RUSH HOUR TRAFFIC IN THE CITY SUCKS. Nan’s apartment complex wasn’t far from the gym, but it took a good twenty minutes in the SUV.
Gage turned down the volume on the radio. “I have to meet Silas at eight. If things are all good with your friend then, I might have to leave.”
“We should be done by then. I’m supposed to meet my ride at the gym later, so I’ve got to be back too.” I pulled my hair into a low ponytail, just for something to do with my hands.
The closer we got, the more anxious I became. I think Gage made it worse. I couldn’t separate my nervousness about going to Nan’s from the tingle of adrenaline being near him caused.
His eyes dragged over me as I took down my ponytail and shook out my hair, again.
“Is there anyone in particular making you this nervous? Someone I should look out for?”
I took a deep breath, stilling my hands in my lap. “Nan’s brother James, but he should be at work. Or the boy that was with her at the bar, Damien. I think it should be alright though. I’m not really sure why I feel so jumpy, maybe too much caffeine.” I tried to smile and failed. My leg bounced, unable to keep still.
Gage didn’t say anymore, just turned up the radio and kept glancing at me when he could.
Nobody was answering the front door, but the TV was on inside.
Gage stood just behind me, waiting; hat fitted low on his head, shading his face.
I turned to him after knocking with no answer.
He cocked his head and shrugged his shoulders. “What do you want to do?”
“I have stuff in there I need to get.” I had left clothes in my rush to leave last time. “I’m going to walk around back and knock on the slider.”
“I’ll come with you,” he said simply.
We walked over the muddy ground to the back of the brick building. Dark red curtains blocked any view inside the apartment. The rattle of the door was loud when I banged on it, an echoing boom that shook the glass.
“Nan,” Miguel yelled from the other side of the door. “Someone’s at the back door.” His voice was farther away this time.
A few moments later, a small section of curtain was pushed aside and Nan peeked out. The latch clicked, and the door slid open, just enough for her to squeeze out.
She was in boxer shorts and a tank top, her hair thrown up in a messy bun that looked slept in. Dark circles shadowed her eyes blending with smudged eyeliner.
“Regan?” She smiled sleepily at me, seemingly oblivious to the cold. She shook her head slowly. “What are you doing here?”
I narrowed my eyes. “We made plans to look at apartments, remember?”
She nodded, smoothing stray pieces of hair back. “I thought we said Tuesday?”
My patience was growing short. There was more going on than her being tired. “It is Tuesday.”
Her mouth popped open, and she rubbed the heel of her hand over her eyes. “Really? Well why did you come so early?”
I sucked in air, trying to calm myself. “Nan, it’s five o’clock. If you’ve changed your mind, fine. But let me at least get the rest of my stuff while I’m here.”
She straightened and frowned. “No. I’ll go. Let me get dressed.” She stepped back through the slider, but turned before I could enter. “Wait here.”
I stopped her from shutting the door on me. “Can I get my things now? Before James comes home from work?”
She paused, eyes widening for a second, and then nodded, stepping back to let me pass. She blocked Gage from entering. “No, you wait here. I don’t know who the hell you are.”
He raised his chin, looking down on Nan, and his jaw worked under the skin. “I’m Regan’s friend.”
“He’s a friend.” We spoke at the same time.
Her nerves were showing as she looked between us, but she shook her head. “He can wait out here.” She gave me a meaningful look. “Regan come on, we’ll only be a minute.”
“Who else is in there?” Gage asked, holding the door open with one hand.
“Only Miguel.” Nan narrowed her eyes at me. “Did you bring a body guard? Come on, you can trust me.”
“It’s fine, we'll be out in a minute.” I begged him with my eyes to listen.
The lines of his jaw deepened, but he stood back as the door closed on him.
I went straight to Nan’s room, wanting to get out as soon as I could. This place no longer felt like the safe haven I had once seen it as. Nan’s room was a mess; I was the one who kept it clean before. Soda cans and food debris littered the floor and dressers.
I opened the drawers I used when I stayed here, looking for any of my clothes. Nan disappeared into the attached bathroom to get ready.
