Chloë Jordan had always regarded the woods surrounding Bennett Park as safe. No urban terrorists lurked in the shadows, and no serial killers ever hid behind the trees. Yet it was such an isolated place that she was startled when she noticed the black Toyota Sequoia dominating the lonely parking area. She shrugged and relaxed as she looked at the SUV, though, certain at a glance that no criminal would ever drive such a car. No; someone as messy as an ax murderer was more likely to drive a car like hers, she decided ruefully. She sighed as she got out of her battered Grand Am, and she bent to pull a wire cage from the passenger seat before slamming the car door noisily, confident that she had nothing to fear.
“Behold, my dear Agape! I give you your new home!”
The rabbit within the cage began to hop about nervously, trampling on a wilted lettuce leaf – Chloë’s last gift to the creature she had rescued from a terrier two weeks before. Two weeks of caring for Agape in her cluttered apartment had left the animal sleek and healthy, and Chloë knew that she had become too attached to him. It was time to release him into the wild.
She did not see any people in the vicinity as she carried Agape, cage and all, through a heavily wooded area. As soon as she came upon a clearing in the woods, she knew she had found the perfect spot to release him –and the perfect time. The first notes of birdsong were punctuating a sunrise that was quickly becoming glorious morning, and only the slightest breeze ruffled the late-summer peace. Long, purple shadows stretched from the trees and drew Chloë’s eye to a series of briar bushes –blackberries, perhaps? – at the other end of the meadow, the perfect refuge for a wild rabbit.
She walked to the middle of the meadow with the cage in hand and set it down gently.
“This is it! Freedom!” she said, breathless and excited, and she opened the door of the cage.
Agape shrank back, his nose wriggling frantically.
“Go on!” encouraged Chloë, bending over him eagerly. “Look at all this lovely grass!”
Yet Agape remained in his cage, his eyes wide and vigilant.
“Fine, then – take your time,” said Chloë, sighing, and she sat down beside the cage, Indian-style, watching the first rays of the sunlight illuminate and color the clouds nearest the horizon. Just as she was beginning to give up on him, Agape hopped tentatively towards the door of the cage, his ears nervous and attentive to every sound in the vicinity.
“Good boy!” breathed Chloë, overwhelmed by emotion. “You’re free now, and you’ll live your life as nature intended…”
Agape took several more hops, distancing himself from the cage, then started to move away faster, clearly searching for the shelter of some bushes. Suddenly, a dark form descended and enveloped the rabbit, struggled to gain a purchase on him, and lifted off, its wings beating furiously in its effort to gain altitude. All of this took place within three seconds – the time it took Chloë to recover herself, jump to her feet and scream.
The hawk seemed to respond to her shrieks by accelerating its flight, and, still clutching Agape, it disappeared over a line of trees to Chloë’s immediate south. She ran through the trees in the direction the raptor had gone, energized, galvanized, and fairly hopeless in her pursuit. Yet she could hear the tinkling of bells. Confused, she followed the sound.
After several minutes of running, she burst into another clearing and stood, stunned for a split second. Agape was still, completely still now, his eyes still open; a tall, bearded man was holding him up by his ears, looking at him appraisingly, while the hawk had settled onto the gauntlet on his other hand and was gulping down a meaty reward. Bells tinkled; Chloë screamed.
“Let him go! LET HIM GO!” she shrieked, running as fast as her flip-flops would permit, stumbling as she approached.
The man started and turned his attention to her. Yet as the hawk began to move her wings nervously and shift about, he focused instead on the bird, releasing Agape and working rapidly to hood the bird and tether her jesses to his gauntlet. He ignored Chloë’s screams.
“How could you? How could you?!” she raged, and she dived towards Agape, who was now lying on the ground near the man. Just as she was about to reach him, the falconer placed a large, booted foot squarely on the rabbit.
“I’ll thank you to leave my dinner alone,” he said. She could have sworn he had spoken quietly –yet every syllable of that command resounded through her head like a trumpet blare. His voice was a rich, sinister baritone.
