I PULLED THE HOOD OF MY JACKET up and walked, head down, to the bathroom.
Lowering my face directly under the cool stream of water, I tried to drown the chaos in me. When my need for air forced me to come up, I rinsed the acid from my mouth and spit into the sink.
I reluctantly raised my eyes to the mirror, not liking the girl I saw. Bracing my hands on the edge of the sink, I breathed deep, fighting down the remaining spasms of panic twitching my muscles. I angled my face to get a better look at my cheek. Damien’s back handed slap left a shallow gash, but otherwise I was unmarked. Unharmed.
I tried to convince myself everything was alright now, just like Gage had said. But I didn’t buy my lie or his. Nothing was alright with what had happened. Not a thing. And I had to accept the fact that it had been my own stupid mistake. It could have been avoided.
Pulling out my phone, I texted Anthony to come get me, and I waited in the bathroom till he texted that he was out front.
The red layer of the gash stayed wet, not allowing makeup to cover it, so I pulled my hood back up, trying to cover my face as much as possible.
Gage walked beside me the moment I stepped out of the restroom, but he didn’t touch me. I increased my pace, wanting to run away.
“Regan stop,” he demanded as I reached for the main door.
I turned to him, controlling my voice and movement. “Thank you.”
He flinched, surprised, and nodded with narrowed eyes. “Of course, but we need to talk.”
“No. No we don’t. I’m leaving now, and I don’t want–" I looked around the gym, hesitating, struggling to find the right words. I couldn’t say I didn’t want this, the boxing. “I won’t talk,” I promised low and turned away, walking into the cold night.
Anthony’s truck was running at the curb. I climbed in and buckled up, saying nothing.
Gage watched us from the gym door, arm’s crossed and face stern, not even trying to hide it. And I just wanted Anthony to go, to pull away.
But he brought his hand to my chin, turning my face to his. “What happened?” His voice was as soft as his touch.
I pulled away and shook my head. “Just go, alright.”
His face hardened and he looked past me, nodding towards Gage. “Did he do something?”
“No.” My response was immediate. “Please, just go. Now.”
He nodded and pulled away.
He didn’t question me further. We went through our evening routine, cooking dinner with him recounting his day, and I listened, silent, trying to block out my own thoughts.
When I crawled under the sheets that night, in one of his too large shirts, I curled up next to him, trying to absorb his warmth. To feel connected. I had lost the only person who had been a constant in my life today. And I still worried for her, even if she didn’t share the concern for me.
He stiffened at first, surprised by my touch. I never cuddled. Then his arms wrapped around me and he pulled me in tighter, tucking me under his chin. One hand drawing circles on my back.
Closing my eyes, I shuddered at his touch. He wasn’t demanding anything, but I felt more vulnerable like this than in any other position he had me in before.
“What happened?” He whispered into the top of my hair.
My heart squeezed, nearly stopping, tears prickling my eyes, but not falling. Instead of answering, I trailed soft kisses over his collarbone and neck.
He rolled to the side, holding me back slightly, searching my eyes.
I froze, feeling my pulse pound through my veins. He couldn’t turn me away. I needed this. I needed him. I needed him to want me, and my desperation must have shown.
He pulled me in against his chest, stroking the hair away from my face. “Tell me something. Is someone hurting you?”
I let out a shuddering breath, running my hands along his shirtless body, wanting to be the girl that could talk to him. I didn’t want to be Regan, the girl who made too many mistakes and never got anything right, always choosing the wrong people, doing the wrong things, making the wrong choices. I wanted off that ride.
He moved over me, bracing his arms on either side of my body as he looked down at my face. He pleaded, “I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.”
I shook my head. He was wrong, he could help me. By touching me, making me feel worthy of something. Anything.
I slid my hands behind his head and pulled him down to me. Our lips met, whisper soft, and he pressed into me, deepening the kiss, stroking my tongue with his. His hands roamed over my shirt, sliding down my panties and kicking off his shorts in one quick motion.
