NaNoWriMo: part 3.

Oliver tightened his thin jacket around his body and grimaced against the cold. Once he would have had friends with whom he could stay in town—a laughable concept for such a rural place if ever there was one. Outside of Liam, he rarely saw any friendly faces, let alone people he could trust. Still, he whispered the names of lost companions to himself, creating a soundtrack for his steps. “Eric, Ginny, Michael, Tony, Ross.”


In school, he had never managed to be popular. He was smart enough to excel but not so gifted that he had to worry about having a looted backpack and spending the night trapped upside down in a trash bin. He’d dated a little through the years, mostly in the frustratingly chaste manner of youth, but those girls had since moved on to marriage and motherhood. His had been the basic escape plan of underutilized rural youth: take on crushing debt, go to a university with a good enough name, and never look back. In truth, he had never even made it close to graduation.


Anxiety issues. The nurse hadn’t been all that helpful when he’d walked in clutching his chest and complaining that he was in immediate danger. It felt like he was having a heart attack, or at least that was what he’d assumed from the signs he’d learned over the years. Trouble breathing, pain, numbness, it had taken all his strength just to get to the school clinic. The nurse had written it off immediately as a panic attack, perhaps from generalized anxiety disorder. Her son had it, but she was no expert and had no professional training in psychological issues. She could offer him nothing but her most sincere sympathy and a referral to the university’s psychiatrist. The waiting period was two weeks. Finals were upon them, and some kids just cracked. What more could she say?


That slip of paper had been the first item thrown in his bag as he’d packed for home. His mother had tried to convince him to stay, offered to send him all the money he could possibly need in order to see a specialist immediately, but he would not be convinced. He just wasn’t made for the city and its expensive, pointless classes that he would never use. Every day he stuck it out was another day wasted. The air was too thin here. He couldn’t breathe and couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt comfortable. He had to go. She had to come pick him up. She got in the car that night, exhausted but will, and—


He didn’t want to think about his mother anymore.


He patted his jacket pockets in search of cigarettes before he remembered that they had been tucked into his jeans. Liam wasn’t great at comforting conversation, but he offered supportive gestures as best he knew how. He knew that Oliver had never been a smoker really, but there was something to be said about the habit’s ability to provide distraction for the body and mind. The pack had already been opened—Liam had a strict personal policy of only giving away his own American Spirit menthols if anything—but at least had a lighter slipped in to fill out the cardboard box. Oliver shivered from taking his hand out of his pockets. The cigarette felt odd between his lips, light and eager to move in response to every shuddered breath. His hand cupped around the tip in an attempt to block the wind, not because he was really certain about what he was doing but because this was the technique Liam took more often than not. He sucked on the filter as he held bare, raw flame to the other end of the cigarette. It caught.


He thought of so many warnings he had received in his life about the dangers of smoking. He tried to imagine the damage that he might be doing to himself, but he felt nothing at all. He didn’t know what he had expected from the smoke entering his lungs—a strange inner warmth, a sudden chemical rush, a sense of danger that might lead him to turning around and taking charge of his life? All he knew in that moment was that even if he showered, his father would somehow know that he’d been smoking and would fiercely disapprove. That was enough.


But this wasn’t some sort of metaphor. It was a cigarette, and he was just another drunk who took to smoking after drinking to excess.


No cars passed him as he approached the house. Part of him expected to see the politician’s truck in the driveway when he got back. It would be well within Lily’s rights to bring a man home, but somehow she never had. She was far too young for a man like Martin George, even too attractive for him even though that wasn’t the way that Oliver wanted to think about his sibling.


Of course it was possible that he was overthinking this whole situation. There was no reason that he had to assume something would happen just because she’d been friendly with this man, and a wealthy man like that had no reason to go out of his way to seduce a woman who had nothing. Really, they didn’t fit together at all, and even if he did want her, chances were she was so out of touch with her own sexuality that she wouldn’t be able to be what he wanted.


Sneaking back in through the back door was the best way to avoid confrontation. Even when they were at odds, Lily had a tendency to wait up for Oliver to come home so she could guilt him for what he had missed in the night and what could have happened while he was away.


Lily was pale as she sat at the kitchen table. Every glass had been removed from the cabinets, lined up in rows according to increased height.  It was as though she were creating a display for a yard sale rather than sitting alone in the dark, the moonlight through the window her only company until her brother arrived.


He didn’t want to give away his night’s activities, but she barely glanced at him as he locked the door behind him. She had never seemed that detached to his comings and goings before. She had the glazed distance of a sleepwalker but without the peace. “Are you okay?” he ventured as he touched one of the glasses. It was etched with the family coat of arms, three birds surrounding three diamonds. Appropriate, he thought, given the three of them in this home.


“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I would do some cleaning. We shouldn’t take everything to a new house only to have it be dirty. Mom always used to do polishing late at night so we wouldn’t know how much effort she put into keeping the house clean.” Her voice was unemotional, and if she was bothered by her brother getting fingerprints on her handiwork, she gave no indication. “I can’t remember the last time we just gave everything a thorough clean. We’ve been so busy trying to figure out what to save and what to sacrifice. We don’t take care of what’s right in front of us.”


He pushed his hands deeply into his pockets and tried not to see the wisdom in what she said. It was late, and he had walked too far home without water to steady his mind. All he wanted was to get to bed and face his impending hangover without fear. He would almost prefer his sister to be rude rather than introspective, so he grunted a response and turned to switch on the light.


The cloth she clutched was more red than white. She did not shake or even look concerned about the injury. Her eyes remained focused on the glasses, not herself. “I was polishing the wine glasses that Mom and Dad got for their thirtieth anniversary. You remember that? It was so funny at the time because neither of them drank, but it seemed like the sort of thing you get a couple when they’ve been together a long time since they didn’t ask for anything in particular.” She tried to laugh, but her voice gave out halfway through the sound, embodying a sigh instead. “I couldn’t tell if there was a scratch or a smudge, so I just kept scrubbing at it. It wouldn’t come off. I put it in the sink to soak in some detergent, but when I picked it up, it was hot from the water still. It slipped. It just slipped.”


The sight of blood made his stomach turn. Oliver was in no condition to drive, and their father could barely manage to get himself to the bathroom alone. Could he call Liam? He was drunk too, but he generally was. Maybe he knew how to drive more safely under the influence. It wasn’t like they could just phone for a taxi, and who knew how long it would take for an ambulance to arrive. He fumbled for a washcloth to get wet. He had to stop the bleeding first. Her fingers were loose around her own cloth, and without pressure, the blood came freely.


“I was afraid to wake Dad about it. He needs his rest, you know? So I decided I would just sit and wait. Keep very quiet. I feel bad about it. He has so few things left from Mom. What’s he going to do when he sees that I broke something of theirs? I can’t just buy a new one. How am I going to get one wine glass to match the set?” She swallowed thickly, and for the first time, he thought he spotted fear in her dark eyes. “So I broke the rest.”


“What? Why would you do that?” He eased her palm open and held his breath. She was cut more than once, shallow gashes that formed nonsensical patterns upon her skin. It wasn’t that she was losing a lot of blood so much that the wounds were so scattered. When he wiped the wet cloth over her skin to begin to clean her up, she hardly even winced.


“I just didn’t want him to get sad because one was missing. Better to forget they existed at all. Get rid of them all. He won’t have wine again, not with his medication. If he can’t find any of them, then he won’t notice.”


“Lily, you’re not making sense. You’ve hurt yourself. I think we need to get you to the doctor.”


The suggestion seemed to bring her back to life. She pushed back from the table abruptly, nearly knocking herself from her chair as the linoleum groaned in protest. “I don’t want to go to the doctor. I’ve only scratched myself up. I’ll be okay.”


“You’re bleeding all over the fucking kitchen right now. That’s not okay. You’re staring off into space like a zombie and babbling about I don’t even know what. I don’t know if you’re in shock or just being completely unhinged right now, but I can’t just leave you sitting in the dark staring at every cup we own!”


She curled her hand protectively to her chest and rose to her feet. Her expression was that of a wounded animal: hurt but at the same time ready to snap at the slightest hint of anyone getting near. “You don’t get it,” she growled.


“No, I don’t. I don’t get why you have to wash every dish in the house after midnight or why you’d want to smash up a bunch of glasses, apparently using only your left hand. If you’d like to enlighten me, by all means, but can we just fix your stupid palm and go back to not talking to each other?”


As soon as Oliver snapped, he knew it had been the wrong move. Lily folded her hands in her lap, staring straight ahead.




The itching was worse than the cuts themselves. She could deal with the pain, had never been a stranger to the sensation so long as she’d lived at home, but Lily hated it when her palm itched. She had bitten her nails down to the quick, and there was no way that she could ever make the sensation go away, not really. It was her own fault for indulging in the habit, and she knew this, but she figured she was allowed one vice. It wasn’t like she had the time to really care about giving herself a particularly feminine manicure anyway.


Her room in the attic felt more and more like a prison. The house had been big enough for the entire family when she was growing up, but when she’d returned home from school, she’d wanted to feel like she lived in her own apartment. This was the only place to find privacy, and she didn’t mind a bit of exposed insulation if it meant that nobody could wander into her room without going to the hassle of pulling down the hatch and ladder.


Anymore it felt as though the roof might collapse in on her as she lay in bed, her mind filled with endless static. She didn’t know what she wanted, and this home had always been a safe refuge from making decisions. Ollie had changed that. Her stupid, impatient little brother. She’d never been interested in the money that came from the farm, not really. She just wanted to take care of the animals and see how the plants were doing, occasionally say hello to a neighbor that she’d known for the majority of her life. He knew that they couldn’t live like that though, not forever, so things had to change. And if they lost the house, the farm, everything they’d ever known, she would have to change her life. She would have to finally decide to be someone who participated in the world rather than hiding away from it, and fresh starts weren’t doled out so generously to women who were in their mid-thirties.


At least she didn’t look her age. There were small blessings all around as long as you knew where to look. Like how Oliver always tended to look over the finances when the sun set, so she could get on her bike and go anywhere. She knew that her brother tended to drive, walking when he intended to get drunk and wander back at his own pace. When she got on her bicycle, he had no idea where she disappeared off to and when she would get home.


As soon as her palm felt okay, she set off toward the bar. It wasn’t her first choice of scenery. If she wasn’t volunteering on the farm, chances were she was reading a book or just finding a way to make the family more efficient. Of course she knew that it couldn’t last forever. Someone would notice that there were so many people crowded together and offer advice. All she could do was offer her thanks insincerely, her lips thin as she pressed them together in the approximation of a smile.


It was afternoon. How long had she been in her room recovering? She didn’t know, but her brother wasn’t close and her father was still asleep. It was her best chance to head off without notice. Liam was still on duty, this time trying to figure out which vegetables ought to be added to tomato juice to create a Bloody Mary that would actually attract customers. For all his diversions, he actually wanted to make sure that he earned an income while hew as employed. “If it isn’t the North Wind herself. What would you like?”


Lily had never actually come to this bar before. She tried to picture herself: thick grey sweater, tight black jeans, knitted burgundy hat. Most others would consider this weather cold, punishing even as the rain refused to turn to snow at the first sight of winter, but it wasn’t like she was putting herself together to look sexy for the right person.


As it happened, the right man came along. She had ordered an Irish coffee because it seemed simple to disguise the taste liquor through the brew, but no pot was in sight, so Liam must have resorted to some horrible instant blend that he could just stir together beneath the bar. The addition of the Baileys and whiskey actually made the drink more palatable, and she was pretty sure that she had seen pictures of this with a dollop of whipped cream on top. Knowing him, he would just add a shot of whipped cream vodka and insist it was better than the traditional thing. During her third precarious sip of the concoction, a man sat down next to her.


She wasn’t sure how highly she thought of men who frequented bars at this hour, but the man greeted Liam warmly and then sat in the middle of the bar. He carried with him the weariness of a man who had just gotten off a long shift at work. She wanted to know everything about him, but it had been so long since she’d started a conversation with a stranger in a place that wasn’t home. She had no idea how to engage someone when she didn’t have the advantage of being able to run away quickly.


“Is that as disgusting as it looks?” the man asked her. She glanced over at him, three stools away, and offered a gentle smile. He looked to be her age, maybe a little older. She often forgot her own age because it seemed frivolous to keep track without parties or anyone particularly caring about the passage of time.


“It tastes…” She fished for the right word to describe the drink. It made her insides feel warm, that was certain, and it did help distract her from what was going on at home. It made her understand a bit better why Oliver would choose to spend his time here. But the actual flavor? “Would you like to try it?”


The man laughed and shook his head. “No thanks. I’m not a fan of mixed drinks in general, and once you get this guy at the helm, I just figure I might as well steer clear.” He moved over one seat, then another so he could extend his hand for a shake. “Manny.”


“Lily.” She considered adding her last name, but then the spell would be broken and she would be that girl whose family was slowly falling from grace. Best to just forget it. “Isn’t it a bit early for hard alcohol all by itself?”


“That’s why I like to just have a glass of wine. This guy was getting in absolute crap before I came along and straightened him out. I don’t think you have to pay a lot to get good stuff, but my tastes aren’t all that refined. I just know what I like, and it’s quitting time for me. I like to have my one drink before I head home and get to bed. It’s a lonely life sometimes, so even drinking here’s better than falling asleep in front of the television, beer in hand.” Even though his words contained sadness, he smiled at her as he spoke. He had a kind face, eyes that seemed to be always narrowing with amusement and distinct creases that came from laughter. She didn’t know enough people well enough to tell, but she thought that he was a good man. “What about you, expecting someone?”


She opened her mouth to answer when it dawned on her: she was. She thought that her brother would have appeared and hauled her home the minute she walked through the door. Oliver was protective, perhaps too much so. He thought that just because she’d never managed to get herself knocked up, married, or even tangled up in a long-term relationship that there was something wrong with her.


