The Shadow Men

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Chapter 3


We settled into a comfortable rhythm while Mrs. Rockwood flitted around the house readying herself for dinner with the Watson family. It was only a little uncomfortable when Dillon’s dad got home. He saw me and his eyes only went wide for a second, but he quickly recovered and acted like I was just another of Dillon’s friends over for a visit. I appreciated that both for myself and Dillon’s sake. We ordered a pizza, extra sausage, and watched a movie until my eyelids started to droop and I had to fight to stay awake.

Sometime during the movie, Dillon’s parents came back, but they had gone straight to their rooms and hadn’t come back out, so I could only assume they were already in bed. But I was terrified to fall asleep. I was too sore and mentally exhausted from everything that had happened today and I did not want to face the Shadow Men again anytime soon.

Dillon could sense my apprehension, but could also see that I was exhausted, so he waited patiently with me on the couch, not saying a word, but a few more minutes of fighting to stay awake and I couldn’t do it anymore.

“I need to go to bed,” I admitted finally.

Dillon didn’t reply. He just got up and helped me to my feet. He walked me down the hall toward the spare room; his own room just across the hall. His hand rested lightly on my back.

I stopped at the closed spare room door and looked up at Dillon’s worried expression.

“Can I ask you something?” he whispered.

I nodded.

“I want you to stay with me tonight. I promise nothing will happen. Just sleeping, but I don’t want to let you out of my sight. I would feel much better if you stayed with me.” He said all this in a quiet rush, almost like he was afraid I would reject him. Odd.

I chewed my bottom lip for a moment considering. “No funny business?” I asked.

Dillon held up his hands in an innocent expression. “Promise." There was something in his tone that I couldn’t identify. It sounded almost like regret. A little sadness maybe.

I relented, and he opened his own bedroom door for me to enter. I had never been in here before. We didn’t exactly run in the same social circles in high school. He was the basketball star, and I was the weirdo in thrift store clothes.

The awkwardness was palpable as I entered his sports-centric room. Once again confirming that he fit my idea of the stereotypical perfect family: cue the jock’s room. Light gray walls were adorned with pictures and newspaper clippings of his accolades; shelves were filled with trophies and memorabilia of his sports heroes. Even his bedspread was a collage of basketball stars.

I laughed and clutched my ribs at the pain it caused.

“I know, I know,” Dillon said. “Mom isn’t quite ready for me to grow up and until I’m ready to permanently move out, I figured I’d indulge her while I’m here.”

“It’s so...” I struggled to find the words that wouldn’t completely offend him. Jock-centric? Ballsie? Sporty?

“High school?” Dillon offered.

I chuckled softly. “Yeah,” I agreed. “In high school, my walls were covered in my own drawings. I used to think I was going to be an artist someday. Look how well that turned out,” I said darkly.

I heard Dillon sigh but didn’t turn to see the look of pity on his face. I didn’t want or need anyone’s pity.

“So, how’s this going to work, doc?”

“I told you, I don’t want you sleeping alone. My bed is plenty big enough for both of us.”

I sighed and nodded my head, relenting. Why was this so awkward?

“You’re going to want to sleep sitting up a bit to take the pressure off your ribs,” he said. “Hold on, let me get you some extra pillows.” I watched him go across the hall to a cupboard and pull out a few spare pillows.

I yawned involuntarily earning a smile from him.

“Lay down, sleepyhead,” he said with a small shake of his head.

I tried to get comfortable, but it wasn’t easy. Every little move made my ribs ache and my toes throb.

I sighed loudly. “I can’t fall asleep.”

Dillon let out a breathy laugh.

“You’re due for some more pain pills anyway. That should help.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” I said relieved.

“Can I ask you something?” Dillon asked in the dark after a long while.

“Mm-hmm,” I mumbled, still fighting sleep and slowly losing the battle.

“What happened to you after high school?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “You want a play-by-play of all the shitty jobs I’ve had?”

“I mean why didn’t you go to college? Didn’t you have any dreams? Something you wanted to be when you grow up?”

“Geeze, we’re going deep at 2 a.m.”

“Sorry,” he said quietly. “You don’t need to answer that.”

