Somehow, I manage to dodge him just barely in time. He clips the side of my jaw, but it’s just a glancing blow. But it’s enough to make me see red. Before I can think logically, my wrestling training flashes before my eyes, and I lunge at the guy’s chest.
My plan (if I had any sort of coherent plan) was to take him down fast. I figured if I could throw all my weight at him and topple him to the ground, then we’d be on an even keel. I might even have the edge with my wrestling experience. It works to some extent, because I manage to knock him to the floor. And then we’re both on the ground.
I get in one good punch. It lands on his nose and I feel a crunch below my fist. I hope I broke it—that kid-beating asshole. But very quickly, it becomes obvious I do not in any way have the edge in this situation. The last time I wrestled, which was a decade ago, I had two working legs. Now my lower body is a dead weight, dragging me down, keeping me from pinning him in any effective way. Maybe if I practiced fighting as a paraplegic, I’d get decent at it, but I’m not right now. It’s almost too easy for the guy to shove me off him. At that point, he pins my right arm down with his left hand and my left arm under his knee, and lands a punch square on my cheekbone.
It hurts like a mother. The left side of my face explodes in pain, and all I can hope is his fist hurts half as much as my cheek. I see him pulling his fist back for another punch, and I brace myself. But before the punch can land, I feel his weight lifting off me. A security guard came to my rescue. And it looks like half the patrons of the mall came to watch.
So much for not causing a scene today.
“That guy was beating up a man in a wheelchair!” I hear someone saying. The crowd only seems to be growing. Great. Just great.
The security guard is talking to the man, who isn’t trying to hit me anymore, but is insisting to the guard that “he started it!” Yeah, right. A second guard kneels down beside where I’m still lying on the floor.
“You okay, Mister?” he asks.
“Uh huh,” I manage, as I struggle to prop myself up on my elbows. Christ, there are a lot of people here. I wish they’d all leave. It’s bad enough without the audience.
“Do you need an ambulance?” the guard asks.
I touch my face, which feels sore, but I doubt anything is broken. “No, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” I see the look on the guard’s face and quickly add, “Please. I’m fine.”
The guard rights my chair, which toppled to the ground during the scuffle. Then he kneels down beside me, clearly not sure what to do. I’m not sure what to do either. I can get back into my chair from the ground, but I’m not great at it yet and I don’t really want to do it with everyone watching me. I wish they’d all leave.
“So, um,” the guard says to me. “I can just lift you…”
“No,” I start to say, but it’s too late. The guard is grabbing me under my arms and behind my knees, and I’m so startled that I don’t stop him. Before I lost those thirty pounds, he couldn’t have done it so easily, but he gets me up in the air and into my chair. I’m torn between being pissed off he lifted me without my permission and being relieved to be back in my chair.
“Do you need us to get someone for you?” the guard asks me as I adjust myself in the chair, trying to ignore the crowd that just won’t seem to leave. “Family or… other help?”
Yeah, because how could I possibly be here alone?
“No,” I say. “Really. It’s okay.”
He frowns at me, his bushy brows furrowing together. “Can you tell us what happened here?”
“What happened?” I repeat. “He punched me. That’s what happened.”
I don’t need to tell him the part where I lunged at the guy and knocked him to the ground. If nobody else saw it, that can be our secret.
“Do you know why he punched you?”
I look over at the guy, who is standing with the other officer, looking like he wants to get the hell out of here. He’s got blood around his nostrils and staining his upper lip, thanks to my one good shot. Little Joey is cowering by a store, trying to be invisible. I hope I didn’t make extra trouble for the poor kid. I’ve got to make this right.
“I saw him hit his kid,” I tell the guard quietly, so the crowd won’t hear. “There’s a bruise on his chest.”
The crowd might not hear, but the guard does, and the man sure does too. He glares at me, his hands balling into fists. “You’re a goddamn liar.”
He looks like he wants to punch me again.
I shrug, not shying away from his gaze. “Look at the boy’s chest.”
There’s a moment when I’m worried they might not believe me. But then again, the man jumped a guy in a wheelchair—he’s not getting out of here so easily. One of the guards takes the boy by the hand and leads him to the bathroom while the man loudly protests his innocence and shouts threats in my direction. It doesn’t matter what the man says. I know what the guard is going to find.
I look back at the crowd, which seems to be growing by the second. Don’t these people have any respect? Don’t they realize we might want a little freaking privacy?
I stare at the people surrounding me, trying to shame them into realizing it’s not appropriate to be standing and watching. I meet every one of their eyes, until I get to the center of the crowd.
Shit. It’s Callie.
After Dean rejects me for the second time of the day, I need some retail therapy. I need to buy something that will make me feel less like the girl in the ugly elf costume. Unfortunately, I’m seriously low on funds. The money I make this week will cover my credit card bill for December with just enough left over to pay my rent and maybe eat a few meals.
I end up at Forever 21. Their jewelry is cheap and pretty, and I know some bling will make me feel better. They have a selection of simple silver and gold chains, and after browsing for about fifteen minutes, I select a gold chain with a leaf charm on it. It costs three dollars. I use the ten dollar bill Dean gave me to pay for it.
