Stained {z.m. au}

Wanting no part of the life her mother has started with a new husband, Natalie Ross moves to Bradford, West Yorkshire to live with her brother. As she begins to settle into her own new life, constant encounters with danger are putting her off from the happiness she wishes to pursue. Coincidentally — or maybe not — a boy she meets within her first day of moving is around every run-in she has, always coming to her rescue. "Mysterious" doesn't even begin to cover it as she tries to find more ways to see him, hoping to uncover some of the memories stained in ink on his arm.

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2. Two.

    Monday came around faster than I expected, and before I knew it I’d already been living in Bradford for three days.

 

    Micah and Eli both had jobs, so most of Saturday I’d spent alone in the house.  I’d never been one to like sitting around and twiddling my thumbs, so by Monday morning I’d decided to get off my rear and find a job.  The problem I had was finding one without straying too far from Eli’s place.

 

    My brother had warned me multiple times about finding work too far from home, since the neighborhood he lived in definitely didn’t have the best reputation.  Without a car of my own, I’d have to walk back to the townhouse if I didn’t want Eli picking me up.  I had to admit, the idea of walking home alone didn’t appeal to me all that well, but I perked up when Micah mentioned a café just a mile up the road.

 

    I persuaded Eli to let me off in front of the café at half past four, one of the times I knew from experience in food service was the least busy.  My brother gave me a quick good luck before heading to pick up Micah from work.  I watched him turn down a side street before glancing up at the sign.  The place was called LJ’s, most likely named after the owner.  A small “Help Wanted” sign hung in the window.

 

    I pushed through the door and was immediately hit with the smell of tea and pastries.  It was a reasonably large room with about twenty tables to either side of the entrance, almost all with place sets that screamed casual.  The carpet spread over the whole floor was a deep crimson that stopped suddenly with the raise of wooden walls.  In the far right corner of the café, there were double doors leading most likely into the kitchen, where clatters of plates and silverware could be heard.  Soft music played over the speakers, providing a filler in the occasional quiet.

 

    “Can I help you?” a sweet voice asked.  My gaze met that of a girl who couldn’t be older than seventeen, stood behind a wood podium with the seating chart of the café under her hands.  Her hair was slicked back in a bun and she held a kind smile.

 

    “Could I speak to the owner?” I asked, my feet carrying me toward her.  “I’m here about the job opening.”

 

    She nodded.  “Follow me.”  The girl lead me back through the room, weaving around tables before pushing into the kitchen.  “You’ll have to talk to his wife, since LJ isn’t in right now.”  A long hall lead back to an office that the girl pointed me to.

 

    I gave her a short thanks before approaching the door and knocking quietly.  The door opened so quickly it made me jump, and I was face-to-face with a middle-aged bulky woman.  She smiled kindly, giving off a strong motherly atmosphere, and welcomed me into the office without question.

 

    “Sit, sit,” she instructed, gesturing to a heavily cushioned chair sat in front of a long metal desk.  Pictures of the woman and who I assumed to be her husband littered the wall, along with Christmas and Happy Birthday cards from various families.  Stacks of papers covered the desk, and she swept them aside to lean her elbows on the metal surface.  “I bet you’re here about the job.”

 

    I blinked, then answered, “Yes.  Do you have a form I could fill out?”

 

    She waved me off.  “No need, I can just ask you questions right now,” the woman said, happily and quickly.  “I’m Amelia Jones, but you can just call me Amie.  If Lily didn’t already tell you, I’m Loren’s wife, but people know him by ‘LJ’.  What’s your name, dear?”

 

    I was having a little trouble keeping up with her exuberant personality, but managed to catch her question.  “Natalie Ross, ma’am.”

 

    “Just call me Amie,” she repeated, not acknowledging that she heard anything other than ma’am.  “How old are you?”

 

    “Eighteen,” I replied.  With a glance down at her hands, I noticed she wasn’t writing anything down, and wondered if that were a good thing or not.

