For the next few weeks I will be sharing the first several chapters Tatia’s Tattoo. Links to previous chapters are at the end of this post. Following is Chapter 5. Chapter 6 will be posted on Thursday.
CHAPTER 5: THE DARKER SIDE OF ERIC
Tatia looked up when the flight attendant began her pre-flight announcements. She was one of those who tried to be entertaining in order to maintain the attention of her passengers, but it was still the same information Tatia had heard on the hundreds of flights she had been on in the last few years. She turned her attention back to the section of her notebook dealing with signs of neglect and various kinds of abuse. She recognized some of her former campers as she re-read the now familiar pages, and she also recognized some aspects of her younger self.
While Tatia had not been actively abused, the neglect she suffered in the home of her emotionally unstable grandmother and later, in over-crowded foster homes, left her vulnerable. By the time she was in middle school, she was beautiful in a sensually innocent way that child predators dream of. She suffered from the low sense of self-worth that comes when a child’s basic need for food, shelter, protection, or love goes unfulfilled. She craved positive personal attention, but she didn’t know how to get it, so she was often alone.
Tatia was supposed to ride the bus to and from school, but she hated it. It wasn’t too bad in the morning, because hers was the first stop. She could sit in the front seat, and no one dared to taunt or torment her within earshot of the driver. When she rode in the afternoon, though, the kids whose last class was closer to the bus stop filled the front seats before she boarded the bus, and she was forced to sit toward the back. No one sat with her, but the more popular girls surrounded her, throwing out the passive-aggressive verbal torture that was the plight of the foster kids.
The first day of school wasn’t too bad, but after that, once the rest of the student body had identified the foster kids, life was pretty unpleasant. So, Tatia sat on the front seat in the morning, and she walked home every afternoon. It wasn’t difficult. With the promise of doing extra chores when she made it home, she talked Josie into signing a note giving her permission to ride home with a friend she didn’t really know after book club meetings she never attended. She was such a good student that nobody questioned the truth of her claims, and she came to enjoy the quiet solitude of the mile walk between the torture of school and the chaos of home. Then, she met Eric.
On a beautiful day in early March, one of those rare spring days in Texas when the air promised new life and the trees were tinged with green, he came into her life. As she walked down the shoulder of the road with the light breeze playing with her curls, she was almost happy until she heard a car coming from behind, slowing down as it approached. She picked up her pace a bit and focused on the path ahead of her, determined not to let this intruder spoil her last few minutes of peace before the bedlam of the evening began. However, as the shiny fender of the sporty red convertible entered her peripheral vision, she couldn’t keep from sneaking a peek.
“Excuse me,” said the driver. “I just realized I’m almost out of gas, and I’m new in town. Is there a gas station down this direction?”
Tatia kept walking but slowed a bit, matching her stride to the slow roll of his vehicle. Without looking at him, she replied, “No, not for about twenty miles. Make a u-turn and turn right at the stoplight. There are two stations in the next block.”
“No problem,” she said, beginning to pick up her pace again.
“I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you have beautiful hair.”
Surprised, she stopped and turned her head to look at him. She struggled to keep her mouth from falling open – he was the most startlingly handsome man she had ever seen, except on the covers of the romance novels Josie liked to read. He had it all – the square jaw, full lips, dimples, smoldering eyes, black hair, and one stray curl that had escaped onto his forehead to keep him from being absolutely perfect. She felt what she was sure was the monster blush of all times reddening her cheeks as he flashed her a perfect smile.
“Anyway,” he said, waving and stepping on the gas, “thanks again.”
Before she could find her voice, he had made his u-turn and was gone. “Real cool, Tatia,” she said as she continued her walk toward home. “Mr. Perfect pays you a compliment, and you can’t say thanks, you’re welcome, or even have a nice day. Not that it matters. I’ll never see him again.”
She did, though. The next day she saw him on the same road, driving in the opposite direction. He smiled and waved, and she almost smiled before ducking her head. The following day, his flashy ride was at the four-way stop a couple of blocks from the school, and the day after, he came out of the post office as she was walking by on the other side of the street. Each time, he smiled and waved, and each time, she became a little braver, finally returning his greeting with a smile and wave of her own.
