Freedom. It was something I had seldom thought about…until four years ago. I had taken for granted living life every day without looking over my shoulder. Never feeling any real peace, a tiny part of me was always on high alert. I feared that at any moment, I would be discovered. I had spent the past four years trying to cope with intense, crippling anxiety, and everything I had done was still no match against the nightmares that visited me often.
I thought fate would deal me a better hand. I believed I could escape him. Now the effects of my mistakes had spread. I feared not only for my life but also those of people I love who were put in danger because of me. I was no longer free. Now, at twenty-seven years old, my time had run out.
My eyes began to open. I blinked slowly, trying to get them to adjust to the darkness. I used my shoulder to wipe the dampness from my face. Blackness cloaked the room, making it impossible to see anything around me. The musty air was frigid. My fingers and toes were numb, making them hard to move. An intense headache competed with the throbbing pain in my face. The tiniest bit of warmth against my back made me aware of the body next to mine. I tried opening my mouth; the tape that had sealed it shut had been removed. My lips felt swollen, and I tasted dried blood on them. I nudged the body next to mine. I hoped that it was Paige, that they hadn’t separated us.
A soft whisper came from my cracked lips. “Paigey…” I croaked her childhood nickname.
“Paige, please answer me,” panicking, I whispered louder, waiting for an answer.
A small groan escaped her as she moved just centimeters. “Ana…” a low voice struggled to whisper back.
I let out the breath I was holding, relieved that hers was the body next to mine. “Oh, Paige…” I leaned into her as close as I could, “I’m so sorry you got dragged into this.” My voice hitched and my eyes welled, but no tears came. Dehydration left nothing for my body to spare. We leaned into each other. The friction caused my broken body to ache. “I will find a way to get us out of here,” I promised her.
A door opened. It creaked loudly, breaking the silence. Light streamed down the staircase. It was dim yet blinding in the blackness of the basement. We both jumped and huddled our bodies even closer with our hands tied behind our backs.
We stayed silent. The only sound came from the shoes that clanked heavily down each step. The stairs moaned under the weight of the man. A large shadow appeared, then the massive body that belonged to it. It was him—the monster. The man with all the scars. The slight limp in his step gave him away.
He turned on a small flashlight and aimed it around, highlighting areas of the basement before finding us. The light so shocking when it hit me, I squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel the tremors rolling off Paige’s small body. God, please. Please send someone to rescue us before it’s too late. I had pushed away everyone who cared; now there might be no one left who could save us.
With my eyes still closed I listened to the clicking of his fancy shoes on the damp concrete as they got closer and closer. I braced myself as the large body loomed over us.
Six months earlier…
I tucked my head down further behind the shield as I picked up the pace. My bike pushed forward faster, anxiety building in my chest as I passed the small road sign with the arrow: Sugar Maple 15 miles.
That little sign surged adrenaline through every part of my body as I got closer to home. My bike sped through the warm night, covering the distance as fast as possible. Miles of trees, bushes, and mountains were blurred in my peripheral vision over the last five and a half hours until I finally crossed Georgia from Tennessee.
The sound of my pipes cutting through the night was all that filled my ears, the mountain air leaving a light mist on my partially exposed face. I tried to stretch my back. I felt tight everywhere from not stopping. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to grow up so I could leave this place. After four long years of exile, I couldn’t get back fast enough.
It was Monday night—I was five days early. The idea of surprising my brothers in the Stained Souls MC came to me last night when I tossed and turned trying to sleep. Friday seemed too far away. At first light, I packed my shit and left behind everything that couldn’t fit on my bike. I knew my club brothers weren’t expecting me until the weekend so they could throw me a huge homecoming bash. As much as that sounded great, I wanted some time to reacquaint myself with my newly renovated hometown. Besides, I knew that the party would leave me hungover for days, and that wasn’t how I wanted to start my homecoming.
Last time I talked to Hawk, he said that the Stained Souls were raking in cash with all the new people in town. The club owned several buildings on the main strip, so naturally, they had done pretty well with the renovations. I hadn’t decided, even with the influx of income, how I felt about returning to a town full of strangers. I was once a well-known and feared man in this town. Now I would be the stranger. The thought had my stomach turning.
My forearms tightened as the needle pushed further toward one hundred on the desolate road. The blackness of night was the perfect backdrop for the slideshow that was running in my head. All the people, places, and friends I left behind…the good times with my brothers and the bad times that destroyed my soul. I shouldn’t have wanted to go back. I should have embraced my new life. But no matter how much darkness and anger Sugar Maple triggered, it was still home.
I shook my head, clearing the thoughts. I focused on the approaching glow of city lights that made the horizon over the mountain appear bright compared to the inky sky that surrounded it. The May heat and humidity created a haze blanketing the area.
I slowed my pace to almost a crawl just outside town. On the hillside, the moon illuminated the bright white chapel and gave it an eerie glow. It stood tall and menacing, overlooking the bridge into Sugar Maple. Its angular windows, the way they looked down the hill to the town below, reminded me of angry, judging eyes.
