Running my fingers through my hair, I prepare myself for another night at The Long Mile. Pulling the door open, I step inside. The smell of sweat and blood reminds me of the brutality surrounding this place. Dreams of landing legitimate fights in pro-boxing were the hope I was holding. It won't happen. I've accepted this is all my life will be. In the slums of New York, I battle. I will never become anything. A shadow in the streets that no one cares about, I will remain.
Dislodging the clog in my throat, I blow a sorrowful breath. I keep telling myself, "Get it together!" Leaning against the wall, I watch the elimination of yet another fighter. The bell never rings; there are no rounds. It only ends when one is left standing. This fight lasted longer than it should. I'll hand it to the underdog. He didn't want to stay down. Another night, another full house. The floors are once again putrid from spilled liquor. Men throw money at the bookies trying to get their bets in before the next fight begins. Depressing doesn't begin to explain this place. My eyes travel to Ben's table; he laughs as his men stand and head to the ring. Throwing a handful of cashews in his mouth, he watches on with a sadist glint in his eyes. The unconscious fighter is dragged out of the ring like an animal.
I slide down the wall and fall back into my despairing thoughts as another two fighters enter the ring. Opening my bag, I pull out my only childhood possession, a model car. Glancing at the Ferrari Daytona, I run my fingers over my fading name. I can't help but think, how I came to own it. Is Stefano even my name, or did I steal it from some kid? My earliest memory is waking up at the hospital. Martha and James stood around my hospital bed, whispering to men in suits. They spoke to me as if they knew me, yet their faces weren't familiar. My head hurt, and despite my efforts to remember, my memory was gone. All I had was this model car.
Six long years I spent in a home with Martha and James. A couple of foster homes after that, I ended up in Carl's care, living another nightmare. Throwing the car into my bag, I glance at my worn boxing gloves, a gift from the only person who showed me kindness. I blow a breath and focus back toward the ring. Horrific and painful groans echo as another boxer slumps to the ground. Once again, Ben's men hover, ready to drag him out.
I avoid friendships. I fight against these men. Friendships only complicate things when you're standing in a ring as opponents. Nevertheless, the treatment of injured fighters surges my rage. Picking up my gym bag, I go to follow. I need answers to some of my lingering questions. Just like all the fighters before him, this man will never be seen again. Where do they take them? What happens to them? I need to know! I've never lost a fight, and I don't intend to, but what would that mean for me if I were to lose?
Glancing to my side, I notice Ben's eyes following my movements. Standing, he halts my steps, "Where are you heading? You're up next! Get in that fucking ring."
I loosen my fists and shake my hands, attempting to control my rage. I want nothing more than to break Ben. Drop him where he stands, but my current situation doesn't allow me to burn my bridges. I fight back my murderous desires and nod. Glancing over Ben's shoulder, I watch his men drag the fighter out, a glimpse of a black SUV raises more questions, but I'm forced to do as I'm told and ignore the suspicious activity accruing. Another man will disappear, and I can only watch from the sidelines.
Pivoting around, I throw my bag to the side and remove my top. I have no fear in that ring. Regardless of who my opponent is, I'm confident. Wrapping my hands, I prepare to slide on my gloves when Ben's mocking voice demands, "Gloveless!"
I smirk. He wants to see me beaten. He will be disappointed, and one day I will achieve at least one of my desires, and Ben will be bleeding out on the floor while I stand tall over him. Throwing my gloves back into the bag, I slide into the ring. I'm in my element. This is all I know. The only thing I'm good at. Loosening my shoulders, I bounce, throwing a few punches in the air, warming up. I intend to finish this quickly.
My muscles tense, and the veins in my biceps pulsate. I'm ready! Controlling my breathing, I wait as the fighter shakes off his surfacing nerves. He's scared. He should be. It won't be me that goes down. Composed, I stay focused, studying every one of his movements. Bringing my fists up, I protect my head while my elbows tuck into my sides, blocking the hard hits to my ribs. My opponent swallows the clog in his throat. The attempts to read me are a fail. Like many before him, he makes the mistake of charging. Stepping to my side, I swing with my right connecting to his left ribs. Amateur! Blowing a painful breath, he inhales, refilling his lungs. He pivots around, and his fearful eyes meet mine. For a moment, I sadden and drop my guard, but I can't let it weaken me. It will be my end if I do.
