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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 8 July 2007 - 11:52pm.

Chapter 10

The next day Ron took Denise to several of the places that he and Hunter had discovered with their Dads. In their childhood they had found a perfect tree that overhung the river, a large creek really, and had put up a rope swing that had served them well for many years. It had swung them out beyond the center of the river, which was wide, deep and slow in this portion, as mountain rivers go. Though cold, it was the ideal place to swim and be safe. He was surprised to find the rope was still there and strong enough to hold him as an adult. They sat and talked a few hours beside the river that day and he showed Denise where the two boys had carved their initials in the tree. He secretly reflected that he had never thought to do such a thing since, but maybe with this woman….

Ron later took Denise to their ‘hideout’, a large crevice in the prominent rock outcropping behind the cabin. The space was large enough for two small people or one adult to stand in it, fully upright. It was easy to pass right by without noticing if you approached from the wrong angle, but the discerning vision of a child sees things that many an adult misses. To him and Hunter, it had been a vast cave that contained many wonders and promised hours of enjoyment. The imagination of a child made the world much bigger and more exciting than it was to jaded adults.

Denise drew great pleasure, not only from seeing all of this for the first time, but in seeing it simultaneously through the eyes of the past child and the present grown man. She and Ron grew closer each day that they were together. Denise began to feel that she could open up to him in every way and that he might do the same. She wanted to know everything there was to know about him and to return the favor. How different from her relationship with Ted. All she had wanted at the end was his silence and his absence.

Denise reflected on all that she had learned of this man. She knew he was not perfect; no one was, but she even suspected she might love the imperfections that he harbored and she wanted to heal the hurt that she often sensed in his eyes. What had caused this pain, she was not certain, but she felt she would do whatever she had to in order to restore him.

She took his hand in hers and squeezed softly as she spoke. “Ron, I think everyone has a deep, dark secret in their life that they never want to share…perhaps even fear to share, but when they do, it frees them from the burden they carry and the pain and worry that it will be discovered eventually. If they have someone they know they can trust to hear it and not be judgmental, they have something very special. I can be that kind of friend, if you need me to be.” She looked searchingly and lovingly into his eyes as she spoke. “Do you have one of those secret, Ron?”

“Wow, what a question!” He grinned nervously and looked at the ground, deep in thought. He had that look of private pain that she had seen in him before. For a second Denise thought to stop him and say that it was none of her business and that the question was out of line, but as he took a deep breath and suddenly began to talk, she wanted to listen to all he had to say. She watched as the hurt she had seen a moment before was tempered and the slightest look of relief replaced it, as though he had thought of something else in the nick of time. “Well, let’s see…nothing like that, really, but I do have some regrets that still hurt me. I recall there was a girl in grade school that liked me and she was one that was rather unpopular with all the other kids. You know how cruel kids can be. She was really smart and that only seemed to make things worse. They used to pick on her terribly and it was the kiss of death to be seen talking to her. If you did, they would make up stories that you were in love with her and all that stuff. Well, one day on the playground she and I happened to end up hiding in the same corner around the edge of the building. The kids were picking on me, too, that day and I guess that all either of us wanted to do was hide and wait for recess to finally be over. I felt relaxed enough with her to let my hair down and just talk, one human being to another, you know? She was really nice. There was literally no reason that anyone should ever have mistreated her. We talked about how much it hurt us to have the other kids tease in the cruel way that they did. Suddenly several of them came around the corner and found us there together. They started in on us and I remember the fear that engulfed me when I realized that I was about to be even more of a social outcast than I had previously been. I was shocked to hear myself saying, ‘I do not like her! I think she’s ugly and I hate her, too.’ I couldn’t believe that the words were coming from me. It was almost as if another person were saying them and I was just an observer. I will never forget the look of pain on her face that day. She ran off in tears and hid the rest of the day. She didn’t even come back to class. After that, I looked for opportunities to talk to her and apologize for my stupidity, but she would always run from me. It still hurts me to this day that I could have been so cruel, just because I was afraid. I never knew if it scarred her for life or not. Self-esteem is so important it can determine your whole life’s course. And children are so impressionable. I will never forget how it made me feel. I was ashamed and embarrassed at my behavior. It still hurts and I wish there were some way to go back and change what happened—do the right thing instead.”

“I’m sorry. Maybe I should not have asked. Just foolish curiosity. Forgive me. I just thought….” Denise regretted what she now thought to be her insensitivity, as his pain did not appear to really be alleviated much.

