Valerie awoke in the morning, her neck craned uncomfortably in the corner between her door and the wall. Her knees must have relaxed when she slept, as her legs were splayed awkwardly across her wooden floor. She shivered.
There was brief confusion as to why she had fallen asleep against her front door, in her casual clothes – a chill in her bones and pain in her shoulders and back. Her mind was clouded. Her jaw hurt.
A vibration against her back. Knocking, she gathered, grimacing from the awful taste in her mouth.
"Valerie?! Are you in there?" Heavier knocking, each bump resonating loudly in her head.
She felt as if she had a hangover, though it had been years since she had last had a drop of alcohol.
Val groaned again.
"Valerie?! Are you hurt?!" Knock, knock. "Are you in there?!"
Was that… Angie's wailing voice she heard?
Valerie's heart sped past freezing and went to full on stopping.
"My job!" Val wailed as she scrambled off the floor, her scuffed shoes slipping on the varnish.
"Val? Was that you?"
She quickly stood, sliding the locks off of her door and swinging it open – it banging on the wall with a loud crack.
"Angie- I am so sorry-" Valerie began, her words blurring together as she babbled. So concentrated on her apology, she didn't take a second to look at her superiors face morph into shock.
"Sweet Mary Mother of Jesus, Val, you look like shit." Angie gasped, her sunken eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets.
And then it all flooded back. The cigarettes, the hands pinching her middle, the fighting, blood, running, – the Masked Man. Then she remembered the other man – the dent in his head, the crack she both heard and felt; all the blood. It hit her like a punch to the gut, and Valerie doubled over.
"Val?!" Angie was there in a second, arms stopping before her co-worker dropped to the floor. "Christ, Val, I'll have some of whatever you had."
Angie shepherded Val over to her lounge area, sitting her on the couch as Valerie tried to stop herself throwing up.
"I-I, Angie, I nearly-" Val breathed, her chest constricting painfully as each memory of the previous night hit her like a train.
"Easy, Valerie, calm down." Angie rubbed her colleagues back, shushing her quietly. "I knew it had to be something serious for you to miss work!"
"What… what time is it?" Val asked. The day was bright outside, the sun high in the sky.
"I'm really not going to tell you, Val. Not with you and that damn schedule - you'll have a seizure at this rate." Val thought that was for the better. She didn't really want to know.
This close, Valerie could smell Angie's expensive perfume and the six layers of hairspray she used to keep her blow-dry looking new.
Angie looked over and saw Valerie's open kitchen. "I'll make you some tea or something, okay? You just wait here; control your breathing and then when you're ready - tell me what's got you so… riled."
Valerie nodded dumbly as Angie walked about her kitchen, flicking on the kettle and opening random cupboards trying to find what she needed.
Val looked at her hands. The back of her right one was still stained with blood. She frantically tried to rub it off before Angie came back.
"Some blind man came to the office this morning, asking about you," Angie called as she found the mug cupboard. "That's when I knew something crazy must have happened."
"Matt?" Val questioned, the confusion temporarily blindsiding her. "Dark hair, brown eyes-"
"Really handsome?" Angie turned to Val, a playful glint in her eye and a smirk on her face. "Yep, came to reception and asked for you by name. Gave his own, but you never talked about him so they refused to buzz him up. They told him you hadn't come in."
Val thought it must have been to do with their talk at the gym. Maybe he had come to explain himself? And she missed it because-
It hit her again, though less forcefully this time. That dent in the man's head haunted her – and she was the one who caused it.
Angie came walking over with two mugs of breakfast tea and set them on the coffee table in front of them. She sat back down, her hands neatly on her lap.
"I take it this is the Matt that caused… this?"
It was then, through the haze of her traumatic memories that she remembered their conversation before – the reason she went to leave the apartment in the first place. Val wanted to hit herself for letting her mind run away with her like that. What was she thinking?
"What?" Val scoffed. "No, no. That's… something else."
