Authors: Tyler King
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To my husband, my best friend
Now it’s your turn
You have excellent taste
And for me
Good job, me
I must first thank my husband, who didn’t bat an eye when I quit bringing home a paycheck and told him I wanted to sit at home all day to write. Thank you. And thank you to my parents, who never said a degree in creative writing would get me nowhere. Thank you to my chorus teachers, drama teachers, English professors, and all those who encourage young people to embrace the arts. Thank you. To Heather, who held out her hand to help an aspiring author who had no clue where to start. To my agent, Kimberly Brower, for her faith in me and her infinite patience. To Dana, my editor. We were always meant to be. Thank you. To Colleen Hoover and Sylvia Day. Can we be friends? Call me. Finally, to the reason this book came to be: my readers. Thank you to Hadley, Bee, Stace, Annie, Jamie, Kennedy, Mariah, Vagabond, Sally, Mina, Packy, Cristina, Teresa, Sarah, Ivy, Shannon, Sabrina, Silvia, Flyr, Kat, Betsy, Lea, Kelli, KM, Noël, Gordana, and the rest of the underground.
Our conversations always began the same way. This woman was only interested in the worst parts of me. The ugly. Shame and contrition and all the ways I’d found to abuse myself since…
“Why are you here?”
These rooms made me anxious. The claustrophobia of one woman’s undivided attention. She still smelled like the walk across campus: damp denim and wet grass in the tread of her shoes. She watched my knee bounce. Watched me drive the serrated edge of a plastic knife into the cast wrapped around my right hand. Her fingers tapped across the screen of her iPad to the rhythm of my tongue piercing flicking between my teeth. And she waited patiently for an answer. A still, quiet patience that only irritated me further. She was a fucking wax statue of perfect fucking patience.
“Why are you here?”
“Because I fractured a man’s jaw.” And broke my hand for the trouble.
“Why are you here?”
“It wasn’t my choice.”
“But why are you here, Josh?”
Because eighteen years ago a woman I only remember by the back of her head left me on a public bus. No matter the answer I gave, it wasn’t good enough. Not humiliating enough. She wasn’t interested in my remorse. I had none. This woman wanted to cut me open and watch me writhe on the floor.
“Why are you here?”
“Are you going to start every conversation with the same question?” The end of the knife snapped off inside my cast. Goddammit.
“Asked and answered.”
She wanted to sigh. I could see it in her eyes. The boredom in this room was contagious.
“A violent outburst put you in that chair, but I want to know how you got here.” She set her iPad aside and crossed her legs, entwining her fingers in her lap. “What is it like?”
“The panic attacks. How do they feel?”
I closed my eyes, flexing my wrist against the severed shard of the knife. “Like waking up with your hands tied behind your back and a plastic bag cinched over your head. It feels like dying in terror.”
“Let’s start there...”
I stood in the shower with the lights off and my forehead pressed to the tiles. My palm lay flat, fingertips gripping the thin grout trench for support. Scalding spray beat against my back, but it could not chase away the frigid, crackling sting of ice pumping through my veins. I held my semi-flaccid dick in my hand, trembling as my lungs ached to push past the boulder lodged in my throat. My body caved in on itself, shrinking. Gravity squeezed me. It pressed and it pushed until the weight was so much, the pain so great, I collapsed to the bottom of the tub, naked and shivering. The room spun forward and back, end over end. I grit my teeth, clenched my fists. Static filled my head and numbed my face. The sick, black poison of nausea seeped its way into my gut. Bubbling. Boiling. I heaved and clenched, vomiting acid and whiskey, leaving me a huddled clump of shaking agony in a soup of sweat and putrid bile swirling around the drain at my feet.
The water ran cold before I could move again. A silent sob cracked through my chest. Coughing, I choked on the air filling my lungs. Exhaustion was a relief.
When the panic attack subsided, I reached for the soap and rubbed it between both hands, then lathered and rinsed my body from face to feet. I hated it. Hated touching my skin with wrinkled fingers while my nerves were still raw.
Withered, I planted my hands on the tiles and climbed up the wall to stand on trembling legs. My muscles were mud. Wobbling out of the shower, I reached for a towel.
In my room, a naked woman lay asleep in my bed. I dropped the towel on the floor and slipped under the covers.
But sleep wouldn’t come.
Hours later, just after 8:00 a.m., I was still awake when the woman next to me stretched and reached for her phone on my nightstand. Propped up against my headboard, I watched the silhouette of a leggy blonde dressing at the foot of my bed. She shoved her tits into a push-up bra and wiggled her way into a tight black dress.
