A Caged Heart Still Beats

My second novel.  Completed.  Available now on Amazon.

Shepley Grant has money, property, and youth.  There are only two things he does not have — his freedom, and her heart.

Shepley is trapped in a cage, hidden deep in the woods of his remote, regency era England, estate.  Shepley’s servant Bryce imprisoned him there four years ago, took his identity, and gave him in return a wan sort of friendship which did little to stem Shepley’s thoughts of revenge.

Then Lena, a childhood friend of both men and the one person Shepley is allowed to write to, asks to visit after losing her home.  Shepley jumps at the chance and, outwitting Bryce, encourages her to come at once.

But is bringing Lena close and giving her sanctuary all he desires, or is her visit just a last, desperate bid to be found — and released?  It is a freedom he both desires and fears, because if he murders Bryce, then he will never win Lena’s heart in this world or meet her in the next.

Upon arrival Lena mistakes Bryce for the man she has written to, and when the two kiss, Shepley feels his heart crack in two.  Will the man he once called a friend really rob him of the last, and best, of his dreams?  Or is Shepley truly is the monster Bryce claims — an unfeeling and ruined man, dangerous and destined to die alone?

But when she discovers the cage in the woods . . .

Chapter 1

Shepley Grant lay dying, and all he could think about was Her.  That amazing goddess of a woman named Helena, whose words had brought daylight into his darkest hours, and who, though he had not met her above once in his life, had altered his entire existence, and even now, was defining his death.  He knew in his heart that love could outpace time and that even if Death chiseled this date upon his tombstone, he and Helena would meet again, be it in some far better place.

*  *  *

The cold wind blew across Lolilox county, over mile after mile of wild, brambled, and useless land, gaining speed until at last it reached the estate of Bramblyn House.  Thirty miles from the nearest town, the manor bided between the quiet river and the wildened mountain hills.  The wind whistled through the ancient house, zipping in and out, through broken timbers and then past the forgotten formal gardens and up, up into the thick woods.  There it crossed a high meadow, and slammed with all force into Shepley Grant, master of Bramblyn House, who lay shivering against the hard ground.

Shepley stared at the hay-stuffed mattress he had fallen from and he tried to will himself to raise, to care about his life or his death, but he was too ill, too exhausted.  Instead, he pulled his thin blanket closer around his feverish body and stared out through the bars of his cage.

Shepley knew that death stalked him, even though its hands were a stranger upon him, for he had spent most of his seventeen years in full health and vigor.  And even now — if he could be brought inside, given warm food, left to a hot bath, he knew he could pull back from this abyss, could conquer the chill that this cave and cage had given him.  But it seemed his death would be no more of his own choosing than his life had been.

Shepley shivered again and pulled the cold blanket tighter around himself.  He couldn’t feel his toes, and he would give anything in this moment to be away from the racking wind which ripped at his lungs with every breath.

Live, dammit, live.

But why?  The question was unavoidable, unassailable.  He did not honestly know if Helena would even care if he were dead; would she shed a single tear if he walked these plains of Earth no more?  But he would miss her, of that he was sure, even if surrounded by the glories of Heaven — or the distractions of Hell.

Shepley stared out at the darkening evening-tide, watching the landscape change as the growing gale bedeviled each bush and tree.

He picked up Lena’s last letter and began to read it anew.

Shepley smiled at the words and — exhausted, exasperated — he climbed back into his bed, pulling the covers close around him.  He held her letter close to his chest, and believed he felt a warmth emanating from it.

I swear I will live to meet you again.

And suddenly, Shepley Grant felt much stronger.

— Six Months later —

“Absolutely not!”

Shepley Grant’s voice rang through the meadow, the last of the dewdrops reverberating with his laughter.  The sun had finally peaked over the treetops and the long, spindly shadows were receding, pulling away the night’s chill with them, racing back into the forest’s depths.  Shepley sat on a smooth wooden bench, every bit the picture of health a young man of nearly eighteen should be, though his clothes were care-worn and quite dirty and his face several days unshaven.  “I will not write Lena suggesting I’ve taken up poetry!”  Shepley laughed again.

