“IF YOU CLOSE MY SECTION TONIGHT, I’LL let you have this tip.” Drew lifted the money off the table, holding the bills between the tips of his fingers. He waved it back and forth in front of my face.
I straightened, with a full bin of dirty dishes, and glanced at his section. He hadn’t cleaned all night; food pieces littered the floor around the tables and all the condiments needed refilling.
“Twenty dollars to clean this mess.” I turned with my bin, walking back to the kitchen.
Drew followed me. “Okay, Deal. But you have to sign off on it now. That was my last table and I need to go.” He rubbed his hands together with excitement. “I’ve got a hot date tonight.”
“Alright, go. I’ll let Johnny know.” I still couldn't serve, and even though bussers are tipped out at the end of the night, it’s not much.
“You’re the best.” He squeezed my shoulders, and then jogged out of the kitchen, whipping his apron off and tossing it into the wash bin.
I dropped the dishes off and went to the dining room to clean up Drew’s section.
“Cleaning up for him again?” Johnny questioned from the bar.
“Not for free,” I assured, spraying a table down with cleaner.
He went back to mixing drinks for the few patrons left. It was near closing time and business was winding down. Johnny was the owner, but also tended the large mahogany bar that was the center of the restaurant. He had built it himself and often reminded us of that fact.
Louisa, Jonny’s wife, was also working tonight. She walked out of the kitchen with a slice of chocolate cake balanced on her tray, dessert for her last table.
I’d be able to go home soon. I was hoping to hitch a ride with Drew, but now that idea was out the window. Johnny and Louisa lived above the restaurant; they couldn’t drive me.
I walked back to the kitchen to retrieve the broom and dustpan. The only other worker still on duty was the cook.
“Hey Marco,” I started sweetly. When he looked up from scrubbing the grill, I continued, “Do you think you can give me a lift home tonight?”
He tilted his head in apology, and my stomach dropped.
“Sorry, Regan, I live across the street, so I walk.”
Walk. The air in the room froze, and it stung to inhale. I was choking. My nails bit into my palm, and I steadied myself.
I'd call a cab. No need to panic.
What was wrong with me? I needed to get a grip on this anxiety. All those stupid therapists I had to see while in foster care should have taught me something; I should be able to cope with this, but my fear of the dark since the attack seemed to be escalating, not improving.
Still trying to steady the erratic beating of my heart, I went back to Drew’s section to clean and nearly bumped into Louisa.
“Whoa girl, watch where you’re going.” She grabbed my elbow with care in her eyes. “You alright?”
“Sorry,” I mumbled, pulling out of her grasp.
She nodded behind her. “Some guy is asking for you out there.” She walked past me and into the kitchen before I could question her.
I closed my eyes, inhaling, and went to face whoever was here.
It took a moment to recognize him out of his uniform, but it was Officer Fields in dark denim jeans and a leather coat. He sat at the bar, watching me walk towards him with a broad smile on his face and his hair styled back in a messy wave.
I tried to cover my groan and rearrange my face into a smile, but fell short of removing the disapproval from my tone. “What are you doing here?” I questioned low once I was standing in front of him.
Johnny nodded from the other side of the bar, “Your friend’s here to give you a ride home. Just clean Drew’s section and you can go. Your portion of the tips will be ready tomorrow.”
Officer Fields raised his eyebrows at me, and his grin widened, daring me to say something.
“Alright, thanks,” I responded to Johnny.
I finished cleaning with an odd mixture of excitement and dread. I was glad to not have to call a cab, but I wasn’t looking forward to the pending conversation. That’s not what I signed up for when riding him earlier. That was supposed to be the end of our talking. This was one of those moments where I wanted to punch myself in the face.
We walked to his truck in silence. He opened the door for me and leaned in a little too close for comfort. I dodged him and hauled myself up into the seat, setting my book bag on the floor in front of me.
I had been trying to formulate a plan while cleaning, but had come up with nothing.
