Their Mate – Anastasia James

The bakery owner is on my ass and not in a sexy way. It’s a run-for-my-life-so-I-don’t-getcaught-stealing kinda way. Pretty much worst-case scenario, which is saying something considering I’ve been living on the streets for the last year. “Stop,” he calls after me as I book it up a steep Seattle hill. Why I ever decided to try to make a go of it here in this rained-out, gray city is beyond me. If it weren’t for my steel-toed combat boots my feet would be waterlogged 24/7. “I’ll call the cops!” I snort through my gritted teeth. Like hell am I gonna stop now. Pulling my backpack straps tighter, I keep pushing through, side ache and all. I knew I was playing with fire, camping out in the back room of a bakery I had no business being in, but I was desperate. There was a wild storm last night and I needed cover. Looking over my shoulder, I see I’ve lost the poor guy. I’ve always been good at running, and it’s come in handy more often than I like. Muttering suck it under my breath, I dodge down an alley, leaning against a brick building as I catch my breath. I come from the school of hard knocks, and know a thing or three about pulling up my bootstraps—but I am eerily close to rock bottom, I feel it in my bones.

Reaching into my backpack, I pull out the still-warm baguette I grabbed as I fled the scene. I cradle the freshly baked bread in my arms like it’s a freaking baby. I mean, this loaf is just as precious as a child, considering I haven’t had a proper meal in a helluva long time. The shelter downtown doesn’t exactly let me come around anymore. Taking a bite of breakfast, I roll my eyes at the memory of that freaking place. I had every right to call them out on their bullshit. They turned a kid away because he’d already gotten his one hot meal for the day and tried to get another. What was the kid supposed to do? He must have been fourteen. I felt for him, mostly because I’ve been in survival mode for a long-ass time—I knew where that kid was coming from. When I gave him my bowl of chili and made a huge scene, using a few R-rated words, I was shown the door.

Fuck You Fucking Gatekeepers. Okay, so I don’t have what you’d call a tame tongue or a great handle on how to please people, but why would I? I finish the bread as I walk toward the Seattle Public Library. It’s warm, has free wi-fi, and a bathroom that doesn’t smell like urine. As I head down Pine, construction workers whistle, giving me catcalls. I flip the middle finger and keep walking, knowing they’re staring at my ass as I move. It isn’t flattering—it’s just fucking gross. A block later a guy in a business suit looks me up and down, as if memorizing my curves, and I scoff as I pass him. I may be at the end of my rope in a lot of ways, but my body is mine—no one else’s. And I’m not sharing any of it unless the man in question is someone I actually want. Finally, I see the massive glass structure of the library and I exhale a sigh of relief.

No matter how shitty the world at large may be, inside these walls I am safe. Pushing through the doors of the library, I wave at the clerk working the front desk. “Morning, Remedy,” Diana says, giving me a tight smile and handing me a slip of paper with today’s wi-fi password on it. “Let’s make sure we remember library policy today, okay?” I raise my brows and give her a smirk, which is really the best I can manage. It may be nine a.m., but I was on edge all night, scared I’d get caught for breaking and entering. A steaming cup of coffee would perk me right up, but that’s a luxury I gave up a long time ago. I head straight for the bathroom, and then pull out my toothbrush and comb, and set to cleaning myself up before some creeper comes in here and starts harassing me. This may be a library, but it attracts a lot of people like me, people who are really fucking screwed.

I run the comb through my long red hair, then lock the stall door and change my clothes. I shimmy out of yesterday’s jeans and tug off the tank top I’ve been wearing for a few days. My breasts strain against the sweater I pull on and my hips push against the denim of my clean(ish) jeans. My boobs are barely contained in the sports bra I’m rocking, but I try to play down my curves, which isn’t easy for a newly minted twentyone-year-old. And though my body may get the attention of men more than I like, I’m grateful to be healthy. In the last row of the computers, I slide into a cold metal chair and shove my backpack under my feet. I log in and exhale. I may not have my shit together, but I am actively looking for something more than what I currently have. I can only blame my situation on growing up in foster care for so long. I am considering community college, but I am totally unprepared for the workload.

