Her feet were sore from running endlessly. Panting heavily. She stretched her hands reaching out to the only open door she saw. As her fingertips almost touched the door, an unseen force pulled her by the neck, choking her while she’s being dragged. She struggled. She groped for the force pulling her yet nothing—there was nothing holding her. Slowly, she loses her breath. She tried to halt with her feet but to no avail, she slipped on the wet floor.
Suddenly, in one yank she fell into a body of water. Being dragged down, she found herself drowning—she attempted to swim out of the water, throwing her arms around and kicking her legs. Last of her breath escaped as she screamed for help.
Raquel gasped and jolted up. Cold sweat ran down her body. She wiped the sweat above her eyes with the back of her hand.
“It felt so real.” She thought.
She put her hand on her chest and can still feel her heart pounding. Raquel looked at her nightstand clock, it’s just two in the morning. She slid her legs out of the bed and flipped the switch for the lights while she headed out to the kitchen. She took a glass from the cupboard and a pitcher of water from her fridge—she badly needed water. She sighed, placed the emptied glass on the counter and return the pitcher in the fridge. She’s a bit calmer now.
After cleaning the glass, she walked back to her bedroom and slumped on her bed. For twenty years, she had been having almost the same dreams—drowning, chocked, pulled and sometimes gunned down, stabbed or tied. It had been a recurring dream for her that she got used to it but as the years passed by the dreams became more intense—more and more realistic.
Raquel tried to get rid of the thoughts of the dream but every time she closed her eyes, she saw water. She tossed and turned until she’s too burnt out to remember the nightmare.
Morning came and Raquel’s alarm blasted in the room. With closed eyes she fumbled for her phone, scrunching her nose and reluctantly squinted one eye. It’s seven in the morning and with interrupted sleep, she groggily slid out of bed. She grabbed her sportswear and grabbed her tumbler from the cupboards then filled it with water. She tied her black mid-length hair and laid her yoga mat on her bedroom floor to do her morning stretches with her favourite music in Spotify.
“Good morning!” A woman said with a smile from Raquel’s back.
She turned and gave a small smile, “Good morning, Jen.”
Raquel opened the doors and they walked in their office, it’s a two-story building that housed their photo studio for four years now.
“I see that you did not sleep well,” Jen remarked, looking at the coffee cup in Raquel’s hand.
“Yeah, you can say that.” She replied, picking up the rugs to start cleaning. She tossed one to Jen which she clumsily caught. They started to prepare the studio for today.
“You’re amazing!” Raquel praised the man and he smiled.
“Can I see it?”
“Sure.” Raquel displayed his photo through the gallery view of her camera. His smile grew and nodded.
“Yes, that’s nice. When can I get it?”
“You can get it today after 30 minutes.”
“Alright, I’ll just go back later.”
“Sure thing, we’ll have it prepared.”
The man nodded and went downstairs while she sent the image for printing. She then headed downstairs.
“Do we have anyone on queue for photoshoot?” She asked as soon as she reached the last step.
“Not until later two P.M.” Jen answered. She looked at her watch and saw that’s it’s already thirty minutes past twelve.
“Anything you want for lunch guys?” She inquired to everyone.
She had four women as her staff in the studio. Jenifer or Jen as what they called her, she has black skin with a waist-long braided hair and curvy; Libby, she had a fairly white skin with a shoulder-length hair dyed into black with red highlights, she’s taller and skinnier than most of them; Veronica who they called “Nica” she had brown skin with a boy-cut black hair and athletic physique; then, there’s Chezka, she also had fairly white skin and has a brown shoulder-length hair but she’s the one that has the bangs and average in height and body proportions.
“Can we have chicken sandwiches for today?” Libby asked and she looked around if they will agree.
“I am ok with it.” Nica answered and the rest just nodded.
“Alright, let me order for delivery. Anything else?”
“Maybe some smoothies.” Chezka added and Raquel nodded. No one disagreed so she went on and dialled the nearest fast-food.
Clients came in and go as they picked up their photos in the Studio. After thirty minutes of waiting their food arrived and Raquel paid for them. They closed the studio for their lunch.
“Do you have anything to do after work?” Jen asked for everyone and they all said no.
“Why?” Raquel asked and before Jen answered she took a big bite of her sandwich and chew a few times then told them that there was a new club that had opened around the corner.
