Chapter 22 - Danica
As Aldrich carries me back to the bed, I can’t help the feeling of security that his arms give me. How he keeps trying to make me feel better. And when he holds me . . . it just feels natural. It feels right.
“I’m going to go to your hotel room and bring your things here,” he says as he hands me a bowl of oatmeal. “Claire will be here, as will her daughter, Laila, if you need anything . . . though I don’t think Laila is too happy with me at the moment.”
“Did you break her heart, or something?” I ask, meaning it as a joke.
“Or something,” Aldrich replies, chuckling. “It doesn’t matter. She’s not let the matter go for quite some time. Is there anything in particular you would like me to bring back?”
“Um . . .” I mumble as I take a bite of the oatmeal. I chew slowly, while thinking of what I might need, and swallow before speaking.
“I don’t think so . . .” I trail off.
“Well,” Aldrich says, shrugging. “If you think of anything before I get back, call me. You can use that landline. My number is speed dial number three.”
I nod, glancing at the phone as I continue to eat. He’s thought of everything, it seems.
“One last thing,” he says and I meet his gaze. “I have to know . . . You said that you knew it, when I told you who I am. What did you mean by that?”
I blush, setting the bowl down in my lap before answering.
“You’ll think I’m nuts,” I says softly, using my tongue to clean the front of my teeth.
“Moj slatki,” Aldrich says, smiling. “Tell me.”
“What if you laugh?” I ask, my cheek growing warmer.
“I won’t laugh at you, moj slatki.”
Again with the ’moj slatki’. I bite my lip; Aldrich looks at me intently, eager to hear whatever I have to say. Or at least, I think it is eagerness in his eyes. I could be misinterpreting his actions.
I-knew-what-you-looked-like-without-ever-seeing-you,” I say in one breath. “I . . . I imagined what you looked like, using what little you gave me. I conjured up a fantasy of your appearance and when I saw you that first day at the cab . . . I was amazed to see that someone I never met, whom I imagined to be real in my head, actually existed . . . and a small part of me thought it really was you for a moment.”
I pause to see Aldrich’s reaction. He’s smiling, but not laughing at my stupid notions. He shakes his head, his cheeks are flushed. What?
“Is that so?” he asks softly, tapping the bowl in my lap as if to tell me to keep eating. “Well, I am not entirely surprised . . . you did write Aching Heart without ever meeting me, and it is almost completely my life being told.”
I nod, lifting a spoon of gruel to my mouth. Aldrich leans forward, slightly hesitant, and presses his lips to my cheek. He’s been doing that a lot since the moment he carried me out of that retched place. And I like it more than he may realize. Or he does realize it and is doing it to comfort me.
“I’ll be back within an hour or so,” Aldrich says, rising from the bed. “Call me, even if it is a little thing. Okay?”
I nod, “Okay,” I reply.
“Don’t push yourself, moj slatki.”
With that, Aldrich kisses the top of my head and rummages through the drawer of the nightstand. He pulls out a wallet, a set of keys and his phone. He turns it on, motions to it, and then the landline, as though I need to be reminded further. My smile widens and I nod, giving him a thumbs up. He returns the smile and walks towards the door.
I have no idea where I am or how I am walking around without Aldrich’s help. I take in my surroundings. A desert-like area, utterly vacant of any life source, though there are buildings. Cobblestones line the street, and there are actual tumbleweeds blowing in the hot air. It feels a bit Western to me. And most definitely a desert like one of those places in Arizona. My legs carry me forward, drawn by some invisible force to who knows where. I walk down the streets, looking around warily. I hope no one jumps out at me.
Thought too soon. In the corner of my eye, I see a dark shadow. It bounces from spot to another, rapidly. I freeze, unsure of what it will do. Then it is in front of me. A panther? What the heck is a panther doing in a desert? Aren’t they rainforest animals? It stares at me with slit, yellow eyes. Back arched. Poised to pounce. I can’t move. I don’t know what to do. Run!
I turn on my heel and race in the opposite direction. I hear the panther growling behind me. I glance over my shoulder. He’s gaining on me. But it’s like he’s in slow motion. I look back to the direction I’m headed. I pump my arms and legs, willing myself faster. I break a sweat. It drips down my forehead and into my eyes. I suck air through my teeth as the salty drip stings my eye. But I don’t stop. I keep running.
