Her hot huffs of panting turned into wisps of gray breath in the crisp, cold November air. The park’s pathways were lined with glowing light poles as she jogged down the winding sidewalk that sliced through the shadowy path. It was barely before dawn. The sun wasn’t quite out yet, but the light shades of blue that brought the arrival of day pushed the midnight blue from the sky. The moon was still out though—a bright white dot high above.
It was Saturday now.
Her red and black running shoes thumped against the cold sidewalk as she continued her jogging. She wore black jogging pants and a matching tank top that was concealed by the red Ohio State University hoodie she wore. All types of music streamed into her ears through her earbuds.
Listening to music helped her keep time. She gave herself a limit. After three songs, she would stop jogging and walk the rest of the way. Much to her dismay, she was two songs into her jogging and her second song happened to be “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone” by the Temptations. This version stretched over nine minutes.
Honestly, Willow Carter hated jogging. The method of exercise was something recommended by her soon-to-be wedded older sister and enforced by their smothering mother.
Farrah tried to be nonchalant about it—but failed miserably—while they went out shopping for a maid of honor dress.
“You know, Will, this dress would look amazing on you in a size twelve,” Farrah paused with a hopeful tone to her voice, “maybe even a ten?”
Willow was obviously not a size twelve or even a ten. She was a solid size fourteen and often wore a size sixteen depending on the fashion brand. When she was a kid, she was a short little thing with plenty of baby fat. You could always tell the difference between Farrah and Willow in their childhood photos. Farrah was tall and slender with an elegant demeanor and possessed a bright picture perfect smile. Willow looked like a brown meatball with chubby cheeks draped in whatever cheesy floral outfit their mother wanted both of them to wear.
Willow was still short and chubby, but Farrah no longer looked like she belonged on a box of “Just for Me” hair relaxer. Oh, no. Now she could grace the pages of Vogue, which was quite ironic considering that she was an up-and-coming model with a promising career during her college years.
After her third song was up, Willow slowed down to a halt and leaned forward, placing her hands on her knees as she panted heavily. She could taste cooper in her mouth and her leg muscles under her flesh burned horribly.
No pain, no gain.
This shit wasn’t for her, but she had been doing this for three weeks straight.
As she attempted to catch her breath, a tall hoodied jogger went past her. She looked at his departing form. He had been doing that for three weeks straight as well. Passing her by most likely shaking his head in disappointment and pity as he did so.
Once she caught her breath, Willow resumed her journey down the winding park sidewalk by walking slowly this time. It took her fifteen minutes to return to the parking lot.
A wave of relief washed over her as she approached her car. When she reached the driver’s side, she unzipped her jacket a little and reached into her tank top to retrieve the singular car key that was hidden within her sports bra.
Just as she was about to open the car door, she felt something sharp against the middle of her back. “Don’t move,” a jittery male voice said behind her.
A gasp escaped her lips.
“Put your hands up,” the voice ordered, the sharp object jabbing into her back for emphasize. She squeezed her eyes shut and yelped at the pain that seeped through her layers of clothing.
He grabbed her hair that was in a sloppy ponytail and yanked her head back hard. “Shut the fuck up,” he said through grit teeth. His lips were so close that she could feel his hot breath against the back of her ear.
“Don’t hurt me,” she whimpered, “please.”
The man slammed her body against the side of her dark blue SUV, knocking the wind out of her. She could see her face of pain and fear in the reflection of the driver’s tinted window and she saw him too—the man who was doing this horrible thing to her.
His cracked lips pressed against the back of her ear, brushing against it. It made her flesh crawl and she shuddered in disgust.
However, something from her car window’s reflection caught her eye. It was moving fast and advancing towards them.
One moment, the man’s heated body sandwiched her against the vehicle completely helplessly and then she felt coldness. A masculine cry crackled through the air followed by a loud thump.
Willow quickly swirled around and pressed her back against the car, watching a familiar hoodied figure kick her assailant in the face before he reached down and grabbed a fistful of the man’s jacket and gave three solid punches to the man’s face.