He slid back over me, bringing our lips together again, groaning into my mouth. He reached one hand into the nightstand table and took out protection, sliding it on himself without breaking our kiss.
He rubbed the tip of himself over me, spreading the slickness and I wrapped my legs around him. He pulled back looking into my eyes, questioning me silently.
I knew what it was; I never let him on top. I pushed my hips to meet his, wanting him to take control. I didn’t want to lead; I didn’t trust myself, my decisions.
He groaned while kissing down my neck and sliding into me. He rocked his body and moved his hands over my hips and stomach, sending chills through me. His hands slid higher under my shirt, testing how far I would let him go.
I tried to stop myself, but I couldn’t. I pushed his hands away before he reached the start of my pain, scar’s that proved I was born disposable.
Anthony kissed away the tears that I didn’t even realize were falling, shuddering inside me as he found release.
He pulled me back into him, not letting me go till he fell asleep.
I got up and showered, only allowing myself to release my sadness when I was safely wrapped in the steam of the hot water.
Anthony wrapped his arms around me while I sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. “You can stay here tonight. I’m calling off work.”
I sat up. “Don’t do that for me. I’m fine with the hotel.”
He trailed his nose over my cheek and down my neck, his warm breath tickling the skin. “I’m not fine with it. Not after last night.”
The familiar spiral of sadness was consuming me. I had been here before, the aftermath of a tornado, left to pick up the pieces. Except, I was beginning to realize I walked into the storm willingly.
Anthony was the only person I had left. The only person not touched yesterday. Silas and Dexter may not have been there, but I didn’t know what role they played with Gage, what they were involved in. I needed a break from it all.
“So, what do you want to do today?” Anthony asked pulling a chair closer to mine.
I shrugged. “I don’t want to do anything.”
He smiled. “That sounds nice.”
We spent the day watching movies and lounging on the couch. He wouldn’t let me go long without touching me, caressing me, or just holding me. And it broke my heart. Each and every time.
“I don’t want to push, but I have to know something. I let it go the first time you came here panicking, but last night was different. And you’ve been hit. What happened?”
“I box. I get hit,” I tried to end the conversation.
He narrowed his eyes skeptically. “What about the other thing. Why were you so upset?”
I shook my head, but saw the determination in his eyes. I wanted to change, to be different. So I went against my instinct, and I let him in, just a little. “It’s Nan. She was my friend. And now,” I shrugged helplessly, “she’s not. Maybe never was, not really.”
I bit my tongue, mad that I had said her name to a cop. I had forgotten for a moment; seems I couldn’t stop making wrong choices.
“I’m only talking as a friend right now,” he reassured, speaking to the thoughts that I hadn’t voiced.
I slid my arms around him, fighting the part of me that wanted to leave, fighting the old me. But old habits are hard to break.
“I don’t want to talk,” I whispered into his neck, my hands sliding into his sweat pants.
Sometimes, sleep is what you need most and it didn’t fail me now. It defeated my sadness and replaced it with a new determination. After spending a day in hiding, I was ready to get out and get back to the gym. I was done letting bad circumstances rip away what mattered most.
When I looked at my life, boxing was the only thing I had that made me feel good, that gave me any hope.
I slid out of bed, careful not to wake Anthony up. A pang of regret tugged at my heart. It was wrong of me to have used him like I did yesterday, to let emotions mingle with what we had. The lines were blurring, and it was my fault.
I was tempted to walk to the metro, but Anthony was going to help me get a hotel for the night while he worked.
I took my phone to the kitchen table and checked my missed texts. There was a series of them from Dexter, the earliest ones silly, just for fun, and progressively becoming more serious. My favorite being a middle one that said:
Are you lost Dora? Call backpack.
I couldn’t imagine this boy being involved in whatever Gage was into, but it didn’t matter. I was going to fight tomorrow and then try and find a new gym. But first, I had to win.
I texted Dexter, letting him know I would see him today. We had a fight to prepare for.
“You should take off tomorrow.” Dexter frowned at the shorts he picked up. “Do you like pink?”
