The Shadow Men

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Chapter 2

CHAPTER 2

“What? What is it?” I asked confused. We had just been talking about old high school memories when he shoved me against a wall just around the corner from my apartment’s front door.

“Your door is open. I’m going to check it out. Stay here, El.”

“Like hell! I’m coming!”

Dillon groaned. “Stay behind me, then. Stubborn girl.”

We crept around the corner. This was a new one. In none of my other nightmares was my door left open. Maybe this had nothing to do with my nightmares.

I didn’t have anything worth stealing, so any potential burglars were probably just pissed at their wasted efforts.

“Oh, El,” Dillon said sadly, stopping in my doorway, blocking my view.

I peeked around him and saw the devastation. Everything that was breakable was broken and every book I owned was ripped up and thrown all over the place. My garbage can was even dumped out and thrown all over my kitchen. The few remaining cabinets were barely hanging on and my fridge door was wide open.

“Wonderful,” I said sinking down to my butt right in the middle of the hallway.

I let Dillon call the police and sit with me while we waited for them to come. They were going to think my injuries and the destruction of my apartment were linked, and hell, maybe they were. Maybe my nightmare was kicking it up a notch. Wouldn’t that be just peachy?

Can’t wait to see what they do to me next.

I watched the two police cars pull into the parking lot and turned to Dillon. “You don’t have to stay.” I jerked my chin up to indicate the four cops now coming up the stairs toward us.

“I know I don’t, but I’m going to anyway,” he said.

I snorted and put my hand on his shoulder to help heave my battered body to my feet. I poked at my ribs while I waited for the police to clear my apartment. When they came back out, I answered their questions the best I could without sounding too crazy. I hoped.

“No officer, I was not at home when it happened. No officer, I don’t know who could have done this. No officer, I did not see their faces. No officer, I do not want to go to the hospital.”

The only minor lie I told was when they asked me when I left my apartment last night. I told them I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to go for a walk. Dan could confirm this if they wanted to press the issue. One officer eyed me funny in Dillon’s shirt and socked feet, clearly seeing through my lie, but he didn’t say anything to me. They probably thought I got into a fight with a boyfriend or hook-up, and he beat me up before trashing the place and bailing, but if I didn’t want to give up his name, they weren’t going to try to force it out of me.

Little did they know that I would have given just about anything for this situation to be that simple.

When they finally left, giving me their card to call if I remembered anything, Dillon turned to me with a frown. “Why didn’t you tell them you were jumped? And why were you out in just your tank top and shorts?”

“Those are two excellent questions that I have absolutely no desire to answer for you.”

“All right, all right. Grab some clothes and whatever else you girly girls need. You’re coming back to my house to rest, then you’re going to call work and tell them you’re not coming in today.”

“Yes, sir,” I said with a mock salute.

“I’ll make sure Dan gets his sandwich,” Dillon added with a small smile. “And we’ll deal with this mess later,” Dillon said before I could protest.

“We?” I asked, eyebrows raised.

“I have nothing else to do,” he said nonchalantly with a small shrug of his shoulders and -- I’ll admit -- an adorable tilt of his head.

“Are you single?” I blurted out, then immediately slapped my hands over my mouth.

Dillon let out a bark of a laugh. “You’re blunt this morning. Yes, El. I’m single.”

I dropped my hands in surprise. “I 100% expected you to say no. I’m gonna grab my stuff and you’re going to explain.” Before he could answer, I picked my way through the disaster zone toward my room. I had to bite back a sob at the destruction that had reached my room as well. I had this stupid hope that my room would be left alone. My sacred space; where I sleep, but it had been tainted like the rest of the place.

I grabbed a change of clothes and made my way to the bathroom to get my “girly girl” stuff.

Dillon was gathering up some garbage as I came back out. He had shut the fridge door and gotten some food picked up off of the floor. I went over and helped him get the rest of the food thrown out.

“Wish I could say it usually looks better, but it probably doesn’t,” I told him, surveying the devastation.

“There is no judgment here, El.” He put his hands on my shoulders and leaned down to look me in the eyes. “It’s okay, I promise.”

