Never Look Back

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Chapter 8

Most of her teenaged summers had been spent working alongside her father to build Hidden Oaks from a single ramshackle trailer to what it was now, a compound company employing thirty-six people. While her friends were playing and partying and hanging out at the mall, Odera answered telephones, tallied job estimates, submitted job quotes, copied architectural drawings, generally learning to become an indispensable girl Friday. When her mother suggested Odera act more like other kids her age, she dug in her heels saying that working with dad was fun, and so long as her grades remained high she couldn’t be forced to quit. Catherine, realizing she was unlikely to change her wilful daughter’s mind, negotiated a compromise. No work on Sunday. Sunday was a family play day, and a church day.

Fine. Odera could live with that rule.

Working alongside her father, and all that came with it, such as their talks regarding recently awarded jobs, forthcoming projects, the kinds of energy-efficient, stylishly modern structures her father dreamt of designing once he had earned a reputation, fulfilled her in ways she could not have envisioned. They shared a dream to build eco-friendly buildings with solar windows, thermal induction vents for water heating and recycled, re-filtered air that relied upon plants and shrubbery to scrub out carbon dioxide. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Systems, LEEDS, and its Earth-friendly certification protocols was a beacon that drew Odera and her father forward. They envisioned walls of decorative cascading water that trapped particulates to create a hypoallergenic atmosphere. LED light fixtures wired to smart motion sensors to reduced energy consumption, and so much more until the building’s eco-footprint was very nearly invisible. The excitement of innovation coursed through those conversations held around the drafting table at work and the supper table at home.

Catherine, Odera’s mother, could not fully hope to comprehend those technical business talks, or so Odera liked to imagine, which, of course, was not true, since her mother and father attended charity openings and events where they furthered Hidden Oaks name. There were the dinner parties, and the wine and cheese parties her mother hosted where she entertained current and future customers, city planners and banking executives. Still, the daily running of the company was an area that belonged to Odera and to her father, and that made it special. It felt as though Odera was an equal, much older than her fifteen years. Hope and confidence, love and teamwork, shaped Odera’s views on life.

Robert Mansbridge devoted six days a week to make the burgeoning corporate entity a success. Odera decided she would devote herself as well. Arriving straight from school, she completed her homework at one of the drafting desks in the ATCO trailer before pitching in. It was only natural as Hidden Oaks grew, Odera would choose a compatible university discipline. Not happy with just a Bachelor of Arts degree in business, she earned a Master’s degree with an emphasis on renewable environmental systems and computer design. She surmised architectural design would evolve drastically — that computers and electro-mechanics would be integrated into skyscrapers until they shared a symbiotic relationship. Their shells, air handling, heating and cooling systems, linked and intertwined, not too different in many ways from how a person’s nervous system relied upon the skin and musculature and skeleton.

All buildings would become Smart in decades to come, she predicted. Energy-efficient superstructures with lighter environmental footprints would be in great demand. Renewable energy alternatives would play a major role. And though she had no direct interest in architecture itself, as the CEO she could guide Hidden Oaks through the electronic age with her father firmly at the design helm, for which he owned a God-given gift that consistent successes had only recently permitted to blossom.

During her third year at university, Odera met Michael Worthington. Smart, funny and sensitive, Michael valued corporate ambition. Long and hard hours required to nurse corporate triumphs were nothing new to him. Michael had been in his last year of an MBA when they met. After graduation, he positioned himself on Bay Street as a junior-junior broker for an investment firm. Michael spent year one researching funds markets and putting together investment blocks for his superiors to analyze. Practising a polished demeanour, graced with clean-cut good looks, a savvy business acumen marked him as somebody to keep an eye on. Odera enjoyed Michael’s refined way of speaking, the way he confidently strode toward his goals in a linear fashion. They spent many evenings discussing their visions. They discovered their goals, views and dreams meshed well.

