Then. A Rustic Village
Does everyone remember their first crush with such clarity? Forgetting his is impossible, and if Greg Bartels were honest with himself, he would acknowledge that Amelia Collins is the standard by which every other woman that he will admire or date is judged, a standard against which he will find all those others lacking. He knew that he was not the only one who fell in love with her in these glory days of high school, and he also knew that he would look nostalgically upon these days and Amy Collins with rose-colored glasses, into a small and bottled world. His father told him so.
The ultimate girl next door, she was the soul of delight and laughter, pent up pleasure in a tightly wrapped package of pinks and blues, her chosen colors. People couldn't help but love being around her, couldn't help but be made better for being around her, because she always had a kind word for everyone and insistence the others have only kind words for each other, no matter how far outside of her social circle they'd been relegated. Even the jock-tosterone brigade was no match for the brunette's whirlwind graces; the number one unspoken rule in school that year was that any room she happened to be in at the moment was neutral ground. She was the life of parties, and wherever she was ... there was a party. Behave, and you could hang with the cool kids, even if only for a short time.
"Dance!" she insisted to him when he was fool enough to try and sit out the school events at the gym. "Is it more embarrassing to get out there and have a little fun, or to sit there like a lump where everyone can see you?" Unrelenting in her enthusiasm, she pushed and prodded. Everybody danced for her, no matter how clumsy the dance...
Scruffy and scrawny, he was a farm kid without the benefit of the farmer's tan and build, thin and light-skinned enough to be burned tough and leathery by working with his father in the field. Even in the later years of his life, surrounded by big city buildings and big city ways, he would still consider himself a country boy at heart, dressing down whenever he got the chance.
No chance he would ever stray into her orbit – not only would he get a private chat with the jock-tosterone brigade, it was simple fact that was she an upperclassman, he a freshman. She barely knew he existed, but it wasn't the mean ignorance of arrogant and prideful youth, simply too many people and too little time. Kellville was a little school serving only a few townships, but not that small. Always admiring from afar, like so many other silently suffering victims of puppy-dog love.
Greg will never let these memories get him down because the plentiful bounty of growing seasons past and school crushes fondly remembered will make for great nostalgia, something to sustain him on long lonely nights when he will have no desire to drink himself stupid and weepy. There are no truly unhappy memories here in Kellville High, only a somewhat drearier place left behind when she graduates with her high school sweetheart into whatever the world holds in store for her.
A great world lies out beyond this town's borders, one made for adventure and love and if he can find his way in it, he'll be something better than this, a farm kid in patched jeans and worn-out shoes.
Now. His Lady's Chambers
Yet here he lay, his bare skin against hers, a hand about her waist as she slept, retreading the long road he'd taken from there to here. Kellville was better than two hours drive, a small town edging its way into obscurity as time and industrial growth took a toll on it, nearly every child that graduated from the ancient halls of that decaying school escaping to other cities throughout the state to pursue whatever dreams they had, questing elsewhere. Far away, in both time and distance, a past locked behind a stint in the service, and later, a college education that his service paid for.
Then. Home, Away From Sands of Battle
You would think that as a father who believed so strongly in conservative values, Conrad Bartels should have been able to pass down his stringent ideas of what constituted proper personal discipline down to his only son, but Greg never took to them. Maybe just doing the shit rebellious kids do, insisting on hanging out with the wrong crowds, getting up to business that might have damaged his entire future if he didn't have some guardian angel. One of those bright kids who suffered for lack of direction, Greg had come close to failing out of high school, skating by with a diploma, and it was only after a campaign of insistence and demands, pleading and bargaining, that he was convinced to enlist. The united front his parents presented was the key to that – Sherry Bartels saw and agreed with her husband's reasoning that their son had needed a steadier disciplinary hand in his life.
"All the fighting's going to get you in trouble, Greggie. You need someone to show you the right things to do with it," his mother had told him, anxiety and worry in her eyes.
"Son, you're not a kid anymore. If you don't find a calling, you're going to end up in jail or worse." That statement hadn't hurt as badly as the disappointment in his father's eyes.
