A PATHETIC HOPE

Free-to-Read Short Story #2

Author’s Note: Not sure why Word Press doesn’t auto-indent the paragraphs when I copied the doc here, but I’m too lazy to go through the whole “short” story and indent everything. I’m sure you’ll be fine. 

Enjoy!

 

A Pathetic Hope

By:

J. Anthony Mylie


Hal was all too familiar with the shame he felt the instant his ejaculate left his dick and toppled onto his hand. He’d been whacking off to the same porn star for over ten years. On and off though; his tastes in quick orgasm material varied rather greatly, but he always returned to her. Her name was Nico. He knew it wasn’t her real name. His delusions of grandeur actually had nothing to do with her, personally.

It was who she reminded him of.

Natalie Bailey.

His first love.

The first girl to even kiss him. It should be noted that his first kiss didn’t land upon his timid lips until he was seventeen. He was an awkward teen, an awkward kid. Fuck, he was even an awkward adult. He wasn’t particularly proud of most of his nearly thirty years on Earth, but he was most proud of the boyfriend he found himself able to be when he was with her. Not a day went by where he didn’t think about her. He wondered so often where she had gone.

He sighed as he penguin waddled, pants around his ankles, from his desk chair to the bathroom to clean up his white mess. He washed it all down the drain in the sink, noting the delightful scent of the lilac soap. It made the dismay of seeing his wasted seed spiral down the sink, clinging desperately to the chromed edges of the drain, ever so slightly less disappointing.

He caught his own gaze in the mirror and hung there for a moment contemplating what he was doing with his life. Working a blue collar electrician gig for a shitty union, living single in a bland and uninteresting apartment. His apartment was clean. It was organized. It may have been the only thing he was moderately proud of since Natalie.

How pathetic, he thought.

No amount of online dating was able to land him a relationship that lasted longer than a few weeks. His twenties were peppered with too many, “It’s not you, it’s me” breakups. Only one girl had the gumption to honestly tell him that he was boring.

Boring.

Fucking boring, he fumed internally.

He was far from an angry guy. He never lashed out and would never harm a fly, but sometimes when random old and embarrassing memories from his past accosted his content reverie he’d grit his teeth and want to punch the closest wall or door. He knew a fair bit about replacing drywall and doors so why not take one out? He was boring. He just didn’t have it in him to do anything about anything.

When the rare occasions of desperation came knocking he’d look Natalie up on Facebook.

Her profile hadn’t been updated in almost six years.

He couldn’t wrap his head around it. She was a mecca when it came to social media. Live Journals, Dead Journals, instagram, and twitter. All of them gone or ceased. He tried contacting her a few times, spaced out over years, but she never replied or accepted his friend requests.

After washing up he had the urge to check on her again. He pulled his pants back up, zipped and buttoned them; looking less shameful and more like a human-being. Typing her name into Facebook once more he saw the same now ageless face he’d seen for the past six years. Her smile was bright, perpetually bright, and every perfect white tooth was visible. She had big, luscious lips. Lips he could still taste if he thought hard enough. The electric blue of his laptop screen didn’t do her beauty justice. It was a crime to cage such beauty behind megapixels and diodes. The more he looked at her the more he wondered what she ever saw in a boring, middle of the road guy like him.

They had had one year.

One solid, perfect year together.

Until her military father had gotten a job transfer and off they went. She was gone from his life. Distance and first loves do not good bed fellows make. They parted in tears, real tears. He could still taste their sorrow and regret.

“What the fuck?” he said out loud to himself in frustration.

He knew he was better than this, that he should move on. He knew he wasn’t a terrible looking guy, perhaps he just needed a hobby. Perhaps he just needed some excitement in his life that went beyond playing video games. He knew he wasn’t much different than most guys.

Better than most, he reassured himself.

So he shut his laptop screen, sending his beloved into darkness.

***

Several months passed.

He took up rowing and got himself into relatively decent shape. He started feeling better.

See? This was all ya needed, he’d say to the open lake.

He even had a girlfriend.

Her name was Cecilia and she was quite lovely. Once again he was feeling like he was playing out of his league. But he decided to stop letting that get to him. It was the evening of their three month anniversary and they were going out to dinner at a fancy restaurant; Cecilia liked to do things in quarters. So he brought his kayak into dock at the rowing club and had a smile on his face, thinking of the joy of the evening to come.

He hefted his racing shell up onto the roof rack of his station wagon and wondered what else about his life he could change; given the stride he had been hitting. He mused about becoming a cop. His electrician job had been wearing thin. He needed more excitement. And he figured that since he was in better shape that perhaps he could take the tests, see if he at least had what it took to make the academy.

***

“Hello?” she said with the sweetest tone and tight smile, “Hal Hope? Where’d you go?”

He snapped back to attention, realizing that he had been daydreaming.

“Sorry,” he smiled back at Cecilia, “Lost in thought, ya know.”
“Whatcha thinkin’ about?” she asked him, all cute and imploring.

He sighed, looking down at his hands, buying time to think of an answer that didn’t revolve around the truth; he was thinking of Natalie. He didn’t know why, hadn’t thought of her for quite some time. He assumed it was because their first date had been in a similar restaurant.

