THE SMELL OF ROASTED CHICKEN AND GARLIC filled the first floor, making my mouth water. An Eminem song blared loudly, covering the sound of me leaving.
A large hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around, just before I reached the door.
“You’re leaving? With him?” Gage spit out between clenched teeth.
I masked my fear of being this close to his anger with indifference. I knew now he liked getting a rise out of me, whatever the emotion, and I wasn’t playing into it.
Looking past him, I shrugged.
His tightening grip on my shoulder could be felt through my coat. “You leave now, and my offers off the table.”
I flicked my eyes back to him and pushed his arm away. “I was never going to accept it anyways."
His face dropped, resignation clear, and he stepped back from me. “Then go.” His voice was ice sliding down my spine.
Reaching behind me, I opened the door. It was difficult to pull my eyes from him. This moment felt final, and I suddenly had doubts and regrets I couldn’t put a voice to. All I could do was keep going, even though the look on his face shredded something in me.
It wasn’t until I was out the door that I allowed myself to feel the sadness, but it was short lived. The full moon and streetlights cast a pale glow, but the night was ripping my last bit of confidence from me, leaving me with nothing but fear.
The snow made running difficult and slow, but I was thankful for it. The white blanket reflected light, keeping out the darkness. The conditions kept others indoors, leaving me alone.
When I made it to the gate, Anthony's truck was idled, waiting for me.
“They made you walk down here? I could have picked you up from their house.” He was angry as he pulled away. “Or did you not want them to see me?”
I couldn’t deal with his feelings right now, and my frustration must have shown on my face as I set my book bag at my feet and slid on my seat belt.
He squeezed my thigh. “Hey, sorry. I’m not mad at you. I just don’t like you out running around on your own. Are you alright?”
I nodded and turned up the radio. I needed a moment to recover from everything, the night, my feelings, but mostly Gage. His words echoed in my head. He liked arguing with me, he liked me, he wanted me. But he wanted it all on his own conditions, conditions I couldn’t handle.
I looked over at Anthony. His light brown hair was messy, lying across his forehead, and the way he kept sneaking glances at me was sweet. He was willing to give me the space I needed, but still checked up on me. He gave me control, while still putting in effort. He knew what I needed, more than Gage. Anthony was proving that point with his actions.
“Uh, is it alright if I spend the night tonight?” I asked, looking out the window.
His hand slid to my leg again, running over my jeans in a soft caress. “Of course, just no running in the morning. I’m off tomorrow, we can spend time together.”
“I have to work and go to the gym before, if they're open.” The roads in the city didn’t look too bad, but as we drove into Anthony’s neighborhood they became snow covered.
His smile was genuine and lit his face, showing his white teeth. “I can take you there.”
“I have pizza, spaghetti, or tacos? You decide.” Anthony looked over his shoulder from the refrigerator.
My stomach revolted against spaghetti, I could never eat it again. One foster home only ever fed us spaghetti. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ms. Mary was probably the best home I ever lived in. I had thought I was unlucky with placements, but from talking to other kids, my experiences weren’t that bad. The scary thing was, some homes were much worse.
“Tacos.” I wondered what Gage would say about this dinner, then I drop kicked that wayward thought.
I sat on a stool, chopping a tomato while Anthony browned the beef.
“So, what’s the news?” I asked impatient, placing the tomato pieces into a small bowl.
Anthony laughed as he slid the meat from the frying pain to strainer. “We can talk about it over dinner.” He set down the pan and walked to me, sliding his arm around my waist. “Don’t worry, it’s all good.” He kissed my forehead and slid his lips to mine.
Adjusting himself to stand in between my legs, he gripped either side of my thighs, pulling me closer till our bodies were flush. His tongue slid in and out of my mouth. His hands slipping under my shirt, and I pulled back.
“I’m kina hungry. Maybe we should eat first.”
He sucked in air and kissed my lips one last time. “Okay. Later.” He patted my hip with a lustful smile.
“So? Can you tell me now?” I asked in between bites of my taco. We ate in the living room, watching the news
He nodded, chewing. “I talked to a defense attorney that was at the station. He said you could sue for emotional damage. You could get more money that way.”
I frowned, setting down my taco. “I thought they were already going to have to pay for my medical and stuff. Detective Andres said I should turn in any bills that come from the hospital, that it would be covered when they were found guilty.”
“But you could get more money, for yourself, if you sue. Then you wouldn’t have to box anymore.”
The last line surprised me. “I’m not just boxing for the money. I like it.” I shook my head. “And anyways, I don’t want to drag any of this out. I don’t want to have to go to courts and speak to lawyers any more than necessary. Let the state deal with them. I’m not going to sue.”
