Rose and Thorne (working title)

 This is fiction and some of it has been out right stolen from other works. My motivation for writing it is that I want a version of Beauty and the Beast that incorporates all the elements I want together.

Chapter 1: Monster

Have you ever lived a fairy tale? Because, let me tell you what, it sucks.

My name was Kylen T Mallory and two years ago, I thought I had everything. I was handsome… and vain about it. I was wealthy- family money as well as my own. I had a great job in advertising, a penthouse apartment in the city that I shared with my father, Regis, and a fiancée who was one of the rising names in modeling.

My father and I still shared an apartment because neither of us was there enough to warrant finding another equally prestigious address… and besides, I expected to be moving after Laurel and I got married. I was sure that she would insist on picking a place and I really didn’t care as long as it was upscale enough. Not that that would have been a problem, Laurel was sure to spare no expense choosing the best address she could find.

Everything started the night of my bachelor party. At the time, it didn’t feel much like a beginning, it felt like the end of everything… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sam and Mack took me out- it was maybe a week before the wedding but we all knew that Laurel had the week of the wedding scheduled down to the minute for everybody involved. She had included a bachelor party for me the night before the wedding but I knew better than to think it would be anything like a real one. Drinking with her father and his friends and watching movies of her grow up or something lame like that. So we were having a last fling before I was a married man- not that any of us expected things to change all that much.

Mack had picked out a place- somewhere I didn’t usually go- and we spent the early part of the evening knocking back tequila and flirting with the waitresses and bar girls. Sam was getting bored and we decided to move the party to a different club where the girls would be wearing less and would be more available.

On the way out, I bumped into an old woman, knocking her down. Now, I’d like to say the tequila was the reason behind it but I know better. I was raised in the city and had city manners- which is to say, none at all.

“Watch it, you old bitch!” I turned to Sam “Look at her, the ugly tattooed frankenskank! She should be ashamed to show her face.” That’s what I said and I have wished I could eat those words at least a hundred times since then.

Her eyes blazed at me- bright green- before she turned away muttering.

We laughed and kept walking. Sort of walking, we were all definitely pretty tight.

“Okay, Sam, where is this place?” Mack asked.

“I don’t know, man. It should be right here…” Sam looked around like he expected a bar to appear out of thin air.

“Ah, you’ve gotten turned around. Let’s just find a place. I’m getting thirsty.” I said. Then I spied a news stand still open on the corner. For no reason at all, I went over. Behind the counter was a girl, kind of pretty in a shy way but nothing to really arrest my attention. Beside the cash register she had those single roses you see for sale in corner markets and the like. I picked one out and handed it to her.

“That’s $2.50,” she said. Her voice was prettier than her face but it didn’t register.

“Ok. Here.” I handed her a $5 and she handed me change and the rose.

“Is this the colour rose to buy for a girlfriend, do you think?” I asked her.

“Um, that depends on what you want to say, I guess.”

“What colour does your boyfriend buy you?”

She blushed. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Then you must not get many roses. Have this one.” I handed it to her and she blushed again.

“Thank you.” That was odd- no protests about she couldn’t or I shouldn’t- just ‘thank you’. She pulled off two petals and reached over to tuck them in my jacket pocket. “You should keep a little- just so you have the fragrance.”

“Hey Kyle!” Sam was motioning to me. I was glad they hadn’t apparently seen me with the news girl. That wasn’t like me at all.

“Hey, what? Did you find the club?”

“No- but look- there’s a fortune teller. What better time for a man to get his fortune told than right before he gets married?”

Ok, that was silly. I knew fortune tellers were fake and she’d promise me riches which I already had and a happy life which I also already had… but why not? So we went in.

The place was done up like a parlor with a table in the middle and chairs, dimly lit and scruffy. Probably dirty as well but I couldn’t really tell in the low light. The gypsy was sitting at the table for all the world as if she was waiting for us. And maybe she was, I find I’m a lot less skeptical now than I used to be.

“Sit down and be comfortable,” she said.

As we arranged ourselves, she looked us over pretty piercingly.

“So you want your fortunes told?”

“That’s why we’re here.” Mack said.

“Then we will start with you, my dear Mack.”

She didn’t take his hand, didn’t pull out cards or a crystal ball, she just started talking. She told him a little bit of his past and then a lot about his future. I don’t remember most of it but it wasn’t riches and happiness and some of it was very specific. Mack looked positively spooked.

“And now, Sam.” Again she told him something about his past and then his future. I really really don’t remember what she said to him except that the last thing was “and stay out of taxi-cabs for the next two weeks.”

She turned to me and I realized that her eyes were a blazing green- the same green as the old woman I had bumped into. Shit, I was spooked before she even started talking.

“And now for Thorne.” Hey, wait a minute! Thorne is my middle name but nobody and I do mean nobody knew it. And, come to that, she’d been calling us by name but we hadn’t told her our names… “You’re to be married soon. It won’t happen.” What? Wait… “Your life is about to change completely, although you will determine if it is for the better or for the worse. You have cared nothing for anyone but yourself and no one has cared about you.” She took my hand and pressed her thumb into my left palm. “Since you have done a small kindness tonight, you will have until the roses bloom twice to find someone to love you for who you are and tell you so. If you fail, you will stay as you are forever.”

There was a green blaze and we were standing on the sidewalk… but there was no fortune teller shop behind us.

I don’t exactly remember how I got home. I was woozy from the tequila and I kept seeing green eyes blaze at me. But somehow I got home and into bed because that is where I woke up the next morning.

Chapter 2: Ending

I woke up in my own bed and alone but I was still dressed from the night before so I must have been pretty out of it. Still, I had no hang over and that was something. I stretched, feeling pretty good. It was Saturday so I didn’t have to work and I was seeing Laurel in the afternoon. I’d made her promise no wedding talk so it might even be fun.

Then I caught sight of my hand.

Where the gypsy had pressed my palm there was a blooming rose tree tattoo going half-way up my forearm. I turned my hand over and it circled around to the back and disappeared up my sleeve. What the…!

Mirror- mirror in the bathroom… right now. I turned on the light and staggered a little backwards then leaned in for a better look. I was unrecognizable, even to myself. First off, I was  bald. I’d been more than a little vain about my hair and now it was just gone- even my eyebrows were gone. There were nasty keloid scars crisscrossing my face and a tribal tattoo coming over the top of my head and around my ear that looked like a thorn branch. I looked in the backing mirror (I was so vain I had mirrors set to show my back as well) and the tattoo went over the side and top of my head and disappeared into the collar of my shirt.

I ripped the shirt off- it went down my neck and across my left shoulder-blade, then down my arm- or part of it did. It also went off down my spine with tendrils curling around onto my sides and around my right arm as well… I shucked off the slacks and there were tendrils of it on both legs as well. There was one unconnected clump of thorn branches just to the left side of center on my chest… looking closely, it was a heart made of thorns that branched out up to my throat. There were slashes of brands and more scars everywhere- parts of my skin looked like I’d been badly burned and then healed up poorly. None of it hurt… but the total effect was astonishing. I didn’t even look human any more!

My first feeling was of disbelief… this was some trick, make-up or something. But it didn’t wash off and the scars… trying to pick them off  hurt. Oh my god, what happened to me? And, more to the point, how did I make it go away?

Ok, standing there staring at the monster in the mirror wasn’t going to make anything better. I started to get dressed… and saw a flash of green in the mirror out of the corner of my eye. I looked up and the gypsy fortune-teller was in the mirror. I turned to face her and she wasn’t there. I looked back into the mirror and she was still standing there looking at me.

“Who’s the tattooed frankenskank now?” She asked. I swallowed. I wished I could go back and swallow those words now. The gypsy or witch or whatever she was had a fine sense of the ironic. “But I decided to help you. A little.”

“How… what…” I stammered.

“Magic, of course. I think you have some questions, now. I am here to answer a few of them.”

“What did you do to me?” I howled.

“Tsk, tsk. Watch your temper. You don’t like my spell?”

I was almost incredulous. “Like it? Who wants to be ugly?”

“Ah, but this is just how you were before- it shows on the outside now is all.” She waited.

I processed this as well as I could. Magic- a spell.

“What will it take for you to take it off?” I could offer money… but I had a sudden intuition that any offer like that was bound to be a bad one.

“I can’t take it off. It doesn’t work like that. You have to break it.”

Well, I certainly felt like breaking something. “How?”

“Find someone who will love you just the way that you are and tell you so. But they have to really love you. Oh, and just so you know, you can’t tell anyone that you are under a spell or it will become permanent. That’s rule #1. And if you don’t find anyone to love you in two years, you’ll stay this way forever.”

Two years. I remembered that she had mentioned that last night as well.

“Two years? Why two years? I asked

“Oh, I’m being capricious. You did something nice for someone last night.”

I thought hard. “The girl with the roses.”

“Yes, very good. She gave you two petals so I give you two years to reverse the spell. If, at the end of two years, no one has said ‘I love you’, you’ll never break the spell.”

She vanished… or rather, her reflection did. It was just as well she hadn’t really been here.

I could hear my father beginning to move around in his room- this might be simpler than I thought. I grabbed a hoodie and put it on to cover most of the mess I had become.

I didn’t join him for breakfast. Our housekeeper, Maggie, knew our habits pretty well and set out a buffet type breakfast on the weekends. So I waited until he was gone, probably an early game of golf or squash, to emerge.

Then I called Laurel.

After all, I was engaged to her and no matter what the gypsy had said, I was sure she loved me. So a spell that required nothing more than someone saying ‘I love you’ should be gone in a matter of minutes.

She picked up on the third ring. “Hi Kyle!”

“Hi sweetheart. I know we’re planning to go out later…”

“You are so not cancelling on me!”

“No, no. Nothing like that. I was calling to invite you over now. I really need to see you.” Desperately. But I didn’t say that.

“I have Pilates… I suppose I could skip, just this once. Just for you.”

“I’d appreciate it.” She’d remember I owed her a favor but if she got me out of this mess, I’d owe her a bigger one than she would know. Favors from Laurel were invariably expensive either in time or in money or both but this time it would be worth it.

I managed to dodge Maggie until Laurel got there. She was busy with her cleaning and it wasn’t difficult. I wasn’t in the habit of socializing with the help.

Maggie answered the door when Laurel rang the bell. Usually I answered it myself if I was expecting her but not today.

“Good morning, Miss Laurel.”

“Where is Kyle?” Laurel didn’t socialize with the help either, something I appreciated about her. They were there to work, not talk.

“In the library, Miss Laurel. If you’d…”

“I can find my way.”

I heard her staccato steps on the hall tile approaching. I’d chosen the library because it had the fewest windows. With the thick curtains closed, it was very dim, almost completely dark.

“Kyle?”

“In here.” She reached for the light switch but I put my hand over hers. “Don’t turn on the lights.”

“Oh, silly, I can’t see you at all. And I wore something pretty just for you.”

“Laurel, do you love me?”

“Ok, I don’t know what game this is. Of course I do.”

“Would you say it? Please?”

“Kyle, what is the matter  with you today?”

“Just please, say that you love me.”