When he looked back up to meet his girlfriend’s gaze his heart nearly stopped.

Natalie was looking back at him from across the table, her face paler than he had ever seen it. She looked scared.

Then he blinked and Cecilia’s inquiring eyes met his once more. He coughed himself back to reality and tried to hide his grief.

“I was thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he told her, uncertain of the words as he spoke them, “Thought about becoming a cop, maybe.”

“That’s cool,” she seemed not entirely interested, “Don’t like being an electrician?”

“I think I want my life to mean something,” he replied, still trying to shrug off the unease of seeing Natalie’s face, “I mean, I want to do something important. Something like that.”

Their dinner together spiraled into blandness; talking about the weather and each others day at work and family drama. He was sure it was likely his fault as he couldn’t extricate his thoughts from Natalie. Seeing her face so graven gave him the chills. Cecilia had to repeat herself more than she obviously liked. He apologized, of course, but they were empty.

***

More months passed.

He didn’t see Natalie while he was awake again like he had at the restaurant. Instead she took to haunting his dreams on occasion. In them she always looked helpless and empty. Not at all the girl he remembered. What irked him even more was that she looked like she had aged. His memories of her ceased when they were seventeen, right before she moved away. Sure, he had poured over her Facebook pics, but those ended when she was about twenty-four. She’d be thirty now, like him, and in his restless dreams she looked it, older even.

Needless to say his relationship with Cecilia suffered. He was less joyful, less open. He sunk back into his boring old self. With one exception; he made it into the police academy. Cecilia wasn’t as happy as he was hoping. She told him she couldn’t be with someone who risked their life everyday and that it would cause her too much stress. He understood, but at that point he was sure she just looking for an out.

So he let her go. Just like all the rest he just let everything slide off his back. She was a presence in his life next to nothing more than a moderately fond memory. He didn’t mind being alone. He was content enough with his own company. It was usually more peaceful, never the constant need to be something to somebody or entertain them. Sure saved him a hell of a lot of money too. Relationships were hard work, so it seemed, and he was wondering whether or not he had the energy for them.

Except for Natalie.

She was always the exception. For them everything just was. It was smooth, it was joyful. There were no lies or pretenses. Neither needed to drag the other along. No, they held one another up and he knew he had been searching for that feeling ever since. Although, when his musings as a thirty year old man reminiscing about a teenage “love” became too deep he pulled himself out abruptly and verged on hating himself. They were teenagers then. What did teenagers know of love? It all sounded so stupid the older he got.

But it was Natalie.

***

He washed out of the Police Academy a couple of months later.

All of it a pathetic hope set asunder by his own worst enemy: himself.

His bad dreams about Natalie had twisted into full on nightmares. And they happened nearly every night. He had barely slept and thought he was going insane. No matter what he was doing he’d feel this intense fear and loss for her. She haunted him even though she never spoke a word in his nightmares. It wasn’t long before his studies suffered and his aptitude waned. He’d be late to classes or near incompetent in the ones he made. His superiors were more than pleased with his physical tests and his firearms training; which, surprising even himself, he excelled at. So he was given the the choice to turn it all around or leave.

And pathetic Hal left.

He quit just when he was inches from the finish line, just like always.

Ashamed of himself he returned to his meager apartment, down trodden and mildly pissed off. He thought of calling Cecilia, hoping for a good pity fuck, but decided against it. He was disillusioned about what he wanted. But getting his rocks off seemed like a serviceable idea so he plopped himself in front of his trusty laptop and began rifling his way through some of the safer porn streaming sites; fighting every instinct to seek out the porn star that reminded him so much of Natalie. He’d already seen all her vids, which wasn’t many. No, he was already hard so he found a passable skinny brunette to assuage his fucked up life for a moment.

After shooting his load he cleaned up then passed out on his bed for a nap. The idea of sleep had begun to worry him as Natalie always seemed to show up no matter what he was dreaming about. He wasn’t out more than a few minutes when she slipped into his rapid eye movement.

In his dream he was standing in a blurry hallway, it could have been one from his old high school, but he wasn’t be sure. Sun and light seemed to fill the hallway and he was sure he could hear bells or wind chimes. Then the light went away and the blurry walls and floor he stood upon turned dark green and dank and rusty. He heard screams, but couldn’t discern whether they were pleasurable or painful or both. Without taking a step he seemed to move forward through the hallway. He came to a heavy metal door with a peephole in it and just as he was about to peer through it a ghostly image of Natalie soundlessly screaming burst in front of him. And like the blinking of eyes she was gone.

And he was awake.

He was sweating and utterly exhausted like he was back running track or sparring at the academy. He missed the self-defense courses. He liked those the most, it was one of the only areas he hadn’t suffered in; a means to let out his aggression and bewilderment over his nightmares. He pondered taking up martial arts classes, but knew the pathetic old Hal would just give up on that too.

Then he got an idea.

He strode to his computer and rifled through Natalie’s defunct Facebook page. He clicked on the pages of two of her friends that were tagged in a few pictures. Both of their pages were current. They lived in opposite corners of the States, but he thought why not give it a go?