 

    “Where are you from?” Amie smiled affectionately.

 

    “Dundee.”

 

    “Ah,” she said, nodding.  “It’s quite lovely there.  When did you move?”

 

    I told her how I’d moved in with my brother just the past Friday, which made her laugh at my obligation to get a job so soon.  She then continued to drill me with a few questions concerning my past, but nothing I couldn’t answer easily.

 

    “Last question,” she stated, pushing out her chair and turning to dig in a cabinet behind her.  “Actually, two.  Number one; can you start tonight?”

 

    I stared at the back of her head, baffled that she hadn’t considered it more.  “Yes, of course,” came my shocked reply.

 

    “Wonderful!” she cheered.  “Now, what size are you?”

 

    I asked for a six and was handed a pair of black trousers with a short-sleeved white blouse.  The shirt was embroidered with an LJ’s symbol above the left breast pocket.  A laminated menu fell in front of me on the desk and I took it.

 

    “You’ve got about half an hour to learn that before the dinner rush starts,” Amie told me.  “We can handle the papers and everything after we close.  We’re a little understaffed as of late, so you’re pretty much the answer to our prayers.  If that weren’t the case, I’d only have you hostessing tonight, but you’ll have to make do.”

 

    Amie turned to the cabinet again and pulled out an apron, pad of paper, and a couple pens.  After setting them in front of me, she left the room in a hurry.  I sat, confused and a little dizzy from the quickness she moved with.  I had just stood to collect the apron when she swept back into the office holding a key.

 

    “Here’s your locker key,” she said, holding it out for me to take.  Once I did, she moved behind the metal desk again.  “There should be three or four at the end of the row without name plates on them; one of those will be your locker.  That room is through the kitchen, the only door on the far wall.  You should go change quickly while I go whip up something for you to munch on before you start, since I assume you didn’t think to eat before coming over.  Get that menu in your head, and you’re out on the floor by a quarter after five.  Good luck, darling!”

 

    I didn’t want to seem as slow as I felt, so I gathered everything she’d set out into my grasp and pushed out of the office.  Ducking under the arms of people cooking, I went through the kitchen to find the room she’d explained.  The key in my hand had “26” printed on the base, and I found the corresponding locker at the end of the row.  I unlocked it and set my bag in after shooting a text to Eli, telling him I’d gotten the job and would text him when I needed a lift home.

 

    A bathroom in the corner of the room caught my eye and I locked myself in, changing as quick as I could.  I probably had a lot more time than I felt I did, but Amie’s quick attitude had me scrambling to keep up with anything.  I had a feeling this job was going to be stressful the first week, and probably even a few days after that.

 

    After appearing back in the locker room I tied the apron around my hips and slipped the pen and pad of paper into one of the pockets.  Finally feeling able to slow down a little, I locked the compartment, slid the key into the pocket of my trousers, and sat down on the bench to study the menu.

 

    “Oh, good,” Amie’s voice made my head raise from the beverage section.  She was wearing an apron of her own now, and had a plate in her hand with salad and a section of a baguette.  “You’ve already changed, that’s good.  Here’s something to eat for now, on the house in honor of your first day.”  She set the plate next to me, then patted my head, saying, “Hopefully you’ve got something to tie that beautiful hair back.  I’ll come check on you in twenty minutes.  And today’s special is the Chef’s Choice Soup, by the way.”

 

    I made a mental note of that, and began to absorb the dishes on the menu.

 

 

•    •    •

 

 

    Despite it’s location (the building was set in what Eli called one of the “rough” neighborhoods of Bradford), the café brought in a surprising amount of hungry people during dinner hours.  I found myself actually sweating a bit when carrying orders and food back and forth from the floor to the kitchen.  I understood what Amie meant quickly when she said understaffed; for all forty tables, there were only three actual waitresses.  Not even halfway through the night, Amie had to join Lily, Meghan, and I to bring us down to a number we could handle.  By the end of the night I was completely spent.  I was relieved, to say the least, when Amie called me off the floor and into her office.

