His Pain Chapters (Prologue - Beginning of Chapter 1)
a few months earlier
The asshole grinned down at me, satisfied with my defeat. My eye still hurt. I was almost positive that he had left a bruise. Broken my one damn rule; do not mess with my face. It was easy to hide bruises on your back, on your legs—hell, even your arms—but the face? The best makeup couldn’t completely hide a black eye, but it was the price I paid to get what I wanted.
I was used to it.
Not all men were willing to go there. They thought I was crazy, and I was tired of explaining. So I sought out men like the asshole looking down at me. Whatever the hell his name was. His gray eyes practically glowed in the dark, almost white. I rubbed my eye.
“What did you say your name was?” I asked.
“Are you serious?” he asked. He buckled up his belt.
Right. He had made me say his name as the safeword to stop the beatings. I didn’t give him the satisfaction of remembering it. I played dumb. He wasn’t that impressive.
“Dean. Dean Harris.”
“I didn’t need the last name, sugar,” I said, rolling my eyes.
I got up from the bed, wondering how long I could stay at the party until Eric wanted me back at the penthouse.
I had met Eric at the Great Pleasures Palace Casino. I was drawn to him; he was exactly the kind of sadist that didn’t have problems going there. And what I thought was a friendly, flirtatious bet had turned into an actual debt. Working off my time by being one of his many house slaves, wasn’t so bad. Better than being in jail, like Eric had said, as long as you did exactly as you were told. But I would never gamble again. I liked pain, but the consequences for disobeying Eric were rumored to be deadly. I never wanted to be in this situation again.
I wandered towards the master bathroom. It was weird that the Afterglow, a BDSM members-only club in Las Vegas, was holding an event at a house instead of the usual club, but I didn’t mind. It gave us easier access to bathrooms. I needed to check my eye. Maybe I could shower before I tried to mingle, or tried the stuff in the baggy. Eric had said it was mine; I was supposed to use it at the party. He insisted that it was a gift, and that it was mine for being so good. It was hard to tell him no, and even harder to disobey, even if I didn’t want to do anything illicit.
Eric wouldn’t know if I flushed it, right? Would he test me? Make sure I had it in my system? Maybe if I ate a pinch of it, that would be enough to convince him.
At the doorframe, I glanced back at Asshole Dean. He was leafing through my purse.
“That’s mine,” I said. “Don’t touch it.”
“What are you going to do?” he asked, grinning, “Whip me?”
It was a challenge. As if I wanted to fight him again. I had learned my lesson.
“The coke is mine,” I said. “He said I’m supposed to do it by myself. All of it.”
“Who said?” he asked. “Your boyfriend?”
“Fuck off.” I slammed the bathroom door shut. Men like Dean were tolerable only while they were drenched in adrenaline with a nightstick in hand. Any other time? It was best to ignore them. I locked the handle then leaned on the door. The music downstairs was thumping in the walls, and the bass was somehow louder in the bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror, cringing as I faced the faint red mark on my cheek. Was this the type of thing Eric would get mad at? It was one thing for Eric to leave a black eye, but another thing for someone else to tarnish one of his goods.
I didn’t want to think of the consequences. I had watched one of his punishments before, and that woman hadn’t been back since.
I splashed water on my face, using the hand towel to dry it. Mascara stained the towel, and I muttered to myself. I ran the cloth under running water, trying to wash off the makeup, pleading silently, Don’t stain, don’t stain.
Knock! Knock! Knock! Someone banged on the door. Probably Dean. I rolled my eyes.
“I’m taking a shit,” I yelled. “Leave me alone.”
“What?!” I hissed. But it was silent. I shrugged.
I worked with the makeup, rubbing the cloth against itself, but the stain spread, and I knew no matter what I did, it was only going to get worse. I sighed, ringing out the excess water, then let it hang from the curtain rod in the shower. A few dildos were in the tub, apparently hosed off. I snickered.
I opened the door. Dean was lying on the floor of the bedroom with his eyes wide and blank. It was almost like there were no irises, only huge black pupils, his eye color so light gray that it blended in with the whites of his eyes.
