“What?” she asked with a grin.
Clara’s grin slowly faded.
“You know,” said Olivier, “I thought prison would be the worst. The humiliations, the terror. It’s amazing what you can get used to. Even now those memories are fading. No, not really fading, but they’re more in my head now. Not so much here.” He pressed his hand to his chest. “But you know what doesn’t go away?”
Clara shook her head and steeled herself. “Tell me.”
She didn’t want what Olivier was offering. Some scalded memory. Of a gay man in prison. A good man, in prison. God knew, he was flawed. More than most, perhaps. But his punishment had far outstripped the crime.
Clara didn’t think she could stand to hear the best part of being in prison, and now she was about to hear the worst. But he had to tell it. And Clara had to listen.
“It’s not the trial, not even prison.” Olivier looked at her with sad eyes. “Do you know what wakes me up at two in the morning with a panic attack?”
Clara waited, feeling her own heart pounding.
“It was here. After I’d been released. It was walking from the car with Beauvoir and Gamache. That long walk across the snow to the bistro.”
Clara stared at her friend, not quite understanding. How could the memory of coming home to Three Pines possibly be more frightening than being locked behind bars?
She remembered that day clearly. It had been a Sunday afternoon in February. Another crisp, cold winter day. She and Myrna and Ruth and Peter and most of the village had been snug inside the bistro, having café au laits and talking. She’d been chatting with Myrna when she’d noticed Gabri had grown uncharacteristically quiet and was staring out the windows. Then she’d looked. Children were skating on the pond, playing a pick-up game of hockey. Other kids were tobogganing, having snowball fights, building forts. Down rue du Moulin she saw the familiar Volvo drive slowly into Three Pines. It parked by the village green. Three men, wrapped in heavy parkas, got out of the vehicle. They paused, then slowly walked the few paces to the bistro.
Gabri had stood up, almost knocking over his coffee mug. Then the entire bistro had grown quiet, as all eyes followed Gabri’s stare. They watched the three figures. It was almost as though the pines had come alive and were approaching.
Clara said nothing and waited for Olivier to continue.
“I know it was just a few yards, really,” he finally said. “But the bistro seemed so far away. It was freezing cold, the kind that goes right through your coat. Our boots on the snow sounded so loud, crunching and squealing, like we were stepping on something alive, and hurting it.”
Olivier paused, and narrowed his eyes again.
“I could see everyone inside. I could see the logs burning in the fireplace. I could see the frost on the windowpanes.”
As he spoke Clara could see them too, through his eyes.
“I haven’t even told Gabri this, I didn’t want to hurt him, didn’t want him to take it the wrong way. When we were walking toward the bistro I almost stopped. Almost asked them to drive me somewhere else, anywhere else.”
“Why?” Clara’s voice had dropped to a whisper.
“Because I was terrified. More afraid than I’d ever been in my life. More afraid even than in prison.”
“Afraid of what?”
Once again Olivier felt the bitter cold scraping his cheeks. Heard his feet shrieking on the hard snow. And saw the warm bistro through the mullioned windows. His friends and neighbors over drinks, talking. Laughing. The fire in the grate.
Safe and warm.
They on the inside. He on the outside, looking in.
And the closed door between him and everything he ever wanted.
He’d almost passed out from terror, and had he been able to find his voice he felt sure he’d have shouted at Gamache to take him back to Montréal. Drop him at some anonymous fleabag. Where he might not be accepted, but he wouldn’t be rejected.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t want me back. That I wouldn’t belong anymore.”
Olivier sighed and dropped his head. His eyes stared at the ground, taking in each blade of grass.
“Oh, God, Olivier,” said Clara, dropping her shandy onto the newspapers, where it fell over, soaking the pages. “Never.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, turning to her. Searching her face for reassurance.
“Absolutely. We really have let it go.”
He was quiet for a moment. They both watched as Ruth left her small cottage on the far side of the village green, opened her gate, and limped across to the other bench. Once there she looked at them and lifted her hand.