© Charles Vess 2019
Two days later, Janet was seated at one of a long row of benches that lined a small triangular park at the junction of two streets in downtown Inverness. The park is filled with bright, multi-colored playground equipment, being enthusiastically and thoroughly abused by a half dozen gleeful screaming children. Along the other benches, adult guardians sat patiently watching their charges exhaust themselves.
Beside her was a small mountain of shopping bags, which, with one slim arm, Janet casually kept from tipping over and spilling onto the sidewalk. She smiled and waved pleasantly at two men standing about 6 meters away, tasked by her father with following her whenever she leaves the estate. Even at this distance Janet saw the look of absolute boredom that had settled on their faces after accompanying her through store after store over a long, uneventful afternoon. Their arms were laden with even more shopping boxes and bags. Both men looked so uncomfortable with such a domestic chore that Janet almost laughed but thought the better of it.
At first, it had seemed like a good idea to get out of the house and in the process give her room a thorough makeover, but now a slight frown creases her forehead. What began as an angry response to her father’s suggestion, didn’t feel at all satisfying now.
Binge buying all this frivolous crap seems pretty childish now.
Well, he was right about one thing though, I do need help getting all these packages back home.
I wonder what today would have been like if I had any friends to share it with instead of those two stiffs.
Behind her, on the other side of the small park the furious yapping of a small dog cuts above the happy laughter of children at play. Without turning she contemplated what it would be like to actually own a pet.
Dog or cat I wonder?
To her annoyance the high-pitched yapping continued to steadily increase in volume.
hy is it always the little wag-tails that make the most noise?
I suppose the little yapper thinks its protecting its mistress.
With a weary sigh Janet glances at the two men whose duty it is to protect her.
More like they’re here to keep me from running away!
They do their best though. But don’t they ever smile or have any fun?
When the dog’s frenzied barking only increased in volume Janet looked casually over her shoulder to see what’s causing it. A short haired, pedigreed poodle stood stiff-legged just to the side of the fully occupied swing set, barking its carefully cropped head off. The sharp insult on the edge of her tongue were left unsaid as her eyes snapped wide in terror. Just to its side there was a great hulking beast, certainly not of this earth, slinking, belly to ground.
Its tail twitching spasmodically, the black, cat-like beast inched forward, intent solely on its prey. Without pausing the great hunting creature batted the small dog aside and continued to head straight toward Janet, leaving no doubt as to whom that might be.
Yet, no one else at the park seemed to be aware of the huge creature. No one that is, but the wee dog. No one. Her gaze jerked back toward her bodyguards who continue to stare at her with studied indifference.
They. Can’t. See. It!
With the beast was only a few meters from her, Janet frantically made a split second decision.
I can’t get those men killed just because I wanted to go bloody shopping…
Out of the corner of her eye, Janet saw the snarling creature gather itself, ready to launch its muscled bulk over the wrought iron railing that separates the park from where she sat.
But where do I run?
At that moment, Janet heard her name called. Turning, she spotted Thomas astride his bike balancing it at the nearby curb. Surprise and relief poured over her.
Dropping her bags, Janet lunged away from the bench, and in two quick steps lept onto the back of his Vincent, shouting urgently, “Go! Go! Go!”
As they roared out into the heavily trafficked street, Janet glanced back but now saw absolutely no sign of the stalking beast. Her two frustrated guards, though, were frantically trying to force their way through the shoppers that throng the crowded pavement. Tom gracefully maneuvered the motorcycle down the street, quickly picking up speed before there’s any chance of their being caught by man or invisible beast. Her arms grasped firmly around Tom’s waist, Janet lets out a gasp of relief.
Then, shouting over the sound of the wind whistling by she asked, “How did you do that? Be right where I needed you at the moment I needed you?”
Tom turned his head to briefly look at her and grinned,“Janet, you are too young to have such enemies.” Janet’s sarcastic response was cut short as the bike jumped up onto the pavement and bounced down a steep flight of stairs.
Janet shouts back at him,“Enemies? They’re just some guys trying to make a living. My real enemy is my bloody father. He’s wants to suffocate me in that damn house of his!”
“No. They are of no concern, but the hunting beasts had almost found their prey.”
“Beasts? I only saw the one. You mean there were more of those bloody horrible things?”
