The air was so smoky I could hardly see and I kept coughing and choking on the toxic fumes. It was hot, almost unbearably so. I knew it was nighttime, but the glow from the fire all around me made it seem almost as bright as day. I got down on my hands and knees in the dirt, remembering fire drills we had as kids at school. The air was the freshest on the ground.
What little fresh-ish air I had found was pushed out of me in a whoosh as pain exploded in my stomach, making me vomit the wine I had drunk. Another vicious kick landed on my shin and I groaned in pain, clutching my stomach.
I crawled as quickly as I could, groping around on the ground for anything I could use as a weapon. I would not be a victim. Not this time.
My hand found one of the Shadow Men’s booted feet first and without thinking, I grabbed hold of his ankle and yanked hard. He fell on the ground with a muted thud, making no other sound. I scrambled over him, locking my legs around his midsection, and started pounding on his face as hard as I could with my fists. I couldn’t tell if I was doing any damage, and he made no sounds; didn’t even fight back. He just lay there letting me punch him. I didn’t have time to think as I was pulled off him by another of the Shadow Men and dragged by the hair to a clearing. He threw me forcefully to the ground and I let out a cry of pain as I landed hard on my right shoulder. Clutching my now useless arm, I tried to get away but was pulled back and thrown again to the ground.
Dillon’s words came back to me at that moment, “Fighting back only riles them up. Don’t fight. Just curl into a ball and protect your head and vital organs.” So, I did what he said. I brought my knees to my chest and covered my head with my arms and let them kick and punch me. My arms and legs would be badly bruised when this was over.
Eventually, their kicks became less powerful, and their punches less frequent until they ceased altogether. I stayed in the ball, choking on the heavily smoky air for what seemed like hours before I moved one arm to peek between them. I couldn’t see the Shadow Men, but I couldn’t see much further than a few feet through the thick cloud of smoke that hung all around me. Slowly, tentatively, I uncurled my body and pulled my t-shirt up over my mouth and nose, and began crawling away from the clearing. I had never ended a fight with the Shadow Men without blacking out before. I didn’t know what to do. They could be lurking anywhere, waiting for me.
I was still stuck in this memory of the past, so I knew I wasn’t safe yet. This was where I lost my home and my dog. My mom and I were supposed to evacuate with the other residents of our trailer park, but my dog Cesar had gotten spooked by the brush fire that raged all around us, burning thousands of acres of Southern California’s dry landscape. Cesar had run off and I insisted on staying until I could find him.
This place, this was what was left of our trailer park. The whole place had burned along with almost everything we owned. I found Cesar next to a boulder where he had most likely died of a heart attack; the doggy equivalent of dying of fright.
WHAM! I felt the air stir before I saw the Shadow Man’s leg swing toward my head. As soon as it made contact, the lights went out and I saw no more.
A Coyote’s howl woke me. The smoke was gone and I was freezing. I lay on the cold desert sand staring up at the moon and coughed out the last of the smoke from my lungs.
“Great. Just great,” I said out loud.
Based on the memory the Shadow Men had picked this time, I knew exactly where I was, which was a very small positive. I knew that the new trailer park was built less than a mile away from where I was, but I had little desire to go anywhere near that place. There were a few of my mother’s ex-boyfriends living there still and let’s just say that some of them had an affinity for younger girls. I was very sure they would love to get their sleazy paws on me in my current vulnerable state.
Mrs. Eichvel used to live in the trailer next to ours, but I doubted she would still be alive. She was ancient back when my mom and I lived there and that was almost ten years ago, now. Maybe the new tenant would be nice enough to let me use the phone. Now I was glad Dillon had made me memorize his phone number. I thought he was being silly and tried to laugh it off at the time, but now I understood exactly why he made me do it. I’d have to remember to thank him later.
I stumbled my way toward my old stomping ground, pausing only momentarily to spit at Frank’s trailer. Fat Frank the child molester and I had shared a few memorable moments, most notable was when my barbie boots made sweet, sweet contact with his most sensitive parts. I heard he had to go to the hospital after that because he started pissing blood. I hoped I caused some serious damage. Ah, a girl could dream.
I had no idea what time it was, but I pounded on the door of a darkened trailer about five or so trailers away from Fat Frank’s, hoping a sweet old lady would answer. No such luck. It was an extremely grumpy old man. He looked to be in his eighties, Native American, with long gray hair tied back loosely by a leather cord.
“Do you have any idea what time it is, young lady?” he demanded in a strong deep voice.
“No, sir,” I said adopting the most innocent expression I could manage. “I’m very sorry to disturb you, but I got lost, and I was wondering if I could use your phone to call my boyfriend to come get me.”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “You got lost in the middle of the night?”
I didn’t answer. I just stared at him, letting tears fill my eyes. I let my chin tremble, hoping it would help.
He looked me over, noticing my soot-stained clothes and bare feet. “Where have you been? You look like you’ve been through a fire.”
This man was very astute for someone pushing a hundred. I decided to tell him a version of the truth that would hopefully satisfy him. “Yes, sir. My boyfriend and I are camping. We got into a fight and I ran off, but I didn’t bring anything with me, and I got lost.”
“Must have been some fight,” he said. “Well, come on in. You can use the phone in the kitchen, but you’ll have to wait outside for this boyfriend of yours. I don’t want no funny business in my house, you understand.”