“Have you seen my boots? The short ones?” I opened the bathroom door to check for any of my things, and rage surged through me.
Nan had several pills spread on a tray, crushing them with a card. Residue of lines already taken streaked the surface.
I flipped. Without thought I knocked the tray away from her, sending it flying into the bedroom. Pills and powder exploding in every direction.
You would have thought I hit Nan too, the way she dove after it all.
“What the fuck are you doing?” She said from the ground, searching for the pills that scattered.
“Leaving. I’m getting my things and--”
The slam of the front door silenced me.
“Where’s my dirty girl?” Damien’s voice made every molecule in me scream. “Daddy brought you some candy.”
I heard laughter from whoever was with him, and jumped into action, picking up the little bit of clothes I had gathered and heading for the door.
Damien stepped through it first. “What will you do--”
He cut off his own words as he scanned the room, taking in Nan on the ground picking up pills, the spray of white powder streaking the carpet, and overturned tray. “What happened?” His voice was frighteningly low.
Nan sat up, pointing at me, tears running down her face. “She did it. She-”
The back of his hand slammed into my cheek in an instant, whipping me around, the clothes from my arms spreading on the floor.
His hand was in my hair before I could react, dragging me to him.
I screamed, grabbing his arm to keep him from yanking my hair any further. He tossed me away, sending me bouncing on the bed.
“Shut up you fucking bitch.” He pounced on me, using one large hand to cover my mouth and pin me down.
I kicked at him and tried to hit him, but he released my mouth so he could pin my arms. I managed to get my knees up between us, keeping him from pressing his full weight on me. Bringing up one foot, I kicked him in the stomach. But he went flying off of me with a force that I couldn’t have caused.
I scurried off the bed, the moment his weight was removed.
Gage picked Damien up by his shirt and slammed him into the wall, fist pounding his face over and over, blood spraying from his nose.
Nan was standing, screaming at me, “Do something.”
“Gage. Stop. Let’s go,” I yelled.
But he didn’t listen. He kept hitting Damien, holding him up with one hand and punching him with the other. Damien was slumped against the wall, convulsing with each blow.
Two guys I hadn’t seen before jumped on Gage, knocking him off balance. He staggered back, letting go of Damien. He charged one of the guys, knocking him to the ground. Standing over him, he kicked him several times. The other guy tried to jump in again but Gage swung and hit him, sending him to the floor.
With all three down, it was the perfect time to leave. I grabbed his shoulder, trying to gain his attention. “Let’s go,” I pleaded.
I heard the click first, before I saw it, and the room silenced, everything slowed. I dropped my hand from Gage’s shoulder as he straightened himself up.
Behind him, Damien was rising to his feet, gun aimed steadily on Gage. “Don’t move motherfucker.” He used one hand to wipe the blood from his nose, smearing it across his swollen and cut cheek. “Who the fuck are you?” He stepped suddenly towards him and kicked him in the back of the legs, sending Gage down onto his knees.
Gage’s eyes met mine, an eerie calm, as he stayed still.
I closed my eyes as Damien brought the back of the gun down on Gage’s head.
But when I opened them, Gage had Damien’s arm twisted behind his back, and a different gun pressed to the back of Damien’s skull.
“Regan, pick up that gun,” Gage commanded.
I picked it up quick, before anyone else could react.
Gage kept the gun pressed to Damien’s head and dropped his arm. Then he reached his free hand out to me, and I gave him the weapon I picked up.
Damien’s friends watched wide-eyed from their spots on the ground, and Nan stood with her jaw dropped, an expression that matched how I felt.
“Are any of these three Miguel?” Gage asked.
“No," I managed even though I felt like I was choking.
“Miguel. Come in here now.” Gage’s voice was calm, but demanding.
Miguel walked in, palms up and shaking. “Man, I’m not any part of this. I just crash here sometimes.”
“Sit down. On the bed,” Gage ordered. “You too.” He pushed the gun into Damien’s head, in the direction of the bed, and Damien walked to it. “Everyone on the bed.”