Across from him, on an identical bench, sat a near identical man — Bryce Loggins.  They looked like brothers, if not quite the twins they could have passed for all of their youth.  Bryce, for his part had lighter brown hair, and a more open, less aristocratic face than Shepley.  Bryce was clean shaven and his clothes shown with the good grace only money or pure love can bestow.  Shepley shook his head; he knew well Bryce had both.

Bryce too, was laughing.  “You have filled up three books — I think that qualifies you as a poet first class.  And even though you won’t let me read even one poem, I see you up here writing all the time — you just don’t think I’m watching.”

Shepley paused, feeling the warm, summer morning sun touch his features.  “What I write to pass the time up here is none of your concern.  And I’m certainly not going to tell the woman of my dreams that I write ripe prose about sunsets and daydreams.”

Bryce looked thoughtful.  “The woman of your dreams is she?”

Shepley look away, then grinned.  “I only mean — don’t you dream about her all the time too?”

Bryce looked taken aback.  “I don’t know.  I don’t remember my dreams.”

Shepley wiggled a finger.  “Well, all I can do is dream.  What else is there to do up here?”  Shepley reached forward and knocked his fingers against two of the solid, strong metal bars that separated Shepley from Bryce, that separated Shepley from the rest of the world.  “You’re good to bring me her letters though.”

“Well, you’re good to write to her.”

Shepley smiled, his humor returning.  “We’re both good then, at least good for something.  If not poetry.”

Bryce said, “How much longer must your poetry rest unheard?!?”

Shepley said,  “As long as people don’t want to hear about cages, for that is all I seem to write about.  I must lack some imagination, aye?”

Bryce shook his head, his features reddening with anger.  Then he brought himself back under control.  “Well, don’t dwell on that.  Let’s read her latest letter again.”

Shepley stood up and walked through his prison cell, scooping up the folded letter lying on his bed as if it were a baby lark.  He glanced around, staring at the bare stone walls that served as the back and sides of his cage, his prison built into the very recesses of the rock, and then went back to sit on his bench next to the bars of this ancient wolf cage.  Shepley glanced at the lines of her writing, the shape of each letter and each dot familiar to him.  “You know Bryce, sometimes, when I talk to myself, I call you my friend.  Isn’t that rather an extraordinary thing?”

Bryce smiled.  “No, it is a very ordinary thing — to me at least, it would be strange if we were not friends.”

“You are . . . unfathomable.”

Bryce’s grin widened.  “That must be one of those ‘city’ words you picked up in London as a boy.  It is nothing I’ve heard in the country.  I sometimes think you use strange words to make jokes at my expense.”

“Only when I’ve used up all the ones you know for the same effect.”

Bryce just shook his head, but he was still smiling.  “Now, I suggest your next letter start like this:  Dear Lena, Oh flowers are not as sweet as thee, your hair is like eternity—”

Shepley looked over at the other man, straight-faced.  “You drive me mad you know — your obvious poetic talent eclipses my life like a shadow.”

And their laughter again filled the high meadow.

*  *  *

Later that afternoon Shepley sat alone in his cage, looking out at the day.

Shepley had given up on people long ago, far before he was imprisoned in his cage in the woods.  People had always been on the edge of his horizon — hopeful, fleeting, possibly about to transform into angels who would forever change his life for the better.  And yet, one by one they had abandoned him, broken his heart, and taken flight on dagger-tipped wings, laughing as they departed into their private Heavens.

His parents had died so far back as to make them nothing more than vague disappointments, two portraits of strangers with fine clothes and creaseless faces.  They had left him with the title of orphan — a name he had hated.  In town he thought he might drown in the pity.  And then, as a young boy without yet an idea of who he would become, he had came to Bramblyn House.

