My blood was frozen thick, the wind turning the air into a wall of ice that cracked against my lips and burst into shards down my throat. I tried another step, choking, coughing, protecting my face with my gloved hand. The wind whipped up again, trash lifting into the air, empty aluminum cans clattering down the street and accompanying plastic bottles picking up the music. Something brushed against my legs and I tried to hop around it, but the plastic bag tangled around my heels until I kicked it off. Its smeared, torn exterior had a faded smiley face that twisted and deformed as it rippled into the air. HAVE A NICE DAY! it proclaimed, then was sucked into a gutter.
The sky was a hazy black, the sun nothing but a blurred, off-white memory of the miserable hours before. The breeze carried the bitter pull of winter on its wings and I cringed all the way to my destination.
Once I reached it, I shoved the key I’d been given into the lock, fingers stiff with cold. It clicked and I shouldered the door open, almost melting against the deserted lobby’s waft of heat.
The door thumped shut behind me, cutting off the whistling wind and honks of avenue traffic echoing against the wind tunnels built by office skyscrapers. Switching my large leather tote from one arm to the other, I pressed the elevator button, rubbing my hands together and dancing in place.
The elevator dinged as it arrived in the lobby and I stepped in and pressed the fourth-floor button, eager to get this over with so I could go home, curl up on the couch, and binge-watch something. Maybe I’d order delivery. Sushi or salad or—no, pizza. Tacos. Cajun. Something with spice to melt the jagged points of the icicles still shredding my lungs.
The elevator doors slid open and I stepped into the loft that took up the entire floor. Each bulb flickered on separately as the empty space was illuminated. Dropping my oversized tote by the elevator, I shed my jacket, beanie and gloves, leaving them there as well, the central heat doing quick work in warming me inside and out.
I took stock of the space, envisioning a long, rectangular table toward the back to put the buffet and an additional table around the corner to stack the gifts. It would be hidden from view just enough to prevent any guilt from the guests who brought nothing but smiles for the birthday girl.
My heels made hollow sounds on the hardwood, the loft richoteting the illusion of expansiveness with its empty corners and one, lonely corridor leading into a small kitchen. Out of curiosity, I opened the fridge, wondering if whoever rented this space before me left any goodies for the next, but it was completely wiped down and empty. The wafting frosty air had me shutting the door with a smack.
It seemed a long time already. I pulled my phone out of my skirt’s pocket and checked the time. 7:07 PM and no new messages. My assistant, Shirley, was late, but only by a few minutes. Since she had the proposed layout and all the plans on her tablet, there was nothing to do here but wait, maybe play Candy Crush on my phone and finally get past the level that’d been screwing with me for ages. There was nowhere to sit, so I hopped up on the kitchen counter, swiped my phone open and played the game on silent, my heels thwacking against the cabinets in a random rhythm.
A message notification popped up.
Dave: Hey babe, home early. What you feeling for dins?
My lips kicked up with the rhythm of my legs. It wasn’t often Dave and I could match evenings. With him as an investment manager and me an event planner, our hours were mostly off. Sometimes I’d join him for cocktails with clients after work and witness his enamoring ability to woo paper out of wallets, what with his crinkled smile and trusting creases of dimples punctuating the ends of his lips. I enjoyed those sexy indentations deepening in surprise when I jumped into the conversation with a light hand on his arm and a quip to match his own.
A flash of sparkle caught the light as I tapped a reply, a new, almost unbelievably permanent addition to the few accessories decorating my skin. My simple regime consisted of two studs in each ear, a simple rose gold necklace from my father, and a belly ring I got when I was fifteen and was too lazy and, okay, too attached, to take out and let close over at twenty-eight. I pictured surprising Dave by stripping off my clothes here, stuffing them in my bag and greeting him with just my coat when I arrived. I’d untie at the door and let the black cotton slide down until there was just a piece of glitter remaining on my naked torso, overtaken only by the fire of my diamond ring.
All very seductive, if it weren’t for the very real possibility I’d become an erotic ice sculpture by the time I got to him.
I typed out: You read my mind! I was thinking Ca
—the elevator dinged.
“In here!” I called, but made no moves to jump down and meet Shirley halfway.
I’d ask Dave to have food waiting for me and knowing him, he’d uncork a delicious red wine from our proudly labeled “expensive” stock that we showcased with a three-bottle wine holder we bought off Amazon. His clients and mine loved to show gratitude through fermented grapes, and I wasn’t complaining. They were the sole reason I had a palette at all, otherwise I’d still be perusing the ten-dollar shelf at our liquor store (and secretly still did). Dave could raid our mini cellar and choose, airing it out before that first delectable sip. Heaven. Maybe I’d—
My vision went sideways. A red spiderweb wove across my temples, nerves darting across, their little legs seizing against the pain. I raised a hand to the back of my head, looking for…
My forehead bashed against the granite. Ultraviolet bursts prevented me from seeing, changing the color of the room to blinding white fire.
