THERE WERE 376 steps from one end of my property to the other. Not that I’d walked them, mind you, but I counted them as the man who jogged past every day, rain or shine, made his way down the road. I’d begun to accept his presence in my world, but it didn’t start out that way. At first I found him to be a terrifying intrusion. I hated people anywhere near my house. I’d moved to the outskirts of my hometown of Fall Harbor, Maine, for just that reason. After what happened, I needed to be alone. And now this guy seemed intent on destroying my peace.

My place wasn’t on the beaten path. Hell, if truth be told, you had to actively come out this way to find it, because it took almost thirty minutes by car to reach the town square twenty miles away. I valued my privacy, and I paid a great deal to ensure I kept it.

Then he came along.

The first several days after I spotted him, I cowered in my home, because seeing him so close disturbed me. It had been better than a month since the last time I’d seen someone on my road, which really went nowhere. After you made the turn down the way, it became a dead end that forced you to turn around and come back the same path. Which meant I saw him twice a day. And twice a day I went into a near meltdown.

Because of him, gone were the days I saw no one, interacted with not a single soul. I had it arranged so my lawyer took care of any bills, I grew most of my own food, and what I couldn’t grow was delivered to the edge of my lot, where, after much inspection, it could be brought into the house, sorted, and put away in its proper place. All that changed the day he huffed past my house and turned my world upside down.

He couldn’t be more than thirty, with brown hair that came down to his collar and slapped him in the face when it dripped with sweat as he ran. His toned body seemed to be acres of golden skin, dusted with a light coating of soft brown fur. Yes, I looked. In fact, I studied him in detail, this threat to my sanity.

It seemed as though his existence altered the feng shui of the place. Not that I believed in that, of course. But everything had to be just so, and any deviation left me out of sorts. I knew the deer that crossed my land every day, stopping to nibble on the tender shoots in the spring, then huddled against the cold in the deepest of winter. There had been a family of lark sparrows nesting in one of my trees every year since I’d gotten here, and I woke to their song in the morning. The black and bright yellow sunflowers I planted every eighteen inches in front of the house bloomed together, a product of water and sunshine. It all had to be just so.

Then he came along.

I thought, after the first day, he’d disappear. It would have made me happy, because huddling beneath my window angered me. I had no idea how or why he came here, because this road wasn’t made for running. With the steep hills and sharp curves, it could actually be pretty treacherous.

The first time I saw him, it took me nearly eight hours to calm myself. I had to go through and touch everything to ensure it was still in place, because my hands shook until I did. Then he came back the next day, and the cycle repeated itself.

I tried calling the sheriff, but he laughed and assured me no law existed about people running on the road. When I protested, he got snippy.

“Did he come onto your property?” he asked, and I could hear the annoyance in his clipped cadence.

“Well, no, but—”

“Then I’m sorry, Matt. I can’t do anything about it. He’s free to run wherever he sees fit.”

“Can’t you at least suggest he find somewhere else?” I pleaded.

When his voice took on the pitying tone I knew so well, I wanted to hang up. “You know, it would do you good to have some company out there,” he told me. “Maybe you should try to talk to the man. Invite him in for some of that weird tea you brew up.”

“Mom could tell you to do it,” I countered.

Yeah, the sheriff, Clayton Bailey Bowers, was, by two years, my younger brother.

“Pretty sure that Mom would agree with me,” he drawled. “She doesn’t like you living out in the woods like that anyway. Why can’t you come back to town and live like….”

He paused a breath too long.

“Like a normal person?” I demanded. “That’s what you were going to say, right?”

Clay let loose with a long, aggrieved sigh. “It’s been thirteen years, Matt. You won’t come to see Mom or me. You won’t allow us to come and visit you. Hell, even your friends have stopped asking after you.”

Friends. I suppose that’s what they thought they were, but I never had that connection with them. “Acquaintances” I’d have to agree to, but not much beyond that. Ever since what’s referred to by most people as “the incident,” I’ve had the need to be alone, to stay as far away from people as I can. The incident shattered my world, and now I desperately needed to make sure I held it together. It’s why familiarity had become so important to me.

I was a high school student at the time. We’d celebrated my sixteenth birthday three weeks before that, and Mom had gotten me a beater car, a lemon-yellow Toyota with nearly seventy thousand miles on it. The car was well traveled, and every time I drove her, I imagined we were taking part in history. I loved that car, probably more than my brother at the time. If I’d had to choose between him and the car… well, it was a good thing the situation never came up.

