Panic leaps into her cerulean eyes as her attention is suddenly diverted away from his earnest, dark face, beyond his left shoulder and through the floor to ceiling glass panels. Her eyes are transfixed. There he is! Proud. Confident. The one who mesmerizes the masses. Words lodge unspoken in her throat while an invisible chisel slowly carves a deep, questioning furrow into the brow of the man directly opposite her.
What had been the chances? How could she have known he would walk in – into what should have been a safe place? Her frantic mind thrashes here and there as she second-guesses her decision to seek out a trusted friend in public. Now, anything could happen!
Her heart beats wildly, breath coming in short spurts.
“There he is! What will I do now?” she manages to utter, her voice breaking.
She feels heat crawl up her neck, then snake it’s way across her face. His only response is a calm, reserved silence. Her eyes narrow, trying to discern what is transpiring in his active mind. Is he sifting through potential scenarios? Allowing memories to file by? Is he fearful of what may happen? She cannot tell, but she needs some directive – guidance in how to handle whatever it is that will happen when he opens the door to this mountain lodge.
Time stalls. The squeak of the front door being flung wide open slices into her thoughts.
“Mornin’ doll!” the newcomer, stamping snow from his boots, croons toward the shapely bartender. “The Prince will have his usual.” His smile flashes, perfect and white.
In a corner seating area, slinking low in her chair, she shudders. “Prince” indeed – shimmering and dazzling, unlike the lodge’s inconspicuous other imbibers! Before she has another chance to inhale, he turns sharply, facing her directly. She withers!
“Well, look who dragged themselves into this sublime little spot!” he shouts with inflated bravado. He doesn’t wait for his drink, but rather strides to the corner where they are seated, still facing each another. She realizes in horror, that her words are trapped – muffled under years of subservience, demanded allegiance and desperate feelings of inferiority. He was the master; she, a mere serf in the Empire.
“You!” he bellows, not to her, but to the poised man who sits with his back to the assailant. “You betrayed me! You’ve stolen right out from under me! You low-down SOB!
An unholy hush settles on the place as every person speaks earnestly to the one across a table, works busily, or stares intently into the blazing fire. The tall man across from her rises, pivots to face his accuser, holding his gaze with resolve.
“Excuse me, sir. I’m in a meeting – in a public place. You have no right to address me in this way. Please contact me personally if you wish to speak to me.”
Humiliated that someone dared call out his behavior – and, before many witnesses – the aggressor’s response reflects rIssing hostility.
“You shameless swindler,” he seethes, his face contorting, “I have nothing more to say to you! I’ll see you in court!” And with that he spins around, leaving his White Rascal untouched at the bar, and storms back outside.
She shrivels further, shrinking to a mere fraction of who her already diminished person had become. All is still. Her entire body is tense, her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth and she is painfully aware of furtive glances coming from other customers, who, moments earlier, had simply enjoyed the same enchanted space. She lowers her head, ashamed. She wishes she could evaporate instead of needing to consider the long walk of shame out of the bar.
He clears his throat. She wishes she could ignore his presence, feeling she is responsible for his public humiliation. Her mind searches in vain for justification. For a reason. What had possessed her to invite him to talk here? Now? She raises confused eyes.
There is no blame in his face; his ebony eyes reveal kindness that cannot be fabricated. “It’s not your fault. How could you have known?” was all he said.
She is haunted, day after day, and night upon dreaded night. She ponders, questions, seeks explanations and cannot find peace. Why is this incident so unsettling? she asks herself over and over again.
The rumors that this “Prince” – this highly revered leader – was not only arrogant and proud, but also led a double life, were many. She had been vehement in her refusal to believe them. She had defended him, given him the benefit of the doubt, sworn he was ethical, respectful and authentic, always having the best intentions. But after that day, she was plagued. Why was she so tormented? Had she been duped? Had they all been systematically deluded? That possibility paralyzed her.
Insomnia encroached on her nights. Debilitating self-incrimination for her lack of faith to manage her life added to her guilt.
She sees their kingpin walk into the glaring lights. Standing before a large gathering of the faithful – men and women; diverse in race and economic status. The hush is broken by his words:
His eyes dart from left to right. “You’re all traitors! Every one of you…but especially…” his voice trails, hissing into the microphone.
Terror is tangible. They confuse it with respect.
“I know you won’t betray me again! I know you’ll all be there for me now,” his eyes narrow; his words slow, nearly inaudible.
“You will do as I say,” his half-smile drapes over a crooked snarl, “because you know everything I do is for you!”
Her own shrieking voice pierces the night as she bolts upright in bed. Oh God, how could she have missed it? Her inability to function after the disquieting exchange in the lodge is not about her at all. It is bigger; deeper. She is ashen. It will be years until she begins to comprehend.
© Julia Penner-Zook, 2017
Photo credit: Robin T. http://hotspringlodge.blogspot.com