It was still raining when I returned home that afternoon and, before inserting the key in the keyhole, I readied myself for the possibility of finding him somewhere in the living room, or even in my bedroom. But the house was thankfully empty. I sighed in relief, grateful for the few moments of peace and quiet I'd have until the next day, and went for a shower, hoping to release some of the tension I'd built up during the day.
I was setting the table for dinner when I heard a key at the front door. Glad that I'd correctly calculated the time needed for our carrot cream soup to be ready, I waited to see Rachel appear by the door.
"But you didn't have to go all the way to pick me up," she was apparently saying on the cell phone. "You're probably tired. I'm sure you had a long day," she went on and her high heels echoed in the corridor. I turned to greet her as she walked in to give me a kiss. "Hello, dear. It smells great all the way to the front door." I smiled, about to reveal that night's menu, when a dark shadow filled the doorway, freezing me in place. "Oh, I'm sure you've met him, right? Gabriel told me he already went to school today."
The plate I was holding slipped from my lifeless fingers, exploding into tiny pieces on the floor. He smiled, definitely amused by my reaction, and Rachel said something about how clumsy I was while rushing to pick up the broken pieces.
"Mari! You sure you didn't hurt yourself?" she asked me, worrying, but her question was lost amongst the deafening sound that was my irregular heartbeat.
"Mariane, your mother asked you a question." His voice and the sound of my name released my mind from the irrational panic paralyzing me and I looked at Rachel, who was still staring at me.
"Oh ... no ... sorry, mom," I mumbled, still shaking. "I'll do that."
"No way! You'll end up losing a finger! Just set another place at the table. Gabriel is staying with us." I obeyed, trying not to think about the real meaning of those words. I refused to look at him a second time, fearing I might lose the ability to move again, and grabbed two extra plates and a glass from the cupboard. "But do come in, Gabriel. And sit." My mother disposed of the small pieces of broken glass and Gabriel slowly took the chair on the other side of the table. "Tell me! What do you think of your new school?"
"It's big and has lots of facilities. Mari was really nice and introduced me to all her friends. So, at least I'll have someone to talk to," he answered pleasantly and I noticed it was the first time he hadn't used my full name. Maybe that was why the shock wasn't quite the same, I figured ... or maybe it had something to do with the relaxed way in which he had said it. I set the table and ran back to the stove with the excuse of having to stir the carrot cream.
"Really? That's really nice. I was kind of worried when they told me you were transferring in the middle of the year. It's good to know you've blended in well," Rachel said to him, as if she really knew him from way back and, half despairingly, I realized she probably thought she did and that in her mind that thing was actually from our family.
Before we sat to eat Gabriel politely asked where the bathroom was and disappeared within the corridor's shadows. I couldn't help my anger at how fake and deceitful he could be. Rachel, on the other hand, seemed completely enthralled by his open, considerate and polite personality.
We sat at the table and she filled our plates. Gabriel praised my carrot cream, which I could hardly taste, and played with the nuts on his plate receiving a motherly reprehension from Rachel. I tried as hard as I could not to throw up.
"Oh, that's right. Since it was all decided at the last minute there wasn't enough time to prepare anything special," my mother said apologetically. "So, I'm sorry, but for the time being, you'll have to take the couch in the living room. Later I'll make sure to find you a decent place. Maybe we'll be able to transform my office into a bedroom." The spoon fell from my hand hitting against the plate.
"What?" I asked in utter disbelief and Rachel smiled gently.
"Didn't I tell you before? Gabriel is staying with us for a while. Since it's just the two of us here, there's no need for him to rent a room."
I panicked and tried hard to keep breathing.
"What's the matter, Mari? We must always help our family!" she pointed out as if I were no more than a selfish child.
"I don't want to cause any trouble." I heard his voice in a deceiving tone of humility and my mother smiled at him.
"You're no trouble at all. Mari just isn't used to having other people around. Isn't that so, dear?" The anger that filled me inside left me boiling.
"Well then, I'll accept your invitation. But please, don't worry about anything else. The living room couch is more than enough," he replied understandingly and I was sure that if I didn't fear him so much I'd punch him hard in the face.
"No way! A student needs his own space," Rachel disagreed vehemently. "Right now I'm a bit short on time, but if not until then, we'll take care of this during the Easter holidays." I felt like I was drowning. Until the Easter holidays? How was I going to survive until then?
Gabriel thanked her sheepishly and Rachel started asking him news from the rest of the family. By then I could hardly feel surprised at how easily he made things up, as if he was actually reading someone's biography.
When we finished dinner Rachel stopped him from helping us in the kitchen, which I mentally thanked her for. At least the distance between us was guaranteed.
I said my good-nights as soon as possible and ran up to my room, locking the door. It didn't take long until I heard Rachel's high heels on the stairs. She'd probably gone to bed earlier since students needed their sleep and Gabriel slept in the living room.
Needless to say, that night I hardly closed my eyes. I spent the whole time curled up under the quilt, imagining shadows all around me, imagining that he was right there, watching me. But he never came even close to my room. And so, when the alarm clock rang I was quick to silence it.
I sat on the bad, tired and feeling my eyes heavy, and wished I had enough courage to skip school.
It was the memory of Michael and of last enounter that finally made me stand up. Seeing him again and, who knew, maybe talk to him some more. It was all the motivation I needed.
Unlike all other mornings, Rachel didn't call for me to make sure I'd be ready in time, which immediately reminded me of the presence of our newest family member. Most likely she was busy attending to Gabriel, hence my hesitation as I walked downstairs. And, as to be expected, there he was.
