From Within the Heart

     It was past midday.  That was the first thing Jess was aware of.  For some time, he lay still, trying to piece together all he could of the night before.  Little made much sense to him past the time he left the ballroom.  He faintly remembered a rowdy bunch, chugging bourbon, asking for a ride.  Beyond that, nothing.  His back was stiff; his neck and shoulders ached.  So did his head.  His body was sticky with perspiration.  It soaked his shirt, dampened his back, his arms, legs. 

Sitting, he wiped his brow with his shirttail and began checking out his surroundings only to verify what had already become clear.  Pigeons cat-walked the metal bar running through the hayloft peak.  Off to the right, just past a short row of bales, was the crack in the loft door.

Moving slowly so as to nullify the hangover’s misery, he crawled to it, peered out.  It was clearly past noon.  Air filtering through the crack felt wonderful was cooler than that trapped in the barn.  May as well wait here, he thought.  There’s no leaving till dark anyhow.

     Hiding behind the row of bales, he slipped onto his stomach, placed his face before the crack.  Fresh air washed over him, drying the sweat beaded on his brow, his lip.  Jess was not surprised where he was; somehow it seemed quite logical to him.  He didn’t even mind the wait.  He minded that he was thirsty; he was very thirsty.

     Getting comfortable, he drifted into torpor making the misery easier to endure, for that was what must be done.  Unable to quench his thirst, he searched for somewhere to focus his mind and found . . . Evening in Paris, the softness of a body next to his own.  He struggled to hold onto the sensation.  He failed.  He dozed.  Longing, passion, and occasionally Peter’s hurt, angry face, would fill his mind.  That image always suggested perfume, the soft body.  Round and round he went. 

Half-consciously, Jess wondered why? Why the first person he’d ever felt anything beyond carnal desire for was so integrally linked to everything he’d lost?  Why this passion was so consuming?

     In the heat of the haymow, Jess struggled with the physical and emotional monsters that undermined his peace of mind and lost.  Restlessly, miserably, he dozed then fell into sleep to find himself alone in a demon land.

     “Do you think he’s dead?” Ben whispered, looking at his brother, his eyes wide with surprise.

     “I think I saw him breathe,” was the hushed reply.  “What do you suppose he’s doing here?”

“He looks sick.  Maybe he’s sick.  What’d ya suppose we oughta do?  We can’t just leave him here, can we?”

“Mom and Dad aren’t back yet, and Liz is sleeping.”

“He’s Peter’s friend.”  Ben resolved the matter.  “He’ll know what to do.”

Quickly, quietly, they retreated from the stack of bales they’d planned to use for their fort and escaped outside.  Then, they raced through the cattle yard and west across the pasture, stopping for a quick drink from the creek before racing on.

The book she’d been reading earlier slid to the floor as she rolled to her side.  It had been an unusually quiet afternoon to have slept so long.  The clock ticking on her dresser said four.  She looked from it to Peter’s picture and smiled.  Lifting the book from the braided rug, she lay back on the pillow and wondered what he was doing.  Suddenly, she realized that she could barely remember her life before he’d become part of it.  Her smile deepened.  She didn’t care.  Peter was her life.

If she had turned her head, looked out the west window, she would have seen her brothers racing to the Christiansen farm, but she did not.  Instead, she got up, brushed her hair, and lifted her skirt to straighten her blouse, which had become un-tucked as she napped.  If Peter appeared, as he sometimes had on a Sunday afternoon, she wanted to look presentable.

As she started down the stairs, she realized how quiet the house was.  Usually the twins created some kind of commotion.  When they were quiet, that usually meant trouble.  Her parents had gone to the Kihnes, neighbors to the east, and wouldn’t be back for a while.  If the twins were in trouble, she would be in trouble.  She checked the house then headed outside.

Placing Martha Sturhman’s copy of Gone With the Wind on the porch swing, Elizabeth walked around the house.  Homer, the puppy Peter had given her the night before, tagged along.  No one else was in sight. 