Two years after Odera completed university, and one year after Michael began to manage small portfolios, they married. Children, they decided, would arrive when their careers were firmly in hand. Spending ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week building a career was the norm. Dedication and long hours were the negotiable price people paid to enjoy a higher standard of living in later years, and the Worthington’s wanted their future children to have all of the benefits, which began with them closing a deal on an upscale condominium.

Given the demands of their busy lifestyles, condominium fees were a relief. Neither person wanted to sacrifice time to care for a lawn; it was a reprieve not to shovel snow, not to sweep driveways and walkways. Michael’s investment firm, located in one of Bay Street’s impressive high-rises, nestled in the financial hub of Toronto’s business centre, provided a member’s only gym. Odera found a spinning class with a terrific circuit-training adjunct not too far from home.

The newlyweds patronized trendy restaurants, joined a gourmet cooking class, and became sponsors for their local onstage theatre. Between Michael’s business placement and her father’s corporate ties, the Worthington’s attended many of the city’s gala events. By now, some of their friends contemplated children. More than anything, Odera looked forward to a family. If Michael would concede to more than two children, she ruminated, and it did not matter what gender came first or last, but if she had a choice, she preferred her firstborn to be a boy, and the last to be a girl. Regardless of the combination, in her heart of hearts, a brood numbering four sounded wonderful and felt just right. She felt confident Michael would agree once the first pair arrived and stole his heart.

Considering Michael’s boundless patience, easy-going style and soft-spoken manner, he would make an ideal father. They had talked, and they both agreed, that when the time came, Odera would take a leave of absence until their youngest entered kindergarten. Once they started having children, Odera wanted to have them one after another so they would be close in age. Her father said they would outfit a satellite office where Odera could telecommute to work. So it was with much happiness and future expectation that she purchased a baby shower gift for Debby’s first child. Debby had married Doug Worthington, Michael’s older brother. Doug and Debby had asked Michael and Odera to be Godparents. They were thrilled to say yes, excited at the opportunity to practice early parenting skills.

Just a few days prior to the baby shower, following work, a trip to the gym and after sunset, Odera arrived in the underground parking beneath their condominium complex. She found Michael’s grey Nissan parked in its usual spot. Out of cautious habit, Odera glanced in her rear mirror when the automatic garage door did not immediately rumble shut. Their parking spaces were located close to the entrance and the stairwell leading topside. The big beige sliding door was cardkey activated and usually rattled shut before she had turned off her engine. While she watched, it began its downward trek. And though she lived in a relatively crime-free neighbourhood, she practised caution. It was not uncommon for her to wait for an empty elevator, rather than to share the ride with a solitary male, and she avoided public parks at night, no matter how well lighted. While the big door thumped closed, she scooped up the gift, an electronic fish carousel that played various themes. Voice-activated, the carousel came with a two-way baby monitor.

As Odera approached the stairwell door, she juggled the gift to find her cardkey. The tiny red light turned green and the lock snicked open. A rough hand clamped over her mouth from behind. An abrupt, massive force shoved her through the doorway, making her stumble. Before she recovered the composure to resist, to initiate self-defence lessons, she was thrown to the ground. Aggressive hands tore her skirt away. Sudden and crushing weight compressed her chest as a man threatened her with a long and sharp hunting knife. Fright and terror shook her limbs.

This could not be happening. Not in this building. Not to her.

Frozen with fright she succumbed to the man’s threat, at first, though her memories were fuzzy and disjointed. The time between when she was thrown to the ground and when the man plunged his knife into her was all jumbled, blissfully empty of details. Most memories were lost to her, but not the feelings and emotions of terror and horror and degradation. Specific emotional recollections and their inherent torments lingered on in painful detail. The medical report concluded her injuries rendered future conception impossible.

