“Son, now behold,” the worthy Master said,
“The souls of those whom anger made a prize;
And, further, I would have thee certified
That ‘neath the water people utter sighs,
And make the bubbles to the surface come;
As thou mayst see by casting round thine eyes.
Fixed in the mud they say: “We lived in gloom
In the sweet air made jocund by the day,
Nursing within us melancholy fume.”
From the Fifth Circle of The Inferno
The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri
Was it him? An old panic rose in Olivia ‘s chest. The man’s head was bowed over a sheet of paper as he walked across the parking lot of the Mission Viejo Civic Center. His gait caught her eye first. Proctor had walked like that, bowlegged and slightly pigeon-toed.
The man’s hair was cropped close to his head and threaded with gray. Proctor’s had been brown and had hung in greasy locks to his shoulders. This man was shorter, not as imposing as the man of her memories. But, of course, she’d only been a child when she’d known Proctor.
He glanced up from his reading, and her throat constricted. The eyes. They were the washed-out color of old denim, cold and predatory. Could two men have those same eyes?
Olivia stayed in the car and watched him pass. She didn’t think he’d recognize her. It had been so many years. She was an adult now, not a girl. But, still, the idea of those eyes fixing on her made her skin crawl.
She waited until he disappeared into the library before exiting her car. It might have been her imagination, but when she stepped out into the warm evening she could’ve sworn she smelled the familiar scent of him—cigarettes and stale sweat mixed with the mineral odor of chalk. She’d never forgotten it.
She was ten minutes early for her parenting class, but even if she’d been late, she would have waited until he was safely inside the library. Allowing him to pass only feet from her without some kind of protection, a barrier between them… She couldn’t have done it. Not even twenty-two years later.
Olivia hurried across the tarmac feeling exposed and vulnerable, and ducked into City Hall. Why would he come here? Her mother had released another book recently. He was a parasite, a man who lived off the fat of other people’s land. But why now? Sarah Richards’s name had been in the media for years.
Maybe it was just a horrible coincidence. Tumbleweeds went wherever the wind blew, and it often blew west. Since its Gold Rush days, California had drawn drifters and opportunists. Proctor had been both.
Regina, the instructor, beamed at Olivia when she entered the community room where the class was held. Olivia walked to the third row and slid into a seat next to Nanette.
Nanette snapped shut the laptop she’d been working on and glanced up. She was a single mother, a CPA with a busy client load, and had no time for frivolity, but she and Olivia had bonded over their similar circumstances. Her smile of greeting withered when she saw Olivia ‘s face. “Are you okay?”
Olivia was still in a state of shock, and it must have shown. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine. Brian okay?”
“Brian’s great.” Nanette looked at Olivia over the top of her glasses with doubt in her intelligent, brown eyes. “I thought I saw somebody I hadn’t seen in years. That’s all,” Olivia said.
“Must be a real charmer.”
Olivia changed the topic. She didn’t want to talk about the man in the parking lot. “So what’s the latest Carl infraction?”
All of the adults in the room had been mandated by Child Protection Services to take the class for one reason or another. Nanette, like Olivia, was found negligent because she’d left a nine-year-old home alone. She’d run to the office for some paperwork she’d forgotten on a Saturday morning. Unlike Olivia, no harm had come to her child as a result. Nanette was here because her ex-husband, Carl, wanted full custody of their daughter. According to her, he contacted CPS every time their child sneezed.
“He called Fred. Again.” Fred was their caseworker. Both she and Olivia had the same one, another reason they’d bonded.
“What did he say this time?”
“I was late picking up Dawn from school. There was an accident on the road, lots of traffic. I called and told the office what was going on, but I didn’t ask who I was speaking to. No one at the school remembers my call.”
“How did Carl know you were late? Did Dawn tell him?”
“No. He’s been playing private-eye for the past two weeks. He goes to the school at two-thirty every day and watches until I get there to pick her up.”
“If only. When we were married, he never had time to take Dawn anywhere, but now he can sit for forty-five minutes a day picking his nose. He only wants something if someone else has it.”
“Fred’s not going to do anything about this. He knows what’s happening.”
“He knows, but he has to record everything. I’m worried, Olivia. Carl’s lawyer is a shark.”
“But you’re a great mother.”
“No, not great. Improving, yes, but I still make mistakes.” Nanette shook her head.
“We all make mistakes; we’re human.” Even as the words left Olivia’s lips, she realized the irony of uttering them in her present surroundings. Whether they deserved to be here or not, the County had no grace for parents in the system.
“Perception is reality. Carl is creating truth, one error at a time,” Nanette said.
Regina called the room to order and began taking attendance. Olivia’s thoughts returned to the man in the parking lot. His walk, his eyes, they were what she’d remembered Proctor’s to be. But those were the perceptions of a young girl, filtered and blurred by twenty-two long years. The idea that he would show up here, now, or that she would recognize him if he did seemed more and more unlikely. Reality was, the man she saw had triggered memories, some very bad memories, but he probably wasn’t Proctor.
If dreams didn’t come true, and in her experience they didn’t, she had to believe the same rules applied to nightmares.
copyright 2017 shared with permission Fawkes Press, LLC