I sighed. “Well, ” I said mulling it over. “Once upon a time, I wanted to be an artist, but only one out of every, like, million wannabes ever actually makes a living with their art, so I let that dream go. College was never in the cards for me anyway.”

“Why not?” he asked innocently.

“Oh, you naive rich boy,” I said, intending it to be a joke, but the truth is the truth. “There’s no way I could ever have afforded to go to college. People like me will never be more than what I am.”

“Are you happy?” Dillon blurted.

I snorted. “No.”

“Since we’re going deep at 2 a.m., as you say: What would make you happy?” he asked.

“Oh, man. We’re going really deep. You’re lucky we are practically strangers and will probably never see each other again after this -”

“I don’t know about that,” he interrupted. “I plan on checking in on you, Ellie.”

I smiled indulgently at him. They all said that at first, but once their own lives got busy, I was always dropped like the bad habit that I know I am.

“That is not going to happen,” Dillon said fiercely.

“Damn it! Did I say that out loud? How does that keep happening around you? These pain pills are making me loopy.”

Dillon chuckled softly. “Don’t worry about it. Tonight is the night for unedited honesty, no matter how hard it may be for either of us to hear.”

“You say that now,” I said, but Dillon ignored that.

“Now, back to my original question: What would make you happy?”

“Not having to fight for the scraps,” I told him. “To just make enough to know my rent is going to get paid and my lights are going to stay on. To not freeze in the winter and melt in the summer because I can’t afford the cost of heat and AC.”

“Stability,” he said quietly. “You want stability.”

“Yes,” I said fighting back tears. “I’ve never really had that. It seems so unattainable.”

“You have always had such a tough girl, I-don’t-need-anything-from-anyone" attitude that I never knew this was the thing you wanted most. It seems like such a simple thing,” he said and I could hear the sadness and empathy in his voice.

“Simple, yet ever-elusive,” I said bitterly. “My turn. What would it take to make you happy?”

“Oh, man,” Dillon sighed deeply. “At the risk of sounding cheesy, but since we’re being honest, I am happy right now.”

I scoffed at him. “Definitely cheesy. You mean in general or right this second?”

“Right this second, I am happy lying next to you.” His hand found mine across the blanket divide, and I clutched it tightly.

“Right this second, I’m happy, too,” I admitted.

His grip softened on mine, and he started absently drawing soothing circles on the back of my hand with his thumb. It was pleasant and lulled me to sleep against my will.

I woke with a start, instantly going into panic-mode. I wasn’t in my own bed, I closed my eyes and groaned, leaning back on the soft pillows. My eyes shot open. Dillon. I was still in Dillon’s bed. No one had stolen me from here last night. No faceless mob had beaten me unconscious. I slept. I actually slept.

The relief that poured through me was enough to make me cry. I made it through a night with no nightmare, no dreams whatsoever that I could remember.

I looked over, expecting to see Dillon still sleeping next to me, but he wasn’t there. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do now. We had never discussed the morning after. Was I supposed to just gather up my stuff and get out of his hair? Or would he feed me first? Would his parents still be there? I had never been in this situation before, and I was completely lost. I decided to start with brushing my teeth and hair. It seemed like a good place to start. I gingerly got up as quietly as I could, careful not to disturb whatever routine happened in the mornings here at the Rockwood household.

By the time I was presentable, I was hungry and Dillon hadn’t reappeared, so I decided to venture out and was instantly assaulted with the smell of cooking bacon.

“There you are!” Dillon said cheerfully. He was thankfully alone; fork in hand, bacon sizzling in a pan in front of him. “How do you like your eggs?”

“Uh, cooked?” I said dumbly.

He gave me a wry look. “You’ve worked in restaurants before; I know you know what I mean.”

I smiled. “Over-easy.”

“I was hoping you’d say that. I dated a girl once who liked her eggs fried hard. That was a deal-breaker for me. I broke up with her on the spot.”

“Big fan of runny yolks, are you?” I asked him with one eyebrow raised.

“It’s the only acceptable way to eat an egg,” he said confidently.

“Agreed,” I said.

