It was February 6th, Rhiannon's twentieth birthday. It
had been one week since she had unofficially moved into the McCallaghan
bachelor pad and besides the minor trepidations of two separate lives trying to
merge into one, they had settled in together quite well.
Her bruises and scars were gradually fading, the skin under her eyes had turned
greenish-yellow from the purple-blue they'd started out as. People didn't stare
at her as much anymore, for the most part they didn't take notice of the pale, skinny
girl who only a few short days ago had the appearance of an escaped refugee from a war
zone concentration camp. She was more comfortable going out with Gabriel during
the day, and he was glad for it. He knew almost nothing of Rick except for what
little information she offered during their conversations, nor did he know of
his exact whereabouts. The uncertainty made him nervous -- it meant that if
nothing else, the one advantage Rick had over them was the element of
unpredictability. One careless gamble of chance on Gabriel's part and the ante
would be raised. Instead of poker chips, they were betting with Rhiannon's
Rick wasn't a bluffer, that much Gabriel could easily summarize.
She was scared, too, he could see it. Behind her beautiful eyes there was a
constant undercurrent of panic; her movement reflected those of a cagey
panther, eluding the lethal poachers' trap as they drew ever closer. Gabriel
was the canopies and wild ferns in the rain forest, shielding her from the
predators. Hiding behind him, underneath him she was safe.
He'd kept in mind the date she divulged to him that she was turning of age and began to plan a special day out. He hoped that a little celebration
would make her feel a little more optimistic about her future, if just for one
afternoon. Every day around Trevor would go upstairs to stay with her at the
apartment while Gabriel slipped off to work on her surprise.
As he was fixing himself lunch, Rhiannon came into the kitchen with Chester in tow. Ever since the feeding incident the week
prior, girl and feline were practically inseparable. Gabriel dealt with the
betrayal gracefully, but got back at the traitorous cat by swearing to get a
loyal dog someday. While Rhiannon filled Chester's water and food dishes, she hummed softly to
herself. Wearing the clothes that Lina, Gabriel's neighbor from downstairs
bought her with a little makeup, she already looked near one-hundred percent.
"Hey, kiddo," he smiled. "You've hit the big 2-0.
"Oh, yeah. Whoop-de-doo," she retorted with a roll of her eyes, but
then smiled a little. "I've almost caught up to you."
"Ah, yes. Soon you'll be filling out the registration forms to get your
AARP card and qualify to get the Senior Citizen Early-bird Special at Denny's
with the rest of us old croakers."
"Yipee," she replied with lackluster.
He laughed. "Your enthusiasm is underwhelming, babe. Well in any case, I've planned a fun afternoon for us to
celebrate your transition from being a teenager into a full-fledged
"You did?" She asked, delightfully surprised.
"Yeah, but it's nothing extraordinary, so don't get too overly excited. I
just thought you could use a little fun today."
She beamed the smile he'd grown to love seeing on her, the one that wrinkled her nose
slightly and traveled straight up to her eyes. "I can't wait."
"We can head out any time you're ready," he grinned boyishly.
A bus was needed to reach their secret destination. Rhiannon glanced around
habitually before she took a seat beside Gabriel, surveying the rows of
cushioned benches for a bald man or anyone who resembled somebody that was
associated with Rick. But the only people that were on board other than her and
Gabriel were two old ladies dressed up in scarves, peacoats, and hats for a day
of shopping, and one young teenaged boy who nodded along to the song on his
iPod. With an inward sigh of relief, she relaxed and sat down.
Downtown was completely decked out in Valentine's Day attire. Big, red
construction paper hearts adorned the streetlamp posts, topped off with either
a pink or white ribbon. A huge banner at the intersection in the middle of town
declared in bold fashion that it was nearly time for the 'St. Valentine Parade
and Festival of Love' that overtook Main Street during the second week of
February. All over downtown the city merchants were getting into the spirit of
the holidays; the jewelry stores put their most impressive collections of
precious gemstones fashioned into heart-shaped necklaces, rings, and earrings
on display in their front windows. The chocolatiers held their own in
competition with each other, showcasing their festively wrapped packages of the
most decadent chocolate they were able to concoct. Even the smaller business
joined in by hanging crate-paper decorations in their buildings and putting
signs on the doors.
