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Chapter Seven
Fighting the Dragon

"Thou God seest me..."
~ Genesis 16:13 ~

The darkness sat heavy. It pressed against her body, cutting off the very air she breathed. Rope bit into her flesh with an eagerness that made every writhing moment seem like the last. She clawed, twisted to get free, but the rope held fast around her neck.

Death gazed with longing, and oh, how she wanted to follow. Just a few more breathless seconds and it would all go away. There would be peace.

The rope relaxed, and horror shuddered into her soul.

No, God, please no. Life flooded back into her lungs, and the darkness began to lift. She hadn't died. Fear doubled inside her, and still she refused to open her eyes. If she did, she knew what she would see-- what she would be forced to see for hours on end. But before that, would come the pain.

Now it would begin.

A scream tore through her consciousness.

Her eyes sprang open. She shoved herself upright on the sofa, gasping in the air with huge, greedy gulps. Where was she? Terror clutched her heart as she forced herself to look about the room. It required courage to look. Evil could emerge from the shadows, the rope dangling from its hand to begin again. It had happened before.

Her chin edged up until the room around her came into view.

On the wall, a silver photo frame greeted her, winking in the morning sunlight that filtered through the closed blinds covering the windows. It was the picture of two young men, posed side by side in the cap and gown attire of a graduation. Though younger than he was now, Madison recognized the lopsided grin. The other one she knew to be John, but Terry was the one she paid attention to. She focused on him, on the friendly eyes that smiled at her through the glass.

Terry Davis. This was his apartment. Last night, he had brought her here after the doctor's visit and dinner with the Johanneses. He had sat on the coffee table and watched her sink beneath the comforter on the sofa. He had asked if she had food.

This was Terry's apartment. The thought calmed her until she breathed without trying.

The question from the night before made her smile inwardly. Did she have food? Of course she had food. He had stocked that kitchen so well, she could feed herself for the next two weeks without having to even think of running out.

Madison moved to her feet with a stiff grimace of pain. The trials of yesterday came flooding in, as did the realization that she still struggled with the same problems as before. There had been no pill to make it all go away, no treatment to make her suddenly normal.

What had the doctor said to take? It wasn't the same stuff Terry kept giving her, but it was on the list as something she could take for the pain. Remembering the bottle on the counter, Madison limped to the kitchen while trying not to pay attention to the need in her body. She cursed the need that the dragon created. It had given it to her with that dream, for after the choking, then came sex and those awful videos. She despised it with every fiber of her being, and yet, the need was there.

For the first real time since her freedom, the need was there. It discouraged her until she felt herself the worst person on the entire planet. Evil rubbed off onto others, didn't it? That made her just as evil as him. No, there was no him, just the Dragon. She swore to forget him so entirely, she called it by a different name. Even him was too close.

The monster, the evil, the Dragon. It all meant the same to Madison, for they all represented him.

She snatched up the bottle of ibuprofen and dumped two pills into her hand. Disgust had her stomach churning. How could she possibly ever hope to become normal? The very idea was laughable.

Despair tugged at her so hard she wobbled to the floor. She popped the pills into her mouth and forced them down. What had she been thinking? Better to go sit in a trash pile and wait for death, than to keep trying for something unreachable.

"Please, God," Madison prayed from Terry's kitchen floor, "I don't think I can do this. Nothing I do will make me be like everyone else. They don't have any dragons to fight, and I do. I can handle physical pain, but I don't think I can outlast the hurt on the inside. Hoping for something better than what I've got, hurts. I didn't know how much hope could hurt, but it does. Couldn't You make the hope go away?"

For several long minutes Madison waited for God to answer. She half expected a shining light to descend from heaven, along with a glowing angel and a message straight from God. Such a thing never happened to her before, but who knew if it might?

After ten long minutes of nothing, she got to her feet with a discouraged heart. What was the use of even trying, when nothing really ever changed? She'd run, hadn't she? She'd run for as long as her money had lasted. Now what? A big fat nothing.

Depending on how she looked at it, the only good thing about now, was the fact the rope only choked her in her dreams. Even Terry's apartment couldn't shield her from that. Oh, why hadn't God let her die when she had the chance?

Pulling herself into the living room, Madison sank onto the sofa. She stared at the printouts the doctor had given her. It was no use. Too much was wrong that they couldn't fix. The doctor hadn't said that, but why else had she been given all this paper? And the deeply troubling issue the doctor had talked about, didn't do any good either. A mental health professional wasn't going to solve anything, and neither was all this paper.

Madison flung them aside.

What did God want from her? She'd waited for an answer, and got nothing.

She crawled back into her comforter cocoon. Hell could freeze over, a monster earthquake could open up and swallow every living person, and she would not care.