Reaching down, Elizabeth rubbed the puppy’s chocolate head and ears.  “Now where do you suppose those two have gone, Homer?  Shall we go find them?”  She lifted the dog and called her brothers, “Ben?  Bill?  Where are you?”

She called once more as she crossed the yard.  It puzzled her they didn’t answer, but they hid themselves at times.  Or, maybe they were by the creek and hadn’t heard.  Putting the puppy down, she cupped her hands to her mouth and called again, “Benjamin!  William!  Where are you?”

The sound of her voice pulled him from the nightmare, brought him instantly to life.  Sliding closer to the cracked doorway, Jess watched her cross the yard towards the barn.  He studied her form, saw the dog in her arms, and when she stopped directly below him, he watched her put the dog down, cup her hands, and call again.  Jess watched the sunlight dance off her hair, accentuating its rich brown highlights.  He caught the reflection of the locket dangling above her heart.  He watched her look once more at the world around her then turn towards the center barn door.  Losing sight of her as she opened the alleyway door, he listened, heard her enter below.

“Come on, Twins,” she called in her soft alto.  “Where are you?”

Before looking from the crack, Jess noticed how peaceful the world seemed.  No one seemed to be around.  The pickup generally parked beside the house was gone.  His pulse quickened to think she might be alone.  Kneeling, he listened breathlessly as she called, “Ben?  Bill?  Are you up there?”

Jess’ heart stopped.  He heard the soft padding of bare feet on the ladder’s rungs.  A pup barked below.

“I’ll be right back, Homer.  I have to find those two.”

Fate is giving you one more chance, Blakemore, Jess thought.  Don’t screw this one up

Peter picked up the chocolate cake and took a bite.  He reached for the glass of milk he’d poured.  He’d changed, put on the faded blue work shirt, the washed out jeans he planned to milk in.  If he hurried, he’d be done in an hour. 

Gulping down milk, he heard the commotion out front.  Not planning to be distracted, he took another bite of cake.  Matt would have to undo his own mess this time, he thought.  Suddenly, two blonde-headed boys, both talking at once, leaped through the screen door.  Their faces were flushed from running, their breath came in quick bursts.

“He’s sick,” Ben spouted.

“He might be dying,” Bill concurred.  “He didn’t move at all.”

“Just lay real quiet like, but we saw him breathe, I think,” Ben added breathlessly.

Peter looked from one twin to the other, tried to make sense of their chatter.

“Whoa, guys, slow down.”  Sitting the glass of milk beside the cake on the table, he brushed crumbs and asked, “Who’s sick?  What are you talking about?”

Taking a breath, the winded Ben answered.  “Jess.  He’s up in the loft, by the door, but he’s barely alive.”

Immediately, the line that had eluded him, that had plagued his subconscious incessantly, struck Peter. ‘I watched . . . from the crack in the door . . .’

“Are your folks home?”

“No,” Bill said.  “That’s why we came to get you.”

“Where’s Beth, guys?  Is she with your folks?”  Peter’s heart was in his throat.  Without a doubt she was home; her parents would have left her with the twins.

“She was sleeping.  We thought you’d know what to do.”

Peter was moving before they finished speaking.  At the screen door, he turned and said, “You did the right thing.  Now go out back and tell my dad what you just told me, OK?  Tell him to come over, that I may need his help.  Be sure he comes as soon as he can.  Got it?”

Their heads nodded simultaneously. 

Peter turned, sprinted across the yard, cleared the first of three fences in his path, and ran like he’d never run before.  As he ran, the previous night’s memories raced with him, spurring him on.

 He watched her survey the quiet hayloft, searching lest her brothers elude her.  In frustration, she called one last time, more softly now, as if fearful of disturbing the lofts near reverential silence.

“Alright, guys.  You tricked me.  Come on out.”

“They aren’t here.” 

Jess stepped clear of the bales.

Elizabeth reeled unsteadily; her breath stopped.  “Jess?” she exhaled.

Not wishing to frighten her, Jess extended his hand.  “I’m sorry if I scared you.  But I’m the only one here.”

