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Competition (In The Shadow)

The school year was finally over.  I was happy about every aspect of that.  It meant Ellery was moving toward maturity by graduating from high school.  I felt so much better about myself once she’d moved past that stage, though I would still feel very guilty about courting her until she was no longer a teenager.  Though not guilty enough to stop; having engaged her affections, no edict or temptation on earth could deter me now, except a direct request on her part.

With a more leisurely summer schedule ahead of her, I was already thinking of things we might do together and places I could take her during my shifts.  Even though being at home seemed to be our mutually shared favorite location, I felt a responsibility to make sure she also got plenty of fresh air, sunshine and fun.

It was a very pleasant task planning the entertainment of my sweet girl and very best friend in the world.  I used that absorbing busy work to get me through the hours when I was off duty and she was out of my sight.  It had always been hard to fill the time in between shifts.  It used to feel so empty thinking that what I wanted was out of my reach, not even aware of my existence let alone my love for her.  And it was ironic and sad to think she’d been suffering over me the way that I had been suffering over her.  But that was over now—a fading memory.  Our minds were both filled with happiness and expectation, and time spent in her company was like a slice of paradise.

An expectation that I had not entertained was that there might be competition.  This was not arrogance on my part.  It was based purely on observation.  I could count her friends, including her parents, on one hand.  Plus she was very young.  No one had any business dating her any way, including me, but that could not be helped now.

I happened to be on duty the night that my view of things was uncomfortably adjusted.  And the premium of pain I still hadn’t paid became due.  It was evening time during the week.  She had eaten dinner outside with her parents and was cleaning up.  These days she did as much as she could out of doors, and I knew it was not because she enjoyed being on display for me or anyone else.  She was modest and shy by nature, not an exhibitionist or someone who would ever crave the spotlight.  No, she kept herself under my view as a sacrifice of love, for me, since she knew it made my work more pleasant.

Now that she was privy to my work schedule she could choose the occasions when she would make herself more visible, so she wasn’t under pressure to perform constantly.  I tried to reassure her that she didn’t have to make herself uncomfortable for my sake, and in my presence she would smile and agree.  But when we were apart, and she knew I was watching, it was like every movement she made was meant for me alone.  I just wouldn’t have believed it possible, but I fell even more in love with this incredible person who constantly found ways to turn normal motions of day to day life into sacrifices of love, to please me, if she possibly could.

But then my happiness was pulled up short by a new and potent emotion:  jealousy.  I’d experienced variations of it from time to time, especially through Lidia and Marcus’ interactions with Ellery, but never in a romantic context.  It flashed over from alarm, to smoking suspicion to burning jealousy in the amount of time it took for the young handsome man to exit his car, walk to her door, and then take her hands in his when she answered it.

Like so many times before I was thankful to be alone at that moment, with no witnesses to my reaction to the events unfolding before me.  She had opened the door and stared at him for a very long time before she seemed to snap out of it and speak normally to him.  It was then that he had reached forward and taken her hands, in a move that I myself would probably make after having been away from her for a long time.  I had no idea who this person could be or what he was to her.  But it was clear what he was to me:  competition.

I had to admit he made a very good showing.  He’d driven up in a new Porsche convertible with North Carolina tags which I had noted in order to make inquiries at the first available opportunity.  He was about my height, with an athletic build and a deep tan which suggested time spent on a beach, or more likely a yacht.  His clothes were casual but hinted at designer origins, and his windblown hair was longish, and nearly the same beige and golden blonde tone as Ellery’s own incomparably beautiful hair.  Could he be a cousin or some other relative?  Leah never mentioned having a son.  That would be far too convenient to hope for.

They disappeared inside for a brief but maddening interlude.  Then they reappeared, still hand in hand, on the deck, where Ellery introduced the newcomer to her parents.  Whoever he was, he had been unknown to her parents up until this moment.  That had to be a good thing.  If she had a close relationship with him, surely he and her mother would already be acquainted.

