I MADE IT TO THE CURB BEFORE I stopped to put on my jacket. I was shaking and fumbled with the puffy coat and backpack in my arms. Tears burned, blurring my vision. I told myself the lie that it was just the cold.
I couldn’t peel my eyes from Nan’s apartment door and my damn jacket wasn’t going on. Frustrated, I threw my bag down and shook my jacket out, shoving each arm through. I picked the backpack up and began moving again. I needed to put distance between me and the people inside that apartment.
“Regan, wait,” Nan called.
I stopped walking only when I saw that she was alone, but I didn’t dare walk closer.
She jogged to where I stood. “In a couple of days, maybe you can come back.”
I shook my head, unable to find words equal to the fucked-up-ness of the situation.
She threw her hands up in frustration. “What happened in there?”
I kept looking to her door, anticipating when it would open next. I couldn’t stand here and have this conversation. Not now, maybe not ever.
Tension pulled at my muscles and my hands balled into fists just thinking about what went down.
“You saw what happened. Your brother and his friends...” I shook my head; I couldn’t come up with the rest. I couldn’t think through the panic in me. This place was dangerous, and not just for me. “Don’t go back in there, Nan. We can go somewhere else.”
She crossed her arms, “No. I have to go back in. My brother-“
“He’s bad news. Ever since he’s gotten out he’s caused trouble. You can’t keep living like this.”
She shook her head, strings of her hair blowing in her face. “It’s not just him. You don’t fucking think sometimes. What the hell were you doing in there? What did you say to them? Why? When you know he has a temper.” Her voice was turning shrill. “You get yourself in trouble all the time, even before James came home.”
I had no response; a small part of me saw a sliver of truth in it, but only a sliver. I knew tonight was not my fault. “Okay. Go back inside then. I’m leaving.”
“Wait.” She wiped the side of her face and nose with the sleeve of her sweater. The slick trail of tears shone on her cheek under the streetlight. “Where are you going to go?” Her voice was small and weak.
“Are you crying?” I was annoyed. “You kick me out, tell me it’s my fault, and now you’re crying? Stop.”
She stiffened. “I’m worried for you, just come by on Tuesday.”
The door to Nan’s apartment opened and my flight response went into overdrive. I took two steps back, about to run.
Dean stuck his head out and yelled, “Nan, everything good?”
She looked to me and back to Dean. “I’m coming in. One sec.”
“Be careful, okay. I mean it.” She gave me a sad smile.
“Yeah, you too,” I said, turning to leave.
Everything settled on me--the darkness, the cold, and Damien’s veiled threat. I quickened my pace; my only goal was to get out of the area, but then what?
I made it to the front of the apartment complex and saw a group of teens walking on the sidewalk along the main road. I crouched on the curb, hiding myself between two parked cars. The group was laughing and yelling as they walked by, but I couldn’t bring myself to stand.
I was stuck, struggling for air. I put my head between my knees and tried to think of something to do. Remembering my phone in my back pocket, I leaned forward to slide it out, saying a prayer as I pressed the on button. It lit up with a full charge still. It took several seconds for my numb and shaky fingers to navigate the screen, but I finally saw the number I was searching for and pressed dial.
I nodded my head, tears prickling my eyes. “Yeah.”
“Do you- Can I come pick you up?”
Everything was tight; I could barely get the breath to reply. “Yeah.”
The darkness was suffocating, but I forced enough air to whisper, “Yeah, come now.” And then I clicked off the phone.
I let it fall into my lap as I curled into myself, struggling between wanting to see my surroundings and wanting to squeeze my eyes shut. There wasn't enough air. I gulped lung-fulls of the frigid night, feeling the prickly burn in my lungs, but it wasn’t enough. I was choking.
Cradling my head in the crook of my arm, I kept one eye open to look for Anthony’s truck. Every car that drove by relit my panic and sent a new surge of toxic energy through my body. I couldn’t fight off the tears. My stomach flipped and I dry heaved, retching nothing but spit and bile onto the pavement.
Hearing the loud rumble of an engine, I raised my head, spotting Anthony’s truck pulling in. With relief, I jumped up and ran to it, climbing into the passenger seat. I pressed back into the fabric, eyes squeezed tight, trying to calm myself. My bones hurt as they shook, and it took all my effort not to throw up again.
