsome, and judging by the smile, so self-assured?
“I see you’re looking at my family. My parents. Monica and Natalie – my sisters. And that’s Steven. My baby brother.”
She must have read something in his expression, because he could see a smile move over her features and vanish as quickly as it had appeared. Apparently, he was an open book to her. That thought caused another hot flush of red to creep over his face. Fortunately, she made no comment.
“And you? Do you have any family back home?”
“This is my home.”
He had spoken too quickly and once again, he’d managed to come across as someone who didn’t take kindly to idle inquisition. Now he could see Ramona’s face color slightly, and he tried to think of something to say that would cover her confusion and his own. But words didn’t come easy, especially in this awkward situation.
“I didn’t mean to sound so curt. It’s just that I’ve made a fresh start. Everything else is behind me.”
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention to pry into anything personal.”
“No. Don’t apologize. This is my problem. It’s just that I have a lot of issues to deal with. That’s not your fault. And I’m really trying to get past all that.”
And she really did seem to understand. But that didn’t help much. The companionable mood was gone, and now the silence held so many pitfalls, Michael was tempted to get up and leave for the relative safety of his own house. Somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to do that, however. There was something about Ramona that just kept him coming back for more. Actually, he knew what it was, but his mind kept shying away from that topic.
“Didn’t you say that you were working in London before you moved here? London, England?”
“That sounds really interesting. I’ve always wanted to see the British Isles. Did you do any travelling while you were in the country? And by the way, how long did you spend there?”
“I was there for about three years, and no, for some reason I didn’t do much travelling. To begin with, I didn’t even practice law. But after a while, I took a test to be allowed to do some legal work. I mean, it wasn’t court work, but I did some preparatory work, and some taxes and so on. So in that context I had to travel a little. But that can’t really be what you must have in mind. I went to Birmingham, Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool. Not really for the tourist. All I saw was the inside of various court houses and corporate buildings.”
“Oh. But still – It must have been such a change. I’ve never been anywhere.”
“Maybe all you need is right here.”
And that seemed to be the right thing to say. Michael didn’t think it was all that profound, but he could see Ramona’s eyes light up, so apparently, she really was fond of her home. And why shouldn’t she? Michael was getting more and more comfortable in this town. If anyone had suggested to him, even a year ago that he might make his home in a small town, he would never have even considered it. Now, he was beginning to enjoy the slower rhythm of life.
It really was amazing how well she appeared to understand him. Maybe it was an illusion, but if so, it was one that he didn’t want to dispel. Not once did she come on too strong, or rush him in any way. Ramona seemed to have a natural feeling for how close she could get, before she’d spook him. Was she that empathic, or – and this brought a feeling of startling disappointment – was she simply not interested enough?
All Michael knew was that after the visit in her home, he felt more relaxed and comfortable than he’d ever been around anyone, including his best friends and his family, since he was a child. Now he didn’t hesitate to invite her over to his own home. Cooking wasn’t really his forte, but he’d bought a few books on the topic and he’d tried his best. The result didn’t seem in any way comparable to her cooking, but she didn’t complain.
One day, she mentioned a scenic spot some miles outside of town, and he expressed a wish to see it. There was a trail that they could follow, and Michael suddenly felt an inclination for a long walk through the wilderness. Or at least that was how the area appeared to a city-dweller like him.
Listening to Ramona, he got an impression more of a park-like environment than any true wilderness. It still sounded appealing. This late in the fall, it would be a bit chilly, but there was still no snow, and the frost made the ground easy to walk on. Ramona offered to take him out there, and despite his misgivings about spending a prolonged period of time alone with her away from other people, he heard himself eagerly accepting the invitation.
A little voice inside him kept saying this was a big mistake, but he shut it out. He had wanted to start a new life, and going for walks in the countryside was definitely new to him.
Ramona smiled and appeared pleased with his decision. She had never once made any comments about his behavior, which he knew must be puzzling her. Sometimes, Michael had the feeling she was treating him rather like one of her small students. That was about right. In many ways, he felt he had never matured much beyond the age of 12. Of course, her students were a bit younger than that. It felt silly and slightly embarrassing, but also comforting. How could you feel threatened by an elementary school teacher? After all, he outweighed her, and could easily match any physical threat she might present.
The drive took them about half an hour, and once out there, Michael was surprised he’d never thought of doing this before. It was as if he’d never taken a breath of fresh air until now. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, and he enjoyed the brisk walk in the cool air.
