I woke up screaming, sweating profusely, unable to breathe. Not that this was anything new. A banging sound in the next room let me know Carissa must have heard my screams. I needed to get myself under control before she burst through my doors.
“Ava? What happened? Are you okay?” Carissa said half asleep.
“I’m fine.” I was far from fine but what else was I supposed to tell her? That I just relived the worst night of my life for the millionth time?
“Did you have another nightmare? I thought you were over those.” I had done a damn good job keeping my nightmares hidden from her. As far as she knew, they ended a year ago when the blood curdling screams stopped escaping from my throat.
I just stared at the floor with my arms wrapped around my legs. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. Nothing about this was normal. I was drowning in my own nightmares.
“Ava, please. Tell me. I can’t help you if you don’t. Is it something else? I’m here for you no matter what. Please trust me.” Carissa wasn’t going to let this go. It’s been six years and she still held on.
I shook it off and wiped away my tears. It may have only been a dream but it was based off of reality. I had to calm down. “Carissa, I don’t want to talk about it. Not right now. What time is it?”
“It’s six in the damn morning. Why?” She looked confused by my change in attitude. I’m hungry and she’ll probably drop this whole mess since I brought up break-fast. She is all about the food, especially when I offer to pay.
“Let’s go to Karen’s Kitchen. My treat.” I could go for some Mickey Mouse pan-cakes right about now.
“Really?” She said, “Fine get dressed,” then she disappeared back to her room. I loved that she didn’t push me. She respected me and our friendship too much to suffocate me with questions that demanded answers. For crying out loud, I woke up in a screaming panic and she brushed it off for a free meal. This is why Carissa Jacobs would always be my best friend. She cared about my issues but she didn’t force our friendship or try and control it. She accepted it for what it was and cherished it with everything she had.
We moved to Bonita Springs, Florida about a year ago. It was supposed to just be a vacation, but we loved it here so much we never left. The town was busy and full of life. The beach was glorious which made it impossible to leave. We opened up a little consignment shop just two months after we moved here and business was booming.
We grew up in a small town outside St. Louis and Florida became our dream. It was fitting that we moved together, showing our friendship was unbreakable. We had been best friends since kindergarten and nothing can ever change that. Though, I was beginning to wonder if my intense behavior would soon hinder our rock-solid friendship. I still couldn’t believe she stuck around after all this time, let alone moved to a completely new state with me.
Carissa and I used to dream of traveling the world together. When we were eight, we made a scrapbook of all the places we wanted to see one day. Page after page we covered with pictures of monuments, city signs, dive bars, and even little restaurants and stores. We had big dreams when we were little. When we decided to take a trip to Florida it was just that; a trip. We drove seventeen hours just to see the beach. The second my toes hit the sand an instant calm rushed through me, and I knew this was where I wanted to start over. One look at Carissa told me she felt the same way, and we’ve been here ever since. I knew when we left that St. Louis would never be home again.
Before we moved to Florida, I would wake up screaming each and every night. Carissa used to beg me to let her in, to let her help soothe my pain. She knew the gist of my demons and she stuck by my side through it all. For the most part, the middle of the night screaming fits ended once we left St. Louis. The nightmares still visited me each time I closed my eyes, but I had become so numb to the pain that I began waking up to silent terrors. The sound that escaped my lips tonight even scared me.
I got out of bed and went to my little half bathroom. I looked into my cracked mirror and wondered what had happened to me. My sapphire blue eyes had faded to a dark, swollen grey and my skin was pale as a ghost. My dark roots were showing and it looked like I had been through hell and back. I guess I had been, but nothing I did would take that pain away.
I shook my head and cleared my mind of that night. Six years and it still haunts me. Just when I think I’m moving forward my nightmares push me back to reality. I doubt I’d ever be able to truly move on.
I threw my hair into a messy bun and brushed on a little makeup. I walked back to my room and grabbed a hoodie out of my closet and threw on some dirty jeans. I took a look at the bag of make-up on my dresser and decided to slap on a little foundation and eyeliner to appease Carissa. We used to spend way too much time getting ready together. Now I spend way too much time curled up in bed listening to dark music and reading bullshit stories. I’ve always been jealous of fictional characters. They always get their happy ending one way or another.
There was a knock on my door and Carissa walked in. She had thrown on a pair of jeans and a Florida State hoodie. Her long blond locks were pulled back and she gave me a quick smile, no doubt because of the eyeliner. It’s the little things that kept her happy and off my back.
“Let’s do this. I need some sugary sweetness to start this day off right.” I gave her my biggest, cheesiest smile and linked my arm into hers.
