A dismal, slow business day at the bookstore was beginning to make Lisa fight off sleep at the store’s counter. She’d not been sleeping well of late. She was still plagued with strange, disturbing dreams, and Susan’s hyperbolic stories of a tarot litany of deaths – no matter how absurd and so Susan-like that was – did nothing to help dispel the thrall that the nightmare world held over her. Like before, she remembered little of dreams and terrors in the night, just brief glimpses, and from time to time the presence of Damien in the dreams, like a guiding light to lead her out of the darkness.
Like the darkness of boredom, she thought, as the door opened to the bookstore, sunlight leaping into the room like a message from the gods, like that light-bringer in her nightmares, and she saw – so fittingly it was almost poetic – the very welcome figure of Damien in its halo.
‘I was passing by,’ he said, ‘Taking some time out from work to do a bit of retail therapy. And what better therapy would there be than to come and visit you?’
‘Come right in, you’re a sight for sore eyes’ Lisa replied.
‘Oh?” he asked, solicitous, now up at the counter near her, so close she could smell the somewhat musky scent of his aftershave.
‘Slow day,’ she said, ‘And I’m still having those nightmares.’
‘Terrible,’ he said, ‘I find nightmares come in clusters, like they feed off each other. We shall have to think of some more enjoyable things to do that might break the cycle and chase them away.’
The message in the words, the undercurrent, was very clear and she shivered with anticipation and delight.
‘Mandy is going away on a school excursion in a week’s time’ she found herself saying, ‘So I have the house to myself. Why don’t you come over for dinner and we can see if you can help me with that then?’
‘Delighted,’ he agreed, as the message was clearly conveyed between them, ‘Speaking of Mandy though, she came to visit me a couple of days ago.’
The hackles on the back of Lisa’s neck rose suddenly and his words. She felt a cool, harsh, complete anger at Mandy, way beyond the redness and heat of rage into something far older, far deeper, which she did not fully recognise herself. She did not realise she had gripped the counter at his words and was even then pressing down hard, her own fingernails close to breaking from the pressure.
‘Oh?’ she asked, her voice tight.
If her anger was obvious to him he did not show it. He just continued on, ‘Yes, seems she is having a bad time of it at school. She was looking for a friend.’
Lisa felt guilty suddenly, on so many layers, crowding in on her. She knew her daughter was suffering at school, but Mandy was maddeningly withdrawn about it all, and if Lisa was honest, a part of her liked it that way. If Mandy didn’t share, she didn’t have to think about what this might mean about the longer term prospects of staying in this town, and looking at Damien in this moment she knew how much she wanted to stay here.
Even if Mandy suffered, even that. We all have to make sacrifices, after all. Sacrifices…..
‘I talked to her for a while, tried to teach her some ways to defend herself, that sort of thing, ‘Damien was continuing. ‘I was bullied when I was young.’
‘You were?’ Lisa asked, genuinely surprised. Damien was a tall, well built man who exuded a kind of calm resolution. It was hard to imagine any bully sizing him up and deciding to strike. Plus, the thought of Damien as young seemed incongruous somehow. There was something about him which was ageless, or suggested an age beyond mere years. It was hard to picture him as ever being a child or even a teenager.
‘I didn’t grow to my full height and build till my late teens, so I was a slow bloomer. Those things count at school. So I learned ways to defend myself, and, when needed, to even make people frightened of me. My father taught me. It was sort of like, first make them afraid, then you never actually have to do anything. So I talked to Mandy about that – the importance of how to appear, and then also the need to able to follow though if needed. In combination it usually means you never have to.’
‘What did you suggest, some form of martial arts?’ Lisa asked, a bit horrified at her daughter setting herself up to be frightening. Deep within Lisa admitted to herself there had always been something a bit disturbing about Mandy anyway, a sense of an uncoiled spring, a serpent in the garden, about to strike. She wasn’t sure she wanted anyone to put such thoughts in her morose daughter’s head, not now.
And even less that this come from Damien, meaning he was perhaps unconsciously indulging her daughter’s crush. That could only lead to a bad outcome, no matter how noble his intent.
‘No,’ he said, ‘That would take too long. And in any case, I doubt she really has the athleticism required for that. I mean no offence, but I don’t think that your daughter’s best weapon is herself, not in that sense.’
‘True, and no offence taken, ‘ Lisa agreed, a bit inwardly ashamed of her small pleasure of the mild censure implied about her daughter’s physicality. She did not think to ask what method of defence he had suggested instead. She only said, ‘Do be careful though. I think Mandy has a crush on you, and I don’t want to see her get hurt.’
‘Nor do I,’ he said, gentle, touching one of her hands – both of which had now relaxed their grip on the counter, ‘I am very aware of, and careful about,the influence I have on her, do not worry. I only mean to help, and no more.’
The moment was broken by the door opening again, and the enthusiastic sound of Susan, announcing herself as she entered the store.
‘My god I needed a lunch break, or at least a coffee!’ she said, ‘Can I lure you away Lisa? At least for a coffee?’
As she came up to the counter she seemed to register Damien, though he had his back turned to her and she did not see his hand on her friends hand, so she must have thought him a customer, because she added, ‘As soon as you’ve finished serving your customer of course.’
As she finished speaking she’d reached her destination and Damien had turned to her, smiling.
‘I’m not a customer, I’m a friend, and you are not disturbing us. Please feel free to help our mutual friend escape this place for a break.’
He smiled openly at Susan, but she had stopped still, a slight frown on her face, looking at him.
‘Have we met before?’ she asked. ‘You look very familiar somehow.’
‘Susan, this is Damien, my neighbour, who I might have mentioned’ Lisa said, emphasising the last point of her words to tell her friend clearly not to give away how much she might have mentioned him already.
Damien held out his hand, introducing himself, and waited for her to return the compliment. After a couple of uncomfortable beats, she responded in kind.
‘You just look very familiar,’ she said.
‘Perhaps I just have one of those faces,’ he replied, smooth, unconcerned, dropping her hand, and turning to bow slightly to Lisa, ‘I will bid you good day then, till we next meet.’
Lisa blushed at the gentlemanly formality, and watched him go with some regret, barely disguising her slight pique when she looked back at her friend. But Susan did not notice, as she wasn’t looking at Lisa at all, instead watching Damien retreat with a frown of puzzlement, slightly shaking her head.
The door of the bookstore closed behind Damien, and in so doing seemed to extinguish a light in the bookstore, robbing the day of its glow with his departure. The light-bringer was gone.
(c) Helen M Valentina 2015, All Rights Reserved