“Are you OK to close up shop on your own?”
My boss acts less like a boss and more like a co-worker. He never complains when I am late and he helped me pick up the broken cups I dropped the first days of me working here. He seems nice enough but he is stricter with the other employees. I would like to chalk this up to me being likable but I have seen Lil’Ed follow me around. I am betting that the huge thrall had a nice little talk with my boss. And my guess is after that talk I could set the place on fire and he would blow on the flames.
“Sure, I will be just fine.”
“Are you sure? I can stay and help but...”
“It’s perfectly OK,” I smile to urge him on while he looks out the window probably looking for Lil’Ed.
I glance out the window too. I don’t see Lil’Ed but that doesn’t mean he is not there somewhere. I smile wider at my boss and to make a point, I take the tray filled with the lust cups of the evening and I go to fill the dishwasher.
“OK then. Lock after me,” he advices and I hear the little bell chime as he walks out.
I duck under the counter to find the detergent when I hear the little bell again.
“Did you forget anyth-” I say as I get up to look over the counter and I pause immediately.
It’s not my boss standing there. It’s Rage. I was dreading this moment at some point. Iris has called me a lot the days I left the Riders behind, even after she came to Lauren’s. I never answered. It pained me to do so but I needed some time alone, to gather my thoughts and what is supposed to be my life.
And I made it. I passed my exams and I was first in my class. I got a teacher’s attention and she asked to be a part of a research she was conducting. This project could get me a scholarship to Berkeley in the psychology program I am dying to attend. I got a job that pays some of the bills at Lauren’s and with the tips I am saving so I can move to a place on my own.
I got my life together, a routine that revolves around me, I answer to no one but myself and I achieved so much for a girl that was kept and conditioned to be a sex slave. I am working on accepting the things that were done to me, the psychological torment and the physical abuse. Through all these, I missed my sister. And though I wanted to talk to Iris every step of the way, every time I was reminded of how he preferred my sister over me.
But if that distance pained me, it must have been devastating for Iris, I know. And it wouldn’t be long till Rage would do something about it. He is a man to drop down and fall on the dirt just to keep Iris’s shoes from getting ruined. I am guessing Iris has asked him to stay away but the Hellhound has its limits. And I am not sure I want to know what happens when those limits are reached.
I can’t see his face as he stands with his back to the fading evening light outside. His stance is the usual warrior pose he has even when he is standing in his own kitchen eating cereal.
“Rage,” I acknowledge.
“You need to come back.”
Rage is not one for subtlety. I might as well follow his lead.
“I can’t. Not yet.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I need to stay away for a while and get my life together.”
“Your life?” Rage takes a few steps forward and stands at the other side of the counter. It is a big, sturdy counter but I am sure Rage can tear through it to get to me easily. ” Your life is with the Riders. With Iris. With Wood.”
The mention of that name I try so hard every day to expel from my thoughts and dreams hits me hard and I drop the cup I am holding. The sharp tang of pain hits me and I gasp for breath. Why can’t I get over him? Why I crave for him every step of the way? Every step I make towards my dreams, I miss him and dream of him being right next to me. But I can’t.
“No, Rage,” I manage. “That’s Iris’s life, not mine. I need to make one of my own. Then I will be back, I promise. I love my sister, you know that.”
“And you love Wood.”
It’s not a question. It’s an affirmation with the gravity of an executioner’s axe. And as usual, Rage is right. I love Wood. I love him still and foolishly enough maybe even more. I miss everything about him at any given moment. In the back of my mind, constantly, like a tune you can’t get rid of, it’s him. His scent, his touch, his eyes, his voice, his memories. It won’t go away.
“You love Iris and you love Wood. You need to come back,” Rage demands.
“I... You don’t understand,” I am struggling to keep the tears from falling.
Rage takes a deep breath and looks over my shoulder while messing with his hair. He is trying to control himself and the beast he hides inside.
“It’s true,” Rage says finally. “Wood was going to claim her and I was ready to let him.”
