“Here, you drive.”
Keys sailed through the air.
An older, white Ford F150 with a dented front quarter panel sat in the parking lot. Hidden Oaks’ name and logo adorned its doors. Employees travelled to and from the warehouse, in and out of the office building. Heads turned toward us. Ignoring the curious glances, I caught the keys. Did everyone know that Odera was the boss’s daughter? Of course, they did. They chitchatted. Too late now to avoid gossip and rumours. Too late to bail on the boss’s pushy daughter. Staring straight ahead, I tried to become invisible, to forget that I was about to drive off company property with Odera, a breach of job security. Mansbridge’s obsolete computer had a brighter future than I did if I acted inappropriately. Our earlier argument had been off the record A continuation of yesterday, I reconciled, convincing myself the scaffold incident had purchased me a get-out-of-jail-free card that I had just maxed-out.
When I turned the ignition key, a worn timing chain protested the starter’s efforts to synchronize spark plugs and to ignite the fuel. The engine turned and turned but refused to fire. Sprockets and gears chattered. I agreed. Timing was lousy. Proceeding was unwise. My teeth wanted to chatter when I considered how my parole officer would react if my employment was terminated for behavioural reasons. My liberty would go up in flames. Just when I considered the engine an ally, it came to life. Nobody likes a tease.
Post-It notes ruffled as Odera flipped through the file folder in her lap a second time before she announced, “We have to make a quick stop before the TechShop. Turn left at the next set of lights, okay?” I acknowledged her words with a nod. Silence in the truck cab grew and grew, becoming Loch Ness fog. I turned on the radio. “Do you mind if we leave it off?” Following an all too brief silent interlude, she asked, “Do you like working for my father?”
“Sure,” I answered, eyes forward.
“You should request a raise. You’re entitled to OT. He’s been paying straight hours.” She pulled her skirt down over her knees after it had ridden up. “Don’t let him push you around.”
After another silent nod from me, Odera shook her hair free of the braid that had bound it. A ruffle and a fluff with her fingers, followed by a head whip, put it in place. Using my peripheral vision, I noted her posture: spine straight, shoulders pulled back, chin level. Carefully presented, as though she posed for a picture, as though she was ready to be viewed and judged at any moment, like on a parade ground. That poised attitude lacked verisimilitude, as though an incongruity constantly reasserted itself.
“You deserve time-and-a-half. I make dad pay me according to standard; you should too. He’s not as tough as he pretends.”
“Straight hours are fine.”
“Is employment difficult to find when…with a criminal record, that is?” she explored, darting down another conversation lane, introducing me to her frank conversation style that I immediately liked to dislike. “I don’t think Daddy would have hired you without the wage subsidy.”
“It was challenging to land a job.”
“But you have published works? Why work here when you have book sales?”
“Very few sales.” How did she know? I published under a pen name. “The royalties are minimal. It takes years to build a sustainable readership. And that’s only if you’re lucky and talented.”
Luck and I were strangers. As for talent, I was talented at putting myself in sticky positions such as where I found myself.
“What’s the name of your latest work? Turn here. And then right, at the fourth set of lights until you pass Brown’s line.”
“Common era first century, if I remember correctly from my capital offence nosing,” she said lightly, her voice an appealing blend of easy humour and light undertones.
“Yeah, first century, Britannia,” I confirmed lifting another eyebrow.
“Hmm, Britannia, historical fiction,” Odera murmured, concentrating to drag a memory forward. “Emperor Hadrianus built a wall that century and a missionary priest, I forget his name, raised a famous warrior chieftain. Um, and the Romans pulled out a few centuries later. And King Arthur was somewhere around that time. Am I close? Make a left at the stop sign.”
“In 121,” I added, recalling the research I had gathered. “Publius Hadrianus had a wall built and named after himself.” Rather than abide the DEFCON 1 siren blasting, I expanded, “Highlanders, who would become Scotsmen in the next millennia, supported by Celts and Pictish warriors, plagued Rome’s legions. They all but destroyed the Seventh Legion. As if a wall could safeguard her armies from the Wild Tribes. I set my storyline with the Wall hoping to link the genesis of Scotland and those wild tribes, and how Rome inadvertently helped to build and to unite a young, splintered nation.”