Ramona was in a sparkling mood, and they were joking and laughing together like two kids. They didn’t discuss anything of importance, but Michael still felt that they were closer than ever. Not only that, he had never felt as attracted to any woman as he did right now.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her as she skipped from tree to tree, as if trying to hide from him. Moving about was producing a fair amount of body heat, and she’d discarded her jacket early on. The knitted cotton jersey was a bit tight and with every move, her bosom swelled in a way that drew Michael’s eyes. Once she caught the look and gave him a teasing grin. He felt his face color, but he shook it off. They were having such a great time.
Most of the time, it was Ramona talking, joking and teasing, and Michael laughing and listening. Once in a while he tried to think of something to say, but he was out of practice and anyway, he’d never spent such an extended time alone with a girl.
What would she find amusing? Searching his mind for any anecdote from his work, he finally managed to produce one feeble joke. He wasn’t all that impressed with his own performance, but it seemed Ramona was in a giggly mood and anything seemed to be really funny. To Michael’s own astonishment, he found himself giggling like he was stoned.
Without thinking, Ramona pulled him into her arms and hugged him. The pleasant mood vanished in a heartbeat, and Michael panicked, pushing her away so roughly she hit the tree behind her and lost her wind. He could see a look of shocked terror fill her eyes and she backed away from him.
At the moment, though, he was unable to deal with the disaster. He was far too caught up in his own terror. Arms pinning him down, holding him captive. Unable to take the pain anymore, he turned and ran away. Blindly, without any thought of where he’d end up, his mind in chaos, he kept running, until he was winded and drained.
It wasn’t until late at night when he finally managed to find his way back to the town and his own house. He was too shaken to sleep, and too scared to risk the Dream again. So he remained sitting in front of the tv, not paying attention to what he was watching.
His answering machine told him Ramona had called three times, while he was trying to find his way home. Her voice held no accusation, and by now, no fear either. Instead all he could detect was concern, and at least the third time around, increasing anxiety for his safety. She asked him to call, but at the moment, Michael knew he wouldn’t be able to face her.
Why had he lost control? There was not a shred of resemblance between this attractive girl and the man who had stolen his childhood. And now he’d ruined everything. He’d frightened and maybe even hurt her physically.
Now that his initial reaction was fading, Michael was more concerned about Ramona. She must have formed the impression that he was completely unbalanced, and potentially dangerous. There was nothing he wanted more than to try and reassure her, make things right again, if it was only possible. But he didn’t know how. And if he wanted to try, he knew this was the time to tell her everything. Nothing less would do after his outburst.
On Monday morning, Michael called in sick. He hadn’t had any sleep at all, since the incident, and he still hadn’t accepted any of Ramona’s calls. By now, he was feeling light-headed with fatigue, and he wasn’t sure if he’d really heard Ramona knocking on his door on Sunday afternoon. It was amazing that she still wanted anything to do with him after his senseless outburst.
Thoughts of her, memories of the past and violent attacks of self-loathing alternated in his mind. If things continued like this, he’d have to go see a doctor and get some medication to help him sleep. He’d tried that before, and it was only a temporary solution at best, but if he had to, he’d take any help he could get.
Finally, after dealing with the immediate problem of holding on to his job, he fell into a restless, shallow sleep, too exhausted even for the Dream. When he woke up, he felt a little more in control of himself. Now the guilt set in, far worse than before. The scene out in the woods kept playing back in his mind over and over again. Maybe he should forget about women entirely. If he was a threat to their safety, he should do them and himself a favor and never try dating again. Ever.
On the other hand, he couldn’t stop thinking about Ramona and the look in her eyes as he exploded into violence, all for nothing. A hug. That was all. At the very least it had to mean she cared about him. And despite everything, he couldn’t help hoping that there had been a little more than that involved. Though if there had been, he could forget about that now, after the way he’d behaved.
Just after 3 in the afternoon, someone knocked on his door again, and this time he was sure of what he heard. He was also pretty sure it was Ramona. That brought on another panic attack. Not out of fear of being touched. What he dreaded was simply trying to explain himself. Because ignoring her was quite out of the question. She was there. He had to talk to her. If only he could make his mouth obey him, and his legs, and his mind.
But it was too late for hesitation. He walked over to the door, and opened it. It was her, just as he had known it would be. And incredibly, she didn’t look at him with hate or fear in her eyes. Still, after what he’d put her through, she was concerned about him.
“Michael. I was worried about you. Why didn’t you return my calls?”
“Sorry about that. About everything. I never meant to -“
“Can I come in?”
Not until she asked, did he realize that he was still standing in the doorway looking out across the threshold.
