Book: Outside The Ropes

Previous: 6: Fight Night
Next: 8: Cat And Mouse

I LEFT BEHIND THE OPEN, BUT TIDY foyer, descending into a sports bar. Framed sports posters of knockouts and football plays covered the dark gray walls. Three big screen TV’s were mounted above a fireplace and an oversized playpen sofa was in front of them. A bar stretched across the opposite wall with leather stools and wood trim. A pool table was in the center of the room and several boys surrounded it, racking the balls.

I took a seat next to Leona on the bench facing the pool table.

“Do you play?” I asked.

“Sometimes, but only when these idiots aren’t taking it too seriously.” She nodded at the boys who were throwing money down on the green felt, wagering bets on who would win.

Her eyes lit up as Dexter rounded the corner of the stairs, his liquor store bag in tow. She stretched her arms towards him, making grabby motions with her hands. “Ooh. Ooh. Ooh. Gimme.”

He kissed Leona, holding the bag out of reach with one hand while patting her in a calming gesture with the other. In a mock attempt not to be heard, he dropped his voice. “Chill, babe. I know I’m hard to resist, but we’ve got company.”

She slapped him away. “Oh yeah, so hard to resist. You know I only keep you around for one reason.” With a raised brow, she stood up and grabbed the bag from him. “To make the drinks.” She winked in my direction and sashayed to the bar with the bag in her arms.

I laughed as Dexter grabbed his heart and followed her. “You’re killing me, Lee Lee.”

When Gage walked into the room with his model trailing close behind, the group at the pool table immediately took notice.

“Gage, you want to play?”

“Hey man, good fight tonight.”

“Here you can take my spot if you want. I can get next game.”

He took one of the pool sticks pushed in his direction as his eyes swept around the room. “Yeah, okay, I’ll play. Who’s up first?”

The frat boy, Jase, started racking the balls again; they had already started one game, but abandoned it when Gage arrived. “That’d be me. You can break first.”

The girl with Gage reluctantly released his hand and went to sit on a nearby stool, her eyes glued to him like he was all there was to see.

I couldn’t contain my eye roll at how they fell all over him. I guess it wasn’t only me who he intimidated. Although with his just washed hair sticking up in tufts, his casual jeans, T-shirt, and zip up hoody, his scary vibe was muted. Just a tad.

“Was this your first fight tonight?” A boy sitting next to me asked.

My smile stretched as I nodded. I was still amazed at myself. A few days ago, I would have never thought this possible. Now it was all I wanted. This week had taken a turn, but I was used to the unexpected.

The boy’s name was Danny and he went to UMBC with Dexter and Leona. My first impression of them being Frat boys was right. Dex never joined, but many in the group were frat brothers, including Jase.

As the night continued, everyone loosened up with alcohol, becoming more social, and I had to start adjusting my prejudice of college kids. They didn’t seem that stuck up. In fact, they just seemed crazy.

“Show her the hug cam.” Danny laughed as he nudged Dexter.

We were watching different YouTube videos on one of the big screen's. Dexter went to his channel and clicked on a compilation of Vines, with Dexter as the star. He hugged random people in different settings. Their reactions ranged from pushing him to laughing to hugging him back.

His friends were all cracking up laughing as the video played, and I couldn’t help but laugh along with them; it was so random.

When it ended, Dexter turned to me expectantly. “Kinda funny, right? You should try it some time.”

“It looks like an excuse to hug a bunch of pretty girls to me,” I answered wryly.

Leona pushed his shoulder. “See. I’m not the only one who says that.”

Dexter popped out of his seat and pointed at me, excitement lighting his face. “Challenge accepted! Tomorrow, I'm going out and hugging dudes. Then let’s see what happens. In fact,” He looked around the room, “I’m going to practice now.” He marched over to his brother, who had his back to us, lining up a shot on the pool table. He threw his arms around him and squeezed him, hard, his eyes shutting as he snuggled up to his back.

