Authors: S. M. Lumetta
When I reached the pier, I methodically scanned the crowd. Sometimes I would see the insignia. Some contractors wore or carried something with a small, gold stamp of the scales of justice. As varied and scattered as we were, it wasn’t a guarantee, so I mainly relied on my ability to spot what was essentially out of place. I could find them without any specific indicator—there was always some kind of sign. The added bonuses were usually a put-out attitude, utter apathy, or a blatant indifference. I’d never been wrong.
I made it all the way to the end when I spotted her. Today it was an attractive, statuesque woman in expensive purple heels with her jet-black hair neatly twisted atop her head. She leaned against the railing with her back to the water. Not a tourist, but definitely not from Chicago. She seemed irritated as if she’d been dragged there against her will.
I stepped past her and mimicked her position on the rail before offering a cue. “Nice shoes.”
Her head snapped to me with surprise, her wheels clearly trying to figure out if I was hitting on her. “Oh, uh, thanks?”
Normally, the handoff consisted of something like “Nice shoes,” followed by “Got ’em on sale.” After which I would take my envelope, nod, and disappear.
Instead, she eyed me warily and waited for some sort of explanation. I pushed off the rail and was about to walk away, but not before throwing off some sort of apology. “Excuse me. I thought you were someone el—”
“They don’t have Frappuccinos, baby!”
I froze. That booming voice was familiar.
It can’t be.
I turned slowly, painfully to see my childhood best friend, Nash Bonnar, approaching with two take-away cups in hand.
Our eyes locked as Nash’s sparked in recognition. Five feet from us, he stopped. His mouth fell open. With an expression that was both fascinated and confused, the woman next to me watched the two of us, her gaze bouncing between us as if she were watching a tennis match.
“Grey? Holy shit! My best goddamn friend in the whole world, Greyson. Motherfucking. Ellicott—er, Campbell. Wait, no, which name do you use? Whatever. Doesn’t matter, man! How the hell are you?”
He’d gotten progressively louder with every word, including the variations on my
name. Each syllable of the label pierced my skin like a poison dart. People stopped to stare and find out whether they’d scored ringside seats to a fight for their midmorning. Nash grabbed me by the shoulders and crushed me into a bear hug I wouldn’t soon forget, effectively dropping the coffees beside us.
The woman gasped, hopping backward to protect her precious shoes from splashing liquids.
Before a word could escape me, Nash released me and my collapsed lungs.
“Vivi! This is Grey. He was my best friend since fourth grade!” With his arm around my shoulders, he leaned forward as though his quick introduction should mean something to her.
When she didn’t respond immediately, he continued, undaunted, “He went into the military after graduation and, uh …” Trailing off, his arm dropped. Shifting on his feet, he turned to me and backed up a step. “I never saw him again.”
His eyes asked the questions as the words ran on ahead, plowing through conjectures and hidden emotions, tracked with all the accusations that come with them. “I thought you were dead! We all thought you were dead. You ran off to the army after that whole ‘daddy dearest’ episode, and you just, just disappeared! I wrote you letters, man. I mean, I. Fucking! Wrote! Letters! I thought you would, ya know. Shit, man, I mean, you were my best friend—a
. I … damn.”
I wasn’t sure he even took a breath. As if this moment could get any more surreal, it fell right down the rabbit hole. Nash’s jaw worked, clenching as he sucked in a quick breath through his nose, wiggling it as if a feather were tickling it. He clamped his left hand on my right shoulder and pinched the bridge of his nose. His breath hitched.
Vivi sighed and mumbled, “Oh, Nash.”
With a quick swipe to his eyes, he looked around the pier as if he were a tourist, using the opportunity to take a deep breath. Were I actually the same Grey he remembered, I might have called him a pussy or something inappropriately similar.
But I wasn’t Grey. Not anymore.
Nash cleared his throat and coughed it off. His arm dropped from my shoulder for a moment before dragging me into another organ-flattening hug. He clung to me for too long.
“Where the fuck have you been?” he asked, his voice hoarse.
I reeled, unable to find words to hide behind. Shock, disbelief, and a solid wave of nausea flooded my body. He finally released me. As I collected myself, moisture pooled in the corners of my eyes, and
was truly frightening.
