I stared at my reflection in the mirror while I combed my wet hair. I didn’t look any different, but I sure felt different. I felt free, liberated, like I’d just opened the gates to something new and precious in my life.

I couldn’t wait to see what came next.

Caleb

That night, I slept more soundly than I could remember sleeping for a long time. I knew why. It was Erin, all Erin. There was just something incredibly compelling about her, something that drew me in. Getting to watch and experience with her this new journey in her life was invigorating.

I wasn’t sure if it was the newness of everything with Erin or getting to introduce someone to something that helped me so much a few years ago, but I woke up feeling renewed, fresh. My mind felt clear and I had energy for once, enough energy that I decided to throw on some workout clothes and enter my home gym for the first time in weeks.

It felt good to make my muscles burn as I went through my reps. I felt so good that, after I was finished lifting, I decided to ready the treadmill for a run.

The music blasted as my feet slapped the machine. My body felt incredible, like I was useful again. I started to daydream about what it’d be like to see Erin again later, about what it would be like to feel her against me as I showed her things she never thought she could experience.

I was in the midst of my daydream when Jackson appeared in the door. I jerked, so startled I nearly tripped. Thankfully, I managed to grab the bar to steady myself and lowered the speed.

Jackson was already in the room, fiddling with the volume of the sound system.

When it was silent, he turned to me and said, “I’m sorry man! I didn’t mean to scare you like that.”

It was a weird sensation, getting startled while your adrenaline is already pumping, but I took it in stride. The treadmill came to a stop and stepped off, snatching my water bottle.

“What’s up?” I asked, taking in the strange look on his face. He looked apprehensive about something.

“I tried to call and text, but you didn’t answer,” he explained. “I wanted to warn you.”

My eyebrows went up. “Warn me about what?” I asked, my eyes narrowing.

But Jackson didn’t get the chance to say what he wanted to warn me about because three giant men burst into the room. They hooted and hollered and jumped around me, one of them grabbing me from behind and squeezing me around the middle. Another slapped me on the shoulder.

They said something, but I couldn’t understand what it was because my mind was retreating into itself, searching for safety. I retreated to the fortress in my head, the one I went to when things started to feel too much, like they would boil over.

Between the sound and the touching, my body was ready to fight, ready to protect myself from the onslaught of my enemy.

I saw something in my field of vision, someone who grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me away from the noise. A familiar scent filled my nostrils. Jackson, my mind supplied. It was Jackson. My eyes focused and I saw his face leaning towards me, a reassuring hand resting on each of my shoulders.

His voice began to cut through the haze. “Caleb,” he said. “Caleb!” It sounded like I was underwater listening to someone yell at me from above.

Jackson must have noticed me returning to myself because he asked, “Caleb, can you hear me?”

I opened my mouth and tried to speak, but only a strange gurgle came out. So I nodded.

“Good,” he said, smiling at me. “Good. You’re at home and you’re safe. You aren’t being attacked. Okay?”

Jackson was something of a jokester, but he was never a liar. What he said had to be true. But then I remembered the yelling and the slapping and I wanted to dive back down to that place in my mind that kept me safe.

Jackson must have noticed because he shook my shoulders a little, and said, “No, Caleb. You’re safe now. You’re at home and you’re safe.”

He said it over and over like a chant. I began reciting it inside my head.

I’m safe. I’m at home and I’m safe. I’m safe, I’m at home and I’m safe. No one is hurting me.

The layers of fog began to peel themselves back and I started to recognize things besides just Jackson. I saw that I was in my exercise room and there were three other men in the room. I recognized them, knew them, though I couldn’t say who they were at that moment.

Jackson saw me staring at the men and turned to them. “Could you three assholes get out of here for a minute? There’s a reason I told you to stay in the living room.”

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