“Of course. Sorry. They walked into his living room and sat down facing each other in the two comfortable chairs over by the window. Ramona couldn’t take her eyes off his face. Held by that anxious gaze, Michael felt he could die of shame.”
“Ramona, I’m terribly sorry about what happened. I never meant to overreact the way I did.”
“Of course I forgive you. But can you tell me why you – overreacted?”
He paused to consider her request. Ever since the incident, he’d known it would have to come to this. Still, he hesitated, not knowing how to put his past into words. The only way he could think of was telling it like he hadn’t been there himself. As if it had all happened to another little boy.
“I’ll try. Ever since we began to get to know each other, I’ve been dreading this moment. And I guess I always knew I’d eventually have to tell you about -“
Again, he had to stop to collect himself. This was so hard. More difficult than anything since that time more than three years ago when he’d been forced to relive the nightmare.
“It all happened a long time ago. There were these four boys who -“
The story seemed to take forever. Michael had to break off frequently, to try and stop himself from crying. He bit his lip so hard, he thought it would start to bleed. While he was talking, he didn’t dare to face Ramona.
She didn’t interrupt in any way. Just sat through it all, silently, until the end, which was accompanied by a smothered sob. It came from Ramona. So he’d managed to stop himself from crying after all. All things considered, this didn’t make him feel any better.
“It’s ok. Like I said, it was a very long time ago.”
“But it isn’t over yet, is it? That’s why you’re still living the same nightmare over and over again. I wish you’d been able to tell me sooner. If you had, then maybe I’d have -“
“You didn’t do anything wrong. I overreacted. That’s all. And that’s what I can’t forgive myself for. Whatever happened to me, I had no right to hurt you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not made of glass. When we were growing up, at times my sisters and Steven and I played really rough. So you can forget about that.”
“How can I do that? I lashed out at someone innocent, someone who had done nothing to deserve it. If I’m that out of control, it might not be safe for you to be around me.”
“As long as I know what’s ok and not ok, I’ll be fine. Obviously, I invaded your space. Crowded you. It won’t happen again.”
Strangely enough, this assurance didn’t cheer him at all. Crowding, or put a different way, hugging, was something he’d been dying to experience for years.
Maybe Ramona saw something in his eyes, or she simply knew him a lot better than he thought. Whatever the reason, she smiled again, and held out her hand. She didn’t touch him, only left it in front of him, for him to reach out and hold, if he was comfortable with it.
“Just show me what you’re comfortable with.”
He looked at her hand for so long he was afraid she’d withdraw it again, and along with it, any promise of understanding and affection. Finally, he took a deep breath, bracing himself and took her hand. It didn’t feel at all threatening. Light-headed with relief, he let out the breath he’d been holding in for so long.
Still, she made no move to withdraw her hand, or anything else. It was obvious that she was taking great care not to spook him again. But that was all wrong. She shouldn’t have to walk around fearful of another outburst of the kind he’d been guilty of so recently. He had to get a grip. Now that he had had time to think, he felt less terrified. Ramona wasn’t the enemy. There was nothing remotely threatening about her. But what if he lost it again? What if he really hurt her this time? That was becoming his worst fear.
“I’d like to try again.”
“Hugging. If you’re ok about it. I’ll do my best not to freak out again.”
“Ok. I won’t make a move. You do it. Is that ok?”
“Uh – I don’t know. Isn’t it unfair to you? I don’t want to take advantage of you. If you’re sitting there not making a move, it would be like I -“
“Ok. So how about if I do things really slowly and I ask you before I make a move?”
“Yes. Ok. We’ll try that and see how it goes.”
Michael couldn’t believe he was actually discussing something like this. And anyway, if the hugging worked out, what would he do next? It occurred to him that he was probably one of the few men in the world who hadn’t even watched a porn movie.
If Ramona wanted to kiss him, would he be able to? In his dreams, he was doing all kinds of things, but how could he tell if he was doing it right? But he was moving way too fast for his own comfort. He had to slow down and take one thing at a time, which seemed to be what Ramona was doing.
So he stopped thinking and started acting. At first Ramona didn’t move after all. Michael put his arms around her and moved closer. He didn’t dare to let his face touch hers, to begin with and he knew he was really tense. But that didn’t seem to bother her. After a while, she seemed to deem the time right to move on.
“Michael. I’m going to put my arms around you now. Is that ok?”
He closed his eyes and breathed in. This was Ramona. The woman he was attracted to, a person he trusted. It was going to be ok.
And it really was ok. He could feel her body pressed against his, and it was nothing like – It felt wonderful.
“Would you like to kiss me? Please. I’ve never -“
“Ok. If you’re sure?”
