21 Questions, Give or Take
It had been an hour since she woke up, entangled in the man's arms. Her hands shook as she pressed the omelet down with the spatula in the skillet. Her cheeks were warm, and it wasn't because of the open heat source in front of her.
She was mortified. Embarrassed beyond words.
She'd thought that her hatred for the Saints would be enough to overcome her childhood habit. It was why she'd fought so hard to sleep anywhere but next to him since she'd got there. At home, her big, brown teddy bear stayed on her bed, and was only moved when it needed to be washed. Without it, she couldn't sleep. She would toss and turn, unless she found something to hold on to.
Maybe it was a result of her being an only child. Maybe it was because she hated being alone. She couldn't figure out the cause, but she hoped like hell that the sleeping bastard upstairs hadn't noticed she'd practically cuddled him to death. He'd never let her live it down.
"Something smells good."
She jumped, nearly burning herself on the skillet, and turned to find Jamien taking a seat at the kitchen island. The grin on his face chilled her to the bone.
"I got hungry." She turned away from him quickly, unable to look him in the eyes. Those stupid bright yet deep blue eyes...that laughed at her.
"Not gonna share?" He sounded hopeful.
"Only if I don't finish my food." She snapped. "Don't count on it."
"You sound angry. Another escape attempt gone wrong?"
"Mmhm." He paused before asking, "How did you sleep last night?"
'****...' "The same as the night before." She refused to bring it up for him.
He made a disapproving noise. "I think you slept better. It's noon, isn't it? You slept longer."
"I guess I did."
"How's your wrist?"
She looked down at it. Despite their attempts to ice it, it was still swollen, badly bruised, and even more tender than she thought it'd be. "About as good as it should be."
"I'm sorry about that." She turned her head to look at him. He'd ducked his head, looking down at his clasped hands.
"You've apologized for it enough already. Get over it."
"I know, but it doesn't feel like you've forgiven me. You won't even look at me. It feels like you're really pissed about it, regardless of what comes out of your mouth."
"I promise you, if I'm mad at you about anything, that damn sure isn't it."
He looked up, watching her as she moved her food to a plate and sat down next to him. Her wrist was too sore to carry her plate over to the chairs by the windows, so she had to sit next to him. "Wait, what are you mad about, then?"
"Being kidnapped? Being forced to stay in a brothel? Being offered a ****ing job by maturing pimp with a tracheostomy whose artificial larynx just happens to be auto tuned?" She tapped her chin with her finger. "Gee, I don't really know which one pisses me off the most so why don't you pick?"
For a second, Jamien didn't seem to know what to say to her. He just stared at her as she ate. "So, you're not pissed that you cuddled me last night?"
She choked on her food. "You were asleep when I woke up. How do you know-"
"Shaundi came over. A really interesting person wanted to speak with me." He leaned towards her. "Three guesses who it was, and the first two don't count."
The look in his eyes sent a chill down her spine. Behind the mischievous twinkle was malice. Suddenly, she understood her grandmother's fables about the wolf in sheep's clothing. She swallowed hard, and attempted to speak normally. "I really suck at guessing."
"The Mayor...of Stilwater." His eyes paralyzed her with fear. "Now, when she told me that, I was surprised. I mean, what the **** would he want with little ole me? It's not like I'm currently raising hell there. Sure there are Saints still there, but for the most part, we're all concentrating on this little problem we have here in Steelport. So, I asked him just that, what did he want? Do you know what he said?"
It was like sitting in a cage with an starving lion staring at her. She couldn't bring herself to even nod her head.
"He wanted..." He leaned even closer, until she couldn't see those piercing eyes, and his lips grazed her ear. "...his daughter."
She held her breath. It felt he'd just dumped ice on her.
He continued, now talking in a whisper, as if he didn't want anyone to overhear him. "Now I'm very curious as to why you didn't make this little yet very important fact known the minute you woke up here. Or at any moment before he had a chance to contact me. I want to know, Denitra, why you keep something like that to yourself."
Her throat suddenly became dry. "It never crossed my mind. To you, he's someone of importance. To me, he's just Daddy. The only thing I've ever thought of was getting out of here to get back to Mama and Daddy."
He nodded slightly and moved back to his natural spot in the chair. "I'll take that. I forgive you for that little slip of information. In the future, I'd like to know things in advance. I don't like being blind-sided, especially by someone who's able to call the National ****ing Guard just to make me a blood stain on pavement."
