1 month earlier
I REACHED FOR THE CASH IN DREW'S hand, but he raised his arm, keeping it out of my reach.
“Whadya say you give me a little kiss first? Right here?” He pointed to his cheek with his other hand.
Half smiling, I shoved him. “You wish, now give me my money.” I jumped up, snatching the bills from him.
“People are trying to work here,” Trichelle reprimanded, turning sideways as she slid between us, tray in hand.
Drew threw his hands up in repentance, and then repeatedly thrust his hips forward. “Come back and let me apologize, Trichelle.”
She smacked the back of his head as she passed by again, weaving through patrons to get to her tables.
“Regan, do you have a ride home?” he asked, untying his apron and crumpling it up. He tossed it like a basketball into the wash bin just inside the kitchen. The apron draped over the edge, half in, half out.
Walking to the laundry pile, I threw mine in and scooped Drew’s into the basket. “I’m good, thanks,” I lied.
I didn’t know where I was going for the night. I counted the bills in my hand, reorganizing them so the little heads all faced the same way. It was my first shift off of training, and I’d made one hundred and twenty dollars. I could get a hotel.
I paused, considering as I folded the bills into my pocket. Or maybe I'd go to Nan’s again. There was always someone there to let me in; I just wasn’t guaranteed a bed, but I'd save some money. A warm place to stay for the price of breakfast. Worked for me.
Shrugging into my winter coat, Drew and I walked out the door. The cold racket of the city replaced the warm clamors of the restaurant.
He slid on a ski cap and turned towards me, his breath fogging up in the icy air. “I’ll see you tomorrow. You work, don’t you?”
I pulled my hood up to protect my ears from the bite of the wind, the tip of my nose beginning to run and freeze. “Yeah, see ya then.” Turning from him, I jogged across the street before the traffic light had a chance to change on me.
Nan only lived a few blocks away. I'd save the cab fare for tomorrow when I’d have to close late. It was a little after 10:00 pm, early for the city. The streets were lit up and alive with people walking every which way.
As I made a couple of turns, the crowds began to thin. I took my keys out of my pocket, arranging them in my fist so the thin points stuck out like I was Wolverine. I only had three keys, but that was enough. One for my P.O. Box and two for my locker that held the stuff I couldn’t keep at Nan’s. I didn't have much besides a change of clothes at her apartment, and I didn’t plan to leave much more. Not with her friends in and out all the time.
A large shadow moving over me signaled something coming from behind, and I gripped my hand on my keys. Adrenaline tightened my muscles as the stampede of footsteps grew louder. I turned as a fist flew at my head and ducked, avoiding the blow. I came back up swinging and made contact with an arm. The keys bit into my palm with the force, causing me to drop them.
“What the fuck?” he snarled as he grabbed his shoulder.
Four more circled around me, laughing. They all had ski masks covering their faces. My brain was several painful heartbeats behind my body, frozen with fear. My muscles pulled with the need to flee, but there was no way to escape as they closed in.
“You didn't even hit her? Try again,” one boy encouraged with a laugh.
“Knock her out,” yelled another.
“Hit the bitch.”
I breathed through my rising panic, staying focused on the one I had hit. Behind him, another had his phone out, filming. Fear surged through my veins.
Everything slowed as the boy closest to me swung again, but he was hesitant and my reactions were fast. I had been dodging punches all my life.
I stepped back, trying to stay calm and find a break in the group so I could run. He swung again, but this time I sidestepped and threw one of my own, hitting him in his temple. Pushing him to the side, I took off through the opening I'd created.
Hands snatched my jacket and yanked me back, slamming me onto the dirty concrete sidewalk. A flash of pain exploded from hip to toes.
Screaming, I yelled with all I had, hoping someone would hear. A swift, hard kick to my ribs silenced me, paralyzing my breath. Rolling to my stomach, I gasped for air, forcing my lungs to work through the blinding pain. But one, two, three more kicks shook my body.
I grabbed a foot, before it struck my head, and pulled. The boy fell to the ground, and I scrambled to stand, the chance of running overpowering the aches radiating through my bones.
But another snatched my hood off and fisted my hair, jerking me back with a lightning bolt of pain. His other hand covered my mouth and nose, suffocating me. Brick walls streaked past me and any hope I had left faded along with the city lights as they dragged me deeper into the alley.
I strained to breathe, fighting down my panic. Anger coursed through me as I focused on the guy with the phone still standing back, recording.
A pair of hands yanked on my purse. “Stupid bitch, give it up.”
So I did. I dropped my bag. But they still had hold of my hair while another one tore off my jacket.
“She works at Johnny’s, check her pockets,” the one with the camera commanded.
Hands pulled everywhere, yanking me from one side to the other as they searched for anything of value. Even after they took my money they continued to deliver kicks and punches that threatened to push me over my limit. The blows to the head were nudging me out of consciousness, my vision darkening.
I used all the strength I had left to slam my body into the person holding me, forcing him into the brick wall at our back. His grip loosened, and I ran, desperate to get away. When another one grabbed me this time, I turned and rammed my knee into his groin. He collapsed, and I swung my fist, hitting the other masked man in front of me.
But arms still closed around me. The world bled as tears burned my vision, my heart sinking as I realized there were too many of them to escape.
Reaching up and behind, I pulled the mask off the one holding me. I wanted to at least see who they were, in case I survived. No, when I survived. He was young, perhaps 16, with skin the color of midnight and curly, dark hair. Heedless of the fists still pounding at my body, I focused my wavering vision on the telling tattoo on his neck: a horseshoe with a vine.
As the group enclosed around me, I no longer heard the threats they shouted. With one last burst of mad, wild energy, I fought, throwing punches in every direction. I had to; otherwise I would submit to the black unconsciousness that wavered just behind my anger. It seemed to work for a moment, but when they threw me to the ground and kicks shook me as quick as rain, all I could do was roll into a ball.
My head snapped back and blood gushed in my mouth and nose, drowning me. It took all my energy to stay rolled up as lightning bolts of pain thundered inside me, jerking my body, but it was my only defense.
A loud shot broke through the roar. It was pointless to fight the darkness circling me when there was a gun. I gave up and everything went black.