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Authors: Claire Wallis

Push

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Ifeel like I am wrapped in a cyclone.Everything is whirling around me,drawing the air out of my lungs and filling me with the best kind of turmoil.Every time his tongue slides against mine,aprickle in my gut tells me how right we are together.How much I need David.How much I need us.

Ihope the cyclone never stops.

Emma Searfoss has spent a lifetime trying to escape her abusive stepfather. It’s why she moved far away from home. It’s why she’s kept no ties with her remaining family. And it’s why she’s got a major rage problem. When her neighbor shows up to fix the kitchen in her new apartment, his enigmatic charm calms the fire in her. David is cool and collected, and he makes Emma feel safe for the first time ever. But David has his own chilling past—his six previous girlfriends have all disappeared without a trace. Emma’s walking a dangerous line, but David’s pull is intoxicating. And impossible to resist...

Thisisanewadultromancewithmaturecontentforreaders17andup.

www.clairewallis.com

Push

Claire Wallis

Dedication

For Melissa

ABOUTTHEAUTHOR

ClaireWallishas penned hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles over the past ten years, with science playing the lead role in almost all of them. Though nonfiction writing will forever be her first love, fiction has unexpectedly swooped in, hooked her by the soul and become hertruelove. As a result of this coup d’état, Claire’s writing career has made a complete U-turn, and instead of rocks, plants, insects and microbes, she is now putting human characters in the lead.

Claire’s previous jobs include working at a limestone quarry, hawking vegetables at a farmer’s market, clerking at the dollar store and convincing new mothers that theyneedto renew their subscription to that parenting magazine in order for their child to survive. She lives in Pennsylvania with her amazingly awesome husband and son.

Connect with Claire by visiting her website,www.clairewallis.com; following her on Twitter,@ClaireWallisNA; and checking out her author page on Facebook.

Contents

Emma's Prologue

David's Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Emma's Epilogue

David's Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Emma’s Prologue

I am standing on the bridge, and in a rush of brutal and beautiful clarity, I know. I know that I am not the only one. I know that he has done this before. With other women. In other cities. On other bridges. But it doesn’t matter. They weren’t me.

How could he have been so careless?

The green fabric of my dress is clinging to my skin, and the air is calm and humid. My hands are tied behind me, but I’m not crying. I’m not fighting. My skin is not burning with anger or fear. My brain is in charge of my body, and it is telling my instincts to go fuck themselves. As I look out over the dark river, it is all falling into place. The picture is whole.

His breath is steady, deep. He’s always been the calm that feeds off my turmoil, is thrilled by it even. But not today. Today there is only peace. I know what he needs from me, and even as I stand here on the edge of everything, I love him. If he asked me to jump, I would. There would be no hesitation. I know that now, and he knows it, too. I suspect he always has.

I can feel the remarkable beauty in his anticipation. Doing this one thing is going to make him very, very happy, far happier than anything else we have ever done together. It is going to make everything better. I know it.

I will not fail.

I suddenly feel his hand on my face. I quietly sigh and push my head into his palm, feeling the softness of his skin. Inhaling his scent. His smile is small, sheltered. But if I do this, ifthishappens, his face will open with joy, and his teeth will show and his eyes will brighten. He will be unstuck.

His hand falls from my face, and he drops to his knees. The sacks of sand at my feet—onmy feet—feel dense. I stand still as he knots them slowly to my ankles. I am quiet because I am not afraid. I am not sad.

Right after we met, he brought me to this bridge. He showed me the colorful graffiti painted across the trusses and told me that this illicit art had turned a simple bridge into a masterpiece. It was someone’s opus, he said. The fact that some kid, probably unaware of his own talent, could create something so moving obviously touched him deeply. At the time, I wondered why he was so captivated by it. But now...now it is clear. He knew, even then, that all this would come to be. Because it had happened before. With the others.

Still, none of it matters.

Because I am here now, and I am the one.

David’s Prologue

I love her. Truly, I do. And that’s something I cannot say about any of the others. I am, however, a goddamned son of a bitch, and despite my adoration of her, I need this. I need todothis.

I thought that, perhaps, I was past all this fucked-up bullshit. I thought that I could go on being with her forever. For the first time in my life, I was enjoying a taste of contentment. Happiness. But then, as it always does, the unrelenting ache swirled back into me, striking through me, biting into my brain like a gnawing hunger. A craving for a single, perfect moment in which I have absolute control. I can’t ignore it. Even with her. Even though I really do love her back.

