CHAPTER FIVE - THE HISTORY OF SCARS
Nick woke up to the sound of Omar’s cheery voice as the Sikh yanked open the heavy brocade curtains, “Good morning, Nick!”
Nick groaned and pulled the blankets over his head to protect himself from the damnable light. “Morning? What time is it?”
“It is 6 am,” Omar answered briskly as he tied the curtains back then brought a silver breakfast tray over to Nick from the side table. He lifted off the domed lid and the heavenly scent of eggs, bacon and toast wafted over to Nick even beneath the covers.
“Six?” Nick groaned again. “Six in the morning?”
He didn’t see six a.m. unless he had stayed up all night. It was frighteningly bright outside. The sky was a peerless blue. He could actually hear birdsong. He smelled the freshness of grass and blooming flowers. He pulled the blankets over his head again. Omar pulled them down.
“Yes, Bane wishes you to be out in the rose garden bright and early. My selective hearing only goes so far,” Omar said.
“So you admit that you have selective hearing then?” Nick let out a laugh.
“Sometimes it is best to only hear certain things and not others,” Omar answered. “But in some things, I must carry out his instructions to the letter.”
“Like waking me up at the crack of dawn?”
“I have been up since 4:30,” Omar said smartly.
“You’re a morning person. Chirpy and aggravating to all of us who are night owls.”
Omar just laughed in response.
Nick scrubbed his face. His eyes felt filled with sand. He hadn’t slept well, tossing and turning for hours in the comfortable bed. It was a four-poster with dark green sheets and comforter. The bed looked old, but was sturdy and it had one of those ultra-modern foam mattresses. But without something to distract him from the weirdness of the day -- like my phone -- Nick hadn’t been able to shut off his mind and sleep. Instead, he had gone over and over every single thing that had happened that day.
The room was also spacious and lovely. There was a separate sitting area before a real wood burning fireplace. Nick could easily imagine curling up there with a book, but that would imply Bane would give him free time.
I doubt there will be much of that if I’m being woken at six.
“Here are some things to wake you up, Nick.” Omar said, interrupting his thoughts. The Sikh picked up the silver tray and placed it over Nick’s lap. “I thought good, hearty food and coffee would soften the earliness of the hour. Besides, it is a beautiful day. It would be a shame to miss a moment of it.”
Groggily, Nick looked down at the plate of food, but he perked up as he caught the heavenly scent of rich coffee. “This looks and smells amazing. Thank you. Last night’s dinner and now this? Bane thinks this whole experience is a punishment, but it feels more like being in a resort with this delicious food and breakfast in bed.”
Omar flashed him another smile. He was wearing a gray suit this day with a dark red tie. His head scarf was still that brilliant white. “I am glad to be of service.”
Nick quickly took a bite of food and wolfed down half of it. The creaminess of the eggs and the sharp salt of the bacon had Nick’s mouth watering for more. The sweetness of what suspiciously looked like homemade jam on the evenly browned toast was the perfect accompaniment to the eggs and bacon. But even though this, like last night’s meal was incredible, he felt guilty for taking advantage of Omar’s generosity.
“You really don’t have to do this, you know, Omar. Point me the way to the kitchen and I can cook for myself. It’ll probably amount to burnt toast and mac-and-cheese, but --”
“No, I would not hear of it.” Omar shook his head and cut the air with his hands.
Nick’s head drooped. It was as he feared. “You’re trying to make up for the internship, aren’t you?”
“Yes and no. It is truly my pleasure to make you comfortable here and to look upon Moon Shadow as your home.”
“I don’t think Bane wants me to think of this place as home.”
Omar took in a deep breath and laced his fingers behind his lower back. “Bane is a complicated man, but he is a good man.”
“He hides the latter part pretty darn good.” Nick smiled.
