Authors: Abigail Drake
Entering the dark, quiet apartment, I was relieved not to have to face Lucinda, who had already gone to bed. I showed Michael to the bathroom so he could wash off the worst of the blood, and went to my bedroom to pack.
“Now what does one take when on the run from a Moktar beast?” I pondered.
“Only what you need for tonight. You can come back in the morning to get anything else you require.”
Michael leaned against the doorjamb, blotting his hands dry with a paper towel. The “Hello, Kitty!” bandage was gone, but blood still trickled slowly from his wound.
“You need another band aid.” I pushed him out of the doorway and led him back into the bathroom. He sat on the toilet as I looked through my things.
“You have three choices.” I held up a “Barbie” bandage, one with pink fairies on it, and a purple one covered in glitter. He gave me a rather hostile look, and pointed to the purple one. I put it on over his cut, trying to be as gentle as possible.
“All better,” I said with a smile.
I held his hands in mine, examining his other wounds in the bright light of the bathroom. My assessment outside had been correct. The gash on his left arm, next to his wrist, was the worst. Michael had cleaned it well, and it had stopped bleeding, but looked deep.
“You seem to know what you’re doing,” he said.
“My granddaddy is a country doctor. I worked in his office during the summer and sometimes after school. Not too exciting, but I learned how to take care of a few cuts and bruises.”
“Is your father a doctor, too?”
“Oh, heavens no. He practically faints at the sight of blood. He’s the biggest scaredy-cat ever.”
“What does he do?”
“He teaches military history at Western Kentucky University. That’s where I go to school.” I pointed to the wound that looked the worst. “You need stitches for this one.”
He studied it. “I can take care of it right now. Will you help me?”
I swallowed hard. “No, I cannot stitch your arm back together. I’m sorry. I can’t. Granddaddy tried to teach me, and the results were less than spectacular.”
Michael grinned, and then bit his lip in that absurdly sexy way of his. “I don’t want you to stitch it. The only thread you have would probably be pink with sparkles. No, thank you. I just want you to hold it together for me so I can glue it.”
Michael stood up and dug into the pocket of his jeans. He pulled out a small tube. “Medical glue. It works wonders.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You carry this around in your
? How often do you get torn up, Mr. Nightingale?”
Without answering, he sat down and showed me how to hold the wound together. “It’ll take only a few moments to set, but I need an extra pair of hands. Are you ready?”
“It’s so sad you know how to do this.” He lifted his left arm, resting his hand on my hip. I put my fingers on either side of his wound and pressed the edges together as tightly as I could.
“Nice work,” he said as he squeezed a long line of glue along the cut.
We remained very still, and every passing breath made me extremely aware of Michael’s hand on my hip. A lock of hair fell onto my face. Michael reached up and tucked it behind my ear with his other hand.
The tiny bathroom felt even smaller with Michael’s giant, muscular tattooed body in it. Too shy to look at his face, I took this opportunity to study his ink. He’d taken off his leather jacket and wore only a tight black short-sleeved t-shirt. A long row of block letters curved their way around his arm like a rope. Some had small hearts or symbols next to them.
“What are the hearts for? Old girlfriends?”
Michael smirked, and shook his head. “Friends. Family members, too. People killed by the Moktar.”
I couldn’t see all the way up his arm, but there were easily twenty sets of initials on his forearm. There was also a large flock of black birds. “And the birds?”
Michael’s lips curved up into a little half smile. “Dead Moktar. I killed those myself.”
“Looks like you’re winning. You can get another one for the Moktar you killed tonight.”
A sad shadow crossed over his eyes. “And one for Tad, too. He was only sixteen. He just started hunting a few months ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said softly. That was the most Michael had ever said to me at one time, each word heavy with pain and loss. I started to think these emotions were a constant factor in his life.
“Thank you.” He touched the glue gingerly with his other hand. “It’s set now. You can let go.”
I did so gently, but didn’t move away. He still had his hand on my hip, and I stood right between his legs, my knee brushing his thigh. That position felt suddenly very intimate. I had a funny feeling deep in the pit of my stomach, and found it a little hard to breathe.
“You can let go, too,” I said.