“That’s my rabbit, and he’s no one’s dinner!” spat Chloë. “Hand him over!”
“No,” he said coolly; he had now managed to calm his hawk. He turned his gaze on Chloë, but all she could see was her own reflection in his mirrored sunglasses. Why was he wearing sunglasses this early in the day? As she continued to observe him, a chill ran through her. He stood well over six feet in height – six foot four or five? –and he was heavy in the shoulders. He was bearded, darkly dressed, and as still as a coiled snake, watching her, waiting.
“I saved Agape from a dog weeks ago, and I cured him of his injuries. I just now released him into the wild…”
The man seemed to concentrate on Chloë more intensely suddenly, his thick brows drawn into a frown. “You named the animal what?”
“Agape –it’s the Greek word for unconditional love, you know…”
“I know,” interrupted the man in tones which were like dry ice. His mouth curled down slightly in contempt.
There was an uncomfortable pause, and Chloë could hear her own panting finally slowing down as she began to focus and become calmer. She still felt afraid, though.
“Give me the rabbit!” she said, managing to suppress the tremor which threatened to invade her voice.
“No; at any rate, he’s quite dead and of no use to you now…unless you care to eat him yourself?” the falconer inquired.
“Hell, no, I don’t care to eat him myself!” Chloë shouted, her outrage lending her courage. “But I won’t have you eating him, either, especially after what you’ve done!”
“Don’t be so judgmental,” he said, and continued in mockingly dulcet tones. “This is nature’s way, you know, and nature is not sentimental. The strong prevail, and the weak and deficient are selected against in the grand scheme of things. Evolution has weighed your Agape in the balance and found him lacking!”
Tears of rage nearly blinded Chloë. “You monster! You less than human creature! How dare you do what you’ve done and then presume to lecture me! Thousands of years of civilization have passed for most of us, but not for the likes of hairy, grunting knuckle-draggers like you!”
The atmosphere around the man seemed to crackle with the electric charge of his displeasure, but he himself appeared to remain calm.
“If you continue to harass me, I shall have no alternative but to call the police, Miss,” he began, but he added in a low voice, “or I may simply take things into my own hands.” He took a step towards her.
Chloë was suddenly aware of the isolation of the woods and the sheer size of her antagonist. She turned on her heel and started towards her car just in time to hide the tears of anger and frustration which began to course down her cheeks.“Have a pleasant morning,” his voice jibed as she walked away, nervously fingering the knife she kept in one of the pockets of her cargo pants.
As soon as she was certain she was out of the man’s sight, Chloë began to run, crossing the woods and barely pausing to collect Agape’s now-empty cage. She wiped tears of rage and frustration from her face with the back of her hand as she arrived at the area where the cars were parked. She dropped the cage and kicked it, screaming and sobbing. The disastrous events of the past several months rose up like derisive shadows to haunt her, and she sank onto the gravel, her back against her car, her arms around her knees, and she gave herself over to her grief, weeping uncontrollably. As the minutes went by, her crying slowly abated, and a peace of sorts gradually returned to her.
She was glad her father could not see her now. He, who had always wanted a boy, had treated her with nearly military discipline, and he had never tolerated tears. He had encouraged her to be tough and unyielding, firm and unwavering in her goals. Perhaps he had not expected that, in the end, she would turn these gifts against him and resist his will just as implacably as he imposed it.
He had taught her to use a hunting knife, too.
She rose shakily and turned to stare at the black SUV which was still parked near her Pontiac. She glanced back at the woods; no sign of movement or noise –no one approached.
Did that monstrous man she had met in the woods think her to be a wimp? Of course he did. She was sure of it, and a cold type of anger, of the dangerous kind that thinks, erupted within her. The falconer had merely taken a step in her direction, and she had run, intimidated, from him.
She looked at the gleaming black surface of the SUV, mirror-like in its newness, and her right hand fingered the knife in her pocket. She looked down at the SUV’s huge tires – brand new. She knew from bitter experience how expensive tires could be, and she could only imagine how much Firestones like the ones she was looking at might cost.
