Chapter 1: Under the Tree


No! my heart screamed. Yet, not a sound escaped my lips.

I did nothing. I said nothing. I simply stared at the horizon in fear; my heart pounding in my chest. “The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” as Shakespeare had written, brought me to my knees, and I wept: desperate-desolate-trembling tears.

Moments ago my life had hung by a thread. Caught amid an age-old battle of chains and swords, teeth and claws—of settling a score—time unraveled before my very eyes. As past met present, the scar of vengeance burst open. Newly lanced gashes and old wounds bled from a lattice of sores. The enemy now vanquished, I watched the retreat of the one person who’d shown me life.

In the distance, his elongated shadow withered against day’s new colors. With his every step, the old image faded and a new one emerged. Betrayed by my thoughts, finally I knew that light and dark met but for a moment, each relying on the other for existence. This revelation was too late, however—much too late. My tutor, my love, was gone. And by his own admission, he’d not show himself to me again.

My past had been erased by one swift swing of the present’s tempered sword. It struck ending the life I had known since that promising March evening so long ago. Regret flowed from my eyes and puddled between my thighs. So deep was the wound, it stilled my heart, and left my soul crying out for forgiveness.

One last flicker and reality receded. Memories of our days together rushed toward me as I remembered month by month, day by day, hour by hour…

#

Darkness was my home. It had been this way for as long as I could remember.

Its shadows swathed me with security and warmth. It cradled me with concealment. I was content in its embrace.

Is it any wonder, then, that out of the six billion people residing on this godforsaken planet, he found me? Was it merely coincidence? Or, were our lives chiseled into stone by each movement we, and the generations before us, made? The latter seemed more likely.

Was he drawn to me by my assertive steps; my arrogant smile? Did he notice the impulsiveness in my every move, or chuckle at my involuntary, hop-scotch stride and airplane arms? I often wondered what prompted his introduction on that first day.

Whatever it was, on a pleasingly hazy evening in March, he stood within a grove of trees awaiting my arrival. Hidden from view he watched and listened.

Oh, it wasn’t as simple as my seeing him there. I was none the wiser.

I was bewildered when he appeared before me. Nothing had stirred. No sound announced the figure leaning against the old oak, which guarded the entrance to a jogging path. Normally, my intuition rang a proximity alert; not this night. There was neither its tell-tale tingle, nor the conscious urge to peer over my shoulder.

He was simply there, waiting, as if waiting and watching were his purpose. He was the very essence of composure.

From a distance, I gauged his stature by the limbs of the tree’s. He was rather tall; about 6’ with broad shoulders. His face, masked in darkness, revealed two glistening orbs that twinkled like twin stars through night’s veil.

The words “I dare you” sprang to mind. Did I dare?

Yes, I did. I felt bulletproof with darkness as my armor and anonymity as my shield. I dared anything with them as allies. As always, and perhaps foolishly, I continued.

Feigning security, I walked relentlessly toward him. He remained still.

“Not frightened?” the silhouette stage-whispered.

I stopped at the sound of his voice. “By you? Not at all,” I taunted.

“Come closer, then.”

I couldn’t resist the temptation to correct my posture as I took a few more steps forward. I tipped my head up, straightened my shoulders, and pushed out my chest. It was a defensive mechanism; similar to that of a startled porcupine’s bristling needles, or the puffed tail and dorsal crest of an angry cat. I readied for fight or flight.

I surprised even myself by being shaken, but not panicky; astonished, yet alert. Usually, the ring of desperation boomed in my chest. Odd, I was fairly calm.

Though I stood but a few feet away, he remained silent for quite some time. We stood beneath the dappled light of a crescent moon, examining one another as if we were oddities of nature.

His face, although obscured by tree branches, had a playfully sinister look. I couldn’t tell from the crooked grin and one hooked eyebrow whether his intentions were malevolent or merely mischievous.

His mane of hair, almost waist-length and unkempt, appeared to have a silky-smooth texture. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but I withstood the temptation. Furthermore, dressed in black, he looked rather portentous. The vision was a cornucopia of mixed signals. It was maddening at the time.

Later, I’d learn that he meant me no harm. Still, during our first moments together, uncertainty shook the bedrock of instinct. Confusion was a suit ill-tailored to me. It didn’t quite fit my independent nature. Hesitation (ambiguity) was usually a costume I wore to confuse others⎯a female trait, no doubt. But, at the time, confronted with the shadow, I had neither the common sense nor the inclination to employ it properly.

Add to this, my overpowering need to run was another piece of the paradoxical puzzle. I couldn’t decide which reaction best fit the circumstance: A mad dash away from him, or a sentimental surge toward him.