I am standing on the bridge, and something in her face suddenly tells me she’s figured it out. She knows that she is not the only one. She knows that I have done this before. She looks at my eyes, and despite the darkness, I know she can see through me. She sees straight to the others—all six of them. She can see the three cities and the four other bridges. She knows now, yet she is so calm. Unchanging. But it doesn’t matter. Because they weren’t her.

I put my hand on her face. She sighs and pushes her cheek into my palm, her breath skimming across my skin. Shit. She is cold. There’s no heat. No anger. No panic. I smile softly at her, knowing that fear will sink in soon enough. It always does, because in this perfect moment, there is always fear.

I stoop down next to her and nearly brush her bare leg with my fingers. I don’t dare touch her again though, because I suddenly feel that if I do, I might change my mind. And where would that leave us? We are here now, and I am pulsing with my own eagerness. As I begin to lash the bags of sand to her bare ankles, I glance up at her face. She’s staring straight ahead, lost in her own thoughts. Her brow is rigid. Her lips are narrow. I think I see a slight smile. There isn’t so much as a drop of fear in her body.

Why?

A bitter realization strikes me like a whip. She isn’t afraid because shewantsto do this. She wants me to love her so fucking badly that she will jump off this bridge, voluntarily, right now, if I ask her to. Just because she knows it will make me happy. Because she thinks it will fix me.

Now I am livid. I am awash with contempt for this woman. No, formyself. I fucking love her already. Did she not see it? Did she not feel it?

I am a twisted, fucking son of a bitch, and the woman I love is standing on a bridge prepared to let me push her off just to make me fucking happy. Jesus H. Christ.

I look back down at the sandbags, and I continue to fasten the knots far more slowly than I should because I am waiting for a whimper, a snivel, something. Some sign of her comprehension that I am going to do this. A sign that she is afraid. A sign that maybe she’s changed her mind, that she knows I am not worth fixing. A sign that she does not, in fact, want my love. But I get only composure and control.

It is infuriating.

As I get up I can feel my anger swell. I am standing behind her now, looking at how her dress clings to her body. She is frozen. I am a fucking fool for her, and the realization that shewantsto do this makes me want to pushmyselfoff this goddamned bridge. I could stop. I could untie her hands. I could tell her that it is all an angry, sick joke. But what about the others? She knows about them now; I’m sure of it. I can’t ask her to carry that knowledge around for the rest of her life.

Because I really do love her back.

I put my hands on her waist and breathe.

Chapter One

Emma—Age 8

I am a small girl, much smaller than the other girls my age. I am standing on the white plastic bench in our bathroom, and I’m up on my tiptoes stretching as high as I can. I want to see her better. Watch her move. Smell her lady smell. She’s leaning into the mirror, her breath creating a small circle of haze with each exhale. Her softly curled red hair nearly reaches down to the back clasp of her bra. I want to touch the curls, find out just how soft they are. But I know she’ll scold me if I do because her hair is already fixed just the way she likes it.

As she shifts even closer to the mirror, her lips stay parted in concentration. Her left hand tugs at the corner of her eye and stretches it outward, smoothing its surface. Her right hand spreads the eyeliner across her top eyelid. When she reaches the end of her eye, she stands back slightly, and blinks at herself in the mirror. As she repeats the process on her other eye, I am transfixed. I want to put on eyeliner, too, but she says I am far too young to wear makeup. She says that I am beautiful enough without it. But I think that she just says that to keep me from pestering her about it, so this time, I keep my mouth shut.

When she’s finished with the eyeliner, she opens her eyes really wide and puts on her mascara using small, soft sweeps. The brush accidentally touches her eyelid, leaving behind tiny, sharp, black lines. She frowns slightly, licks her thumb, and absently swipes the lines away. Her eyes meet mine in the mirror, and a sweet grin touches her lips. She reaches toward the mirror and begins to playfully tickle my face’s reflection. Her eyes and nose scrunch up in delight. My face echoes hers.

“You are a silly girl, Emma,” she says as she turns to look at me, taking her hand away from my reflection and putting it on top of my ginger-colored head. She is looking down at me now, and we are smiling. After quickly mussing my hair, she trails her index finger down the center of my forehead, between my eyes and down to the tip of my nose. She sprinkles her fingertips across my nose and cheeks in a game of connect-the-dots.