He also hated them for this, for leaving him in the care of their only relative, whom wolves wouldn’t have wanted to be raised by.

And in this place he had come to meet every other soul he hated upon the world.

His uncle had shaped him, Shepley didn’t deny that.  But what was shaping except molding that which was already innate within a person’s soul?  Perhaps, if some stronger, purer mettle had flowed through his veins, he would not be trapped in this cage today.

Shepley shifted forward on the smooth, wooden bench in the sunshine, leaning his head, as he often did, against the bars of his cell.  The spring life in the woods zipped, and twittered, and hopped just beyond his reach and he smiled.  If nothing else, it was very peaceful here.

His world was not large.  Once, as a small boy, there had been all of London.  Then his world had shrank to the confines of this, his uncle’s great estate, and upon horseback he could still journey miles — seeing no one, wanting nothing — free.  Now he was seventeen and his world for four years (since that horrible night the carriage had overturned with Shepley and his uncle inside) had been only the size of a dining room, perhaps twenty feet deep and forty feet wide.  But it was his and it had one window to the world and every prisoner knows the right view does not set you free but it can, at least, allow your heart to continue beating from within its cage.

Shepley’s window was not the bars that covered the front of the cave in which he lived, nor the meadow beyond it.  Each bar had been placed in carefully carved holes at the top and bottom of the cave edge, and then soldered and chained into place with such a permanence that even a man with near endless time on his hands could never break free.  There had been one door, made of wood and metal and two years ago Shepley had almost broken through that.  Day after day he had whittled the wood away, thinking he grew closer to freedom until he found that, between the boards of wood, there existed bars as solid as all the others.  The cave behind was unbroken stone and so the only way in or out of this cell was through the door, that locked door that Shepley had worried all the wood off of.  The key hung on a chain that dangled from a nail in a tree on the other side of the tiny meadow just beyond the bars — it cruelly reminded Shepley he was never more than sixty feet from freedom.

He had a few things here — the curtain surrounding the levorotary he had dug himself (and managed to seal as to make odor-free), his bench, his bed, and a stack of books to read.  Two years ago he had realized he would most likely die someday in this cage, that no help was coming for him.  He had realized this in a hard, bone-crushing way.  Amid days and weeks of swarming emotions that followed, a great and new desire to read, to learn, had displaced all other thoughts.  He wished he had a bookcase, because he worried the dirt would rot the pages and his small bed could hardly fit himself and all the tomes he liked with him.  But his jailer would not give him much, out of some wild belief that he could turn a wooden bookcase into a weapon or an instrument of escape.

Shepley sighed into the afternoon sun.  He wouldn’t think about that.  Not this day — instead he would think about Her.  Her — the window in which for a moment or an hour at least, a man could escape an old cage meant to trap wolves and instead be free and at her side.

Her, whose words had pulled him away from the very edge of Death, entertained and encouraged him as he had grown strong again, and even given him hope in the face of a bleak and unknown future.

He held her letters in his hands, all of them, twenty-three now.  There were others, but Bryce kept them at the house and that was fine with Shepley — they were before his time, before he had started writing to her.  These twenty-three were everything that had passed from her lips to his ears, all via quills and ink, since he had been brought to this cage four years ago.  What he wanted now was the twenty-fourth letter, expected any day.  But he could ‘expect any day’ for many weeks — and this he knew.  Still, her letters were his breath and sometimes, his whole life.

*  *  *

Bryce walked into the glen, beautiful and smiling as always.  There was something beatific about his take on being master of the house that always caught Shepley off guard, and this surprise often turned to hatred.

He looks rested and well-fed and — there’s no other word for it — beloved.

Shepley centered himself and took a deep breath.  He reminded himself that it was not really Bryce’s fault he, Shepley, had never been beloved, especially not when he had been free master of Bramblyn House.

