A NUDGE FROM BEHIND BROKE THE SPELL I was under.
I looked for who had bumped me, but it was only someone trying to get a better look at the scene I no longer had room to think about.
I took the few remaining steps to get to Nan.
“So weird seeing you here,” She said in a daze.
“What are you doing? Why are you with him?” My hand sunk into her slouchy shirt sleeve as I pulled her out of the way of a passerby.
Her eyes widened and her face hardened. “Too much has happened since you left. We need to talk.” She nodded her head in Damien’s direction. “He wants to talk to you too.”
“No, I won’t.”
She shook her head, a small tight movement. “He won’t do anything. He promised.”
I looked at her with disbelief. You can’t trust a promise from him. “I don’t care. He makes me sick, and I’m not going anywhere near him.” The way her eyes shifted set off all kinds of alarms. “Nan, what the hell is going on?”
She sucked in a deep breath. “Let me get my cigarettes and we can go outside and talk.”
I nodded, my stomach twisted in knots.
She walked away, swimming in her clothes. Her pants hung loose on her hips and her cropped top was sloppy, and not in the intentional way. It had only been a week.
I wouldn’t look past her to Damien, but I didn’t want to turn my back on them either, so I scanned the group, looking for James. He wasn’t anywhere that I could see.
When I glanced to check on Nan’s progress, my heart stopped. Damien was walking towards me, only feet away. Covering my fear, I raised my chin and stood up tall, waiting for him.
His smile was smooth but treacherous. “Nan must not have given you the message; I have something to say to you.”
My blood turned to ice; I didn’t want Nan getting in trouble for me. “She told me.”
He cocked his head, giving me a side look. “Then maybe you need a lesson in listening." He grabbed my elbow in a vice like grip. "You must not realize how lucky you are, how much you owe me.”
I struggled in his grip, then Nan pulled at his other arm. “Damien, remember?”
He dropped my arm and flicked his eyes to Nan with disgust before focusing back on me. “You better thank your friend. I don’t let people get away with hitting me, but she can be persuasive.” He looked past me. “Those your new friends? They better back the fuck down.”
I turned; Dexter was focused on our group. I mouthed, “it’s okay.” And he stayed put, but continued watching us.
Nan flicked her eyes to the back of the place. “Regan and I are going to have a cigarette. Give us a minute, okay?”
“Five minutes. I’m done here.”
We walked away from him, weaving around people and tables as we made our way to the back door. I didn’t spare a glance to Gage and his girls, but could tell something was still pulling everyone's attention.
Outside, the patio was full, but nowhere near as crowed or loud as inside. A large heater warmed up the space and wide wooden stairs went to the second floor. The top deck sounded packed. Even with us sitting side by side on the stairs there was plenty of room for people to get by.
I waited in silence as Nan took out a cigarette and lit it. Only after a couple of drags did she speak.
“You look good Regan. You always were one to land on your feet. I’m glad I saw you tonight, you never showed up on Tuesday.”
I didn’t know what to respond to first. This didn’t feel like landing on my feet, but looking at her made me realize it was all subjective.
“It snowed. I didn’t have a way of getting there,” I explained.
She frowned, focusing on the lit end of her cigarette. “Snow? Oh, yeah.” She mumbled, not sounding sure.
“What’s been going on Nan?” I couldn’t take it. Damien said five minutes, and I was sure Nan would be jumping soon.
She shook her head, taking a long drag, exhaling smoke into the frigid night air. “James went crazy. Tore up the place the next day and found everything. Took everything.” She spread her hands out, cigarette between two fingers. “I have nothing left. No money. Nothing.”
“God, Nan. You need to get away from him.”
She nodded. “I do. Are you still looking for a place?”
My heart tightened, remembering my earlier offer. But if Nan needed to break free of her brother I'd be there for her first. “Yeah. You want to be roommates? But that means a clean break from James, and no Damien either.”
She nodded slow, pain evident in her face. “I know. I have to.”
I never thought this would happen, that Nan would finally realize she couldn’t help her brother.
Damien’s shadow caught my attention first. “Nan. Are you done?”
Her eyes flicked up, and I saw a glimpse of the hatred she held for him. “Give me one minute. Almost ready.”
“Make it quick." He surprised me by walking back inside.
Nan’s knee began shaking and my chill was bone deep. I didn’t want her leaving with him. But I felt helpless; I could barely make arrangements for myself right now.
“When can we move?” She asked.
“I’m thinking next weekend. But I can come by this Tuesday and we can check out spots together.” James only worked on Tuesdays, the bare minimum to keep in compliance with his probation.