I kicked his shoe. “Come on, Donny,” I said, purposely messing up his name. It was the least I could do for the black eye. “The party is waiting for us.” What I meant was that someone had to be waiting to use this room. Hell, his friend in the top hat had been pretty eager about wanting us to finish up as quickly as we could, so that he could bang in the same place his friend had. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Dean didn’t move.
“Taking a power nap?” I asked. I leaned over, trying to figure out if he was asleep. Maybe he slept with his eyes open. But he was eerily still. Out of the corner of my eye, the bag full of powder was open. Shit.
I slapped his face. “Wake up,” I yelled. “This isn’t funny.”
But there was no movement. I checked his pulse, but my own heart rate was racing so fast that I couldn’t hold still long enough to feel a heartbeat. It raced through my fingertips.
“Help!” I screamed. “Someone help! He’s hurt!”
I kept screaming until someone finally came. A group of people surrounded us. Their kind eyes kept me still.
“Did he OD?”
“What did he take?” The person lifted the bag full of white powder. “Is this yours?”
“Yes,” I cried. “It was a gift. I didn’t buy it. I thought it was—”
“Do you know what’s in it?”
“Coke?” I said. I wasn’t sure though.
“Coke isn’t this deadly.”
“Who gave this to you?”
“Eric,” I said. “He’s my—” I looked around frantically, but their expressions had changed. There was no warmth in their faces anymore. A harsh breath whistled out of one of their mouths, and their eyes stared coldly at me. What had I mentioned that changed everything? The coke? Eric? “He’s my boss.”
“Someone call Zaid!” a person shouted. Who the hell was Zaid? But by the time I could even think of that question, a man with a scar running down the side of his face came forward, the crowd parting for him.
“Give me your wrists,” he said, holding handcuffs. What the fuck? He wasn’t the damn police.
“I’m not giving you anything, asshole,” I said, ripping away from him. “A man is dead. Focus on him!”
“We can do this the easy way,” the scar-faced man said in a low voice, “or the hard way.” He nodded behind him, to a barrel of a man, solid muscle thick as a tree trunk, waiting there, staring at me. “Grant,” he said, and the man straightened, ready to come forward. There was a kindness to the man’s brown eyes that made me feel hopeful. I forgot that he was supposed to be the threat, that that man was the hard way.
“Please,” I yelled to the man, wrenching myself away from the handcuffs. Begging the muscular man. “Please! You’ve got to help me!”
But the brown-eyed man rushed towards me and threw a hood over my head, gripping my hands in a death grip. The metal cuffs clanked over my wrists, cinching me tight.
a few weeks later
I leaned against the walls of the building. No new guests or members had ventured inside of Club Hades in over an hour. As the lead security adviser, it was my duty to guard the exterior of the building and wait for further instructions from my boss. Across the road, two women huddled outside of a bar, smoking cigarettes, the embers glowing in the night. They locked eyes with me and cowered, shuffling back inside. At six foot, six inches tall, and over two-hundred pounds of pure muscle, my presence did that sometimes.
My phone buzzed in my pocket.
“Get Hazel Maben from the cells,” Zaid said. “Put her in the cage. Return immediately.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
I raced through traffic to Mount Charleston. Most of the time, Zaid dealt with the prisoners himself. But he had taken an interest in the new woman who had come to Club Hades that night. The new woman and the prisoner shared the same last name, which meant that they were likely related. Sisters, perhaps.
I parked in the long driveway and grabbed the key from the surveillance room. The hike to the cells was dark. Insects chirped, and a blue-lit moon guided my steps. What had this woman, Hazel Maben, done to deserve the cage? Why not shove the sister in the cells with her? The cells and the cage were identical in some ways; both were in complete darkness, and prisoners were always provided food and medical attention. In the cells, prisoners were bound by their limbs and neck to the wall. But in the cage, the prisoner would not be bound, but would instead be subjected to slippery surfaces, dripping pipes, and cold temperatures.
Whatever it was, I trusted Zaid. He was more like a father than a boss, and he never once took the prisoners lightly. Each of these people had killed someone, murdered innocent victims in the name of Eric, a diabolical crime lord. They had murdered people with families.
The trees opened to an open patch of flat grass. The moon illuminated the hatch in a dim light. I unlocked it.
