Chapter 10 – Safe Haven
Angel blinked and stared out of the window. A green sign drew close enough to read. “Bates County Drainage Ditch” greeted her in white letters and whisked by as she tried to gage how far south they had travelled down I-49. If memory served her correctly – and it usually did – they were a good hour or more out of Kansas City. Her short nap had served its purpose. Awake and alert, she sat up and glanced at her friend. He was so wide in the shoulders that she couldn’t avoid brushing against him, and she found that she liked travelling this way. Tommy’s eyes were darting about nervously as he surveyed the passing landscape.
“Have you ever been out of the city?”
“Only in my imagination.”
“Get used to it. Most of Missouri looks like this.”
“I guess it has to. I feel more exposed.”
She took a visual turn around the interior of the bus, and patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. He kept his eyes fixed on the fields, noting silently that the houses and out buildings were few and widely scattered.
“Relax. Nobody’s looking.”
He shrugged as the sarcastic rejoinder escaped his lips.
“They never are.”
Before long, another sign – this one reading “Vernon County” – passed by the window. The sky had a gray cast to it, and the suffused glow of the sun was sinking slowly. Trees fringed extensive plots of corn, milo, and beans.
“What have I gotten myself into?”
“Nothing you didn’t ask for,” she reminded.
Shortly thereafter, the bus decelerated. The driver put on his right blinker and turned onto the ramp for Exit 101. It emptied onto what looked like a main thoroughfare, and the bus continued in a westerly direction. About a tenth of a mile beyond the off ramp, they came to a stop at a Pilot Travel Center. The passengers stood and disembarked, some to stretch their legs before the resumption of their journeys, others to alight for good. Tommy and Angel followed once everyone else had left the aisle. They stepped onto the asphalt, picked up their bags as the driver unloaded them from the exterior compartment on the side of the bus, and walked toward the one-story building.
“So this is it,” Tommy announced while looking around uncomfortably.
“Don’t complain,” his companion chided. “This is as far as my money would take both of us. We need to find a grocery. I’m out of baby food.”
The gas pumps stood behind them as they opened the double glass doors and went inside.
The place was like any other travel plaza in appearance. Large, stone tiles of a beige color covered the floor and ran between and around numerous shelves of merchandise. Not that the two cultural isolates could have recognized the song, but country music was playing from some speakers hidden in the ceiling. A counter with a register was near the wall opposite the door. Behind this barrier stood an intelligent-looking man with eyeglasses and short, gray hair.
“What’s the name of this town?” Tommy asked as they approached the man.
“The sign at the exit said Nevada,” Angel cut in.
“Around here, it’s pronounced Ne-VAY-duh,” the attendant answered pleasantly, politely ignoring the odd appearance of the couple.
“Do you know where we can find a grocery?” she inquired.
He pointed to another door to his right. It faced southward toward the diesel pumps.
“There’s a Walmart Supercenter right over there. You can see the sign from our parking lot.”
They nodded their thanks and proceeded in the direction he had indicated. Once outside, they walked past the pumps, crossed the lot, and came to a row of parked semis at the edge. Beyond this lay a small field – beyond that, the Walmart parking lot. The store was within easy walking distance. Minutes later, they were standing at the mouth of an aisle in the grocery portion of the expansive interior. They searched the aisle until they found the baby food.
“What, exactly, are you looking for, Angel?”
“Meat, vegetables, fruit… anything with enough protein and nutrients. I can’t heal if I don’t eat.”
He sadly noted the small jars she selected.
“You’ll need more than that.”
“It’s all I can pay for. What were we thinking? We don’t even know where we’re spending the night. Maybe I can find a women’s shelter – if there is one.”
“And I’m fine sleeping outdoors. Where there’s a grocery store, there’s a dumpster, and that’ll take care of my supper.”
“Oh, you can do better than that.”
