The day Serenity Hathaway would come to view as the lowest point in her life would also turn out to be the day that everything changed.
She had just been fired.
In many ways it shouldn’t have come as a shock; she had been hanging onto the job by her fingernails for quite some time. It wasn’t her fault that she was fired, not that that made her any less terrified of going home to face her husband, Jackson, who was ultimately the cause of her getting the sack.
She had been given her marching orders at two o’clock that afternoon, after she had passed out in the women’s bathroom and had been too ashamed to admit it. She thought by now she was able to control the pain. She tried to think of it as a different sense, like sound or colour, but today her meditation hadn’t worked. When she had gone for a bathroom break and tried to pee, the pain in her kidneys had overwhelmed her and she had passed out in the bathroom stall.
When her boss had demanded to know where she had been for the past two hours, she had been too embarrassed – too humiliated – to tell him the truth and instead she told him she had had a late night the night before and had fallen asleep in there. He had given her a look that was somewhere between disbelief, frustration and anger. She knew he didn’t believe her, but the number of times she had gone AWOL on the job had gone beyond a joke and he told her to clear her desk.
That had been early afternoon and she had been walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles, too scared to go home, ever since then.
It was late November and the last of the light was slowly bleeding out of the LA skyline. Her ribs were throbbing and the pain in her lower back made her walk with a hunch and press her palm into the small of her back, so that she walked like an old woman instead of the twenty-eight year old she actually was.
The job Serenity had just been fired from was their only income. She was the one supporting Jackson while he worked on the novel she had never seen. If it wasn’t for Jackson’s refusal to work, she was sure he wouldn’t even allow her to have a job. After all, he didn’t allow her to do anything else. She had no family left except for the step-father who had passed her on to Jackson to continue the good work he had started, and any school friends she had managed to have at the time had long given up trying to keep up any contact with her. She hadn’t had a night out since she was a teenager.
Her current afternoon, wandering the streets, was the closest thing to freedom she had experienced in a long time.
A hard ball constricted her throat, making it hard for her to swallow, and the back of her eyes burned like fire, but she was all out of tears. Long ago she had learnt that they didn’t get you anywhere.
She stopped on the corner of East and 3rd Street and rummaged around in her bag. She pulled out a bottle of water, a packet of aspirin, and a packet of paracetamol. She pushed out two of each tablet through the foil backing, the small white discs dropping into her palm. This was another thing she had learnt over the years; that it was okay to take the two medications together and that they worked even better that way.
Except they hadn’t worked for her that afternoon.
She had gone to the bathroom to pee, but her kidneys were in such bad shape the pain had been excruciating. Combined with the lack of sleep she had had over the past few nights, it had all just been too much for her body and she had passed out.
Why hadn’t someone noticed her slumped in the locked stall? Why hadn’t someone come and checked on her when they saw she had been missing for hours? She knew the answer; because they wanted her out. Who wanted a work colleague who was moody and silent, who never attended any of the social functions and was always off sick? Serenity couldn’t blame them for finally losing their patience with her.
The streets were starting to fill up with people. The tourist crowd had already headed back to their hotels after another day sightseeing and now the residents of LA were leaving their workplaces and heading off home. Serenity glanced at her watch. It was nearly six and Jackson would expect her home in the next half an hour. Her stomach twisted into a knot of anxiety. Could she get away with not telling him? Could she pretend to leave for work as normal the next day? She only toyed with the idea for a moment. Jackson called her at work several times a day and would quickly find out what had happened, and even if he didn’t he would see through her in a moment. He had known her the whole of her adult life and would quickly see that something was wrong. If she lied to him, it would only make matters worse.
Serenity felt a slow coil of anger stir inside her – anger at her boss for putting her in this position, anger at Jackson for controlling her life, but mainly anger at herself for allowing him to do so.
She wasn’t a stupid woman, she knew what Jackson did to her was wrong. Yet somehow she always managed to make excuses for him, tell herself that she had wound him up, or that he hadn’t realised what he was doing, and that old favourite – that he would change. It was pitiful really.
The truth was that she was scared.
She had married Jackson at the age of eighteen. He had been the son of a man her stepfather had been friendly with and her stepfather had been happy to palm her off. Of course alarm bells should have rung immediately – her stepfather was more than happy to use his fists with her and any pairing he made would have been soured from the start – but Jackson had seemed to nice at first and she had been happy to escape from under her stepfather’s roof.