But Oliver didn’t come looking for her, and even if he did, he would have no idea to look here for her. This was his refuge, and he wasn’t going to imagine that she would violate that privacy. He probably fooled himself into thinking that she had no idea where this place was or how close he was with Liam. Such were the lies people told themselves in order to make sure anything at all felt special.


“I try not to expect anything anymore,” she offered with a shy smile. When was the last time she’d spoken to a man outside of her family other than a shopkeeper? It must have been that politician, that potential buyer. Oliver had seemed so set on the guy actually pushing them out of their home. That had always been his plan, to sell the farm while they could still get enough money out of it to find a new place and get their father the medical treatment he so desperately needed. He just had no clue what he was doing. He wasn’t a natural salesman and hadn’t thought ahead further than actually getting someone to drive up their lane to admire the weather-battered house and fields that no longer yielded much more than weeds. She wasn’t a fool. She could tell immediately that the older man had been charmed by her. She had left the kitchen because the attention made her self-conscious, but by the time the man approached her again, what was she supposed to do? She had maintained a conversation with him, nothing more, but Oliver had reacted as though she had promised to run away with the politician. The possibility made her shudder.


“Are you okay?”


Manny’s voice broke into her thoughts and reminded her that she had to attach herself to reality a bit more. She wanted to smile coquettishly at him to make him forget about her odd behavior. How did someone look coquettish? She’d never had many female friends. She would have to get some if she was going to turn things around. She started to bat her eyelashes, but she realized quickly that it just made her look even more distressed. “I’ve just been having trouble at home lately,” she admitted.


He bristled a little beneath his denim jacket. “Domestic problems?”


“No, no, nothing like that.” She didn’t want to put her problems above all others. She knew that other people were suffering. It was just that kind of economy, that kind of community. If you did well, you had no reason to be stuck here. (Unless you’re rich enough to take advantage, she reminded herself internally.) “My dad’s just been sick for a long time. It hasn’t been easy. We don’t have great insurance, so trying to pay for it isn’t really going our way. I hate seeing him suffer.”


In her fantasy world, this Manny would immediately reveal himself to be a doctor. His odd hours were because he was on call, performing surgeries and doling out medication and saving families from being torn apart by unfortunate circumstance. He would be working on some experimental cancer treatment that would be offered up free of charge to volunteers. He would grow fond of her, very fond of her. Not lovers, not immediately, but there would be the love of friendship first to build the foundations for something that would be lasting and pure rather than opportunistic.


But this was just a stranger at a bar who had just completed a long shift of whatever job he did, and he did not need to hear all of her problems. His glass of cabernet sauvignon arrived, ruby rich within its glass that had more than a couple of fingerprints lingering along the edges. If he noticed, he ignored the sight. “That’s a damn shame. I hope your old man gets better soon.” And then he picked up his glass of wine and walked over to the small television that silently looped sports footage from earlier in the day.


She tried not to be offended by being left alone. Wasn’t she always, really? Her mother first, but she’d never really gotten her brother back after that incident. And then there was her father, wasting away day in and day out.


“Thank you for the coffee,” she mumbled to Liam. He hardly noticed as he dropped another olive in his Bloody Mary mix. When she walked out the door, he realized that he had forgotten to ask her to pay for her drink.




For being a member of the city counsel, Martin George was a difficult man to pin down. Oliver had been lounging in his waiting room for over two hours. The spread of magazines on the table did not appeal to him—outdated issues of Newsweek, Time, Bloomberg Business, even People—and every crossword puzzle and Sudoku had already been completed in cautious pencil that had been traced over more confidently in pen. The plants on the end tables were decidedly plastic, dusty enough to have come with the territory before Martin had even been elected to the office. He could picture the incumbent sadly passing the keys on to his young replacement, knowing that the only revenge he could get was to leave these hideous fake bamboo stalks behind.


The daytime talk shows were what really drove him to distraction. Celebrities of various status, some on their way up and some most assuredly on their way down, invited guests on to talk about their problems. Some were mocked, some were pitied, but after being paraded in front of a live studio audience, they usually got help. He could imagine himself walking across that stage, sweating nervously as he shook the hand of some actress who had shed enough weight that she was allowed to be in the public eye again. “I don’t want to be who I am anymore! This isn’t the life I chose for myself!” She would coo and touch his arm sadly as she nodded her understanding. After all, wasn’t that why she’d lost the weight? Someone in the studio would flip a switch, and a sign would illuminate telling the audience that they ought to applaud his honestly. They weren’t allowed to say “aw” though. It sounded too much like “boo.” Hadn’t he heard that somewhere once?


Behind a plastic divider, a young woman continued to stare at him. He was certain that she’d barely looked away since he’d asked to see Mr. George. She probably wasn’t used to walk-in appointments like this. Over the past couple of hours, he had seen her take and transfer plenty of calls, so he was sure the politician was in. With a heavy sigh, she stepped into the room.


The scratched plastic barrier that had stood between them before had not done her justice. Her body was long and lean, blonde hair crushed up into ringlets that were too perfectly formed to be natural. Her blue eyes were narrow in a charming sort of way, her full lips traced with a lush red. At once, Oliver felt a pang of guilt for the way he had treated his sister after seeing how she had talked to the politician. If this was the kind of help he employed, then he didn’t see why the man would look for something with his sister when the secretary was right here.


“I’m going on my lunch break,” she informed him with balled up fists pressed against her hips. Maybe she was trying to channel a bit of authority, but to him, it just accentuated how slight she was.


He sat up a little straighter but did not move beyond that. “Okay?”


“You can’t wait in the office while I’m gone. Mr. George doesn’t like that.”


“But I’m not in the office. I’m in the waiting room. Waiting,” he repeated, hoping the emphasis would help her see the sort of situation he was in.


She shook her curls adamantly. “You can’t be here. That door only locks from the inside. I can’t keep you out without being back there. I have to lock up this whole place to go out, which means that you’re going to have to head out too. I know that you’ve been here a while—“


“Two hours,” he interrupted.


She rolled her eyes in barely contained patience. Something about the way her cheeks flushed fascinated him. Had he really gotten to her so terribly flustered? “I told you as soon as you got here that Mr. George keeps a very busy schedule.”


“Yes, but it’s about personal business. He approached me, you see, and I think he’ll be very glad to hear from me about this.”


“Well, that’s your opinion. And rest assured that you are the very first person on his agenda when he gets a free moment.”


“You didn’t even tell him that I was here.”


A tiny smirk played across the heart shape of her lips. “Oh, I’m sure I must have the moment you walked in, Mister…?”




“Mr. Oliver.”


“No. Pratt. Oliver Pratt.” He could see that he’d let her turn the tables on him. He would have been frustrated if it hadn’t been the first sign of real human interaction he’d had in hours. “What am I supposed to do with myself when I can’t sit in here? Just lean against the door until you come back to unlock it?”


She gave a shrug of her narrow shoulders and then turned off the television. “You could always get lunch too.”


He thought about the thin fold of bills in his pocket. He had meant to pick up a few things for the house, such as more of that disgusting instant coffee just in case, but there was probably somewhere that he could get a sandwich that wouldn’t ruin the budget for the week. He was hungry since he had not expected waiting around for so long. His schedule had already been thrown for such a loop that it probably wouldn’t hurt to give himself a small reward for his patience. “How long do you usually take when you go out?” he asked hesitantly.


“I have an hour. I take my time.” She walked over to where he was sitting and touched his arm lightly. Her nails were the same red as her lipstick. “Don’t get so worked up about it. I’m not going to let someone else go ahead of you, if that’s what you think. Nobody even comes to see him normally. I think anyone who’s tried before has learned from that mistake. He’s the kind of man who tends to ask to see you rather than the opposite, you get what you mean?”


He couldn’t help but feel the sinking sensation in his chest. “So you’re telling me that this is hopeless?” It hadn’t been easy for him to work up the nerve to come down here and apologize for his behavior. It had been a mistake to be so picky. They all needed to move on, start again. How could he stand in the way of that just because he wasn’t fond of a man?


“Well, not entirely hopeless.” She flicked her eyes over him quickly, then moved to the door. “Let’s talk about it over lunch. Maybe I can figure out some way to pass the message on to him, and you don’t have to waste your entire day sitting around watching soap operas. Unless that’s your thing, of course.”


He gave the table one last derisive glance before he stood up and grabbed his jacket. It wasn’t every day that he received an invitation to have lunch with a beautiful woman. “Do you just lock him in when you go out to lunch?” he asked.


“He hasn’t stepped foot in here in the last three weeks,” she told him as she flipped off the lights.




No matter how many questions Oliver posed, she refused to answer until she’d found the right place for lunch. He could tell that she was picky, used to getting what she wanted. They’d turned several corners, wandering nearly a mile with their only soundtrack his monologue of inquiry. Finally she clapped her hands together and ducked into a doorway that looked like so many others they had already passed. He was hardly impressed that the interior was lit only by dusty chandeliers and individual candles on each table. Red and white gingham clothes were draped across every table, adding a distinctly picnic vibe for him. She took his hand and guided him to a table that was beside an artificial waterfall. “This is my spot,” she told him excitedly as she folded herself into a wicker chair. “I eat here every Friday. It’s kind of like my way of welcoming the weekend.” He hadn’t bothered to take a seat. A waiter was already bustling over in their direction when he turned back. “He probably had to get another menu for you,” she explained with a laugh.


Oliver clumsily sank down across from her. “You haven’t even told me your name,” he pointed out.


“Haven’t I? Well, you’ve been talking a lot,” she reminded him. She unwrapped her silverware thoughtfully and spread her napkin out on her lap. Were her eyes always narrowed like that, or did she just find particular amusement in teasing him all the time? “Marilyn. You know, like Monroe.”


“Were your parents big fans?”


“No, I think they were just trying to reclaim the name from the scandal or something.” That tight smile came again. When she tilted her chin down just a bit, her bangs draped down into her eyes, obscuring them. He wondered if she was trying to hide herself away or if he just overthought everything because he didn’t know enough people. “Oliver though. That’s not a name that you hear much these days. You don’t really look like an Oliver.”


“What’s an Oliver supposed to look like?”


“I don’t know. Olive. You’re pretty pale. You’re more of a…Greg. Or Eric. Or John.”


“So some bland four-letter name?”


“There are worse things to be.” Before he could protest, she turned her head and greeted the waiter with recognition. Even though she was a regular, she still accepted one of the stained paper menus graciously and offered the other to Oliver. Wine glasses were filled to the brim with ice water before the employee faded back into the shadows again. “I know it doesn’t look like much, but this place serves the best Italian food you’ll ever have in your life.”


“It kind of looks like the last meal I’ll ever have.”


“Don’t be awful. It’s a family business. The local government people love to eat here because it’s not very crowded. You’d think that wouldn’t work out very well for the restaurant, but they’re good tippers. You’d be surprised how much privacy and silence you could buy with the right amount of money.”


“You know, I don’t think I’d be surprised at all.” Had he not already given up a portion of his day just waiting for someone else’s attention? “So, why did you just let me sit around for a couple of hours when you knew your boss wasn’t in?”


“I love this,” she murmured. He was puzzled for only a moment before the waiter returned with a basket of bread and a small cup of garlic butter.  The metal container was settled over the candle, and as the flame stretched up insubstantially upwards, the butter began to melt. She impatiently tore apart a roll and waited for the condiment to go runny. It was impossible for him to tell if she was enjoying control over him or if she was just genuinely scatterbrained and excitable. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?” she asked, her hand hovering over the candle.


She stared at him so intently that it occurred to him that only the dim light of the room hid his flush. She was a beautiful girl, and he realized that he did not want to say anything that would result in her becoming upset and sending him away. He cleared his throat, reconsidered, ran through ineffectual lines in his brain. “I guess I just wanted to know…I mean. I was there for a long time. And Mr. George wasn’t. So why have me wait?”


Her laughter was like birdsong to him. No, bells. No, something else. “I can’t even remember the last time that someone came looking for him. It was kind of fun to see how long you’d just sit there and feel it out. You did well though. Didn’t blow up on me or anything. That’s a first.” She paused to swipe a bit of flaky crust through the butter, then bring it to her lips. “Besides, you’re cute.”


Well. She was blunter than the sort of girl he was used to, though he was generally so caught up in his work that he’d put his personal life on the back burner save for a few quick, messy, drunken flings. “Is that why you invited me out to have lunch with you?”


“I’ll be straight with you.” She sat up straighter, flinging her bangs away from her eyes. “I can tell that you’re not one of his usual business ventures. You’re not wearing a suit, and you don’t even look like you own one. He wants to buy something that’s yours. He’s a dangerous man, Oliver. He has enough money that he forgets what it’s like for anyone to tell him no when he wants something. Whatever he’s after of yours, it’s already been decided just because he set eyes on it. If you don’t go along with it, then he’ll persuade you by sweetening the deal.” She nervously touched the water to her lips but did not drink. “Or he’ll get angry.”


The threat was so vague that he wanted to laugh. What did it matter to him if another man happened to get upset with him? But he knew that Martin George was no regular man. He had power and influence, money and connections. He was one of the people who ran the town and knew the channels through which a person’s life might be destroyed. He and Lily were barely hanging on, and their father needed doctors, medication, attention. These things could easily be disrupted. “Well, I was coming to invite him to look at our property again,” he said weakly.


“The farm? Oh.” Color spread across her cheeks, and she tore her bread into even smaller pieces.


“Yes, the farm. What about it?”


“Well, didn’t you think it was a little strange how everything seemed to go wrong so suddenly? Your dad’s illness, the banks calling up to collect, the market just drying up, people eager to leave when they’d been loyal to you for so long? Going from an actual farm that was a business to just some old house with a few fields around it?”


When she mentioned his father, he pushed back from the table. His life had felt like a conspiracy theory for too long, but he would never mention this to anyone but Liam, and that was only under the direst of circumstances, namely tequila. His throat was dry, but he didn’t think that he could handle the ice water in the moment.  “Bad things just always seem to happen at once. You get distracted by what’s going on, and other things slip through the cracks. It snowballs.” If he could think of another cliché, he would have mentioned it too. There was no way to think about her implications except in the most vague of terms.