Well, every living person but Terry. She owed him something. Closing her eyes, Madison pictured an earthquake with the hopeless mess of humanity being tossed into the trash but Terry. He alone survived. Hell froze over and Terry stayed safe in Heaven with the angels. Now that she thought about it, Terry wouldn't be happy without his family, so John and Izzy and the three girls popped through the clouds and greeted him. He stood there in a long white robe with a harp and a halo, smiling that silly lopsided grin. Madison's thoughts grew heavy, blurring the edges of consciousness. How could Terry be in Heaven if he survived the earthquake?

The next thing she knew, someone was shaking her shoulder.

"Madison? Hey, come on, wake up."

When she opened her eyes, Terry came into focus. She blinked hard, trying to clear the sleep from her mind. "I thought you went home."

He smiled. "I did, but I came back. I believe you dropped these," he said, placing a small stack of printouts on her blanket.

She scooted upright, eyed him as he sat on the coffee table like he had last night. Without harp or halo, Terry didn't look as blissfully happy as he had in her dream.

"Do you know what time it is?" Terry nodded at the clock in the television cabinet. "Almost noon, and here you lay fast asleep. I let myself in when you didn't answer the door." He held up the house keys, and his eyes glanced about the room as though he knew something was wrong. When they came to rest on the sheets of paper, he frowned thoughtfully.

"Did you read them?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I gave my word."

"That's no reason. Men break their word all the time."

"Not me." Terry dropped the keys into the pocket of his navy blue slacks. "I talked myself out of coming any earlier because I didn't want to intrude. Now I'm beginning to think that might have been a mistake."

"Go home. Please, just go."

"Not until you tell me what's wrong."

She glared at him. How could he sit there in that pale blue polo shirt and ask such an obvious question?

"Everything's wrong. Here, look for yourself." She shoved the papers at him and he accepted them readily.

"Are you sure you want me to see this?"

She shrugged, turned her head but watched him out of the corner of her eye. He looked good. Need stirred inside her but she pushed it away. Even if she could, she would never give in to it willingly.

He let out a small breath. "Early stages of osteoarthritis of the hip. That's what this says-- what most of these papers are about." He flipped to the back, and his brows raised. "Is this what makes it hurt to sit?" He handed her the sheet of paper in question and she hurriedly tucked it under the comforter. She'd forgotten about that.

"Someone really hurt you," Terry said, returning his eyes to the papers in his hand. "I'm just scanning this information, but I'm guessing you suffered an injury that affected your hip. It's why you have osteoarthritis." He looked up, and she nodded "yes." He sighed, looked back at the paper. "Why are you letting me see this?"

"Because it doesn't matter anymore."

"Of course it matters. This is what's hurting you, and it matters a lot."

"It doesn't matter to God."

The papers came down and he looked at her with an expression Madison couldn't name.

"Why do you say that?"

Suddenly quiet, Madison shrugged.

"I take it you've had a difficult morning."

"I guess."

"Bad dreams again?"

She stiffened. "How do you know about my dreams?"

Terry returned his attention to the papers. "You whimper in your sleep, that's how. You made a lot of noises on the couch yesterday-- all of them disturbing-- but the whimpering is what really got to me." He took out his phone, turned it on and began punching things in to it, while constantly referring to the printouts.

"What are you doing?"

"These came from a website. I want the URL."

"Why?"

"Because I want to study this further." He handed her the papers, then put the phone back into his pants pocket. "That other problem... it has nothing to do with your hip?"

"No." Madison squirmed beneath the blanket. Why did he have to see that? Why hadn't she remembered to shred that page into tiny pieces before letting Terry know precisely where it hurt?

"Did the same someone who hurt your hip, also injure--" Terry hesitated. "Did someone hurt you there, as well?"

"Do you have to know everything?" she asked.

"I guess not." He shrugged, but looked as though he needed an answer.

"It's yes, okay? Yes, the same someone hurt me there as well." She turned in the blanket, adjusting herself so she wouldn't have to stare at Terry. "You're very persistent."

"You're very secretive."

"Well, now you know. I suppose you think I asked for it."

"Why would I think that?" His voice grew more serious. He stood, came around the sofa and deliberately moved into her line of view. "Madison? Why would I possibly think that?"

"Because." She felt something hot sting her eyes, and hurried to smudge away the evidence. The words wouldn't come, though she tried very hard to make them.

He leaned forward, laid a hand over hers and gave a gentle pat. "You don't have to explain. I understand."

She jerked her hand away from his. "How could you possibly?"

A deeply pained look crept into Terry's eyes. He looked away, then turned back to her as though it took effort to speak. "I was a counselor at a crisis hotline for a while. I'm afraid I wasn't a very good one, but I tried to help where I could. You aren't the only one to have ever gone through this. It's happened to others."

She dug her thumbnail into the back of her hand until it drew blood, then relaxed in the calm it gave.