“Oh alright. I love you, Kyle. Now let me turn on the light and we can decide where we’re going to lunch. I heard of this great little bistro…” She turned on the light as she was talking and screamed.

It hadn’t worked. And now Laurel was standing there with a look of pure shock on her face and her scream still ringing in my ears.

“Laurel, sweetheart, it’s me. It’s Kyle.” I wanted to go closer to her, hug her, but I didn’t move. If I did, she might run and now more than ever we needed to talk.

“K-kyle?”

“It’s really me.”

Maggie looked around the corner behind Laurel. I’m sure Laurel’s scream brought her running. She looked at me and her eyes widened but she didn’t say anything and slipped back out.

“Oh, Kyle, you really scared me. That’s a fantastic make-up job but you can’t go out looking like that. Take it off.”

“It’s not make-up.”

“What?”

“It’s not make-up.” She came closer and tried to rub the tattoo off, testing.

“Oh shit, Kyle! What happened to you?”

I started to tell her.. and remembered that I couldn’t. “I can’t tell you.”

“Well. I can see why you wanted to talk to me. What are you going to tell them at work?”

I hadn’t even considered that. “I don’t know yet. Maybe I should take a leave of absence.”

“Is it permanent?”

“I don’t know that either. It could be.” I’d do everything I could to make sure that it wasn’t…. but my first idea hadn’t worked very well.

“Well you might as well resign. No client is going to want you on their account with you looking like that.”

She was right. Advertising is all about appearances and my appearance was pretty awful now. “That’s not exactly on the top of my priority list right now.” I told her, a little annoyed.

“No, I suppose it isn’t. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of calls to make.”

Do what? “Calls?”

“Of course. I have to cancel the catering and the church and return all the wedding gifts and I don’t even know what else. You’ve made quite a mess for me, Kyle.” She made a face.

“We don’t have to call off the wedding.” This caught me completely blind-side. I hadn’t even thought about canceling the wedding.

“You don’t think I’m seriously going to go through with it now, do you? I can’t marry you- I can’t even be seen speaking to you. Just think what that kind of publicity would do to my career.”

“But I’m still the same person!” I protested.

“No, you aren’t. You would have made a great first husband- we were a cute couple and I could have met so many good contacts as your wife… but you can’t offer me anything I want now.” She wasn’t even looking at me any more. She’d already dismissed me from her life without even thinking twice about it. Then what she was saying sunk in and my mental gears ground to a halt.

“First husband? You planned to have more than one?” I think it was my turn to be stunned.

“Oh, of course. But now you’ve ruined it. Don’t call me, don’t text me- just pretend you never met me. I’ll manage the damage control.” She spoke as if she were doing me another favor. “Now I have to go- I have a lot to do. Good-bye Kyle.”

I didn’t see her to the door. But then, I don’t think I’d ever seen her before. I didn’t feel angry, just kind of all-gone, like someone had punched a hole through me that ought to hurt dreadfully but was to serious to feel yet. I collapsed into a chair.

I’m not sure how long I was sitting there before Maggie looked around the door frame again. “Mister Kyle?”

“What is it?” I was far too upset to be anything less than brusque.

“Are you ok?”

I stared at her. “Am I ok? My face is ruined, I’m bloody bald and my ex-fiancé doesn’t ever want to speak to me again. On top of that, I still have to tell my father. And my job.” I still needed to consider what to do about the job. I wasn’t ready to actually quit until I was sure that my face was permanently ugly.

Right up until that moment, I’d thought of Maggie, when I thought of her at all, as a timid, mostly efficient, fixture of the house. It hadn’t occurred to me to think of her as a person. She changed that right then and there vehemently.

“Well, sitting in the dark moping about it won’t change anything.” She came into the room and stood in front of me. “Now you need to get up and call that job of yours and tell them that you need to start you vacation a week early- you were taking a two month honeymoon vacation anyway so it’s already in place- and tell them that the wedding is off. Miss Laurel may remember to call them and she may not but that is one place where you need to be the one who tells them. Another is your father and you can tell him when he gets home tonight.”

I couldn’t do anything except stare at her. I felt galvanized, as though I’d touched a live wire. But she wasn’t done.

“And as for that Miss Laurel, I don’t think you should spend too much time being upset over her. I never did think she loved you enough, or in the right way. The way she looked at you when you weren’t looking! Not adoring, but like you were something to eat. And then leaving you at the first little bit of trouble? You may not feel it now but you’re better off without her.”

I had to say something…but what? She was right… ok, I didn’t know about the way Laurel looked at me… but she was right about everything else. “Why, Maggie, I didn’t know you cared.”

“Mister Kyle, you’re a pretty smart man, but you don’t see what’s right in front of you most of the time. Now I need to be starting supper and you need to be calling your job.” She started to leave and turned back in the doorway. “And don’t you go turning off the lights and just sitting there. You remind me of my son sometimes- he used to get petulant when things were bad too.”

That shook me up a little more. I never thought of Maggie having a family. And then it made me mad- couldn’t she see what I looked like now? My life was over and she’d practically called me a spoiled sulky child because I couldn’t just keep going.

In spite of that, I did get up and call my job.

Chapter 3: Changes

Actually calling my job was not too bad. As Maggie pointed out, I was already going to be away so it was a simple matter to extend the time to six months. By that time I should know if I was going to have to quit or if I could go back. Or if I wanted to go back… I didn’t actually have to work, I mostly enjoyed working because not working left me feeling like a wastrel. Of course, my boss was curious about why the wedding was called off when it was so close but I didn’t elaborate and he couldn’t demand to know.

I waited for my father in the darkened library so he would hear me before he saw me. I think Maggie knew what I was doing because she didn’t interfere.

When he came in, he was on the phone, as usual but I heard him sign off fairly quickly. He’d be back on the phone in a minute or two so I carpe diem-ed like hell.

“Dad?”

“Kyle? Where are you?”

“In the library. Could you come in here for a minute?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

As he came in, he reached for the light switch. What is it with people that they always have to turn on the lights? “Don’t  turn on the light!” I said- louder and harsher than I meant to.

“Kyle? Son? What’s the matter?”

“Do you love me, Dad?”

“Of course I love you- you’re my son.” And he turned on the lights.

Ah, damn it! At least he didn’t scream- Laurel had been enough on that front. But I did have to go through the whole rig-a-ma-role of proving to him that I was still me even if I didn’t look like it. And even then he looked at me like I had just crawled out from under a rock and he wished I would crawl back.

“Kyle, what happened?”

“I can’t tell you, Dad, I just can’t.” I was getting pretty tired of the question- especially since I was liable to get put out and answer it… and then be stuck like this forever.

“Well, first thing in the morning, we’re going to see some people about fixing this. This wasn’t intentional, was it?”

“Oh, hell no!” How could he think I would ever want to look like this? Besides, couldn’t he see that I had scars- scars don’t come up over night. First you have to have cuts and then they have to heal… even tattoos take weeks to heal and no tattoo artist in the world would do such a massive whole body tattoo all at once. Even without me telling him, couldn’t he see that something else was going on?

Apparently not.

Over the next several weeks, we must have seen every top doctor in the country. None of them could help me in any way. One very young and very bold doctor did try to remove one of the scars on my face… it made it worse. And the laser tattoo removal- that was a disaster. In a few cases, laser tattoo removal results in something called ‘paradoxical darkening’. It means that the treated tattoo, instead of breaking up and disappearing, gets darker and more prominent. Which is what happened to me.

On the plus side of the medical examinations, I was healthy as a horse and would probably live to be a hundred and ten. Assuming that no villagers took up pitchforks against me, of course. On the down side, I overheard my father telling one of the doctors that we’d risk anything to make me look more normal. Which let me know just exactly how important my appearance was to him- more than my life. That was when I told him no more.

Driving back to the city, he was unusually quiet. I think he’d actually turned his phone off, for once. But when we got close, the driver turned off in a different direction than our apartment building and pulled up in front of an old brownstone in a radically different neighbourhood.

My father turned to me. “I thought this would be a nice surprise. Nice and private where people can’t be staring all the time.”

We went in. All of my things were already there and Maggie was dashing about cleaning and putting things away. I didn’t have the heart to look around much but I did notice that it was only  my things. “You’re keeping the apartment in the city?”

“Well, just so I’ll have some place to sleep if I’m running late. I still have to get my stuff moved in, it was more important to get yours here.”

“Where is your room?”

He pointed to a room across the hall from mine. It was completely empty. “I’ll be right here. And Maggie’s here- she’s going to stay in the house with us since we have so much more room. Now, I have an appointment in 30 minutes but I’ll be back later tonight.”

He hugged me and left. I didn’t expect him to come back that night… or any other. All the time we had been doing the medical exams, he tried but it was obvious how hard it was for him to look at me or touch me. To his credit, he had tried harder in the past few weeks to be a parent to me than he had since I was in junior high school but he just didn’t have it in him to love something ugly.

So my face was gone, my job was gone, my fiancé was gone, my friends were gone and now I had lost my home and my only family. Somebody once said that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to loose. If that were the case, I was the freest man in the history of the world.

Chapter 4: Hiding

I must ask pardon for not writing too much about this time, For one thing, little changed from day to day. For another, mostly all I can remember is grey days fading into stygian black nights dawning into more grey and hopeless days. The leaves on the rosebush tattoo were starting to turn colours  and fall. An unmoving fog seemed ever around the house.. fitting for the haunted house of a monster, I suppose.

Maggie assures me that it was no more foggy than any other autumn in the city. There were sunny days and rainy days and so on and it was only my own gloom that created my perception of constant fog. She’s probably right- she usually is.

I don’t know what I would have done without Maggie. She badgered me to get up in the mornings, to eat and to keep moving. She refused to coddle me over much and would not let me lapse into total immobility.

At first, I admit, I was an uncooperative brat. The only way she could get me out of bed was to dump frozen ball bearings on me. She only had to do that twice- after that hearing them rattling in the can was enough to propel me out of the bed. But once up, I moped and when I didn’t mope, I sulked. I refused to see anyone and I never left the house so that no one could see me. When I did get up, the only movement I did willingly was to occasionally take heart-felt but mostly ineffective swings at the punching bag we’d installed in one of the larger rooms. I think it was originally meant to be a ballroom but it was never going to fill that function with me living here.

I tried to confine my violence to the punching bag but one morning I looked in the bathroom mirror and drew back to take a swing at my own horrific reflection. There was a green flash and green eyes looking out of the mirror at me.

“Rule #2. Don’t Break The Mirror. You’re going to need it.”

The eyes started to fade and I called “Wait!” They came back into focus. “I have a question about rule #1- if I don’t tell but someone guesses, do I have to deny it?”

“Humm. Yes, okay. If they guess, you can confirm. But be careful- telling anything they did not guess will be breaking the rule.”

I’d been wondering about that for awhile. “Thank you. Even if it doesn’t happen, that helps.”

The eyes blinked and looked a little surprised. “You’re welcome. Don’t break the mirror.” And they were gone again.

Some time later, I came into the room while Maggie was watching a news program and she uncharacteristically flipped it off. Since she was usually encouraging me to take an interest in the world outside of the house, I flipped it back on- perversely wanting to know what it was that she didn’t want me to see.

