“This one might need stitches,” Dillon said examining a particularly painful cut on my back. I hadn’t even known it was there at the time, but as he poked and prodded the edges, I was definitely feeling it now.
We were safely hidden in his room, having escaped the notice of his parents when we snuck in. The sun had already risen, and they were both in the kitchen, but the sounds of the espresso machine masked our entrance.
“That must have been from when I was dragged by the hair,” I said nonchalantly.
Dillon’s hands stilled on my back and I peeked over my shoulder at him. His jaw was clenched and he was rigid as stone. I turned and put my hands on either side of his face. “Come back to me Dillon,” I said gently.
He blinked a few times, his eyes finally focusing on me. He kissed me gently. “I never should have left you alone. I will never forgive myself.”
“No, no, Dillon,” I said softly, gently. “They were coming. We knew they were coming. There’s no way either of us could have known they’d pick last night.”
Dillon shook his head. “They waited for us to be apart. They knew. I know they knew.”
“That’s good then,” I tried. “That means they don’t want you. Now you can go live your own life.”
“Eleanor,” Dillon snapped. “Stop trying to get rid of me.”
I laughed darkly. It was the same old argument. I was convinced that Dillon was better off without me, but he was convinced that we were better together. My arguments were getting feebler and feebler, though, as time passed and I got more and more attached to the big doofus.
“I thought for sure you’d be sick of me by now.”
Dillon shook his head. “Not possible. Now lay down on your stomach so that I can get you patched up.”
Sighing, I obeyed. Letting him fix me up was the easy part. Figuring out how to leave him at the end of the summer was feeling more and more impossible.
As though sensing my thoughts, in typical Dillon fashion, he said, “We’ve got time, El.”
“Eleanor!” Dillon shouted from the doorway to my apartment. “If we don’t leave now, we’ll miss the fireworks!”
“Oh, hold your horses,” I shouted back. I had gotten a new bikini on a whim, but it was way out of my comfort zone. I normally stuck with black, but I was feeling optimistic at the time, so I went with a bright teal, but now that it was time to leave, I was not sure that I should wear it. Tim and Kelly had worn us down and convinced us to let them come to the cabin with us, claiming they wanted to escape the insanity that would be Las Vegas this Independence Day weekend. I didn’t blame them, but I was still a little bitter that they were intruding on our alone time. Dillon rationalized that we got alone time every time we were at my apartment, but that wasn’t the same thing. Maybe he was using Tim and Kelly as a buffer to put a little distance between us as our time together quickly ticked away.
It had been a week since the Shadow Men had taken me to the fire, but Dillon and I both knew they made their own schedule. We just had to hope that they left us alone this weekend. We weren’t prepared to try to explain a sudden disappearance in the middle of the night to Tim and Kelly.
We would be watching the fireworks from Dillon’s pontoon out on the lake. This would be the first time I would be watching fireworks set off by someone other than the neighbors in the parking lot. It was even legal up here in the mountains.
“Finally,” Dillon said as I emerged from the bathroom with both my teal bikini and my brave face on.
“You’ll thank me later,” I said cryptically.
He eyed me in my black sundress, but turned and lead the way downstairs to his car. “Tim and Kelly are meeting us at the dock and I’m blaming you for keeping them waiting,” he teased.
I shrugged. “They’re in charge of the alcohol, so they’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, and they’re going to drink it all before we get any,” he whined.
“Then what are you waiting for? Let’s go.”
He laughed and bumped me on the shoulder. I tried to hide the wince, but I failed, and he sobered immediately. “I’m so sorry, El.”
“I’m used to it, let’s just forget about it. The Shadow Men do not exist this weekend. As far as Tim and Kelly are concerned it’s from self-defense classes.
“Is that what we’re telling them?”
“It’s partly true. You are teaching me how to defend myself,” I said.
“Not that it did you any good,” Dillon mumbled as he climbed into the driver’s seat.
“They don’t exist this weekend,” I reminded him.
Dillon sighed and pulled out of the parking space.
“So, what’s the official start date for your residency?” I asked, trying to distract him and pull him out of his funk.
“August 21st,” he said.
“Do you have a place to live all set up for when you get there?”
“Yes,” he said, eyeing me quickly then putting his focus back on the road. “Why are you asking?”
“Just making conversation. Is it close to the hospital?” I prodded.
Will made the turn onto the highway and accelerated, merging into traffic before answering. “Yes, it is close to the hospital. I’m sharing an apartment with two other residents about a mile away from the hospital.”
“Are you bringing your car?”
“Are we playing twenty questions or something?” he asked with an exasperated tone.
“Fine, don’t answer. We’ll just drive all the way to the dock in silence. And you can sleep alone tonight, too.”