I let out a shocked laugh and vibrated with suppressed laughter.

Gage straightened and twisted around, looking down as his brother pressed into his chest. His confused expression softened as he glanced around the room, taking in the laughter. His face transformed with a small, soft smile, and his chest shook with his own amusement. He pulled his brother off of him and held him out at arm’s length.

“How the hell are we related? You are a lunatic.” It was almost a whisper.

“Alright, well if I can get away with hugging you, I think I can take on anyone.” Dexter walked away to stand in front of me. “So since you presented this challenge, you have to come with me tomorrow to witness it.”

I straightened up and pressed my hand to my chest in confusion. “Me? I didn’t tell you to do anything.”

Gage walked over and sat in the open seat beside me, looking towards the TV. “Oh, now I get it. This is all part of those videos you’re always taking.” He shook his head, but the low rumble of his laugh vibrated through me. “Show that one you did at the gym the other day.”

Everyone on the couch seemed to let out a sigh of relief at Gage’s response, including Dexter.

Another video started. A guy at the gym was punching the body bags when Dexter leapt into the shot and straddled the bag, sending it flying. The bag bounced into the original guy, flinging him to the ground and knocking Dexter off the bag.

It was official. He was crazy. But he had me laughing more than I ever had before.

We watched more videos, and as others joined us on the couch, Gage scooted closer to me. He didn’t say anything, but I could feel him, like static electricity. The closer he got, the stronger it was—an ever-present fuzzy warning between us. Even when his model sat on the other side of him, linking her arms with him, I couldn’t shake the feeling. I tried to focus on the videos, but he wasn’t the type you could ignore.

Jase turned to his friends. “We need to go soon. Gage said everyone out at one.”

Gage shifted, leaning over me slightly to respond to him. “No, you all can stay longer.”

His heavy warmth was suffocating, the fuzz of electricity spiked, and I pressed myself back into the couch. When he straightened, I hopped up and asked to borrow Leona’s phone. I needed to call a cab. It was getting late, and even if Gage was alright with people staying now, I knew it was the alcohol that changed his mind. He had wanted us gone. Plus, I wanted to start training in the morning, too.

“Sure.” Leona slurred as she wobbled to her purse. “Here, I’ll write the address for you, too.”

“Thanks.” I took the phone and address and walked to the stairway to make the call.

After the arrangements were set, I returned to the room and found Dexter. “Hey, a cab is coming in about 10 minutes. Can you let them in your gate when they buzz in?”

His face fell with disappointment. “You’re leaving already? Alright, I’ll let ‘em in, but we’re still on for tomorrow, right? I have a hug cam mission.”

“I’ll be at the gym in the morning and then I have to work after that.”

“You’re not escaping that easily. Well work something out.”

When the house phone rang, signaling that the cab was at the community gate, I said my goodbyes and walked upstairs.

I could feel the cold night air through the windowpane by the door as I watched for the lights of the cab.

“You’re leaving?” Gage’s deep voice came from behind.

I spun towards him and cringed at being taken by surprise.

He leaned against the doorframe to the basement steps, a beer bottle dangling from one hand, and his lip turned up in amusement. His eyes zoned in on me as he pushed off the wall and took an easy step closer.

“You don’t have to go. You could stay here.”

“Uh, thanks.” I broke his gaze to check outside. No cab yet. “Cab’s already on its way.” My voice sounded shaky, even to my own ears.

His slight smile inched up a bit more as he watched me, and he took another step towards me. “Do I scare you?”

I straightened at his words, remembering myself. I’m not sure what to call what I was feeling; it was something very much like fear, but I wouldn’t let him know that. I raised my chin, defiant, and shook my head, not trusting my voice to keep up the act.

He licked his lips, and his smile stretched just a bit more. "Then come a little closer.” He took a step of his own, now only an arm’s length away. That sizzle of electricity charged the air between us.