We drove the ten minutes to Karen’s Kitchen in complete and utter silence. It was terrifying. The silence cut through me and always made me think too much. Being stuck in my own head was never a good thing. I constantly relived the moment that tortured my soul day in and day out. It was my destiny to be miserable.
We pulled up to the little restaurant and I got out of Carissa’s black Ford Escape. I made a mental note to get me one of these bad boys when I could finally afford something other than my piece of shit Grand Prix. Courtney, our usual waitress, sat us in our designated corner booth. She had become quick friends with Carissa and gave us special treatment because we came to Karen’s so often.
I glanced around the restaurant and it looked like we were the only ones here this early other than an elderly couple sitting at the counter.
“What can I get ya to drink?” Courtney asked.
“Coffee.” Carissa and I said in unison.
She went to get our coffee and when I looked up, Carissa was staring at me. I glanced back down at my menu, which I didn’t need. I’m twenty-four years old and still ordered the Mickey Mouse pancakes with strawberries and whip cream. I had no shame. It’s Mickey Mouse. How do you say no to that?
“Ava, I know you don’t want to talk about what happened, but tell me you know I’m here to listen when you’re ready. I care about you and hate the fact you woke up like that again because it’s been awhile since that’s happened. I know we like to brush the important things off, but I’m here for you.” She sure knew how to guilt a girl.
“I know you are, okay? What are you getting to eat?” I didn’t deserve her friend-ship. I didn’t deserve anything. I was dirty and tainted. Torn and broken beyond re-pair. Maybe one day she would realize that.
Carissa sighed and said, “Waffles. You know they’re my weakness. You think I could get those shaped like something?”
“Ha! Maybe if you’re lucky. Will you go grab a kids’ menu? I want to kick your ass in some tic tac toe.” I smiled as she got up to get us a kids’ menu. Tic tac toe. That was something normal right?
Carissa came back and she schooled me on those damn kids’ games. Maybe my heart just wasn’t in it. Breakfast was a good distraction, for about twenty minutes anyway. I needed something more permanent. But what that something was, well, it was a mystery. Maybe I could pick up a hobby or a sport. Yeah, I could start knitting—like that was ever going to happen.
When we got home, I went straight to my room. Before I could strip down and curl back into bed, Carissa grabbed my door and barged right in. She sure had a way of making an entrance.
“What the—what?” I stuttered.
“We are going out tonight. Just the two of us. I need a drink after a week of exams and you need to get out. Even if it’s only for the night.” Carissa was taking a couple of online classes to get her business degree. She said she wanted something ‘pretty looking’ to hang up at the shop. All week she had been stressing over an accounting final. I guess she was ready to shrug that grade off with a drink or two, or six.
“I don’t think—” I didn’t get my thought out before she interrupted.
“No, you don’t think. You just do. You need a night out and I need a wing girl. Ever since Chris left I’ve been in a slump. My lady bits can’t handle the lack of attention any more. I’m taking you shopping for a new outfit and you’re going to help me pick out some sexy hooker heels. We are going to spend way too long getting ready like old times and we are going out. This is not optional. I’m sick of your excuses. It’s been months since the last time we went out. Just do this for me, please?” She all but begged with her puppy dog eyes and her you-can’t-say-no attitude. How could I say no to her?
“Fine. But you’re buying my new dress. That’s my stipulation.” Moving to Florida not only kept my screaming night terrors at bay, but it gave me a tiny bit of confidence. I had been out with Carissa a few times in the last year. Not every week or anything excessive like that, but every once in a while we would go to a local bar and hang out like old times. Carissa and I would go shopping and have an entire girl’s weekend. It made me feel human again. Though lately, I just came up with lame excuses to stay home.
I didn’t know what made me agree to go tonight but she was right, it had been too long. It’s not that I didn’t want to go out and let loose, because I did. It was the fear that latched on to my heart that kept me from going out and spending time with my best friend like a normal person would. I was going to have to push that fear away for Carissa tonight. She was begging for my friendship and I needed to show her I was still capable of giving it. I thought about the other times we spent having drinks and hanging out and I looked up at her and smiled, silently telling her yes.
“Don’t go looking for the most expensive one, got it? I’m not made of money.”
After three hours of shopping and two hours of shameless pampering, we were back home getting ready for the night. I was even a little excited. I needed Carissa to know that I wasn’t keeping my distance because of her. I needed this to remind her I was still here, that I hadn’t reverted back to my depression. She knew enough about that night, but she sure as hell didn’t know everything. She knew something else had happened though, and after all this time I still couldn’t tell her the whole truth. One day, when I had the courage, I’ll give her every last detail. I will tell her about the man who stole my life. I won’t hold back either. She deserves to know the truth, the entire truth.