Sucking in another breath, he storms toward me, seething, pushing me onto the rope. Swinging violently, he manages to split my lip. Seeing this as an opportunity, he swings again, connecting to my left temple. The crowd cheers, yelling, "Finish him!" The bets seem to be against me tonight. Ben stands to make a fortune. He wants my end, but he also needs me to win.
Pushing the fighter back, I impel myself off the ropes. Dodging a fierce punch, I spin, throwing a hard hit to his ribs, knocking the air out of his lungs. Quick with my jabs, my blows to his head left him disoriented, and he drops. Kneeling, I give him a fighting chance, "Stay down and remain conscious. Stand, and I will knock you out, leaving you helpless as they dispose of you."
Grunting, he lets his body slump to the ground and plays along, giving himself a fighting chance, against whatever awaits outside those black doors. Standing to my feet, I raise my arms in victory. Men groan in disappointment, most of them suffering a heavy loss. Thick cigarette smoke laces the air, the scent sticking to my sweaty body. Spitting the blood out of my mouth, I wait for the call. Ben doesn't hide the vicious glint in his eyes. He's made thousands, but I live to fight another day. He nods, acknowledging me as the winner.
Jumping out of the ring, I pick up my belongings and head to the showers. The Long Mile lacks heated water, but it's the only place I can get cleaned up. Making my way through the corridor, I keep my head lowered, swallowing down the bile as I enter the filthy showers. The taste of blood still vibrant in my mouth. Setting my bag down on the chair, I slip out of my clothes. Grabbing a towel, body wash, and shampoo, I hold my breath as I slide under the freezing water.
My showers are always record quick. No one can last more than five minutes without heated water. I avoid glancing around; the mold on the shower tiles has me feeling dirty. Avoiding some jagged pieces of tiles on the floor, I carefully kick them to the side. The old pipes and rusty taps screech as the water runs. I despise this place. Rinsing off, I grab my towel, drying quickly in hopes of bringing the heat back to my body. I shiver as I dress. Throwing on a long-sleeved jumper, I slide my sleeveless hoodie on top and indulge as my body temperature starts to settle.
Collecting the wet towel and my dirty clothes into a plastic bag, I glance into the broken mirror. My lip is split, purple blotching surfaces around my left eye and three-day stubble has me looking rough. I'll shave tomorrow; tonight, I'm at a low point and have no desire to fix my appearance. I'm not looking to impress anyone, so it doesn't matter.
Packing the gym bag, I get ready for the same old routine. Walking out of the showers, I head straight for the cashier, it's time to get paid. I've managed to save two thousand by limiting meals and spending. I'm reserved with cash, hoping I can at least achieve a life off the streets. Dragging my feet, I reach Greg. He doesn't spare me a glance as he hands me the envelope. "You didn't knock him out; he was conscious. So, you're paid accordingly," he states.
Greg has worked for the club since he was in his early thirties. One of Ben's first employees. The older man is in his sixties. This lifestyle, late nights, and continuously surrounded by thick smoke have him looking as if he's eighty. Opening the envelope, my anger erupts, but I refrain from lashing out. The cunt paid me half of my standard earnings. I may have walked away tonight with minimal injuries, but my kind gesture to a fellow boxer cost me a hundred and twenty dollars.
Blowing an exasperated breath, I take what I'm given and walk out. I don't know how long I can control my anger. Every day the fight to keep myself from exploding and burning this place to the ground intensifies. Stepping out into the warm breeze, I'm disappointed as I shiver, still feeling cold. Throwing my hoodie over my head, I contemplate; Do I head to the laundromat first or the nearest diner. Do I treat myself to a ten-dollar meal, or do I skip this one, order a coffee, and save the rest?