“Sure,” I relented believing him despite myself. “I’ll call work when we get back to your fancy clean house,” I joked half-heartedly.

Dillon didn’t grace me with a response; instead, he put his arm around my shoulders, slung my bag over his shoulder and guided me out the door.

Dillon showed me to a spare bedroom and the bathroom, then left me alone to get myself cleaned up. I called work to let Ya-ya know that I wouldn’t be coming in, but that Kristy was looking for extra shifts.

After a long, amazing shower and a change of clothes, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to check out Dillon’s fancy house.

The spare bedroom alone was bigger than my whole apartment. The hallway was lined with photos of Dillon growing up. He was an only child like me, but he grew up with two successful parents who doted on him. My mom raised me alone in trailer parks and crappy apartments. She worked three jobs just to support us. By the time I was old enough to get my own cereal, I was left alone to raise myself. I’d always wondered how I would have turned out had I had a life like Dillon’s.

The hallway ended at an expansive living room with plush deep gray couches, facing an unlit fireplace. There were more pictures of Dillon and his family on the mantle. I smiled at Dillon’s goofy grin in his graduation cap and gown. That was the Dillon I remembered; tall and lanky and a little nerdy.

“Oh man, that was a day,” Dillon said from behind me. “Remember Jennifer’s speech? What was that?”

“Ugh,” I laughed. “It was like a book review, not a valedictory acceptance speech.”

“On page 243,” Dillon said adopting a high-pitched voice, causing us both to laugh. I winced at the pain that shot through my ribs.

“Sit down, crazy,” Dillon chided gesturing to the couch.

I sank down and let out a moan of delight. I had never experienced anything so wonderful as the plush soft goodness of this couch.

“I need to get me one of these. I’d never get up again.”

Dillon sat down on the opposite end of the couch and I pouted a bit internally at the distance he put between us. I was a complete mess right now. This was not the time for romance.

“My dad won’t be home for another few hours and my mom is at book club-” I snorted, and he eyed me but continued, “- so we’re alone for now. Will you please tell me what happened to you? You’re taking this way too well for someone who just got jumped and her home ransacked.”

We looked at each other for a solid minute before I realized Dillon wasn’t backing down. I also realized that I didn’t really feel like lying to him.

“Would you believe me if I said this wasn’t the first time this has happened? That it’s not even the second?”

“You’re telling me that you’ve been jumped three times? And you’ve come home to a trashed apartment every time? Who’d you piss off? The mob?”

I chuckled darkly. “Yes. No. And, no. Just the jumped part three times. The messing up my house thing is a first. But I don’t know who is doing this to me and I have no idea how to stop it.”

“And you have no idea why?”

I bit back a sarcastic retort. “You think I asked for this?” I tried to keep my voice calm, but I think I might have failed because Dillon winced like I had slapped him.

“No, that’s not what I meant at all. I am just flabbergasted that this has happened to you at all, let alone three times now, and you still have no idea who or why. That would drive me absolutely insane, but you’re just sitting there taking it all in stride like it happens all the time. No big deal.”

“Oh, trust me. It’s a big deal. I want to know why, desperately, but what’s the point in driving myself crazy over it? It happened. It’s done. I’ve accepted it. Time to move on.”

“Wow, you’re tougher than I thought, El. And different than I remember,” he admitted.

“You are, too, Dill,” I told him honestly. “You’re going to help people; heal kids. That is something I could never dream of doing. I just strip for dollar bills-” I shut my eyes and wanted to crawl under the cushions. I couldn’t believe I just let it slip out like that. “shit, I didn’t want you to know that.”

“El, I already knew,” Dillon said. “Dad told me about his ‘business meeting,’” he held up air quotes, “at your club. He mentioned that he had seen you there.”

“Oh,” I said, unsure of what else to say.

“I told you, no judgment and I meant it.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, still unsure if I could believe him.

“All right then, try this one on for size: Would you believe that the men who jumped me don’t have faces? That they lure me from my bed to a different place every time just to beat the shit out of me until I lose consciousness, then leave me there.”

"That’s what’s happening to you?” he asked, wonder and disbelief warring on his face.

