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Heavy fog drifted over my street. The streetlights emitted a low, pale blue light that barely illuminated three feet around the poles, leaving the street in utter grey darkness. I walked alone again down the sidewalk, shivering and clenching my thin arms around my slender body, trying desperately to draw some fragment of warmth from my worn old jacket. My sneakers made a steady, quiet pat-pat-pat on the concrete.
Work was horrible tonight...five fights within four hours, three of them between drunk girls who were caught up in their stupid love triangles, one between some guys dueling over something that happened ten years ago, when they were in high school, and one non-physical between a crying woman and her now ex-boyfriend. And the usual bouncer, an ex fighter called Lupe, was off duty. The stand-ins, a few thick-skinned bikers, had had their hands full all night, so they didn’t see the drug dealer in a black trench slip into the back rooms. I had to remove him with the help of Trixie, the other bartender, and some of the girls. Their strength never failed to surprise me.
I paused under a streetlight, struggling to breath the grey soup of fog, and gently extricated my arm from the white gauze. The long gash was still bleeding from two hours earlier, when the dealer retaliated and I was trying to push a little boy out of the room. The loss of blood made it feel as if the fog was sitting on my shoulders, pushing me toward the ground, deeper and deeper into the earth.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. The familiar voice turned my blood to ice in my veins. I slowly turned to face him, my entire body from face to feet on guard. He had his hands out, to show there was nothing in them. His eyes, half-hidden by shadows, watched me intently.
“What,” I snarled, “do you want?” I spat “you” like a curse.
“Jess, don’t be like that,” he said softly. “Listen.”
“No!” I shouted. My voice was muted by the dense fog. “No, Tobias. I’m through listening to you! All you ever do is make more excuses, more outlandish stories about how it’s not your fault! I’m done!”
I whirled on my heel, stumbled, and jerked away from his hands like they were poisonous. His presence was just as familiar as the pain.
I remembered, all too well.
Sitting in a truck on a perfect summer day, laughing, looking over at his handsome face smiling back at me. Singing full-blast to our favorite rock songs, driving down the abandoned desert highways, our make-out sessions in the back of his truck. The look in his eyes that day, when he left me standing on my porch in a dress, the day we were supposed to celebrate our three-year anniversary. The way he wouldn’t meet my gaze, kept staring to one side or the other or down at his feet.
“Why?” I kept asking. “What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing, Jess. Just...I can’t do this anymore. I can’t see you get hurt.”
He never told me what “this” was, but I knew the tears pouring down my face told him how hurt I was. I never cried.
When he drove away, I sat on the step. Dad came home and saw the mascara dried down my cheeks. I saw his jaw muscles clench.
“I’ll kill that boy,” he growled. “He hurt you, didn’t he?”
“He’s gone, Daddy,” I whispered. “He’s gone.”
The tears on my cheeks were frozen trails by the time I reached my apartment.
“Jessica, are you listening?”
I turned my wide eyes toward Trixie, mumbling something incoherent. She was the only person younger than my parents who called me by my full name when I was in trouble.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. When I looked up, she was watching me with a perplexed expression.
Trixie was the kind of friend everyone has at some point in his or her life. She was a blonde beauty with wide hazel eyes, who looked at life life she looked at a butterfly: with a wide smile and wide-eyed wonder. Almost nothing could bring her spirits down, but when they were down they were at the very bottom of the valley. And I could tell that she was about to slip over the edge.
“You talked to him again, didn’t you?” she asked quietly. She chewed the inside of her bottom lip when she was nervous.
“It’s nothing, Trix. Don’t worry about it, okay?” I tried to smile, but I’m fairly sure it came out as a grimace, and it definitely didn’t fool her for a second.
“I’m going to call Jason.”
“There’s really no need,” I said quickly, reaching out to stop her manicured fingers from dialing his number.
“Jess, I’m serious. That man is going to kill you, one way or another. You cried all night, didn’t you.”
Of course, she knew I had. She knew me better than I knew myself these days.
“Yeah, well, I’m okay now.”
“What about next time? He’s been hanging around for three months now, Jason has seen him sitting outside the bar just sitting in his truck, like he’s waiting. I’m scared for you, hon.”
The fear in her eyes was genuine, as well as the determination to call her boyfriend, the hitman. Before I could snatch her phone, she had the pink cell to her ear, glaring at me with a look that clearly stated “Try to take this phone and I will rip off your hand.” I slumped in the hard wooden seat and turned my head to stare out through the rain-fogged window.
“Jason, we’re at Rat’s. Can you come here?”
I heard a muffled reply.
“Yeah. It’s about Tobias.”
There was a long, long silence, then I heard his muffled voice, lower this time.
“Okay. See you soon.”
She snapped the phone shut and leaned back, her arms folded over her ample chest. I let out a deep, long sigh.
“Cut the crap. Don’t act like I’m trying to ruin your life. You know I’m only doing this to protect you.”
“I know,” I mumbled, still staring at the window. My mind suddenly veered away.