The screams started, the moans settling in, the deafening sobs. I flipped the light switch. I had helped obtain many of them, bringing some of them down here myself. I glanced at the cells.
“Hazel Maben,” I said, my voice deep and reverberating, calling the room to silence.
A woman with shoulder-length bleach-blond hair looked up. I recognized her. She was leaning against the bars, the chains around her neck and limbs draped around her body. Her once sun-kissed skin was now clammy and pale. Her blue-green eyes were red-rimmed and piercing, blinking rapidly.
Her eyes said it. She didn’t need to confirm that she was the one I was looking for.
After pressing a few buttons on the panel, her cell doors and chains unlocked. I marched towards her, hunching my shoulders to show her that by size alone, fighting me would be futile. The restraints around her fell to the ground. She stood quickly, raising her hands to stop me from coming closer.
“Don’t come near me, you sick fuck!” She swung a fist and missed, and I grabbed her wrists in one hand and locked them behind her back. Bear-hugging her with the other arm, I hoisted her over my shoulder, taking her to the ladder. Before she could move, I grabbed a zip tie from my pocket and bound her hands together, wrestling her to comply the entire way. She hissed at me.
Setting her on the floor, I made her lock eyes with me. “There is only one way out,” I warned. “If you try anything, I will hunt you.”
She sneered, but the flash in her eyes, her pupils dilating for the briefest moment, told me that she was scared. But she was still willing to do whatever it took to obtain her freedom.
“Try me, asshole,” she said.
I climbed up the ladder, then waited. She hobbled up the steps, trying to climb with her wrists still bound, and almost lost her balance in the middle of the rungs. Once her shoulders were visible from the ground, I grabbed her arms and pulled her up the rest of the way. Steadied her on the ground. I pointed in the direction of the house.
“Walk,” I said.
“Or you’re going to kill me?” she asked. When I didn’t move, she ran to the side, not seeing the tree stump, and fell, her knee cracking against the wood hard. That would bruise.
I went to pull her up by the hair, but stopped. Why? She was a prisoner, not a person, I reminded myself. She had murdered a member of the Afterglow. I grabbed her arm and held her up.
“There’s nowhere to run,” I said. I pointed again, this time clutching her shoulder. We walked in silence at first; the soft thuds of our steps mingled with the crunch of grass and the flutter of insects.
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked. She trudged forward, not making eye contact, as if afraid of facing the answer.
Killing her was not my order. When the house was in our vision, gleaming in the darkness, she turned to me.
“I didn’t kill Dean,” she said. “That was his name, right? Dean? He stole the cocaine out of my purse.”
“Walk,” I said. But she was frozen in place, waiting for me to acknowledge what she was saying. But she was a prisoner. She had killed someone, one of our members. She was lying. Like all of Eric’s followers.
“Eric kept saying that it was mine, you know? A gift. That I was supposed to go to that party and enjoy it by myself. Eric wanted me to die from it. It was a mistake. But I didn’t know. I thought it was just coke, or I would have stopped Dean sooner.”
Her eyes shined bright, a sincerity to their turquoise color. She was pleading, begging for me to help her. To believe in her. But I couldn’t trust her. I had known Dean. While he wasn’t my favorite member of the Afterglow, dying in his early twenties shouldn’t have been his fate. There were members who had been devastated without Dean. Rumors about a sister who hadn’t slept since he passed.
I trusted Zaid. He had saved my mother, and I owed him my life. An order was an order.
“If you do not walk,” I said, “I will make you walk.”
I bared my teeth at her, and her shoulders drooped. She walked forward.
“The one time I’m telling the truth and no one will believe me,” she muttered. “Go fucking figure.”
At the sliding glass door, she grabbed the side of the house, as if she could prevent being dragged in, but with her hands bound together, the gesture was weak. I picked her up, and she kicked and thrashed wildly, trying to worm herself out of my hold. I squeezed tighter, and she struggled still, though her yells were quieter now. I carried her into the basement from the main entry, unlocking the cage and shoving her inside. I cut her zip tie with my pocket knife.
“Please,” she said. “Don’t leave me here.”
