I sat down heavily on my couch and took off my heels. I rubbed my sore feet and looked around at my tiny apartment. I was so close to letting all of this go. Just days away from leaving it all behind. That would not be happening now. This was my fate. I had fooled myself into believing I could have a better life with Dillon somewhere far away from this place and its constant barrage of painful memories. This was my destiny. I would fight the Shadow Men until they eventually killed me. Maybe I would be found and buried. Maybe not. Maybe the scavengers would pick away at my flesh until only my bones remained to be gnawed at by the coyotes until those, too, were gone. The circle of life, and all that.
My phone buzzed and I frowned at it. It was a number I didn’t recognize. Who could be calling me at 4am? “Hello?” I said tentatively.
“My parents are gone,” Dillon said quietly. “I’m supposed to be sleeping.”
“Yes,” I said stupidly.
“I’m sorry, El.”
“Why are you sorry?” I asked tiredly.
“I handled that badly. Again.”
“No, Dill. It was a lot to put on you all at once. And it wasn’t the time. You’re in the hospital for Chrissake.”
Dillon sighed audibly. “Forget about that for a second. I reacted badly and I see now why you can’t fully trust me.”
“It’s true. It’s no wonder you don’t want to tell me everything when I react like this every time. Every time you tell me something, I think, okay, this is it, it can’t possibly get any worse. Then something else comes up and the wind gets knocked out of me and I can’t comprehend how one person can possibly cope with all of the things you have been through and still function normally,” he said in a rush, without taking a breath.
“I wouldn’t say normal,” I mumbled.
“You’re amazing, El. You are stronger than I could ever be,” he said.
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m a mess.”
“A beautiful one,” he said. I could hear the smile in his voice through the phone. “Forgive me, El. Please.”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Dill. Get some sleep.”
“I love you,” he said quietly.
“I love you,” I echoed and hung up the phone.
I dropped my phone on the table and ran my hands through my hair. This was impossible. I leaned my head back and shut my eyes, the weight of my confessions and decisions suddenly feeling like too much to bear.
The crash that woke me came as no surprise, but this time I was already in my living room, having fallen asleep on the couch. I looked around me, knowing I would find everything exactly as I had left it. Maybe I could ask them why they made that sound every time they came for me. Doubt they’d answer, though. I shrugged and got up to face whatever the Shadow Men had in store for me this time. I opened my front door, expecting to be transported to another place, but I opened my door to the hallway of my apartment complex. This was new.
Nothing had ever happened to me out here. There was no big significant event in my life that would draw them here. I sucked in a startled breath as I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I turned quickly and was confronted by what I now knew to be the leader of the Shadow Men. I froze as he approached me slowly. He was inside my apartment. Actually, physically inside my apartment. Somehow, I knew he hadn’t taken me to another time, another past event. He had come to meet me here, in the present.
“What do you want with me?” I asked, trying hard to hold back the rising terror that I felt throughout my entire body.
He came up close, close enough that I should have been able to see his face if he had one, and tilted his head in an animalistic way: the predator sizing up his prey. He lifted a gloved hand and set it on my cheek in a clinical sort of way. I had to fight back the shiver of revulsion that I felt at his touch.
Do you fear me, girl?
My eyes widened in shock. Did he just speak to me? In my mind?
“Yes,” I said honestly.
Good. There is much to fear in your world. You know that more than most. We have feasted aplenty on your misery.
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to respond to that, so I stayed silent, wishing desperately that he would take his hand away from my face.
You defied me last we met, he stated and tilted his head in what I assumed was a curious way. Few have dared and lived.
“Why didn’t you kill me, then?” I asked, immediately regretting it. Shut up, El, I chastised myself.
Curiosity, he said simply.
He nodded. Join us. You will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams. No one will ever hurt you again. We will make sure of it. You would be the one inflicting the pain. It is quite enjoyable, I assure you.
I stepped away from him at that. “No.” I would never join them.