Laurel. Laurel getting married… to Sam. I watched the whole program with Maggie darting sidelong looks at me to see how I was taking it. When it was over she asked me “Well?”

I had to think about it a bit… but while I was a little angry, I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t even wish either of them anything but well. “Well, I don’t suppose they could have invited me but it might have been nice for Sam to let me know.” It occurred to me that it had only been about six months since that horrible day when my life as I knew it ended and Laurel walked out.

“Then you’re ok with this?” she probed.

“Yeah, he’ll make her a nice ‘first husband’… and she had to hurry- that dress will be out of style by spring.” I was pretty sure that was her motivation for the rush. She’d spent a fortune on that dress- by Vera Wang or somebody- and had it altered so it couldn’t be returned. I did wonder if Sam had managed to curb his tendency to play the field or if they were both doing it… and if they were, were they telling each other? Or were they playing the happy couple for each other as well as the public? It didn’t matter- I was just glad it was Sam and not me. I felt more like laughing than I had in months.

I didn’t entirely stop sulking after that but my black mood did lighten just a bit. Maggie no longer had to push me to get up and I started a workout routine which helped. The more I moved, the less bad I felt so I ended up doing a lot more. I started exploring the house- not that I hadn’t dragged into every room before- but really seeing it. While I couldn’t make myself look any better, the house had a lot of untapped potential, including a rooftop garden.

Working on the garden was a bit problematic for me because it was exposed… until I realized that in the first place, most people never look up and in the second, even if they did, I was too high to be more than a silhouette. They might wonder what I looked like but they wouldn’t be able to see. So I worked on the garden as much as I could and planned a greenhouse so that I could still grow some of the plants in the winter.

The greenhouse turned out to be one of my more eclectic home improvement projects. I didn’t want workmen in the house so I had to learn how to do pretty much everything myself, which, I’m sure was good for me. I found in the attic a number of old windows- fabulous old windows- some had stained glass insets and others were leaded glass and it was out of these that I planned my greenhouse. I scraped my hands and I hammered my thumb more than once but eventually I got it together… and realized I had no idea what to plant. I did put in several pots of herbs for Maggie after asking her what she liked to cook with most but they only filled a very small corner.

While that was the most difficult, it wasn’t the only improvement I made to the house. I laid a cork floor in the kitchen- because cork is easier on the feet and legs when cooking but still easy to clean. I fixed doors and window sashes and stripped and refinished woodwork… and stripped all the hardwood floors and refinished them. Then I turned painter and painted or papered every room in the house. There was one I made into a bedroom… although goodness knows I was never going to have a guest… at the top of the house. I painted it some shade of green called bamboo and helped Maggie fix up the soft furnishings in all shades of green. It had a leaded glass skylight that opened into the greenhouse and it turned out to be the prettiest room in the house. We actually fixed several rooms up as bedrooms- mine and Maggie’s of course- and the room at the top of the house- and the room that my father never moved into.

That last was so depressing that I didn’t have the heart to finish it. I knew my father and I knew he placed great value on good looks- he works in television- so I knew he was never going to spend even a single night there, no matter how many time he said he was coming. He would always have a reason to cancel at the last minute.

Maggie found me sitting in the middle of the floor. I’d reverted to my not-moving phase, I guess.

“I’d have thought you’d be finished with this room by now.”

“Why? He’s not ever coming here.”

“You never know. He’s your father, he’ll come.”

“I don’t think so.”

Maggie looked at me pensively. “Still, finish the room. It’s not good to leave things unfinished.”

I knew she was right but I kept procrastinating- or trying to, there wasn’t much else to do. Maggie kept the house spotless and, with only the two of us, she didn’t need any help. Indeed, she had more spare time than ever, part of which she used to write long letters. I later found out that she had always written the letters… but she never mailed any of them. She didn’t even address them, just wrote a date on the envelope and added it to a file box with dozens of others. Finally curiosity got the better if me and I asked her about it over dinner one night. We had abandoned eating separately early on. With only the two of us, it seemed stupid as well as lonely.

“They’re to my family.”

“But you never send them, why is that?” I knew she must miss her family a lot to write such long letters.

“They don’t want to hear from me.” She sighed.

“Oh, Maggie, I’m sure they do. You said you had a son?” She had never told me anything about her family… but then, I hadn’t ever asked before.

“Two… and a husband. They’re in Ireland, fighting in the IRA, and I had to leave. I couldn’t stand the violence any more.”

“But you still miss them, ” I said.

“Of course I do! I tried to get Liam, that’s my husband, to come with me but he wouldn’t and the boys are already following in his footsteps… or they were when I left. I still wish they would drop all the revenge and hate and join  me here but I don’t see any way of that happening.”

I felt bad for Maggie. I knew all too well how lonely it is to have a family that doesn’t want you. I wanted to help but frankly, I didn’t see any way I could.

It was around that same time that I asked Maggie to call me by my middle name, Thorne, instead of Kyle.

“Um. Okay, it will take a bit of getting used to and you might have to remind me a couple of times. But why?”

I didn’t blame her for being a little confused. I’d brought it up out of the clear blue. “Everything’s changed- I’ve changed. So much so that I don’t even feel like the same person any more. ‘Kyle’ is dead and gone.”

She nodded. She never did need reminding which only reinforced my conviction.

Eventually I finished my father’s room. I’d drawn it out longer than was reasonable but there were limits. And now I had nothing at all to do. The house began to close in on me like a prison and I felt that I had to get out or go crazy.

Chapter 5: Shadows

I didn’t have to stay in the house- I was only trapped by my reluctance to be seen. Was it possible to go out without being seen? I had a car- Maggie used it for shopping- and all the windows were tinted. If I went out at night, the chance of someone getting a good look at my face was remote.

Driving around helped some but I still felt trapped. So one night, I ran away.

I don’t mean that literally, I didn’t intend on staying gone, but I snuck out the back door and went for a walk. I kept my hood up and my head down and turned my face away whenever I passed anyone. Mostly I stayed in the shadows. No one saw me, at least, no one saw me well enough to stare or scream and I felt freer than I had since my bachelor party.

One frozen bright morning, the doorbell rang. I expected it was someone selling something- insurance, religion, girl scout cookies- something. But when I looked through the peep-hole, it was a young man, not much older than me.

“Who are you?” I demanded.

“The tutor? Your dad hired me. I’m supposed to move in today.” How like my dad- he hadn’t even bothered to send me a text message to let me know about this much less ask if I wanted someone else in the house.

“Tell my father he can go to hell!” I had no intention of letting this joker into my house, certainly not on my father’s say-so.

“Happy to. Meantime, how about you cage the rage and invite me in for a nice hot bowl of ‘dad sucks’.”

He was taking this awfully calmly, my father must have told him that he’d be less than welcome.

“Saw right through that one, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s a little gift I have. Especially since I can’t actually, you know, see.”

Blind- the man was blind. What could I do? I opened the door. At least he wouldn’t be shocked at my appearance.

“Hi, I’m Will.” I could see now that he had a cane- unobtrusive but there.

“Come in. I’ll get Maggie. She’ll welcome you to hell, fix you up with your own bedroom and explain what happened to me and what I did to deserve this. Oh, and please, please, hang with us. Gouge the old man for everything he’s worth. He deserves it.” I started to go get Maggie and then came back. “You know what? Obviously he forgot to spin the borderline hostile act of hiring a blind guy to tutor his creep-show son. As for continuing education, I think I’ll take a pass.”

I left Will standing in the hall and sent Maggie to settle him in. I wasn’t mad at him but I was so angry that it spilled over. A tutor! I didn’t need a tutor. I was already done with school years ago. I had a bachelor’s degree in… oh. Advertising. A field for which I was no longer qualified. Eventually I was going to have to learn to do something else- something where no one would see me. Maybe a tutor wasn’t such a bad idea.

In spite of this realization, I avoided Will for the most part at first. Partly because I didn’t want to find out what he was supposed to be teaching me and partly because he made me ashamed of moping about aimlessly. I couldn’t avoid him at dinner and I found myself liking him quite a lot. He had a wicked sense of humor which he turned on himself as often as he turned it on anything.

Maggie sensibly moved him into what we had been calling my father’s room in tacit acknowledgement that my father was never coming near this house. Which put him right across the hall from me… and Will had ears like a bat. One morning, I came out of my room just as he was finishing dressing, the door partway open. I was barefoot but when I came a bit closer to see what he was doing- choosing a tie by the feel of it- he startled me by speaking as if he knew I was there.

“Defying expectations, Blindie keeps up his bitchin’ sense of style. A hold-over from my seeing days.” He’d mentioned that he had been able to see until he was 15- which sucks worse than never having been able to see at all. He knew what he was missing.

“Point being, no matter what, how you look matters?” That had been the philosophy my father had drummed into me all my life.

“Point being, it’s not about how others look at me, It’s about how I look at myself. Mental Rubik’s cube, I know, but one day it’ll make sense.” He waggled his eyebrows at me and we went down to breakfast.

One thing I had noticed, I didn’t seem to be sleeping nearly as much as I did before the change. I could spend the day bantering with Will and Maggie and then slip out late in the evening for a walk… and still be up for breakfast. I didn’t go out every evening at first but as I grew more confident of not being seen, I went out more and more. My walks started out being random… and one evening as I was leaving I saw a flash of green from the mirror.

I went in to the room, thinking the gypsy wanted to tell me something… and there was a street scene in the mirror. It was the fortune telling shop. Ok, the message couldn’t have been plainer- I went there.

The shop was there alright, but it was closed. The sign in the window said “Come Back Tomorrow” and while it might not have been a specific instruction to me, I decided that I should do exactly that. I really, really didn’t want to make her any more angry with me than she already was. From the shadow beside the building, I could see the news stand where I had bought the rose. It was closing up and the rose-girl was just locking the door. I felt a sudden rush of gratitude to her- she had bought me two years. Maybe it wouldn’t do me any good, but I still felt I owed her.

Even though it was late, she didn’t seem to be afraid of the city at night. I followed her, keeping well back. I’m not even sure why I followed her. She led me into a neighbourhood that I never been before- decrepit and derelict- and went into a building with ratty little shops on the first floor  but apparently tenement apartments above. In a minute or two, I saw lights go on in a second floor window. I watched the window for awhile and could see glimpses of her beyond a short row of plants on the window sill.

I stayed until I saw the lights go off- all but one dim one. She was leaving the light on for someone. I pondered this. It could be a roommate.. or a boyfriend. No, wait, she told me that she didn’t have a boyfriend. Of course, that was months ago and things could have changed since then.

As I walked home, I took note of places I wouldn’t be seen. Behind fire escapes, in the mouth of alleys. And there were plenty of shadows, the streetlights were not good here.

Next evening I went earlier, in hopes of catching the gypsy shop open but it still had the sign in the window. Had it been open at all? There was no way I could know.

Since I had nothing better to do, I watched the news stand. The rose-girl was working again and she was nice to watch. She was pretty but not in the glamorous way that Laurel was pretty, she looked fresh and effortless. And she was friendly, she had a smile for everyone and called several people by name.

