Once Perfect- Chapter One
“Malibu Barbie. We need more cocktail napkins!”
I stopped wiping the bar booth, torn between throwing my bucket at Sam or at the cluster of bouncers chuckling at his Barbie dig. I still had two more booths to clean before the doors to the Main Line’s infamous Club Excess opened and the real work began. A crowd of spoiled brats offspring of Philly’s wealthiest families with too much money and too much attitude already crowded the doors. I should know. I used to be one of them. Except they still had the money.
I had a screaming boss.
“Jesus, Sam, I’m going.” I tossed my towel on the table and stomped across the dance floor in my black thigh-high boots. If it weren’t for the crazy tips the drunk idiots dropped like bowling balls, no way would I work at a place where I had to accessorize tiny black shorts and a skimpy tank with these hooker boots. The white dress shirt tied at my belly was Sam’s way of compromising when me and a few of the other waitresses complained about our new “uniforms.” The more desperate among us tied it closer to their cleavage. I didn’t. Even if it meant less money, I wanted to hang on to what little pride I had left.
My steps slowed as I neared the group of bouncers huddled around Mateo. He was young, younger than at least half of them, and still they looked up to him. Considering Mateo was an ex-con who fought in fight clubs, you’d think the staff would avoid him. I sure did. Hell, I’d barely spoken to him in the six months I’d worked at Excess, using any excuse to keep my distance. That said, there was something about him that made people take notice. His burly arms crossed his chest. Power was inked on one forearm in bold Gothic lettering, Wrath on the other, and black flames crawled up both, disappearing beneath the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt.
My puny shoulders tensed as I drew closer. Mateo had served time for beating some poor guy so brutally the victim had spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from the bashes to his face and body. I watched Mateo, a lot. Every now and then, I’d catch him glancing my way, too. He’d offer me a brief nod or a small smile, but I never offered anything in return. His size, the depth of his voice, and his aptitude for violence scared me, despite his captivating looks. He moved like a panther staking out his turf, ready for anything, his steely hazel eyes taking everything in.
He spoke low and rough as the last of his crew arrived. “Listen up. Keep the drugs and the dealers out. They come in with that shit, you see anyone selling send their asses out the door. Sam doesn’t want another OD in his place. If those rich pricks want to die, they can do it somewhere else.”
The others answered Mateo with stiff nods, except for Dale, who whistled as I walked by. “Nice ass, Evelyn . . .”
His voice trailed off. I turned to shoot him a dirty look over my shoulder only to catch the death glare Mateo was firing his way. “Leave Evie the fuck alone and pay attention, Dale,” Mateo told him. Dale immediately dropped his gaze, allowing Mateo to return his attention to the rest of the group. “With the first week of classes over, these fools are looking to party hard, and the dealers are ready to assist. Don’t go it alone. Call for backup if you need it, when you need it. I’ll take point near the bar. Ant’s my second. He’ll take point left of the floor. If I’m mixed up in some other shit, you call him. Got me?”
The bouncers collectively muttered in agreement. Even Dale.
My heart was thumping against my sternum and I lost my footing. I reached for my ponytail and tightened it fast, trying to pretend that was the reason I’d tripped and not, absolutely not, because Mateo had stuck up for me and shut Dale up on my behalf. Or because he’d called me Evie. Again. No one else had ever called me that.
I slipped behind the bar where Sam was stacking another rack of glasses. “Grab two boxes and make sure they have the new logo not the old,” he snapped. “Numbnuts spelled ‘Excess’ wrong on the last one.”
“I know, Sam, I know.” I frowned. “You’re bartending again tonight?”
“No. I just wear the apron to show off my man boobs. Of course I’m bartending. I had to fire Joe when he helped himself to the register last week!” He brushed back his crazy hair. I pegged him at roughly fifty, but his snow-white Lion King mane made him appear at least ten years older. “Hurry up, Malibu, we only have twenty minutes before those needle dicks bust down the door!”
“I’d move faster if you didn’t make us wear these boots,” I muttered.
“Quit complainin’. Those boots earned you at least three hundred the first night you wore them. I saw you counting the bills.”
My body slumped as I conceded. Sam had a point. Blistered toes or not, these boots were paying my mounting tuition and other bills. I opened the door behind the bar and immediately flicked on the light before letting the door close behind me. The small set of steps to the left led to the loft where Sam kept an office. But I didn’t need to go there. I needed to head down the long hallway in front of me and into the storage room.