And what do you know? Service had worked, and by the grace of that same unseen angel, he got out by the skin of his teeth, his time up before the administration in charge took the notion to reinforce the troops in the middle-east with stop-loss. Greg believed in god and country, would have fought as trained and directed, but he'd already lost a buddy stationed there and had more than enough of his own ugly memories. He didn't sign on again, opting to takes his benefits and channel them into an education. Chance put him on a paralegal's career path, and with that newfound discipline, he buckled down and created a future for himself, earning his Associate's in paralegal studies and capturing himself a great job in downtown Shenan Oaks.
His future seemed solid, founded on a steady income with no bad habits to blow it on, taking everything he was given or earned for himself over his life and making it into something his father could finally respect. That was what he wanted more than anything else, to be a like a knight ascendant, one of those shining heroes like in that tattered King Arthur book his father had given him. It was why he'd finally agreed to enlist, and secret ambition coupled with good old army discipline, was his motivating force throughout college.
Then he met a real lady, one named Andrea Dunlap, and life did a 360, spinning in place, leaving him unsure if he was back where he started.
Now. His Lady's Chambers
Memories like Andrea weren't what he wanted to call up, lying here next to his girlfriend. Amy wasn't plain. In fact, most people would call her pretty, but Andrea's stunning good-looks always seemed overshadow anyone around her. Willing the traitorous thoughts away, he examined Amy's sleeping form. Almost what people would refer to as full-figured, without the connotation of obesity, she had a body that was all great curves, with hips and a bottom that swung flirtatiously when she moved, lovely full breasts that were more than a handful.
Lovely, really? What was he, some kind of ridiculous traveling minstrel, spouting poetic turns of phrase? He chastised himself as he examined her. Still ... the word fit. She looked not just good, but great; she'd taken care of herself, though her self-image was far lower than the packaging warranted. Fucking Jake. Fucking Freddy. There was a place in Hell for those two men, and Greg believed that some version of it existed.
Then. Rescuing the Lady from the Tower
Bafflement was the only word he could use to describe his relationship with Andrea. There were a number of other girls in his past love life ... Greg had two older sisters, and they'd made certain he understood what "romance" met, while his mother had made sure to impress the word "respect" on him as well. So yeah, he might catch them, but not hold them. Greg was the textbook definition of the old saying that nice guys finish last. Until Andrea.
He was no scholar, and there was another expression that had always confused the hell out of him before he met Andrea – mystery wrapped inside an enigma inside a puzzle, or some such. That expression made sense for her, though, because he couldn't make sense of her. They met while he was doing work for his firm, and he was awestruck by not just her good looks, but her skills and competence, the way she worked together with him. Perhaps stupidly, since it could have caused him trouble, he dropped into his classic form, making a show of mock-nervousness, asking, "If you don't have other commitments tonight, perhaps you'll give me the opportunity to try and impress you as much as you've impressed me? Dinner at the Carlton, maybe?"
Blushing, she laughed and accepted the invitation, and from that point on, they were a couple. That was how it was supposed to work, anyway.
He went to a party after one of many dates, and found that others were waiting in the foyer of that home as well. More to the point, a tall girly-looking dude was there, and he had no idea why the prick was talking about his own date with Greg's girlfriend. Greg believed in standing up for things that matter, and he immediately called the punk out, ready to beat the crap out of him.
"Hey, asshole. Who the fuck do you think you are, talking about my girlfriend like you've got something going on with her?" he said confrontationally, fists balled up, ready to go.
"Jahn Halvers, and she's my girlfriend. What the fuck are you talking about?"
Her voice, sharp and commanding, interjected itself into the brewing conflict, "Guys, relax already..."
Andrea showed up in the nick of time, stopping him from embarrassing himself, and worse still, ran the two of them a spiel that convinced him he was being a possessive ass. Horrified at the realization that he was acting completely at odds with what the women of his family had taught him, he backed off, and made it his personal challenge to beat the arrogant girly bastard in the competition for the hand of the lovely Andrea. No problem, right? He could be something out of First Knight any day, as charming as Connery, and as slick as Gere.