He paused. "This may be more about me than you want to know--"

"Then I'd rather you didn't tell me." Madison cut him off before he could finish. "I might not be the only one, but you couldn't possibly know what I've been through."

"I think I can guess."

"No you can't."

His eyes measured her a moment.

"Have trouble sleeping?"

"Yes."

"Do you wake up screaming?"

"Sometimes."

"Does it happen while you're awake?"

"No." She shot him a triumphant smile. "You guessed wrong."

"Those dreams-- do you wake up wanting the abuser to finish what he started?"

The question cut her to the quick. Her eyes fell. She tucked her chin against her shoulder and attempted a careless shrug. "So what if I do? I can't make it stop unless I degrade myself. I'd rather die, before I do that."

"You could take a long walk to get it out of your system," Terry said, turning to look at the still closed blinds. "It's a nice day outside for a walk."

"No thank you."

"Come on, Madison. I saw enough of those printouts to know a little exercise would do your hip some good."

"No it won't."

To her everlasting irritation, he smiled. "How do you know, if you don't try?"

"It won't do any good, Terry. That doctor said my hip will eventually have to be replaced. Exercise won't save it."

"It might not," he said, clapping his hands together, "but if the doc says you walk, then you walk. Get up."

"No."

"Madison, this is for your own good."

"You can't make me."

He grinned. "I'm tempted to try."

When she shrank against the sofa, the grin vanished.

"Please try. There's a whole lot more to life than wishing you were dead."

"I don't wish that." She turned away, and Terry moved so she could not easily avoid him.

He crouched beside her, his face leveling with hers. "There's happiness waiting out there, lurking behind some corner, just waiting for Madison Crawford to come along and find it." He gave the comforter a small tug. "What do you say?"

"Go away, Terry. I want to sleep."

"You've been sleeping all morning. It's time to get up, wash your face, put on some of those new clothes and come outside. Have you had breakfast yet? Knowing you, you haven't eaten a bite all day." He gave her a knowing look. "It's almost lunch, and you have yet to eat breakfast. Am I right?"

"Terry, please go."

"Am I right?"

She groaned. "Yes, you're right."

"Then I'll fix lunch." Terry stood, turned toward the kitchen. "Put on your new clothes and try to enjoy what's left of the day."

"I don't want to enjoy anything."

He smiled. "Psalm one hundred and eighteen, verse twenty-four. Look it up."

"I don't have a Bible."

"What? No Bible? We'll have to fix that. But first you go change out of Agatha's clothes and put on some of your own. I'll have lunch ready in fifteen minutes."

"But, Terry--"

"Scoot." He nodded her toward the stairs. "Smile, Madison. It takes practice, so you'd better start now."

Defeated, Madison threw back the comforter as Terry disappeared into the kitchen. She pushed herself off the sofa with a groan. She wasn't going to smile, and if Terry didn't like it, too bad. How dare he barge in here, all butterflies and rainbows when she had her heart set on rain? The thought caught in her mind as she started up the staircase. This apartment belonged to him. If he wanted to barge, who was she to stop him?

Reaching the top of the stairs, Madison paused. How had he gotten her to talk about her injuries, her dreams, even her need? He had not made her feel the biting heat of shame when he spoke. Why? Terry didn't make any sense. Her injuries were the result of something she had not wanted, or asked for. She told him that. Did he really understand what that meant? She had been violated-- raped-- and he accepted it without making her feel she was to blame. Why didn't he question her word? Why didn't he blame her for making the Dragon do what it did?

Worry tightened Madison's stomach. How had he gotten her to say so much? That former crisis counselor was dangerous.

"Madison." Terry's voice carried down the length of the apartment, up the steps to the top stairs landing where she stood worrying. "I hope you're changing clothes up there. Lunch is almost ready."

She leaned over the banister. "You said fifteen minutes!"

"I was wrong. So sue me."

Huffing out a sigh, she pushed into the bathroom where Terry had left her shopping bags. She had insisted on staying out of the bedroom, and even her things were not to go in there. The bedroom was enemy territory.

She checked the bathroom door, made sure it was locked, then went to pick out some clothes from the bags. It felt good to have clothes that belonged to her, and not someone else. It made her feel as though she had an identity all her own. A gloriously independent sensation.

The ungrateful thing she had said about God not caring, bothered her. She had clothes, actual clothes to put on and live in. Her tummy didn't ache from hunger, and for the first time in a very long while, she hadn't been violated while alone with a man. He had every opportunity to take what he had salvaged, and use it however he wanted. But he had not.

No, God cared and it shamed her to remember how much He did care.

Madison pulled the pink T-shirt over her new jeans, choosing to leave it untucked to hide the fact the trousers were too big. In the mirror over the sink, she didn't look too bad. When she backed up to see her bottom half, the clothes didn't look ridiculous. When she stood on her tiptoes to see all of the reflection, they almost looked normal.

