Christine wrapped her present in brown, recycled paper, a wicked smile forming on her face. None of her friends would welcome a graphic novel about spiders. Well, Mr. Stevens would appreciate it! That was all that mattered.
"Spiders are such misunderstood creatures! So much hard work and artistry disgraced for the silliest reason: they follow their instinct! The world is so unfair to them. I‘m so glad you are not afraid of them, Christine."
Christine would always remember his light chuckle under the low, deep voice filling her room through her laptop.
“Fear is a dominant feeling. It slowly covers all others. It weakens them, suffocates them until they are nothing but vague memories. Fear always wins but it’s a cheap victory. It has no glory. No worth.” He was talking more to himself but Christine could listen to his voice for hours.
She could listen to him reading to her in Greek or German or Chinese and Christine knew neither Greek nor German... and certainly not Chinese. Not that she would be surprised if Erik Stevens did speak Greek, and German and Chinese.
Still, being her support tutor in her "distance learning" program, Mr. Stevens had been more than a friend. He had been her savior.
When Christine had broken her leg and wrist in a hit-and-run accident, facing the danger of losing the already paid — and highly expensive — courses' fee, it was Mr. Stevens who suggested a reliable computer program converting dictation into written text to complete her courses without losing the period. And when she didn't provide any feedback — how on earth would a now unemployed hairdresser, paid by the hour, spend so much money on a stupid program? — a brown, recycled paper envelope, containing the precious CD — the exact computer program he had mentioned —miraculously appeared at her door.
Mr. Stevens had categorically denied any involvement — "perhaps one of your friends in your time of need?" — but couldn't deny her via Skype communication since typing was impossible.
The experience of hearing his voice for the first time could only be compared with walking into a room with freshly cut coffee beans: raw excitement and aroused desire for what comes next.
During these always polite, always formal conversations, Christine had discovered Mr. Stevens' fixation with spiders, graphic novels and classical music, while she revealed her incurable habit of reading recipes she was absolutely incapable of performing, watching cheap melodramas, and her guilty pleasure named "shortbread biscuits."
Oh, she liked music, too, but she had stopped her voice lessons due to the usual reason: lack of money.
The email communication they went back to when she was healed led her to what she called her “post-Skype depression” or EVWS — “Erik’s Voice Withdrawal Syndrome” — and revealed a whole new-settled fixation. Mr. Stevens as a whole, his writings, the little tips of information about his life treasured and cunningly mined from what he shared with her, even his mails to other students forwarded to her, his scientific articles posted online… every detail no matter how small or insignificant it seemed to be. She was an infatuated teenager all over again with a full ability to recognize and understand her pathetic state. She was addicted!
The cure to this new addiction was found only after discovering Mr. Stevens was an old man probably doing this work for the added income to his retirement pension.
"Young man, take this advice from someone who could be your father" Mr. Stevens had reprimanded Raoul, a Portuguese fellow student in Christine‘s reading group. Along with this rather unsettling piece of information, Raoul had also forwarded a photo of the university's Senate, urging her to look at the tutor she spoke so enthusiastically about. The fact that neither of them had actually met Mr. Stevens or knew what he looked like was irrelevant. In the caption of that photo it was clearly stated that Mr. Erik Stevens was included in a group where no man could remotely be called "gracefully aged." It was devastating! All the times of being called "young lady" she kept recalling of their online conversations now sounded ludicrous. Christine felt like a pervert. She had even recorded one of their conversations on her mobile phone — without him knowing it! — and used to listen to it at nights, or when she was under stress or when she wanted to muster some courage, or… How sick was that? The man she had gathered information for from all her group members, the man she was calling Erik in her dreams did not even exist.
Christine smiled sadly at the formerly kept-as-a-treasure package — with his address on it! — the one he'd sent, lending her the expensive, out-of-stock novel Mrs. Giry had instructed for an essay — on her bed.
His note "Can't let old crones prevail. It'd be un-Christian!" still made her laugh. After weeks of self-degrading thoughts, Christine was now ready for her new life. She had finished her courses, and the man responsible for her accident had astonishingly surrendered himself, confessing his crime — his ridiculous claim that a masked vigilante had haunted him was his smart lawyer's advise, no doubt, in order to appear crazy.
With the borrowed book packed along with her present, Christine had decided to pay an unexpected visit to her tutor, who lived surprisingly close to her part of the city. Closing her door, she stole a glance at the calendar on the wall. The blood red ink marked the date months ago — when dreams were still alive — "Erik's B-day."
"Try the back door! He never hears the bell," Mr. Stevens' neighbor advised Christine, rearranging her groceries in her shopping bag.
Christine smiled her gratitude at the old lady, and walked to the garden, wondering whether she'd share her shortbread cookies with the bald man wearing a bow tie or the shorter one in the photo Raoul had sent her with an almost vindictive pleasure. Poor man! She had driven him crazy with her questions about their tutor. Christine knew that the rest of the group members talked behind her back about her “crush”, and her own behavior every time his name was mentioned hadn’t helped her case. Sometimes, Christine could be her own worst enemy. Pushing away real friends for an imaginary infatuation. Still, everything stopped with the appearance of that photo.