I didn’t like leaving people down here, especially vulnerable women. But the world was safer when Eric’s followers were behind bars. Until he was dead, this woman, Hazel, was safer down here too. If Eric found out that she was still alive, he would send someone to finish the job. I slammed the cage shut, locking it, and left her in the darkness.
A couple of hours later, after returning to my post at Club Hades and escorting Zaid and the prisoner’s sister back to the house, I waited inside of a hidden staircase leading to an undetectable entry point in the cage. My phone buzzed.
“Listen for me,” Zaid said.
The gasping and screams of the two women, Hazel and her sister, were audible through the wall: Zaid’s signal. As Zaid took care of the other sister, I opened the passageway and grabbed Hazel from behind. She struggled, ripping her arms back and forth, trying to break free, and she screamed.
“You fucking monster!”
I shoved her into a headlock, and she pushed at my arms, desperate, clawing her way out. But I held her tighter. Squeezed her. No doubt making her vision darken.
“Mother-fucker,” she said in a raspy voice, “Don’t you—”
Then she went limp in my arms. I restrained her arms behind her back and her ankles together, pulling the zip ties tight.
“I have to pee,” Hazel said. “Do you want me to piss all over your backseat?”
There was another hour of driving before we would arrive at the clinic, where Hazel would be kept safe until Eric was dead. It was part of Zaid’s agreement with her sister; keep Hazel safe, and the sister would comply with Zaid’s demands. But my only part of the agreement was to transfer Hazel to the clinic. It was comforting to know that she’d be protected, and in a situation that was far better than the cells or the cage.
Why I cared then, I didn’t know. Perhaps it was my inclination to see people, especially the vulnerable, safeguarded.
“Excuse me?” she said, breathing through her nose. “Can I get a bathroom break?”
We always gave the prisoners the dignity of proper sanitation. But that meant breaking the zip ties.
But she could use the break. I knew I could too.
At the next rest stop, I parked, then went to the backseat and sat next to her. I closed the door. In the backseat, the scent of her sweat laced with the subtle hint of coconut filled my nostrils. I locked eyes with her.
Messy whitish hair, her turquoise eyes deep and eager. Her tank top exposing her slender shoulders.
Prisoner. She was a prisoner. Nothing more.
“I will not hesitate,” I said, putting a hand on my concealed weapon, showing her where it was. She blinked.
“I didn’t piss in the backseat yet, for fuck’s sake,” she said, rolling her eyes.
But this wasn’t a joke. “I will do whatever it takes.” Whether that meant grazing her with a bullet to stun her, or taking her life, she didn’t know. But I hoped that she understood that her life was at stake until she was in the clinic.
“Fine,” she said. She lifted her wrists, showing me the zip tie. “Follow me into the bathroom if you want. I won’t do anything.”
I cut the ties on her wrists and ankles. In the gas station, there was one unisex restroom. After checking it to make sure there were no other exits, I waited outside of the door for her to finish, and once she exited, I held her shoulder firmly, escorting her back to the car. The cashier watched us, but went back to his inventory paperwork. I was an overprotective boyfriend to any wandering eye.
I opened the car door, letting her into the backseat. With the childproof locks in place, knowing that she hadn’t once tried to escape while free at the gas station, I relaxed. That was my first mistake. But I wanted to believe that we could be civilized. Her life was being spared. Not only that, but she was under my protection. Eric, her crime lord master, would have killed her once he caught word of her escape, but inside of the clinic, she would be safe.
And once this was over, she would be free.
In the rearview mirror, I watched her slide across the seat and strap herself into the seatbelt. She leaned on the door, gazing out the window, her blue-green eyes shimmering in the sunlight. It was hard to remember that we had only left Mount Charleston before sunrise.
It had been a long night.
“Where the hell are we going anyway?” she asked.
I kept my eyes fixed on the road. The less she knew, the better off everyone was.
“Do you like road trip games?” she asked. After bitching and threatening me for hours, she wanted to play a game? I didn’t say anything. “You know I’m an addict, right?” She glared at me in the mirror. “Trust me; you don’t want me to have withdrawals back here.”
She had been in the cells for several weeks. If she was going to have withdrawals, they would have happened by now.
I glanced at her in the rearview mirror again. She was closing her eyes.