Almost, but not quite. Just like the skinny face that paled each time she caught her own expression in the mirror.

She felt haunted. Seeing herself churned up memories of private horror, so she avoided eye contact with herself whenever possible. Whenever she was aware of herself, aware of the Dragon waiting in the basement. She wished she had the broken mirror, the one she carried with her into Three Mile Bay. Small pieces of her-- just the eyes, the mouth, the hair, didn't stir bad memories like seeing all of her did. But the broken mirror had been left in the bag at the campground, and by now, most likely thrown out like so much trash.

Before she left the safety of the bathroom, she bowed her head and apologized to God. The future still baffled her courage, but at least the present seemed endurable. She could occupy the here and now, she could endure today. She could see herself surviving this day.

Taking the stairs one step at a time, she moved into the living room, then into the small dining area at the back of the apartment.

Terry sat at the table, eating from a plate of sandwiches. He made no comment when she sat down to the second plate on the opposite side.

She quietly prayed, then began nibbling at her food. Her plate had a glass of milk beside it, a small carton of yogurt. Terry just had sandwiches. Unnerved that she had more than he did, she slid the yogurt to him. He frowned, and shoved it back.

"Yogurt is good for you," he said.

"It's good for you too."

"I didn't get that for me."

After considering her plate, she pushed the glass of milk at him. He pushed it back.

"That has calcium."

"Do I need calcium?"

"All women need calcium."

In defeated silence, Madison drank her milk, spooned down the yogurt, then started in on her sandwich.

"I don't know everything you've been through," Terry said, "and I'm not going to pretend I know what's best for you. But what happens to you does matter. Your pain matters to God. I hope you know that."

"Yes, I know. I apologized to Him upstairs."

"Upstairs, upstairs? Or UPSTAIRS?"

"You mean Heaven? No, it was just upstairs."

"That's what I thought." Terry gave his typical lopsided smile. "Because if you're regularly going to Heaven and talking to God, you're more special than I thought."

She sighed deeply. "There's nothing special about me." She played with the remaining bite of her sandwich, wishing she was anyone but herself. Something hot stung her eyes, and she quickly brushed it away. "What's going to happen to me, Terry?"

"I don't know. What do you want to happen?"

With a sniff and a shrug, she pushed her plate away. "Whatever happens, I just want it to be normal."

"You know," he said, inclining his head in a confidential manner, "I hear normal is seriously overrated."

She blinked at him, and his smile slipped.

"That was a joke."

"Oh." She shrank back in the chair, and wondered if anyone had ever had as uncertain a future as hers.

* * * *

It took strength to sit at the table and watch Madison nibble at her food, then to see her push the rest of it away uneaten. It took fortitude to not sink beneath her pain each time he glimpsed it in her voice, her eyes. He hadn't been able to make her smile. Just one little curve of the lips would have given him comfort. But he hadn't been able to make her smile.

The short talk about dreams had scratched the surface of what Terry sensed had been a prolonged period of abuse. Madison was too profoundly different for it not to be the case. The more he remained in her presence, the greater his conviction that she had endured a private hell for quite some time. She looked at the world with large tremulous eyes, eyes unused to seeing the normalcy of life. The bad things she knew, even expected, but the good was a complete mystery to her.

She intrigued Terry. One moment she appeared jaded by sexual experience, the next, a trembling child, unsure of herself and those around her. A strong breeze would knock her over, and a harsh word from him would drive her into despair. For all of her hardened bravado, Terry sensed a tender soul lurking behind those long lashes.

When he stepped outside for the walk, it was the child who reluctantly joined him.

"Keep to the sidewalks in this part of town, and stay away from the main road," Terry said as they left the apartment complex behind. "I don't want to see you hitchhiking. If you want to go somewhere, either walk or call me. Can you drive?" He looked over his shoulder, saw her trudging behind in his old heavy coat. The sleeves had been rolled up around her wrists, like a child bundled against the cold.

"No, I can't drive." She sounded dull, a little discouraged and overwhelmed by her situation.

"Then call me when you can't walk, and I'll drive you. Okay?" He slowed until she caught up. "Okay?"

She gave a half-hearted shrug. "I guess, but it doesn't seem very practical."

"I don't care how it sounds, I don't want you hitchhiking again."

"I've never hitchhiked, all right? I took a bus to Three Mile Bay."

He stopped, turned to look at her in those upturned coat sleeves. "I still don't want you to ever get into a stranger's car. Got it?"

She nodded.

