“Oh yeah, scrapper? Do you want to put a price on that statement?” I love the game she’s playing.
“What do you suggest?” She tilts her head.
“How much did Silva offer you?”
“Thirty-five thousand dollars,” she says. “And you just doubled that salary for three months work.”
I crook my finger, beckoning her to come closer. She takes a few steps. I shake my head. “Closer.”
She sighs with a resolved smile, but gets closer.
“Just a little more.” I lead her until we’re breathing the same oxygen. One slip and I could be kissing her. “If I make the first move, I’ll make it an even one hundred thousand.”
“Are you serious?” she whispers almost against my lips.
“Completely.” I let the idea of one hundred thousand dollars sink in before I add, “However, if you make the first move, you’ll owe me one night of unbridled passion.”
“One hundred thousand?!” Ayana doesn’t believe me. “I mean, I know you’re a good massage therapist and all but … one hundred thousand dollars? Really??”
“That’s what he said. I even signed the three month contract.”
I take the Stouffer’s lasagna out of the oven and carry it to the table. It’s not homemade, but it smells pretty good. Ayana sets a green salad next to it.
“Charlie, please put plates and forks on the table.”
“How many plates?” Charlie asks as she climbs the “Mommy’s little helper” step stool.
“Count,” I remind her.
“I mean, I guess when you’re a North and you have that kind of money, you can afford to do anything on a whim,” Ay deduces while she takes two wine glasses and a plastic Cinderella cup from the cabinet.
“How could I say no?” I lower my voice to talk to Ay. “That amount of money would be a huge safety net for me and Charlie.”
“Are you eating, Ay?” Charlie interrupts.
“Yes, silly goose!” Ay says.
I swipe Charlie off the stool and tickle her as I set her down. “How about I do your chore tonight and you can go back to playing dollies?”
“Really?” Charlie squeals with rebellious delight. I nod and Charlie races out of the kitchen.
I continue, “This is a real opportunity for Charlie and me. With a solid sports reference, I could go on to work with other pro athletes or get a position at my choice of hospitals. I’m tired, Ayana. I’m tired of scraping by, making just a little too much for food stamps and way too little for the things we really need—like a dependable car, the clothes I’d really love to see Charlie wear or a new toy she asks for,” I muse. “I could afford a better daycare. And, most importantly, when it’s time to move on again, I’ll have money in the bank instead of being penniless and at the mercy of others or just barely surviving hand-to-mouth.” I look at Charlie in the living room, dressing her Goodwill dolls. “She deserves better.”
“You deserve better.” Ayana pours sweet, red wine into my glass. “And who knows, I mean really, this is fucking nowhereland North Dakota. You’re a well-hidden needle in a big ass haystack.”
Is she right? Am I really so well-hidden? And if I am, why is it that I still don’t feel safe? Will I ever feel safe? Will Charlie and I ever be safe?
Charlie is my life. I’d do or give her anything, and the most important thing she needs is a safe life, a safe mom, a safe place to live and play, but I can’t give her any of those things. I still live my life plagued by fear.
Any moment he could find us.
The Belt is Williston’s premiere MMA gym. Sparring bags, floor and wall mats, a center ring, jumbo bulldozer tires, weights and weight machines, padding … it’s one hell of a place for training. A mural showing a side-view of Josh jabbing a right hook is painted on the wall, larger than life. Famous quotes about fear, courage, strength and giving your all are also painted on every wall in black tattoo-like graffiti script.
“Do you own it?” I ask Josh as he, Silva, Caruso and McGee lead me through the place.
“Part. The four of us are joint owners,” Josh explains. I co-own each of my training facilities.
The place is buzzing with activity. Everyone stops what they’re doing to greet Josh and congratulate him on a speedy recovery. They shake his hand, give him the masculine nod, or do the one armed man hug thing. Everyone is talking to everyone at once, and the place seems like it’s turned into a party zone.