Love, or at least the commercialized version of it was in the air, and their
sprawling metropolis was about to choke itself on the fluffy sensationalism.
"I've always hated that I was born in February," Rhiannon fumed as
she crossed her arms over her chest and slouched down in the seat.
"Awe, you mean you're not a flowers and candy-hearts type girl,
Rhia?" Gabriel smirked at her.
She smiled dryly back at him. "Not exactly."
They got off at the only bus stop in the Old District, a section of town which
housed truck company shipping and loading hangars, paper mills and power plant
management offices. Unless they worked here, general public foot-traffic was
scant around this side of town. The sounds of motor vehicles and voices
drifted on the wind, so far away that it sounded as if they were coming in from
a differently island entirely. On this cold afternoon the fog hung low on the
rooftops and glazed over the Plexiglas windows, and their milky reflections
looked like Earthbound ghouls stumbling through an ectoplasmic mist. Rhiannon
wished that she could step inside the image and become a paper-thin spectral
being. Weightless. Invisible.
Gabriel kept pace ahead of her, staring down at the cracks in the asphalt. He
counted each ambling footstep to himself. Institutions for the blind teach
visually-impaired people to keep track of how many steps they need to take to
get to any one certain place. They do this to re-learn how to navigate the
world without sight. Gabriel first saw it practiced at eight years of age when
he and his brother Sean, age ten, lived in a fostercare home outside Boston.
Their next door neighbor was a black man who had been blind all his life.
The man would plod along down the paved walkway from his one-level home with
his walking cane, pecking it on the ground as he walked. "One, two, three,
four..." he murmured to himself. A pair of dark aviator sunglasses
protected his transparent icy blue eyes that saw only gray.
One hot autumn day, Mr. Elijah Jackson-Brown walked
past the boys' duplex while they sat on the stairs inside the chain link fence
that lined the property. His cane plunked on the ground in front of him.
Gabriel and Sean watched in childish fascination as they licked their
Popsicles, one root beer and the other orange creme. Suddenly Gabriel, years
away from the anti-social, suspect man he would become in his adult life, stood
up decidedly and left his mostly-eaten Popsicle melting on its wrapper.
"Gabe, don't! Come back here!" Sean hollered
as he grabbed for his kid brother's arm. Sean was the more cautious of the
boys; he was afraid of things he didn't understand, while Gabriel was
Gabriel bounded down the slope of the yard and used
the fence as leverage to catapult himself onto the sidewalk. Mr. Brown was
nearing the crosswalk where he would make his way eastward to Delaware Blv. and
wait at the bus stop to catch a bus into down. Gabriel heard that he was a
music teacher at North Quiney High. When he was young his mother taught him to
read sheet music in braille, from the sound of it pretty well, too. He went on
to be very accomplished in several different instruments from the cello to
Gabriel ran far too elegantly for a raggle-taggle
foster kid, with the speed of a well-trained Olympic sprinter. His
lightning-quick reflexes would later earn him the position of 'Get-Away Man'
within the Blood Dragons gang. The majority of his youth was spent bolting from
the police and scamming deals from drug cronies. By age 16 he'd more than earned
the nickname Slick.
Before Mr. Brown could start on his slow way to Neilston
Street where the TriMet picked him up at ,
Gabriel jumped in front of him. He was barely out of breath from the vigorous
Mr. Brown snorted indignantly. "Hey now," he
griped in his aged voice. "You think it's your business to impede on an
old, blind man's walkin' progress?"
"I'm sorry, mister. But..." Gabriel huffed,
not from tiredness but so he could figure out how to phrase his question. Finally, he did in the way only an eight year old can get away with:
"Do you see polka-dots, or like, a checkerboard in front of your eyes? Is
that what you're always counting when you go walking?"
The man's brow furrowed above his darkly tinted
glasses, his big lips curved in a frown. Then all of a sudden, he guffawed
loudly. Gabriel stared in earnest puzzlement as Mr. Brown threw his head
upward, billowing with laughter. He doubled over and slapped his knees, then
began a coughing fit. It worried Gabriel to a point when he seriously
considered running home to call for help.
Eventually he composed himself enough to stand erect.
