I SLEPT BETTER ON THE BUS THAN I had in the motel room. I needed sleep and hoped tonight I’d be so tired I could sleep through anything, even fear.
The gym was only a block away. I pulled the wire signaling I needed off, and the bus began to slow. Lifting my bag, I stood and made my way down the aisle, trailing my hands on the bar above me for balance.
An icy wind met me at the door, shocking the sleep from my system. The sky was a blanket of gray and I could practically smell the frosty snow in the air.
Ugh, I hoped it would hold off until my shift at the restaurant was over, even if I wasn’t sure how I could physically get through the day. My body was heavy with pain and exhaustion. Every bit of me was sore. I rubbed one side of my ribs, uncertain how much of the ache was because of my workouts or my still healing bruises. Either way, I had to keep going.
It must have shown on me, my fatigue, because Silas took one look at me and said today was a light day. I was to run, and stretch, then rest, because tomorrow we would get back to training. It worked for me, because I only had an hour before I needed to get ready for my shift at Johnny’s.
Walking out of his office, I covered my jaw-popping yawn with my fist.
“Tired?” Gage’s eyebrow lifted in question, a small smile played on his lips.
I didn’t trust the kind tone and stifled the next yawn that tried to follow as I stepped past him.
He grabbed my elbow, pulling me to face him, so close our loose shirts touched and I was eye level with his chest. The tingle of adrenaline pulsing my muscles made me want to run, but I stiffened, freezing my reactions.
“Did you back out?” The warmth of his breath brushed against my face.
“What?” I jerked my arm out of his grip. I didn’t like him being so close; it forced me to have to look up to meet his eyes.
“The fight next week? Did you cancel it?” He asked conversationally, but the look in his eyes as they locked with mine contradicted his indifference.
“No,” I scoffed, taking a step away.
“What a waste,” He grumbled through a clenched jaw.
“What the hell is your problem?” I couldn’t contain my instant reaction; my filter wasn’t working in my tired state.
His response was just as immediate. Taking a threatening step towards me, he towered over my 5’6 height. He grabbed my arms, blocking me from pushing him away.
“I’d ask you the same thing? Look at you. Have you even gone to bed yet?” He dropped my arms, taking a step back, shaking his head. “Glad to see you’re taking this so seriously.”
I gritted my teeth, and my fists curled. “You don’t know anything about me, Rich Boy. So just back off.”
He crossed his arms with a puff of laughter, one side of his mouth tugging up as he watched me. “Rich Boy? You say it like it’s a bad thing.” He shook his head as he leaned in slightly, his voice dropping. “I don’t need to know you ‘cause next week, after you lose that fight, you’ll be done.”
He walked away, and I sucked in much needed air. My head fell back as I wiped the frustration from my face. I ignored Silas’s directions for today and started on the punching bag, determined to prove him wrong and release the anger he caused.
“You can start shutting down your section. We’ll close up early, it’s piling up fast out there,” Louisa said as she walked past me.
I watched the large clumps of snowflakes swirling out the window, a lacy layer of white covering everything in sight.
Texting Dexter back, I let him know I was getting off early because of the weather and I’d see him another day. We had made plans to meet up after my shift, but the snow started sooner than forecasted. I had to cancel.
I cleaned my section and cashed out for the day. It had been slow, but I was leaving with twenty-four dollars more than I'd arrived with and the promise of serving again on Wednesday.
After sliding on my jacket and book bag, I scooped up my to-go container and walked out the front door.
Dexter was just getting out of his car in the parking lot. Noticing me, he knocked on the hood. “Come on, Rea, quick get in.” He hopped up and down in place. “It’s freezing out. We got to get back before the blizzard really starts.”
I didn't know what the plan was, but walked to the car anyways. He looked like fun, and his smile could talk me into almost anything. Plus, I wasn’t in a rush to get back to the motel.
“Hey Leona. Jase,” I greeted, sliding into the backseat.
Leona bounced to the music in the front and turned towards me, “We’re going to ride out the snow storm at Dexter’s. I hope you don’t got plans.” She clapped her hands when I shook my head.
“We can swing by your place first so you can get some things. Got to make it quick though, others are meeting at my house in an hour,” Dexter explained as he started the car. “So where to?”
I tried to think fast, I needed to return the key to the motel if I didn’t want to pay for an extra night. Who knew when I’d be able to get back if the snow were real bad. They were calling for up to a foot.
I put money in front of my pride and gave directions to the motel.
As we approached the motel, Dexter met my eyes in the rearview mirror with a look of concern, but he silently followed my directions. I could feel Jase fidgeting beside me.
“You can turn in here,” I said, leaning forward in my seat and pointing to the parking lot.
When he parked the car, they all traded uncertain looks, but I avoided meeting their eyes.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back.” I shot out of the car.
