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Discordant carnival music and the smell of burnt sugar, popcorn and axle grease drifted through the crisp fall air. In the dusk, the colored lights of the rusty rides shone in broken lines where bulbs were missing. Faded canvas tents housed games of chance, a fortune-teller, a fun house and freaks. Sarah walked the trash-strewn paths between booths and rides and wondered why she had come. She hated carnivals.
"Sarah, you made it!" Grace May called across the loud music and barker's cries. She caught up with Sarah and linked arms with her. "I'm so glad. You spend far too much time alone on the farm. You need to get out more."
Sarah smiled without comment. It was easy to read Grace's silent message between the lines. 'Stop grieving. John was killed over a year and a half ago. It's time to start living again.' But Grace couldn't possibly know what Sarah felt like inside, barren and hard as drought-baked earth longing for rain but more likely to shed water than accept it and grow soft again. John's body had been shipped home from the front just before V.E. day ended the war. She could pinpoint April 29, 1945 as the day her heart froze. The moment she'd seen John in the coffin and realized that his death was real, Sarah had stopped feeling much of anything.
She drew her light blue cardigan more tightly around her. There was a chill in the air tonight at the end of a hot September day.
Grace squeezed her arm. "Look, I know you're going to be mad at me but..."
"Grace, what'd you do?"
"I told Mike to bring a friend along. You know Andrew Harper, who works at the hardware store? He's new in town, single, pushing forty but a realsweet guy and he's looking for someone."
"Well, I'm not." Sarah pulled her arm away from Grace, annoyed at her friend's meddling. "And I don't appreciate your match-making without consulting me first."
"Come on. Don't be upset. It's only for this one evening. If you don't like the guy, you don't have to see him again. Oh look, there they are." Grace grabbed Sarah's arm again and tugged her toward two men standing near the entrance to one of the tents.
Grace's new husband, Mike, was talking to a red-haired guy with a pleasant smile on his freckled face she assumed was Harper. He wore a short-sleeved shirt and a navy blue sweater-vest, and she vaguely remembered seeing him when she had her screen door repaired at McNulty's Hardware. She might even have talked to him, but if she had it hadn't left an impression.
Harper's grip was warm as he shook her hand. "Hi. I'm Andrew Harper. I work at the..."
"McNulty's. I know. I've seen you there. I'm Sarah ... Sarah Cassidy." She pulled her hand away from his and adjusted her sweater around her shoulders again, aware of Grace and Mike exchanging glances off to her left. "So, how do you like living in Fairfield?"
Harper shifted on his feet and a flush crept up from his neck, covering his freckles. "I like it just fine." He cleared his throat and looked off across the fairgrounds.
"Well ... that's nice." Sarah couldn't think of anything to add. She didn't want to make small talk. She wished she was at home reading a book or listening to the radio.
Mike stepped forward interrupting, the awkward moment. "Okay ... how about a ride on the Ferris wheel, ladies?"
"Not for me," Grace replied. "I hate heights and even if I didn't I wouldn't trust that." She gestured to the ancient metal wheel arching slowly against the night sky. The cars swayed jerkily as it came to a stop.
Andrew pointed to the tent beside them. "How about in here?"
Sarah looked at the painting on the side of the canvas; obese, bearded, dwarfed, misshapen, tattooed, hermaphrodite freaks were inside. You could gape at them for only a quarter. She thought that people who were willing to pay to view freaks were more pathetic than the unfortunates themselves, but Grace and Mike agreed with Andrew. Sarah paid her money and followed the others inside.
In the hushed darkness under the canvas, each display was illuminated by a single bare bulb. The dim light cast odd shadows, adding to the gloomy atmosphere of the stifling tent. Heat from earlier in the day was trapped in the airless enclosure. The smell of unwashed bodies and cow dung was rank.
Sarah removed her cardigan and tied it around her hips. Only a few other people besides her group wandered from one attraction to the next. There was a placard set up in front of each 'display' so you could be sure of what you were supposed to be looking at.
Sarah felt like she had stepped back into medieval times as she trailed her friends from one mistake of nature to the next. There was a calf lying on a bed of straw, a fifth leg sticking out of its side. A two-foot-tall dwarf sat on a stool, smoking a cigarette and gazing impassively back at the fair-goers. What next? Bear baiting and a public execution?
She watched as the bearded woman pulled open her robe to reveal a breast then tugged on her facial hair to prove its validity. Sarah quickly dropped her eyes, feeling like a voyeur. She moved on to look at another woman who had some kind of growth on the side of her neck, which on closer examination proved to have stunted facial features--nature's abortive attempt at a twin.
