By: Lexie Ray

Chapter One

Hunter wiped her thumb down the side of her glass, swiping away condensation and getting lost in the ambient noises around her. She had given up focus, resting her soft gaze on her water glass, half empty and growing warm with each passing minute. It had to be a hundred degrees outside. The cotton tee she was wearing clung uncomfortably to her rounded back, soaking up sweat as she slumped forward unwilling to lean against the back of her chair. She could feel sweat beading at her hairline. Raising her hand to blot it away with a napkin produced such a feeling of exhaustion it almost wasn’t worth it.

There was no air in the restaurant. Every breath Hunter drew in felt heavy and thick. The ceiling fan overhead turned slowly. No breeze graced down to alleviate the stagnant humidity. The open door some two tables down did nothing but dangle the possibility of relief.

She realized her glass was suddenly empty. She was so out of it she hadn’t noticed finishing it. Her eyelids were growing heavy and it crossed Hunter’s mind that she shouldn’t have taken the second pill. Her mouth had grown dry as cotton. When she looked around the restaurant she spotted a waitress smiling brightly and holding her slick hair off her dewy neck in front of the half bar. The waitress slapped a tin bell and a cook from behind the bar raised his brows, smiling back. But no one sensed Hunter was fading hard at her table, losing her faculties, desperate for water.

Hunter reminded herself to hang in there, ride this out. Her date would be back soon, hopefully. These cramped downtown restaurants were always packed beyond capacity, torturing any customer who had to use the restroom with an atrocious line. There he was, next in line. The back of his button up shirt was stained damp. He had no idea Hunter was on Vicodin. He had no idea she couldn’t remember his name. He smiled back at her, shrugging casually, as if to establish some kind of inside joke with her. He seemed sweet, but Hunter found it impossible to relate to anyone. Long ago her heart had been cracked by darkness and a rift had been growing ever since, straining her sense of compassion, empathy, love. Part of her knew she was damaged beyond repair, that the rift would not cease until it had broken her completely. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if that weren’t true, if there was some degree of hope, if there was some way to become whole? When she had first moved to Brooklyn that was what these dinner dates had been about, but date after date Hunter realized she didn’t understand these people. Their lives were strange, their dreams foreign. And eventually she admitted to herself that the reason she showed up was not to find a connection and feel less alone, but simply to eat.

A cascade of water pooled into her glass, and when Hunter lifted her gaze, her date had also returned. He made some innocent comments, chucking his way around the waitress, as she tipped the pitcher upright momentarily then poured once again into the date’s glass. She never once let her toothy grin slip. It shouldn’t have been obnoxious, but it was.

“I’m not sure I’m feeling well. I’m so sorry, I think I have to go,” said Hunter lowly in a velvety tone. She wished her voice didn’t sound like that, seductive. It had instantly softened him. He didn’t even realize he had begun leaning in or that the edges of his mouth were curling up. Hunter had a way of saying what she meant, but implying she was up for anything. Truthfully, it was a quality she hated about herself and if she could have stopped it, she would have. It seemed whenever she wanted to run, hide, escape, or drive someone away, her sultry tone instead beckoned, invited, and agreed. The illusion of submission had kept her alive when she was younger, but she no longer needed it. This wasn’t merely a habit. If it was, it would’ve been easy to shake. This was an instinct so deeply ingrained in her that she wouldn’t know herself without it. So when her date raised his eyebrows and offered to walk her home, Hunter knew she had brought it upon herself. She knew that getting rid of him would require taming the darkness within.

The street was no better. Hunter still felt humid, exhausted, and unable to breathe. At first they walked in silence. Her mind a haze of swirling regrets, she couldn’t remember why she had agreed to meet this guy or why she needed so many pills. They passed heaps of trash bags. A few roaches jutted out in their path, but Hunter was unfazed. Her date said something sarcastic about the most expensive city in the country, but Hunter was deaf to it. She crossed her arms and kept her head down. She wasn’t going to encourage him. At least it was night. Walking in shadows had always helped her feel safe.

They rounded the corner, arriving at her stoop. Its bricks were so cracked and eroded that even the cover of night couldn’t mask that this was an old, rundown, slumlord building. Judging by the shine on his shoes, Hunter figured this guy could do a lot better than a girl like her. Which meant only one thing, he had walked her home so that he could come upstairs, leave afterwards, and never call. It was the last thing she wanted, unless it came with cash. But she knew she would need at least one more pill to get through it, and he did not look like the paying type.

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