I tried to keep my eyes forward, but the small graveyard pulled me to it. The decaying stones of the cemetery were almost as white as the church. My eyes locked on a single headstone. I swallowed back the lump that formed in my throat. Every fucking time I entered or left town, I was forced to pass the painful reminder of what life took from me. I had said goodbye to three people I loved standing under those tall maple trees, which always seemed to mock me.
Holy shit. That was the only thought that came to mind when the condo complex came into view. It was stunning, even from a distance. Everyone kept telling me I wouldn’t recognize the place. I couldn’t even imagine how that was possible after only four years.
Shortly before I left, Sugar Maple Mill was demolished, leaving a pile of rubble in its place. I was in disbelief that the Ramseys sold out their legacy for some condos. I hated Richard and Deacon Ramsey ever since we were in school. They were both douches then, so I should not have expected any different when they inherited their family mill. The longtime residents were hoping that, since the boys grew up here, they would restore the mill to its former glory. Instead, they built high-rise condos where their family mill once employed over half the town. I heard that Main Street had become some kind of trendy hipster heaven. Great. My eyes rolled at the thought.
Thankfully, the bridge crossing Black Rock River looked the same, with old lantern-style street lights lining both sides. I smiled at the memory of sweltering hot summer days when my brother and I would jump off this same bridge into the deep cold water. Our grandma made us promise not to without adults, but we did it anyway, and she always seemed to know when we disobeyed. Our punishment was severe—there was no pie those nights. I took in a deep breath, inhaling the familiar smell of the river as my bike crossed. It was the nostalgic scent of home, the kind of smell that brought memories to life.
Stopped at the traffic light turning from the bridge onto Main Street, my eyes scanned all the new shops and buildings. The old cracked concrete sidewalks were now cobblestone and pavers that made intricate crisscross patterns. The centerpiece of Main Street was Sugar Maple Condominiums. My head had to tilt back to look all the way to the top of the expansive building. It stood about twelve stories high and had a huge mural on the side depicting the history of the town. The mill, the train, the old malt shop, town square, and the Baptist church the Ramsey family attended. The vibrant colors made the painting like I was looking at a photo album. The front of the building was a mix of modern glass and balconies, while the back faced the river and had all balconies. A large timber and glass awning covered the ground level where a security guard sat.
I jumped, startled by the beep behind me. I didn’t even notice the light had changed as I took in my new surroundings. The town barely resembled the place where I grew up. It was now colorful and full of life with small stores lining both sides. I smiled when I came upon the well-lit sign of Stained Skyn: Tattoos & Piercing. It sat right in the middle of Main Street where the old five and dime was when we were kids. I laughed to myself as I remembered how much ten-cent hard-ass bubble gum we stole from that store. Mr. Brooks used to kick us out all the time; he would twist Hawk’s ear and call his mama. The shop now sits between a coffee place and…Juiced? Whatever the hell that was. Street lamps were lighting the strip, and the train station that once had been used for lumber and workers now had sleek glass and timber arches that matched the condos. Not many people were milling around at this time. The shops were all closed except for Stained Skyn.
I came to a stop down the block, looking for somewhere out of sight to park. Since I didn’t want to tip the guys off to my surprise arrival, I found a spot in the alley across the street, next to the only other vehicle—a crazy-looking pink and black Jeep. It was lifted high with big tires and a giant paddle board sticking out of the back. There were all these beads and a Buddha hanging from the rearview mirror.
When the sound of my bike silenced, my ears turned to the thump of loud music coming from the adjacent old brick building. It had the image of a woman holding her foot over her head painted on the side with the sign Fluid Yoga Studio lit below. The windows and storefront were dark. My ears followed the pounding music to its source; a dim light glowed from the second floor, where the rock music echoed out the windows.
Why would a yoga studio be blaring Disturbed’s Sound of Silence? Maybe it was the adrenaline of being back in my hometown or maybe I was overtired and delirious from the ride, but I felt strangely compelled to follow the music. The song that got me through some rough nights led me up the fire escape to the second floor. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit music-filled room.
Through the upstairs window, I saw some fabric suspended from the ceiling. Swinging and doing acrobatics from it to the thundering music was…a woman. I crept closer to the window to get a better look. The shadows hid her face, she was small and lean, wearing a sports bra and tiny cut shorts. Her long hair followed her movements in the air. I couldn’t peel my eyes away. I was frozen as I watched her. She looked like a flying angel, and I was completely mesmerized. But then the music abruptly ended. Oh, shit. I moved from the window, crept back down the escape, and quickly made my way out toward the street.
Well, that was something…
From the alley, I spotted two Harleys in front of Stained Skyn. One was Hawk’s—I’d know that Sportster anywhere. The bells chimed as I opened the glass door of the tattoo parlor. The place was fantastic, nothing like the hole in the wall it used to be. The glass counters were full of body jewelry, and artwork covered the walls. A large TV screen had a slideshow of Hawk piercing and tattooing customers, the before and afters. The music was loud, not as loud as the yoga girl’s, but loud enough to distract from the pain of being tattooed or pieced.