And that worked too. Michael hadn’t known what he was missing. This was totally amazing. As soon as he felt comfortable enough with what they were doing, he returned the kiss. But soon he became aware of a change in his body and he knew it was time to stop this experiment, no matter how pleasant it was.
“I guess that’s enough for today. Lesson over.”
She laughed a little nervously and Michael realized that what they’d just done couldn’t have been easy for her either, no matter how different their backgrounds. It told him that she must care about him, just like he cared about her, and this made him feel a lot better all of a sudden.
“That was great. I never thought I could do any of this. Ramona, you’re incredible.”
“I know. No, I’m not. But you are.”
Michael gave her a shy smile, but didn’t know what to say, so he just concentrated on calming down a bit. The entire encounter had filled him with a multitude of new and unfamiliar emotions. None of them necessarily bad, but still confusing in their intensity.
“I think you’re very brave. And I hope that you won’t hesitate to talk to me if there’s anything else that’s bothering you. You can tell me anything, I hope you know that.”
“I do. But this is something I’ve never been able to tell anyone before. And until today, I’ve never been able to tolerate anyone as close to me as you were.”
As he remembered how close they’d been only minutes before, Michael blushed again.
“I feel honored. And I’m really happy I’m the one you were able to get past this with.”
“I’m happy it was you as well.”
“Well, if we’re done for now, I really need to get going. I have some shopping to do.”
“Oh. I’ll take you. There are some things I need to pick up too.”
When they were done with the shopping, Michael dropped Ramona off at her house. Before she left, she turned and faced him. The smile on her face told him that he had been right in assuming she cared. So he reached out and took her hand, squeezing it for a moment, then let go.
He couldn’t believe he’d done what he had. Michael Sullivan had not only allowed another human being close, he’d actually kissed her too. For the first time in years, Michael was actually excited about something.
That night, though, the Dream returned. Only this time, he wasn’t in a bar, and the girl wasn’t just anyone. She was Ramona. And, to his astonishment, there was no sign of Sean Noakes. He woke up feeling refreshed and more rested than he could remember ever feeling.
If he’d thought the change in the Dream was permanent, he was sadly disappointed, however. The following night, after an ordinary day at work, and a phone conversation with Ramona, Michael fell asleep, little expecting a repeat of his earlier brushes with the Dream.
He was with Ramona, but after a while, Sean Noakes showed up. There was no switch though, he merely appeared alongside of them, causing Michael to wake up screaming. If Ramona were to get hurt too – But the man was dead and buried. He couldn’t hurt anyone anymore.
The Dream was one thing he hadn’t confided in Ramona. He just hadn’t felt it was important enough. And why would it be? When he was awake, it wasn’t anything he liked to dwell on. For whatever reason, he didn’t mention it to Ramona the next time they met. He’d had enough of being a victim and a pathetic weakling in her eyes.
As Christmas approached, Michael caught himself actually looking forward to the holidays. Normally, he’d dread the break in his daily routines. Even if his work sometimes kept him busy most of the holidays, there would still be days when he’d be left to himself, with nothing to do, but think. And thinking was never a good idea. At least not until now.
One day, a few weeks before Christmas, Michael stopped by the school house to pick up Ramona. Something was worrying him, and he didn’t know if it would be ok to bring it up with Ramona. It concerned one of her students, little Mickey, who lived just across the street from Michael’s house. Since Michael had met the boy, he’d found himself watching him, anxiously, as if trying to protect him. It was uncanny how much the boy reminded him of himself at that age. Even the name was the same.
Lately, the boy had appeared changed. As if something was on his mind. Maybe Michael was overreacting, but he felt somehow chilled by the new behavior the boy was displaying. And due to his own traumatic past, he could only think of one reason the boy would appear so distraught.
When Michael arrived outside Ramona’s classroom, he was met by her exuberant students rushing outside, no doubt eager to begin another snowball fight. Mickey was nowhere to be seen.
Ramona caught sight of Michael and smiled in recognition.
“There you are. I won’t be a minute.”
She gathered some papers lying on the desk and shoved them into her shoulder bag, then grabbed a pile of notebooks, and deposited them in the same bag.
“Ok. I’m ready to go.”
“Just a second. Can we talk about something?”
“Of course? Here? Or in the car?”
He paused to consider. Perhaps it would be better if they discussed this in private. There was no reason to stay around in the school house.
“We can talk in the car.”
“Ok. Nothing’s wrong, I hope?”
“With me? No, of course not. I’m feeling better than ever.”
