I kick the cabinet door shut, hands full of taco seasoning and bell peppers. There's too much ground beef in the pan, but I can save leftovers for the week as long as I don't lose track of normal meal intake and overeat. A stack of flour tortillas waits on the counter. They've been sitting out for a while, and I can't remember if tortillas even need to be refrigerated or not.
The T.V. in my living room blares loud enough for me to hear in the kitchen. I'm not watching, only listening to one of many prime time weeknight cop shows I subscribe to for no other reason than to fill the time between eight and ten p.m. Using a paring knife, I slice and chop the red bell peppers into quick, uneven cubes and add them to the pan. After a stir, the seasoning goes in. About a third of my concoction fits into two tortillas, and I think it's a pretty generous start. After slopping some sour cream onto my plate between the tacos, I bend down and let Cookie, my Yorkie-Chihuahua mix, clean the spoon.
Before I can even reach the couch and catch the big criminal reveal on the screen, my phone buzzes on the coffee table, my coworker Kris's name shining bright in the dimly lit room. I take my first bite because my empty stomach simply can't wait any longer, wipe my hand on the seat of my pajama pants, and reach down to pick up the phone.
"Hey," I say. A careful, awkward position allows me to trap the phone between my ear and my shoulder, freeing my hand to grab the taco that's already falling apart and dripping red juice onto the other tortilla.
"Cheyenne!" Kris bursts, and I can already tell this isn't work-related at all. I'm already thinking of excuses I can feed her to hang up, because if it's just more office gossip that can wait until tomorrow, then I'd rather get back to Detective Suave and his exquisite murderer-finding brain. "Guess who we won't be seeing tomorrow."
"Judging by how sing-songy you sound right now," I start, mouth half full, "I'm going with Brian."
"You're absolutely right, and I can confidently say for once I'm excited to go to work in the morning, knowing his greasy face won't be there, staring at me and making me feel like I have hives all over."
"Did you finally get him fired?"
Her tone deflates. "No, just suspended. But the suspension was put into place so they could initiate an investigation for workplace sexual harassment." The last three words out of her mouth sound so much happier than what their meaning connotes.
Instead of voicing my opinion that being asked out to dinner, unfailingly, three times a week is creepy and annoying to say the least doesn't necessarily fall under the category of a sexual offense, which I've done before to no end of Kris's complaining and my having to listen to it, I sigh.
"You think this investigation will find some good reasons to fire him for good?" I ask.
"Oh, definitely. Today, I caught him peeking over the cubicle wall and staring down my shirt."
"Ew," I provide unhelpfully, eyes watching the screen. "Can't say I'm sad to see him go, though I will miss the free coffee he brings us when he thinks gifts will inspire a yes."
"No amount of free coffee in the world is enough to get me to date that creep," she declares.
"Right, same. Hey, Kris, I gotta let you go. Cookie just peed on my carpet." I'm already lowering my phone, thumb hovering over the end call button. I catch Kris's "Have fun cleaning that up!" before hanging up and smiling to myself at how great of a liar I am.
Hearing her name, Cookie trots over to me and tilts her head to the side. She whines, probably for my food, but I'm too determined to stuff these tacos in me to share.
"I guess I should let you out in case," I say to her, paranoid that my lie would become truth, like she would understand my words.
I abandon the T.V. because I'd missed most of the episode anyway and go for Cookie's leash. We step out the back door of my condo that exits into a barely-used alleyway. It started drizzling without my notice, but I don't care to grab an umbrella. The water dampens my hair and shoulders, but not much else. There's a street lamp at the end of the alley that does basically nothing to illuminate the plastic trash bins and cracked patio furniture around us.
Cookie barks into the darker end of the alley, eyes fixed on something I don't see. Grumpily, I tug on her leash, causing her tags to jingle brightly.
"Pee already," I groan.
She keeps up her effort, though, growling and barking until I've had enough and scoop her up into my arms. Even that doesn't stop her. I follow her line of sight and this time catch a glimpse of something limping closer. The shape is distorted by the distance and the rain, but it gets near enough for me to distinguish the outline of a human. I feel very aware of the fact that I left my phone inside.
Before my brain thinks of any type of instinctual survival method, before I even register the need to feel fear, the person steps into the light, and I can make out his face.