Bryce was the only person he ever saw, had ever seen in four years, and as such he hated him less and bore him better than he would ever have thought possible.  On very bad days, Shepley still allowed himself to imagine what he would do to Bryce if he ever escaped this cell (it always ended in witty, cutting words — and sometimes murder) but most of the time, the truce was almost a friendship, and Shepley could pretend that someone or something other than Bryce was responsible for his continued imprisonment.  Such were the strange bargains you made with yourself when you had so few choices.

Shepley nodded as Bryce sat down on his own bench on the other side of the bars, not quite within reach.  Shepley glanced about for the tell-tale envelope, but if it was there, Bryce had hidden it.  Bryce never thought there was anything wrong with gently teasing the helpless.

Bryce sighed.  “What an afternoon I’ve had.  The new horse is crazy — we never should have gotten a stallion, at any price.  I’ve fallen off twice already.  And the rebuilding of the second-story railing continues horribly — I knew doing it alone was madness but I had no choice and my plans were good and—”

Shepley laughed.  “Stop, stop, please God stop.  Bore me every other day of the year — but did it come?”

Bryce held a straight face as long as he could.  “Yes!”  He pulled out the unopened envelope from under his jacket and stretched out, handing it to Shepley.  Shepley cherished it.  Bryce looked forward to these letters almost as much as Shepley did but he never opened them beforehand, and for this Shepley was grateful.  Bryce leaned forward in anticipation.  “Well, are you going to open it?”

Shepley wanted to kiss the envelope but didn’t, not with Bryce staring at him.  “Yes, yes.”  He unsealed it carefully, knowing soon each fiber and tear of the envelope would become etched in his memory.  The letter was shorter than some and that saddened him, but it contained the most important information he had ever read.  He spoke it aloud —

Dear Shepley,

Ever since you wrote me when we were twelve to apologize for the accident that transpired during my visit, I have considered you the closest of friends.  In matter of fact, sometimes my only friend.  Later, after your carriage accident I wished I was there to comfort you, and I heard your pain in the way your voice changed in your letters.

(here Bryce and Shepley exchanged a look)

Now I wish that it was you who were here to comfort me.  My mother’s death eight months ago, though long expected, has been a blow received again and again.  Not for reasons of sentiment (for I betrayed to you that those were lacking!) but for matters of finance.  She appears to have used every penny we ever had (and more) in her useless, vainglorious attempt to find a new husband before her passing.  Maybe she partook of such follies for my behalf (I do not know) but I wish she’d left me anything other than debts and angry bill collectors.  All is settled now (by which I imply all of worth has been taken).  I have imposed on our landlord to the edge of her reason and now must leave here within two months time.

My only future is to be a governess — that low and humiliating profession.  But please, with all my heart, may I visit you before throwing my lot into that life?  You are, in all things, my true friend.  And your letters have brought joy where only sorrow should have tread, and enlivened the already brilliant days still more.

I’ll finish this letter as time is short to receive your reply before I must leave this place.  Please ask your uncle — please make him say yes!

Forever yours,

Helena Baker

Shepley looked over at Bryce, his eyes shining.  “We must answer this today — and get someone to ride into town!  Coming here, imagine!”

Bryce’s frown showed he did not share in the other man’s enthusiasm.  “Yes, just imagine.  She can’t come here ever, ever again.”  He leaned back, musing, having completely dismissed the notion.  “Poor, poor Lena — I do not think she will even find work as a governess, unless her face is markedly better than how you left it.”

Shepley stood up.  “That accident, when she was a child — when we were all children — doesn’t matter to anyone but you.”

“Don’t you think it matters that that is why her fortune is so poor — why she’ll never get a husband?”  Bryce’s features grew dark, as they always did when discussing ‘the accident’ from Lena’s one and only, long ago visit.