The “how” and “why” were just as perplexing. How do I get out of this place? Why do I feel this way in such a short amount of time? How do I proceed? Why me?

He was a far cry from what I normally found appealing, and his disposition left much to be desired. These were but a few of the pieces to the puzzle that I found fragmented under the tree.

Guarded, I inched closer.

“I frighten you.” he said.

“Not really,” I responded like a five-year-old child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “Just wonderin’ why you’re hiding in the shadows?”

My hands began to moisten, and beads of sweat clung to the hair above my temples.

“You think I’m hiding,” he scoffed. “I think I’m leaning against a tree.”

My expression conveyed the humor I found in what he said, and he dropped his gaze; but only for a moment. I hadn’t realized it yet, but this was my first lesson in perception.

My wish to dispense with pleasantries, first, likened the next segment of our exchange to an inexperienced artist’s trembling hand. Unsure of what the next brush stroke will reveal, caution, rather than sentience, ruled the moment.

“Do you live around here?” I continued.

“I could. Would that ease your condition?”

“What condition?” I snapped back.

“Obviously, my presence disturbs you. I’m an unfamiliar guest in what clearly has the scent of marked territory. Upon encountering a stranger—me—and asserting yourself, you were ready to secure your space. Then, moments later, you showed signs of submissiveness by an enticing response. Now, your attempt at a casual conversation reveals troubled thoughts fused with hints of interest.”

“Who are you? Sigmund Frickin’ Freud?”

Ignoring my derision, he answered, “Merely an observation.”

Despite how I felt about his ripostes, his choice of words and how he spoke them fascinated me—mesmerized was more like it. I ogled at the kind features hidden beneath his primitive, brusque stare. Within minutes, I was smitten. I reacted more like an enchanted teenager than the cynical woman I had become.

My prior experiences with men had left me cold and heartless. The male of our species had lost its luster long ago; after many pilgrimages over the rainbow. The only pots I found were emotional cauldrons brewing over the flames of desire, which, too soon, flickered and burned out: doused by tears of regret.

But, he was different somehow. I felt it.

“So, you don’t live around here. What do you want, then?”

“You crossed my path, not I yours,” he responded.

“This is my usual routine. I walked through this park every night. I’ve never seen you before.”

“That’s your deductive reasoning?” he smirked.

“Are you ever going to give me a straight answer, or at least tell me what you’re doing here?”

“Sure.”

“When?”

“When you…”

He hesitated for a moment.

Though I could tell that he wasn’t much for long conversations, what he did say seemed more sincere than most; blatantly honest, and to the point. Yes, he was distant. Yet, concern sketched the outline of his brow: A portrait unknown to me. His speech was soft and comforting, yet determined. Two opposites joined by form and function. In varying degrees, one half complemented the other, deduced from our limited topics of conversation. I found myself hoping for a future with him in it; an opportunity to determine his, what surely are many, this-fits-here nuances.

I already wondered about his internal struggles, and whether or not he struck a balance. Or, did he resist his baser impulses giving him the mannerisms and air of a gentleman? Perhaps, instead, he willfully released his inner demons destroying all that was honorable and good? Either of these was impossible to detect in a relationship that spans years. How could one encounter supply the answer? It couldn’t. It didn’t. I learned in the months to come, questions such as these would stalk my thoughts without any release.

“…Walk with me,” he continued.

I froze. After another lengthy, uncomfortable pause, I said, “What? Why? I don’t even know you.”

“Because you’re interested in me. Because you want to get to know me better.”

I’ve done crazier things in my life: hitchhiking home on a dark, deserted highway; leaving a disco bar with a stranger; bringing someone in need home for a cold drink and a satisfying meal. I wanted to say “yes.” That was certain.

“Walk with me,” he repeated extending his hand.

“You’ll keep your distance,” I asked.

“Of course,” he agreed, and lowered his hand.

We walked the perimeter of the park multiple times. If we spoke at all, it was merely to compliment the scenery, and make excuses for our silence. Nothing more. Minutes turned into hours. Too soon, daylight cracked night’s shell.

This universal view drew his attention away from me. He gazed upon it as one would a pearl in an oyster⎯as something precious; once concealed, now exposed. I watched as his features mellowed in the daylight.

“What do you see?” I inquired, and anxiously awaited his reply.

“A promise,” he said. “No greater promise exists than that of morning’s first light: A chance to begin anew, to let wounds heal, and maybe, just maybe, forgive the wrongs done to one another and to ourselves…” Within the blink of an eye, his demeanor changed. He winked and added, “I could go on for there is one ray of sunlight for each possibility.”