As it got close to time for her to close, I noticed the homeless men (and one woman) stopping by, one or two at a time. She handed all and sundry cups of coffee until there was no more. Then she cleaned the pot and put it away. This was obviously something she did every night- giving away coffee instead of throwing it away.  She knew every one of their names and they knew hers… which is how I found out that her name actually was Rose. I hadn’t been so far off in thinking of her as ‘the rose-girl’.

So I followed her home again- just to make sure that she was safe. She might be friendly with the homeless people but this was also close to the Dead Rabbits gang territory. With that in mind, I started showing up every night to shadow her home. It was unaccountably important to me that she be safe.

I’d been doing this for several days when she came back out of her building almost as soon as she got there. She walked around the neighbourhood for quite awhile, looking for someone. Eventually, she found him- her father- and managed to get him to come home although he was obviously intoxicated on something. This made me very late getting myself home that night and I heard about it at dinner the next evening.

Will was teasing me. He could do things I never imagined a blind person could but sometimes he did make a mistake. That night he was refilling his water glass between dinner and dessert while Maggie was getting the confection of the evening. He managed to pour it almost full… and then poured a bit more… and then I stopped him before he over-filled the glass. He chuckled at me… since he’d been waiting for me to stop him.

“Ass-wipe” I muttered.

“You have the humor of a marmot. So, I heard someone sneaking in late last night. Where’d you go?” he asked.

“Isn’t the good thing about having no parents that you have no parents? Get off my back.” I grumbled at him. I really didn’t want to tell about following Rose- it sounded too close to stalking. “You know, since we last talked, I’ve been thinking, and is there any kind of eye operation? Because I saw, like, every doctor in the country.”

“Miracle only,” he said. “But.. thanks.”

Maggie had come in by then. “So where’d you go last night?” she chimed in- not letting me change the subject.

“I went to see about this girl.” I said, rather vaguely.

Maggie almost clapped her hands. “I’m so happy for you!” she exclaimed.

“I didn’t even talk to her!” Congratulations were a bit premature at best.

Will grinned. “Baby steps,” he said. “You think you might say ‘wassup’?”

“The benefit of you being blind is you can’t see how I should so never  say ‘wassup’.” I could just imagine what the response to that would be. But we ended the meal in high spirits. It was good to have friends who believed in me even if the odds were definitely not in my favor.

Even though I no longer expected to catch the gypsy’s shop  open, I kept going back. I found I could get close enough to listen to conversations and read the titles of the books she read between customers. Rose read voraciously and I began ordering the book she was currently reading as I would be able to read it as well.

Will found out that I was reading more and we had some satisfying discussions about some of the more classic works. While he could teach math and history, his passion was for literature, especially classic English works. I had mostly found his favorites to be dry and boring before we discussed them but he made them come alive. It was a little while before I realized that he loved teaching and agreed to informal classes. I didn’t need a literature degree but it was only a formalization of the discussions we were already having and it made Will happy… or at least happier.  Besides, I found that, if I brought up a book at dinner, he was less likely to tease me about my increasingly late nights.

And I was staying out later and more often. More and more frequently, Rose would go out looking for her father after work. Whatever his addiction, it was getting worse.

I didn’t like it when Rose had to go out again late at night. When she walked home from work, there was a spring in her step and she made me wonder if she liked to dance, the way she moved. When she went out later, she was not happy- her movements were subdued. Perhaps she was trying to avoid attention but there was no bounce in her walk. I couldn’t tell if she was frightened or just worried… or possibly both. Occasionally she found her father quickly but usually it took an hour or more. Those nights I didn’t dare leave her. She managed to stay under the Dead Rabbits’ radar but she frequently crossed over into their ‘turf’.

Chapter 6: Danger

Rose’s father was usually alone when she found him… and often passed out… but not always. A couple of times there was another man, or two, who faded away when she came up.

One night, she didn’t have to go very far at all. Her father was just behind her own building… but there were two men with him. They were arguing about money- money Rose’s father owed and hadn’t paid for drugs.

“Oh Dad, not again!” I heard her say.

“Pay up now.. or we’ll take it out in trade. With the girl.”

Ok, that was not going to happen. I rounded the corner, not even trying not to be seen. The whole group of them was on a fire escape, two stories up. And one of the men was brandishing a gun. Rose’s father pushed her behind him… and she tripped, falling down one set of stairs and over the railing.

I don’t think I’ve ever moved so fast. I managed to catch her before she hit the ground but she must have hit her head falling because she was unconscious. I carried her inside, away from the fight, and laid her down on a bench in the lobby. Her colour was okay and her breathing was good so I didn’t think she was badly hurt. She’d probably have several bruises and a sore spot on her head but nothing major. Then I heard gunfire.

Ah, shit! I left Rose, she would be okay for a minute, and ran back around the building.

Her father was facing off with one of the other men- the second was dead. Obviously dead… and Rose’s father was still holding the gun.

I went up as fast as I could. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do but the other man saw me coming and ran for it, up the fire escape and over the roof, saying: “Your daughter- she’s ours!” as he went.

Rose’s father turned the gun on me as I got to the top of the landing but I was far too pumped on adrenaline to care. I smacked it away and threw it over the railing.

“Who are you? You’re not one of them… what do you want?” He shouted.

I stared at him for what seemed like a long time but probably wasn’t. “I want her.” I know I must have been frightening in that dark alley- I still hadn’t covered my face. He stared at me just like I had stared at him. “I won’t hurt her- I want to protect her.”

“No! I can protect her…”

“Did you hear what he said? The entire gang will be after her- I’m guessing it’s the Dead Rabbits- and there’s no way you can protect her from all of them.  I can. I can take her away where they will never find her.” I don’t know how I knew she would be safe with me… but I did.

“I don’t even know you…” he must still be a little high- he kept trailing off without really finishing his sentences.

“So they won’t know even where to start looking. You killed one of their own- they won’t ever stop now. The money, you could have paid back. This is revenge now.” I felt like I was trying to explain something that should be obvious but I couldn’t tell if I was getting through.

“But what’s she going to think of you?” I guess my face finally registered with him.

“That’s my look-out, not yours. Meet me tomorrow night, in front of this building, at 10 pm.”  I didn’t wait to see if he agreed- he would do it because he had no choice.

Chapter 7:  Running

Now I had to plan how to get her away without being followed and without the Rabbits realizing that she hadn’t left the city. It would be better if they thought she’d gone far away- I didn’t think their influence reached beyond the city limits.

Looking back, it would have been a better choice to simply send her elsewhere but I honestly didn’t think of it. I expect that I didn’t trust that she would be safe unless I knew she was safe. Selfish of me, but there it is.

So, camouflage. I went to a cab company and rented one of their off-duty cabs. I make that sound simple but it took a bit of persuasion and enough ‘rent’ to replace the cab. For once, my looks were not really against me- I’m sure the cabbie I talked to thought I needed it for some drug deal or other nefarious purpose, but he didn’t ask questions. Maybe I scared him. We agreed that I would leave it and the keys sitting at the train station and the cabbie could either pick it up or report it stolen- as long as he waited until after midnight to report it.

Train tickets were easier- there are automatic machines for tickets to go anywhere. So I got a couple of passes that would allow for everywhere and could be used for up to a week. Not that I intended for us to use them but I wanted real ones just in case.

I saw Rose and her father as I turned the corner. I’d walked here often but I hadn’t ever driven down these streets so I was being very careful. The cab was unfamiliar, nothing was quite in the right place to me. They were standing in front of the building so I was able to pull up right in front of them. I hadn’t worn a mask but I did have on a hoodie that shadowed my face as much as possible as well as the cabbie’s borrowed hat and jacket. I didn’t want to frighten Rose out of her wits… and my face isn’t one you forget.

I rolled down the window. “Cab for your daughter, sir.” He looked a bit confused. “Get in. Please.” He opened the door and Rose threw a backpack and a suitcase in and got in. Then her father started to get in. “Just the girl, please.” He closed the door and came around to my window.

“I don’t understand, we didn’t call a cab.”

I looked up at him so he could see a little of my face. “Just because you didn’t call one, doesn’t mean you don’t need one.” I handed him the envelope with the ‘phone I had prepared. “Don’t loose it, don’t sell it and don’t reprogram it.” I pulled the cab away back into the light traffic.

Rose was sitting with her arms crossed. I had no idea what her father had said to her but she looked very angry. She was staring at the back of my head.

“You’re not a cabbie.”

“No, I’m not.” I’d better tell her a little of what we were doing to loose her pursuers- there was a car two back that was shadowing us. Not obviously but they were there. “We’re going to do a fast intricate little dance now. It’s for your safety and I’m leading. Please follow without asking questions and I will answer them all as soon as it’s safe.”

“How do I know you’re not just kidnapping me?” I was prepared for this

“On the seat there is a manila envelope. In it is a phone. It already has your father’s new phone programed in and is encrypted.”

“Encrypted?”

“Yes. I’ll explain later but for now what you need to know is that you can call your father or anyone else on that phone and your location can’t be traced. Please use it instead of any other.”

She considered this for a moment. “Okay, that does make me feel safer.”

That was what I had hoped. That being told she could call whoever she wanted would make her less likely to feel abducted. But, right now, safely was an illusion and the train station was getting close.

“Rose. I won’t ever hurt you in any way. Trust me on this.” I paused “Do you have a hat?”

“I have a toboggan. Will that do?”

“Nicely. Please take it out and put it in your pocket.”

We pulled into the train station. I was glad it was cold. People are much less identifiable as amorphous blobs of coats… and it gave me an excuse for the hoodie and the gloves.

“Get out, take your backpack. I’ll get the suitcase for you. Leave the hat in your pocket for now.”

Rose nodded. Our tail was pulling in, we hadn’t lost them. But then, I hadn’t meant to.

We walked into the station and she headed for the manned ticket counter. I was a little behind her and when she got there, I walked past, not turning to face the counter and held up the tickets and kept walking.

“We already have tickets.”

She scampered to catch up to me.

“You could have told me- now I look stupid.”

“I’m sorry. I wanted him to see and remember you but not be able to give any information about where you are going.”

“You mean where we are going.”

“Oh no. I’m just a cabbie, helping you with your luggage. At least, that’s what I hope they’ll see. Ah, there’s a train for Baltimore in five minutes. We’ll use that one.”

We walked down the stairs to the loading area.

“Get on, walk through the car to the next one.”

When we got to the next car, Rose slowed.

“Keep going.”

She picked up the pace. When we got to the back, where we couldn’t be seen through the windows, I stopped her.

“Tuck your hair inside your jacket and put on your hat.” I told her shedding the cabbie’s jacket and hat. I still kept the hood up, I didn’t want to panic her now. I pulled a bright red scarf out of my own pocket and handed it to her. “Put this on.” Then I kicked the cabbie’s jacket and hat under a seat. “Okay. Through the next car. And hurry.” We navigated that car quickly and she stopped at the end.

“What now?”

“We get off.” The train lurched and she staggered. “Hurry.”

We got off on the opposite side we had gotten on.

“Bend down and tie your shoe.”

“But…”

“Do it!” I was too sharp but I didn’t want anyone to see her face. And I had become a master of techniques to hide a face in public. I could see the men who were tailing us moving through the cars we had passed through- looking for her. But the train was already pulling away and none of them were looking out the windows.