At the same time, the lights of the cab streaked through the window and relief surged through me. “My rides here,” I said in dismissal, putting the door between us in an instant.

I jogged down the steps to the waiting cab, sliding into the warmth of the back seat. I rattled off Nan’s address and slumped back.

I had no clue what that was in there or what he was trying to do. Whatever it was, I didn’t like it. Nor did I like my reaction. I had to be careful with him.

***

Nan met me at the door. She linked her arm through mine, partially for balance and partially to whisper to me, “I need the bedroom tonight. You’re probably going to want to take the couch.”

I leaned back, evaluating her. She was all smiles, a sure sign she was wasted, but I wasn’t sure it was just alcohol. It didn’t seem likely.

Their typical weekend crowd, with a few extras, were in the living room. Liquor, beer, and weed paraphernalia littered the coffee table, but something about the way everyone held themselves, a bit too loose and close together, suggested more.

My attention pulled back to Nan as she stroked my hoody, “I love this sweater, it’s so soft,” she mumbled. Raising her eyes to mine, she smiled. “I love you, too. Can I please wear your sweater? I’ll love it and take care of it.” She nodded her head with sincerity.

I leaned away from her and pulled my hoody over my head. She wore a crop top and skirt; she needed the sweater more than me. Although I bet she wasn’t feeling the cold air. “Let me just use your room to change first, then it’s all yours for the night.”

She was too busy rubbing the sweater against her cheek to pay attention.

After changing into sweat pants and another hoody, I hid my book bag away in Nan’s closet.

Returning to the living room, I spotted Nan sitting on Dean’s lap, cuddled into his neck, only one arm in my sweater. I figured that's who it was; he was her occasional bed partner, but not quite boyfriend.

She stood up and pulled him with her. “Come with me.” She faced me with her sweet, drug-induced smile. “I saved you this couch.” She narrowed her eyes, pointing to everyone else in the room and warned with a hard voice, “You all leave Regan alone. She gets this couch, and none of you bitches better bother her or you’ll answer to me.” Breaking away from Dean, she leaned on me. “I’ve always got your back, Babe. God, I love you.”

I nodded, indulging her, “I know. I love you, too.”

Satisfied, she turned back to Dean. “See, I told you she was my best friend,” she pouted as they made a clumsy path to her bedroom.

I wasn’t worried about Nan; unlike me, she was a fan of recreational drugs and had never once mentioned regretting anything she’d done on them. And since she had been with Dean before, I was sure everything was consensual.

But now I was stuck in a room with six others, all in different stages of oblivion. Hopefully everyone stayed in the mellow states they seemed to be in now.

I grabbed a comforter from the hall closet and claimed my sofa, spreading myself out and covering up. But I didn’t dare lie down and close my eyes, not that I could if I tried.

Family Guy was on, and I zoned out to it like everyone else.

A couple of episodes in, noises from the couch next to me competed with the show. James had a girl, Sienna, cuddled up with him. He stroked her long braids as she kissed a trail on his neck. Her hands groped down the length of him shamelessly, making him moan, drawing even more attention.

I tried to block them out and watch TV, but the escalating scene was stirring my anger as much as it made me uncomfortable. Just as I was about to say something, another boy I didn’t know eased himself over to my couch, stealth like.

“Don’t even think about it,” I warned, pulling the edge of my blanket out of his grasp.

James raised his head at the sound of my voice and smirked. “Yeah, Sam, don’t even try it. That one there bites.”

Sam looked towards me with wide eyes, frozen in place. I snapped my teeth at him and he shuddered in revulsion before slinking away to the other chair.

The girl pulled on James, trying to return her lips to his neck, but he shook her off and stood up. “My room?” He nodded in the direction of his door and she scurried to it.

He looked around at those left and said, “Alright, I’m going to bed now. Sam and Reggie, it's time for you to go. Miguel and Ty, are you staying?”