Recalling a trick my therapist in foster care taught me, I counted to ten as I inhaled and ten as I exhaled, slowing my breath and calming one body part at a time. I started with my toes, flexed them, and then counted until I felt them come back under my control. Then I moved up, ankles, calves, knees. By time I reached my chest, I felt calmer and opened my eyes.
We hadn’t moved.
Anthony was twisted in his seat, watching me. When our eyes met, he nodded slightly and silently pulled away.
With my breathing under control, I realized that I was freezing. I put my hands against the vents and absorbed the heat into my fingers. I focused on the needle-like pain as they defrosted; it was a welcome distraction.
“It’s really cold out," I said lamely, knowing it wouldn’t explain the way I'd acted, but hoped he would play along.
His jaw tightened, and he blew out a long breath. “They’re calling for snow later this week.”
I wiped the tears from my eyes, the last evidence of my panic.
“Where are we going?” We were taking an exit to the highway, out of the city.
“My house. I don’t live far.”
Alright. My strength was returning; I could handle this. Nothing had to change. Anthony and I had an arrangement and that’s what this was. If he were smart, he would keep to his end and not ask questions.
I blocked out the doubt that tried to force into my thoughts. I wasn’t using him; we were just in a mutually beneficial situation.
He took the next exit and as he made turns, I recognized where we were. I knew where the metro station was and studied the route he took to remember the way, just in case.
“This is it,” he said as we pulled up to a one story, brick home. It had a cute porch but no landscaping that I could see in the dark.
“Do you want something to drink or eat?” he asked as we walked into the living room, a small space with a mish mash of furniture.
“Yeah, please. Do you have anything warm, like coffee or tea or hot chocolate?”
He smiled with questions in his eyes. “I have coffee or hot chocolate.”
“I’ll take the hot chocolate, thanks.” I followed him into the kitchen, just off the living room.
The space was cozy, a dull yellow with dark wood cabinets. The counters were cluttered with bags of chips, mail, and half full liquor bottles.
He made our drinks, and I busied myself with looking around the kitchen and living room. He had a few pictures, him with his family most likely. I gathered he had a brother and sister, and his parents were all smiles and hugs in the pictures. Just like I thought, a nice family with nice kids that took vacations on cruises and ski resorts. There was one of him in his uniform, and his father next to him, both smiling at the camera.
“That’s the day I graduated from the police academy.” Anthony handed me my drink and sat on the couch, nodding for me to join him.
I sipped the hot drink, feeling my insides melt a bit, and sat. It felt good to sit, to let my tense muscles relax.
“Are you alright?” he pushed my hair back on my shoulder with one finger.
I cringed and reluctantly met his gaze. “I’m fine.”
“I have a friend who has panic attacks. I’ve seen it before. Do you get them often? Is it because of the attack?”
I set my mug down, parting with the warmth in my hands, and then turned to face him. “No questions, remember?”
He nodded. “I just thought you might need tonight to be a safe night.”
His words made me want to cry all over again. But I knew he couldn’t deliver that, it wasn’t possible. I didn’t want to talk anymore; I didn’t want to feel anymore. I wanted it all to go away. And he could help with that.
I shook my head and inched towards him till our lips met.
He didn’t resist. Instead, his arms wrapped around me, pulling me into him. I straddled him, as I had in the car that day, and tried to focus only on where our bodies touched and the warmth coming from him.
He pulled away from me. “Let’s take this to the bedroom.”
I stood and he led me down a hallway to the last door. He lay back on the bed, pulling me on top of him. I lifted my work shirt off, keeping my tank top on underneath, and then lifted his shirt off. Our jeans ground against each other.
He sat up, trailing his lips down my neck and shoulders, pushing my tank down until my boobs spilled out. I moved his hands away, keeping him from sliding the top any lower. That was off limits.
I stood up and slid my pants off as he did the same, pulling off his boxers, too. He reached into his night stand and pulled out a condom, tearing the corner of the pack with his teeth, a wide grin spreading on his pretty face.
His eyes traveled over me. “Damn, you're sexy.” He hooked one arm around my waist and pulled me back to him.
