Chapter 1: Out of Line
May 17th, 2019
I walked out of yet another interview, feeling utterly defeated. It seemed all hope was lost with this interview; I felt under qualified based on their questions. I stumbled out of the building, frustrated by how cramped my feet felt in my black pumps and the restriction my charcoal pencil skirt caused.
Sighing, I paused under the awning of the building, leaning against the wall for support as I clumsily yanked the shoes off my feet. With heels in hand, I strolled to my car, parked by the curb, got in, and glanced longingly at the tall building before me.
It was huge and immaculate, all steel and glass on the exterior. On the inside, all the floors were tan granite, the desks a deep mahogany, and the walls a warm beige. It was masculine and cozy, and the place I most wanted to work. I needed to get out of the library job I’d had since I started college.
I reached into my backseat and retrieved my yellow gym bag, knowing exactly where I was headed next to blow off some steam.
When I got to the gym, I was given several respectable nods from various members. Normally I didn’t acknowledge many people other than my trainers and the few friends I had, but today was an exception from the shitty interview. I gave small smiles toward everyone I saw, causing people to stare.
I wasn’t a friendly person. Ever. I kept to myself and talked only when I needed to.
I headed straight to the locker room, agitated that I was still in my charcoal suit. I changed quickly, into one of my usual workout outfits: a pair of black spandex shorts, a black sports bra, and a black tank top. I quickly tied my sleep black tennis shoes; they were lightweight and slim, perfect for what I had in mind today.
I exited the locker room, heading straight toward the punching bags. I wrapped white tape around my knuckles, flexing my hands before I did a few warm-up strikes against the punching bag. Oh man, it felt good. The stress was already starting to leave my body. I rolled my shoulders back and bent my neck back and forth, trying to loosen my muscles.
Anger bubbled to the surface before I could contain it and all hell broke loose. I lashed out with my fists, punching and swinging, occasionally bring my foot up and kicking. My body moved easily and fluently; years of trained embedded in my muscles. I felt every muscle in my body contract as I struck relentlessly, over and over, my breathing accelerating, my body temperature rising.
I imagined his face on the punching bag. He was the punching bag. He was the reason I turned out the way I did. It was his fault that I had so much anger built up inside of me; the reason I didn’t trust anyone, never let anyone in.
Memories floated in my head, brought unbidden by my anger.The night before I was allowed to go see my mother, he had me cornered. It wasn’t his first time taking advantage of me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t dread it any less. I remembered someone telling me, should I ever be placed in an uncomfortable situation with a man, to aim straight for the groin.
I thought about that in this moment as he closed in on me, dark, almost black eyes gleaming in the moonlight streaming through the window. When he was close enough to twirl my hair around his fingers, I brought my knee up as hard as I could into his groin. He groaned and doubled over, his greasy black locks tickling my face as he did so. I took the opportunity to take off and headed to my nearest neighbors. I stumbled a few times, scraping my hands and knees. My mother would be furious with me if she saw how dirty I was, but I wasn’t thinking of her.
All I could think of was that I had to get away. I ran and ran, as fast and far as my little legs could take me. When I reached my neighbors’ home, I pounded on their door, never ceasing my knocking. I cried and screamed for help.
But no one came.
So I ran again.
And repeated the process over and over until someone let me stay with them for the night.
I grunted and gritted my teeth together.
No. This happened sixteen years ago.
I pictured my mother’s face, the way she was the last time before she did, and suddenly I stopped fighting the punching bag, leaning against it as if clinging to a lifeline. I froze as I caught a glimpse of something, someone in the mirror I was facing. I whirled because I could swear it was my mother. When no one was standing behind me, I shook my head, blinking furiously.
I’m obviously imagining it because I just thought of her, I thought, convincing myself I wasn’t crazy.
I resumed my workout, but it was halfhearted after what I’d seen, or rather, what I thought I had seen. Eventually I paused for a water break. I sat on one of the benches near the punching bags, wiping the back of my hand across my forehead. It came away wet with sweat.
Excellent. The more sweat, the better.
“Lot of pent-up anger?” A male voice asked from the left of where I sat.
I clenched my jaw. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone. But then again, when was I ever in the mood to talk to anyone? Besides, everyone knew I didn’t socialize. So either I smiled at this person when I walked in and he took it the wrong way, or he was new here. Maybe both.
I raised my head and pinned him with a glare. He stood, leaning against the wall a few feet from me. He wore black gym shorts and a grey muscle shirt, stuck to his chest from a patch of sweat, a white towel hanging around his neck. He had espresso brown hair, not long, but not exactly short either. A few curls tumbled over his forehead, wet with sweat. He raised his eyebrows expectantly at me, and I had the sudden urge to beat the shit out of him. Who was this man, and why the hell was he talking to me?
“Do I know you?” I snapped, tipping my water bottle back and taking a long sip from it.
“I’ll take that as a yes, and no we don’t know each other,” he replied calmly, smirking.
I frowned. “Why, exactly, are you talking to me?”
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Why not?”
I sighed, pushing myself up from the bench to face him. “Are you new to this gym?”