"I'd like to talk to Mr. Erik Stevens!" She stretched over the tall fence, and shouted with all the force her lungs allowed her at the back of the gangly man weeding the garden. She rapidly averted her eyes from his face when he turned to look at her, removing tiny earphones from his ears. Christine was raised not to stare, but she had to concentrate hard to repeat her request in a neutral voice, her eyes locked on the man's throat instead of his deformed face.
The man peeled off his gloves, revealing unbelievably long, bony fingers, and without a word, walked to the half-open kitchen door.
"I've brought something for him," Christine explained, following him, feeling the wet grass under her shoes. The scent filled her nostrils. "A present for his birthday…I am one of his students, and Mr. Stevens has been very helpful —" She was rambling! She was a disgrace to her tutor.
Christine forced herself to smile, her heartbeat rising, not knowing what was making her more nervous: the man's face and unearthly figure or his silence. She pressed herself to look at the unblemished right part of his face — all angles and bones — but the left part worked like a magnet. And the man kept looking at her from inside the house, his stare on her intense, unwavering, almost challenging. His eyes had the most unique color: a light shade of brown that really looked like yellow when it captured the daylight. But there were no golden eyes, were there? With a knot in her stomach, Christine stepped onto the dark floor tiles.
"I think this is for me." The beautiful voice from her laptop reached her ears in all its magnificent glory as Christine gaped. Coffee was such a poor comparison. Liquid velvet, and hot chocolate, and whipped cream, and coffee and something more she could not describe... All these wrapped in a very male timbre that made her feel like a sixteen year old. No, a fifteen year old. "Not what you expected?" The faintest smile was curling his lips.
"No…I mean…I thought you were older. Much older." She thanked everything holy for being able to speak after the multiple surprises.
"Is it still for me?"
Her eyes locked on his inhumanly long fingers and his outstretched open palm, waiting.
Erik was not a gambler. If he was one, he would thank his good fortune for his beautiful guest, but this wasn't a matter of luck. A man should make his own fortune.
He poured a fresh cup of coffee for his unexpected visitor. It had taken more than an hour for the lines of stress to leave Christine's face. Now she was searching his library with a genuine smile lingering on her face.
"You don't have that graphic novel I brought you!" Her enthusiasm alone was a source of warmness.
"No, what is it about? Have you read it?"
"I was curious…well…two spiders of different families and with different traits compete for the love of a butterfly."
He was counting on Christine's curiosity. It wasn't like his neighbor's nosy inquisitiveness. It was pure desire to know, a raw thirst to learn.
"Isn't that an unfitting match?" He placed the cup on the table.
"I guess love is beyond rules."
He narrowed his eyes at her words. Did she really believe that? Was she trying to appear bold to her teacher? To impress him?
She shrugged her shoulders, avoiding his stare. Was she blushing? She had the cutest blush. It reached her ears. Erik suddenly wished he could touch the rosy color on her cheeks. He restrained himself.
"What happens at the end?” he asked instead.
"Do you want to know the end?" The elegant line of her neck trapped his glance as she tilted her head to look him in the eyes, questioning him.
"I wouldn't ask otherwise."
"The trapdoor spider and its silken web won."
Oh, no, Christine. It wasn't the silk web that won the butterfly. It was the patience and the hard work. The careful planning.
"According to the Vedic philosophy, the universe is created by God the way the spider web comes out of the spider. Spider creates the web while living within its borders…" He looked at her violet eyes, dazzled. Maybe the silken web worked both ways, after all, trapping both the butterfly and the spider. "Excuse me…the course is over —" he apologized for the lecture.
"Isn't that what every person does? Creates a world, or a personal notion of the world, a private universe and lives within?" She paused for a while. "Funny that Raoul and I had been so mistaken about your age." There was no suspicion in her voice as she glanced at him over the rim of her cup. It was interesting to have Christine in his living room looking at him — almost uncanny. She was a smart girl.
Erik wondered how long it would take for her to put together all the pieces of the puzzle. Raoul had been an easy target. If Erik wanted, he could have persuaded him he was an alien collecting specimens and Raoul would run to Christine with his news. It was so easy to manipulate his narrow mind.
"Would you have come if you hadn't this mistaken idea of the old tutor?"
If pity and sympathy were not her motives… if safety was not insured… if she knew he was younger but deformed and slightly….
Erik shook his head, sending the thoughts away. So many ifs. So many different parameters and equations… Sometimes, a man has to take charge of his own fate. After all, "love is beyond rules." She had claimed that!
Sometimes, he has to take care of all the parameters and concentrate on the only one unknown factor. Erik stared at her face. She was blushing again.
Sometimes, a man has to claim the birthday present he really wants even if he has to invent the birthday date that suits him.
Erik opened the graphic novel. A black and white illustration greeted him. He turned the page. Only the butterfly was colorful. A shade of purple turning to orange and red.
"Thank you, Christine."
Thank you for giving me a chance.