Omar’s answering smile was weak and Nick immediately worried that he had stepped over a line. “I know it must seem that way to you. No, not seem. That is not accurate. He has not been that way with you. He has not been his best in some time. I am hoping he will remember what it is to be that person again with you here.”
Nick carefully put his fork down next to the plate. “I highly doubt that I’m the man you’re looking for if you think I’m capable of pulling Bane out of his -- ah, shell, or whatever.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I just want to get through this year and then escape and start my own life. I’ve been holding back for a long time. I’m not here to do anything, but help my family get out of our financial hole,” Nick explained. “I’m not here to help Bane. Maybe he’s a good guy deep down, but … I’m not here for him.”
Nick winced a bit at how cold that sounded. But then he shrugged it off. He liked Omar and wanted to help him. But Bane was another matter altogether. The man was a right asshole and no amount of nicey-nice was going to change that.
Besides there’s no way I could reach the guy’s heart even if I wanted to. His face looks like he smells something bad when he sees me.
“Sometimes Fate has other plans for us than we intend,” Omar said, not seeming offended by Nick’s answer at all.
“I do promise to try my best not to bring out the worst in him, but that’s all I can promise, I think,” Nick said.
Omar bowed. “That is all one could ask of you. Bane wished me to tell you what your tasks are for today,” Omar said as Nick finished off the second half of his food. “He wishes you to begin to remove all the weeds and debris in the rose garden.”
Nick followed Omar’s gesture towards the window. Even from his bed he could see that the rose garden needed a lot of work. If the front of the house had seemed overgrown and wild, the rose garden looked like that show that showed what the world would look like after humans. Red, white, pink, purple, and yellow roses bloomed in profusion everywhere. It was like an ocean of roses.
“Wow. Uhm, okay, looks like it needs a little trimming back or something. Is that what you do with roses?” Nick asked.
“I will assist you as much as I am able after I get done with my own duties,” Omar promised.
“Omar, no way, you have enough to do --”
“Again, I must insist. Besides it is a pleasure to work in the garden. I shall be happy to do it,” Omar said.
Nick knew he would never change Omar’s mind so he just nodded and expressed his thanks. “I’m sure I’ll appreciate the help and guidance.”
“Also, Bane has arranged for his tailor, Mr. Fioretti, to come this afternoon to take your measurements,” Omar said.
“He’s serious about the formal dinners, isn’t he?” Nick had forgotten that part of his conversation. He really wasn’t sure what he thought of that part. Imagining sitting opposite Bane in an uncomfortable suit with candles glowing and Bane glowering wasn’t his idea of a good time.
Maybe it will go so badly after the first time that he’ll give it up. I’m sure he’ll have to go into town, too. Maybe I’ll hardly see him. Right. Sure. Just keep telling myself that.
“He is rather old-world,” Omar said noncommittally. “Also, I understand that your father will be sending some of your things over today. I will be on the lookout for them.”
“Yeah, I packed pretty light. Can’t fit much on the back of a bike.”
“But you did have a bag packed already?” Omar’s head tilted to the side.
Nick nodded. “Yeah, I was planning to stay at my friend Jade’s.”
“Does she live in another city?” Omar’s forehead furrowed.
“Oh, no, she lives in Winter Haven in a studio apartment,” Nick explained. Seeing the perplexed look continuing on Omar’s face, he felt the need to say more. “I went to my father’s office tonight to tell him that I was leaving.”
“Leaving the family. That’s the choice he gave me, you see. Either give up my photography and join the family business of making money and ruining lives or … leaving the family with nothing. I chose door number two,” Nick said.
Omar regarded him quietly. “Surely your father would have relented! A child should be allowed to follow where his talents lead.”
Nick swallowed the last of his coffee and shrugged, covering up the surprising stab of pain at Omar’s honest bewilderment about his father’s actions. “Things don’t work that way in the Fairfax family. You’re either with us or against us. There’s nothing in between.”
Omar’s forehead furrowed even as the perplexed expression remained. “Yet you came here. You are sacrificing a year of your life for them.”