Dragging my feet, I battle against self-pity. I don't know how I'm managing to stay clean. Glancing around I notice the other homeless hiding in the shadows, either with a bottle of liquor sealed to their lips or shooting up on some drug. I don't judge them. They receive glances of disgust from the suited man, but no one can truly understand what it's like unless you live the way we do. Liquor and drugs are the only escape from the harsh reality. For those brief moments, you're caught up in a different world, a happier place, or so it seems. I would give anything to steer my mind away from my current thoughts, even if it's just an illusion. However, I'm not willing to be caught in the clutches of addiction. Not yet, anyway. I haven't entirely given up. There is still fight left in me.
I'm not dreaming of much, just a one-bedroom apartment with a bed, sofa, and fridge. Fuck, the electronics I've gone years without. I don't need them now. Hopefully, then I can land a job. I'm willing to do anything as long as this fear surfacing by the unknown outcome of losing a fight disappears. "One day," I mumble to myself before being pulled out of my thoughts from a commotion across the street.
"Get a fucking job. Stop begging," a suited man bellows.
"Please, Sir, it's been four days since I've had a meal." A rugged old homeless man continues to plea.
Kicking the homeless man's tin, the suited man spins and walks away without any guilt. Watching the man crying has my heart-shattering. Jogging across the busy road, I collect his tin. I'm slightly better off than him. The urge to help weakens me, and I give in. Pulling out a ten-dollar bill, I hand it to him and clasp his shoulder. My eyes travel to the worn and dirty jacket he's wearing. "Are you a military veteran?"
Nodding, he wipes his eyes. "People assume I stole this jacket, but it's far from any truth. I spent eight years of my life at war. I wish I died there and never came home."
Helping the man to his feet, I pack his belonging in the plastic bag he was sitting on. "Go get yourself a meal."
"God bless you," he murmurs, his voice breaking.
Smiling, I turn, heading straight for the diner at the end of the street. I guess it's just coffee for me tonight. He needs more than I do, and caffeine will suppress my hunger. I'm generous tonight. If only I were cold-hearted, my life might have been different now.
Hauling the door open, the little bell rings as I enter. It's a small diner, seating no more than twenty people. It's immaculate. The owners keep it clean and with undamaged furniture. I internally laugh even this place feels out of my league, but I'm only here for coffee and to pass a bit of time. Closing the door, I glance around. My eyes fall on a woman who gazes back intently. She wears a loose white dress. Her long dark hair flows to the side. Those pale cheeks fluster as her deep dark green eyes warmly study me. She's breathtaking, absolutely stunning with curves in the right places and a gorgeous feminine body any man would drool over. I'm a head taller than her, yet she stands out more than I ever will. Her calm aura throws me into a trance, and I experience something new, a racing heart and a desire to taste those plush pink lips.
She smiles sweetly, and I suck in a breath, finally remembering to fill my lungs. My body numbs as my mind reminds me that I, Stefano, am no good for her. Closing my eyes, I whisper, knowing she can't hear. "Silly girl, you're drawn to the wrong man. I have nothing to offer you."
I pace the house manically, with my heart beating frantically, while fear has my body numbing. I'm scared. God, I know something is wrong. I can feel it. Sobbing, I dial his number. Once again, after a few rings, it goes to voicemail. "Please, Matt, call me back. I'm worried. Where are you?" The familiar beep is heard, and I'm forced to disconnect the call.
My heart sinks to the darkest pits of my stomach, and I begin to feel nauseated. "Where are you?" I cry. This is unlike him. Whenever he's going to be late, Matt calls. The front door opens abruptly, and instantly I'm hopeful. My lips quiver and hysteric wails escape me at the sight of Mina. I'm grateful she's run to my aid, but I'm devastated it isn't Matt.
"Hey." With quick steps, she's at my side. Throwing an arm around me, she squeezes her hold. "What's going on?"
"Matt hasn't come home." I cry into her chest.
