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Authors: Tyler King

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BOOK: The Debt
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My head hit the wall with a groan as I felt the back of her throat constrict around me. I tried to come. Clenched my fists and squeezed my eyes shut. I was right there. So close.
Just fucking do it!
My muscles seized, skin crawling. Short, quick, stinging breaths choked my lungs.

I yanked her off me and zipped my pants. Then I bolted for the door, barely able to see straight.

In the alley behind the bar, I got ten feet before throwing up. The putrid brown slush that spewed out of me splashed on the pavement. Shaking, shivering, I stood doubled over against the brick wall, trying to get a handle on myself.

I don’t know how long I was out there before I reasoned to go back inside and chase the memories away with another shot or three.

At the end of the hall, just as the door to the women’s restroom swung open, I felt a strong surge of panic. Dark brown eyes and a disapproving scowl.

Oh, fuck me.

Trey pushed past Asha. He shoved me up against the wall and decked me right on the chin. I deserved that.

*  *  *

With a handful of ice wrapped up in a rag and held to my jaw, I sat back in a chair at our usual table. The Nest was far less crowded on a Tuesday night, and the jukebox playlist was shit. Asha glared through thick eyeliner with her arms crossed over her chest. Trey just looked disappointed. Well, disappointed and pissed off.

“Hadley called,” he said. “Told me what happened.”

“Help me out here. Did you sucker punch me because I went off on her for letting her dildo sit at my mother’s piano or because I got a blow job on a weekday?”

I was met with a face full of ice water, courtesy of Asha.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” she said.

I wiped my face, flicking the excess water off my hands as Trey settled in to let me have it.

“That girl gave up her whole life for you, and you tell her you’re her landlord? The hell, man? That’s Hadley, for fuck’s sake.”

“What part of ‘my mother died in that room’ is so hard to understand?” My hands shook. Under the table, my knee bounced.

“So that gives you the right to treat her like shit?”

“She knew better.”

“Give it a rest,” he shot back. “No one could live up to your rules and exacting standards at all times. There’s nothing but eggshells around you.”

“And yet, here you are, tracking me down.” I tongued my lip ring, at least a little thankful that Trey hadn’t aimed for my mouth.

“What’s that?” Asha leaned forward, grabbing my hand.

“What?” I snatched it back. “Nothing.”

“No.” She looked under the table at my bouncing knee and then grabbed my hand again. “This. Why are you shaking?”

“It’s nothing.” I stuck my hands under the table and held my knee down. It was as if doing so forced the anxiety into my throat instead. “I didn’t eat dinner. I didn’t sleep last night.”

“This is bad,” she said to Trey. “Really bad. Why haven’t you done something about it?”

“I’m right here, Tiny Tim. Talk to me.”

“He doesn’t want to hear it. Leave it alone.”

“No wonder you and Hadley never talk unless you’re yelling at each other.” Asha planted her face in her hands. “Is this how it is? Everyone pussyfoots around you because they’re too scared to call you on your shit or tell you that you seriously need help?”

“Hey, I thought we were on the verge of riding off into the sunset together. What happened to being nice?”

“Fuck being nice.” She raised her head. “This is me being your friend. I’m guessing you have a pretty nasty anxiety disorder.”

“Asha, you are astonishingly perceptive. Please tell me something I don’t know.”

Deflated, she sat back in her chair while chancing a glance at Trey.

“I told you,” he said. “Reason doesn’t work on either of them.”

Asha looked down at the stained table. She picked at the nail polish on her index finger because her thumb was already picked over. “Hadley was crying.”

“Punky doesn’t cry.” I flagged down the waitress as she passed by and gestured for another drink.

“You’re an idiot if you believe that. But you know what’s fucked up? She was mad at herself. Not for all the shitty, heartless things you said to her, but because she knew she’d touched a nerve. It was a mistake, Josh. Cut her a fucking break. She just wanted to show Andre—”


“—her paintings. Yes, I get it. He crossed an invisible line that he knew nothing about. You’ve got so many damn buttons that you might as well be mission control. But she didn’t do anything to deserve the way you belittled and humiliated her.” Asha tossed her hands up, exasperated and soaked in righteous indignation. “Oh, but you’re the one who’s suffering, so you come down here to drown your sorrows down some chick’s throat. Classy, Josh. You’re a real peach.”