“The singer or the color?” I asked, flicking through a rack of sports tops in florescent colors. I stepped away from the hangers, frustrated. All the clothes were so bright, a psychedelic rainbow of color everywhere I turned. Then I saw black and went to the table that had items laid out, neatly arranged.
“Either. What about this?” Dexter lifted his arm, displaying a stringy black top with pink trim.
“I don’t’ mind pink, but I can’t fight if I have to worry about a wardrobe malfunction. I need more coverage than that.”
He set it down with a goofy grin. “Wait, you actually don’t mind pink? You are a girl.”
I gave him a sidelong glance. “Shut up, I meant the singer. Just choose a top. Silas gave me the gym's black and silver shorts, and I’ve got the shoes, this is the last item right?”
I didn’t mind the color either. But when you have a limited wardrobe, color is not your friend. It's best to stick with neutrals that don’t stand out so you can wear it often.
“Here, this will work.” I picked up a full-length black spandex top with thick straps. The price tag wasn’t bad either. “Are you thinking Pink for my introduction? We have to discuss all that. No more making it rain.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “Whatever you say. Do you want to go to Leona’s now? Talk to them about moving in?”
I felt stuck. This was a good opportunity, cheap rent that I could afford, even if I didn't win the fight. And my roommates would be college kids who didn’t seem to walk with trouble. But what did I know? I wanted to ask Dexter about Gage, but didn’t, remembering Gage’s warning. Not that I needed it. I knew never to talk about crap like that.
“Sure, but I can’t stay long. I want to go to bed early and rest up for tomorrow.” I paid the cashier for my top and followed Dexter to his car
I signed the contract.
It was a month-to-month lease. It gave them the flexibility to replace me with another college student come the fall or sooner. But it also allowed me an opening to leave if I needed to, If this was too close to Gage, if they weren't as innocent as I assumed.
I could move in on Monday.
I sat back with headphones on, trying to keep calm, letting myself get lost in the beat, to be empowered by it. The anticipation was sweet and I embraced it, enjoying the vibration through my muscles. Whatever happened, I was giving this my all, and I couldn’t wait to meet the girl in the ring.
Dexter tugged on one cord, knocking my ear bud out. “Let me hear. I want to see what’s got you smiling.”
We sat side by side listening, bobbing our head to the music. Outside the room a fight was going on. I wasn’t the first fight tonight.
When the chorus played Dexter smiled to me. “This is it. This is going to be your song.”
The door opened and Gage walked in, scattering my composure.
He looked between Dexter and me, eyes stopping on me. “You ready?”
I was. Before he ruined me. I pulled myself together and nodded.
Gage jerked his head to the door, signaling Dexter to go.
And the bastard got up and left, without a pause or a glance back. So much for loyalty.
Gage ran his hand over his hair. The short sleeve shirt showed off his muscles stretching under his tattoos.
“Do you need anything?” he asked.
I narrowed my eyes. “To be left alone. I need to focus.”
He dropped his arms by his sides. “Okay. That’s why I came in. I don’t want you distracted. I’m sorry, for everything. You can do this. You can win.”
His words hit me, affecting me more than I cared to admit.
He bowed his head low and left me alone.
I put my headphones back on and turned up the music.
I walked out with Silas and Dexter, surprised by how calm and confident I felt. I had done all I could to prepare and now was the moment of truth.
This place was bigger than the last, more people filling the bleachers surrounding the ring. But I put them out of my mind. They weren’t important.
Draya came in next. She was bigger than me, had more definition of muscle and radiated anger.
She stalked in a circle around the ring, scowling as she took her corner. She was in red and black, with cornrows tight in her hair.
Then the referee stepped in the center, signaling the start of the fight with a flick of his hand before he stepped out of the way.
I bit tight on my mouth guard as Draya charged at me. She covered the distance before I even took two steps. But I had my hands up and blocked her first assault, absorbing the punches into my arms and side. I almost laughed; they were nothing. I had been hit harder and taken much worse.
I took a step into her punches, taking her off guard, and hit her in the stomach.