“Does this place have a bed?” she asked. “A real bed?”
It reminded me of my childhood, sometimes homeless, where all I wanted was a bed. Not a couch. Not the backseat of Mom’s car. A real bed. But I couldn’t let my memories dampen my orders. Hazel would be protected. I needed to get her to the clinic.
Ten minutes passed. Hazel snored in the backseat. Despite the circumstances, she seemed peaceful. I kept my eyes on the road, feeling more placid myself. At least she was willing to sleep now. Once I dropped her off, I wouldn’t see Hazel again, unless it was my duty. And that was comforting.
Hazel. Why couldn’t I stop calling her by her name? She was supposed to be a prisoner. Nameless. Faceless. Someone easily forgotten.
The backseat creaked from shifting weight. Right as I glanced in the rearview mirror, a fist swung towards my face, knocking me in the eyebrow. The blow pulsed in my head. I swerved off of the road, the wheels vibrating over the gravel to dirt and back again. Steering the car back to the lane, I glanced at her, and she swung again, aiming for my nose. I grabbed her wrist and held it, squeezing it tight, my other hand steering the wheel. She screamed, and a car blared its horn at us, and I swerved again, missing oncoming traffic by a few mere inches. I pulled over into the dirt. I grabbed the chloroform-soaked rag from the side compartment and shoved it over her nose and mouth, holding the back of her head in my grip. Her eyes widened, her pupils dilating, and the chaos to fight back took hold of her, struggling for control, then her eyes rolled back, and she was loose in my arms. I sighed.
a few months later
Coming to the clinic and seeing Hazel, offering her and her sister, Heather, new lives—I should have expected this to happen. Heather, the sister, was reasonable. But Hazel fought at every chance.
I held gauze up to my eyebrow, which was trickling with blood. Hazel smirked from the other side of the room. In her mind, she had won. Though her hospital gown had been ripped in the confusion, exposing her to the staff and me, not a scratch was left on her.
As soon as I had mentioned not wanting to create a spectacle in the middle of the clinic, she had made it her mission to create a show. But it was over now. We had been given a large private room with two twin beds on opposite sides. Zaid had prepared me for a situation like this. Until we heard back from Zaid and Heather and received confirmation that Eric was dead, we were to stay at the clinic. Together. Hazel and me.
A pain in my ass doesn’t begin to describe Hazel Maben.
“Listen,” I said, trying to find any ounce of reasonable thought left in her. “I’m here to help you.” I folded the gauze and wiped my brow again, then shoved the soiled remnants into the wastebasket next to me. “You and your sister can start new lives, with new identities—”
“Fuck off with your savior crap,” Hazel said. “I don’t want a new life. I don’t want a new identity. I don’t want your help. If you think doing those things will fix this mess you’ve created, then you are a truly stupid sack of shit.”
It took everything I had not to let my frustration explode in a roar. Eric would be gone soon, and then, this would be over. Take the identities or discard them, Hazel would not be my responsibility anymore. She’d be on her own.
But a thought irked me, reminding me of my mother. How could I let someone like Hazel go without first making sure that she was living a steady life?
But I knew how. Because Hazel Maben would never live a ‘steady’ life. She made that abundantly clear.
“You’re not going to say anything?” she asked. I stared at her, knowing the silence made her more irritated by the second. Her limbs tightened and she leaned forward. “Did you forget how to talk? Too busy abducting innocents and lifting weights?” I crossed my arms, and her eyes flicked down, taking in my bulky forearms. She sighed, shaking her head, and turned away. “You’re the worst.”
As are you, Hazel Maben.
And for now, I count the days until we part.
The desert landscape was monotonous. I counted hundreds of cacti before I finally gave up. I should have been grateful that Eric was dead, and I was still here, driving to start my new life with Muscle Boy. All things considered, I was alive, and technically free. I wanted Muscle Boy to talk. It’s not that I wanted to make conversation with him, but I needed to do something. After being in isolation at the clinic for weeks, I was tired of silence. Silence led to thoughts about those gray-white eyes staring into space, seeing nothing. Reminded me of why I was here in the first place.
And the radio was off. What kind of person goes on a road trip and doesn’t listen to music?