The others lingered, looking at the woman with the tumor, but Sarah moved quickly ahead, anxious to be out of the hot, smelly tent. It felt wrong and intrusive to be gaping at these peoples' anomalies.
The next station appeared to be empty. The wooden chair beneath the yellow glow of the naked bulb was empty. Sarah peered into the shadows behind the spotlighted chair and saw something moving.
Then the dark figure stepped into the circle of light.
Sarah drew in her breath sharply.
He was a walking tapestry of color. Every bit of the almost nude man standing before her was covered in tattoos. Angels, devils, dragons, flames, flowers and skulls were tossed on blue waves. There was no common theme to the tattoos and only the decorative swirls connected them. It gave the impression of flotsam floating in the wake of a shipwreck.
In the center of the man's chest was a red heart, not a Valentine confection but a knobby fist-shaped lump with stubs of aortas sticking out. Wrapped around the heart were links of black chain, binding it tight.
The movements of his muscles as he took his seat caused the images to expand and contract, as if they pulsed with life.
It took Sarah a moment to register how very nearly naked he was. A small loincloth hung from his hips. As he sat, propping one knee up on a rung of the chair, the cloth opened to reveal that his thigh was covered with images right up to his groin.
A flush of heat lanced through her, settling warmly in between her legs. She nervously brushed her hair back from her burning cheeks and tucked it behind her ear. She knew she should move on, but she couldn't stop examining him.
The man stared ahead, gazing across the tent, focusing on something she couldn't see.
Sarah fought the urge to look over her shoulder at whatever he was looking at.
His body was as concealed as if he had been clothed. The designs and colors covered every limb and muscle, distracting the eye from his nudity. Even his face and shaven head were tattooed. More tentacles of the swirling blue design marked his cheeks and framed his eyes making the vivid blue of the irises crackle against the whites.
He turned his head to the side. Images bloomed up the back of his neck and fanned out over his scalp in a fountain of colors. The shreds of pale skin between the tattoos only served as contrast to red, purple, ochre, green and inky black.
Sarah suddenly realized that her friends had already stopped, looked at the tattooed man and gone on ahead while she still stood and stared. Unwillingly, she set her feet moving.
Just then he faced forward again and for a brief moment his eyes caught and held Sarah's.
Her breath stopped and her heart pounded in her chest.
He was seeing her, gazing at her as intently as she had been gazing at him, looking deep inside her.
She felt an emotional nakedness that matched his physical nudity. She couldn't break away from his gaze. Tears stung her eyes and she blinked rapidly to clear them.
Then, abruptly, the man looked away again, staring sightlessly at that invisible mark on the opposite side of the tent.
Sarah moved on, feeling shaken and anxious, wondering what had just happened to her. Ready to go home and bury herself under the covers, she walked quickly past the rest of the exhibits, heading for the door. Before she followed her friends out of the sideshow Sarah took a last glance back at the tattooed man, but a cluster of people blocked her view. She had to leave without seeing him again.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur of carnival lights and music and too much noise. She made inane small talk with Grace, Mike, and Andrew but nothing registered. She felt like she was walking in a dream. Her mind repeatedly returned to the arresting vision of the tattooed man--to his intense eyes even more than the art sprawled across his body.
She wanted to find an excuse to steal away from her friends, pay her quarter and see him one last time. Instead, she bid her friends goodnight, rejected Andrew's offer to see her home and walked over the hill and through the pasture to her house.
Lying in bed, she stared out the window at the starry sky and thought that the images on the skin of the tattooed man were like the constellations, unrelated picture-stories joined together in glittering array.
When she finally slept, Sarah had strange, erotic dreams. There were no stories, only lust-drenched sensations and provocative images. In her dreams she saw the Virgin Mary and a grinning, horned devil coiled in an embrace and when she reached out to touch them she felt hot, satiny-smooth skin beneath her palms.
She awoke gasping for breath, wet between the legs and her nipples hard with arousal. Sweat slicked her hair to her scalp and molded her nightgown to her skin. She sat up, steadied her breath until it was back under control; then shook out her twisted sheet. She lay back down on her side, stared at the wall and tried to sleep, but erotic images of colorful skin continued to tease her imagination. Her skin felt sensitive and itchy, especially where her inner thighs pressed together. Finally she pulled off her nightgown and tossed it on the floor.