"And I'll definitely want to hear about that later, but… what happened, Val? Your clothes are damp; your mascaras halfway down your chin and you…" Angie squinted her eyes, the beady blue orbs roving over Valerie's features. "Is that blood from your cuts or…"
Val's heart clenched tightly. She ran her hands over her face, but Angie's own swatted them away. Just how much blood was on her?
"I was… attacked." Valerie began, watching as her friend's eyes began to soften with sympathy.
Valerie told a different story to the one that still flashed behind her eyelids every time she blinked. She had slipped out for cigarettes, dragged into an alley – defended herself and then quickly slipped away. She left out the part about the three other men, the gun, the Masked Man and the man she had hit with the rod.
Val watched Angie's face transition across a myriad of emotions. Sympathy, shock, fear… a little empathy too.
"Jesus," Angie sighed, taking her glasses off of her nose and wiping them on her scarf. They weren't blotched, they never were. Valerie presumed it was to buy her time – find something that could make what she experienced… better. "I'm… sorry, Val. Have you contacted the police?"
Val's chest constricted. The crack, the spray of blood… She swallowed thickly.
"Why?" She asked, with a face she hoped portrayed innocence. "I don't remember any of their…" The exposed skull… "F-faces, Ang. It was all so… quick."
"But you've got to tell someone, Valerie. Don't be stupid and keep this to yourself." Angie cuffed her friend gently on the wrist like she was a naughty child.
"I've told you – and that was painful enough."
There was a small silence then, as Angie sipped her tea. As far as her friend was aware, Valerie had just been attacked and Val had slipped away not long before anything had begun. She wasn't aware Val had almost killed someone.
"I'll ring the office, make arrangements. I can give you today, and maybe tomorrow to yourself – but I'm not sure I can hold our client off longer. That man, Westey?" Angie thought for a second. "Wesney? Whatever his name was, he flipped his shit when he heard you weren't in today. And by 'flipped his shit' I mean just hummed somewhat disapprovingly."
"I need a day," Val said, shaking herself as if her weakness could be shrugged off. "I'll be back on Tuesday."
Val had worked too hard for her entire career to be destroyed in a single night, but she wasn't silly either. She didn't want to try and push through it and collapse altogether. Did all skulls look like that?
Angie sighed, not quite sure of herself. It was odd to see. "Okay. I'll tell the clients a little of what happened, I'm sure they'll be sympathetic." She checked the time on her phone. "I'm going to have to head back. Is there anyone you want me to call over? You shouldn't be alone at a time like this."
"No," Val shook her head. "I'll be fine. I'll have a shower and… straighten myself out."
"Never worked for me," Angie gave a wink and Val gave a very small chuckle.
Angie finished the last of her tea and picked up her bag, giving a small goodbye before heading towards the door.
"Oh, and what do you want me to tell this… Matt?" Angie asked, a small smile tugging at her thin lips. "He left his number with us and asked to let him know when we knew how you were - seemed quite adamant about it too."
"The truth, I suppose." There was no point in hiding it, Val guessed. The story she had told Angie was innocent enough.
"Are you sure? You look really…" Angie chewed on her lip, a sign that she was holding back her brutal honesty.
"I know." Val breathed. She could feel the grime on her skin with every small movement. "Just tell him I've… been better. Or make it up," Val sank back into her sofa. "I… don't care."
"Sure, kitten. Ring the office if you need anything."
Val lost time of how long she sat on that plush sofa, staring at the corner of her fridge across her apartment. It hummed quietly. She could hear the ticking of her alarm clock from the bedroom. The creaking of her radiators as they settled. A small argument between lover's two apartments over.
Eventually, she sat up, running her hand through her tangled hair and decided that it was time to get things back in order. Val wasn't quite sure what order that was, but she decided the first thing on her agenda was to clean herself up. Her apartment didn't have a bath, only a shower. At the time of her buying her home it seemed… unnecessary. Baths took up too much time – showers were quick and convenient.
Val never regretted that decision more than she did then.
She settled for a shower instead and turned it up as hot as it would go. The burn… grounded her. Val felt the sting of her cuts, the pulled muscles in her arms and back; the ache in her in lungs and scratch of her throat start to dissipate.