When I’m coming out of the store, I see Betty strolling past, her camera slung over one shoulder, a shopping bag in her other hand. I’m not sure if I want to talk to her after we spent the entire day cramped into that little cottage together, but she sees me and starts walking over.
“Hi,” I say, crinkling the little bag containing my leaf necklace purchase in my fist.
“Are you recovered from your first day?” Betty asks me with a wink.
I nod. “Yeah, it wasn’t so bad.”
“Could have been worse.” She smiles crookedly. “Like when the guy dressed as Santa is a jerk. I hate that. At least Dean’s a nice guy.”
“Yeah,” I mumble, not meeting her eyes.
Betty hesitates for a moment. She’s probably in her forties, but she doesn’t wear a wedding ring. She mentioned at some point during the day that she’s divorced. “Listen, Callie,” she says, “don’t take it personally that Dean didn’t want to go to dinner.”
I let out a strangled laugh. “Oh no, I wouldn’t.”
A groove appears between her eyebrows. “I mean it. There’s stuff you don’t know about him.”
“Stuff I don’t know about him?” I repeat.
She hesitates again. I can tell there’s something she wants to tell me, but she’s holding back. “It’s his issue—nothing to do with you.”
She chews on her lip. “Not my place to say.”
I lower my eyes. “Oh.”
Betty takes a step back, studying my face. A smile touches her lips. “You really have a crush on him, don’t you?”
I shrug, trying to play it down. But she’s right, damn it. I do have a crush on Dean. He’s the first guy I’ve met in a long time that I’ve really liked. I hardly know him, but after spending the day with him, I know he’s the kind of person I want to get to know better. And I got the feeling he wanted to get to know me better too.
Well, except when he rejected me twice.
“Anyway,” Betty says, “I’ll see you tomorrow. The usual Santa will be back and he’s a nice guy too. A lot of fun. So it’ll be fine.”
I nod, knowing there’s no way I’ll like the new Santa as much as I like Dean. But whatever. It’s over. I’ll probably never see him again.
After I leave Betty, I head toward the food court on my way to the parking lot. I already got lunch here, so I better just eat dinner at home. I don’t have enough money to have two meals outside in one day. Spaghetti is cheap and easy.
Except there’s a big commotion in front of the food court.
I admit it—I’m the kind of person who stops to look when there’s a big crowd of people. Life is boring. Anything attracting a crowd that size has got to be exciting. I wander over to the edge of the crowd and tap a woman on the shoulder.
“What’s going on?” I ask her.
The woman’s eyes are wide with excitement. “Some man started beating up on this guy in a wheelchair!”
Seriously? Whoa. Let it never be said nothing interesting ever happens at the local mall.
Actually, this is a good opportunity for me. I may not be a full-fledged lawyer yet, but maybe I can talk to the victim and offer him some free legal advice. It would be a good opportunity for me to both practice my legal skills and do a good deed for the holidays.
I gently squeeze into the crowd of people, trying to get closer to the front. I wonder if it would help or hurt if I say I have legal experience. Probably hurt—I don’t want them to think I’m an ambulance-chaser. Better keep my mouth shut.
When I get to the front of the crowd, I see two security guards in uniform. There’s a wheelchair toppled on the floor, but I don’t see the occupant of the chair anywhere. What I do see though, to my horror, is Dean. Sitting on the floor, cradling his face, talking to one of the security guards.
Oh my God. Is Dean the man who beat up the guy in the wheelchair?
He wouldn’t do something like that. Would he? I mean, I don’t really know the guy. I only just met him this morning. And Betty said he’s got issues I don’t know about. Is one of those issues anger management problems?
But that doesn’t make sense. I mean, he had plenty of opportunities to lose his temper this morning. At one point, a little girl got a lollipop stuck to his beard. I can’t even imagine how many kids stepped on his feet. He never lost his temper. Never even came close.
What happened here?
I start to say something, to make my presence known. But before I can, the security guard leans over Dean, grabs him behind his arms and behind his knees, and puts him in the now upright wheelchair.
Oh. My. God.
Dean is the guy in the wheelchair.
What did Betty tell me? There’s stuff you don’t know about him. Yeah, no kidding. It all makes sense now. Why he never stood up and stretched during our breaks. Why he wanted to spend his lunch in Santa’s cottage. Why he refused all my invitations even though I was certain he was flirting with me, wasn’t gay, and didn’t have a girlfriend.
He didn’t want me to know.
And now I see the other guy being cornered by a security guard is the father of that boy Joey who wanted the science kit. That was the guy who was fighting with Dean? What happened? I can see Dean telling the security guard something in a low voice, and the man screams at him, “You’re a goddamn liar!”
And then one of the guards is leading the kid away.
Dean looks up at the crowd, glaring at us—rightfully so. His left cheekbone is very red, on the verge of bruising, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. Then his eyes fall on mine and all the color goes out of his face.
“Callie,” he gasps.
To be continued.....
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