“I told you, he’s a dangerous man.” She looked around the room carefully, her eyes squinting to make out every other diner’s face. “This isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis, is it? Most people are losing a lot of money every year. There’s going to be nothing soon unless things change. Cheap stores. Shopping centers. You need a lot of ground for that. Flat ground.”


“But why would people drive all the way out where I live just to go shopping? And why would you know about it?”


She gave him a gentle smile but was not forthcoming. “Changes are happening all over this place, and when they do, everyone will know that Martin George deserves the credit. It doesn’t matter if you have to steamroll a few little people to get the result you want in the end.”


“You think this is actually happening? So I should just sign everything over to him and then get the hell out?”


Before she could answer, the waiter came back and gestured emphatically at the menus that remained facedown in front of them, the universal signal that they were ready to order. “Oh, we’re going to split the mushroom ravioli,” she told him. “And have a bottle of the merlot.”


Oliver didn’t have the heart to tell her that he hated mushrooms and was no real fan of merlot. “What should I do?” he asked when they were left alone again.


“I have a plan.” He didn’t know this woman, had barely spent any time with her at all, and yet he believed her. Beyond that, he actually trusted her. “It’s not something you need to worry about right now, but you ought to stretch things out as long as possible. Lead him on a bit, but when he starts to get pissed off, back off and let things cool down from there. You’ll have to say yes eventually, but don’t do it too quickly. You want to get the best deal out of him, and he has to make sure that you’re giving him what he wants too. He wouldn’t want a bad investment, and he might take it out on you if it fails to deliver. Even if it’s not your fault,” he added as an afterthought.


The wine came quickly and was uncorked with a flourish, no doubt because the waiter recognized her from her job and knew that she worked for a very influential man. He was grateful to see his glass filled and took a quick drink, even though he hadn’t given the wine enough time to breathe. “I don’t understand why you’re telling me all this,” he admitted.


For a moment, something like pity crossed her features. She snapped her jaw tightly to erase the sadness, instead opting for a resolved strength. “I’ve worked for this man for a few years. He’s a terrible person. I know that you’ve met him and didn’t get along with him. He talked about you, you know. He said you didn’t like him. He’s not very fond of you right now. You should watch yourself.”


Her words sent a chill through him. He didn’t know if he was indignant or glad, scared or defiant. “You’ve seen this happen before,” he speculated. Why else would she be so cautious?


“I just know what he does to people. I know you’re vulnerable. I don’t want to see anything bad happen and know that I didn’t stop it.”


“Then why didn’t you say something when I first walked into the office? Or why not call me up and tell me?”


“It’s difficult to get involved. You have to weigh the options and figure out who’s worth the risk. Sometimes people are stubborn or just as cruel. Some people deserve to be taken advantage of.” She winced at her own words, as though she had no idea when she had gotten so cold. “It told me something when you were waiting so long for him today. You didn’t ask me to interrupt him. You wanted to stay and see him even if I left the office. You really care about your family. You’d give up anything for them. You shouldn’t have to.”


“Because I’m cute?” he prompted. They both laughed weakly. At least it was something.


“I’ve been working for Mr. George for a few years. I don’t like what I’ve seen. I don’t like that I’m complicit because I haven’t spoken up.” A finger dashed against her eyelids, pressing back any tears that had threatened. “It’s not just about you. I don’t like where I am, but I know he won’t let me go. I know too much about his business. Just paying me off won’t be enough.”


“But you have a plan.”


“I do, as long as you help me.” Reaching around the glasses, the candle, the bread, her hands desperately grasped his arm. He couldn’t remember the last time a stranger had reached out to him with that level of urgency. He could see the fear in her eyes, and he understood that he was needed. It was as plain to him as when his father needed his medicine or his sister found herself in a social situation she just couldn’t make work. She had probably put herself in danger just being seen in public with him. The least he could do was do his best to help her in return.


“You can tell him that I came by today. That I was sorry about the way I’d behaved before and would like to show him around again. He should give me a call to set up a time. Should I give you my phone number?”


That cunning smile returned. “I think I want to see how this meal plays out before I take your phone number.”


I will never understand this woman, Oliver told himself, but it scarcely mattered. For so long he had felt as though he were the only one striving to save the farm or, later, to save the family. Maybe Marilyn didn’t have the same motivation he did, the same urgency, but they were part of a Venn diagram. Finally someone could listen to his fears and confirm that he had reason to be uncomfortable. All he had wanted was for just a day to not feel as though he had to do everything alone or face the collapse of all he knew and loved. “You’re a strange girl,” he finally said as he helped himself to some bread.


She laughed and seemed to take the remark as a compliment. “I think you’re going to see soon that you have no idea just how strange I am. But that’s okay. I think there’s a dark side to you, Oliver Pratt. I think you and I are going to get along very well and help each other very much.”


“I certainly hope so.” Maybe the merlot wasn’t so bad. Maybe he would like the food. Maybe he could go home and not have another headache and panic attack. The prospect was almost too much for him to handle. “Maybe we should have a toast.”


“It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it?”


“Not if we say it isn’t.”


She rolled her slim shoulders to lean forward and extend her glass to his. “Fine then. What are we drinking to?”


“To names and circumstances that don’t fit us.”


“Oh, I might be very much a Marilyn. You don’t know me so well yet.” Still, she tapped her glass against his and then took a gentle sip. “I’m sure you will soon though. I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to use you for some ulterior motives. You can ask me anything you want.”


It crossed his mind then that this was like a blind date. They were strangers thrown together by a mutual acquaintance; it just so happened that in their situation, it was someone neither of them particularly liked. “Why did you start to work for him?”


She chewed her lower lip for a moment. When she released it, the lipstick hadn’t been disturbed in the slightest. “I’d just graduated college. I hadn’t saved a single penny. I had to come home and live with my parents, so I was applying to everything I could. This secretary position opened up, so I figured it would be worth trying out. That was a few years ago. He’s paid me well and everything, but that’s because he has a habit of just throwing money at something he wants.” He must have quirked his eyebrow at her phrasing because she scowled right back at him. “I’m not like that, so you can stop thinking it. I’m sure he enjoys his view, but he hasn’t asked anything of me like that, and I certainly wouldn’t give it to him.”


“Well, I guess that gets rid of my second question,” he said lightly. “Do you have a boyfriend?”


It was clearly not the question she’d been expecting. A faint blush began on her cheeks, but she seemed to gain control by taking a gulp of her water. The ice had already melted from being too close to the candle. “No, I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m kind of between them at the moment. Do you have a girlfriend?”


“Are you kidding? I live with my father and my older sister. What about that is appealing?”


“I wouldn’t sell yourself so short,” she said, gesturing at him with the back of her hand. “You might still have a few good years left in you yet.”


“I’ll drink to your ringing endorsement.” He raised his wine glass and found he was nearly at the end of his first drink already. “What did you study in college?”


“English. I went out East, got the classic liberal arts education, and then came home with a piece of paper and more books than necessary. Also an acoustic guitar, a regrettable tattoo, and a few scars.” She paused and closed her eyes. “I forgot that I can’t handle red wine very well, especially on an empty stomach. I’m just trying to be open with you because it’s going to be very important for us to trust each other entirely. Because I might be asking you to do something dangerous, and I want you to be able to understand that it’s important for you, not just for me.”


“That’s going to take some time,” he answered, though he had to admit to himself that he was slipping already. When she reached across the table to touch his arm again, he knew the wine wouldn’t wash away the memory.


“We have time. Plenty of it.”

NaNoWriMo: part 2.

The Full Back was more than two miles from the Pratt farm, but Oliver made the trip on foot as soon as the sun went down. The years had taught him that it was better not to take his truck down the dirt road only to get too drunk to be able to drive it back again. Too many trees, deer, and ditches stood in the way to make the trip safe for him, let alone other drivers. He usually considered himself a responsible driver, if only because he had the good sense to only put himself in danger by trying to get home alone.


He shrugged out of his denim jacket and tossed it on the bar stool next to him. It didn’t take much more than a glance around the room to see that the bar wasn’t doing well. Four customers at the same time who weren’t together generally meant that something fishy was going on, a full moon or holiday where no loved ones were left with whom to celebrate.


Regardless, he smiled at the bartender and asked, “How are things at the Buy Back tonight?”


“Ready to give the drinks away if it means you’ll give me some fucking company.” Liam Edgerton had gone to school with Oliver. Straight after graduation, he had attempted to get himself a tattoo apprenticeship before he had decided that his skills were beyond what any teacher could handle. He’d booked appointments with clients online and made house calls until an angry phone call and some threatening letters informed him that his practice wasn’t exactly safe or legal. Since then he had been pouring drinks, more or less buying back a drink for every one purchased just to keep himself busy. The bar belonged to his uncle, and his position was the one job he probably couldn’t lose.


The prices were low to attract drinkers, but with fewer agricultural and labor jobs to be found, more people were moving–and drinking–elsewhere. Putting a ten dollar bill in front of him would see Oliver through the night, even if he insisted that he couldn’t afford more than what that money would get him. “Here, I’ll be your first and last paying customer.”


“How about I buy yours and you just buy this one for me?” Liam ducked down to the fridge to pull out two Yuenglings. Before his friend could confirm, he uncapped the bottles and tapped the chilled necks together. “Haven’t seen you drinking your sorrows down here for a while. Are you going to kick around with some small talk, or are you actually going to tell me what’s going on flat out?”


Oliver sighed and traced a pattern into the condensation on the bottle. The whole reason he’d made the trip down the road to this place was to forget about what was happening at all. If he could have bought a six pack and downed it casually in front of the television, he would have, but with his father and sister in the same house, it would only lead to a fight. They didn’t need any more tension trapped within those walls. “How are you?” he said instead.


“Man, you know how I am. Look around you. People are hurting, so business is hurting. In the meantime, I’m so bored that I can feel it in my balls.” His arm moved, but Oliver considered himself lucky that he was sitting and couldn’t see through the bar to make out what rude gesture Liam was making. “You know Ernie won the lotto a few years ago, so he thought that getting into business would be a way to keep the money rolling in. Hell, if we didn’t sell the smokes, I don’t know how we’d stay open.” By buying cartons of cigarettes and then selling them by the pack at a premium behind the bar, they had managed to extract more money out of patrons who liked some nicotine with their buzz than they did from the actual alcohol sales.


“I wish I could help you out, man. Other than buying beer, I’m not much help. It’s not like I can make everyone suddenly realize that they ought to be drinking all day long.”


“Well, what kind of friend are you if you can’t even manage a simple thing like that?” Despite the bar’s trouble, Liam was a contented man. As long as he could drink when he wanted to, nab a bit of weed when he could afford it, sketch out a new tattoo that he thought looked better than his last, and have the television tuned to whatever sport struck his fancy that night, he felt he lived a pretty good life. He’d never expected to get far from town or to make something mindblowing for himself. Instead, he just wanted to enjoy what he had for as long as he could.


“A farmer with no farm.” The words felt bitter on Oliver’s tongue, but they were all true. They still had the property, yes, but with nobody to help with the crops, they’d been forced to reduce their output to what the family themselves could handle. It was enough for them to get by on, with the best produce set aside to sell at a farmer’s market along the nearest stretch of highway, but it wouldn’t keep them afloat for long. With the chickens gone, they had no eggs. Without the cows, they had to buy milk. Expenses they’d never considered before had added up  at a hysterical rate, and they’d emerged from their bubble to find that the cost of food was only getting more expensive even though their profits did not follow the same trend.


“Could be worse.”


“Yeah? How?”


“A pilot with no plane,” Liam said. His laughter was dry, husky until he took a long pull from his bottle of beer.


“Yeah, well, I don’t think a plane’s just going to disappear.”


“Anything can disappear, man. That’s just the world we’re living in now. Nothing is safe. I don’t give a shit about those corporate shitheads at the bank who don’t want to loan money out but still want to take it away. Things are changing. People are pissed off. It’s all going to come crashing down, and when that happens, it’s the little people like you and me who are finally going to get rewarded for the shit we go through.”


Oliver took a drink of his lager and tried to process his friend’s speech. “Wait a minute. You don’t even care about politics.”


“No, but whenever people walk in here, all people want to do is bitch about the economy. I can pick up on enough to know how to talk the talk when I need to.” As though to demonstrate how suave he was, Liam a hand over his head, shaven bald to disguise the true limits of his hairline.


“That’s all well and good, but I’m still in deep shit. Unless you can use your little rallying cry to get the banks to cut us a bit of slack, we’re going to have to move. I’ve been trying to convince Lily to get a real job to pull her weight, but she’s so worried about Dad and his health all the time that she just wants to stay at home and look after her stupid flowers.”


“Didn’t she go off to college at some point? I thought she was going to be a big shot.”


Oliver wasn’t sure why the comment made him laugh, but it was a relief to be able to let these emotions out. His livelihood was so twisted with that of his family that he was rarely afforded the opportunity to escape. Even laughter was contentious. “Maybe twenty years ago she was. She just wanted to know how to help the animals around the farm. Now we don’t really have any, but I’m sure there’s a shelter or something where she could volunteer. It would at least get her out in the community.”


“But do you want her hanging out with the community?”


Lily with her hair swept back as she smiled. Lily with her top gaping as she listened to the stranger with fondness. Lily looking ready to hop into that truck and just take off anywhere but home. Lily in the garden, watering her flowers as a man looked at her like something that could be grown or bought or taken upon a whim.


“I don’t care what she does,” he said stubbornly. He knocked his knuckles on the bar to indicate that he wanted another beer, the first having seemingly vanished under his guard. “She’s not even talking to me right now.”


Rather than explain, he decided to go over to the jukebox to check out the selection even though it hadn’t changed in the past decade. Southern rock clashed with ’90s alternative to make an eclectic range featuring as much Third Eye Blind as it did Lynyrd Skynyrd. He couldn’t find anything that would provide an appropriate soundtrack to the distress he felt.