We’d been having some weird weather that spring. A lot of rain, sometimes even mixed with snow. Then the next day, the temperatures would soar into the eighties. One of the teachers, Mr. Jackson, told me his car had died in the parking lot, and he wondered if I could give him a ride home. I never liked the man. He gave off this creepy vibe, and a lot of people commented on it. But like an idiot, I said sure. His smile and cheery thanks made my stomach queasy.

He gave me directions, and I found myself in a field pretty far from town. Everything in me screamed to turn around and go back, but I swallowed down my fear.

“You live out here? It’s kind of far from school.”

He put an arm around me and pulled me close. Oh my God, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I tried to push away from him, but he held fast, bringing his mouth to mine. In a panic, I laid on the horn. He jerked back, his pupils blown. He gave me some sort of sick grin and leaned forward again. I tried to hit him as I screamed for him to get away from me.

“You knew why we were coming out here,” Mr. Jackson said, grabbing a handful of my hair. And the sick thing was he seemed genuinely certain I’d come out here for that reason.

“No, I didn’t!” I shouted as I continued to struggle with someone twice my age, who stood at least six inches more than my five foot eight inches and outweighed me by a good forty pounds. “You asked for a ride home, and that’s what I thought you wanted. I don’t want this with you.”

I struggled to get away, but his grip tightened. I didn’t give a damn if he yanked out every hair on my head; I did not want his hands on me. Lashing out, I hit him in the face. He snarled and grabbed me with his other hand. He had me now, both hands with a death grip on my head. He tried to force me down toward his crotch. The sweaty, musty smell made my stomach roil and my head swim. He let go with one hand and fumbled with his belt, his breath coming in ragged gasps.

“Please don’t do this,” I begged. “I won’t tell anyone.”

Then it struck me. What would he do to me after? He had to know I’d tell my mother or someone. Did he think they wouldn’t believe me? Would he hurt me—or worse—after he got what he wanted? I started to cry.

“Shh. It’s okay,” Mr. Jackson murmured. “I’ll take care of you.”

He peeled back his underwear and his cock popped out. The smell became overpowering and I… threw up. All over his lap with the vegetable pizza they’d served for lunch. That, added to the odor of his crotch, had me heaving everywhere. He pushed me away, then hit me, hard, in the face. It dazed me, and I thought he’d overpower me. Instead he got out, dragged me from the car, and pushed me to the dirt. He kicked me in the ribs once or twice, then got in my little lemon and drove away.

I shivered, and not from the cold. His hands on me, his mouth touching mine. They’d chilled me to my depths. I crawled to the nearest tree and sat against it, the rough bark digging into my arms, and cried.

 

 

FOUR HOURS later, the sheriff at the time, Roy Campbell, and my mom found me. She hurried from the squad car and threw her arms around me, and I sank into the embrace, sobbing how sorry I was.

“Shh. You didn’t do anything wrong,” she assured me.

But I did. I let him into my car—my life—even though I didn’t feel right about it. Everything that happened was because of me.

The sheriff stood behind her, not meeting my gaze. His body language told me he found the whole thing uncomfortable. I wasn’t really surprised. He’d never been the most tolerant of people who weren’t like him. When Mom turned her glare on him and demanded that he get off his goddamn ass and do something, he snapped into action. He started by asking me if I was okay—had he hurt me? I barked a laugh, because my face hadn’t gotten swollen all by itself. When he knelt down and reached toward me, I jerked away.

“No, don’t touch me!” I screamed.

He pulled his hand back as if he’d been zapped. Mom bundled me up and got me into the cruiser, then sat beside me, pulling me into her embrace. She stroked my hair, murmuring to me that it would be okay, but even back then I knew the truth. Nothing would ever be the same again.

They took me to the hospital, where I was given some painkillers and told I needed plenty of rest. They released me the next morning when Mom came to get me. She hurried me to the car and got in beside me. She didn’t say anything on the drive home, and I was grateful for that. My mind was already jumbled with replaying the incident from every angle to see what I should have done differently. Unfortunately nothing seemed to change, no matter how many times I went through it. I’d done something to make him think I was willing. I just didn’t know what.