“Hadrian wasn’t the only Roman to barricade himself behind stone. Another one, oh, what’s his name…um, governor Urbicus, built the Antoine wall.”
“Governor Lollius Urbicus, appointed by Emperor Antoninus Pius, in 141 CE,” I filled in, definitely impressed.
“His name is on a plaque. I walked along it taking pictures. Even brought back a wee piece, though you’re not supposed to. I just couldn’t help myself. Grandmother’s family have lived close to it for three hundred years. Turn here.”
Stepped gardens flooded with marigolds, beside purple, black and butter-yellow patches of pansies, introduced fifty acres of condominiums. Manicured grass speckled by maple and elm trees provided shade and privacy. She pushed a plastic cardkey into my hand and pointed to a ramp that led to a wide beige door.
“Here, run this through the slide.” Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. “I have to pick up a spec sheet.”
“You live here?”
Not a very bright remark, but one that helped me avoid thinking about trespassing.
She forgot to blink. Fright beetled her brow. Worry filled each furrow. Avian eyes darted left and right searching for danger. Gloss-free lips pressed together until they turned waxen and bloodless. Pushed into her lap, she gripped her purse straps, working her hands back and forth wringing leather. Her knuckles turned white. The grinding leather squawked and squeaked. Graveyard eyes, barren and cold, no longer looked at me, but through me. Pupils panned into saucers until the corneas nearly lost colour.
“Will you walk me to my door?” she asked, all but an airy request, still not blinking, hands wringing leather. “Park over there.”
“If your father asks, I want to say that I didn’t leave the truck.”
No way was I stepping foot outside the truck, which equated to instant termination the second Robert learned of my indiscretion. Stay put, I told myself. Do not move a muscle. Palpable apprehension thudded in my breast while my fingers nervously tapped the steering wheel. Thick as porridge, the stress in the truck cab escalated.
“I do not know why I’m telling you this, but four years ago I was assaulted just inside that door,” she shared in a quavering voice. “I always park on the street. This is my first time down here since that night.”
Why tell me?
When I looked at her for more information, she stared at her feet, too scared, too self-conscious, or maybe too embarrassed to meet my gaze. Horror now replaced the moxie she had shown earlier. The root of her fear surfaced with the subtleness of a forty-megaton ICBM. Despite the shame and embarrassment she had shown earlier, she glanced up. Fear and hope swirled, radiating outward in concentric waves.
Odera’s pallid face, her vulnerability and courage to trust, compelled my next words, “If I agree, not a word about this to anyone. Do we have an understanding?”
She nodded stiffly, sending serried waves of red-tinged curls bouncing. Despite it being the politically correct millennium, those tear-rimmed eyes ignited masculine genetics. Now I understood why Mansbridge had hesitated to hire me. Doubly amazed that he took me on, even if Odera had been in Scotland. There was no understanding Christian forgiveness, and then I thought, he must not have known that she was returning to Canada, which meant I would probably lose my job for the slightest reason, like being alone with his daughter, which meant Beck, my parole officer, could blow Mansbridge’s concerns out of proportion and suspend my parole. Return me to prison for public safety concerns if he felt that he had good cause, like protecting Odera, I thought morosely. One innocent phone call from Robert would ignite Beck’s public safety concerns quicker than a road flare gushed to life.
As I pushed aside those depressing thoughts, I exited the truck. Odera remained seated. When I opened the passenger door, she painfully fearfully gripped my forearm. Longer nails would have knifed into my flesh. When I glanced at her, she refused to meet my gaze. Drawn with poignant alarm, her eyes lasered into the stairwell door as if assassins were going to burst through and gun us down in a shower of warm bullets and cold blood. The closer we drew to the door, the tighter her grip became until I resisted with some effort not to rescue my arm from memory’s clutches.
“There’s nobody here but us,” I said sliding the cardkey through the reader.
When the red light turned green, the lock snicked open. She jumped at the sound. Her toes ended up under my boot, trampled. Surprise made her yelp. While I held the door open for her to enter, she peered frightfully around my shoulder, around the steel grey doorjamb, clinging to me like a Titanic life preserver. Holding her breath, ready to turn and bolt, she shuffled sideways through the doorway where I expected to sight Hitchcock’s murder of crows clustered on tombstones; necks stretched forward, raucously cawing; talons scratching granite rows. Wary of making sudden moves, I traversed the cement floor. Three steps beyond the landing, beyond the area where she had suffered harm, Odera relaxed her grip. Her breathing deepened and came more easily as we climbed the stairs. Feeling slowly returned to my forearm. Not until we had exited the stairwell did she release my arm. Fear had ebbed from her face. Not until we reached her condominium backdoor did her personality fully reassert itself.
