The Warrior, Part 2
Something didn't feel right. Maybe it was just the trickle of sweat making its irritating way down my back as I walked the last couple of blocks to my apartment, but that other sense of mine seemed to have its hackles raised. Like a vague touch at the very edges of my reach that left it unsettled.
I kept my head down and walked faster—eyes trained on my feet—and adjusted my bags in my hands. If there was someone or something in the near vicinity, I didn't want to see it, hear it, or feel it. I'd had enough creepiness for today dealing with the priest and "Toady" back there.
"What! Del Taco is the epitome of fine bachelor cuisine. It's fast, it's tasty, it's reasonably priced. You're really gonna say that I never take you anywhere nice? I protest!" the deep, mildly indignant voice caught me off guard as I rounded the front gate to the apartment building entrance. It was most definitely too late by that time and looking up in that split second before impact merely meant that my nose smashed rather solidly into a white t-shirt and black vest. With painful buttons. I think I've just lost an eye. Oh, for the love! I thought that the apparently dangerous vest and t-shirt look had gone out with the 90s.
I would have shrugged away the hands that steadied me—um, strangers, no touchie—except that I was too busy clutching my injured eye while trying to still hold on to my groceries. It wasn't working too well for me.
"You're an idiot," an amused female voice interjected from somewhere behind the bean pole I'd run into. I frowned around my "assailant" and squinted at her with my good eye; a willow-slim, dishwater blond in modest jeans and trendy ballet flats.
"I didn't mean to!" that deep voice was defending himself, "Dude, I am so sorry. Are you alright?" As yet, I'd still not seen more of him than the white t-shirt and black vest and... red plaid trousers and combat boots?
Having sufficiently established that my eye was not going to bleed out of its socket any time soon, I removed my hand from my face and blinked up at the guy. And up and up and up... Holy friggin mother of pearl. Just how tall was this dude? He topped out at about a head and shoulders over me, nearly platinum hair pulled back into a pony tail at the base of his neck. Blue eyes stared down at me through stylishly thick-rimmed glasses. He looked like he was trying to be nerdy but failing miserably; more like anti-authority misfit cool…ish...
"I'm fine," I heard myself muttering automatically, finally shaking his lanky, lean hands off my shoulders. His female companion continued to snicker over the apologetic smile she directed towards me. I returned the expression half-heartedly and adjusted my bags again before picking up my interrupted trek to the apartment building door.
"Wait! Let me carry that for you," it was the beanpole again, reaching for one of my grocery bags; I sped up my pace before he could snag it, skipping up the front steps. He followed.
"Leave her alone, Bry! Let's just go!" I could practically hear the girl's eyes roll with her voice. Those long legs of his made it easy for him to bound up the stairs after me, where I'd been confronted with the rather annoying obstacle of rearranging the load in my hands to open the front door.
"But I owe her," he tossed over his shoulder, at the same time reaching around me with one of his incredibly long arms and pulling open the door.
"No," argued the amused blond, who had rather stubbornly remained standing in the walkway just inside the front gate where me and Beanpole/Bry had run into each other, "You just think she's cute."
"So?" he retorted. The complete and utter lack of defensiveness in his tone caused me to look up as I ducked through the door he was now chivalrously holding open for me, only to see him grin cheesily down at me. I shook my head to hide the involuntary twitch at the corner of my mouth. "You're flattered anyway, right?" he called after me as I walked through the lobby and pressed the elevator button, both hopeful and slightly smug. Don't smile. It'll just encourage him.
"Like a locomotive," I answered as I waited for the lift, him still lounging in the open door with his long limbs. The look that crossed his sharp-featured face was one of incomprehension.
"What?" he asked in confusion at the same time that the elevator arrived.
"You," I answered, punching the button for my floor, "You're about as subtle as a locomotive." He smiled. And then the elevator doors closed.
"I think she likes me," Brian announced, jumping the last steps and bounding down the walkway playfully. Alison snorted and led the way out the front gate.
"You're an idiot."
So it's not because I liked him that I talked to him. The beanpole, I mean. Don't get me wrong, he was cute in his own kind of funky, silly way. Except, I don't need any of that crap right now. I only just got away from it. Left it behind, back in my old home town where it belongs. Far away from me.