"The bus is all right, but the other thing is out of the question. The very thought of you going with some stranger, scares me." Terry started off again, checking both ways before he crossed the street with Madison in tow. He strangely felt like a parent responsible for a child. "We should have thought to get you a coat. And a Bible, you need a Bible." He paused, pulled out his cell phone to make a list, and she paused behind him. Her face was rosy from the cold breeze that swept through the bay, her nose a matching bright pink. "How old are you?" he asked as they began moving again.

Her nose scrunched against the direct glare of sunlight. "Thirty-four."

"You're kidding. I never would have guessed it."

"How old are you?" she asked in a voice that said, "You asked me, now it's your turn."

"I'm forty-seven."

"Really? That's old."

Terry decided not to comment.

"How come you aren't married like your friend, John?"

Terry darted a glance over his shoulder. "Who says everyone has to be married?"

He must have glared, for her chin tucked to her chest and she didn't look up. "I don't know. People just usually are," she mumbled.

"Did I yell at you?"

"No."

"Then why are you acting like I did?"

A shoulder lifted in an uncertain shrug, and she started lagging further behind.

Before Terry thought to slow down again, he recognized a familiar face. An old friend, Brian Donovan, an architect and close fishing buddy of Terry's, started down the sidewalk in their direction, a tiny terrier trotting before him on a thin leash.

Before Terry knew it, Madison had hidden herself behind Terry's back.

"Hey, Terry," Brian greeted with a broad smile. "Nice day for a walk."

"Hey, it sure is."

The dog strained against the leash, impatient to get on with his business.

"I'm supposed to be walking the dog," Brian laughed, "but the dog is walking me."

"Say 'Hi' to Dave for me."

"I'll do that." Brian gave an easy smile, then he saw Madison. The interest in his face was obvious. He looked like he wanted to ask Terry who the woman was, but the dog kept going down the street and Brian followed.

It figures, Terry mused, rounding the curb for the walk back to the apartment. A pretty face attracts attention.

Madison clung behind Terry's shoulder.

"I hate it when men do that."

"Do what?"

"Look at me like they want something."

"He was just being friendly, Madison."

She went silent, then asked, "Who's Dave?"

"Brian's teenage son. Brian's a widower, so it's just him and Dave now. And of course, Macho."

"Who?"

"The dog. I've known them for several years. In fact, they go to our church."

"Who-- the dog?"

"No, Brian and Dave." Terry cut across a filling station, then stepped back onto the sidewalk. "Would you like to attend church next Sunday? You could come with me and the family."

"Why? So I can meet Brian?"

"No, so you can fellowship with other Christians. There's a good church in this area, and since there is, you should come." He crossed the street, moved between two parked cars, then stepped onto the concrete paving near his building. It ran the distance of the complex, branching off to the different apartments and community laundry.

As they neared his door, Madison tugged at his arm. One look at her pale face, and Terry came to a complete stop.

"What is it? Why are you trembling again?"

She sucked in air as though trying to brace herself against passing out. He reached out to steady her, and she moved away.

"What is it, Madison?"

"Promise you're not taking me to church so I'll meet Brian. Promise you're not trying to marry me off so I won't bother you anymore."

The desperation in the request made Terry wish he had never said anything about Brian being a widower. He saw fear brimming in those gray eyes and realized he had put it there by his careless remark.

"In all honesty, I'm not trying to get rid of you. You're welcome to stay here for as long as you need."

"But I'm costing you money. I heard the receptionist at the medical center say what I cost you."

The thought popped into Terry's mind that she was costing him a whole lot more than a mere hundred dollars for a visit to the doctor. He already guessed they had x-rayed her hip, and who knew what other tests and procedures they had done? He expected additional bills to start coming in any day now.

"I can't pay you back, Terry."

"I know. I don't expect you to."

She stood there in that ridiculous coat, several sizes too large, looking very much lost and all by herself.

"Promise you're not trying to get rid of me? I wouldn't blame you if you were."

"I'm not. I promise."

Madison sniffed, ran the sleeve of his coat over her nose. "I don't have anyone else but you. Even if I was asked, I can't marry to put a roof over my head. I just can't. I'd rather die than have a man touch me like that."

"Calm down, you're not going to die, and no one is going to touch you. I simply thought you should come to church, that's all. As God is my witness, I had no ulterior motive than a simple church service with me and the family. That's it. You don't have to talk to Brian, or to anyone else, if you feel uncomfortable."

Her bottom lip quivered. "I'll be going with you?"

Terry nodded.

"Promise? Promise you won't leave me there?

"Madison, why would I do a thing like that?"

"I don't know why, just promise. Please, promise."

A sigh moved through Terry. "I won't leave you there. I promise."

The palpable relief on Madison's face spoke for her. She tightly hugged herself and continued to tremble.

His emotions already stretched to the limit, Terry felt helplessly weak.

He stepped to the door of his apartment and pulled keys from a pocket of his slacks. "How's your hip doing? Feel any better?"

