Cynnie was in the middle of a good book on the couch of her living room when it happened. It was a romance novel. Something tragic had just happened to split up the couple. She knew she was reaching the climax. Before she could find out what was to happen, the book was snatched from her hands.
She looked up to see John standing there with the book in his hand, and boy, did he look angry. His jaw was tight and his eyes narrowed. Something was wrong.
Cynnie frowned up at him. “I was reading that.”
John ignored her and tossed the book onto the coffee table behind him. Then he crossed his arms and glowered at her. “You knew, didn’t you?” he said through clenched teeth.
Uneasiness passed through Cynnie. She shifted uncomfortable. She knew what he was talking about. Nothing else would have made him this upset. Would playing dumb work? Probably not. “What are you talking about?” she asked innocently. It was worth a shot.
John rolled his eyes. “I did a little research on Darko. Did you know he’s a registered sex offender?”
“Yes,” Cynnie said slowly.
John’s eyes narrowed into slits. “How long?”
Cynnie tried to think back. “Since the beginning of August.”
John’s eyes widened. “That’s over two months! Why do you still hang around this guy? Are you looking for trouble?”
Cynnie’s fear vanished to be replaced with annoyance. “It was nine years ago. He served his time,” she retorted.
John scoffed. “That means nothing. The state still thinks he’s dangerous. Once a sex offender, always a sex offender.”
Cynnie leapt up from the couch. “That’s not true!” She glared at him. He had no idea what he was talking about.
“Yes it is!” he shot back. “What did he do anyway? Molest a child?”
Cynnie rolled her eyes, crossing her own arms now. “No.” She hesitated. “He went too far with a girl before she was ready.”
John’s eyes narrowed again. “So he’s a rapist? That makes it much better,” he said sarcastically. “How do you know he’s not going to rape you?”
“Because he would never do that!” she exclaimed. “He learned from his mistake.”
“Of course he would say that. How can you trust him?”
“I trust him because he’s never given me a reason not to.”
John shook his head, disapproval evident on his face. “You’re so naïve. You’re not able to judge.”
“Judging too late is better than judging wrong.”
“Judging too late could get you hurt. It’s better to take precautions. I forbid you to see him again.”
Cynnie glared at him. “You have no power over me!”
John let out a bitter laugh. “You think Mom and Dad will see it any differently? I’m telling them as soon as they get home.” He paused. “In fact, I think I’ll tell the whole town.”
Cynnie’s mouth fell open in horror. That was exactly what Darko had been afraid of happening. She had to stop this! “No!” she cried. “He’s already been forced to leave every city he’s moved to. Don’t turn Green Bay against him too.”
John’s eyes tightened. “They have a right to know. He does not deserve to have a steady home.”
“You don’t even know him!”
“I don’t have to. I know what he did.”
Cynnie clenched her teeth together. No, you don’t. You have no idea. Darko had been right. People judged and condemned without even knowing the circumstances. How was that just? “Please,” she begged. Her eyes were filled with sorrow. “Just leave it alone.”
John lifted his chin stubbornly. “No. Now, I’m going to go find him and give him a piece of my mind. You better be here when I get back.”
Cynnie wanted to stop him. She wanted to drag him back and lock him in his room, but she knew it would do no good. Once John was set on something, he would follow through with it. Once he was gone, she fell to her knees in despair and wept. She felt crushed and broken. She was sure this was the beginning of a disaster.
Darko pulled his green sweatshirt more tightly around him as he walked outside his apartment. The wind was howling. It was bringing cold air from Lake Michigan. He should have known better than to move to a city near a Great Lake. Had he not learned in Michigan? How these Northerners survived, he had no idea.
He missed the South and the warmth it brought. He missed the culture and history. He missed the people. But that was all gone now. His heritage had been torn from him. He belonged to no region, to no state. He had always believed strongly in state loyalty. Where was his loyalty now that no one wanted it?
He stopped when he noticed a familiar-looking man step out of a car. As the man came closer, he could see that it was John. Dread filled him. There could be no good reason for Cynnie’s brother to be there at his apartment.
“You!” John exclaimed when he saw him, anger lacing his voice. He walked quickly to get closer to him. His face was contorted into a glare. “How dare you take advantage of my sister!” He pointed a finger at him accusingly.
Darko resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He had done no such thing. “What are you talking about?” He stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and gave him an annoyed look. He did not have time for this.
John scowled. “You hid the truth from her and now you’re trying to trick her. Rapist!”