Both Elizabeth’s hands went up.  “Stop.  Stop right there!  I don’t know why you’re here, but I don’t want to talk to you.  I was looking for my brothers.”

“I know.  Like I said, they aren’t here.  It looks to me like there’s nobody here but you and me.  Right?”

Elizabeth turned, ran for the ladder. 

Jess caught her a few feet from it.  “Don’t, don’t go.  I didn’t mean to scare you, but I’d like, I want to talk to you.”  His words were softer, less menacing than ever before, but his appearance was repulsive.

“You’re hurting my wrist!” she said, trying to peel his fingers from it.  He smelled worse than he looked.

“I don’t want to.  Just don’t run again, OK?”

“You’ve nothing to say I want to hear.”  Jerking free, she fled again. 

This time, Jess grabbed her around the waist.  Lifting her, he carried her back to the middle of the loft.  There he turned her, pinned her against a support beam, forced her to look at him.

Elizabeth diverted her eyes from his, struggled against him.  His breath fell in quick puffs against her cheek.  She tried to not inhale the stench.  Stale alcohol, cigarette smoke, and sweat created a cloud around her.

“I’m sorry about last night,” Jess finally said and loosened his grip.  “I went to far.”

She looked into his eyes.  Fear and anger flushed her cheeks, ignited her eyes.  “Fine!  Let me go.  We’ll forget it happened, end it like that.”

“That’s not what I want.”

She looked away.

“Beth, look at me.”

“I told you only Peter calls me that!”

“I don’t want to talk about him!  Understand?” 

With a solid shake, Jess bounced her head against the four by four behind her.  Stunned by the blow, by his changed demeanor, Elizabeth went limp.  Jess mistook her debility, subdued his anger.  He studied her face, saw bewilderment fill her eyes, misread it, and with a softer, pleading tone said, “I want to talk about us, you and me.”

“What?”  Her words were as still, as breathless as the loft air.  “Jess, there is no us.”

“There could be if you would just let it happen.”

Unthinkingly, Jess touched her face.  “What happened last night . . . I shouldn’t have gone so far,” his eyes held hers.  He traced her lips with his fingers, “Since the minute I saw you, I’ve wanted to kiss you.  You’re so . . . beautiful.  I’ve never wanted anyone like I do you.”  His fingers found her chin.  They tracked the trace of bruise still on her cheek.

He looked into her eyes.  “I would make you very happy if you would let me.”

Elizabeth watched his eyes trace her lips then fall to her breast.

“Jess, please.”  Her eyes wavered under his; her voice faltered.  Fully aware of her vulnerability, she said as kindly as she could, “I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t love you.  I love Peter.  Please . . .”

At Peter’s name, Jess’ left hand tightened against her arm.  Grabbing a fistful of hair in his right, he railed, “Peter!  Always Peter!  You might love me if you’d try.  Give me a chance.”  His voice softened.  “Won’t you try?”

“Ouch!  Jess!  Let go!  You’re hurting me!  Please, please understand.  I love him.”

“Why?”

“Because I do.  Please, Jess, let me go.”

Jess’ face assumed an expression she’d never seen before.  His eyes grew dark, sinister.  “How about please for me?  What about me?”  His smile became a sneer.  Kindness disappeared.  “I could change your mind.”       

Elizabeth choked back a sob, watched Jess’ mind conceive what he was about to say then started to cry.

“Good old high-minded Peter.  Always the winner.  In life, now in love.  And poor old Jess, he just never had much of a chance at either.”  Jess savored the power his words had over her, her tears.  “He hates to lose, you know.  It kills him to come in second best in anything.  Did you know that?”

Uncertain what to do, Elizabeth nodded agreement.

“Wonder how he’d feel about coming in second in this game?”  Jess let go of her hair, touched her face.  “He told me how much he wants you, confided his innermost thoughts to me.  Are you surprised?”

A shake of the head.

“Maybe, just maybe he wouldn’t want you so much . . . after . . .”

“What?”

“Maybe . . . if you belonged to me, he’d just give you to me, kind of like a consolation prize.  That’d even things up some between us.”