“Someday you’ll love these freckles as much as I do,” she says as she plants a rapid kiss on the top of my head and then returns to her reflection in the mirror. She quickly puts on her lipstick, plumps up her breasts, and flips her long bangs out of her eyes.

“When will you be back?” I ask her, not really wanting to know the answer.

Her eyes meet mine in the mirror again, and I think they look a little sad. A little as if maybe she doesn’t really want to go this time.

“Michael says we’ll be back in three or four days,” she tells me. She is walking to her bedroom now, and I am following her like a puppy instead of an eight-year-old girl. “Emma, you know Carol really enjoys staying here with you and the boys. It’s just for a few days. She’ll take good care of you. Besides, you’ll have her mostly to yourself. Ricky and Evan will be at practice every night after school.”

“I know,” I say. It’s just that Carol doesn’t wear eyeliner. She doesn’t curl her hair. She doesn’t smell like a lady—she smells like a fireplace. She is not my mommy. She is not you.

As she dresses herself, I sit cross-legged on the bed and watch her move. After her skirt is zipped and her blouse is buttoned, she grabs my hand and pulls me off the bed. She leads me over to the dresser and switches on the lamp. The dresser is flooded with a soft light, and I am instantly delighted because I know that she is going to let me pick out her perfume. It makes me happy because I know that every time she takes a breath and smells the perfume,myperfume, she will think of me. And know how much I love her.

I study the little glass containers. It’s difficult to decide which of the beautiful bottles is most deserving of my mother’s neck. My mind is floundering with indecision when Michael walks in. He’s dressed in a pair of khakis, a blue dress shirt and a tie. His neck and back are stiff, and his dark hair is combed straight back in a series of perfect, rigid lines. When I see him I freeze, and my eyes drop toward the floor. Mommy lets go of my hand and steps over to him, kissing him on the cheek and touching his arm.

“We need to leave now,” he says, looking at her with his mouth straight. “Where is your bag?”

“Over on the chair,” she says, nodding toward the red wooden chair in the corner of the bedroom. Michael strides over to it, picks up the bag, and walks briskly toward the door. As he walks past me, I glance up at him, and our eyes meet. He smirks his knowing smirk, and I feel hot and angry inside. So angry. I feel my skin starting to burn.

Mommy doesn’t look at me again. She hastily picks up the nearest bottle of perfume and squirts two puffs of it on to her neck. I watch the little droplets of moisture spin around her as she rushes out of the room after Michael. She didn’t even pick one of the prettiest bottles—and it makes me want to explode.


Page 2

Chapter Two

Emma—Present Day

I can’t find the picture anywhere, and it is starting to piss me off. What did he do with it? The fucker probably threw it away just to spite me. I’m disgusted with myself for asking Michael to send me my things, but frankly, it was better than the alternative. The thought of him wrapping and packing all the mementos from my bedroom makes me want to wretch. Yet I know it was far better than going back to that house to get them myself. Far better than having to look at him and his greasy-ass hair.

On top of the last unopened box is a yellow sticky note. It is my tally of the postage amounts from all the boxes. I peel it off the box and put it on my desk. I am sending him a check tomorrow simply because the idea of owing himanythingmakes me crazy. I open the last box and frantically rummage through it. I am really starting to get annoyed, and I can feel myself losing it. So help me God, if he kept that picture...

In my mind I can see myself buying a bus ticket and breaking down his door to pry the picture from his hairy, disgusting hands. But there’s no need for such aggression after all, because suddenly I can feel a corner of the wooden frame deep down in the box. Even without seeing it, I know exactly what it is. I have touched that frame a million times. I pull it out of the box and wipe the dust from the glass with my palm. There we are. Two freckled redheads. Our arms are wrapped around each other’s neck, and we are smiling. We are gleaming. I know I am happy in the picture because it was before Michael. Before the mess. Before my dad was gone, and before Michael turned my brothers into assholes. It is just my mother and me, and for the millionth time, I can’t take my eyes off of us.

* * *

I sit down on the edge of my bed holding the frame with both hands. When my mind eventually settles, I begin to scan the room for somewhere to put it. This place is still so new to me. I have barely settled in, so fully unpacking the boxes from Michael doesn’t make any sense. Frankly, I could throw the whole lot of them into the incinerator. The picture is the only thing in them that matters. I haven’t lived in that house since I was eighteen—nothing else of any real consequence was even there anymore. Still, I am curious about examining the contents just to be sure. Next week maybe. For now I’m going to concentrate on getting the rest of my clothes unpacked. I prop the picture up on my already crowded nightstand. I tap a light kiss on to my fingertips and then transfer it to my mother’s image.

