A Valentine For Mike
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His hands were quick on the wheel as he spun the tiny car into place between two limousines parked sedately in line with twenty or so others. The light spilled across the neat lawn tipping the shadows of the trees and bushes towards me. The slamming of the door jolted me, reinforcing the feeling I had been trying to stifle. The agency had warned me of difficulties with the position, but jobs are few; I had been desperate. Now, I wondered if I had taken on more than I could manage.
When one answers a blind ad for a tutor, one does not quite expect to be confronted by a rangy sixteen year-old having definite ideas as to how things should be and apparently unlimited freedom to do as he chooses. I climbed out of the Mercedes SL and lifted my flight bag from the space behind the seat. He stood in front of the car, waiting, a sneer curling his thin lips as he looked toward the sprawling mansion. "Father entertains." He loped up the drive at an easy pace though I detected him favoring his right leg slightly.
The front door opened at our approach. "The tutor is here, Sven." The gigantic butler nodded at the boy and spoke to me. "Good evening, sir. I'll take your bag." I handed it over reluctantly, then looked at the formally clad assemblage spilling into the entry hall from the living room. Somewhere in the background, a string quartet played softly. Niki caught my eye and jerked his head towards the rear of the hall, reaching out as he did so to lift two glasses from the tray of a passing waiter and held out one to me as I reached him. He opened the door to a small lift. Once inside, I took a sip, surprised at the vintage champagne being served to such a large gathering. Niki looked at me. "Always the best for the master." Clearly he did not mean me. "Too bad I am not so good."
When the lift stopped, he opened the door into a broad hall on the third floor. "This is mine. You have rooms there." He moved indolently towards the far end of the hall. I followed, wondering. He swung open a door and bowed with the insolence of youth. "Your rooms Professor," then followed me in.
A well-furnished study spread before me, a comfortable fire burned on the hearth. He opened the door into a small bedroom. I was startled to find my bag already in the closet, my clothes hanging from the closet rod and, a moment later, to see my toilet articles arranged within the cabinet of the bath. I walked back into the study and looked at my charge. Except for the sardonic sneer, he was a handsome kid, tall, dark blond, finely featured with gray eyes that never wavered.
"For party, we have no dinner. If you wish something, ring kitchen." He pointed to a phone on the desk. Father will tomorrow see you." With a quick nod, he closed the door and was gone.
I looked over the selection of texts in the bookcase, pulling a few to look over. Sitting at the desk, I revised my teaching schedule upward, now that I knew the age of my student. The champagne had whet my appetite. I slipped a small directory from under the phone and dialed the kitchen, asking for anything convenient. A few minutes later there was a tap at the door. A white-jacketed boy no older than Niki stood there, balancing a heavy tray. "Dinner, sir." He set the tray on my desk as I looked in amazement at the steak, salad, baked potato, split of wine, strawberry shortcake, and pot of coffee.
When I finished, I set the tray on the rack left outside my door and settled back to read. A crash from the hall, followed by a mocking laugh, catapulted me from my chair. The boy who had brought my dinner was rising slowly from the floor amid the smashed china. I raced to him. "What happened?"
"Per is clumsy always." His expression of contempt told me immediately that Niki had tripped the boy.
I looked at Per. "Is this true?"
He glanced at Niki and answered slowly. "It is as he says, sir."
Sympathy overcame caution. "Bull!"
Niki grabbed my arm in a surprising grip. "You say I lie?"
The quick appraisal I had made of him during the short ride from the commuter station was reinforced. Niki was capable of anything that provided gratification to his warped sense of self-esteem. I faced him, careful to conceal my anger.
"If Per can manage the tray when it is filled, I find it unlikely that he could not manage it empty."
Niki's hand fell from my arm; he turned back into his room with a disgusted, "Aaaah."
As I knelt to help Per, he gave me a quick glance. "Sir, please, I will do."
I helped him until the worst fragments were on the tray. "This is not the first time, is it?"
Per shrugged then his shoulders drooped resignedly.
"I thought not. What else does he pull?"
"It is not for me to say, sir." He picked up the tray and opened the door to the lift, but in the moment before the door shut, the bland expression broke into a smile.
I returned to my room deciding to wait until my position was clarified before issuing further challenge, but I knew Niki would require a firm hand.