Shepley said, “That only speaks to men’s taste in wives, which is not my fault.  Nor did I kill her father, nor make her mother crazy.  But if you must lay that guilt on me fine, but what will my punishment be?  What can you do to one already—”  Shepley stopped short of the forbidden topic and only threw a knowing glance Bryce’s way.  The topic of his imprisonment almost always resulted in Bryce’s departure and today Shepley didn’t want him to leave — there were still things to discuss.  “Let’s not fight.  We both want her here.”

“No.  I . . . can’t ever let anyone come here — see you — much less her.”

And why, why is that Bryce?  Because you know it’s wrong that I’m imprisoned here?  That you played judge and jury and cast me into this cage?

Shepley wanted to ask these things but did not.  “No, she can’t see me.  But you could comfort her, she wouldn’t even know I existed.  It would be fine.  She writes to Shepley Grant, and the world thinks your name is Shepley Grant — see?  Fine.  It would give her a little more time to find the right place — maybe you could write a letter of recommendation for her.  She is all alone in this world.”

Bryce said, “Better alone and alive.  If she found you here — if that’s your plan — you know something terrible would happen.  You’d risk her life for . . . a little comfort?  Or for your escape?”

Shepley smiled.  “How lucky I am not to have to suspect people all the time.  That is the one great comfort of sinking low in life.  You build your cage anew with every encounter — I was only imprisoned once.  Of course you control all of our fates and it was you who first wrote to her under my name after her visit.  But it was also you who could not continue to write to her after what you had done to me—”

“I’m leaving.”  Bryce stood up.  “If you’re just going to wallow—”

“No — wait.  After you handed the pen to me, you have not touched it, not dictated what I would say for four years.  If the answer must be no, let it be my no.”

Bryce nodded and sat back down.

Shepley thought about all he and Lena had talked about and remembered a common interest — The Flight of the White Raven.  They had both spent the better part of a year reading and rereading it, and filling many useless pages with superlatives about its virtues.  But Bryce had never read it.  Bryce had little use for books as he enjoyed building and cleaning and restoring the house and grounds in a way that fascinated and bored Shepley by turns.  Bryce had tried The Flight of the White Raven and abandoned it long before the final chapters in which the heroine, Lorena, is told in a letter from the hero that she must not come to him because his heart has turned for another.  But she knows by his wording that this means only his family disapproves and he can’t speak freely.  His heart is still hers.  She sets fire to the village to draw his family away and she and her lover run off together through the flames.  Shepley could not remember how much of the plot they had spoken of in his and Lena’s correspondence, and hence, how much Bryce knew.

Shepley smiled; he had to at least try.

*  *  *

Shepley held the swiftly finished letter out to Bryce, the ink still drying in the bright sunlight.  Bryce look over the words —

Dearest Lena,

My heart goes out to you in this time of trial.  Alas, though I would in the utmost love to see you,

my uncle has expressly (and cruelly, I might add!) forbidden it.  I feel if he met you face-to-face he

would think differently, but at this time he is firm and as I am still under his roof, I must rely upon his

judgment.

Perhaps some time in the future I can visit you; for now I can only remind you of a similarly

disheartening letter received to the heroine of ‘The Flight of the White Raven’ — please, I implore you,

take your every cue from her.  To quote “His words though first a blow, soon turned into a balm upon

her heart.”

Your eternal friend,

Shepley Grant

Bryce looked over the short letter.  “I’m sure we have enough time, if you wish to comfort her more.  She will, after all, soon be a governess and taken from the only house she’s ever known.”

Shepley shook his head, a strand of his almost black hair falling across his face.  He lowed his eyes, and gave a sigh loud enough to ensure Bryce heard it.  “This is the end, don’t you see?  As a governess she will give up writing to us — that is a young girl’s game, the work will bend her back and break her spirits.”

Bryce said, “In a month?”

“No, but the letters will come less, grow short, and be filled with the banalities of raising children and maid’s gentle gossip.  To speak less now, and harsh, is to start the tear — and quicken the break.”  He looked up at Bryce.  “Do you think that wrong of me?”

