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Claudia's Cove [userpic]
Path Into Fire, 1

Title: Path into Fire
Pairing: Elijah/Viggo
Author: Claudia
Rating: varies, this chapter PG13
Summary: In a non-descript Midwest town, Elijah works as a therapist to special needs children and lives with his roommate Viggo. After saving the life of one of his charges, he is gifted a deadly ability to see visions of chaos and death in a country that seemingly doesn’t exist on a map.
Disclaimer: I make no claims about the real life of these actors, anything in their past, their real families, or their sexual orientation. The only resemblance to them is their faces and names.

Elijah held the swing suspended at chest level as if he were gearing up to give it a mighty push. He gave five-year-old Andy, who clung to the chains, an exaggerated smile. Smiling almost always came easy to Elijah, even on his most stressful days, but today had been especially easy since it had been the first truly spring-like day. The grass had turned bright green overnight, and the smell of sweet, overturned soil permeated the air, and it moved Elijah’s heart in a way that only the first days of spring could. At last there seemed hope, an end in sight to the day after day of gray, frigid winter.

Tumbleweed Park was the ideal place for Elijah to take his therapy kids. A jogging path wound through a wooded area and around a large duck pond. Just beyond the pond was an expansive field. A playground was set in the middle, far from the busy streets.

Elijah continued to hold the swing suspended, and Andy clung to the chains for balance. “What should I do, Andy? Swing or stop?”

Andy’s face remained blank. He had severe autism, and Elijah considered it a good day when he could ask Andy a question and get any sort of response at all, even if just a moment of lucid eye contact.

“Swing or stop?”

Elijah was ashamed by how much his arm muscles trembled. Man, he needed to work out. Andy was a husky five-year-old and Elijah, slim and barely over five feet five, had been blessed with neither muscle nor with the motivation to regularly work out.

He had a face that his special needs students loved. With enormous blue eyes and a wide smile, children clung to him like a favorite teddy bear. His dark hair, which stood up in places in unruly tufts, curls, and peaks, and smooth, fair complexion made him look much younger than his twenty-eight years. When he visited high schools, hall monitors still asked for his pass. Some day he might find it flattering.

“Get ready,” Elijah prompted. “Get set…”

Andy locked eyes with him at last. “Go!”

Elijah released the swing and pushed Andy high into the sky. In a few minutes, after he dropped Andy back at his house, he would be free for the weekend. The usual Friday night tradition was that he and Viggo ordered a pizza, drink a few beers, and Elijah pretended to be interested in whatever sports event Viggo wanted to watch. Most importantly, in Elijah’s mind at least, they could hang out together with nobody else around. At least Elijah hoped Viggo hadn’t gone and invited some work buddies home. Or worse – planned a date with a woman.

It had happened recently for Elijah, this realization that he was in love with his roommate. Or perhaps it hadn’t happened recently so much as he had finally admitted it to himself. Lord, but who wouldn’t be in love with Viggo with his classic good looks--strong chin and high cheekbones--and understated charm? Even when he was being an asshole, it was difficult not to be charmed by his low, nearly dangerous voice that somehow also managed to express that he didn’t take a lot seriously. But Viggo didn’t know that Elijah preferred guys. Nor did anyone. Elijah had been deeply in the closet since high school and planned to stay there.

Elijah stopped the swing again, though this time instead of holding the swing suspended, he simply clung to the chains just above Andy’s chubby hands.

“How many times should we swing — five times or eight times?”

Andy avoided Elijah’s gaze but said, “Get ready, get set, GO!” This was Andy-speak for “screw the conversation and just push me.” But of course part of Elijah’s job was to work on communication skills with his charges, and Andy was a tough case. His autism was severe, and he had only recently began to speak at all.

To get Andy’s attention, Elijah squatted so that he was at eye level with him. As he looked into Andy’s averted eyes, he tried to imagine what was going on inside his head. Confusion. Overload--

“Your son is adorable.”

Elijah started and turned. A young woman standing nearby had a little girl in a stroller. She had a strong accent, perhaps from Eastern Europe.

Elijah laughed a little. “No, he’s not my son. I’m his therapist.”

“I was just going to say that he has your beautiful eyes, but I guess that’s just coincidence.”

“Thank you.” Elijah smiled at her. People always commented on his eyes – enormous and blue as the spring sky. Either people found them beautiful or they were repelled by them and called them “buggy” or “alien.”

He started to ask if the little girl was this woman’s daughter, but then he remembered that she had just made the same assumption about him. He glanced down at the stroller as he continued to push Andy in the swing. He cleared his throat, feeling awkward.