Almost obscured by a soaking navy blue hood, the first thing that strikes me is how handsome his features are. It kickstarts my heart into giddiness, but the speed doubles when I notice a second thing about him.
The side of his head, underneath the hood, is bleeding. So profusely, it must be, because the thick material of the sweatshirt hood looks soaked with it.
"Are you okay?" I blurt, raising my voice over the rain and the barking.
He smiles coolly at me, and that's when I see that his lip is split and also bleeding. His left eye looks a little discoloured around the socket.
I must look stupid, gaping at a stranger in a dark alley in the rain, eyes wide, mouth hanging open, holding my noisy dog close to me, pajamas getting so wet they might be see-through by now. He'd probably just been in a gang fight or something, if there are gangs in the area, and he's gonna deuce me too so there are no witnesses. His hands, stuffed into his pockets, could be holding a switchblade.
"'M alright," he says, still smiling like he doesn't have a hole in his head. "Almost didn't get away." He laughs.
"Oh my god, let me call you an ambulance." I take a few giant steps toward my door, but I turn back around when I hear him shuffling along, following me.
My head's making me feel dizzy; the rain getting in my eyes, Cookie's constant barking, the ludicrous attraction I feel toward a perfect, damaged stranger, and the surrealness of the whole situation all apparently block my high brain functions because I scurry back over to him and help him into my house. I'm useless, though, with one arm full of dog and my free hand grasping the back of his hoodie.
"Is your leg hurt too?" I ask after shutting the door and locking out the sound of increasingly persistent rain.
"No," he answers, "and I don't think I need an ambulance."
"But you're limping." When I put Cookie on the floor, she shakes off some water and dashes to hide behind the couch, never a fan of strangers or men in general.
"Just a little drunk." His grin is easy and captivating, and the way he says it sounds like it's a secret between him and me.
All the questions in my head take a back seat. I usher him into the kitchen for better lighting, offering him a chair, and promptly squeak when I see that I've left my dirty dishes and food scraps from dinner all over the counter.
"Ignore the mess," I attempt as my hands dump the used pan, cutting board, and knife into the sink. The scraps get swept into the trash, which had already been piling high before I try to cram more into it. I'm painfully aware of how much of a slob I look, and I want to make a comment that 'it's not usually like this, you caught me after a long day of work, I was going to clean after I finished eating.' More powerful than that, though, and maybe more embarrassing, I want to slap myself at getting so flustered over my condo's appearance and not at the fact that I just invited a probably drug-dealing homeless man into my home and am letting him drip mud and blood onto my floors, all while consumed by the inappropriately timed fantasy that he's a hunk who's come to sweep me off my feet like I used to read in so many romance novels in high school.
I can already hear Kris's giggling voice teasing me if I tell her about this tomorrow at work. 'I knew you were into rugged guys, Cheyenne, but Jesus, I didn't think you'd be so thirsty for someone you plucked from an alleyway.'
My face is red when I dampen a dishrag with warm water and walk over to the man.
"Use this to clean up your lip."
His fingers close around the rag, and they're strained red with blood, too. In fact, in the light, I can see his sweatshirt sleeves are splattered with the stuff, dotting paths all the way up to his elbows.
He wipes up the cut on his lip with one hand, and the other lifts to flick the hood off his head. One look at the gash in the side of his head gets me a little queasy, and I wish I had an actual first aid kit somewhere in this house.
"You sure you don't want an ambulance?" I press, uneasy about taking care of something that probably needs stitches all by myself.
"Rather not. No insurance, you know?"
The comment increases my suspicion that this man really is homeless, but more than the shame that I swallow back down, I feel a growing urge to help him. Grabbing the dishrag from him, I pat around the wound on his head because he can't see it himself, clearing away some of the blood. His hair is a short, choppy dirty blonde color, and as the blood comes off I see that the wound isn't as big as it looked before. I probably don't have to worry about it. This guy sure isn't. My other hand finds itself on the opposite side of his face, cupping his jaw to keep his head still. Embarrassment warms my face again, and I look into his eyes to stutter out an apology. The words are halted, though, when I catch him already staring at me. He doesn't look away, and I get the chance to note that his eyes are a dark blue, calm and hazy from however much alcohol he drank and whatever drugs he could be on right now.
I want to ask what happened to him, how he ended up with a gash in his head, a bruised eye, stumbling down an alley so late in the evening, but what comes out is a request for his name.