“No!”

Jess nodded his own agreement then slowly bent towards captive lips.

Elizabeth slammed her fist hard against his head.

Jess recoiled, grabbed her hand then picked her up, carried her into the dark corner of the loft.  There he lowered her onto a pile of straw.

Arms and legs working against his, Elizabeth screamed at him to “Stop!”  Once, she nearly freed herself, but he caught her, shoved her back down, placed his full weight on top of her.  Exhaling ragged breaths, they fought until, finally, he pinned her beneath him. 

Nuzzling her ear, he whispered, “Relax.  I don’t want to hurt you.  I do know what I’m doing.  You might even enjoy it.”

“Stop!  Oh, Jess, please.  Don’t.  You don’t want to do this.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he vowed, his eyes fiercely in control of hers.  “I want this very much!” 

He bent to kiss her.

Her teeth tore into his lip.  Pulling back sharply, he fingered the bloody cut and cursed.  “Want to play that way, huh?” 

The flat of his hand smacked her cheek.  Her teeth tore the inside of her mouth.  It filled with blood.  Crying with pain, she rolled away, then, seizing the moment, she moved to her knees, attempted to crawl free. 

Jess caught her, pulled her back.  Sitting on her, he caught one of her hands, held it in front of her as he reached for a length of bailing twine a few feet away.

“You are a fighter, aren’t you?” he said hoarsely as he wrapped the twine around her wrist then reached for her other hand.  “Bet you wouldn’t give Pete this kind of trouble.”  He laughed, “But then,” her hands bound, he rolled her onto her back, “I’m not him, am I?”

Lightning flashed in his electric eyes.  He took a deep breath.  “Next time you bite me, I’ll use my fist.”

Tears spilled from Elizabeth’s eyes.  “Please, Jess.  Please.  Don’t!”

Jess saw the chain around her neck, grabbed it, gave a quick jerk, broke it, tossed it behind him. 

As he moved over her, Elizabeth screamed “NO!” to the unsympathetic air.

At first, everything seemed peaceful.  Peter slowed his steps, moved towards the house.  Stopping to note the book on the swing, he called her name.  No answer.  He called again, more loudly, “Beth!”

If she were inside, she’d have answered unless . . . Reaching for the screen door, he heard her scream.

The prayer never passed his lips but raced through his mind, filled his soul all the way to the barn, down the long alleyway, past where Homer growled unhappily at the base of the ladder.  “Oh, God, please,” he prayed as he climbed wooden rungs.

His eyes adjusted slowly in the shadowy light, but he heard the direction, knew even before he cleared the final rung.  Turning towards the sound, he saw and his stomach wretched.  Hurrying towards them, he watched Jess’ hand move her skirt, saw the whiteness of Elizabeth’s thigh.

“You bastard!  Get off her!” 

Lifting Jess, he heaved him into the dark shadow of a pile of bales.  In a glance, he saw the bleeding mouth, the newly bruised cheek, the bound hands, the torn blouse, and the tears.  Kneeling he said, “Oh, Beth.”

Unable to face Peter, Elizabeth turned away.  He felt her shudder as he touched her shoulder.  He reached for bound wrists.  Too late.

Out of the darkness, Jess tackled him, rolled him across and away from Elizabeth.  As they locked in combat, Elizabeth crept away, crawled deeper into the dark recess of the corner until she lay against the barn wall.  She could hear their cursing, the dull thud of blows, their falling and rising to attack anew.  But she could not look. 

From somewhere far away, she imagined she heard the sound of a car, but wanting nothing but darkness to cover the shame she felt so acutely, she turned her face towards the wall and lay still, very still.  After a time, she thought she heard Tom Christiansen.  Still she veiled her face.

“Peter, stop, son.  Stop.  He’s had enough.  Stop now!”

Peter’s father lifted him, shook him to break through his rage.  “Peter!  Peter!”  Tom studied Jess’ still form, saw him breathe, and pulled Peter a away. 