Darko stopped short. He had not expected him to actually find out. Had Cynnie said anything? No, she would not do that. She may have let something slip though. His eyes narrowed. “That was a long time ago, John. Leave the past where it belongs.”
“The future comes from the past,” John said darkly. “I will not let my sister become your next victim.”
Darko’s face grew dark. “That is not going to happen,” he said, trying to remain calm. It would do him no good to lash out. That would just confirm his bias against him. “I’ve only had one victim 9 years ago. It was a mistake.”
“Yeah right,” John said with a roll of his eyes. “Why should I believe you?”
Darko raised his eyebrows. “Because it’s the American way?” He bit back a bitter remark. There was so much hypocrisy in the country it made him sick. They were supposed to have freedom. What freedom did he have? “Benefit of the doubt?”
“You’ve already proved you’re no good,” John growled. “If I was not so strongly against violence I would take care of you myself. You are vile, pathetic filth and I don’t want you to see Cynnie anymore.”
Darko’s skin flashed hot in anger. “I think that’s her decision to make,” he said in a hard tone, his voice icy.
John balked. “She’s my sister. It’s my job to look after her. I want you to stay away from her or I will intervene.”
His glare was so intense that Darko believed him. He did not fight back. He had learned there was no point. He would just be giving him more ammunition. “Is that all?”
John snorted. “For now. I hope you leave soon. Maybe you can keep some pigs company.” He turned around and stalked away.
Only when he was gone did Darko allow himself to break down. He leaned his back against the brick building and fought back tears. He could not lose Cynnie. Not now. Lord, how much more do I have to suffer? Have I not paid enough for what I’ve done?
He knew God had forgiven him, but he knew nothing would ever be good enough for society to let him back in.
Darko had nightmares about John chasing him with a razor blade that night. He tried to forget it in the morning, but it was hard because of the way his thoughts were constantly turned on. Cynnie came by two days later. Darko’s eyes were full of weariness when he opened the door. He was wearing old, torn close. There were dark spots under his eyes. The nightmares had been returning. He had been foolish to hope they had been gone for good.
Cynnie’s face was immediately filled with compassion. “Oh, Darko!” she cried.
He was surprised when she ran into his arms, but he welcomed the hug. He held her tightly against him. He did not want to let go. He wanted to stay there and pretend that reality did not exist. He knew storm was coming. He wanted to protect both of them. If it was too late for him, maybe he would have to focus on protecting her.
Cynnie pulled back and looked up at him with sad eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Darko shook his head. “It’s not your fault. Someone was bound to find out eventually.”
Cynnie frowned, a troubled look crossing her face. “Everyone is going to find out soon,” she said softly. “John is calling people and putting up posters.”
Darko could feel himself growing angry. He let go of Cynnie and stepped away. “I knew this would happen,” he muttered.
Cynnie gazed at him in sympathy. “Don’t give up yet. We can fight this!”
Darko did not feel much like fighting. It would only get him thrown down again. He shook his head. “There’s no point. I’ve been through this before. And there is no ‘we.’ Your brother made his intentions clear enough. We have to stay away from each other.”
Cynnie’s eyes widened. “No!” she cried. “I can’t leave you alone. John doesn’t know anything.”
“That may be true,” Darko admitted, “but he is your brother. I don’t want to come between you and your family.”
Cynnie’s shoulders slumped. “But that’s not fair.”
Darko could feel his frustration and anger grow. He had to fight it back. He could not become a victim to his emotions. He had to remain in control. “Let’s just see how bad this thing gets. Maybe John will change his mind.” He did not believe this for a second, but he did not know what else he could say.
Cynnie shook her head stubbornly. “I want to see you, Darko.”
He let out a heavy sigh. “I know. I want to see you too, but there is no other way. If you support me once everyone finds out, they’ll hate you too.”
“I don’t care what they think of me.”
Darko studied her. “Yes, you do. This is your home. I don’t want you to be an enemy in Green Bay. Trust me, it’s one of the worst things that can happen. You have to hold on tight to what you have. God willing, a solution will come to us later.”
Cynnie hesitated. Finally, she bowed her head in defeat. “Fine,” she mumbled. “But I’m not happy about it.”
Darko gazed at her in sorrow. “Neither am I.” He had to do the right thing.
“Good bye, Darko,” Cynnie said softly. She turned and left.
Darko held in a sigh as he watched her walk away, his eyes filled with longing.