He sat back, shaking his head. “Well I know you don’t have insurance, that you’re not signed up for any support.” He set his plate down and walked into the kitchen. A moment later, he came out with a packet in his hands. “You should fill this out. It’s a simple application and you could qualify for insurance, financial assistance, possibly housing, although there’s a wait list for that.”
He extended the papers towards me. I grabbed them, chest tightening at the familiar header of Maryland Department of Human Resources.
“I was surprised to see you weren’t receiving services still. It should have carried over from foster care.”
I tore my eyes from the paper. “What have you been doing? How do you know any of this about me?” My agitation was rising.
“I saw your file from Detective Andres. I was checking up on your case.” He scooted towards me, talking softly, trying to calm me.
I stood up, evading his touch. “Then you should know that I emancipated myself at 17. The state completely dropped me. I’m not going back into that system.”
He stood too. “It’s different now that you’re an adult. They don’t do anything but give support. You won’t be ordered to see therapists, told where to live, or monitored by social workers. It’s not like when you were a kid. This can help you.”
“You could even go back to school. Get your GED.”
My eyes widened. “You shouldn’t have looked at my file. That wasn’t for you to know.” I grabbed my head in frustration. What else did he read? What else did he know about me? I felt vulnerable, and exposed, and betrayed. I was shaking with anger.
“Whoa. I didn’t mean to make you mad. This could help you, that’s all.”
“You couldn’t just leave it alone. You had to step in and try and ‘fix’ me. Well I don’t need anyone helping me. I’ve got this.”
Tears prickled my eyes. I didn’t know what to do. Everything in me wanted to run, but fear kept me still. I couldn’t go out into the night and find a hotel.
“I’m sorry. I thought… I don’t know, I didn’t think.” He stepped to me, movements slow as he wrapped his arms around me.
I stood in his embrace, unmoving. Dazed and confused.
“I didn’t mean to overstep. I won’t mention it again.” He rubbed his hand in circles over my back.
I shrugged him away. “What did you find out about me? How far back did my file go?”
“I only looked at the summary sheet, all the basic information. I didn’t dig deeper. The rest you can tell me on your own, when you’re ready.”
Unsure of the truth, my eyes narrowed. “Alright.” I didn’t have a choice. I had to let this go if I wanted a place to sleep.
Picking up my plate of tacos, I took it to the kitchen, cleaning up to avoid conversation.
Anthony brought in his own plate and put away leftovers. We moved around the kitchen in mutual silence.
The papers still lay on the coffee table; it was the first thing I spotted when I returned to the living room. I scooped them up and put them into my backpack. After my reaction to it all I didn’t want to admit that it could be a good idea. I could keep them for later.
Anthony kept quiet, but I saw the ghost of a smile cross his face as I zippered my bag up.
As much as I fought it, I needed help, and I was beginning to think the faceless state could be the best option. I had been so determined when I got out of foster care; I had the delusionary thought I could do better on my own, and was only realizing now that I was wrong. This past week had made it clear.
Anthony sat in the middle of the couch, arms stretched out on either side, waiting for me to join him.
"I started my period." I blurted it out. He needed to know, it effected what we could do.
I was on the depo shot, making my period infrequent and light when it came, but he didn't need to know that.
His face dropped slightly. “Do you need medicine or something?"
I shook my head, sitting on the far corner of the couch, feet curled under me, just out of Anthony’s reach. I wasn't ready for him to touch me, the sting of his betrayal still present.
He began drumming his fingers on the back of the couch. He was uncomfortable and it showed.
“I think—I’m going to go to bed.” He stood up. “Come lay with me. We can watch TV in there if you want.”
I stood, avoiding his eyes. “I’ll sleep in the guest room.”
“No. Not tonight. Sleep in my bed. I want to know you’re here.” He slid his hands into my hair, cupping my head. “Please.”
I felt like I had been fighting all day, and I couldn’t do it anymore. So I gave in and let him lead me to his room.
I lay next to him, his weight pressed into the mattress, and his body heating the covers. But he didn’t touch me, and I didn’t touch him. It made the arrangement tolerable, and I fell asleep fast.
I made it to the edge of the bed, feet on the ground, when his long arms wrapped around me, pulling me back into the warmth of the covers.
“Where are you going?” He said, voice raspy with sleep as he spooned me to him.
“I was just going to start some coffee,” I lied. I had full intentions of leaving.
“Nu-uh, not yet. I let you sleep last night. But now I want you.” He kissed the back of my neck, “I want to kiss you, and hold you, and feel your body.”
I grabbed his hands, keeping them from roaming up my shirt. “I’m on my period, remember?”
