“Oh, no. Not again.”
It was real. This nightmare of mine. I didn’t understand it, but it was real. The one I had just survived was a fun one. The memories it brought back were not the worst I’d experienced at the hands of this nightmare, but not particularly pleasant either.
Tonight, I woke up behind a dumpster, stinking of rotten food and overflowing with unimaginable horrors that might once have passed for Italian take-out, but were now barely recognizable.
I knew where I was this time, at least. I was on the corner of Valley and 18th, behind shitty Vince’s Italian Restaurant. I worked there as a waitress a few summers ago before I got fired for punching the owner’s son Vinny — yeah, the restaurant is named after that douche bag — in the throat. Maybe he’d think twice before trying to grope another girl against her will behind a dumpster. Probably not, but a girl could dream.
The last time this stupid dream happened to me, I woke up in a field, in the middle of what I later found out was Fitz’s spinach crop. Mr. and Mrs. Fitz were that sweet old couple that we saw at church every Sunday, until one Sunday, they just didn’t show up. A bunch of people were worried because they hadn’t missed a service in almost 20 years.
Then the truth came out. Turned out, sweet old Mr. Fitz was actually Buster Cunningham, bank robber and murderer extraordinaire. He had changed his name, and settled into a quiet life, living off his “earnings” until a relative of one of his victims hired a shady private detective - my uncle - who made me sneak into his house to get hold of some fingerprints. My uncle matched them to more than seven unsolved murders of bank tellers across the US and immediately turned the prints over to the police. It was a complete accident, as fate would have it. The police’s main suspect was actually Fitz’s neighbor, and they had had drinks the night before. Fitz’s prints were still on the whiskey bottle they had shared. If not for that twisted stroke of luck, Fitz might still be fooling us all to this day. Mr. Fitz still sends me death threats from prison. Lovely man.
My nightmare always starts the same. I fall asleep in my own bed, but then in my dream, I’m jolted awake by a loud crashing sound coming from my living room. My apartment is tiny and I don’t have many belongings, but the crash sounds as if an entire library’s worth of books have all fallen at once along with the shattering of all the glassware in my cupboards.
In my dream, I get up to check it out, armed with only my cellphone’s flashlight. Rational me wishes I could just conjure a freaking baseball bat or a gun, but that never occurs to me in my dream. Then every time I open my door, I am instantly transported to a new location where I am forced to fight for my life against at least a dozen faceless foes. I fight and I fight, but the outcome is always the same; I am eventually overpowered and pummeled until I blackout and wake up for real in a weird place, injuries and all. That’s right. Very fun.
Ya-Ya, my boss at the club, keeps asking if she should send Trey, our bouncer, to rough up the dude who keeps hurting me, but how can I explain that it is a dozen “dudes” who have shadows for faces and live only in my nightmares.
I wished they would cut that shit out. No one wants to tip the stripper with bruises covering half her body. Ya-ya’s been letting me wait tables instead of dance some nights, but I can’t exactly wear long sleeves and pants on a regular basis and expect to make her any money. I’d worn an old Halloween Catgirl suit in the past that hid the worst of the scrapes and bruises, but it got unbearably hot and I needed to keep taking breaks to open the suit and cool myself off. I preferred not to faint on the sticky STD soaked floors in front of all the creeps that came to gawk at the girls.
I touched my ribs and winced as I inhaled too deeply and a stabbing pain in my right side confirmed my suspicion that I had finally cracked a rib this time. That would take a while to heal. My head was throbbing, but there was no blood. My long black hair was a mess, but nothing a long, hot shower couldn’t fix.
I tried to stand, but was brought back to my knees by a throbbing pain in my left foot. I think a few toes were broken, too. That must have been from when I kicked one of the Shadow Men and my bare foot connected with his belt buckle instead of his crotch. Unlucky me.
Rising much more cautiously, I surveyed my surroundings: overflowing dumpster in front of me, dark alley to my right, ending a brick wall, lighted street to my left.
I was thankfully only about six blocks from home and I hoped it was late enough, or early enough, that no one would be out to notice a bruised and battered pajama-clad girl stumbling along the street.
The first time I woke from this nightmare, I made the mistake of running to the nearest person I thought could help me, but I realized the hard way that no one wants to believe that a huge gang of shadow people attacked you and you have no idea how you got so far away from home in your PJs. It was best to stick to the shadows, hope no one noticed me, and lick my wounds from the safety of my own apartment while hoping to hell that this wouldn’t happen again.