Unfortunately, nothing bleeds the romance out of that kind of challenge like losing the interest of the woman you want. Felt it, a storm-head on the horizon, looming and ready to strike. He didn't deal well with emotional stuff like that, and had taken to drinking far too often. Some people are angry drunks, others simply hilarious when they'd had a few too many. Greg was a weepy drinker, knew it, and hated himself for it.
Feeling it come on again at the end of a long and lonely holiday, he finally said enough was enough, ceded victory to the girly man. Didn't quite work out that way for either of them, but he decided to drop the news on Andrea at her job. It seemed funny when he talked about it on the phone, less amusing as he walked in the building's doors, and downright stupid as he approached her office. Instead of taking pleasure in it, Greg had simply told her how it was going to be.
"We're done, Andy. I'm tired of being left hanging to get picked up only when you feel like it."
Andrea stared at him, those beautiful green eyes glittering, and while there was some heat in her cheeks, she simply dismissed him with, "Whatever."
That stung, but he'd already made his decision, and Greg wasn't a man to fuck around with regrets or second thoughts. It was a load off, and he rode the elevator to the bottom floor with a tremendous sense of lightness. He could get on with life now. Excellent, and not only that, but he was kinda hungry, and what did we have here?
Vander & Porter didn't have an employee break-room; it had something better: a full-blown public cafeteria that looked better than some restaurants he'd been to. It was classy, open to anyone who wanted to grab a bite with friends who happened to work here. He never ate here with Andrea, as it always seemed a bit beneath her standards, but he wasn't going to settle for processed McShit with smells barbecue straight off the campfire wafting his way. Settling in, he ordered lunch, enjoying his newfound freedom.
When the blonde walked into his range of vision, it was like seeing a ghost. Obviously not a true blonde, her hair had the look of amateurish work with a bottle, but he know that face anywhere, even with nearly two decades added on to it. It was imprinted on his memory...
"Amy?" The blonde turned to look at him, confusion on her face. Amy was short for ... Amelia. "Amelia Collins from Kellville?" A kind of dopey grin came over her face, the pleasure of meeting a stranger who obviously recognized her from home evident.
"I'm sorry, but I can't put a name to you..."
He smiled, pleasure coursing through him. "Greg Bartels. No hard feelings, I doubt you'd remember me: you were a senior when I was a freshman. I remember you, though..."
That led them into a short chat about the old days, pleasant reminiscence over old parties, hometown events and friends. Greg couldn't begin to fathom why she seemed so sad about it, and because of that, he'd noticed something else about her. She seemed so ... tired. None of the old sparkle in those pretty light green eyes of hers, worn out. He would bet her future hadn't become what she had hoped it would be, and not wanting to pry open wounds, he settled for chatter about the good old days.
When Jake Edwards showed up, everything made sense.
Greg could tell just by the man's possessive demeanor that he was Amy's boyfriend, and backed off politely. Each had their own lives, cool. Except that he could also tell, just by looking at that unprovoked and slightly pissed off expression on the man's face, this was going to be one of the biggest assholes he'd ever had the displeasure of meeting. You have my sympathy, Amy, he reflected sourly.
Maybe the guy could see the pity on Greg's face for his girlfriend, because he got confrontational with her right away.
"What's up with chatting up complete strangers?"
Because she has no right to talk to other people, right? Greg reflected irritably.
Amy had got a panicky look on her face, a note of hysteria in her voice. "Really, I'm sorry Jake, it's just ... he's a friend from Kellville. Where I grew up, remember?"
People had turned to look, stopping their own conversations to stare, and Greg flushed uncomfortably. He also noticed something strange about those looks. They'd seen this before, didn't like it. Her boyfriend simply stood there and seethed, until she trailed off, apologizing.
"I'm sorry Jake, I didn't meant to be insensitive..."
Apologizing for her thoughtlessness. What the hell?
Greg silently upgraded the nameless boyfriend from 'asshole' to 'grade-A piece of shit' in his head, a classification which lasted all of two seconds when a second upgrade was forced. Though he had barely registered the motion of the guy's hand, the cracking noise was like a gunshot in the cafeteria, and the red handprint on Amy's face unmistakable.