When they reemerged out the front door, they walked—still hand in hand—to his sports car, where he opened the door and helped her in.  She turned to look in my direction from across the span of our yards—the distance seemed like a canyon, miles wide and deep.  I couldn’t tell if her pained expression meant that she was unhappy with her situation or unhappy that I would be observing it unfold.

They drove to the ice cream shop that was Ellery’s favorite hang-out: Graeter’s.  I felt slightly mollified when she chose a seat outside on the edge of the ring of tables which would afford a completely unobstructed view.  She apparently felt there was nothing to hide.

Her bearing with this boy—I decided that he must be significantly younger than me—was unusual.  It seemed to shift back and forth from ease to unease.  I wished more than ever that she were wired.  I burned to know what he was saying to her and what she was saying back.

I tried to view them objectively to get a feel for what they would look like to a casual observer.  I decided it looked like they were on a date and that he was very interested in her, and that she was guarded, but not completely uninterested in him.  This was a painful conclusion to draw but there it was.

At one point her reaction to something he said made it look like he was teasing her, and then he reached out and rumpled her soft smooth hair.  A few moments later, in a move of overly familiar intimacy, he carefully folded and moistened a napkin to wipe a drip of ice cream from her face.  It was tender and sweet and nearly impossible to stay seated in my vehicle while viewing it.  He was entertaining and looking after Ellery as though she was his to care for!  The malicious and bitterly jealous emotions coursing through my mind were staggering.  Then there was the feeling of galactic injustice!  She had only just become mine—after months of painful uncertainty—and now someone was trying to steal her in a battle I couldn’t wage openly?  It was so unfair!

As they rose and walked back to his car he scooped up her hand again, as though it had always been his to hold.   She had been scanning the lot for me from time to time while they were there, and she did it again as they approached his car.  I wasn’t sure if she saw me or not, but it was slightly comforting to know that at least she hadn’t forgotten about me completely.

They drove back to her home and were inside and out of sight for about forty-five excruciatingly long minutes.  Since he was from out of town, would he stay over and cut off my time with her in the night, as well?  I was nearly in a panic over what to do about that when the front door opened and they stepped out on to the porch.  It was long after dark now, but the light spilling out from the foyer illuminated their silhouettes, and I could see very clearly their final parting embrace.  Then he leaned in and kissed her.  He was very fortunate that he chose to kiss only her forehead, and not her lips, for I believe that if he’d chosen differently my irrational jealousy might have manifested in an eruption of violent, potentially murderous behavior.

This had occurred at about a quarter past eleven, so I had roughly forty-five minutes to contain the monstrous emotions warring in my mind and heart and make myself suitable for a visit with what I knew would be one very nervous little lady.

At exactly midnight she climbed silently up the rungs and into the tree house.  We had taken to visiting in the dark after the batteries died in her tiny lantern.  It was safer this way, in the interests of avoiding detection, at least, so it was fairly dark as she settled herself across from me.

She unfailingly arrived each night in bare feet.  I wasn’t normally a bare feet kind of person, but I was desperate to create a connection, some common ground with her, no matter how subtle.  So I had made the trip through the grass and up the tree without shoes.  Her warm toes touched my own, then they came to rest on top of mine, occasionally brushing back and forth in a motion that I think was meant to soothe me.  It was more pleasurable than I could have imagined and extremely soothing—more than that, really.  I hoped going barefoot would not be my only good decision for the evening.

I tried to focus on staying calm and in control.  I reminded myself that I was not mad at Ellery, and that nothing could be more important than convincing her of that.  This battle was nothing if not psychological.

“Are you mad at me?” she began, with a very sheepish sound in her voice.  It would have been funny—if it wasn’t.

“Should I be?”  I replied, working hard to not sound mad.

“That was Grayson.  He’s an old friend, in town from North Carolina, just for the day.  He wanted to go out for ice cream, for old time’s sake.”