Despite having no sexual feelings toward women, he often felt awkward around them, as if they were a foreign species. Viggo had tried to set him up on blind dates, which had for the most part ended up in disaster. Elijah was not good at pretending to be something he was not. So date after date ended badly for a variety of reasons, primary of which was the reason he could tell nobody. And he was no saint. He never called them when he said he would.

His all time worst date had involved Elijah taking a young woman to an expensive Italian restaurant downtown. The woman saw her ex-boyfriend at the same restaurant (Elijah doubted it had been coincidence since the woman had been adamant about dining at that particular restaurant). A big fiasco had exploded, starting with her cursing at her ex in the candlelit, hushed restaurant. It had ended with the ex-boyfriend pushing several tables over and threatening to kick Elijah’s ass if he ever again saw him with his girlfriend, whom he had just reclaimed, again.

After that night, Elijah had laid down the law to Viggo. No more blind dates.

“No, I baby-sit her. She’s my niece, Sashi. She’ll be a year and half on Sunday!”

Elijah looked at the woman blankly for a moment, and then remembered that he had just asked her who the child was. He smiled. “Do you bring her here often?”

The woman shrugged. She had long black hair and dark brown eyes. She was of Eastern or Southern European background. He noticed that she had painted her nails a dark red, which complemented her dusky skin.

“Only when I see other people here. This place can be creepy.”

Andy toddled to the sandbox, pausing to stomp on a large ant on the way. The woman slid her hair behind her ears, still keeping her gaze directly on Elijah.

“I’m Malinda. I just moved here a few weeks ago.”

“Elijah.” Elijah held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Malinda. Where did you move here from?”

“Chicago. My family’s originally from Maros.”

“Maros,” Elijah said slowly. The name was unfamiliar, but like many Americans, his geography skills were sadly lacking. And Eastern Europe was particularly shady in his mind, since the former Soviet Union had divided into so many little countries. Of course he didn’t watch the news as much as he should, either.

“Oh, yes. I suppose I’ve heard of it.” Elijah did not want to admit that he rarely watched the news.

Malinda spoke then to the little girl in the stroller. “Sashi, want to swing?”

“Well, my time with Andy is up,” Elijah said with some regret. He would have loved to keep chatting with the young woman. It would be fascinating to learn more about her country and culture.

Elijah startled at the sound of Malinda’s voice. “It was nice to meet you, Elijah.”

“Nice to meet you, Malinda—and Sashi.”

Elijah looked around for Andy.

He saw him lying inside a plastic tunnel, doing nothing but kicking his legs. Blocking out sensory overload. Everyone occasionally needed to escape the jangle of voices, lights and traffic, but it was especially important for autistic kids.

“Hey, Andy!” Elijah said, peering inside. At the corner of his eye, he spied a shiny key in the dirt, and he picked it up. “Let’s go! Time to go back home and see Mom and Dad.”

“Get ready, get set, GO!” Andy cried.

Elijah chuckled, puzzled as to what Andy wanted Elijah to do at that moment, and he asked, “What should we do with the key? Should we keep it in Elijah’s hand or Andy’s hand?”

“Andy’s hand,” Andy said, climbing out of the tunnel and holding out his hand. He looked directly at Elijah, and their eyes met. Elijah was left nearly breathless by the brief intensity of the little boy’s stare. Moments like these made Elijah truly love his job. The triumph seemed so small--a few circles of communication and a brief meeting of the eyes.

A man strode across the park with a dog that was not on a leash. Andy’s head whipped around to watch the bounding dog, and as it neared, he slapped his head in distress again and again. “Doggy. Doggy. Doggy.”
“Hey, hey, hey, it’s okay,” Elijah said, trying to block Andy’s blows to himself. “I’m not going to let the doggy hurt Andy.”

“Doggy!” Andy screamed. “Doggy! Hurt! Andy!”

The German Shepherd barreled toward them. Elijah swung Andy up into his arms to protect him, but Andy arched his back and slapped Elijah’s face in his panic.

Elijah struggled to keep hold of Andy. The dog’s owner could clearly see that the child was distressed and yet he made no move to call his dog back. Elijah glanced to the swings, to where Malinda and Sashi had been, but was puzzled to see that they were gone. They must have left. Well, that was strange, considering Malinda was going to push Sashi in the swing, but there was no time to contemplate it further.