He gave me a lazy, sexy smile and slowly slid his hand off my hip. The man was a menace, a walking, talking aphrodisiac.
I gave him a steady look. “Michael Nightingale. You’d better stop flirting with me unless you mean it or I might not help you the next time you need to be glued back together.”
He looked at me in astonishment and followed me back to my room. He leaned against the wall in the hallway, his bulging arms folded over his chest. “I wasn’t flirting with you.”
“Uh, huh. Sure.” Winking, I closed the door on him, and started to pull off my shirt, but immediately gagged at the stench of Moktar spit on my skin. Shuddering, I stuck my head out into the hallway.
“Do I have time to take a super quick shower?” I gave him my most pleading look. “I smell like Moktar.”
“Oh, that’s very attractive.” He took a deep breath and sighed. “Fine. Just hurry.”
I grabbed a change of clothes and scooted into the bathroom. “If you’re hungry, I made pasta. It’s in the kitchen. There are some brownies, too. Just try to be quiet. My roommate is sleeping.”
I slipped into the shower and scrubbed until my skin was pink and raw, wanting every last bit of Moktar erased. I washed my hair quickly and pulled it into a tight bun at the nape of my neck. I didn’t want to take the time to dry it. I put on a pair of black stretchy pants, a white long-sleeved t-shirt, and a gray hoodie with “Western Kentucky University” emblazoned on the front. A few sizes too big, it felt like a warm hug from my daddy.
In the kitchen, Michael wolfed down a heaping bowl of pasta. For some reason, the fact he liked my cooking made me feel absurdly proud. I filled a small bowl for myself, and wrote a note for Lucinda.
“What should I tell my roommate?” I handed Michael a beer, and opened one for me, too.
“Ta,” he said, raising his bottle in thanks. “Tell her as little as possible, but keep it close to the truth.”
“So nothing about the Moktar?” He froze with a fork full of pasta halfway to his mouth, and I grinned. “Just joshing you. I’ll tell her we hooked up. She’d believe that.”
He froze again. “She would?”
“Sometimes, Mr. Nightingale, your porch light is on, but nobody is home. Let’s just say it wouldn’t come as a surprise and leave it at that.”
My cheeks went from pink to red, but I kept my head down and wrote out a quick yet reassuring note to Lucinda. I stuck it on the fridge, and then brought Michael a brownie. He took a bite and groaned.
I smiled so wide my cheeks hurt. The first compliment Michael had ever paid me.
He rolled his eyes at the expression on my face. “We really must go.”
I grabbed my passport, and made sure my journal and books were already inside my backpack as well. I was going to have a whole lot to write about before this night was through. I just knew it.
“Ready when you are,” I said, pulling on a jacket. Michael took my overnight bag from my hands.
“That’s what you think,” he murmured, almost under his breath.
We locked up the apartment and walked down the street in silence. Michael appeared on high alert, his muscles tensing at every sound. Clearly, he was stressed, but I’d moved beyond stressed to a weird state of calm. I’d seen too much for my brain to process. Finally, we reached the spot in The Shambles where I’d watched him disappear the first day I followed him.
“I know this place.”
“You should,” he said. “I can’t let you see the entrance, Emerson. Close your eyes.”
“Are you kidding me?” My mouth dropped open. He was completely serious. “But why?”
“Some secrets aren’t mine to tell.”
I wasn’t happy about it, but closed my eyes and began tapping my toe impatiently. “There you go, all cryptic again. Geez Louise. You’d think you’d trust me by now after I helped glue your danged arm together.”
“Keep your eyes shut.” Michael grabbed my hand and pulled me forward. “And keep your mouth shut, too.”
A hint of laughter colored his voice. I heard a soft creak and guessed it was some kind of door. As soon as it slammed shut behind us, everything grew completely silent and still.
“You can open your eyes now.”
Michael still held my hand. It took me a moment to adjust and realize we now stood in a dark hallway. Bare bulbs hung from the ceiling, but they were dim and sparsely placed.
“Where are we?”
He didn’t answer. He led me through an intricate maze of doors and up and down metal staircases. The walk was so dark and confusing I started to wish I’d brought breadcrumbs.