Bryce stood up, letter in hand.  “No, you are probably right, though I thought she meant more to you than that.  You act like she is a toy that doesn’t please you as she alters and ages.”

“No one pleases me, not long enough, not as long as forever.  And forever is the cage you’ve placed me in here.  I’ve given you the words to break her heart, now please leave.  Or let me out!”

Bryce departed, incensed, without another word.  Shepley waited until he was certain he had gone and then smiled into the late afternoon sunlight of the meadow.  Bryce suspected nothing, and maybe, just maybe his words could bring Lena closer, even within a few short miles of this place.  Shepley had no plan, no greater dream, but knowing she was near would be enough — and the belief that she could come again to Bramblyn House would tide him over many long weeks.

The light from the window illuminated his cell all day.

*  *  *

Bryce walked back the mile to the house, deep in thought, his fingers curled around the letter.  Shepley had reacted differently than he would have assumed.  Bryce had expected a bigger fight, more discourse, less acceptance.  He wondered if it was a trick, but how could it be so?  Shepley had finished the letter quickly and with seemingly no room for debate on the subject of her visit.  Perhaps Shepley did feel he would lose her friendship in time, and it hurt him.  Bryce too felt the loss of her letters would be horrible, but he knew he had no room to complain — he lived in the world he himself had built, every compromise and lack was his own design, and if he was lonely here, who besides the architect was there to blame?

He finally turned out of the forest and into sight of the house.  It was a view he loved more than any other in this world, if only because it was proof of good that had been done and love that he still possessed in his heart.  Surely the nightmares were not right about him.

Bramblyn House was ancient and had been in sad disrepair at the time of Shepley’s uncle’s passing four years ago.  That man had not cared about upkeep, beyond preventing the roof from falling in.  Now Bryce alone had taken on the renovation, no one else cared — or at least, no one else had time weighting so heavily on their hands as he did.

Jim, Bryce’s father, was hitching up the horses before the plow in a well-tended field near the house.  Bryce Logins and his father Jim were alike in many ways — both strong, capable, and handled any heavy lifting, arguments among the staff, and generally made sure everything went as smooth as possible, given the personalities involved.  This had been true both before and after Shepley’s uncle’s death.  Every other member of the house: Shepley, Mary the maid, and an ancient cook and even more ancient gardener — each lived in a sphere and world apart from the strictest interpretations of reality.  Bryce and Jim pinned the others down to the Earth, to each other, and to some fast-fading dream of normalcy.

Jim was known for his smarts and laid-back, good temperament.  He was the same age as Shepley’s uncle had been and as such, had watched his whole life as his master had inflicted upon one human being or another most every indignity man can do to man and perhaps a few new ones.  Jim had bore it well but with guilt, as he had never spoken up for his fellow creatures, no matter their torment.  Now, a few years clear of his old master, Jim wondered whether there was a special place in Hell for such men of inaction as himself.

His son Bryce, seemed nothing so much as a collection of three people who had walked these halls — Jim himself, for the boy was as smart and basically good-natured; Bryce’s long dead mother, for the woman had brought into the bloodline some strange fire which from birth had declared him in his wails a being who would not long stand by and allow the world to roll cruelly over him; and the third part was a wonder, for he looked just like Shepley.  They were the same age, both having been born on clear fall mornings in 1783.  While sharing no bloodlines whatsoever, they had looked all the years of their youth less as brothers than as a mirror image, as ghosts of one another.  But Jim was grateful that the two boys personalities could not be more different.

Bryce walked over to his father, secretly marveling at the older man’s strength and hoping the same strong blood would sustain him throughout his years.  “I have a letter to take to town.  I’ll plow if you’ll go.”

Jim nodded.  “I’ll take it after lunch, when the plowing’s done.”

Bryce said, “I can still help out around here you know.  I feel like an invalid sometimes.”