Chloë looked back towards the woods. A breeze stirred in morning air, but there was no other sign of movement.
She pulled her knife out of her pocket and opened the blade. It was a spring-assisted wood knife with a blade that measured three and a half inches, and she had always been careful to keep it sharpened. It had always served as a handy tool to her. Now, for the first time, she was about to use it as a weapon.
Chloë’s arms were slender, yet strong. Work and an active lifestyle –lifting and carrying, pushing and pulling props and electronic equipment –had kept her in prime condition. Now she brandished her knife for a decisive moment, then plunged it into the left rear tire of the SUV. She jerked the blade through the rubber and metal of the tire until she had created a sizeable gash. She repeated the operation with a second, then a third, tire. As she paused to wipe the sweat out of her eyes, she heard the distant jingle of bells. She moved to the last tire, plunging the blade of her knife in and biting her lower lip until it bled as she worked. The sound of the bells was approaching ever closer.She ran to her car, hurriedly slamming the door and turning the key in the ignition. Her heart was thumping wildly within her chest, and she held her breath. The engine turned over, spluttered, then died. Chloë looked in horror as she saw the falconer’s dark figure emerge from the woods a distance away. She pushed on the accelerator, praying that she was not flooding the engine, and turned the key. The engine sputtered, then began to thrum, its bass notes vibrating through a broken muffler. Putting the car into reverse, Chloë floored the accelerator, then screeched into Drive and went forward, heading onto the road which would lead her to the highway and towards safety.
Washington Square Park.
The child seemed to scream as the monster approached, and he flailed his arms helplessly, completely unable to move. No sound came out of his mouth, though, and the mother-monster from “Aliens,” her long teeth exposed, gripped the top of his head in her jaws. A tendril of drool dripped, then splattered onto the boy’s head. A light flashed.
“Hey! That’s gross!” complained the boy, breaking out of his pose and wiping the jello off of his head.
“It’s just plain jello, for the more complete experience,” responded the she-monster. She turned her baleful glare to the boy’s father, who stood several feet away, examining the images he had captured on his digital Olympus.
“Did you get that?”
The man did not answer, but he smiled slowly as he looked at the image. His son ran to him so that he could look, too, and he whooped his delight.
“Whoa….cool! This is awesome! Wait till I show ´em this!”
The reptilian she-thing stared at the father expectantly. The man looked uncomfortable for a few seconds, then chuckled.
“What the hell. Here…it was worth every penny.” He approached and handed the monster a twenty-dollar bill, which she quickly put into her cash box.
“Hey, thanks!” she chirped, her small eyes gleaming.
“Well, I’ll be hanged –if it isn’t our own lovely Van Chloë,” drawled a voice off to Chloë’s right, and she cringed. Kit!
Kit had fallen into the habit of calling her “Van Chloë” or simply “Van” years ago – a poke at her torturesome artistic principles.
“I knew it had to be you, Van. That costume is terrific!”
Chloë’s vision was limited, but she could tell by Kit’s voice that she was circling her.
“Even the tail… What did you use? Painted spandex and bits of plastic for that cool exoskeletal look…and some cellophane…”
“…And wire,” supplied Chloë, sighing. “And LED lights with 3.2-volt batteries to light up the eyes.” Her hands appeared and worked at the snaps at the neck of her costume.
She pulled off the monster head, and Kit wrapped her arm around her neck in a clumsy hug.
“I’ve been worried about you, Van,” she said softly. “Why haven’t you called me for the past week?”
“Because I’ve been busy making a costume,” Chloë responded shortly.
“Huh,” said Kit, her long arms akimbo. “It’s more than that, and I know it. You only cut communication when something bad happens. So, what happened?”
“Did someone die?”
Chloë snorted. “Nothing!”
There was a pause as Kit eyed Chloë speculatively.
“How’s money?” she asked, finally.
“Tight, but today I made enough money to pay the rent, and I’m only three days late,” Chloë said. “So, how’s life with your boyfriend?” There was accusation in her tones.