Beside me. Someone’s here.
Bleary, blinking, I raised myself to my elbows, and a smear of a person took form.
He caught my heel and peeled me off the counter, my fingers squeaking, searching for a handhold, latching onto the iron range burner of the gas stove and taking it with me as I was thrown, hurled. The side of my face smashed into the floor and the iron grate hit me in the jaw before clattering away. The scent of chemical varnish rushed up my nose. Wet. So slippery and metallic.
A non-word through the coppery syrup that filled my mouth. The presence loomed, large and hulking, not Shirley’s size or strength—not Shirley—a peripheral blur that piqued my fear too late.
“Nuh—” I rolled, feeling for the iron grate. I wanted to throw it, use it as a weapon against—against—
Screams. My own.
Hands tangled in the back of my shirt, lifting and tossing me into the wall with a heave-crunch-snap. I landed on my chest and scrambled to get my knees under me, to push up. Footsteps were coming.
My hands went up but he just grabbed my wrists, pulling me up on legs that couldn’t hold, and I fell against him, assaulted by smoke, herbs, mint…
Fingers dug into my shoulders and pushed, chucking me into the air again, nothing but a sack of warm bones. I banged against the wall and slid down. Tried to scream again, to find the iron weapon. Blood bubbled on my lips. I needed to say something, anything to protect myself, but he stepped out of view.
Gasping, rising onto my knees, my hair obscuring my vision, I thought, crazily, for a shred of a second, that he’d gone. When the thump came, a lancing blow at my temple, my eyes bulged and I gagged, vomit leeching from the sides of my lips as nausea collided with the agony and sent me into a spiral of blank insanity.
Couldn’t think, couldn’t function. I was a nothing-person, a body housing a brain with no synapse, merely a gland that registered danger, fear, pain—
I hurt. Oh fuck, blood. I’m tasting—
He came at me again.
I lurched for the door, any door, window, heels skidding, toppling sideways. My mind was lopsided, but he was right side up and prepared, tracking me with the ease of a cat waiting for an injured bird to stop flopping.
With little effort but the toss of a towel over his shoulder, my stomach was speared by someone else’s bones. The pressure had me gagging, vomiting more, leaving a trail of saliva and liquid as I was carried out of the loft and into the elevator, my head smacking against this person’s back, an incongruous velvet smoothness against my cheeks. I pushed off his legs for leverage, to lift myself up, but he pulled, throwing me off his shoulder and slamming me to the elevator floor.
“M—mo—No…” My forearms protected my face. I kicked out, connecting with his shins, using my one remaining heel as a spear and driving it into his skin over and over and over.
He dodged most of the blows, bending down and lifting me by my underarms. Twisting and wrenching wasn’t working so I played rag doll instead, becoming dead weight in his arms in hopes that he’d loosen his hold and drop me. Instead he tightened his grip until I was suffocating against his chest and a cold wetness painted my face, staining his jacket. It was a mix, a cocktail of blood, saliva, tears, vomit, a blend of terror that fused the further he walked, easily, out of the building. His were smooth steps, mine were desperate beats against the floor.
I screamed, a spiral of sound that was thick of tongue and spiked with rage. He held me tighter, rushing to the curb.
My heel dug into the fat of his thigh and he cursed, then my knee drove into his dick and he grunted, loosening his grip enough for me to stagger away.
The street was barren. No cars, no people, falling snow. But there. A deli at the corner. Lights on, someone. Get there. Reach it.
I ran barefoot and stumbled over a mound of driven snow and fell onto the sidewalk, salted pavement flaying skin off my palms, but I righted myself and sprinted. My lungs sucked in ice, spreading in my chest as frostbite flames. My wounds screamed, my head pounded, but I was almost there. Get to it!
My arm was yanked and I spun backwards, toppling right into his arms.
“Goddamn you!” I howled, punching at anything, then wrenched away enough to scream, “Help me! Please!”
I begged to the lighted window, fingers spread, but he was too strong. I was dragged away, back into the cold, sucked into the dark until shadows inked across my hands. The heels of my stockinged feet dug frantic patterns in the slush as he took me away.
Finally he let go, enough for me to almost get my bearings before he held me against something. I heard the slide of metal hinges. He cocked his head under a dark hood, his teeth glittering in the gloom.
I didn’t finish. I fell, blacking out from the punch he threw to land me in the van.