“Go,” her savior ordered in a gruff booming voice before he resumed punishing her attacker.
Willow’s mouth gaped open as she stood completely rooted in her spot, unable to rip her eyes away from the brutal scene before her. Her savior kept punching her attacker until blood oozed from his nostrils and bubbled from his mouth in sputtering coughs.
“Stop,” she screamed suddenly and rushed over to the disturbing scene as the avenging stranger drew back his crimson dripping fist to drive a final blow.
Willow pleaded, “Please, stop. That’s enough.”
The hoodied stranger peered over his shoulder and towards her direction. The shadows that clung to the early morning light concealed part of his face.
His fist was still positioned to strike a blow and she could have sworn that he curled it tighter.
“Please,” she pleaded.
The stranger returned his attention to her attacker and dropped him unforgivingly on the cold concrete of the parking lot. Her attacker groaned through a mouthful of blood, unable to move and completely defenseless.
“Call the police,” the stranger order, standing over her beaten attacker.
Willow nervously licked her lips and raced over to her SUV and opened the driver door with her car key. She leaned into the car and quickly opened the armrest compartment to retrieve her slender smartphone.
She dialed ‘911’ and heard a male operator’s voice in moments. She stuttered and tripped over her words as she tried to explain the situation, tears stinging her eyes as she retold the awfully fresh details.
She stayed on the line with the operator as he reassured her everything was okay and that help would be there shortly. From the comfort of her car, she watched the stranger stand guard over the attacker. In less than five minutes, police sirens could be heard.
As the shrieking sirens grew closer and closer in sound, she remained inside of her vehicle. She turned her head towards the closeness of the symphony of sharp sirens until she could see the police car lights flashing as help approached.
When she looked back in the direction of where the stranger and her attacker were, the stranger had vanished without a trace while her attacker remained unconscious on the parking lot ground.
“You’re a very lucky girl,” the police officer said as Willow sat across from him at his desk in the bustling downtown police station. She knew that he saying that was supposed to make her feel better, but it didn’t. She casted her eyes down staring at the bobble-head pitbull that was on the police officer’s messy desk and nodded her head, pretending to agree with him. She hugged herself tighter.
That man could have raped her.
That man could have killed her.
But he didn’t.
She knew she should feel better for that fact alone, but instead she felt utterly violated.
“Baby girl,” her father’s voice called from behind. Willow turned around in her seat to watch her worried father jog towards her.
Willow stood up quickly and went to her father, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. She buried her face into his shirt and broke out a sob. She had kept herself together from the parking lot to the police station, but the moment she was in her father’s arms, she crumbled into a little girl of a woman.
Her father’s arms engulfed around her and pulled her into him. “Sh, it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here now,” he whispered into her hair, kissing the top of her head. She knew her mother or sister wouldn’t come. They were across country in California having a consulting session with a wedding dress designer for three custom dresses Farrah would wear on her wedding day.
It was better this way. She didn’t need either of them making a big scene in the police station or making her feel stupid for doing what they had told her to do.
“Where is that bastard who did this to you?”
“I think he’s in critical condition at the hospital, Dad,” she answered. At least, that was what she assumed. He looked as if he were hanging on the last thread of life when the EMTs placed him onto a gurney and hauled him off in an ambulance. For all she knew, he could have died on the way to the hospital from choking on his own blood and honestly, there was not a caring bone in her body if she knew he had died.
Her fresh memories drifted back to her savior that put him in that condition.
Her dad held her tighter as if he were making up for not being there to protect her.
“Let’s hope he doesn’t make it,” he said.
Once all of the paperwork was finished, Willow father offered to drive her back to her parents’ house, but she declined and followed his Porsche in her own SUV. At first, he protested, but then he agreed. It was a long drive from the jungle of the city to the sprawling green lawns of the suburbs. The drive was plenty of time to clear her thoughts. That was why she didn’t want the awkward ride home with her father. She didn’t need him staring over to her in worry that she would break like a fragile porcelain doll in the front passenger seat.