She stepped back with a grunt. Shock registered on her face; she had felt it.
That put her on guard. She had been loose, not bothering to protect herself, but now she postured to block.
We circled each other for a second, and then she attacked again. One hit stinging my ear. But she left herself open with her wide swing. I took the opening to hit her again, once more in the stomach, followed by a left hook.
She dropped to her hands and knees, and the referee started counting. I never took my eyes off her. She moved to one knee, using the time to catch her breath. She stood at nine, and then knocked hands with the ref.
She was easy to figure out. She lunged at me again with another bout of punches, a little more wild and fast, but not nearly hard enough.
I shook with each landed punch, small jerks forcing my body to move. I stiffened, using my strength to still my reactions and stepped into her again. But she moved back, distancing herself from me.
I kept coming though, not even throwing punches, just walking towards her. She was retreating, jabbing the air to keep me away.
When she was backed into the corner, I bent my knees and stepped in to her punch. Her fist connected with my right shoulder, but I struck her chin with an uppercut from down low. She bounced against the ropes, and I stepped back as she slid to the canvas.
My excitement built with each number the referee counted. She raised herself up on her arms and knees, but left her head hanging. She shook her head at eight and I knew it was over. She stopped trying to stand.
I let my head fall back with relief, a smile stretching my cheeks. The referee lifted my arm and announced me as the winner.
This time I was prepared for Dexter’s excitement as he jumped in the ring. I spun around towards him as he picked me up in a hug.
“One round, Rea! Damn girl, you are good.”
I looked past him to Silas, who smiled at me with a nod.
Dexter spun me around as I exited the locker room. “What are we going to do tonight to celebrate?”
I looked between him and Leona. She was smiling, but not her typical smile that reached her eyes.
“Rain check? I’ve got plans already,” I explained, checking my phone. Anthony would be here in ten minutes to pick me up.
Leona's smile brightened as she wrapped an arm around Dexter’s waist. “Sure, we’ll see you later, probably Monday when you move in.” She looked up at him. “Let’s go, Danny’s waiting on us. Good job tonight Rea.”
Anthony sat on the couch with a small smile, as I relayed the fight. He interrupted my story by wrapping his arms around my waist and pulling me to sit with him.
“I like how excited you are.” He kissed my neck and whispered in my ear, “Let me help you celebrate.”
“I haven’t finished the story though. She got back up after that and--” I pushed him away as he kept nibbling at my ear. “Are you even listening?” I was so proud of what I accomplished. I had to talk about it or burst. But he didn’t seem to care.
“Sorry, sorry.” He sat back, amusement in his eyes and gestured for me to continue.
The doorbell interrupted me and he jumped, a frown marking his pretty face.
He cracked the door, standing in front of the small opening, blocking the visitors from my view.
“You left your hat tonight,” a girl’s voice said. “Plus, you left so early and haven’t really been around lately. We wanted to check on you.”
I hadn’t even asked him what his plans had been tonight. But now I was curious and couldn’t help but listen.
“Thanks for dropping it off. I’ll call you guys later.” Anthony reached for his hat, and the girl pushed open the door he was leaning on.
“You can’t get rid of me that easily, Anthony. What has been--”
A pretty brunette stepped through the door and I recognized her from the pictures on Anthony’s wall. Her eyes lit up with surprise as she spotted me.
“Hello, I’m Anthony’s sister, Janet.” She began unwinding her scarf from her neck and unbuttoning her jacket. “And this is my husband, Jason.” She gestured to a slightly balding man that walked through the door.
She looked back to Anthony with amusement. “So you haven’t been in hiding this entire time, or at least not alone. Who is this?”
Anthony wasn’t smiling. “Sure come on in Janet. Take off your coat, stay a while.”
Jason laughed. “Sorry man, you know how your sister is, might as well give in.”
Anthony rolled his eyes and sighed. “This is Regan.” His eyes met mine briefly. “She’s just a friend.”
Stephanie raised an eyebrow. “Well good, because I’m no lawyer, but I think it would be called adultery if she was anything else.”