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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 8 July 2007 - 11:37pm.

Chapter 1

It was the last straw for Denise Payton. She had to talk to someone and get things sorted out in her mind. She waited silently in the diner booth for her dearest friend and former college roommate, Barbara Dillon. Barb was always there when she was needed; always dependable, always a friend. Truth be known, Barbara was the sister that Denise had never had. Denise jumped suddenly as Barb slid into the booth across from her.

"Scared you, didn't I?” Barb grinned mischievously.

"Yeah, you did." Her whole countenance bespoke depression, though she bravely tried to smile.

"Okay, girl, tell me what's got you so bummed out? I know you too well. You can't hide it from me, you know."

"Let me tell you, Barbara, I'm tired of all the games, all the…the…” She looked tired and frustrated, waving her upturned hands in the air and pausing momentarily to catch her breath and gather the right words, which she nearly spat in her frustration.

“The…waiting for the other shoe to drop, the trying to walk on eggshells without breaking them. Frankly, I'm scared of Ted. He's far more possessive than he used to be and much more aggressive lately. He acts as if he owns me and he thinks I’m cheating on him if I so much as talk to a telemarketer!" She suddenly turned her head downward and sat looking dejectedly toward the table, gazing into her coffee and sighing aloud.

"Come on Denise, it can't be that bad. Surely you’re exaggerating." Even as she spoke the words, Barbara wasn’t convinced of her own claim. She knew Denise would never lie to her, but she hoped this was at most a gross exaggeration due to a temporary annoyance.

"Oh, really? You wouldn’t believe how much he has changed.” She leaned forward and tapped a finger on the table between them for emphasis and asked, “When is the last time I saw you?"

"Um... seven, maybe eight weeks ago?” She seemed somewhat surprised as she now considered this, but continued, feeling mounting discomfort at the answer to her next simple question. “Why do you ask?”

"We used to see each other at least once a week, even after you got married, right? That tapered off soon after Ted and I got together; and it has dropped to almost nothing lately.” She paused briefly and looked her friend directly in the eye with a combination of pleading and intense force, as though attempting to transfer to Barb her very emotional state. “Do you know that he watches my every move? I feel like a prisoner, Barb."

"Denise, I just thought you were really busy…I didn’t know….” Barb hesitated a moment, her friend’s intended meaning having now begun to truly sink in. “I have missed you, you know."

"And I've missed you, too--but, Ted never leaves me alone for a minute. Whenever he goes to make a sale or attend meetings, he insists I go along. At first, it was flattering, but I can't even get on a plane to visit my own mother without him accusing me of trying to meet someone secretly—he really thinks I’m cheating on him. I had to sneak out to see you! Some days I hate my life, Barb…maybe I even hate men...." These last words were spoken more quietly and resignedly than the others. It was obvious that she felt genuine pain over this. Again she stared into her cup despondently.

"Denise, I’m so sorry. I really had no idea". Her hands reached compassionately across the table to comfort her friend. "Do you need a place to stay? You can come stay with us for as long...." Her eyes had wandered over Denise' shoulder, attracted by movement beyond them and now her words trailed off and stopped altogether. She sat frozen, with concern written plainly in her expression.

"What is it?" Denise asked and turned in the direction of her friends’ gaze.

A look of barely-controlled rage was upon the face of a rapidly advancing Ted. Here came trouble in the flesh and there was no avoiding it. Both of Ted's hands came down hard on the table in front of her as he leaned into her face, causing Denise to involuntarily shrink back and gasp. Barbara, too, pulled away in fear.

"What do you think you are doing?" The words were not really loud, but were spoken through clenched teeth, each seemingly bitten off in the intense anger that was now pervasive. Denise was suddenly aware that she had stopped breathing. Evidently Barbara had, too, for they both noisily sucked in air at the same instant. The sudden in-rush seemed deafeningly loud at the now silent table.

"I should go..." Barbara started.

"No, wait", Denise begged. Her hand took the wrist of her friend and held fast, her eyes virtually pleading for the rescue she knew could not be delivered.

Ted's hand shot out and grabbed Denise by the arm and his voice was now loud enough for all to hear. "I asked you a question! What are you doing here?" This was followed by a stream of blue invective that shook the diner from one end to the other.

From somewhere deep inside, Denise now summoned the courage to answer confidently and without cowering. "I am visiting a friend. What is wrong with that? You never let me see anyone anymore."