Light washed down the length of the white-tiled floor, brightening everything except the one room I needed to enter. Don’t be such a wuss, I told myself, and marched down the hall with my chin up. Jesus. I hated the storage room. But the rest of the staff was busy cleaning the bathrooms or finishing the rest of the booths. Besides, I wasn’t exactly popular around here. No one would go on my behalf, even if I asked.
The hallway seemed longer this time, even longer than the last twelve times I’d been sent for some bar must-have. My hand gripped the knob and I let out a long breath, waiting in the safety of the bright hall as I searched the darkness for the little string at the center of the room my lifeline and the only device that flicked on the overhead lights.
I could see it from where I stood, but only due to the light from the hall. Like always, I cursed Sam for not updating this part of the old warehouse when everything else was remodeled months ago. “Why would I spend the extra cash on something that houses disco balls and tampons?” he’d argued.
“Cheap bastard.” My complaint morphed into more creative swears when I saw that the box filled with maraschino cherries was down to just a few jars. I’d used it as a doorstop every time I’d been exiled to the storage room. Now there weren’t enough to hold the heavy metal door, but maybe they could buy me time to reach the string. Anything heavier old bar stools, chairs was shoved along the far back wall . . . next to the damn napkins. Note to self: Move a damn bar stool closer to the door.
I pulled the box with my foot, not daring to enter just yet, and then I shoved it against the wide-open door. By some miracle it held. With a deep breath and a sense of determination, I bolted toward the center like a coward.
My feet clomped against the smooth floor. But the tile was too slick and my boots lacked sufficient tread. I slipped just as I reached for the string, falling hard on my side. The box gave way and the door slammed shut, encasing me in complete darkness.
My breath caught as my eyes struggled to focus. Pitch black ruled the windowless room.
I was disoriented and I needed to leave, fast.
My breathing resumed in short, rapid puffs, predicting my approaching breakdown. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t panic.
“Stop it, Evelyn,” I said aloud, putting some push behind my words. “It’s just a room. It’s not going to hurt you.” I tried not to think about how alone I sounded in the darkness, and reminded myself that the string had been just within my reach. My body ignored my reasoning and reacted to my mounting fear, turning my muscles to jelly and making my heart pound with dull strikes against my chest.
I stood on wobbly legs and batted the air in the direction where I imagined the string dangled. It wasn’t there. My feet scooted me a little to the right and I tried again. Nothing. “Okay, Evelyn, go left. You just should have gone left, goofy.”
So I moved left and swatted at the air. Still nothing. The silly little piece of thread wasn’t there. I tried to slow my breathing, but my thundering heart wasn’t having it.
Go back. Just go back to the door.
Fear made me clumsy. I hurried forward only to crash into the wall, knocking over an overstuffed box when my arm whipped back. The contents spilled, bang, bang, crash, fueling my confusion and making the room spin. My legs lurched forward as my desperation heightened into hysterics. I knocked into something smooth and heavy. It might have been the fridge, but which one? The one against the far wall? Or the one nearest the door? I fought to find the handle to give me some light any light but my dizzying state moved me away from it.
Air shoved its way through my lungs like thickening cement, tightening my chest and constricting my throat. I forced myself forward, stumbling back when someone grabbed my arm. I jerked away, hitting him in the face. “Don’t touch me!” I screamed.
But there was no one there.
Only desolate silence waited with me in the blackness.
Fleeting images flashed through my mind, confusing me and fueling my mounting hysteria. Someone else grabbed my arm. I bounded backward, yanking something heavy with me. Objects fell in all directions as my mind worked to sort out what was true and what my terror had created.
I clutched my head, digging my short nails into my scalp. “There’s nothing here. Stop.
My feet hurried forward, barely managing a few steps before my knees buckled and I collapsed, sprawled against the cold floor and crying. Nausea burned like acid, boiling through my stomach and into my narrowing throat. I panted even faster, willing my throat to open so I could breathe. I needed to breathe. Why couldn’t I breathe?
Every painful gasp closed my throat tighter. I was going to die. “No. No. No!”
Light spilled into the room and heavy footsteps stormed across the length. The fluorescent bulbs overhead blinked to life before the door slammed shut like an explosion. I curled inward, sobbing.
A deep, rough voice called to me. “Evie. Evie. It’s okay.”
No. It’s not. My choked sobs grew louder, sounding more like pained retching. “Evie . . . It’s okay. You’re all right now. . . . I won’t let anyone hurt you...................... ”
My brain latched on to the strong reassurance of the husky baritone as it echoed along the expanse of the room. Mateo. Of all people, he had come looking for me.
“Breathe. Don’t think, baby. Just breathe for me.”