“I swear it,” I said holding open my hands. “I fall asleep in my own bed. I dream that the sound of someone breaking into my home wakes me up, but when I open my bedroom door, I’m instantly transported to a new place, where a bunch of dudes with no faces beat me up, then I wake up for real in weird places looking like I just got out of fight club.”

I let out a big breath, winced, and hugged myself tightly. I watched all the different emotions flit across Dillon’s face: disbelief, of course, shock, terror, rage, sadness, pity, but finally settling on concern.

“I will admit that it is really hard to believe, but there’s no denying the injuries. I did notice some were older than just tonight. How long ago was your last -” he cleared his throat. “-nightmare.”

“A week, but the time before that was almost a month. I have no idea when the next one will hit. I’m afraid to go to sleep. This one was by far the worst. They’ve never actually broken bones before. I just have to hope that they give me time to heal before coming back for me.” I tried to shrug it off like it was no big deal, but I was dreading falling asleep tonight. They might actually kill me if I had to endure another beating again so soon.

“Okay, let’s say I do believe you,” Dillon said after a moment. “And I think I do. At least everything but the teleportation part. I’ll need time to wrap my head around that one, but it sounds like you need to learn to defend yourself and quick.”

I sat up a little straighter. “You’re absolutely right!” How could I not have realized this before? I tried to fight back, but have always been easily overpowered. Granted I was outnumbered ten to one, but Dillon was absolutely right. I needed to learn how to properly fight and now.

I jumped up off the couch, instantly regretted it, and sat back down much more carefully, all while listening to Dillon’s raucous laughter.

“Way to kick a girl when she’s down,” I grumbled.

Dillon sobered quickly. “I’m sorry for laughing. Now get back up, but slowly this time. I can’t believe I’m even entertaining this, but I promised to believe you, so I’m rolling with it.”

“Much obliged.” I groaned as he pulled me to my feet.

“Okay, so basic moves first. Since your right side took the brunt of the attack, let’s use your left as much as possible.”

I narrowed my eyes at Dillon. “What do you know about self-defense?”

“Believe it or not, I’ve been taking jujitsu classes three times a week since I started college.”

“So that’s where this body came from,” I said and blushed.

Dillon just smiled indulgently at me. “Just the basics for now. You’re a lefty if I remember correctly?” I nodded. “So, this is actually convenient. You’ll be stronger on your left anyway. They probably don’t know that, so let’s use that to your advantage.”

“Okay,” I said taking a slow breath, trying not to disturb my ribs too much. “Teach me your ways.”

“The first thing you need to do is protect yourself, especially since you’re injured already. Pull your elbows in and get your hands up at neck level.” He demonstrated for me, and I copied him. “Now, keep them there, whatever you do. They’re going to have to get in real close to take you down. Is it always the same when they attack? Is there a rhythm to it? A routine?”

“Geeze,” I said. “I don’t know.” I tried to picture each fight. Was there any kind of rhythm to it? I shut my eyes and went back to the first fight.

I was in the parking garage of the last apartment complex my mom and I lived in together. This was where she was murdered by Mark, her sadist of an ex-boyfriend. I remembered the feeling of being punched in the gut at the memories, right before one of the shadow men actually punched me in the gut. I knew it was a dream, somehow, but then I was hit again. I didn’t even notice them at first until they came close enough to be under the light I was standing under. They attacked me one at a time at first. One would punch me just once then back away, and another would kick me then back away. It was almost like they were studying my reaction to each assault, but then after five or six punches and kicks, they seemed to get too worked up to take turns any longer and swarmed me, punching and kicking everywhere all at once until I lost consciousness.

I told Dillon as much, leaving out the part about my mom, and he asked me if it was the same as the other two times.

“Yes,” I almost shouted in exasperation. “They start one at a time, but can’t seem to contain themselves for very long and eventually they all attack at once. This last time, I remember fighting back hard against the first two dudes, so they swarmed me quicker than the first time. I think it all depends on how excited they get.”

“Jesus, El. This is some twisted stuff.”

I opened my arms wide in a, you’re telling me gesture.

“All right, all right,” Dillon said running his hands through his hair, making it stick up all over the place.