Nick gave him a pained smile. “It’s not exactly as selfless as it seems. I feel guilty about leaving my family. It seems like a selfish thing to do in some ways to follow my own dreams. And if I left them in this bad spot while going off on my own I wouldn’t feel right about it. So here I am. I do this and then I’m free of any guilt and any burden of staying with them.”
“I think you give yourself too little credit for the sacrifice you are making. You are acting honorably for your family even if they -- and forgive me, I may be wrong in this -- would not do the same for you,” Omar said.
“They probably wouldn’t.” Nick laughed. “They definitely wouldn’t. But they’re more … cold blooded, I guess, is the way to put it. They probably think me doing this is weak. Thankfully for them, I don’t think like that.”
“I am glad that you are away from them,” Omar said. His expression was still so disturbed that Nick felt a wash of warmth and liking for the Sikh. Omar was clearly a gentle soul.
“Me, too, and I’m never going back. Do you have kids, Omar? You must have considering your grandson who is eager to take over your job,” Nick steered the conversation away from the discomfort of his own family.
“I have a son and daughter.” Omar immediately warmed to the subject. “My daughter is an engineer and my son is a doctor.”
“Wow! You must be so proud,” Nick said.
“I am exceedingly proud. My grandson is my daughter’s child,” he said. “Bane ensured that my children went to the best schools in the world. He has made the richness of their lives possible. They were able to pursue the dreams that were in their souls. My grandson is like me. He wishes to be here. My granddaughter is a poet. Her facility with words is great. I am excited to see them grow into their gifts”
Nick couldn’t imagine even the taciturn Bane being immune to Omar’s goodness. Who wouldn’t want to help the Sikh? He imagined that his children were just as kind and worthy. Nick couldn’t even envision having a family support him like that. He knew intellectually that this was wrong. He had heard it from friends who had seen his father in action with him. He had seen it in other people’s families over breaks where he stayed with them rather than returning to his own home. But still it all seemed like a fairytale to be so supported and adored.
“I have pictures of them. I will show you later,” Omar said with enthusiasm.
“I’d like that. I’m glad Bane has been good to you and yours.”
“As I said, he is a good man,” Omar answered.
“Is -- I’m not sure how to ask this. Maybe I’m not sure that I should,” Nick said.
“You are wondering about the scars on his face,” Omar said.
Nick nodded. “Yeah, it looks like … well, a handprint burned onto his face. How did that happen?”
Omar stared at him for long, quiet moments. “He does not like it spoken of, but I think … I think I should tell you.”
Nick sat up straighter in the bed. He shouldn’t be interested in Bane’s life, even if it explained the man’s constant bad mood. But maybe if he understood a little, he would be able to make the rest of the year bearable.
“I’m definitely willing to listen,” Nick said.
Omar wandered over to the window. He stared out at the blue sky, unseeing. “It happened in India.”
“On a trip?”
Omar shook his head. “No, Bane lived in India with his family for many years. My family served his back then, too, though -- well, it was a different time, but Bane was always good to us though he was very wild in many other ways.”
How different could it possibly have been? Bane doesn’t look like he’s that much older than me. But the way that Omar is telling the story, it seems like it was an awfully long time ago.
“He went hunting in a restricted area. He wished to find a fabled Siberian tiger who was said to haunt the forests near a sacred river.” Omar tightened his hands and his normally jolly face grew sad. “He was warned repeatedly to stop his quest. But Bane would not listen.”
“Why wouldn’t he listen?” Nick asked though he could easily see Bane not listening to anyone, in fact, he could see Bane continuing on specifically when someone told him not to. The man would just charge ahead no matter what he was told. He was like a bull in a china shop.