It's just that I couldn't help smiling to myself at the memory of the way he'd flirted, as I put away my groceries and unpacked the last of my things in my room. It made me feel... normal. And I needed that after the day I'd had. It was just too bad that I was going to have to be avoiding that church with the priest. Especially because it was the location of the church between my building and campus that had made me request this building in the first place. Even made me willing to have a roommate. Chosen by the university's housing program, of course.
Because I would never in a million years have picked this girl myself; a fact I was reminded of a couple hours later when I stepped outside my room to find Maria and an unknown boy lip-locking in the living room. Well, unknown to me anyway, seeing as classes don't start until Monday and I only moved in two days ago; having yet to meet anyone but Maria and the lady behind the desk at the Student Housing office.
"Hey," Maria's awkward greeting broke me from my spot, frozen just outside my bedroom door. But it was the darkness, hanging smudgy above them in the shadows of the low lit room, which still held the most of my attention. It breathed heavier than the both of them combined and seemed to turn itself toward me, anger radiated from it at the interruption. It slithered and warped, a long neck of smoke stretching up to glare down at me.
"Uh, hey," I managed to reply, trying not to look at it, "I'm going out. See you later." And with that I grabbed my purse and keys off the kitchen counter where I'd left them and ripped the front door open, slamming it shut again behind me as fast as I could. I stood in the hallway, helpless then, for a moment as I tried to regain enough of my mental equilibrium to realize that whatever it was—like the toad and the winged being this afternoon—was now left behind me. In what should have been my very own apartment.
Maybe I should have stayed home. Maybe I should have just gone to community college; I could have dealt with Patrick. I didn't need to move across the country just to get away from him.
I wriggled my toes in depressed thought, and then promptly looked down. No shoes. Crud. I am so not going back in there. Not with that thing still hovering around in the living room.
It would have to be, of course, at that point that I heard the elevator doors down the hallway slide open to admit someone to witness my awkwardly barefoot state. The girl who rounded the corner did not in fact notice me (standing frozen in humiliation) in her agitated search through her purse for her keys. Stopping in front of the apartment door facing mine, she didn't even pause before pounding aggressively on the door.
"Sonny! Open the door! I can't find my keys!" Hmm. Yeah. Today is apparently determined to be an exercise in reminding me why I don't like people, baggage or no. The door rattled open after a moment or two, to reveal the blonde I'd seen earlier today outside the building with the Beanpole. Her roommate shoved past her instantly, darting into the apartment in an alarming rush.
"You're welcome..." the blonde sang bemusedly into the empty air, before noticing me watching her. "Hello," she greeted curiously and I squirmed.
"How's your eye?" she inquired politely. It was a split second before I understood that she was referring to my earlier run-in with Beanpole. I touched my temple reflexively.
"Um, fine." Her brown eyes trailed down to my feet.
"Nice shoes. Is there a reason you're standing out in the hallway, barefoot?" Despite the sarcasm, her tone was friendly. Or maybe it was the sarcasm that suddenly made me feel less embarrassed and more like I wanted to laugh at the oddity I must have appeared. Then again, I used to know a girl in high school who was always getting detention for walking around with no shoes, so maybe it wasn't all that weird after all.
"My apartment," I answered vaguely, pointing behind me at my door with one thumb. Her eyes narrowed and she shifted her gaze to the door and then back to my face.
"Did you lock yourself out? Is your roommate not home to let you in?"
"Umm..." my hesitation seemed to trigger something in her mind because a light seemed to dawn on her face.
"You know what? You don't want to go back inside that apartment and I have a feeling that I will just wanna leave it at that for the sake of my poor abused innocence." I snorted in appreciation.
"Good call," I commended. She laughed, and I have to admit that I actually liked the sound. It was so... baggage free.
"Would you like to borrow some shoes?" she offered, her voice still lilting with amusement. I curled my toes on the rough carpeting.
"Do you have a raging foot fungus?" I asked facetiously.
"No," came her snappy response, "But you can spray my flip-flops with disinfectant if you want." Quick witted, that one.