He was as eager as I was to get to it. His hands slid my panties down and then rolled the condom onto the length of him.
I rode him with mounting frustration, never finding the escape I sought. The tightness around my heart eased slightly, but not enough. Closing my eyes, I focused on the physical only, trying to give my mind a moment off, but it never worked.
He found his escape, shuddering and convulsing under me, and I relaxed my body on top of his. I had exerted energy and had some fun. But now I only felt empty, and not the emptiness I had been seeking.
I rolled off of him. “Do you mind if I shower?”
He pulled me back into his arms and kissed my neck. “Go ahead. You can use the one in there, towels are hanging up.” He nodded to the door straight ahead and released me.
I showered, taking time to let the warm water massage my aching muscles. Anthony called out that he was leaving clothes for me outside the door.
I changed into the large shirt and shorts that I had to roll several times to make fit. Running a brush through my wet hair, I returned to his room. He was lounged on the bed, fresh from his own shower.
He patted the spot beside him. “Come over here. We can watch a movie if you want or just go to bed. I’m assuming I don’t have to drive you back tonight, right?”
I shook my head and joined him tentatively.
He hooked his arm around me and pulled me closer to him on the bed, laying us back to watch a movie I couldn’t focus on. This didn’t feel right. Cuddling. It felt too personal and not what we were supposed to be about.
I pulled away. “I need to go to bed. Can I sleep on the couch?”
His face pinched with confusion, but he didn’t voice it. “You’re welcome to my bed with me, but if you’d prefer I have a guest bed you can use.”
I nodded and stood, following him through the hallway to a smaller bedroom. He left me there with an awkward hug and I settled into bed. Sleep didn’t come easy; when I did sleep, it was only in short bursts.
When the first traces of daylight broke into the room, I folded the borrowed clothes on the bed I made and left before Anthony awoke. Walking to the metro station, I organized my day; I had things I needed to do. First thing was to talk to Silas about when I could fight again; I needed the extra money more than ever.
I could hear them talking, gage and Silas, as I walked towards the office. I didn’t think anything of it until I heard my name. Curiosity won and I paused to listen, not wanting to interrupt the conversation.
“Regan told me she wanted another fight,” Silas explained.
I had, yesterday, when Silas asked if I wanted to continue boxing.
“What does she know? She’s not ready, not for that fight. Find someone else.” Gage’s voice was ruff with disapproval.
I tensed as anger began to simmer in my gut. He had no right to speak for me, to cancel a fight and keep money from my pockets.
“C’mon, if you would’ve seen her, you would know. She can handle it. She can take punches. She can--”
“I didn’t see,” his angry voice cut off Silas’s and a hollow thump followed.
“Exactly. I did and I think this is a good arrangement.” Silas wasn’t backing down.
“For you or for her?”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked around the corner of his office and stood in the open doorway. “Silas? Dexter told me you wanted to speak with me.”
Gage and Silas were standing on either side of his desk; they both turned their heads to look at me when I interrupted. Silas’s face broke into a smile; Gage’s didn’t.
“Speak of the devil; we were just discussing your next fight. It seems Gage and I disagree on this matter.”
I looked between Silas’s smiling face and Gage's hard one. He hadn’t budged. “It seems like it should be my decision.”
Silas’s smile widened and he laughed. “I think you’re right.” He extended his arm to the chair opposite him. “Let’s talk.”
I took the seat next to Gage, but he continued to stand, his gaze sliding between Silas and me. He radiated anger, but I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me today. I was still numb over all that happened yesterday. I had reached my limit, and I wasn’t about to let Gage take this away from me.
Silas sat and began, “You could fight again next month, against another boxer starting her career for the same money you made before. Or, you could fight in two weeks, against an established fighter for triple the money if you win.”
“Could I do both?” I asked.
Silas laughed and rubbed his chin, appraising me. “That’s what I’m talking about. You’re eager, I like that. Hell, I can have you fighting almost every week if you want.”
Gage’s eyes narrowed, drilling into me. I didn’t like the way he was looking down on me from where he stood.
“Do you want a career? Are you serious about boxing? Or do you just want money? Because if it’s the money, then go do something else. Female boxers don’t make that much.”