Then his father saw the young woman he’d grown to know and to love so well lying as still as the air they breathed against the barn wall.  “Oh, Lord,” he whispered. 

“Peter!”  He shook him again.

Their eyes met.

“Elizabeth needs you!”

Peter looked over.

“Go to her.”

Peter took a breath, staggered over.  Wiping blood and sweat from his face, he fell to his knees, reached for her hands, called her name.

     She shuddered at his touch, uttered a muffled whimper. 

     “Beth,” he repeated untying her wrists.  Tossing the twine away, he covered her hand with his.

     Something in his touch found her, broke through the darkness.  Her trembling slowed.  Ever so carefully, Peter put his arms around her.  Crooning her name, he let his voice draw her back from the fear, the humiliation.

    “It’s alright, Honey.  He’s not going to hurt you, not anymore.  It’s just me.  I have you.”

     Wrapping his arms around her, Peter held her close.  As tears coursed down his cheeks, he said, “Beth, Honey, please, look at me,” 

It took a long time.  When she finally did turn, her eyes were wide with fear.  They remained diverted.  Shame glazed her expression, colored her cheeks.

     “Peter?” 

It was barely audible, but it was enough.  His arms tightened.  She dissolved into tears.

     Having decided Jess would live, Tom approached. 

“Pete?”  For the first time in his life, words failed Tom Christiansen.

     Peter took a ragged breath and shook his head.  Making no attempt to veil his tears or his anger’s jagged edge, he looked at his father, “Why did you stop me?”

     “No, no, Peter.  No,” Beth cried.

     Peter’s face contorted.  “How can you plead for him?”

     “No, not for him.  For you.”  Elizabeth sobbed.  “I need you.”

     From his overalls, Tom produced a handkerchief to wipe the blood forming a thin line along her lips.  Then he looked at Peter’s nose.  The condition of Elizabeth’s blouse, forced his eyes away.  They found Jess’ prostrate form. 

“Why don’t you give her your shirt, Son, help her to the house?  I’ll take care of Jess.  You two are done with him.”  Then he moved to tend to Jess.

     Peter slipped the old blue shirt from his back, reached it around her shoulders.  His eyes held hers as he helped her slide her arms through the sleeves, pull it closed.  Gently cupping her chin with his fingers, he kissed the swollen cheek, the bloodied lips, wiped fresh tears with his father’s handkerchief; then he stood and lifted her from the straw. 

He heard Jess moan as he carried her past but did not look at him.  He felt no regret for the hurt his blows had inflicted, none at all.  At the ladder, he stopped, looked back to his father, to his former friend, meant to ask . . . but words wouldn’t come.  He turned away; they descended.

     When they emerged into the daylight, her brothers still stood where they had been commanded to stay, next to his father’s car.  In silence, they watched Peter carry their sister past.  Even the normally rambunctious Homer followed quietly from a respectable distance.

     Halfway to the house, Elizabeth said softly, “I didn’t know he was there.  I was looking for the twins.”  The sob caught in her throat.

“It’s OK, Beth.  It’s over.”

“I don’t ever want to see him again, Peter.  Please don’t make me.”

“Oh, Honey, I’m so sorry.”  He checked his tears.  “He’s never going to bother you again. 

“I think . . . I think it was me he wanted to hurt, not you.  I’m so sorry.”

Beth placed her forehead against his cheek and whispered, “He said you wouldn’t want me . . . not after.”  Her tears wet his shoulder.

“Beth, Honey, don’t.  You don’t have to . . .”

“No!  I do!” But she didn’t, couldn’t until they were inside and Peter had taken warm water from the cook stove and was wiping her face with a soft cloth.  Grabbing his hands, she looked in his eyes, “He said you’d just give me to him . . . that you wouldn’t want me . . .”

Peter touched her face.  “Give you to him?  Beth, even if . . .” The reality of what had nearly happened strangled him. 

He closed his eyes, took a long deep breath then looking back said softly, “If this summer has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t live without you.  Not even . . . not even that could stop me from loving you.”

