Thinking about it all exhausted me until I almost decided just to curl up right where I was and sleep the day away.
What am I gonna do now? Oh, Lord …
I jerked to a sitting position and dialed the garage again and asked for Ricky, who’d always been decent to me when my car broke down, even letting me make payments if I wasn’t able to cover the whole bill at once.
Whoever answered obviously laid the phone on the counter. I heard him call Ricky’s name, then pictured Ricky sliding out from beneath a car, a wrench in his hand, grease smeared on his face. When he barked a “Ricky here” into the phone, I put a smile in my voice and told him how I needed his help.
“Aw, listen, babe, I can tow it for you and let you know what’s wrong with it, but you know you still owe me the money for fixing the alternator. I can’t do any more work for you until you’re settled up here. The old man will have my hide if I do.”
My hope plummeted. I didn’t even have the money for a tow, much less to settle up and then fix whatever was wrong this time—something expensive no doubt. “All right, Ricky. I appreciate the tow. It’s really generous. Thank you.”
I gave him the details about where it was and that I’d be over later to pick up my groceries once I could catch a lift from Kayla. Maybe some of the food was still edible.
I sat there for a minute, a dull feeling of loneliness sitting heavily in my gut. How? How was I going to work this out?
I’ll pay you, obviously. It would be an after-hours job, nothing more.
Gabriel Dalton’s words wove through my mind, and I picked up my phone again, tapping it lightly against my chin for a minute before typing his name into the browser. There was no lack of information. I clicked on a link near the top, bringing up a news story from twelve years before.
The Morlea Police Department held a press conference on Thursday, June 29, to give more details about the Gabriel Dalton case. Nine-year-old Gabriel, the little boy abducted near his home in 1998 while playing in an empty lot with his eight-year-old brother, Dominic, caught the attention of Vermonters along with the nation. Gabriel was missing until a week ago, when he appeared on a woman’s doorstep, bloody, identifying himself as Gabriel Dalton and asking for help. Through the investigation, police discovered that Gabriel had been held in the basement of the house next door to the woman who called 911, and that he had been there for the past six years. Gabriel had escaped by stabbing his abductor, identified as Gary Lee Dewey, with a sharpened piece of rock. Gary Lee Dewey was deceased when police arrived. Gabriel Dalton, now fifteen, was reunited with his brother, and they are both currently in the care of their father’s business partner at Dalton Morgan Quarry. Gabriel and Dominic’s parents, Jason and Melissa Dalton, passed away in a car accident in 2003.
Just a year before their son came home. God.
I looked up a few more articles, finding similar information. My eyes lingered on the nine-year-old face of Gabriel Dalton, the sweet, all-American smile, those same innocent eyes that I’d seen from the stage. There were only a couple of pictures of Gabriel at fifteen. In the first one, he was long-haired, wide-eyed, and looked distressed by the flash of the camera. In the second, he was standing in the pose that had triggered my memory: hands in pockets, head tilted, his hair falling over his forehead as he squinted slightly at the camera. It was the one all the news stations had used for months on end as they reported on his story.
Biting my lip, I set the phone down, leaning back on my pillows, wondering what hell Gabriel had endured during those six years locked in the basement with a child predator.
You can help me practice being touched by a woman.
I swallowed down a lump, not wanting to think about why he was so averse to being touched. Figuring I already knew.
I hadn’t wanted any part of Gabriel’s self-imposed therapy, but now, sitting here, I couldn’t even remember why I’d said no. Clearly, I was a willing body, and by the sound of things, that was really all he required. He needed me, and I needed the extra money. He could have asked any of the dancers last night, but he’d chosen me, and then I turned him down as if I were too good for the job, but in reality, I wasn’t.
I could help Gabriel become comfortable with someone in his space, someone touching him, and he could give me the money I needed to get my car running again. Win-win. How hard could it be? Yet why did a peculiar sense of anxiety run down my spine? I squashed it, pulling my towel more tightly around myself, and picked up my phone again, doing a search on Dalton Morgan Quarry. It was in the nearby town of Morlea, and although I didn’t know if Gabriel worked there or not, I decided to take a chance, dialing the number. If I couldn’t find him this way, I’d give it up and move on to plan B, whatever that might be. My heart beat more quickly as I waited for someone to answer.
