Never Look Back

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Chapter 36

An aura of intent cloaked me thicker than ice on a still winter lake. Hot fury flamed across my being. One question burned release, floating in a kaleidoscope of mutilated images and wounded colours. Vengeance and hate, love and friendship harmonized. Everything slowed down. The kitchen clock ticked gallows loud. Each second knelled a lifetime. Cold and hard, as sepulchral as the steel thrust into Odera, four words frosted the air between us.

“Tell me his name.”

As if she had hit the end of a hangman’s rope, the arctic quality in that utterance jerked Odera’s head from her knees. When her eyes came level with mine, when she saw the pale rider coming, the fire spirit, hi-no-kamae, cocooned her in flames, cremating iniquity. Thirty seconds, and then a full minute passed, and still she imbibed sustenance and strength from my gaze. Despair burned to ash. Sadness incinerated. She coexisted with me in hi-no-kamae, where none may oppose, sheltered from fear and doubt. Just as I had shared her anguish, she suckled strength from this moment and no other, experienced what it meant to clarify thought and body until intent and action were one. Where fear had no name. Where only purpose thrived.

Prison’s rules of engagement, passed down from one generation of convict to the next, doomed victims in a shroud of silence. Dangerous men were neither the strutting bullies, nor the undisciplined hotheads who lost their tempers at the slightest provocation. That breed wore feelings on their sleeves, making it easy enough to predict behaviour. A dangerous man disguised his intent behind a stoic mask, who, when opposed, remained calm. He neither shouted, nor bluffed. He might even back down under ridicule, wisely choosing his own time and place to act, to do what was necessary to ensure survival. Bravery and survival are not brothers. Bravery is a poor bastard to survival. Nothing but an ideology. Survivors acted because not to do so compromised life. Hi-no kamae is neither bravery nor survival. It is distilled truth realised in the essence of just being and it is unconquerable.

“Good God, no! Bruce, you can’t.”

Odera came over and stood before me, eyes wild with life, with humanity, bursting with compassion to oppose my cold intent. Everything denied to her that night she now furnished in abundance.

She declared, “You won’t! Not that. Not ever.”

She stepped closer.

“Promise me you won’t. Promise me!”

When I didn’t speak, she struck my chest and shoulders as though to break my resolve.

“You can’t. Not ever again!”

I gathered her up and pulled her into my lap. Despite the furious flames within my eyes, she confronted the calm rage that lurked within, more confident, more courageous than ever before. Cathartic relief flooded through her. Absolute clarity that resides when living within this moment and no other, the fire kamae’s inheritance, had branded her soul. She now realised what it would have taken to stop the animal that had assaulted her, that she was blameless in every regard. Shame and humiliation had been transformed. They properly belonged to another, never to her.

Newly found conviction lent her voice added poignancy, “Would you make me an accomplice? Commit this deed and you condemn me as well. Hate breeds hate. It’s not your choice alone to make anymore, Bruce.”

I disagreed with her hate philosophy. From my viewpoint, no torturous end to the man who knife-raped her would ever make humanity weep. As I forced prison’s beast back under-wraps, I realised that I had revealed my intent. It would have been easy to mask my feelings and locate his name in an old newspaper. My silence would have doomed his continued existence, made him no more than a dead man walking.

Why had I revealed my intent?

“I’ll not search him out,” I agreed uncertain how to respond to this new level of openness, of being responsible for two people instead of just one, of being utterly accepted.

It was past midnight. I stood up still cradling Odera in my arms. By an agreement formed hours earlier, we would sleep without coupling. Any thought to the contrary felt repugnant. After I placed her upon the bed, I discarded my jeans and climbed under the covers. Odera shed her robe and mobbed me, wrapping her body around every square inch she could grasp, trap and lean on. We laid there unable to sleep, basking in the silence that comes when Jericho’s walls have tumbled. Freedom never felt so alive and complete.

She wondered, “Are you upset at me for testing you? I may have overdone it.”

“You were very subtle.”

“Sticking my bum out of the cupboard, or flashing you as I reached for those stupid plates?”