“I don’t believe such a promise exists,” I brutally added. “Today will be just like yesterday, and the day before that.”

Yet, something inside me yearned to see what he saw. I strained my eyes at the horizon. Exasperated, after a minute or two, I looked away.

“It’s never there for the skeptic, or the pessimist. What branded your heart with such doubt?” He said. “Nature’s beauty is pure and undemanding. It is there for the taking, if he or she chooses. Look. Look upon it without yesterday’s fears and tomorrow’s angst.” He placed his hand on my shoulder, leaned forward, and whispered into my ear, “See how magnificent.”

The first assertion to “look” elevated my eyes from the pavement. With the second, I gawked at the man next to me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; to scream “stop” or cynically mumble “yeah, right.” I was confused, or should I say captivated. Instead, I glared at him, and lashed out with disparagement.

“Do you always talk like that?” I asked with a sneer.

“Like what?”

“Like an English teacher,” I replied. “Are you trying to impress me? We barely know each other. What do you care what I think?”

“I have no desire to ‘impress’ you. Studying the English language, however, and putting it to proper use, leaves little room for misinterpretation. You will always know what I mean by what I say. I leave little, or no, room for misunderstanding. Today, people regularly misconstrue one another. Shrinks and therapists reap a tidy sum from these disillusioned individuals. To my mind, the misled can be purged of this by speaking using proper sentence structure. For all our achievements, our knowledge of the English language declines at a rapid rate. Perchance one day, we will communicate, again, as our prehistoric ancestors did: through monosyllables and gestures. He smiled and finished with “Would you prefer that I grunt and groan for you?”

“So, the answer is ‘yes’,” I mocked.

He crossed his right arm over his chest, bowed, and said “My name is Ross, Ross Munro.”

I hesitated. What manner of man would introduce himself in the midst of a disagreement? Still, it was charming and I couldn’t resist a response.

I nodded. “My name is Marina, Marina Montero. My friends call me Mary, though.”

“Marina it is, then, until we become better acquainted.”

He had changed the subject, but one would think they flowed naturally together by his tone and mannerism.

“May I walk you home, Marina?” he requested, extending his arm.

“My mother warned me about talking to strangers.”

His arm fell and he responded, “My dear Marina, your mother couldn’t have warned you against the likes of me. I am no mere stranger. You already sense the dangers, but disregard them through misguided vanity or desire.”

“You want to continue to walk with me, but caution me. You’re weird.” I snapped.

“No doubt, I’m the likes of which you’ve never seen, and rarely will.” He countered with a grin.

“Never mind. You can walk me part way.”

With his hands stuffed in his pockets, this time, he extended his elbow. I timidly placed my hand through the opening, and our stroll through the park began. I felt the sudden urge to mark our trail with breadcrumbs. This too shall pass brimmed my other thoughts, and I calmed down long enough to enjoy our surroundings. An owl hooted nearby. Deer converged in a clearing near the elementary school. Bats flitted overhead. And Ross? Well, he also surveyed the landscape, but in a different manner.

He examined every blade of grass; every trunk and branch. Occasionally, he’d glance longingly up at the dark clouds rolling pass the muted hues of dawn. It was as if he saw them for the first time; perhaps, for the millionth time, but with noticeable variations. I wasn’t sure which.

Like an animal, he’d sniff the air, while heeding every sound. From time to time, a sigh of comfort left his lips and I was unexpectedly relieved. Maybe hearing an exhalation after such animalistic behavior, gave me some measure of an assurance of safety?

Suddenly, he stopped and I with him.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Something.”

“What?”

He didn’t reply, but his expression spoke volumes: An intent look with that bizarre gleam in his eyes. Softness still clung to his features as he hooked one eyebrow and pursed his lips: A combination of concern and anger. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. It was an incredible sight.

“What, Ross? I don’t hear anything.”

“What is it?” I repeated through clenched teeth, thinking he hadn’t heard me the first time. Silly rabbit.

Finally, the nearby brush rustled a warning. Silence. After a moment or two, more rustling. Then, the alarming silence returned.

“I can’t see? Can you? What the hell is it?”

“Yes, I see it. Hush now.” he whispered.

That was it. He said nothing more. It was infuriating to my female mind. He gave no details; no description. This is not to say that I am more detail oriented⎯far from it. Ask any man, and he’ll assert that females are very much like children who ask “what, why, when, and how” at the most inopportune moments. Apparently, this was one of those times.

A low growl followed the crackling from the shrubbery. It interrupted my mental assessment of Ross’s reticence. He turned to me, gently placed his hand on my shoulder, again, and put a finger to his lips. We crouched near the ground and waited.