 

    “You did such a good job,” she complimented, digging a few papers out of the drawers underneath the desk.  “For your first night, of course.”

 

    I let out a deep breath before sinking into the cushions of the chair.  “Thanks,” I said tiredly.

 

    Amie slid a stack of documents and a pen my way.  “You’ll have to sign these and write down a few informational things, and then you’re free to go for tonight.”  I accepted the pen from her and began to sift through the papers.  “I’ll need you every night this week starting at 5, with the exception of Friday.  You should be here by a quarter to five at the latest, and shouldn’t expect to leave until eleven at the earliest.  Does that sound okay?  We can work out the rest of your regular hours Monday of next week.”

 

    I simply nodded, not having the energy to verbalize my agreement.  She exited the office, mumbling something about cleaning up the kitchen, and left me alone to fill out what she’d set in front of me.  Half an hour later I set the very last document on her desk and capped the pen.  The clock on the wall read a quarter to midnight, and I rubbed my temples.  Hopefully I wouldn’t be working this late every night.

 

    Pulling together the last bit of vigor I had left in me, I walked to the locker room and changed back into my clothes.  After hanging the apron in the compartment and stuffing the rest of my uniform in my bag, I pulled my phone out.  I pressed the power button multiple times, but the screen remained black and lifeless.  Sighing, I shoved it into my pocket and accepted the fact I would have to walk the mile back to my brother’s place.

 

    It wouldn’t have bothered me during the hours the sun was still in the sky, but seeing as the light was long gone, I felt a little reluctant to step outside.  Convincing myself I’d be fine on the relatively short walk, I pushed out into the night air and headed back on the road Eli had taken to bring me here.

 

    I hadn’t walked half a block when my nerves began to get the better of me.  Streetlights were alight over the road, but were dim enough that I couldn’t see much beyond three in front of me.  The road I was walking along held storefronts the whole length of the block, and I could make out a row of townhouses much like my brother’s on the other side.  I could also make out the silhouettes of women, one every few houses, sitting or standing in the front garden.  I was confused as to what they were doing just standing there this late when another, larger silhouette approached one of the women.  A few words were shared before she grabbed his hand and walked him into the house.  When the door was opened light flooded over the two and I grimaced in recognition — the woman was a prostitute.  Lovely.

 

    I quickened my pace, the situation making me very uncomfortable.  If I hurried, I could be home in just over eight minutes — I could make it.

 

    After walking another block, I noticed there were no more women along the fronts of the houses.  I felt free to slow up a little, not feeling so awkward anymore.  Something like two minutes passed, and I came to a stop at an intersection.  A few cars were driving past, so I waited before going to take a step out into the road.  A voice behind me stopped my movements.

 

    “How much?” asked a voice, startlingly deep and ragged.

 

    I turned to find a man shrouded in shadows against a shabby storefront.  His hair was disheveled, giving the appearance he hadn’t combed it in days.  A wrinkled blazer adorned his torso, a few dark food stains splattering his light colored tie.  He looked like he’d seen at least forty years of the world, but it might have just been the lines of stress on his forehead.  Drunk also came to mind at his slurred speech.

 

    “Excuse me?”

 

    “How much for your… services?” he asked, annunciating as much as he could in his debauched state.

 

    My face scrunched in disgust.  He thought I was one of the women, stood out in the front garden and seducing sad men to make a living.  Did I look like one?  Maybe, to him, his perception altered by alcohol.  The look he was throwing at me made my heart quicken.

 

    “I’m not for sale,” I told him.  “Go home and sleep.”

 

    I turned, not wishing to stay any longer.  My nerves were on end and a shiver threatened to travel up my spine.  Wanting to be home already, again I moved to step into the street — but a forceful hand caught my arm.

 

    “Free, then,” the man behind me growled.