She licked her lips, putting her cigarette out. “That’s good. Look, I hate to do this. But, do you have anything you can lend me. I don’t want to owe Damien anymore.”
My heart broke looking at her. Asking for help wasn’t Nan’s style. She was a shell of the girl I knew.
Standing with her, I reached into my pocket and pulled out two twenty’s. I shoved it into her hand. “Here.” My mind raced, thinking of any other option to get her to stay. “But you don’t have to go. Stay. We’ll figure something out together.”
Her face hardened. “I can’t. Not now.”
“Then I’ll see you Tuesday?”
She gave me a hollow smile and nodded before walking away.
I took several breaths, trying to make the tears prickling my eyes retreat. I couldn’t stand to see my friend so broken.
After a moment, I attempted to walk back into the bar, only to be blocked by Gage’s large body. I stopped myself short of bumping into him.
“Some friend you got there,” his tone was cutting.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I couldn’t deal with him. I attempted to walk past.
He grabbed my elbow, pulling me out of the doorway, back outside.
“I saw and heard. Why would you choose to live like that? With her?”
I ripped my arm away, too full of overwhelming sadness to filter any of my words. “Live like that? Who the hell is living? Me and her, we’re just trying to survive, one day to the next, and it’s a little bit easier when we do it together.” Or at least it had been before James was released.
I wiped my hand over my face, trying to reign in my emotions. I was breaking and struggling to hold my jagged pieces together. “I wouldn’t expect you, of all people, to understand any of this. So don’t you dare talk about her.”
The few patrons on the patio were staring. I hadn’t meant to cause a scene, but for the life of me I couldn’t muster any more cares. Fuck them and this stupid life that throws away girls like Nan.
Gage didn’t move any closer, but his voice was soft and careful. “I understand that more than you think.”
Why wouldn’t he just leave me alone? “Sure. You with your cars, and home, and food, and clothes, and career, and stupid girls. And stupid tattoos. And--” I cut myself short, knowing that I was grasping now, and not making sense. “I don’t want to argue with you. I can’t do this. Please.”
He nodded, with a look so serious, but somehow absent of his typical intensity. “I didn’t come here to argue with you.”
I took my chance to take the focus off of Nan, and laughed bitterly, trying to walk past him again. “No, you certainly didn’t come here for that. I saw what you came here for.”
He shook his head, face pinched slightly. “Not that either.” Grabbing my hand, stopping me from walking past, he added, “Don’t go in yet; you’re upset. Stay out here and calm down. I’ll stay with you. No arguing or anything.”
I took in a ragged breath. He sounded sincere, and my head was swimming. My stomach ached, twisted with worry for Nan. I needed a moment. Nodding, I walked back to the steps and sat.
Gage’s overwhelming presence made me feel small, but radiated much needed warmth.
After a while of sitting in silence, he rocked into me. "So you think my ink is stupid?”
I let my head fall into my hands and laughed, embarrassed. “No. I hadn’t even really looked at them. It’s just, people like you find it so easy to judge people like Nan and me,” I said matter-of-fact.
Narrowing his eyes, he looked directly at me. “I don’t think you two are the same type of person.” At my flash of anger he spoke up, “but I do get it. I fought for what I have, literally. Dexter and I never had much growing up, except a mom who was high more than home and let her boyfriend of the week run the house. I got us out as soon as I could. So yeah, I get what it’s like to not know when or where you’re going to sleep or eat.”
I turned my head, resting it on my palm, seeing him in a new light. “How old are you?” I asked, staggered.
A small smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “Twenty three. But I moved out when I was sixteen; Dexter was thirteen.”
I sat up, floored. Questions swirled in my mind. Long, sleek legs interrupted before I could voice one.
Becka leaned forward, bracing her hands on Gage’s shoulders. “Baby, they’re closing soon. Are we going somewhere--”
He pulled her hands off him, dropping them in front of her. “I’m talking.” She stepped back at his shortness. “Go back in. I’ll be there soon,” he added with a bit more control.
Spotlights flicked on, flooding the patio with light, and the music shut off. People were flowing to the doors, and Becka reluctantly followed.
I stood up with one last calming breath, checking my emotions before facing everyone.
“Things will get better.” Gage stood up, too close to me. His eyes searched my face, too intense. I watched his full lips as he added, “You’re a fighter. You’ll get through this and get to living, not just surviving.”
His words cracked the dam holding in my emotions, and I had to step back to protect myself. I nodded, running my hands through my hair to avoid reaching for him.
Too much had happened tonight, and I wasn’t thinking clearly. My worry for Nan made me too emotional. I walked around Gage, back inside, needing the buffer of a crowd.