I sat back, trying to curb the anger building in me. Who did he think he was? “I want the career and the money. I like boxing, but I won’t do it for free, and I’m sure you wouldn’t either.”
“Gage, she’s made up her mind. You should get back to your training; you have a month till A.C.”
His jaw flexed, but his glare was focused on Silas as he stalked out of the room.
Silas continued, unfazed by his departure. “You will need to commit to training these next two weeks and clean up your diet to be at your best. But don’t lose weight; you want to stay in your weight class. We have a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time, so let’s get to it.”
What I had been trying to achieve with Anthony, I found in the bag. I gave it all I had and completely spent my energy. After an hour of punching, blocking, and jump roping, I was drained and my muscles exhausted. I hadn’t had much sleep the past two days and it was catching up with me, affecting my stamina, but releasing my anger and frustration felt good. It was the therapy I needed.
With a sheen of sweat covering every inch of me, I sat to rest and drink water. I relaxed back in the chair, closing my eyes, and enjoyed the liquid feel of my muscles, a sure sign that I was working hard and getting stronger.
Silas had been pleased with my workout today, and Dexter had popped in between his sets to give his energetic encouragement.
“You done for the day?”
I opened my eyes, but didn’t move as Dexter sat next to me.
“I’m taking ten, then going to decide if I can do more. Right now, I think I have to be done.”
I turned towards him to get a full view. He was shirtless and shiny with sweat, but as high energy as ever. It was evident even in the way he sat, perched on the edge, like he would pop up any moment.
“What about you? You working out more today?” I cocked my head, curious about his boxing status. “Do you have any fights?”
“My next fight isn’t for six weeks. So I have time to help you, isn’t that great?” His smile was big and genuine, and I was helpless to do anything but return it.
“Okay, so what do you know about this Dreya Welch I’m going to fight?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know really. I’ve heard of her, she’s good and she’s aggressive, but I’ve never studied her. We’ll have to do that tomorrow. I have to take Leona out today, for Valentine’s Day. You got plans?”
I leaned forward, resting my arms on my knees. I had forgotten that today was Valentine’s Day, and my mind flashed to Anthony. I quickly punched down that wayward thought. I definitely would not see him today.
I shook my head. “I don’t have any Valentine’s plans, but I do have stuff that needs to get done.” I was going to check in to a motel somewhere and start looking for apartments. I didn’t have enough money for them, I knew, but I could find out what I needed.
He nodded. “Yeah, like buying your own gear. You should take your money from the fight and invest it in yourself.”
This conversation was bringing back my frustration. It slid to anger as I caught Gage watching us from the weight bench, still dark with disapproval. Maybe I would work out a little longer. I stood up, stretching.
When it was evident Gage was walking to us, I stiffened, prepared for a confrontation.
Dexter stood up, facing his brother. “I have to meet up with Leona at eleven, are you going to be ready soon?”
He nodded, but never took his eyes from me. His path stopped directly in front of me, and he crossed his arms, showing off his biceps.
“So you think you’re ready to fight Dreya? Did you even pause to learn anything about her?”
I was done with his disapproving tone and judgment. “Silas thinks I’m ready, and he’s my manager, not you.”
“Rea,” Dexter’s voice was soft, “He's only trying to help.”
I turned on him, amazed that he didn’t see what a jerk Gage was being. “Help? He doesn’t want me to fight, how does that help? He hasn’t even seen me fight, but he thinks he knows what I’m ready for. He doesn’t.”
Gage took a step towards me, so he had down on me to meet my eyes. “You haven't even been here a week and you think you know everything. This isn’t a joke; you don’t just decide one night to be a boxer. It takes perseverance and commitment. You have to want it. You have to live it. The girl you’re fighting does, and that makes her better than you.”
It felt like a slap to the face, and I was tired of his assumptions. He didn’t know me, and I wasn’t going to let him bully me. What did that rich boy know about me and my struggles and how much I needed this? I resisted the urge to step back, out of his electric field.
“I may not have known to want this last week, but now that I’ve tasted it, I do. And it’s more than wanting. I need this. It’s all I’ve got, and I won’t let you take it from me. So if you’re not going to help me, then at least stay out of my way.” I brushed off Dexter’s hand as he tried to pat my back.