He climbed into the driver’s side and shut his door. The interior lights dimmed with each second, washing us in shadows, but he kept his eyes forward, unmoving.
Just when I thought he would start the truck, he banged his hand on the steering wheel. “What the hell was that today?”
Surprised by his outburst, I tensed and sat up, grabbing my bag. “It was supposed to be fun,” I bit back, reaching for the door handle.
“Wait, don’t leave.” The anger vanished from his voice.
I sat back with relief, not wanting to step out into the darkness.
“I, uh, I’ve never done anything like that before,” he began, looking at his tangled hands in his lap. “It was fun.” He looked at me with a shadow of a smile, “But, in there, you weren’t happy to see me. I could tell.”
My eyes rose to the gray lining of his roof. Ugh, I had hurt his feelings. I thought he had understood that was a one-time thing. I wasn’t the type of girl he would want a relationship with. He probably had career women with college degrees lined up for him.
“It was spontaneous and fun.” I swept my eyes down to meet his and smiled, confused. “Nothing serious. You and me,” I gestured between us, “We’re not a thing. Never could be.”
“So why do it then?” He leaned forward on his steering wheel and shook his head, eyebrows knitting together. “I thought you liked me. I like you.”
For a moment, a half second, my heart melted. It seemed so sweet. He liked me. This guy, who had to be at least five years older than me, had a job, a car, and a home, liked me. He was the type a girl could take home to her family, I could tell. But I didn’t have a family, and I wasn’t the girl you’d want to show off to your parents. He must be dense to not realize that I’m not that girl. I didn’t fuck him because I was in love; I did it because I could. Because he wanted me.
But then he continued, “What we did today, I can’t get it out of my head. I can’t get you out of my head.” He gripped my thigh, his hand inching up my jeans.
My heart hardened, and I pushed him away with a bitter laugh. Yeah, he liked me alright. He liked that I did things the girls he knew wouldn’t do. “Are you planning on driving me home?”
He nodded, stunned by my reaction. “Yeah, okay.”
I sat in silence after giving him directions to Nan's apartment complex. My emotions were all over the place, but mostly I was angry with myself. I had done it again. Slept with someone out of my league, which would have been fine if he never showed back up. But here he was, and I had let myself, for half a second, believe he wanted me. But all he wanted was sex, just like the others.
Not that there had been a lot. Since I lost my virginity at 14, I’ve only had a handful of guys, and only one had ever gotten to me. I wouldn’t let that happen again.
The fleeting moment I had with Officer Fields was enough to make me want to scream. I hated the desperate girl in me that wanted a man. Better to use them than let them use you.
As we pulled up to a stoplight, he started again. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t come here for that. I just wanted to talk to you. To see you again.”
Still facing the window, I peeked at him from the corner of my eye. The lights of the city lit up odd parts of his face, but his eyes were pleading with me, and when I didn’t respond, he grabbed my hand.
“Please. You're different from anyone I know.”
I pulled away, annoyed. “Please, you don’t even know me.”
"But I want to get to know you. How about a real date?" His smile seemed hopeful as he accelerated the truck when the light turned green.
I turned towards him, watching the streetlights illuminate the car in waves. He kept looking back towards me with flicks of his head as he tried to split his attention between me and the road.
My head fell on the cool glass of the passenger window, and I stared straight ahead, tired of this conversation. “No.”
He didn’t respond as we made the turns into Nan’s neighborhood. I directed him to the first complex, even though Nan's was two buildings back. He parked in the middle of the lot, but kept the engine running.
“Well, good luck with everything, Regan.” He managed to make it sound a lot like a “fuck you.”
“Thanks, you too,” I mumbled as I gathered my belongings and hopped out of the truck, slamming the door behind me.
The rumble of his truck faded as he pulled away, and I walked towards the buildings, breathing through my fear of being alone in the night. I pulled my book bag and jacket tighter around me, like a shield, and ran around the apartment complex towards Nan’s.