But it will. And it does.
I wrapped my arms tightly around myself, partly to protect my broken ribs and partly to hide the fact that I was braless in a thin white tank top. Maybe I should start sleeping in Kevlar and steel toed boots.
I considered visiting the ER to see if they could do anything for my ribs and toes but decided against it since it would inevitably lead to questions and cops wondering how I got these injuries. Maybe Dillon would be willing to hook me up with something to take the edge off. I’d known Dillon since we were kids, growing up in the harsh desert heat. I knew he was back in town on summer break from his fancy med school.
With a mental shrug, I shambled off in the direction of his house. I hoped Dear Old Dad would keep his mouth shut about being a regular at my strip club. I didn’t need Dillon’s judgment, just his pain killers.
Dillon’s house was across the street from my little apartment complex. Two sides to a coin. Mine was scratched and scuffed, whereas Dillon’s was shiny and new. Only a few yards, but worlds apart. The desert was cool that way; the rich and the poor living in harmony with just a highway to separate them.
I stopped at a bus stop to give my throbbing foot a rest before I made the rest of the trek to Dillon’s house. I had no idea what time it was, but I didn’t really care. I wouldn’t be sleeping again tonight, and since I was awake, Dillon might as well be, too.
“Got any smokes, Little Mama?” asked the deep scratchy voice of Dan the homeless man.
“Not tonight, Dan,” I told him through shallow breaths. “Come by the club at lunch and I’ll have a little something for ya.”
Dan and I had a working relationship. He kept me company on nights like tonight, and I gave him sandwiches and vodka for lunch. Sometimes he felt like I needed a little extra protection whenever I inevitably wandered into his neck of the woods, half-naked and beaten to a pulp. He’d walk me the rest of the way home, chattering about whatever conspiracy he was convinced of at the time. Dan was smelly, but just about the nicest man you could ever meet.
His wife died about ten years ago, and he just never could get used to living in their home without her, so one day, he just left; never bothered finding a new home. The desert climate suited him just fine. He’d found a new normal that kept him happy, so who was I to try to change him. Besides, I rather liked our evening strolls. Dan had somehow always managed to chase away the horrors of the nightmares for the few minutes we walked and talked and those were the moments that kept me going throughout my horribly crappy days.
“Walk you home, mama?” Dan asked, already pushing his cart toward my apartment.
“Think I’m going to go see Dillon instead,” I told him.
“Dillon’s back home?” Dan asked, surprise causing his salt and peppered eyebrows to shoot up.
“Mm-hmm. Summer break.”
Dan grunted in reply and I leaned my head on his stinky shoulder as we hobbled off together.
By the time we reached the front gate to Dillon’s home, the sky was already starting to lighten over the mountains, confirming Dan’s prediction that it was, “mm, ’bout dawn.”
A bit early for Dillon to be awake, especially while on vacation, but I was hurting bad, so I buzzed the intercom on his gate.
“Be seein’ ya,” Dan said shuffling off back toward the bus stop.
“Thanks for the company, Dan. See you for lunch.” I buzzed the intercom again and leaned heavily on the gate feeling nauseous from the throbbing pain that had spread to every part of my body.
Instead of opening the gate, I watched through bleary eyes as Dillon came toward me from his house, pulling a t-shirt over his rumpled sandy brown hair.
“Who’s there?” he called, squinting into the darkness.
“It’s El,” I called, then winced, hugging my broken ribs tighter. “Eleanor Ruiz. We went to high school together,” I added.
“El? What are you doing here?” He reached the gate and froze. “Jesus, what the hell happened to you?” He hurriedly punched in the code to unlock the gate.
“Got jumped,” I grunted, which was enough of the truth.
I groaned as the gate swung open, sending me sprawling on the cool blacktop of his driveway.
“Feels good. I think I’ll just stay here,” I said, the world going in and out of focus.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Dillon said, gently lifting me to my feet.
I couldn’t help the small cry of pain as his hand wrapped a little too tightly around my rib cage.
“Who did this to you?” he whispered as he shifted me in his arms to open his front door.
“Dunno,” I grunted. “Didn’t see their faces.” Again, it was technically the truth. I wasn’t about to tell him that they had no faces to see.
Dillon helped me to the kitchen chair and I leaned my head against the wall, taking in my surroundings.