Ty stood up. “Not tonight. I’ll be around tomorrow, like we talked about.”

Miguel stayed on the recliner. “I’m crashing. Regan, can you get me one of those blankets, too?”

“Seriously? You can’t walk ten feet and get it yourself?” But I stood up anyways, grabbed another blanket from the closet, and tossed it to him.

Miguel caught it. “You’re an angel.”

James returned from locking the door behind his friends. “A damn dark angel.” He ruffled the top of my head as he passed by.

The TV was still on, but James flicked off the light before he went to his room. I nestled deeper into the couch and relaxed.

I wasn’t worried about Miguel sleeping opposite me; he wasn’t necessarily a friend, but I knew him well enough. Even earlier, that other boy who tried to slide under the covers didn’t faze me. These were my people. I knew how to handle myself with them, including James, the wild card.

I closed my eyes, recalling the thrill of connected punches and the feeling of power that came with it. Gage was the unknown entity in my day, the one part that didn’t feel within my control, but I didn’t want to focus on him. Today had been a great day, and for once I was looking forward to tomorrow.

***

I walked into the gym at 9:30 and was surprised to see Gage and Dexter already covered in sweat at the bags.

Sliding my sweatshirt over my head, I felt stiff. My muscles were sore from my fight and recent workouts, but I’m sure the couch for a bed didn’t help either.

Dexter slid onto the bench beside me. “Wasn’t sure if you would show today.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, pulling my hair back into a smooth ponytail. “Why wouldn’t I?” 

He shrugged easily. “Just wasn’t sure. Thought you might need a rest day.”

I slid my book bag into a locker and stood. “Well, I’m here, so what now? Will I start with Silas?”

His smile was bright. “Go to his office first; he might have something for you. But if not, you can work out with me again.”

Silas gave me a sheet that listed my workout and helped instruct me. I tried to push myself as hard as possible, but still fell short. I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to get in shape. Two hours flew by, and I felt drained and discouraged when it was time to shower, but my resolve was still strong. I would do better tomorrow.

I caught a glimpse of Gage and Dexter sparring as I walked out, but couldn’t pause to watch, as much as I wanted to. I had to get to work.

***

I was still stuck bussing, but Johnny promised I could start serving on Monday, so I sucked it up and hustled.

“Whoa, what are you doing?” I questioned, pivoting on my feet to keep from spilling my bin of dishes on Trichelle.

She was peeking around the kitchen doorframe.

“He’s gay!” She slapped her leg, pouting.

I set my bin down on the dishwasher and twisted to look at her. “Who?”

She dragged me to the door by my hand. “That hot guy with the gorgeous eyes. He’s gay. He’s been all over Drew.” She pointed to where Dexter was sitting with Jase and another boy.

Drew returned to the table with drinks in his hand. When he set them down, Dexter popped out of his seat in a flash and hugged him, rocking side to side. Drew patted his back, hesitant, before pulling away.

Walking back to the kitchen, he mouthed, “What the fuck” with large eyes.

Trichelle threw her arm up in frustration. “See.”

I covered my laugh with the back of my hand.

She rounded on Drew when he entered the kitchen. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I am so jealous of you right now.”

“I better get a good tip from that table is all I’m saying.” He went to the computer and typed in their orders.

I shook my head and walked out to Dexter.

He leaned back in his chair as I came near. “Hey Rea Rea, I was wondering when you would notice us.”

“Don’t ever call me that again. And you are creeping Drew out, stop hugging him.” I couldn’t hide the laughter in my voice.

The boys laughed and Jase raised his head, scanning the restaurant. “Give him another target. Who else should he hug?”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re hopeless, I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Wait.” Dexter’s serious tone stopped me. “Isn’t that the cop from that night?” He nodded over towards the host stand.

Sure enough, Officer Fields was standing there in uniform.

I sighed and nodded. “Yup.”