I felt the phone buzz in my pocket thirty minutes before my shift ended. I waited to look until I was in the back, collecting my purse and jacket.
From: Tobias <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sub: Please read...
Jess, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for what I did to you. We need to talk. Please reply.
My heart missed a beat, but not in that fairy-tale missed beat that happens when the heroine sees her beloved prince. More like the missed beat that happens when the person who drove a knife straight into your heart and disappeared for two years suddenly sends you a short, non-explanatory email.
“What’s up,” Jason asked as he flopped into the seat across from me. My body jerked.
“Tobias. She won’t admit that he’s about to kill her.”
“Kill her?” His blue eyes darkened to a stormy gray. “If he even lays one finger–”
“Not that way, love. All of these random meetings are breaking her heart all over again. We need to get rid of him, once and for all.”
“And you agree to this?” he asked me.
I shrugged one shoulder. I was too tired to care anymore.
“She zones out all the time now. This can’t go on.” Trixie was adamant. I was apathetic. Jason was the deciding factor, as always.
“Alright. I’ll have a talk with him. You girls better get running, though. Ya’ll have a 9:30 class, right?”
Bless him. I could finally get away.
“Right. Thanks, babe.” I looked away when they kissed. It still made me feel the urge to throw up after all these years. I followed her out of the dingy old restaurant, nicknamed “Rat’s” because its owner was obsessed with rat decorations, and plodded under the mountainous backpack the few miles over to the technical college.
Neither of us spoke until we reached the campus, where we parted ways, I to my advanced English and she to Biology II.
We didn’t see each other again until lunch at 12:30. Even then we didn’t talk much beyond trivial matters like what she dissected in biology and exactly what it meant to split a gerund.
We were both surprised, and not in a good way, when Tobias sat next to me. I’m sure we would have heard a pin drop, being the only ones at that particular table.
“What are you doing here?” Trixie growled. I stared down at my food, completely frozen in place.
“I have to talk to you, Jess.” I knew he was looking at me.
“Then talk,” I choked out. “I already know the bull crap you’re going to say, so say it and leave.” Sometimes I surprise myself.
“May we have a moment, Trixie?”
“No. Go on.”
“Okay.” He took a deep breath. “When I left you, I was wrong. I know that. I have no excuses for what I did. I should have stayed with you despite what I know. But I didn’t, I deserted you, and I am eternally sorry.”
“What do you know, exactly,” I monotoned slowly, trying to understand.
“I know what you are, Jess. I also know it isn’t your fault. I shouldn’t have run away like that.”
I felt a chill run down my spine. I looked at Trixie, who was looking at me with an equally frightened look.
“And what am I?” I asked. My breath came choppy and short.
“You don’t have to pretend with me, Jess.”
I turned my head to stare at him, my eyes narrowed, scenting a cruel practical joke.
“What kind of prank are you trying to pull?” I snapped. “I have no freaking clue what you’re talking about!”
“Jess... You don’t?” His face was so quizzical that it was hard to swallow a round of hysteria-induced laughter.
“You’re insane. You have to be. This is crazy. What the heck are you trying to do?”
Trixie was very, very quiet.
“Jess,” she murmured.
“Don’t you remember? Ten years ago, when you stayed over at my house?”
I saw Tobias clench his fists and lower his head.
“Remember that night, Jess?
I rubbed my pounding head.
“No! What’s going on?” I cried.
“Jess, come out here!” Trixie shouted from the backyard.
I wandered through her house and peered through the door. Rain was pouring, but she was outside standing there with her arms wide. Lightning flashed, immediately followed by a booming rumble of thunder.
“Trix, get out of there!” I screamed. “Are you trying to get killed?”
She laughed, a laugh bordering on maniacal and a laugh that sent chills down my spine. She looked at me through the hair plastered to her head.
“It’s fine! I’m safe! Come on, you chicken!”
I reluctantly stepped out and was immediately soaked. I shivered violently as I made my way to her.
“What’s so great about standing in the rain?” I asked irritably.
Her reply was to wrap me in a hug. Her body was extremely warm, to the point of being painfully hot.
She clung tightly, laughing.
“Just a few more seconds and everything will be fine, I promise.”
My skin felt like fire. It burned through me to the ground.
I opened my eyes in a dark, red place. Trixie bounced beside me with a squeak of happiness.
“I knew you could do it!”
“What’s going on, Trix?” I whispered.
“This is Bell’s place. You can only get to it by lightning strike. Now he can change you, too!”
What happened next is still blurry in my mind. I remember a dragon-like creature, and ice in my blood.
“You mean the lightning storm,” I muttered.
“Yes,” she responded with a grin.
“What did you do to me?” I asked, my eyes narrowed angrily.
“What...I got Bell to make you be like me,” she pouted. “Don’t you remember?”
“No I don’t. Tell me what happened, Trixie. Now.”
My heart stopped.
Overhead, the clouds, pregnant and dark, pour their bitter rain through a heavy blanket of fog.