And as if to illustrate his statement, Michael pulled her closer and held her for a moment.
“I guess not. Then what it is?”
By now, they were outside his car, and Michael was unlocking the door. There was no one nearby who could overhear their conversation.
“It’s about Mickey. You know he’s just down the street from me, so I see him almost every day. In the past couple of weeks, he’s seemed different somehow. Less happy. As if something’s worrying him.”
Michael had hoped Ramona would be able to reassure him and dispel his concern with a few words about something trivial, like a failed test, or a lost softball game. But instead his words produced a worried frown on Ramona’s face.
“You’re right. Something’s wrong. I just don’t know what it is. Have you noticed anything unusual?”
“No. Just that he’s not as cheerful as he used to be. You know what he was like. He hasn’t confided anything in you?”
“No. And that’s what’s worrying me. They always do. If they have a sick dog, or there’s been a fight with a sibling, or there’s some crisis in their parents’ marriage, they always say something. But he’s been quiet. Abnormally quiet. And he’s been in a few really vicious fights with the other boys too. That’s totally unlike Mickey.”
“This is a small town. You haven’t heard anything on the local grapevine? About his parents?”
Again, Ramona paused to consider his question.
“Yes. There was something. I heard Terry lost his job this fall. And Steven told me his friends had seen Terry drinking at Wally’s Bar almost every weekend. But he wouldn’t -“
“Maybe I should talk to Nina and ask her if everything’s ok.”
“Terry and Nina are Mickey’s parents?”
“Nina’s Mickey’s mom. She moved in with Terry about two years ago, when her ex-husband Jimmy took off.”
“I see. Do you think it’s possible Terry’s abusing Mickey?”
There. He’d said it. Once the words were out of his mouth, Michael felt stupid. This wasn’t his concern. The little boy in question had a mother, a teacher; and both of them had more right to worry about the boy than he did. On the other hand, he was bringing the matter to one of the people in question. Now it was up to Ramona to investigate further. He imagined that the school authorities had channels for this kind of thing.
“I hope not. But I’ll see what I can do about finding out. Try not to worry about it. I won’t let this pass without getting to the bottom of it. Now – Shall we get going?”
“Oh. Of course. You must think I’m prying into other people’s affairs -“
“Not at all. I think it’s wonderful that you care so much about a strange child. My students mean a lot to me, and if you ever see something else that strikes you as odd, please come to me right away.”
“Ok. Do you want to go straight home, or do you need to do some shopping?”
“Michael, you’re spoiling me. I do have a car of my own. Though I have to admit this one’s so much more spacious. Hm. Let me think – No. I’d like to go home now. On Friday, I want to go Christmas shopping, but for now, I think I’ve got everything I need. What about you? Anywhere in particular you have to go?”
“No. Well, I should go straight home too. I’ve got heaps of work waiting for me on my desk.”
“Ok. Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You know you will.”
It felt wonderful, and unreal to have a girlfriend. Because that was what she was. Or at least almost. There were some things, that Michael knew other people did, that he doubted he’d ever be able to. But so far, Ramona hadn’t complained, and he was hoping it would stay that way for a while.
It wasn’t fair, leading her on like this, when he knew she wanted more out of life than just dating a nervous wreck like him. But at the moment, he just couldn’t bear to end the relationship. It was far too sweet to have finally found someone he could trust.
He dropped Ramona off at her house and drove back to his own home. It surprised and stunned him that he would much rather have spent the evening over at Ramona’s house. Only last year, he’d never have thought twice about immersing himself in his work. Now he knew there were some things work just couldn’t do for you.
Before going inside, he made sure the car was safely parked inside the garage. By now, it was getting really cold, and in the morning he didn’t want to have to deal with a stalling engine or locks that resisted his efforts to get inside.
While he was in the garage, he cleared away some empty storage boxes, and was about to go, when a noise from outside caught his attention. At first he thought it was the neighbors on the right, but it turned out the noise was from across the street. Mickey’s house. Michael strained his ears, trying to overhear the altercation, without having to go outside and risk being seen.
Raised voices. An angry man and – A little boy whose voice rose in rightful indignation. Now Michael could perceive the actual words.
“It wasn’t me. I don’t know anything about that scratch in the paint.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit, kid. Who else would it be? You’re always getting in the way, breaking stuff, making trouble. I’ve had it. Do you hear me, Mickey?”
“But I didn’t do it. Honestly. Terry, please.”
“I don’t want to hear another word about it. Inside now. You know what you got coming to you.”