“Wait, why isn’t she talking to you? Aside from the obvious.”


Just discussing it made him feel awkward. He was thirty years old, his sister even older. All his life, he’d thought that he would be on a path to maturity so he could have a career, a wife, a kid, and a mortgage by the time he was twenty-five. Instead he felt as though he’d never really progressed beyond high school, and feeling uncomfortable about how his sister interacted with a man just solidified that feeling. If he felt this badly about not getting his life together, he could only imagine what she was going through. Of course she had to want something else more than to be trapped in that dank house forever.


Bruce Springsteen. If there was one thing that could distract his friend, it was the Boss himself and his raspy, urgent voice. “Born to Run,” maybe that was an appropriate track after all. He fed the machine his quarters and watched the disc fall into place.


“Dude, I know you are not trying to ice me out right now. You’re going to make Clarence roll in his grave by using his solo for evil. Now tell me what the hell is going on with you, or I swear I’m going to make you pay for your beer.”


It wasn’t a substantial threat, but it was all Liam had to offer. Even though he was reasonably buff with a bald head and tattoos covering his arms, he wasn’t a violent or even scary man. He had a way of making people relax without being obnoxiously cheerful or irritating. You just wanted to talk to him. In another life, he would have made a brilliant bartender in a big city in another life, if only he could actually make money.


Oliver crept back to his seat and tried to keep his mouth shut, but he knew why he’d gone to the bar in the first place. Drinking was an outlet for him, but more than that, he needed the company. He didn’t want to simply vent and bore his friend, but if he could be invited to spill his guts, well, then who could blame him for letting it all out?


“I want out,” he said as he accepted his second beer, just to have something to put his hands around. The plans all sounded surreal to him because there was nothing solid in his future. Even if he got what he wanted, he wasn’t sure where that would lead. He just had to embrace the possibility because not changing would mean death. “I never wanted to move back home. I don’t know anything about running a farm. We’re bleeding out so much money, money we don’t even have, and Dad just won’t listen to reason. It’s his age or the medicine or something. He just forgets the kind of world we’re in now. You can order organic groceries online now, for God’s sake. We can’t compete.”


“Well, nobody said you had to be a farmer. Hell, man, you’re not even tan.”


The observation made him laugh. “We’re trying to sell off the house and the land. That should square things away, most of them anyway. I could move into an apartment. Lily could do our own thing.”


“And your dad?”


The look Oliver gave him was withering, as though he had aged ten years at the thought of where to go from there. “He’s been fighting a long time. There has to be someone else to take care of him. Maybe one of his sisters. Maybe a home.” He tried not to grimace, which made his lips twist in a strange sort of smile.”I hate being selfish about this, but I haven’t lived my life in a long time. I don’t get to meet people or hang out with my friends. Hell, I can’t remember the last time I got laid. I feel like I’m going to turn around and be going through a midlife crisis because I did nothing for twenty years but babysit someone else’s dreams.”


Liam nodded, but it was clear he didn’t understand. He wanted for nothing because he could make do on nothing. His relatives were the kind looking out for him rather than the opposite. “Is it a good time to sell? I mean, I don’t know what’s going on in the news, man, but it doesn’t seem great.”


“Well, there’s this guy.” He closed his eyes in order to picture Martin. Hadn’t he looked kind when he’d shown up at their door? Sure, he wore a button-down white shirt and a pair of black slacks held up by suspenders, but at least he didn’t bother with a blazer or full suit. He wasn’t entirely genuine, but what politician was? And even if Oliver couldn’t see himself getting along with the man, he didn’t have to. All he had to do was convince him that the property was worth the price, take the money, and then never look back. But could he?


He cleared his throat and started again. “There’s this guy on city counsel who heard about what’s going on. He came by to see the place the other day, totally unexpected. Only the thing is, while he’s there, all he seems to want to check out is my sister.”


Social skills were not Liam’s forte, and he had already helped himself to a couple of beers for liquid company before Oliver had popped in the door. He could see the distress in Oliver’s slate eyes, but the laughter leaked out regardless. The more he tried to compose himself, the more he had to bend over and let it out. “I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry,” he said through tears. He had to speak to the cherry wood bar to avoid eye contact. “I’m not trying to insult your sister or anything. But her?”




“Who is it then? Some dude looking for his next mistress? I know your sister’s even more of a shut in than you are, but I don’t think it’d be a good idea for her to renew her belief in love to be the other woman.”


The teasing grated his nerves as much as it had in school, but Oliver tried to ignore it by flexing his spine and squeezing his bottle of beer just a bit more tightly. “No, he’s old. Like could be retired by now old. I don’t know what he wants with her, but the weirdest thing is the way she looked back at him. It was like they were flirting, but I didn’t think Lily even knew how to flirt. It was creepy to watch. So I told her that something was up with Dad and he’d have to come some other time.”


“What happened to your dad?”


“Nothing. Well, he doesn’t want to sell, doesn’t he? He still thinks we can fix things. Well, that he can fix them. He told me to get rid of the guy, but he’s our best hope.”


“Maybe he’ll marry your sister and give you guys a huge dowry.”


“Shut up. That’s not how a dowry works.” He remembered the way Martin had assumed that Lily was his wife and his interest when he’d batted that possibility away. Could there be something more behind the scenes? “I thought he was a little creepy. He should have been checking the whole place out, at least seeing how big the property is. Instead he was just showing Lily is big old truck.”


“I hope that’s not a metaphor.”


“Jesus, I hate you.” Oliver finished his drink and scowled. Two beers wasn’t nearly enough to feel a buzz yet, but at least his tongue was loosened a bit. “She was just leaning there, and I swear to god, she was trying to show off her tits. I think the whole thing’s creepy, but I don’t know what else we can do. The guy’s loaded. He can make our problems go away. She seemed to like him enough. What am I supposed to do?”


The look Liam gave him was a mixture of hope and pity. “If you think this is your best option to get what you want, then you just have to take the bull by the horns and go for it. However, if your old man doesn’t go along with it and hears that you’re trying to stick him in a home or pass him off like a football, he’s going to be pissed off. Plus if he’s the only one who has the deed, you might have to do something about getting it into your name first. Something to think about.”


“He’ll sign it over. He has to. We don’t have any other choice.”


“I don’t know, man. Stay in his own house, not get kicked out by his kids, cling to his shotgun and shoot anyone who tries to open the door and drag him out?” Before his friend could complain, Liam was on the case, pouring a shot of bourbon as a peace offering. “You can’t just go making those kinds of decisions for everyone. And you need to figure out what the hell you want first. If you sell your house, where are you going to go? You can’t just wait to see how much money you have and what you can afford from that. You have to get your shit together.”


The whiskey burned on the way down. It always did, no matter which kind Liam picked. Oliver was certain that it was a punishment of sorts for coming here. “I can’t figure everything out. I’m the only one trying here, and it’s hard enough to try to fix my own stupid life.”


“Well, friend, then I’d suggest you take tonight to look back on how things got so out of control. You have to figure out when you have to fight and when you should just walk away and let nature take its course. Money’s just controlling your life right now. It’s not a good look.”


“Oh, really? In that case, I could just take my money back.”


“Get the fuck out of my bar, buddy.”

National Novel Writing Month: part 1.

For the next 28 days (including today and yesterday as well), I will be driving myself crazy. November is that annual opportunity to have no time whatsoever for a life in the face of writing a novel, the beloved National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). After all, The Great Gatsby is about 50,000 words. Why can’t I fumble out 50,000 in a month? And shouldn’t at least 400 of those words be somewhat entertaining?

I don’t know about all that. But I do know that the best way to keep myself motivated is to have an audience, even if I have to force people into it. So until the end of November or when I finally admit crushing defeat, I will be posting up the very rough, unedited, and probably illogical draft of my NaNoWriMo novel. Ready? Of course not. I’m not either. But here we go!

Continue reading

Primal Music: part 20.

She didn’t know what she was doing, not really. She kept telling herself that this was the man who had broken her heart, but the rest of her body didn’t care. Bruises and emotions didn’t operate on the same level, and she had long since accepted the fact that her vulnerabilities were showing. Rather than flinch away from him, she was moving closer to take the chicken off his hands. “I got you into this,” she reminded him as she let her hand feel out the bruise. He gasped but didn’t move away from her.

“I’m not sure I’d brag about that,” he pointed out, though the sight of her body so close to him brought a cloud of distraction to his eyes.

She decided to let her body sink down on his lap as she draped her forearms against his shoulders. “You’ve stayed away for years, given me my distance. I’ve had a life that you don’t even know about. I’ve never had a problem that I couldn’t tackle because I know what it’s like to be alone. Truly alone. Somehow you gave me that. I don’t want to thank you for that, but it is what it is.”

Of course he was confused by the mixed signals, his pain and her words and the closeness of her body. They were words she’d rolled around in her head for years, considering how she might treat him if their paths had ever crossed again. Somehow her script didn’t get the response she wanted, so she just had to laugh. “I can draw a bath. I think you might catch something off that chicken if you let it thaw too long.”

“If you say so.” There was doubt in Gordon’s features, but he mercifully didn’t demand to go to the hospital instead. When he slowly coaxed off his t-shirt, his bruised side looked much more swollen than his untouched right side. He looked down at himself, then sneered and looked back at Lizzie. “Ridiculous, isn’t it?”

She thought it was unfair that he should suffer on her behalf. He was a scrawny musician, a lover rather a fighter. She hadn’t asked him to take the beating, and she hadn’t cowered behind him either. “I don’t care what other people think,” she said.

“I don’t either.”

“Well, if that’s how you feel, then you need to take off your clothes.” She saw the surprise on his face and laughed. “I’ll give you a towel, don’t worry. You don’t have clean clothes here, and I’m not letting you stay if you get into the bath fully clothed and then drip everywhere.”

He didn’t understand the request, not really, but he stripped down regardless. T-shirt was discarded, shoes and socks were pushed aside together, and jeans and pants were boxers aside. Gordon was grateful the moment he received the towel from Lizzie. With body and ego limping, he couldn’t have worn the cotton blend with more pride he had been swathed in silk.

“Let me just get the water ready for you,” she told him, but there was part of her that hoped he might take her words for an invitation. She leaned over the tub and adjusted the temperature until it was warm enough for someone to soak in without worrying about how hot it was. As though anticipating some fit of modesty, she found a bottle of bubble bath and spread it throughout the water. She could remember a time when he’d probably tease her for going through these motions, but she pushed that out of her mind. Part of her wanted to sink into the froth with him, to remember when they weren’t so fractured and confused about how to speak to each other. She didn’t know how to be anyone but his lover, not really.

“You may as well go while the water’s still warm,” she entreated him. She tried not to look at his body beyond the bruising. He was still remarkably slim for his height, and she was certain that he was more toned than he had ever been when they were a couple.

“We still haven’t had much of our talk. Not really,” he reminded her, which brought a blush to her cheeks. It seemed petty to revisit the past when the present was so fraught with tension, as she had in her mind so many times as she had tried to suss out exactly how she felt about him. She knew he was stepping into the tub the minute he groaned, but she kept her eyes on the tiles of the floor until there was a splash and he sank down. “Please stay. I might drown if I can’t get myself out of this tub.”

Even through the guilt, she laughed at him. The bathroom light was harsh, the way she liked it to better pick out all of her flaws and signs of aging. It brought out the hollowness of his cheeks and the sharp lines of his frame. Grey hairs kissed at his temples, and he had let his curls go shaggy. The years that stood between them had never been clearer. “You should’ve settled down by now,” she told him, quietly critical.

“Yeah, well, who wants to date a man who’s not even home most of the time?”

“A rock star,” she chided.

“A rock star,” he repeated, his tone mocking. “I don’t wear leather pants. I don’t have a six pack or a legendary tongue. I’m not covered in badass tattoos. I don’t even have traditional good looks. So what about me is rock star enough to make up for the fact that I’m probably on the way down rather than up?”

“You’re handsome,” she protested. “You just have to get your priorities straight. What you do isn’t going to last forever. Don’t you want to have someone to come home to?”

He smiled and let himself sink into the bubbles a bit more. He was too tall for the tub anyway, and his knees stuck up jaggedly above the waterline. “I used to have someone to come home to. But I fucked that up, and I guess I’m not very good at keeping that. I don’t know if it’s because I intrinsically believe I don’t deserve it or if I just don’t want to keep someone tied down to an unrealistic existence. Who wants to be one of those sailors’ wives, standing on the shore and looking out for the ships to come home?”

“A woman who’s in love with a sailor,” she pointed out. She saw that he still had the capacity to pity himself the same as ever, but there was something more to it. He wasn’t speaking sadly, just matter-of-factly. It was as though he had wedded his loneliness long ago.

Swallowing down her pride, she leaned over to brush the humid curls from his forehead. Just as soft as ever.  “I forgave you a long time ago, Gordon.”

If he’d wanted to keep his response subtle, the water ruined that plan. He splashed about as he turned his torso to face her in spite of the pain that it so obviously caused him. “Why?”

“You were young. I was even younger. We were trying to find our way in the world, and sometimes we just do bad things. You were the first person I ever loved. The first person to really break my heart. But we weren’t really working with each other. Every time you left, I had to build myself up and tell myself that I could be okay without you. Then you’d come back, and I’d resent you for throwing everything off in my little world. I put up walls so you couldn’t fuck up what I’d worked so hard to create for myself. We didn’t connect anymore, but I couldn’t talk to you about it because you were working so hard and finally getting somewhere. What was I compared to that?”

He pressed his lips together in a firm line, searching for an answer. “You were the girl I loved.”

“Sometimes you can’t love a person enough to avoid the bad stuff. We were drifting apart. Something was going to happen to us along the way. I was just a silly girl and thought that I could meet the love of my life when I was a teenager.”

“I don’t think that’s silly.”