Dillon sighed deeply and gripped the steering wheel tightly. “I just hate that you’re talking about all this so nonchalantly; like you don’t even care that we’ll be 2000 miles apart in less than two months.”
“Dillon,” I snapped. “Of course, I care. It’s killing me, but what are we going to do about it? Ruin the last bit of time we have together by moping around being all sad about it or are we going to try to enjoy it and live our lives?”
“You’re right, ugh!” He pounded the steering wheel. “You’re right. When did I become the girl in this relationship?” he teased.
“Say what? Relationship?” I squeaked.
“Well, yea,” he said blandly. “What did you think this was?”
“A summer fling?” I said, trying it on for size, but I hated the words even as they left my lips. It felt cheap and lessened what I knew we shared.
The breaks screeched and Dillon pulled the car over onto the shoulder of the winding mountain road. “I want to look you in the eyes when you tell me that. Try again, Eleanor,” he demanded, removing his seat belt to face me full on.
I shook my head silently. “I can’t.”
“This is not just a fling. You and I both know that.”
Dillon put both hands on either side of my face. “I fell for you the moment you stumbled onto my driveway. I’m in this, whether you like it or not.”
“I don’t know how to do this,” I admitted. “I don’t know how to be a good girlfriend. I just keep waiting for you to realize that I’m no good for you.”
“I told you. I choose who I want to be with. And I choose you. Every crazy, sarcastic, beautiful bit of you.”
I smiled despite myself and kissed him deeply because sometimes words just weren’t enough.
Dillon pulled away just enough to whisper, “Now we’re really going to miss the fireworks.”
I sat back in my seat. “Drive! I’ve never seen professional fireworks before. I’m not missing this.”
His eyes went wide in surprise. “Never? Damn, woman. How many firsts does this make? One hundred?”
“Drive!” I ordered.
Dillon was opening up a whole new world to me. Introducing me to things I never knew I was missing until he showed me. The fireworks were everything I dreamed they would be. Dillon, Kelly, and Tim all said they weren’t as amazing as the fireworks display after the Disneyland parade, but since I’d never seen anything cooler than a sparkler before tonight, we would just have to agree to disagree. It was magical and the fact that Dillon was the one to share it with me permitted me to be as cheesy as I wanted to be.
We spent the whole next day out at the lake. There seemed to be a never-ending list of things to do up here in the mountains that I had never experienced and Dillon was determined to show me everything. Tim and Kelly got caught up in the excitement too. I was starting to feel like their little pet project. How many new things can we get El to experience in one day? So far, we had been boating, jet skiing, wakeboarding, tubing, fishing, swimming, but my favorite was the sunbathing. Experiencing new things was exhausting.
That night, Tim and Kelly were snuggled together on the couch watching a movie, while Dillon and I had quietly crept away to be alone. He led me toward the fire pit and lit the logs; the warmth instantly inviting. Dillon wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and sat down next to me. He fidgeted a bit and sighed, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I looked over at him with a frown.
“What’s going on in that head of yours?” I asked.
He didn’t answer right away. Instead, he put his arm around me and kissed the top of my head, then rested his cheek on my head and let his breath out slowly.
“I want to ask you something, but I don’t want to freak you out. We haven’t really known each other for very long.”
“Yeah, but it sure does feel like longer than a month, that’s for sure,” I said.
He nodded. “We’ve been through some things,” he agreed. Understatement of the century. I felt his breath stir my hair as he exhaled. “What if you came with me?”
I sat up straight. “Came with you where? Back to your parent’s house?” I asked, but I had a feeling he didn’t mean tomorrow.
He shook his head slowly. “To Michigan,” he said hesitantly.
I frowned at him. “I’ve never lived outside of a ten-mile radius, Dill. Never.”
He nodded. “I know.”
“The only time I’d ever even been out of the state of California was when they took us.”
“I know,” he said again.
I looked in his eyes, at the hopeful expression in their depths. “Why, Dill?”
“I think I’m falling in love with you, El.”
“What?” I barely managed to squeak out.
“I keep trying to picture myself leaving you at the end of the summer and I just can’t do it. It hurts. Here,” he patted his chest, where his heart beat strongly. “Then the images change to you there with me and I’m happy again.”
“You can’t possibly want that, Dillon. You don’t need me tagging along on your next great adventure.”
“Eleanor. You wouldn’t be tagging along. You’d be on the adventure with me. Together.”
I could see the hope leaving his eyes and my heart broke for him. I’d be dead weight. He’d resent me eventually, and probably sooner than later. We had a connection, that much was obvious. We had been spending almost every minute of every day together, and we still weren’t sick of each other, but I knew that he would get tired of me holding him back.
