Rose Taylor felt certain someone was watching her. The feeling had been prickling the back of her neck for several minutes, and despite her best attempts she couldn’t pinpoint the source. She kept glancing behind her but didn’t see anyone out of the ordinary on the quickly darkening Chicago streets. In fact, she didn’t see anyone at all. She wrapped her jacket tighter around her, feeling a chill despite the warm spring night.
As she turned down another alley on her way home, her phone rang. Her fingers fumbled while unzipping her purse. Suddenly there was a noise behind her. She turned, her hand dropping to her side. There was a dark object pointed at her, metal reflecting in the distant streetlight. Her breath caught in her chest as she recognized it as a gun.
The mugger holding the gun had a black ski mask covering his face. His baggy brown trench coat was slightly fluttering in the breeze, and he was shuffling side to side nervously.
“Toss over your purse.” He called, voice weak and high-pitched.
Rose hesitated. All of her money, her phone, her cards were in her purse. She didn’t want to give that up. She wondered if he would really try to kill her if she didn’t hand it over. If she could get away without giving it up, that would be the best situation. Muggers usually didn’t want to hurt anyone in her experience, as she had known several people who had turned to mugging when they were homeless.
“Why don’t I just give you my cash? That’s what you’re after anyway, right? That way I can keep my ID.”
She kept her voice calm and spoke slowly, trying to exude a nonthreatening air. Despite her efforts, her words agitated him more. He held up the gun more firmly in her face and stepped forward.
“No. The whole purse, now.”
Rose knew better than to argue with him a second time. She removed her purse strap from her shoulder and threw it over to the burglar. He caught it midair, tucked it under his arm, and said, “Sorry about this. You have to die.”
Rose stared wide-eyed at the man as he pointed the gun with more purpose, finger moving to the trigger. She shut her eyes, preparing for the blast of the bullet and pain ripping through her. Seconds passed and...nothing. She opened her eyes again and jumped back in surprise at the sight before her.
A man dressed in a dark suit was suddenly standing between her and the shooter. She peered over his shoulder--which meant standing on her tiptoes, as he was quite a bit taller than her--to see the gun suddenly disappear. He yelled in surprise before dropping her purse and running away. She looked around for the gun to make sure the new man wouldn’t get any ideas, but it was completely gone.
Rose squeaked like a mouse and backed up, unsure what just happened. The well-dressed man dipped down and snatched her purse from the asphalt in one smooth movement. He turned to face her, holding it out.
The first thing she noticed about him were his bright, hypnotizing eyes staring intently at her. They swept across her form, studying her. “Are you okay?” He asked, an unidentifiable accent marking his smooth voice.
Rose had to remind herself to breathe. “Um...yes. Who are you? What...what just happened?” She asked while cautiously taking her purse from the stranger’s hand.
The man ran a hand through his dark hair. “Don’t worry about who I am. I was passing by and knocked the gun out of that guy’s hand. That’s all.” His eyes bore into hers, willing her to accept his story.
“But the gun disappeared...?”
She wondered to herself if she had imagined it. She looked around again, only to see nothing on the sidewalk or street. Her gaze finally moved back up to his still form. He seemed calm, and if she hadn’t felt instinctually off, she would have believed him wholeheartedly.
As it was, she sensed something was off. She supposed he could have been nearby, and what he said could have happened, but where was the gun? Her eyes narrowed, studying him. The man looked fairly normal, besides how absurdly handsome he was. He had dark black hair, pale skin, a straight nose, and sharp features. His build was lean, yet she would bet he had some muscular definition based on the way his clothes hugged his form.
“Are you done staring?” He asked.
Rose blushed at being caught studying him. Though she was embarrassed, that wouldn’t deter her. He was...odd, like he didn’t belong. It was in the way he was moving, in the way he was looking at her.
“Where did you come from? I didn’t see you around before that mugger jumped out at me.” She tilted her head in curiosity.
He pursed his lips slightly as his eyes bore into hers for a long moment. She was starting to think this stranger must be intense. “We’ll talk about this later Rose. You’re getting a phone call.” He gestured to her purse.
She hadn’t noticed until now, but her phone was ringing. She glanced down at her purse, then glanced back up to see him gone; where he was once standing was a dark, empty alley. She spun around, searching for him, but saw nobody. As she realized he knew her name, her curiosity grew. What did he mean, they’d talk about it later?
Her phone quit ringing and she heard a message notification. She dug it out of her purse and looked at the screen. Her younger sister, Jasmine, had sent her a message asking when she was coming over. She’d been on her way from work to her parents’ apartment when all the craziness happened. She took one last look around before heading back towards her initial destination. She’d have to think over it later. For now, she had to face her family.
“Happy birthday!” Everyone in the room yelled as she opened the door.
As she took off her coat, Rose tried to force a smile. She didn’t want anyone knowing something was wrong. There was no use in adding to her family’s burdens when nothing really happened.
She was thrown out of her thoughts as her two younger sisters tackled her in a hug. Hugging back, she realized with surprise that the youngest, Lily, had grown an inch at least. Hadn’t it only been one month since she’d been home?
“You’ve grown! How’d that happen?”
Lily grinned at her, dimples prominent. “I know! I’m so glad. I’m almost as tall as you and Jaz. I thought I was gonna be the shortest forever.”
Jasmine scoffed in her soft-spoken way. “Pretty soon you’re going to regret being so tall. Rose and I are the same heights as most guys which makes getting dates harder.”