Gabriel saw the wetness dripping down his cheeks into the cleft on his upper lip. Mr. Brown took out a
handkerchief from the pocket of his long coat and cleared the phlegm from his
"Son, there's no checkerboard spots in my
eyes," he said with a loud chuckle. "I ain't seen so much as a fleck
since I was a little sprig like you. I go 'round countin' the steps I take so I
can find my right way easier."
Gabriel listened with great interest. The light changed and
traffic resumed at the four-way stop. Sean crept to the edge of their property
line and peeked around the arborvitae hedge in their direction. Gabriel waved to
him over Mr. Brown's shoulder.
"Mr. Brown --"
"Most folks call me Eli."
"Eli, this is my big
brother Sean, my name is Gabriel," he made the introduction when Sean
reluctantly joined them.
"It's nice to meet you
both. I do need to get to my first class, but you two are welcome to keep me
company at the stop until my ride comes."
"No, sorry, we need to
go home," Sean insisted, then spoke to Gabriel through clenched teeth.
"Let's go before somebody catches us and we get our asses chewed out for
Gabriel dismissed his fretful
brother and brushed past him to hit the traffic light button for Eli. The light
eventually turned green and Gabriel linked arms with the old man to escort him
across the street. On the way Eli allowed Gabriel to hold the walking stick while
he counted the steps aloud. Sean quickly checked for anyone who might be
watching, then chased after them.
So together Gabriel, Sean,
and Eli sat down on the bench at the corner of the block, the old man flanked
by two adolescent boys like a tall, sturdy oak tree standing above infant saplings. Gabriel was completely enraptured.
After that day Eli became
more like a surrogate father to Sean and Gabriel than any of the foster parents
they'd had or would be taken in by thereafter. In the days following that first
afternoon, Gabriel went straight home from school, dropped his bag at the front
door and immediately headed for Eli's house. Eli waited for him in the Laz-E
boy rocking armchair by the window in the living room. The door was always left
unlocked so he could walk right in, and then before he sat down he would go
into the kitchen and get an iced tea for Eli and a Cherry Coke for himself.
Before she died, Eli's wife had a labrador mix that she called Foxy, and when
she got ill with cancer she made him promise that he would take care of it, so
he did. When Gabriel would come in the old girl would get up from her spot by
the wood stove and hobble over, flopping down by Gabriel's feet and letting
Gabriel scratch behind her ears as he listened to the folklore of Eli's life growing up in Massacheusetts.
It was when that dog came
into his life, Gabriel thought, that he softened toward those who walked on all
He learned many things from
the blind man who lived across the street, but even though he didn't know it
then, what Eli taught him the first time he met him was ultimately the most
important; how to keep his eyes on the ground and remember every step he took.
You see, there are two kinds of people in this world that keep their eyes down
when they walk -- those who cannot see and those who do not wish to be seen.
Gabriel felt a warmth inside his chest as he reminisced. The four months they
spent in the O'Reilly household went by just like everything in childhood does,
with the speed of light flicker of fireflies on a summer night, here and gone.
Gabriel kept track of the weeks, and when they made it through four, and then
eight, and twelve he foolishly hoped that he and Sean would be able to unpack
their bags for good. But one day in January, he went upstairs after school to
put on his snowboots before he went over to Eli's, and when he came down he
found their caseworker's blue Sedan
parked in the driveway.
Maria Nuenez stood in the
kitchen with Janet O'Reilly. They spoke quietly, but he could tell by Mrs.
O'Reilly's expression that she was unhappy about the conversation she was
having with the young, pretty caseworker. Red blotches stood out on her face
like the breakouts she got when she was upset. Maria hit the countertop as she
talked, meeting the woman's eyes squarely. The disagreement stopped when
"Hi, Maria," he
said, walking over, trying to sound casual.
she replied gently. He cringed. She liked to baby-talk him and Sean before
she delivered some piece of bad news. As if pet names and gentle tones would
soften the blow. Then it came: "I need to have a little talk with you and
Gathered with the women and
his brother in the sitting room, Gabriel braced himself. Maria gave all the
mandatory reasons; due to the exponentially growing volume of children within
in the state fostercare system waiting homes, the agency would have to place
the boys elsewhere.