“I, uh, I’ve been everywhere,” I answered as my mind raced to find a way to extricate myself from this uncomfortable, unbelievable situation. “I can’t even begin to tell you.”
He actually laughed. “At least you’re alive! Jesus, the things I thought.” His face flashed solemn for a second before lighting up again. “I guess I should introduce my
Vivien! Can you believe someone agreed to marry me?”
“No.” I laughed uncomfortably, pleased at the ruse, but irritated I was unable to control my response.
She gave a quick nod and smiled genuinely, though she was definitely cautious. She didn’t quite trust me, and I approved—she shouldn’t.
“I’ve actually heard quite a bit about you,” she said, offering her hand.
I nodded, bowing slightly as her fingers closed firmly around my palm. “I’m sure some of it’s not true.”
I forced a smirk and threw a glance at Nash, whose grin widened ear to ear.
“So, what are you doing here? Do you live in Chicago?”
Reading his all-too-earnest face, I could tell he was desperately searching for answers, any of which I couldn’t give him. The moment I’d heard his voice, an acute pain bubbled up in my chest, and it was approaching unbearable. I could face a firing squad without a change in heart rate, but this run-in was taking me apart.
“Listen, Nash, I-I can’t really talk right now,” I stuttered, much to my increasing frustration. “I was supposed to meet a colleague and I’m a little late. I don’t want to be rude, but I’m sorry, I have to go.”
His face fell, but he nodded. “Oh, yeah, of course. All good.” He landed a smack on my shoulder, nearly knocking me over.
Same old Nash.
“It was, uh, crazy running into you,” I admitted, hoping it sounded like a good thing and taking an initial step toward retreat.
“Dinner!” His face was alight with all the excitement and promise of a seven-year-old at Christmas. “Vivi wanted to hit the Cheesecake Factory—”
did, sugarbuns,” she corrected, amused. “I’ve sworn off cheesecake.”
“Baby, your fine ass would be fine even if you ate an entire cheesecake in one sitting.”
The man could still shift from gleeful kid to pimp in a millisecond.
“Remember when we met, Viv? You were railing on the punching bag at that hotel gym and accidentally kicked me with a roundhouse to the face,” he said, recounting the incident to her as if it was a love letter.
“I kicked you on purpose,” she teased, her expression giving away the truth.
Turning to me, he continued. “Love at first ass kicking. And that ass is finer than ever.”
He reached back, grabbed a handful of said fineness, and laughed at his own joke.
Vivi fought a fond smile and rolled her eyes.
She must do that a lot.
At that moment, a young boy ran past Nash, tripped, and was about to do a face plant on the boardwalk when Nash caught him, setting him right. “Ya all right, kid?”
The boy’s mother ran up after him, breathless with a baby strapped to her chest. She thanked him profusely, but Nash shrugged it off, smiling as if he’d done what anyone would do.
Sensing my time eroding with each forceful heartbeat in my chest, I pushed toward making my exit.
“I’m sorry, I just can’t,” I said, edging away backward down the boardwalk. “Take care of yourself, man. And, uh, congratulations!” I gestured to Vivi and turned, trying not to run away screaming.
“Greyson!” he bellowed after me. My trained instincts must have developed amnesia, because my body stopped and turned of its own volition. “Cheesecake Factory. Seven o’clock. We are
taking ‘no’ for an answer.”
With no real intention of actually showing up, I nodded and waved. Reversing quickly toward reprieve, my feet couldn’t carry me away fast enough. My throat constricted while my heart beat itself against the inside of my ribcage. A strange and deafening white noise filled my ears.
I could not relax.
At the north side of the pier, I was finally out of their visual range. My vision blurred, and my stomach twisted. I couldn’t go any farther in this state, so I stopped to grip the railing and vomited whatever the hell I’d eaten for breakfast into the lake. I lurched forward for a second round, my eyes watering heavily. Even after my body relaxed, I remained in the same bent position with my head resting on the rail. The cool metal against my skin was a relief as I watched the water erase my ills.
My professional reflexes woke up—finally—when I sensed someone approaching from my left. I snapped upright immediately, noticing his leather loafers were worn without socks. My eyes locked on a pair of cufflinks with the insignia. And a huge diamond.