"Are you sure he isn't out with some girl?" Mina attempts to find reasons.
"He would've called. Something is wrong." Pulling away from her embrace, I ask for a favor I know I really shouldn't. "Can you ask John to help us find him?" Her features distort. Now that Petro has left for Italy, she has every intention of ending the relationship. She held off, worried John would react badly and Petro would knock out a cop. I don't blame her. Petro has shown an aggressive side, especially when it comes to protecting the girls. No different to Matt, really. They are gentle and sweet until a line is crossed.
"I don't trust John, Jaz. I'm trying to end the relationship. If I truly believed he would help, I wouldn't hesitate." Running her fingers through her hair, guilt consumes her.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked. I know the situation. I'm just terrified. Something isn't right," I insist.
Nodding, she takes my hand. Helping me to my feet, she advises, "You and I are going to go looking for him. Regardless of how long it takes, we won't rest until we find him." Pulling out her phone, she checks the caller and ignores the call from John. "Let's go."
Hauling me by the arm, we head outside. "Where do we even start looking?" I ask, disheartened.
Opening the passenger door, she gestures me to slide in. "His usual hangout spots, I guess." Veering her eyes, she closes my door. Skeptically, she makes her way to the driver's side. I'm relying on her. Right this moment, I can't think clearly, and my worst fears are suffocating me. Roaring the engine to life, she heads for the coast first. We both keep our eyes peeled, scanning the streets in hopes of finding my brother.
"What was he wearing?" she questions, not once glancing towards me.
"Black jeans, and a white t-shirt, I believe." I saw him this morning, but I'm starting to doubt myself. My heart continues to beat in despair, and I'm struggling to remember any details. I've never felt this way. I'm continuously swallowing down the bile my emotions are stirring.
"Try and think back, Jaz. Is there anything he said to you that may help us here? We are searching blind." She drives slowly, cars behind us beginning to honk. Getting frustrated, they start overtaking. "Fuck off, idiots," Mina gives them the finger.
My eyes widen as I search for any bonfires on the beach. Matt loves coming down here and sitting with his old team buddies drinking beer, and reminiscing. Hearing a dial tone, I mumble, "It no use, Mina. Matt isn't answering his phone."
"I'm not calling Matt!" she disputes.
I turn to look at her as the call is answered. "What's wrong, Mina?" Petro's groggy voice is full of worry.
"Nothing." Swallowing back, she doesn't falter her voice, "Matt has a secret, and he's making us guess. So, I'm naturally curious and calling you to find out what it is. Does he have a girl?"
"Are you for real?" annoyance rings in his voice. "Do you know what time it is in Europe?"
"No, and I don't really care. Spill the beans on Matt, and I'll let you go back to sleep," she claims.
Saddened, I smile. I'll hand it to her; she always comes up with ways to get the information she needs without disclosing her reasons behind requiring it. She wouldn't hesitate, but Petro and Matt are close, and she doesn't want to worry him, not yet anyway. He's in Italy, and there isn't much he could do to help. Besides, she doesn't want him around when she ends her forced and obsessive relationship.
"I'm going to find out anyway, Petro. Help me win the bet!" She continues to fool her cousin.
"What does he gain to lose?" he probes.
"It's a cheap loss, just a bottle of bourbon." She winks my way.
"Fine. He met someone on his birthday. He's intrigued," he reveals.
Instantly my memory is jogged, and I remember the last conversation with my brother. Nodding at Mina, I give her confirmation. She wastes no time thanking Petro and disconnects the call before he has a chance to say another word.
"Spill!" she demands.
"He's been seeing this girl. She's mainly based in New York, but recently she has been doing some modeling here in California." Biting my bottom lip, I squeeze my eyes shut, scanning my memories, "I don't know much more about her. Matt invited her to dinner next weekend. I was going to interrogate her then." Humming, I swallow back, "She was a regular at the club we went to for Matt's birthday. Apparently one of her favorites places here in California."