At last, he stopped in front of a large metal door and took a deep breath. “This is it,” he said softly. “The point of no return.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“It is. Are you sure this is what you want?” Michael gave my hand a gentle squeeze.
If circumstances had been different, I would have been really happy right now. Michael was talking to me, holding my hand, and bringing me home to meet his family. But the fact a Moktar wanted to kill me just took all the fun right out of it.
“Well, it’s stay here or die, right?”
“Yes. I’m sorry for what has already happened, and for what’s about to happen now.”
I frowned. “I’ve had enough surprises for one evening. What are you trying to tell me?”
When he looked at me, the world-weary expression on his face almost broke my heart. “Just forgive me,” he said, and turned the handle on the giant metal door, swinging it open.
I thought we’d enter a room, but instead we stepped into an outdoor courtyard filled with people and noise. Tall trees and grass graced the area with caravans parked in even rows. Some of the caravans were old-fashioned, made of wood and painted in bright colors. Others were very modern and looked more like the campers or RVs back home.
The similarities to Kentucky ended there. Hanging from several of the trees were the bodies of Moktar in various stages of decomposition. I wasn’t keen on Moktar myself, but recoiled at the primitive gruesomeness of it. I’d imagined something a little different for my first date with Michael Nightingale. Dinner and a movie maybe. At least he still held my hand, which was a good thing.
We’d walked in as a group of men hung their latest Moktar trophy on a low branch near the doorway. People spit at the corpse, hitting it with sticks and poles. They were working themselves into a proper frenzy. I almost couldn’t hear Michael when he put his lips close to my ear and told me to follow him. As he began leading me into the center of the courtyard, the noise slowly died away. People stopped in mid swing, with shocked expressions on their faces, and soon, every eye was trained on me. The crowd had grown strangely and ominously silent.
Several people sat around a large bonfire. Michael tightened his grip on my hand and led me over to them. The crowd that had been beating the Moktar now assembled around us, the hostility in the air almost palpable.
Most of the men dressed like Michael in black and leather. The women, however, were a different story. They wore animal prints, sequins, sparkling gold lame, and bright colors. Their clothing was tight, sexy, and revealing. Piles of jewelry, lots of makeup, and very high-heeled shoes completed their looks. Even the little girls had on stilettos. I looked out of place in my hoody and yoga pants, not that I would have fit in any better with one of my wool skirts. Even my pageant dresses would have seemed subdued around these women.
Michael brought me to a man sitting in a chair in front of the fire. He was older, with graying hair and the same shockingly blue eyes Michael possessed.
“Da.” Michael greeted the man with a nod. I gave him a weak smile, which he ignored.
“Why have you brought her here, Mikey?”
“She’s being tracked.”
“Why would they bother tracking a Dweller?”
Michael shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. Emerson Shaw, meet my father, Sampson.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” I was so nervous, I almost curtsied.
Everyone laughed, and my cheeks burned. “A well brought up young lady, I see. You’re an oddity around here for sure.”
Something softened in his eyes. “She’s your responsibility, Mikey. She stays with you and you alone will care for her. I mean that. You aren’t passing this off on anyone else. If anything happens to her, or because of her, it’s on you. Can you accept this?”
“I can.” Michael’s voice was firm and clear.
Some of the people assembled around us got bored with our conversation and went back to play the Traveller version of “Whack-A-Mole” with the Moktar carcass. Michael’s father turned to me with a smile. “Well, then, Emerson Shaw. Welcome to the bowels of hell. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
Well, ain’t he just the tomcat’s kitten?
Michael took me to his caravan. It sat on the end of one of the long rows of caravans, nestled under a large oak tree. Unlike many of the others, Michael’s was shiny, new, and made of a very modern-looking silver metal. We climbed some narrow steps to a small porch, then he opened the door and ushered me in.
The inside was much bigger than it looked from the outside, and very neat and tidy. The front room had a small kitchen and sitting room. I saw the back room through a door, and most of it seemed dominated by a large bed.
“It probably isn’t what you’re used to, but make yourself at home,” he said, looking a bit uncomfortable. When he began to walk out the door, I grabbed his arm.