He nodded, amusement flickering in his dark steely-blue eyes. “Yeah, I just started coming here with my brother.”
“Okay, well then there’s one thing you need to remember: I don’t talk to anyone here but my trainers and the few people I acquaint myself with,” I told him curtly.
He chuckled. “And how do you suppose you made those friends? I’m guessing it stemmed from - wow, get this - talking. Why not talk to me?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. He raised his hands in a defensive gesture. “I’ve made few exceptions. I’m not interested in making any more.” With that, I turned and began striding purposefully toward the locker room, no longer in the mood to be there.
He called after me. “Not interested? Does that mean you’re not interested in men?”
I almost stopped to give him an earful, but changed my mind. Instead, I kept walking, flipping him the bird without given so much as a second chance.
I stood in the locker room, having not changed back into my suit, but rather folded it neatly and put it on the top of my bag. I had rinsed the sweat off me, and my makeup clung to my face rather thickly. I itched to wipe it off, but had forgotten my makeup wipes at home, so it would have to wait until I got back.
“That guy who was talking to you was cute,” my friend, Joan, said. She was standing beside me, and I met her warm brown eyes in the mirror we stood in front of.
I could sense my gaze darkening. “I don’t wish to associate with him.”
She scowled. “Why not?” She wondered.
I swallowed. It was so unlike her to question me about this stuff; she knew how I felt about it. “I don’t know. I just don’t like new people in my life.”
She raised her eyebrows as she rubbed a towel through her thick brown hair. “You let me in your life when you were just seventeen. What about the others? You let them all into your life. What is one guy going to do about it?”
I rolled my eyes. “Jo, please. You know how I feel about this. I just don’t like it.”
She exhaled loudly. “I know, I just wish you would tell me why. I wish I understood you better. I’ve been your best friend for nearly six years, and I still don’t know things I feel like I should.”
I turned my face from her instinctively, probably to hide my shame, terror, and humiliation. “One day,” I whispered. I rifled through my bag to distract myself, then swiped my underarms with deodorant.
“Yet another thing you’ve said since we became friends. You’d think you’d have gotten better about it by now. But instead, it’s as if you’ve gone backwards and shut people out more than ever.”
I gnashed my teeth together. I must not snap at her, she is only trying to help. I must not snap, she is just talking to me. She’s worried about me. Don’t snap.
“You can’t even begin to understand, Jo. My early childhood is fucked up and depressing, and not something I wish to relive any time soon.”
“All I know about your history is that you ran away on your seventh birthday and were taken in by a foster family, then adopted, graduated high school early, went to college, and wound up here,” she told me.
I groaned, my temper flaring. “Joan, let it go. I’ll tell you in time. It’s just - now’s not a good time. You have no idea how much our friendship means to me. But I vowed myself when I was seven years old that I would never let anyone take advantage of me. That includes any boy, no matter how cute they are,” I snapped.
Joan was a smart young woman, so her eyes widening in surprise told me she had some idea of what I meant. The towel she was holding in her hands fell to the floor. “Dee—,”
I shook my head. “No, stop. I don’t want to hear it. Look, we’ll talk later, okay?” I zipped up my bag and slung it over my shoulder, preparing to turn and leave.
“Dee, I met you right after I started coming to work out here. It was right after my eighteenth birthday, and my birthday present to myself to finally be able to do something for myself. I was celebrating the arrest of my crack-addict parents,” she admitted quietly, her voice barely audible.
I gaped at her, trying to absorb what she just said. I was thankful no one else was in the locker room at that moment. “What? You can’t be serious.”
Joan nodded. “I am.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded, my bag dropping to the floor with a loud thud.
She shrugged nonchalantly. “Our entire friendship, it seems like there’s been an unwritten rule about talking about our pasts. I obviously haven’t wanted to talk about me for the same reason you don’t want to talk about yours.”
My mouth opened. “Jo—,”
She shoved all her stuff into her bag and picked it up. “You’re not the only one with a fucked up and depressing past. Call me when you’re ready to talk,” she hissed, then left.
I cringed. Is that really what I sounded like?
I blew all the air out of my lungs, my cheeks puffing. Barely reigning in my emotions, I stormed out of the locker room. Red colored my vision. Was she giving me an ultimatum? Why the hell would she do that?
As I strutted through the gym, not watching where I was going, my forehead came in contact with a large metal bar from one of the workout apparatuses. The force from the speed I was walking knocked me flat on my ass - my back, actually - where all the air was forced from my body. My bag fell loudly beside me.
“What the fu—,” I started, struggling to a sitting position on my elbows as I tried to suck the air back into my lungs, but stopped when I saw who was working the machine.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered, rubbing my now-tender forehead.
Mr. Smart-Ass-Who-Doesn’t-Know-Boundaries leaned over the metal bar, grinning down at me, dimples flashing. “Karma’s a bitch, isn’t she?”
Finally breathing correctly, I leapt gracefully to my feet. “Watch what the fuck you’re doing,” I barked.