“Of course you don’t. I’m the girl who got away for you. I’m the one who can inspire you to write all these songs of longing. As long as I’m not a real person to you anymore, I can be anything you want me to be. But I’m here. I exist. And I’m telling you that I think it’s okay if you move on with your life. I want you to be happy. I never wanted you to wallow and be miserable all the time. You did that well enough yourself.”

The slight still made him laugh, and the back of his hand was too wet to brush light tears from his eyes. He always had been emotional, and his blue eyes always made it easier to tell when he was about to cry. “I guess you’re right for the most part, but you’ve always been a real person to me. I don’t write those songs because I’m in love with an ideal version of you. I just look back on all the shit we went through and wonder how we lost it. I mean, we didn’t have heat, and we were happy. We still managed. Then we actually had a bit of comfort, and it all went to hell. And things have gone so well for me. I can’t think of anything more that I could even want out of the band, but I go to all these hotels that look the same and have people ask me the same questions all the time, and I’m exhausted. I’m so tired of feeling hollow because the only time I’m happy is when I’m singing about you or thinking about you or trying to put you into words. I don’t want to make myself miserable. I want to be happy. I want to be with you, or at least have you say that it’ll never happen again so I can just accept the fact that I had my shot at happiness but threw it away.”

She found herself blinking back tears because they were the words she’d never expected to hear from him. She’d chased him away, hadn’t she? It wasn’t out of a lack of love though, but instead because she feared she would always forgive him for what he had done to her. She hated that he’d cheated, but she also felt that there may have been some reason she had driven him to do that. Too many doubts had raged in her mind and tormented her, and if she had taken him back, she knew she would have just been waiting for the next indiscretion, the next fight. It took all the strength she had, but she whispered, “I don’t even know you anymore.”

He took in the words and nodded. “My name’s Gordon, and I’m in a band,” he told her. She could still remember how he’d stood in the bathroom back then, embarrassed and angry and hopeful all at once. There wasn’t much of a gap between that boy and this man, even if he was soaking up to his chest in bubble bath. “I had everything, but I didn’t realize it. I had the girl, the career, the success. I guess I’ve been running from myself for years, really throwing myself into my work. I think I’m a normal guy. I like hockey. I like watching movies, especially comedies, and my favorite ever franchise is Star Wars. I laugh until I cry when I watch ‘The Simpsons.’ I’m not home a whole lot, but when I am, I try to cook because I think it’s a good habit to have. I really don’t like going to the gym, but I know I’m not twenty anymore. I took up swimming because I overthink. I still overthink, but I can hold my breath a long time.” He took a deep breath, but she didn’t answer, so he decided to keep going. “I want to write a screenplay one day, or maybe a novel. I’ve a few—“

That was enough for her. She gripped the edge of the tub as she leaned over to kiss him. She was cautious because of his tender nose, and she could taste the rust of his blood still on his skin. Still, she didn’t flinch away. He eased into her touch, surprised, shocked, then feverishly trying to cling to the moment before it was taken from him forever. Her calves shook from bending down next to him, but she kissed him until her lungs were pounding out their protest within her. “I thought you wanted to get a swimming pool filled with topless models and be a big fucking star,” she reminded him.

“Well, plans changed.” A big, dopey grin took over his features, and he leaned back in the water to try to catch his breath. “I guess I’ve grown up a little. Not completely, but a bit.” He licked his lip, and she wondered if he could taste the traces of her there. “Why did you kiss me though?”

“I thought it might help me figure something out.”

“And did it?”

There were any number of words she could have used to reassure him, but instead she coaxed her blouse over her head. She feared he could see how short her breaths were, but she had to keep telling herself that things would be okay. This is my choice. This is on my terms. I want to be happy and think that he can make me happy.

He sat up straighter in the water, but she held a finger up to indicate that he just needed to relax. A zip and a shimmy, and her pencil skirt was left in a pool on the floor. There was no need to hide her body because he had seen every inch of her. She’d acquired tattoos in the past few years, small marking that would help her remember while others were intended to signify how she was moving on. His eyes could have gravitated to those inkings, but instead he was watching her face, her eyes.

“Since you, I’ve been chasing men who’d break my heart.” Maybe they weren’t words that he wanted to hear, but she knew that he had to know the truth. “Men who hit me, men who drink too much, men who don’t seem to remember that I exist. Because I think that I can fix them. And if I could fix them, then I could fix you and finally get back to you, because you made me so happy when things were at their best. I never fixed any of them though. I just hurt myself. And I shut down parts of myself so I could stop feeling those awful things, so nobody could get to me.

“Then I saw you, and I told myself not to feel anything. Not to think anything. I’d hear you out, and that would be all. Then you had to go and get hurt, and that scares the hell out of me. I can’t just keep pretending that because I’ve worked so hard and taken care of myself, nobody can touch me or deserve me. If you hadn’t been here tonight, I don’t know what that man would’ve done. Maybe I wouldn’t have seen him at all. Maybe I would’ve done the same thing I did. But maybe I would have taken it.”

“You can’t worry about that,” he murmured. “You can regret anything you want, I can’t stop you, but it’s not going to change what happened. The past shouldn’t stop anybody from living.”

She sniffed and nodded. “I haven’t felt alive in a long time. I guess that’s the price of keeping it together. You just crush everything down and tell yourself that that’s okay, but it’s just getting by. I want to feel anything. Even if it hurts.”

“I hope it won’t though.”

Her skin felt like it was burning as she unhooked her bra and let it drop to the floor. She wiggled from her underwear and didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to know if he was watching or if he was still behaving as far as his gaze was concerned. “I have to tell you something though. Something that’s going to hurt you.”

It seemed ridiculous for the two of them to fold up into the tub when there was barely room for him, but she had to close the gap between them. She stepped into the water and was grateful that it was still hot enough to scald. How he withstood it, she didn’t know, but maybe they were both keen on punishing themselves still. He bent his knees and pulled them closer to his chest, and she encouraged his legs to part so she could settle between them. She couldn’t have him looking at her through this, so she turned to rest her back against his chest.

For a moment, his body tensed, and this his arms circled around her. Even if they weren’t entirely certain how to handle themselves, their bodies hadn’t entirely forgotten how to interact. “Maybe if you tell it like a story, it won’t hurt so much,” he suggested, his lips so close to her ear that she shivered in spite of the temperature of the bath.

She let her hands rest on his. It would be silly to try to draw strength from him, but she just wanted to steady herself and remember what it was like to be able to rely on another person. “Once there was a girl. All this girl ever wanted was to be better. She didn’t know what that meant, not really, but she wanted to be more than she was. So she learned how to dress and make herself up and talk and strut like the woman she’d soon be. This girl met a man and convinced him she was a woman, at least for a little while. And so when she did become old enough, she decided she would find him and see what happened.

“The man was very busy, but he loved the girl, and she loved him. They spent years together, but they were also years spent apart, and it was too much for them. The girl grew distant and didn’t pay attention to the man’s needs. The man misread her. The man felt alone, and he found solace in someone else’s arms.”

Her fingers tightened against him, fingernails finding purchase. She didn’t mean to hurt him, but she was afraid he would draw away before she could finish speaking. “So the girl left. She fled home with her tail between her legs because she didn’t know where else to go. She went to stay with her mother because she’d been living with her father before, and it just didn’t seem right to go there again. Plus her father liked the man too much. Her mom, she’d always been a bit of a tough man-hater.”

Gordon laughed quietly in her ear at the memory of his few awkward interactions with Lizzie’s mother, and she wished that he would stay that relaxed as long as she spoke. “She was starting to feel sluggish and out of sorts. She figured she was just depressed. She tried to get out into the city, make new friends, get a job, that sort of thing, but there was still something off. So her mom made her take a test, which was silly because she didn’t see how it was possible. But it was positive.”

The tears came then, but she refused to wipe them away.  There was no way that she could carry on pretending it hadn’t happened to her. “I didn’t know what to do. I was so young, I’d barely gotten a new job, I couldn’t afford to take time off or even figure out how to raise a kid. I wanted to go back to you, but Mom wouldn’t hear of it. I didn’t tell her what you’d done, just that we’d had a big fight and weren’t going to make it up because we were such different people, and she already had a couple of divorces under her belt. She didn’t think that a kid would be the thing that could make you and me make sense. And I was living under her roof, so I had to do what she wanted me to do or else she’d kick me out. So she made me, she made me—”

“No.” Still, when he moaned the word, she was certain that she didn’t have to tell him. It was clear from their night already that there was no small child sleeping in the bedroom, waiting for her to come home.

“I wanted to tell you so badly. I tried to call you, but you were off touring or something. I couldn’t get through, and then I just kept putting it off. After the ab—the procedure, I didn’t think I could tell you. I thought that I’d betrayed you so horribly that you’d never forgive me, so what was the point? You’d hurt me, but God, I really threw something away that was us. And I couldn’t stand that. So I went to work. I became obsessed with saving up. In a couple of months, I had enough that I could move out, and I came here, back to the city. I haven’t talked to my mom much since then because it just hurts too much. I don’t know if I’m angrier at her for the suggestion or at myself for being weak and listening to her because it was the easy way out.

“But I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t done it, but I don’t know how we could have a baby together. But with your life the way it is, how could we bring a child into that? You were making enough money though. I could’ve quit my job. We could’ve been with you and been a family. And there was nobody I could talk to about it, nobody I could tell because they wouldn’t understand what happened to us or why I did what I did.”

He was quiet behind her, and she didn’t know what to make of it. Her cheeks were burning with pooled blood, and she felt that she’d made a huge mistake. She’d let it lie too long, had made him come all this way and wait hours just to find out that he didn’t know the full story of what had happened between them. All those years of flogging himself for his one indiscretion had been for what? She hadn’t always rejected him, not really. She would have spoken to him, but she had kept her distance in order to mourn for the both of them.

She put her hands on the tub and tried to stand. She had to get away from him and hide in bed until he left. The shame of their past was too heavy for her to endure. But as she tried to pull herself up, his arms were still firm around her, this time coaxing her to sink back against him. “You can’t leave me now,” he said firmly. She could hear the tears in his voice, feel his chest struggling as he tried to keep from breaking down when she already felt like she’d ruined them before they could begin again. “Stay. Just stay.”

She didn’t know what else she had left to offer him, so she listened. This time, she stayed.

Primal Music: part 19.

His hands gripped the railing firmly, and he struggled to hobble up the first step, one foot at a time. “Does that happen every night when you come home?” he asked. He always had tried to summon humor to deflect.

“Are you okay, Gordon? I’m so sorry. I should have warned you it’s a bit rough around here. The neighborhood’s changed the last few years. Honestly, I’ve never had a problem on my own. I don’t know—”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry.” His features spoke a different story though. He was already firmly into his mid-thirties, and a year seemed to be added to his face with each step as he fought against the pain to close the gap between them. “He was taking a swing at you. I grabbed his fist, but I forgot he had two. Fortunately I blocked him with my face.”

His nose. It was bleeding. After cutting the man, she hadn’t even noticed because her heart was hammering too hard, her mind trying to anticipate every possible scenario. There was still blood on her keys. The sight made her stomach turn, and she nearly sprinted to her door so she could get inside and feel safe again. “Please hurry, Gordon,” she called out to him as she went for the sink. “The sooner you get in here, the sooner you can relax.”

She threw the keys in the basin and ran the water hot. There was a flashlight on her key chain, but fuck it. She could buy another. What mattered was squeezing some orange liquid dish soap between her hands and scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing. Bile rose in her throat, but she choked it back down. She didn’t feel brave anymore, just disgusted and terrified because someone dangerous knew where she lived and had a reason to resent her.

She should have telephoned the police, but she knew it was a lost cause. The man would be long gone by the time the NYPD arrived, and a case like this wouldn’t matter enough to them to chase. She’d just be another lost slip of paperwork.

When her hands were clean to the point of aching, she ran to get a washcloth to wet. Gordon finally slipped inside and slammed the door behind him, then leaned heavily against the wooden paneling. “Nice place you have here,” he panted as he rested his head back.

“No, you’re supposed to lean forward. Do you want to fucking drown yourself?” she asked as she handed him the cloth. “Don’t worry about staining that. Just tilt your head down and let it drain. Apply pressure. Go sit down.”

“Yes, Mom,” he answered dryly, but she could see that he was grateful. He wiped at the blood on his face and then held the rag to his nose as he shuffled toward the couch. It was covered in silly things, dresses and magazines and bags of shopping that she hadn’t gotten around to putting away yet. She whizzed over to clear some space for him but he just sank down in an empty chair. “Remind me not to piss you off like that. I mean, I’ve pissed you off pretty badly, but Jesus Christ. Did you take up martial arts or something?”

She flushed because she didn’t want to admit what had set her off. “We should get you some ice or a hot compress or something. I don’t know what to do. He kicked you, right? Was it in the ribs?”

He didn’t answer, too busy nursing himself already, so she unzipped his hooded sweatshirt and peeled up the dark blue t-shirt underneath. Even in the dim light from the attached kitchen, she thought she could see a heavy bruise forming on his left side. As though he could feel her gaze on him, he twisted away until she had to let the shirt drop back into place. “Good thing he didn’t aim for the liver. I would’ve been a goner.”

“Gordon, be serious. What if he broke one of your ribs?”

“Then nothing can be done for it. I’ve cracked a rib before. Playing a video game, no less.”

“You didn’t.”

“You should’ve seen the other guy.” He did his best to smile for her, but with the material pressed to his nose, she had to go by the way his eyes creased in the corners. “I have to admit, this is not the way I envisioned my knight in shining armor moment.”

“Well, you certainly were one, what with the way your body took the beating.” She gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze and crouched by his knees so she wouldn’t hover or pace. “Is there anything I can get you to make you feel better? Or do you want to take a hot bath and soak? I’m really sorry about this. I can’t believe it, I really can’t.”

He chuckled quietly, but the sound tapered off into a groan. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts. I just want to sit for a while. And if you have a bag of frozen peas or something, I think that would be fantastic.”