“I’m not talking about sex, we can do other things.” He shifted me so that I was under him and then brought his mouth over mine.
Gage’s disappointed face when I left last night kept replaying in my mind, and I wanted to erase it from my memory. I knew what I needed: a good workout to sweat out my feelings and never ending frustration.
I could feel his erection against my stomach and pushed him away. I wasn’t in the mood for his touches.
“I have cramps. You said you had medicine?”
He eased off of me, his pretty smile melting with disappointment. But he quickly covered it. “Sure.” He hopped out of bed and ran into the bathroom, returning with a pill bottle. “Here’s Ibuprofen.”
I grabbed the bottle and escaped to the kitchen.
Anthony showed me how to start the coffee and went to get a shower. He tried to hint for me to join him, but I declined. Guilt was eating at me though, I know he didn’t bring me here for company, and I wasn’t living up to my end of the deal.
I made eggs for breakfast, hoping to smooth things over with food. Although, really he didn’t act angry. He took my brush-offs in stride and chatted happily as we ate breakfast together. He kept to the safe topic of himself and told me he used to be a prison guard before joining The Baltimore Police Department. Now he was in school to advance from patrol to criminal investigations.
We cleaned up and then got ready to go; the gym was open.
“When can I see you again? I don’t work till tomorrow. I could pick you up tonight after your shift.” His warm eyes met mine, and he tugged on the collar of my jacket, pulling me to him.
I couldn’t handle it. He was willing to keep seeing me, even when I refused him. I was changing the rules, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want this to become something other than what it was. I slid my hands inside his coat and pressed my lips to his neck, walking him back to the couch. He sat down and I kneeled in front of him, sliding his pants down to his knees. His hands tangled in my hair as I took him in my mouth and sucked hard. Within moments he was done, and it was over. And I felt a little more right, like I had finally stepped on solid ground.
After cleaning up he kissed me. “That was… great!” He kissed me again and mumbled, “Thanks,” into my lips.
I stared out the window, watching the stream of water run like a river through the parking lot from melting snow. The sun shone bright, high above.
I only had two tables, but that was more than earlier. Then I saw a familiar SUV pull up, Dexter was here. He walked up the path with Jase and Danny, none of them with coats on.
He wasn’t at the gym this morning, neither was Gage, and I'd been there several hours.
Dexter scanned the restaurant as he walked in the front door.
Trichelle immediately perked up at seeing him and walked around the host stand. “Hey, how many?” Her hand hovered over the menus.
“I’m actually here to see Rea.” He spotted me and walked past her, leaving Danny and Jase behind.
I gave him a hesitant smile. “Hi, what are you doing here?”
He wrapped me in his arms without responding, squeezing me tight.
“I’m sorry Rea. I should never have played that video. Never will again, you’re right, it’s wrong. Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad.” He held me at arm’s length, eyes begging forgiveness.
“It’s alright, really.”
“But you left without saying anything.”
I shrugged him off. “Yeah. Sorry.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You’re not at that motel are you? You have somewhere else to stay?”
“I’m at a friend’s,” I admitted.
His smile grew. “Okay, good. Now we’re hungry. We want a table in your section.”
I dropped off the bill and another soda for Jase.
Danny nudged Dexter. “Ask her to go.” At my raised eyebrows Danny continued, “We're going out Friday to Fells Point. It’s Jase’s birthday. You should come.”
Jase and Dexter both nodded in encouragement.
“I don’t know.” I rocked on my hip. I’d have to see what sleeping arrangements I could work out by then.
Danny turned to Dexter. “Well whether she goes or not, tell Gage she is. Then he’ll come with us.”
I straightened. If Gage went, I wasn’t going.
Dexter laughed. “What are you talking about?”
“Come on,” Danny leaned back in his chair. “Gage never hangs out with us, but since she’s been around, bam, he’s around.”
Jase nodded. “He’s got a point. But why do you want him to go? He’s not much fun.”
Danny rolled his eyes, like they were idiots. “Because girls flock to him, and I’m not above scooping up the rejects. And if he’s focused on her.” He jabbed his thumb in my direction. “There’s bound to be lots of them to choose from.”
I groaned and raised my eyes to the ceiling. “Well, I’m not going. Tell him whatever you want, but I doubt he’ll go if you tell him I am.”
Dexter’s eyes met mine, questions glowing in them. “We’ll see.” He turned back to Danny. “But it doesn’t matter how many rejected girls are around, you ruin all chances when you open that mouth.”
Trichelle came over to me after they left, bursting with excitement. “Thank God hot boys hang out in packs. The pretty eyed one's friend, Jase, asked me out with them this Friday.” She bounced in front of me. “Are you going? We can go together!”
That sealed it. I was not going.