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Home,” Muscle Boy said.
“Your home, or my home?” I scoffed. “Because my home doesn’t exist, and if I remember correctly, you live with that scar-faced freak, and I refuse to go near him again.”
Muscle Boy kept his eyes on the road, steadfast on giving me the silent treatment. The scab I had given him a week ago had finally flaked off, leaving a faint pink scar, but the sunglasses covered it anyway. He leaned on the window, one hand on the steering wheel. Driving as if I wasn’t in the passenger seat. Apparently he was relaxed enough that he didn’t think I would deck him again. I felt like a prisoner again.
My sister, Heather, and her new boyfriend, the scar-faced Zaid, had worked out some sort of agreement with Muscle Boy, also known as Grant. He would help me ‘reintegrate’ into society, and afterward, we would part ways. He must’ve been getting paid a hefty sum.
“What do you get out of this?” I asked. “Gratitude from your master? A bonus? A piece of ass? Because I’m not interested, buddy. Not a chance in hell.”
Which was only partly true. Under different circumstances, I would have tried to butter Muscle Boy up. A man with thighs stronger than steel, and whiskey-brown gaze meant to destroy prey, was hard to resist. And I hated to admit that. But that didn’t mean that I would do anything with him now. Not when he had helped abduct me. Thrown me in a hospital. Agreed to make me his little normal puppet.
This time, he didn’t even acknowledge that I had said anything. I groaned and pulled at my hair. I soothed myself by thinking of buying actual shampoo and conditioner, and fixing my roots, simple things that had seemed mundane, even bothersome, before I was abducted and put in isolation for months. I needed to fix my roots; that was first on my list after a decent shower.
But my mind kept wandering back to the car, to the driver, to him. It was better than the alternative. Thinking of Dean. I tried to think of a reason, any good, solid reason, why I had agreed to this situation of letting Muscle Boy guide me through life. At the time, being close to Heather seemed like a logical step to finding a normal existence again. But when I thought about it, she had fallen in love with my abductor and was living with him in the mountains. And now, I was with my abductor’s number one crony, going to live with him in the city, for the foreseeable future. Fuck. My. Life.
Silent hitman. Number one crony of an abductor. Muscle boy. Asshole. Grant.
That was his name.
Grant is going to help you get reintegrated with society, Heather had said. I was doing this for my sister, because my threats were fucking real. That was my good reason. If her new boyfriend, my abductor, made her shed a single tear, I would make sure that he paid. Because Heather had been there for me when each ex broke my heart, and I would do the same for her.
And yet she was the same woman who had shoved me into a forced roommates situation with a silent crony. Thanks, sis.
“What was Zaid’s deal with Eric anyway?” I asked. “Did Eric screw his ex-girlfriend or something?” As if jealousy was a good enough reason to imprison people underground. I was being callous on purpose.
“Eric killed Zaid’s mother,” Muscle Boy said.
I rolled my eyes. Of course Eric had killed his mother. What a justifiable reason. It made me sick to think that scar-face had these perfect lies, and people like my sister and Muscle Boy believed him. Maybe Muscle Boy’s brain muscle wasn’t that big, you know. Like he made up for it elsewhere. Hence the ridiculous bodybuilder physique.
Grant was huge. I had dated this firefighter once who was six feet tall, and built like a model. (How did I screw that one up? Don’t ask.) But Grant could have easily taken my ex out. But I wasn’t afraid. If he wanted to kill me, he would have done it hours ago.
But he couldn’t anticipate my actions. He didn’t know me like that.
“I could kill you too, you know,” I said. Grant glanced at me, then focused back on the road. His damn sunglasses were chromatic, making it impossible to read him. I stayed strong. “Don’t ever doubt what I’m capable of.” A small hint of a smirk crossed his lips, like he was laughing at me.
“Would you feel better if I restrained you?” he asked.
Asking me. Because I was a joke to him. He didn’t need to tie me up. The asshole was making fun of me.
“Don’t forget what happened on our way to the clinic,” I warned.
He chuckled then, and I knew what that meant. He knew exactly what to do if I did attack. Any threats I gave didn’t matter.