When she closed her eyes, the tattooed man was staring back at her.
She caressed her breasts, pulled and rolled her nipples between her fingers. She slipped her right hand down her soft belly, over her pubic mound to between her legs. She touched herself delicately at first, then harder, moving her finger in circles over her clitoris until her tension was released. She came, letting out an almost silent moan, arching up in surrender before relaxing between the sweat-damp sheets.
She stared up at the white ceiling, following the crack that traveled across the south corner of the room with her eyes. She felt better for a moment--more like herself. But when she closed her eyes again, the tattooed man was still looking at her.
After another hour of fruitlessly trying to sleep, Sarah gave up and rose. She put on pants and a shirt, her saddle shoes, a heavy jacket, and went outside. The chill, pre-dawn air drew into her lungs like ice and slapped her wide awake. Stiff, frost-covered grass crunched underfoot as she walked across the pasture and up the hill once more.
From the top Sarah stared down into the empty field beyond. It was trampled, muddy and trash-strewn. Deep ruts led from the field up a dirt track to the road. The carnival was gone, but the memory of the tattooed man lingered.
She sighed. She wouldn't have gone down there anyway. It wasn't as if she would have sought out the tattooed man, stretched out her hand and said, "Hi there. My name's Sarah. Let's talk."
She turned and trudged back to the farm, feeling listless and exhausted.
By the time she reached home, the sun was up. She made coffee and drank a cup while listening to the morning news on the radio, then went out to the barn to milk the cow and feed the horse. She missed her dog, Sheba, plodding along at her side. The old dog had died the previous winter and Sarah hadn't had the heart to replace her. Sheba had been John's childhood pet and Sarah's last link with him. To get a new pup felt like a betrayal. She wasn't ready for it, but the place was lonely without a pet.
Inside the barn she turned on the hose and filled the water troughs for the livestock then put grain in Edison's feedbox. She patted the bay horse's soft, velvet nose.
He chuffed a warm breath from his huge nostrils before dipping his head down to eat.
Sarah forked out the dirty hay from both stalls, working around the animals, but decided to wait to pitch down fresh hay from the loft until she had milked Millie.
She took the milking stool from its hook on the wall, set it by the cow's warm brown flank, grasped her udders and pulled. Sarah drained off only a half pail of milk. Maybe Bill Peters would let her put the cow in with his herd for a while to mate with his bull. Millie needed to calve again in order to start producing more milk.
After covering the milk pail and setting it aside, Sarah climbed up the ladder to the haymow to toss down fresh hay into both the animals' stalls. The sweet smell of hay tickled her nose and the dust had her sneezing. She grabbed the pitchfork and jabbed it into a pile of hay.
Something moved. It was big--much bigger than the occasional rat Sarah turned up when pitching hay. A figure scrambled out from under the hay, shaking off the long yellow grass.
Sarah screamed at the top of her lungs, dropped the pitchfork and scrambled back.
The man staggered to his feet.
She screamed again and took another reflexive step backward. She felt the edge of the loft opening beneath her foot and empty space beyond it. She teetered on the edge for a moment, waving her arms and still screaming.
The man lunged for her, grabbing her arm and pulling her back from the opening. He put a firm hand over her mouth to silence her screams.
She bit his palm and twisted in his grasp.
He jerked his hand away from her mouth with a wordless cry, then let go of her arm and backed up with his hands raised.
Sarah stared wide-eyed. She recognized the blooming colors on his hands and head.
The tattooed man wore black pants and shoes and a dark navy wool coat to which hay tenaciously clung. He stood there in her barn loft, hands up like she was the sheriff in some Western come to arrest him. The strangest part was that he never said a word. He hadn't cursed when she bit him or tried to calm her or explain his presence. He was completely silent.
"What...?" Sarah couldn't manage anymore. Her hand went to her chest, covering her pounding heart.
He stood, frozen in place, waiting for her to release him, gazing at her solemnly like he would wait there all day until she told him to move.
"Why are you here?" she finally said, then added, "You can put your hands down."
He slowly lowered his hands to his sides.
She waited for an answer but he gave none. Maybe he was mute. "Can you speak?"
"Yes." His voice was quiet.
She was relieved. She had been afraid that if he wasn't mute he was so mentally deficient he couldn't understand her.
"What are you doing here?" she repeated.
"You've left the carnival? Why?" Her mind raced and her inner voice whispered, Escaped.
He remained silent, but his deep blue eyes still gazed into hers.
They were the saddest eyes she'd ever seen.