She wasn’t sure how much food she had in the apartment since she embrace the Manhattan lifestyle of using her oven for storage rather than cooking. Still, she rummaged through the freezer and was rewarded with some small piece of chicken that had been encrusted in enough ice to render it jagged. His shirt would at least provide enough of a buffer to make it tolerably cold against his ribs. “It’s no homecooked meal, but I hope it’s okay,” she told him as she held out the frosty piece of meat.

He raised an eye at the chicken but still set it gently against his side. “For all I know, that was a thug you hired to keep me away from your home.”

“I wouldn’t have keyed him if he was one of mine.”

“Maybe you just wanted to rescue me.”

“Well then, mission accomplished.” The adrenaline rush had faded away from her system, and she wanted nothing more than to go to bed to relax. Of course she couldn’t do that while he was still wincing and trying to mend his wounds. “Let’s see your nose then.”

When he pulled the cloth from his face, the bleeding had stopped, but there were still dried flecks of blood clinging to his nostrils. “Probably a less attractive sight than I was an hour ago,” he stated knowingly.

“I never said you were attractive then,” she reminded him. Still, cringing, she took the washcloth from him and took it to the sink so she could rinse it out. She tried not to think about how much blood had been washed down her drain that night as she offered the ruined rag to him again. “Here, clean yourself off.”

He dabbed at his nose but seemed reluctant. “So, what happens next? You kick me out as soon as I feel better, and that’s that?”

“No, of course not.” Color flooded her cheeks because she was trying to figure out how he could spend the night and sleep on her lumpy, budget Ikea couch. It wasn’t a comfortable piece of furniture, and it seemed cruel to subject him to a night in her messy living room with his bruised side. “Do you need a shower or bath or something?” she asked him. After a thick pause, she added, “I can help.”

He looked down at the spot where the chicken cutlet had begun to leave a wet patch on his shirt. “I suppose I could use a tiny bit of help,” he admitted.

Primal Music: part 18.

He gave her a cautious look, as though trying to read exactly what she was suggesting. She really didn’t know herself. To sit and dig up the past with him in public felt too revealing, and there was always a minor chance that someone might recognize him and make a big deal out of things. There were few options for where they could really be alone though, and she understood the consequences of opening her life to him again. Maybe he got that as well. “Well, I did fly across the country to see you, so catching up would be…lovely..”

“Lovely.” She wasn’t sure that was the word she’d use for it. But maybe there was potential. Or maybe she shouldn’t find forgiveness within herself. She didn’t even really know this man, just the segment of their histories that had overlapped. What she knew—what she thought she knew—was that there must be some piece of him that still loved her if he still wrote about her.

Outside, he began blindly walking down the sidewalk, and she had to grab his arm to steer him in the direction of her apartment. Maybe it was the dangerous choice to take him there, but she didn’t feel comfortable with anything else. There were enough rooms that she could keep doors closed and retain her privacy, she reasoned. They’d shared every intimate detail of their lives, so why should this be really difficult? She could always cast him out into the street. Wouldn’t be the first time.

“So, I read what you said about me in that article.” As he walked, he tucked his hands into his pockets. The jeans were a much tighter cut than he used to wear, and she could tell that he wasn’t used to the fashion by the way his fingers could barely wiggle their way in. “You were way too gracious, you know.”

“Why?” She watched him curiously, wondering if he was trying to get an explanation out of her. Surely he wouldn’t go so far out of his way just to pick her mind. That’s what phones were for.  “I mean, the guy asked plenty of questions, but it’s not like I feel like airing that sort of business in public. My family liked you too much. I wasn’t going to tell the entire world that the song they dance to at weddings is about some bitch who couldn’t bother to give her boyfriend attention on Valentine’s Day.”

“You’re not that.” Even as he spoke, it was clear he knew that that was what had driven him to cheat. His Adam’s apple bobbed, but he found his words quicker than she expected. “You were right, you know. To leave me for what I did. It doesn’t matter what I thought you had or hadn’t done, it was still wrong of me to react like that.”

“Gordon. You don’t have to apologize now. It’s a bit late for that. It was a long time ago.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“That doesn’t make it relevant. You were the first man I ever loved, you know? And you broke my heart when you did that, but you taught me a lot about the world. That was when I had to land on my feet and support myself. I could thank you for doing it because I went straight from living with my parents to living with you. I never learned how to be on my own.”

“And then you went straight back to your parents?”

“For a while. Until I could afford to come back here and get my own place. I was used to working hard, so it didn’t take me very long to save up for that.” She smiled so he’d know that it wasn’t a go at him for relying on her money for so long. She fumbled through her purse so she could get a cigarette. It was best to have her hands and mouth as busy as possible so she wouldn’t focus so much on him. “Dad loves the song, by the way. Says I was crazy to leave you.”

A bit of color entered his cheeks. Good, she thought. Keeping him on his toes was all she had when he was used to wheeling and dealing. “What did you think of it though?”

“When I first heard it? I don’t know. It’s not like there’s anything in it that identifies a specific girl. And it’s been half a decade. Who knows how many women you could’ve been with in the meantime.” The dig was slight, but she couldn’t help jabbing at him just a little. It was a defense she was used to employing to keep herself from getting hurt these days. “I had my suspicions. You were always the sentimental sort, especially about things that you didn’t have anymore. It would be just like you to feel sorry enough for yourself to tell the entire world how contrite you were through a song.”

“It wasn’t about that. It was just about…” He trailed off and tugged at his ear. The nervous habit still drove her crazy, and she grabbed his hand to make him stop. If this was the way he was going to be through the conversation, then he’d be short a lobe before they made any progress at all. “It was about remembering the good times that we had together. I couldn’t give you a future, but I guess I could do something with the past.”

Her fingers were still around his wrist, and she remembered what it was like to have her palm to his, how safe she felt when his rough calluses closed around her smooth skin. “Did you think that maybe it would be a bit painful for me to hear that? Like you were guilting me after all those years had passed and I was just trying to move on with my life after you hurt me so badly?”

“No. I don’t really stop to think about songs being anything but therapeutic. Did it hurt you?”

“No. I thought it was sweet.” Seeing the panic rise up within him had been enough. He was all too wrapped around her fingers anymore. Was it his way of atoning, or was he just in love with the girl he thought had gotten away from him forever?

She briefly considered kissing him on the cheek in appreciation for the way he was behaving. This wasn’t the Gordon she remembered but one who had regressed even further back than his indiscretions, one who was a shy teenager again. At least one of them had gone through that phase.

But no. There was the front door to unlock, the apartment to think about, the bare cupboards to worry over in case he hadn’t bothered to eat before looking her up. Politely, he hovered behind her so she could lead the way up the stairs.

There was the jingle of another set of keys behind her. No doubt one of the younger tenants was impatient to get inside to dabble in some sort of drug use.  She wasn’t entirely proud of where she lived, but it wasn’t with a roommate or with her parents, so she counted herself lucky. “Just keep it in your pants for five more seconds and we’ll be inside,” she grumbled.

She didn’t hear the blow, not really. One second she was trying to turn her key, and the next someone shoved her up against the front door. She couldn’t shout out because she was too confused, too surprised that her arm was suddenly twisted back. A cry of pain behind her, and she was knocked against the metal door again, this by a much heavier body.

Gordon was saying something as he tried to get up, but with the way he groaned and abandoned his sentence, she knew that he’d been kicked in the stomach. Fear shot through her body, but there was more to it than that. She had brought him here and was responsible for this, whatever was happening. If she were the only one to be attacked, then she might have been paralyzed by fear. With Gordon, guilt and protectiveness made her whirl around with her keys, lashing out at the first bit of skin she could find.

The metal slashed against a young man’s face. She pushed hard with the jagged edge and felt skin give, leaving a raw, angry cut upon the sunken cheek of the junkie. “You stupid cunt!” the man shouted, reaching for his pocket.

She was quicker as she dug into her purse. She knew she had mace–it was unreasonable to live alone in a neighborhood like this without it–but the first thing her fingers closed around was a travel can of hairspray. With shaking hands, she tore off the cap and pointed the nozzle at the stranger.

The mist blasted into the cut. The man howled in pain. He reached out for her, but she aimed for one eye, then the other. She didn’t know where this boldness came from. She just knew that if he touched her, he could hurt her in ways she couldn’t even imagine. She wasn’t about to let that happen. She wasn’t going to let this asshole ruin the life she’d built for herself. So maybe it wasn’t necessary to swing her heavy purse to hit him in the testicles, but well, she was angry.

The man slouched down to the ground, howling and cursing. She was thinking about the advantages of a well-placed kick from a stiletto when she felt a hand at her elbow. She was ready to land her next blow, but then Gordon’s grimace came into view. “Come on, we should call the police,” he told her. When he stepped back to the door, she noticed just how slowly he was moving.

She squeezed past him and stood in the front hall. He was barely in before she closed and locked the heavy door. “I’m just up on the second floor.” She started to hurry up the stairs, fueled by adrenaline and a fear that the man outside lived in the building and could get inside as soon as he recovered his wits. She was to the first landing when she noticed that Gordon wasn’t directly behind her.

Primal Music: part 17.

Going back to working behind the bar hadn’t been Lizzie’s ideal path in life, but affording an apartment alone after a messy divorce made certain actions necessary.  Jumping in and out of love so quickly had left her bank account desperate for a quick infusion of cash. Besides, lending a hand on the crippling nights of the weekend meant that she didn’t have to field so many questions from her friends about why she hadn’t met another man, why she wasn’t going to go clubbing with them, why she hadn’t moved on from that idiot who had been stupid enough to cheat on her so many years ago. She could just roll her eyes and remind them that she had work, she had bills to pay, and she liked her independence. She almost had herself convinced that her excuses were founded.

The End of the Road really wasn’t so bad as far as bars went. It was in a decent enough part of town, and the Christmas lights extended like vines along the edge of the ceiling to give it a warm, comforting feel. The regulars were mostly cozy older couples who liked to have a night out and younger men who liked a lot of beer with a few chicken wings but still remembered to offer a tip after spending a few hours asking her why there wasn’t already a rock on her ring finger. It was the least they could do after drudging up the painful memories.

The Olympics were around the corner, and the expensive flat screen televisions were constantly going on about all of the preparations that were being made in London. Her heart ached as she thought of the big city and what she could have made of herself if only she’d had the guts to just start her life across the ocean, when there had been fewer obligations and prying eyes. She could have danced, learned a craft of some kind, become a baker, opened her own shop, become a different woman entirely. It was a fancy that she knew she would never have the opportunity to indulge. Living away from her parents was more than most of her school friends could brag about, and she knew she ought to be grateful.

She scowled when she felt her phone vibrating in her pocket. Most of the time she didn’t bother to answer calls when she was working the bar, but Sundays tended to just bring out a moderate drinking crowd. She recognized the journalist’s number and considered ignoring his call. The man from the magazine had turned up at the bar some weeks before, already fully aware of who she was and what role she had accidentally played in pop history. She’d tried to deny the story, especially since she hadn’t reverted back to her maiden name yet. Stuart pushed on undeterred and revealed that his source was none other than Keith, her incidental nemesis who apparently still harbored no small bit of ill will towards her. To him, it had seemed like fitting revenge to employ a bit of Google detective work to figure out where she was and what she was doing with her life after Gordon.

“You’ve already gone to print. What else could you possibly want?” she snapped at her phone. A hello was far too civilized for a man like that, especially when she was back to her Rust Belt roots.

There was a crackle on the other end of the line, and she imagined that it was the man clearing his throat because he hadn’t expected to be greeted so aggressively. “Well, I’m actually calling on a friend’s behalf,” he explained.

“And what would any friend of yours possibly want to do with me?”

“Well. Say that there’s someone who wanted to know how you were doing. Someone who wanted to catch up with you after years of being apart. Say this person asked me to have your phone number. What do you think I ought to say to that person?”

There was a stool by the corner of the bar that Lizzie sat on when things were slow or when she had to give her feet a break from the high heels she treasured. One of her palms found the seat, and she turned her back to the few patrons in the bar. She didn’t want to be asked if she was okay.

But she had to be strong. She’d gotten along on her own for so long and didn’t need to fall down that sensitive path again just because he became interested. She’d bent to his will too long until she suddenly hadn’t. She hadn’t discovered her spine just to offer it back up to him again for his happiness. “I’d tell that person that he’s had years to try to look me up and that I’m really not all that difficult to find since you obviously managed it, so he can just do it for himself.”

“I thought you might say something like that.”

She gasped and nearly dropped her phone. The voice hadn’t come from the device. It was behind her, at the bar, where she wasn’t looking because she’d been too busy trying to appear calm. She didn’t know what to expect when she turned around, except it had been too difficult for her to avoid his face over the years. Age had treated him well, giving his features a certain ruggedness that suited him. Laugh lines creased his face when he smiled as brightly as ever, and his dark hair had lightened to grey around his temples. His skin was a bit tanner than she remembered, but he was still the boy in hopelessly garish t-shirts and jeans, with his endless series of hoodies just baggy enough to emphasize how thin he was.

She hung up on the journalist without a second thought and turned around to see him looking just as he did in his photos, with his curly hair askew and dark blue eyes wide, searching for any reaction flickering across her face. She wasn’t sure what her body was telling him, but she didn’t want to seem too desperate—or not gracious enough. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked, trying not to be rocked back by the familiarity of seeing him across the bar like this.

He smiled shyly, wrinkles appearing around his eyes, and she thought it was a shame that she hadn’t been there in the time it had taken those grooves to form. “I’ve made it before final call then? Excellent. How’s your pour of Guinness?”

“Absolutely terrible. You want Guinness, go to a themed pub. I’ll just overflow the pint and then let it settle. It’s a bit early for drinking, but I suppose it’s worth it to have a local microbrew.” She checked the taps and found a stout that would be acceptable to his tastes, if they hadn’t changed.

“Does it come for free if it’s bad?”

“It’ll come free anyway. I hear that musicians gets their drinks comped.”