The volume lowered, and a deep voice came from the private rooms in the back, “Be right with you.” I heard the thumping of his boots heading toward me.
As Hawk rounded the corner, snapping off his latex gloves, it took a second before a devilish grin spread across his face. “Rage? What the fuck are you doing here, man? I thought you weren’t coming for a few days. I would have taken the night off.” My best friend hadn’t changed much. Blond hair was peeking through his signature bandana. His bright blue eyes stood out with his tan skin. His beard now hid the dimples girls loved so much.
Accepting the half bro hug, I explained my eagerness and that I wanted some time before the celebrating began. “Good call,” Hawk said. “You know, Colt has big shit planned for your welcome home party.” His eyebrows waggled with excitement.
Another set of boots made their way out to the front. Hack, our tech god, rushed toward me. “I thought it was my imagination when I saw you on the cameras,” he said as he embraced me, slapping my back. “Rage, you’ve gotten even bigger!”
Man, it felt good to be home. These men—the Stained Souls—they were my family.
I spent the next two hours having a few beers, watching Hawk tattoo an elaborate back piece on a college girl. She was trying her best not to cry, holding her friend’s hand while the tiny needles revealed a big colorful elephant. I winced at the pained expression the girl had as she breathed heavily, trying to keep herself calm.
“Another! Jab left, left again! Now right, left ribs, right knee!” his deep voice commanded. The wraps on my hands began to feel like they were not even there. The sweat glistened off my abs, soaking the tops of my sweat shorts. The muscles were becoming sore with each blow. Left, then right. I’d been at this for forty-five minutes, and his intensity didn’t waiver. His coaching methods were relentless. You didn’t come to Leo for positive, weak reassurances that you were doing well—the man was all business. If you didn’t work hard enough, he’d replace your spot in a second. There was a waitlist of men and women wanting to train with this beast.
“Juliet, focus! Come on, girl, you got this!” he barked. His deep voice still had the remainder of his Spanish accent. Leo held the paddles higher, then lower, as I punched out my frustrations.
Standing at around 6’3”, the lean Brazilian mixed-martial arts master was maybe the most intimidating man I’d ever met. His fighting style was flawless and fluid even with his massive frame. Leo had tan skin adorned with tribal tattoos. He has one that covers the area between his right eye and cheekbone. His head was shaved, except for a tight mohawk, and he had the deepest, darkest brown eyes I had ever seen.
The only reason he agreed to train me was that he watched me struggle for weeks on my own, and it might have helped that I taught his girlfriend, Shelly, some tantric yoga moves. Men always seemed to appreciate that.
Shelly was his complete opposite. Porcelain skin, long, shiny platinum blond hair and pale blue eyes. She was petite, yet ripped. Shelly spent most of her day training at the gym. She used to be Leo’s ring girl when he was actively fighting. I dreamt of having a relationship like theirs—now I barely dated.
“Come on, finish strong with a roundhouse to the head!” he commanded. He held his hand high for me to reach. Channeling some of my inner anger, I spun and released the last bit of power I had to give as my foot connected with the bag in front of me. I let out a grunt before I fell back to balance.
“Damn,” Leo said as his eyes blinked at the height I just reached. My yoga training gave me the advantage of being able to stretch high and still keep balance.
When Leo saw how my yoga skills expanded my abilities, he decided to cut me a deal for the private lessons that I couldn’t afford. I forced myself to pay because these lessons were way more helpful than any emotional therapy had ever been. No shrink could do for me what MMA had done.
Leo offered me a bargain. He suggested I teach a special type of yoga class once a week for his elite fighters to get them to stretch and balance. And I continue to help Shelly, of course. We called the class Dynamic Expansion. We knew the fighters would never go for a yoga class. Every Wednesday at 7 pm, I taught the scariest men around how to increase their range and balance to give them more power. It had been over a year, and they all loved it. Most never missed a class.
My best friend, Ivy, God bless her, loved to assist—more accurately, ogle and molest—the class. That girl was all about the bad boys—she loved them and was the consummate flirt. Bad boys they might be, but they were all super respectful. That might be because Leo would kick their asses and then kick them out of the gym if they stepped out of line.
With the last kick, my time was up. I was feeling particularly nauseated after today’s workout; I must not have had enough water earlier. I was an exhausted sweaty mess.
“Great job, Juliet. Now get out of here and replenish.” Leo said in his drill sergeant voice, pointing to the locker room.
“Thanks, Leo,” I replied, still huffing. I squirted the cold water from my aluminum bottle into my mouth and some on my towel before wiping my face.
“See you tomorrow night.” He winked and extended his rarely seen megawatt smile. The grin suited his usually stern face. I smiled back and hit the showers before meeting Ivy at Roasted.
Copyright ©2019 by Zara Teleg