The unfamiliar voice belonged to a respectable man in his sixties. He was of average height, clean-shaven, and dressed in khaki slacks, flannel shirt, and windbreaker. His eyes were clear and hazel, his hair prematurely white. He had a somewhat square, inquisitive face, and he was walking over to them.
“Pardon my interruption,” he continued. “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I know I speak for my wife as well when I say we’d be happy if you would join us for dinner. We can also offer you a place to sleep, if you’ll let us. There’s plenty of room in our house.”
“You don’t even know us,” Tommy mumbled in confusion.
“From what I heard, you need help. I think the two of you look trustworthy enough. Are you?”
Being honest, they indicated that they were.
“From the way you’re talking, young lady, I’d say your jaw’s been wired shut. Do you have a straw?”
“Well, we have some clean ones at our house, and I agree with your friend. You’re going to need more food than you’re carrying.”
He grabbed several more jars off of the shelf.
“I’d be honored if you’d let me make up the difference.”
Having never been the beneficiaries of such kindness, they were momentarily dumbfounded. The older gentleman motioned them to follow after him, and he led the way to the check out lines.
“Your bags will fit in my trunk,” he proclaimed buoyantly over his shoulder as he walked.
Touched by his offer to help them, and subdued by his unassuming confidence, they dutifully followed. Their bags were soon packed away in the trunk of a nondescript but economical sedan, and they drove away, Angel in the front passenger seat and Tommy – sprawled and hulking – in the back. The car made a right turn out of the spacious parking lot and then a left at the stoplight on the main thoroughfare, now clearly identified by a street sign as Austin Boulevard. They continued westward into town. When they passed the intersection at Centennial Avenue, the four-lane street arched into a bridge over some railroad tracks, and there was the small downtown area with its low skyline spread before them. They drove a while longer through this architectural study in brick, vinyl siding, and corrugated tin. The most prominent feature was the point of a limestone clock tower with a reddish roof. Their driver pointed it out.
“That’s the county courthouse,” he said in an effort to break the awkward silence. “During the Civil War, this was a Confederate town, and it was burned to the ground by Union soldiers.”
Tommy took the hint.
“What’s it like, now?”
“Very white, but we do have some African Americans and Hispanics, not to mention an even smaller number of Asian Americans. You could go an entire day without seeing members of any minority, though. It certainly is different from the University community where I used to teach.”
“I meant, are people still prejudiced?”
“I’d say mostly not, though I’ve encountered a few unenlightened souls in the short time we’ve lived here. I suppose that doesn’t make here fundamentally different than anywhere else.”
“What’s the population?”
“Around eighty-five hundred, give or take. There can’t be much more than twenty-thousand in the entire county.”
The car made a couple of turns down residential side streets, and they pulled into the driveway of a Victorian home. A large sweetgum tree stood in the front yard while an equally large maple peeped over the roof from the back.
“Please don’t judge our house by the exterior. We concentrated on fixing up the inside first. Getting the old place painted is next on our list.”
He unlocked the trunk and handed them their bags. Then the kind man walked up some short steps to the covered porch and held the front door open for them.
“I’m back,” he called out. “Our guests are with me.”
“Oh, good,” a sweet voice called out from the rear of the house. “Have them set their bags down by the staircase.”
Puzzled looks on their faces, Tommy and Angel complied with these instructions as they took stock of where they were. The interior featured wood-framed arches, and bookcases of the same grain were set into the walls. In the living room, there was a bare mantle over the fireplace, which was empty at this time of year. Residue from fires long extinguished coated the hearth. The oak floors were strewn with attractive throw rugs to soften the appearance of the room, and an antique clock ticked soothingly on the wall. The ceiling was of pressed copper. Their host noted that this had attracted their attention.
“That ceiling was made by the W. F. Norman Corporation. It’s a family business located in an old, brick building just off the town square. They still use the old methods of production. Follow me,” he offered. “She’s back in the kitchen.”