“Oh, I don’t think I can go.”
“Why? It would be fun.” Libby said to Raquel in between bites.
“I am not used to going to clubs.”
“C’mon, you’re with us.” Nica said and she gave a small smile. She knew that they will all get drunk and maybe leave the club with someone—she’d be out of place. She was never a fun of clubbing.
“Say, you can just stay like thirty minutes and you can leave.” Chezka suggested but Raquel doubts about it.
“I’ll think about it.” Raquel said and finished her food. The doorbell rung and she gulped down her and wiped her mouth with a napkin before rushing to the door.
A man was standing in front of the door, wearing a navy-blue triple tailored fit suit, his black hair combed neatly and had fine white skin. Raquel opened the door and he walked in.
“Hi, what can we help you?” Raquel asked and he looked at her.
“You have something on here.” He said, pointing the corner of his mouth.
She felt her face redden and spun to grab the tissue from the reception counter. Quickly, she wide around her mouth and luckily Jen had a mirror in the counter, she was able to make sure she got everything off.
She turned back to him with sheepish smile, “I am sorry about that. It was lunch time.”
He nodded but his face was expressionless.
“I am here to hire you as a photographer for the opening of an exhibit.”
“May I know what day and time?” Raquel asked as she walked around the counter to check her appointments in their records.
“This September 15, six in the evening,” he said. Raquel typed it and run the records to match any appointments that day.
“I see, we’re free that day. We can have that scheduled now.”
“Here’s the deposit.” He said, sliding a check on the counter. Raquel looks at the check and it was a generous amount.
“Ah, I think that’s too much…”
“I will send the invitation tomorrow.” He said dismissively and turned to walk out.
“Wait, sir. Your name?”
“Please reserve it under the name Mr. Lewis.” He uttered and left the building without waiting for Raquel to answer.
“Who’s that?” Jen asked as she walked out of their dining room.
“I am not exactly sure, maybe he is Mr. Lewis. I asked what his name was but he only said ‘Please reserve it under the name Mr. Lewis’.” She said, mocking the voice of the man and did an air quotation at the end part of the sentence and entered the reservation. Jen smiled and shook her head then looked outside, catching the glimpse of the man.
“He’s stunning, though.” Jen said as she watched the man walked to the car parked nearby. Raquel peered outside and watched the man too. He did look stunning with his suit and his manners but he was kind of odd.
“Anyway, let me take over there because that is my work, girl.” Jen said and she moved behind the counter while Raquel smiled as she moved out of her way.
Clients came by for photoshoot appointments or picked-up their printed photos.
“One last shot.” Raquel instructed and the client agreed. Her make-up artist and personal assistant prepared her for it while Raquel fixed her settings for the last shot. She can hear the chatter behind her as they give her the last needed retouch.
“All set.” The make-up artist said and Raquel turned, ready to take that picture.
“Alright, pose for it.” She uttered as she aimed the camera to her model.
They wrapped up the shoot and the model chose the shots she wanted to be printed before she left with her make-up artist and assistant. Raquel secured the photos and saved them to a new folder for editing and printing. She added the details of the pick-up date. Later, Raquel cleaned up the place and returned her equipment to their places.
“Hey, let’s go.” Libby said as soon as Raquel reach downstairs. She then looked at her quizzically.
Libby rolled her eyes, “Did you forget?”
Raquel tried to remember what was supposed to happen tonight but she can remember it so she decided to lie.
“I. I don’t think…I can go, you know.” She stuttered but Libby proceeded on grabbing her hand and pulled her out of the studio while Raquel protested.
“I will lock the door.” Jen sing-sang as she checked the switches and outlets and equipment for the last time.
“We haven’t had time together anymore.” Nica said putting her arms across Raquel’s shoulder and gave her a friendly shake. Raquel smiled guiltily. It’s been a while since the last time they had get together every after work.
“Alright, but I won’t be long. You know I am not used to clubs.” Raquel gave in and they cheered.
“Will they let me in wearing these?” Raquel asked and Chezka looked at her. Raquel wore skinny jeans and medium-sized shirt paired with her white sneakers. She shrugged.
“I think you’re fine, they are not that exclusive.” Chezka said and Raquel nodded pursing her lips.
“OK.” Raquel said and went along with them.
