I danced for Dillon, dying a little inside with every move. Out clubbing with friends, like normal people, I couldn’t wait to show him my moves. I felt so normal like we were a bunch of college friends enjoying a night out on our summer break like the majority of the other people dancing in the clubs with us. But here, in the private room of this desert club, reserved for the sleazy men who couldn’t get it up for their wives and mistresses; this was a special kind of hell.
I danced for Dillon, afraid for my job, fighting the tears that threatened to fall with every sway of my hips and turn around the pole.
In the lull between songs, I ran my hands up Dillon’s thighs and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “Please leave. I can’t bear this anymore,” and turned my back to him.
Dillon silently placed some bills on the seat of the couch and left through the back door. When it finally clicked shut, I gathered up the cash and tripped my way back to my station in the dressing room.
There was a small note from Dillon stuck between two 20-dollar bills.
Meet me tonight. Please — D
I flipped it over and there was an address scrawled on it. I shoved it in my bag along with the money I would be giving back to him as soon as I could. It was dirty, tainted money. It made me feel like mud. This was the last place I ever wanted Dillon to be.
Maybe it would make it easier for him to leave now that he had experienced first-hand what I did to pay my rent.
I was not destined for great things the way Dillon was. I was a magnet for pain and destruction.
I finished my shift on autopilot, refusing the next offer of a private room, sending Candy in my place. He wasn’t one of my regulars, so I didn’t care.
I typed the address Dillon gave me into my phone’s navigation and luckily it was within walking distance. I didn’t know why I was doing this. Curiosity? Pity? Hope?
I frowned down at my phone when it told me I had arrived and checked the paper again just to be sure. I was standing in front of Mama Carpano’s Italian Restaurant. I had dreamed of eating here for as long as I could remember, but was never able to afford it.
It was 3am.; the restaurant had been closed for hours. Dillon had to have known that when he handed me the paper. What was I supposed to do now?
Looking around to make sure I was alone; I tried the door handle and miraculously it opened for me. The entryway was dark, but there was light coming from the back; a rounded window revealed the kitchen where the light was coming from. I headed toward it and opened the door slowly.
“Dillon?” I called softly. The smell of Italian food wafted toward me; tomatoes, garlic, onions, and Italian seasonings made my mouth water.
“Come in,” he said softly, coming into view. He was wearing an apron and held a spoon in his hand. “I wasn’t sure you’d come, but I hoped.”
“I’m not sure why I’m here,” I admitted.
“To eat,” he said. “And to listen.”
I sighed. “Listen to what?”
“To what I wanted to tell you before you ran away from my house. Why did you? Run away, I mean.”
“Dill,” I said tiredly. I ran my hands through my hair and twisted it into a loose bun. “How did you even get in here?” I asked avoiding the question.
“Sam is the executive chef. You remember him, right? He was a senior when we were freshmen. He was the one that was always sneaking into the school kitchens to improve our lunch menu. We kept in touch.”
I smiled. “I remember him.”
Sam was a bit of a legend in our day. Absolutely obsessed with good food. No one could figure out how he had managed to make our school lunches taste so good, and the administration did absolutely nothing to stop him. He may have been breaking-and-entering but in the best possible way.
“This is leftover from tonight’s dinner menu. They usually throw it out, but Sam let me have it instead. It’s the last bit of spaghetti sauce and ravioli. Hungry?”
“Sit,” he said pointing to a stainless-steel table with two stools pulled up to it. He spooned four huge ravioli onto a plate and spread spaghetti sauce over them. He set it down in front of me and got himself a helping as well.
“Wine?” he asked.
He smiled nervously and pulled a bottle of red wine from a bag by his feet. “This is my favorite. It’s a semi-dry. I hope that’s okay.”
“It’s perfect.” I wasn’t much of a wine drinker, but I knew I didn’t like the sweeter wines, especially not with dinner.
As we ate, I savored every delicious bite. The ravioli was the perfect blend of cheeses and the sauce was seasoned to perfection. It was everything I imagined this restaurant would be.
Dillon set down his fork and took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry for coming to the club like that. I was desperate and I had no idea that they listen and watch those rooms. I was naive and a complete idiot. I just wanted to talk to you, but I realized very quickly that that was the absolute worst idea I have ever had.”
I laughed and shook my head sadly at him.
“Please don’t ever do that again,” I pleaded.
“I can assure you, I won’t. That was mortifying. Hot. But mortifying.”
“Hot?” I said raising an eyebrow teasingly.
I blushed and smiled despite myself. “I never wanted you to see me like that, though. I wanted to keep at least a modicum of dignity where you are concerned.”
“I have not lost an ounce of respect for you. I need you to know that. That is just something I wanted to experience in private, not with your pimp and the sleazy bouncer watching and listening in.”
I laughed loudly at that. “My pimp. Ya-Ya is more like a mother hen. But you’re totally right about Trey, he’s such a creep. He watches us on the pretense that he’s keeping us safe, but I know he just enjoys being a voyeur.”
