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In This Life by Cora Brent (1)

 

The phone began buzzing in my back pocket at the exact second I pushed the key into the lock. I ignored it and opened the door to my apartment.

The drive home from Portland had been long and my adrenaline was finally wearing off. By now dried blood had stiffened over the broken skin along my right knuckles. The cuts stung when my excitable German Shepard licked at the wound with a sympathetic whine. Meanwhile, my phone issued one more plea for attention and then was silent.

“Easy, girl,” I said, fending the dog off and heading for the kitchen sink.

I winced and flexed my hand under the stream of cold water. There was some antiseptic in the cabinet on my left. I twisted the top of the bottle off with my teeth and poured it over my split knuckles, hissing a curse when it throbbed like a bastard. The swelling would probably remain for several days and be a pain in the ass when the cuts scabbed over.

And yet I regretted nothing.

A few shallow scrapes were an acceptable price to pay for teaching some abusive dickhead a lesson. As I remembered the guy’s pained groan as my fist connected with his jaw I smiled.

Nope, I didn’t regret a thing about tonight.

I was still in the process of dealing with my injured hand when I heard my phone ping with a voicemail alert. My gaze landed on the digital microwave clock. It was half past two. There’d be no reason for a call at this hour. I lived alone, had no girlfriend, and barely said two words to any of my neighbors. The only reason I’d driven all the way out to Portland tonight was because an old buddy from college had a six hour layover in the city and I reasoned even an antisocial prick like me could stand to set foot in a bar once a season.

After I drove my friend back to the airport I circled back to the bar where we’d been hanging out. I had a reason, one that most people wouldn’t approve of. I wanted to see if the son of a bitch who’d made his date cry was still around. And he was. He was a soft-bellied sloppy bastard who kept sucking back shots even though he wasn’t the type to hold his liquor well. When he staggered outside a little while later I followed. He paused to take a piss in a gloomy corner of the parking lot and didn’t even have time to drop his dick before I crashed into him. He likely chalked it up to an everyday mugging until the very end when I got close enough to smell his sour breath and the rank stink of his fear and hissed, “Don’t you ever fucking hurt a woman again.”

He would know what the words meant. He would remember the way he twisted the girl’s arm behind her back and whispered something in her ear while her face twisted with pain before she managed to shake out of his grip. At least she had enough sense to run out on him and the fucker must have thought that was the end of it, never guessing what kind of man was watching from the other side of the bar.

After I slammed the spineless douchebag against the wall one last time for good measure I disappeared, unconcerned about cops. There were no eyewitnesses in sight. Plus I’d parked two blocks away and pushed a baseball cap down too low for any street cameras to catch my face.

I hadn’t planned this, hadn’t come out tonight with the intention of catching some asshole in the act of exercising his testosterone on a female just because he could. I never did plan these things.

But when I found them I reacted. I had to. Because I knew the terrible truth. All too often in this life justice didn’t happen in time to save those who needed it the most. That was the thought keeping me awake at night, that if I didn’t step in then no one else would.

Roxie pushed her food dish and whined again so I gave her some water and a handful of biscuits. She chewed happily while I opened up the sliding glass patio door and stared out at the beach. I could hear the north Pacific waves crashing against the rocks in the darkness. Earlier the weather had been calm but now the wind was fierce, the May air colder than usual. Everything about this environment suited me; the cold, the lack of sunshine, the storms that rolled in off the chilly ocean and battered the shoreline. I’d been living in this apartment for two years and I had everything I needed. My work could be handled from home and my rent was reasonable. That might sound like a lackluster life to some people but in all honesty I wasn’t lonely at all. I didn’t miss people, not really.

Hell, I could always talk to my dog if I got desperate.

Tonight my buddy had shaken his head over his Crown and Coke and begged to know if I was having any fun at all these days. I knew what he meant and blew off the question because I didn’t like explaining myself and because he wasn’t really that great a friend anyway.

If I wanted to find something pretty to keep me company I knew where to find it. There was a busy college town less than twenty miles away. Yet I didn’t do that, didn’t haunt the bar scene in search of willing college girls because I was no longer the casual hookup douchebag I’d once been. I didn’t have anything permanent to offer anyone. My solitude had become too ingrained. Nothing and no one would change my mind about this self-imposed exile anytime soon.

As if objecting to my thoughts about solitude and exile the phone in my back pocket rang again. I closed the sliding glass door and withdrew the buzzing object. The number on the screen was an unfamiliar one. An Arizona number.

“Hello?” I said as the first instinctive feelings of unease bubbled in my gut.

“Nash?” choked out a voice. There was sobbing. “Nash, it’s Jane.”

Jane. Technically Aunt Jane. My father’s younger sister drifted through life in a placid artistic haze while wrapped in the wardrobe of Stevie Nicks. We kept in touch via email but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d talked to her. It might have been the last time I was back there in Hawk Valley. Four years ago. No, five years.

And now for some reason Jane had hunted down my phone number to call me in the middle of the night. And she was crying.

“What happened?” I asked and a sense of dread arose as I remembered something I tended to forget these days, that there were people in the world I cared about.

Through sobs and halting words she told me all of it.

I listened but I didn’t comprehend, not immediately.

I should have anticipated that the most terrible things happen when you’re least likely to see them coming. Fate was one cruel motherfucker and I should have remained ready for another blow. I wasn’t ready for that agony the first time the bastard called ‘fate’ had decimated my life.

I wasn’t ready now either.

I wasn’t fucking ready at all.

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