For a long time they held one another, and then Peter waited while she washed her face, brushed straw from her hair.  Upstairs in her room, he looked away, pretending not to see the bruises as she slipped off his shirt, her torn blouse, and into her blue chenille robe.  And when she was changed, he sat beside her on the edge of her bed and listened to everything she had to tell him.  When she began to tremble, he held her close then lay down beside her and pulled a quilt over her to warm her from the cold fear still gripping her heart. 

Peter did not move until long after her breathing signaled to him that she was sleeping, and then it was only to lift himself so that he could see his father’s car disappear down the lane—Jess along with it.  After that, he lay back on the pillow beside her.  Breathing in the soft fragrance of her hair, he, too, slept.

The moon was well past mid-course when Tom Christiansen pulled onto his farmyard and parked inside the open-ended garage north of the house; but because of its fullness, there was ample light to see as he made his weary way towards the kitchen porch on the southwest corner of his home.  Rounding that corner, he saw his son sitting on the step, waiting.  Max lay at his feet.

“Can’t sleep?”  Tom sat down beside Peter.

Peter shook his head.  “He gone?”  He did not look at his father, just kept stroking the dog’s head.

“He’s gone.  Put him on the train myself.  Called his mother to let her know he was coming, hinted that there was trouble, but didn’t get specific.” 

“What’d she say?”

“Oh, she cried a bit, probably as much to know he’s coming home as the rest.  She learned long ago to expect trouble, I think.”

“Hurt bad?”

“Took some stitches.  He’ll be plenty stiff and sore.  The doctor thought he had a cracked rib, maybe two, but,” Tom sighed, “I fed him a hamburger and Coke.  That cured him some.  He hadn’t eaten all day.

“Paid him what I owed him, gave him a little of my philosophy.  He’ll behave himself for a while, I think.  You kinda took the tar out of him.”

Peter finally looked up.  “We did the right thing, didn’t we?  I don’t think Beth . . . she couldn’t face the scandal.”  Seeing his father nod, he looked away. 

“Elizabeth calm down alright?”

“Yeah, she’s OK.  He scared her pretty bad, but . . . she’s OK,” he repeated to reassure himself then added, “Thanks for sending Mom over.  It helped to have her there when her folks got home. 

“How could I have let this happen?”

Tom placed a work calloused hand on his son’s shoulders.  “You didn’t.  It wasn’t your fault, Peter.  I asked him to stay, remember?”

“But I trusted him.  Why couldn’t I have seen?”

“None of us saw, not this.  Sometimes things just happen.”

“This didn’t just happen.”

For a time they sat quietly, side by side, watching moon shadows and listening to the soft lull of the summer breeze as it lifted the branches of the nearby trees.  Even in the moon’s pale light, it was easy to see how the son resembled the father.  After a bit, Peter looked towards the barn.  The old peach basket darkened the barn’s siding.

“It didn’t just happen,” he said again.

Tom surveyed the moonlit profile of his son.  “What do you mean?  How did you know, Peter?”

“I didn’t, not for sure.  It just seemed like . . . it seemed possible.”  Slowly, he explained the confrontations of the preceding week to his father.  “I just knew that, after last night, I couldn’t take the chance of being wrong.”  He cursed softly, fought his emotional battle and added, “I was almost too late.”

Tom Christiansen hadn’t seen that expression on his son’s face in years.  For a moment, Peter was six and had just lost his first and last race.  He put his arm around him and remembered the locket.

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled it out, handed it to Peter.  “I found this in the hayloft.  I imagine my future daughter-in-law would like to have it back.”

“Thanks, Dad.  For everything.”  Peter looked up.  His father saw the appreciation, the respect in his eyes.

Tom smiled and stood.  “That’s what I’m here for.  Some day when you and Liz have a son, you’ll understand exactly what that means.  Don’t be too long,” he added with a final pat to the shoulder.  “Tomorrow’s another day.”

“I won’t be.”

Peter examined the broken chain and turned the locket, noticed how the moonlight played upon it.  He opened it, studied the girl pictured beside him and smiled at the moonlit glow on the reflections from within the heart.  

 

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