By the time I reached the city, the sun was stretching its first golden rays into the settled dark. I was breathing heavily but a smile graced my lips. I was here.
Granted, I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do next. Getting to LA had been enough for me. Hell, crossing out of Wintersburg had been all I’d truly wanted. I couldn’t waste another minute trapped in that hollow, soulless town. I was slipping, slipping, and sooner or later I was going to fall flat on my face. When I did, I wouldn’t be getting back up.
Those were the sorts of thoughts I knew I had to keep out. Somehow I had to stop her from entering my mind. She would be the death of me. She was a disease. Absently I ran my thumb over the butterfly tattoo on my inner right wrist. No one could tell that beneath its fluttering black wings was hidden a series of scars. She had covered them up so nicely, with her ink and needle. I could still hear my wretched screams against the sheer pain of it all. Now the butterfly offered me some comfort as it sunk in how very, very alone I was. No money. No protection. Nobody who even noticed I was missing.
Walking along the ditch of the freeway, looking up at the clouds hanging about the city, I knew that somehow it would get better. It had to, didn’t it? There was hardly room for it to get any worse. I already had holes in the bottom of my socks, and I was so far beyond hungry the thought of eating made me sick. Part of me wondered what I had gotten myself into. The other part reminded me that this was all her fault. I hadn’t chosen to love her. I hadn’t chosen to lose her.
The sound of tires slowing over pavement behind me set me on edge. Jaw set, eyes down, I kept on walking. Didn’t change my pace, didn’t look back. just kept on walking. The wheels on the bus go round and- they came to a full stop. Doors opened; a light chorus of laughter reached my ears. I could only make out two voices, but maybe there were more. Small town Arizona life hadn’t taught me to pick out the predators on my trail. In Wintersburg, people like Brielle and I had been the predators, tearing apart lives and breaking all the hearts we could get our claws on.
“Hey, baby, where you going?” The voice had a definite Hispanic ring to it. The second man let out another sharp laugh. “Turn around and let us see your pretty face.”
Keep walking, Ruth. Keep walking. If I didn’t acknowledge that I’d heard them, they would get back in their car and go on their way. The demon in my mind was laughing too. You’re not in Kansas anymore, sweetie.
Before I could grasp what was going on, I felt rough hands on my forearm, grabbing, pulling. I spun around, a look of terror taking over my pale face. Two pairs of depthless eyes were on me, raking my body up and down. “Isn’t it a little early to be on the streets, puta?” The first man, the one who’s calloused hands were still gripping my arm, murmured to me. I tried to pull away, but to no prevail. I was no match for his strength; even if I was his companion was right beside him.
The man moved in closer, twisting my arm in a way that made me want to scream, or cry, or both. I held it back, because that was what he wanted. “Why don’t you let me feel that tight little chocha?” I didn’t speak Spanish, but I was no fool. With all my effort I yanked away, but his grip was too tight, his breath was too hot in my face. Fear was making everything go a little fuzzy.
“Hey!” A sharp voice broke through the crisp morning air, through the thudding beats of my heart that seemed so much louder than it was. The man did not let go, but his grip did loosen remarkably, and his friend took a lengthy step back. “Get the fuck away from her.”
I struggled to get a look at the owner of the voice, all smooth and strong, but my view was obstructed by the man’s body. “Who the fuck are you?” He demanded.
“I said get away from her,” he repeated, and to my great surprise the man released his death grip. I stumbled back a few steps, looking around in a frenzy. When instinct at last kicked in I full out ran around the two men and right into the arms of the one who had saved me. I didn’t look at him, didn’t meet his eyes; I merely buried my face in his shoulder. I didn’t realize I was crying until a great heaving sob erupted from somewhere within me. “Now.” This time the man’s voice was perfectly calm. Collected. He knew he had the upper hand. “Get in your car, and turn around. Don’t stop driving until the gas runs out. And if I ever see you around here again, so help me God, I will disembowel you and strangle you with your own intestines.”
I dared to lift my head. Judging by the size of the man’s beady black eyes, he got the point. With a flick of his wrist, he motioned for his companion, and they ran back to their car like the fires of hell were descending upon them. My savior let out a laugh, one that shook his whole body and warmed me in a way I thought was lost to me. Only she had ever made me feel that safe before. Only Brielle had ever held me in her arms and offered me more protection than I was worth.
Long after the car had vanished into the distance, when the California sun was high enough to turn the streets of Los Angeles to gold, I still found myself clinging to the man. He was stroking my hair and whispering words I didn’t hear. Swallowing my embarrassment, I quickly pulled away, taking a full step back. Only then did I get a decent look at him. He was slender but clearly muscular, with golden blonde hair in disarray, dangling in wide, mournful eyes of the brightest green.