A door slammed behind me, and then Dexter was at my side, hood pulled over his head. “I’m coming with you.”
I hadn’t left anything in the room, so I went straight to the front office.
A girl leaning against a nearby door called something out to Dexter in a slurred voice, and he grabbed my arm. He stayed silently attached to my side until I returned the key and we were walking back to the car.
“Do you live here?” Dexter asked, voice low.
I lowered my head against the snow blowing around us. “It’s only temporary.”
“Damn straight." All humor was gone.
The silence in the car was heavy, a stark contrast from the excited banter they had before.
“One last stop... the liquor store. Gotta keep warm in the cold.” Dexter broke the tension with the return of his usual excitement.
The further we drove from the motel, the more their conversation returned to normal. But something had changed; it was evident in the careful way Jase and Leona talked to me. I wasn’t who they thought I was. Well, too damn bad, they were stuck with me for now.
I was use to this shift, it always happened when people at school found out I was a foster kid. They became tentative and a little more closed off. Like they couldn’t trust me, like I might steal from them. I can’t say I blamed them really. Not that I would ever steal, but I knew plenty who would.
Anyways, it was better than the other reaction that I sometimes got; pity. Pity was the worst. I hated pity.
“Can I use your microwave? I haven’t eaten all day.” I lifted my to-go container towards Dexter. “You can have some if you want.”
He nodded as he stood from the couch. “It’s alright, we ate earlier.”
I followed him up the stairs and down the hall. The kitchen was a large open space with a window overlooking the harbor. Icy flakes floated around, only to be consumed by the choppy water beyond the snow covered deck.
Dexter pulled out a plate and handed it to me.
“Do you want something to drink? I’ve got beer, soda, tea?” he scrunched his nose “but it’s unsweetened.”
“Tea, please,” I said as I laid my chicken tenders and fries on the plate.
The alarm system beeped as the front door opened and closed. Heavy boots thumped in the hallway.
Dexter handed me a glass of tea and looked around the corner. “Hey, glad you made it home in time. Looks like it’s picking up.”
I closed my eyes with an internal groan. I thought I had gotten lucky when Dexter said Gage wasn’t home, that perhaps he had gotten snowed in somewhere else.
“I know better than to leave your crazy ass here alone. No telling what I’d come home to…” His voice trailed off as he rounded the corner of the kitchen.
The microwave beeped and I busied myself with my food, never looking up.
“Regan.” The soft way he spoke my name sent a current threw me, causing all my hairs to stand on end.
“Are there others here, or is it just you two?” He asked Dexter, leaning on the island in the center of the kitchen.
I looked up through my lashes. He was watching me, face blank.
“Jase, Danny, Lee, and Aliya are downstairs.”
He nodded, eyes narrowing on the chicken tender I bit into. “What are you eating?”
I washed down the chicken with a sip of tea. “Dinner.” I kept my answer short, still holding a grudge from this morning.
He pushed off the counter, standing to his full height, just so he could look down on me with that obnoxious small smile of his.
“Great dinner for someone trying to prepare for a fight. Good to see you taking care of yourself, putting in that effort.” Sarcasm dripped from every word.
“Leave her alone,” Dexter defended.
I dropped the food, honestly confused. “What the hell? I thought you were done lecturing me, giving up.” I threw up my arms. “And anyways, what’s wrong with my food? Its sweet potato French fries and chicken tenders. I cut out the bread and I’m drinking unsweetened tea.”
Gage’s lip twitched as he watched me. “Do you really think that food is good for you? That it gives you the nourishment you need?”
I looked between Dexter and him, doubtful, and shrugged. “It’s better than my typical hamburger and onion rings, right?” I had thought I was eating low carb…
Dexter laughed and put his arm around my shoulder. “Oh Rea, you have a lot to learn.”
I dropped my head to the table, evading his arm and blocking out Gage’s judging glare. “I haven’t eaten today; I’m hungry. What the hell am I supposed to be eating?”
“I have some leftovers you can eat, it’s better than that crap.” Gage grabbed some containers from the fridge.
I straightened up. “Really, Thanks.” I didn’t want to push my luck and say anything else. I was surprised he was willing to help.
He heated up Teriyaki glazed Tilapia with stir-fried vegetables and watched me expectantly as I took the first bite.
I nodded. “That’s good. I could eat stuff like this. Where did you get it?”
Dexter hopped up onto the kitchen island. “Gage made it. He’s the cook of the family. Without him I would starve. Or live off fast food.”
“Help yourself while you’re here. If you would actually listen to me I’d help you, but you won’t.” He turned away from me, placing the containers back in the refrigerator.
We were back to that, my decision to fight next week. He couldn’t get over me not doing what he thought was best.
I shook my head, but kept silent as I finished my meal.