“They always hunt in packs…”
Janet clutched Tom’s waist harder and continued, “But why did I see it when no one else did?”
The eloquent shrug of his shoulders only served to ignite Janet’s anger.
“Right, Mr. Tall and bloody silent, when are you going to explain what’s going on here? Just thinking about those awful creatures gives me the creeps. I need some answers, Tom!”
After her outburst they ride in silence through the streets as sunset begins to touch the sky with color. Occasionally, she reached up to rub her hand over her newly shorn scalp, ruefully thinking,
Janet you’re an idiot. Here you are, your arms around this handsome stranger again, going… where?
But for some reason I feel safe when I’m with him… except for all my unanswered questions!
After they crossed the River Ness by the Young Street Bridge, Tom maneuvered his bike into a parking space along Ness Walk. Running alongside the embankment of the river with easy views of Inverness Castle and the various cathedrals that top the low downtown skyline as well as a multitude of cafes and restaurants, it was very popular. Tonight is no exception.
They climbed off the Vincent and slowly thread their way along the crowded thoroughfare. After Thomas noticed that Janet was compulsively looking over her shoulder he stopped and smiled at her, “Have no concern for your safety now. I will protect you.”
“Really? Just like that, I’m supposed to believe that the wanker who left me stranded out on that damned bridge is my what…my champion?”
And yet somehow I do want to…
At that moment they were both distracted by the loud jangle of music that erupts from deep in her purse. Janet dug deep into it and pulled out the offending mobile device. Its screen was lit by a text message from her father that she barely took the time to read.
“Janet, where are you! I want you to hear from you right NOW…”
Without hesitation she hurled the device out over the River Ness where it dropped beneath the surface with a soft splash. She turned back to the handsome young man close by her side and smiled at the look of confusion on his face, “Just a gift from my father that I don’t really want or need.”
And his bloody army can’t trace me so easily if I don’t have that damned thing on me.
They fell silent then, and continued their stroll between the city and the river, simply enjoying the night and each other’s presence.
By the time they came to a stop under a huge spreading elm that leaned out over the water’s edge, the sun was disappearing in a burst of orange and yellows. Thomas looks solemnly into Janet’s eyes and broke their shared silence.
“I fear that I have brought an undeserved evil upon you. Because of me, you have seen the door slip open onto a vast world that is sometimes needlessly cruel and quick to visit very real danger upon the unsuspecting.
“It is a world that few mortals ever chance to see.”
“Few mortals! What do you mean? You’re as mortal as I am…” Even as Janet spoke those words, doubt began to creep into her heart. Especially after what she had seen in the last few days.
“You are human, aren’t you, Tom?”
“Yes, but one that is inured to the habits of this other world, a world that I have promised to protect you from. With my life, if need be.”
Flustered by the obvious sincerity of his words and the soft look in his eyes, Janet’s heart unexpectedly began to beat faster. Gathering her thoughts, she turned away and looks down for a time into the darkening water below. Suddenly, she realized that what started as a casual adventure was struggling to become something more.
Do I really want that to happen?
She smiles to herself.
Then Tom asked a question that startled Janet. A question asked of her many times before, one that she had always before chosen to simply ignore. This time, though, Janet realized that she wanted to tell this man everything she could about herself.
“What of your mother, then? What does she have to say about you being imprisoned in this castle of yours?”
Janet stared for a moment at the fading reflection of the sunset in the slow flowing river and the silhouette of the cathedral looming just across it before answering. “I never knew my mother. She’s always been a ghost with no face, one that constantly hovers in my thoughts. There’s only been my father for as long as I remember. And he’s always remained distant, aloof… as if it somehow pains him to even see me. We’ve never gotten along, and lately its only gotten worse.
“When I turned twelve I started to have these weird seizures or blackouts or sudden panic attacks or whatever my father’s very expensive doctor was calling them that particular week. In the last year, they’ve gotten worse, both in length and severity.
“After forcing me to put up with every test that my father’s considerable wealth could afford, my doc determined that the blackouts were the cause of my memory loss, the constant walking in my sleep, my personality shifts. They even recorded me talking in my sleep in a language that no one understood.”
She smiled ruefully at her companion, “At least until last night out on the bridge, and there I was speaking that same language. Only this time I knew the meaning of every word I spoke….