Then, it was the weekend, and she didn’t see him for two days. When Monday came, she found herself hoping to catch a glimpse of him as she walked out of the library. What she saw was her handsome stranger sitting in one of two chairs just outside the door, twirling a single dandelion between his fingers. She didn’t actually see him at first – she was reading the cover blurb of the book she had just checked out.
“Hi there,” he said.
She jumped, let out a little screech, and dropped her book. “You scared me,” she stammered, leaning back against the door jamb with one hand on her chest.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, picking up the book and handing it to her.
“It’s okay. I just wasn’t expecting to see anyone. Nobody sits in those chairs – usually,” she replied with a breathless giggle.
“Well, I just saw this first color of spring,” he said, holding out the flower, “and I thought of you the first time I saw you walking along the road last week.”
This time she managed a real smile as she accepted the flower. “Thank you. That’s really sweet.”
“No problem, right? I gotta run, but since we seem to run in the same areas, I’ll probably be seeing you.”
“Okay,” she said, still looking at the rather wilted flower. “It’s pretty.”
“Like you. I wish it could be a bouquet of roses,” he said as he walked toward the parking lot. Then, he turned back. “By the way, my name’s Eric. What’s yours?”
“A beautiful name for a beautiful lady,” said Eric, getting into his car and driving away.
Tatia slowly sank into one of the chairs as she watched him drive away. Her head was spinning from the unfamiliar feeling of being the focus of so much attention and so many compliments. “Beautiful? Me?” she whispered. “A lady?” Then she let out a self-deprecating laugh. “He’s not perfect after all. He needs glasses!”
Still shaking her head slightly, she shifted her backpack into a more comfortable position and turned her thoughts toward home and the reality of her world.
After their encounter at the library, Tatia and Eric saw each other almost every day after school. Some days he would wait for her outside the library, and they would sit in the two chairs on the porch and talk. Other days they would walk to the tiny city park that was three blocks away and sit together on a bench and watch the squirrels. Sometimes he would pass her as she walked along the county road toward home, and he would do a quick u-turn and pull over to the shoulder of the road. At first, she would lean on the edge of the door, but as she became more comfortable with him, she would sit in the car while they talked.
Tatia looked forward to their little encounters. It never occurred to her to wonder why Eric was always around when other adults she knew were still at work. All she knew was that he seemed interested in her and in what was going on in her life, even if it was just a science project that was due or a snotty group of girls in the cafeteria. He really listened to what she had to say, and he made her feel special. He also brought her little gifts from time to time. At first he brought silly things, like the dandelion or the fortune cookie from his take-out lunch. As they became better acquainted, he brought gifts that were small but significant in their meaning – a pink gel pen because pink was her favorite color or a tube of cherry flavored lip balm because one of the brats at home had stolen hers.
After a few weeks, on a particularly warm day in April, Eric took another step in their friendship. He had the top down on his Corvette, and Tatia was sitting in the passenger seat, telling him about the latest antics of her crazy math teacher. “Hey,” he said when she paused in her story, “I’d give my right arm for a cherry limeade right now. How about you?”
“I don’t know,” she hesitated. “I don’t have any money with me.”
“No problem. It’s happy hour – my treat.”
“Okay, sure. I just can’t stay very long. Josie gets really mad when I’m late and she has to deal with the kids.”
“We’ll leave in plenty of time, and I’ll drop you off at the end of your street so you don’t have far to walk.”
After that, he often waited for her in his car a block or two from the library, and she hopped in with no hesitation for a breezy, top-down ride to run an errand with him or into town for ice cream or a shaved ice. The gifts came more often, and if not exactly extravagant, at least a little bigger and more expensive. One day he brought her a T-shirt featuring her favorite band.
“Oh, Eric! You shouldn’t have,” she said excitedly.
“But I wanted you to have it.”
“Thank you so much. But how will I explain this to Josie?”
“Do what my mom used to do. Hide it in the back of your closet for a few weeks before you wear it. Then, if she asks where you got it, just say ‘This old thing? I’ve had it for a long time, but it was stuck in the back of the closet.’”
Tatia laughed, still admiring the shirt. “That would probably work. I do all the laundry anyway, so she doesn’t really know what we have. And it wouldn’t really be a lie, would it?”