Gage’s full lips tugged up on one side, but it didn’t make him look any less fierce. If anything, it made ice run through my veins.
He lifted his chin. “Okay, I’ll help. Gear up, I’ll show you some things in the ring.”
Dexter looked between the two of us. “Are you sure? I thought we were going to leave soon.”
Gage started walking to the ring. “We will, but I have time for one lesson. She’s got less than two weeks till her fight.”
I had to unglue my feet, the switch in conversation made me dizzy. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, and I wasn’t convinced his motive was to help.
Dexter shrugged at me and walked after his brother.
Once I had gloves and headgear on, I stood in the ring. Nerves tightened my exhausted muscles some, but not enough.
Gage stood nearby, arms loose at his side. He wore gloves, but no headgear. He didn’t appear angry anymore, his face was relaxed, almost bored. The dark lines of his tattoos wrapped around his right arm, and the ones on his torso peeked through the cut off sleeve of his white t-shirt.
“You’ve been practicing punches on the bag, but defense is important. This girl charges, and a good block is key. You’re going to want to time your own counter punches, but never leave yourself open. Let me see your stance.”
I held my arms up in the way Silas showed me.
He nodded and stepped forward, placing his gloved hands on my back and stomach, twisting me. “Always keep your side to your opponent.” He adjusted my shoulder. “And raise your shoulder up. Use it to help block your face.”
My breathing was shallow. I tried to concentrate on his instructions, but the static was back, his gentle touches and soft voice were unexpected. I could smell his sweat, a clean musk, almost feel it evaporating in the heat between us.
He stepped back, and I cleared my thoughts. I needed to focus.
“Okay, you ready?”
At my nod, he jabbed. I twisted too late, my reactions too slow to block the punch. He didn’t hit hard, but it jarred me, and I became more alert.
He jabbed a couple more times, landing each one. He was too fast, and every time I tried to block, he found a new open spot to attack. I wasn’t giving up though and began moving around the ring, using the space to evade some of his jabs.
He wasn’t putting much effort into this, I could tell, and he laughed as I circled him.
“You’re going to tire yourself out before you even throw a punch.” He jabbed again, lightly hitting my stomach.
I tried to strike him, but he deflected it.
We continued this way for a while, my frustration mounting. It was like a cat and mouse game. He was the cat and had me under his paw, batting and toying with me, never giving me a chance.
When he hit my face again and laughed, I erupted. “What? What am I supposed to do? You’re better than me, we both know that. So what’s the point of this?”
I pulled my gloves from my hands and undid my helmet. “I’m done with this. I’m glad you got to get a good laugh.”
He watched me with that slight, cool smile on his lips, the one that sends ice through me.
“So you’re giving up? I knew you didn’t want this. It’s like I said, you’re not serious.”
I rounded on him. “I am serious, but this wasn’t helping me. You were just trying to embarrass me, and it worked. I know I’m not great, but I’m trying. And I want this more than you can imagine. You may have been at this longer, but I can guarantee you I want this just as much, if not more, than you.”
“Then why are you taking the fast track to ending your career? A loss stays on your record and it’s hard to recover from. Check out anyone who made it and you’ll see the loss column is zero, sometimes one, but never two. And you’re setting yourself up to lose.”
His words made me pause. I hadn’t known this, or even thought about it. I had thought win or lose it was an opportunity to learn and make money. But I wasn’t prepared to admit he was right, not with his smug attitude.
“I don’t intend on losing. I have a lot to learn, but you weren’t trying to make me better, to teach me. You just wanted to put me in my place. I don’t want or need help from someone who doesn’t believe in me.”
I climbed out of the ring, not waiting for his response. I didn’t have time for this. And I was afraid of what would come out of my mouth next because I knew he was right, and I was possibly making a big mistake.
I escaped to the locker room, relieved to be away from Gage’s disapproval. I don’t know why it bothered me so much, but it did, and that only made me angrier.
Needing time to cool off, I sat on the bench with lockers surrounding me and took deep breaths. I reminded myself that Silas approved; he thought I did good and believed I could win. And he had seen me fight. A fight I won. In the first round. With a knockout.
But all the positive self-talk in the world couldn’t wipe away his words, “she’s better than you” and “you’re going to lose.”
“You were in the ring with Gage Lawson, right?” a voice broke through my thoughts.