They all obeyed, sitting on the long edge of the mattress, facing Gage.
I attempted to disappear into the wall.
“This is how it’s going to work. We’re going to leave, and none of you are going to try anything. Ever,” Gage explained in a measured tone.
He took a step towards Damien, gun pointed in between his eyes. “And in case you don’t fully understand, let me explain. You work for Rock.”
Damien’s scowl flinched at that and Gage nodded, pointing his gun at the tattoo on Damien’s neck. “What type of pussy lets another man brand him? I know that mark. Ask him about Rusnak.”
Damien’s eyes flashed wide and he moved back just slightly.
But Gage smiled. “Ah, so you’ve heard the name? Well then you’ll know I’m not one to fuck with.”
Gage stepped back and pulled the magazine from Damien’s gun, tossing both pieces in opposite corners of the room.
He looked to Nan. "You going to come with us?” She shook her head, and Gage flicked his eyes to me. “You ready then?”
I nodded, unable to speak. I felt ill and couldn’t’ breath.
“Wait. Did you get your stuff?” His voice was too calm.
I picked up my scattered clothes as quick as my shaky arms allowed and walked out the bedroom.
He caught up to me at the front door, when I faltered with the knob. He opened it for me and kept his hand on my back as he ushered me into the passenger side of the SUV. He even slid my seatbelt on before shutting the door and jogging to the driver’s side.
I was frozen to the seat, forcing myself not to think. I couldn’t think about what just happened. I didn’t know what just happened. I didn’t know who this was in the car with me. I couldn’t think. And I couldn’t breathe. Everything hurt. Energy crashed through me, breaking me. I gasped for air and closed my eyes, trying to block out everything.
I didn’t even realize the car had stopped, but the zip of Gage undoing his seatbelt pulled me from my panic. I opened my eyes, just as his lips crashed into mine.
He sucked the little air I had left out of me.
His arms wrapped around me, and his lips moved, aggressive and demanding.
I choked, literally gagged, and pushed with everything I had to get him off of me. But it wasn't enough, he was too strong.
He pulled himself away though. Pressing back on the driver’s side window, he watched me like the wild animal I once accused him of being.
“Don’t touch me,” I strained, opening the passenger side door to wretch up whatever I could.
It burned to breathe and tears blurred my vision. I was going insane and prayed to wake up from whatever nightmare I was in.
Gage put his hand on my back and I whirled around.
“I said, don’t touch me,” I growled low at him.
He pulled his hand back and watched me for a moment, his chest heaving with his strained breaths. “Everything's alright now.”
I shook my head. Nothing felt alright.
“They won’t bother you.”
“Why? What was that name you said?” Then I thought better of it and covered my ears. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know anymore. I don’t want any part of any of this.” I didn’t want to add any other names to my list of people I had to watch out for.
“Take me back to the gym.”
When he started the car, I changed my mind. “I’ll walk.”
I opened the door and he reached over me, pulling it shut.
“Stop, I’ll drive you.” He slammed his hand on the steering wheel. “Fuck. I have to be at that meeting, but Dexter’s home. You’re staying with me tonight.”
I sat back in the seat as he pulled away from the curb, too scared to protest.
“I can’t stay. Someone’s expecting me. I need to go. I don’t want to stay.” My voice cracked at the end. I needed to get away from all of this.
Gage inhaled and exhaled, hand gripping the wheel. “Okay. I know you’re scared, but you don’t have to be. I meant what I said, everything's going to be alright.” He looked towards me, but I stayed looking forward, wanting to avoid him. “I can explain. I will.”
I shook my head and squeezed my eyes, my body shaking beyond my control again.
He sighed. “It’s okay. Not tonight, we’ll talk when you’ve calmed down.”
We pulled up to the gym, and he put the SUV in park. He twisted in the seat to face me. “Regan, this is important, look at me.” When I met his eyes he said, “Don’t tell anyone what just happened, for your own safety.”
I nodded, a tingly numbness taking control as I got out of the car, pulling my overfilled backpack with me.