By eight-thirty the next morning, I was dressed and wondering what I should do when there was a tap at my door. Per stood there. "Breakfast is served, sir. I show you the way."
He stood aside until I passed, then took the lead. In the lift, he whispered, "Thank you," and said nothing more until we entered the breakfast room where a man sat behind the Wall Street Journal. "Mr. Arlan."
The paper lowered and a pair of grey eyes as intense as Niki's impaled me. "Arne Arnesson, Mr. Arlan. Help yourself."
I served my plate from the sideboard and took the chair Per indicated at the left of Mr. Arnesson. He folded the paper and looked at me.
"I trust all is to your satisfaction?" I nodded. "Good. My wife died in the birth of Niki. There have been many nurses and tutors, none satisfactory. His last tutor was an idiot. There is much for him to do. You will see that he does it. He is quick of mind, but stubborn. If you must, beat him. I expect it. Do not let him say he does not understand because we are Danish. He speaks English well. Have you a car?"
"Then you may use the Mercedes. The key will be with those Sven will give to you. Unless we have guests, you have freedom of the house, but for my study. Your time is for the boy. If you need time off, it will be arranged." He stood. "I must go."
I felt under the table for the bell and pressed. Instantly, Sven stood towering in the doorway. "Sir?"
"Does he not eat with his father?"
"It is not permitted. You and he eat after nine. Mr. Arnesson wishes to be alone in the morning."
We'll do this my way, I thought. "Niki is to get nothing this morning. If he complains, tell him to see me. And have Per bring coffee to my study." Sven seemed startled, reluctant to do as I asked, even though his, "Very good, sir," was deferential.
I was barely seated at my desk when the door to my study crashed open. Niki stood glaring at me. "Why do you telling Sven not breakfast to give?" He demanded, anger making his words confused, accent thick.
"Anyone who does not arise until lunch time deserves nothing. You may have a cup of coffee," I pointed to the extra cup on the tray, "then you will put on your sweat-suit and we'll take a run." I kept my voice low, but firm.
He splashed coffee into the cup, swallowed it down, fury flashing from his eyes. As he slammed the cup back into the saucer, his cutting gray eyes came to rest on my face.
"You above such people dare to take servant against me."
I curbed the smile that began in face of such ego and replied sternly. "Were you in his place, how would you feel? That he works is no reflection on his character. Indeed, he will appreciate what he gets far more than you who do nothing but have everything, because he knows the cost."
Niki muttered something under his breath.
"Swearing does not become you. Go get ready." He looked at me in surprise. "Ja, jeg taler Dansk!" I hurried him out of the room, fearful that he would discover how little of the language I really understood."
By the time I had changed and gotten to his door, Niki stood sullenly waiting. We started our jog at a reasonable pace, but before the mile I had set as reasonable for a beginner was completed, he lagged behind, breathing heavily. As we left the lift, I slapped him on the rear. "Shower and get ready for lessons. You have twenty minutes to be in my study." He was too tired to do more than glower at me for a moment.
I was amazed that he came to my door on the minute of the allotted time. I had expected that he would lie down and fall asleep. How long it would be before I achieved open revolt, I could not predict, but I intended to keep the pressure on until I saw constructive change. Despite the lack of discipline exercised by my predecessor, he had not fallen behind in his work. We spent a couple of hours and, after setting work to be accomplished for the next day, we went down for lunch.
By the third morning run, I noticed that Niki was trying hard to match my pace but slowing perceptibly on the return. It was then that he favored his right leg noticeably. When he stumbled going up the steps to the house I grabbed his arm and steadied him.
"What's the matter, Niki?"
"Nothing!" He snarled and tried to pull away, but I put my arm around his waist supporting him until we entered the hall.
He almost fell before he reached the door of his room. Supporting him, I pushed the door open and half carried him to his bed.
"What is it, Niki?"
"Nothing. Now leave me alone," was his sharp response.
"As you wish. I'll expect you in half an hour for your lessons."
I've showered and dressed and am sitting at my desk looking over the lessons I have planned when the phone on my desk buzzes. "Yes?"
"No, Niki, there is no reason for you to miss a day's work simply because you donít wish to do it. Now get in here immediately." I ignore the expletive I hear him mutter and hang up.
