“You all right, Crys?” Janet asked, coming up behind me and patting me on the shoulder. “Those guys are real assholes.”
I laughed shortly. “Yeah, I am, and yeah, they are.”
“Let it slide off your back, babe. Just another night. Same ol’, same ol’.”
“Yeah. Thanks, Janet.” I drew in a deep breath, feeling so exhausted I contemplated sliding down to the floor right there. That pinched feeling around my heart was back, and I just wanted to go home.
“Oh, hey,” Janet said, turning back to me. “I almost forgot since I was off yesterday, but this was left for you on one of the tables night before last. I was going to throw it away to save you the trouble, but I remember him and he was real cute.” She smiled, winked, and handed me a folded-up napkin.
Smiling weakly at Janet, I took it, and as she walked away, I opened it up to see Gabriel’s name and what I assumed was his cell number. An ache shot to my heart, a strange longing filled with an equal amount of remorse, and I balled it up and stuck it in the small pocket in my server’s apron where I kept money to provide change.
By the time I went back out onto the floor, the guys who had been harassing me were gone, back home to their girlfriends, no doubt. Janet was right. Same ol’, same ol’.
I finished up the last half hour serving a few more drinks to men who were thankfully well behaved. When I was done, I cashed out, hesitating when I pulled the folded-up napkin from my pocket. I balled it up and held it in my fist, intending to throw it away, and went to find Kayla, who had just finished onstage. “You ready?” I grabbed my sweatshirt and pulled it on over my serving outfit. I didn’t even want to bother to change clothes tonight. I’d take a long hot shower and attempt to wash away the despair currently sticking to my skin along with the greasy fingerprints of the jerks who had manhandled me.
Kayla was undressing and turned my way. “Yeah. Just give me five. I heard what happened on the floor. You okay?”
“Yeah.” I waved my hand through the air as if it’d been nothing. And in reality, it was. That type of thing had happened a hundred times before and would likely happen a hundred times again. “I’m fine. I’ll meet you at the front door.”
“Okay. I’ll grab Anthony on my way there.”
I nodded, closing the dressing room door behind me. I grabbed my purse from my locker and headed toward the front. I heard a commotion coming from the floor and glanced in to see Anthony breaking up another fight, this time between two girls. Jesus Effing Christ. Would this night never end?
It was policy that security walk us girls to our cars, and under normal circumstances, I’d have waited for Anthony to finish settling the situation he was dealing with. But tonight … deep weariness washed through me, and I turned back toward the front door, pushing out into the summer night air. It smelled like asphalt and rain, and I headed toward Kayla’s car. I couldn’t be inside the Platinum Pearl for one more ungodly second.
My heart stuttered and I whirled toward the voice. The man I’d slapped earlier stepped out of the darkness of the trees that grew along the back of the parking lot, his friends behind him, both looking nervous but excited and still drunk. I sucked in a breath, alarm making me feel suddenly weak. I glanced at Kayla’s car and then back at the door. Kayla’s car was closer, but I didn’t have the keys. Oh, shit.
“Not so brave now, are you?”
I turned, facing him fully. I squeezed my fists together at my sides, feeling the small piece of balled-up napkin. As I stood there looking at the man who’d spoken, it felt like the final piece of my will dissolved into nothing, evaporating into the night air of the Platinum Pearl parking lot. I didn’t care what he did to me. God, I just didn’t care. I squeezed the napkin in my grip more tightly. Those kind angel eyes flashed through my mind again, bringing shame, but also peace. I deserved whatever these guys were about to dish out. I deserved it. But before I endured it, I was going to let them know what I really thought of them. I smiled. It felt serene. At my expression, a flicker of confusion crossed over the face of the leader of their little group. “You know what I think of you?”
“I don’t give a fuck what you think of me.”
“No, I know you don’t care. I do know that. I just wonder if you know. If you can even imagine.”
He laughed, a taunting sound. “The only thing I care about is you apologizing to me by sucking my dick.”