My heart pounded in my ears, and my skin tingled as all my senses went into overdrive. I couldn’t keep up the pace and had to slow to a walk. Shadows were everywhere, and I kept turning to scope out my surroundings. The grassy field between buildings appeared empty, but the rustle of tree limbs in the wind played tricks with sound and I couldn’t shake the fear that surged inside me.
By time I reached Nan’s door, my heart was crashing in my chest and I was close to throwing up. My arms shook beyond my control as I knocked on the door. I tried to fight the tears just behind my eyes as I waited for someone to answer. I needed to get inside. Now.
James cracked the door, and then swung it open for me, his too large clothes hanging off his slim, tall frame. “Hey, did you bring home any tips, or food, or anything?” His eyes, their typical shade of red, scanned over my body.
I walked past him, escaping the dark. “I didn’t get any tips tonight and no food. Sorry, the kitchen was closed when I left. Where’s Nan?” He had one friend over tonight, zoned out on the couch, staring at the television.
“Wait,” James grabbed my arm. “You have any more pills? I heard you sold some yourself. Everything’s gone now. You owe us rent. It’s not good business going behind our back.”
I hadn’t liked taking my pills; they made me disconnected, so I opted to take Ibuprofen for pain, and sold some to make extra money. But Nan knew about that.
I kept my appearance calm, but my heart was pounding, sending nervous energy through me. “Nan and I worked out our arrangement, talk to her about my rent.” I pulled my arm from his grip and walked away with more bravado than I felt.
“Nan’s not here, so I’m talking to you.” He followed behind me.
That was my cue. I went into Nan’s room and locked the door before he had a chance to stop me.
He pounded on the door twice. “You can’t hide forever.”
“I’m not hiding, I'm going to bed,” I said to the closed door. The last three pills were in my backpack; I took them out and slipped them into the third drawer down on the dresser. I'd give them to Nan in the morning. Maybe they’d buy me a little more time.
I awoke and sat up, grabbing the clock on the nightstand table, ready to bludgeon someone.
The shouts continued in the other room, and I scooted off the bed. Tiptoeing to the bedroom door, I strained to make sense of James' tirade.
The door flew open wide and a shock of light blinded me from the other side. I froze, gripping the heavy clock in my hand.
Nan crossed into the room and whirled, slamming the door close as she shouted, “Go kill yourself!” She flipped on the lights, illuminating the room and her anger.
Growling, she flung her clothes into the corner and threw drawers open and shut as she snatched out shorts and a t-shirt.
I sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for the hurricane in Nan to calm. When she was fully dressed, she perched on the chair beside the window, smoking her cigarette.
She was vibrating with anger as she spoke between drags, “Fucking junkie doesn’t care about anything but his next high. He would have kept all your pills to himself if I hadn’t taken some and sold them. Still, he ate most of 'em. And now he’s mad that you sold some.” She shook her head and met my eyes. “Thanks for not telling him that was my idea. He’d be pissed I kept that from him. But, shit, he can’t be trusted with money.” She pulled her thin, brown hair over one shoulder and picked at the ends of it. “I just don’t know what to do with him.” She dropped her hair and stood, looking at me. “Do you have any pills left?”
I took a deep breath and nodded to her dresser. “Third drawer down. There’s three of them.”
She knelt in front of the drawer and searched for the pills, scooping them up in her hand. “I’ll give him these, then maybe he’ll calm the fuck down.”
I didn’t like her plan. “Nan, are you sure?”
She stopped on her way to the door and turned towards me with a shrug of her bony shoulder. “No, but it’s all I can think to do for now.”
I leaned back on the bed after she walked out. I needed to get out of here. When I started serving again, I'd be able to afford a cheap apartment. Until then, this was it. Even though it sucked, it was better than nothing.
Nan walked back into the room and flopped next to me with a sigh. “He should be good for now. I can’t keep doing this, though.”
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. “I’m going to get my own apartment; you can move in with me.”
One side of her mouth pulled up. “Thanks, but no. I can’t leave him alone, he’s family, ya know?”