Within a few minutes I hear the door open and look up. To my astonishment Niki stands there supported by forearm crutches, a scowl on his face.
"Go ahead, make some crack about a cripple," he snarls as he sees me look down to see no right foot extending from the sweat pants he has put on.
"I wish you had told me so that I would have been more considerate when I demanded you jog with me each morning, but I never dreamed you depended on a prosthetic foot. Please accept my apology, Niki. Now if you will take your seat, we'll get started."
He flows easily over to the other side of the desk and sits down, looking at me. "That's it?" He asks looking surprised.
I look him in the eyes. "Well yes. If I'm missing something, please tell me."
His face clears, though he doesnít smile, when he pushes a sheaf of papers across the desk. "Here's the essay you wanted."
The next morning he drives us to the prosthetics shop and has his socket adjusted, then buys a foot designed for running. Comfortable now, for the next four weeks we arose early, jogged, ate breakfast, and spent the remainder of the morning in lessons. Afternoons, we swam in the heated pool or played tennis, but I was careful to give him time for himself each day. In spite of the constant pressure, the only flare of temper came when I forcibly took the keys to his car. I would hold them until such time as I felt he had earned the right to an evening out. His confinement was confinement for me, yet with each passing day, I felt his animosity lessen.
After a sudden cold snap, it became necessary for me to check on the small cottage I owned near Cranville, some eighty miles away. Knowing that he would take advantage of my absence, I gave Niki his keys with permission for an evening out.
It was near midnight when I drove the Mercedes into the garage. Niki's car was not in its stall, nor was he in his room. When I asked, Sven let me know that late hours were not unusual for Niki. To while away the time, I went down to the library for a book. A slight noise caused me to spin around. Mr. Arnesson stood in the door of his study, motioning for me to enter.
From across the desk, his eyes bored into me. "What are you doing to Niki?"
"Just what I have felt necessary. His work is going well, but he needs to develop self-discipline."
"So. You have forbidden him his car and freedom until tonight."
"What he earns, he may have, nothing more."
Arnesson's scowl eased slightly. "Something bothers Niki. I wish to know. You will find and tell me."
"If Niki tells me and gives me permission."
His eyes fired with anger. "Do not forget who pays your wages."
"Money buys my time and skills, but not a confidence. What you need to know, I will of course tell you, but I will not betray your son."
"Out!" He all but yelled in displeasure.
Back in my room, I started to read, but dozed off to awaken at the slight sound of the lift door closing. I glanced at the clock, a little after two, far too late for one of Niki's age. I walked quietly to his room. He stood in his shorts, clothing lying where he had stepped out of it. "Where have you been?"
"At the club."
I detected the odor of liquor; he swayed slightly. "You're drunk!"
He grinned irresponsibly, but the grin vanished as I shoved him into the shower and turned the cold water on full. Niki gasped and struggled as the shock brought him out of his stupor. I shut the water off and tossed him a towel. "Dry and get your foot and sweats on."
"You're crazy," he mumbled.
I dressed rapidly and returned to his room. He lay nude, wet, on the bed. I toweled him roughly and flung the sweatsuit at him. He put it on slowly, unbelievingly. Only the rapid burning of the alcohol in his system would relieve him.
Despite the light snowfall, we jogged, or rather I pushed him along ahead of me until he dragged from weariness. On our return to the house, I pushed him into a hot shower then went to take my own. I was just getting into bed when there was a quiet tap at my door. Niki stood there without the sneer.
"What is it, Niki?"
"You will not tell father?"
"Tell him what - that you were late getting in?"
He gave me a slight smile and closed the door.
A few weeks later the forecast for the weekend called for sunny and warm weather, a good time to return to my cottage and set things aright. I sought out Mr. Arnesson at breakfast and asked permission to go and to take Niki with me. The Wall Street Journal never wavered, but the grunt in reply to my question seemed affirmative.
Niki drove his SL, but without the wild abandon of that first ride from the station. Whatever I expected, it was not the subdued joy emanating from him at every turn, nor the open delight he expressed over my small cottage. He explored every nook, and once the work was laid out, turned to with such enthusiasm that I was hard pressed to keep up.