"Sold!" I announced with a half smile, stepping across the hallway when she motioned me into her apartment, "And I was totally kidding about the raging foot fungus." One eyebrow shot up as she smirked, leading me through the maze of empty moving boxes and to her room.
"No you weren't. But I really was kidding about the disinfectant, because I don't actually have any." She almost got me to laugh with that one, but I successfully distracted myself by nosily looking around the décor of her room, which was floral and girly and involving lots of pink. Not entirely what I expected from what I'd seen of her sense of humor so far.
"So, what's your name, shoeless neighbor of mine?" she asked, her question muffled as she dug through a pile of stuff at the bottom of her closet. Points to her for making a laundry pile so quickly.
"Abigail," I answered dutifully, "But I prefer Abby."
"I'm Alison," my neighbor informed me as she triumphantly produced a pair of brown and pink flip-flops and handed them to me, "But I usually go by Sonny." I took the offered footwear and slipped them on.
"Does that make your tall friend Cher?"
"Ah! That's it!" she exclaimed delightedly, "I have our next Halloween costume. You're brilliant. It might be a little tricky getting him to dye his hair black though. Maybe a wig? I should write this down." My companion was suddenly diving into another box in her room, presumably in search of writing materials. I think I have decided that Sonny is a little too hyper for her own good. It definitely has its entertainment value though.
"Why would he not dye his hair?" I asked, getting into the spirit of our exchange, "Seems like it would match his 'anti-conformist' style. In fact, I'm surprised it's not black already." Sonny emerged from her box with an armload of clothes that she dumped into my arms for no apparent reason other than that I was closer, and therefore more handy, than the bed. I held the bundle obediently as she dived back in.
"You're not truly anti-conformist if you conform to the stereotypes of anti-conformist style," she informed me seriously, this time surfacing with a dry erase marker which she brandished dramatically to emphasize her point before using it to scribble herself a note on her hanging mirror.
"He's not really an anti-conformist, is he?"
"Nope. Just seriously quirky." The cap snapped back on the marker.
"Oh. No," she corrected vehemently, "Not like me. If he was like me then we'd be like each other and then we'd be our own subgroup of conformity thus removing our individual uniqueness and enviable 'quirky' status. At which point we would be forced to perform a joint suicide, and really, then where would the world be?"
"Lacking in quirkiness?"
"Exactly. You see my point."
"Actually, I do. And that kind of frightens me. Does that mean I'll have to commit suicide with you too?" She looked me over once, thoughtfully, as though seriously considering my personal potential for individuality; one brown eye squinting like an artist trying a new vantage point. The time she was taking was starting to make me nervous.
"I think you're safe for now," she finally announced, a trace of skepticism in her voice. My forehead crinkled instinctively.
"I'm so relieved."
Sonny gave me a pitying expression, her dishwater bangs catching on her eyelashes as she blinked. "Good for you," she said in the voice of a Special Needs teacher, reaching out a hand to pat my shoulder sympathetically.
I was still rotating through the possible facial expressions in response to that, when we heard the apartment door rattle open again followed by a plaintive, "So-on-ny!"
"Oh! He's back. We're having a celebratory, 'Sonny finally moved out of the house' toast with real live booze. Wanna join?" Her face looked so hopeful with her small feminine hands clasped joyfully in front of her pink t-shirt that I had a hard time finding a reason to say no.
"Yes!" she said, throwing her hands up into the air and skipping out of the room, already loadly announcing my presence to 'him', "Brian! Abby, aka the love of your life, is joining us!" Right. What did I just agree to again? I looked around Sonny's room awkwardly for a moment before finally dumping the clothes I was still holding on the bed and following her back out into the living room. The kitchen opened out onto the rest of the apartment and I could see Sonny and this morning's Beanpole setting out the recently purchased liquor and shot glasses.
Brian looked up at my entrance, "Yo! Pretty girls, woot!" He smiled in self-conscious expectancy, making me blink in confusion over the appropriate response. Sonny paused in unscrewing a bottle to look up at her tall friend; she only came up to his shoulder.
"Ooh, 'girls'. That's plural. Does that mean I'm included today?"
"Depends. Are you feeling flattered?"
