The Fighter

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Chapter 2: Hush, Hush

The next day I went straight from work at the local library to the gym. Being completely honest, I was nervous about possibly seeing Joan or Drew there. I wasn’t ready to speak to either of them.

Oddly enough, today was the first day in a long time that I hadn’t felt furious at the world, and I wasn’t sure why. I tolerated being at work, I was pleasant to my co-workers, and I felt calm inside. It was uncanny given I’d spent a vast majority of my life blaming the world for all my issues. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel about it.

I tightened my ponytail as I walked out of the locker room, assessing the room as I decided what kind of workout I’d do that day. Before I could make a decision, my thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice.

“Funny seeing you here again,” he said.

I grimaced and turned to face Drew. “What, are you stalking me now?” I quipped.

He barked out a laugh, his blue-grey eyes glittering with mirth. “Don’t you wish you were that special, Princess?”

I sighed and shook my head. “Why do you keep calling me that? I hate it.”

He smirked. “I’m not surprised since you seem to hate everything,” he remarked. I glared at him, eliciting his next response, accompanied by him raising on shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “At first it seemed fitting since you were acting entitled to the way you thought people should act around you. Now it seems endearing.”

“Endearing implies we’re friends, which we clearly aren’t,” I deadpanned.

Drew beamed, then pushed a few curls off his forehead. “So what are you going to do today?”

“Well, that’s what I was trying to figure out before you rudely interrupted,” I stated, but not with as much resentment in my voice as I expected.

“You don’t seem angry enough to use a punching bag again,” he said, scrutinizing my face before turning to look at the gym.

I snorted as if to say he was wrong, but the way he looked at me made me second guess my response. “Okay, so maybe I’m not, so what? What do you suggest I do?”

He tapped his chin. “Care to see if you can take me down?” He smiled devilishly, revealing his dimples which I annoyingly found cute.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. I wasn’t ready to be humiliated two days in a row, not after yesterday. I had trained practically my whole life so that way I would know how to protect myself against a man, and Drew had proved all that training wrong in a matter of minutes.

“You know, I actually think I’m feeling some cardio today. Rain check, though?” I suggested.

He winked at me. “Sure thing, Princess. I’m sure you’ll see me again.” He turned and walked toward the free weights, leaving me with a feeling of emptiness inside.

Day after day I returned to the gym, feeling at cross roads with myself. On one hand, I was relieved I didn’t have to interact with Joan or Drew, but I was also disappointed because it left me feeling more lonely than the day before.

Without Joan to talk to, I felt I had nowhere left to turn. I had my trainer, but he and I didn’t really have that kind of personal relationship. I had a couple other girlfriends, but I wasn’t close to them like I was with Joan. Was I ready to call Joan and tell her about my life? Was I ready to tear those wounds open? Re-live the traumatizing events of my past?

Every day I went, I felt like I would take Drew up on his offer. Maybe training with someone who wasn’t afraid to take me down was what I needed to be doing; it would be more hands-on training. The question was… was I ready to let someone do that to me? Was I too proud for it?

I contemplated these things at work when I was doing mind-numbing tasks, like putting books back. To me, these were really heavy decisions. Was I ready to be vulnerable?

I pushed the cart full of books down the science-fiction aisle and picked up a stack of books, putting them back one at a time. I felt my phone buzz in my back pocket, so I paused my task and pulled it out.

Joan: Hey. You ready to talk yet?

I puffed out my cheeks. I felt like I owed it to her to talk to her. I knew I was feeling guilt, which wasn’t a regular emotion for me, so I was unsure with how to proceed. I stared at the message for a few more seconds and decided to hold off until I wasn’t at work. I locked my screen and slid it back into my pocket, resuming putting books away.

For some reason, I felt the need to look up. As I did, I saw a familiar face - well, back side really. There Drew was, with his back to me, standing tall and broad-shouldered, his curly hair pushed back. Except he wasn’t in gym clothes. He was wearing a heather grey long sleeve and dark blue jeans. Why in the world would someone like him be at the public library?

I shook my head. I didn’t even know the guy, who was I to judge why he was at a library? I set the stack of books down that I was holding and walked across the library to greet him.

“Are you sure you’re not stalking me?” I wondered quietly, leaning against the bookshelf he was standing in front of.

He jumped a little, startled. He looked at me with genuine surprise, but recovered quickly and plastered a dimpled smile on his face. “You know, I couldn’t stalk you even if I wanted to. I don’t even know your name.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Yeah, I don’t give out my personal information to total strangers.”

Drew mocked offense, placing his hand on his chest. “Stranger? We’ve met three times now and have had more physical contact than most people have had in three dates.”