Suddenly, I am thrown to the floor on my face. Sharp claws penetrate my skin. I cry out in pain and try to fight free from the big cat’s grasp. While the panther swipes at me, left and right, I feel my shoulders shaking. And not from the panther’s strong legs shaking me. It’s like someone has their hands wrapped around my biceps and is shaking me. Not roughly, but enough to get my attention. I start blinking back the tears. This has to be a bad dream.
“Moj slatki,” someone says as my shoulders continue to shake. “Danica wake up. It’s only a dream, moj slatki.”
I blink repeatedly. Aldrich is hovering above me, his hands on my arms as he gently shakes me awake. When my eyes are fully open, he sighs with relief.
“You scared me for a moment,” he says, releasing my arms, but moves his hands to my hair and forehead. “Let me get a damp cloth. Your sweating.”
My chest heaves as I try to catch my breath. Aldrich disappears into the bathroom briefly, returning with a cloth. He sits on the bed again, and dabs my forehead gently. I sigh and close my eyes for a second. When I look at Aldrich, his brow is creased with concern.
“You’re rather warm,” he says in a soft voice, touching my forehead with the back of the hand he is using to dab the cloth with. “What were you dreaming about?”
I’ve calmed down enough to talk. I tell him everything, which makes me break out in tears. The dream was so real. I was so scared. Once I’m finished, Aldrich pulls me to his chest, gently rubbing my hair. I feel like a little girl again, seeking comfort from Charlie. I haven’t had a nightmare since high school. Is it PTSD from being kidnapped? Aldrich hushes me, gently rocking me side to side. Kissing the top of my head softly.
“It’s okay,” he whispers and I feel his face in my hair. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
Aldrich begins to rub circles in my back and all I want is for it to last forever. After a while, Aldrich releases me and tells me that he is going to get us dinner. I sit quietly, watching the door for the moment he returns. I nearly jump out of the bed when the door opens, but it’s not Aldrich. It young woman, probably around my age, if not younger. Her eyes are bright and her hair tied back in a maid’s cap. She glances around, as if to make sure no one else is in here, and enters, coming straight to the bedside.
“So, you’re the reason Dante never looks my way,” she says, speaking perfect English. “If you had never shown up, he would be wrapped around my finger right now. Karolina ruined her chances and I was ready to step up . . . Then yo-”
“Laila?” Aldrich appears in the doorway, carrying two plates in his hands. “Da ne bi trebao da se vrati ovde. Please leave.”
I can only stare blankly as Laila looks at me with a scowl and then glances at Aldrich before marching out of the room. Aldrich rolls his eyes, setting the plates on his computer desk before closing the door all the way. A minute later, he is at the bedside, handing me a plate. I can tell that there are vegetables on the plate. I make out the appearance of diced onions, carrots and some leaves of spinach. But the breaded-like lump on top of the rice is an unknown to me.
“It’s like a potato pattie,” Aldrich explains, cutting into his own and picking up the piece on his fork to show me. “Claire likes to mix your American meals with our tradition foods. It’s good, try it.”
I nod and cut a small piece off with my fork. I stab at it and pop it into my mouth. It almost melts in my mouth. Buttery, a hint of garlic, herby. And a bit nutty, with a tad of crunch. Pesto-like. Pine nuts?
“That is delicious,” I say, covering my mouth as I speak. “Are those pine nuts?”
“Yes,” Aldrich replies, nodding as he takes a bite of the veggies. “Claire watches a lot of those cooking videos on the internet. Whenever possible, she likes to introduce the new dishes. She once made gnocchi, and the dough was infused with spinach. It was fantastic.”
I smile as I take another bite, this time trying the veggies. The warm food is so good after not eating for these last few days. I eat until the plate is empty, and then Aldrich hands me a small cup of what looks like ambrosia. Gram made it a few times when I was growing up. I take a small spoonful and perk up at the sweet taste. Aldrich chuckles as he watches me eat the dessert.
“I’m glad to see that your appetite is returned,” he says as he collects the plates and forks. “I’ll be right back. Laila won’t be coming back here again. I’m sorry about her.”
I nod, “Did you happen to hear what she was saying?” I ask.
“I didn’t need to hear her to know what she was thinking,” Aldrich replies, shaking his head. “Don’t worry about her . . . As lovely as she was when she first started working here, she has changed and . . . she has nothing on you.”
I am rendered speechless as I watch Aldrich smile, bashfully I might add, and leave with the dirty dishes. And then there’s that.