“Is it dangerous, what you do?” he asked innocently.
“Yes and no. Trey usually escorts the new people in and gives them a heavy dose of intimidation, but my regulars have all learned the rules. They only need a couple of reminders to keep their hands off my ass.”
Dillon chuckled uncomfortably and took a big gulp of wine.
This was exactly why I wanted Dillon out of that part of my life. “So, why am I here, Dillon?” I said feeling exhausted again.
Dillon took a deep breath, held it and blew it out. “I thought you deserved to know why we ended up in that courtyard in Michigan.”
He took another deep breath.
“That girl that was murdered, her name was Rachel. She and I were dating at the time. She had lab on Wednesday nights, so I wasn’t expecting her. She got out early. Came to surprise me.” He hung his head in shame. “I wasn’t alone. She walked in on me and another girl. I didn’t have time to do anything, she ran from the room so fast. She never should have been there. If it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t have run into those men. They never would have hurt her. I will never forgive myself for what I did.”
“You didn’t kill her Dillon,” I said, putting my hand on his arm. “It wasn’t your doing. Yes, you cheated on her. That was wrong, but you did not cause her death.”
“But I created the circumstances,” he said fervently. “They knew. The Shadow Men knew. They brought us here to remind me of that night.”
“I don’t understand why they do what they do. I don’t understand where they come from, or how they can take us to a different time and place, but just leave us there when they’re done with us. But I do know that they’re feeding on the emotions that are tied to whatever happened there. You need to learn to forgive yourself, or I fully believe that they’ll just keep taking you back there.”
“You’ve never been to the same place twice.”
I snorted. “That’s because I’ve done a hell of a lot more than you to be ashamed of.”
He tilted his head at me and shook his head sadly. “Give yourself more credit, El.”
I shrugged and pouted at my empty plate.
“Do you want more?” Dillon asked with a small smile.
I smiled back and nodded.
“Where do you put it all?” he asked with a shocked expression.
“I do a lot of cardio,” I said with a shrug.
Dillon sobered immediately.
“I’m afraid to fall asleep tonight,” he admitted quietly.
“You slept last night,” I told him.
“We were drunk and didn’t care,” he said dryly. “I have a theory. Were we touching?”
“I don’t remember,” I admitted honestly. “Why?”
“I’m trying to figure out if that made a difference. All I had to do was touch you and we were both taken to the courtyard.”
“But I’d been taken alone three times before that. I don’t think they care. I still can’t figure out why they decided to take you, though, other than proximity.”
“Is that why you left me? You don’t want me around you in case it happens again?”
“I never wanted this for you, Dillon. I would never wish this on anyone, let alone someone I care about. I just wanted you to patch me up and then I had every intention of disappearing from your life again forever. But you wouldn’t let me go. And then I didn’t want to go.”
“But you’ve been with other guys, right? And this has never happened with them?”
“Yes,” I said dryly. “I’ve been with other guys, but no, they’ve never been kidnapped by the Shadow Men. Not as far as I know anyway.”
“So, why me? What’s the difference?” he asked earnestly.
“I don’t know, Dillon,” I said tiredly.
He busied himself clearing the dishes and cleaning up while I laid my head in my hands. I wanted to tell Dillon that it was probably because I never cared about those other guys the way I care about Dillon. I was beginning to think there was a deeper connection that we shared that neither one of us were ready to explore yet.
“Can I come back to your place with you tonight?” he asked quietly, uncertain.
I sighed deeply and buried my head in my arms. “There’s no getting rid of you is there?”
“I understand,” he said sadly. “Just let me walk you home. Then I’ll leave. I promise.”
“If I ask you a question, will you promise to give me an honest answer? Not just the answer you think I want to hear.”
“I’ll do my best,” he answered with confusion.
“What do you want from me, Dillon?”
“Would you believe me if I said companionship?”
“What are you eighty years old?”
“I don’t know how else to explain it. I just want to be around you all the time. I want to make you happy when you’re sad; I want to protect you; I want to heal your wounds; I want to be near you. I also want to kiss you so badly all the time.” He stopped abruptly and smiled a lopsided sheepish way that melted my heart.
“Drive me home?” I asked, standing tiredly to my feet.
“Of course,” Dillon said automatically.
“Thank you for dinner. That was the best meal I’ve ever had.”
“I’ll give our compliments to the chef,” Dillon said leading me out the door.
“Did you mean all that stuff you just said?” I asked him. I shivered involuntarily at the chilly early morning air.
Dillon pulled off his sweatshirt and offered it to me. I put it on gratefully, inhaling his uniquely Dillon scent of fresh laundry and a little bit of spice.