“Hey, hey!” Elijah yelled. The dog’s owner was bulky in the shoulders, well built, and he wore a wife-beater that showed off a deep tan. “This child is afraid. Please call back your dog!”

The man just laughed, as if he found the whole thing amusing. What an asshole! If he found Andy’s fear amusing, what else was he capable of?

The man purposely clapped at the dog, getting him further riled up. The dog snarled and bounded in hyper circles around the man and then again toward Elijah and Andy.

“Bye-bye, Doggy!” Andy screamed in terror. “Bye-bye, doggy!”

Andy’s body writhed in Elijah’s straining arms. The dog leaped at them, and Elijah twisted his body so that the dog did not touch Andy. Elijah felt paws hit his back, nearly knocking him over. The dog pawed at Elijah, panting in excitement. The dog was clearly not vicious—just over-stimulated, but there was no way that Andy could be made to believe that. He wailed in terror.

“Your dog should be on a leash!” Elijah said. “There are little kids here!”

The man laughed again. “Go, Buff!” He clapped and growled, sending Buff the dog into a new frenzy.

“Hey!” Elijah said, nearly bowled over under Andy’s writhing body. “I’m asking you to stop!”

He was not sure what more he could do about the situation with Andy having a major meltdown in his arms and the other guy large enough to pound him into the ground should he choose.

“Oh, I’m scared,” the man said, his mouth turned up in a sneer. “Are you going to make me?”

Elijah could not hold Andy much longer. Only adrenaline was allowing him to continue holding the thrashing child. But he couldn’t put him down. He hated how powerless he felt; it reminded him too keenly of the many times as a teenager when he had stood before his hulking father, feeling meek and full of self-disgust at his inability to defend himself against his disparaging remarks.

An angry heat filled his chest, surging down his limbs, giving him more strength, and he shouted, “What is your fucking problem? How can you think this is funny? Where do you get off scaring little kids? You stupid fucking asshole! I’m going to call the cops!”

Elijah was breathless as his heart pounded through his ears, but shouting had loosened the tightness in his chest. Normally he’d never dream of shouting obscenities in front of his charges, but his shouting had packed a punch. But he needed to back down right now. He had Andy with him and if anything should happen to the child just because Elijah had lost his temper, he would never forgive himself. He glanced down at the husky child in his arms. Andy had paused in his tantrum at the sound of Elijah’s shouting.

“Whatever, man.” The dog owner shook his head. He looked disgusted and, Elijah was pleased to see, somewhat rattled. “Get a fucking sense of humor.”

“Asshole!” Elijah shouted back once he and Andy were safely in the car.

“Asshole,” Andy repeated. Great, Elijah thought, I’ve just taught Andy a new word that he will now use constantly.

Andy had calmed once Elijah got him in the car. He sniffed and wiped tears from his face, but he had stopped crying.

“It’s all right, Andy. The doggy’s all gone.”

“All…gone,” Andy whimpered. Elijah’s eyes narrowed in new fury as tears trickled down Andy’s cheeks. He couldn’t imagine what had spurred the man in the park to be so cruel.

“Man, that’s just rude,” Viggo said. He had already had two beers. “I would have kicked his ass.”

“I would have, too, if I hadn’t had Andy,” Elijah said.

They were lounging on the green and yellow plaid couch that Elijah had found outside a house. It had been left over at the end of a garage sale and had had a big sign on it that said “Free.” He and Viggo had dragged it into Viggo’s truck and then up the flight of stairs to their second floor apartment. The unbeatable price made up for the 1970’s look.

“Yeah, right. You’re lucky you didn’t get pounded. Have a beer.”

“I did get pounded. I think Andy must have smacked me about a hundred times. And my back’s killing me.” Elijah took the beer, shivering as his hand bumped against Viggo’s.

Viggo grinned. “You have a membership at the gym. Looks like you need to start using it. Impress that girl you met.”

“Oh, come on. It wasn’t like that.” Elijah flushed. He had been intrigued by the girl, but again – nothing like that. No spark. Nothing like brushing his hand against his Viggo’s.

“Was she hot?”

“She was all right,” Elijah said. Talking about women with Viggo depressed him. It took away his ongoing fantasy that Viggo liked guys, too, and that they were both only pretending otherwise.

Viggo clapped Elijah on the shoulder. “And you didn’t get her phone number?”

“If I could have done that while carrying a thrusting, screaming autistic child away from a psychotic dog owner, I would really be a player.” He nudged Viggo, determined to play the right role. “But my name’s not Viggo. What’s for dinner? I’m starving.”