When they entered, a trim, lively woman with graying hair pulled back in a pony tail turned around from the sink where she was working. She was wearing a long-sleeved undershirt beneath a denim shift. Freshly washed carrots and green peppers were on the counter, some cut into strips, and a paring knife was in her hand. Standing in a space outlined by myriad cabinets whose doors had glass windows and copper handles, she laid this implement down and quickly wiped her hands on her apron. The delicious smell of cooking seemed to emanate from her inviting smile.
“Hello,” she greeted almost musically. “I was just preparing a fresh salad. It’s all from our garden. I love growing things. With prepared soil and a little rainfall, they do the rest. All their instructions are contained in the seeds.”
“I don’t know what happened to my manners,” her husband confessed, turning once more to his guests. “This is my wife, Janice, and I’m Jonathan Andrews. I never asked your names.”
“Tommy and Angel,” the chimera answered in a low voice.
“Well, we’re glad you’re both finally here,” Janice responded with sincerity.
Tommy stooped to whisper in Angel’s ear.
“These people are acting as if they know us.”
She turned her head toward him slightly and discretely placed an index finger on his lips.
Acting as if he had not seen this, Jonathan pulled the baby food jars out of the bag he was carrying and set them on the kitchen table.
“Janice, Angel’s jaw is wired shut, and she can only eat through a straw. Is there any way you could fancy these up a bit?”
Continuing the distraction, the older woman picked up one of the jars and thought aloud. “To begin with, this will taste better if I heat it up. I can add some milk and seasoning as well, or would you prefer the milk separately in a glass? Broken bones need calcium.”
“Whatever is easiest for you, ma’am.”
Thinking better of her current tack, Janice moved over to Angel and gently touched one of her yellowing bruises.
“What happened to you, dear?”
Having never been touched tenderly by an older adult, Angel felt herself stiffen and then relax. Her intuition somehow reassured her that she was in a safe place. It was a childlike, almost instinctive reflex. She looked sideways into her massive friend’s eyes, and Janice immediately stepped backward to give her guests some breathing space.
“These people aren’t like us,” he murmured.
Her whispering hiss was emphatic.
“Maybe that’s exactly what we need.”
“Forgive me if I made you uncomfortable,” Janice broke in.
Feeling uncharacteristically the opposite for reasons of which she was almost unaware, Angel chose to test the water. She opted to be politely but brutally frank.
“No – it’s okay. I was beaten and gang-raped by four men.”
Jonathan groaned softly.
“Then it hasn’t stopped.”
The couple’s general lack of surprise brought their guests up short. Astonished, Angel gazed intently into Jonathan’s face.
“What did you mean by that?”
He was momentarily unable to answer. She could see that his hands were trembling, and there were tears in his eyes. His wife spoke for him.
“My husband has seen what happened to you – several times.”
“In a series of dreams,” he answered with a shaky voice. “It wasn’t by accident that I overheard your conversation in that aisle at Walmart. I was waiting in the checkout line, and I recognized both of you as soon as I saw you. I started to follow you after you walked by me.”
Now Tommy’s curiosity was aroused despite his skepticism.
“You said you recognized both of us. Did you just imply that you’ve had dreams about me, too?”
“Several – and they were almost as disturbing. I told Janice all about those recurring nightmares, and we both knew they were real. We’ve been waiting for the two of you for a very long time. In an odd way, I watched both of you grow up, and I can’t help thinking you’re the reason we moved here after we retired. I’d barely heard of Nevada, Missouri, when I felt drawn here.”
Angel frowned thoughtfully as Tommy stared at the floor.
“I’ve heard about individuals like you before, but I didn’t believe it. Do you mind if I try a kind of experiment?”
“Go right ahead. You could say I’m a man of science.”
“Can you describe the first man who attacked me?”
He did so in exact detail, albeit haltingly.
“Please don’t ask me to go any further,” he pleaded.
“You don’t have to. I’m convinced.”
Jonathan looked up at Tommy.
“I don’t see how any of this is possible,” the huge man answered, “but you obviously know things you should have no way of knowing. I won’t put you through any more tests.”