She leaned forward against the wall, her forehead propped against dry brick and mortar. She gave a limp nod of her head, and when she spoke, emotional fatigue sounded in her voice.

"I don't want to be a burden, Terry. I'll try not to cost you more money."

Terry's heart squeezed until he was forced to look away. He wanted to tell her that what she had survived was likely more harrowing than anything yet to come, that her future was just beginning and to take heart. But Madison didn't need courage. She had enough. What she needed now was a friend.

He sucked in a breath, held it until he could speak without his voice cracking.

"You won't be alone, Madison. God is with you, and so am I."

Her eyes squeezed shut and a tear slid down her cheek.

He wanted to reach out and hug her, but knew it would likely scare Madison senseless. Instead, he bowed his head to her and spoke as softly as he could.

"God didn't expect you to go through this alone. That's why He sent you to Three Mile Bay. So I would find you."

"Do you really believe that?"

Her voice tremored so hard Terry wanted to weep. Knowing his tears were not what she needed, he forced himself to speak.

"I believe I'm supposed to help you. God is counting on me to be your friend, and I'll do my very best to not let Him, or you, down."

"I'm sorry," her words spilled out in a faint whisper.

He leaned in to hear better. "Sorry for what?"

"I was grouchy to you this afternoon. You didn't deserve that."

"You? Grouchy?" Terry feigned surprise, and was rewarded by a slight upturn of her lips. "Don't beat yourself up, Madison. I understand you're going through a tough time." Terry opened the door and waited for her to go inside. He thought of inviting her to dinner at the house, but decided against it.

After getting her settled on the sofa with dinner warming in the microwave, he left the apartment as soon as he could.

Grief welled inside him as he climbed into the jeep. Fearing she might get up and see him from the window, Terry pulled away before he freed the sorrow building in his soul. God, help him. He had to get better at this, for Madison was going to need a lot of help.

* * * *

Propping his feet on the desk, John leaned back in the chair with an open laptop. The Osaka account had closed that morning after a thumbs-up call from their client, and John was flying high. Another fulfilled contract to add to an ever-growing résumé, and another hefty paycheck to keep their business thriving. Thanks to John and Terry's custom software, their client had a solid anti-fraud system to combat against hackers and cyber-crime. Very important for a bank. With online banking fraud on the rise, establishments like the one in Osaka had good reason to worry.

When a bank fails to identify fraud before the transaction of money takes place, many get hurt, including the bank. The innocent man paying his bills online might not understand his computer has a virus to detect the keystrokes of his ID and password, or that the official looking website he just clicked on via an urgent email, wasn't his bank alerting him of an emergency with his account. No emergencies here, just a phishing scheme meant to rob you of your life savings. When Mr. Innocent Man gets robbed, the bank suffers loss of trust. Since the bank can't rely on the watchfulness of its customers, it's up to the bank to be the guard dog.

And now the Nakamura Bank in Osaka had a guard dog with John and Terry's name on it. Woof.

John never considered himself a crime fighter, but in his own way, that's just what he and Terry had become. Sometimes, they were hired as consultants, or called in somewhere to troubleshoot a glitch ladened network with security holes so big he could drive his minivan through without being detected. Kids included.

The custom software they had engineered for Osaka required a great deal of time, and very deep pockets for the amount of work that needed to be done. Money amply rewarded them for their effort, and now that the contract had closed, John was eager for some down time. Their hard-earned reputation was attracting the sharp interest of a substantial client in Singapore, but John knew if he and Terry didn't rest between jobs, they would burn out.

It was high time for some R&R, a little rest and relaxation.

With a tap of the trackpad, John checked his email. He didn't expect much more from Osaka, except the occasional question from an employee maintaining the network. He didn't expect much in his personal email, either. After all, if anyone-- business or personal-- was going to contact him about something vitally important, John expected them to call. They would call, wouldn't they?

Not this time.

Clutching the laptop, John dropped his feet from the desk. "Izumi? Hey, Izumi, get in here!"

After several moments, Izumi walked into the office with a spattered apron tied about her small waist. Three ponytailed girls crowded around her, each licking a spoon of brownie batter. When John had brought the triplets home from preschool that day, Izumi announced they would make brownies to celebrate the men's holiday.

Izumi shook her head in womanly disbelief. "I don't know why you always think I can hear you from the kitchen. You carry on a one sided conversation, then wonder why I don't answer your question. What is it?"

"I wasn't carrying on a conversation. I just wanted you to come."

"Well, I'm here, but you'd better make it quick. I've got two batches of brownies in the oven."

The smudge of chocolate on Izumi's cheek made John get up and plant a kiss on her mouth.

"John, I told you, I'm making brownies."

"Have I told you lately how much"-- John paused, saw Izumi's mouth curve into a playful smile that expected a compliment-- "how much I love brownies?"