He didn't argue, but Gabriel
suspected there was a little more to it than just too many kids in the system,
although it was a sad truth that fosterhomes were overrun with homeless
children. There was little doubt that Mrs. O'Reilly's capriciousness was a
large factor in their removal from her residence. It was cause for concern how
she packed menthol cough drops and grapefruit juice for lunch in their
schoolbags, and that she was a bit too fond of her bottle of Jose Cuervo.
Teachers complained that she brought them in after the bell rang on many
occasions and then failed to pick them up until long after the school faculty left
for the day. Some people whispered rumors of mistreatment, but none of it was
discussed that day.
Sean was somber for a bit,
then seemed to recover. He left shortly after the meeting broke to go meet with
his friends. Gabriel remained seated on the overstuffed couch, Maria tried
hollowly to comfort him before she eventually left. Once the door clicked shut
and he watched her retreat back to her car, he kicked his boots off and went
From his mildewed
bedroom window he watched Eli feel his way outside onto the porch. The old man
stood, a dark brown shadow against the bright first winter snow, and listened for the
small footsteps that signified Gabriel's approach. His sunglasses shielded the
eyes that would never behold the neighborhood he stood facing. Gabriel stood in
his room, glaring with his lips curled away from his teeth in a snarl. He
snapped the blinds closed and flopped down on his stomach in his bed, burying
his face in the pillow.
Gabriel never saw Eli again.
He and his brother were taken from Mrs. O'Reilly's that following weekend, and
no matter how much Sean encouraged him to he refused to say goodbye. Loss and
guilt bore holes deep inside the pores of his skin, and it was years before he
finally got past it. Sometimes he thought about contacting Eli, but a year
after they moved when he asked someone from the neighborhood for the old man's
phone number, he was informed that Mr. Brown had been put into an
"assisted living residential home". A place for the elderly and feeble
to go before they died. It was Eli's worst nightmare to end up in a place like
That heartbreak, Gabriel
still carried with him.
He shook the nostalgia from
his mind, raising his eyes as he and Rhiannon finally arrived at the right
They walked into the
auto-service garage that stood at the corner of the block just south of the
overpass that separated the East Side from the West End. The smell of gasoline
and motor oil permeated the air. A round-shaped clock with pictures of Elvis Presley
on the face that was an hour fast ticked monotonously on the wall. There was a
radio plugged into an outlet in the corner that Johnny Cash's voice crackled
tinnily from. Jumper cables, wrenches, and screw-drivers lay haphazardly
splayed out on the floor near a baby blue 1970 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible,
one of the only two cars parked inside. Someone was underneath it on a steel
Dollie, clanking away while humming to the crackled, tinny country music.
"Long time, no see, man!" A burly, scruff-bearded man with a receding
line of fuzzy brown hair, up to his elbows in grease, said in a booming voice
as he poked his head out to see who'd come in. He sat up, smiling to reveal a
mouth full of silver-capped teeth.
"Good to see you again, Drew," Gabriel replied with a smile. He
glanced back at Rhia. "This is a new friend of mine. Rhiannon, meet Andrew
Dalton, the best damned mechanic in the city. He was also one helluva street
racer in his youthful indiscretionary days," he grinned as he spoke, and
Rhiannon melted at the sight of his dimples.
"That's a gross exaggeration, don't believe a word of it," Drew
rebutted as he walked over, taking a dirty rag from one of the windows where it
served as a makeshift curtain to wipe off his hands. "I couldn't have done
half of it without my cohort in crime right here. We sure drove the cops off
their hinges, eh?" He clapped Gabriel on the back and they laughed
uproariously. Drew sobered when, in the open sunlight coming from the uncovered
window, he saw Rhiannon's bruised face. "Pardon me. It's a pleasure,
"No pardon necessary, Drew. I'm very happy to meet you," she replied
with a smile.
"Anyway, bud, I just decided to swing by to say hello and see if I could
get the key from you," Gabriel asked.
Drew nodded and turned around to go into his 'office', a tiny section of the
garage that was partitioned off by a plate glass window. On the wall behind his
desk the keys to all the cars he worked on were tacked up on nails with labels
to identify which automobile the set belonged to. He used his finger as a
pointer, waving it from one nail to another until he located the one marked
'Storage - Gabe'. He plucked it down and brought it out.