“Like ’em?” His tone was mocking as he shook his wrist.
“Gorgeous,” I said flatly, lifting my eyes slowly to his face.
“Got ’em at a deep discount,” he said drily, waving a significantly thinner envelope than I was due.
I shook my head slowly and deliberately in response. “You get what you pay for.”
He laughed, stopped abruptly, and hissed, “You were late.”
“I wasn’t late,” I said, biting off the end of each word unintentionally. “I was delayed.”
I glanced at the envelope and back at him. I felt my eyes go dead as I bored the threat into him. A cleansing relief flooded me as the numb and nameless reappeared to take care of business. I could breathe again.
When I didn’t blink, his resolve faltered. Watching Mr. Loafers evaluate the authenticity of danger pleased me.
His Adam’s apple bobbed hard. Without a word, he reached into his jacket and pulled out the stack he’d skimmed from my envelope. Thrusting the lot of it into my hand, he hastily brushed past me. I started walking before I’d put the cash safely in the envelope.
The chaos in the back of my mind buzzed. The surprise of Nash was almost too much. If I could get the hell out of Chicago, it would settle and disappear. Just like me.
Sweat poured down my back. My hair was drenched and matted to my face. I couldn’t seem to regulate my breathing, my chest heaving as though I were on the brink of asphyxiation. Desperate, I ripped my shirt open to get the collar away from my neck, buttons clicking on the tiles as they fell to the sink and floor.
More memories had shaken loose, thanks to the run-in this morning. One in particular was the party he and I threw at his house just before our senior year in high school. My brother was there and drank too much, collapsing while doing a keg stand. I had felt helpless when I found him on the ground, but Nash took charge and performed mouth-to-mouth. I had never felt more grateful to anyone in my life when I heard Drew burp, cough, and then barf. Nash was a veritable hero.
If you died, I would’ve fucking killed you
,” I’d told Drew, nodding my thanks to Nash.
He called us freaks but smiled the whole time, following up with, “
Good thing I’m a freak, too
Nash was an all-in kind of friend. If you were part of his inner circle, he would do anything for you, no-holds-barred.
Still fighting for air, I had to consciously talk myself down for another ten minutes. Reactions to the memory wouldn’t go anywhere, though, and it kept me cycling through various stages of discomfort and cold sweats. I stared at the mirror in my hotel bathroom in abject horror because I knew exactly what was going to happen next.
I was going to be at the goddamn Cheesecake Factory at seven o’clock tonight.
When I woke in the morning, I was foggy and disoriented. The meds left me feeling a little hungover. I rolled over, taking in the warmth of the light beaming through the windows. The sun seemed to pick me up and cradle me. The day already felt less taxing.
As I had nowhere to be, a bath sounded like heaven. The apartment was quiet and I hadn’t yet broken in my amazing, massive tub. Just the thought of it made me grin and I felt lighter.
The iron claw tub was an incredible find at an estate sale Vivi had dragged me to somewhere in the Hudson Valley. When we saw the tub, I knew I had to have it. Until then, I had so few ideas as to how I would decorate my new place. This one piece, however, was perfect.
“If I had to, I could live in that,” I’d told Vivi.
Of course the rest of the day, Vivi had teased me incessantly, asking if I could live in this cabinet, on that sofa, or any other random piece I showed interest in.
Minutes later, I set a glass of orange juice on the bath caddy that straddled the tub, ditched my sleep shirt, and stepped in. Lowering myself in slowly, I leaned back, my head on a rolled up towel. I closed my eyes and simply inhaled, soothed by the scent. A low moan of contentment bubbled from my chest, and I was more at ease than I felt I deserved.
Without opening my eyes, I reached for my orange juice and felt for the glass with my soapy fingers. I took a long swig and set it back down. I swirled the juice around my tongue for a moment before swallowing. Just in time.
I taste citrus. Citrus mixed with a different, subtler kind of sweet. His sweet. I open my eyes. He sits at the other end of the tub with a wicked smile, his bright blue eyes sparkling with mischief, and that worn leather cowboy hat on his head. Water laps at his chest, soaking the smattering of hair in the middle. He’s watching me watch him.