“87P-IZZA. Your treat tonight.”

“Fuck you.”

But Elijah grinned and walked to the phone. All and all, it was a good night.

On Monday, the sun was bright and the air cool and refreshing. Elijah took Sara Linda, one of his Downs Syndrome kids, to Ace’s Ice Cream Parlor to get some ice cream. His back had not been quite as sore as he had anticipated, though he had to move slowly. He could not lift his arms. Viggo was right. He needed to work out.

“So what flavor should we get?” Elijah asked. Seven-year-old Sara Linda looked up at him, processing his question for a long while. Her slanted eyes were hazel. Her blond hair was done in two braids tied with red ribbon.


“Yes, we’re getting ice cream, but what flavor do you want? Should we get chocolate or bubble gum?”

Bubble gum was Sara Linda’s favorite flavor. Her face lit up in a big smile.

“Bubble gum! Bubble gum ice-cream!”

“Your mother’s going to kill me. But you did such a good job today that I just have to get you some ice cream.”

“Bubble gum ice-cream!” Sara Linda repeated.

As they approached the ice-cream parlor, Elijah noticed an overweight woman sitting outside on a bench. She wore a pink and green polyester uniform and cap that indicated she worked at the place. She was crying.

“Hey,” Elijah said, still holding Sara Linda’s hand. “Are you okay, miss?”

The young woman looked up at him. She had beautiful coffee and cream skin and vivid green eyes. Her hair was the muted light brown typical of being biracial. Her eyes were red and swollen. She was strikingly beautiful. But again. Elijah noticed this only as he would a painting.

“I’m okay,” she said in a soft voice.

“You don’t look okay. Want some ice cream? I’m getting Sara Linda here some bubble gum ice cream.”

The woman jabbed her thumb in the direction of the ice cream parlor.

“That bastard would say I don’t need any. He just fired me because he says I make the customers sick. He says they look at me and they don’t want to look like me so they don’t buy ice cream.” She laughed bitterly. “Yeah, right. He’s a bigoted asshole.”

“You know, …uh…”


“Priscilla, I’m a customer and I would never think something like that. I bring the kids I work with here once in awhile. I’m going to go in there right now and buy Sara Linda her ice cream because I already promised her, but I’m not going to give that man any more of my business.”

Priscilla managed a small smile. She wiped her eyes. “Why are you so nice to a fat girl like me?”

“Hey, none of that.” Elijah shook his head ruefully before taking Sara Linda in the store.

The irate-looking man behind the counter was wiry with muscular arms and a deep tan. Elijah knew the type--mildly polite to the customers but a tyrant to his employees.

“Help you, sir?”

“I’d like a cone of bubble gum ice cream for the girl here. Make that three cones.” He glanced out the window at Priscilla.

“Bubble gum for all three?”

Elijah nodded and counted his money. After the transaction was completed, he looked the man in the eyes. He couldn’t leave the store without saying something. His heart pounded. What was it about him lately? First the dog owner at the park and now this? Confrontation had never been his style before.

“See that girl out there?” Elijah pointed to Priscilla.

“Don’t worry, I fired her fat ass,” the man chuckled, as if he and Elijah were in on a conspiracy together. “You don’t have to worry about her anymore.”

Elijah felt his throat tighten with rage.

The man leaned over the counter. His eyes had narrowed. Elijah couldn’t help but wonder how he could run a successful business with such a confrontational attitude toward his customers.

“Do you have something to say?”

“Yes.” Elijah licked his lips. “Yes, I do. You fired that girl just because she’s big? What’s that about?”

“Not just because of that, my friend,” the man said. “Her kind have no work ethic, if you know what I mean. She may be a mutt, but it was only going to be a matter of time before she started sloughing off. I just thought I’d nip it in the bud before it started.”

Elijah’s chest burned. Un-fucking-believable. This man owned a successful business and he thought he could talk like this to customers?

This time Elijah’s voice came out far stronger than he had expected. “It looks like I’ll be reporting your business to the Better Business Bureau, and the Anti-Discrimination League. Furthermore, I would imagine that Priscilla has a pretty good case should she choose to sue. And it goes without saying that I won’t be coming back here.”

The man stalked around the counter so that he was right in front of Elijah. He jabbed a gnarly finger in Elijah’s face. Spittle flew from his mouth.

“The only reason I’m not kicking your skinny ass right now is because of the kid. Now you get this retard out of here, go take your fat-ass girlfriend and get the fuck away from my store.”