She ignored the red tinge of the water.
Looking at herself afterwards, naked in the bathroom mirror, was something else entirely. Val gasped as she wiped the condensation from it. There were perfect imprints of fingers in both of her arms – and a nasty bruise stretching across her ribs and stomach. A few nicks and scratches here and there, but nothing worth else worth noting. She allowed the mirror to fog back up until she became a fleshy blur.
Valerie had just tied the towel around her waist and was in the process of moisturizing when she heard her apartment phone ring from the bathroom. Placing her lotion back on the sink, she padded through the lounge and into the kitchen where it hung on the wall.
"Josie?" Val greeted, recognizing the tough voice on the other end.
"Val? Everything good? Jackson heard about your trouble and wanted to check in on you – well, I guess anyway." Josie barked out a vicious cough. "He's asking for cocktails so I guess some crazy shit's going on with him and you."
Well, Val thought, news certainly got around fast. Did Angie tell him?
"Yeah, I'm doing okay-"
There was a small commotion on the receiver, sounded like scuffling. She could hear Josie's cursing and then Jackson's rough drawl.
"You 'right?" Jackson grumbled.
"Yes, Jackson, I'm alright. It could have been-"
"You fight like I taught you?" He interrupted.
"Yes, Jackson. I fought like you and grandfather taught me but-"
"You kill 'em?"
"What?!" The crack echoed in her mind. "J-Jackson, no, of course I didn't," Val dropped her voice, paranoid her neighbours could hear her words. "Kill him – I mean them – anyone!" She held her breath and felt very cold.
"You let 'em get away?!" Jackson barked.
Valerie hid her sigh.
"Jackson," Valerie began, her voice laced with warning. "I was an unarmed woman alone against four men. I was… lucky to get away at all." Her voice hitched in her throat. She didn't need this at the moment.
"You best not be crying." Jack drawled. "You toughen-"
"I'm fine, Jackson!" Val shouted - her patience and mental health deteriorating quickly. "Just," She hid her sigh behind her hand and decided to tell him what he wanted to here. "-just banged up. I held my own – dropped two of them. Nearly… " Val bit her tongue. "I-I gave as good as I got, okay?"
She really didn't want to tell him about how she sobbed like a scared child or hid behind a dumpster – terrified out of her mind - and she definitely didn't want to tell him about how the Masked Man had saved her life, and if it wasn't for him then she wouldn't be having this conversation.
"…good." He said simply, after a few moments silence. "When Jack's boy told me about your scrap, I was scared you'd gone soft 'nd ran."
"Jack's boy?" Val echoed. "Oh, Matt?"
For someone who insisted she didn't get involved with him, he was certainly going to lengths to ensure otherwise.
"Jack's boy," Jackson corrected. "'e found me here nd' told me 'bout what happened. You get any names? What they look like?"
"No, it was dark, Jackson – and I didn't stop and introduce myself." Then Val remembered a few distinct details. "Though… they sounded Eastern European? There was a group of them, and I don't think they wanted me dead." Val could still feel the spray of warmth on her face.
She heard disapproving grunting and a cough. "I'll ask 'round. See if anyone knows anything."
The line went dead. Val cursed and slammed the phone back on the wall.
"Damn it!" She huffed. The last thing she needed was for Jackson to get himself in trouble on her behalf.
He could handle himself, sure – but so could she. And look what happened.
Val pushed it to the back of her mind as she got dressed. Chances were, he would get impossibly drunk and collapse under the table and stay that way until the whole thing blew over. Or, so she hoped.
After getting dressed, she treated the few small cuts on her face with her makeup mirror in the lounge. Her bottom lip was swelling terribly, and it would be funny if she wasn't aware how she got it. Her nose fared about the same, a small scrape and bump forming where she hit the concrete and a nice little cut on her right eyebrow and cheekbone. There were bruises, of course, most of the right side of her face looking like she had slammed it into a Sephora eyeshadow palette – but nothing was broken and nothing needed stitches, thankfully.