I flushed, and was immediately hoping he couldn’t see. “Yeah, about that. I was thinking of taking you up on your offer. I could use some training.”

He frowned, his full lower lip jutting out slightly. “Training? For what? Are you a cop or something?”

I giggled. The noise was bizarre, even to my own ears. A small smile traced his lips after. “Me, a cop? Hell no. I, uh, work here. Trying to get my foot in the door. Actually, that was why I was in such a bad mood the day we met; it was after another shitty interview.”

He narrowed his eyes, his thick eyelashes casting shadows down his cheekbones. How was it possible that one human could have every desirable trait? It wasn’t fair. “Okay, so let me get this straight. First of all, it sounds like you’re not a big fan of cops. So, I’m guessing you’ve had some issues with law enforcement in the past. Second, you’re almost twenty-three and trying to get your foot in the door… I’m guessing you just graduated college?”

I crossed my arms over my chest, impressed. “Look at you using inductive reasoning,” I said sarcastically.

“Interesting,” he murmured, placing the book he was holding back in its designated spot. I briefly caught a glimpse of the title: The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

“What is?” I questioned, momentarily distracted by his book choice.

“The fact that you deflect every observation someone makes about you with anger, sarcasm, or another question,” he replied nonchalantly, staring directly into my eyes. The clear confrontation of his body language and tone of voice made me squirm a little.

“That’s not true…” I started, my voice faltering. I wasn’t sure how to respond.

“And for someone who doesn’t like to talk about themselves, you sure as hell don’t make any attempt at asking about anyone else.”

I bit my lip, and pretended not to notice when his eyes zeroed in on it. “You’ve known me for a total of thirty minutes and you’ve made these observations?” I asked in disbelief.

“It’s kind of my job,” he said, then reached up and plucked the same book off the shelf. “By the way, I work for the government and I got my Master’s in Psychology. Graduated from Georgetown in ’15. Not like you’d care enough to ask,” he retorted, shrugging as he walked away.

His words stung a little, really hitting home. Whatever progress Drew and I had made towards being friends dissipated instantly, and I felt my anger returning, slowly simmering inside me.

I felt embarrassed that he called me out in the way he did. I thought we were having playful banter back and forth, and suddenly he got serious and personal. Was he actually that sensitive, or was he trying to teach me a lesson about my attitude? Either way, it wasn’t his place.

A flashback hit me out of the blue, and I squeezed my eyes shut to brace for what was sure to be a dark and gruesome look into my past.

“Madelyn,” my adoptive mother, Kathleen, whispered gently. “Madelyn, dear, won’t you talk to me?”

I was curled on my bed, sobbing into my pillow, facing the wall. I was sixteen years old, and still trying to figure out who I was and how to cope with the shitty events of my life.

“Go away,” I muttered, my voice shaking.

I felt her weight shift the mattress under me; she brushed my long blonde strands away from my face and tucked them behind my ear. “Your principal called me and told me what happened. She completely understood your outburst and won’t be pushing for reprimand, nor will the girls’ parents.”

I stared at the wall. “I don’t care. They can sue if they want. I just can’t do it anymore, Mom.”

She rested her hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

I rolled onto my back, shifting my gaze to the ceiling. “Those awful girls. That’s what happened.”

“In more detail,” she pressed.

I rolled my eyes. “They told me they found out I’m adopted and that they knew all about my real mom dying of cancer and how I was raped as a child. They then proceeded to laugh at me and ask me if I was begging for it, if I liked it, and then said it made sense why I was so weird.”

“So you snapped?”

I gawked at Kathleen. Why would she make me talk about this? “Yes, that’s when I got up and beat the shit out of them.”

“Language, young lady.”

“Sorry. Yes, I punched both of them multiple times. They got what was coming for them.” My cheeks blazed; I was humiliated that they had outed me and even more so at the scene I caused.

Kathleen sighed. “Listen. I think we need to find a way to redirect how you’re feeling. Why don’t we try out some self-defense classes? That’ll give you an outlet and teach you some valuable lessons.”

I was quiet for a moment before nodding, giving her my silent agreement.

The image faded away and I felt that same humiliation wash over me as I did all those years ago. After a few moments, I sulked back to work, feeling like my day was effectively ruined.

Another two days passed without seeing Joan or Drew. I was beginning to grow worried, despite the anger I felt toward the both of them. Had I really offended Joan so much she wasn’t coming to the gym? I still hadn’t texted her back because I felt I could better explain things in person, so maybe she was waiting on that. Drew, on the other hand, had said some things that really got under my skin and I wanted to confront him, but I wasn’t sure I had the energy in me to do so.