Within an instant, a four-legged silhouette crept from the shadows. It was a wolf—no, not a wolf, we’re in Georgia—a coyote, then. White, pointed teeth gleamed within its bloodied muzzle. It dropped a misshapen mass from its mouth onto the ground, and growled. Another growl sounded from beyond the shadows; a chorus of snarls ensued.

“We’ve interrupted dinner,” Ross’s soft voice informed me, “there’s another one in the bush. That leaves two to contend with.”

So matter-of-fact were his words, I wondered if he grasped the severity of the situation. There were two coyotes, a few feet away, ready to pounce at any moment. Two! We’d walked right up to their dinner table without so much as a “How do you do?” And by the look of things, we could very well be the second course. Coyotes won’t retreat. That was what the National Geographic channel told me. And I believed it.

I didn’t dare move from fright, but Ross’s immobility was a horse of a different color. His was one of analysis; of scrutiny. He knew that any movement would send the foul beasts leaping in our direction. He, later, spoke of his thoughts racing a mile a minute, preparing for battle by considering the enemy’s every gambit. I clung to every word as I did to every sound. Sight, speech, hearing…my senses were in overdrive.

He slowly knelt until his eyes were level with those of the immediate aggressor. The coyote returned the glare as the fur at the base of its neck stood on end. A long snarl broke the silence.

I wanted to run⎯anywhere. Ross, observing my jitters, held his arm out and patted the air with his hand.

“Stay where you are,” he murmured.

Ross stooped even lower, and gazed deeper into its eyes. He didn’t back down. Neither did the carnivore.

My gaze shifted back and forth from one to the other. Why were we confronting the damn things, at all? Why hadn’t we fled for our lives? There would be no answer for these unspoken demands; merely an angst that loomed in the air and left there in mid-flight.

In the midst of my terror and misapprehension, Ross gradually stood up. I watched as he altered his expression from one of hostility to immense compassion.

The coyote lowered its head. The sharpness of its stare softened as it observed us through rounded eyes. It seemed to express empathy (if that was even possible). Odder still, before my very eyes, its ears slightly drooped and its elevated fur fell evenly amongst the rest.

I was awestruck when the beast picked up its bloodied dinner, turned, and made its way back to the tree line with the other in tow. Intermittently, the coyotes turned their heads toward Ross. He patiently observed their retreat without stirring; keeping his position until the animals disappeared from sight.

Imagine my surprise when he turned to me, wrapped my arm around his once more, and continued our walk. It was as if nothing had happened; as if, moments earlier, our lives had not hung in the balance. I hardly knew how to contain myself. I kept looking back expecting two wild canines to be following. I turned and twitched. I imagined Ross as a current-day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or the next Jeffrey Dahmer.

What am I doing here?

Not one word spoken or fleeting look in my direction left me second guessing my decision to have him walk me home. My chest pounded loudly. I thought surely he’d hear it.

I’m not going to show him where I live. He’s a stranger to me⎯and an odd one at that. My mother was right.

I didn’t let go of his arm, however. I left my concerns unspoken.

I didn’t know much, but I knew that coyotes rarely gave up their kill—us. That they had done just that vexed my inexperienced mind. I had had enough. I stopped dead in my tracks.

“This is far enough,” I exhaled. “I’ll go the rest of the way myself.”

“I understand.”

“You do?” I replied in a surprised tone.

He let go of my arm, gently touched the side of my face, tilting my head until our eyes met, and said: “Yes, I do.”

“Good, ‘cause I don’t. Nothing makes sense.”

“You’re uncomfortable with what happened. You’re uncomfortable with me.” He lowered his hand and added, “I understand that.”

I pulled away.

“I’m going home. I’ve taken this route a thousand times. I’ll be just fine without you.”

“I have no doubt that you believe that, but events beyond your control are forthcoming; dark, disturbing matters. My dear Marina, you must realize that threats exist everywhere. You should be ready for anything. But, despite all that’s happened, or will happen, my intentions are honorable. Simply allow me to get to know you better; to be a guardian of sorts for the unexpected. Some things cannot be stopped; cannot be reasoned with, no matter how great the desire. And I can be quite handy to have around.”

I gave no response, backed away, and headed home. He freaked me out. It’s difficult to bounce back after such a blow. After I’d walked a few feet, I glanced back to see if he followed. There was Ross, standing in the middle of the path, eyeing the sky as dawn pushed the stars out of sight. I heard him say, as if in prayer, “I tried, ma. Perhaps another day,” which had me scurrying away faster.

What had I gotten myself into?

Next Chapter: Chapter Two: The Shadow