Being too restless to read or watch T.V on her thirty-inch plasma that had only collected dust since she had bought it, she spent the rest of the evening cleaning - the only thing that could distract her as memories tried to crawl back into her mind. 'Idle hands make for the devils work', her grandmother would crow at her every time Valerie spent more than five minutes doing nothing.
Val briefly wondered if she could fit a therapist into her schedule.
As evening drew in, she had another call from Angie to check she was doing okay and update her on where she stood with her client. After thirty minutes of arranging their next two weeks in her planner, she was in the process of copying it to her smartphone when there was a knock at her door.
Valerie froze, her finger remaining on the home button of her phone.
It was a polite knock, she noticed. A short rap. Surely if the men had found her, they wouldn't knock? Val held her breath and sat quietly for as long as she was physically able.
There was another short knock, and Val peeled herself from her desk and walked slowly towards the door, her feet avoiding every floorboard that she was aware that creaked. Her heart thudded calmly in her chest.
She was determined not be a panicky little girl like the night before. They wouldn't catch her like that, not again.
Val got to the door, and silently peeked through the eye-hole.
A man in shades stood there, his head angled to the right, cane in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other.
"Matt?" Val found herself saying out loud for the third time that day.
"Valerie?" She heard him call from the other side.
Val smacked a hand around her mouth. She had thought she had said that quietly, apparently not.
She unlocked the door, sliding the bolt from its lock and opening the door slowly.
"…hello?" She said dumbly, not quite sure what to say. They hadn't exactly parted on a friendly note.
She saw his nose twitch and she raised an eyebrow.
"I… heard what happened. I," He went quiet for a second. "Just wanted to make sure you're okay."
There was an awkward pause. Why did it feel awkward?
"I'm… doing okay, I suppose." Val mumbled, never being an adept liar. He frowned slightly, but if he was aware she was oh so evidently lying, he didn't say anything. "Do… do you want to come in?"
Do we know each other like that? This is a normal thing to do, right?
"I…" His mouth fell open for a second, this apparently being a much more difficult decision than Val would have thought. He nodded simply.
She opened the door wider and stood to the side to allow him to pass. Val was going to announce her actions, but it seemed Matt didn't need much prompting as he passed her. She noticed a small limp in his walk.
"Wow," His nose creased as placed his cane against a kitchen counter. "You've definitely cleaned today."
Val had bleached her sink and counters earlier, but that was a few hours ago, she thought the smell would have dissipated by then. Then again, she did use a lot.
"I've been keeping my hands busy, I suppose," Val laughed as she shut the door. The image of her trembling hands wrapped around the metal bar flashed in front of her. "Um, can I get you something to drink?"
"I'm fine, thanks." Matt played with the tag of the flowers before turning in her direction. "Here," He held them out and Val took them from him, admiring the contrasting colours in the bunch.
"Oh, they're lovely! Thank you." She couldn't remember the last time she had been bought flowers. The wealthy couple whose nursery she had decorated? "I'll put them in some water."
"I wasn't too sure about them," Matt said as Val picked out a vase. "I had a friend pick them out and he… doesn't always have the best taste." He felt his way towards the couch before sitting down. "I told him you were an interior designer too, and he doesn't work well under pressure."
She chuckled as she arranged the flowers. The bright yellows, pinks and green didn't quite blend well with the monochrome, cream theme of her apartment, but she found she didn't mind at all.
"It's the thought that counts," Val smiled as she set the vase with next to her decorative fruit bowl – a wax piece still missing from when a drunken friend had mistaken it for real fruit.
She walked over to her seating area, feeling a little out of place in her own home.
What did she talk about? It seemed so long since she had last had someone over. A sacrifice of her work was that it allowed very little time for a social life – and her list of friends had dwindled over the years. Those she still had, those who either knew her from her childhood or work colleagues, understood her life (and personality) and were content with an annual brunch or dinner at Christmas.
"You've injured your foot," Matt commented simply. "A hairline fracture?"
"I'm… not sure?" Val replied, rolling both of her feet. They both hurt, though her left one ached a little more than the other – but she thought that was normal considering the night before. "How could you…?"