Angel put her hand on the sleeve of their host’s jacket to get his attention.
“You said you had a series of dreams. For how long?”
There was a contemplative pause before the answer to her question.
“Every week, often several times a week, for twenty-two years. Then, about three years ago, the screen went blank.”
Tommy was still having trouble processing where they were and the nature of the folks into whose good graces they had fallen.
“Who are you people?”
“Oh,” Jonathan chuckled, “you can think of me as a retired physicist who crawled down a wormhole and never came out.”
He glanced at his wife, and, for a brief moment, the stars of the firmament sparkled in their eyes.
“And I went in with him,” Janice added as she turned back to the sink and the rest of her uncut vegetables.
Intrigued as well as grateful, the young couple consented to stay the night. During dinner, Angel alternately sucked baby food through a straw and told her attentive benefactors essentially what she had recounted to Tommy some two months earlier. Most of her story they already knew, owing to Jonathan’s unwanted visions. She had to slow down after recounting the attack she had endured when in college as this was the point at which the revelations had stopped. For several minutes, they allowed her to explain the reasoning behind her sense of purpose without interruption.
“I’m sure you know that rape isn’t sex,” she stated at last. “In that respect, I just go numb – except for the injuries. The second time it happened, my body responded involuntarily despite the trauma, and my mother’s boyfriend at the time tried to use that against me when it was over. He said that I’d really wanted what he’d done to me, which only made me more determined that I hadn’t. Ever since, I’ve kept it from happening. This may sound weird, but I took over my nervous system so that I could control the rest of me.”
Trying to hide it as best he could, Jonathan had been dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief throughout her discourse. He did not want to make her self-conscious.
“You mentioned physical damage,” he managed to say. “But you heal very quickly?”
“Have you ever talked to anyone else about this?” Janice asked.
“Besides you, only Tommy.”
“So that would exclude a professional counselor.”
“I guess normal women should do that – get counseling, I mean – but I’m not normal.”
She tried to change the subject.
“There’s no point in reporting anything to the police, because there’s never anybody to arrest. In the time it would take me to submit to a forensic exam and give them a statement, the perpetrator would be dead, anyway.”
The dodge failed.
“I’m amazed at how calm you are while telling us this. Are you aware that emotional detachment is one of the symptoms of sexual abuse?”
“Yeah, and addiction, fear, hyperawareness, cutting behavior, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide…”
Her voice trailed off momentarily.
“I don’t do any of that. I also read that forceful resistance reduces the probability of injury – but not always – and it results in better mental health. I’m definitely not afraid. After an attack, I clean up and read a good book to get my mind on something else – usually after I’ve verified the assailants are dead.”
“Yes,” Jonathan nodded thoughtfully. “You explained that part quite thoroughly, and I believe you when you say you’re principled. You must have read a great deal.”
Angel raised her eyebrows and looked into some distant, hidden place.
“It has to be done. I’m not a victim, and I’m not a survivor. I’m a biological weapon – a voluntary combatant. I need to travel light, so when I finish a book, I try to leave it in a public place where someone can find it. It’s good to think that I might be promoting literacy in addition to everything else.”
Janice thought of something new.
“You said that you resist…”
“Right – as hard as I can. I warn them. I command them to stop. They have ample opportunity to save themselves.”
The older woman made silent note that this narrative was in the present tense.
“Do you worry that someone who might stop would have already been exposed to your toxin?”
“No, not really. My skin doesn’t tingle immediately – only once I realize an assault is unpreventable. A couple of men actually did quit in time. The rest followed through.”
This answer sent a shiver down Janice’s spine, but she concealed it. The response had betrayed an important fact. The production of this toxin, whatever it was, came about as an act of the will whether the young woman at their table knew it or not.
“Angel,” Jonathan began tentatively, “have you ever considered stopping?”
“I can’t deny my purpose,” she intoned evenly. “Sparing other women is too important.”