She stared down at her plate, appetite long gone. "If you had just let me go when I asked, you wouldn't have been put in that position."
He chuckled briefly and nodded. "The more you want to get away from me, the more I want to keep you near me. Like a little fly trapped in glue, the more you struggle, the worse you make your situation."
"What situation? Pierce came up with some stupid compromise-"
"Which reminds me, I need to go get him something nice. I think this is the best impulsive thing we've ever done."
"Well, since your father is the oh-so-special man he is, I have him running errands for me."
It was like a punch to the stomach, even forcing air from her lungs. "Y-you're-"
"Using you to get what I need. He wants you to come back home, and I need a few things that he can easily get. In the end, everyone's happy."
He shrugged. "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but a bullet will end it all." He looked at her plate. "May I?"
She slid it over without saying a word.
He immediately began to eat. "He wants me to let you go before classes start. So I told him to bring me what I need before then. Look at it this way. If he pulls through, then it will be like he was never involved, and come midnight on Monday you're free to go. If not, well, we'll get more time to cuddle until he does."
"What do you need him to get?"
"Just a list of property bought by a certain group of people. We've got competition and I don't like them at all." He stopped to look at her. "Your cooking is awesome."
"Why can't you get the list?"
"If I have my people snoop around, they'll wise up to what we're doing and make the fight a bit more complicated. If he does it, they won't catch on as quickly."
"I hate you."
"How can you do this?"
"Because it needs to be done, one way or another. You should be proud of me. I could send people in to get the list. But I'm sure, one way or another, it'd turn into a bullet shower. Innocent people would die, as you hate so much. But this way, hell, no one gets hurt. Personally, going in guns blazing is more my style, but seeing as I won't need that list until I've dealt a bit of more damage here, I have time."
"So, I'm supposed to be happy that you're using me for extortion?"
He nodded happily. "It gives you a better reason for being here. You seemed to hate the idea of me using you to get Shaundi to behave. So here's a better one!"
"I hate you."
"You've said that already."
"Just wanted to make sure we were clear on that."
"Even though you like to snuggle up to me at night?"
Heat rushed to her cheeks again, forcing her to turn her head away from him.
"Wow, I don't think I've ever seen a black person blush down to their neck before. Maybe it's because you're so light?"
She got up, snatched up her now empty plate up, and marched over to the sink to clean the used dishes.
"So, have you always been like that? A cuddler?"
"Shut up." She dumped the dishes into hot, soapy lemon-scented water.
"It's an innocent question."
"...Yes." She grabbed a sponge and drizzled dish soap on it.
"It just means you were loved as a child and now are a loving person."
"How would you know?" She glared at him for a second before going back to the dishes.
"It shows in your mannerisms."
"So, being the loving person that you are, why is it that you only hate the Saints in particular, and not gangs in general?"
"Who said I didn't hate gangs in general?"
"I say it. You haven't said you hate gangs. You haven't said 'oh, you're a gang banger, so I hate you'."
She stopped scrubbing the skillet, and turned to him with soapy hands. "Okay, you're a gang banger therefore I hate you."
"And if I wasn't one? Or a Saint?"
She opened her mouth, but couldn't think of anything to say to him. His head was tilted to the side, watching her attentively, waiting for an answer. She looked down and began wringing her hands. "I don't know. I don't think we would ever meet otherwise."
"But if, for some predestined reason, we did?"
"You're too bossy to hold a conversation with. I think I'd be too turned off to even give you my number."
He nodded, "I am an ****. But, back to my original question, why do you hate the Saints so much?"
She turned back to the dishes, finished them as quickly as she could without speaking, then dried and put them away. She bit her bottom lip the entire time, willing her eyes to stay dry. She took a deep breath then turned around, intending to go straight to the stairs, to the bathroom to cry. She knew it was silly, to cry every time she thought of Layla. But Layla was the closest thing she'd ever had to a sister. Being an only child, who only ever wished to have a sibling so she wouldn't be alone because her parents were so involved with work, it was devastating.
Through her tear blurred eyes, she saw him move quickly towards her. She gave a last second attempt to pass him, but his hands caught her shoulders and pinned her to the refrigerator. She looked down at their feet, praying he wouldn't ask that stupid question people always seemed to ask when they saw a person who was about to cry. It never failed in making the tears power through her poker face. 'Don't ask. Don't ask. Don't ask.'