“Can I get up now?”

“Just another second… okay.”

She stood up. “What…”

I cut her off. “We’re not safe yet. Up these stairs. Please.”

The stairs came out on the other side of the station where I had my own car parked. I directed her to it and opened the back door, holding it for her. She got in and I closed the door with a metal sigh of relief. With the tint on the windows, someone would have to look very hard to see that there was someone in the car with me and would not be able to see more than that.

Still, it didn’t hurt to be cautious. I took the long way home, watching the traffic- but no one was following.

“Are you ever going to tell me what this is all about?” Rose startled me a little with her question. She’d been quiet since we got in the car.

“Yes, very soon now. We’re almost home.”

“Home?”

“My home. Yours, for now.”

I hit the button to open the garage and drove in. I hadn’t turned on the lights so it was dim… and there was less chance of her seeing my face.

As I took her suitcase and held the door for her, I dreaded her first sight of me, tamping down both my relief that my goldbergesque maneuver had worked and my elation that she was actually here. But all I said was “Home. You’re safe now.”

Chapter 8: Ugly

The door into the house opened and Maggie was standing there, backlit with a scent of fresh bread wafting out around her. I blessed her mentally- she could make a cave on the dark side of the moon seem homey and welcoming.

“Well, come on in- it’s cold out here and I have hot chocolate for you that’s not improving by cooling.”

I fell behind Rose. The closer it got, the more I was dreading her seeing me.

Maggie had already helped her out of her jacket by the time I got in and shut the door. I set her suitcase down next to her discarded backpack moving a lot slower than I usually do. Rose sat down at the table and accepted a cup of chocolate gratefully- curling her hands around it to enjoy the warmth.

“Ok. You said you would answer my questions when we were ‘safe’ and now you’ve said that we’re ‘safe’ so it’s time to start answering them.” In spite of everything, Rose sounded like she still had the remnants of the anger she had obviously been feeling in the cab.

“It’s late and I’m sure you’re tired. Wouldn’t you like to wait until morning?”

“No, I would not. You haven’t told me any of what this is all about, I don’t know your name and I haven’t even seen what you look like yet.”

Maggie looked at me, astonished. “You haven’t even told her your name?”

I scrubbed my toe on the floor, feeling suddenly more like a school-boy than I did even at school. “An oversight on my part. I apologize.  Rose, my name is Thorne. And this is Maggie, my housekeeper.”

“Ok. that’s a start. Why don’t you take off your jacket, sit down and have some of this excellent chocolate and answer my questions?”

“Um. I’m not sure you want me to take off the jacket. I am really extremely ugly.”

Rose looked taken aback. “You mean you’ve kept that hood up because you didn’t want me to see you?”

“Mostly. The other bit is that I’m pretty memorable, if you see me, and I wanted us to vanish.”

Rose rolled her eyes. “Just take off the hoodie. I promise, I’ll be able to handle what ever it is that you think I can’t.”

Moment of truth- no more hiding. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my whole life as I was right at that moment. I turned away, just so she would get a little warning, and pushed the hood back, then took it off and hung it on the coat tree next to the door. I turned around and I swear my heart was in my mouth. Would she run away screaming?

I could barely look up at her but when I did, she wasn’t screaming… or even scared. She did look at me pretty closely- not quite staring but almost.

“Pretty gruesome, isn’t it?”

She took a deep breath. “I’ve seen worse.”

Ok, now that was not the reaction I had expected at all. Someday I would have to ask her just what it was that she considered ‘worse’… but not tonight.

“Now, please, sit down and talk to me!”

So I sat down. Maggie handed me a steaming cup of chocolate and when I tasted it, I almost choked. She’d laced it with something alcoholic and sweet- maybe Irish Cream. Not enough to do more than be relaxing but it was a big surprise. A second sip told me that it was delicious.

“Why am I here?”

Ok, skip the small talk, why don’t we. “What did your father tell you?”

“That’s not germane to the subject. I love my father… but he lies when it suits him and it usually does. So I want you to tell me the truth. Why am I here?”

“The short answer is, you’re in danger. Or you would be, if you stayed with him.”

“I can pretty much take care of myself so in danger from what?”

Oh this was tough. I wanted to be truthful… but I didn’t want to tell her that her father had murdered a man. “Some men that your father does business with. They threatened to kill you.”

She went a little pale. “Why?”

“He did something to piss them off. So they were going to get back at him through hurting you. I told him that I could protect you.”

“So you’re an old friend of my father’s? He’s never talked about you.”

“More like a very recent friend of your father’s.”

“Recent. How recent?”

“Very. I heard the threat and offered to keep you safe.”

“And he just said ‘sure’?”

Not without some arm-twisting… but I wasn’t going to tell her that. “I think he was scared to death for you.” And scared to death of me but we won’t say that either. “I know how to hide very well.”

Rose studied me for a long moment. “I guess you do, at that. So, what was all that nonsense about getting on a train and then getting off again?”

“Ah. There were several men following you from the time you got into the cab.”

“There were? And you knew it?”

“I expected it. They followed us to the train station and were searching the train when it pulled away.”

“So what was with the stopping to tie my shoe? I’m not even wearing shoes that tie.”

“Best way to hide your face in case one of them looked out the window.”

She looked thoughtful. “You’ve used that before.” It wasn’t a question but I answered it anyway.

“Yes. It’s quite effective.”

“What was with the scarf?”

I smiled. “People see red, that’s what they remember. If you think about it, we got on the train as a cabbie and a girl with long brown hair. We got off the train as a guy in a hoodie and a girl with a red scarf and a hat. Not the same people at all.”

She laughed suddenly. “How long did it take for you to plan all that?”

“Not very long, you were only threatened last night.” Was it only last night? It seemed ages ago.

“Wow. And the cab?”

“What do you want to know?”

“Why a cab?”

“Cabs are everywhere and cabbies are invisible. You see the hat and jacket and that’s the end of it. It could be anyone.” I grimaced a little. “I have to confess, I stole that idea.”

Rose grinned and bounced a little. “From Sherlock! I thought that line about needing a cab sounded familiar.”

I smiled back. “Yes. Although I promise I won’t be offering you a choice of bottles. So you’re a fan?”

“Huge. First season or second?:

“What a choice… I want to see how Sherlock survived. So, maybe, third season?”

She snorted. “You can’t choose third season, it hasn’t even been filmed yet.” She sipped chocolate again. “About the phone. You said it was encrypted. But there’s no such thing as an unbreakable encryption.”

“Maybe, maybe not. There are some codes that have never been broken. But the encryption I used is not one of them. I even made it fairly easy to break. Here’s the catch though. When they break it… and they will… the GPS for that phone is somewhere in Bogotá in a garbage dump or will be soon and the IP address will give a location in Helsinki that doesn’t actually exist.”

“Whew. How did you do that?” I started to answer but she stopped me. “Never mind. I don’t think I could understand the technical details.”

“I am certain that you could… but you might have to learn more than you currently know about computer programing. I could teach you.” With some help from Will. I knew the information but I was not the teacher that he was.

She laughed. “Not something I want to learn about right now, thank you. I’ll just trust you on it.” And how good that sounded- she would trust me.

“Was there anything else? I asked.

“About tonight? Well, I want to know what my father did… and you may know but not want to tell me or you may not even know… I want to know how long this has to go on… I want to know why you are doing this… and I want to know what happened to your face.” She clapped her hand over her mouth.

“Don’t worry about it. I know I look like the lead in a slasher film… and I expect Maggie has put something in the chocolate that’s not exactly kosher.” I looked around. While Rose and I had been talking, Maggie had done her ‘slow fade’ trick and we were alone. “The only one of those questions I can answer is ‘why I’m doing this’ and it’s because I care what happens to you. Although I do want to tell you, the face was not my idea.”

Rose yawned then apologized.

“It’s ok, it’s late and it’s been a stressful day for you. Why don’t I show you to your room so you can get some rest?” I would have liked to keep talking… although maybe with a little less of the quiz session… but she did look tired.

“Yes, please.”

I took her suitcase and led her upstairs to the room at the top of the house. I wished her a good night and went back down stairs trying not to bounce enough to make noise.

 Chapter 9: Frustration

My elation was short lived. The next day, Rose refused to come out of her room. I tried to coax her out but she just told me to “Go away.” So I started leaving her meals on a tray in front of her door.

This didn’t seem like the friendly, fearless girl I’d been observing and eventually I appealed to Maggie.

“I don’t know how to convince her to come out- she won’t even talk to me!”

“Well, she’s angry.” Maggie pointed out.

“But I didn’t do this to her.”

“And she knows that. But who else does she have to be angry with?”

I could have made a couple of suggestions… but I didn’t. “It’s not fair- she’s blaming me.” I grumbled.

Maggie rolled her eyes. “Do you want my advice or do you just want to sulk?”

Oh. I was doing that, wasn’t I. “Advice. Please.”

“First, give her some time. You took your own time getting over your sulks. Second, I know you see who she is. Think. Think about her.”

“I haven’t been thinking about anything else.”

“Pfft. You’re thinking about you and what you want. Think about her and what she wants.”

So I did. What did I know? Well, right now, she wanted to be left alone. So the first thing is to stop pestering her to come out. What else? Well, she loved books… and roses… and her father. She was kind and social… being cooped up here couldn’t be easy and I didn’t think she had brought much to read. So maybe books first?

We had put her in the green bedroom at the top of the house but there was another room on that floor- a very large room. I hadn’t done much with it while I was working on the house- just a hardwood floor and paint- could I make it into a library? There was already a fireplace- ideal for grouping chairs before. So I added a desk with pens and paper and shelves and a couple of good reading chairs with a table between them… and a good large rug to muffle footsteps. Then I was faced with the problem of almost completely empty shelves.

But what did Rose like to read? I’d seen her read mysteries, adventure, science fiction, best sellers and classics so her past reading habits were less help than they could have been. I tried finding her wishlist on Amazon but either she had it hidden… or she didn’t have one. So I guessed- mostly. I did find a place on line that made recommendations based on books chosen… but that was only a little help. I did pick up all the Sherlock books- I knew she liked Sherlock- as well as some of the pastiches written by other people.

Once I had books in the library, I added a book to her tray at lunch. That it was not on the tray when she put it back out was hopeful. Knowing how fast she read, I planned to put a new book on the tray every day.

Ok- I couldn’t do much about her father… but roses? I had an empty greenhouse (except for a few cooking herbs) just begging to be filled with all manner of roses. The only problem was that I knew less than nothing about growing roses. So I learned. Partly from books and partly by experimentation. All things considered, I killed remarkably few rose bushes.

Unlike the library, I had to keep fiddling with the roses- they’re labor intensive. And mostly I enjoyed doing it- once I discovered that the reason humans have eyebrows is to keep sweat from dripping into your eyes. Since I no longer had any eyebrows, I substituted a bandana tied around my head at eyebrow level. The first time I forgot and walked into breakfast like that, Maggie looked up and deadpanned:

“Thorne, Halloween was yesterday.”

I gestured at my face. “Halloween is every day.” It got a laugh from her so I considered it a success. Will’s sense of humor was rubbing off on me, it seemed.