“Dalton Morgan Quarry.”
I hesitated, feeling nervous, unsure.
“Uh,” I finally got out. “Uh, yes, um, may I speak with Gabriel? Gabriel Dalton?”
There was a short pause. “Sure.” It sounded like the man—young man, I thought—was smiling. “May I tell him who’s calling?” Yes, there was definitely a smile in his voice.
I cleared my throat. “Crystal. Um, just Crystal.”
There was another short pause before the man finally said, “Oh.” He sounded disappointed. What was that about?
I frowned, opening my mouth to say something, when he beat me to it. “Sure thing. Hold on.” Music came on the line and I stood up, holding my towel up with one hand and my phone with the other while I paced in front of my bed. After what seemed like a good five minutes, another voice came on the line.
It sounded like Gabriel’s voice—at least from what I remembered—and I quit pacing. “Hi, Gabriel? Um, this is Crystal. You might not remember me but—”
“Of course I remember you. Hi.” I heard footsteps and a door close as if he’d gone into another room.
“Hi,” I said, feeling sudden relief, my voice coming out sort of quick and breathy.
“God, I’m glad—”
“I was calling—”
We both spoke at the same time and then both stopped, his chuckle coming through the line. I smiled despite my nerves.
“You first,” he said softly.
“Oh, okay. Well, I, uh, I rethought what we talked about, and I hope you don’t mind me looking you up, but I was calling to say that if you’re still in need of a, uh … if you’re still in need of … me, I’d be happy to help.”
There was a pause and I started pacing again, waiting for him to speak. “Actually, no, and I owe you an apology for even asking. I hadn’t really thought out the idea. I’m sorry about that. Sorry if I made you feel … you know, not good.”
“Not good,” I murmured, sinking down onto my bed, my hand still gripping the towel to keep it from slipping.
I heard a small, embarrassed-sounding chuckle that ended in a sigh. “Yeah, not good.” What else was there to feel except “not good”? That seemed to be life’s default mode—at least for me.
I snapped back to the present. “There’s no need to apologize. I feel just fine. And, well, I understand if you’ve come up with a different idea, but if not, I’m available.” I waited for him to speak, but when he didn’t immediately, I rushed to fill the silence. “You can practice on me. I mean, if you still want to.”
There was silence from the other end of the line again, and this time I waited it out. Finally, Gabriel spoke and his voice was even quieter. “How would this work exactly?”
I laughed shortly. “You’re going to have to let me know that. I figure you can come to the club like last night. I’ll make sure Anthony knows you’ve followed procedure.”
I heard his breath release in what I hoped was a smile, and then he was silent for another moment. “You sure about this? You feel okay with it?”
“Okay, then.” He still sounded hesitant. “When do you work next?”
“Okay, I’ll be there tomorrow night. And if you change your mind—”
“I won’t change my mind. See you then, Gabe.”
“No more ‘sugar’?” There was a smile in his voice and I smiled, too.
“Whatever you want me to call you, sugar, that’s what I’ll call you.”
“Gabe’s fine. Gabe’s good.”
“See you tomorrow night, sugar.”
Another chuckle. “See you then.”
I hung up and let out a breath, feeling slightly more energized. Okay, I’d figured out my situation. A little extra money—we’d have to talk specifics tomorrow night—but I’d need to at least double my lap-dance rate to make this worth my time. Feeling slightly better, I dropped my towel and pulled on some clean clothes. When I looked in the mirror, I was surprised to see a small smile on my face I hadn’t even realized was there. I blinked, watching the smile slip. There was a large red mark on my cheek where Tommy had backhanded me, and a small welt on my cheekbone that must have been caused by his wedding ring. I picked up my hairbrush, using it roughly on my wet hair, pulling it through the knots until the harsh tugs on my scalp made me wince.