This caught him a little unawares, and he stuttered for a moment. "I can, uh, hear the limp in your walk."
Val frowned at him. She was pretty sure she wasn't limping, and that didn't explain how he could possibly know if it was a hairline fracture, but she didn't say anything as she sat in an armchair across from him.
"You should really get that checked at a hospital," Matt said after a moment of silence.
Valerie scoffed. "This coming from you?"
A playful smile graced his lips. "Touché," A small furrow of concern flashed across his face when Val rolled her shoulder, it giving a loud click as she did so. "Your… friend from work told me what happened yesterday."
Val had wondered how long until he asked about that. The growingly familiar cold settled in her gut again as she braced herself.
"What were you doing out that late? On your own?" He sounded more angry than concerned.
"I was…" Val sighed in defeat, feeling like a teenager caught sneaking out by their parents. "Getting cigarettes."
Matt looked surprised, to say the least. From the cigarettes or the honesty – she wasn't sure "Cigarettes?" He repeated.
"It was a long day." Val didn't hide the bite in her tone. It apparently conveyed all that needed to be said as his face dropped to something akin to guilt.
It was looking at his somewhat sad features that caused Val to notice the cut and swelling on his bottom lip.
"Looks like I wasn't the only one, though," Val said as she eyed small wound. "You cut your lip often?"
"Walked into a cupboard," Matt answered without missing a beat. "One of the many dangers of being visually impaired."
"Oh," Val hummed, feeling a little unsettled at his answer. There was that rehearsed thing she heard every time she asked what she thought was a normal question.
There was an odd air between them, she felt. Like something needed to be addressed but Valerie wasn't sure just what it was. It was like she was talking to him through a wall, but just whose wall, she couldn't be sure.
"Have you contacted the police?" Matt asked quietly.
"No, I…" Val trailed off as she prepared her answer. All the blood. "…never got a look at them, properly - there'd be… there'd be no point – and I feel like they'd be more interested in-"
Valerie slammed her mouth shut quickly before she embarrassed herself further. Did she tell him about the Masked Man? Her opinion on vigilantes had changed dramatically now, but she didn't know exactly what he thought of them. He was a lawyer, surely he didn't agree with random men taking the law into their own hands?
Matt angled his head and looked at the area where she sat oddly, clearly anticipating the end of her sentence. "Interested in… what?"
Val tried to speak, but it came out as little more than a grunting sigh. "What… I was wearing. They'll just… think I brought it on myself."
"Oh?" Matt raised his eyebrows, and something in his face told her he didn't quite believe that. To her surprise, he didn't push. "Yeah, they can be a little… biased, sometimes. What's the time?"
Val checked her watch. "Six-thirty. Somewhere to be?"
"In a manner of speaking," He murmured as he stood. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I'll let you rest."
Matt felt his way to the kitchen counter where he left his cane.
There was one thing that was bugging Val as she watched Matt.
"Did Angie give you my address?" She found herself asking before she could stop.
Matt turned slightly to her, a small smile. "Yeah, she, uh, she insisted I visited,"
Angie could be very insisting when she wanted to be.
"That sounds like her," Val chuckled as she walked him to the door.
"I didn't intrude, I hope?"
"No, no, not at all! I appreciate the visit – and the flowers." Val opened the door for him. "Your friend has good taste."
The corner of Matt's mouth twitched up. "He'll be pleased to hear that."
Val opened the door, and Matt went to leave. "Wait, Matt!" The words lurched from her throat.
Matt stood at the threshold, turning to her with a raised eyebrow. "Hm?"
Val wouldn't forgive herself if she didn't clear the air. "I'm… sorry, if I was being a little… demanding yesterday. It's your life, your privacy and I shouldn't of-"
"It's alright, Valerie." He said quietly. "You wouldn't be the first."
Val nodded even though she knew it was a waste of time. "...Thanks again, for the flowers and everything."
He gave a subtle nod before leaving, the taps of his cane echoing through the hallway as he disappeared from her sight.
Val felt a little lighter, afterwards.