Dexter rose out of his seat slowly. “I think I’m going to hug him.”

A burst of surprised laughter escaped me. “Go for it. Bye boys.”

I escaped to the kitchen, peeking out the door in time to see Dexter hugging Officer Fields. His head rested on his shoulder as he held him in a soft embrace. The officer's eyebrows furrowed, and his arms stayed stiff by his side. Jase had the phone out at the table, videoing the entire thing.

Loading the dirty bin of dishes into the washer, I attempted to ignore the agitation creeping under my skin. I knew it was useless, but I wanted to avoid Officer Fields. Maybe I’d get lucky and he’d just leave a message.

No such luck.

Trichelle came into the kitchen. “Regan, you lucky girl! There is a delicious man in a uniform requesting you.”

At my groan, she rushed next to me. “No. I don’t think you’re in trouble. He just wants to speak with you.”

I rinsed my hands in the sink, wiping them on my apron as I made my way to the front of the restaurant. He was seated at a small table by the door.

I gave him a tight smile and crossed my arms as I stood in front of him. “Hello Officer Fields. Can I help you with something?”

He flicked his eyes to the seat across from him. “Can you sit down?”

“I’m working. I don’t really have time to chat.”

He nodded and rubbed the back of his head. “I wanted to give you something.”

I waited.

“Here.” He tried to hand me a phone with a charger wrapped around it.

“I can’t take that.” I took a step back.

He extended the phone to me again. “I want you to have it. It’s prepaid for the month. I saw you run behind the apartments when I dropped you off.” He raised his hand, keeping me from interjecting, “I’m not going to ask any questions, but that’s not a safe area. You need a phone. Please, take it.”

“That’s crossing the line. You can’t give me that.”

His eyes widened and he leaned forward on the table, speaking low, “You crossed all my lines. But I liked it. Let me cross this one.”

I shifted my eyes around the area. Dexter was watching me from his table, and Johnny kept looking over while he mixed drinks at the bar.

I approached Johnny. “Can I have a ten minute break to talk to him?”

“Of course, of course. Use my office in the back.” He gave me a questioning look, but didn't say any more.

“Thanks.” I signaled for Officer Fields to follow me with a nod of my head.

The minute he entered the space, I closed the door. The office was small, but it would do. I needed this conversation to stay private.

He turned towards me, pulling at the collar of his fitted shirt. He really did look good in his uniform. It was almost a shame I was going to have to turn him away.

“I know you don’t want to date me, but I thought we could come up with some other arrangement.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think we can. I don’t know why you’re here. I--”

“I want you to be safe. Take the phone.” He tried to hand me the phone again.

I hesitated, curious about his intentions. “And what do you get?”

His smile was shy, but showed off his dimples. “My numbers in it. You could call me. You’re wild and I like that. You bring out my wild side. So, since you don’t want to date, we could just…” He shrugged, letting his words trail off.

I was amused at his bluntness. At least he was being honest, finally. The other night he had gone on about relationships and caring, but today he was laying it out straight. I could respect that.

I cocked my head, considering him. “I think I should be offended. You’re saying I should call you when I want to fuck.” I went for shock value to see if he could handle it.

He didn't flinch, but watched me intently with his brown eyes. “You should be, but you’re not. That’s why I’m here. Don’t worry; I won’t ask questions, I won’t make demands. I just want you to keep me wild, and I'll keep you safe.”

I was about to take the phone until that last line. “So you have a prince charming complex? I don’t need anyone to keep me safe; I can do that on my own.”

He rubbed the back of his neck again “Alright, I know. However you want it. I just meant, take the phone, and call me when you want to.”

“How old are you?”

He dropped his eyes. “26.” He hesitated to look back up at me. “But I know you’re 19, so it’s all good.”

I took the phone from his hand, holding it between two fingers. “Why is this so important to you?”

He shrugged. “I had to do something. I can’t stop thinking about you. So you’ll call?”

