Without Direction

Chapter One




The insistent tapping needed to stop.

There was a sharp stabbing pain behind my left eye, my mouth tasted like I licked the inside of a coffee filter and my eyes were glued shut. Despite my silently willing it to stop, the tapping continued.

Die one thousand deaths, whoever you are, I thought.

My right eye peeled open first and I saw a pile of paper coffee cups. They were littered over the whole passenger seat and a dim glow was coming through the window. It wasn’t morning yet, but morning was on its way.

“Bridgette, get out of the car,” a stern female voice said.

I cracked my left eye, just a smidge. The pain doubled and I closed it again. Turning my head completely, my right eye saw perfectly manicured purple nails, long beautiful mocha fingers, wrapped around a ceramic cup with a lid holding…

“Coffee?” I croaked. My voice was raspy and sounded like I’d smoked a pack of cigarettes. The trouble with bars, I realized, is that even if you couldn’t smoke inside, everyone was doing it outside and I’d inhaled more than my share. I looked down at the jeans and shirt I had on and sniffed. They smelled like sweat, cigarette smoke, and coffee.

The driver’s door next to me opened and I heard more paper coffee containers hitting the ground. I wilted toward the opening, but my seat belt kept me from falling all the way out of the car. Brisk air worked its way in and dissipated some of the lingering smells of my new life. As an added benefit, the air woke me a little more and I smiled at Wendy. She reached her hand in, gripped my wrist and somehow got me upright and out of the car. The seatbelt had been removed and not a drop of coffee was wasted. I reached for the coffee mug, but Wendy pulled it just out of reach.

“You’ve had enough, Sugar. You need to sleep.” I closed my eyes again, against the throbbing in my skull. She took my hand and I allowed myself to be led away from the car.

“I was sleeping… kind of. How did I get here? I was supposed to be going to the gym to shower and work out,” I mumbled. I briefly glimpsed Wendy’s beautifully manicured lawn and teal painted awnings. I stumbled on the threshold walking through the doorway, but Wendy’s strong arms kept me upright.

“You drove here, sugar. About an hour ago. You pulled up, then proceeded to fall asleep.” She was leading me through the house now. We rounded a corner, then another, my feet shuffling on the pale grey carpet. We finally ended our walk in a small room with crown molding and gold leaf wallpaper. I went from standing to sitting and the mattress under me was soft and springy.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to come here and bother you.”

I tried to stand up, but I fell backward. A soft lump settled next to me.

“Hi Mittens,” I said, reaching toward the black cat with white paws. I’d found her in the storeroom of Target during my new employee orientation. The cat and Wendy had resisted the cohabitation at first, but their quiet elegance suited each other.

“Sleep, Bridgette,” she said quietly. “Just go to sleep.”

My eyes drifted closed and I was back in the bar at the beginning of the night.

***

“I’m not homeless,” I’d told the man sitting across from me. He’d sat down at my table in the bar, one I’d never been to before, but that was irrelevant given his access. He was holding a plate of food and looked not at all surprised that I was here. He could always find me. “I have an apartment!”

“You moved all of your stuff out and put it in storage. Now, you spend all your time in your car,” Caleb Beacher said quietly. He was a handsome Native American man, my height at 5 foot 10 inches, and easily 50 pounds lighter than me with his wiry frame. He had been changing out his Harry Potter style glasses frames annually for a new version of the same since 7th grade and they suited his face. We’d met in second grade to become best friends until he moved away in 8th grade with his family and decided I wasn’t worth keeping in touch with. It wasn’t all bad though. He'd ridden through the desert with me to expose a dog fighting ring. All the dogs had been put to sleep except Fawkes, my only friend for 15 years. Until he’d died of a sedative overdose just under 2 and a half weeks ago, lying next to the same man who was in front of me now.

Caleb had also hacked all my online accounts 9 years ago and always knew where I was and who I was with. Literally. Always.

“So? I still pay rent,” I crossed my arms and looked petulant. The mass of unruly red brown hair around my face was contained for the moment in a low braid. It was a country bar, so I’d pulled a purple plaid top over a camisole and paired them with jeans. I didn’t own cowboy boots, so I went with my faux leather brown ones. Stoney’s Rockin’ Rodeo was equal parts restaurant, bar and line dancing spot and it was obvious why I had never come here from the second I walked in the door.

No one needs to hear country music at this volume.

“Why don’t you live there?” He asked, pushing the plate of chicken tenders and fries toward me.

“You know why I don’t live there,” I said. Involuntarily, I picked up a chicken tender and ate it. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten, and I was suddenly devouring everything in front of me.

“Bridge, you can’t quit eating, live in your car, and ignore the world.”

“Last I checked, you don’t have a say in what I do. You’re the reason I don’t have a home,” I hissed, eyes scanning for my Internet date. “I go to work; I pay my bills. I’m not a criminal.”