Well, that wasn’t the plan when I walked through the door. It just happened that way. I only intended to get drunk alone until I was sure I could go home without breaking something.

“I suppose it’s too late to claim she tripped and fell on my dick?”

The waitress came around and set a tumbler of dark liquid at my right, but my mind was still stuck on that one word:
. I had humiliated Hadley. In front of an outsider, I had berated her, chastised her, and done my damnedest to hurt her.

Damn it.

I ran both hands through my hair, tugging at the roots. I stunk of Jameson, moldy hallways, and some kind of fruity perfume. The corners of the room sort of spiraled around my field of vision. My headache was back, or it had been there the whole time and I’d just been numb enough not to notice.

“She’s hurting, man.” Trey leaned forward, softening his approach. “But Hadley’s more concerned about you. She only called me because she was worried. I don’t know how many different ways I can say this. You need to talk to her. I’d start with crawling on your hands and knees, but then leave your bullshit at the door and have a conversation.”

Between Hadley and I, Trey had always been closer to her. He tried to play the diplomat, the conciliator. Mostly, though, he took her side and never passed up an opportunity to tell me all the ways I was fucking up.

I turned my attention back to Asha. “How serious is this thing with Andre?”

Her eyebrows shot up. A secret smile curled up her Cheshire lips. “Oh, honey. You have no idea. But I like that you’re asking. That’s good.”

“Don’t riddle me, Tiny Tim. Answer the question.”

“They’re very close. Either way, you’re running out of time.”

“What does that mean? For what? I’m not aware of a ticking clock.”

“Then you two have a lot to talk about.”

The drive home was dark, quiet, and entirely too long. Turning down the hidden driveway, I held my breath as the house came into view. Security lights illuminated the exterior, but all was dark inside.

It took three tries to deactivate the alarm with my phone app. It occurred to me when I fumbled to get the key in the front door that maybe I should have let Asha and Trey drive me home.

Upstairs, I stared at Punky’s closed door for a moment. There was no light peeking from underneath, just the sound of her moving around inside. A brave man would have knocked on the door and accepted her wrath head-on. For all we’d endured together—for all she’d put up with from me—I owed her that much. If she wanted to kick and scream and throw things at my head, I deserved to stand there and take it.

But I was a spineless shit.

Instead, I walked into my room and closed the door. I ripped off my shirt and tossed my jeans in the overdue pile of laundry, then collapsed against the wall with my head in my hands. Now that the anger and anxiety had subsided, I was left with only guilt.

I had overdone it this time. My verbal assault on Hadley was unwarranted. Sure, she knew my hang-ups about going into that room. She understood why letting some random fuck press his oily fingers to my mother’s piano was unacceptable. But she hadn’t done it maliciously. If I had stopped for just one second to accept her apology and reasonable excuse, I could have walked away without burning the whole house down with me.

I beat my head against the wall, as if doing so would kill the reactionary part of me that needed to lash out first and make excuses later. The compulsion was like a malignant mass that had grown inside me for too long.

Through the years of therapy during my childhood, I never felt that I was getting better. There was no great epiphany when I took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and saw a world that was less terrifying and threatening. Therapy, for me, had been about managing symptoms and learning to cope. For the most part, I considered the experience a mild success.

To show for it, I had a healthy relationship with my father, Tom, and Vaughn. I managed my anxious response to older males. With effort, I had developed friendships outside of Hadley. I hadn’t had a suicidal thought in more than a decade, which was the most favorable endorsement I could offer. I had never turned to drugs to dull the ache; that right there ought to have earned me some sort of certificate of achievement. High school, for the most part, was a positive period in my life. I had my parents, friends, and music, and all looked bright. I should have known better.

My eyes drifted shut and my body went limp with exhaustion.

“Josh?” A voice called to me from the other side of my bedroom wall. “Are you okay?”

“Haven’t been in a while.” I pressed my ear to the wall. “You?”

“You’re drunk.”


“And you drove home. You know I should kick your ass for that.”

“Don’t. The wall is hard. You’ll hurt yourself.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“A brilliant idiot,” I said. “All the opinions that matter say so.”

“Oh, yeah? Your adoring and slobbering critics?”

“Nope. Asha ratted you out. She’s Team Josh, you know. I have a mole in your operations.”

“Might as well take out a full-page ad on
: I’m Queen Bitch of Your Anti-Fan Club.”