So he politely messaged both of them; detailing that he was an old friend of Natalie’s from high school and was just wondering about what happened to her page.

Feeling like he accomplished something he sat back and waited.

Days passed.

Nothing.

Oh, both girls had read his message, Facebook shows you that, but neither chose to respond.

Infuriating.

He chalked it up to maybe he came across as creepy, but there was nothing he could do about that now so he let the matter drop and never followed up. Instead he had another idea. If his nightmares were ever going to end he needed some kind of closure, at the very least to find out she had gotten married and changed her name or joined some off the grid hippie commune or something. Warily, he checked obituaries around the date her last photo was posted to her Facebook and in the area in New Jersey where she went college.

His search turned up nothing.

So he checked missing persons.

Still nothing.

With a growl of aggravation he shot up from his desk chair and stormed into the kitchen to get a drink. Nursing a hearty beer he sat back down and fumed as he pondered.

Her parents.

It had been awhile and he couldn’t recall their first names. He really only knew them as Mr. and Mrs. Bailey. So he looked up the town records for the owners of the house Natalie used to live in. It was all easier than he had thought. He found records of the current owner and the owners prior; which, much to his elation, were Natalie’s parents. Rebecca T. Bailey and Hoban R. Bailey.

With feverish determination his fingers pecked away at the keys. It wasn’t long before he found them. Her father’s unique first name whittled down the list rather quickly.

He lived Iowa.

Hal, sighing with slight sadness, “Damn.”

He found their divorce records.

There were too many “Rebecca T. Baileys” for him to root through. He was sad because they had always seemed like a happy couple. Very loving and affectionate. And always kind to him when he’d be over for dinner.

So her father became his main focus.

With a phone number on the screen before him he typed it into his cell phone and paused only for a moment before pressing the green call button.

And it rang.

And rang.

And rang.

Hal twitched with anticipation. His teeth clenched tight, “C’mon.”

Then it picked up.

“Yeah,” was all the gruff voice at the end of the line offered.

Hal’s voice was caught in his throat. He knew it was her father. Even with just one word, he knew.

“What the fuck do you want?” the haggard Hoban said, “I ain’t buying nothing.”

“Mr. Bailey,” Hal quickly replied, “It’s me, Hal Hope.”

“Who?”

Hal was a little taken aback that Hoban didn’t recall him.

“Hal Hope,” he said again, “I was a friend of Natalie’s way back in the day. In high school.”

Hoban sighed deeply, “Yeah…why are you calling?”

“Well,” Hal berated himself for not prepping this conversation in his head beforehand, “I was wondering if you knew of a way I could get in contact with Natalie? Can’t seem to find her anywhere. Kinda just wanted to catch up, you know.”

“Is this some kind of joke, you little shit?” Hogan growled.

Hal’s heart skipped, “Joke? No, sir…I just wanted to reconnect with her, been a long time-”

“She’s dead you ignorant twit. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Hal was sure his heart completely stopped. And his lungs ceased to function. As did his eyes and limbs. The ear pressed tightly to the top of his cell phone was the only working part of him.

“At least she…might as well be,” Hoban finished.

Hal struggled out, “S-Sir? I’m so sorry, I don’t understand.”

Hoban sighed deeply again; Hal was sure this man simply didn’t want to talk about the matter.

“She went missing,” he finally got out, “Almost seven years ago.”

Hal’s body relaxed some. He dreaded every moment of the conversation, but was finding some sort of questionable hope deep inside himself. The feeling made him restless.

“Sir, I’m…I’m so sorry. I didn’t know,” Hal was on the verge of tears, his voice made that clear, “I really didn’t.”

There was a moment of silence between them, dead air on the line; neither sure of where their chat was heading.

“Do you mind if I ask where?” Hal carefully implored.

“What’s it matter, kid?” Hoban replied.

“It matters to me,” Hal said, but kind of wished he hadn’t. Just slipped out.

“Now I remember you,” Hoban said, “Cute kid. Why are you scratching at old wounds?”

Hal wasn’t sure how to respond, certainly wasn’t going to tell him he’d been dreaming about his daughter. Then the penny dropped in Hal’s restless mind. Natalie’s painful expressions, her haunting him. He deliriously began to think he was connected to her and that she was, indeed, alive and that he was the only one that could find her.

His heart quickened. Vigor filling his veins, purpose flooding his muscles.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you, sir,” Hal replied, “I just wanted to talk to my old friend again. Natalie was…one of the best people I ever knew.”

“She was…” Hoban was despondent.

More silence. Neither seemed able to hang up or extricate themselves from the receiver.

“She went missing while on a cruise with two of her girlfriends,” Hoban begrudgingly let out, “They docked in Curacao and…”

Hal’s heart was breaking for the man. When Hal knew him he was broad, tall, and strong. Over the phone Hal imagined him a weak, drained, and tattered shadow of his former self.

“She disappeared,” Hoban seemed on the verge of weeping, “without a trace…just…gone.”

“My god,” Hal whispered, hoping Hoban would continue, but resisted any prodding of his own.