I unzip one of the suitcases and start moving a pile of T-shirts into a drawer. I catch sight of myself in the mirror. My eyeliner is smeared, my hair is gathered into a sloppy bun behind my head, and my constellation of freckles is now backed with a pink flush, no doubt the result of my internal rant over the whereabouts of the picture. I sigh and then remember that it really doesn’t matter how I look because now I live alone. No more brothers, no more Michael, no more college roommates, no more need for someone to share the rent and utility bills. It seems I am a grown-up now. At long, long last. It is both refreshing and humbling.

As I shift another pile of T-shirts to the dresser drawer, I hear the door buzzer. Who the hell is that? Who even knows that I live here? Oh, God. I feel a slight and sudden panic. Michael is the only one who has my address. I had to give it to him so he could mail the boxes to me. But he wouldn’t dare come here, drive all this way, would he? I decide there is no way it is Michael because he is a smart enough man—he knows I will knock him in the balls if he shows up here. Fucker.

I walk down the hall, past the wreck of a kitchen, and into the living room where the door buzzer startles me again by sounding a second time.

“Hold your damn hat on,” I mutter as I press the intercom button. “Yes?” I ask into the small, gray box.

“Hi. Um, is this Emma Searfoss? Apartment seven?” asks a male voice.

“Yes, it is. What can I do for you?” I ask. A rush of thick, syrupy relief courses through my veins. I am beyond grateful that whoever it is, it’s decidedlynotMichael.

“This is David. I’m here to fix your kitchen cupboards. The landlord was supposed to call you yesterday to let you know I was coming,” he says. Oh. I haven’t checked my cell phone since yesterday afternoon, so I have no idea if Carl called me or not. For a moment I hesitate, but then I figure the guy must be legit because part of the rental agreement included refurbishing the kitchen cupboards. Right now they are a complete wreck; the doors are either falling off or missing altogether, the paint is peeling, and most of the shelves are cracked and warped. I haven’t even attempted to unpack the kitchen boxes, expecting Carl to come and fix the cupboards as he promised. I’m pleased that he’s decided to do it sooner rather than later. Whoever David is, he’s got his work cut out for him.

“Oh, okay,” I say into the gray box. “Up the stairs. Second door on the left.”

“I know,” he says casually as I press the door release switch. I quickly grab my purse and toss it into the back bedroom, just in case David is some kind of criminal. I almost snatch the pepper spray out of it first, but then I decide thatthatwould be one step too close to crazy.

There is a knock at the front door, and a second later, I open it. I immediately wonder why I didn’t grab the pepper spray when I had the chance.

David does not look like a cupboard fixer. Frankly, he looks a little psycho, and I wonder how stupid I am to let him waltz into my apartment without checking for a message from Carl first. But if I close the door on him now,I’mgoing to look like the psycho. A stupid cliché pops unwelcome into my head: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I stuff the words back into my brain, back into the mouth of every Sunday-school teacher I ever had.

The only visual indication that David is actually here for the reason he claims is the belt of tools slung low around his waist. There is a hammer swaying off his left hip and some screwdrivers tucked into little loops on the right. A tape measure sits next to the hammer, and what appears to be a pair of lineman’s pliers is sticking out of a small pocket to the side. There are some other tools there, too, but I don’t recognize them.

He catches my glance at the tool belt, and I realize that I must have some foolish look of relief on my face, because a second later he is wearing a small, lopsided grin. He looks quite pleased with himself, as a matter of fact, and I immediately think he must be a cocky bastard.

Aside from the tool belt, he is wearing a gray T-shirt, a pair of black skinny jeans and a pair of heavy black work boots. His dark, mussed-up hair is cut short, and it looks as if he forgot to shave—for the past several days. On each ear are two small silver hoops, and his arms are covered in tattoos. I can see the swirls of ink beneath his skin, but I can’t tell what the images are—I don’t want to look at them any longer than I already have. I don’t want him to think I am checking him out. Cocky bastards love being checked out, and I refuse to give him the pleasure.

I step aside and let him into the apartment. He looks around quickly and makes a beeline towards the kitchen. I think immediately that he must be familiar with the apartment’s layout because he doesn’t ask where to go, nor does he hesitate.

“Come on in,” I say sarcastically as he breezes past me.