The hand on her arm shot directly to her cheek with a slap that resounded loudly throughout the diner. A cry of pain came from Denise, followed by one of anguish from Barbara. "You are coming with me—now!" Ted left no room for question as he pulled roughly at her wrist to lift her from her seat.

"No, please", she begged. As Ted turned to go, he stopped suddenly in his tracks, startled at finding his way blocked by a tall, slightly graying man.

Quickly recovering, Ted challenged, "And what do you want, old man? You looking for trouble?" He glared at the intruder who dared to stand in his way.

The slightest smile curled the lips of the stranger, who stood calmly and seemingly impervious to the implied threat. He took a deep breath, slowly released it, then replied quietly, "I believe there must be a better way to handle this situation. You are frightening these lovely ladies." Cool as if he were studying the ocean for the first time, his eyes never left Ted’s for a second.

"Oh, yeah? Who cares what you believe, old man? Get out of my way…or get hurt." He spoke in a manner that left no doubt of his intention, glaring for a second and waiting for the way to open before him. When it failed to do so, he turned Denise loose and prepared to remove the obstacle himself. He never got the chance, for a hand with outstretched fingers thrust roughly beneath his chin, retracting as swiftly as it had attacked, leaving him choking and holding his throat. He stumbled backward in an attempt to recover. The stranger turned to the women, motioning them to the door and then quickly turned his attention again to the menace before him.

"No", Ted croaked through his aching windpipe. "No one is leaving!" The look of a killer in his now smoldering eyes, Ted ran with out-stretched arms toward his target. With a speed belying his age and size, the older man sidestepped and aided Ted on his way, directly into the tiled floor ahead of him. The air escaped from him audibly as he struck the tiles firmly in a prone position. Stunned and gasping for air again, he struggled to look behind him, afraid of being attacked from the rear.

The women had without hesitation heeded the advice given them and had retreated outside to await the outcome. "This won't be good. I can feel it", Denise said aloud to herself. Pacing back and forth, she alternately watched the diner and then the sidewalk, hands first to the sides of her head and again to her chest—unmistakable signs of her distress. She did not have long to wait for the outcome, but was visibly surprised when it became apparent.

In a moment the stranger came out and walked directly to the anxious women. "Ladies," he said in such a manner that one could almost picture a slight bow and a tip of the hat. "You have only a few minutes before he comes out, so you need to decide quickly what you want to do about this.” He looked directly at Denise with a quiet intensity that stirred her strangely within. “It's none of my business, of course, but you can do much better." He seemed to be studying her face, as though he had seen her before and was trying to remember where.

Denise was speechless, glancing with stunned disbelief toward the diner door and then staring at him in utter silence. She was motionless an uncomfortably long time for Barbara, who nudged her back to reality with a gentle elbow. "Oh...thank you for your help. I...uh...." She hesitated clumsily, studying the man's face. He was not an everyday sort of handsome man, but there was a rugged attractiveness to him that appealed to her nonetheless. She was silent once again and the man responded quickly to rescue her from yet another awkward moment.

"You are more than welcome." He extended his hand as though to shake and she automatically responded in kind, but he took her hand in his own and gently placed his other hand over the back of hers in a soft caress that sent tingles throughout her body and made her look directly into his eyes. There was a strong resolve there, mingled with a sadness that he could not hide from her. He seemed to hesitate for a fraction longer than she would have expected, searching her eyes, as though attempting to recover some long lost occurrence from his past. He continued in a moment, "He's on the floor for the next ten minutes."

Denise registered sudden concern and, recognizing this, he quickly allayed her fears. "We have a deal—he stays down for ten minutes and no-one calls the police. I think he will comply, but I suggest that if you have anything of value at his place, you go and get it quickly. Today is a good day for a new beginning." He smiled lightly and this time bowed subtly to them both. "Ladies, have a good day." He turned and walked away nearly before Denise could catch her breath. She started to call after him, but the words remained partially formed and wholly unspoken. Before getting into his car, the stranger turned, looking back for a brief moment and pausing to again make eye contact with Denise. That faraway longing and soul searching was there again, plainly seen by both women. The briefest hesitation…and he was gone.

"He's right, you know,” said Barb. "Come on, let's go get your things, fast."

"No. Whatever I have there, he can keep to remind him of what he lost." She turned away with a firm resolve and walked to her car. The stranger was right. This was a new beginning and she could do better.

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