I tossed and turned in my bed, trying to find a comfortable position, but couldn’t find one. I huffed and picked up my laptop from my nightstand. Without knowing why, I opened a web browser and searched for The Black Dahlia, the same book Drew had checked out at the library. I found an online version and began reading.

I was enthralled immediately and couldn’t stop reading. Next thing I knew, it was bright and early, sun shining through my window, birds chirping outside… and I hadn’t had a wink of sleep. As I finished the book, a thought occurred to me.

Drew had mentioned that he worked for the government. What kind of work did he do? Was he just the kind of person who was intrigued by a romanticized version of crime? As these thoughts swirled in my head, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of my behavior toward him. He was right; I had befriended people in the past only by getting to know them, and that’s all he was trying to do. I shouldn’t be so awful; besides, I’d made it all this time without telling Joan, so surely I could swing it with him.

I closed my laptop and crawled out of bed. It was seven in the morning on my day off, so I figured I should go to the gym. I walked out of my bedroom and into the kitchen to put water in a kettle for my morning tea. Suddenly, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, the same feeling one gets when they feel they’re being watched. As I put the kettle on the stove, I peered out the window in my kitchen and saw a hooded figure standing at the edge of where the trees started behind my apartment complex.

I immediately closed the blinds, fighting the rising panic. He couldn’t have found me, right? There’s no way.

I rushed to finish getting ready. I quickly downed my tea and brushed my teeth, then hurried out of my apartment, locked the door, and ran to my car.

I sat in the locker room at the gym, feeling like I was finally ready to text Joan back. My fingers quickly typed out a message to her:

Me: I’m ready. Can we talk today?

I really wasn’t motivated to workout today but knew I needed to. As soon as I walked out of the locker room I saw Drew filling up his water bottle. I breathed a silent sigh of relief and walked over to him.

“‘Some people don’t respond to civility’,” I quoted.

Drew turned around, his eyes flooded with confusion. “What?”

I rubbed the back of my neck. “The book you checked out, The Black Dahlia. It’s a quote from the book. ‘Some people don’t respond to civility’. I read the whole thing last night,” I told him.

He raised his eyebrows. “You remembered which book I picked out, or did you hack into the system and look?” He tipped his water bottle back to draw a long sip from it.

I snickered. “I have an uncanny memory. Besides, you were right, and apparently so was James Ellroy. I don’t really respond well when people are nice to me. Or rude, or really anything. I have a hard time connecting with people and get flustered when people try to - what did you say the other day? - observe me,” I explained.

Drew shrugged and smiled at me, his pretty eyes saying they forgave me. “Come on, Princess. Ready to take me on today?”

I cracked the smallest of smiles and nodded. I followed him as he led me to an empty mat.

“So does this mean you’ll tell me your name now?” He inquired, stretching his legs.

I pretended to contemplate. “Eh, at this point I think it’s funny to keep you wondering. Keeps some of the mystery,” I retorted.

“I really think you’ve got the mysteriousness to your character down.”

I rolled my eyes, and like I’d seen the first day I met him, his gaze darkened, but I couldn’t tell what emotion was etched on his features.

Without any warning, he advanced on me, taking me down quickly, pinning me. Over and over, I couldn’t seem to get ahold of myself. A few times I’d get the advantage, but his training got the best of me.

After an hour and a half of struggling against him, I tapped out.

“Alright, what the hell?” I snapped, doubling over to catch my breath.

Drew grinned at me like a Cheshire Cat. “It’s alright, Princess. You’ll get there,” he encouraged.

I shook my head vigorously. “No, you don’t understand,” I said between breaths. “I literally have spent nearly seven years trying to train to protect myself… and all for nothing.”

He rose from his knees and pulled his shirt up to wipe his forehead. I couldn’t help but admire his washboard abs underneath. Unfortunately, I wasn’t slick enough, as he caught me when he dropped his shirt and flashed a perfect-toothed smile at me. “Look, it takes time to learn how to properly fight. You’ve got the form and the basic self-defense down, even the strength and skill. I just have a different type of training.”

I tightened my long blonde ponytail and fixated my amber eyes on him. “Teach me. I’m all in.”

A brief, indescribable emotion flitted across his features before being replaced by amusement. “Me too,” was all he said.

Joan: Yes, let’s meet. I know you don’t drink, but tonight you’ll want to. I’ll bring the wine. :-)

As I read her message, I smiled. I could do this, and I was very certain that I could. For the first time in my life, I was ready to share my story willingly.

Little did I know I wouldn’t get the chance to share my story with her. Not yet.

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