Now. His Lady's Chambers
Traces Edwards has left on Amy's body are equally unmistakable, as are those left behind by Freddy Calhoun before him. They were small scars, always easily hidden by clothing, existing as permanent reminders of the worst aspects of obsessive possessiveness. You couldn't call that love, by Greg's book. People could be treasured, but they weren't treasure, they weren't things.
He's come to accept them as part of her, though his heart still hurt for her as he watched over her at night, imagining the story each old wound tells. Almost like writing on a wall, each seems to speak: a burnt dinner might be that pale arc upon her upper breast, or a moment too late with a cold beer begat the white line upon her hip.
This is what her scars did to him, as he stared, contemplating her nude body, and he can only imagine the nightmares they bring her. Amy cries out in her sleep sometimes, and he could only draw her closer to try and keep the dreams at bay.
Then. A Tower and a Gauntlet Cast
Greg has known a few women who have been abused, and whether it was by spouses or boyfriends, the specifics never really mattered, just the terrible effects it had on them, forcing them to reconcile their love against the treatment they received. Effects he could see in the way they reacted to an otherwise harmless turn of phrase, or an unintentionally harsh gesture. The knowing always fills him with a righteous rage, built on a strong foundation of morality taught him by his father, the lessons learned from the women of his family, the simple damned observation that some things are unacceptable and wrong. How could any real man treat a woman this way?
Despite the rage, his head was clear, and the decision was made without a second thought. He was going to hit this man, hit him hard, hit him again. That could cost him, though, cost him big. There is a way...
"Wow, you're a real big man." Greg jeered softly, just loud enough to be heard by the boyfriend. That got his attention, and that seething gaze had shifted from his girlfriend to Greg with some effort.
"Mind your own business." The boyfriend was loud, and people were watching. They couldn't help but overhear him.
"Yeah," Greg said again, in that same harsh jeer. "Wouldn't want anyone to take notice of the big man hitting his girlfriend, would we? They might think he was a pussy. A little bitch. Hell, they might think you're not a man at all, with that long hair and lack of balls, eh?"
Each word had been emphasized to convey just how little manliness the guy possessed, and he got results. A steadily reddening face, turning an ugly shade with each word uttered. Some words were simply guaranteed a reaction unless the person he was taunting was completely gutless. Few people were, if you kept pushing on their buttons hard enough.
"Word might even get back to your mother and then you'd have to shut her up with a few well placed slaps, am I right?" He hissed the words with grim satisfaction, sure they would be enough, and he was right.
Asshole boyfriend swung, broadcasting so obviously that any unskilled fighter would only have needed to move and hit back. A punch to the gut and the man deflated. Another to the side of the face and he went stumbling sideways on his knees. Follow-up from the opposite direction and he went down, stunned nearly to the point of unconsciousness. Each blow was enough to eat some of the rage Greg felt. He wanted to hit the man again and again, but knew there were limits. If he got busted, he'd have to explain himself. This was over.
There was only silence in the cafeteria, and in that moment, Greg realized that everyone, everyone was watching. No applause, that shit was only for the movies, but there was obviously a silent consensus that the boyfriend had gotten what he'd deserved.
Someone nearby spoke, though he had no idea who. "You should go." Nobody was going to call the cops, but no need to stick around. Except...
He turned to Amy who was staring at him with wide eyes, a knuckled fist concealing her open-mouthed horror. Somehow, he knew it wasn't because she cared about the guy on the ground or because she felt Greg was wrong to do what he did.
"It's going to be worse for you when you get home because of me, isn't it?"
Nodding mutely, she stared at the man curling in upon himself on the floor, the beginning of tears in her eyes.
"Then end it here. Come with me." He has wanted to say that before, to others, but he had never had such a seemingly personal connection to those women before. More than anything, he wanted to save Amy Collins: from her boyfriend, from herself.