“We searched and searched,” Hoban continued, “I called in every military and government favor I could, but…we had nothing. We tried for years. Years. And got nowhere.”

Hal’s sigh was the only response he could give.

“I’m done, kid,” Hoban told him, “I’ve got nothing else. Get on with your life. Do something useful. No need to be calling old drunks.”

Hal didn’t really realize it until Hoban had said it, but he could hear the slight slur in his voice. The man had seen the bottom of at least one bottle.

“I will, sir,” Hal told him, “of that I can assure you.”

Hoban hung up the phone.

Hal clicked off his cell and rested the top rim of it against his lower lip; his mind racing with what he needed to do next.

There was much to do and sleep was not an option.

***

Hal was only slightly aware that he might be crazy.

Or going crazy.

It didn’t really matter as he was already on the plane and had booked the cruise. He’d dipped into almost all of his savings; he wasn’t really sure what he was doing or how long he might be gone. He did, however, have an idea of where to begin and what it might take to do what he was meant to do. He may have washed out of the police academy but he certainly learned a lot and had grown much.

As the world he knew passed below he wondered about reality; tried to put it all into perspective in his head. He’d always felt some connection to Natalie, something stronger that he could never put into words. He wasn’t really a believer in a god and the supernatural so what was happening to him frazzled his brain. His nightmares were too intense, vivid, and consistent to be the mere wayward firing of neurons; a resting brain trying to make sense of all its information.

And why now? After all this time? He pondered.

If she had gone missing so long ago then why did he suddenly have visions of her now?

He shook off the questions. They would only hinder his search for her. He may not have all the answers to the strange adventure he was embarking upon, but somewhere inside he knew he wasn’t going insane and that he had to find her.

He had to save her.

***

Curacao was hot and sunny, but the humidity was low. When Hal disembarked from the cruise ship he arrived as any tourist would; however, he would not be getting back on the cruise ship with the rest of them to finish the scheduled cruise. Sure, he could’ve flown directly to Curacao, saved a bit of money, but he felt he needed to follow Natalie’s exact course before she disappeared. He didn’t know why, but he hoped it would tighten the connection he shared with her.

It had been almost a week since he had talked to Hoban on the phone. Since then he had gleaned some information about the investigation into her disappearance from local and international news articles online. Some of which had included interviews with her two friends who had been with her. He now knew why neither of them had responded to his inquiry; the investigation and the questions they had endured had wrung them emotionally dry.

He sympathized with them as he had barely slept a wink since starting this excursion of his. He felt drained and wiry. His first stop was the hotel Natalie and her friends had stayed at and the same room with the same bed they had slept in. Laying on that bed had been approached with much trepidation. It was the closest he had felt to her in over a decade.

He closed his eyes and breathed deep into the pillow.

It smelled of lemon detergent.

He wasn’t really sure what he was expecting to smell, but as he drifted off to the first real sleep he’d had in a week he hoped she’d haunt him again and tell him the next step in finding her.

***

And she didn’t fail him.

She never failed him.

In the haze of dreams he saw the neon name of a business. As he strode down a dirty, muddy road at night the name of the business came into focus through its red smoke; beckoning him.

Club Praag

***

Hal awoke after the restless slumber, but it was more rest than he had had so he felt a little better. The coffee in Curacao did wonders for his attention. He sat at a jazz cafe’ adjacent to an alley which harbored the back door Club Praag. It wasn’t on Google maps so he had resorted to asking around. It took a few tries and some less than approving looks before he’d gotten the directions. English was common for most residents, but the native Dutch dialect of Papiamentu was prevalent. Standard Dutch and Spanish were also spoken and sadly Hal spoke neither.

Either way he had found Club Praag.

It seemed to be a night-only kind of place. And given its drab location he was sure the business was shady. Pulling his eyes from the turned-off neon sign he took a moment to take in the world and culture around him. It was a beautiful little island; diverse and colorful. The live jazz music that jammed away behind him was a delightful mix of local flavor and classic jazz.

He knew Natalie had sat at this very cafe’.

There was nothing about it in the reports he’d read or in his dreams, but he knew because she loved jazz. She loved it more than anything. He could sense the pieces falling into place. She was here and Club Praag was close by.

So Hal waited.

He waited and watched and kept his caffeine intake constant.

As sunset took the island he heard muffled thumping music emanating from Club Praag. People of every sort, locals and tourists started to enter it. Positioned around the block were hype-men passing out fliers for the club and trying to sling the schtick to get people inside.

Hal knew Natalie must have gotten wrangled into going inside so he got up from the table he’d been sitting at and meandered to the entrance. Being an obviously white tourist he was waved inside and greeted with much elation. He dressed like he had money, which wasn’t entirely a lie. He was carrying enough cash and coin on him to hopefully buy him into whatever he needed. He had the terrifying suspicion Natalie was stuck somewhere in the sex trafficking ring which surrounded the Caribbean. He assumed he’d need money to find an American girl.

Prostitution was legal and controlled on Curacao. He doubted very much they kept Natalie here on the island; her father would have likely found her back when. So he was prepared to pay his way to wherever she might be.