He opened his car door for me but stood in the way looking down at me. “Every word,” he said in a husky whisper. He leaned down to kiss me, but stopped just before our lips would touch, letting me make the decision to make contact. But it already felt beyond my control to stop this — us — whatever was happening here. I met his lips with mine and felt the tension leave his body. He exhaled softly against my mouth and wrapped his arms around me, hugging me tightly. My sore ribs protested, still not completely healed, but I didn’t care. I hugged him back just as tightly.
“Let’s go home.”
I opened the door to my apartment and looked back at Dillon’s raw, hopeful expression. “Get in here,” I said tiredly.
His answering smile was wide and dazzling.
“Can we try something?”
I snorted. “Does it involve sleeping until noon? Because if it does, I’m game.”
“Yes, actually,” he said the smile still on his face. “I want to fall asleep with you in my arms,” he said so matter-of-factly that I laughed long and hard.
“How romantic,” I teased.
He clicked his tongue. “What I mean is that I want to be touching you before we fall asleep.”
I doubled over in laughter.
“I’m not explaining this very well, am I?”
“Nope, but it’s fun to hear you try.”
“Ugh,” he threw up his hands and kicked off his shoes. He grabbed my hand and led me to my room.
My laughter vanished when he took off his shirt and I swallowed hard.
“Are you going to sleep in that?” he asked laying down on my bed.
I looked down at my jeans. “Give me a second,” I told him and rushed to the bathroom. I quickly brushed my teeth, got rid of the jeans, and ran my hands through my hair.
When I emerged from the bathroom, Dillon sat up straight, his gaze going directly to my bare legs. I smiled sheepishly at him as I stood before him wearing only his hoodie. “What?”
“That looks much better on you than it does on me,” he said in a husky voice. Standing slowly, his breath quickening, his eyes roamed my body slowly from my head to my toes and back up.
I swallowed and walked into his arms. He kissed me passionately as his hands glided down my body to my thighs, then slid under my hoodie. He groaned in pleasure as his hands gently skimmed my bare backside. He picked me up, his lips never leaving mine, and laid me down on my bed, then slowly lowered his body over mine. He took a moment to trace my lips with his finger before covering my mouth with his once again. I undid the top button of his pants, looking up at him to make sure it was okay, his warm smile and small nod reassuring me as I slowly lowered his zipper.
Over the next few weeks, Dillon and I slowly got to know each other better and better during the daylight hours. Our nights filled simultaneously with dread and reckless abandon. Never knowing when the Shadow Men would return for one or both of us, we feared sleep more and more with each day that passed.
We were making plans to spend the Fourth of July weekend together at his cabin in the mountains. His dad claimed he couldn’t get away from work for that long and his mom opted out, sighting that she didn’t want to be “in the way.” We were looking forward to getting away together.
I was easily able to get the weekend off. People generally wanted to get away from the desert for the holidays. We were hardly a tourist destination. Dillon had refused all offers from his friends to go on various trips with them. When I questioned him about it, he told me he’d rather spend his time with me, but I wondered if it was really because he was afraid to leave me alone, or was afraid to be alone himself. We had survived for close to three weeks now without a visit from the Shadow Men, but we were no closer to figuring out what they wanted from us or why they chose us in the first place.
With every passing night, I felt like I was balancing on the edge of a precipice, flailing and fighting to stay on solid ground. We woke each morning clutching each other, grateful for another reprieve, but fearful that the next night would be the night they would come for us. Dillon had even said as much the previous night. “I almost just wish they would come for us tonight, so we can get it over with. The suspense is killing me.”
That saying had always seemed silly to me until now; it felt so true. The wait was another form of torture that the Shadow Men were inflicting on us, and tonight was no different. Dillon’s parents were celebrating their anniversary. We would be spending our first night away from each other since the Shadow Men had stolen us away to Michigan.
I was terrified and relieved at the same time. I was convinced that we had to be touching for the Shadow Men to get to Dillon through me. I was somehow their conduit. Dillon was convinced it was the opposite; that he was protecting me from them by being there when we fell asleep each night. Both determined to protect the other, but both floundering in the dark, guessing at the right course of action.
Work was easy tonight. Bill was back and had paid for a full hour, but spent it all on his phone, barely paying attention to me. After giving me a peck on the cheek and thanking me for a good time as always, he handed me a generous tip and left. The rest of my shift wasn’t as fruitful, but Thursday nights were usually slow. Not quite the weekend yet and no specials like on Two-for-Tuesday and Well-Drinks-Wednesday, Thursdays tended to be all of us dancers’ favorite night of the week. Maybe with the exception of Slutty Susan, sorry Kristy.
My car had been running like a dream since Dillon stole it for a full maintenance checkup last week. They had replaced the dead battery, flushed all the fluids, gave me an oil change and a tune up. Dillon footed the bill, but I threw in some coupons to the club just to feel like I contributed.
Dillon had already sent me an adorable video message wishing me a good night and a dreamless sleep. Without our new usual bedtime routine — a routine that I had already grown used to and missed — I poured myself a glass of wine and settled down on my couch to read until I was unwound enough to go to bed.