I felt a whoosh of wind, whip my hair back. His anger was palpable now, but he held himself in check.
Your Chara cannot protect you forever, little one. You would be wise to accept my offer.
“My what?” I asked stupidly.
He let out a breath that I could only guess at its meaning. Was he laughing at me?
Think it over. The Algea are legion. You cannot defeat us.
I swallowed audibly.
Until the next time your Chara leaves you, he said and slapped me hard across the face.
I grunted and shut my eyes at the pain. When I opened them again, he was gone and I was standing alone in my apartment as if he had never been there. The red handprint on my face the only reminder that they were always there, waiting for me.
My Chara. What did that mean? He meant Dillon, I was sure of it, but I had no idea what that word meant. All I knew was that it was powerful enough to keep the Algea, the Shadow Men, at bay. Maybe there really was such thing as fate. The Algea were real, that had been confirmed for me over and over again, so why not fate, too?
I checked the time on my phone, 6am, still too early to call Dillon. He needed his rest. This could wait until he was released from the hospital. I opened my front door again, just to be sure I really was awake. The hallway’s overhead light flickered, startling me, and I laughed, feeling suddenly foolish. This was too bizarre for words.
My phone dinged, a text from Dillon. Guess it wasn’t too early after all.
[Dillon]: Discharged. Mom bringing me home. Charlee will pick up your car to have it fixed. He’ll drop it off at your place by 3, Love.
I had completely forgotten about my car until then. I smiled at the message. Dillon had just survived a car accident and he was making sure I was taken care of.
My phone dinged again with another message from him.
[Dillon]: Dad took the day off work. Can’t get away. We need to talk anyway.
Butterflies exploded in my stomach at that. I knew what they were going to talk about, but oh, to be a fly on the wall during that conversation. I just hoped that Dillon didn’t lose his father over this. Surely Marcus had some redeeming qualities. Dillon turned out well. I had a strong suspicion that it may have been in spite of Marcus, but maybe not.
[Me]: Good luck. Thank you for taking care of my car. How’s yours?
[Dillon]: Totaled. Dad already called his friend to get me a deal on a new one. Bastard can’t let me do anything on my own.
I could feel the animosity oozing from that text.
[Me]: I’m sorry. Deep breaths. You’ll get through it.
[Dillon]: I know.
I could wait to tell Dillon about my conversation with the Shadow Man. Dillon had enough to worry about while he hashed things out with his father. There would be a time for us to talk later. I had absolutely no intention of sleeping alone tonight, even if I had to sneak in his window like a teenager. I was rattled by my encounter with the Shadow Man. He had violated the sanctity of my apartment and it felt so tainted now. I grabbed a bottle of cleaner and a wash cloth and started scrubbing.
The sun was starting to set by the time I finally felt like it was clean enough and I was starving. I hadn’t eaten the entire time I was cleaning. I checked my phone and realized that I had a missed call from Dillon, luckily it was only from five minutes ago.
I quickly called him back as I put away all the cleaning supplies. “Hey, stranger,” he said.
“Hi,” I said breathlessly. “Great news, my apartment is very, very clean now.”
Dillon chuckled. “Congratulations,” he said. “Hungry?”
“Oh, good. Bring tacos with you when you come over. Dad left. I’ll tell you about it when you get here.”
“Duh,” he said.
“See you in twenty,” I said and hung up. I called the taco shop then hurried to get changed out of my sweaty cleaning clothes.
My car was sitting in the parking lot and started like a dream. “Thank you, Charlee,” I whispered. I drove extra cautiously the whole way to the taco shop and back to Dillon’s house. There was no way was I going to get in an accident too.
Dillon was waiting for me when I pulled up to his gate. He pushed the button to let me in and I drove up his drive. His welcoming smile brought tears to my eyes. So much had happened since we had seen each other last and it hadn’t even been a full day.