That night, Mom told me she’d seen Mr. Jackson flying through town in the car she’d given me, brakes squealing as he turned the corner. She knew something had to be wrong. She went to the sheriff and convinced him to check into it. When they caught Mr. Jackson at his home, he first told them I’d loaned him my car because his wasn’t working. Mom said that was a lie. She knew I’d sooner give up Clay than I would my car. The sheriff arrested Mr. Jackson and took him to the tiny office he worked out of. Crime in our town wasn’t unknown, but mostly it consisted of bored kids being somewhere they shouldn’t. When Mr. Jackson told them where he’d left me, he tried to say it had been consensual, that I’d come on to him. My mom freaked out over that, because she knew better. She and Clay knew I was gay, but she also knew I would never do anything with a grown-up, and certainly not in our small town. Mr. Jackson finally confessed, was charged with attempted rape, and went to trial. Fortunately, since he admitted his guilt, our lawyer said I wouldn’t have to testify.

It never changed anything for me, though. My life had started a downhill slide I thought I’d never get out of.

“We got your car back,” Mom told me later.

My beloved car. The most precious thing in my life. Now it was tainted. I didn’t think I could bear to see it again. “Sell it,” I said.

“But you love that car.”

“I don’t want it anymore.”

“You’ll feel better one day. You’ll see.” Her voice was filled with a hope I didn’t feel.

I stayed home from school for the next two weeks, talking to no one. Mom tried to coax me out of my room with my favorite dinner, but I said I wasn’t hungry. Eventually she put a plate outside the door and left me in peace, which I appreciated. My whole world had begun to crumble around me. Everywhere I looked, I saw reminders of the kid I’d been. The stupid person who believed that helping people could never be a bad thing. I began to straighten up my room to give me something to do. I found that as I made order from the chaos around me, my mind calmed and I could breathe again. Every trophy, every kitschy little thing I’d bought over the years, all my pictures… they were the bits and pieces that made up my life. If I hoped to find my center, they had to be perfect. I sorted them, first by color, then by year, and finally by size. Next came the books on my bookshelf. Genre first, then author name. I made lists of where everything was so I could always find it with ease.

By the time I stepped out of my bedroom, I’d calmed. But then I noticed the mess of the house and felt the urge to fix it. It was part of what I considered to be mine, and I didn’t like to see it messy. Mom had gone to work, Clay to school, so there was no one else in the house. I set to cleaning. I dusted, then washed down the walls and floors before I tackled the rest of the house. By the time everyone got home, I’d made a sizable dent, but so much more remained to be done.

“Clay? Go on up to your room, okay?” Mom asked.

“Sure, but can he come and do mine next?” Clay asked, his voice breaking when he laughed.

“Get upstairs,” Mom snapped.

Clay trudged up the stairs, mumbling under his breath the whole way.

“Honey, come and sit down.”

“I can’t,” I protested. I had hours of work ahead of me to get the place… right.

“Matt,” she coaxed.

I put the sponge into the bucket, then squeezed it out and lined it up beside the pail. I turned to her and saw the worry in her guarded expression.

“What are you doing?”

I blew out a breath. “Just cleaning.”

“Honey, you’re sixteen. Boys don’t clean when they’re that age. Hell, your father didn’t clean when he was in his thirties.”

I wanted to laugh, but my gaze kept straying to the bucket. I inched a little closer to it, until Mom reached out and grabbed my wrist. I flinched and pulled away, then saw how hurt she looked. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“No, I’m sorry. Matt, do you think… maybe we should see about getting you to talk to someone?”

After a few moments, I understood what she meant. “A shrink.”

“A psychologist, yes. What he did to you wasn’t right, and maybe you need someone who will help you understand it wasn’t your fault.”

Agitation welled within me, and I started stalking around the room, throwing my hands up as we talked. “But it was,” I protested. “I mean, he thought I wanted it. He said so. So maybe deep down I did, and he noticed.”

“Stop that!” Mom screamed, her face a mask of pain. “Just….” Her voice and expression softened. “Please, stop.”