"Thanks, pal," he said as he took the unmarked gold key, patting Drew
on the shoulder with the opposite hand. He looked at Rhiannon. "Follow
Rhiannon looked at Drew with jovial apprehension. "Should I be worried
"With Gabriel you should always be worried," he joked with a hearty
laugh. "Nah, you'll be just fine. Don't be a stranger, Gabe, and you're
more than welcome any time, miss Rhiannon."
"Thank you," she answered, her cheeks flushed.
They hadn't spoken long or said very much, but watching Rhiannon interact with
Andrew made Gabriel suddenly feel threatened. "Thanks again, Drew. I'll
see you around, buddy," he said quickly before he turned and left.
Drew waved to them as they left, then once they were out of sight he put the
rag back over the window, stopped at the radio to switch to another station,
and then slid back under the hood of the car. Gabriel and Rhiannon went around
to the back and discovered a second garage about half the size of the front
one. He stooped down, using the key to unlock the the door, and lifted it back
until it clicked into place on the tracks. He latched it to make sure it was
secure and went inside. Rhiannon started in after him. She made it just over
the threshold and then let out a roaring scream.
"What in the blazin' Hell --" Gabriel whipped around.
She flailed her arms wildly, batting at her hair like it was on aflame while
screeching at such an ear-splitting pitch that Gabriel thought of checking the
next building to see if the windows had shattered. "There's a bug in my
hair! Get it out! It flew onto my head! Get it!" She yowled, her face
contorted in sheer terror.
He stared at her with his mouth slightly agape. Among their first meeting, his
impression of her was that she was a damaged and complicated person, but
underneath the pain there was a fierce strength and powerful will to live. She
was a tough chick, but yet here she was throwing a hissy fit over a bug?
He forced back his laughter as he stepped forward. "I don't see a bug
anywhere. Oh wait, hold on. Stand still, I can't get it when you're jumping
She locked her knees together, balling her fists against her face while he
delicately untangled the strands of her hair. When he finished she opened her
eyes and let out a shaky, long breath.
"Sorry, the insects kept flying in here and getting in the paint, so I had
to hang that up there," he explained, pointing up.
Rhiannon turned around slowly to look where he was showing her. Dangling from
the ceiling right above the entrance was a strip of sticky flypaper. Caught on
the end there was a sizable clump of Rhiannon's Irish copper hair.
"Oh..." she mumbled as she looked down, totally chagrined.
"Anyway, this is it," he revealed, sweeping his arm around in a grand
showing-off motion. He pulled the chain to flip on the small light bulb hanging
in the center of the room.
She blinked a few times to let her eyes adjust from the bright sunlight to the
dim, shadowy room. It took a moment, but gradually everything took shape.
Gabriel had converted the space into an amateur show room to display his
artwork -- canvases were propped upright by every available surface in the
room; on tables and wooden stools, easels and furniture that had been brought
in and up against the walls. Everything was covered with tarps that may have
started out white but were now stained with mixed colors. Some of the paintings
were abstract, splashes and swirls of cool and warm tones, while others
depicted pivotal moments from his life in poetic, inspiring ways.
One was of two young boys trekking across a river on a fallen log in the middle
of a woodland. Their arms were outstretched like the wings of paper airplanes
sailing in the breeze. The green and yellow tides raged furiously below the
unstable plank they walked, curling around their feet, swelling and splashes on
the sides of the canal. Behind them was a peaceful forest with strong
evergreens and wildflowers and moss splicing into the hillside. Rhiannon
imagined small animals roaming there along the winding paths. Just ahead of
them on the opposite side, the wood became menacing and agrarian. The bare
trees reached out with their deformed branches like the gigantic taloned claws
of a prehistoric bird trying desperately to pull them in. The water turned
black and boiled over onto the riverbank, the sinkholes widening and deepening
to a depth that appeared to go straight down into the bowels of Hell.
The boy trailing behind hesitated, his face aghast with the monstrosity looming
ahead. A soundless scream escaped from his frozen, O-shaped mouth. But his
companion in the lead ignored his friend's cautionary warnings, either because
he could not hear over the deafening roar of the river or because he didn't
want to listen. He marched forward with his head down and his eyes shut tight.
Gabriel led Rhiannon around the room, giving her a chance to look at them all.