After that, there was silence, until Michael heard a door close. He didn’t expect to hear anything more, but a window must have been open somewhere in the house. Now he could hear the heart-breaking sounds of dull thuds that told him Mickey was being punished far too harshly for such a little boy. Michael’s own dad had believed in physical punishment, but he couldn’t remember ever being beaten that severely. Not until –
His own self-pity would have to wait because now he heard Mickey wailing helplessly. And the man who should have been a father to him, just kept on hitting the child. It was incredible that no one else on this street objected and did something. Fine. If no one else would, he would.
Without thinking, he marched across the street, and pounded on the door. By then the beating had stopped, and all he could hear was a more subdued sobbing from upstairs. For a while nothing happened, and Michael was beginning to think that Terry wasn’t going to bother answering the door. Then he heard rapid footsteps descending the stairs. Seconds later the door was flung open and a furious man faced him.
“Yeah? What’s your problem, mr?”
“You are. My problem is that you’re beating your stepson.”
“And what’s it to you, city boy?”
“I don’t like it and I want you to stop right now.”
“Yeah? And you think you’re going to make me? We can step outside and settle this once and for all. I’ll whip your ass too. It’s no one’s business how I discipline my kid.”
Senseless rage and mindless terror alternated inside Michael. Those eyes, that voice – this man could have been Sean Noakes’ brother. He wanted to beat the man into a bloody pulp, and he wanted to run and hide so he wouldn’t get hurt again. But the wish to protect this child from suffering any more pain gained the upper hand inside his mind, and he raised his fists to teach the brutal bastard a lesson. He would have too, but before he had time to strike the first blow, Terry’s fist landed on Michael’s face. Hard. He felt something wet splatter his skin, and he involuntarily took a step back from the impact of the blow. Within seconds he was back, and now –
Suddenly a little boy was screaming something and both men looked in the direction of that cry.
On top of the stairs Mickey was standing, tears streaming down his face.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Just go on up to bed. I’ll deal with this loser.”
Faced with the child’s misery and fear, Michael knew he couldn’t go on attacking the boy’s stepfather. Not with the child as a witness. He let his hands drop and he backed off.
“This isn’t over. I won’t let you go on like this. That’s a promise.”
“Oh, yeah? How about this promise? I’ll go find you and kick your ass out of town. We don’t need any fancy big city lawyers here. You can just go on back to where you came from.”
Michael turned and left. He wouldn’t make this day even harder on Mickey. But he’d have to do something. The boy wasn’t just upset over a minor quarrel. On his face Michael had seen red marks that would turn black soon enough. If Terry was anything like he suspected, the child’s back and thighs would be full of welts from a belt or cane. This went way beyond normal discipline.
He had to find Ramona. She’d know what to do. It was her responsibility, not his.
To his relief, Ramona was at home, and she answered the phone on the second call.
“Yes, go ahead. What’s wrong?”
“It’s Mickey. Terry’s beating him. I mean, abusing him.”
“I see. Take it easy, Michael. I’ll be over in ten minutes. Don’t go anywhere. I tried to get in touch with Nina, but she’s gone away for a week to visit her sister in Phoenix.”
“Ok. I’ll be here.”
But as soon as he’d hung up, Michael was thinking about the way that little boy’s face had looked. Completely broken up. And in his eyes there had been no hope. It occurred to Michael that he might have made things worse for the child by showing up like that on the doorstep, aggravating the man further. Would Ramona be able to do something about the situation?
While everyone followed procedure, a child was suffering. Michael couldn’t bear to think about it, yet his mind wouldn’t leave the problem alone. He knew what little Mickey was going through. Perhaps Terry wasn’t doing the same things to his stepson that Noakes had done to all those little boys supposedly in his care, but whatever Terry was doing was bad enough. Who knew what damage it might do?
Michael just knew he had to do something to put a stop to what was going on right under his nose. He might not have the right to interfere, but he would. No child deserved to suffer like that.
The sound of someone knocking on the front door cut into his brooding, and Michael jumped. Ramona. He’d all but forgotten about her. Now that she was here, he had to talk to her. Not about what he intended to do, but something. She had given him a whole new life. And he was grateful. This was just something he had to do. It broke his heart to think of leaving her, when he’d just met her and begun to – love her. Just as he was about to lose her the realization struck him.
He loved Ramona. But it was too late for that now. After he’d done what he had to do to keep Mickey safe, his life was over. He couldn’t let them come and take him away to another prison. Maybe he wasn’t a child anymore, but he had no illusions about what they would do to him in there. And he couldn’t take that. No more. Not ever again.
While the desperate thoughts flew through his brain, he walked over to the door and opened it.