He sighed audibly as I walked up the steps to his porch. “It is damn good to see you, El,” he said. “You are a sight for sore eyes.”
I smiled shyly and kissed him gently; not sure where to put my hands, I put them on either side of his face. He snaked his good arm around me and slid it under my shirt. I laughed at his brazenness and pulled away. “Want to give the neighbors a show?”
“If you insist,” he teased and pulled me against him again.
“Are you high on pain killers, Dill?” I laughed.
“It’s possible,” he said, pulling me inside. “Mom’s in the kitchen. She doesn’t like tacos though,” he pouted.
“That’s cool,” I said. Definitely high. Those must be some really good pain killers. “I got your favorite.”
“Carne asada with cilantro and onions?” he asked with a child-like hopeful expression.
“Duh,” I said laying it all out on the kitchen counter.
I smiled as Dillon savored every bite, even moaning in pleasure every once in a while.
Mrs. Rockwood excused herself to go to her room, leaving us alone. As soon as he was done eating, Dillon eyed me with a frown.
“What’s up, Dill?” I asked.
“My dad’s not who I thought he was,” Dillon said sadly. “He’s not a good person, El.”
“I’m so sorry, Dill.” I put my hand in his and squeezed it gently.
“I feel like I should be the one to say I’m sorry for everything my dad has done to you.”
I shook my head. “You’re not him and he’s not you.”
“I know, but I don’t know what to do with all of this information now. It feels like the father I’ve known all my life has just died and this man has replaced him. I feel like I don’t know him at all.”
I nodded in understanding. People were really good at putting on the face that others want to see, tamping down their true nature until eventually it couldn’t be contained any longer. It was easy to pretend in the darkness that the men in suits who frequented my club weren’t fathers and husbands; they looked a whole lot different in the sunlight.
“But I made one thing very clear,” Dillon said, putting his good hand on my cheek. He looked into my eyes and said, “I meant what I said, El. You are the love of my life. I’m not going anywhere without you. If you can’t move to Michigan with me, I’m staying here with you. I’ll get a residency here at St. Mary’s. I can be a doctor anywhere.”
“Dillon, no. You have to go to Michigan. You have to learn from the best. I googled your program. It’s far better than anything you could ever hope to get here in this shitty desert hospital.”
Dillon shrugged. The determined look never leaving his face. “I want to be where you are.”
“And I want to be worthy of you,” I blurted. Where did that come from?
Dillon frowned as though he couldn’t comprehend what I had just told him. “What? Worthy of me? You are. You always have been.”
Before I could argue, his frown deepened and he turned my face to the side. He growled deep in his throat as he traced the handprint that was still on my face. Damn, I had hoped it would have faded by now.
“Who did this to you?” he demanded in a furious tone. “Did my dad do this?”
I shook my head. “Your dad’s never touched me, I swear it.”
Dillon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “They came for you, didn’t they? Damn it! I knew they would. I shouldn’t have told you to go. I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Dillon, stop. There was nothing you could have done. You needed to stay the night in the hospital and you definitely needed to process all the information I dumped on you.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“The leader came to me. He spoke to me, Dill. In my head.” I jabbed my head with my finger for emphasis. “I swear to you. He wanted me to join their ranks. He said no one would ever hurt me again if I joined them.”
“What did you say?”
“I said no!” I half shouted passionately. “I could never, ever, do that to another human being.”
“Good. I knew you wouldn’t do that.” He sounded relieved, but I chose to let it go.
“That’s not even the best part, though, Dill. He called you something. He said my Chara couldn’t protect me forever. I looked it up. It means joy, Dillon. Just like you said. You are my joy.”
Dillon laughed gleefully at this and flung his good arm around me, kissing me, and laughing, and hugging me. “I knew it! I told you, El! We’re meant to be together. It’s fate.”
Caught up in his infectious joy and laughter, I nodded in agreement. “I guess so.”
“Come away with me, Eleanor.”
“Okay,” I whispered.
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