“It’s okay. You were right about needing to let go of baggage like that. There is nothing I can do about it at this point except vow to be more careful with people in the future. I can’t think of anyone I would rather tell it to. I never even told Hunter and I’ve told him pretty much everything else. I was too ashamed, I guess. My own little private hell, so to speak. Memories can be like that.”

“You were just a child then, Ron. That is an extremely hard time, not knowing all the social graces and exactly how we fit into the world.” She stroked his arm and paused. “Well, I owe you one now, but I am going to give you two, to make up for the hurt I caused, so here goes. My first is that I wanted to be an auto mechanic when I was a kid-just for a while. I was not too good at it, but I had an intense interest for about eight months. The guy down the street was so amused by this that he taught me to hotwire a car. I never did it, of course, because it was illegal, but I admit that I wanted to. I still remember how. I even told my Dad about it and he asked me not to visit the man anymore and never to tell my mother what I had just told him.”

She laughed charmingly at this foolishness and then took a deep breath and exhaled noisily. “My fears sound silly compared to yours. I lost the interest in cars at the same time that my second interest came along-boys. Oh, Ron, I can’t believe I am going to tell you this.” She buried her face in her hands for a few seconds and then began, blushing slightly, “ Where I grew up, at the lake where we had a cabin, I was always afraid that someone would find out that Lenny Kowalski and I would play ‘doctor’ and go skinny-dipping together.”

Ron couldn’t help but chuckle at this and Denise gave him a shot to the shoulder that actually hurt. “Ow! Easy there, killer.”

“It’s not funny! I was really scared we’d be caught at times. There was this place that was covered over by scrub growth of willow trees and we could hide under it and not be seen there. We were only nine, but I thought I was so sneaky, until Barb came upon us and caught us one day. We were so engrossed in our swim that we never saw or heard her. We got out and suddenly there she was. And there we were in all the glory we were born with and nothing else.” She began to laugh. “Lenny was so embarrassed to be seen by Barb that he grabbed his clothes and ran out from under the scrub growth and into the open just to prevent her seeing him get dressed. It was so ridiculous, ‘cause the road was right there and at any minute a car or bus could have come along and the word would have been all over town. And what is even funnier is that he left his underwear there by the tree and walked home without them, though no one knew but the three of us. Barb teased me about that for years, but she never told anyone else. Lenny wouldn’t even talk to me for months and he ran like the wind whenever Barb came around.”

Ron laughed harder than he had laughed in what seemed like ages. Denise laughed, too, but kept punching him playfully as if she were upset with him.

Numerous walks and drives while they were in the mountains kept them busy and entertained over the next few days. Their stay in the cabin was a good one, but Denise was getting antsy about the need to get back to work. There would be bills to pay and she could not do so without the means to do so.

On the way back to the city, Ron decided he had to raise a subject that concerned him deeply.

“Denise, Barb offered to have you come and stay with her at anytime you needed-I think this is the time. I just don’t trust Ted.” There was an intensity of concern in his eyes that she had not seen before. He was deathly serious. “I want to be certain that this guy can’t harm you in any way.”

“Okay. No arguments from me.” She was unreservedly compliant about it and he relaxed almost immediately. He had expected to get an argument from her and a bit of stubborn independence. Thankfully he had not met with either. She was a smart girl.

“Alright. Then let’s go and get whatever you need for a few days… better make that a week. It pays to be certain. I know that leaves you away from home for a long time, but isn’t it better to be safe? He may get the idea that you don’t live there anymore and he will give up trying to find you-then both of you can move on with your lives. I just think another week is a good idea. He doesn’t strike me as a guy who gives up that easily.”

He took her home and searched the house quickly to be sure she was alone. While she packed her things, Ron scanned the neighborhood for any sign that they were being watched. There must be no slip-ups here. Ted’s car was nowhere to be seen. The two of them then proceeded to Barbara’s house with all due haste.

As he walked her to the door and left her in the care of her lifelong friend, Ron could not help but feel that he would sleep much better knowing that he could be watching over her personally. That would not be proper at this time in their relationship, though. He sighed heavily in resignation as he walked back to his car. He knew he was just doomed to be uncomfortable until Ted either gave up his foolish behavior or was caught in some act that would allow him to be put away for a lengthy period of time—sufficient to drive home the point and make him remember it.

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