Her voice was shaky as she rushed to explain.  I hated it.  I never wanted her to be uncomfortable because of me.   I wanted to be the one comforting her.  Then her words registered and I began to contemplate the meaning of ‘old time’s sake.’   Was he picking up where old times had left off?  I strained to tone down the bitterness in my estimation of him and observed, “He seemed very….enthusiastic…about you.”

Her response caught me off guard.

“As enthusiastic as you are?” she asked, in a tiny, but hopeful sounding voice.

“Something like that, yes.”

Enthusiastic about invading your space and my territory.

She leaned forward to wrap her arms around my knees.  We had discussed the importance of keeping our hands off each other, but she didn’t always seem to feel the rules applied to her.  There was really no way to get away from her, and I didn’t want to risk offending her by trying.  Besides, I couldn’t deny that the invasion of territory and personal space was quite welcome if she was the trespasser.

She sighed softly and said, “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever felt nervous around you.  Normally, your presence relaxes me.”

She meant her words to be soothing, and in tandem with the stokes of her toes on mine, they nearly were.  She continued, “I had a feeling you’d be unhappy about the way I spent my evening.  I’m sorry.”

‘Unhappy’ was an understatement.

She reached down to find my hands.  I let her have her way, testing her resolve to appease me.  Though I knew I was treading a fine line, and that I should be conducting the damage control, not making her do that.  Then the name she’d just spoken clicked in my mind.  I’d heard it before…oh no.

She asked, “Would you like to hear what we talked about?”

But I was intent on having my fears confirmed and cut her off with a question of my own.

“What is his last name?” I asked with too much edge.

“Gregory.”

She answered my question, but even in one word the hurt from my rudeness was apparent in her tone.  I was hurting now too as I put it all together.  This was the ‘Gray’ that she had mentioned the night I was asking her questions when she had sleepwalked her way into my kitchen.  Gray Gregory was the son of the man I suspected of being the anonymous client paying my salary.  So not only was he trying to steal my girl away, but when he found out about me, he’d accuse me of doing the same thing to him and then have us all fired.  Now I really needed to know where things had left off with him.

“Do you have some romantic history with this boy or was he just being incredibly forward with you?”

Holding her hands, hugging and kissing her—it was either one or the other.

She tightened her grip on my hands and took a deep breath, smiling weakly, instead of giving into defensiveness and insult at my tone and words.  She might be young and inexperienced but her patience and maturity surpassed any I’d encountered among the adults of my acquaintance, including my own it would seem.

“I met Gray two summers ago when I went with my Grandpa on a trip to Iceland.”

Iceland?  She’d travelled to Iceland?  Why had I not heard about this before?

“He was working on a survey with Gray’s dad there.  Gray was supposed to be helping with the survey too, but he was nice enough to babysit me while we were there so my Grandpa could focus on work.”

Yes, I’m sure he was only too eager to get her alone in the name of teamwork.   She continued, “Gray’s a lot of fun, and I had a huge crush on him.”

Of course she did. 

“But I haven’t spoken to him for over a year and a half, until tonight.  I was surprised to see him.”

This information helped me to be more reasonable.  It showed that they’d had no connection for a considerable amount of time and that he was simply trying to revive the feelings she’d had for him when she was much younger.  Then she imparted the most crucial information of all.

“Let me just be clear on a few things.  I don’t dream about him, and I don’t imagine being married to him, and I don’t hang out in tree houses at midnight with him.  Understand?”

Considering how faultless I viewed her to be, and her many virtues, did I really think that loyalty would be absent among them?  Did I think that her feelings for me couldn’t be as strong or true as my own were for her?   Obviously I knew better by now the foolishness of doubting her potential.  How could I discount her character when it mattered most?  I couldn’t.  I didn’t.

In a lightning fast action that I normally reserved for defensive moves, I scooped her up and into my lap with her back to me.  Then I carefully whispered in her ear, “I’m sorry.  That was unforgivable—pressing you like that.  It’s none of my business.  You should have told me so.”