“Still mad at me for selling out, Van Chloë? Still mad at me for moving out of our apartment?” Kit’s voice was soft, calm, even sympathetic. When Chloë failed to answer, Kit continued.
“I really miss you, Van, and all we were doing together, but I’m a big girl now. I needed bigger projects, and I’ve got bills to pay. You know that Derek and I make money painting low-brow portraits and stuff, it’s true –but we also have the Ipswich Theater project to raise money for. I haven’t totally sold out!”
“I know,” said Chloë, but she was shaking her head grudgingly.
“You know that if we can get enough money to rent that warehouse, you’ll be the first artist in,” continued Kit.
“And what about what you and I were doing together? What about our performance projects? Didn’t you grow and develop as a creator when you were performing with me?” retorted Chloë.
“Working as your second banana? Look, Van, you’re brilliant, your singing voice is sublime, and I’ve always loved your ideas, but the bottom line is this: poverty is not purity. You don’t have to cut your ear off or starve yourself to be a true artist.
“So I’m making a good living now with Derek…so I have money, I break even now. That’s a good thing. I tell you what, Van –why don’t you pack it up and call it a day and I’ll buy us some Chinese take-out? Then we can argue some more. And then you can tell me what traumatized you so much that you haven’t talked with me for a whole week!”
Old habits returned quickly. The ice that had descended upon Chloë’s friendship with Kit since they had stopped working together quickly thawed, and conversation between them became fluid once more.
They ate their meal in the familiar, cluttered, seedy intimacy of the SoHo apartment they had once shared. It was where Chloë lived by herself now.
Years of old paint and varnish coated the kitchen table –continued to coat it, in spite of Chloë’s frequent attacks on it with everything from bleach to paint thinner. Lines cut with exacto knives crisscrossed the table, and an old wine bottle in the center held a single, white taper which had guttered down.
“I can’t believe you really slashed some guy’s tires,” Kit said, scowling at her wine as she swirled it around in a chipped teacup.
“I can’t believe I did it either, Kit,” sighed Chloë. “It’s really not me.”
Kit stared at her for a long moment before she spoke again.
“You know, I’m kind of worried about you, Van. So, okay, you’ve had a really crappy time of it lately, I’ll admit. But then you take it out on this guy…”
“I told you what he did, Kit! I told you what he said!”
“Yeah, I know. He was a real jerk,” Kit admitted, “but don’t you think you got kind of carried away over some widdu wabbit?”
“I think it’s normal to come to care about creatures you’ve taken care of.”
“Like Jacob?” said Kit sourly, then clapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. You know I never liked him.”
“You never told me that until after he’d left me and you’d moved in,” commented Chloë. “And I don’t want to hear about Jacob.”
“Well, maybe not, but you’ve been mooning over him a lot, then you had a nasty run-in that guy with a buzzard, and suddenly you’re slashing tires. Are you really mad at men, maybe, Van? Like your dear daddy, and Jacob, and now this other guy?” Kit’s voice was soft.
“I am not mad at men!”
“You’re lucky he didn’t see your license plate. That was a close one, wasn’t it? Next time you might not be so lucky.”
“Don’t remind me. At any rate, I was inspired after that. I woke up that night, you know, after dreaming about that horrible man in the woods, and I decided that I wanted to be the she-creature from ‘Aliens.’ Just like that! And before I knew it, I was at the sewing machine with a bunch of Spandex, designing the costume on the fly.”
“I called him a monster, too, you know,” added Chloë.
“You called that man a monster and slashed his tires? You were so charming,” said Kit, eyeing Chloë with a sudden gleam. “Tell me, did this man happen to be attractive?”
“No!” exclaimed Chloë, aghast.
“Methinks she doth protest too much,” ventured Kit. “Now, now, don’t get all upset. I just want to know what he looked like.”
“I didn’t really get a good look at him. It wasn’t quite daylight yet, and I was upset.”
“Oh. Okay. How long has it been since you’ve gotten laid, Van?”
“It just occurred to me where some of your frustration might be coming from.”