The lights were bright, the place clearing out, but many people still milled about.
Trichelle wrapped my arm in hers as we followed the group out. “I was looking for you. Everyone’s leaving. Tonight was so fun.” Her liquor breath whispered into my ear, “I think I might go home with Jase.”
I pulled back. “But I was going to stay at your house.”
Her face crumpled. “Shit. That’s right. I forgot.”
She dropped my arm and sulked to where Jase was waiting.
Dexter walked beside me as we inched our way to the exit, his face serious. “Everything okay?”
I nodded, tight lipped, not wanting to talk about Nan anymore.
“I think your girl hit it off with my boy.” Dexter’s typical smile returned as he nodded to Jase and Trichelle.
I smiled in return. “Yeah, I’m sure I’ll here all about it tonight.”
Taxi’s lined the street, waiting for customers.
Danny opened the door to one. “Jase, you coming back to the house?”
Jase grabbed Trichelle’s hand. “Can Rea stay with one of you tonight so that Trich can come with me?”
“My bag and things are at your house,” I interjected.
“Calm down Dora. You can go without your backpack for one night.”
I dropped my head, to hide my amusement while giving Dexter the middle finger.
Humor was clear in his voice as he continued, “I’ve got maps. We can get it in the morning. It’s all good, Boots has this under control.”
I lifted my head, meeting his eyes. “Did you just call yourself my sidekick?”
He rolled his eyes and slid his arm around me. “You must not watch Dora. Boots runs that show.” He nodded to Jase. “Take your girl and go. We’ll call in the morning to get Trich and Rea back.”
They slid into the Taxi with Danny, and another pulled up in its space.
Gage opened the door, letting his two guests slide in. He paused, turning to Dexter. “Are you coming home tonight?”
Dex dropped his arm from me and wrapped it around Leona. “My car’s at Lee’s. We might stay there.”
Gage looked towards me. “You can stay in the guest room again, if you want to ride back with me.”
The way he offered, with a soft, shy voice, churned emotions in my stomach. But the girls in the Taxi made my stomach turn in a much different way. “I’ll go with them.” I nodded to Leona and her friends.
Gage slid into the cab and shut the door, cutting off the trills of laughter from within.
Leona shot a dark glance at me, pulling on Dexter's arm as she swayed on her heels. “You two stay at my house. I think its best I keep my eye on you.”
“Babe, don’t be like that.” Dexter pulled her in tighter, giving me an apologetic smile.
She pulled Dexter into the cab first, sitting herself between us.
It wasn’t the worst couch I’ve slept on. It wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list either, but it was free so I had no complaints. My mind raced with thoughts of Nan, and Gage, and my fight, and Anthony, and anything I ever had to worry about.
I wanted to know more about Gage and Dexter, how they had managed, how they overcame, especially how Dexter came out so carefree. He wasn't hardened and jaded, and I envied that.
At some point, my thoughts slowed and I fell asleep holding onto the only thing I knew with certainty; I had to win next week. I couldn’t afford to lose and neither could Nan.
Jase picked me up the next morning, taking Trichelle and me back to her house. From there I went straight to the gym, hoping to squeeze in some training before my shift at Johnny’s.
“You’ve lost two more pounds,” Silas shook his head with disapproval.
I stepped off the scale, unsure of what this all meant. “I can still fight this Friday right?”
He sighed. “You’ll be fighting out of your weight class. You can do it, but you cannot lose any more weight. I told you, you need to eat and eat well.” His eyes flicked over me. “We’ve got to cut back on the workouts this week. I don’t want you sore on Friday anyways. We’ll focus on technique until then.”
We went into his office and made a plan that fit with my work schedule. He also gave me a diet plan. I needed to make sure I ate every three to four hours; it seemed like an impossible task. But I would do it.
The lunch shift was busy and stayed that way, merging with the early dinner crowd. I ran nonstop from table to table. I dropped off the bill for one table, set down extra napkins for the next, and gave a refill on soda to the third. Making my way back to the kitchen to pick up meals for a table with screaming children. Drew stopped me.
“Some dudes up front for you,” he said as he passed by, just as busy as I was.
I looked to the front and saw Dexter waiting. He was alone, which was odd for him, and set off small warning bells. I finished my path to the kitchen and dropped off food for my table, giving them extra crayons and pictures for the kids, then met Dexter up front.
He smiled and greeted me with his typical hug. I was reluctant to return it since Leona’s comment last night.
Dexter extended a grocery bag to me; it was weighed down with Tupperware containers inside. “Here’s some food for you. Silas told me you dropped to a lower weight class.”
