I CLOSED MY EYES AND STOPPED TIME. I stopped thinking, moving, and if I could of I would have stopped myself from breathing. I wanted to delay the next moment. I wanted to delay being in a world where there was no Nan.
But I couldn’t. I had to breathe and with that breath came reality. I was still alive, and I held blame for Nan not being here. I hadn’t fought for her, only myself. I had left her with Damien.
I silently listened to the conversations around me; a deep, painful chill engulfing me. They weren’t going to have a funeral. Why were they already talking about that? The grandmother told the doctor that the hospital could cremate her since they couldn’t afford anything else. Even the doctor was telling them they could take a moment to think it over; they could go back and see her.
I stood up, chest tightening. I had to leave. I couldn’t handle this or them or seeing Nan. I pushed away from Gage and whatever he was saying as James walked over to me.
“You leaving?” he asked, pulling his hood up over his head, shading his eyes.
My jaw felt tight, it wouldn’t move, so I nodded.
James took a step back, meeting me with his hollow eyes. “I’ll call you.” He nodded, and I knew he meant what he said earlier, he wanted to kill Damien.
Gage was pulling me away. “No you won’t. You don’t need to call her.”
I ripped my hand from his and stepped back to James, speaking quickly. “You call me. Anything about Nan, you call me. Understand?” I stood there, determined, until James slowly nodded.
“Bet. You’ll get a call,” he promised and I knew he meant it. I just hoped he could deliver.
Then Gage was pulling me out of the room. The elevators were empty this time, and he turned to me the minute the doors closed.
“What are you thinking?” His voice was low with concern.
I took a step back and closed my eyes, leaning against the wall of the car, running my hand through my hair. “I’m not. I’m not thinking.”
I opened my eyes as the elevator doors opened to the first floor and Gage was in front of me, blocking everything from sight. And when his arms circled around me I stepped into them, wanting to hide from reality.
“I’m sorry about your friend. I’m sorry.” His voice reached my ear, low and gravely as it echoed in his chest.
I pushed away. I didn’t want to hear that. I should be the one apologizing to her. I didn’t deserve any.
“Where are we going?” I lifted my head from the cool glass of the passenger side window as Gage passed the turn that would take us to his community.
“To New York. I’ve got that fight tonight.” He kept his eyes on the road.
I looked at the clock on the dash; it was nearly three am. I guess the fight was tonight, and I didn’t realize my stomach could sink any further then it had, but my body continued to surprise me.
“Shouldn’t you sleep first or something?” I asked, trying to focus on him and not Nan.
He reached over to me, his fingers gliding through my hair. “I’ll sleep when we get there. You go ahead and rest now.”
This felt like déjà vu, like the last time we made this trip and he disappeared. And I was back to sinking. Head underwater.
I dug for the courage to face this new reality. “What’s going to happen?”
His eyes glided to me briefly before returning to the highway. “I’ll fight tonight. I’ll win. And then we’ll try to move on from this. Together.”
“And if you don’t win?” I tried to watch his face, but the shadows of the night made it hard to see his reaction or if there even was one.
“I’m going to win. That’s the only option.”
I didn’t want to be pacified, and that’s what it felt like he was doing. I wanted honesty. I needed to prepare for all scenarios and I couldn’t do that without more information.
“But if you don’t, you still get money? You could still pay back these people right?” I knew this was a big fight, prize money would be large, but even the loser would be paid and that should cover Dexter’s half of the debt.
“Maybe,” He said carefully.
We were flying down an empty highway, streetlights shining through the car randomly in waves. I let silence take over as anger grew. He still wasn’t telling me anything.
When my frustration boiled over I turned back to him. “How the hell can you say we’re going to do anything together when you don’t include me? You don’t tell me anything.”
He grabbed my hand. “I don’t want to lie to you.”
I went still. “Then don’t.”
He threaded his fingers through mine and rested our hands on my lap. “I can’t tell you.”
I pulled my hand away and knocked his off my lap, turning my body away from his as I looked out the window.
“You have to understand. The less you know the better. I’m trying to keep you safe.”
I spun around. “From what? I should know that!”
I still didn’t get it. I knew Damien had it out for me, but I never told Gage of his involvement that night. So what did he think he was protecting me from?
He bobbed his head. “You should. But it’s me. I’m trying to protect you from me and what I’m doing, and any fallout of that. And your friend tonight, she died ‘cause of the people she ran with. I’m trying to hide you away until I’m not one of those people that could get you hurt.”
The mention of Nan cut me, but I used my anger to cover it. “I’m not a damn pet. You can’t just cage me up and give me water sometimes. I need you to explain things to me or I’m going to make my own decisions and they won’t involve you.” I was surprised by how much that declaration hurt. I didn’t want to cut him out, but he was forcing my hand.
“Okay,” he breathed, grabbing my knee in an attempt to calm me.
“Okay?” I repeated, questioning him.
“I’ll explain some things. What you need to know.”
I sat back, floored that he agreed. I had changed his mind. Well, good, I was right and he should tell me.
“It’s not about the money anymore,” He began and I held my breath, not wanting to miss a word, not daring to interrupt.
“It never really was, not really. These people care about loyalty and control. They actually prefer if you owe them, so they have something on you. Even if I lost this fight, it would be enough to pay them back for Dexter, but they don’t really care about that. I owe them a favor so they want me to win ‘cause they’re betting on it. This past week I’ve had to slip back into who I was. I was wrong when I told you they still got my back, they don’t care about me, just what I can do for them.”
When it was clear he wasn’t going to say more I questioned him. “So you have to win. But will they back off after or stick around?”
“When I win, I’m clear to go. Rusnak promised.”
Something about the way his eyes shifted and breath hitched caused a jolt to shoot through me, a warning.
“Why wouldn’t they bet on you losing? Isn’t it easier to throw a fight, a safer bet?”
He sucked in air. I was getting close to what he was hiding. “More money to be made if I win. And my career will still be solid, they think long term, if I ever owe them a favor again then I’ll have even bigger names to fight, with more money.”
“So they aren’t letting you walk away.” I still managed to sink deeper, where was the bottom?
He shook his head and gripped my leg. “Once I’m clear, I’m done. I’m not going to owe them shit in the future. And Dexter’s done too; I won’t bail his ass out anymore if he fucks up again. But Regan,” He paused, and I held my breath again, bracing myself. “I’m only out if I win in the third round.”
“What does that mean? Why?”
“The biggest payoffs are for calling the round. They want me to win in the third round. That’s what they bet on. They are not trying to make this easy but I can do it. I will win in the third round.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I’ve done it before. I’ve set up fights for them before. But this is the last time.”
We sat in silence for a while, my mind shutting down from overload and exhaustion. But as I struggled to sort through my thoughts I realized the most important question hadn’t been answered.
As the early morning light filled our car I turned to him. “What happens if you don’t win in the third round?”
“That’s not going to happen.” He claimed firmly.
I shook my head. “What if it does?”
He turned to me, an unreadable look crossing over him before he focused on the road. “Then you run. Far away from me.”
This time when I sunk it felt like I had finally hit bottom, and it nearly shattered me.