I shook my head. I didn’t know, but I could imagine.
The Boxing Club was an open warehouse with two boxing rings in the center. Mats, bags, and weights lined the perimeter. There were several dozen people around the gym at different stations working out.
I hesitated by the door, unsure of who I was looking for. Or more accurately, who was looking for me.
A man smiled at me while pounding a body bag.
“Excuse me,” I called to him. “Is Silas Tillman here?”
He steadied the bag in his hands and nodded his head to one of the boxing rings. “He’s over there.”
There were two kids in the ring with helmets and gloves on, sparring. At one corner, a tall, muscular man gave directions to the miniature boxers.
There are strange bits and pieces that I remember from that night, and his bald head was one of them. I recognized him as the calm one.
“Can I help you?” he asked as I neared the ring. His eyes followed the boys jabbing at each other. “Keep your hands up, Derek.”
At my question, his eyes swept over me with eyebrows raised.
“I wanted to thank you, and I was also told you were looking for me.”
“Practice on the bags for a minute boys, I’ll be right back.” He climbed out of the ring and his narrowed eyes scanned over me. “Regan?” At my nod, his full lips spread into a smile. “Well I’ll be damned, I wouldn’t have recognized you.”
“Thank you. Thank you for your help that night.” My voice strained with more emotion than I'd expected.
He shook his head and continued staring with wide eyes. “Come with me.”
Walking to the next ring, he patted on the canvas. “Gage. Dexter. Look who decided to show up.”
The two shirtless men in the ring paused and swept their gazes across me.
One was young and lean with trim muscles and definition. His clear, pale eyes stood out against his light brown skin. His smile was friendly as he scanned me, but I only spared a second to look at him.
The other man was large and cut, a head taller than the boy in the ring with him. The dark ink of his tattoos stood out on his tan skin, several spotting his right arm and ribs. But when his cool blue eyes met mine, they squeezed the air from my lungs and sucked the warmth from my body.
The younger guy jumped over the ropes and hopped off the canvas, landing in front of me, effectively pulling my gaze from the other.
“Hey, I’m Dexter.” He pulled a glove off his hand and tossed it back in the ring, and then looked me over once more. “Wait a minute, are you–You are, aren’t you?”
Before I knew what was happening, he was hugging me. “How are you?” He held me at arm’s length, and then squeezed me close again. “Man, I’m glad to see you.”
Wide eyed with shock, I stepped out of his grasp.
“Calm down, Dex, you’re scaring the girl.” The deep voice stopped Dexter from hugging me again.
The man in the ring climbed out of the ropes. My nerves pulsed the closer he got, urging me to flee. His mere presence overwhelmed me, more than the other boy’s over eager greeting.
“Hi, I’m Gage Lawson.” He nodded his head to me.
My heart raced, making up for the beats it skipped at the sound of his voice.
I didn’t recognize either of them from that night, but I assumed the younger one was the nervous guy in shorts. I don’t know why I couldn’t place Gage; he didn’t seem like the type you would forget.
But I recalled Officer Fields words; Gage had chased the boys and caught two of them. No wonder they gave up, his every pore radiated strength.
I nodded to each of them, finding it hard to look at Gage but even harder to keep my eyes away. “Thank you. All of you. For helping me the other night.”
They nodded back, not saying anything. I shifted on my feet, unsure of what else to do.
“Come back to my office, I’d like to talk with you,” Silas broke the silence.
I followed him, but snuck another look at Gage as I walked by. His light brown hair was spiky with sweat, and his strong jaw clenched as his cool eyes followed me.
Silas sat on one side of his desk, and Dexter and I sat in the wooden chairs on the opposite side. Gage leaned against the wall, an ominous presence shadowing our meeting.
“How have you been, Regan?” Silas asked, leaning back in his chair.
“Good." I shrugged. "Mostly healed. But that night's still a mystery.”
Dexter leaned towards me. “I bet. That was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some shit. But man.” He shook his head, and for the first time his smile melted into a grimace. “I’m just glad Silas had his gun on him to scare them away. Although I wish we could've kicked their asses. Fucking cowards.”