Once inside the music assaulted his senses. It was the same terrible club techno beats played in most places he had visited during his younger years. He hated it. It was too loud. Could hardly be called music, but he suffered it because he knew he needed to.

An overly enthusiastic native and obvious employee came up to him all smiles and fake joy and put his arm around him.

“My friend! My friend!” he jostled him as he lead him through the club, “American?”

“Yeah!” Hal feigned his own grin, yelling above the music.

“I am Bob and I can get you whatever you want, my friend,” Bob told him.

“Bob?” Hal had to chuckle.

“Never mind that, sir,” Bob laughed, “So what can I do for you, huh?”

“I don’t know, Bob,” Hal faked, “This is my first time here, loving this place.”

“Well, if it’s booze you want, we got that,” Bob elongated, “You want some other things we got that too.”

“Other things?”

Bob held up his index finger signaling him to hold on as he lead him into a back room that was much quieter than the booming club they’d just bumped shoulders getting through. He lead him into a room with many private booths and near naked male and female dancers on tables. The space was open and classier and cleaner. Hal stole glances at the patrons in the booths; mostly white men in their thirties and forties and higher. Many already drunk. Hal surmised Bob saw in him what he wanted him to see.

Money.

Bob took Hal to an empty booth and sat next to him. A lingerie clad native girl in high heels sat on the table before them. Bob signaled for her to get up and start dancing and she did as commanded.

“She’s beautiful ain’t she, my friend?” Bob asked him.

“Very,” Hal noted.

Bob signaled to a waitress across the room to come over. He shouted something in the native tongue then went back to smiling at Hal.

“So, what is your name?”

“Hal,” he replied.

“Hal?” Bob replied questionably, “Funny name.”

“What about ‘Bob?’” Hal prodded him with a chuckle.

Bob waved it off, “So, my friend Hal, what brings you to our lovely bit of paradise?”

“I hear it is a fun place to be,” he replied.

“That it is,” Bob affirmed.

The waitress approached.

“What do you want?” Bob asked Hal.

“Do you have bourbon?”

“Do we have bourbon?!” Bob laughed, “Of course we do!”

He ordered to her in Papiamentu and she left.

“So is there anything else Bob can do for you, sir?” Bob asked.

“I don’t know? Is there anything you can do?”

“Well, you know women are legal here in Curacao, my friend,” Bob pointed out, “Whatever you want, man.”

Bob was staring at him, stone faced.

“You have anything more…American?” Hal asked.

Bob raised an eyebrow, curious, “Come all the way from America only to look for American?”

“Sometimes it isn’t about the color of skin, Bob,” Hal remarked slyly, “It’s about the situation…if you get my meaning.”

Just then the waitress came over with his bourbon and what looked like vodka for Bob. Hal pulled his wallet from his zipper-sealed back pocket and paid her likely much more money than the glass was worth. It was a show for Bob and Hal knew that this was where he needed to be and what he needed to do. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Bob eying all the money he had before tucking it back safely in his zipper pocket.

“Hal, my friend, I think you and I can do business,” Bob told him with a snakely grin.

***

“Bob” had left Hal alone for a spell with the lovely girl dancing for him on the table. She looked tired and possibly drugged. Hal’s heart ached for her and the life he imagined she wanted for herself. But there was nothing he could do for her. He had his own mission. But this whole culture of women made him ill. He sipped his bourbon and focused himself. All of this was too terribly real; where he was, what he was doing, and where it was leading.

He was, indeed, scared.

But he had hope.

This has to be real, it just has to be, he thought.

Bob returned and waved him out of the booth.

“If you’re willing to pay,” Bob told him, “I can take you somewhere…special.”

Hal nodded, “I’m willing.”

Bob nodded. His fake smile had given way to one of a man ready to do serious business.

“Follow me, Hal,” Bob ordered with an elongation to his name.

***

Club Praag was near the coast. Bob had lead him from the club to a small dock on a shaky pilings. One flickering floodlight illuminated the boat they got into. It was a simple gray pontoon boat with an outboard motor bolted to the rear. And Hal wasn’t the only passenger. Three other men, all quite affluent seeming judging by their watches, were present, each with their own escort. He hopped in next to them and shut himself out. He wasn’t in the mood to do more talking than he had to.

Bob sat next to him while another guy started the engine and they disembarked. He pulled a little plastic bag from the breast pocket of his faded and sweat-stained Hawaiian shirt.

“You need to take this,” Bob told him.

Hal noticed all the other escorts offering the same thing to their customers.

“What is it?” Hal asked.

“Just a little something to take the edge off, man,” Bob had that shit-eating smile again.

“I don’t do drugs, Bob, but thanks,” Hal said.

“You either do it or I push you overboard,” Bob said, smile nowhere to be found.

Hal nodded and popped the one little blue pill. He assumed it was some kind of ecstasy; something to buzz their clients just enough so they wouldn’t recall wherever they were being taken. But Hal had a little trick. Something he had been able to do since he was little kid when he didn’t want to take the godawful vitamins his mom forced on him each morning.