The room was bathed in a soft glow from the night lights that shined down onto the immaculate granite countertops. Top-of-the-line stainless appliances gleamed and hummed gently. There were clear glassed cabinets protecting gray and white dishes placed so deliberately that it was like looking at a work of art.
This was nothing like the crappy kitchen in my apartment with the piss yellow linoleum and the cracked press-board countertops. Half the cupboard doors were missing and the ones that were still there were so warped and abused that they refused to close all the way. And my sink dripped relentlessly. Forget matching dishes, mine were all stolen from the various places that I had worked; cracked and chipped, destined for the garbage anyway.
“Nice place,” I said softly, shifting my focus to Dillon. He was rummaging around in a cupboard, pulling out various first-aid looking items. Dillon was taller than I remembered, probably close to 6′3", and his muscles were toned, like he took care of himself. He was pale. The weather at The University of Michigan must not let him get the kind of sun us desert rats were used to year-round. He was definitely much hotter than I remembered, too. College life has been good to him.
Dillon chuckled lightly, and turned to me, his cheeks flushed in embarrassment.
“Oh, God. Did I just say all that out loud?” I groaned and shut my eyes. “Ignore me. I’m delirious.”
“Clearly,” he said indulgently. “Let’s get you patched up.”
I opened my eyes to see him sitting next to me, arranging various items on the counter in front of him.
“You might need a hospital, El. I don’t know how much I can do for you.”
“Not much a hospital’s going to do either.”
“True,” he admitted.
I’d been through that before. Ribs were wrapped, toes were wrapped, a hundred-dollar boot given, thousand-dollar x-rays, all to confirm what I already knew. And there would be questions, lots of questions: How did you get those wounds? Do you know who did this to you? I’m obligated to report this to the police. And then the whole painful process would have to start all over again with the police. No, thank you.
Dillon and I sat in silence while he wrapped my ribs tightly. Well, almost in silence. I may have disrespected his mother a few times and called him some colorful names while he reset my toes.
“I don’t have anything to numb you and that cut on your leg needs stitches,” he said reluctantly.
“Just do what you can, so I can get out of your hair.”
Dillon sighed deeply and handed me some pills. “All right, then. Take those and brace yourself. This is going to hurt.”
I bit back a scream and clenched the counter tightly as he inserted the needle into my leg.
“Two more,” he said apologetically.
I moved my hand from the counter to his bicep, gripping tightly. “Shit. Sorry,” I said, taking my hand off his arm.
He waved me off without a word, still intent on his work. The stitches thankfully done, he started cleaning up the more minor scrapes.
I hissed as he cleaned a particularly sore spot on my knee. “Distract me,” I told him.
“Why don’t you tell me who did this to you.” There was anger in his voice that I couldn’t figure out.
“Why don’t you tell me what med school is like,” I prodded.
“It’s school,” he said lamely. “Lots of studying and labs and papers.” He shrugged. “Next year is when the real fun begins. I’ll finally get to start my residency. Practice some real medicine."
“What’s a residency?” I asked. I knew what it meant, but I wanted him to keep talking.
He paused to squint at me. “I’ll bite,” he said. “A residency is like a paid internship in a hospital. I was accepted into the U of M Children’s Hospital Pediatric Residency Program. I’ll be learning so much in the next four years. I cannot wait to get started.”
“You’re going to work with kids? That’s adorable,” I said trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. Of course, Mr. Perfect would choose to be a children’s doctor.
“Mr. Perfect, huh?”
“Damn it,” I whispered. “I can’t even tell when I’m talking out loud. I must have a concussion or something.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised, actually. Just take it easy today, El.
“No can do, Dill. Gotta earn my keep. Besides, Dan’s going to be expecting me. He loves my sandwiches.”
“All right,” Dillon relented “Where are you working these days?”
“Mm-mm,” I said shaking my head, the pain pills finally starting to take effect. “It’s a far cry from the Children’s Hospital that’s for sure.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t tell me.” He put his hands up in surrender. “At least let me walk you home.”
“My knight,” I said dreamily.
Dillon smiled indulgently at me and shook his head. “You can borrow one of my t-shirts and some socks. I wouldn’t recommend wearing shoes for a few weeks, but I’m not sure you’ll listen, so just do me a favor and try not to get into any more fights. At least until your ribs and toes have had time to heal.”
“I’ll do my best,” I mumbled.
Dillon helped me get a sock over my wrapped foot and held my waist as we hobbled across the highway to my apartment.
“Stay here,” Dillon said quietly, but urgently.