Most mornings, I worked in the greenhouse after breakfast. Since the skylight into Rose’s room was actually in the greenhouse, I tried not to make too much noise- or spy on her too much. I did see her walking sometimes and occasionally reading but most of the room was not visible from the sky light. At first, I only caught infrequent glimpses of her… but they became more frequent and a couple of times, I looked down and she was watching me. That made me turn away in a hurry. She’d seen my face but it was likely still a disturbing sight and I was still embarrassed to be seen.

Once the roses were blooming well, I added a vase to her tray with several blooms in it. It wasn’t returned so I left a fresh rose every morning.

I felt like I was still operating in a vacuum, I didn’t know which books she had liked, I didn’t know which roses pleased her the most. So in spite of her wish to be left alone, I tucked a note inside one of the books asking who her favorite author was. It took a day for her to leave her response on her tray, but she did. I expected Austin or something but she told me someone I never expected. The next afternoon, I left a book on her tray that had been reviewed as being very similar to her favorite.

When she put it back on the tray, there was a note: “This is awful, have you read this?”

So I wrote back “No, I haven’t. What would be a better choice?” and tucked into a different book for her.

When she returned that one, there was a list of several and a note at the bottom “…although not all at once!”

Okay, this was better. I was not operating entirely in a vacuum any more and she didn’t seem to resent  the occasional note in her book. When I had worked my way through the list, I left my favorite book for her with a note indicating that and a request for her to let me know what she thought of it.

What I got back wasn’t a note, it was a letter. Several pages long and detailing what she liked about it and why and the few things she didn’t like. I could hardly give a one or two sentence response to such a detailed critique so I sent back a letter with my thoughts on it… and asked about her favorite which I had read by that time.

 Chapter 10: Falling

I was sitting in the library, composing a note/letter to leave in a book for Rose when I heard her door open. I threw the hood up on my jacket- I still didn’t like being seen by anyone so I didn’t turn to face her when she came into the room.

“This is getting a little silly… writing letters from one room to the next.” she said.

“I… agree. Perhaps I should give you my telephone number and you can call me.” I was only partly joking- I didn’t want to frighten her back into her room for another month or six. But she laughed.

“Ok, I’ve been sulking.  I’m sorry and I think I’m mostly over it by now.”

“It’s okay. I’ve been known to sulk from time to time. Did you want to talk?”

“It would be easier if you’d look at me.”

“Oh, really? I don’t think that it would.” It wouldn’t at all be easier for me. I hated being looked at now.

She came in and sat down in one of the chairs next to the fireplace. “It really would. I like to see who I’m talking to.”

I half turned to look at her. The hood would still hide most of my face. “Ok, but my face hasn’t improved at all. What would you like to talk about?”

She didn’t reply. Instead, she got up and came over, pulled the hood off and looked me eye to eye… at about six inches. “That is rude of me but I’m not going to say ‘I’m sorry’ about it. Now come sit down with me and let’s talk.”

I didn’t have much choice- I went and sat in the other chair and we continued the discussion we’d been having via letters in books. Rose was an animated and sometimes opinionated talker but she was willing to listen to opinions other than her own. I was actually glad to have the discussion face to face because I expect I would have had writer’s cramp if we’d written all of it out. Not to mention that I forgot what I looked like now and enjoyed watching her expressions which were as changeable as water in the sun.

Having finished with her favorite book, for which I now had a heightened appreciation, we drifted onto other topics.

“I have to ask- are the roses you’ve been bringing me from the greenhouse on the roof? I’ve tried to watch you there but you always turn your back or move away if you see me.”

I grinned. “They are… and the turning away is intentional. I don’t like people to see me.” Mostly, I didn’t like for her to see me and, becoming aware of it again I put my hand up to cover my face. She reached over and pulled it down again.

“Stop that.  They’re lovely- the roses. Have you always grown them?”

“I just started. I’m still learning a lot about them but they’re not as difficult as I expected them to be.”

She looked surprised at this. “Maybe you have a green thumb for roses.”

“Maybe… but more likely, I just have the time to work with them. Roses are time intensive and, unlike most people, I have plenty of spare time to spend.” I considered for a second. “If you’d like to see it, you’re welcome to come up anytime. The skylight opens up right into the greenhouse.”

“That would be a bit of a climb- I don’t think any of the chairs reach so high. Maybe I should come around the other way.”

“If you like. But I can build you stairs so you could go up there any time.” Ok, I didn’t know how to build stairs yet… but a year ago, I had no idea how to paint or lay floor or build a greenhouse or grow roses. I could learn.

“You wouldn’t mind me messing about in your garden?” she asked.

“Of course not! I made it for you.”

There was an awkward pause. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that?”

Rose was blushing. “No, it’s ok… but why?”

“I thought you would like it.”

Possibly I embarrassed her worse with that because she got up and began roaming around the room, looking at the books and randomly opening them.

“I think you got cheated on this book.” She commented pulling a very thick one down.

I looked to see which one she had. “I don’t think so, why do you say that?”

“There’s nothing in it- it’s all blank pages.”

That had been my first impression too but I knew better now. “Run your finger over the page, lightly.”

“It’s all bumpy.”

“It’s Braille.”

“Braille? For blind people?” She looked at me questioningly.

“Yeah- it’s not mine, it’s one of Will’s books.”

“Ok, spill. Who is Will and why are his books in Braille?”

“Will is my tutor and he’s blind. So I got all the books I’m reading for him in Braille so we can talk about them. Plus others that he’s teaching me out of- those are mostly classics. He’s tutoring me in literature.”

“You’re still in school?”

“Ah, not exactly. I’m a bit old for school. But my previous degree is not something I can use anymore so it looks like I’m changing careers.”

“What did you do before?”

“Advertising.”

Rose wrinkled her nose. “Ew.”

“Well, I was good at it. But I’m finding that I like literature more.” Which was true… although what I would do with a literature degree, I had no idea. Teach? I suppose I would at least have advantage of riveting students’ attention.

“So, this wasn’t your idea. You said that the first night.”

Careful now. “No, not at all.”

“Then what happened to you?”

“I can’t tell you right now. One day, I will and I’ll go into every detail you want but right now, I can’t.” Stupid gag order. I wanted to tell her… but the result would be not ever being able to break the spell.

“Um. Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t.”

She thought about this. “Can you tell me if I guess?”

“Yes!” I was afraid to say more but I guess I was pretty enthusiastic about the one word because she smiled.

“Ok, 20 questions then. What happened to you was recent?”

“Yes.”

“Sudden and unexpected.”

I shrugged. “Yes.”

“An accident?”

“No.” Oh, not in the right direction at all.

“Intentional then… and by someone else.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that so I was silent. In a way, the gypsy did it to me… but in a way, I did it to myself. Either way, if I said anything, even gave her a hint, it could be breaking the rules and I didn’t want to risk that. So I changed the subject.

“You could meet Will if you would come down to dinner with me. Although I warn you, he’ll be after you to join me in our informal class.”

“I would like that, I think. I’ve always wanted to study literature.” I had a sudden premonition that my ‘class’ was about to get a lot harder.

Coaxing Rose to come to dinner with everyone else was an easy proposition after that. Will was delighted at the prospect of a new student and Maggie was just her warm self.

I was glad Rose and Will hit it off so well even if it did make me work harder in ‘class’. They would go off on tangents that I wasn’t even sure what they were talking about. I didn’t much care- I got to spend time with Rose.

With time, my days fell into something like a routine. I’d work out before breakfast – before anyone else was awake. After breakfast, Will would hold ‘class’ which could be anywhere although as the weather grew warmer, we’d often go up to the greenhouse. After lunch, Rose would read or study, usually in her room. She preferred to be left alone so I would study as well- trying to keep up with her agile mind was a full time occupation. Evenings were more fluid- we’d watch TV or play chess or something. Will played chess and he taught everyone else. I wasn’t bad but Maggie was his favorite partner- mostly because she gave him the best game and beat him as often as not. After everyone else retired, I would go out for a walk.

Partly, I wanted to keep tabs on the Rabbits and I wanted to make sure that Rose’s father was ok. He was still living in the same place and seemed to be getting a handle on his addiction.

Sometimes I would see the gypsy’s shop- sometimes I wouldn’t. It didn’t seem to always be there and it wasn’t always in the same place. One night, instead of ‘Come Back Tomorrow’ the sign on the door said ‘Come In’.

It was late, a lot later than it had often been when the shop was closed, but I went in anyway. The gypsy was waiting for me.

“Good evening, Thorne.”

I pushed back my hood. It was her spell and she could just deal with the results. “Hi.”

“Come to ask me to take the spell off?”

“Ah, no…” the thought hadn’t actually occurred to me. “I thought you wanted to see me.”

“That was a year ago,” she pointed out.

“This is the first time I’ve seen the shop open! If you wanted to see me, you could have left it open so I could come in.” I remembered night after night with the stupid ‘Come Back Tomorrow’ sign. “Why call me here and then not be here?”

She smiled. “You needed direction. I gave you a little help.”

A little help… more riddles. But if she was willing to help me then, maybe she would now. “Ok, thank you, I guess. Would you be willing to help again?”

She considered. “What do you want? I can’t take the spell off, if that’s what you’re after.”

Did she really think that was the only thing I could possibly want? “No, not for me. For Will and Maggie. They deserve something for being trapped with me all this time.”

“So you want me to help them? How?” She looked interested.

“Give Will his sight back and convince Maggie’s family to come here.” Impossible things- but then again, what she had done to me was beyond impossible. Maybe she could do this.

“If I do, they might leave you.”

Ugh. “Hadn’t thought of that. But it changes nothing.  So, please… if you can. And Rose- I know she wants her life back.”

“That’s for you to do. I’ll tell you what, if you break the spell, I’ll help Will and Maggie. That’s the best I can do.” Then she whispered “Six more months for someone to day ‘I love you’.”

A flash of green eyes… and I was outside on the sidewalk. The shop was no where to be seen. Man, she had a good bouncer service! I pulled up my hood and walked home in a brown study. Now it wasn’t just my appearance on the line… the stakes were a lot higher. And what had she meant when she said that it was up to me to give Rose her life back?

The leaves on the rose tree tattoo were falling again, soon it would be bare. I was running out of time.

 Chapter 11: Christmas Gifts

“Maggie, I need another thinking thing.”

Maggie looked up from her latest letter. “About what?”

“Christmas.” We’d skipped Christmas last year- no one had even brought it up. This year, I wanted to do something. Maybe not something large, but something.

She looked a little distressed- I hadn’t meant to upset her. “I know Christmas is a time for families but I thought we could celebrate as a family- since none of us can go home for Christmas.”

“I suppose it would be better than nothing at all. So what did you need help with?” she said.

“Rose. I want to get her something but I don’t know what she would like.” I already knew what I wanted to do for Maggie. A gift to put under the tree was just a something- my real gift to her was to write her family and tell them how much she missed them. It might not convince them to come to her… or even to respond… so I didn’t mention it.

“She will like it when you are being kind.”

“Yeah, I suck at that,” I snorted.

“If you say so. Just be yourself and think what she would like.”