Sara Linda was staring up at the ice-cream owner in wide-eyed fear. Elijah had never wanted to punch anyone as badly as he did now, but his first responsibility was to his charge. He could not continue this scene with the little girl watching. He fully intended to follow through and report this man.

He let the door slam behind him.

He found Priscilla still sitting on the bench. He handed her one of the cones.

“Sorry, it’s melting.”

“You didn’t have to do that. Thanks. You’re a sweetie.” Priscilla took the cone. “Is this bubble gum flavor?”

She suddenly laughed, licking the cone. Her laugh was rich and lovely, and it made Elijah smile. “I’ve never tried this flavor before. It’s fun.”

“I have to go,” Elijah said. “I’ve got to get Sara Linda home—and I don’t think I’m welcome here anymore.”

Priscilla smiled, and it was a lovely smile. “Hey, I didn’t get your name.”

“Elijah. Elijah Wood.”

“Nice to meet you, Elijah. You just made my day. And I don’t know what you said to that bastard, but I appreciate you sticking up for me.”

“Listen,” Elijah said on impulse. “My roommate and I are having a little party this evening. You’re welcome to stop by. Just beer and peanuts, nothing fancy.”

He felt strangely drawn to this unhappy woman. He handed her one of his business cards, which had his address on it.

“I’ll think about it.” Priscilla smiled again. “Thank you for the ice-cream.”

“You’re welcome.”

After he dropped Sara Linda off at her house and wrote up his progress reports on her, he went home. His thoughts kept returning to Priscilla. He pictured her vivid green eyes-such a contrast to her flawless dark skin--and her soft voice. He hoped she didn’t think he was weird for inviting her to the party after he had just met her.

“Hey, did you get the beer?” Viggo asked.

Elijah hit the wall in frustration. “Fuck, I forgot. I’ll go back.”

“That’s okay. I have to go to the drug store to get some Pepto. Man, I had the squirts all day. Made life at the Logen Plastic Factory a thrill today.” He laughed. Only Viggo could sound sexy while talking about the “squirts.”

“Ugh,” Elijah said in disgust and he giggled. “That was more information than I needed to know.”

Most of the people at the party were Viggo’s fellow foremen at the Logen Plastic Factory. Elijah had invited his high school friends Dom and Billy, but they had been unable to come. He got along with most of Viggo’s friends, but after awhile they fell into talking about work at the factory. Elijah sat in a polite glaze of boredom. He had only consumed one beer.

He watched Viggo, how his eyes crinkled when he laughed, how whenever he spoke, everyone else listened, riveted. Sometimes it caused Elijah’s heart to ache and he had to force his eyes away.

There was a quiet knock on the door, and Elijah jumped to answer it. Priscilla stood in the doorway. She had put on some makeup and she wore a pants suit that flattered her round figure. Her eyes no longer looked red and weepy.

“Priscilla!” Elijah called in genuine joy. If she had decided not to come, he may never have seen her again, and for some reason, that thought depressed him. His strong feelings for a woman that he had just met bewildered him. But again – there was nothing sexual about it. The idea of having sex with her did nothing for him.

Viggo craned his head to see who had arrived.

“I hope you weren’t just being polite when you invited me.”

“Not at all, I’m glad you’re here. Come in! Everyone, this is Priscilla.”

Priscilla waved shyly to the others in the room.

“A beer?”


“Have a seat,” Elijah gestured to a folding chair in the back corner of the living room. He went into the kitchen to get a few beers. Viggo followed him.

“Who the hell is that?” Viggo asked, putting his arm around Elijah’s shoulders and bending over, laughing. His breath smelled strongly of beer. “She’s too big for you; she’d crush you.”

“Just a friend.” Elijah threw Viggo’s arm off in annoyance, although secretly he enjoyed it. “And don’t be a prick.”

“I’m just giving you shit.” Viggo held out his hands in surrender and backed out of the kitchen.

Elijah was hurt by Viggo’s attitude. He was always telling Elijah that his small size didn’t matter, and here he was making a big deal about Priscilla’s weight. What if Elijah were straight and wanted to date Priscilla? Viggo should be happy that he had found someone special, even if she didn’t match Viggo’s generic ideal of feminine beauty.

Elijah handed Priscilla her beer and sat across from her.

“It’s great to get out,” Priscilla sighed.

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m okay, you know,” Priscilla said. “My sister says they need a cashier at Wal’s World. Hey, what do you do for a living? Your business card says Play Therapy Specialist. What’s that?”

“I work with special needs kids.”

“You mean retarded?”