"Okay," she responds. Taking an abrupt and sharp turn, she heads straight for the club. Mina never fails and is always by my side when I need her. I don't know what I would do without her. Suddenly, I'm a little hopeful.
Thinking back to this morning, when I suggested we move dinner to this Saturday, I remember Matt saying this girl wasn't due back to California until next Friday. I was eager to meet her after noticing a soft glint in Matt's eyes as he spoke about her.
"She's in New York, Mina." Once again, I'm shattered.
"Wait!" she slows down the car. Shining her lights ahead, we watch as a man is thrown out of a vehicle. He seems unconscious. Although he's wearing black jeans, I can't make out his face. The men see us coming and quickly disappear. Speeding up, Mina pulls up next to the guy lying on the ground. Gasping, I tremble as I make out Matt. Jumping out of the car, Mina attempts to wake him. She halts me as I fall on my knees next to him. Pointing to a syringe in his arm, she carefully removes it, placing it on the ground next to her.
"What the fuck is that?" I cry. Memories of my mother flood my mind. There is no way Matt would turn to drugs, not after everything. I refuse to believe what my eyes are seeing. "There's no way!" I mumble. Crying, I inspect him. Evidence of multiple injections is evident. The walls around me crumble, and I'm frozen, unable to restore feeling in my body. His face is pale, dark circles hug his eyes, and a cold sweat covers him.
Standing, Mina opens the car door. Sliding the driver's seat forward, she pulls out a plastic bag from under her seat. "Fuck!" she curses. Fisting her hair, she storms towards me, "Don't make me fucking slap you, Jaz." Seizing my jaw, she turns my head, pointing to the car down the road. I continue to cry hysterically. What the fuck is going on? How could he be using? Fear has me gasping for air.
"We need to get Matt to the hospital now. They could very well be his dealers." Digging her nails into my jaw, she forces me to look at her, "Get up. I can't lift him alone. Get him into the passenger seat, and you jump in the back. We get our answer tomorrow. Tonight, he needs medical help." Taking the syringe, she puts it in the center console compartment. Pivoting around, she demands, "Get the fuck up!"
* * * * *
Unpacking the last box, I fall back onto the sofa. Even though I only bought the minimum with me, it's taken me three weeks to settle. I guess I hoped my stay in New York wouldn't be for more than a week. Wishful thinking! Blowing a breath, I glance around the small apartment. I'm kicking myself for leaving the hospital that night. I should have stayed. I was emotionally torn, needing to get some rest and comprehend the situation we were facing above all. So, I went home. The next morning Mina and I arrived at the hospital only to be told Matt checked himself out. Just like that, he left me. No call, no explanation. Maybe he is ashamed! He knows how much I hate drugs. Hell, he did too!
Running my fingers through my hair, I struggle to understand the reason Matt would use. His life wasn't perfect, but things started to look good for us after our mother's death. Her dark presence was gone. Her nasty words ceased. Yes, they left their mark and still haunt us, but we no longer hear her voice. Even though the physical abuse stopped when Matt easily overpowered her, she continued the emotional abuse. I kept telling myself it was the drugs that made her that way.
Within two days after Matt disappeared, with Mina's help, I managed to find a place in New York. My best friend paid the down payment and three months' rent for me. I found a job, a dream job, actually, but it's leaving a sour taste in my mouth. This isn't how I wanted to achieve a career goal. Alone in New York, I'm here searching for my brother. I have no contacts and had to hire a private investigator. His costs are vast, and I find myself needing a second job just to pay him.
So much has happened in three weeks, and guilt pains me. Mina ended the relationship with John a week ago. Lia, in hysterics, called with heartbreaking news; the breakup didn't go well at all. My heart thumps aggressively in my chest as her distressed voice remains evident in my memories.
Picking up my phone, I video call Mina. She disconnects and voice calls me instead. "I want to see you," I mumble, disappointed.
"It's not going to happen. I don't need looks of pity," Mina responds.
"How are you feeling?" My eyes dampen. That man is a pig, and I want nothing more than to slice through him.