I took the bag and narrowed my eyes. “You do realize I work at a restaurant? I’m surrounded by food?”
He laughed and pointed to the bag. “Yeah, but that’s the good stuff. Gage made it. He cooks a crap load at once, so his fridge is always full. Enjoy.” He crossed his arms with a smug smile. “I bet you haven’t even eaten yet, since you’ve been here.”
I looked around. “We’re slammed right now. I’ll eat as soon as I can. It’s only been…” I did the math in my head and paused, it had been six hours since I last ate. Damn. “I’ll eat as soon as I can. Thanks. I’ve really got to go now.” I lifted the bag with a smile before turning back to work.
“What’s in the bag?” Anthony asked as I closed the door on his truck.
“Food. It’s supposed to make me strong for my fight.”
His eyes narrowed. “When is that again?”
“This Friday at 6:30.”
He laughed. “I can’t get over it. You’re a sexy bad ass.” He started the engine. “I’ve got a thing planned already though. I won’t be able to see you fight.”
“That’s okay. I can still stay the night after, right?” He had told me it was his night off. If the fight went well, it would be the last night I had to stay.
He smiled at me. “Yeah, of course. It should be done by then.”
He pulled up to a light and slid his hand into my hair, leaning in for a kiss. When the light turned green he released my lips, but kept my head in his hand, guiding me to his neck. I caught on quick and continued the trail of kisses, moving my hand to his pants. He was already hard, bulging against the zipper. I stroked over the fabric until he undid the zipper himself, allowing his penis to spring free. I took him into my mouth, while he drove us to his house.
I trained with Silas Tuesday after work, a switch from my typical morning sessions. I told Anthony not to pick me up till much later though; I was planning on meeting with Nan and knew James worked Tuesday evenings. I didn’t want to go there when he was home.
“You were angry today. That’s good. Use that, harness it, but don’t let it cloud your focus. Your punches were strong, and you need that on Friday.” Silas encouraged as I took off my training gloves.
I was angry and pictured Damien’s face while punching. It released some emotions, but my dread was building as I thought about going to Nan’s now.
Silas looked past me, confusion wrinkling his brow. “Gage, the meeting’s not till tonight, right?”
I froze, all of a sudden uncomfortable. I hadn’t seen him since Friday.
“I’m here to see Regan.” His soft rasp sent chills through me, followed quickly with electric heat.
I turned to him, wary, catching Silas's disapproval from the corner of my eye.
Silas crossed his arms. “We talked about this. You said you wouldn’t interfere.”
My eyebrows flew up. “What?”
“I’m not here about the fight,” Gage said.
At the same time, Silas explained, “We had agreed he would let me and you manage your career. He’s going to stay out of it.” His eyes never left Gage’s and the tension between the two was clear, a wall I couldn’t cross.
I wondered briefly when they had made that deal, before or after he tried to get me to stay at his house. But I dismissed the thought for now. “Why are you here then?”
Shifting his eyes to me, he asked, “Are you done your training?” At my nod he continued, “Go get dressed. We can talk when you’re done.”
I didn’t like the dismissal or that he ignored my question. But there was obviously something between him and Silas, and I took the opportunity to escape. A part of me wanted to stick around and see what was up, but the tension between them was a ticking bomb, and I was certain it was more than me that caused it.
When I came out of the locker room Silas was gone.
Gage waited by the door, talking to another guy who was sweaty from working out, gloves still on.
He noticed me walking towards him and nodded the guy away in dismissal. He stood tall, hands in his black coat pockets. He wore a hat that read OBEY on it, and I laughed internally at the irony. He would have a hat that says that, but I had to admit it looked good on him, the dark fabric made his eyes stand out even more.
My stomach clenched as he smiled at me, it was a shaky smile, like he was maybe a tad scared of me too, and the vulnerability in it was surprising.
“Have you gone to your friends yet?” he asked, his head ducked down to meet my eyes.
I swallowed, wondering exactly how much he had heard of the conversation between Nan and me. “Not yet. I was going there next.”
He nodded. “Good. That’s what I thought. I’m coming with you.” He cut off the start of my protest. “I won’t say anything. But you shouldn’t go there alone.”
“She’s my friend. I’ll be fine.”
“She may be. But will she be the only person there?” He raised his eyebrows, his hands in his coat pockets lifted slightly.
I shook my head, thinking. I had tried to call her already, with no answer. But that was typical for Nan. “I’m not sure.” My biggest fear was Damien being there. But I didn’t think that was likely since he was never around before. But, just in case, having someone there on my side would help.
“You won’t say anything? We’re going to look at apartments.”
He nodded, a slight smile touching his lips. “I don’t mind.”