I laughed, turning my body to grope the wall. I fucking loved her sassy mouth. “I libido you.”


“Kyle is a clever little fuck. I think he’s smarter than I am. He might turn out to be the next great icon of the counterculture. Oh, and he wants to be your boyfriend.”

“Uh-huh. Walk that back a bit. You libido me?”

“So hard,” I groaned. “Tiny Tim is going to muzzle me, maybe a ball gag. Doesn’t she strike you as the type that carries all sorts of kinky shit in her tool bag? She’s afraid I’m going to go all carnivorous on your ass. Full cannibal.”

“I…uh…Wow.” She laughed, and the subtle vibration traveled through the drywall and tittered against my eardrum. “You’re plastered.”

“Half plastered, maybe. But you know I can’t lie for shit when I’m drunk. It all comes out garbled and out of order, but it’s all true.”

“Even the part about turning Dr. Lecter on my derrière?”

“Especially that part. No, wait. Did he wear the skins or just eat the organs? I don’t want to wear your ass, just take a bite out of it. A couple of bites, maybe. Would you get a tattoo of my bite mark?”

“You want to get one of mine?”

“Fuck yeah. You find a good spot of bare skin, and it’s all yours, Punky. I’m your humble canvas.”

“You’re mental.”

“I’m at peace with that.”

She was silent for a while, and in the interim, I began to hum. I pressed my palm to the wall, feeling the gentle reverberation tickle my skin.

“I haven’t heard that song in a while,” she said. “I miss it.”

“How can you miss something that belongs to you?”

“Josh, about Andre—”


“That’s colorful.”

“I’m rather fond of the term.”

“About what happened earlier, I’m sorry. I only let him in there to show him my paintings. I told him not to touch it.”

“I know. I lost my shit. But I didn’t hit him. That was good, right?”

“Yeah,” she answered without inflection. “That was good.”

I took a deep breath, flicking my tongue piercing between my teeth. “Everything I said to you was bullshit. I’m a horrible bastard and a goddamn liar. I’d feel a lot better if you came over here and kicked me in the spleen.”

“I’d rather knock out your teeth, rip out your tongue piercing, pull your nipple rings out with tweezers, and hook up your apadravya to my car battery. Your spleen is innocent in all this.”

“Fuck, sweetheart. I might like it. In either case, I’m at your vengeful disposal.”

“How did I know you were going to say that?”

“Because I’m disturbed and you know me better than anyone. Nothing I do surprises you anymore.”

“Not true. You’re an adventure. I’ve never been bored a day in my life.”

“Glad to be of service.” My fingers drew across the stippled texture of the wall between us. “You can punish me. I’ll grin and bear it. Just know that I’m sorry and I didn’t mean it. I’d take it back if I could. I’ve never looked at you as insignificant. You’re massively significant in my life. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have a house or a father. This is your home, too. This is your family, whether we share a last name or not. And I know that Carmen loved you like a daughter. She adored you, Hadley. She’d be so proud of the person you’ve become. There’s more than enough of her memory to go around, so fuck what I said before. Fuck me for being a selfish prick. Hadley, I l—”

A ball of Hadley-scented weight dropped in my lap. Her arms wrapped around my neck as her head fell to my shoulder. With a face full of her hair, I held her close. She felt so fucking good in my arms.

Her breath sputtered against my neck. Without pulling away, I reached one hand between us to swipe under her eye. My thumb came back wet with tears. It was like a 12-gauge shell full of buckshot exploded through my chest.

Punky did cry. I made her cry.

“Shh, sweetheart. Don’t cry. Not for me.”

I held the back of her head and ran my other hand up and down her back, trying my damnedest to figure out which of the horrible things I’d said or done had broken her.

“I’m so sorry, Hadley. I suck. I’m a pathetic asshole who picks on girls because I’m a complete tool. Shh.”

“Shut up, shithead. I hate your face.”

“I know. It’s a stupid, awful, terrible face. I’ll happily place it under the tire of my car and let you peel out.”

“That might help.”

“Did you know that the smell of a woman’s tears lowers a man’s testosterone level? You get all weepy, and it turns me into a nutless gimp. In fact, I think your tears are especially potent. I can feel my balls receding. I think my hair might be falling out.”

“No.” She tugged her handfuls tighter.

Fuck, was that supposed to feel so good?

“I like your hair. The hair can stay.”