“Sit,” he ordered, pointing his fork at me. “There.” He pointed to the barstool I sat in yesterday and I did as I was told. He busied himself getting eggs and bacon and toast onto two plates, then brought them around and sat next to me. We ate in companionable silence for a while. I smiled at the way he soaked up the yolk, alternating bread and bacon with each bite.

“So, the plan for the day,” he said finally, picking up our empty plates. “Is to supervise, slash, help get your apartment cleaned up. I figured you’d want to be there for the process. I know I would.”

“Definitely,” I said relieved. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette was for having a professional cleaning crew, seeing as how I’d never in my wildest dreams imagined I would have something like that.

“Good,” Dillon said. “They’ll be at your place by nine, so we better get going. Scoot!” he said ushering me out of the kitchen.

“Listen,” I said turning back toward him. “Thank you for last night. I don’t know if they were just giving me a break, or if your presence kept me here, but either way, thank you for not leaving me alone last night.”

He smiled at me and reached up to tuck a stray hair behind my ear. “Anytime, Ruiz.” He cleared his throat and let his hand drop. “Let’s go.”

The cleaning crew turned out to be three of the sweetest ladies I had ever met. They were all Mexican immigrants, cousins, in fact, and all in their late 40s. They started this business to help their families still in Mexico and it had blossomed into a full-blown professional enterprise. They asked me questions throughout the process, making sure that things were back where I wanted them and that broken things were disposable before throwing them out. By the time we were finished, I felt like I had a cleaner apartment than I had ever had it, and had made lifelong friends in the process. Dillon and I even managed to snag a dinner invitation at, ironically enough, Lenora’s house. She lived not far from me and I felt overwhelmingly blessed.

I stood in front of my empty fridge with a forlorn sigh. I would have to work a few extra shifts to be able to restock my empty fridge and cupboards. In my current state, I might need to work more than a few. No one wants to tip the girl who looks like her boyfriend just beat the shit out of her. It’s what they all always thought. And with 90% of the girls who worked with me, it was true. Kate and Missy had both shown up on a few occasions with black eyes and bruises on their arms and legs from their abusive husbands. I used to think they were stupid for staying with them until I learned first-hand how much harder it was to make ends meet when your customers could see your injuries. Now I knew they probably didn’t have a choice if they didn’t want to be homeless.

Dillon gently took my hand from the fridge door and shut it without a word as though sensing the reason for my sudden change in mood. He guided me to my couch and helped me prop my foot up on a folding chair. He unwrapped my toes to check on them, apparently satisfied, he wrapped them back up.

“How do you feel?” he asked, his hand still on my foot.

“I barely notice the toes to be honest. The pain in my ribs pretty much overpowers everything else.”

“Let me see,” he said with a jerk of his head, silently asking me to stand.

I lifted my shirt, and he came up close to me to unwrap the bandage. My heartbeat picked up and I kept my breaths small and shallow. I held my shirt up for him, and he put his hands on my waist and slowly, so softly, slid his hands up to the bottom of the bandage. He kept his eyes locked on mine as he slowly unwrapped the bandage. When it was off, he finally looked away from my eyes to follow his fingers as he traced the bruises on my ribs. I looked down to assess the damage for myself. The entire right side of my chest, from my bra line to the bottom of my rib cage was a deep purple.

I sucked in a sharp breath with a hiss as he touched a particularly sore spot.

“That'll take time to heal,” he said softly. His hands lingering on my bare ribs. “Sleep sitting up for the next couple of weeks.” He looked up at me again and swallowed. I could feel myself leaning into him.

His eyes began to close, and we were almost nose to nose when he cleared his throat and leaned back. “Dinner?”

I blinked a few times, shaking off the weird feeling of disappointment. “You don’t have to stay. You’ve already done way too much for me. Far more than I deserve.”

He shook his head at me. “Stop acting like a charity case. I’m doing what I want to be doing. Your fridge is empty and you need to eat.”

I didn’t want to admit that he was right, but he was right. And I also didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him yet either.

“I’m in the mood for tacos,” he said. “Eat here or at my place?”

“Here?” I asked tentatively.

“Done.” He smiled at me. “Back in twenty.” He kissed my forehead quickly, chastely before grabbing his keys and heading out the door.

I peeked out the window to watch him disappear around the corner then sat back down on the couch with a deep sigh.

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