I side glanced at the pretty girl standing next to me. She had her long white hair pulled up in a ponytail and wore the tiniest workout outfit possible for a public place.
I nodded, not wanting to talk about it. The fact that the gym was full of people only added salt to the wound; that anyone had seen how weak he made me look reinforced my anger.
Her eyes widened as she sat next to me, gripping the edge of the bench with her hands. “How? I haven’t seen you around here before. I come every week and he’s never spoken to me. How did you get him in the ring with you? Is he a trainer now? Where do I sign up?”
I rubbed my temples, trying to ease my headache. “Believe me, you’re not missing out. He was being a jerk, trying to make me give up.” I stood up, cutting off my self-pity; it was time to move on with the day.
She stood up too and begged with her big blue eyes. “My name's Becka. Could you introduce me? I’d love to just meet him. I’ve tried to introduce myself but he’s always so focused when he’s working out. Please.”
The headache was back. “I’m going to get a shower.”
She nodded her head with excitement. “I’ll wait. Thank you so much.” And she sat back down with a smile plastered on her face.
I shook my head, but didn’t say anything as I walked to the showers. Maybe she was a boxer too. Her tall, slim body was tight, but she didn’t come across as the fighting type.
Sure enough, Becka waited while I showered and dressed for the day. Since I had to walk in the cold to work, I took the time to blow dry my hair and slide Chap Stick across my dry lips. She stood up with a little squeal as I exited the room.
The only thing that kept me from turning around and telling her to go away was that she could be my buffer if Gage still felt the need to lecture me.
Gage and Dexter were standing by the front door, talking to some guy. They wore track pants and zip up hoodies, ready to leave.
A smile pulled at my lips, I hadn't expected them to be the type to wear matching outfits. As I walked closer, I saw that Dexter’s shirt underneath said, “I would hug you so hard” and my smile grew.
“I like the shirt,” I greeted him as Becka hovered behind me in her barely there outfit.
Dexter’s eyes lit up and he pulled me into a tight squeeze.
I stiffened and muffled into his sweater, “Alright, that’s enough.”
“One day, you’ll be asking for my hugs.” He promised as he let me go.
“Hi!” The blonde behind me greeted.
Gage’s eyes had been locked on her since I started walking over, his face unreadable.
“Becka, this is Gage. Gage meet Becka, she’s been wanting to talk to you.” I mimicked her peppy voice.
She gasped, and I sidestepped the nudge she tried to give. Gage’s eyes narrowed with interest.
“Bye.” I waved, walking past the group and out the door, all too happy to be rid of the girl and Gage.
Dexter followed me. “Wait! I wanted to ask you, can I get your number?” He had his phone out.
I stepped out of the way of people on the sidewalk. “Umm...” Recalling my phone, I brightened, and pulled off my book bag to retrieve it. “Sure, I’m just not sure what my number is. It's a new phone.”
He laughed, shaking his head. “Call my phone now, then I’ll have it. I have classes Monday through Thursday so I won’t see you at the gym in the mornings. But we need to research your fight.”
I nodded, digging through my stuff to find my phone in the bottom of the bag. “Do you think I’m making a mistake?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Silas is smart, but so is Gage. They just… I’m not sure.”
My hand found my phone and I pulled it out. Seeing a missed call and text from Anthony made my stomach dip, but I didn’t pause to check out what the text said. I dialed Dex’s number as he called it out.
“Alrighty then, I’ll call you tomorrow.” He walked backwards, still facing me, until he reached the gym door.
I zipped up my bag, slinging it on my back, and turned to walk down the street. At least today wasn’t below freezing, only the occasional wind brought a chill.
My pocket vibrating made me slow my pace. Pulling out my phone, I saw Anthony’s name lit up across the screen.
“Hello,” I answered.
“Where are you? I’ve been calling. What happened this morning?” his voice sounded harsh and accusing.
I watched for traffic as I crossed the street. “I’m just leaving the gym. I didn’t have my phone on me.”
“Why did you leave without telling me? I could have driven you. Don’t ever do that again.” His voice was softening, but still sounded like a reprimand.
I bristled, “Whoa. Don’t tell me what I can do.”