She clenched her hands by her sides. The logical part of her was telling her to dive for the pitchfork or make a break for the ladder, but his demeanor was completely non-threatening.
"Were they ... Did they mistreat you there?" She felt foolish asking. He was an adult male who had probably simply chosen to leave unsatisfactory employment. Why did she have mental images of cages and beatings playing in her head?
His eyes slid away from hers. His jaw tightened, making the blue swirls undulate and then, almost imperceptibly, he inclined his head.
"Oh," she murmured. Her eyes widened as a thought struck. "Will they come back looking for you?"
He shrugged. "Maybe."
She stepped toward him. "We should go to the police."
He shook his head, backing up a step. "No."
"But ... were you kept there against your will?"
He hesitated, then nodded.
"For how long?"
He paused again then answered softly, "Always."
"Always." She repeated, trying to comprehend it. "Always? You were raised there?"
"My God." Sarah had no idea what to say or do next so she said the first thing that popped into her mind, the easy way to make things better. "Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?" She gestured toward the house. "I can make you breakfast."
As she climbed down the ladder, Sarah realized that she had just invited this stranger into her house. But the idea of this quiet man attempting to hurt her seemed impossible. She was struck by the oddness of the whole situation. There was the old cliché about running away to join the circus, but who could imagine a real-life situation where someone would be running from it.
The man climbed silently and gracefully down the ladder from the loft.
As she waited for him at the bottom of the ladder, she noticed how worn the bottoms of his shoes were and how threadbare his pants and patched jacket. He looked like a neglected scarecrow, following her across the yard toward the house.
She glanced at him from the corner of her eye, fascinated by the tattooed licks of flame that followed the line of his jaw.
He glanced over and his eyes met hers.
Sarah blinked and quickly looked away, embarrassed to be caught gawking. She opened the back door to the kitchen, scraping her feet off on the mat in the mud room before going inside. She took off her coat and hung it on the hook before realizing that he hadn't followed her inside.
He stood on the bottom step, waiting.
She reached a hand out as if coaxing a wild animal. "It's all right. Come in."
He brushed at the bits of hay clinging to his coat then looked down at his muddy shoes.
"Go ahead and take off your coat and hang it. And you can leave your shoes in the entry."
Slowly he walked up the steps, unbuttoning and taking off the coat. The long-sleeved, blue cotton shirt he wore underneath was thin with age and ripped at one shoulder seam.
Sarah caught a glimpse of bright colored skin through the gaping fabric before she turned away and ushered him into the kitchen. "Please, sit down." She gestured to the metal kitchen table. A red-flowered oilcloth covered the top, the matching metal chairs upholstered in faded red vinyl.
Sarah had yearned to redecorate the kitchen since she moved into the house on her wedding day four years ago, but money was tight and throwing out sturdy pieces of furniture just because you felt like having something new was not the farmer's way.
"Eggs and bacon?" She pulled a frying pan from the cupboard and set it on the stove. When he didn't answer, she went to the refrigerator and pulled them out.
The silence as she moved around the kitchen was awkward. She wished he would say something, anything. She laid the bacon in the skillet. As it started to sizzle, she turned and rested her back against the counter, arms folded, looking at him. "What's your name?"
He had been staring at the floor, but looked up at her as if startled to be addressed.
Again she was struck by the vivid blue eyes highlighted by his exotic face.
"Tom," he said after a moment.
She nodded. "I'm Sarah." She bit her bottom lip then released it. "Can you tell me a little more about yourself, why you left the carnival, where you're planning on going?"
His eyes shifted away and he didn't reply.
"Do you have any idea where you're going?" she asked gently, guessing the answer.
The bacon sizzled louder and its rich aroma filled the room.
Sarah looked down at the faded linoleum squares beneath her feet and made an impulsive decision. "I have some odd jobs that need doing around here. You could do them in exchange for meals and a bed in the loft."
He looked up frowning, eyes scanning her face as though trying to read it. "Why? Why would you help me?"
Memories of the previous night's dreams and fantasies tumbled through her mind and Sarah slammed them into a back closet in her head. "I ... because ... I don't know. Just because." She shrugged helplessly, not wanting to really examine the why at all. She turned to crack a pair of eggs into the bacon grease.
She turned back to him suddenly, and caught his eyes scanning her body. A flush of heat raced through her.
Instantly he looked away. Underneath the tattooed swirls of blue, she was sure he was blushing.