“Are you ok?”
“What? Of course I am. I’m not the one who – “
“I mean that -“
Ramona gently touched his face, and Michael remembered that Terry had hit him. There must be blood all over his face, but he felt no pain, and anyway, what happened to him wasn’t important. Soon he would never have to worry about anything anymore.
“Slow down, Michael. You’re scaring me. Sit down and take a deep breath. Is Terry still hitting Mickey?”
“I don’t think so. He’d stopped by the time I got over there.”
“Ok. Then we have time to talk. Michael, please. Calm down.”
“How can I calm down when that sick bastard’s -“
“Yes. I know. The people I was talking to were afraid something like this was going on. Terry’s dad used to beat him and his brothers while they were growing up.”
Something about her voice made him instantly obey. Not out of fear. It was something different. Trust. Yes. Trust. He’d hear her out before he –
“Ok. I’m listening.”
“Right. What happened? Start at the beginning and tell me everything.”
“When I got back after dropping you off, I parked the car in the garage, and I stayed to clear away a few things. That’s when I heard Terry telling Mickey off for something he thought the boy had done. Scratching his car, I think. Mickey swore he hadn’t done it, but Terry wouldn’t listen. And he told the boy to go inside with him.”
“An upstairs window must have been open and I heard Terry beating Mickey. Really beating him.”
Ramona’s face hardened, but she didn’t interrupt.
“So I went over there to tell Terry to stop. No one else seemed to care. Or maybe no one else heard. I knocked on the door and Terry opened it.”
“And what did he do?”
“I confronted him and he – Well, you see what he did. Then Mickey came down the stairs, and I knew I had to go. I couldn’t get into a fight with his stepfather while he was watching. But he must be stopped. He can’t be allowed to go on treating Mickey like this. Someone has to do something.”
“I agree. But that someone isn’t you, Michael. Look at me. Yes. Look at me. You think I don’t know what you’re planning? I can’t let you do it.”
What? Was she saying what he thought she was saying? She knew. How was that possible? No one could read minds. Not outside of tv shows and movies. But she was sitting here telling him she knew what he was thinking.
Her voice softened slightly and she put her hand across his.
“Michael, it’s only natural that you think you have to be the one to stop Terry. But you don’t have to. Leave him to me. No one else needs to get hurt today. I’ll talk to Terry and I’ll deal with the problem. Do you trust me?”
He did, but how could a woman handle a man like Terry? She didn’t know what she was talking about. The punch Michael had taken in the face told him how strong Terry was. Ramona wouldn’t stand a chance. And Michael couldn’t bear to see her get hurt any more than he could accept Terry’s treatment of Mickey.
But Ramona’s eyes were demanding an answer and he knew he had to give her one.
“Yes. But -“
“Just trust me on this one, ok? I can handle Terry. Everything’s going to be ok. Stay here and try to calm down. Go and wash that off your face. We’ll have to have the authorities here to take care of Mickey and they’ll need your testimony. You can’t look like you’ve come straight from a street fight. Michael, please.”
She’d never let him down before. And he’d never known her to be wrong either, in the time he’d known her. The sound of her voice told him she believed what she was saying, and that was good enough for him. She would make everything ok. Just like she’d done for him.
Ramona was only gone for maybe half an hour, even though it felt like all night. The look on her face was grim, but she seemed to be in control. She walked over to Michael and held him for a while. He liked to think that his embrace was lending her a little strength, but he suspected she didn’t need it.
“It’s ok. Terry’s gone. He packed up and left. But I know where to find him if there’s going to be a trial. Mrs Jeffries from next door is sitting with Mickey until social services can get here. And I called Nina and told her what was going on. She was shocked. Terry’s never done anything like this before. He always seemed to be different from his brothers, but I guess you never can tell.”
“But how did you – I mean, did he just agree to pack up and go?”
“I can see that you don’t have enough faith in me. Didn’t I tell you I’d deal with it? I would never have confronted Terry if I’d been afraid of him. We’ve lived in this town since we were born. Terry and I were in the same class from first grade until graduation. He’s a wimp. All the girls could bully him. And my mother was the principal. There was never any danger. I suppose Terry feels big and brave enough to beat up on little boys, but he’d never dare to raise a hand against me or Nina.”
“He hit me.”
“Yes, but that’s different. You were another male invading his territory. Even a little dog bites if a strange dog gets on his turf. I’m sure you could have wiped the floor with him if you’d had the chance.”
“Oh. I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I’m glad you had enough presence of mind not to get into a fight right in front of Mickey. It’s over now. Mickey’s going to be looked after. And when Nina can get a flight back, she’s going to take care of him. Terry won’t be back. Mickey’s safe now. Do you believe me?”