I slid the charger off and slipped it into my apron pocket. Turning the phone on, the screen lit up. It was a generic smart phone, but still nice.

“No questions?” I wanted to be clear on the rules.

He smiled and shook his head. “And no demands. Not from me anyways.”

“Uh,” I paused, considering everything. For some stupid reason, I couldn’t resist. He was offering a no strings relationship, and I think I could handle that. I knew I could handle him. “Okay, Officer Fields. Maybe I’ll call you later.” I slid the phone into my pocket and turned to go.

“My only demand.”

I froze, back still to him, reaching for the phone to return it.

“Call me Anthony.”

I smiled, sliding the phone back into my pocket. “Okay, Anthony.”

***

“You’re early. I never expect you here at the start of the night.” James stood back, letting me pass into the apartment.

He kicked the bottom of the door closed and grabbed the Styrofoam container of wings from me. “And you come bearing gifts?” He opened the lid and his smile grew. “Old Bay wings.”

I walked into the living room and hesitated as I spotted Damien, a notorious drug dealer, on the couch with Ty.

“Regan, been a minute since I’ve seen you.” Damien’s eyes crawled over me.

I nodded and turned to go to Nan’s room to get away from him and whatever deal he had going on with James.

The doorknob to Nan’s room wouldn’t budge, and my heart squeezed. It was locked.

“Nan’s got company; can’t go in there yet.” James confirmed what I suspected.

My insides protested against sitting with them, but there seemed to be little choice. I took off my winter coat and chose the seat farthest from Damien.

“You just get off work?” Ty asked.

I looked down at my outfit—dark denim skinny jeans and a green T-shirt with Johnny’s written across it in bold print. “Yup.”

James set a stack of paper plates and the wings on the edge of the scratched coffee table. “She brought wings if you want some”

Damien shot a disgusted look. “Let’s fuckin deal with our business first. I don’t want that grease on my money or supply.”

James head bobbed on top of his long neck as he closed the lid to the wings.

Damien flicked his eyes from each of us in the room before resting on James. “We all good here?”

I tried to ignore them and watch the commercial for some floor cleaner on TV. I knew what he meant though; could they make the deal in front of me.

James continued to bob his head. “You know Regan, don’t you?”

He smirked. “Yeah, me and Regan got some history. But it’s just that. History. Wasn’t sure if she changed.”

I stiffened infinitesimally, still trying to play off interest in what was on TV. I knew him from around. He lived near my last foster parent, Ms. Mary, but I never really spent time with him. I went to school with his sister, but she hated me. He would occasionally talk to me, usually to hit on me like he did all females. He was one of those guys that thought he could, and should, have every girl.

Ty spoke up, “She’s good. So you think you can help us with what we talked about?”

James perked up and stilled his bouncing leg

Damien leaned forward on his knees. “That’s why I’m here. But I don’t give loans, not to start. You prove yourself and maybe in the future. But today, right now, you have to pay the full amount. Then whatever you make is profit. Charge whatever you want, hell if I care, but don’t use my name to anyone. And you don’t want to charge less than J.R., although it’s your ass if you do. Remember, my name doesn’t leave your mouth after this.”

James and Ty exchanged glances and nodded.

“Alright then, where’s the cash?”

I couldn’t fake it anymore; I got up to walk to the kitchen. I had already heard too much and didn’t want to be part of the rest.

“Regan? That goes for you, too. You’re not gonna talk about this, right?”

I looked at Damien, not hesitating with my answer, “No. I won’t talk.”

“Then where are you going?”

My heart was beating in my stomach. I should have stayed seated. “To get a drink. Anybody else want something?”

They shook their heads and I walked out of the room. I scanned the kitchen, not really needing or wanting anything, just trying to distract myself from what was going on in the living room. I wonder if Nan knew what her brother was getting into now. He was still on parole; this could send him back to prison.

“Regan?”

I closed the refrigerator and turned to face James.