In the months that followed, even if her mind failed to recall the events, her body remembered the abject fright of her attack, which instantly reduced her to tears and sparked periods of depression where it took half a day to hoard enough strength to leave her bed. Leaving the condominium lay beyond her ability. For the first six months, Odera teetered between bouts containing unmitigated terror where she re-experienced body pain, where she felt the knife enter her flesh. A minefield of depression pressed her down into a mire from which she battled to break the surface, only to be sucked down again. No one would ever understand the war she waged to garner enough strength to convince herself that life was worth living. No one could say if the repressed memories would return. Dr. Brinkman, her trauma specialist, said she repressed them to spare herself additional pain. They might surface in the future, he told her. She could not imagine any repressed memory being more frightening than what few she recalled.

Michael tried to understand the poignancy connected to the aftermath of his young wife’s assault. He joined a men’s support group to help him to recognize her struggles, to explain to him why loud noises sent her ducking for cover, which might teach him to assuage her doleful weeping that tortured his heart. The meetings were geared more toward family members, to teach them how to cope, rather than problem-solving forums. He felt helpless. So he did the only thing he knew how to do. He threw himself into work, paid the bills, cooked, cared for their home, and continued to attend his support group. All the while, he watched Odera sink into a funk beyond his ability to remedy.

Anti-depressants made her catatonic, he thought, seeking to put the blame on something tangible. When she did manage to leave her bed, she hardly ever changed out of those old flannel pyjamas and wrinkled housecoat. Conversations and discussions between them grew shorter and less meaningful. Children were off the table; never to be raised lest the topic drowned Odera in renewed woe. Their future became uncertain, more difficult to view.

Silences sprung up between them.

Those silences began as tiny omissions of current news that Michael thought might hurt his distraught wife, such as when Keisha and Dave, Tim and Wendy wanted to rent a cottage for a week on Lake Henderson. And no, unfortunately, Michael and Odera could not join their friends for water skiing and fun, but yes, Odera was improving. She needed additional time to heal and to rebuild her strength, but thank you for asking, and yes, Michael would convey well wishes, but no, Odera was unable to talk on the phone because she was resting.

Unless Michael was home to answer the telephone, she almost never picked up; she just as often ignored text messages. Seldom answered her cell phone before it went to voicemail. More often than not her voicemail was full and her phone battery dead. Repairmen, postmen and random callers, inflicted their own particular hell when she was home alone. Odera never answered the front door, not ever. The doorbell chime curled her into a ball under the covers, knees hugged tight to her chest, her heart pounding so very, very hard and fast.

One month after Odera returned home from the hospital, her father brought drawings for her to review, along with job quotes. He needed her opinion on the viability and profit potential of those jobs, but she never so much as opened a file folder. Robert hoped familiar activities might provide a distraction and help Odera to get back into the swing of things. Those weekly efforts to re-engage Odera in work continued for the next three months but to no avail. She neither exhibited the drive, nor showed willingness, or so it seemed, to make an effort toward normalcy, however small, Robert thought, unable to breach the sullen, brooding periods they now shared whenever he visited.

Robert missed his daughter.

As more months passed, Michael noticed that what had begun as intermittent silences had slowly escalated into long hours and then into days, until weeks of muted, stunted conversations crammed with noisy ‘what ifs’ and unbearable ‘if onlys’ barricaded one from reaching out to the other. Conversations that included references to the future petered out. Fading like flashlight batteries low on juice, the strength to pretend they would ever be as they were, drained away. Too much went unsaid. Too many topics were avoided.

An insidious gulf opened between them. It grew wider each time one of them chose not to burden the other, such as when Michael gave Odera personal space. In truth, she craved to be taken into his arms, to have her fears soothed, to feel safe and protected, to cry and to grieve until she was pain-free, but she could not help jumping when he unexpectedly touched her shoulder. She was unable not to recoil from him when he woke her from a particularly poignant nightmare. After the attack's merciless brutality, it was natural that she felt skittish at being touched, that sudden loud noises would startle her, that she experienced terror when the doorbell rang, Michael reasoned, which turned into excuses not to try harder to reach into the funk where Odera dwelled.