“So there was a gun." I looked towards Silas. "I thought I heard a shot, but I wasn’t sure if I was remembering right.”
Silas met Gage’s eyes, and something passed between them before Gage focused on me. “I had a fight that night. We were leaving out the back when we saw them,” he paused, swallowing some words, “attacking you.”
Silas picked up the story, “It was bad. I shot my gun into the air, hoping to get them off of you. It worked; they ran away and Gage chased 'em. Dexter went to check on you, and I called the cops.”
Dexter smiled and tipped his head to me. “One of the boys Gage caught had a broken nose. You did that.”
I nodded again, trying to mesh their story with what I already knew. “You were the one with me when I got up?”
He laughed and shifted his eyes to Silas. “I was freaking out. I thought you were going to die, and then you just stood up.”
I cringed. “That bad, huh?”
Silas gave Dexter a look that silenced him. “No, not that bad.” He stepped in front of me, leaning on the edge of his desk. “You were attacked by a group of boys and fought back, injuring several. And you still stood up after.” He nodded around the room. "I saw that video--we all did. Where did you learn to fight like that?”
I shifted in my seat. I had taught myself; I was tired of getting beat up, so I googled defensive moves and practiced them. But I skipped answering, and focused on something else they said.
“How did you see the video? I still haven’t seen it.”
Dexter pulled out his phone. “The cops released it; it was on the news and the Internet. Here, I’ve got it if you want to see it.”
“No.” I responded before he could hand me his phone. I wasn’t ready to see it, not yet, and not in front of people. I hated the idea of others, people I didn’t even know, watching my attack.
Gage’s eyes narrowed as I fidgeted in my chair. His quiet, but dominant, presence seemed too large for the room, making me claustrophobic.
“Thank you, really, I wish I could do more, repay you somehow. But… thank you.” I stood to leave. I needed to see that video, away from these people, away from Gage.
Silas straightened. “Wait; there is something you can do. It’s more for you though, but it will help us as well.”
Dexter was smiling, his blue eyes alight with excitement, but Gage wouldn’t look at me; his hard gaze locked on Silas. Then he turned and walked out, pulling the door shut behind him.
Silas shrugged and resumed the conversation. “You have a talent for fighting, for boxing, and I’m a trainer and manager. I propose a partnership. What do you think?”
My eyebrows rose in question. “You want to train me? I don't have money for that." Was he trying to sell me a gym membership?
“I want to train you, but it’s more than that. If you’re up for it, you could fight this Friday and earn some money.”
"Friday?" I sat back down in the chair; that was only two day's away. "How much money?" Anticipation pulsed, tingling my skin. This sudden turn of events was exciting, even if I wasn’t sure I could actually do it.
“You would get three hundred dollars. It’s a professional match, but your opponent's new to boxing, too. We’d have to act fast if you want to do this. You need to be licensed and see our doctor.”
I looked from Dexter’s encouraging grin to Silas’s neutral face. “Can I fight that soon? Don’t I need to practice first? Why the rush?”
I wanted to do it and the money was tempting, but my suspicion was building.
“The girl that’s supposed to fight dropped out last minute. Someone needs to fight or we lose money. You’d be doing us a favor.”
Dexter scooted his chair closer to mine, leaning forward. "I could help you practice. Like Dexter's boxing boot camp." His eyes sparked with energy. "For future fights you’d need training, which is where Silas can help. But knowing what you can do, I think you could win this."
I nodded, considering. Thinking about winning relit my excitement. Pain didn't scare me, and I knew I could handle a one on one fight, win or lose. "Would I still get paid if I lost?”
Dexter’s grin stretched even further, and he was almost out of his seat. “Hell yeah, but I don’t think you’ll lose.”
His encouragement pumped me up. “And you’ll train me after, so I can keep fighting? Professionally?”
Silas nodded. “Do we have a deal?”
“Tell me what I have to do.”