“Lemme see,” Bob ordered him to open his mouth.

Hal did as commanded, exposing a completely empty mouth.

“Good. Trust me, my friend, you’ll enjoy it,” Bob’s smile returned.

Hal was just annoyed he kept calling him “friend.”

He turned away from Bob and looked out towards the horizon; seeing the full moon in the clear sky light up the water. Far off Hal could see a tiny red light.

After feeling comfortable enough he stealthily coughed whatever the pill was up into his mouth and into his hand, then casually dropped it into the sea. He kept careful watch on the other men, making sure to mimic their reactions to the drug. They seemed to get a little woozy, but maintained a state of exposed enjoyment as they began swapping stories about who they were and where they were from.

Hal kept to himself; acting like the drug made him a bit woozier than them. He noted the escorts paying close attention to their clients as they talked about themselves, like they were taking mental notes. Possibly trying to weed out any cops or the like.

Hal had never acted before. But he’d played a hopeless, pathetic, good for nothing long enough to know the role he needed to fit for these men to take him seriously.

He was just a wallet with a cock.

That simple.

***

He wasn’t sure how long they had been on the shitty boat but he was glad to be off it. In a state of mild sea sickness and fear he found himself pondering just how many times over the last week he wasn’t sure of something. Whether it was time or person or place.

He wasn’t sure.

But after being lead up the beach into a dilapidated building that looked like an old school…

He was sure.

He was sure because he had seen that damned green hallway in his nightmares. And it now stretched out before him; real as the floor beneath his feet.

“I need some air,” he told Bob, “Just a sec, seasick.”

Bob put a hand on his shoulder and lead him back outside onto the cracked stone steps. He took some deep breaths and gathered himself, bracing against the metal railing.

He wasn’t a praying a man, but somewhere in the back of his mind he was asking someone, somewhere, for the strength to do and to be what he needed to be; hoping beyond hope that she was alive and in this place.

His mind cleared and his composure returned as he scratched the peeling green paint on the railing.

Bob wiped his brow for him, “C’mon, Hal, good time ahead, huh?”

“Yeah,” Hal chuckled, “Thanks.”

When Hal turned back towards the building he was all business. He felt different. His mode of being was different. He noticed the two guards at the door, each armed with AK-47s or some knock off.

He counted, One, two.

Bob was in front of him, leading, and he noticed the protrusion in the small of his back, likely a small pistol.

Three.

Hal’s police mentality training was taking over. He breathed carefully.

“So, what type do you like?” Bob asked.

“Skinny,” Hal recalled every detail of Natalie, “Pale. Short. I’ll pay extra if she has freckles.”

Hal laughed, playing into their game.

Bob laughed with him, “My friend, I think I have one you might like.”

They passed by two more guards on either side of the hallway. Desks with notepads full of scribblings on them next to either guard. Hal noted that both had Uzis slung over their shoulders.

Four. Five.

Five men, four heavily armed.

He kept his breathing controlled. He was stepping into the hornets nest completely unprepared, but not without chance; he reassured himself of this.

Remember your training, he told himself.

He heard the muffled moans of pleasure from behind the closed doors of a number of the rooms. His imagination threatened to run rampant with ghastly ideas of what to whom horrible things were happening to. If he could burn this whole building to the ground and set the victims free he would. His hands shook with rage and continually boiled with what penetrated his ears.

Crying.

His stomach roiled again when he realized the crying was that of children. He wasn’t sure how many, but he was sure this place had raped innocence long ago.

He told himself to stay on mission. He was here for her. Once he got her free he’d find a way to take care of the rest.

Somehow.

“Here we are,” Bob stopped him, “She’s clean, guaranteed. One hour. One thousand florin.”

He recognized the door and peephole he had never been able to peer through in his nightmares.

For a moment he thought he was dreaming and hoped he’d wake up back home, warm in his bed.

Wasting his pathetic life away.

But then Bob opened the door and he saw her.

There she was.

The object of all his dreams and nightmares coalesced in a beaten and bruised Natalie Bailey on a stained and tattered bed.

“You got it,” Hal fished out the money from his wallet and handed it to Bob.

Bob counted and smelled it.

“Have fun,” he told him, “Don’t hurt her too much or it’ll cost you. Kill her and it’ll cost everything.”

Jesus Christ.

“Yessir,” Hal closed the door behind him.

***

He stood there staring at her unconscious form, clothed in only a simple white nightgown, for what seemed like an eternity. The love he lost so long ago. Still, somewhere underneath the bruises, the scars, and needle holes in her arms, he found her undeniably gorgeous. Somehow in some supernatural way she had led him here. Something beyond his own comprehension, but it didn’t matter because she was right in front of him.

The room reeked of sweat, sex, and semen. It was the worst hell he could possibly imagine something so beautiful being caged in.

Then her eyes fluttered open and she looked at him, peering through the dimness of the room.

And his heart skipped a beat; just like it did the first time he’d met her.

She stared at him for a long while, like she was waiting for him to move, but he couldn’t. His breath caught in his lungs.

“H-Hal?” she struggled out a whisper.