“Not from any sexual deficiencies or anything Freudian!” Chloë protested.
“Okay. But just so it’s clear, have you tangoed with anyone since Jacob?”
Chloë was silent.
“I knew it. Trust me, kiddo, you need to cut loose and find yourself a guy, even if it’s only to keep yourself in practice. You need…”
“…a one-night stand?”“Someone. You need someone.”
“What do you think of my new Audrey Hepburn style sunglasses?” Beth asked, pulling them off her head, then putting them on again with a sweeping Superman-Clark Kent gesture.
“They’re beautiful … I’d prefer Audrey wearing them, though.” A faint smile appeared on Ian’s face, a welcome contrast to his habitual frown, as he moved aside to let her pass into the bright living room.
“If I weren’t familiar with your vitriolic sense of humor—and didn’t have this enormous self-esteem,” Beth said in self-mocking tones, “I’d be slightly shaken by that remark.” She pushed her sunglasses up onto her head like a bored movie star. “You haven’t a chance with me, honey!”
“Honey!” he exclaimed with a sour look on his face. “I don’t even like honey …” he muttered through his teeth, heading to the kitchen.
“I’ve brought you a present,” Beth informed him, searching in her bag.
Ian muttered something incoherent before leaving her alone.
Beth walked across the room to the wall made entirely of thick glass panels, which offered a breathtaking view of the swimming pool, the lake, and the deep green forest.
The designer chair at her side grabbed her attention. She contemplated the idea of sitting on it — she would probably have been the first person to take such a chance — but once more she found her courage lacking. She looked at the uninviting planes of shining steel. They looked razor-sharp. Instead, she left a small box on it, wrapped in glossy red paper.
“Here you are.” Ian handed her a cup of coffee. He used his forearm to clear some space on the glass coffee table in front of the sofa, pushing the sheet music which was scattered all over it into a messy pile on its corner. The plate full of her favorite croissants made her feel welcome and cared for.
“This is my present?” Ian indicated the red box, suspicion all over his face.
“Spare me the brooding today, Ian. I’ve just finished my second and probably last visit to the marriage counselor. I’m not in the mood.”
Beth sank into the graphite gray sofa. The soft pillows embraced her body as if making amends for the steel chair.
“How was it this time?”
She watched him sit on the table, his long, muscular legs stretching his black jeans.
“Awful! Just awful!” She took a sip of coffee. “The highlight of the ordeal was the silly woman asking Dan how his heart felt about the distance between us lately. Dan explained that the heart does not ‘feel’ anything –that our brain is responsible for feelings, and she should have known that.”
“What did you say?” He pushed open a glossy panel which mirrored the pool’s water.
“A glass of wine might be better for you…” A small refrigerator came into view, and Ian pulled out a bottle. His long fingers worked fast to remove the cork.
“I agreed. What the hell! The woman was a complete idiot. Dan and I told her she was worthless, shared a good laugh, and went our separate ways. He had work.”
Beth took a deep breath. “More than anything else, it’s sad…the only remotely pleasurable thing I’ve shared with Dan these last few months was laughing at the idiotic Mrs. Johnson.”
“To Mrs. Johnson, then!” Ian raised his glass. “This is a good start, Beth.”
“She was my last chance.” The wine was dry and cool.
“You’re overreacting! She sells dreams just as you do in that business of yours. As if love could be arranged, fixed, healed or —”
“People have found happiness through my site, Ian. You may not approve of a dating site, but some people are brave enough to use it.”
“What do you need this Mrs. Johnson for, anyway? What will a strange woman achieve by putting your marriage under the microscope?”
“We have problems…lately they’ve gotten worse.”
“Talk to your husband! Don’t talk to Mrs. Johnson! Talk to Dan! Not every man welcomes a stranger into his marriage —”
“Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe Dan has already invited a stranger into our marriage.” Beth forced a smile onto her face. “You know that Barbra Streisand song? ‘We’re not making love anymore, we’re not making love like before…’” She was certain that at any other time, Ian would have protested against her off-tune singing, delivering one of those remarks that made people want to crawl into a hole, embarrassed. The fact that he didn’t say anything made the situation even worse.