She turned back to the stove and served up Tom's breakfast. She slid a plate laden with toast, bacon and eggs in front of him and laid out flatware for him.
He grabbed the spoon, hunched over the plate and scooped one of the eggs into his mouth. He snapped it up like a hungry dog then swallowed it down. He jammed bacon and toast rapidly into his mouth as if it might be taken away if he didn't hurry. His jaws bulged as he ate. The flames and swirls flowed with his muscle movements. In less time than it had taken her to crack open one of the eggs, he had the whole meal inside him.
"Do you want more?" she asked. "I can make you another couple eggs."
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and looked up at her with a doubtful frown. "Yeah?"
She smiled. "Of course you can have more. It'll only take a minute."
Twenty minutes later, he polished his plate for the last time. He had eaten a half dozen eggs, four pieces of toast and eight strips of bacon plus two full glasses of orange juice.
Sarah poured a cup of coffee for each of them, then sat down at the table across from him. She asked Tom a few more questions about himself and the carnival but only got monosyllables or silence in answer. She sipped her coffee and tried to think how to draw him out. Perhaps the best thing to put him at ease would be for her to tell him a little about herself.
"This was actually my husband's family farm. It's been in the Cassidy family for three generations, but John and I never got around to making a fourth." She added the words that still stuck in her throat, "He was killed in the war."
She waited for the obligatory "I'm sorry," but he simply watched her with his far-seeing eyes.
"Since John's parents had already passed on, I inherited the farm. I rent the fields to some of the neighbors. My hands are full just taking care of the three acres around the house, the garden and the animals. It's not really a one-person job, taking care of all of this and there are things I'm simply not strong enough to tend to. I would really appreciate having a handyman around for a few days." She knew she was talking too much and too fast, but his penetrating stare and his complete foreignness made her extremely nervous. "Look, I don't know what happened to you, what those people did, but if you want to, we can drive into town and go to the police."
He shifted in his chair as though he might get up. "No." A stench of body odor wafted across to Sarah.
She had vaguely noticed it before when he grabbed her arm to keep her from falling from the loft, but had been too alarmed to register it then. The scent of frying bacon had covered his rank odor until now. She wondered if there was a kind way to offer him a bath.
"All right. No police." She set down her cup. "I need to get started on my daily chores. Do you want me to give you something to do?"
He looked relieved. "Yes."
"Well, I never did get the hay pitched down for the stock's bedding. If you'd care to do that..."
He nodded and stood, picking up his empty plate and cup. "Thank you for the food."
"You're welcome. You can put those in the sink." She watched him move about her kitchen, rinsing dishes and setting them in the sink, with a sense of astonishment that this was actually happening. She felt like she was in a bizarre dream from which she would soon wake. But when he turned and looked at her expectantly, she knew this was no dream. She couldn't imagine such intense eyes if she tried.
Sarah led Tom out to the barn and set him to work pitching hay while she led the horse and cow out to pasture. After that she showed him her neat vegetable patch and explained which leaves were weeds. She left him to work the rows with a hoe and she went into the house to start laundry.
At the door she stopped and watched him for a moment.
Tom seemed totally content in the task--or maybe he was simply used to following orders. He chopped carefully around each plant. The hot sun beat down and after a moment he stopped to remove his shirt and toss it down at the end of a row.
Her stomach jumped as the peacock hues of his skin shone on the rippling muscles of his back and shoulders. She quickly went inside, trying to ignore the arousal that hardened her nipples and tightened her crotch.
Sarah hated laundry day. She supposed she should be grateful that John's parents had installed indoor plumbing and she had both hot and cold running water at her command. The update to the farmhouse hadn't taken place all that many years ago. But even with that convenience, scrubbing the clothes, running them through the press, rinsing, then running them through a second time, was exhausting work. An hour later she emerged from the house onto the front porch with a basket full of sheets and undergarments to hang on the line.
In the garden Tom was crouched down weeding by hand.
She was about to call out to him to come to the house for a break and offer him some lemonade and cookies, when the sound of an engine coming up the dirt road caught her attention. She looked up as a dented, gray pickup truck drove up the driveway, and when she glanced back at the garden, Tom had disappeared.
The truck parked in front of the house.
Sarah set down her laundry basket on the porch.
A man with striking silver-streaked black hair and a full brush of a moustache got out of the truck. He was tall and thin, dressed in a black suit, shiny with age that reminded Sarah of an undertaker. He approached her with a smile that somehow looked more sinister than friendly--maybe because she had a good idea who he was.