“Won’t you come in? I’ll only be a second,” she invited as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
“I’ll wait here. If you slip up, you can honestly tell your father that I did not trespass,” I muttered, speculating how fast he would fire me to protect Odera from contamination.
Faster than a speeding bullet was my bet.
An expression full of thoughtful kindness fell across her face while discriminating eyes went bright with inquiry, flashing as she dissected my expression. Long seconds that felt like minutes ticked by. Eyebrows knitted together as the wall shielding me from the world tumbled down under her candid scrutiny. An unspoken river of recognition rose between us. Shifting from foot to foot, I fidgeted. That direct blue gaze made me feel self-conscious. It was rude to stare. When a strong urge to flee filled me, I turned to go for a smoke.
“He won’t,” she said touching my wrist, rooting my feet. “And I promise not to speak of it if he does. And thanks. You cannot know what a relief it was to finally cross that territory and to reclaim part of my life. For years that rapist piece of shit asshole owned the stairwell. I just took it back.”
Not knowing what to say or how to say it, I chose silence. Although I read people well, a skill learned in prison where body language was the only warning before being attacked, this moment defied description. Odera’s vulnerability disarmed me, made me a willing captive. I dug out a cigarette. An excuse to avoid her eyes A way to hide behind cupped hands as I lighted-up. Smoking let me keep feeling like an outsider. Without further preamble, Odera entered her home leaving the door open and me lounging against the wall pretending I was not in her building, trying to drive her blue gun sights from my mind, trying to pretend everything was normal.
Odera called loudly, “How long have you been out of jail?”
“Around a year,” I responded in a much lower voice, looking left and right to ensure no one overheard our conversation.
“What was it like? Like the movies?”
“Yeah, like the movies.”
“When you wake up in the morning, do you still think you are there?”
“Sometimes,” I answered, wondering where she was going with this interrogation.
“You act that way. As if you are still, I mean.”
“Does it bother you to speak of it?”
“I’d rather not.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
Disappointment echoed in her words.
“Curiosity is normal.”
Why did I make allowances? Probably because she did not bitch at me for smoking. But probably not. Already I had learned that her most successful tactic to achieve her desire was to let me think I would disappoint her. She pretended not to be aware of this power, and I believed her. Manipulative guile played no role in Odera’s personality.
“Do you mean because you killed someone?”
“That, and prison.”
“Is that why you’re so guarded?”
Since when did I need my head shrunk?
“I was sad with silence for a long time after…after my attack. Everything reminds me of it. Normally I leave TV and radio turned off. Are you surprised that I brought you home? I admit that it probably seems like a strange thing to do after what I’ve told you, especially considering your past,” shifted Odera, bouncing to a new topic quicker than a mob of kangaroos changed direction.
“Most people avoid me. One reason is as good as another. I try not to waste too much energy wondering why people do what they do, or worrying about what others may or may not be thinking. A Japanese proverb says that it is none of your business what others think of you.”
“That happens to me too. Should I be worried about you?”
“Only your toes.”
While she laughed pleasurably, I discovered joy from instigating those light sounds.
“Loosen up, Bruce. You’re so sombre looking.”
She locked her door; a door secured with extra heavy, twin deadbolts and double chains.
“I’m not very good with people anymore.”
“As if you’re not sure what they are thinking? Like you are a spectator instead of part of the group?” she clarified.
“Yes. Like an outsider.”
Was she a mind reader?
“Me too, especially with men. You’re different ― not what I expected.”
“Thanks. I think.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. You aren’t typical.”
“Are you trying to put your other foot in your mouth or take the first one out?”
“Pass the salt.”
Odera halted at the stairwell door.