“These shoes are going to get me laid tonight! How hot are they?” she said, smiling from ear to ear. If anyone deserved a night out, Carissa did. And damn did she look gorgeous tonight. Her blond hair fell midway down her back and outlined her face flawlessly. She was dressed in a violet, strapless dress that hung just above her knees. Her legs were long and tan and those shoes? Those shoes made those legs of hers look like they went on for days. If she was really aiming to get laid tonight, it wouldn’t take very long to accomplish that goal.
“So what happened with Chris? I’m sorry I’ve been so out of it lately. I feel terrible for not being there for you. I’m here now if you want to talk about it. After all it’s going to take us a few hours to get me looking half as good as you.”
“Oh, shut up, Ava. You would look gorgeous in a burlap sack.” She laughed and I couldn’t help but smile. It brought me back to the good old days when I could gossip and talk to her without forcing it. How we could be so close yet so far apart was be-yond me. “It’s ok, I’m sure you have a good enough reason. Chris and I just didn’t work out. He’s a player. There’s not much else to it. When are you going to find your-self a man? Seriously Ava, when was the last time you got some? Hell, I’ve never even seen you with a man.”
I cringed and had to stop myself from throwing up my mental wall against the topic of men. I mean, after all, I asked her about Chris. Why wouldn’t she ask when I was going to “get some?”
“I don’t need a man. I have you. What more could I ask for?” I gave her the cheesiest grin I could and mustered up a fake laugh. On the inside I was terrified of where this was going.
“Nothing, I’m the only thing anyone needs in their life.” She grinned. “Except for myself, I don’t need me. I need a Bradley Cooper look-a-like and a lot of tequila. Go put that dress on. I’m dying to see it on you.”
“Yes, Mother. Right away, Mother. As you wish—”
“Shut up and go,” she interrupted. “I’m not your mother. I’m the girl your mother warned you about. Get dressed so we can go cause a little mayhem.”
After a few minutes of struggling to slip into the dress Carissa so nicely provided for the evening, I stepped out of my room and into the master bathroom. Carissa dropped her hair straighter and her mouth fell open.
“My God, woman. Where is my Ava and what have you done with her? Have you seen yourself? Fuck me.”
“Whatever. It’s just a dress,” I snapped back, maybe a little meaner than I meant to. I brushed my hands along the dress to straighten it out and started to fidget. I al-ways got nervous when I dressed up and it had been long enough since the last time, that my nerves were even worse than normal.
“Ava. Look in the mirror. When did your boobs get so perky? Can I touch them?” Carissa laughed. She was losing her mind.
I walked over to the floor length mirror and my jaw dropped. When did my boobs get so perky? I looked good. Damn good. It was a tight, black dress that hugged my body in all the right places. The hem rested along my thighs and I had just enough cleavage showing that I wouldn’t consider myself slutty. My thick auburn curls were hanging just right and I felt like I could rule the world. I had on bright red stilettos with matching lipstick. Carissa got me hooked on heels when we started going out down here. I had missed them and my classy side these last few months. Maybe to-night wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
“You aren’t supposed to outshine me, damn it. The wing girl can’t look better than the wingette!” Carissa interrupted my thoughts.
“What the hell is a wingette? You’re insane. Are you ready or what? I want to dance.” I wasn’t sure if that was true or not, but I think part of me did. The other part of me remembered what could happen if I wasn’t on high alert. I shook that part off and smiled at Carissa. Tonight we were going to be unstoppable.
We pulled up to The Devil’s Playground, a busy night club nearby, and I paid our cab fare. For a brief moment I began to panic seeing all the people outside waiting to get into the packed nightclub. Then I felt Carissa next to me and the panicked feeling disappeared. I remembered the first time we tried coming here, about two months after our move. I barely made it passed the door before I turned and ran away. Carissa followed me and after a couple blocks of walking, we came across a little dive bar. She convinced me to go in and have a drink to calm my nerves. After a few more trips to that bar, over the next couple months, I was comfortable enough to try Devil’s Playground again. Thinking about it made me wonder why it had been months since I’ve been back. Carissa and I always had a good time and nothing bad had ever happened. I was worried about nothing.
We walked up to the bouncer and he let us bypass the line after taking a good hard look at each of us. His eyes grazed over me and I shivered a little knowing what he was thinking. Typical male.
“I told you that you looked hot. We didn’t even have to wait.” Carissa snickered.