“Bane’s father was a hard man. Sort of like your own father. Distant. Like a frozen mountain peak. Bane had to prove something to his father and to himself. But this hunt was the wrong way to do it.” Omar shook himself as if even speaking of Bane’s father was uncomfortable. “He found the tiger he sought. He cornered it at the bottom of a waterfall. He killed it, but the tiger’s body fell into the water and was swept away downstream.”
“So he lost the tiger after all?” Nick found some satisfaction at the thought that Bane was thwarted.
“No, unfortunately, no, he did not.”
“Oh, he --”
“He raced after it. Jumped into the torrent like a madman. He would hear no reason. His men tried to stop him, but it was pointless.” Omar pressed his lips together. “He was beyond reach.”
Bane does have a wildness to him. I could imagine him being unstoppable. Almost like a wild creature.
“He and the tiger’s corpse were washed up on the river’s edge by a village.” Omar’s shoulders drew in. “It was the village of a holy woman. She was older than old then. Her back was curved over on itself. Her eyes were milky white and nearly blind. There were only a few tufts of hair on her head. The years had sucked the vitality from her.”
“It sounds like you were there. Were you?”
Omar shook his head. “It was before -- before my time. But Bane has spoken of it on rare occasions. When he has indulged in too much -- well, when he is feeling low.”
Nick felt strange hearing these intimate things about Bane, which he was pretty sure Bane had only revealed to Omar when drunk. He was reading between the lines here, but he was sure he was right.
What does it matter? Omar thinks I should know. So what if it would make Bane uncomfortable that I’m aware of his past?
Omar continued, “She tottered out to the river’s edge on her own. The other villagers stayed away. Frightened. The children were hidden in the huts. Only a few brave souls peered out of the doorways. But no one else approached. Bane awoke. His arm was wrapped around the great beast’s head. It’s fur was wet and blood still oozed sluggishly from the bullet wound he had inflicted on it. The old woman stopped half a foot away from Bane and the tiger. He tried speaking the local dialect to her, but she would not answer.”
“Was he somehow burned in the river? Toxic chemicals or something?”
But what could just burn a hand-shaped print on his face, but not the rest of him?
Omar turned and looked over at Nick as if he wanted to imprint the words on him. “She was the one to burn him.”
“What?” Nick jolted upright. The tray jerked on his lap and his coffee cup went flying. He caught it just in time.
“She put her hand in the mud on the river bank until it was covered in the white, slick earth. Then she placed that hand on his face. That was what left the mark. He said he didn’t know what was happening until he saw the smoke trailing up before his eyes. Then there was pain. Such pain.”
“How could mud do that?”
“Somethings are not easily explained. Somethings are not meant to be explained,” Omar said.
“Why did she do it? She must have said something. There must have been some explanation to do that to him! It couldn’t just be about a tiger!”
Whatever Nick’s feelings about the man, Bane was beautiful. The burns on his face were like marring a work of art. How could anyone do that? Why would they do it?
Omar shook his head, but Nick felt like he was holding something back. He wanted to press, but he felt like he had learned more than he ever wanted to. Omar had gone very quiet and Nick wondered whether he regretted telling him about Bane.
Anxious to break the uncomfortable silence, he said, “Looks like the delicious food is gone. I best get to work. I won’t bother to shower until after.”
“Ah, yes, let me take the tray and allow you to get dressed. I will then show you to the garden shed where you can find all the tools you need,” Omar said as he lifted the heavy silver tray from Nick’s lap.
As soon as the Sikh disappeared with the tray through his bedroom door, Nick jumped up and went to the wardrobe where his paltry assortment of t-shirts and shorts were. He slipped on some khaki shorts and a light blue t-shirt that was soft from countless washings. He pulled on a pair of socks and his hiking boots. He had a feeling that bare feet wouldn’t be accepted or safe out in the rose garden. He glanced at himself in the mirror that was built into the interior of the wardrobe. He looked awake. He ran his hands through his blond hair that was sticking up in a few places. He considered using a comb and some water to tame it, but then he thought: why? He wasn’t there to impress anyone. He was going to get hot and sweaty from working in the garden anyways so why bother with trying to look good for a few minutes?