“I didn’t realize the policy extended to this establishment. Cheers.” He shifted around a bit in his seat, one of his telltale signs that he wasn’t saying what he was thinking. She could still see through him after years, a fact that she found reassuring and frustrating at once. “I can’t get over how gorgeous you look,” he said quietly.

She would have smacked him on the shoulder and yelled at him to stop if he hadn’t been her client, but under the circumstances, it probably would have been weird. In bartending mode, she was all flirtation and tolerance. “Did you expect me to wilt up and die in five years’ time then?”

She could see that his tongue was immediately twisted because she’d reduced his compliment to dust. Good. Let the songwriter have a bit of difficulty finding the words. It gave her time to think about a drink herself. She probably wouldn’t have bothered, but she hadn’t had time to prepare herself for this moment. She set out two glasses, filling them with Jameson. She knew he wouldn’t turn that down. “This is the last free drink you’ll get here,” she warned as she downed the whiskey. Proper nostalgia would have called for tequila, but she didn’t want to wallow that much.

“Cheers again then,” he said as he tapped his shot glass against hers, even though she’d already emptied it. His shot disappeared, though he seemed more interested in holding his pint than actually drinking it. “I always thought it would have been harder to find you after all these years. That things would have changed more.”

“Well, I tried to get married and move on, but the universe had other plans for me,” she said quietly. “Maybe I was always meant to be stuck helping other people drink away their cares. Escaped fate for a while, but then I ended up back here all the same.”

“I don’t believe in fate.” His tone was surprisingly firm, but she wasn’t surprised. This was a man who had worked his way up from the worst possible shows to topping the charts around the world. Some of it had been blind luck, but effort had been the driving force behind his band’s success. “So when you say you tried to get married, you mean…”

“I mean I managed to get married. It’s the staying married part that I wasn’t so good at.” Her memory went back briefly to the man she’d thought she could settle for. He’d been a bit of a gym rat, toned and tanned and a masculine man about town. He was the banking sort, the complete opposite of Gordon, and not the sort of man who would ever talk about his emotions or ever make her feel so mixed up again. “He liked his drink and his poker nights with his friends. I waited up for him once. I guess you could say that I grew into a jealous streak and didn’t necessarily believe that cards were keeping him out every Friday night. He gave me a black eye for that concern, and I gave him papers.”

Guilt had flickered across his features briefly, no doubt blaming himself for her paranoia, but then there was nothing but alarm for her well-being. “I really don’t know what to say about that,” he admitted.

“You don’t have to say anything about it. He’s in the past. And you were too, until you stuck your big nose in my business. Now, get stuck in to your pint. I’m going to get ready to get out of here, and I’ll be insulted if you don’t drink that down.”

“You know my favorite drink has always been a free one.”

“Some people never change.”

“Everyone changes,” he protested. It was just like him to do that.

She brushed him off as she grabbed her purse and headed for the bathroom. Briefly she wondered if this really would be a repeat of their first meeting, if he would follow her inside and make it impossible for her to ignore him. The young, idealistic part of her was hoping for it; the realistic divorcee within her made her lock the door securely behind her. This was the time to check makeup and send panicked texts to her friends, not to indulge in residual fantasies involving the man who had just walked into her life. The man who had been just the first of many to cheat on her, she reminded herself bitterly. No amount of mascara was going to change that fact.

She didn’t know if she’d spent too much time in the bathroom when she returned to find him at the bottom of his pint glass, but she didn’t mind. It just meant that they would have less time to kill in public like this, awkward and anxious. “Right then, Andy’ll handle the rest of the night, so I’m free. Do you want to go somewhere we can talk?”

Primal Music: part 16.

“Is this really necessary?”

“Just be civil and have dinner with this guy. It’s not too much to ask.” Tanya had her eyes on her cell phone rather than Gordon. As a band manager, she was used to fielding complaints that tended to center on comfort levels rather than actual needs. She knew the bare minimum obligations that her clients had to meet, and she tried to push them slightly above that target. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. She turned her dark eyes on Gordon and brushed a few graying curls behind his right ear. “You know I love you, but you can be a real prick when you want to be.”

“Maybe I want to be a prick now.”

“That’s not news that’s fit to print. You know it’s already all over the Internet.”

He had much more of a reputation for being boring and awkward rather than a diva, but staying that newspaper shade of off-white took a great deal of effort. “Get out of here before I change my mind. I’m the frontman. I can do these things,” he deadpanned as his manager popped up and walked away. He noticed the way she tapped a man on the shoulder, and he prepared himself for the approach. Of course this hadn’t been left to chance. The reporter had been waiting on the opening, probably before his subject had even arrived at the restaurant.

“Gordon. Hi.” The man was a bit older than Gordon, with his gut beginning to retain the signs of a life well lived. His light hair was cropped short, pale green eyes making steady contact as he held his hand out for a shake. “Stuart. I’m with Pulse Magazine.”

“Right. Of course.” Gordon paid attention to exactly none of these details, but even if he had, chances are he would not have retained them. Making music was becoming a smaller fraction of being a musician by the day. So much of his time was spent answering the same questions for strangers who didn’t do basic research. It was better that he didn’t even bother to focus on it. If he did, he’d feel like a zoo exhibit rather than a man. “Well, Stuart, I’m going to just order myself a cup of coffee, not because I’m hungover but because I’m a bit scattered. Once that’s in front of me, you can feel free to take whatever potshots you have up your sleeves.”

For once, this seemed to be an amicable session. The first few questions were about the band’s current status, upcoming promotion, the usual. Stuart had nosed around well enough not to ask about the new album’s sound or inspiration, why they’d decided to record in London, and Gordon found himself grateful. Now past thirty, he found himself in the position of being precariously famous. His biggest work was behind him, a couple of singles that had been popular around the world with a couple less-successful albums following that, but the band still had name recognition and selling power.

“In spite of all you’ve done in the past few years, you’re still known for a song that came out five years ago,” Stuart ventured, as though he could read Gordon’s thoughts. Most people didn’t try to get under his skin like that, but he felt sardonic respect for how different that was.

“Most bands out there never get their one song, you know?” he said as he stirred milk into his coffee. He knew the other man was studying him and his reaction, and he wanted to appear casual. “We’re grateful for it. Do I think it’s our best song? Of course not, but it’s helped so many people. We hear so many stories from fans about what it means to them. It’s almost not ours anymore. It’s like the friend you’ve known for years who introduces you to other people.”

“But that song came with a price, didn’t it?”

“Five bucks at Walmart. You got in on that deal too?”

The journalist forced a laugh  and flipped through his notes. The fact that he had pages dedicated to Gordon’s life unnerved him, but there was no point to getting nervous about it. To try to think of the man’s next step would be his downfall, so he watched those nimble fingers skim and smudge his own words. “You almost didn’t make it though, did you? Losing your bassist and your girlfriend at the same time, that must’ve been absolutely devastating.”

He didn’t notice that he’d let go of the spoon until it bounced off the lip of the table and took the plunge toward the carpeted floor. “Fucking clumsy,” he murmured as he leaned down to pick it up. His heart was already racing in his ears, and his head felt too heavy for him to rise again. How had this man heard? Who had told him? His love life had never been interesting enough to make the gossip rags because he never dated anyone famous (and, really, he’d never been convinced he was handsome or rich enough anyway).  He wanted to take a deep breath, but there was really only so long a man could stay bent over to retrieve a spoon. “Where were we then?” he asked chipperly as he set the silverware back on the table.

“I was asking you about what it was like to cut ties with Keith and to be left by Lizzie.”

He had her name. Nobody had even mentioned her aloud to him in years, and he felt the blood drain from his face. He knew Stuart would have a field day describing the transformation. “Please don’t mention her by name,” he said weakly. “When you write this up. We went through enough together. I don’t know how you got her name, but I don’t think she’d want people knowing that she’s spawned a song that…” Had been on soundtracks and in commercials? Had dominated the airwaves?  Had been covered countless times on shitty talent search shows? “…is so ubiquitous.”

“Oh, of course I’d not do that. I’m here to capture the truth, not ruin lives. I’ve decided to describe her as—“ Stuart cleared his throat and sat up a bit straighter to refine his diction as he quoted himself. “—‘a rare beauty, with a petite figure, olive skin, and chocolate eyes that are as sympathetic as they are analytical. One moment she’s a doe, and the next a tigress. Nothing escapes her.’”

“That sounds familiar, yes.” By those words, he knew that he had to have found her. Nobody could make those details up over the phone.  “You spoke to her?”

“You’re actually the last person for my feature. I’ve covered your bandmates, old friends in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Keith, and then Lizzie.”

He knew realistically that he ought to show interest in the other people that factored into the article. People from New York might feel betrayed by how he had defected to the West Coast when success came calling, and Keith was surely ready to spit whatever venom it took to get his lawsuit settled and a big, fat check in his hand.

But here was the first person in years who had talked to Lizzie directly about him. He’d thought about calling so many times, but he never had the right words. He’d apologized, pleaded, bargained, shouted when they’d broken up, and none of that had worked. What else was there to pass between them? She wasn’t likely to forget how it felt to be cheated on, and to tell the world about that would certainly sour all of the romance of his biggest hit. Which he felt he probably deserved since it was likely only embarrassing to her.

His fingers made his coffee-stained cup rattle against its mahogany table. At this rate, he’d be flinging everything onto the floor and conducting the interview while sitting on the carpet. “So, how is she?”

“She’s getting on well, I suppose. Wasn’t all that keen on talking to me, if you could believe that. She had nothing but good things to say about you though.” Stuart didn’t disguise his surprise as he sipped at his own coffee, the very picture of composure. “With how highly she speaks of you, it really is a wonder you’re not together anymore. Time and circumstance though. At least, that’s what she made it out to be.”

Primal Music: part 15.

On the nights when Gordon was away on tour, Lizzie preferred wearing his t-shirts to bed because they still smelled like him. He would occasionally complain when she kept one of his favorites, the ones from his favorite bands of the moment, but he would eventually give in because she patiently pointed out to him that she filled them out much better than he ever could. So when she came home from work and he wasn’t there, she decided that she would surprise him by wearing his Talking Heads shirt and nothing else. He’d often gone on and on about them, something about David Byrne and legends. She’d never really paid attention, but she wished she had.

The hours slipped by. The wine she’d chilled had started to sweat all over the kitchen counter, so she gave in to uncorking the bottle and pouring herself a glass, just one to taste it. It was too sweet, and she knew it wouldn’t be to his liking. She liked it though. Didn’t her needs count for something?

At ten, she was too drunk to cook but too embarrassed to order food. She rummaged through the fridge and found some cheese to pair with bread. She giggled to herself about how positively French it was. Maybe next year they could spend the day in Paris if he wasn’t busy. That would keep him from forgetting the most romantic day of the year. And really, it didn’t matter that this happened to be that day specifically, just that they did something nice to celebrate the years that they’d spent together. She didn’t want to end up in a rut, and maybe she’d been overly harsh in chasing him away earlier in the day. He’d just wanted to do something nice for her, and he’d had a rough time with his own job, so to speak. They just had to remember why they were together as a couple in the first place.

By midnight, she was worried, but she forced herself to brush her teeth to get the lingering taste of the wine off her tongue. She settled on the couch, her head turned to the door as she queued up one of her favorite programs. It would figure that he would walk through the door the minute she gave into the impulse to watch her soaps. But neighbors argued, relatives betrayed one another and cried, and the lock stayed firmly engaged.

She woke with a start when the light came on. For a moment, she felt lost, but the vacant blue screen of the television brought her back. She cleared her throat and ran her fingers through her hair roughly. The white t-shirt was wrinkled from her nap, and she was certain that her makeup had rubbed off on her pillow. But that didn’t matter. They’d seen each other at their worst and could still find the beauty in one another no matter what. A quick check of the clock told her that it was nearly five in the morning. Even most of the ambitious bars would have closed hours ago.

She put it from her mind as she looked at her boyfriend. He didn’t seem to notice her as he stood in the kitchen, both hands heavy on the counter as he struggled to kick off his sneakers by stepping on one heel at a time. He was distracted enough that she could surprise him. Her bare feet were silent on the carpet as she crept over to his side and put her hand on his arm. “Gordon, I’m so sorry about earlier. I’ve just been really stressed, and I feel like everything is about you sometimes. I get proud, just like you did that night we met, and I know I have to be better about that. Can you forgive me for being a bitch to you?” The words tumbled out, loosened by the bottle of wine. “I planned a big night, but I didn’t deserve you coming home and enjoying it with me. We can fix this though, I know we can. Just look at me, Gordon. I love you.”

She reached for his chin to turn his face to her, but she froze when she heard a strange noise. Her mind was still slow with sleep, but she knew a sob when she heard one. And then she noticed that he hadn’t managed to get his shoes off yet. He wasn’t standing there because he needed the extra balance. He was bent over like that because he was crying, his shoulders shaking with the weight of his grief.

He didn’t look at her, didn’t even acknowledge her, and she knew. His self-pity was never this strong. “What did you do, Gordon?” She was surprised by the coldness of her voice, but she had to cut through, had to bring him back to her.

“…thought you didn’t love me…” he mumbled, struggling to get a breath in.

The accusation struck her like a blow, but she couldn’t focus on that. He had to continue, tell her exactly what had happened to devastate him like that. In their years together, she had never seen him get so emotional. “I asked you a question,” she said. “What did you do?”

He pushed himself up but could only scrub furiously at his eyes with the back of his hand. She had never seen him this miserable, this emotional. It scared her to see him this out of control. When he looked down at her through his swollen eyelids, his lip began to tremble again. “I fucked up.”

There were few things that those words could mean, but when she saw how torn up he was, she knew that he hadn’t been off drinking with his friends until it was nearly dawn. “Tell me you didn’t do it.”

His hands were up, the same way they had been when they’d argued earlier in the day. It didn’t seem so funny to her this time. “I needed you. I thought you were leaving me. I didn’t know what to do.”