The girls giggled and Izumi had no opportunity to pretend insult for John planted another kiss on his wife's lips.

"Guess what I have?" John asked, shielding the laptop screen from Izumi's view. "I'll give you three guesses."

Hands on her hips, Izumi gave him a patient look. "John, I really do have brownies in the oven."

"I know, I can smell them."

"I don't have time for games."

"Just one guess, Little Dove, and I'll tell you my surprise."

Momentarily forgetting the spoon, Ruthie perked up. "It's Christmas again?" she asked, venturing a guess of her own.

"Does this look like December to you?"

"No, but you said to guess, Daddy."

"Give me a realistic guess."

"We're getting a pony?"

"No. No ponies. I said realistic."

"A cat? Cats are realstick."

"That's realistic, and no, no cat. No fur-bearing animals in this house. Mommy has an allergy-- you know that."

"John, I really must get back to the kitchen."

"Just one guess, Izumi. Come on, where's your playful spirit?"

"In the oven, getting ruined with the girls' brownies."

"I thought you said those were for Terry and me?"

"John."

"Okay, okay." He grinned, turned the laptop screen to Izumi. "Guess who's coming back to Three Mile Bay?"

* * * *

After parking his jeep in the garage, Terry headed for the house in an unhurried stride. A check in the rear view mirror had given him the confidence he needed. His eyes weren't too red. Unless someone looked closely, no one would know he spent the last fifteen minutes crying. Weeping made him feel ridiculous, but it also released the pent up emotion building inside him all afternoon. Tears mixed with prayer had done their quieting work, now only the shame of having broken down remained.

At least she had smiled. Before he left, that slight smile had given him comfort. She had decent food, a warm dry place to sleep, and she had smiled.

Terry decided not to let it go to his head. One weak smile in the midst of all that trembling shouldn't seem like a victory. But it was. No matter what she had gone through, that smile proved she still possessed the ability to hope. She was still trying, still hanging on with everything she had.

Instead of going into the house and facing John and Izumi, Terry shifted his way to the picnic table by the beach. He needed a few minutes of quiet. He sat down, pulled out his mobile phone and began punching in the few things he knew about Madison. She wasn't married, and had no children. She'd been sexually abused, most likely by one person-- a man. She had trouble sleeping, and sometimes woke up screaming. She had no one, and no one was looking for her. Not even the man. She hadn't hitchhiked, but arrived on a bus. And, he remembered, she had said Three Mile Bay was as far as her money would take her-- intimating that she had gotten on the bus of her own free will. There were other things Terry was certain he'd missed, but those were the highlights.

Just looking at the list made him weak. He slipped the phone back into his pocket, turned his eyes to the broad expanse of water lapping at the beach. Whoever did this to Madison ought to be hauled into the street and shot. Terry felt no pity for the animal who had reduced her to a trembling shadow. If there was any justice in the world, that pond-scum would know how it felt to be violated, himself.

A soft breeze ruffled Terry's hair, cooled his face and soothed his anger. A verse came to him, the words unclenching his fisted hands. "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." [Galatians 6:7] The words calmed Terry. Nothing got past God. Whoever had done this to Madison, would surely suffer. There was no such thing as evading God's justice, and whatever the man's punishment was, it would come, as surely as God was just.

It did make Terry wonder though. Who was this man? Was he hurting someone else, now that he no longer had Madison to abuse? Why wasn't he looking for her? Madison seemed sure of that fact. Terry thought it over. If he had abused someone over a long period, and that someone was walking around unafraid of retaliation, it had to mean either of two things. One, that the abuser felt the person he had hurt wouldn't say anything, or two, that the abuser was dead. Of course, it might also mean the creep was in prison and couldn't come after her. The possibilities pounded at Terry until he was forced to make it stop. He had to. He couldn't take it.

He had to keep going until God told him to give up. Madison needed someone. She was what mattered.

"Think about her," he breathed into the wind blowing from off the bay. "Just think about her."

"So you've spent the entire afternoon with Madison."

Terry turned to see John standing a few feet from the picnic table, his hands stuffed into the pockets of a dark green coat.

"I was hoping after you dropped by to check on Madison, that maybe you were visiting a fishing buddy and that's why you didn't come back for lunch. I should have known." John sauntered to the bench, dropped down beside Terry. "So. How's she doing?"

"Fine, I guess. I don't really know how to answer that question."

"Okay, how's this one? How are you doing?"

"John, what if Madison's abuser is walking around and hurting someone else?"

John hesitated. "Do you have a name?"

"No," Terry shook his head, "I just know that a man hurt her. I don't have names or places. I'm doing good that she's even talking to me."

"Then you don't have that responsibility, Terry. Not until you have enough information to go to the police with."

In frustration, Terry punched the air. "It makes me want to beat that man within an inch of his life. How can someone do that to another human being? How?"