I did as he asked, working to slow my breaths and knowing I needed to get the hell out of there. Mateo was dangerous. I’d seen him “escort” clubbers out. It wasn’t gentle. It wasn’t pretty. It was a display of dominance.
And I refused to succumb.
In and out, in and out, I struggled through my pathetic cries. Fucking panic attack. I knew what it was. Knew my body was out of control. But no matter how hard I tried to rationalize my way through the terror, it didn’t make it any less real.
“That’s it. Good girl. You’re safe now.”
It took a while for me to break from the fetal position I’d collapsed into. My rigid muscles gradually unwound. With great effort I sat, and pushed my blond hair from where it lay plastered against my face.
Mateo crouched just a few feet away, meeting me with soft hazel eyes that didn’t belong on someone so fierce. I released a shuddering gasp. “You’re safe,” he said again. “Nothing’s going to hurt you. I promise.” He took in my state and looked around. “I’m going to stand now, okay?”
He didn’t move until I nodded, and even then it was with care, taking two steps back before moving toward the shelf with the disco balls and cocktail napkins. He dug through the closest box.
“Th-those aren’t the right ones,” I managed, my voice cracking.
“I know.” He withdrew a stack of the misspelled napkins and returned, keeping his distance so he had to stretch his muscular arm to hand them to me. “Here. Wipe your face. We’ll go when you’re ready.”
Sam and Dale barreled into the room. “What the hell happened?” Sam hollered. “All you had to do was get napkins!”
Old plastic shot glasses and Halloween decorations littered the floor. I sat among broken cups and black and orange garlands, still working to catch my breath. The garlands had hung from the shelving posts. I must have tangled myself in them somehow. Now the torn strands strewed the area in bunches. I thought someone had grabbed me. I thought . . . I wasn’t sure what I thought.
Sam and Dale loomed over me. Mateo remained crouched. “The door shut before I could get to the light,” I managed. “And?” Sam asked when I said nothing more.
I didn’t want to tell them about my fear of the dark. People found me weird enough. But I needed to say something. I opened my mouth, sure I’d manage a decent response. Except nothing came to mind, so I pressed my lips tight and reached for the fastener barely holding the rest of my hair.
“She’s claustrophobic,” Mateo answered for me. It wasn’t true, but I think he knew that.
Dale took in the large open area and huffed. “You can’t be serious. I can park three cars in here.” He waved an arm across the mess. “The room doesn’t even have a lock. You’re a real head case, you know that, Evelyn?”
Mateo stood, his hulking figure appearing to swallow the room and his stare freezing Dale where he stood. “And you’re a fat fuck who still lives with his mother and doesn’t know his earhole from his asshole.” He shrugged. “No one’s perfect. Get to your post.”
There was an underlying threat to his order. I heard it. So did Dale. He scowled at the floor and hurried out, letting the door slam hard behind him.
Mateo offered me his hand. I don’t think he would have if Sam wasn’t still in the room, but I couldn’t tell for sure. I’d worked at Excess for six months and still didn’t really know anyone there. Not really. Except maybe Sam.
I shook my head. Mateo may have helped me, but I didn’t fear him any less.
He withdrew his hand and stepped back once more, watching me as I slowly rose.
Sam retreated the moment I straightened. “Come on. The little pukes are pounding on the
“You ready for them?” Mateo asked. At Sam’s nod, he spoke into his earpiece. “Ant. Tell
Jace to start the music and give the signal to open the doors.”
Music detonated against the cinder-block walls, followed by Jace’s muffled “Are you readyyyyyyyyyyy?” The faint excited screams were barely audible over the blast of sound, but I heard them. Enough of a crowd had gathered, ready to drink, dance, and hook up.
Mateo grabbed two boxes of the napkins I’d been sent for. “Go. I got it.” As he walked, his heavy black boots kicked one of the plastic decorative pumpkins. I bent to retrieve it, more out of instinct than my desire to remain in this hellhole with him. “Leave it,” he said. “I’ll take care of the mess after closing. Get cleaned up and then come out when you’re ready. The girls will cover for you until then.”
I walked swiftly across the room as Sam held the door open, passing him in my rush to reach the locker room situated on the other side of the club, beside the women’s bathroom. In my mind, that tiny bright space meant safety and an opportunity to wrangle in my nerves. I charged out the door like a woman in danger. But then, maybe I was.
Pitbull’s latest burst through the speakers as the first of the co-eds rolled in. The blaring bass cuffed my ears; so did the hoots of the patrons.
But I didn’t care.
The music and rowdy calls intermixed with the spiraling club lights cut through the darkness, helping me settle.
Just like the thrum of Mateo’s deep voice.
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