I’ve been doing this Khan Academy bullshit to try and remind myself how to, like, do long division. I know. I could have tried harder in high school or whatever, but back then I was just trying to survive. It’s been my mode of operation my whole damn life. And honestly, I am tired of being on the run. Looking for somewhere to land when the truth is, I have exactly no one. Never really have. If I just had one friend, one family member—anyone—then maybe things wouldn’t be so hard. Before I log in to work on my ABCs, I check email. When I see a new message— something other than spam for Viagra or refinancing the house I’ll never own.

It’s from Sadie. My hands get sweaty—which, I know, super sexy. To: [email protected]… clever, right? But I made this email account when I was eleven, okay? Guess I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder. Remedy, Not sure if this is your email anymore. It’s been so long. Call me if you get this. I’ve been going through some old stuff and found a box of yours that I’ve saved all this time. Hope you’re doing okay. Love you like always, Sadie She leaves her number after her name and I immediately write it down.

What was I literally just saying I needed? A freaking lifeline. I log off and grab my bag, the piece of paper in my hand. At the front desk, I ask the clerk, with as much sweetness as I can muster, to use the phone. “It’s not a public phone, Remedy.” “I know. It’s really important. I promise.” My tone must reveal something because she pulls the landline up to the counter and tells me to dial three before I enter the number. Pulling out the paper, I carefully enter the numbers. Truth is, Sadie is the closest thing to family I have ever had.

“Hello?” A voice I’d know anywhere comes through the line. “Hey, it’s Rem,” I tell her, tucking a loose strand of my hair behind my ear. “I got your email.” The line is silent and for a moment I wonder if the memories I have of Sadie and me, both ten, sharing a bed in the basement of our foster home. We pinky swore we would always look out for one another. Always. We haven’t talked in over three years. “Rem. Wow. Is it really you?” “Yeah, the one and only.

” “Where are you living?” she asks. “Last I heard you were going to art school in California.” “Yeah, that didn’t happen. Kinda floating around right now.” “Oh, I’m so sorry college didn’t happen, Rem.” Her voice is soft—Sadie always was the tender one. The yin to my yang, or whatever. “It’s cool,” I say, swallowing the memories of getting kicked out of art school a semester in. It’s always been me against the world. I wonder if I’ll ever outgrow the need to fight against the things I want the most? Selfsabotage is my bread and butter.

“So, when you say floating? What do you mean?” I look up at the clerk who is doing a terrible job of ignoring me. “Well, I don’t have a place to live, exactly. I’m in Seattle and… yeah. I’m trying to keep my chin, up, ya know? Keep on…” “Keepin’ on,” she finishes for me. “Hey, if you’re trying to get your life together, come up to Alaska for a few months. I’d love to see you. I’m in Ketchikan, living with my boyfriend, Ray. We have an empty couch with your name on it.” “Alaska?” I smile. “I’m not surprised.

You always wanted to travel.” My heart warms at the idea of Sadie living the life she always wanted. “I could stay with you, really?” I don’t mention that I have no ideal how the hell I would ever get up there. “Of course. It would be so good, like old times.” I frown, having a hard time separating the good from the bad. Old times revolved around our bitch of a foster mom forcing Sadie to clean the house, watch her kids—every job she was too lazy to do herself. Old times revolved around me getting sick of watching my best friend get treated like yesterday’s trash. Old times revolved around me taking matters into my own hands. No surprise I’ve been on my own since I was twelve.

“Want my address? You can take a ferry from Bellingham. Do it, Rem. It would be amazing.” It feels good to pretend, if even just for this phone call. “Okay, Sadie, I’ll come.” C H A P T E R 2 RE M E D Y I hang up with a smile on my face. Which is apparently shocking because the clerk, Diana, asks me who that was. I don’t do personal, yet somehow, I find myself telling her about Sadie. About how we grew up in foster care. About her offer.