"Good day, ma'am." He walked to the bottom of the porch steps and offered Sarah his hand. It was damp and clammy, and she had the urge to wipe her hand on her apron after touching it.
"My name is Art Reed. I own Reed's Entertainments." He jerked a thumb toward the hill indicating the recently departed carnival. "Maybe you stopped by our show."
Sarah crossed her arms over her chest and tried to appear calm and casual. "Yes, I did. Just last night."
He smiled up at her. "I hope you enjoyed it. Anyway, the problem is one of our people has gone missing. I'm checking around the area to see if anyone has seen him."
"Gone missing?" Sarah repeated.
Reed sighed and shook his head, his moustache drooping as his smile disappeared. "Wandered off most likely. He's soft in the head and needs to be looked after, poor lad. We were twenty miles down the road before I noticed he was gone. He's like my own son, and I just want to find him again and get him home safe."
Sarah's forehead creased in concern. "Oh, that's terrible. What does he look like?"
He smiled again, revealing uneven yellow teeth. "You couldn't miss him--the tattooed man, one of our best attractions."
"Yes! Yes, I saw him.... I mean, at the carnival last night." She stretched her acting skills, widening her eyes and bringing a hand to her heart. "Good heavens, is he dangerous?"
"No, not at all. But he's never been on his own. His mother was our fortune-teller and when she died I raised the child. This young man has no idea of how to survive alone, so you can see that it's imperative I get him back to the safety of his home."
"Of course, Mr. Reed, I'll keep my eyes open." She shuddered extravagantly. "And my doors locked just in case he's not as harmless as you think. Have you notified the police?"
"Mrs. Cassidy, in my business we prefer to take care of things on our own. The authorities aren't always friendly to the traveling entertainment industry. So, if you see this man--Tom's his name--I'll be staying at the Fairfield Motel for a night. You can reach me at their phone." He handed her a small piece of paper with a number scrawled on it.
Sarah resisted the urge to shudder as she took it from his bony fingers.
"Tomorrow I must catch up with the carnival. It'll be set up over in Hooperstown." He sighed loudly. "I certainly hope I find him before I have to leave. I hate to think of the poor imbecile wandering the countryside lost."
"I'll certainly let you know if I see him," Sarah said.
He nodded and climbed back into his vehicle, waving as he drove off.
She stood on the porch watching until the dust on the road settled then she walked over to the garden. The swaying leaves of dry corn stalks, plucked of their ears this late in the season, made a whispering sound. She knew Tom was in there somewhere, or maybe lying between the rows of bush beans.
"He's gone. You can come out now."
She couldn't suppress a smile when he popped up like some bizarrely painted forest creature in the middle of her garden. He rose from between the staked bean plants, brushing dirt off his chest and stomach. It mixed with sweat and streaked him in muddy brown that dulled the vibrant colors.
"Why don't you come inside for a while, out of the hot sun. It's time for a break anyway."
He looked at her for a silent moment, and Sarah was suddenly afraid that Reed's story was true, that this man was mentally retarded and should be reunited with his guardian.
"Thank you," he finally said.
She smiled. "No problem."
He continued to examine her face. His eyes roamed over her eyes, her hair and rested on her mouth until she felt warm and uncomfortable. He didn't return her smile.
She wondered if he was even capable of it.
In the kitchen as she offered him a plate of cookies and lemonade, she was again aware of the ripe odor of his body.
"Maybe after you eat you'd like to cool down with a bath?"
He looked up at her, cheeks full of cookie, and nodded.
Sarah sat at the table across from him, sipping her drink. "That man Reed says he's your guardian and that you've never lived outside the carnival."
Tom swallowed and washed the cookies down with a huge gulp of lemonade. "Yes."
Sarah frowned. "Look, if we're going to get anywhere, I need more than yes and no answers from you. Please tell me why this man is after you. What does he want from you?"
There was a pause before Tom spoke, "I'm part of his show. He made me for it."
Sarah had a sudden vision of Frankenstein's monster in that Boris Karloff movie and she shivered. She gestured to Tom's arm. "Did he do all those himself?"
Tom stretched out his forearm across the table and flexed it, making the angel on it shimmy. "Yes. Starting with this." He presented his shoulder to her, pointing to a faded red heart with 'Mom' emblazoned in script across it. "When my mother died."
Sarah stared. "How old were you?"
She swallowed, horrified. "And how old are you now?"
"I don't know."