If I was in pain before, I am beaten and bruised as his words leave his lips. It’s even worst to have those words uttered out loud, confirmed and made real. I shake my head and go round the counter cause right now I need a seat.
I go to the nearest table and pull a chair. I gather my thoughts as I fist the back of the chair. I want him gone. Last thing I need right now is Rage’s brutal honesty. I want to be alone and I want to forget. I look up at Rage.
“If you had let him, you could always find me, you could have replaced her with me. It seems that is all I am good at,” I say with a cold smile.
“No, I wouldn’t. You don’t fit me.”
I chuckle at his comment. That’s one way to be sure that your sister’s husband is not into you.
“Why are you laughing?” Rage scowls. “You are not for me. Iris... Iris has been through a lot but she has her innocence still. She is filled with light inside. The beast,” he hits his head, “the beast inside me fears that light. She keeps it at bay.”
I press my lips together, seeing him struggle once more with the demons inside him.
“But you,” he pins his blue eyes in mine, “your soul has a bit of darkness in it. Not much but it’s there. Enough for the Hellhound to consume you.”
I gasp at his comment. He doesn’t even flinch at say those words to me. Rage doesn’t know how to lie, he always tells the brutal truth. And I know the moment the words leave his lips that he is right.
Iris is a beacon of light and innocence and love. I lost faith at some point, I was broken down, beaten. My soul is bruised. Iris has her skin marred but her soul is unblemished. I am the exact opposite.
“Wood is like that,” Rage continues. “He is...” He bites down his jaw before uttering his next words. “He is a good man. But there is darkness in him. Iris’s light would have consumed him. But you? His soul recognises yours.”
I can’t feel my legs and I drop on the chair. In the empty coffee shop, I take in his words and I hold back my tears. That man they all call psycho and deranged managed so easily to read us both correctly. I feel it when I am too close to Iris, that blinding light and I always hid my deepest secrets, parts of my soul out of shame. Wood must be feeling the same way too.
But with him, I was free. I bared my everything to him, good and bad, light and dark, true and false. And he opened up to me to do the same. No shame, no fear, no agony, no judgement.
“I made a mistake once,” Rage’s voice comes as if from somewhere beyond. “A mistake that almost cost me everything, my very soul. I almost lost Iris. Don’t make the same mistake as me.”
I swallow hard. I hear the pain in his voice. The memory alone of the time he let go of Iris is still torturing him. But it’s not the same. Iris loved him and him alone. Wood is still hanging on to my sister, me being a poor substitute.
“You are for him, Tamie. And he is for you,” Rage says.
A knot is tying my throat and I am flooded with emotion. I shut my eyes to stop the tears but it proves to be a double blade. In my mind’s eye, he comes. He is standing right before me with that true smile of his, fussing with his beard. And I long to feel his arms around me, his lips on mine. Rage is right. He is for me. Am I for him...?
“Anyway,” Rage says and I open my eyes. “That’s all I had to say.”
He turns and goes for the door. He came to take me back so that his precious wife wasn’t sad anymore. But he fought his instincts and let me be. I can see that by the way his whole back is tight like a bow, his fists tightened.
I never thought about it till now. He killed Freddie for me, made him suffer, he put up with me being in his house, he even socialised for my benefit. He did most of it for Iris but I sense it now. Somewhere deep inside him, he considers me family.
“Thank you, Rage,” I utter.
Rage stops with his hand on the doorknob. He doesn’t turn but takes a deep breath before he talks, his voice thunderous in the empty café.
“Next time I will drag you to Iris.”
He means it and though it’s not funny, I smile at those words. Sure, it’s not a laughing matter when the Hellhound promises to drag you somewhere - I don’t dare to even think how – but I am glad he is giving me the chance to sort this out on my own.
Wanting to clean my head and gather my thoughts, I start cleaning the café a little bit too thoroughly. When I am done, I lock the place and I stand outside the café with the phone in my hand. I don’t have many numbers I can call. Right now, I am between the two that matter most to me: Iris and Wood. My finger hovers over both of those numbers indecisively. I take a deep breath and I press dial.