“If you’re going off to London next year, you don’t need to be explaining why the master of a great estate has ‘farmer’s hands’ to the fine folks.”

“No one cares about my hands.  And when I go to London, I can wear gloves.  It’s all nonsense.  The same way I could so use an extra man for the renovations, just for a week or so.  No one will ever know.”

“Grant, they will.”

“Don’t call me that.”  Ever since Bryce had taken over as master of the house, his father had made every servant call his son some measure of Shepley’s name, as though secret ears could hear them out here in the middle of nowhere, catch them all as traitors in the middle of a secret mutiny.

Jim straightened the rein leathers.  “It’s that or Shepley.  You leave here, traveling, you’ll need to know it as your own.  Now let me get back to plowing.”  The man turned back to his work.

Bryce shook his head.  He said to his father’s back, “None of that’s decided yet.”  He tucked the envelope into his coat.  “I’ll take the letter myself.  Even fancy young masters get tired of their estates sometimes.”

They forget I was the one who choose this; I did this for them.  I wonder if they know it is such a yoke.

He went into the stable to grab his tack, then moved into the paddock to saddle the new, rambunctious stallion.  Maybe together they could work some of the ornery-ness out of their systems.  After saddling up, he climbed on and rode to the front of the house.  Mary, the maid, was the hanging out the wash.  Shepley’s uncle had called her simple in the head.  But Bryce and she had grown up together; Mary only a few years older than he, and as such he knew her quiet, nervous nature condemned her more than any actual deficiencies.  Wit and big ideas did seem to sneak by her sometimes but she more than made up for it in her kindness and good cheer.  She had worked in the house her whole life.

Bryce said, “Run bring me the money pouch, will you please?”

Mary smiled, trotted into the house, and returned with a small purse, which she handed up to him.  “The railing’s lookin’ real good.”

“Thanks.  I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Mary said, “You feelin’ well enough?”

“Yes, I . . .  Lena, that girl Shepley writes to—”

“You mean you write to.”  Mary gave a knowing wink.

Bryce sighed, then smiled.  “Ah, yes.  I forget my own name sometimes.  Anyways, she wants to come for a visit.”

“Odd, bein’ she got so prettied up last time she came out here.  That’s been two or three good years, had’ent it?”

Bryce smiled at her.  “It’s been five.  Because of course it was before the carriage accident . . .”

“Oh!  Right!  Silly me.  When’s she coming?”

Bryce buried the coins in his saddlebag.  “Never.  I can’t risk that.  It’s so close to ‘my’ birthday, you know.  In four months.  After the full inheritance’s mine, well, possibilities will open up.”

Mary smiled.  “For some.”

“No, for everyone.  We’ll have so much money then, we can all leave here — you can do whatever you dream of.”

Mary hung up another piece of wash.  “Well, beggin’ your pardon, but all my dreams are right here.  I like this just fine.  Richard use to talk big dreams, and big dreams are just that — too much flappin’, too little living.”  Richard was the manservant who died the same night as Shepley’s uncle, in the same carriage accident, and even after four years, Mary’s conversations often included the man.  “Besides I know one person whose ‘possibilities’ aren’t opening up, especially if you’re not here to care for him.”

Bryce nodded to her as he mounted up.  “Goodbye.”  He waved good-by and then took off on his horse, galloping away down the seemingly endless black dirt road toward town.

He knew all too well that the unspoken promise between himself and the other servants was that if he ever left this place, pockets full of money and a head for travel, he had to take care of his problem first— Shepley.  But four years of keeping a man in a cage, of knowing if he went free then you and yours would surely be killed (for Shepley had promised that venomously), these four years had not dampened Bryce’s desire to never take a life.  Shepley it seemed, the man and the problem, would not die.

And Shepley deserved death, if only what he’d done to Lena all those years ago when they all were twelve and she’d visited here with her mother, a distant friend of the family.  Her mother had done nothing but sing the already evident praises of her daughter’s beauty and spark.  Lena’s mother planned imaginary weddings to the richest sons of London, dreams that would take her and her daughter out of the danger her husband’s early death had placed them in.