 

    I cried out as his grip tightened and I felt myself being pulled back.  My bag dropped from my shoulder and spilled onto the concrete as I twisted against the man, only to have my other arm caught and pulled behind me.  Heart pounding against my rib cage, I tried to lash out with my foot, but only kicked air.  As I brought my leg back, I succeeded in tripping over it as the man hauled me another few feet.  My body dropped with a thud, and I felt the material covering my knee rip against the walk.  The immobility of my form proved an easier struggle for him, as I was dragged into a small expanse between the storefronts before I could blink.

 

    Another shout escaped my lips as my shoulders groaned in complaint, the man showing no sign of letting up on my arms.  I was hauled to my feet and thrown against the brick wall of the alley, wincing in pain as the side of my face took most of the blow.

 

    “Please,” I whimpered, forcing myself to draw air into my lungs at a normal pace.  My limbs were numb, a sign of how frightened I really was.  I felt light-headed, about to pass out at any moment, but I kept my eyes open.  “Please, just let me go, and I won’t tell anyone you did this.”

 

    “You won’t be telling anyone, anyway,” he barked in my ear.

 

    I jolted at his voice, cowering away from him.  A scream stemmed in my throat as I felt a hand slide under my shirt, rough against the skin of my back as his other held a vice on my arms.  Tears sprung into my eyes, a product of the tightness in my chest and my racing adrenaline.  I was caught painfully between drawing in too much air and not enough.

 

    “Hey, mate!” a different voice echoed down the alley.  It was smooth and calm, but the undertone of anger was undeniable.

 

    Both the man and I jumped in surprise.  The voice came from the other end of the alley and I couldn’t turn to face it.  Hands still tight on me, the man who’d grabbed me threw out a string of obscenities.

 

    “Let her go,” the second voice called out again.

 

    “What’s it to you?” the man called back.  “Just turn the other way, lad.”

 

    “You’d be better off following your own advice.”

 

    My gut told me to remain quiet as the two conversed, though tensely.  Heart rate still through the roof, I managed to keep my breathing somewhat even.

 

    “It’s none of your business, now is it!?”

 

    There was silence, and for a beat I thought whoever it was that’d come to my defense had left.  When footsteps began to echo through the alley, I didn’t know who I was more afraid of — the man who held me, or the one pursuing us.  Five long seconds passed before the steps stopped, quite near us.

 

    “Fuck off,” the second male growled, not five feet from us.  It took all I had in me not to whimper again, longing to see the face of whoever had joined.

 

    Another long list of curses fell from my captor’s mouth before I was given one last shove against the wall.  I stumbled back as his hold fell away, only to be caught by the second man while he ran from the alley.  I didn’t wait an instant before shoving away from the new set of arms, whirling to catch a glimpse of his face.  Tears spilled over onto my cheeks, the immediate threat gone and a potential one shoving its way in.

 

    “What do you want?” I breathed, backing away.  The darkness within the alley provided me no way to see whoever it was stood in front of me.

 

    “I wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon,” he chuckled lightly.  “Looks like you really wanted that drink.”

 

    With his words, a few things snapped into place.  I squinted, recognizing the voice but trying to prove my suspicions with the confirmation of physical features.  “Zayn?”

 

    “Hi, Natalie.”

 

    Relief washed through me and I nearly collapsed, my rush of adrenaline subsiding and leaving me exhausted.  I’d met him before, at the bar that first night.  Granted, he hadn’t left me with the best impression, but I was willing to make an exception for someone rescuing me.  The only thing that really stuck out was how quickly he’d disappeared the first time, and that made me nervous.  The stealth of a killer, really — but I squished that sense down, thinking it preposterous.

 

    Zayn began walking toward me, and reflexively I backed up.  “I’m not going to hurt you, Love.  Let’s go get your things.”  He gestured toward my bag, its contents spilled all over.  I sighed, then walked with him to the dim rays of the street lamps.

 

    As I bent to collect my belongings, I noticed something missing.  “Damn that bastard!” I hissed, realizing the wad of money I’d stuff in earlier was nowhere to be found.  It was only a little, but it was that little bit that’d gotten me here and away from Mum.