I just smiled again. It felt unreal, as if I was nothing more than the two-dimensional caricature of a woman. Numbness trickled through me like a welcome sedative. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. They were going to do whatever they were going to do to me, and there was nothing I could do about it. And if not them, someone next week, or the week after that. In a back room somewhere, in a truck pulled off the highway, in a bed, or in a dark parking lot. They’d never stop taking from me. Ever. “You’re vile,” I said evenly. “All three of you are revolting. The only reason I even let you look at me is because you pay me for the pleasure. You’re not even men—you’re ugly, repulsive animals, and your very smell makes me want to vomit.” I spat on the ground and then plastered on the same, uncaring smile.
“You bitch,” the blond said slowly, a note of disbelief in his voice as if he couldn’t fathom someone like me insulting them. “You bitch.”
“Intelligent, too,” I said. “What a complete package you are. Ugly and stupid.”
The black-haired guy tipped just a bit, catching himself and laughing softly. “Hey guys, let’s just go. This bitch isn’t worth it.”
For one hopeful second, I thought they’d leave. My shoulders relaxed slightly, and that’s when the one with the brown hair let out an angry grunt and moved forward so quickly I didn’t have time to react. He grabbed me and shoved his hand over my mouth, dragging me backward. “Fuck this bitch. She’s going to get what she deserves,” he growled.
What she deserves, what she deserves …
Instinct made me try to bite him, but his palm was flat against my mouth, and I couldn’t get a grip. I attempted to kick, but the blond picked up my feet. They walked me quickly behind the nearby Dumpster, and the one holding my upper body forced me to my knees, shoving my face in the blond’s crotch. I could get a grip with my teeth there, and so I bit down as hard as I could. My mouth was mostly filled with jean fabric, but I must have gotten some skin, too, because he let out a pained squeal right before I was yanked back and a fist smashed into my face. “Goddamn fuck!” he yelled. I felt something jab my side, a foot or maybe a knee, and I cried out from the sudden blow, the asphalt coming up to meet me.
“Hey, guys, wait, this …,” I heard the guy with black hair say, but his two friends were too far gone—on alcohol and scorched pride—to listen to him. I was rolled over and before my vision had cleared, another punch took me by surprise. The world swam, colors bursting in front of my eyes. Everything seemed to be happening so fast. They were everywhere, holding me down, attacking me. One leaned over me and another held my legs as I tried to kick.
Whoever had been holding my legs let go, and I felt my sweatshirt being yanked up. I took the opportunity to kick out, connecting with someone. He yelled and swore harshly, and a horrible pain exploded in my right leg. I tried to scream, but something made of fabric was being stuffed in my mouth. I gagged, taking another blow, feeling my shorts being worked down my legs. I fought, but there were two of them and they were so much stronger. I didn’t know where the third guy was, but he wasn’t helping me. For all I knew, he was waiting his turn. The darkness closed in again, and this time, I let it overtake me, floating away, away, away, to where there was no more hurt, no more pain, only peace.
I came to blearily, hearing sirens in the distance, voices close by, yelling, sounding panicked. So many of them. A chorus. The stars were so bright above me, and there was only motion and light and a gentle whooshing in my ears.
Suddenly I was being moved. I thought I was traveling but didn’t know where and didn’t care. There was a loud wailing noise all around me, and I floated away once more.
When I opened my eyes again, I squinted, the lights above far too bright, as if I’d moved closer to the starlight. There were people in white around me, all hazy and indistinct. Then someone was standing over me, holding my hand as we moved, his breathing quick and loud right next to my face. Was I really floating? I shifted my gaze slowly toward whoever was right next to me and saw those angelic eyes. Gabriel. My breath hitched. Those beautiful eyes. Only now they were filled with something that looked like grief. Why? Everything was okay—I was in heaven where the streets were paved with gold. He stroked a hand over my hair. “Oh, sweetheart, I’m so—” He gasped as if the words had gotten stuck in his throat. “You’re going to be okay. Just don’t move.”
The lights sparkled, and the air itself shimmered. There was a golden halo around his head. He was so beautiful. The most beautiful man I’d ever seen. I tried to smile, but my face didn’t seem to be working. “I knew you were an angel,” I whispered. “I knew you were.” I reached my hand up and cupped his cheek, catching a tear on my thumb. “Don’t cry, my angel. Don’t cry. Not for me.” Never for me.