She went back to her old room that was just the same as she had left it when she went to college. It didn’t have pageant ribbons, crowns, and trophies lining the shelf walls like Farrah’s childhood room. Instead, it was filled with old video games, mangas, comics, books, and DVDs of cult classics. She was just as much a nerd now as she was back then. Her walls were a soft blue hue as were the curtains of the French doors that lead to the balcony.
Her bed was queen-sized with a darker blue canopy and matching covers. She stripped down until she was in nothing but her sports bra and underwear before crawling inside of the covers, curling herself into a little ball. She buried her face into her pillows and closed her eyes.
She was home.
It was a few minutes after three in the afternoon when she woke up. The clock on her cellphone’s screensaver told her so. Her body ached horribly. She knew it was from the jogging. Her head ached too, but she knew that was from everything that happened after the jogging.
A surreal feeling washed over her. The events of the early morning felt like a nightmare, but she knew it was real. She could remember her attacker’s hot fishy breath fan against her ear. How his touch made her skin crawl.
She placed her cellphone back on the nightstand and sat up in the bed, smoothing back the wild strands of hair that had slithered from her sloppy ponytail. She looked back over to her nightstand and realized that there was a small cup of water with melting ice cubes and a bottle of aspirin. A weak smile played across her lips at the sight. Her father must have placed them there well knowing that she would need them.
After she swallowed the two chalky white pills with a few gulps of icy water, she climbed out of the bed and looked for her clothes, but they were nowhere to be found. Instead, she found a white shirt with gyms shorts folded nearly at the foot of the bed.
Willow put on the clothes and left the bedroom, heading downstairs. She made a beeline to her father’s office, opening one of the heavy mahogany double doors. She walked inside. There he was behind his desk, talking to someone on the wireless home phone.
“She just walked through the office door,” her father announced to the person he was talking to. No doubt her mother.
“It’s your mother,” he said, pointing to the phone before he pried it from his ear, pressed the mute button, and offered the phone to her.
Willow shook her head and said no.
“Willow Angelique Carter, take the phone,” her father said in a stern warning voice with little room for negotiations.
Willow closed her eyes and sighed deeply, making her way over to her father’s desk where she plucked the phone from his hands. She pressed the mute button to un-mate the call and answered with a hello.
“Oh, darling! Are you alright? Your father told us everything,” her mother’s worried voice streamed into her ear.
“I’m fine, Mom,” Willow lied. “It’s just a bit surreal. That’s all.”
“Now you know that you should not jog early in the morning in a park no less,” her mother said in her usual tsk’ing tone. Already thirty seconds into this conversation and her mother did not disappoint in making Willow feel like this ordeal was all her fault.
Willow frowned, “Let’s remember why I am even jogging in the first place. Where is the bride-to-be anyway?”
“She is absolutely distraught. When she heard about what happened to you, she cried and cried. I sent her to the spa to calm herself down.”
Willow rolled her eyes. Obviously, she wasn’t that distraught if she could their mother’s offer for a spa treatment. “I hope she gets the relaxation she needs. God knows she has been absolutely stressed over planning this wedding. I wouldn’t want me being attacked at a park to hinder her from planning out her dream day wedding.”
“Now, Willow. Your sister is stressed. Wedding planning isn’t easy. Designing three wedding dresses from scratch isn’t easy either. Give your sister some credit.”
It always amazed Willow how conversations always ended up being about Farrah especially when her mother was a contributor.
“You’re absolutely right. Give her my love,” Willow said before hanging up the phone.
She placed the wireless phone on his desk and said, “I’m leaving.”
“Why do conversations between you and your mother always take a sour turn,” her father frowned.
“Because someone keeps handing me the phone and insist that I talk to her,” Willow answered, shooting her father a look.
“You need to stay here and rest,” her father said.
“I am rested. Now I just need to be on my own,” she said. “Okay?”