Hearing her sweet voice say his name brought tears to his eyes. He rushed to the bed and brought his hands to her face.

She moved to embrace him, but the handcuffs which held her crucified against the metal headboard rattled in defiance.

“Hal,” her voice was strained like she hadn’t spoken in ages, “How did you…?”

Her voice trailed off.

So he kissed her. It was the only way to answer her question at that moment.

“I’m getting you out of here,” he told her.

He learned how to pick handcuffs but he needed a kind of pin to do it. He got up from the bed and searched the nightstand and found nothing except for lube and sex toys. His stomach lurched once again, fighting away what had been done to her. His gaze scattered the room and found it to be devoid of almost anything.

Almost.

He peered upward to think and saw the lone hanging light bulb and the string dangling from the pull chain. On the end of it dangled a paperclip.

Perfect.

He took the paperclip, partially unbent it and went to work on the cuffs. Once he got them off he held her wrists between them both; his thumbs caressing the soft of her wrists near the scars the cuffs had made over the years.

“Natalie,” he whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

She only breathed a whimper in reply, tears running down her faded freckled cheeks.

Wiping them away he said, “There will be time for tears later. Right now I need you to be the tough pain in the ass you always were and get up and trust me. Can you do that?”

She scoffed a weak smile and lightly nodded.

“Okay,” he told her, “People are going to die. Stay behind me, do not let go of my shirt. Are you ready?”

Her bottom lip quivered, ready to cry again, but she nodded and he helped her off the bed.

He took her to the wall next to the door he had come in from.

“Wait here,” he said.

He opened the door and poked his head out into the hallway and spotted Bob.

“Hey,” he called to him, “I think something is wrong with her.”

Bob rolled his eyes and walked over in a huff.

“This one was always a problem,” he exclaimed as he walked inside.

With his back exposed to Hal he moved quickly; snatching the pistol from the small of Bob’s back and knocking him over the head with it. Bob collapsed to the floor clutching his bleeding head right before Hal landed a final kick to the confused man’s face; knocking him out cold.

Hal checked the clip inside the Glock 9mm to affirm that it was full and ready to fire. He thumbed the safety off and looked to Natalie. She was hunched against the wall, looking sternly down at a man she obviously had deep disdain for.

He walked over to her, put his back to her and placed her hand on his left shoulder.

“Here’s where we move fast, Nat,” he said, “focus on me, stay with me. Okay?”

“Uh-huh,” was all she said.

He took a deep breath, “Alright, here we go.”

He rounded the doorway and entered the hallway, pistol up at the two guards brandishing Uzis.Surprise on his side and without wasting time he fired off two rounds into each as he walked quickly towards them. One was dead and the other tried desperately to aim his gun at him, but a third shot took him down. Hal worked quickly picking up one of the Uzis and readying it.

An instant later the two guards from outside came charging in AK’s firing.

Hal flipped the nearest desk over, papers scattering, and ducked down behind it, Natalie right with him. He propped the Uzi over the desk and unloaded the whole clip at the approaching guards, knowing he wouldn’t likely hit them, then he stood up just long enough to drop the Uzi, double hand the Glock and take both of them out. Several of the doors around them started to open up, confused men pulling up their pants shambling out into the hallway.

Hal had no time for them or their victims. He made sure Natalie was right with him and ran down the hallway. He scooped up one of the AK’s as he bound through the double doors. Gunfire rang out to his left, chipping away the the stone steps and metal railing. He pulled Natalie back and ducked them both down behind the cover of the recessed entrance way.

His heart was racing. He had never killed anyone before, let alone four, possibly five people. But a protective rage was driving him and he dared not stop. His training was ever present and certainly thought of taking another crack at the academy if he could. But that all stood on pins and needles. The weight of his pathetic life massaged his shoulders, letting him know his ineptness and that he was prone to not finishing anything he had ever started.

Natalie was stone quiet but her breathing was heavy.

“We’re almost out of this, Nat,” he comforted as uncertain gunfire peppered the area around them, “Stay strong, baby.”

He hadn’t called her “baby” in over a decade. But it still felt as natural as the days they were together.

I have to finish this, he thought hard, even if I die, I must finish this one last thing.

He heard the shouts coming ever closer. He tried to discern the number of men, pathetically hoping it was only two or three, but he wasn’t that well trained.

He could see the boat they had arrived in down by the dock, bobbing, beckoning in the water. He ran the numbers through his head. Three other escorts with the men that he came with. And the boatman made four. Neither had had any visible firearms so he hoped all they had were pistols.

However many there were they kept shouting at him in their native tongue. He pocketed the Glock then aimed the AK towards their general direction and fired a few rounds, enough to peer up at his surroundings quickly. Floodlights on the roof of the old school illuminated enough of the beach for him to see them taking cover behind a few trees.

“Get ready,” he told her.

He again randomly fired the AK in their general direction, keeping them at bay, then slung it and pulled the Glock as he took Natalie’s hand and ran for the boat. Shots cracked the night air towards them and he blindly fired back at them.

Reaching the dock they jumped in the boat and he unslung the AK and fired what was left at their pursuers. An instant later he had the motor going and found that Natalie had already pulled the ropes that held the boat to the dock.