I laughed and followed her to the bar. We weaved in and out of intoxicated college kids dancing and drinking the night away. My goal was to have fun tonight and just let go. I didn’t want to think about anything but this moment. I needed to mend my shattered soul one drink at a time.
Carissa ordered me a Captain and Coke and got herself a vodka and cranberry. “Look at all these delicious fish.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked.
“Fish. You know, like ‘fish in the sea’? Get it? Whatever. Look at these fine-ass men. Pick one.”
“Pick one for what? I told you. I’m not here for a man. Let’s dance.”
“No stupid, pick one for me. I want to make this like a contest. You pick the guy and I’ll ride him to victory.” Her laugh was so contagious. I just couldn’t help but go along with her shenanigans. Carissa had this way about her that just made every-thing bad in my life disappear, even if it was only a brief disappearance. I needed to let her get me out of my fucked-up head more often.
“That one,” I pointed at a tall, broad-shouldered hunk on the dance floor, “by the DJ stand. He looks your type.”
“Challenge accepted. Though I’m not sure what you mean by ‘my type’. I don’t have a type. I love all men.” She winked, “come on.” She grabbed my wrist and showed me her big, bright smile.
“I am not a part of this game.” I shouted back but it was too late. She was already dragging me onto the dance floor. She swayed to the beat and ran her hands through her hair. I couldn’t help but notice almost every guy in the room stared at her, all entranced and figuring out how to approach her. Right then Mister Broad Shoulders snuck up behind her and matched her every move without missing a beat. That sure didn’t take long. She was good, damn good.
I decided I didn’t need to stand in the middle of the dance floor like a moron, so I started dancing. The music pulsed through my veins and for a moment I lost all sense of the world around me. Such a beautiful feeling, not giving a damn about life and the pain it holds. Finally carefree, I truly relaxed for the first time in a long time. I breathed deep and relished in the moment before a hand grazed my back and slowly slid down my side. I froze. I didn’t know who touched me because Carissa was still in front of me dancing with her conquest. Images flashed through my head and I had to tune them out. This was a public place. Nothing bad was about to happen. Breathe, Ava.
I quickly turned and continued to sway with the music so I wouldn’t cause a scene. My breath caught when I saw the culprit caressing my side. This man was gorgeous—tousled brown hair and deep blue eyes that stopped my heart. His blue but-ton-down shirt matched his eyes. The top two open buttons revealed a smooth and toned chest. My legs trembled just looking at him, and for a moment I lost my ability to think clearly. Too bad that ability rushed back and slapped me in the face.
I realized what was happening when he started to sway with me. I turned and rushed towards the bar. I needed fresh air. I needed a smoke. I ordered another drink and ducked into the beer garden behind the club. I rested my smoke between my lips and reached for a lighter when he appeared. Silently, he offered me a light before reaching for a smoke of his own. I shook trying to light my cigarette. He grabbed my hand to help and once again, I froze.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine. I just needed some air. Sorry I ran out on you.” I tried to keep my voice from catching. I’m sure he thought I was crazy. Other than Carissa, the customers of the store, and Courtney, I didn’t interact with people often. Being social wasn’t some-thing I was good at.
“No big deal. I’m Seth.” He held out his hand and I wasn’t sure what to do.
“I’m Ava,” I said, finally reaching for his hand. It was just a handshake. I could handle that.
“It’s nice to meet you, Ava. I’m sorry I caught you off guard in there. You look absolutely stunning tonight. I’d love to buy you a drink.” His smile was too much for me. I wanted to run out of here and go home to the comfort of my own bed and solitude. That’s the only place I ever felt safe anymore.
“On what?” He asked with a smirk.
“On if you want to try dancing with me again.” Where the hell did that come from? My mind screamed at me to shut up, but my mouth apparently had other plans. I felt safe and I didn’t know why, but I wasn’t going to waste my night trying to figure it out. I was so conflicted. Who in the world was this guy and why was I ready to jump out of my comfort zone for him? We were in public though, so it couldn’t hurt, right?
Part of me wanted to let go of my reservations and have a good time tonight. I didn’t realize exactly how big that part was until just now. The internal battle raging inside of me was going to have to be put on hold, for now. My body made the decision to let this man take me back inside, lead me to the dance floor, have a few more drinks, and just let loose for once. I may regret it in the morning, but for now, I didn’t care. Maybe the alcohol was impairing my judgment already because this sure as hell wasn’t me. I came here with every intention of leaving as soon as Carissa was distracted by some guy she would end up leaving with anyway. Looks like I was going to be the one distracted tonight.