They rode a taxi and reached the club after few minutes. The line is quite long. Jen paid for their taxi and they headed to the line. When they reached the entrance, the bouncers looked at them but they just kept their smile. They shrugged and let them in. The club was relatively crowded, the music pounds their heart and the lights made Raquel felt a little bit lightheaded.
“Let’s go get some drinks!” Libby shouted above the music. They agreed and together they walk to the bar. Each of them avoided the dancing individuals moving to and from the bar. They reached the bar and immediately the bartender approached them.
“What can I serve you ladies?” He asked with a smile, his dimples showing. The four ladies looked at each other, smiling while Raquel looked at them knowingly.
“Margarita, please.” They chimed and his smile widened,
He turned to Raquel and leaned, “How about you, my lady?”
“She will have a Margarita too.” Nica cut her out and Raquel questioningly looked at her. She just smiled at her.
Raquel swiftly turned to the bartender, waving her hands,” N…No.”
“Oh, okay. What’s your drink then?”
“I will just have a club soda.”
“Oh, c’mon, Raquel, we’re in the club.” Chezka grumbled.
“You sure? Your friends are getting the happy drink.”
“Yes, please.” Raquel said and she looked at them with a “no-I-am-not-drinking-alcohol” face.
They rolled their eyes and gave exasperated sighs. They got their drinks and as they look for a table the four girls sashayed their way while taking sips of their drink. Once settled, they went ahead and drunk their Margarita—club soda for Raquel. They swayed and occasionally, fist-pumped up on the air as the music pulsate the walls of the club. Sometimes, Chezka checked-out people walking and share to the group so they can secretly ogle. After a few more drinks, the four girls decided that it’s time to hit the dancefloor.
“I don’t dance.” Raquel said, shaking her head.
“Let’s go!” Jen took her drink from her hands and put it down on the table.
“I will just stay here and watch our table.” Raquel insisted, shouting above the loud music but they pulled her with them into the dancefloor instead.
There were so many people dancing, it looked as if there were no enough space to dance. Raquel watched her friends dance while she made small dancing moves unlike theirs. She was already there might as well join them a little. They were all smiles and laughing once a while. They jumped when the right beat hit but that only deafened Raquel thus, she just stayed still with a small smile.
They had fun, sure, too much fun that Raquel was trying hard to keep two of her friends upright, Chezka and Libby while the other two went out with their pairs.
“One more!” Libby shouted to her ear and Raquel grimaced.
“No more, Libby. It’s time to go home.” She said, trying to keep her grip on their waists tight and on place.
“No, we’re not going home.” Chezka grumbled and halted instantly that made Raquel trip a little and let go of Libby that almost tumbled.
“Oops, careful.” A man said, catching Libby by her shoulder. Raquel looked at him. He seemed familiar but she has no time to remember it.
“Hi, handsome.” Libby said, touching his face with her index finger and Raquel snapped out of her thoughts.
“Thanks, let me just….” Raquel trailed off as she pulled Chezka with her.
“Let me help you.” He said as he put Libby’s arm across his shoulders while Libby kept on smiling and touching him.
“No, it’s fine. I can manage.”
“I don’t think so. You got the stubborn ones. We always have these kinds of customers.” He said and started walking to the exit. Raquel was not able to protest since Chezka was making her own objections to get out of the club. Raquel talked to her softly as she pulled her and walked out of the club.
Outside, the man waited for her and Chezka, squatting next to Libby who sat on the sidewalk head down, lolling it side to side. They stopped next to them and he stood up.
“Thank you, you can go now.” Raquel said.
“You okay, Lib?” She asked, looking down at her friend and she just made an ok sign and dropped her head.
“You still need to hail cabs for each of them, I can still help.” He said and seeing the situation of the two. He is right. She sighed.
“I can just book through an app.” She said but he just smirked and scratched his left eyebrow.
“It’s too late and most cabs are going home or occupied.”
“We’ll be fine.” Raquel said dismissively. She did not trust this guy. Yes, he did help but she is not sure what is his motivation to help. It’s not that “he just wanted to help” it’s difficult to trust these days.
Raquel tried to book cabs but to no avail there were no cabs available. He watched her get more frustrated while Raquel acted like she’s bothered about his presence. Meanwhile, Chezka continued to grumble under her breathe. Raquel can feel her weight getting heavier as she got sleepier. He noticed that she started getting out of balance with Chezka’s weight on her.