He enjoyed watching her as she took in each piece of work for a long, slow time
with an expression of total admiration on her face. Finally they stopped in
front of a painting that she immediately deemed her favorite. It was an image
of a man from the mid-torso up to his neck. The ripples of his ribs cut into
his sallow flesh below a protruding collarbone and thin neck where every blue
vein and artery stuck out. A tourniquet was tightly wrapped around one scrawny
arm. Right above the elbow a large gash had been cut with a pocketknife, and
the wound bled heavily. Except what seeped out of this man's body wasn't
actually blood. The substance was thick and blackish, gooey like molasses but
shiny like oil. It pooled in his hands and dried between the skeletal fingers.
Written across the bottom in jagged scrawl were the words 'Free Me'.
"Gabriel, these are the most amazing things I've ever seen!" she
exclaimed she saw everything, groping for a more adequate word but finding
none. "When you told me you were into art, I had no idea you meant this.
Wow... How long have you had this place?"
He was suddenly bashful, pulling his shoulders up and tucking his chin down
until his neck all but disappeared. "Three years, just about. Trevor used
to work here at the shop with Drew, so all of us hung out a lot. One day I told
him that I was a painter, but I didn't have anywhere to house my works, so he
told me about this extra space that came along with the main garage that he
didn't use. He said that I was free to do as I pleased with it if I could pay
him $350 a month for rent."
"Wow," she repeated. "This is fantastic."
"Thanks. But actually, the reason I brought you here was to show you
something else..." He went over to one of the cabinets, opening it and
extracting a large, rectangular object that was covered in a white,
pink-flowered bed sheet. He unveiled the gift and spun it around for her to
She gasped sharply, putting a hand over her mouth. Her big eyes rounded to wide
circles as she reached out to lightly brush her fingers over the smooth raised
lines of paint on the rough cannabis. Gazing back at her was mirror reflection
of herself, a breast-length coil of flaming hair lying over her shoulder, her
face unmarred with the scars and bruises that were created just hours later
that same day. Her image was illuminated with golden sunlight that fell in
slants across the lightly freckled bridge of her nose and cheeks. Her intense
green eyes were alight with impassioned anger. She stood between the red, faded
brick walls of two nondescript buildings that created the tight passage of the
"Oh my... This was the day we met!" She realized, disbelieving.
He grinned with a mixture of embarrassment and pride. Usually Rhiannon was the
one to blush, but now he felt his neck burning up to his ears. "Do you
"Are you kidding? Gabe, I love it! I can't believe you'd do
something this wonderful for me." Without a second thought, she went over
and pulled him into a tight embrace. "Thank you so much."
His body stiffened with nervous tension. After a moment he tentatively rested
one arm loosely around her waist. "You're -- um, you're welcome." He
cleared his throat. "You know, with today being your 20th and everything,
I figured you deserved to have something nice done for you."
"Thank you," was all she could say, again, as she released him and
blinked away the tears at the corners of her eyes. She admired the painting.
"Where are we going to put it?"
He looked around the room for a spot, thoughtfully rubbing his neatly trimmed
goatee. Finally, he picked it up and set it on the elongated ledge of the
backdoor frame. "How's that?"
She went around him, looking at it from different angles before she clapped her
hands together with a smile. "Perfect!"
"Good. So, what do you say we go home now and make some dinner? I think
chicken fettuccine would fit the bill tonight," he suggested.
"Great," she agreed. The look of affection she was giving him made
him feel the same way he'd felt on the night she lay on his couch, dying. He
was headed for something paramount, and while he was fighting against it with
all his might, he was becoming more certain that no effort from him would stop
the horrible thing that rapidly approached both he and Rhiannon. He was the boy
venturing into the primitive jungle where the bloodthirsty beasts and savage
tundra waited to devour him.
She stopped him once before they left. "Everything you've done is
absolutely incredible, Gabe. And it means so much to me, I hope you realize
"Happy birthday, kid," he smiled.
They walked out into the late afternoon that was slowly giving way to dusk. He
chuckled quietly to himself as he closed the door back down and locked it shut.
" 'Ahh, Gabe, save me! There's a bug!' " he imitated her voice
"It was in my hair!!" She hollered in exasperation as she
playfully shoved him.
He just shook his head and grinned at her. In their laughter and jest neither
of them saw the MISSING posters with Rhiannon's photo that were posted on the
bulletin board outside the police station.