This wasn’t remotely helpful. “Which self? The asshole I was before or the monster I am now?”

She threw me a piercing look. “The man I know you to be.”

That rocked me back a bit. Not the man I could be but the one I already was.

So I thought about it. Money was not an object but I knew Rose by now and she wasn’t the type to be bought. Expensive perfume was out, she preferred roses and I’d been giving her roses daily for over a year. Books were almost as frequent… but what about a special book?

I researched her favorite author and discovered that, early in his career, he’d had a small book published before he became well known. It hadn’t sold well and had never been reprinted. If Rose know about it, she had never mentioned it.

Finding a copy was hard, the book was old and obscure. Finding one in good shape was harder… but I managed at last. I couldn’t wait to see her face when she unwrapped it. I didn’t want to write in it so I put a note in- ‘To Rose, Merry Christmas with love, your Thorne.’

For Will, I had a laptop set up with Windows-Eyes Pro which looked like it would do everything short of making coffee and make it possible for him to use the internet as fully as anyone else.

On Christmas morning, I snuck in and left packages at everyone’s places at breakfast.

Maggie was delighted with her gift- a fancy chess set- she didn’t know it wasn’t the gift I wanted to give her and Will was surprised as well. I don’t know if he knew that kind of thing existed or if he had just never used it but he spent most of the day playing with it to discover just how much it could do.

Rose’s surprise was everything I had wanted. When she unwrapped the paper, her mouth dropped open.

“Oh Thorne! I heard of this book… but I never thought I’d have a chance to see it! What did you do, rob a library?”

I snorted. “Hardly that. Borders was all out of them but I did manage to find it.”

She smiled. “Well, I love it- nothing could be more perfect.”

After breakfast, Rose excused herself- I thought to go read her book. Since Will was head and shoulders deep in the wonders of the internet he’d never been able to use before, I played a game of chess with Maggie. She trounced me, of course, but I didn’t make it too easy for her. I was getting a little better.

Rose looked around the corner. She’d done something pretty with her hair- put it part way up or something.

“Hey,” I said, smiling. “Come on in.”

She came into the room… and she was wearing an old fashioned dress, long and fancy. “I found this in the attic- is it ok for me to wear?”

“I- uh, sure. You look great! But why?”

“Well, if we’re having Christmas, I thought I should try to dress up, maybe.” She twirled around, the skirt billowed out and I had a moment of pure inspiration.

“Do you like to dance?” I asked.

“Yes. I mean, I guess so. I never danced really- just around the room at home.” She blushed, confessing this.

I grinned. “Let’s go downstairs. You know that room I work out in?” I didn’t know if she’d ever even been in there.

“Sort of- I mean, I know where it is.”

“It’s supposed to be a ball room. Let’s go down and dance.” I bowed. “If I may have this dance, milady?”

She laughed. “Of course”

I gave her my arm and we went down to the punitive ballroom. Since there were only the two of us, I didn’t think the exercise equipment on one end of the room would be too much in the way.

“I don’t know much about this kind of dancing…” she said.

“It’s okay, I do.” I’d been taking lessons so I could surprise Laurel with a real dance at our wedding. I wasn’t a master but I’d learned a couple of simple ballroom dances and simple was the way to go here. “Put your hand on my shoulder, here… now take my hand, like this.” I repositioned her hand in mine. “Now I put my hand on your back here. “

I taught her the simple box step and we practiced until it was easy for her… then I taught her the waltz turn.

“Think you’re ready?” I asked.

“I think so.”

I went and put on a CD. “Okay, remember, just follow my lead… and have fun.” I waited until she felt like she was ready and started a waltz. The great thing about waltzing is it’s the simplest dance in the world but when you think about ballroom dancing and spinning around the room, it’s always the waltz you’re picturing.

We stopped when Rose ran out of breath. “Oh that was so much fun! It feels almost like flying!” She was laughing and hadn’t let go of me. “Can we do it again?”

Oh, here, let me think. Holding on to a beautiful girl that I thought I was falling in love with and spinning around an empty room like a madman with a grin on my face that I couldn’t help… “Sure. As soon as you like.”

“Okay, give me a minute.”

Then her phone rang.

 Chapter 12: Gone

Rose had to turn her back to get her phone out, she was wearing her jeans under the dress and the phone was in her pocket.

“Hello?” she answered it. All the colour and happiness washed out of her face as she listened. “Where?… Okay, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” She hung up and looked up at me.

“It’s my father- he’s in the hospital.”

“I’ll take you to him.” What else could I say? She had to go to him.

Rose ran out of the room and I followed a bit more slowly. Since it was winter, I could chose clothes that hid almost all of me, so I did.

Rose met me on the landing with her backpack and we went out through the kitchen, telling Maggie where we were going.

I drove her to the hospital where her father was but they wouldn’t let me stay with her. Family only, they said. Since there were police guarding him, I thought she would be safe enough and went home.

In spite of Maggie and Will, the house was huge and echoingly empty without Rose. I thought I’d been lonely before… I hadn’t known what lonely even was compared to the way I felt when she was gone. And every room in the house had a memory of her- the books in the library, the roses in the greenhouse, an empty place at the table.

At one point, I wandered into her room. She hadn’t packed everything- just a few clothes and, I did notice, her Christmas book- the dress she had worn dancing with me was discarded on the bed, thrown carelessly in her haste to get to her father. I picked it up, intending to hang it up and then couldn’t let it go. Maggie found me at dinner time, sitting on the window seat and still holding it.

Rose called while I was in the shower and I missed her call.  She left a message.

“Hi Thorne! Dad’s doing better. He ODed but he didn’t do it- he says he’s been clean for months now… which I might not believe if the doctor didn’t confirm it. He didn’t take it himself and thinks that that gang might have put it into something just to get him back on it.

I’d be a lot more upset about it but he’s decided to testify against them so he’s going to go into the witness protection program- a whole new life! So very excited about that. I can’t come back right now. I do want to say my goodbyes properly. Anyway, call me… and thank you for being such a good friend.”

I had been going to call her as soon as I listened to her message… but after that, I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to tell her goodbye over the phone… I didn’t want to tell her goodbye at all. It occurred to me that this is what the gypsy had meant by I was the one who could give Rose her life back. All I had to do was stay out of it.

What I hadn’t counted on was Rose being the persistent person she was. She called at least once a day and usually left a message that was a variation on “Call me, damn it!” I didn’t ever pick up. If I talked to her, she would say ‘goodbye’ and I couldn’t listen to that without breaking down.

As it was, I was not too much better than breaking down anyway. I would say I moped or sulked but both of those words imply that I actually did something and nothing could be further from the truth. I did nothing and I avoided Will and Maggie so that I wouldn’t have to talk, even a little. I even stopped getting dressed in the morning. I would drag on a pair of jeans in case I happened to cross paths with Maggie but I didn’t bother with anything else.

Some time passed. I have no idea how much because it felt like time had stopped.

I was sitting on the floor of the ballroom when Will came looking for me. I’d just listened to Rose’s latest message… which included that she was very worried that I never called her back.

“Thorne?” Will called.

“In here.” I would have preferred not to say anything but it would have been mean to make him stop in all the rooms and listen for my breathing.

“Thorne, I just got off the phone with Rose.”

Okay, now that was cheating. Now she was calling people who would pick up the phone.

“She says that you won’t talk to her- you won’t pick up when she calls and you won’t call her back. So what gives?”

“I’m trying to stay out of her life.” I grumbled.

“Doesn’t sound like she wants you out of her life. She told me she was hurt… which is girl-speak for ‘call now, dickhead’.”

“Yeah, okay. I’m not calling because she only wants to say goodbye ‘properly’.”

He considered this. “You love her?”

“Yeah… yes, I do. And I’ll let her go back to her life but it’s going to hurt too much to hear her say it… and I wish she would stop calling… and I never want her to stop calling.”

“Whew! You do have a case on her, don’t you? If you really love her, then man up and call her and let her say goodbye. Letting this go unresolved isn’t helping anything- you’re being a dick and hurting her.” And with that, he stumped out.

I still didn’t call. Will was right but I couldn’t whip up the energy to finish punching her number. I managed the first six digits a dozen times but I just couldn’t dial that last digit. Rose called me again and I didn’t pick up.

Thorne? What gives? I thought we were friends.”

 Chapter 13: Exposed

I was going to call. I was going to pick up the phone and dial and finish this time, then I saw a flash of green in the mirror.

“Oh damn it, what now?” I went to look anyway. I didn’t hurry in. I was expecting it to be the gypsy- possibly gloating that my time was almost up.

It wasn’t. It was Rose, in a warehouse, being threatened by a man with a gun.

“Where?” I probably shouted.

The scene shifted to the outside of the warehouse- with number and then to a corner. A corner I knew and not far from here. I grabbed a jacket, putting it on as I ran. I leaped down the stairs and shouted to Maggie

“Call the police! Send them to 4692 Row St and tell them to hurry!”

I must have passed people, the must have stared at me- it was midday and I hadn’t covered my face or even my head- but I don’t remember any of them. My one thought was to get to Rose before they hurt her.

When I got to the warehouse, two men were coming out. I scuffled with them briefly. One of them grabbed the back of my jacket and I slithered out of it and knocked their heads together. I ran on, not even waiting to see if I had knocked them out or not.

“Rose!” I called as soon as I was in the door.

“Up…” she shouted back and was cut off. Never mind, I could tell she was on the second floor. There was one door closed when I got up there- I kicked it open not even checking to see if it was locked or not. Rose was standing there and some idiot was pointing a gun at her. Then he was pointing it at me, which was infinitely preferable.

“You’re here” Rose breathed.

“Who are you?” The idiot was talking.

“Every rose has thorns, I’m hers.” How cheesy was that? If I’d put it in a paper, Will would have dismembered me. I rushed the idiot and smacked his gun away. He let go of Rose… and I threw him out the window.

“Are you hurt? Are you okay?” I asked

Rose stared at me, a bit in shock, I think and then shook herself. “I’m okay. Oh Thorne, you came! But how?” She hugged me tight.

I never wanted to let her go but we were anything but safe. “I’ll tell you later. For now, we should leave. More men will be here soon.”

I could hear sirens, the cavalry would be here soon too… and I did not want Rose caught in the middle or even very close. Stray bullets can be just as lethal as one aimed at you.

We ran down the wood steps I had come up, past the two I had taken out. I hadn’t killed them, they were both moving. As we ran down the street, I felt something smack me in the back and heard a shot but we kept going. In an alley to our left, I saw a green flash.

“Here, this way.” I said and pulled Rose into the alley. The gypsy shop was there and she was standing in the door.

“Come in, come in!” she called to us. We darted through the door and she closed it behind us.

“Thank you!” I said and took a deep breath, which hurt, and coughed… which hurt more. “We’re safe here, I told Rose.

She looked at me, concerned. I was shirtless and  barefoot, I’d lost the jacket in the scuffle at the door and I was breathing hard. “You’re hurt,” she said.

I tried to shrug it off. “Not so much- one more scar…” I trailed off. Instead of catching my breath it was getting harder to breathe and where I’d been smacked in the back with something was hurting more instead of less.

“She is right, you are badly hurt,” the gypsy said calmly. “Sit down before you fall down.”