“Of course not. Besides, you’ll look great in that shirt. But then you look good in anything you wear.”
“Oh, you’re always saying that.”
“That’s because it’s true. You really are beautiful.” he said, reaching over and playing with a couple of curls that had escaped from her ponytail.
The touching was something else that had increased. At first they didn’t touch at all. When they started walking to the park or along the roadside together, he would sometimes bump her playfully with his elbow or sometimes even with his hip. Then, if he had a special gift for her, he would make her close her eyes and hold out her hand. He would sandwich her hand between his with the gift between their palms, and when she opened her eyes, he would reveal the surprise by opening his hand as if he were opening the lid of a treasure chest. She didn’t really notice the progression until she began riding in the car with him. When she made him laugh, he would sometimes grab her playfully by the back of the neck or pat her on the leg, and when they went for ice cream, he sometimes sat on the same side of the booth with her, really close so their legs touched, almost like a real boyfriend. She never felt uncomfortable, though – well, almost never – and if she withdrew even a little bit, he backed off, so she felt safe.
There was one time, though, when she saw a side of him she didn’t like very much. It was early June, right after school was over. As an end-of-school present, he had given her a prepaid cell phone so she could get in touch with him when she could manage to get out of the house. This particular day, she called to see if he was free. He was, so she told Josie she was meeting Ms. Dunham for a special session about what to expect at camp and how to handle the new situations she would encounter. Tatia said she would walk into town, and Ms. Dunham would pick her up there so Josie wouldn’t have to drive her. After the T-shirt incident, it had become easier to stretch the truth or outright lie, especially if it meant spending time with Eric. She missed their daily visits after school, and she was pretty sure he did, too. She was really excited to see him and tell him her big news about camp.
Eric picked her up at the four-way stop in front of the courthouse and headed toward her favorite ice cream shop in Cameron, a nearby town where they were less likely to run into anyone who knew her. She was almost bubbling over and wanted to tell him about camp in the car, but she also wanted to have his full attention so she could watch his reaction as she told him about all the exciting things she would be doing. Unfortunately, he didn’t share her enthusiasm.
“Camp? Why would you want to go to camp?” he almost shouted, his face darkening in a way that made her draw back and drop her eyes. He saw her reaction and took a deep breath and continued in a calmer tone of voice. “I mean, I thought we had a good thing going here. Why would you want to go hang out with a bunch of kids?”
“I thought you’d be excited for me,” she said, still looking down.“I don’t get to do much in the summer. I have to lie to Josie to get out long enough to see you. At camp someone else will be looking after the kids and all I’ll have to worry about is me. Besides, it’s only five days.”
“I know,” he said, covering her small hand with his larger one. “I guess I’m just afraid some other guy will steal your heart if I’m not around to protect my interests.” He laughed self-consciously and pulled his hand back. “Pretty pathetic, huh?”
She smiled and put her hand on his arm. “I think it’s sweet. Nobody has ever been jealous over me before.”
He returned her smile and relaxed back into his seat. “Okay. Let’s start all over. Tell me about camp.”
She chattered on for five minutes, telling him everything Ms. Dunham had told her – about the swimming, the crafts, the princess tea, and the birthday party. “One of the fun things is that camp is the week before my real birthday. It will be the first birthday party I’ve ever had. Oh, I probably had them before…you know…but I don’t remember them.”
“Hey, when is your birthday?”
“Tell you what. When you get back, you and I will have a real birthday party, one you don’t have to share with a camp full of other kids.”
“Really?” she asked with wide-eyed wonder.
“Really,” he said. “Be thinking of some way you can get away for a whole evening. We’ll go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant – do it up right.”
“That sounds awesome,” she said quietly as if she was afraid to believe it.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “This isn’t one of those Bible-thumping camps where they fill your head with God and Jesus and all that stuff, is it?”
“Ms. Dunham said it’s a Christian camp. We have Chapel and sing songs, but there’s no pressure. She said the main point is to let kids like me have fun and be kids for a few days. I don’t know about the God part, but the fun part sounds like Heaven to me.”
“Okay, I guess,” he said. “As long as you don’t decide to be a nun or something and forget all about me.”
“Right. Like that’s gonna happen,” she said as she turned her attention back to her ice cream.
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