“Thanks.” I rinsed off the dish and placed it in the dishwasher.
“Alright, well we’re all downstairs if you want to hang out,” Dexter said to his brother as he hopped off the counter.
“Sure, I’ll be down later.”
I followed Dexter to the basement door.
“You can go down Rea, I’ll be right there.” He opened the door, waving me through before closing it on me.
When Gage walked into the basement the others gravitated towards him. Jase and Danny wanted him to play pool with them, while Aliya wanted to talk and flirt. Gage barely glanced her way though, and she eventually sat back down with Leona and me.
After the boys played a couple of games of pool, Leona stood up and got their attention. “It’s the girls turn to play," she demanded.
Jase was already racking the balls again.
Dexter pulled Leona in to him and kissed her neck. “Alright Lee Lee, how about teams? Me and you, and who else?” He looked around.
Aliya shook her head, “Not me, I suck.” She laughed, winking at Gage. “Maybe you could teach me later?”
Dexter looked towards me. “Do you know how to play?”
“Sure.” I stood, looking between Jase and Danny.
“I’ll play,” Gage said, grabbing the pool stick from Jase.
I licked my lips, agitated, hating that he could make me nervous about playing a friendly game of pool. I didn’t want lectures on what shots I lined up.
After a bit, I loosened up some. I was sinking balls, not giving Gage any reason to criticize. But when I missed an easy shot I braced myself.
He patted my hip as he passed by me and murmured, “Good try.”
The brief contact jump started my heart, but he continued to the bar unfazed. He leaned back on the stool, sipping his beer, scanning the table as he waited for Dexter to shoot.
Gage ended the game on his next turn and nodded to me. “Good game,” he said with his slight smile.
“Thanks to you.” I nodded, wary that his judgmental side would return.
He went for another drink, and I walked to the couch.
Leona and Aliya had turned on music and were dancing with each other, loose with alcohol. The boys played PlayStation but divided their attention between the screen and the girls.
“Come dance with us,” Leona attempted to coax me.
“No, I’m gonna sit for a bit. It’s been a long day.”
I sunk into the couch, and my exhaustion consumed me. After a while, the heavy tiredness of my limbs was replaced with weightlessness as my mind disconnected from my body on the verge of sleep.
The tip of a finger trailed behind my ear, over my tattoo, and I shuddered as a wave of sensation shot to my toes.
My eyes snapped open as Gage sucked in air between his teeth.
“Sorry. I hadn’t noticed that before. A flame?” He lifted his eyebrow in question as he leaned back on the sofa, eyes intent on mine.
I rubbed my own hand over the small flame tattoo behind my ear, trying to wipe away my strange reaction, and sat up. He was too close; I could feel his body heat surrounding me. And I was a little creeped out that he had been looking at me while I slept.
Struggling to swallow, I attempted to laugh it off. “I’m the girl on fire.”
“Seriously?” His eyes flicked over me as his smile grew.
My stomach twisted and I shook my head, looking to the floor. I felt dizzy, still half asleep. “No. Not seriously."
His smile faded at my words. Leaning into my ear, he whispered, “I know you’re tired. Come on,” he nodded to the stairs, “I’ll take you upstairs; you’ll sleep better. It’ll be quieter than down here.”
Looking over to where Dexter was wrestling Jase over the PlayStation remote, I huffed a dry laugh. Letting my tired weight pull me back on the couch, I rolled my head on the cushion to face Gage. “I’m fine down here.” I closed my eyes, blocking his surprised look.
His weight shifted next to me, the heat from him increasing, and I felt his breath against my lips as he spoke. “That’s good. Smart.” He tugged lightly on the bottom of my shirt.
I opened my eyes. He was only inches away, his head rested on the couch mirroring mine. Every part of me tightened, shrinking away. I didn’t like not knowing what to expect, from him or from my body. My heart pounded and my breathing intensified.
His eyes lit up as he leaned into my ear again, and his finger still played with the end of my shirt as his whispered breath tickled my skin. “You don’t have to be scared. I won’t bother you, nobody will. Not tonight.”
Then he stood up, cold air filling the space he had been. And I struggled to regain control of my breathing and body.
“Leona, take her to the room upstairs. She’s falling asleep,” Gage ordered.
My muscles rebelled against moving, but I slowly sat up.
“Don’t worry Lee, I can take her,” Dexter said.
“No. I want to play you in Madden. Let Leona do it.”
I got up in time to see Dexter nod in assent, taking the control from Gage.
“You ready?” Leona asked, extending a hand to me.
I nodded and pushed myself to standing, following Leona up the stairs.
I glanced back at the room once. Aliya sat beside Gage and squeezed his arm in encouragement. He never even looked towards me, and I began to wonder if my sleep-deprived mind had dreamed any of that up.