He took the next exit. A large casino and hotel stretched across one side of the road, with a strip mall to the other. A truck stop was next to the mall, with a burger joint, gas station, and ample truck parking. It didn’t look like Vegas, but we were in Nevada; the casinos were a clue. But it was a small town, the kind where it seemed like it only had one casino to its name.
He took the car to the far side of the parking area, away from the semi-trucks and fast food restaurant, near the dumpster. The view of the car was blocked by the trucks, giving us privacy. This was fishy. My heart raced. He turned off the car and leaned over me, opening the glove compartment. Getting a gun.
A fucking gun.
He removed the safety. “Do it,” he said. He held the gun, offering it. “Go on. Kill me.”
The metal was dull against his palm, drawing me in like bullseye. I couldn’t make myself move; I was glued to it, as if it would harm me if I dared to look away. Taking his life wasn’t something I actually wanted to do. Make his life miserable for a short amount of time, yes, I would love to, but I couldn’t kill him. Not when he had apparently helped keep my sister safe. Not when he could have hurt me all of this time, but hadn’t. Not when I could barely function with an accidental death on my conscience. Dean was enough. I didn’t need an actual murder to screw with my psyche too.
I was shaking my head without realizing it.
Grant armed the safety and put it back in the glove compartment. I glared at him, watching for a smug look, a daring grin, anything to give me the actual nerve to take his life, but he stared blankly ahead. He started the engine and drove. Past the trucks tall enough to block the view of a murder. Past the empty gas station. Past the burger joint.
A girl, maybe mid-teens, sat on the curb in front of the fast food restaurant, faded makeup caked around her eyes. Grant kept driving, taking us over to the strip mall, filled with other food options and clothing boutiques, but I kept looking back at that girl. She looked up, locking eyes with me, bloodshot and weak, still looking at me no matter how far we drove. She was familiar. Lost. Uncertain. Trying to hold onto anything that would give her hope that she could belong somewhere. The kind of girl I had known growing up.
Because every time I looked in the mirror, I saw traces of that girl. She was just like me.
Grant turned around the curve of the parking lot and I lost sight of her. He motioned at the restaurants.
“Burgers?” I asked. He turned the car around, taking us back. But by the time the corner of the restaurant came back into view, the girl was gone.
The place was empty inside. We stood in front of the menu board for a solid three minutes before anyone came to take our order. My stomach growled at the smell of fried food, reminding me of how long it had been since I had had a fresh meal. Food that was warm, right out of the kitchen. Not dragged through the woods or different endless corridors of a clinic. Anything straight from the source sounded amazing. Fries. A cheeseburger. A damn brownie. A milkshake.
We waited in a plastic booth, neither of us wanting to make eye contact and acknowledge that we came there together. Ugh… The thought alone made me cringe.
The door to the bathroom swung open. Out came the girl. Dark hair. Skinny like she needed to eat. She went out the front door to resume her position on the curb. Waiting for someone. Anyone who would help.
Our number was called, and I stood quickly. I left Grant’s tray on the counter and took mine out of the restaurant, using my shoulder to open the door. The girl stared forward, gritting her teeth, her jaw tight. Trying to seem stronger than she felt.
I sat down next to her, setting the tray beside me. I held the carton of fries, and sipped the strawberry milkshake. She sniffled, then looked down at her phone’s cracked screen. I took a fry, then handed her the box.
“I’m full,” I said. She glanced over at the box, eyes greedy at the sight of the food.
“You didn’t touch it,” she said.
“I had a large one inside,” I lied. “Take it or it’ll go to waste.”
With slow movements, she took it from my palm and ate one fry, chewing it with care. Then there was a clear shift in her face, like she thought to herself, Fuck it, and gave in. She shoved a handful of fries into her mouth, and I sucked down one full straw of the strawberry milkshake, then handed that to her too.
“I’m Hazel,” I said.
She took the milkshake. “Micki,” she said.
“Do you live around here?”
The door to the restaurant opened with a creak. She flinched, but kept eating the fries like they would vanish. I unwrapped the burger and set it on her lap. She scarfed it down in a few bites.
Grant stood behind us. I pretended like he wasn’t there. “What happened?” I asked. “You seem upset.”