“Locking me out in the corridor had charm, as well as an audience. And your Paris Hilton impersonation as you sat, then got up, then sat again,” I listed, smiling at her stunts. “Did you think I wasn’t aware you were up to something?”

“And I smacked you with the spoon. By the computer when I had to scratch way up high so the shirt lifted. And I have your keys and Ms. Wilson thinks―”

“You enjoyed the evening!”

“It was the only way.”

“So you could be sure,” I said for her.

“Positively, absolutely, without a doubt, one-hundred percent certain,” she laughed and tickled me until I kissed her. “Your restraint was hot.”

“What if I had failed?”

“I knew you wouldn’t. From that first day at work, I’ve felt safe. In my building and in a hundred other ways you’ve proven yourself.”

“Then why, for God’s sake?”

“To give me courage and reassurance,” she told me demurely. “An excuse to go on, I suppose ― reason not to quit when I wanted to run. The stronger your resolve, the greater my courage. I needed you to hold back so we could move forward.”

“Woman, if you were a man you’d require a wheelbarrow to carry those cojones.”

“Are you sorry that you asked? Regrets?”

“Just one. That I wasn’t nearby that night. Still, I didn’t think it would be that difficult to listen.”

“Do you think it was my fault?”

“You know better than to ask that.”

“I made him feel inadequate. I provoked him. If I hadn’t, he wouldn’t have lashed out.”

“He was looking to hurt someone. Maybe if you hadn’t gotten out of bed that morning; hadn’t bought the gift; hadn’t gotten home so late; hadn’t been…”

“Okay, okay.” Odera slapped my chest. “I get the intellectual part, but the emotional refuses to connect. No matter how I turn it over in my mind, I wronged him.”

“So you wronged a rapist. Did you deserve to be mutilated?”

“Of course not.”

“There you have it.” I brushed a red lock away from my nose. “Case closed. Guy logic at its best.”

“No. I don’t have it and that’s the problem. Guy logic doesn’t work for me.”

“Then do the Christian thing and forgive. Let it go.”

“You caved too quickly. What’s your angle?” Odera asked unexpectedly. “What are you scheming?”

“You mean about him?”

“Who else? You never promised. Agreeing not to look him up isn’t enough. What if you read his name in the newspaper, or learned which prison he’s in?”

“So?”

I looked over and down to meet her eyes.

“So don’t play dumb. It’s insulting. It doesn’t take a bio-geneticist to realise that you left scads of doors open. Neon hate glowed around you until, oh my God, your eyes went Twilight Zone. You were like super-calm but terrifying, stubborn and so sexy. I don’t know where that came from. Your passion swallowed me until I felt fearless. Then I was mad frightened when I realised where you had taken us.”

“A bio-geneticist?” I repeated, trying to keep up with her kangaroo jumps.

“You know that bio-geneticists are smarter than rocket scientists. Quit stalling.”

“What would you have me say? That I won’t think about him?; that I promise to never personally harm him? Take your pick, or all of them.”

“That’s a start, but you left out poison, treachery and mail bombs.”

She grinned insolently.

“Hmm, I never considered uni-bomber style.” My comment earned me a poke in the ribs. “Can we talk about this in the morning?”

“Your vacation begins tomorrow. We need to resolve this tonight. Promise that we’ll never go to bed upset with each other,” she solicited, and took my hand, lacing her fingers through mine. “This is nice.”

“We’ve never gone to bed,” I allowed, which earned me another finger jab. Although dead-tired, her comment regarding my vacation caused me to ask, “Didn’t I ask you not to book vacations together? Tonight does not alter my reasons for that request.”

“You can call it a request if you like. Gram’s is covering for me. I told Dad that I’m helping her all week with painting and refurbishing. I’ll show up at work for a morning or two, but the rest of the week belongs to Grams and us. If Dad phones for help and I’m not there, Gram’s will buzz me. Please promise we’ll never sleep with unresolved issues between us.”

“You talked your grandmother into lying to your father?”

“That’s not quite the way I would have put it,” she said demurely.

“Enlighten me.”