He paused. “Look, I was worried, that's all. Give me enough respect to let me know when you’re coming and going in my house.”
“Alright, fine.” I was tired of disappointing everyone. Over the last twenty-four hours I had destroyed several relationships, knowing I didn’t have that many to begin with. What was one more? Burning bridges seemed to be a talent of mine.
“Don’t worry, that won’t ever happen again.”
He sucked in air with a hiss. “That’s not a dismissal is it? I’m not mad. I still want you.”
I couldn’t respond to that.
“Can I see you today?”
I shook my head, silent. Maybe this bridge was stronger than I thought, on his side anyways. “I’ll call you later.”
I hung up the phone.
I walked around the bed in the small motel room, unsure what was safe to touch, let alone sleep on. I pulled the comforter off the bed and threw it in the corner; there was no way I was sleeping on that.
The motel was a modern day brothel with rooms you could rent by the hour. I had little choice in where to stay though. I didn’t have much money to waste, not if my goal was to afford a more permanent place. Not to mention, the nicer hotels in the city were reluctant to rent a room to someone my age, with only cash to pay. They wanted adults to sign for it or a credit card on file.
I could hear shouts from outside my window and checked the curtains, making sure no one could see into the room. It was only the girls walking up and down the street yelling to each other, but it made me uneasy.
They gave me prime real estate, first floor, front and center. The stares of those outside the building didn’t go unnoticed as I walked from the front desk to the room. The smile from the clerk and his tone when he said, ‘good luck doll,’ made his assumptions clear.
I peeked out the window, the daylight was dimming and the people traffic outside the motel was increasing. I turned on the TV and tried to relax, tried to ignore the musk seeping from the carpet, tried to block out the noise radiating through the walls. But I failed at it all.
Today had been a disappointment. My search for apartments only made me realize how far away that goal was. The cheapest thing I found still required two months’ rent and utilities up front, plus a security deposit and a little more because of my age. I had four hundred dollars to my name, and I needed quadruple that. There was no way I could turn down the fight next week. I only hoped that Johnny would keep his word and let me start serving again, and I needed weekend shifts.
I tried to rest. Using my book bag as a pillow, I kept as little of my skin from touching the bed as possible. I hadn’t slept well the past two nights and tonight was shaping up to be another sleepless one.
The hollers from the street taunted me, reminding me how far I had to go, how slim my chances were. I had hoped the cold of the night would have kept most people inside, but it didn’t. And the silence in my room didn’t help, even with the TV on, I felt alone. At Nan’s I would often be alone in her room, but there were always people around, and the voices I heard were ones I knew. Even before Nan’s, growing up I was always in homes with lots of people. Now, there was no one. And that knowledge pressed heavily on my chest.
The book bag under my head vibrated. Pulling out my phone, Anthony’s name across the screen gave me relief this time, with a slight mix of wariness.
“Are you at your apartments?” He asked.
“No.” I was alert now. Was he there?
“Where are you?”
“Why? What’s going on?” I avoided his question.
“I’m on night patrol, but I wanted to check on you, after last night. Even though I’m working, I’m still here for you if you need me.” He paused, “So are you alright?”
I paused, letting his words sink in. He was just calling to check on me. I sighed with relief. “Thank you. I’m fine.” That wasn’t true, but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
“So, if you’re not at the apartment, where are you?”
I sat up on the bed, leaning against the wall behind me. A loud peel of laughter and a thump came from the room on the other side. “No questions, remember?”
He released a heavy breath. “Maybe I need to clarify that rule. You don’t have to answer my questions. I won’t make you. But I will ask questions. I want to know you, whatever you’ll let me know.” He paused and the police radio crackled through the phone. “I have some time tonight to talk on the phone. Will you talk to me?”
I liked that idea. There was no pressure on the phone, and it kept my loneliness at bay.
“Sure, you start. Tell me about you.”
We talked on and off through the night, in between his calls and work. I didn’t reveal much, except that I was now boxing with Silas. But he shared stories about his childhood and what it was like being the youngest of three.
Mostly, I just liked listening to his voice, knowing that someone was there and I wasn’t alone. It muffled the bumps, yelling, and city sounds that were just outside my room.
I went to bed glad that my past attempts at setting fire to our connection didn’t work.