“Let’s just say for funsies that I said yes,” I blew out a breath. “How would I contribute to this relationship? I have no education, no real skills. I’m a damn good stripper, but how would that look to your med school buddies? I’d be an embarrassment to you.”
“Stop this,” he said putting his hands on either side of my face, forcing me to look him in the eyes. “I just told you I love you and you jump on the pity party express.” He let his hands drop. “I guess I got my answer.” He stood up and walked into the cabin, leaving me alone in front of the dying fire.
I sat there for a long time, replaying the conversation in my head over and over. It had only been a month. That can’t possibly be enough time to fall in love with someone; especially not someone like me. He should be running in the opposite direction, but he never has. Hell, the Shadow Men even took a stab at trying to get him to run from me and still he refused. If anything, that experience only brought us closer together.
I knew how I felt. I’d known it since he patched me up that first night. He had really listened to me, even tried to believe the insane story I was telling him. I had never been given the benefit of the doubt. Ever. People don’t tend to believe that a stripper could be attacked. Everyone always assumed I deserved what I got because of my lifestyle. Like I had asked for the Shadow Men to come terrorize me at night.
“I love you, too,” I whispered into the night. I got up slowly, threw sand over the fire, then made my way inside. I wanted to say it to him, desperately, but I held myself back.
We had just taken the first steps toward saying goodbye.
Dillon was already snoring softly when I crept into our room. I sat down on the bed next to him, trying to memorize every detail of his face. Ever so softly, I traced around his eyes, down his cheek to his lips, and down to his jaw, ending at his chin. I smiled sadly at him and stood gingerly, trying not to disturb the bed too much. I tiptoed around the room gathering up my things. Unable to see through the tears that were gathering in my eyes, I accidentally bumped the door on my way out. I heard Dillon stir before I tore out of there. I ran out of the house and straight to the waiting cab. As the driver started to pull onto the road, I saw the front door burst open and Dillon’s face appear in the doorway. He ran after the cab and I put my hand on the window, watching him struggle to catch up, but it was no use; he was fading into the night and I let out a sob of despair.
The cab driver dropped me off at my apartment, but I went straight to my car. It was still early enough to catch a couple hours of work, but Ya-ya wouldn’t let me on the floor with my puffy eyes and messed up hair. I drove back home, frustrated that my attempt at a distraction was taken away from me.
I sighed and dropped my head into my hand before pulling my apartment key out of my purse. I don’t know why, but I had foolishly hoped that he would be there waiting for me. I deserved to be alone. This was my curse to bear, and I was prepared to bear it alone.
I lay down in my bed fully clothed. I kept my shoes on and my phone in my pocket. I wouldn’t be caught unprepared again. I stared at the ceiling, counting my heartbeats until my eyelids began to droop, then welcomed the blackness.
The crash that came from my kitchen was deafening. It sounded as though everything I owned had been picked up and dropped at once. Resigned, but no longer afraid, I got up and touched my hand to the doorknob. When I opened it, I was no longer in my apartment. I was back in front of the fire pit at the cabin, dark and cold as if we had never been there. As if I hadn’t ripped Dillon’s heart out of his chest and left it in the dying fire along with my own.
I froze. “What is this?!” I screamed into the night.
The Shadow Men advanced on me slowly, forming a circle of blackness that cut off any escape.
I held open my arms defiantly. “Bring it on!”
They stopped about six feet from me, silently, boldly. I stared down the one standing directly in front of me and watched as he walked toward me. He was dressed all in black as usual, with a black hooded sweatshirt, the hood pulled up, casting his faceless features in shadow.
“What do you want from me?” I asked him, but received no reply. I didn’t expect one. “What are you waiting for? I’m not afraid of you anymore.”
He slapped me hard across the face. I grunted, but held back my cry of pain. I stood tall, letting the blood drip from my lip. He backed away, rejoining the circle. I spun around as another of the Shadow Men approached me. “Your turn.” I spat blood onto his boots.
He stood before me, for a long moment, then pushed me hard. I landed in the grass with a muted thud. I got back to my feet quickly and turned as another, then another, then another approached me; hitting, kicking, and punching me. Each time I stood tall, refusing to let them see my pain or feel my fear. I had none. Nothing could hurt me worse than what I had done to Dillon. Nothing scared me more than the thought of never seeing him again.
My eye was swollen shut, my shoulder and hip throbbed, and my nose was bleeding profusely, but still, I stood tall. The final blow that sent me into the black blissful oblivion came from the first Shadow Man; the one that had slapped me. Apparently, he had finally had enough of my defiance and chose to put an end to it with a well-placed blow to my left temple.