“It was fun,” she said. “See you around, MacKay.”
She tiptoed away with her shoes in her hand and closed the door behind her. I knew I shouldn’t have brought Kate home, but at the time I didn’t have the clarity of mind to do otherwise. Women had always been transient in my life. This one was no different.
I pried myself from the covers, then crossed the room and stood at the floor-length mirror beside my dresser to inspect the new ink peeking around the right side of my rib cage. The skin there was still tender and swollen, a result of six hours under the needles to continue the design that decorated my back. Bear was an artist with an implement of pain.
My eyes fell to the framed photo lying facedown on my dresser: a younger me in a tux, standing onstage with my adoptive parents beside a piano before my first sold-out concert. It was one of the happiest days of my life, and I couldn’t bear to look at it.
I was skinnier then, and lanky. Hadn’t yet grown into my body. Next to my pale, freckled parents, I stood out like one of those exotic adopted children of yuppie celebrity parents. Dark skin. Black hair. Green eyes. People told me I was “interesting” to look at, to gawk at. So little by little I covered all the pretty bare flesh in tattoos.
The first piece I ever had done was of a raven with its wings spread wide across my chest. The tips of each broken wing nailed down. I was seventeen then. After my first sitting, I came to understand why people said tattoos were addictive. I suppose I became a glutton for pain, because when Bear’s wife offered to put a hole in my lip, I let her stick a needle through my face. For shits and giggles. At twenty-one, I had two full sleeves. My dad only asked that I keep the modifications within reason. I was a bit fuzzy on that definition.
From the top dresser drawer, I grabbed a tube of antibacterial ointment and applied two fingers’ worth to the new tattoo. My stomach growled. It was empty and angry from last night. So I sifted through the field of laundry-pile bunkers scattered around my bedroom until I found a black shirt and dark jeans on the passable side of clean.
When I hit the landing at the bottom of the stairs, I felt a pair of knowing brown eyes watching me from the living room. Nothing good ever came from the morning-after ritual. Even so, I couldn’t help but glance at my roommate curled up on the leather couch with her laptop open and earbuds hidden under her long dark hair. She held seven fingers over her head. Hadley averted her gaze back to the computer screen rather than look for my reaction. Like she didn’t give a fuck.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than wait for the walk of shame?”
“Don’t you have an appointment to get your dick swabbed for STDs?”
And so everything was par for the course on a Sunday morning. I held out my middle finger as I turned toward the kitchen.
That was fun. Let’s do it again next week, shall we?
I had yet to decipher her scoring system. Asking for clarification would only validate her participation in my sex life.
Neither of us enjoyed living together. My parents’ house in the middle of nowhere was too big for two people and not big enough for the both of us. Since my dad left to take a job in New York during our freshman year of college, every day was a special kind of torture. But Hadley needed me. And as much as I couldn’t stand being near her, I wouldn’t abandon her again.
Besides, that girl could cook. I walked into the kitchen and pulled the tinfoil off the food Hadley had left for me on the stove. After I poured myself a glass of orange juice and prepared my plate, I took a seat at the granite breakfast bar that framed the gourmet kitchen. Her scrambled eggs, bacon, and cinnamon toast were reason enough to get up in the morning.
Hadley wasn’t so bad. I knew I could be a surly, inconsiderate bastard. Our spats weren’t entirely her fault. For the most part, we were resigned to grin and bear it for the next two years until graduation. Hadley was set on moving to Boston for her master’s degree. I was going to New York the second I fulfilled my promise to my dad and had my bachelor’s in hand. No one was under the misconception that this arrangement would last forever.
“You’re an asshole.” Hadley walked in to lean back against the counter beside the stove. She wore my black Tool sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up and the hem brushing her legs just at the apex of her thighs. And those tiny black shorts that made my dick twitch every time she bent over. Those fucking shorts.
Reaching toward me, she swiped a piece of toast off my plate, never mind the three pieces still sitting on the platter. She did that all the time, and it drove me up the wall. Since she was the one doing all the cooking, I’d given up trying to break her of the habit and teach her to keep her thieving fingers to herself.
Rather than answer, I shrugged one shoulder and shoveled another forkful into my mouth.
“Stephanie Slater has sent me three text messages asking me to ask you to call her.” Her dark eyes looked past me or at the floor, anywhere but my face. “Do your own dirty work. I clean up after you enough as it is.”