She tried to make me go to school, but when I got there, all I could see was the disarray. Nothing in the place it belonged, everything dirty. The kids were the worst, with their weird hair and their grungy clothes. Who could live like that? It struck me at that moment. He’d grabbed my hair, held me by it. Any one of these people I went to school with could do the same. Anyone could use my hair against me. The thought stayed with me throughout the day, as I ran my fingers through my blond locks. When I got home that night, I went to the bathroom to shower. After, I pulled out one of the safety razors Mom had bought me to shave with, and I cut off all my hair. It took several tries, and a lot of razors, but eventually my head was smooth.

When Mom saw me, she burst into tears. Clay found the whole thing hilarious.

Life changed for me after that. I stopped going to school, and eventually Mom quit begging me to go. I started to spend more and more time in my room, where order reigned. Mr. Jackson’s lawyer got a plea bargain for him. He agreed to not fight the charges, for which we were grateful. It turned out that Mr. Jackson had received several reprimands from the school district but had never been formally disciplined. Our attorney went to court, saying they were culpable in the situation. Knowing they didn’t have a leg to stand on, they paid the sum of three million dollars, which would be deposited in an account for me to collect when I turned eighteen. So Mr. Jackson went to prison for three years, and I started my lifelong sentence.

 

 

MOM WORRIED as my attitude swirled into depression. She made an appointment for me with a doctor, then dragged me to his office. At first I resisted, because the outside world was in such a sorry state. I could see so many places where it could be better. When we got to the doctor’s office, she introduced me to Dr. Robert Treadway. When he ushered me inside, a sense of peace prevailed.

I liked it there. For the most part, he had everything neat and organized, even if I saw a few places that could be better. When he saw me reaching to straighten something, he smiled and indulged me, allowing me to rearrange things to make more sense. Every week for the next three months, he’d let me come in and put things back the way I’d had them. I got comfortable in his office, as it seemed like an extension of me.

Our conversations were kept light. How was I feeling? How were things at home? Just surface stuff that I knew he was using to try to get into my head. Finally he got down to the big question.

“Do you want to talk about what happened with your teacher?” the doctor—“call me Rob”—asked.

“Not really, no.”

I didn’t want to even think about the man, but he lived in a corner of my mind and wouldn’t go away. And to talk about it with the doctor? That would simply be reliving the whole mess again. Definitely not something I wanted to do.

“You know, it’s not going to get better if we don’t work on it together.”

And wasn’t that the crux of the situation? It wouldn’t get better if we didn’t talk about it, but talking about it would make me feel worse than I did because the memories would overwhelm me. I straightened the items on his desk, moving the penholder with a beautiful pair of gold Cross pens to the far corner of his desk.

“Why did you put it there?” he asked. “Last week you had it on the left side.”

And I had. My hands started shaking when I reached for it again, but it looked right, even if my mind told me it wasn’t.

“Matthew?”

No one called me that unless I’d done something to piss them off, but Rob said it in a nonthreatening kind of way, and I found it soothing.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “It seemed like it should be there.”

“That’s a good enough answer. Sometimes when something feels more right in one place, it’s okay to move it. Nothing needs to stay as it is forever.”

But it did. Or at least it should. There could only be order if nothing moved after I put it in the proper place. But I hadn’t lied; it did seem like it belonged more where I put it than on the other side of the desk. I’d noticed Rob was right-handed, and it seemed foolish to have it where he needed to stretch all the way across the desk to reach it.

He started again. “So. Your teacher. He changed his story quite often. Why do you think he said the first time you’d gone willingly?”

My gaze darted around the room, the feel of him being in the enclosed space with me nearly overwhelming. I could smell the stale sweat, hear him panting, feel his grip on my hair. My breath began to quicken and my body shook. In my mind I could hear his voice telling me that this was what I’d come for.

“It wasn’t!” I shouted, pushing up out of the chair. “I didn’t go there to have sex with him. I thought… I thought I was helping him out because his car didn’t work. He lied to me, and I won’t trust him again. I won’t be stupid enough to trust anyone ever again.” I turned to run for the door, but Rob’s voice cut through the haze.

“Matthew, please sit down.”

Sit down? Screw that. I wanted to run and never stop. Get away from the voice, from the memories that assailed me every night. Away from the nightmares that were my constant companions until I turned eighteen, gained the money that had been put aside for me, and bought my property, built a house, and removed myself from society.

Familiarity brought me peace, even if it took my mother and brother away from me.

A small price to pay, though, I told myself. Every night when I lay there, unable to sleep.