I snorted and he quickly smoothed his hair back down.

The tension diffused, we set to work practicing mostly defensive moves as much as my broken body would allow. Dillon rationalized that I shouldn’t try to fight back at all. Keep calm and the “feeding frenzy” -- Dillon’s words made me laugh and I smacked him for hurting my ribs again -- might not happen at all the next time around.

I wanted him to teach me something offensive, but he was so sure that defense was the right course of action that I eventually stopped fighting him on it.

Dillon checked his watch and ordered me to sit. “Mom’s coming home,” he said blandly. “I want you to stay, but I’ll leave that up to you.”

From what I remembered; Dillon’s mom was the stereotype of a Stepford wife. I was not really in the mood to be judged by her perfect-perfectness, but the thought of going back to my trashed apartment was even less appealing, so I agreed to stay, but found myself involuntarily smoothing my hair and straightening my clothes.

“You look fine, El. Stop fidgeting,” Dillon said.

“What about your dad? He knows where I work; I don’t want to taint your image.” Dillon was under the impression that his dad had only been to the club once. I was not going to be the one to correct that.

“Stop that, El. You’re fine.” He sighed deeply. “I’ll be honest with you since you’ve been honest with me.” I watched his internal struggle for a moment, and then he shifted in his seat and leaned forward, steeling himself for what he wanted to tell me. “Mom and dad sleep in separate rooms. They have for years. Mom likes to pretend they’re still a happy couple, but I think they realized pretty quickly that the only thing holding their marriage together was my presence. Now that I’m not here anymore, they started living separate lives just under the same roof.”

“Woah, Dill, I didn’t know that. I’m so sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t tell him that I was not at all surprised.

A buzz sounded from somewhere in the kitchen and then came the sound of keys jingling in the door.

“Dillon, honey?” came the sound of a high-pitched woman’s voice. “You home?”

“Yeah, Mom,” Dillon called and I tried in vain to straighten up my appearance. I watched him get up to go talk to his mom in the kitchen. He gently squeezed my shoulder on his way out, his hand lingering a little longer than necessary.

I tried to eavesdrop on their conversation, but they were talking too quietly.

“Eleanor,” Dillon’s mom said cheerfully as she walked into the living room. She had her short, red-dyed hair curled into a stylish 50’s French twist. Her makeup was immaculate and perfectly matched her purple and pink polka-dot dress. She looked like she just stepped out of a vintage magazine. She was tall, probably close to 5′10", but very thin, almost bony in appearance. “It’s so nice to see you again, sweety,” she said pleasantly. “Dillon said you’re going to be staying with us for a couple of days. I just think that’s for the best. You poor thing, your house getting burglarized like that and just right across the street from here. That’s just so terrible.”

She said ‘across the street,’ but it might as well have been across the ocean. We were from two very different worlds, and she knew it.

“I can’t thank you enough for your generosity. I don’t want to intrude on your family time. I know Dillon is only here for a little while.”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that. This house is plenty big enough for everyone,” she said sweetly.

“Thank you again, Mrs. Rockwood.”

“Think nothing of it. Now, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’m going to go call Francine. She has a friend with a cleaning business. We’ll get your apartment all fixed up for you in no time.”

“Oh, no, Mrs. Rockwood, you don’t have to do that,” I said in a rush. There was no way I could afford a professional cleaning crew.

I turned to Dillon and whispered, “I’ll never be able to pay for that.”

“I already got it covered, don’t you worry,” he whispered back.

“Dillon,” I chastised. I hated owing people. I’ve never relied on anyone, not even my mom, not since I was eight years old.

“Thank you, Dillon. That’s so nice of you,” he teased in a sing-song voice.

“Thank you, Dillon. That’s so nice of you,” I echoed back to him in the same sing-song voice.

Dillon put his arm around my shoulders and I leaned into him.

“We’re supposed to have dinner over at the Watson’s, but I can just cancel that,” Dillon’s mom said as she came back into the room.

“Why don’t you and Dad just go. El and I can stay in and order a pizza or something.”

“If you’re sure, honey. You know how I hate to cancel so last minute,” she said.

“I know, Mom,” Dillon said indulgently.

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