Excerpt from Welcome to Mayhem, Baby
I paused to sip my coffee and looked up into the troubled face of a thin, serious student who drew neat charts but found the mathematics intimidating. He leaned toward me, speaking in a voice pitched to avoid being overheard.
“I am sorry to bother you, Claire, but there’s a stranger downstairs asking for you.”
“Stranger? Toss me a clue.” I gathered up my stuff. If I had to go downstairs to the office, I might as well head on home.
“I don't know. He is mostly hidden under a cloak.”
“What kind of cloak?”
Jeremy, though intelligent, could be vague. Why would he use a word like cloak?
“A long one. With a hood,” he said.
Long, hooded raincoat? Huh. Grabbing my own hooded rain jacket from the wall hook, I headed for the staircase. “I should be leaving now anyway, so I'll go see on my way out.”
The kid hesitated then blurted, “He has a sword.”
“When he came in, uh, the wind kind of blew his hood loose, and I saw it. Got it in one of those scabbard things on his back. I saw the hilt.”
Sword, scabbard, hilt? These kids played way too many video games, and I started to say so.
Jeremy added, “He didn't ask for you by name, but we figured he must mean you. You're the only person we could think of who'd be called Stargazer. Is that a nickname?”
My heart stopped beating, and I could not move, while memories shot through me like laser flashes in my brain.
I turned and fled toward the staircase. Racing down the first half flight of stairs, I dashed across the landing, down another and another.
When I came to the last turning, I could see a form huddled in a gray cloak, sagging against the wall. Oh god, I knew that heavy wool cloak.
He heard my footsteps and looked up. His face was so pale with exhaustion that I hardly noticed the scar until later. What I saw in the shadow of his fur-lined hood was the thick blond hair, the sky blue eyes, the hard jaw and stubborn chin, and his wide, beautiful smile.
Flying down those last stairs, I almost stumbled, caught myself a step above him, and threw my arms around his neck, still not believing this could be happening.
He turned his rain-wet face up to press it against mine. His mouth against my ear, he whispered, “It's you. It's really you.”
He shivered violently inside his cold, soaking-wet cloak. His dripping hair stuck in tendrils to his face. When he slid an arm around me, I felt him cling to me to keep from falling.
He must have waited at the base of the stairs because he could not possibly climb them, couldn't manage another step. I held on tightly, catching handfuls of his wet cloak in my fists, afraid he would collapse to the floor.
Over his shoulder, I called to two of my math students who were passing by. “Hey, guys, my friend here isn't feeling well. Could you help me with him?”
They smiled their courteous smiles. Like most of our kids, they'd learned to hide behind smiles. “Of course we will.”
As Tarvik was my height and the boys quite a bit taller, they expected someone light in the cloak. They wedged their shoulders under his arms to turn him about, almost stumbled beneath his solid weight, then paused to glance at him. Their eyes widened in surprise.
They kept their smiles pasted politely on their faces, asked no questions, and managed to half carry and half walk my barbarian out the door. They were not strong enough to lift his full weight, and so they bent to his height, uncomplaining, and pulled him across the rain-slick parking lot.
They seemed stunned, must have felt the sword on his back under the cloak, but their disbelief in no way matched my own. I knew where he came from and knew that it was impossible. Yet here he was.
“Can you manage him?” they asked as they wedged him into the front seat of my car.
I could be kind, or I could be truthful. I chose truthful.
“Don't think so, guys. I'm going to need help getting him into the house. Listen, he's not contagious or anything, just exhausted.”
He hadn't felt feverish.
“Okay,” they muttered, and climbed into the back seat. All the way home, they kept their young mouths shut. They probably thought that he belonged to a gang, not anything they wanted to know about. They'd seen the scar on his face.
When we reached my house, they pulled him out of the car and half carried him up the porch steps. Circling them, I left the door open and rushed around, turning on the lamps.
They carried him into the house then stood stiff and wordless, supporting his dead weight, waiting for me to tell them what to do. His head hung forward, his chin on his chest.
I tried to be brisk, authoritative. I tried to wear my firm, confident teacher face.
I said, “Ah, hmm, he appears to be exhausted. And soaked through from the rain. And very cold.”
With each suggestion, they nodded silently, their eyes still wide with shock.
“He also appears to be unconscious,” I pointed out. “I think you need to take him into the bathroom and get him out of those wet clothes. Stick him in a hot shower if you can manage it. There's a bathrobe on the back of the door. See what you can do, guys, then bring him back in here.”
