Reaching Out: Clayton & Daphne
Below is an excerpt from the book “The Storyteller.” This is an extra special preview because it includes Clayton Cunningham, one of my personal favorite characters ever. The story is copyrighted; please do not steal my work, though you may feel free to link to it. You can find other excerpts , information and more on the blog under the book’s section. It can be purchased at your bookstore or online through Amazon.
I love this story. 🙂
During the ride, Cole plays music. The rhythm and beat of the music reverberates throughout my bones, making me nod my head. I hold my hand out the window and let the wind rush over it. It feels like it is flying.
When Cole sings along, I pretend the sound is awful, first covering both my ears with my hands. My smile gives me away, though, because Cole chuckles, reaches out, pulls one of my hands down from my ears, and keeps singing.
It isn’t until we stop for lunch that I start to feel nervous. How many people are we going to meet? Why does he want me to meet this man? I reach out, taking the pencil that I keep with me now and the small notebook. With a shaky hand, I write, “Lot of peeple?”
Cole glances down, then frowns. “Nicely done. People is weird. It sounds like it should be e-e-but it’s actually p-e-o-p-l-e. Hm. Clayton has a big family. He has a son and a daughter who I think just turned twelve or something. Her name is Mally; Landrew is, maybe, five? He’s very close to his parents and a small group of friends. So, I can’t ever be sure who will be at Clayton’s or who will show up.” He pauses, then adds, “But they are all exceptionally wonderful people who have been through a lot in the last couple of years.”
Curiously, I tip my head, listening.
“Clayton’s wife, Abrielle, died two years ago. She wasn’t just Clayton’s wife; she was truly his soulmate. I didn’t think he’d recover, not sure if he has yet or not. But he has a great support system, and he still owns his gallery that’s been part of his family for years. Abrielle was an artist. She mainly did sketches, but she also painted some, especially later. I love the one of the dreamcatcher she gave me.”
As we cross into a quiet neighborhood with lawns and homes that seemed perfectly manicured, I quieten. As circumspectly as possible, I tug some of my hair around my shoulders, using it to hide the bruises on my face.
Using the pencil again, I write, “Home?”
“Yes, Clayton isn’t at the gallery today; he’s going to meet us at his house.”
When the homes progressively get larger and more ornate, the anxiousness grows. Finally, Cole slows and pulls into the circular driveway of a mansion. Larger than the farmhouse, it looks like something out of one of Cole’s books.
Before we ring the bell, the door opens. A young girl of maybe twelve or thirteen stands; she has brown hair and pretty eyes, a spattering of freckles on her face. “Cole!” Mally throws herself forward into Cole’s waiting, open arms. “Hey, Mally! It’s so good to see you!”
It isn’t until Mally looks at Daphne that the girl’s smile dips. She blinks hard, then looks at Cole. He nods imperceptibly, and Mally’s smile is back.
“Hello. My name is Mally. What’s your name?”
I look at Cole, who smiles. “She’s fond of going barefoot, so I call her Cinderella most of the time. She doesn’t speak, so we’re still figuring out how she can tell us her name.”
“I like Cinderella. But my favorite princess is Merida. She’s the bomb. Come on; I think Dad’s in the living room with Landrew.”
Cole put a hand behind my back and winked at me. I didn’t notice a little boy in the room, but the man that stood from the couch when we entered the light-colored living room made my stomach drop. His dark chocolate-colored hair gave him a carefree appearance, but the warmth in his eyes made him seem older than he was. Only a hairs breath shorter than Cole, the two of them resembled each other, both having only one dimple, both having that sense of belonging I don’t have.
But Clayton… I feel as though I know him, or, rather, almost as though he knows me. Like Mally, he blinks when he sees me. I watch as his eyes canvas my face, then slide to my branded, scarred arms, and watch his jaw harden.
“Good God,” he breathes, covering his mouth with a hand, raking it down. He looks at Mally, who nods, sitting now with her hands in her lap in one of the chairs. Slowly, Clayton approaches, holding out his hand to shake Cole’s.
“It’s good to see you, Cole.”
“Yeah, same. Thanks for meeting with us. This beauty is the nameless woman I was telling you about. Remind you of anyone?”
Clayton drew in a shaky breath, nodding. “Yes.” His eyes turn to me, and I know using my hair to shield my face won’t work. Cautiously, I take a tiny step backward, trying to hide behind Cole, my eyes falling to the floor. “My wife had black hair, like yours.” He offers.
I lift my eyes to see Cole, who nods.
“She had the most unusual eyes, piercing, really, a violet color. You could read her every thought by looking at her eyes.” I don’t know why, but I know this man Clayton is my friend. When he waves a hand at the sofa behind us, we sit.
Mally says, “Do you like to draw, too?”
I shake my head. No.