The result was that Serenity had no idea what life would be like on her own and no idea that a life existed where you weren’t constantly looking out for where the next fist was coming from. She didn’t know how to live by herself. If she left Jackson, she had no idea what would happen to their home, to the bills, to all their things. That wasn’t the only thing she was scared of – she was terrified of how Jackson would react. He had no qualms about giving her a swift elbow in the kidney if she had burnt dinner, so she didn’t even want to imagine how he would react if she told him she was leaving him.
Serenity stopped at the side of the street and waited for the lights to change. People gathered either side of her, closing in, and she suddenly felt faint. Despite the cool evening, her palms began to sweat and her cheeks flushed. She stared in panic at the people either side of her, professional people in their suits who had their lives sorted. Her eyes were wide, and her heart thumped painfully in her chest. She just wanted to get away. She couldn’t stand it, all these people pressing in either side of her, talking loudly on mobile phones she could not see. Some part of her half-believed that they were talking about her, laughing about her to the faceless people on the other end of the line. She could feel their eyes upon her, how they judged her, how they wondered how such a pathetic creature could even be out here on her own, and she realised she wasn’t going to wait for the lights to change. She stepped out into the road, jolting her painful ribs so they made her gasp for breath.
Someone blasted their horn at her, but she barely even noticed. She half-stumbled, half- ran across the road. People looked at her with curiosity and concern in their eyes, one woman even put out her hand as Serenity passed her and asked if she was okay, but Serenity shrugged the kindly woman off and ran.
Blindly she pushed past people, knocking shoulders and elbows as she went. She could hear shouts of protest, but they were muffled by the blood that was rushing through her ears.
“Hey, crazy lady!” one man shouted at her as she stamped on his foot in her effort to get past. The panic that had exploded inside of her just made her want to get out of there, no matter what. Her heart was pounding and there was a pressure inside her head, a horrible pressure that made her think something terrible was going to happen unless she got away.
She rounded the corner. The side street was empty and was only lit by the dim lights from the restaurants that backed onto it. Large commercial bins were pushed up against the walls and Serenity collapsed between two of them, seeking shelter between their tall plastic sides. She bent over, ignoring the pain in her ribs, resting her hands on her thighs, her head hung down, gasping for breath. Her lower back screamed out in agony – Jackson always knew where to hit her to make it hurt the worst and always in places that no one saw – in her kidneys, the ribs just under her breasts, the bottom of her spine.
Just a panic attack, she told herself, as the feeling that she was going to die faded away with the adrenaline. Nothing to worry about, just a panic attack, you’ve had them before.
Slowly her breathing returned to normal and her heart lost its trippy beat. She was about to straighten up when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
She shrieked out loud and leapt away, jarring her poor ribs once again.
“I’m sorry,” a man’s voice said. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“By scaring me half to death!” Quickly the fear had been replaced by anger and she looked up, her eyes blazing.
In front of her was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. He was easily six foot tall with dark wavy hair that he wore a few inches too long so that it curled around his broad throat and fell across his forehead. He had the square jaw of a catalogue model and a wide, generous mouth, but it was his eyes that really blew her away. She had to do a double take, and she felt something deep inside her heart (or was it her brain) do a little jolt, like a flick back in time. Despite the darkness she could see they were the brightest green she had ever seen.
Green? Not yellow? Hadn’t they really been yellow?
She pushed the strange thought away.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, and his voice was like chocolate melting down her throat. She thought she could hear an accent, something European. “You seemed to be in distress. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help.”
“No. I’m fine, please. Just leave me alone.”
The faintest hint of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth and he stepped forward and held out his hand.
He fixed her with those amazing eyes. “At least let me help you to your feet.”
She looked at his hand in mistrust, but couldn’t help glancing at the rest of him. He was well-dressed in a smart woollen overcoat and his shoes looked expensive. He gave the impression of someone who was important, of someone who knew his place in the world.
He was everything Serenity wanted to be.
She glanced again. His hand was large, and strong and inviting, and he certainly didn’t look like a lunatic.
Could this man do much worse than what she had waiting for her at home?
The anger in her melted and she found herself incapable of resisting. Instead she wanted to take his hand, wanted to touch that skin that looked so soft and strangely pale, and she reached out and slipped her small palm into his.