He opened the door wide and disappeared inside. I thanked him and followed him into his kitchen. It was immaculate and had been given a woman’s touch. There were old photos on the walls of him and a woman, I assumed to be his wife in various places, smiling and happy. My heart constricted at the sight of all their memories.
He indicated the corded phone attached to the wall and sat down in a chair to watch me. I thanked him again and dialed Dillon’s number. The clock in the wall said it was 5:45 in the morning. I knew Dillon would be asleep, but I hoped he hadn’t silenced his phone and would hear it ring.
“Hello?” his sleepy husky voice answered after the fifth ring. “El? Are you okay?”
I heard rustling, as though he had thrown off his sheets and was sitting up.
“I’m okay,” I said looking over at the old man. “I got lost,” I lied. “After that fight, I ran off to get some space to think, but I forgot my flashlight and couldn’t find my way back.”
“What?” Dillon said, then sighed deeply. “Shit. El.” Now he sounded angry. “Where are you?”
“The Sunset Trailer Park off Wells Road. You know, the frontage road we took to get to our campsite,” I clarified for the old man’s benefit.
“I know the place. I’ll be there in fifteen.”
“Thank you. I’m so sorry. Let’s never fight again.”
“I’m trying, El,” Dillon said and I knew what he meant. He was trying to keep this from happening, but neither of us knew how to do that.
“I know. I’ll meet you at the entrance to the park.”
“Be safe,” he said.
“I’m trying, too,” I told him.
I hung up the phone and thanked the old man one last time before leaving him in peace. Just before I closed his front door behind me, he caught it and handed me a blanket. “You wash this and return it to me, you hear?”
Filled with an enormous amount of gratitude, I hugged him, and he spluttered, “Now, now, none of that. None of that.” But I felt his hands tentatively go around me, patting my back a couple of times before I released him. I wrapped the warm and fuzzy navy-blue blanket around me and made my way to the entrance to the park. I heard his door slam shut long after I had gone down his street and I knew he had watched me leave for a bit. Part of me suspected it was out of protection as well as a bit of affection. The grumpy old man had a soft spot.
I sat on the curb under one of the floodlights that lit the sign, “Welcome to Sunset Park” like it was some tourist destination. It was nicer now than it had been before the original trailers burned down, but it would never be a destination for anyone other than the poor.
A car pulled up, blinding me with its lights. The window to a white Old’s rolled down and a woman in heavily caked-on makeup asked if I was okay. I told her I was waiting for my boyfriend, and she smiled sadly at me but drove off into the park. I suspected she worked Seventh Street and was coming home from a night of God-knows-what with customers that had most likely come from my club looking for that happy ending.
Another car pulled up and I shielded my eyes. It parked right in the entrance, blocking the road. Dillon came running around the other side and gathered me up in his arms. Immediately, I started sobbing into his shirt. I had done so well up until I felt his arms go around me. I was usually so much stronger than this. But Dillon had softened me. I was putty in his hands. He guided me gently into the passenger seat unsure of any new wounds I may have sustained.
I kept the old man’s blanket wrapped firmly around me as Dillon reversed and drove us out of the Sunset Trailer Park.
“Well,” I said absently. “That was a fun one.”
Dillon reached over and held my hand. “Tell me what happened.”
I shook my head. “They took me back to when I was thirteen. Do you remember the big brush fire that came through here? It destroyed part of that charter school and burned that trailer park to the ground?”
Dillon said that he did, then looked over at me in horror. “They took you into the fire? Is that why you’re so filthy?”
I nodded, fresh tears filling my eyes. I told him about Cesar running off and finding him in the place I was dumped by the Shadow Men. I told him that I had taken one of them down and that they had backed off when I refused to fight back.
“So, they don’t disappear if you don’t fight them, they just wait for you to move again,” Dillon said as though taking mental notes.
“I think so,” I agreed. “I think we have no choice. The nightmare doesn’t end until I’m unconscious.”
Dillon nodded. “I suspected as much, but I hoped...” He trailed off, but I knew what he wanted to say. “I hoped they’d leave us alone if we left them alone.” The law of the jungle, but it didn’t seem to apply to the Shadow Men. They played by their own rules. Rules we were not privy to.
“My place or yours?” Dillon asked, stopping at the signal that separated my apartment from his house. Turning left would take him home. Turning right would take me home.
“Mine first, then yours?” I said tentatively.
Dillon smiled reluctantly but turned right. I didn’t want to risk Dillon’s parents being up already and seeing me in this state. I knew I had to be filthy from head to toe.
Dillon held me the whole way into my apartment. I dropped the old man’s blanket on my laundry pile and headed straight for the shower.
Dillon stood in the bathroom’s doorway watching me. With every article of clothing I removed he hissed in anger at the new cuts and bruises that revealed themselves. I looked up at him, the tiny bathroom filling with steam, and watched his expression change from anger to a deep sadness. I walked up to him and slid his shirt off over his head. I kissed his chest and slid my hands over his muscled torso, feeling the ripples of his abs. Never taking my gaze from his, I slid my hands under the waistband of his shorts and slid them to the floor.
Unable to control himself any longer he pulled me into his arms and kissed me fiercely, passionately, teeth and tongues colliding. I wrapped my legs around his waist, and he carried me into the shower.