After what seemed like forever, he let go of her and leaned back, elbows on the kitchen counter. "Are we that bad?"
"A Saint killed...someone I considered my sister." She whispered.
"The Stilwater University Massacre."
"...Did you ever find out who did it?"
Her lip quivered as her will began to melt with hurt. "N-no. He g-got away."
She began to sip air through lips as the tears finally fell. She began shaking, so much so that her legs gave way and she slid down to the floor. The sirens came back, loud as ever. "No." She clamped her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut. It only made the images that much clearer. The flashing lights of the ambulance trucks. The blur of people rushing around. Lights flashing off of the gurneys. White sheets on the ground, blood stained. The pungent smell of gun smoke and bowels. It seemed like no one knew who she was asking for. Every person she came across kept pushing her back, away from the building. She'd been ready to hit someone when she saw it, saw Layla's covered body being pushed out of the building. The sheet clung to her top half, soaked in blood. The wheels of the gurney caught on the steps as the paramedics tried to get it down the stairs. Her hand fell free, fingertips covered in the same fingernail polish she had on. Her hand had the same friendship ring she had on.
Jamien was shaking her.
The images were gone. The smells were gone. It was quiet once again.
"You're having a panic attack. Get up."
"No." It came out as a tortured moan, even to her ears.
"Okay, that's fine." His arms went around her and lifted her up. She felt so light, so light-headed.
"No." Her head fell against his chest and suddenly she felt much smaller than she really was. So insignificant. So lonely. So-
"Stay with me. Talk to me." He shook her slightly as he turned the corner on the stairs.
"But she's dead." She whispered, broken beyond repair. "She's gone..."
"I know, and I'm sorry won't cover it." She heard him say, but didn't process the words for any meaning. A cool, soft towel was pressed to her forehead then down the sides of her face to her cheeks.
Time seemed to slip away.
At some point, she was aware of the heart beating in her ear, the arm that supported her back, the hand that rubbed her knee in a slow, calming motion. His scent, cigarettes and mint chewing gum, mingled with each breath she took. She had a fistful of his shirt in her hand, and found it hard to let go of it. When her hand finally fell down to her lap, she felt him move. She looked up into his eyes then looked away, embarrassed. "I'm sorry."
His head tilted back up towards the ceiling. "I won't mention this if you won't."
"Do you want to move?" She could hear the hesitation in his voice. She knew what he was thinking, the same thing people often thought whenever she had a mental breakdown. He wondered if she'd fall apart again if he let go. He more than likely didn't want to deal with this mess of a human being. If anything, he'd probably let her go after this. Get as far away from the psycho as he possibly could. Never look back. Just like everyone else had done before. He'd be no different. She could never be fixed.
She looked up to see him frowning down at her. "What?"
"You're tensing up. You're gonna have another attack if you don't calm down."
She looked down. Everyone was the same. "I'm sorry." She tried to move away from him, but he held her tighter against him.
"You're not going anywhere. All I did was ask you if you wanted to move and you nearly fell apart again. I'm gonna hold you until you're screaming at me to let you go."
She couldn't bring herself to look at him. "I will always fall apart. If my psychiatrist couldn't fix me, no one can."
"People can change, therefore you can be fixed."
"People don't change. They act differently for a little bit, but they always go back to how they were."
"You don't honestly believe that, do you? I mean, look at us. The Saints have changed a lot over the years. At first, all we cared about protecting Stilwater from other gangs and keeping the peace. I mean, yeah, we had to do some dirty things ourselves, but we made it our mission to keep it to a minimum. And now, now it's all about the money and fame. Johnny wanted to go back to the old us. The Saints are a gang, and he wanted to stay true to that. It was his idea to rob the bank. He even picked it. I guess I should have paid more attention. Maybe I would have asked questions he normally didn't care to think of. If not me, then Pierce and Shaundi would have. We would have. We could have saved him, if we had cared as much as we used to."
She looked up at him, surprised. She didn't think they paid much attention to when they lost another gang member.
"When they dumped his body off outside of our headquarters, I think it killed us. We kept hoping that Loren had lied, that Johnny was okay. He was the closest thing I ever had to a brother. He was a Saint before I was." He stopped and a look she didn't understand crossed his face. "I wonder...if losing him is punishment for all the people we've taken away from their loved ones. An eye for an eye."
You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. --Ray Bradbury