“Can I help?” Diana asks, already pulling something up on her computer. “With what?” I give her a cynical stare. I know the price of help. “With the fare. I could get you a ticket, Remedy.” “Why?” She tilts her head, gives a sad sigh as if she thinks I have no clue. Which, maybe I don’t. I don’t know much about generosity. “Because everyone needs a little help sometimes.” A few days later, I find myself leaning against the kitchen counter in Sadie’s one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Ketchikan.

After a bus ride from Seattle to Bellingham, I boarded a ferry bound for the Southern tip of Alaska. And amazingly, two days later, here I am, watching my oldest, and only, friend mix a bottle of red sauce into a pot of spaghetti noodles. “It smells so good,” I groan. Diana spotted me a hundred dollars to pay for food and any necessities on my trip, but I was frugal—wanting a few extra bucks in my pocket, in case of an emergency, more than I wanted food from the ferry’s restaurant. I’d bought a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter and made due. Sadie shakes her head like I’m crazy. “It’s just pasta sauce from a jar.” Her pale blue eyes are rimmed with dark circles and I can’t help but wonder what keeps her up at night. “And garlic bread,” I note, as she pushes up the sleeves of her sweatshirt to grab the silver-bagged loaf from the oven. As she moves, I see her exposed wrists.

Dark bruises punctuate her fair skin. “When’s the last time you had a hot meal?” she asks. I swallow, not exactly wanting Sadie to know how long I’d been on the streets. “Too long.” She pours herself a glass of water, the sink leaking even after she turns it off. “Gah, I need to get that fixed.” “Any cute repairmen in town?” She blushes, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “There’s a guy, Jim, who does repairs for the apartment complex.” I frown. “Can’t your boyfriend help?” Sadie sighs.

“Ray’s always busy.” Raising an eyebrow, I ask, “But Jim?” She waves a hand in the air, brushing me off. Thinking about Jim made her happy, if even for a split second. I want to know if Ray gets the same reaction. “So, when do I get to meet your boyfriend?” She presses her lips together. “Ray will be home any minute. He works at an auto shop in Ketchikan.” “And where did you guys meet? I mean, how did you end up in Alaska?” “I worked for a cruise line that came up here, which was a pretty good job. Then I met Ray when we were at a port, and well, I quit. He likes me to stay close to him.

” I squint my eyes. “And what do you like, Sadie?” “It’s not like that. I got a job at the Stop N Save. Being a cashier is a good job.” “But you always wanted to see the world. Why would you quit the cruise line job?” Sadie shakes her head, then grabs three plates from the cupboard and starts setting the small dinette table. “Are you going to lecture me about quitting? Because, Rem, you aren’t really in a position to talk.” I grab the green can of Parmesan cheese and set it on the table. “Fair enough. I just… I want you to be happy.

We’ve been through enough, you know?” “I am happy,” she says softly. In the small kitchen, we’re face-to-face. “Really?” She gives me what seems to be a forced smile. “Really.” Knowing that pressing too hard never gets results, I back off. Looking out the kitchen window I see that the apartment complex is next to a thick forest. “What’s out there?” I ask, my eyes raking over the evergreens, cloaked in black. Being this far north means the nights come early. Sadie shrugs. “No idea.

But the land is all protected by some private group. Ray says the guys that live out here come to the shop sometimes to get their four-wheelers repaired.” Before turning away, I see a lone wolf, standing on the edge of the forest. I point to it. “Do you–” But before I can even finish my thought, the wild animal darts back into the forest, out of sight. Sadie places a lid on the cooked pasta. “Hey, while we wait for Ray, wanna see that box I have of yours?” A few minutes later we settle on the carpeted floor of her living room with a shoebox between us. “I didn’t go through it, I mean, not too much at least,” Sadie says. I pull off the lid, memories flooding my senses. The contents of the box smell like our last foster home—stale cigarettes and cheap beer.