“Okay. The hair can stay. But the testicles are goners.”

“And your hands,” she added with a little laugh. “It would be a shame to waste all that talent. And your voice. I like listening to you sing.”

“I’m always singing to you, Punky. No one else matters.”

This felt like progress. With Hadley’s head on my shoulder and her arms around my neck, it felt as though we’d gotten over at least a small hurdle. I held her as tightly as she clung to me, appreciating that, for the moment, I had my best friend back. I’d fucking missed her so much, and it killed me to think of all the time I’d wasted.

“Hey, Punky. You feeling better?” I ran my fingers up and down her back, coaxing her to look at me.

“Yeah.” She pulled back, sniffling as she wiped her hands over her eyes. “You know, you haven’t called me that in years, but you’ve been doing it lately.”

“Really? I call you that behind your back all the time.”


There was that confounding syllable again.

“Sorry that—”

“Don’t be,” I said. “We kinda had a moment there, right? Listening to such a vivid description of my own torture was sort of cathartic.”

“Yeah, well, I’m spent tonight. I’ll kill you in the morning.”

“The thing is, I do my dying after breakfast.”


My stomach growled.

“Did you eat?”

“No. But I drank a lot. Does that count?”

She slapped my arm. “Damn it, Josh. Why not?”

“I wasn’t in the mood. Or I forgot.”

“Come on.” Hadley stood up, holding out her hand. “We can lock up, and then I’ll make you something.”

“You don’t have to.” My legs were all pins and needles as I got to my feet. “I’ll just microwave something.”

“Stuff it,” she told me. “I’ll make you a grilled cheese. I’m a little hungry, too.”

“Lead the way.”

*  *  *

“So,” Hadley began as she heated up the skillet on the stove and I cut slices of cheese beside her. “When were you going to tell me about Alexei?”

Never. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that I had to attend the damn seminar. I was still holding out for an Ebola outbreak or a bomb threat to shut down the campus.

“What’s to tell? He’s coming, and the esteemed faculty has demanded my presence. My Friday night is pretty much fucked.”

“I know you’re stressing out about it.”

“Sure,” I confessed. I went to the fridge and poured a couple glasses of water for us. “But there isn’t much I can do. I’ll smile and nod and try to slip out of there as quickly as possible.”

Hadley put together our sandwiches and placed them in the skillet. Just thinking about having to tolerate that arrogant bastard brought my headache back, so I popped a couple more Advil.

“Have you told Simon?” She put her back to the stove, crossing her legs as she appraised me.

“No. Haven’t talked to my dad in a few days. Oh, I’m meeting Tom at the range on Thursday night. You want to grab dinner with us after that?”

“I would”—Hadley turned around and flipped the sandwiches—“but I’ve got plans.”

“With Andre.” Punkyfucker.

“He’s picking me up after my last class. I won’t bring him here.”

I sighed, running my hands through my hair as I stared at her back. “It’s fine. You can have guests over. This is your home. I meant that. Just—”

“I know.”

“Something about him rubs me the wrong way. He smiles too much.”

She laughed, pulling one sandwich from the skillet and turning to hand the plate to me. “Only you would see that as a flaw.”

“I don’t trust people who smile that much. Anyone that happy is hiding something.”

We took our plates and sat at the counter. Hadley bit into her grilled cheese, offering me her full and amused attention as she chewed.

“He went away for a while a few years back, right?”

She nodded.

“Are you sure he didn’t go to prison or a psych hospital? He could be a meth head or have killed thirty-seven people in Portland. Did you Google him recently?”

Punky laughed again, slapping her hand over her mouth as she all but choked on her grilled cheese.

“I don’t think this is funny.”

She swallowed, gulping a mouthful of water to help it all down the pipe. “Yes, you do. I think you like concocting these fantasies.”

“Have you looked in the bed of that truck? If he’s got an ax or a rifle back there—”

“That would describe most of the people in this town.”

“Fine. But I don’t like his face.”

“You’ve been spending too much time with Asha.”

“No shit.”

As I took crunchy, chewy, delicious bites that were too big for my mouth, Hadley slid glances at my sandwich.

“Just take it.” I peeled the corner of one triangle off and tossed it on her plate.

She smiled, popping the bite in her mouth.

“So, uh, about Friday,” I said. “You want to come with me?”



BOOK: The Debt
11.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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