Lily’s face scrunched up in disgust, making Rose chuckle. At 11, she’d yet to have a crush on anyone.
“Girls, step aside! Let us hug her too!” A soft, feminine voice called. Rose recognized the voice as her mother’s.
Lily and Jasmine stepped back allowing their mother and father to step forward and pull Rose into another tight bear hug.
“Rosie, it’s been too long. How’s my girl doing? How’s the apartment been?” Her father asked in his deep timbre.
She smiled up at him. “It’s only been a month since you saw me last Dad. I’m doing the same as I was before.”
He gently pinched her cheek. “I know, but you’re all grown up now. You have your own place, you’re working for a living, you’re on your own. I miss you sweetie.”
“I miss you too Dad. But it’s been good living on my own. You don’t need to worry about me.” She said.
“We’re just glad you’re home, aren’t we Andy?” Her mother said, smiling.
“Me too, Mom.” Rose smiled back.
Finally, once all the hugs were out of the way, she was led to the decrepit kitchen table. She sat in a chair that wobbled severely to one side as her mother placed a small, simple birthday cake in front of her. She stuck a candle in it, lit it, and motioned for everyone to start singing.
Rose grinned happily as her family sang to her in their pretty voices. They were all good singers in their own rights, and together they made a nice choir. It had been too long since she’d heard them sing. As the song ended, she leaned forward and blew the candle out to applause.
Her mother cut the cake and served a slice to each of them before digging into her own piece. As they ate, they all plied her with question after question. They all seemed to want to know how living on her own was, how her job was, if she was eating enough, etc. All of the questions overwhelmed her, suffocating her in their multitude.
After everyone ate and her parents were cleaning up, she slipped out to the tiny patio at the back of her parent’s cramped apartment. The fresh spring night air felt so refreshing. She’d moved out the minute she’d graduated high school a few months earlier, and her family was overly excited to see her again. She’d also forgotten just how run-down this place was. The walls were cracked, browning wallpaper tearing, the once-cream carpet was brown with dirt, none of the furniture worked right. It was all a little overwhelming.
Suddenly the door opened behind her. “Hey, you alright?”
Her younger sister, Jasmine, asked. She turned around and smiled reassuringly at the sister who was her mirror-image. They shared the same bright blonde hair, light green eyes, and tall, skinny frame, so nobody had trouble believing they were sisters. The major difference between the two was Rose had a short pixie cut and Jasmine had medium-length unkempt hair.
“I’m fine, just needed some fresh air. It’s been a while since we were all stuffed in this apartment together.”
Jaz nodded understandingly. Of the three girls, she was most claustrophobic, so she understood well.
“Do you want me to leave you alone? I’ll tell Mom and Dad you ran to the store if you want.” She offered quietly.
“No, that’s alright. Come here, give me another birthday hug.”
Rose held her arms wide open, waiting for her sister. It took her only a second to return the gesture, hugging back tightly.
“Rose? Have you missed us?” Her muffled voice asked.
Rose sighed. Honestly, she’d missed her family so much, but she didn’t miss the cramped living quarters and lack of personal space. Since she was fifteen, Rose’s family had always lived in a one-bedroom apartment. The three girls always had to share the pull-out sofa bed that doubled as the couch in the living room. Moving out was something she’d needed to do, or she would have gone crazy. The only thing she regretted was leaving her sisters behind. They were more like children to her than anything; she’d always taken care of them when their parents were working, trying to keep the roof over their heads.
“Of course I missed you. You are my life! Living by myself is something I had to do. Once you’re a little older you’ll understand how I feel. Maybe by then you, Lily, and I can live together.” Jaz smiled at the thought.
Some siblings may not have said those words with any intention of following through, but Rose was not one of them. She was determined to save enough money so her sisters could live with her in a three-bedroom apartment. They all deserved a room of their own if nothing else. And bless their parents’ hearts, that was something they simply couldn’t provide. They were too proud to take money from Rose the many times she’d offered, and she suspected they wouldn’t be happy about her taking her siblings to live with her once the time came, but they deserved a better life than she’d had. She was determined to make it better for them.
Suddenly shouting came from inside the apartment. Rose took a deep breath and held Jaz at arm’s length.
“Ready to go back in there?”
Jaz smiled and nodded, never one for many words. Rose led the way, back through the sliding glass door and into the tiny living room that doubled as a bedroom for her two sisters. Her eyes widened, spotting her best friend and current roommate, Jessie, standing in the doorway, panting hard.
Rose rushed toward her as Jessie caught her breath and wiped the sweat from her forehead.
“What happened? Why are here? And why are you out of breath?”
Jessie ran a hand through her long red hair, pushing it out of her face. “A guy was killed near the restaurant and the police were questioning everyone still there. They said he died sometime close to when you left, Rose. I had to make sure you were okay, so I ran here. I got your parents address from the boss.”
Surprise shook through Rose. A man was killed close to the restaurant? If that was true, then wouldn’t she have run into...uh oh. A shudder trembled down her spine. No way it was the same guy.
“Did you see what he was wearing?”
Jessie looked over, annoyed. “What kind of question is that? Why would I--”
Rose cut her off, needing a straight answer for once. “Just tell me.”
Jessie glared at her but nodded. “Actually, I did. I caught a glimpse past the crime scene tape as I was running by. He was wearing a brown trench coat. Why?”
Rose felt her world spinning. It was the same guy. She must have seen him mere moments before he was murdered. He’d run away moments after the mysterious man saved her. Did the man who saved her murder her assailant?