"Okay, still sore, but I'm healing." Letting out a shaky breath, she changes the subject, "Any news?"
"No, nothing yet! I found a private investigator. However, now I'm looking for a second job just to pay for his services." I laugh meekly, hoping our distressing situation can result in some humor. Picking up the newspaper, I advise, "A florist is looking for an assistant. I'm interviewing tomorrow with them."
"You hated working at the florist!" She forces my thoughts back to five years ago when I worked for Mrs. Michael. That woman was abrupt and unpleasant. "Remember you were constantly complaining about how cold your hands were and all the cuts inflicted by Rose thorns?"
"Yes, I remember," I concede.
"Jaz, you landed a job as a lead makeup artist in theatre. That is going to open so many doors for you back home," she encourages.
"Maybe," I mumble. Despite her efforts, my mind won't veer from her current situation. "I'm worried about you," I state.
"Don't be!" Sounding frustrated, it takes a moment, but she changes her tone, "Look, I'm staying with Nat and Lia. My aunt is always around. I have people here; I'm not alone. The one display of weakness I had that night with John will not repeat. I am not a victim!" Just like that, the determined and strong Mina surfaces. I'm so proud of her! Sighing, she comforts me, "He won't make the mistake of coming for me again. He has a reputation to protect. I'm confident about this."
"Okay." I try not to sniffle. I don't want her worrying about me while she's healing. Clearing my throat, I change the subject, "What else is new?"
"You tell me! I hope you're not sitting in the apartment constantly tormenting yourself."
She knows me too well. It's incredibly difficult to lie and hide from her. I stay mute, avoiding her statements. "Jaz, to get through this, you need to maintain your sanity. You're in New York, go out and experience what the city has to offer. I want to be there with you, but I can't. I'm going to keep searching here for Matt. I'll keep an eye on your place. Maybe he will come back."
"The spare key is under the potted plant," I interject.
"You left me your keys remember?" she reminds me.
"Did I?" God, my memory is suffering.
"So, here's the plan." She takes a serious tone, ensuring she has my attention. "I'm going to stay with my sisters. Stop worrying about me. If Matt still isn't found, I will come to New York and help you expand the search in five months. By then, Petro will be back, and he can continue looking here. Okay?" she questions demanding a response.
"Sounds like a plan!" I agree.
"Good, now get off the phone and get out. Go have a meal," she urges.
"Yes, Mom!" I joke.
"Talk to you soon! I love you," she states.
"I love you too."
Disconnecting the call, I stand sliding on my flats. Grabbing my jean jacket, I pick up my wallet and head out. Mina is right. Besides, I won't find Matt locked away in my apartment. Jogging down the stairs, I'm suddenly craving something fattening. Making my way down the street, I keep my eyes peeled, scanning every face I pass. Sometimes I think I spot him, and mere moments later, I find myself disappointed when I get a clearer view.
My mind torments me; the hope I'm holding fools me, and cruelly I'm left with no results. My worst fear is that he's dead. Instantly, I choke, supporting myself against a building. I gasp for air. Shaking my head, I frantically try to waver those thoughts. Breathing deeply, and ignoring the commotion down the street, I enter a small but appealing diner.
I definitely need something fattening and cheesy! I've worked hard to lose a couple of kilos, and I will regret this, but my current depressed state requires comforting. Taking a seat, I throw off my jacket and move my hair to the side while reading the menu. Where are the burgers and fries?
I veer my eyes to the door as the little bell rings, and stare. I've become obsessed, searching for Matt. A well-built man wearing a hoodie starts to glance around. I'm yet to see his face. I push the hope that it could be my brother away. I don't want to feel disappointed again. His features come to sight, and I suck in a breath. Jesus! His strong jawline is covered in stubble; those hazel brown eyes full of mystery have a jolt of excitement rushing through me. A split lip and bruised eye give his rough stature away. I bite my lip. The man is gorgeous! I can't look away. As our eyes meet, I find myself begging that he notices me...