“My sister liked to draw. She wasn’t, like, my real sister. We had different parents. But she raised me. She liked to draw a lot.”
“She did. I met her because she would walk miles to sit outside of my gallery, even in the cold weather, just to look at the few paintings she could see from the window.”
My eyes softened.
Suddenly, the door bursts open, and a beautiful little boy bounds into the room. He’s covered from head to toe in mud. Cole and Clayton start laughing.
“Been having fun, son?” Clayton asks, reaching out to pick the boy up. Landrew chatters away, telling him about the pirate adventures he’s been having in the backyard. When Mally offers to give the boy a bath, Clayton sends them off.
“Ever played cards?” Clayton asks, continuing to watch me. Cole quirks an eyebrow, clearly wondering what Clayton is thinking, but he goes along, encouraging me by promising to teach me how to play.
Clayton shrugs. “Ah, it’s not hard,” he reached out and pulled the drawer of the side table open to retrieve a pack of playing cards. The next hour passes quickly as I learn the basics of cards. Sporadically, I catch Clayton watching me, but it never feels invasive. Instead, there’s a sadness lingering in the air. As we play, he asks, “So, Cole tells me you needed help for your dog, so you walked to the farm?”
I nod, my eyes cast down on my set of cards.
“How did you know about Cole being a doctor?”
I shake my head, shrugging.
“You didn’t know?”
I wave my hand back and forth. Then I pointed to my ear.
“You weren’t sure, but you’d heard of him?”
I smiled, glancing at Cole again, who had laid his hand of cards down and leaned back on the sofa and was watching me with a warmth in his eyes that left me unable to look away. Carefully, I reached my hand up in the air, pretending to pluck something. I then stuck the hand with the imaginary apple behind my back, then plucked another imaginary apple, hiding it, as well. A slow smile dawned on Cole’s face.
“What am I missing? You hid something? You took fruit or something from one of his trees?”
“Yes, she was a real-life Aladdin. Snuck into the backyard one night, stole some apples… and a chicken,” he added, amusement hugging his voice.
I drop my head but can’t stop the answering smile from ruining a contrite expression.
“Did you stop her?” Clayton asked, also clearly amused. “No, of course not. It was a chicken, not a diamond.”
Clayton laughed. “Okay, so did you steal the fruit –“
“Apples first, or bring your dog first?”
I plucked the imaginary apple, widening my eyes, shrugging my shoulders.
“What happened to your dog?”
I reached down and touched my leg, wincing in pain. “His leg was hurt?”
“And his head,” Cole’s voice no longer sounded amused.
I nod, gently scratching a line across my forehead.
“Oh, so he had a hurt leg and a cut on his head? How in the world did that happen?”
I lift my eyes to see Cole’s. Without breaking my gaze, he nods. This is why he brought me here. I don’t know why, but I know it is why I am here.
“She was also hurt that day,” Cole murmurs. I drop my head.
“You were? How?” Clayton asks, leaning forward to put his elbows on his knees and tipping his head to try to see mine as I bow it.
I touch my nose without looking up.
“Your nose?” a moment of silence, and Clayton frowns, adding, “So, wait. Your dog had a hurt leg and a gash on his head. Your nose was injured.”
I lift a shoulder, shifting my eyes to Cole. Gently, he reaches out, takes my hand in his, and squeezes.
Clayton watches the interaction, memories flashing across his hooded eyes. Clayton leaned back against the couch. “So, how did that happen? How did the dog and you both get injured?”
Quietly, I pull my hand from Cole’s so that I can cup my palms together as if I’m cradling something. I pull my hands into my chest and then violently throw them out in front of me. “Thrown? You’re thrown?” I shake my head. “The dog is thrown?” I nod once. Then I make my fingers curl into a fist and punch the air, stopping just short of my nose.
Cole’s eyes slowly close, a curse slipping from his lips. Clayton stops breathing, his eyes staring at me unblinking as if he sees a ghost. “I see,” he murmurs. “Did you tell Cole this when you showed up with the dog?”
I shake my head, frowning.
Clayton moves his gaze to Cole. “Did you demand answers?”
“No, I did not,” Cole said, sighing heavily.
Silence settles like a thick cloud in the room, shame covering me as the men in the room think about what I’ve told them. Finally, Clayton asks, “The bruises on your face, the ones there right now…how did those get there? The scars on your arms? Those?”
When I’m quiet, Clayton holds out an open palm. “Listen, I know you don’t know me. I know you don’t trust me. You probably don’t trust Cole too much right now, either. And I know that inside your heart is wound so tight it’s trembling right now, terrified of everything that could go wrong if you make one move you’re not supposed to make.”
Tears blur my vision, and I use a hand to cover my mouth.