They continued to nod, speechless.
“His name is Tarvik,” I added. “He is harmless.”
I didn't bother to mention that almost anyone is harmless when unconscious, even a guy who carries a sword.
I turned on the rest of the lamps, turned up the thermostat, rummaged around in the freezer, then put a pot of frozen soup in the microwave. Kneeling in front of the fireplace, I opened the damper, tossed in a Presto log, and got a small fire going. I could hear the boys talking to each other, opening cabinets, moving about. I heard a few low moans from the barbarian and startled exclamations from the boys, all of which I tried to ignore.
The front room was warming by the time they returned, again carrying him between them. Because they were goodhearted boys and a bit in awe of me, they'd done a good job.
His hair was squeaky clean, his skin scrubbed, and he smelled of my soap and shampoo. My terry robe was about the right length, came past his knees, but was tight around his muscular body. The front edges barely overlapped where they had tied the belt. There was some faint color returning to his face. At my instruction, they put him down on the couch. His eyelids twitched and he seemed to be breathing evenly and he was no longer shivering.
There were recent scrapes on his hands and knees. The boys had found salve in the medicine cabinet and slathered it on.
“I heard the shower running. How did that go?” I asked.
They snickered. “He can sleep standing up.”
Keeping him upright in the shower must have been tricky. Both of the boys looked damp around the edges, wet hair, wet sleeves, their jeans water spattered.
“We left his clothes on the floor and his, uh, stuff, on the counter,” one said. From the look that passed between them, I knew what he had worn beneath the heavy cloak besides clothing.
“Sword? Dagger? Gold armbands? Finger rings?” I asked.
They nodded after each guess. “Is that stuff real?”
A fortune in gold in my house? Not a rumor I wanted spread.
“It's costume stuff,” I said.
“Why does he have a sword?”
Good question, and I'd like to know the answer to that one myself.
I said, “He's a cousin of my friend Nance. He likes to go to medieval fairs. Dumb weekend to do that. He must have got caught in a downpour.”
Once when I'd shown a film of Julius Caesar to the kids, to teach a little history, they'd liked the story, especially the stabbing scene, but thought I was nuts when I told them it was based on an actual person.
“No,” they'd argued, “you're kidding, right? Men never wore dresses.”
So I added another detail for these boys. “At medieval fairs, people dress up like characters in Disney movies.”
“Cool,” they said, but I knew from their expressions that they thought I had weird friends.
I dug my wallet out of my pocket and handed them a couple of bills. “Go treat yourselves to pizza. You've been great.”
After they left, I sat on the floor beside the couch and watched him sleep, his weary face turned to the fire. The light flickered on a small gold ring in his earlobe.
The boys had removed his gold armbands and finger rings so that they could warm his cold skin under a hot shower and then towel him dry. They had wrapped him in my robe. He must have stepped in and out of the shower, must have been conscious on and off.
I picked up his right hand and was relieved to find it warm now. Then I turned it between my hands and saw that the little finger was missing.
To myself, I muttered, “Princeling, what have you done?”
“Stargazer,” he said in his soft voice.
That's what I'd told him my name was. When he'd asked, I'd thought we were playing that medieval fair thing, you know, don't tell your real name because it can be used to control you. So I made up a name that seemed a good game clue. When I figured out that his world wasn't a game, it was kind of too late to tell him differently.
He murmured something, not sure what, as though speaking in a dream, and slept again. I sat beside him, watching him.
I'd always loved his face, even when we were in the middle of a furious argument. It wasn't just that he was good-looking; it was that he was so transparent, every emotion showing. Now there was a long scar across his forehead, and he had a finger missing.
Battle scars. He was no longer a boy. He was a warrior.
If I had wanted to watch him collect battle scars, I could have stayed in his country. Oh, that's right, that's one of the things I'd screamed at him when he said he intended to marry me.
“Just what I've always wanted,” I had told him. “Oh yeah, always wanted to be a widow.”
I lifted his left hand and turned it over, and when I was satisfied that none of it was missing, I stood up, walked to the end of the couch where he lay, and stared down at his bare feet.
“What are you doing?” he asked, watching me through half-closed eyes.
“What every mother does with a new infant, counting your fingers and toes. Not something I ever thought I would have to do with a grown man.”
His smile looked a bit embarrassed to me. “I have most of them. Only one missing.”
“That is one too many. Don't go misplacing any more.”
He sighed. “I did not lose it on purpose.”
But of course he had. Nobody goes off to battle accidentally.
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