I pull out a strip of four frames, Sadie and me in a photo booth at a local arcade. We’re making funny faces and cracking up. “How did we manage to smile like that?” I ask. She wrinkles her nose. “Keep on, keeping’ on, right?” I thumb through the other photos, a sum of my childhood—not in a single picture am I with an adult. No grown-ups were ever there with a hand on my shoulder on Christmas morning, or as I blew out birthday candles. It was always me against the world. Except for the years where I had Sadie by my side. There’s an old keychain with a rabbit’s foot and a blue ribbon I got for my drawing in the school art show. “The story of my life, huh, all in this box?” Sadie sighs, squeezing my knee.

“You know, I saw my mom a few years back. She was still using, and living with the same guy who beat her.” “The one who put her in the coma?” Sadie nods. Her face written in sorrow as she remembers all she lost… all she never had. “I realized she’s never going to be there for me. But at least it was closure. Did you ever learn anything about—” I cut her off. “No. I don’t want to talk about it.” Sadie nods, as if remembering the girl I was when we were preteens.

I was as closed off about my past then as I am now. “The thing is,” I tell her, sifting through the box. “There isn’t anything to tell.” At the bottom of the box, I see a ring. It looks antique; with a tiny paw print stamped on the inside. I slip it on my middle finger, looking at it as I talk. “I was placed into foster care when I was a baby and was too much of a handful for anyone to adopt. That’s it.” “But don’t you wonder?” I roll my eyes. “Finding my deadbeat parents is the least of my concerns at the moment.

” Just then, Ray comes in the front door. He drops a toolbox on the floor and shrugs off a jacket. Sadie jumps up from the carpet and practically leaps into his arms. “Hey, baby,” he greets Sadie with a long kiss. Long enough that I look away out of awkwardness. “You make me something good to eat?” “Yes, it’s all ready.” Sadie looks down, seemingly smaller now that Ray is here, taking up more than his share of the space. “Rem, this is Ray, Ray, Rem.” “It better be ready,” he says firmly, not acknowledging my presence. I push my lips forward, wondering what the hell is with his tone.

But I drop it as we move to the table and sit down to eat. “Rem got here a few hours ago,” Sadie says, bringing the pot of pasta to the table and scooping it onto our plates. “This looks so good,” I say appreciatively, reaching for a piece of the toasty warm garlic bread. “Yeah, but Sadie should lay off,” he says, giving Sadie raised eyebrows as she reaches for a piece of bread. “You don’t need the extra carbs.” I scoff in shock. Is Ray for reals right now? Sadie is gorgeous, but that’s beside the point. No man has the right to talk to her that way. Before I can say something, though, Sadie drops the piece of bread and reaches for the green salad instead, using the tongs to dish some up on her plate. I bite my tongue, grateful for this place to stay and wanting to trust Sadie’s judgment.

Besides, what do I know? Maybe Sadie’s wanting to cut back on her calories. I must be misunderstanding something. Feeling especially proud of my verbal restraint, I reach for the salad bowl of and serve myself in solidarity. “So, how long are you squatting?” Ray grunts my way. “Ray,” Sadie says gently, with a shake of her head. “We talked about this.” “Yeah, and I told you how I felt.” I furrow my brows, twisting the new ring around my finger. “Look, I’m not here to impose.” Ray snorts.

“Then what are you here for?” I look over at Sadie, and she shakes her head, nearly imperceptibly. She’s warning me. She should remember I never listen to warnings. “What’s your problem?” I ask Ray. “Sadie invited me.” “Sadie what?” he snarls shooting Sadie a hard glare. “You told me she invited herself.” “Right, well, I mean…” Sadie looks swallowed up in fear. And it doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out what the fuck is happening. Sadie’s mom lost custody of her child because she wouldn’t leave abusive situations.