“Autistic, Downs Syndrome, brain damaged, etc. Mostly autistic.”

“Is that what that fellow had in Rainman?”

“Yes, but he was an autistic savant, which is rare. That is, he had special math and memory abilities.”

“It’s wonderful that you do work like that.” Priscilla squeezed his arm. “It takes a special person.”

“I’m not that special,” Elijah mumbled. Gosh, he hoped Priscilla hadn’t gotten the wrong idea about him having invited her. It would be awful if she liked him and things got ugly.

“Nonsense. My sister says we spend so much time putting ourselves down that we never wake up long enough to appreciate what great talents we can offer the world.”

“She seems like a bright girl,” Elijah said.

“Woman. Clarissa would kick your ass if she heard you call her a girl.” She looked at Elijah mischievously and winked. “And she probably could, too. I bet you get a lot of flack for your size, just the same as I do.”

“You have no idea,” Elijah said, rolling his eyes. If anyone else had made that crack about his size, he would have felt tense and defensive. For some reason, coming from Priscilla in her soft, easy voice, it felt comfortable, as if they were in on the joke together. She had just been fired because of her size, and Elijah could be beat up by a girl. Woman, that is. He covered his mouth and laughed. She joined him in laughter, despite having no idea what was so funny.

“Well, you have the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen. You’ll want to pass those genes on someday.”

Elijah blushed. “Thank you.” He leaned back in his chair. “Were you born here?”

“Born and raised. My father abandoned us when I was two. Before you jump to stereotyping conclusions, he was the white one. My mama died when I was four. Clarissa and me were raised by my aunt and uncle on our father’s side. They felt sorry for us—two little girls with a bastard for a father and dead mother. Our mother’s family lives in Trinidad, and they had long ago disowned mama ‘cause she married a white guy. How about you?”

Initially Elijah felt somewhat miffed that Priscilla had assumed that he would jump to stereotyping conclusions, but he had caught the defensive flicker of her eyes. She must have been burned enough times to feel she had to mention it to every person she met.

“What’s to say?” Elijah said. “I moved here about six years ago, after college, because my friend Viggo got a job here. We decided to room together to save money. I still live with him.” He shrugged, hoping his feelings for Viggo weren’t obvious in his eyes. “Viggo’s a great guy and we get along well. Until one of us gets married, it’ll do.” It was an awful thought, that, but Elijah figured that was a long way off.

“What about your family? Do they live here in Kirkbrae?”

“They live in Florida.” Elijah’s smile had faded at the mention of his parents. He had been estranged from his parents for the past five years, and had never had a stellar relationship with either his bullying father or his timid mother. “I don’t have any brothers or sisters.”

At around midnight, Priscilla got up to go. “I’ve gotta get back. Clarissa will kick my ass if I’m late for the job interview at Wal’s World tomorrow.”

“Priscilla, I’m really glad you came. I was getting bored listening to Viggo and his friends talk about their jobs. Do you want to get together again soon?”

“Elijah.” Priscilla placed her hand on his arm. “Just so you know right up-front. I think you’re adorable and sweet and all, but I’m not interested in a relationship, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, no,” Elijah said, flooded with relief. “Just as friends, nothing like that.”

He felt more comfortable around her than he had around any woman in a long time.

“Good,” Priscilla put her hand over her chest in relief. “I’m glad we got that out in the open. That part can be so awkward. In that case, why don’t you call me?”

She wrote her phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to him.

That Saturday it rained. A cold front had come through during the night, and the fine April weather was gone. It felt more like bitter March. Elijah cleaned the kitchen while Viggo sat on the couch and flipped channels. He had a hangover, but apparently it wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t watch a baseball game.

“Who’s playing?” Elijah winced at the lack of confidence in his voice.

“Elijah, Elijah, Elijah.” Viggo shook his head teasingly. “Don’t ask like you have any idea what’s going on. If you don’t know, then you’re not a true sports fan.”

Elijah flushed, even though he knew Viggo wasn’t seriously trying to put him down. Viggo had played football in high school, though he hadn’t quite made the cut for any of the college teams. And unlike Elijah, he had always excelled in sports. He had never had to endure the humiliating arguments with his father the way that Elijah had.

When Elijah was fifteen, his father had been particularly brutal one night over dinner. And it was as fresh in his mind now as it had been when it happened thirteen years ago.

“So, chum, why didn’t you go out for the basketball team this year?” The hulking man who had once played Defensive Back for the Alpine State College Cougars laughed sarcastically.