She gave a small gasp and would have pulled away if it wasn’t for the strength of his hand closing around her own.
Cold. He was so cold.
It wasn’t just the cold that made her gasp. His touch seemed to fire every synapse in her body and she felt her skin prickle with goose flesh, her heart hitch in her chest. Again there was that strange jolt in her brain, like static discharge realigning her nerve cells. It felt as though someone had reached in and moved something around, like something had happened that someone wanted her to forget. Black blobs suddenly clouded her vision and she felt her legs fold beneath her and the world swim away.
His arms were beneath her before she could fall, his easy strength holding her, and she felt herself come back to the surface.
“Sorry,” she managed, embarrassed. “I don’t know...”
She tailed off, not sure what she was going to say.
“What were you running from?” he asked her, gently.
She looked up at him. His eyes were full of gentle understanding; he was the first person in a long time who had shown her any kind of compassion.
“Myself,” she whispered. “I was running from myself.”
He smiled that half-smile again. “You didn’t get very far.”
“No. I never do.”
She suddenly realised she was still in his arms, that her breasts were pressed up against his broad chest, that his face was only inches from her own. He seemed aware of their close proximity at exactly the same moment and he let go and stepped away, both of them flustered.
She stared down at the floor, too embarrassed to meet his eyes. What had she felt go through her? It was like a charge, an electrical charge, or like he had somehow reached inside her and touched the essence of who she was. That was crazy; she must be losing the plot. The stress was all getting too much for her.
“I...I have to go,” she managed, pushing past him, not trusting herself to look at him again. For a moment she could almost sense him about to reach out to her again, but he did not and she kept walking. It was only when she reached the main street with its lights and bustle of people that she dared to look back.
He was gone.
A strange ache of both disappointment and relief filled her heart and she chewed at her lower lip, worrying a piece of dried skin. She found herself trying to commit his face to memory, to bury deep inside of her how she felt when he had taken her hand. As stupid as it seemed, it felt like her moment, something that she had experienced just for herself, and she would bury it deep inside of her and dig it out like an old forgotten favourite teddy or blanket when things got really bad.
The thought made her want to cry, but she pressed her lips together and fought the tears. She wouldn’t let herself cry. Not anymore. She wouldn’t let herself cry.
It was getting late and she knew that Jackson would already be wondering where she was. Hoping to do damage control, she fished around in her handbag and found her cell phone. She only had three numbers programmed in; Home, work, and Jackson’s cell phone. She hit home and put the phone to her ear.
It only rang twice before her husband picked up.
“Hey, honey,” she said, hoping her voice wasn’t shaking too much. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to be a bit late home. The traffic is terrible and I wasn’t able to get on the last bus, it was full of Japanese tourists.”
He was silent on the other end as he weighed up what she had said. She held her breath in anticipation.
“How long are you going to be?”
She could hear the measure in his voice, as though every ten minutes she was late was going to buy her another punch.
“Half an hour,” she said, trying to make her voice sound light. “Quick as I can.”
Air whistled down the phone and she knew he was huffing air out through his nose. He always did it when he was pissed, like a bull shown a red rag.
“Fine, but hurry up. I’m getting hungry,” and he hung up.
Serenity hurried down the road towards her bus stop, praying it wouldn’t take long to arrive. To her relief she saw the big blue bus trundling down the road towards her and she broke into a gentle trot, ignoring her protesting ribs, not wanting to risk missing this one. She made it in plenty of time and joined the queue of people getting on. There was no hint of the panic attack she had suffered earlier at this same close proximity of a crowd. Strangely she felt stronger within herself, as if the nugget (of hope?) she had stored within herself was feeding her.
She flashed her travel card at the driver who barely bothered to look. All the seats were taken so she grabbed hold of one of the standing poles.
With her free hand she fingered the thin silver necklace that lay around her throat, the letter ‘S’ hanging from the chain. It had been one of the only presents she could remember her mother ever giving her and she rubbed at it like a good luck charm whenever she was nervous, which was often.
Just as the bus pulled away she caught something out of the corner of her eye and she swung her head round and peered through the bus window. It was as though her eyes sought him out through the crowds, like some part of her deep down knew exactly where to look, exactly where to find him. For there, on the other side of the street and standing in the crevasse of a doorway, was the man who had tried to help her.
He was watching her.