“Let me take her.” He offered but before he can even reach for her arms, she made nauseous noises so Raquel hurried to place her on the curb near the drainage and there she poured her guts out. Raquel rubbed her back. Libby chuckled as she watched Chezka.
“You’re weak, Chez.” She teased but Chezka looked like she didn’t hear anything.
“We got an empty one.” The guy announced and Raquel looked up.
“Chez, you done?” Raquel asked and Chezka nodded. She helped her clean her face.
“Hey, this one’s ok.” He said as he opened the door.
“Please wait here.” He turned to the driver who nodded curtly. He ran to them and helped pull Chezka up. Raquel put her arms around her and started to walk to the cab.
“Please help Libby.” Raquel said, he did not know their names but he guessed she’s talking about the girl sitting on the sidewalk. While, Raquel has no choice but to accept help from a stranger.
They slid Chezka in the cab first then Libby and then Raquel stepped in.
“Where are we going?”
“Uhm… let’s go to Clarkdale, first, 7th street.” Raquel said and the driver gave a curt nod before driving off. Raquel fumbled for her phone in her bag and when she cannot find it, she checked her pockets but she cannot feel it there either. She cursed under her breath and tried to remember where she last put it. Maybe if fell when she stooped down with Chezka while she vomited. She made a mental note that she had to go back to the club tonight.
Raquel had to rummage Chezka’s bag for her house keys before they reach her house while the two drunk women were now sleeping.
“Please turn left and stop to that blue house.” She instructed and the driver pulled over in front of the house she described.
The driver stopped the engine and helped Rachel after she slid Chezka out of the car. They carried her to the front door of the house and just on time, her roommate, Felly, opened the door. She has this very long strawberry blonde hair tied in a ponytail, fairly white and she’s obviously athletic and tall. She wore dolphin shorts and a blue medium-sized shirt.
“My goodness.” She gasped.
“I know, she had so much fun.” Raquel answered her non-verbal question. Felly widened the door opening so they can get in. She gracefully ran to Chezka’s door and Raquel handed her the keys so she can open the door for them. They laid her on the bed and she just rolled on her side. Raquel sighed, exhausted.
“Thanks for bringing her home.” Felly said and she turned to her.
“You’re welcome. We…we’ll go ahead.” Raquel said and she followed the driver to the front door, exiting the house. They hurried to the cab and drove off.
Raquel hadn’t met Felly, Chezka did not talk about her that much, she only knew that she had a roommate named Felly, that’s all. She instructed the cab driver to go to East Florence.
Libby lived in one of the high-end neighbourhoods since she still lived with her parents. I think her house is that third house, the one with beige and white paint. The cab driver pulled over in front of Libby’s house. The lights were still on and the front door opened as soon as Raquel stepped out and the driver helped her to carry Libby out of the car.
“What happened to her?” A woman asked as she hurried to them, she was wearing a purple robe on top of her nightgown. She has long curled blonde hair that falls on her chest and her skin is white and freckled.
“She had so much fun.” Raquel answered with a small smile and Libby’s mother led the way to the house while calling out for her husband. A man went downstairs that shook his head. His hair had darker shade of blonde and stood tall among them. He was wearing a blue pair of pyjamas.
“I’ll take care of her, thanks.” He said and took her daughter from Raquel and the cab driver. He then swiftly carried Libby in his arms and brought her upstairs. Libby’s mother stayed and faced them.
“Thank you for bringing her home.” She said with relief. Raquel thought maybe she could’ve been waiting for Libby.
“You’re welcome.” Raquel replied with a smile which she responded with a smile too.
“I…I’ll go ahead now. Good night.” She continued.
“Yes, sure. Good night.”
The door closed behind them closed and they rode the cab again. She looked at her watch it’s twelve thirty A.M. She still needed to sleep.
“Where are we heading now?” The cab driver asked and Raquel snapped out of her musing.
“Ah, just drop me off in the club. I left something.” She answered and the driver gave her a curt nod before he started the engine and drove away.
They reached the club and bustling with loud music. Raquel paid for all the expenses and stepped out of the cab. She looked around and went back to the curb where they waited for the cab.
“Looking for this?” A man asked and she jolted, spun around to see the man who helped her earlier.
“Yes.” She replied with relief and walked to him hastily. He handed her the phone and she checked it if it was hers. She opened the phone and checked if anything is odd.