Besides, even though Bane claims he has no interest, better to make it clear that I have no interest in him. I’m not going to try myself to look good.
Nick decided not to wait for Omar to get back upstairs to his room, but instead to meet the Sikh downstairs. He was already uncomfortable with how much Omar was doing for him. He didn’t want the Sikh to get in trouble with his boss.
Any more trouble, I should say. Bane is already aggravated with him about his taking my side. I really have to keep him out of this.
Nick strode out of his room and found the carved oak staircase that led down to the first floor. Moon Shadow was large, but it was laid out simply enough that he could easily find his way. He was on the top of the steps when he heard voices raised below. He slowed his pace. He realized that one of the front doors was open and there was a wash of sunlight flooding the foyer. He saw that it was Omar speaking to a man that was dressed in dusty boots, faded jeans and a flannel shirt. The man on the front step was about fifty years old. His face was flushed with anger, but also it looked to be the face of a heavy drinker to Nick.
“You tell him what I’ve said.” The man was sticking a finger in the air at Omar’s chest. His tone was belligerent and spittle flecked his lips. “Every time he comes around here more of our livestock go missing. When we find what’s left of them, they’re in little pieces. They’ve been mauled and eaten by some large animal.”
“We have no large animals here, sir,” Omar’s voice went high in protest.
“It only happens when he’s here. Never when he’s not. We’re sure that he’s brought some animal from foreign parts here!” The man’s gaze raked Omar up and down as if the Sikh, too, were some kind of animal from foreign parts.
Nick’s fingers dug into the soft flesh of his palms and he was shooting down the stairs to Omar. “What’s the problem here?”
Omar half-turned in surprise as Nick appeared at his elbow. “It is all right, Nick. Mr. Brennan was just going away.”
Another pudgy finger was stuck in Omar’s face. “You tell Bane that we’re setting traps and waiting with guns. If his pet comes near our farms again, we’ll be sending it back to him in pieces!”
“Hey! Don’t use that tone with Omar! You have no right --”
Nick was interrupted by Bane’s dark rumbling voice, “Mr. Brennan, you have been told before not to grace my property with your presence. If you do so again … it is you who will be meeting the wrong end of a gun.”
Nick spun around. Bane was standing half in the shadows of the hallway. He had on the same clothes as he had worn the night before. Nick wondered if he had slept at all. He also had a hunting rifle in one hand. Nick wondered if that was the gun that Bane had killed the tiger with.
Mr. Brennan turned so red then that his skin almost looked purple. “You’ve been warned, Bane! Don’t say you haven’t been!”
“Shut the door, Omar,” Bane said simply.
Omar closed the door on Mr. Brennan. Nick could see from the shadow underneath the door that the farmer hesitated for long moments before he finally left the doorstep and lumbered away. Nick’s shoulders slumped in relief.
“Who is that guy? And what wild animal is he talking about?” Nick asked.
“There is no animal. It is all in Mr. Brennan’s drink-addled imagination,” Bane answered coolly. “Aren’t you supposed to working? I am not saving your family just to have you hanging about in my hallway.”
“I was just -- forget it. You’re right. I wasn’t trying to help. I was just being lazy,” Nick sneered, taken aback by Bane’s dark mood being aimed at him.
Bane stared at him. His face though was in shadows so that Nick couldn’t read his expression. The edge of the handprint burn was visible. It looked raw and red this morning. An angry color. Almost a fresh color. Nick felt a sympathetic prickling along his own skin.
“He was trying to help, sir,” Omar said softly.
Bane shook his head. His long hair falling loose around his shoulders. “We do not need his help against the Brennans of the world. I just need his strong back in the garden.”
And with that, Bane strode away, leaving Nick gritting his jaw and thinking it was going to be a very long year.