He wore a thin dark-blue shirt and black pants that delineated his long legs. And, in that brief instant, I couldn't help worrying about a bunch of stupid things: Where did his clothes come from when he hadn't brought any suitcases? How could he walk outside in that thin shirt and not freeze to death? And what about the notebooks and books I saw on the table? And money to pay for all those things, including school fees?
"Morning, Mari! Sleep well?" Rachel's kiss interrupted the flood of thoughts that had me pinned to the ground and I nodded, going around the table to take the seat farthest from him.
The plate she put in front of me left me gaping. A full breakfast, including eggs, bacon, toast and stewed tomatoes. On the table there were two flasks of jam, a jar of orange juice, a pack of cereals and a few different yogurts. To finish it up, she placed a cup of coffee with milk right beside me.
I sighed. She was really trying to impress him.
"Well, dear, don't forget I have that business dinner today. So just take something from the freezer and eat it together." She made it a point to look happy that I'd have some company for a change. I had to force a smile. I knew she worried about leaving me home alone when she had to work late, especially at night. However, I couldn't really see how leaving me with some complete stranger could be any better.
"Don't worry," I told her and she kissed my hair caressing my face.
"I hope everything goes well at school, Gabriel. If you need anything, just give me a call," she reminded him and he nodded, his black eyes showing nothing but pure sincerity.
"I can't thank you enough. Wish you a nice day."
"Same to you both," she replied happily as she grabbed her briefcase and her high heels echoed down the corridor until the front door was closed.
We sat alone with an abundant table between us.
I swallowed my food, reminding myself of the decisions I had made the previous day. No matter how nervous I felt, I wasn't about to stop eating. But when he stood up I couldn't help the tension that stiffened my body, leaving me in a state of high alert. And so I watched him warily as he slowly walked towards the sink to wash his plate and cup.
I'd never felt so annoyed in my entire life. What the hell was he doing? That he tried to keep his human-like act near everyone else was something I had to learn to endure. Sure I couldn't help feeling irritated when he so easily deceived my mother and friends. But, on the other hand, being deceived was probably better than knowing the truth. But now he was also doing it in front of me, when there wasn't anyone else around? Him, washing plates! When he could probably just make them disappear and replace them with new ones, just like he'd done with the my bedroom window. It was as if he was trying to deceive me too. And that was something I could never allow to happen! Besides, the matter-of-fact way in which he did those things made me sick. As if his presence there, in my kitchen, was to be expected; as if he really belonged there.
"Want me to wash yours?" he asked me in his velvet-like voice, the water still running, and the anger burned my stomach.
Standing up, I grabbed my plate and dropped it in the garbage bag before running out of the kitchen.
I closed my bedroom door, out of breath, and tried to calm down.
Lately my feelings were a complete roller coaster. I, who just until recently could only feel my heart beat when I looked at Michael. With him as the exception, the rest of the world had never meant much, everything else passing me by, unable to leave a single mark. Not even when my father had left, and we had moved, had I felt anything beyond a shallow shadow of pity.
I grabbed my things, aware that the one to blame for my current situation was the creature washing plates in my kitchen, and walked downstairs again a bit more composed, hopping he'd already left.
I stopped at the bottom of the stairs when I saw him by the front door, as if he'd been waiting for me and, before I could come any closer, he opened the door and stepped out into the cold morning.
I sighed grabbing the keys and followed him, closing the door behind me.
The sky was clearer than the day before and the sun promised to take a peek. At least it looked like it wouldn't rain again, but the cold morning wind was as sharp as always. I looked at him from behind and shivered at the sight of his shirt and hair, as the wind tossed them one way and the other. At that point I was sure he was unable to feel cold.
We walked in silence for the most part of the way; him always in front of me, I measuring every single step to make sure I kept a safe distance. Then I recalled something that had tumbled around in my head the entire night and had to swallow before speaking to make sure my voice wouldn't betray me.
"Yesterday. What did you do to Michael?" He stopped for a moment, making me stop as well, and looked at me over his shoulder. Fear wrapped itself around my throat. The fact that I couldn't see his whole face, which meant I couldn't make out his expression, made him look even scarier.
"Oh, I see," he whispered as if he'd been thinking about my question and, to my relief, turned around and resumed walking. "If you're worried that I may have cast some kind of spell on him, you don't have to. As I've told you before, right now, I'm unable to do that kind of thing. If I had done it by now he would be dragging himself at your feet." He sounded amused. "I know you're impatient, but I promise it won't take that long."
"How can you be so sure of something like that?" I asked, offended by his concept about the kind of person Michael was. "No one chooses the one he loves."
"True. But Human Beings have frail hearts, full of voids, anxieties and sufferings. All you have to do is present them someone who can fulfill one of those voids or ease some of those pains, and suddenly they can't live without them. And isn't that what you call love? To have someone special that makes you feel good and that you want to keep close by at any cost?"
His presumption riled me up and I was sure that love was much more than that. At least I was certain that what I felt for Michael wasn't something that simple. And yet I couldn't find the right words to describe it, leaving me frustrated for not being able to counter his limited concept of what it meant to love someone.
"And you think I can be that someone?"
"Oh, this is the first time you didn't ask me a stupid question," he scoffed and I frowned. What was that suppose to mean? "Looks like we're making progress. I presume you're waiting for a confirmation?" I didn't answer, deciding not to encourage his game of words. "Human Beings have the ability to be whoever they want to be, because they possess the gift of free will." The sound of voices told us we were arriving, placing our talk on hold.
I kept thinking about what he'd told me and recalled the old woman's words. She too had said something about a choice I had to make. But the way he'd put it. Had he meant that, unlike us, he had no choice? I frowned again, this time annoyed at myself. How could I even believe a single word he said? Besides, it was clear he too had made a choice. He'd decided not to kill me in exchange for that absurd Contract. And so I simply dropped the subject.