“This guy is a total creep whose profile has been reported two dozen times. Why are you meeting him?” Caleb seemed to disagree with me on not being a criminal, but he sidestepped the statement instead. I replayed the last few nights in my mind and while I might have crossed a few lines into the moral grey area, I’m fairly certain I hadn’t yet broken any laws. At least, not the laws I considered important.

“None of your business, Beacher. You need to leave.”

“No,” he crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.

“Yes, I was here first. If you don’t leave, I’ll tell your boss about the criminal activity you’re conducting to follow me.”

“He already knows, and he’s worried too,” Caleb said, leaning forward again. “Brian, Sgt. Jackson, said you can stay with him and his family. Tanya and Wendy have offered you rooms with them. I offered you a room with me. You don’t have to go back to your apartment, but you don’t have to live in your car.”

“Oh good, let’s see if I’ve got this right. I can stay with a man who is virtually a stranger, across the hall from my old place, impose on my boss or sleep in the place Fawkes died. Yeah, sure, you’re a genius.”

“Bridge, the vet said…”

“Go away,” I said, spotting my date and trying to make sure he didn’t see Caleb. I didn’t need to be reminded of what the vet said. I didn’t need to know that Fawkes had passed peacefully because of his age and not the overdose of sedatives Ivy, aka Eileen Stevens, had given him. That, in fact, he had been in pain and dying when she gave them to him and brought him comfort and relief in his last moments. If I accepted that, then it wasn’t Caleb’s fault and there was no one to be mad at. If I wasn’t mad, then I didn’t have anything else to be.

“Please don’t do this,” he asked, eyes seeing what mine had.

“Stay out of my life, Beacher,” I said, and got up before he could speak again. He reached for my wrist as I put some money on the table, but I pulled it back in time and walked toward a rail against a wall in view of my date. I bumped into a few patrons in my haste, snagging a toe on a woman’s tan purse and catching myself just before falling. I knocked over a chair trying to keep myself upright and a few glasses toppled on an empty table. My date's eyes were on me long before I made it to the rail.

At least I’m not wearing anyone’s drink.

“Howdy, Bailey,” he said in an accent I knew was as fake as the green contacts he wore. His name was Greg Price and he was a serial abuser of women. At 6 foot 2 inches, he made me feel short, which was a new experience. His sparse brown hair and athletic build were attractive, but the fine lines of his face showed his reported 32-years-old was also a lie. He came on strong in the private messages, mellowed out to get the meet up, and then it all went south fast. I’d combed through police reports and trolled dating sites to find men like him and turned it around on them. At his height with his build, this was going to be a challenge and a tingle of excitement went up my spine.

It was the tingle that had me on my 4th date in a week.

“George,” I smiled back. I’d never used a fake name before, but he was an expert.

I extended a hand to shake but he took it and pulled me in. He moved a hand around my waist and started swaying to the music. Which had just, thankfully, ended. Using the cue, I tried to back away but he held tight.

“No need to be formal, darling,” he said against my ear. His breath was strong, as was his grip, and another jolt rushed through me. I put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him away, taking up his other one in a Waltz pose. He took back the two inches I’d gained by dragging my hips to his, but I got to keep my elbow levered on his chest. He gyrated against my hips and I “accidentally” drove my heel into the toe of his boot. Knee lifting in apology and just missing his groin.

Not smart.

It’s the only way left to feel alive.

We were bumped from behind. My knee shoved closer, but my boot caught on someone’s spur, so my hips were pressed into Greg instead. A hand slid into my back pocket, but both of Greg’s were pressed against my breasts.

“Excuse me,” a familiar male voice said, before moving past us and away. I took my hand off Greg’s shoulder and dug my elbow into his gut. It was intentional, but a dazed expression made it look like I was too far gone to measure my own strength.

“I’m thirsty, should I get us a round?” I asked, turning and walking away toward the bar.

“I’ll get it, beautiful,” he said, sliding past me. “You grab us a table. A gentleman should always get the drinks.”

I smiled and nodded at him.

Gentleman my ass.

I looked around the seating area and found two stools pushed against a short plank bar mounted to a railing. From it, I could see the dance floor, the bathroom door and the bar. A new couple, holding hands and sharing an oversized margarita, now occupied the table Caleb and I had vacated. Their eyes were only for each other, their hands perfectly in sync. Something pinged in my chest, but I pushed it away. Caleb and I would not have been sharing a margarita here even if he hadn’t gotten drugged and carried my dog to his deathbed. We’d have been… I don’t know where we’d have been, but there wouldn’t have been country music. Reaching into my back pocket I felt something soft and something rigid. I pulled it out and saw the money I’d dropped on the table wrapped around a metal cylinder.

“Damn it, Caleb,” I muttered to myself. He was never going to stop trying to feed me. He was never going to stop trying to protect me. The lid of the cylinder was plastic and I could make out the ridge of the safety slider.

He gave me pepper spray, I thought. I guess I should have thought of that.

I caught sight of Greg at the bar, standing in front of two drinks and handing the bartender his card. Just as the bartender, a middle-aged woman in a cowboy hat, turned, I saw something slide out of Greg’s hand and into the drink on the right. He didn’t look around, or check that no one was watching like the cocky jerk he is. He’d just drugged one of the cups and was about to carry it over. No big deal, just another day in the life of Greg Price.