"Then no... The 's' was a slip of the tongue. I beg your pardon." Brian began selecting bottles and pouring their contents carefully into a shot glass, apparently unfazed by Sonny's sudden expression of delight.
"You do?" she squealed. Beanpole looked down at her seriously, quietly analyzing her rapt attention.
"We are talking about me here," he finally pointed out. Sonny slumped and looked over the counter in my direction.
"So that'd be a negative then," she told me.
"It's just too degrading to beg," he pontificated nobly, "Can you imagine the kind of humility that would require? Please. You'll just have to live with being un-flattered." Somehow, I was not buying this little speech of his; I got the distinct impression earlier today from his style of flirting that he was not above begging at all. As long as it was in jest, that is. In fact, there was a lot of jesting going on at this instant.
The moment was broken by the opening and closing of the door of the apartment's only bathroom, followed by the entrance of Sonny's roommate.
"Woohee… Do not go in there." She announced to the lot of us, sighing in obvious relief. I may be traumatized.
"Abby, meet Sylvia," Sonny deadpanned. Sylvia waved 'hey' and smiled, her almond eyes made small by the expression. Amused as I was by Sonny and crew, this seemed like a good time to make an exit. Maybe find the campus library.
"Yeah, I think I'm gonna go now," I shared awkwardly, "Thank for the shoes, and I'll make sure to return them. Later, Sonny!" And with that, I made a break for the door. I seemed to be doing that a lot today.
"What? No! I'll be 'haved', I promise," Brian tripped out into the hallway after me, "See? I'll let you have my 'Slippery Nipple'!" He raised his shot glass in demonstration of his willingness to share, sloshing butterscotch liqueur over his red plaid trousers in the process.
"Yeah..." I drawled, mid-step with foot in air, making dramatic slow-motion running arm movements, just in case I wasn't getting my point across, "That's not helping." I was in the stairwell and down the stairs before he could say anything else.
Sonny stepped out into the hallway and pounded Brian's shoulder amiably, "You're an idiot."
I'm small. A little girl again. And the things under my bed are more real than any childhood fear. They claw at the bed sheets, hissing and laughing.
I want to run. I want to make them go away. But I'm so small. Such a very small child. And I see my father on the floor, his side ripped open, his eyes pleading with me. Run, run, run, he says, though his mouth never moves.
A great black claw settles possessively on his stomach, holding his body down, claiming the kill for its own. It's so heavy and huge and I'm too afraid to look up and see what thing a great paw like that could belong to, a thing breathing heavy and hot.
Instead I watch one of Sonny's flip-flops float on an eddy in the pooling blood as I cry to the rhythm of a toad's croak. A long-toed foot with suctioned tips grabs the shoe and pulls it to its mouth, gnawing and laughing. And screaming. Always screaming.
It was my own yelling that made me sit up in the darkness, panting and wiping the tears away from my face. There were memories mixed into that dream. Nothing simple about it. And disappointing too. Somehow I guess I'd been hoping that I'd leave the dreams behind.
Yeah. I think I'm stupid too.
From years of practice, I took a deep breath to calm the crazy beating of my heart and shake the lingering screams from my ears. I could still hear the croaking, reminding me of this afternoon. I shuddered.
Never had I expected to regret moving away for university so quickly.
I swung my feet out of bed and made my way out into the kitchen for a glass of water. Maria was either asleep or elsewhere. Not that I cared. I was just grateful that I hadn't seen again seen that awkward run-in with her and her make-out partner, and that thing. It was gone now. The apartment felt blessed empty.
On my way back to bed, I stumbled, catching my feet on Sonny's borrowed footwear and almost spilling my water. I bent down to pick up the offending flip-flop, and toss it to a less hazardous location, and stopped. It was riddled with ragged grooves and holes like an animal had chewed it.
For a moment, the sounds of my dream washed over me again; a faint, croaking fading into the night street sounds. Oh yes. We can wait. We know. We can find. Another night. Another night...
A/N: Okay, seriously, this story is totally kicking my butt. I have so many ideas for it and yet it refuses to let me write any of them because they're all so friggin complicated. And I'm definitely not happy with this chapter. Grrr... Anyone got some motivation in a bottle?