 

    “I’m sorry your first impression of Bradford is a shoddy one,” Zayn said.  “Though I can’t say it’s much better than this.”

 

    Now under lighting, I glanced up to take in his form.  He wore another pair of dark jeans and sported an even darker t-shirt, a v-neck with the sleeves once again rolled up.  The tattoos staining his right arm were even more daunting in the dark.

 

    “What were you doing out here, anyway?” I asked slowly, standing up and slinging my newly collected bag over my shoulder.  My mind hadn’t gathered until now how odd it had been for so many people to be out and about on a Monday night.  Maybe things worked differently here, but it still didn’t seem right.  Especially for someone like Zayn, who’d given me a weird feeling the moment I’d met him.

 

    “I was on a business outing,” he said after a moment of consideration.  His tone reminded me of how carefully he seemed to operate, every move planned in advance.

 

    “Why here?” I asked, my brow pulling together.  “Why this late?”

 

    A small smile graced his features, but in the dimness it looked almost eerie.  The shadows cast under his cheekbones gave his expression a chilling tone, but I shook the shiver building in my spine.

 

    “Have a nice night, Love,” Zayn told me, then turned back into the alley.  “And avoid stopping at street corners — they’ll think you’re one of Uriah’s girls.”

 

    My jaw went slack, puzzled by his response; more specifically, his lack there of.  “Business” wasn’t really an answer to the where or when, and he knew it.  Was there something he didn’t want me to know?  I shook my head.  Of course there would be.  I’d only just met Zayn, and not for more than five minutes each time.  Disclosing too much to me, particularly because of who he came off to be, wouldn’t be wise.  Not just me, of course, but anyone he’d just met.  I wouldn’t have told him much either; I should only expect the same from him.

 

    I snapped out of my thoughts when I realized Zayn had completely cleared the alley.  He came out on the other side and I saw him walk under the light of a streetlamp.  Zayn looked left, then right, then back toward me.  I froze, knowing our eyes were locked even if I couldn’t see him.  Suddenly I felt as if I couldn’t move, like he was an anchor hold me in place.  Only when he looked away and made a sharp left out of my view was I released.

 

    What pushed me to my next actions, I didn’t know.  Curiosity, maybe?  It felt like more than that.  Something about Zayn was intriguing, drawing me to him in a way I hadn’t been to anything else.  It didn’t sit right with me, not knowing where he was headed — I wanted to find out.

 

    My feet carried me as quietly as they could into the alley.  It felt agonizingly long in the dark, but Zayn couldn’t have gotten too far in ten seconds.  I’d just about cleared three-fourths of the expanse when my foot caught on something jutting out from the wall.  I cried out as I fell, landing hard on my already exposed knee and my elbows.  Metal bins clattered all around, echoing throughout the alley and ringing in my ears.

 

    So much for stealth.

 

    Cursing, I pulled myself from the gritty floor and dusted off my hands.  My body was sore and I was worn out, but I continued on my path.  Sighing, I came out on the other side of the block and immediately looked to the left, where Zayn had taken off.  My eyes widened, then turned completely around where I stood.  Everywhere I looked, I couldn’t find a trace of him.  Zayn was gone.

 

    I felt something slide down my leg and yelped, jumping away in hopes of avoiding whatever it was.  As I looked down, I laughed nervously at myself.  All it had been was a stream of blood, trickling from where I’d just scraped it up.

 

    I heaved a long breath out of my system.  It was late, I was jumpy and tired, and I wanted to be home — needed to be home.  A long glance down the alley steered me away from it, a shudder up my spine reminding me of what’d just happened there.  Trying to push the disturbing encounter from my thoughts, I made a detour according to the block I’d just come from.

 

    The rest of the walk home was deafeningly silent with no one in sight, but I couldn’t help the feeling someone was watching me.  I stole looks over my shoulder the whole way home, and didn’t feel safe until I’d made it to my brother’s townhouse, cleaned up my knee, and settled safely into bed.

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