My lips brushed against her ear as I spoke, and I briefly considered kissing its warm, thin edge, but I already held her in a tight embrace.  If I started kissing her now, I knew I would only want more until I’d had everything—and that was not acceptable.

I closed my eyes tightly, straining for control.  In time, I promised myself.  In time it will be so much better.  I pleaded with myself to believe in that truth—for her sake.  Hearing the excitement in her fast and uneven breaths made the fight with myself even more difficult, like pushing a boulder back up to its place on the summit.

She laughed a little nervous sounding laugh and said, “Are you kidding?  And miss out on this?”

Though her arms were somewhat restricted by my hold around her, she managed to lift and cross them in order to squeeze the outside edges of my forearms with her small warm hands.  I realized that I’d been holding my breath and exhaled deeply.  It made her shiver and I fought for control again, inadvertently tightening my hold on her, instead of myself.  She broke through my abstraction.

“Besides, I thought I was your business.”

I chuckled lightly.  How could anything be funny at this moment?  She was brilliant, and patient, and funny too.  Could I possibly be that lucky?

“Mr. Gregory, his dad, offered me an internship position this summer on a survey project in Canada.”

No.  I wasn’t lucky at all.

“I really want to go.  It’s in Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies.  It’s always been a dream of mine to go there….but….I don’t know…”

A dream of hers?

“What don’t you know?”  I asked, moving my hands to squeeze her shoulders; an involuntary tandem movement that accompanied my desire to squeeze information from her as well.

“I don’t know if I can go that long without you.  It will be for a month.  Plus, I’m not sure you’ll say yes, so….”

Just that quickly she seemed to have forgotten my occupation, but I could see that she’d been truthful about imagining being married to me.  She already felt the need to consult me before moving forward with this enterprise.  I would need to word my response tactfully.

“I’m flattered that you feel you need to ask my permission, but no matter what you decide—and Love, it is your decision—we won’t be apart.  Even if I wasn’t madly in love with you I’d still be following you to Canada or around Louisville this summer, either way.”

She paused to think about my response, smiling to herself.

“Yeah, I guess that was dumb.  Like my taking a trip into the wilds of the Canadian Rockies wouldn’t require security.”

And then the reality of her plans hit home.  Did she mean the ‘wilds’ as in living out of doors…with him?

I felt completely deflated, defeated really.

“What is it?  What did I say?” she pleaded, sounding desperate.

I realized I had dropped my hold on her.

“Will you be camping?”  I asked, but I already knew the answer.  No, I was not lucky at all.

“Yes?” she answered like it was a question.  “Is that a problem?”

Just like I wasn’t a bare feet kind of person, I also wasn’t a camping out kind of person—at all.  I decided I might as well be honest about it.

“I’ve never camped before.  I guess I have some preparations to make.”

This was going to be difficult even with time to prepare.  What kind of a disaster would it have been with no advance notice?  What kind of disaster might it be regardless?

“Thank you,” she said, and turned around to hug me tight, pushing her hands between the wall and my back, determined to connect them behind me.  I didn’t like where any of this was going but at least she was pleased with me, for the moment.  And her warm embrace temporarily distracted me, taking the edge off my discomfort with what was coming.

She sighed, sounding totally content.

“Now I get everything I wished for,” she announced, resting her head on my chest.

Feeling her arms wrapped around me and her warm shape inside my own arms, it was easy to imagine my role in some of her wishes.  My heart beat faster in response.  I buried my face in her hair and breathed in her scent.  Then I pulled up, remembering my bargain with myself, and rested my chin on top of her head.  I thought about how my wishes and his had put us on a path to war this evening.  She was going to get her way and have her trip, but there was no doubt that all three of us would pay a penalty for the fulfillment of her wishes.

“Be careful about that,” I warned her.  She didn’t realize how hard her wishes were on me.

He may have had her for a few hours tonight, and apparently he’d successfully orchestrated having her next month, but I would fight him to the death before I gave up on my wishes.  I was planning on having her forever.

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