“Daniel!” His mother had reprimanded in her barely audible voice. Her huge blue eyes, which Elijah had inherited along with her tiny frame, widened in fear.

Elijah had stared at his father in hurt bewilderment.

“Oh, that’s right. Because you can’t join any teams until you stop playing like a girl in PE class. That’s what Mr. Warrens told me, you know. Said you play like a girl. He said you’d probably grow in a few years. Lots of boys are late bloomers. But playing ball is a sport where you have to get into it, have to be willing to take the punches, to get hurt.”

“I try in PE class,” Elijah said. “Mr. Warrens just doesn’t like me.”

“Do you know what Jim from work asked me? He asked me if you liked boys.”

“Daniel,” Elijah’s mother whispered.

“Shut up, Fran. Look at him with that baby soft skin and those delicate girly eyes. Put him in a dress and nobody would know the difference.”

Elijah tried to maintain eye contact with his father. He felt like crying, but he refused. He would not give his father the satisfaction. He would not.

“Are you going to cry?” his father asked.

“I’m done, mother.” Elijah said, standing up. He had left the house then and had taken a long, meandering walk. He had refused thereafter to have any interest in sports.

All around, he had been a massive disappointment to his father, a hulking man who had played football in high school and had gone on to play defensive back at Alpine State College. He had always sneered more than he smiled. Elijah had unfortunately inherited his mother’s genes. She was tiny with luminous blue eyes that were often wide with fear when she was around her husband. Elijah had been an only child, and he was nothing like the perfect son his father had dreamed of. He had failed miserably at sports and he had majored in special education. And if ever there was a pansy major in Daniel Wood’s book, that was it.

Uncle Jake had always accepted him unconditionally. Elijah’s eyes filled with sudden tears. No matter how many years had passed since the accident that had claimed Uncle Jake’s life, it sometimes still hurt as intensely as the night he had just gotten the phone call.

After graduating from college, Uncle Jake had worked his whole life in the local school district as a janitor. This had been a great source of delight for Elijah’s father.

“The favorite son cleaning toilets. So I ask you--who ended up trash and who ended up successful?”

Elijah had kept his mouth shut, as that was the wisest course of action to take around his father 99 percent of the time. What Daniel Wood could never seem to understand was that Jake could do anything he wanted, but he chose to be a janitor. He chose to avoid the stress of the business world. Elijah respected that.

“Who cares about being good at sports, Elijah, or how much money you made or how tall you are.” Uncle Jake had placed his hand on Elijah’s narrow chest. “What counts is right here. Just follow that, and you won’t ever have to worry about ending up like your father.”

“God damn it!” Viggo’s shout ripped Elijah out of his morose thoughts. Apparently the opposing team had scored.

“So what are you going to be up to today, Viggo?” Elijah asked.

“Nothing much.” His eyes flickered to the television and he yelled, “Come ON!” He turned back to Elijah. “I should just turn this off. It’s pissing me off. I’m going out tonight. With some Cathy chick I met last week. She might have a friend for you. Want me to ask her?”

“No thank you.” And then he added. “I have a date today.”

“Oh…” Viggo took sudden interest. “With the fat chick?”


“Sorry, man. I just couldn’t get it--”

“I like Priscilla.” That was true, but Elijah took great pleasure in saying it as if he meant it sexually.

Elijah stalked into the kitchen, stuffing his hands in his pocket. He was wearing the same jeans he had been wearing the day before, and his fist pushed against the piece of paper Priscilla had written her phone number on. He pulled it out. He wondered if it would seem too weird if he called her this soon.

He picked up the phone and dialed her number. A woman answered the phone, and he paused. He seemed to remember Priscilla mentioning that she shared an apartment with her sister Clarissa.

“Hello, may I speak to Priscilla please?” he asked.

“Is that you, Elijah?”

“How did you know?”

“I love your voice. I’d know it anywhere. This is a pleasant surprise!”

“Good. I wasn’t sure whether you’d think it was weird if I called.”

“Never,” Priscilla said. “Hey, so I got the job at Wal’s World!”

“Great! Congrats!”

“I’m thinking of ordering Chinese food and hanging out at home the rest of this miserable day. Would you like to join me?”

Elijah smiled. The prospect of spending the afternoon in her company was far better than feeling miserable with Viggo while he prepared for his date.

“Sure. I’d like that. Viggo’s watching baseball. I have no interest in it.”

“I’ll have to cure you of that,” Priscilla said. “I love baseball! But we don’t have to do that this afternoon.”