“Yes. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you the first time.”
“That’s ok. I guess you’d have no way of knowing how things were. And believe me, I appreciate you worrying about me. Just like I worry about you.”
“It seems you have more reason to worry about me than the other way around.”
“I don’t know about that. How are you feeling? Your face looks a little worse for wear. Do you mind?”
Again, he felt her touch on his skin. It was amazing, but it didn’t feel at all threatening. She was standing so close he could feel her breath on his skin and it didn’t trouble him.
Yes. He really thought he would. With Ramona’s help. Not just his face. His mind. His soul. He knew he’d feel the scars for the rest of his life, but he was feeling stronger with each day. One day, maybe he’d even be able to move on beyond a bit of kissing, hugging and hand-holding. Who knew? Right now, he felt that anything was possible.
Ramona was right. Things worked out for Mickey. It wasn’t long before Michael could see him playing with his friends in the street. Sometimes the boy even said hi when they passed each other in the street. Michael thought the boy knew he had something to do with helping him escape his stepfather’s abuse.
He knew he and Mickey were two different people, but in a way it felt as if Mickey’s deliverance had exorcised his own pain. By saving Mickey, Ramona had reached into the past and saved another little boy.
Michael spent Christmas with Ramona and her family. It was the first time in years he’d spent a holiday with a large family. Both Ramona’s older sisters were married and between them they had five kids. Steven brought his girlfriend, and there were a few aunts and uncles and cousins.
Ramona’s parents had a large house on the outskirts of town, where everyone fit in. The entire family was eager to make Michael feel welcome. It seemed they all took it for granted that he was now Ramona’s boyfriend. That filled him with pride. It had been such a long time since anyone had believed in him. He hadn’t even believed in himself.
Slowly, but surely, he was learning to accept other people’s proximity. At the end of the holidays, he didn’t think twice about letting Natalie’s youngest daughter climb onto his lap and sit there for a while. He found it perfectly natural that Ramona would slip her hand into his and her arms around him no longer produced the slightest trace of panic. Her kisses thrilled him and he loved to run his fingers through her hair. Anyone looking at them together would find it difficult to believe that only a year ago he would have run in terror from another person’s touch.
It was a long time since he last had the Dream, but one night at the end of January, it returned. As usual since meeting Ramona, she was beside him, if not in the flesh at least in spirit. Sean Noakes opened the door and stepped inside. Michael’s throat felt dry and he knew he couldn’t make a sound.
Noakes’ face clouded over as he caught sight of the woman in whose arms Michael was resting. Something moved through the man’s eyes, and he took a step backwards, then another. A look of intense anger passed over the man’s features, but he didn’t approach again.
He slammed the door shut behind him, and suddenly Michael knew it was the last time he’d ever see Sean Noakes. He couldn’t defeat Ramona. And Michael was stronger than he’d ever been before. His old tormentor had lost his power to cause him pain. This time, it really was over.
The following morning, Michael drove over to Ramona’s house before going to work. He met her on her way out. When she caught sight of him, she smiled and stopped.
“Hey. What are you doing here so early? Is anything up?”
“No. Not really. I just felt I had to see you.”
“Good idea. Any particular reason?”
“Well, I just thought I had something to celebrate.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“I’ll tell you tonight. If you want to come over for dinner.”
“You know me. I never turn down a free meal. Considering what they pay me, I have to. Of course I’ll be there. Come here.”
And Michael ignored the neighbors going to work, and just let Ramona kiss him right on her garden path. Let them stare. They were looking at a happy man. A man with a brand new life in front of him. He was the luckiest man in the world. Meeting Ramona had been the only good thing that had ever happened to him. Only she had been able to reach him and heal his emotional wounds.
They walked hand in hand to his car. When they parted to go to work, they kissed again.
“See you tonight. Don’t forget.”
“I won’t. Michael -“
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
He had never thought he’d be able to say those words. And here he was, doing exactly that. Yes, they had reason enough to celebrate. Maybe one day soon, he’d buy Ramona a ring. For tonight, he’d just cook for her and give her another gift. Whatever he bought for her would be nothing compared what she’d given him.
If his old friends could see him now, they wouldn’t know him. Carol wouldn’t recognize him. Their Michael was gone and he didn’t miss him. The time had come for him to move on. From now on, he had a feeling his past wouldn’t be back to haunt him again. As he drove to work, he almost felt a door close behind him, and he knew what that meant. Smiling, he got on with his day.