“Just because I told you I’d be home after work didn’t mean that I was dumping you. That didn’t give you permission to…to go fuck some slut!”

He didn’t recoil from the words, so she knew them to be true. He really had done it. He’d cheated on her. After she’d moved to a city where she had nothing but him, after she’d paid their bills to support his art, after she’s sacrificed everything she’d really wanted out of life just to be with him. Her friends had warned her about musicians, but she had insisted that things were different with Gordon because they’d gotten together before he’s established anything even resembling a parody of a career. She’d defended him for years while he’d been away or forgetful or just not attentive enough. And this was her repayment.

“I love you, Lizzie.” He couldn’t look her in the eye as he spoke, and his voice was weak. “I love you so much. I thought I’d lost you, and it hurt so fucking much. I just lost my head. I wasn’t thinking. And I’m so, so sorry. After Keith, then you, I just thought you weren’t in my corner. You were leaving me. I had nothing. I just didn’t want to feel that way for a little while. I didn’t know you were here. I made a mistake. I made the fucking worst mistake, but I love you with all my heart and was fucking sick at the thought of losing you.”

“So you did the one thing that would make sure you did? Is that how it works?” she asked. All she wanted was to collapse and sob, but he was already doing enough of that. She felt sick, angry, disgusted, confused, betrayed. All the negativity fought to occupy her veins and make her drunk on one specific emotion, but the cocktail itself was more than potent enough. “How could you do this to me, Gordon? How could you think that just because I had to focus on my job meant that I picked it over you? We fucking live together. I said I’d be home for dinner. How the fuck is that me leaving you?”

“I made a mistake! I was a fucking idiot, and I know that! What I did, I can’t defend, but I know that I fucked up and don’t want to lose you over it. I was hurting because I thought I had. I can’t face that. I can’t.”

She turned away from him in disgust and marched toward the bedroom. “I can’t stay here. I have to go.” It wasn’t for his benefit that she said the words aloud. She had to get some sort of plan together because she couldn’t stay in this apartment, not when he was at some girl’s place fucking her and she’d been waiting around in his clothing. She’d never felt dumber, and it was a crushing reminder that she’d been foolish to think that she’d find and keep her soulmate after meeting him as a teenager. She’d trusted him as a musician, a boyfriend, and a friend, and he’d betrayed her on all those counts in a single evening.

“Lizzie, wait.” He reached out for her, and she flinched away from his touch. How had he touched that other woman? Had he showered at all before coming back, before daring to put his skin to hers? “It’s late. You don’t have anywhere to go.”

The reminder made her chest burn, but she wouldn’t cry or break down in front of him. He had taken away everything she had here, but she still had enough pride that she could manage to go back to Pennsylvania and get a job there. She had some experience, and there were people who were friends of the family. They’d help her out. The subways were always alive. She could get to a bus station and get a ticket anywhere. She’d get by. “If you were really so concerned about me getting a good night’s sleep, you should have stayed in that whore’s bed until morning. But you came here, and you told me the truth, which is all I’ve ever asked of you. So now I’m being honest when I’m telling you that I’m going to pack up my suitcase and find somewhere to go, because you’ve hurt me so deeply that there’s no way I can trust you.”

She recognized instantly the pain that cropped up in his eyes. It was the same need she’d seen come over her brother’s face so many times, that desire to numb himself chemically as quickly as possible and remain that way until the problems subsided. She wasn’t going to let his retreat be the solution. “Let me go then. I’ll stay with Simon or Damon or—” He bit his lip, and she knew that he’d almost blurted out Keith’s name by habit. “It’s not safe for you.”

“You’re one to talk about safety,” she said, giving a bitter laugh. “Did you even bother to use a condom?”

The question kept him rooted to the doorway, and she was grateful for that. It gave her a chance to haul up her suitcase and throw in her clothes. She didn’t look to arrange them or fold, just drop in everything and then tuck in what had gone beyond the edges. “Yeah, I did.”

“Good. I’m glad you protected yourself. At least you knew what you were doing there.” It killed her to know that she was in love with this man, but in time, she would get over him. Like the boyfriend who’d hit her, or the one who had liked the drugs a little too much. She’d get over this and remember what it was like to be on her own again. She’d be okay once she only had herself to rely upon. Really, was it so different from her existence with him most of the time? “At least you were responsible for something.”

“I didn’t cheat on you, not knowingly. I thought we were over. I was wrong about it, I know I was, but it’s not like I was trying to hurt you!”

Looking at him, she could only try to picture the woman he’d slept with. She wanted to know if she was taller, curvier, thinner, more beautiful. She was disgusted by her curiosity and knew that she couldn’t think about him and forgiveness without constantly comparing herself to a woman who existed out there somewhere, a woman who had been able to seduce her boyfriend in a matter of a few hours. “Well, congratulations, because you’ve done it anyway. I just can’t believe you. I love you, but I can’t be here with you.” She snatched up the top blanket from the bed and threw it across the room at him, followed by a pillow. “There. Take that. Fucking go. I don’t care if you sleep in the hall or if you go to your friends’ place. It doesn’t really matter to me. Go back to that whore for all I care. But you can’t stay here. I’ll be out of here in the morning.”


“Gordon, if you do not leave this apartment in ten seconds, I am going to scream so loudly that people are going to call the police. I’m serious. I need you to get away from me because I want to punch you, and I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of being any sort of victim. You did this to us, and you have to deal with the consequences. Unfortunately, so do I.”

“I didn’t—“

She wasn’t interested in his excuses. Even if he had genuinely thought he’d been dumped, then he had taken little time to honor the memory of what they’d had. She could disregard his feelings just as quickly. At the same time, she had never felt like a smaller person, and she couldn’t stand the way he was looking at her like she could end his pain. “Ten,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.

“You really just need to sl—”


He gathered up the blanket and pillow, cradling them against his chest. It was clear that he understood what would happen when he stepped out into the hall. The door would lock, and when he made his way back in again, half of the belongings would be gone. She wouldn’t want to keep this apartment, not when it would remind her of him and the lease was in his name. She couldn’t even keep her job, that stupid fucking job that had seemed so important to her hours before. She didn’t know what she would do, but her family would look out for her.

“Eight. Seven. Six. Are you even fucking paying attention? Get out! Five!”

He finally managed to get his legs moving when she raised her voice. It was early enough that the neighbors wouldn’t appreciate the intrusion, and a few might already be awake enough to be going for their phones. She didn’t care anymore what those people thought of her. She’d be gone soon enough.

“I love you, Lizzie,” he said as he put his hand on the front door. This was the only way, and she had to remind herself to be strong as he looked back at her so mournfully. “If there’s anything I can do, you have to tell me.”

She just shook her head and yanked the door open for him. “There’s only one thing you had to do to keep me, but you fucked that up.”

“I hope one day you can forgive me, even if you don’t forget or understand,” he said quietly.

“Try me in five years,” she said dryly. When he stood there, pitifully clinging to the bedding, he looked like a child who had had a nightmare but woke to find that it was his own life. The haunted look in his eyes said as much, but she knew that he wasn’t her responsibility anymore. Still, she patted his chest over his heart and had to choke back her own tears. “Take care of yourself, Gordon. I know you’re going to want to get fucked up again, but you at least owe me that much. Get better. Be better.”

And with that, she closed the door on the love of her life and let her tears sink into the floorboards.

Primal Music: part 14.

Bars really did begin their happy hours astonishingly early, even on weekdays. With his first pint, Gordon wondered just how many people took advantage around the city since he was the only one partaking in this stereotypical McWhatever in the moment. By the time he moved on to whiskey, he really wasn’t bothered by the idea that anyone would judge him. As long as he had the money to pay, he was a valued customer, and that was really all the mattered.

“Did you have your heart broken today?” the bartender asked as he poured the second shot of Bushmills. The first had disappeared the minute before.

Gordon had been assessing the wisdom of ordering shots versus fingers of liquor, but he didn’t want to appear too desperate. He could let the smaller serving warm his veins, then figure out his next move. If he seemed to be blowing too much money in one place, he could always shuffle on to the next. “It doesn’t matter if I did. I’d be just as alone either way,” he said with the patient self-loathing of a drinker.

The man just nodded at him as though he could see through the situation and understand without knowing the depth of his pain. “The only reasons I’ve seen a man drink like that lately are girls or jobs. You don’t seem like a fella who’s all that concerned with the corporate world, so I went for the other option. Plus, you know, the date and all.”

“Yeah, cheers to that.” Another shot down. He would have to seriously rethink his approach in this place. He didn’t imagine that he’d be recognized and approached due to the hour and the general celebrity-ignoring atmosphere of New York, but distantly, he did worry about giving too much away and exposing himself. “I’ve been away for a while, business and the like, and the girl just blows me off when I spring to surprise her at work. What’s up with that?”

“Sounds like she’s just ungrateful to me. Or she has something to hide.”

“Yeah. Yeah! She wouldn’t even let me in the door. Kept me outside while she basically told me to fuck off.” He pushed the shot glass forward and nodded to the other man to indicate that he wasn’t calling it a night before the sun went down. “I don’t get why she has to treat me that way. I’ve given her everything, you know? I just love her so much, and I don’t get much back. She made more money than me for a while, and now I make more than she does. I don’t know if she’s uncomfortable with that or what. She’s been at the same shitty job for years, but she won’t leave now, even though we’re comfortable. It’s some kind of pride thing, but she hates what she does. I don’t fucking get it at all.”

The bartender took his shot glass and swapped it for a tumbler, which he filled generously before sliding it back over. “Sounds to me like she doesn’t want to need a man, if you ask me. I’m sorry. You can try to give her the world, but if she doesn’t want to take it, then what’s the point of handing it over to her? You’re just going to be burnt. Did she say what the problem was?”

Gordon gave a shrug and gratefully took a swig of the whiskey. Money wasn’t an object, and he was sure he had more than enough in his wallet to cover the tab. “She just said that I had to respect that it gave her something to do while I was away. Which yeah man, whatever, but at least do something that interests you? I don’t get why she wants to just torture herself and why that’s more important than spending time with me.”

“Sometimes you’re just not meant to get it.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I ever got her at all or if we just had chemistry. Physically,” he added. Looking at his glass, he frowned. It was empty again, but it had been so much bigger than a shot. He wasn’t sure how that happened, but he pushed it back for a refill regardless.

“Is this the place for the Lonely Hearts Club Band?” a voice purred. The owner slunk her way onto the stool next to Gordon. She wore a low cut red dress, simple in its styling but generous in how the hems sliced to give a glimpse of thigh and breast. Her dark hair spilled over her shoulders to tumble in loose waves nearly to her waist, while her skin remained fashionably pale.

“Well, it’s not where the party is, so if you’re looking for that, I’m afraid you’re lost,” he remarked. He was struck by this woman’s smooth skin, her wide eyes, the subtle freckle on her cheek. It had been so long since he’d met a woman who was stunning enough for him to notice, especially one who didn’t know who he was because she happened to be at some music industry event. Beautiful women tended to need a reason to talk to him, but he didn’t get the sense that she was aware of who he was. So much the better.

“Well, good. I’ve never been much of one for parties.” She nodded her head to the bartender, who immediately set about mixing a dirty martini for her. “I’m afraid I’m something of a regular here. Just the constant state of my life. Always the bridesmaid and all that. And what about you? What’s your story? Bridesmaid as well?”

Gordon laughed and started to notice just how loose the liquor was making him. None of his words seemed to come out without his mouth distorting the sounds. “I’m afraid I just don’t look that good with tulle.”

“I’m impressed you even know what tulle is.”

“I have many opinions dedicated strictly to tulle. You wouldn’t want to hear any of them.”

When she giggled, her lips stayed pressed together while her eyes crinkled up. Something about that was so charmingly shy, so different. He knew he wanted to see her happy. “I have a feeling that you’re a rather opinionated man in general,” she ventured.

“What gave you that impression?”

“Well, there aren’t a lot of guys who would be in bars at this hour. You don’t look like you’re just bored, so that means that you’ve probably suffered a crippling blow to the ego.” She didn’t sound judgmental in the least, and she even gave a cheer of delight when her dirty martini arrived, complete with extra olives.

“Well, what about you? Is it a bit early for you as well?”

“No, I’ve already finished with my work day. But you probably don’t care about what I do anyway, so we won’t go into it. You, however, have been here a while. Laid off or day off?”

He looked down and had to admit that he didn’t look his most presentable. His general uniform of jeans, t-shirt, and a hoodie were the rockstar style of choice, but he could see how the casual nature could scream unemployment. “Independently wealthy,” he informed her. He pulled himself up enough that he thought that he was assuming some sort of flourish, but it just made her laugh more.

“Okay, okay, I won’t ask. You’re a funny guy. Maybe a stand up comedian.”

“That’ll be the fallback option.”

“As soon as that independent wealth stops suiting you?” she asked as she popped an olive between her teeth. Perfectly aligned, perfectly white. Was she being suggestive doing that, or did she not realize how she teased him?

He looked at his new drink and let the amber liquid swirl around for a bit. “I think I have enough to pay off my tab. That’s about as far ahead as I’m thinking.”

“That’s a shame. I had my eye on later tonight.”

He had to hold his breath to get his eyes to stop swimming when he looked at her. The knowing smirk, the lingering gaze, the way her hand was creeping across the bar to touch his. How could he misread any of this? “I have—”

I have a girlfriend. I have a life. I have a broken heart and all sorts of emotional bullshit and really ought to be left alone with it. I have to get home for dinner. I have to apologize. I have responsibilities and can’t let myself do this. I have to prove to everyone that they can rely on me. I have to walk away.

“I haven’t had any lunch, so I was going to get dinner soon, if you’re interested in a bit of company. If those olives aren’t enough.”

She plucked another from the toothpick and let it roll around in her mouth a moment as she let her gaze trail over his body. “You’re in luck. I really don’t feel like spending tonight alone.”

When he kissed her, she tasted like a regret he had never wanted more.