Priscilla gave Elijah directions to her place.

“The twentieth floor?” Elijah said in shock.

“There’s a working elevator,” Priscilla said teasingly. “You don’t have to climb up twenty flights of stairs.”

“If I did, I’d never make it. I’m in terrible shape.”

“Join the club. See you soon, Elijah.”

Elijah continued to smile as he hung up. He had freely told her how disinterested he was in sports, and she did not seem to think any less of him. He couldn’t do that around anyone else.

Elijah arrived at Priscilla’s apartment an hour later and she opened the door.

“Ah, it’s about time! I’m starving.” She shoved a menu to a local Chinese place in his hand. Peruse this menu and see what you want. I’ll call it in as soon as you’re ready.”

Elijah sat on her couch. He looked around the room. Everything was in bright, splashy colors. Flowers in vases decorated almost every corner. Painted art from the Caribbean hung on the walls. The turquoise seas in the pictures matched the color of the small carpet under the wicker coffee table. The sofa cover was bright red, decorated with bright purple pillows.

“This is a great room,” Elijah said. “Very cheerful.”

“Clarissa did most of the decorating. Our mom was originally from Trinidad. My sister’s into anything Caribbean. She’s in a soca band, too. We both play the steel drums.”

“Oh, really cool. I’d like to hear you play!”

“Focus, Elijah.” Priscilla tapped on the menu.

Elijah decided on the sweet and sour chicken and an eggroll. Priscilla called in the order and then sat next to Elijah on the couch.

Then her eyes darted to the screen door that led out to the patio and she jumped to her feet.

“Oh, shit! Maria just got out!”

“What?” Elijah jumped up with her. “Who?”

“I don’t know how many times I’ve told Clarissa not to leave the damn windows open.” Priscilla was already starting to cry as she fussed with the sliding door that led out to the balcony. Elijah felt a hitch in his stomach as he followed her. They were twenty floors up, and the balcony didn’t look that stable.

“Who’s Maria?” Elijah asked, following her on unsteady feet. He looked through the slats of the balcony floor into the balcony of the apartment just below them. He had a dizzying view of the city.

“My cat! I just got her last summer at the humane society. I’m afraid she’s not the brightest star. Oh, shit, there she is. She’s on the neighbor’s windowsill. What am I going to do? I can’t reach her and if I make too much of a fuss she might freak out and fall.”

A buzzing filled Elijah’s ears. The cat paced on the narrow windowsill, not too far from the balcony. She mewed. She was stuck. Elijah had seen a cat stuck in a tree that had the same caged movements. Priscilla was right. If they made any sudden movement, the not-so-bright cat might fall. She clearly had no sense of the danger she was in.

“Oh, God, Elijah” Priscilla said in a thin voice. “I don’t want her to fall. I don’t.”

“Hang on.”

Elijah leaned over the balcony. His fingertips brushed the cat’s side. The cat stuck her bottom up and started to purr, clearly not aware of her danger. There was no way he could reach her unless he climbed on a chair. His throat filled. He had always been afraid of heights. The cars looked like little toys.

“Priscilla, get me a kitchen chair.”

“Are you insane? No!”

“Just do it before I change my mind. I won’t do anything stupid.”

Priscilla came back with a chair that she shoved into the inner corner of the balcony. The chair wobbled as Elijah climbed on it. Elijah put his knee on the balcony railing. He would not look down. No looking down.

“Elijah, God damn it!” Priscilla hissed. “Get down! The cat’s not worth it!”

Elijah stretched his arm toward the cat. “Block me. If I topple, grab my legs.”

Priscilla made a strange whiny sound as she poised her arms, ready to grab Elijah’s legs if necessary. Elijah snatched Maria. She struggled and scratched, but Elijah dropped back down into the chair and then to the balcony floor. He threw the frightened cat inside and Priscilla followed him back in the apartment, slamming the glass door shut. She turned to Elijah in a fury.

“Oh my God, Elijah! You could have been killed!” Her face had become ashen.

“If she gets out again, she’s on her own.” Elijah’s limbs trembled, and he had to sit down suddenly. He could not believe he had done that for a cat that belonged to someone he had just met. He could easily have toppled over the railing. He was lucky he was inside waiting for their lunch to be delivered instead of a smear of red at the base of the building.

“Thank you, thank you,” Priscilla said, leaning her head on Elijah’s shoulder. Elijah looked at her in surprise. “You’re my hero. But don’t ever do something like that again, or I’ll kick your ass.”

Go on to next part