A smirk came over his lips. “Usually I insist on some sort of thank you for my heroics, but you seem like a nice girl, so…”
In spite of myself I smiled as well. I didn’t stop and think, I am standing on the side of the freeway, where two men may have just tried to take me, and I am smiling. My life is shot to hell, I am three hundred miles from the only home I have ever known, and I am smiling. I simply curved my lips up. “Well, thank you nonetheless,” I replied. “You may have just saved my life.”
The blonde rolled his eyes. “You’re definitely not from around here.”
“How could you tell?”
He didn’t respond; I thought that may have been for the best. Slight sigh. Then, “You’re right. I’m from Arizona.” I expected him to ask me a million questions, why I was in California, where I was going, how I was planning to take care of myself. All the questions I was asking myself. In the end, all he did was nod.
“Well, I’m heading back to the city now, if you’re interested in a ride.” Another breathtaking smile before adding, “I always drive with two hands on the wheel, so you don’t have to worry.”
I thought a shiver may have run up my spine. The demon in my head hissed. Her face flashed across my mind. White hair and icy eyes and all the cold things that the queen of Wintersburg should have had. I was on the verge of tears, and I didn’t want him to see me cry. I doubted that would go well with whatever first impression he already had. Helpless damsel, probably. I supposed he thought he could deem himself my knight. Is that so bad? I asked myself. I don’t need saving, myself replied. We both knew that was a lie.
He was already walking away, a slow sort of waltz that expressed his complete confidence. Maybe arrogance was a better word. Just before he reached his own black car, he turned around to look back at me. “Are you coming or what?”
With a deep breath, I took off after him. I mean, really, what choice did I have?
The door crashed into the wall with a ear shattering bang. I jumped a bit from where I sat on my bed, but otherwise remained oblivious to the intrusion. “Fuck,” was Brielle’s beautiful greeting. At the raw anger in her voice, I finally looked up. Her cool blue eyes were perfectly blank, frozen like everything else about her.
“What’s up?” I said at last. Because I knew that was all she wanted. Brielle obviously had a story she was looking to tell, and the entrance must have been pertinent to it. I didn’t notice my hands were trembling.
Brielle came over and sat on the edge of my bed. She was always like that at first. Hesitant. Like she still wasn’t sure how to act around me, when it was so opposite of that. Soon, though, she was sliding over until our legs were touching, trailing her fingertips over the skin my boxers left exposed. “Luke came onto me tonight,” she said slowly. She was looking at the window, the closet, anywhere but me. I couldn’t tell what she was feeling.
“Okay?” I prompted. She and Luke had been a thing before, so I wasn’t sure if this was a bad thing or not. Brielle was dragging it out, of course, being all dramatic. Making a scene, because in a place like Wintersburg someone had to. My best friend was flipping her hair out of her face, and I was thinking about that line from The Wizard of Oz, where the scarecrow says that it’s going to get darker before it gets lighter. How true that was.
“I turned him down.” Brielle sighed a bit. “I love him, you know. I just…I don’t want to be his toy.” I wasn’t so sure that she loved him. Before I could say anything, the blonde girl had laid her head in my lap, tangles of hair tickling my bare thighs. My muscles twitched a bit beneath her light weight. I allowed myself to run a finger down her jaw line. “God, what is wrong with me? We could have just gotten it over with and pretended we had never broken up.”
“You really think fucking him will erase the breakup?” I hadn’t meant to say that. I expected Brielle to lash out; she took me by surprise with a simple shrug. I swallowed hard. “Let’s just forget about him for now,” I suggested. I didn’t want to think about her fucking Luke, not with her head in my lap where I could feel the pulse in her neck.
Brielle sat up then, a devilish grin coming over her angelic face. I managed to hold back my pout. I was already growing cold from her absence. “Let’s get shitfaced,” she said. “We’ll get drunk and forget about everyone in this damn town except each other, and we’ll fall asleep together like we’re all that we have.” I didn’t dare tell her that she was all I had. Brielle was my sole purpose for breathing. Brielle was my life support. If I lost her, the fall would kill on impact.
Instead, I faked a smile identical to hers. “Okay,” I agreed. The bottle of Skyy was already hidden among clothes in the abattoir that was my closet. When I returned to my room, she was sitting cross legged on the bed, stripped down to her bra and underwear. I blinked, left my closed longer than necessary. No use. She was still there, my best friend, my angel. Beckoning for me, or maybe just for the bottle. I would have gladly given her both.
It wasn’t long till she fell asleep, arms all tangled around me. I refused to close my eyes, staring into the endless darkness, thinking that it would only get darker before it got brighter.