He did, paying a price in teeth and a dozen stitches some months later when he made the mistake of paying a visit to her former residence to retrieve some clothes and personal possessions she wanted, her ex-boyfriend's buddies ambushing him, taking their pound of flesh. There is an image, too, that will haunt him in his own nightmares, a skinny rat of a guy who looked like a refugee from a Depression-era black-and-white film staring silently at the man beside him, a man who had ranted about Greg laying hands on his boy. Not all battles can be won.
Now. His Lady's Chambers
And here she was, lying beside him over a year after that fateful day, safe from the too-human demons that had tormented her. There were things he could never put right for her, and he could only stand by her side for as long as she needed him. Her knight in blue denim, she called him sometimes. No teasing or silliness in it, she'd meant every word. He loved her, and she loved him back, and it had taken him way too long to figure that out.
Then. Light for the Lady of Sorrows
Helping set Amy's life to rights again had been Greg's first priority, and the months after that day had been pleasant ones, an exercise in helping her get whatever she needed to put her life back together. They couldn't go back to the boyfriend's house to get her clothing, and the bastard made sure she had precious little else of her own. That meant helping her, getting her the clothes she needed, taking her to interviews, anything he could do to help her transition into a life that was not completely dependent on the whims of some pitiless monster.
"What do you want to do with the rest of your life?" That was his question for her when she told him she didn't just want to sit around his apartment, sponging off of him.
"I'd like to work, but ... I'm no good at anything..."
Most of it was about rebuilding her confidence in herself. For too long she'd been told she was nothing without these other guys, that she was ugly, too stupid to earn a degree or learn a trade, too silly to think for herself, too sluttish to be trusted alone. Edwards had been more physical, but Calhoun was the one who broke her self-esteem.
Too often, a simmering rage would well up in him as those old inflicted hurts were made apparent on her face, but he stamped his feelings out, because the very last thing Amy needed was to see him angry again. If she ran now, what other loveless arms might she end up in? The thought terrified him, the notion that someone might break this once lively young woman's spirit again and even further than it had already been broken.
Amy had all the pieces of her life before her, she just needed help putting them back together. Slowly, very carefully, they managed it and the process had been one of bonding. There were times when she looked up at him, and he'd have liked to kiss her and tell her everything would be better soon, and even thought with secretive, hopeful wishes, that she might like him to do so.
Greg couldn't do that. Might be that he was completely wrong and that making the attempt would hurt her even worse than she already had by those who meant to do it. That wasn't the kind of person he wanted to be, and he wouldn't be like that if he had any say.
She was staying at his place, sharing his time and space, but a gulf seemed to exist between them. One that might never have been crossed if not for the accident of something she'd said.
"He watches the girls, too."
A strange line, he didn't think much of it when she first said it. That had been after she confronted him about the stitches he had to get at the hospital, demanding to know what happened. Amy had been suspicious for good reason, and he couldn't weasel out, had to give her the whole truth afraid even as he did so that he was hurting her terribly. Crying had ensued, yes, but she got over it, insisting that he chalk up those things she left behind as lost. The delivery of that strange little line was offhanded, a comment on his shock that someone had actually been there keeping a lookout and ready to kick his ass, so casually made as to be overlooked.
Yet his nightmares took it and co-opted it, making him dream of nameless women on a long hit-list that the bastard Edwards had compiled for his later beating pleasure.
Got to the point where he had to ask.
"Edwards watches the girls, you said. What's that mean?"
Green eyes filled with worry, she said, "Please understand, I'm not a racist..."
That had taken Greg for a loop; what did race have to do with anything?
"Jake's a member of a group called Pure Destiny; they're a bunch of white supremacists. When I asked him about a couple of girls he always seemed to be staring at, he told me that he was keeping an eye them for someone. It was strange – any other time if I sounded jealous, he'd slap me, but that question he just blew off."
The stalker nature of the man's behavior didn't do anything to allay Greg's concerns, and he persisted in questioning her on it, telling Amy that Edwards was the kind of guy who might do to these other women what he did to her. That was a hard thing to lay on her, and he felt some shame over the horrified look on her face, but she understood implicitly what a threat the man was to people around him.