He tilted his head to one side, smirking. “Maybe you should watch where you’re going. You were walking like a woman with a mission, and I certainly wasn’t expecting you to interrupt my workout just to talk to me. What were you expecting? Me to help you up? An apology and a kiss for you to be on your merry little way? The instant chemistry? Oh no, Princess, not after the way you treated me,” he said, all smugness and satisfaction.
I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing came. I snapped it closed, then opened it again. Was he delusional? Who did he think we was? And what the hell was going on with people today?
When I rose to my feet, I was close enough to him that I swung my arm up, hoping to get a good smack across the face. His reflexes were faster, and he caught my wrist before my palm came in contact with his cheek. I raised my other hand, but he caught that one too. My blood was boiling in anger at this point, amplified from my frustration with Joan.
“Let… me… go,” I seethed, twisting my wrists in his grip, but his iron grip on me never loosened.
“Not so fast, Princess. I think you should apologize for the way you acted toward me first,” he replied.
My jaw locked. “Never,” I grunted. Even being as in shape as I was, without a trace of fat on my body, I was panting from the exertion of fighting against this man, and that really scared me.
He shrugged. This didn’t faze him at all. He just stood there, arms flexed. “Your choice, Princess. We can stand here all day, if that’s what you want.”
“Stop calling me that,” I said.
A mischievous grin spread across his face. “Why?” He wondered innocently. Quickly, even more so than what I could comprehend, he forced my hands to my sides.
“Because I’m the furthest thing from that,” I said. I tried to move my arms, but he had them firmly pinned. “Just fucking let me go already, would you?”
He shook his head, clearly amused. “I want an apology first.”
I narrowed my eyed at him and stilled. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“I’d enjoy it more if you just apologized. What’s your issue, Princess? Got too much pride to do so?”
I snapped, like a hinge on a door, unleashing everything behind it. I swung one of my legs around his knees. Caught off guard, he buckled to the ground, his grip slipping. He recovered quickly as I tried to make a run for it. He wrapped his arms around my calves, tripping me. I barely had time to catch myself on my forearms before he was dragging me backward. I tried to grasp at the workout machines by me, but I couldn’t get a solid grip.
Suddenly, he flipped me onto my back. I lay dazed, staring up at the track lighting above me, but then his face appeared and he pinned my hands over my head. In fact, my whole body was trapped beneath his. I squirmed, trying to wriggle my way out, but there was no chance for me. He was all solid, heavy muscle, all of which knew just where to lock me down.
I was a hell of a good fighter - lithium petite, agile - but nothing compared to this. This man gave me a run for my money. I wasn’t one to swallow my pride. But I caved now. I was exhausted and frustrated.
“Fine!” I cried. “I apologize for not watching where I was going,” I managed through clenched teeth.
He raised his well-groomed eyebrows, curls tumbling down from the angle his head was hanging. “And?”
I rolled my eyes, causing his gaze to darken. “And for being such a bitch earlier.”
He grinned, the dimples returning, and sat up carefully, releasing me. “That’s better. That wasn’t so hard, now was it?”
I glowered at him, half-expecting him to wither from it. He didn’t, unfortunately. “It’s not funny.” I suddenly felt manhandled and weak. I turned my head away, sitting up to rest on my knees, trying to avoid eye contact.
“I never laughed. I didn’t even say it was funny,” he murmured.
I scowled at him, unable to resist looking at him. “Your smile implies otherwise. It makes me want to smack you.”
This time he did chuckle. “And look how well that turned out the last time you tried.” Then his face grew serious and his blue-grey eyes settled on mine.
I flushed under his gaze. “I won’t be trying it again any time soon. I don’t like being maltreated in my own territory,” I clambered to my feet and he followed.
“This is your territory?” He sounded both amused and curious.
“Yes and no. I’ve been coming here since I was seventeen.”
He turned toward me, looking me up and down. “And how old are you now?”
I shrugged, folding my arms across my chest. “I’ll be twenty-three in July.”
“Ah, an anticlimactic birthday, though I’d take any excuse to go drinking,” he noted.
I rolled my eyes again, once again noticing some darker emotion swimming his eyes. “I don’t drink.”
I sighed. “Only once, back in college. Wasn’t my thing.”
“Couldn’t handle your liquor?” He joked.
I scoffed. “That’s not why. I just don’t like to be put in a situation where I’m not the one in control.”
Why was I telling him this?
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Right, a control freak’s worst nightmare. So, I guess that explains why you didn’t like being mauled in the middle of the gym while everyone blatantly stared.”
My face warmed. “Yes, and let’s just say that I’ve had some… incidents, if you will, in the past,” I admitted, surprised by the fact that I had confessed to that. Who had I shared that information with? No one.
As if sensing we were headed into a dangerous zone of topics, he extended his hand, the name is Drew by the way. I don’t think we were properly introduced.” I glared at his hand, then bent and retrieved my bag and walked away, leaving his hand hanging there.
“You know, you could be decent without me having to kick your ass to get it out of you,” he called after me.
I smirked at him over my shoulder, my mood considerably lifted after a little challenge. “I’ll see you around, Drew.”