His behavior was consistent in every report and online account I had found. He found plus sized women on dating sites, pushed their boundaries, used their insecurities to get them to meet him in person, slip something into their drink, escort them out under the guise of one too many, take them home and rape them. They rarely remembered. It was the whole “he said, she said” narrative that made women filing rape reports look like liars. Everyone who’d seen the couple in the bar would say she went willingly, knowingly, and there wouldn’t be any signs of a struggle. They drew blood but no one ever tested it. No one had believed the overweight women hadn’t wanted a man.

Not tonight, Mr. Price. Tonight, you find out what happens to men who prey on the weak.

***

I jerked upright and found a sticky note stuck to my face.

Do not come out until you have showered and brushed your teeth.

Cupping my hand to my face, I started to conduct the standard breath check when something popped in my shoulder. Stretching my arm out to shake it off, I knocked a cup of water to the floor. Thankfully, it had a lid and not much spilled. Less lucky was the cat who had been grooming herself next to that water cup, who shot up and out before the last bounce. A black tail with the smallest patch of white just disappeared around the corner.

“Sorry, Mittens!” I called after her, but everyone knows cats don’t care. She was probably plotting the best way to slit my throat with her claw. Since it was there, I drank the newly righted water until there was none left and still needed more. The stabbing behind my left eye had retreated to a dull ache and my mouth had a much better taste. The two duffle bags from my car were in the room and I stumbled over to the royal purple bag to pull out clean clothes and my toothbrush.

Wendy kept a neat house. She’d remodeled it while still struggling through life as Walter, but after she came into herself, the decorations matched what was always inside. I hadn’t known Walter, but I was lucky to know Wendy. The bathroom was tiled in Lilac with accent chevrons in white and teal countertops. It was like walking into the closet of Ariel from The Little Mermaid but drier. I stripped in front of the mirror, noticing how many joints popped and creaked as I did. A quick glance in the mirror and I was grateful for fall weather because I had bruises everywhere.

The shower was immaculate, not a crust of calcium anywhere and it felt like I’d graduated to a five-star hotel after the showers at the gym.

I can’t believe you bought a gym membership, my inner mean girl said.

I can’t believe she’s using it, the meaner girl said.

I can’t believe she thinks any of this makes losing Fawkes easier, the meanest of all.

I ducked my head under the stream of water in an attempt to drown the voices with no luck. Under the rushing spray of water, I pictured all the voices I criticized myself in clawing at the surface, screaming for help while I mercilessly poured water into their lungs. Heat curled and soothed the aches in my muscles, releasing the stiffness in my back from sleeping in the car. My thighs were sore from taking turbo kick, kickboxing, and then doing HIIT rounds between work and my nightly dates.

“What the hell happened, Bridgette?” Came a voice from behind me and I winced.

“Huh?” I said into the water, hoping I could drown myself before answering.

“What happened?”

“Sorry, the water…” I turned my back to her.

Wendy set down two plush towels and walked out, but I knew this wasn’t over. Wendy wasn’t going to let me hide any more than I would let the internet predators hide. Same as me, she was biding her time and prepping. My grace period for self-destructive behavior was up and she was ready to hold me accountable. Soap, shampoo, deodorant and toothpaste used in their respective locations. Then I took stock of my injuries in the mirror again.

Shin bruises had been his boots kicking out.

Ribs were from the punch he’d thrown when he realized I switched the drinks. We’d been right outside the bar.

Arm bruises were from when he tried to reverse our positions as we walked into the alley.

Knot on my head was from the dumpster I’d zipped tied him to in the alley. His drugs on him, the souvenir photos and messages on his phone unlocked and open. It had been a long stumble back out of the alley as I fought the small amount of Rohypnol I’d swallowed. Back in the bar, he’d handed me the glass and stared expectantly. He had been waiting for me to drink and it only upped the excitement of the game.

Could I stop him before I pass out?

The actual events of getting into the alley were still a little fuzzy. It was hard to remember much beyond a weight dragging beside me. Combat was easier to remember, the adrenaline fighting the drug to do what had to be done. I’d made it out of the alley and to my car before the first police cruiser had pulled in. His own phone had been used to report the man tied to a trash can. Just in case there were questions, I’d written RAPIST on his forehead in sharpie.

It hadn’t been necessary, but it made me feel better.

Clothed, hair tied back and shoes on, I braced myself to re-enter the bedroom and talk to Wendy. But it was empty.

The room was quiet; a mug of coffee on the nightstand had steam coming out of it. The coffee sat on a news article printed off the internet. I scanned the document quickly and winced. It featured a picture of the dumpster Greg had been zip tied to and an article detailing his crimes. Apparently, Greg Price hadn’t been his real name either, but his real name wasn’t listed. Cases of reported rape were being re-opened though and I tried to smile that justice would be served after all.

Tried, but there was no smile in there.