“Alright!” he exclaimed as he pressed the throttle forward and the boat took off. More shots cracked and he pulled Natalie down to keep her safe.

A bullet caught him in the shoulder, lurching him forward, blood splattering across Natalie’s already stained nightgown. His hand let off of the throttle and the boat lulled.

He screamed and returned fire with his one good arm, then dropped the Glock in the water as it went empty. He cranked the throttle once again and they were off into the darkness and the unknown sea.

***

Hal didn’t let off of the throttle. Adrenaline pumping though his veins kept his hand fixed to it. But his other arm was coated in blood from the leaking wound. He could tell the bullet had gone straight through, leaving a nasty exit wound. The pain seemed so far off though as he hardly felt a thing. His attention was elsewhere. He saw lights in the distance of what he could only assume was Curacao so headed towards them. The rest of his attention was on Natalie. She could hardly pry her gaze from the fading lights of the island they left behind.

She stared at it with such sorrow.

“We’ll find a way to help them,” he told her, “I’m not sure how, but I won’t let them be lost.”

She didn’t acknowledge his words, still staring back.

“Nat?”

She broke into a deep and penetrating sob; for what he could only imagine.

He could see a glossiness to her eyes, he wondered if the drugs they had her hooked on were wearing off, or what the mixture of adrenaline might be doing to her body.

“Baby?”

Then she looked to him.

And in her eyes he saw clarity.

“Hal!” she screamed with joy and melancholy as she wrapped her arms around him.

He winced, the pain in his shoulder coming around.

“Oh my god, you’re bleeding,” she remarked.

“’I ain’t got time to bleed,’” he said all gruff then broke out laughing, “Always wanted to say that.”

She began tearing away at the bottom hem of her nightgown. Once she had a long enough strip she wrapped it around his shoulder and tied it tight.

He winced again.

The adrenaline was wearing off and pain was making itself nice and cozy.

“Am I dreaming?” she asked.

“I have been asking myself that same damn question for too long,” he remarked.

She kissed his shoulder when she was done wrapping it. It was something she used to do when they were together and like magic the pain was gone; well, he fancied it was.

He took his hand off the throttle for a moment to take his cell phone out of his pocket; thankful beyond belief that it wasn’t broken and still had life. He thumbed the only contact he needed.

The phone rang.

And rang.

And rang.

Hoban finally picked up.

Epilogue

The whole ordeal made international news. Hoban made sure of that. He used whatever pull he had left with his ties to the military to get Hal and Natalie home safely. The Curacao government was more cooperative than any of them could have hoped for; asserting that they had been trying to take down that illegal ring for years. They offered the protection needed until Hal and Natalie were escorted out of the country. In exchange for his freedom Hal gave up the general location of the island and it wasn’t long before it was liberated. Hal had murdered four men, “Bob” had survived, but those overseeing the case chalked it up to self-defense and let him go, given the circumstances.

Hoban flew to Curacao personally so he could hold his daughter again and never once left her side the entire time.

***

Once back home Hal was labeled a “hero” and he was more than a little uncomfortable with the title. He was just an ordinary man and he just wanted an ordinary life; which is what he told everyone. Natalie was reunited with her mother and her friends once all the press died down. Tears of joy seemed to continually flow in a ceaseless stream. Hal was welcomed there through it all and no one would have it any other way. He felt complete. Like he had done something with his life. And he had no idea what he was going to do next.

Natalie went to therapy twice a week, sometimes more. It took her a long time to come to terms with what happened to her. And the detox from all the drugs was especially brutal. But she eventually found herself again.

***

After a few months he had moved to Iowa to be close to Natalie and her family. Not long after that they began dating again, but it didn’t really feel like dating to either of them. It felt like their lives were permanently intertwined and they were just going through the motions; picking up where they’d left off. He joined the police academy and graduated, becoming the cop he had wanted to be.

Offers to join the FBI came soon after.

Gone were the nightmares and haunting visions. In there place were sweet dreams and restful nights sleep; from which he’d awake to Natalie by his side. He told her everything and never once did she call him crazy. Over time it seemed that both could read the others thoughts on occasion, but they chalked it up to their closeness.

Marriage was always on his mind and when he graduated Quantico he popped the question.

“Yes!” was her only answer.

***

One night he dreamed of a little girl, blond haired and green eyed. She was running. Running from him. Rather from the person whose eyes he was seeing through. Dark, moonlit woods all around as he chased his prey. He could hear her scream into the night as he fell onto her and began to brutalize her.

Then he woke up.

And Natalie woke up right beside him.

“Did you just…?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he told her, told her everything, “Saw a little girl, running…”

“Blond hair and green eyes?” Natalie said with trepidation.

Hal looked at her concerned, “Yes.”

They didn’t think too much on it until they saw the news that morning that a little girl had gone missing. When her school photo appeared on the screen both of them ceased the breakfast they had been making, Natalie dropping one of the dishes, ceramic shards littering their kitchen floor.

It was her, they knew, plain as day.

And the nightmares had begun again.

For both of them.

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