“Are you covering your mouth because you’ve been told to be quiet for, what, ten, eleven, eighteen years, and breaking that rule means hell itself will crash down on you?” Clayton’s eyes finally misted, memories creeping into the lines on her face. “You think evil is stronger than kindness because evil doesn’t play fair, doesn’t play honest, so, if you trust kindness, you’re a fool who might end up paying more than you can afford to lose.”
I wipe tears away, bowing my head.
“Clayton- “Cole’s voice is hesitant, but Clayton holds up a finger, silencing him.
“I know. I promise you–I know. But… The bruises on your face, the branding, and the holes in your arms… how did they get there? Let’s start with the face.”
When I still don’t answer, Clayton shifts. Reaching out, he gently touches my leg. When I raise my eyes, he nods, “Listen to me. Evil might not play fair, but kindness is real, and it changes lives. I have seen it. Mally is living proof. Kindness can win, but you have to trust it. It’s the hardest thing to do, I know, but it’s also the bravest thing you can do. And you have it. You’re so close. Cole is right beside you, he has your hand, and he wouldn’t let anything hurt you. And, in my house, absolutely nothing will ever touch you, I swear it.” Clayton pauses, then arches a brow. “Show him how brave you are. Show yourself.” His voice hardens as he adds, “What happened to your face?”
Tears shimmer in my eyes. Reluctantly, I reach down, pretend to pick up something, then throw it. I repeat the motion again and again. Clayton shifts his weight, shaking his head. “What’s being thrown?”
I look at Cole, asking him for help, but he brushes my cheek with his knuckles, shaking his head.
“You can tell him.”
Sighing, I reach over where I’ve put the notebook and pencil. I carefully write letters, then turn the paper toward Clayton: ROC.
“Rocks are being thrown at you? At your face?”
“You were stoned?”
Clayton nods, covers his mouth with his hand, then stands, walks over to the window. Bracing his hands on either side of the window, he bends his head, looking like a man in agony.
“What about your arms?” Clayton’s voice is firm. There is no refusing him an answer. He turns towards me with tender but firm eyes.
I close my eyes, think back to seeing Daddy smoke. My hand trembles when I pick up the pencil, holding it between my first and middle fingers. Shakily, I bring it to my mouth and pretend to put it between my lips.
“Smoking, got it,” Clayton’s voice is gruff.
I move the pencil down, rubbing it into my arm, near one of the burn marks. I glance at Cole and see him shake his head. “And the circles, these?” he asks, gently touching one of the branding marks. I shrug.
Cole murmurs, “Were you branded?”
When I nod, Cole sighs heavily, “Princess.”
“Cole, why did you bring her to me?” Clayton asks, his voice weary, raw pain etching his features and his tone.
“She said she was going home. I gave her two options: she can stay with me, or I can call the police, which,” Cole adds, meaningfully, “I will do, if I must. But…”
“She panicked.” It is not a question.
Cole nods. “Yes.”
Clayton walks to the bookshelf that stands by the
window. When he returns to the sofa, he holds out a framed photograph for me. Curiously, I reached out for it. In it stands Clayton and a woman who resembles me. She has black hair. She is thin, and she is smiling.
“That was taken a few months before she died. Her name is Abrielle, and she is – was—my wife. Also, my very best friend.” Clayton sighs heavily. “She was mesmerizingly beautiful and kind. She was always gracious. She spent time helping my servants clean the house, even though I didn’t want her to. She slept on the floor in her room so that her little sister would have a mattress to sleep on. She loved to draw, but she kept them hidden in a closet. Abrielle was not stoned. She was not branded. But she was beaten, and she was raped, repeatedly, over, and over and over again, until, by the time I met her, she was terrified of everything, even basic kindness. Even, and maybe especially at first, me.”
He inhaled deeply. When he continued, his voice suddenly seemed a little more unsteady than it had before. “I’d…I’d never met anyone like Abrielle. And I didn’t have the … “he sighed, shaking his head. “She was scared, and sometimes her fear made just enough sense that I let her talk me into doing things I shouldn’t have done. As soon as I realized what was happening to her, I should have done exactly what Cole did for you—I should have told her that either she could leave on her own, with Mally, or I would call the police.” He sighed, dropping his head, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck. “I did…I did end up getting her out, but not in the right way, and not as quickly as I should have. She suffered; she was abused even after she told me. And that’s something I have to live with every day of my life because, maybe, if I had just done things differently, protected her, even when she begged me not to… Abrielle died. Maybe it wasn’t directly because of the abuse, but I will always believe that the trauma caused to her body by abuse contributed to her death. If I had things to do differently, the two things I wish I could make different – I wish I had gotten her out sooner, no matter how hard she protested, and I wish she could have confronted her abuser, that she could have realized how wrong he was, and that it wasn’t her fault.”
Clayton grew quiet for a minute before he added, “If Cole offers you a way out, take it because the next time, you might not make it to Cole’s farm.”