When I opened it, she remained rooted. We waited. After a deep breath that she let out slowly, Odera stepped forward. Three steps from the landing she slid her arm through mine and firmly held onto my wrist, though she did not grip it painfully. The last stair before the landing came underfoot and the railing ended. Now, a second hand clutched my bicep and tightened its grip. A small squeak escaped her lips. This time I was ready for the pain. Having clamped my arm tight to her side, I felt the softness of a breast and the hardness of a rib. Looking neither left nor right, she kept her gaze level, peering straight ahead, slugging through memory’s sticky mud, forcing herself to endure anguished images, I was certain. Four, long steps later, a relieved sigh soughed forth from her when we exited the stairwell. Old and new car exhaust fumes polluted the air.
“You must think I’m a coward,” she probed timidly, her voice a fusion of shame and low self-worth. Again, she stared at her feet. “I tried not to be afraid, but…he...I mean…I just couldn’t help it.”
“You have ample reason to fear.” Hesitant eyes reached for mine. “Except for our conscience, there is no beast so fierce, no witness so damning, and no wound as deep as that which memory inflicts. Some nightmares are best not forgotten. They keep us alive.”
“Daymares as well.” Now standing by the pickup, she removed her hands from my arm. Apprehension flashed across her face whenever she looked to the door. “I meant it, you know,” she suddenly declared, jumping conversations lanes again.
“About being here? Even if it meant lying?”
“If I had to. If there was no choice and my lie would not harm anyone. Yes.” Stentorian vehemence accompanied her next declaration, “Better a person should tell me to mind my fucking business than feign friendship and understanding. I do not have the energy for politically correct, two-faced people who say one thing and mean another. I’ve had it with social niceties supposedly performed out of kindness, but which become character assassinations when you’re not present to defend yourself.”
“Most are put-off by bluntness.”
“As in telling me to take a hike?”
“No, that was just bad-mannered. I was referring to being direct rather than softening the truth. Since being released, I discovered a retarded learning ability has become mentally handicapped. Mischievous kids are now behaviourally challenged. What was once a deformity is now physically impaired, and midgets have been relegated to height-challenged little people. If someone labelled me as handicapped, I’d say screw you, I’m just me. And being grouped with children would piss me off if I was a midget.”
Tugging at the corner of Odera’s mouth, a small grin removed the hardness from her previous expression. Wavy hair tilted to the side as though she viewed me from a different perspective.
“You angered me, yesterday. That was not being blunt or direct. You crafted your sarcasm. It was intentionally coarse, as though you were trying to ensure that I’d never speak to you again.” At the end of her statement, at my silence, she added, “Was that not your intent?”
“Yes. It was.”
“Are you going to tell me why?”
“An old habit. It had nothing to do with you.”
“The look on your face when I ambushed you this morning; I wish I had had my phone out to capture the moment. Although, later, I wanted to throttle you.”
“Just my way of bonding,” I told her with a grin.
“Aren’t you going to ask me why we’re standing in the parking lot?” Odera petitioned, measuring, gauging me again; voicing the exact question I burned to ask.
“The thought had crossed my mind.
Leather and plastic striking and scuffing cement floated to us. A couple rounded the corner. They soon entered the door we had exited.
Odera wore a smirk. “But you won’t ask.”
“I have a feeling that you are going to tell me anyway.”
“My trauma therapist challenged me to confront my fears. This place is one of them.”
“How much does he charge? I expect standard wage.”
“Would you settle for a Thank you?”
“Like father, like daughter,” I commented, which earned another enjoyable giggle.
“I needed to confront this place and its demons. You cannot imagine how scared I was. I’m glad it was with you. Friends and family would have babied me, asked a thousand well-intentioned questions. With you, I was forced to do it alone. Without anyone to hold my hand and tell me that everything was going to be alright, that there was nothing to worry about. God, how I hate platitudes from those who have no conception of the power fear and doubt have over the mind. I’m so tired of everyone telling me that I’m going to be alright. As if those words are a cure-all.”
“Glad that I could be counted on not to be counted on. You don’t have very high standards, do you?”
We climbed into the pickup truck.
“Are you mocking me, Bruce?”
“And you’re perceptive too. Do you want that salt now?”
Somewhere out of sight, a car door slammed. An engine revved to life soon after. Squeaky steering emitted a high-pitched squeal that grated nerves.
“How about I just leave my shoes off?”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” I said crinkling my nose.
“Oooh, a professional smoozer.”
“Strong silent type,” I turned the ignition key. “TechShop or lunch?”
“TechShop, then lunch. Silent type? Oh, please!”