Catherine visited Monday through Friday performing a motherly nursing role. Michael felt relieved that she cared for Odera. For the first few weeks, Odera responded to her mother’s presence, but then a setback would occur. Something as simple as television news highlighting an ugly crime thrust Odera into an emotional low that might require days of Catherine’s gentle inveigling to persuade her daughter to come downstairs and perhaps, just maybe, to go for a walk.

Now, seven months later, Michael resented coming home to find Catherine cooking supper. He hated the part-time maid Catherine had hired out of goodwill, and he objected to the grocery shopping Catherine performed which inevitably occurred without his input, as though he was a lodger and no longer a concerned husband. Soon every duty Catherine carried out as a kindness became that which Michael no longer did for his wife, for their house and for their marriage. Motherly niceties became unspoken symbols of his uncaring.

Rather than fight or argue, it was easier for him to concede, to focus on work and to let the nature of things progress without quarrel. Bickering was not that which an educated and mature adult wasted energy on, he told himself whenever his frustration deepened. Husbands did not fight with wounded wives. When a year had passed since that night, which was how they preferred to think about his wife’s assault, as that night, it was almost a relief when the topic of divorce came up. It felt as though a burden was lifted when they mutually consented to dissolve their marriage, which had really and truly ended a year earlier, on that horrible night, he told himself. Their mortgage was new, so it was not much of a concession to let her enjoy the small amount of equity. She could keep most of the furniture, though he insisted upon the large screen television and the entertainment system; she wasn’t using them anyway.

Four years had now passed since that night. Now, if today’s rising sun embodied hope, it had come and gone for Odera, and with it, the chance to begin anew. Her life, barren like her womb, remained empty. Beginnings no longer existed. Endings forever reigned. There was only the continuation of a cheerless present that she toiled daily to endure. Of late, random nightmares attached to that night, replete with sounds and smells and taste, terrorized her sleep as fragmented and repressed memories bubbled up into consciousness, sending acute and lancing pain throughout her abdomen.

Odera dreaded sleep. She abhorred the nights where escape from him was impossible; where she could not claw her way to consciousness; where she was forced to endure his maliciousness until a surge of adrenaline catapulted her awake, shaking and screaming and crying. This was that night’s legacy, she thought morosely, determined not to succumb to dark murmurs that whispered an opened vein would carry her pain down the bathtub drain. Enormous reserves of energy were funnelled into presenting an impression of normalcy, into convincing herself that she had improved. Anything to grant herself a reprieve, a chance to go on. Perhaps if she pretended to be well, eventually it would be true. If nothing else, most people had finally stopped asking if she was all right, which of course she was not, but which of course she said that she was. How else was she supposed to answer such a ridiculous question?

Today, opaque clouds blocked sunlight that had once warmed her soul. Orange sunsets no longer carried the promise of tomorrow’s joy. She no longer marvelled at red sky vistas, or even noticed a yellow globe falling across a lake, nor did she stop to admire a harvest moon sliding into view, or the refreshing scent that followed a sun shower. Most telling of all, she no longer mourned those losses. Blessedly, she had finally achieved a level of resolute acceptance. Life had lost its flavour and that was okay; that was her ill fate. Numbed feelings masqueraded as bliss. The absence of pain had become her yardstick with which to measure joy. Thus, Odera embraced her lethargy and resigned herself to corporeal hollowness. How else could she navigate listless days and evenings made easier with food to pacify her hollowness? When all else failed, she swallowed medication that delivered empty sleep.

Until today arrived, she had struggled mightily to achieve a tenuous balance, however fragile, that permitted her to face the world on her terms. It had been a long and lonely journey. Until today, she had almost adapted to a life devoid of expectation. Until today, she had very nearly become indifferent to other peoples’ happiness that served only to remind her of what she had relinquished on that night. Not until Bruce Garland’s cutting barbs sliced deeply into her sensibilities, not until that wretched man’s pigheadedness made her jaw clench, not until that cur of a human being brushed her off like an annoying insect, not until his confident and calm assurance declared that he was somehow the victim of her decency, had she suffered glorious, spirit-renewing indignation that jump-started her central nervous system.

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