“I did not do anything. I promise,” he said. Her face and ears heated up. She smiled awkwardly and forced a small chuckle. She nodded and placed her phone in her bag—just to be sure.
“Thanks for keeping them…and for waiting.” She said shyly.
“I just sort of knew that you’re coming back for the phone.” He said with a smirk. Raquel felt a little comfortable with him but she knew he is just a stranger.
“Ah, thanks again. I will go home now.” She said and turned her heels to walk away.
He watched her walk away, having second thoughts if he would chase her or just wait to see her again. When he first looked at her, he felt something strange— he felt like he knew her before even though he just moved in this town.
Raquel continued to walk down the street with full strides, not so fast and not so slow. It’s fast enough to evade anyone who follows her if there were any and slow enough not to make people suspicious. She was always like this. She’s wary of walking alone at night since she was young. She never felt safe being outside her house at this hour. She remembered that she often told her mother she sensed that someone was following her and she just disregard it, saying that it’s all in her mind.
She sighed as she treaded in the apartment building. She did not notice she was holding her breath. Raquel went straight to the elevator and punched the arrow up sign that made it lit up into bright red colour. Raquel absent-mindedly looked down at her shoes while she waited for the elevator. She noticed someone came and pressed the same button she pressed. She moved away a little.
“It’s nice to see you again.” She heard and her brows knotted together. It did sound familiar but she just cannot believe her ears hence she did not bother looking at whoever talked.
“Hey, really now?” He asked as he leaned facing toward her. His breath touched her skin that made her look at him. Clearly, she was startled seeing him. He quickly straightened himself up and raised his hands. This is the only time that she was able to observe that this man was taller than her, fair skinned and had blond locks.
“I…I am not following you. I live here.” He explained with a small smile and she nodded.
“Jackson. You?” He continued, extending his hand to her. She hesitated but there was something about him that she made her feel like he was not a bad guy at all. She had this hunch that she already met him before.
“Raquel.” She replied, shaking his hands and the feeling of his skin on her was familiar. She asked herself if she ever held his hand before? Maybe while helping her with Libby and Chezka?
The elevator chimed and Raquel let his hands go. She stepped in the elevator followed by Jackson. She pressed the button of the floor where her apartment is and so did Jackson— her on the fourth floor and he on the third. Usually, she’s uneasy riding the elevator alone with a man but she did not feel that way with Jackson which is weird for her. Raquel then wrestled between the thought if she should ask him if where she saw him or just let go of the topic.
“Now, I realized why you ordered a non-alcoholic drink. You’re responsible with those two when they get drunk.” He said out of nowhere and she tilted her head, looking at him, realizing that he just answered the question in her mind.
“You’re the bartender?” She asked and he smiled.
“Yes, Ma’am. Didn’t you notice?”
“Not really but I thought I met you before and that explains a lot.”
“Anyway, I never saw you around. I have been here for, say, three weeks or close to a month now.”
“Maybe because you work at night and usually, I am already asleep by this time.” She said matter-of-factly and he nodded, smiling.
“So, you mean you don’t always go clubbing with your friends?”
“Nope, we do eat dinner together after shift before but we had been busy prior months.”
“I see. Anyway, this is my floor. See you around?” He said as the elevator halted and chimed before opening the elevator doors.
“Maybe.” She said with a small smile while Jackson smiled and waved a hand as a good bye while the elevator doors closed. Raquel yawned as she leaned on the elevator wall, she checked her watch. It’s already past two in the morning.
Shortly, Raquel reached her floor and the elevator chimed, as the elevator doors opened. As soon as she stepped out of the elevator she watched as everything around her changed. She looked down and the floor became wet cobblestone pavement and her shoes changed into low heel, flat shoes riddled with dirt and now, she wore skin toned pantyhose. She then found out that she’s now wearing a straight dress with drop waist style and has white collar and cuffs while the body was purple. She’s also carrying a small rectangular bag with shoulder straps. She observed around her and she gazed at the back of the tall bricked buildings, closed windows and non-functional street lights. Raquel started to hear leaking pipes around her and then, followed by footsteps going towards her. Her heart started to pound in her chest. Fear overcame her that she started running. Every clacking sound behind her and her shoes made only creates panic. She tried to run faster but her shoes hurt her—she cannot stop or else whoever was behind her will get her.
She ran endlessly through the dark alley.