“How many options have you considered?”
“Only the one I took. The alternative is unacceptable.”
“Doing nothing when I have these capabilities. That would be heartless.”
“Well,” the former professor continued, “my formal training has taught me something different. As human beings, we have a tendency to consider only two options at a time. You can call it binary thinking, but the universe is more complex than that. By failure of imagination, we often fail to recognize the third, fourth, or fifth option.”
“Mister Andrews, I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
Her expression was respectful and betrayed a hint of hope. For one so decisive, she was remarkably open just then. Janice seized the initiative.
“My husband means that there are many ways to do good, some more effective than others. You’ve shared some sacred information with us, Angel, and we’re honored by your trust. May I ask you one more question?”
“Have you ever thought of taking a vacation?”
The unexpectedness of this inquiry had more impact than anything that had previously been said.
“Oh, Mrs. Andrews,” Angel began, “I can’t afford…”
“You don’t need to pay for anything. We’d love for you and Tommy to stay with us. There are plenty of spare bedrooms in this house. We’ve remodeled the attic into a guest room that would be perfect for you. It will give you privacy, and it’s a charming space. You can rest and recuperate for as long as you like. Rescue workers, soldiers, and police officers take time off. Why shouldn’t you?”
“I’m – we’re – not freeloaders. We’re both out of money.”
“An invited guest is not a freeloader. We have no children, and we would appreciate your company – and your assistance. We’re still fixing up our home, and Tommy could be a big help to my Jonathan. When you’re feeling better, you can work with me to prepare our garden for the next growing season, and I can always use an extra pair of hands in the kitchen.”
“I can do housework,” Angel offered.
“Except for the bathrooms,” Jonathan broke in. “Those are my responsibility. That’s one task I don’t want my wife to perform, and that goes for you, too.”
Janice brightened even more.
“So you’ll stay on for awhile?”
Angel nodded gratefully, and their hostess looked at Tommy.
He had remained silent throughout the entire exchange. He lifted his eyes away from the floor and looked at her softly.
“There really isn’t anywhere for me to go,” he confessed. “Thank you for your generosity.”
Jonathan Andrews shifted his weight nervously.
“While you’re here, Angel, could we declare a moratorium on the, uh…”
“Oh, absolutely,” she responded. “You’re peaceful people. I’ll respect your routine. As long as I’m here, I’m in for the whole slice.”
“Thomas,” Jonathan added, “there’s another guest room on this floor. That should give you some privacy, too. Janice and I sleep on the second floor. Oh, and I noticed you didn’t eat much. A man your size has to be hungry after consuming so little. Feel free to help yourself to whatever’s in the fridge. Both of you, there’s a small library on the second floor, and you can have the run of that during the day. Take any books you want to your rooms if you like.”
About an hour after Tommy and Angel had been shown to their respective quarters, husband and wife sat on the couch in the living room. He watched her as she crocheted.
“Well?” he asked softly so as not to be overheard.
Little did they know that Angel could have heard them had she been anywhere but in the attic.
“For all she’s been through, she’s remarkably intact,” Janice answered with equal caution. “But that’s on the surface. If what she says about regenerating is true, then perhaps the alpha receptors in her brain aren’t shot. Still, she’s suffering from PTSD, but she compartmentalizes so effectively that it isn’t as obvious. Her coping skills are exceptional, and she has strong but misguided ethics. The challenge is to help her find a healthier sense of purpose, but I’m stating the obvious.”
“About that – do you think we should tell her the rest?”
“Not yet. It’s too much too soon and still rather indefinite. I’m not sure even you understand it sufficiently. I know I don’t.”
“Okay. What about the young man?”
“That’s actually going to be tougher. He’s damaged, too, but I’m convinced Angel is the key. They both need to be ready before you tell them more.”
He grinned at her and shook his head.
“After all these years, you still amaze me.”
“You still have so much to learn,” she commented as she placed a hand on his cheek.
She went back to her crocheting.