“I got kicked out,” she said, then went back to stuffing her face. She said it so matter of factly that I knew what she meant. That she ran away from home. The sweatshirt covering her arms might have been hiding bruises. Things we couldn’t see.
“I’m fine, really,” she said, gaining confidence. She wiped her mouth on the sleeve. “Thanks for the food though. I forgot my wallet.”
“Hazel,” Grant said, his voice alarmingly deep. Clearly, Muscle Boy didn’t know how to tone it down. I tried to plead with my eyes, begging him to give Micki and me a minute alone. I could help her. But he waited for me.
“Hold on,” I said to Micki. I walked over to Grant and waved him to the side. “We have to help her,” I whispered.
“She’s fine,” he said. I shook my head. “She said it herself.”
“Any girl in her position is going to say that. I’m not leaving until we do something.”
Grant studied me for a moment, our eyes locking. He analyzed me, stripped me down, made sure that I was telling the truth. And for once, I was. I lied constantly, but this wasn’t something I was willing to let go. We needed to help her. And I was going to do it with or without him.
He shrugged. “Meet me in the car,” he said. He walked back inside. Through the windows, I watched him order more food at the counter. I sat down next to Micki again.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Husband?” she asked. “Boyfriend? Crush?”
“Ew, no,” I said. “But we’ll help you. Somehow.” I smiled, and for the first time, she smiled back.
Micki sat in the backseat, and Grant drove through the small town with a clear destination in mind. Past a small park. Past a cemetery. Over to a small building, labeled, Riverside Family Shelter.
A shelter? They could only help so much. My stomach hurt thinking about it.
“How do you know they’ll help her?” I asked.
Grant blinked at me, then got out of the car and helped Micki out. I followed the two of them, walking up the path to the main reception area. These places always smelled stale, like a humid garage after a rainstorm. The receptionist smiled at Micki, but her eyes widened when she saw the muscular man coming towards her. It wasn’t fear; it was delight.
“Grant!” she said. She rushed around the side of the counter. “Grant Tremmel! He’s back!”
“Is Lorena here?” he asked.
“I believe she is—”
“Come here, sweetie-pie! How’s your mama?”
I blinked. It was like a family reunion. Another social worker came towards us. “How can we help you?” she asked me.
“Micki is homeless,” I said. Micki looked down at her feet and shrugged.
“Kicked out,” she murmured.
“I’m sorry about that,” the worker said. She took Micki’s shoulder. “Let me show you around.”
The second order of food was no longer warm by the time we got back in the car, but I ate them anyway, chewing methodically. Without the heat, it tasted like nothing. My heart sank as we drove away, thinking of leaving Micki there. Was the shelter full of people she could trust? Would they force her back into the home she had likely ran away from? How long until she was back at that home, with her parents or caretakers? How long until she ran away again?
And then there was the issue of Grant. How the hell did he know about that shelter? They knew him. Treated him like family.
Maybe his mom took him to the shelter because she worked there. Or maybe he must have volunteered there a long time ago. He seemed like he would be an annoying do-gooder.
I opened my mouth to ask, but Grant’s eyes were shrouded by the sunglasses. I wanted to smack them off of his face, but I knew I needed to cool it. He had helped Micki. And it hadn’t taken much to convince him. I should have been grateful, or at least, kind, because of that.
Tall buildings began sprouting up on either side of the highway. Shiny windows sparkling in the sunset. Flashing lights started to glow.
I had only been in Las Vegas for a few weeks when I got mixed up with Eric’s slavery and Zaid’s abduction, but once we exited the highway, I was still able to recognize that we were in a fashionable part of town. Less garish lights, more sleek buildings, gastropubs, and shops without barred windows. Past a park with polished turf. A bar with a sign in a dainty pink cursive: Pretty Lush. Across from it, an apartment building as tall as the mega-hotels on the Strip. LX3, Lavish Leisure Living on a lustrous sign. Grant pulled into the parking garage and took a slot with a sign that said, Reserved.
“I take it we already have a place,” I murmured. He got out of the car and I followed him. In the elevator, he pressed the button for 40. The fortieth floor? Wasn’t that a little obnoxious? ...
His Pain coming in early August, 2020!