“Maybe there’s another reason…men can’t perform for various reasons. Stress… maybe a health problem,” Ian struggled.
“He could have talked to me. We’ve only been together for fifteen years! He knows I love him for himself. Not the gifts he’s gotten me, not the house, not the success, not even the lovemaking.”
“If you take away all those… what’s left? His beautiful hair?” Ian’s eyes sparkled, teasing her. Her husband had begun to go bald long ago, much to his noisy chagrin.
She couldn’t help smiling. “Do you think Dan isn’t cheating on me?”
“I hope he’s smarter than that.”
Hearing those words from Ian’s mouth was like a punch to her stomach. Maybe that was the reason Beth had never needed a psychologist. Her friendship with Ian and his brutal honesty worked like a mirror to reflect her inner fears.
Her sharp intake of breath did not go unnoticed.
“I know he’s smarter than that,” he said with confidence.
Beth watched as Ian lowered his lashes. He didn’t know it, but he had this almost boyish trait –as with poker players, a little sign betrayed his hand. His dense lashes dropped every time he hid something, as if emotions or truths could escape from that cold face of his. Beth remembered how, many years ago, he had been more open, almost unguarded.
She smiled at his discomfort, and he raised a questioning brow. “Open your present!” she ordered, changing the subject.
He looked at her sourly.
“Is it a new trimmer for my beard? I got the hint last time, thank you!” He picked up the offending box. “My beard is well-trimmed…”
“This is a ‘Futur razor,’ and you should shave! Did you know 95% of women prefer a clean-shaven face? The beard makes you look savage!”
“This is the face I have, and I feel very comfortable with it –and I feel comfortable with the remaining 5% of the women. I’m not greedy.” He smiled a devilish half-smile.
“I’m not talking about sex, Ian. You need a partner —”
“I think this dating website of yours has affected your brain!”
“Forget what I said about needing a partner… You need to see people! An artist draws inspiration from interaction with people. I mean it! You need to get around …to see new people!”
“I don’t need new people! I need no distractions, at this point. I have a deadline, and my investors are breathing down my neck…and the last time I interacted with new people was inspiring enough to last me a decade.” He raised his hands as in supplication. “On the seventh day, God didn’t rest. He realized his mistake” –Ian snapped his fingers like a magician – “and hid! He’s been missing ever since.”
Beth stared at him, unaffected by his theatrics.
“You can’t count that incident in the woods with that crazy woman as a —”
“Believe me, her histrionics were quite dramatic. People are getting crazier every day. Just look at the way they drive, the way they look at you.”
“So you’re becoming a recluse because you’re afraid of people slashing your tires?” Beth challenged him.
“I’m hardly a recluse –just a man working and concentrating on a project. I need to focus now, that’s all. I’m certainly not afraid of pseudo-intellectual ninnies who name their pets Greek names and think they’ve grasped the meaning of cultural interaction—”
“She’d named her rabbit ‘Agape’! Is there anything cheesier than that? And she was hysterical over his death, while she had been the one who decided to let him ‘live the wild life’ in the first place. What did she think would happen?” He gazed out, the frown on his face deepening.
“To think I tried to find her afterwards, to apologize for my behavior! I really can’t stand people who have zero connection to reality. I bet she tore my tires just because she didn’t have her way…”
“I think you’ve let that spoiled woman get to you. Was she beautiful? Do you remember what she looked like, what she wore—?”
“Of course I remember, but I don’t care to remember!” Ian muttered sullenly.
Beth recognized his I’m-in-my-world glance as he turned to face her.
“I’d love to chat about dresses and demented women, but I have to write. I’ll be in the music room. Close the door when you leave. There’s stifado in the fridge.”
“What’s stifado?” asked Beth loudly, trying to draw his attention, looking at his broad back as he drew away.
Ian furrowed his brows as if interrupted from a deep thought, and looked back at her over his shoulder. He seemed surprised, even annoyed, by the question.“Rabbit with onions, of course.”