"John," he supplies. "And you're Cheyenne Mason."
I jerk my hand back, blinking at him. Before I can even run through a mental list of Johns I know, maybe even nameless guys I've slept with, he laughs airily.
"I saw it on your mail." He points to my pile of bills sitting across from him on the kitchen table.
"I guess you've stopped bleeding." I drop the rag in with the rest of the trash. "But we should, you know, clean it with alcohol. Or something."
"I'll be fine," John says, but I'm already rummaging through my cabinets and praying I have rubbing alcohol somewhere. John, apparently, finds my enthusiasm funny. "You're a doting little nurse, aren't you?"
I bite my bottom lip and pull from one of the cabinets a glass bottle of clear gin. "It's all I have." John makes no protest and shrugs with one shoulder.
"Nurse knows best."
With a paper towel in hand, I bring a glass half-filled with gin over to John and pause.
"This'll probably hurt," I warn him, dipping the paper towel into the liquid.
"Not the worst I've had all night."
He indulgently allows me to swipe the towel over the cut in his head, eyebrows barely even twitching at the sting. I dip the towel again and blot it twice over his cut lip, and my better judgement manifests itself with terrible timing when I think maybe it would be better to just leave them alone to heal themselves.
Gauze is something useful that I actually do have, so I attach a square of the powdery white linen to John's scalp with medical tape.
"You've been a dutiful patient," I say playfully because I'm finally feeling less stressed and awkward about not knowing how to help.
"How about a drink to celebrate a successful procedure?" John's dark eyes travel smoothly up my body, and I hold my hands up in a shy gesture to decline.
"I don't think that's a good idea. I have work tomorrow and…" I trail off when John stands, coming to his full height right in front of me, almost chest to chest.
He dips his fingers in the glass of gin and runs them over my lips. Without a conscious decision, my tongue darts out to taste the alcohol he's feeding me, and suddenly I remember why I invited him inside in the first place.
"Just a shot. Or two," he says coolly, and I'm nodding a fervent yes.
One shot quickly becomes several, and we move from the kitchen to the couch, where late night comedians rattle off about politics while I'm on John's lap tracing the scars and bruises on his chest with my fingers and lips. The T.V. stays on even as we move from the couch to my bedroom, where John tugs on my hair and grunts like an animal. I swam through the whole night in a black and blue dream, my drunk mind only sometimes registering the feeling of John's big hands all over my body, and it was nice.
I wake with a headache and a knowing guilt that I'm late for work. I throw the sheet off me and see before I feel the finger-shaped bruises on my hips and thighs. Piece by piece, the events of the night before come back to me. John isn't in bed. He's not in the bathroom or in the kitchen, and I don't feel hurt about it.
Cookie emerges from behind the couch and yaps at me for her breakfast. As she's eating, a knock on the front door jolts me into sobriety. I pull on a robe for some decency and open the door to find two male police officers waiting side by side.
"Ms. Mason," one of them says.
I nod, tightening the lapels of my robe closer around me. "That's me."
"My name is Sergeant Detective Burke, and this is my partner, Detective Dowell. We're asking around in the area if you had seen any suspicious activity last night, possibly heard something out of the ordinary, during the hours of eight and nine in the evening," he says curtly.
My stomach does flips, and my headache returns with a force for reasons other than the hangover.
"No," I manage slowly, too dumbfounded to say anything useful, too scared to put the facts together.
My negative answer didn't seem to deter Burke. He produces a card from his coat pocket, one with his name and phone number printed on it.
"If anything comes to you, or if you do see something of significance in this area, give me a call."
I pinch the paper between my thumb and forefinger.
"What's going on?" I ask, then add, "if you can tell me."
"There's been a murder," Burke says, "and we're looking for the perpetrator. Don't worry, though, Miss. Police are patrolling the neighborhood and keeping everyone safe."
He says more, but with the blood pounding in my ears, I don't hear it and only nod at him until both detectives leave.
I close the door and walk deeper into my condo, stopping at the kitchen counter. The detective's card is still in my hand, but I haven't looked at it.
Cookie barks at me, this time to be let outside. I go for her leash and stop when I see a note taped to my back door.
Had fun last night, Nurse. I took some food in the fridge and cash from your wallet. You really need to get a bark collar for that dog. Glad we're not strangers now, so don't be one. Xxx-xxx-xxxx. -John Doe