“Which is so bloody weird…
“Anyway, my father has always tried to keep a pretty tight leash on me. As I’ve gotten older he’s become even more obsessive about keeping me under lock and key. But Tom … I’m 18 years old. 18. I shouldn’t still be living with my father. I need to be out in the world finding out who I am and what it is that I really want from life. Shouldn’t I? Right now I feel like a huge, empty hole waiting for something to fill me… And that’s not right. I should be the one choosing what I want to learn. Shouldn’t I?”
Unexpectedly Tom lightly held both her hands in his warm ones. “Surely your father is concerned with your wellbeing. After all, doesn’t he want what’s best for you?”
Janet’s eyes filled with troubled memories before she leaned comfortably against his shoulder. “A number of years ago, he enrolled me in this posh private school. Of his own choosing, of course. It was very exclusive, all dark brick and high walls and sturdy gates. Only the best families sent their daughters there. I think he was hoping I’d make some friends in the right sort of crowd. But most of them were horrid and their families even worse.
“Except for a few halfway decent ones, my schoolmates made the same stupid comments about my skin that I’ve heard my entire life.
“What are you even doing here black girl!”
“There was more of the same, sometimes even worse, but I tried to ignore them all.
“Until one afternoon, out on the football pitch, a group of the worst of the girls surrounded me, spitting slurs right at my face. I couldn’t stop myself, I screamed right back at them.
“That made them even more pissed, so they began to kick a soccer ball right bloody at me… as hard as they could, over and over again. For probably for the only time in my bloody life I blessed my ‘health problem’ because I suddenly collapsed and they all just ran away.
“In a flash my father brought me back home. I still don’t know whether it was to protect me or to hide me from the world because he was ashamed of the color of my skin.
“I think not, you… you are quite beautiful, Janet Ravenscroft.
Eyes wide with surprise, she paused for a moment, trying to digest what this compliment might mean and sensed another subtle shift in their relationship.
Flustered, she continued, “Anyway, since then it’s been private tutors and home schooling all the way through my A levels. He may call it home but it feels like prison to me.”
She looked up at Thomas, uncertainty clouded her hazel eyes. “It is safe… its comfortable. I don’t need a job or have to pay rent or even worry about money… or have to put up with any bloody name-calling. But if I stay there, I won’t be allowed to live my own life or make my own mistakes, will I?
“And that is maybe even more terrifying than those bloody creatures of yours.”
Listening, Thomas’ eyes grew dark and troubled because he, too, had asked himself the very same questions for more years now than he could remember. Indeed, those questions were what had led him to stray from the Queen’s court for longer and longer spans of time.
His thoughts were brought back to the woman beside him when a sharp laugh burst from Janet lips, “And in case you were even wondering, all that extra security really puts a right spanner in my social life. Any bloke I’m with just runs off straight away after looking over his shoulder and seeing some massive goon intently following his every move.
“Lately, I’ve felt like I’m going to go bloody mental with frustration, so I started playing a game with father and his men. I work out some kind of elaborate plan and escape to somewhere interesting and then, for a few hours I pretend to be a normal, healthy young woman with normal, healthy problems. But all those stupid games I’ve been playing at are beginning to make me wonder if I really am the spoiled little girl that my father thinks I am.”
Janet stopped talking for a moment and looked intently around at the now darkened city crouched close along the river at their side before she whispered, “Sometimes I catch my father looking at me like he’s absolutely certain that I’m just going to go right off my nut, totally barmy… maybe it’s because he can’t do anything to fix me that he’s so bloody paranoid about what I’m going to do next?”
Her mind raced furiously, trying to imagine how she could possibly frighten a man like her father with all the resources his wealth and power gave him.
When she looked up, she caught Tom in mid-sentence. “… indeed, there is meaning for me in your words that is most familiar. In my life as well, there is one who has tried to keep me in a cage. It is, as you say, a beautiful cage, but one that nonetheless has stout bars that prevent me any real freedom.” Hearing his words Janet smiled to herself, grateful to have someone to talk to who understood at least some of her frustrations.
Suddenly, from the café just beside them, there was a sharp explosion of noise. Clutching at Tom’s arm Janet began to breath again, only when she realized that it was caused by a waiter at a nearby café who had spilled an over-stacked tray of dishes onto the pavement at his feet – not some loathsome creature. Looking at Thomas she asked, “Can we go somewhere a little less public?”
“If you wish, but where?”