"I guess," John said, "when you don't care about anyone but yourself, it makes you capable of just about anything, if you let it. Selfishness is like that."

"But how could he hurt Madison? She's such a sweet person, how could anyone do that to someone like her?"

"Is she sweet, Terry?"

Terry looked at John, and John gave a half shrug.

"Hey, Terry, I just met her. I haven't been around her as much as you. If you say she's sweet, I'll take your word for it. I just hope you're being careful."

"I am."

"Okay, just checking. She's sweet and you think she's pretty."

"I never said that."

"You did, Terry. We were watching the triplets fish, and you said you weren't helping Madison because she's pretty."

"Well, I'm not."

"I know. But my point is"-- John pulled his hands out of the pockets and leaned against the table-- "you think Madison is pretty."

"She is... I guess." Terry shrugged. "I try not to notice."

"But you think she's sweet?"

Terry sighed. "You're point is?"

"Don't fall in love with her, Terry. You're an honorable man-- I don't doubt that for a second, but she's--"

"Damaged?" Terry finished.

John nodded. "That's the word I was looking for. I'm not trying to run your life. I just want you to be--"

"I know, I know. Be careful." Terry puffed out a sigh. "Everyone wants me to be careful, but what about Madison?"

John looked out at the bay. "Are you in love with her?"

"No. I don't think I am." Terry considered the rough table top, the loose sand beneath his shoe. "When you're in love, do you know it? Or is it something that happens without you're being aware of it?"

John turned, gave Terry a half smile. "It can definitely sneak up on a guy. Which is why I'm warning you to be so careful."

"I'm not in love." Terry shook his head with an adamant sigh. "I'd know it if I were. Besides, she told me today that she'd rather die then let a man touch her in passion. I feel sorry for her, but nothing more."

For a long while, John didn't say anything. Even through the silence, Terry could hear the wheels turning in his friend's mind. John believed him-- Terry knew he did-- but the silence meant John was busily wondering if Terry really knew his own heart. Terry thought of arguing the point further, but felt too tired to make the effort. In the quiet of the fading evening, Terry thought about something Madison had said. It had struck a deep nerve, and hurt even now.

In thoughtful silence, Terry and John watched the sun slip beneath the horizon. No one spoke of dinner, each man lost in his own thoughts.

Then Terry broke the silence with a sigh. John looked at him, and Terry allowed himself to speak freely.

"Sometimes, I wish I could love someone the way you love Izzy. To know what that feels like for just a few minutes before I die. I'd like to know that feeling, to live it instead of watching everyone around me getting married and having children."

The look in John's face sobered even more. "You've never said that before. Why now?"

"I don't know." Terry pushed out a breath. "Yes, I do know. Madison asked me today why I'm not married like you."

"And what did you say?"

"What could I say? John, why aren't I? What's wrong with me?"

"Hey, hey now." John clasped Terry's shoulder. "There is nothing wrong with you. You're just shy, that's all."

"Yeah, I guess."

"How long have you felt this way?"

"I don't know. For a while I suppose. I'm getting older, and my chances keep getting slimmer."

"Then why don't you talk to Izumi? I'm sure she'd be glad to invite some of her unmarried friends over to the house for dinner. And then there's the singles group at church."

Terry shook his head. "Forget I ever mentioned it. I must be tired. Really, really tired to even talk like this."

John didn't move. "Do you want me to ask Izumi?"

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"No."

"Then I'll ask her."

Terry hesitated. He wanted desperately to turn down the offer, but couldn't. What if this was his last chance? On the other hand, what if he never had a chance to begin with?

John nodded without Terry's answer. "I'll ask her." He got up, started for the house and Terry called him back.

"Do me a favor?"

"Name it."

"Don't tell anyone that Izzy's doing this because I asked. It'd look like I couldn't speak for myself."

"I won't say a word of this conversation to anyone but Izumi."

"Okay." Terry sucked in several deep breaths. "Okay."

"If God wants you to get married," John said, as the moon glided over their heads, "then it'll happen, chronic shyness or not. If that's what you want, then God must have put that desire in you for a reason."

Terry stood up, nodded to his friend. "Thanks for not laughing at me."

"Would I laugh at a time like this?"

"Yes, that's why I'm thanking you."

"Then you're welcome."

The men stepped onto the walk leading to the house.

The sound of waves lapping at the shore underscored John's ironic chuckle. "You know, I came out here to find you so I could spill the beans about some big news I received this afternoon."

"Oh? What is it?" Terry looked to John and saw the white grin spread across John's face.

"AJ is coming home."


"Let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God: yea, let them exceedingly rejoice... [for] God setteth the solitary in families: He bringeth out those which [were] bound with chains..."
~ Psalm 68:3, 6 ~

end of chapter