She couldn't fathom it. How could someone not know his own age? It would mean years drifting by timeless and unmeasured, not counted out by birthday celebrations, Christmases or any of the special events that humans used to create a semblance of order in their lives. "Were you kept a prisoner then?"
He ran his hand up and down the smooth side of the empty lemonade glass. "Not at first. There was nowhere else to go. But later ... when I was older, I wanted to leave so he locked me in my room between shows."
Sarah's voice was low. "Did he beat you?"
"No." He held up his hands, indicating his body and giving a small, ironic smile--the first smile she'd seen on his face. "It would spoil the art."
Sarah swallowed. Her heart clenched. Reed may not have beaten this man, but he had obviously half-starved him, cut him off from human companionship and poked him with needles on a regular basis. There were many ways to torture a person. "When I saw you at the sideshow, you weren't restrained. Why didn't you simply leave during a show? Walk away some night?"
Tom looked at her with his penetrating eyes. "Where would I go? Where else would I fit in?"
"But you did it. Last night you left. What finally gave you the courage?"
"I saw you--just like in my dream."
His words chilled her and sent a lightening bolt of heat through her at the same time. The tenor of his husky voice vibrated up her spine like a trailing finger and she shivered. She drew a deep breath, choosing to ignore his explanation. "Look, it's been a long morning. I'll draw you a bath, find some of my husband's old clothes you can change into, then I need to go out and hang my laundry. You can lie down in the spare bedroom if you want and take a rest."
He nodded. "Thank you."
She led him upstairs and started the bath water running then showed him to John's childhood room. The Cassidys had never changed the room and when John and Sarah moved in to the farmhouse, it had been straight into the master bedroom. They had planned to prepare the room as a nursery, but the need had never arisen.
The dresser was cluttered with baseball trophies and ship models. Pennants and nautical art decorated the walls. The room was an interesting mix of John as a young boy and as a sports-minded teenager. After his death Sarah had intended to empty it out, donate his old toys, models, clothes and shoes to some charity. But every time she walked in here and imagined him sitting at his desk at age twelve, cowlick waving as he carefully painted one of his ships, she couldn't deal with going through all his things.
She got shirts, trousers, underwear and socks from the dresser, eyeing the clothes and then Tom critically. "John wore these before he went into the service and gained weight. They might fit you."
Tom stood in the center of the room turning in a slow circle, studying everything carefully. He walked over to the bookcase and touched the spines of some of the books.
"You can look through those if you want. Maybe you'll find something interesting."
Sarah ushered him out the door and to the bathroom. She gave him the pile of clothes, towels, a washcloth and John's old shaving kit. "I guess that's everything you'll need. If you leave your dirty clothes on the floor, I'll clean them."
Before she finished speaking Tom was already taking off his shirt.
She left quickly, then stood in the hallway listening through the closed door to the rustling clothes and the splash of water as he got into the bath. She pictured him in there, totally nude but not, his skin was always covered by the designs. She wondered whether tattoos covered the private parts of his body and what those private parts looked like. Her imaginings aroused a tingling in her own genitals.
She frowned, shook her head and forced herself away from the door and back outside.
After hanging the sheets on the line, she stood in the bright sun and cool breeze listening to the flapping noise the laundry made. Suddenly the enormity of what she was undertaking hit her. She had a stranger in her house this very moment using her bathroom, wearing her husband's old clothes and sleeping in his childhood bed. He was strange looking, strange acting, and being pursued by a very strange and frightening man.
How long could she hide Tom and look after him? It was an impossible situation. She picked up her empty laundry basket and returned to the house.
She listened up the stairs, heard no noise and assumed he was taking a nap as she had suggested. The rest of the afternoon she worked her way through her list of chores, but she was constantly aware of his presence in her home.
At almost seven o'clock, Sarah pushed a tray of biscuits in the oven and gave the stew bubbling on the stove a last stir. She glanced at the clock. Tom hadn't stirred all afternoon. She didn't know if he was still asleep or if he thought he must wait in the room until she came to get him. Knowing his odd circumstances, it might be the latter. She went upstairs and knocked lightly at the door.
"Yes?" His muffled voice came from inside.
"Can I ... come in?"
She pushed open the door and walked in to find him sitting on the floor surrounded by books.
A child's illustrated fairytale book lay open on his lap. He looked up at her, almost smiling. His hand spread over the colored illustration. "I know this."
She crouched down to look. It was a scene from The Little Mermaid. The mermaid was attempting to walk on her new legs with feet that felt as if they were stepping on broken glass. "Oh, I hate this story. It's so sad. She dies at the end and the prince never knew she was the one who saved his life."