Saturday afternoon with the work complete, we took out the sail-boat and fished, catching several fair sized trout. Niki gingerly cleaned them as I instructed. Over dinner he gave me his engaging half smile; at no time was he far from me. As I sat before the fire with my coffee, he curled up on the floor at my feet. Though he did not speak, I noticed him looking at me from time to time.
I was in my lower bunk waiting for him to climb into the upper before I switched out the light. He leaned over the edge. "I can call you Mike?"
I thought for a moment. This was far more than a casual request, for I sensed a final and complete lowering of any barriers between us. "I think you have earned the right, Niki."
"You like me, do you not?"
"Very much. You are a fine young man who has much going for him."
I saw his face contort, tears well up. I jerked up in my bunk hitting my head, but reached out to him. "What's the matter?"
He crushed my hand then dropped down to sit on my bunk. "You are only one who likes. Father has no time, I am not good because mother dies when I am born. He has no respect for a cripple. All servants but Sven I master. I have not friends, Mike; I have loneliness."
"It's a lonely world, Niki. I know how you feel for I have been there, too. I have wanted to be your friend from the beginning, now you are letting me."
"I fear you to be like others, so too long I wait, I think. I have no wish to go home, but I know we must. We can do things together again?"
"I don't do anything exciting for a young man."
"To be with friend is exciting. When you go, is bad because you have keys and I cannot go also."
"I would be happy to have you go out with me, if you wish."
He grinned and climbed back into his bunk. When the light was out, I heard him whisper, "Thank you, Mike."
I lay awake for some time thinking. I was as lonely as he even though I could leave the somber mansion for concerts, lectures, or other events in the nearby city. I knew now with certainty that his boasts of a good time at the club were nothing more than camouflage of an evening spent nursing a drink and watching other kids his age enjoy activities from which he was excluded.
When we returned to the house late Sunday evening, Sven met us at the door. "Mr. Arnesson wishes you both in the study now."
Niki glanced at me questioningly; I could only reply with a shrug.
"Father, it was ..."
"Silence!" He snarled and turned a wrathful face on me. "Where have you been, Arlan?"
"We went to my cottage on Lake Orion."
"Why was not my permission sought?"
"But you told Mike we could go." Niki burst in.
"I did no such thing. I wished you here."
"Sir, I don't wish to contradict, but you agreed when I asked you Friday morning before we left." I stammered, confused.
"I did not! I heard nothing about a weekend trip. You presume too much with Niki." He picked up a cheque from his desk and extended it to me. "The addition is in lieu of notice. You will be out of here tomorrow morning!"
"Father, no!" Niki cried.
"And you," he snapped at Niki, "will enter St. Simon school on Wednesday."
"I will not go!"
Arnesson's hand left its reddening imprint across Niki's cheek. "So, you teach disrespect," he snarled at me; then snapped at Niki, "You will do as you are told. Get out, both of you."
Sven pushed into the lift with us and rode up. He locked the door behind Niki and stood watching as I went to my own rooms. Knowing it was useless, I packed and tried to sleep. Niki's door was still locked the next morning. I pushed a scrap of paper with my address under his door and carried my bag down. As the limousine eased down the drive, I turned in my seat to look back at the elegant but loveless mansion, unhappy only at being forced to abandon Niki to a worse fate. St. Simon's school was little more than a private reform school.
Two weeks at the cottage restored my flagging spirits, but the plight of Niki remained foremost in my mind. I had hoped to hear from him, but I knew that Sven may have found the slip of paper containing my address before Niki.
I set my coffee mug on the steps and whistled up my Siberian pup to walk with me up the hill to the postbox. I took the paper and a plain white envelope with its smeared postmark back to the cottage and paused to pour more coffee. Returning to the steps, I ripped open the envelope; a Valentine fell into my hand. Snoopy held out a heart to Charlie Brown, saying, 'Not all of us think you're a loser.' Mike was scrawled across Charlie's body and Niki across Snoopy's. At the bottom of the card was written in the familiar script, 'I am missing you, my friend.' Below he had added, 'Det vil snart vaere for sent.' (Soon I be lonely no longer.) My Niki, cryptic as always.
I unfolded the paper to see the dateline: 14 February 19.., when a small item caught my eye. A student at St. Simon's School hanged himself early this morning. His body was discovered by his roommate. Identification is being withheld, however it is believed he was one of their foreign students. There is no apparent motive for the suicide.
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