Rose turned to her. “Do we need to call an ambulance?”

“That won’t be necessary. I will take care of it.” She opened a cupboard and handed Rose a square of white cloth and a roll of tape. “If you would, put that on his back, please.” She vanished through a beaded curtain, beads clacking and dancing behind her.

Now we were alone for a minute, I half turned to talk to Rose over my shoulder, “What were you doing at the warehouse?” I asked. “I thought you were safe- in  witness protection, in point of fact.”

“Hold still. My dad’s in witness protection. I was coming to see you since you won’t pick up your damned phone… and the gang grabbed me.” She finished bandaging my back, not that it felt any better, and sat down next to me.

“I thought you were going  with him… “ I was getting woozy, even sitting down, and there was a metallic taste in my mouth.

The gypsy reappeared with a cup for each of us. “Drink this,” she told me.

I tasted it, made a face and almost spat it out. It was horribly bitter. “I’m sorry, Madame…”I realized I didn’t even know her name.

“Verdi. I know it tastes bad- drink it anyway.”

So I did, in big gulps to keep from tasting it as much as possible. Madame Verdi- I was glad to finally know her name- took that cup and handed me another. I looked at it dubiously.

“It’s just tea- that one.” She smiled and took the empty away through the curtain.

Rose was sipping hers- obviously tea and not medicine. What had I been saying? I was still pretty foggy.

“I thought you were going with your father.” I said.

She looked at me with a funny expression. “That’s because you’re being stupid.” She sounded far away- the medicine must be working. I felt prickly all over but I didn’t want to derail the conversation by saying so.  “How could I go into witness protection with him? I would never see you again.”

“I wouldn’t like that.”

“Then why wouldn’t you call me back?” she demanded.

“I didn’t want you to say goodbye.”

She snorted. “Okay, how you got that turned around is beyond me. I had to say goodbye to my dad, not you. Idiot.”

Wait, what? “You weren’t calling to say goodbye?”

“Of course not. I love my dad… but I can’t just leave you.”

“Why not? You would have been safe.”

“Because I love you.”

Magic words… quite literally, for me. But hadn’t my time already run out? It didn’t matter- in spite of the itching and the dull pain in my back and the fog in my head, I’ve never been happier than I was right at that moment.

“I love you too.” It was a stupid trite thing to say but it was all I could come up with.

“I know- I found your note in my book. Thorne? Are you okay? You look all fuzzy.”

“I don’t know- I feel weird.” I did too. Weirder by the second.

“Madame Verdi!” Rose called.

She came back into the room. “Yes?”

“Something’s happening to Thorne.”

She looked at me carefully.  “You broke the spell. He’s shifting back to the way he looked before.”

Rose didn’t look happy about that… in fact, she looked quite distressed. “Make it stop- can you make it stop, please?”

Madame Verdi held up her hand over me. “Okay- I have paused it. But why, Rose? Aren’t you happy to have broken the spell that was on him? He’s really very handsome.”

“I don’t want some stranger, no matter how handsome! I love Thorne, just the way he is!”

Madame turned to me. “Well, Thorne?”

I tried to think- which wasn’t easy. “Will. And Maggie. If I don’t change, will you help them anyway?”

“You are changed- you would never have thought of someone else first, before. But yes, I will help Will.” She was smiling.

“What about Maggie?” She had stood by me even longer.

“I don’t need to help Maggie- you already did everything that was needed in her case. Now, please decide. It’s hard to hold something static like this.”

I looked at Rose. She was biting her lip. “I’ll stay the same, then. What I look like to the rest of the world doesn’t matter.”

Madame took her hand down and I could feel things shift and solidify. The fog was gone. “You don’t look entirely the same now. I stopped the change but I couldn’t reverse it.”

Rose came and studied me carefully.  “How different is it?” I asked her.

“Not too bad- your scars are gone but I can still tell it’s you.”

I looked at my hands. All the scarring on the back and wrapping around my arms was gone but the tattoos seemed intact. The rose tree was blooming- full of white roses. Suddenly, I didn’t care. “I love you.”

Rose took my face in her hands and kissed me. “I love you back.”

The pain in my back had vanished with the fog in my head. Madame Verdi was still standing there, watching us. I got up.

“Madame, I… Thank you. Thank you for everything.” It seemed inadequate but I didn’t know how to say anything more or even what I should say. Regardless, she seemed to understand.

“You’re very welcome. And Thorne?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“You’ll see me again. You both will.” She smiled and let us out the door, for once. There was no green flash but as soon as we were on the sidewalk, there was no shop.

 Chapter 14: Beginning

While we were in Madame Verdi’s vanishing shop, not much time seemed to have passed. It wasn’t night, and I could still hear the police raid on the Dead Rabbits gang in progress.

Rose made me turn around and pealed off the bandage she had put on my back- there was nothing but smooth skin now. She stroked her hand across the spot. “I’d give anything to know what was in that medicine. You were shot and now there’s no sign of it at all.”

“Shot? It hurt- but I didn’t think it was so bad.” It hadn’t hurt on my back as much as it had hurt to breathe.

She draped my arm around her shoulders and put hers around my waist. “Shot. But you aren’t now.”

I turned us away from the raid. “I think we should go home now.” For one thing, I wanted to find out if Will had gotten his sight back. Besides, I was barefoot and shirtless and while I didn’t really care who saw me or what they thought, it wasn’t late enough in the spring to be completely comfortable yet.

We walked home quietly, just being together. Later, I would be quizzed about everything, I knew. Since I didn’t have to keep secrets anymore, I didn’t mind that but, for now, just being together was enough.

Maggie’s relief was almost tangible when we walked in at the door.

“Thank goodness you’re both safe! Should I even ask what that was all about?”

I looked at Rose and she looked at me.

“Unless it’s going to drive you crazy not knowing, probably not.” I told her. I started up the stairs to put on a shirt and some shoes but she stopped me.

“Wait a minute- you look different.” She peered at me closely. “What happened to you?”

I laughed. “The spell is broken.”

“Um. Thorne? Maggie might not know about the spell.” Rose said quietly.

It was Maggie’s turn to laugh. “Of course I knew about the spell. You go to bed one night looking like a collar-ad man and you wake up the next morning all scarred up with tattoos? What else could it be? But you haven’t changed back- you’ve changed but not back to the way you looked before.”

“Look, let me finish getting dressed and I’ll explain it all. To everybody, now that I can. Where’s Will, by the way?” I asked casually enough but I was eager to see if his sight had been restored yet.

“He was upstairs listening to the game a few minutes ago.”

I left Rose and Maggie comparing notes in the kitchen and bounded up the stairs. I’d get dress later.

Will was listening to the TV- eyes closed as usual so he could concentrate. I squatted in front of him.

“Will!”

“Hi, Thorne. I heard you come in, no need to shout.”

“Will, look at me.”

“Funny.” He opened his eyes anyway. Later, he described it as wiping away layers of Vaseline from his eyes. First he could see light, then blurry shapes and then he could see me, right in front of him. “Oh SHIT! Thorne?”

“It’s me, buddy.”

“Oh shit! Thorne, I can see!”

I barely managed to jump out of the way in time because Will was up, dancing around the room. When he calmed down a little, I promised that I would explain everything in the kitchen as soon as I could.

I went back to my room and got a shirt, then a thought struck me. I went to the mirror and, though I didn’t see anything but my own reflection, I said “Thank you, Madame Verdi.” into it. There was a slight green flicker, like a curtsy, to let me know my thanks had reached the one they were intended for.

Will’s recovery was the most exciting thing that day but not the only one. I’d just about finished my story- very detailed with lots of interruptions- when there was a knock on the front door. Maggie was making more coffee- we’d finished the first pot- so I got up and told her,

“I’ll get it.”

When I opened the door, there were three men outside. Two young men, perhaps in their early twenties and an older one who looked to be their father.

“Beg pardon, but are you Thorne Mallory?” asked the older man. His accent was quite thick.

“I am, can I help you in some way?”

“Yes, I’m Liam Teague. You wrote me about Maggie?”

“Yes, yes, I did! Please come in, I’m delighted that you’re here.” I ushered them in and called “Maggie? Maggie- it’s for you.”

She came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. “Who is it, Thorne?” Then she saw her family and stopped in her tracks. “Liam? Am I dreaming?”

“No, Maggie-girl, you’re wide awake as always.” Liam said. “I’ve come to tell you I was wrong and ask you to have me back. I’ve changed my ways and there’ll be no more fightin’.”

Maggie’s answer wasn’t in words and I slipped away to let them reconcile in private.

 Chapter 15: Thorne

So, where are we now?

Will, once he got used to judging distance with his eyes again,  took a teaching position at a near-by college. He was going to find a place of his own but I asked him to stay with us- at least for awhile. The brownstone is huge and rent is horrible in the city. I expect that he’ll be looking for a home of his own fairly  soon, though. He’s met a wonderful girl, a fellow teacher, and they’ve been seeing each other long enough for me to think that they’re serious.

Maggie’s family is staying with us as well. I couldn’t do without Maggie. Her sons, George and Devin, are both in training. George is going to be a policeman and Devin is training for the fire department. As he points out, it will be more fun putting them out than lighting them. Both of them still have a lot of fighting instinct in them so it’s good that they’re pointing it in the right direction now.

Liam, on the other hand, has turned his back on violence… that being the only way to make peace with his wife… and has taken over managing the greenhouse for me. In his spare time, he’s a handy-man for hire. I think he and Maggie will be taking a second honeymoon soon.

Rose’s father did not have to stay in witness protection for very long. The raid on the warehouse broke up the Dead Rabbits gang and between his testimony and hers, they’re going to be in prison for a very long time. I testified as well but I think it was just corroboration, they could have cinched it without me.

It’s a good thing Liam has taken over the greenhouse for me, too. Rose had an idea for after we finish our degrees, provided I can pass Will’s class. She wants to open a bookshop with coffee, tea and soup for all her homeless friends. I’m thinking that the empty warehouse would be a good place. It’s not too far from home and with all that space, maybe we can have a dormitory in the back for people to sleep when it’s really cold outside.

We’re still in the planning stages on that and we won’t be able to get it off the ground until after college. And hopefully after the wedding- Rose has agreed to marry me but not until we’ve graduated and then she just wants something nice and small and quiet. I’m trying to point out to her that once we get the shop open, we won’t have time for even that- I hope she’s listening.

I don’t see anything of my father. He was furious when I enrolled at the university and actually called me to order me to withdraw. I refused and pointed out to him that there are a lot of Mallorys and as long as he did not tell anyone that we were related, no one would guess.

We do see Madame Verdi very occasionally. She has dropped by for tea a couple of times and she and Maggie get on so well that I accused them of being sisters. This was met by two identical stares and silence. You know what? If they are sisters, I don’t want to know.

As for me, the scars vanished but the thorn tattoo remains… and I never did get my hair back. Not even my eyebrows… although the lack of eyebrows is a small inconvenience considering that I don’t have to shave either. I don’t hide and, while I do get stares from people who don’t know me, it doesn’t bother me. I’m comfortable in my skin now and as long as it suits Rose, I’m well pleased.

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