“You know how much I dislike confrontation.”
“This is a new low, even for you. If you screw your friend’s sister, you could at least take her calls.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“And stop fucking the crazy ones. She’s giving off a stalker vibe.”
“If Scott shows up with a hatchet, I’m not covering for you.” One corner of her lips turned up in a wicked smirk.
I gave her a wink. Hadley laughed, rolled her eyes, and sauntered off with my last piece of bacon.
I never went out of my way to piss Hadley off, but I rarely exerted too much effort to stay on her good side, either. That ship had sailed, hit an iceberg, taken on water, snapped in half, and dragged all souls aboard down with it a long time ago.
Half the time I wanted to throttle that girl. The other half I wanted to wrap her in blankets and swear undying allegiance if she’d smile again. I cherished the rare moments when Hadley was relaxed, laughing, and more like her old self. I had a debt to Hadley that I’d spend the rest of my life repaying. I owed her my head on a platter. And if ever given the chance, I’d take a bullet for her.
* * *
After breakfast, Hadley sat on her bed with a sketchbook on her lap. The shard of charcoal between her fingers rubbed across the page, making a soft scratching sound in the otherwise silent space. I enjoyed watching her work. The expression of intense concentration she wore. Bobbing her head to the music playing through her earbuds.
I sat on the edge of the bed. Hadley flipped her sketchpad when I tried to steal a peek. Reaching over, I tugged one of her earbuds out. The sound of Fiona Apple’s voice sprang from the tiny speaker.
“I’ve got to take the Les Paul to the shop. You want to come along?”
“How bad is it?”
“The neck is loose. It sounds like shit. Vaughn will have to strip it down and reset it.”
“What an asshole.”
Not Vaughn. The asshole was the drunken bastard at my show last week who jumped onstage to give us his best Slash impression. He grabbed my Gibson Les Paul, so I decked him and tossed the guy to the floor, but he managed to take my guitar to the ground with him.
“We can run by campus to pick up our textbooks and hit the grocery store on the way back.”
“You’re going to class this semester?” She arched a sassy eyebrow.
“I go when it’s necessary.”
“Right. What could an institution of higher learning possibly teach the prolific Josh MacKay?”
“I’m still waiting to find out.”
Hadley rolled her eyes and swatted me with the back of her sketchpad. “Swing us by the art supply store and you’ve got a deal.”
Really, Hadley never asked much of me.
“Sure. You need me to wait outside first?” I got off the bed and shoved my hands in my back pockets.
“Nope.” She stood to put her sketchpad away in her nightstand. Hadley tied her hair up in a ponytail and wrapped the wires of her earbuds around her neck. “I’m good.”
She proceeded mechanically toward her bedroom windows that looked out on the woods behind the house. In the same order, always the exact routine, Hadley unlatched and latched the locks five times, clicking back and forth. Her hand lingered for a few seconds. Fingers squeezed and twitched to repeat the action. Then she took a breath and spun around to continue throughout the house.
To every window and door, I followed behind as Hadley performed her ritual. I never rushed her, was never impatient about her process. I’d done this to her. It was my job to assure her later, when she teetered on the edge of an anxiety attack, that she hadn’t missed a single point of entry.
She had done well today, and I smiled at her when we made it to the alarm keypad in the foyer in less than four minutes. I felt like an arrogant shit for trying to offer her my approval, but Hadley seemed to take some level of pride on the days when we didn’t make two or three trips mid-ritual back to the second floor to start all over again.
She keyed in the code three times, disarmed the alarm three times, and didn’t hesitate to take a step back when she was ready for me to finish up. Definitely a good day.
At the front door, Hadley locked up and only jiggled the handle for seventeen seconds before she sighed and plastered on a calm expression. I held open the passenger door to my black ’65 Mustang, watching as Hadley got in and brought up the security app on her phone to check again that the system was armed.
In the car, she sat with fists clenched and knuckles white as the engine groaned and came to life. One finger pried its way free to tap the stereo to cue Black Keys at an earsplitting decibel. Her attention was aimed straight ahead at the tree-lined dirt driveway that spanned a hundred yards out to the two-lane road.
When the stone-faced house was no longer visible behind us through the thick surrounding forest and my front tires crunched over the last of the uneven dirt and gravel to the flat pavement, I hit the clutch and slammed the stick shift. Hadley rolled down her window as we exceeded the posted speed limit toward the highway. She liked it when I drove fast, so I was more than happy to oblige.