I hate the idea of the same thing happening to my oldest friend. “Well it’s her home too,” I say in defense. “She has no say in what happens here. She can barely help pay for things with her dead-end cashier job.” I look at Sadie. Her eyes are downcast, and she brushes away a tear that falls down her round cheek. My heart breaks for her. But I’m not naïve enough to wear blinders . Maybe Sadie needed me here, to help her. Maybe that’s why she reached out in the first place.

I can’t do a lot in terms of helping her, it’s not like I have much money–but I do know how to stand up for people. And I will always stand up for her. “I saw the bruises on Sadie’s arm,” I say. “I know what kind of guy you are.” “Rem, don’t,” Sadie pleads with me, but Ray is already set off. “What the hell did you say to this little beggar?” he demands of Sadie, standing up from the table. “You tell her our personal business?” Sadie shakes her head, reaching for him. “No, I didn’t say anything, I swear, Ray. You have to believe me.” I’m sick to my stomach, but the anger that boils in my belly is stronger than any fear I might feel.

“Sadie, listen to me. You need to get out of this situation.” “Don’t tell my baby what she needs to do. That is my job.” I hurl my disgust at him. “Your job?” I look at Sadie, who’s letting Ray wrap an arm around her. “Sadie, listen to me. If you need a safe— “ “Rem, stop,” she says softly. “It’s better for both of us if you just go.” “Go? And leave you with this ass wipe?” Sadie won’t meet my eye and Ray is ready to fight.

“Get out of here, you little bum,” he growls, reaching for my backpack on the couch. “Go back to the streets where you came from.” He walks to the front door, swinging it open. “Sadie, you’ve gotta come with me,” I say, looking at her. But she has crumbled in on herself. She hardly looks strong enough to stand on her own two feet, let alone stand up to this man. Ray tosses my bag out the apartment door, and my hands are fists, ready to pounce. “I’ll call the goddamn cops,” he says. He pulls out his phone and punches in 911. He speaks in a cool, calculated voice, daring me to stop him.

“Yep, there’s an intruder in my home. We need backup. Now.” My eyes shake with incredulity. “You’re seriously demented,” I hiss, stepping as close as I can to his personal space. “Sadie deserves a hell of a lot better than you.” “Like you’re one to talk, Sadie told me all about you,” he growls. He pushes me against the wall, not backing down. “She told me how you got kicked out of home after home,” he mocks. “How no one wanted you.

How you’re nothing but a little skank.” Ray is the kind of monster I know all too well. Sadie is his plaything and I hate it. I hate it so fucking bad. Sweet, kind, Sadie—she deserves more than the life she’s got. More than a life with Ray. The fire inside me rages, and I push back. Hard. My hands against his chest, refusing to let him win. Sadie screams as Ray is flung across the room, a loud crack from his neck as he hits the wall.

I possess a strength I’ve never felt before—I just pushed a twohundred-and-fifty-pound man across a room. With the force of my hands alone. Ray slides down the wall, crashing into a lamp, and the apartment shakes as he slumps to the ground. Ray doesn’t make a sound. No gasping for breath. No shouts of fury. The floor of the apartment shakes as I step toward him, Sadie and I silently taking in what just happened. The pictures on the walls fall to the floor glass shattering, and dishes clanking as I step to Ray, leaning closer—terrified that what just happened was permanent. “You killed him,” she whispers. With shaky hands, I check his pulse, terrified that her words are true.

He may be a horrible man… but death? “Oh my god, he’s really dead…” Sadie is on her knees, her hands on his face, trying to check for signs life. There are none. I killed him. I just fucking killed a man. With my bare hands. The anger that had fueled me has left me drained. No. No. No. I may be many things—but a killer? “Rem, what are we going to do?” she asks, pulling my face toward hers, fear flaming in her eyes.

Tears stream down her cheeks and I know she is on the verge of falling apart. “Listen, Sadie, it’s okay.”

.

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