He crossed his arms. “Let me get one twenty.”

My eyebrows flew up “What?”

“We’re one hundred and twenty short. Let me get it.”

I shook my head. I had the money, but not to give. I didn’t owe him anything.

Ty walked into the kitchen, looking eager. “Can she help?”

“No, I can’t!” I backed into the refrigerator as Damien walked in.

The space was small and crowded with the four of us standing.

“So no deal?” Damien looked between James and Ty.

“Can’t we work something out? Maybe we only get some now? Make it a smaller order?”

Damien shook his head and adjusted his ski cap low on his head. “Nah, it don’t work like that.” Then his eyes focused on me and he paused. “Although, we could work something out; another form of payment.” He licked his lips and cocked his head. “Regan, what do you say? Help your friends out?”

I shook my head and struggled to find my voice. “No, I can’t help.”

James looked between the two of us. “You mean something other than money?”

I glared at James. I wasn’t willing to give them money; I sure as hell wouldn’t sleep with someone to pay for their drugs.

“She wouldn’t do that. If you know Regan, you know that,” James said.

At least he hadn’t lost his mind.

Damien smirked, “Yeah I remember Regan. She was always one uppity bitch. Only giving time to those boys with money, never one of her own. I just thought those boys might have knocked her down a notch.”

I bit my cheek to keep quiet, but a fire started burning in my stomach.

Damien’s wicked smile spread as he chuckled. “I have seen you recently, on a video. But it cut off before they got to the good part. They had you on the ground, so don’t tell me none of those boys knew what to do with you. Did you--”

“Shut the fuck up.” I couldn’t stand to hear any more from his foul mouth. My emotions crashed violently inside me, looking for a way out.

James gave a nervous laugh, eyes bouncing between Damien and me. “Let’s go back to the living room. I’ll check with Nan. She’ll help.”

“Wait.” Damien took a step towards me, filling all my senses. “I want to hear what happened. I could make you forget their touch, baby. And then we’d all be happy.”

He stepped closer, reaching for me, and I shoved him away, hard.

“Stupid Bitch,” he spoke low, his voice laced with hatred.

It was all the warning I needed. Just as he lunged at me, I punched him in the face and kneed him in the stomach. As he folded, I ran out of the kitchen.

James grabbed me by the shoulders and I turned on him, still swinging.

“Whoa,” he yelled, but anger transformed his face as my fist connected with his lip.

He pushed me back to the wall in the hallway, his hands wrapped around my neck, rage clear in his eyes.

I pushed at him and clawed at his hands. I was struggling to breathe. My vision wavered and darkened at the edges. James’ angry face blocked everything out.

Then he was gone, and I sucked in much needed air. I looked around wildly, still with my guard up.

James lay on the ground, and Nan stood to my side with a gun in hand. She moved it in a wide arc, keeping everyone back.

Damien’s cold voice broke the silence. “You better be willing to shoot. You've done lost your mind pulling a gun on me.”

She shook her head and lowered the glock, sliding it into the back of her pants. “I’m not going to shoot, but he was going to kill her. I had to do something.”

Dean put his arm around Nan, pulling her back as James stood up.

“So you’re gonna fuckin’ choose her over me. I’m your brother.”

She sighed, deflating. “No, but I had to stop you and you weren’t listening.” She turned towards me. “Regan, you need to go. Now.”

I nodded, still feeling the danger in the room. “Let me get my things.”

“Make it fuckin’ quick,” James ordered.

I grabbed my book bag, shoving in as much as I could make fit, in under a minute. Then I braced myself to return to the living room and grabbed my jacket. They were all still in the hall way and kitchen. James was apologizing to Damien, who laughed.

I avoided looking at them as I walked by, but Damien spoke before I closed the door.

“Stay safe, Regan.”

My heart crashed into my stomach.

Previous: 6: Fight Night
Next: 8: Cat And Mouse