Lena at twelve had woven a permanent spell over Bryce, and he would do almost anything to see her again.  Maybe in a year he could find her, help her somehow.

When she had visited, Shepley had taken up most of her time, and her effect on him was less evident.  As Mary had been older and had many duties, neither boy had hardly had another playmate, much less a girl child and Shepley had claimed her like a new toy, a distraction from his uncle’s cruelty.

As Shepley told it, the ‘accident’ was nothing more than two children playing with hot wires lit from the kitchen fireplace while the adults were out.  Bryce had pieced together from other things said at the time, and later from Lena’s letters, a more true account.  Lena and Shepley had been writing letters and symbols in blocks of wood with the long, flexible wires when Shepley had ask if she trusted him.  She had replied yes.  She had closed her eyes and then he had taken a newly hot wire from the fireplace and lain it across her face, from her right temple across her nose and down her left cheek.  Miraculously, her eyes were spared.  The screaming, and the smell of burning flesh had continued for hours.

Bryce didn’t deny that ‘the accident’ alone was half the reason he had placed Shepley in the wolf cage.

Shepley’s uncle had made light of what had happened and refused to offer any form of retribution for the change in the girl’s, and her mother’s, fate.  Shepley himself, even later, said he didn’t know why he had done it, except that he had thought it interesting to see what would happen.  That sickened Bryce.  Finally, the uncle did give them a small amount of money, not much, but enough to get the mother to stop talking about ‘calling out the guards and the king’ over this matter.  In truth, she had no friends and no protection and much worse could have befallen her here without anyone in the world batting an eye.

That was also the reason a young woman like Lena should never have ask to come here now, which worried Bryce.  Was her lot so poor that she would risk being in the middle of nowhere with people she had met only once, and trust that no harm would come to her?  Still, Bryce wished she could come.

After the cruelty of the visit, it was he alone that had written to her, under Shepley’s name, to apologize.  And from then until the carriage accident two years hence, he had loved their talks about nature, and dreams, and their plans of future adventures.  He had carefully intercepted the mail and keep her to himself until . . .  After he locked Shepley away he could not look into a mirror for a year, and every time he tried to write her he ended up throwing his work into the fireplace.  When he started staying to talk to Shepley, that wild, angry animal of the first few years, he told him about writing to her and how he couldn’t do it again.  And strangely, Shepley had ask to take back his own name in this one correspondence.

In the first few letters, Bryce had watched for tricks, secret codes begging for rescue from without.  But whatever Shepley found in reclaiming his name, if only in letters and only with her, it was not escape.  In time her words brought the two young men together, and Bryce found joy in continuing to hear her voice, even if shame had silenced his own.

As he galloped onward, Bryce took a deep breath.  He had wanted to free Shepley a thousand times, but he had no delusions — that would only lead to the death of one or the other of them.  Shepley’s unending belief that his uncle had been murdered assured that.  Bryce knew that the man had been near dead when pulled from the overturned carriage on the muddy embankment.  And Shepley they had thought would die too.  And yes, after days sitting by the other boy’s bedside, of getting little sleep or food, yes Bryce had told his father that he wished Shepley was dead like his uncle.  And yes, Shepley had awoken in time to hear those very words.

Sometimes Bryce wondered if Shepley’s life and his future had not in some very real way died in that carriage all those years ago and it was only his ghost that haunted the cage now.  Bryce knew if that were true then one day he would have to find the strength to exorcize his presence.  And now was the last summer before Shepley turned eighteen, before all Shepley’s inheritance came due, and that was, and had always been a sort of deadline — one Bryce intended to honor.

He only hoped it did not cost him his immortal soul.

— COMING OUT IN 2013-2014 —

One thought on “A Caged Heart Still Beats

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