He looked back down at the page, his fingertips caressing it. "My mother told me this story. I didn't know there were pictures."
She sat down beside him. "You didn't have books growing up?"
He shook his head as he closed the book. He began to straighten the haphazard books into stacks.
Sarah helped. "Can you read?"
"Maybe after we have dinner, I can read some of the other stories for you."
"Yes." He looked up at her and this time there was no doubt he was smiling.
Maybe not with his mouth, but definitely with his sparkling eyes.
"Come on. Let's eat." She stood and reached out to take his hand and pull him to his feet. She grasped his hand with the orange and yellow sun flaring across the back and it was as if she had touched her wet finger to an electrical outlet. Her skin buzzed as it slid against his. The moment he was standing, she quickly pulled her hand away.
His maleness and his body heat crowded her. It was too potent. He was too potent.
She backed away.
Tom's smile was gone. He frowned slightly and his fingers curled, closed around where her hand had been.
Sarah cleared her throat, regaining her composure then she led the way downstairs to the meal she had prepared.
He sat down and she dished him up a bowl of beef stew.
This time, when he bent his face almost to his bowl and started to shovel the food into his mouth she said softly, "Tom."
He glanced up.
She smiled. "You can slow down. There's no hurry and there's plenty to eat."
He looked from his half empty bowl to her almost full one then sat up straight, dipping his spoon and taking a careful bite.
Sarah felt bad for saying anything, but if he was embarrassed he didn't show it.
After they had eaten dinner and cleaned up the kitchen, they settled in the living room.
Sarah turned on the radio to listen to the news and President Truman's address but after a few minutes flipped to a station that played local bands and singers hoping to be the next Jo Stafford. She looked across at Tom in the other armchair, the one that used to be John's.
They had only lived in the house as newlyweds for four months before the war began and he joined up. But in that time she had many memories of looking over at him in that chair. Tom looked foreign and completely out-of-place in it, and in John's old clothes.
He stood and walked to the mantle to examine the framed photographs. "Your husband," he said, touching the gilt frame of their wedding photo.
"Yes, that's John. He made it through almost four years of the war then got shot just before the end."
He moved on to another photograph. "These are his parents?"
"Mm-hm. He's the little boy in the picture. That photo on the left is my parents. They live in Chicago." She stood up and joined him pointing to one picture after another. "That's my sister and me when we were thirteen and fifteen. These are my grandparents, my husband's grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins." She watched his face as he examined all of the photos. She ached to reach out and trace the blue swirl that followed his cheekbone. As she watched his profile, she noted how long and full his eyelashes were.
He turned to her and again she wanted to back away from the heat he radiated and those vibrant eyes piercing her. "Family."
He ran his finger along the mantel top in front of them, looking thoughtfully at the pictures.
She wished there was something she could do to earn a real smile from him. "Would you like me to read to you? Something funny, not the mermaid story."
Another of those almost-smiles touched his lips. "Yes."
She chose Tom Sawyer from the bookshelf and skipped to the chapter about whitewashing the fence.
Tom sat on the floor, leaned against the armchair and watched her as she read. Every time she glanced up from the story to check his reaction he was listening avidly, but from beginning to end of the amusing tale he never once laughed or even smiled.
In bed that night, Sarah was extremely aware of Tom's presence in the house. It was crazy of her to allow this strange man to sleep in the bedroom only yards away from her. He might take her invitation to stay in the house as something more.
She had intended to have him sleep out in the loft but thought that Reed might search outbuildings of local farms for him, maybe even in the dead of night while the homeowners slept. It was safer for Tom to be inside with her ... well, not with her but...
As she drifted toward sleep, erotic pictures of naked, tattooed flesh floated through her mind. In the past twenty-four hours she had seen Tom half naked more than any man besides her husband. In her fantasy there was nothing to stop her from reaching out and touching his warm skin.
He welcomed her touch, eyes closing in pleasure as she ran her hands over his shoulders, his hard chest, down to his stomach and below.
Sarah moaned softly in her throat while her hand moved between her legs once more.
But when she finally slept she didn't dream of the tattooed man, instead she had a vivid dream about John and the child they had never had. The three of them were on a picnic in the meadow where the carnival had been. Their golden-haired child was laughing under the hot summer sun.
She woke with a start, her heart aching for the loss of her husband and un-conceived child. She rolled over and wept quietly into her pillow, pain settling over her in a black cloud of sorrow.