“If you must know, I’m going to paint her old flaking outdoor furniture, run a few errands to pick up stuff that she can’t without a car, and help with her newest gardening project. It’s just going to take me a reeeally long time to do everything. I thought we could sleep in and then leave here around ten. Gram’s needs planters, outdoor tiles and a few other odds and ends. If you help, we’ll have more time together for this sort of thing.”

“So you’re asking me to change my vacation plans?”

“Having me naked in your bed must be just terrible for you. Imagine spending the next week together like this. What an unpleasant change of plans. Wow. Oh my God. I don’t know how you bear it. You’re my hero.”

“You’re not naked.”

“’Kay,” said Odera and slipped out of her shirt and bra, using her feet to kick them down to the foot of the bed. “There. Close enough. Minutiae neurosis satisfied. Wanna privately pat my partly panty-covered bum?”

Giggles and laughter erupted at her self-imposed alliteration.

“When you’re ahead, you should seriously keep quiet and enjoy it. And stop P-ing in my bed.”

“And miss an opportunity to gloat? I don’t think so. Saying ‘I told you so’ just does not do justice to what I’m feeling. Besides, I bring boodles of bountiful benefits.”

“Like?”

“You’ll see. And I didn’t hear you ask me to stop B-ing in your bed,” she noted, and then laughed uncontrollably, snorting, covering her mouth with both hands to stop.

Trying unsuccessfully not to laugh with her, I fired a slanted look in protest. That she had recruited the help of her grandmother came as no real surprise when I thought about it.

“Were you planning to leave me editing time?” I asked and cancelled my climbing trip.

“Depends if you’re planning to take action against him.”

“I thought we resolved that? If it’ll make you feel better, I promise. Happy now?”

“See, that wasn’t so hard,” purred Odera and bestowed a cinnamon flavoured kiss. “One down and one to go.”

“Would it chafe you greatly to leave a few loose threads till morning?”

“Could you sleep with questions between us?” she asked turning over and snuggling close until her back pushed against my chest.

“Unless I’m upset, yes. Ever hear the expression ‘sleep on it till morning?’”

“I couldn’t sleep knowing you were upset with me or vice versa. The bedroom is only for love. Promise me.”

“I swear you’re as stubborn as a Scottish matron governing her bairns.”

“You know Gram’s comes from the old country. That makes me half-Scottish. Promise me. You won’t be sorry…too, too often.”

“That’s asking an awful lot.”

Men have two vulnerable moments. One comes when blood fills our manhood, starving our brains of oxygen, and the other arrives just before sleep. Catch a man at either time and women usually win out.

“Are we horse-trading?” she asked covering another yawn.

“Always.”

“I’m prepared to negotiate my half of the lease for the next quarter.”

“Once you relinquish your illegally obtained keys, along with rental rights, you won’t have bargaining power.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“From the deepest darkest caverns of my heart, nothing would please me more than to see you leave, never to return.”

“’Kay, but you didn’t have to beg me to stay. It’s a little embarrassing.” Smiling sleepily, she added, “I might have an incentive to change your mind.”

Odera moved a leg between mine, hugged my arm tight to her chest and settled in.

“You have my complete attention.”

“Figured I would. Men are so predictable. Dinner at my place tomorrow.” She turned her head to me. “Desserts are to die for.”

“You’re not going to ambush me with your grandmother?” She shook her head. “Then you have my promise. Now can we get some sleep?”

“What about breakfast?” she mentioned dreamily, snuggling closer.

“Fine, anything. Anything at all if you’ll let me sleep.”

“And lunch?”

“I’m not above banishing you to the couch, Mansbridge.”

Why did it take us this long to get here? Because I had lied to- and deceived myself from the beginning, that’s why. I looked over some minutes later to find her sleeping. Which struck a wrong chord in me. For untold millennia sleeping first was the male prerogative. The practice may have started when early caveman coaxed the missus to stoke the fire before entering the sleeping furs. For the first time in months, I had the last word, and regretted it. I found myself grinning, possessed of the same silly feeling when I had apologised for telling her she should have worn more clothes. Relationships confound me.
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