“Thanks,” he says without turning around. I watch him walk around the corner to the kitchen and wonder whether I am supposed to follow him in there.

“Holy hell,” he says quietly. “What a mess.”

“Sorry,” I answer sheepishly from the living room. And, before I know it, I add, “My grandma got stoned here the other night and was desperate for some munchies. She gets a little out of hand sometimes.” The utter idiocy of my own words makes me want to evaporate. I don’t even have a grandma anymore.

In a split second he is out of the kitchen and standing in the hallway, his hand on the door frame. He looks right at me, completely stone-faced. Without a trace of mockery, he says, “I think I might like to meet your grandma someday.” He quickly turns away and slides back into the kitchen. I am silent. What the hell am I supposed to say to that?

* * *

Since I can’t come up with a sharp retort, I decide to say nothing. I am not going to encourage this asshole. I am going to shut him down. In fact, I do not say another word to him for the rest of the morning. Instead I go back to the bedroom and continue unpacking my suitcases. I can hear him banging around in the kitchen, and I briefly consider closing my bedroom door just in case he really is some sort of psycho.

But then I wonder what he will think if he sees that I closed the door. I don’t want to seem paranoid or judgmental...or weak. The fact that I am putting so much thought into whether or not I should close the freaking door bothers the hell out of me. I want tonotbe bothered by the fact that I am alone with a strange man in my apartment. And for some stupid reason, I wanthimto see that I am not bothered by the fact that I am alone with a strange man in my apartment. I want to beat myself silly over all my foolish waffling about the goddamned door. I finally decide to shut my brain down before it melts—the door stays open, and I keep unpacking.

As I empty out the last suitcase, I decide that I am hungry. It’s got to be close to lunchtime by now. I turn to my alarm clock to check the time, and as I do, I see his reflection in the dresser mirror. He is walking down the hallway, toward my bedroom. Good. Now he’ll see that I didn’t close my door. I am standing next to my bed, and I try to come up with something to do with my hands so that he doesn’t think I’m just standing in my bedroom doing nothing. My nightstand is right next to me, and I reach down to grab something in advance of him hitting the doorway. Before I know it, I am flipping open my little plastic compact of birth control pills and looking at their circular pattern. Oh, fuck me. What the hell, Emma?

“Hey,” he says when he gets to the end of the hallway. “Sorry to bother you, but I need to use your head.” I turn to look at him just as he comes into the door frame. He has lost the tool belt, and his thumbs are casually hooked into the back of his waistband. He looks quickly around the bedroom before his eyes settle on my hands. I snap the pack shut quickly, hoping he might not recognize what I am holding—but I’m pretty sure he is the kind of guy who knows precisely what a packet of birth control pills looks like. I am deciding if I would prefer to curl up in a ball and die or evaporate yet again, when my mind registers what he has said.

“Um, for what?” I ask sharply. Should I offer him a calculator or something instead?

“Um, to take a piss,” he says with far too much lilt in his voice.

I stand staring blankly at him, and I have the distinct feeling that I am missing something. What is going on here?

After another moment passes, he says “Well?” And then it hits me. Oh, sweet Jesus, Emma! He is asking to use yourhead, not your brain.

“Of course. It’s right there,” I say meekly as I point to the bathroom door. I can feel the embarrassment creeping up my neck, across my face and through my scalp. I am sure now that I am blushing, and I look away so that he can’t see my face.

“Thanks,” he says. He turns to go, and once his back is to me, he adds, “Oh, by the way, your grandma’s handiwork is going to take me several days to fix, so you may wanna relax a little.” He keeps walking down the hallway, and I no longer feel like evaporating. Instead I feel like bitch-slapping the conceited jackass.

“Fuck you.”

The words come out of my mouth with a great amount of attitude and far more self-assurance than I am actually feeling. “And your little dog, too,” I add just loud enough for him to hear.

He turns on his heels and faces me again. His eyes look energized. There is a trace of a smile on his lips, and I suspect he wants to laugh at me...but he doesn’t. Instead he just stands there and looks at me as if there is some sort of crazy current running through him. I begin to think he’s trying to rile me up on purpose. Testing me somehow. I see his game now, and I am perfectly prepared to play.

When the moment passes, he turns around again and steps into the bathroom. The door closes, and I walk out to the kitchen to see what he has been doing out there all morning, vowing to myself that I will not lose my composure again. I will play it cool.

When I turn the corner, my view confirms that he is indeed trying to fire me up. He has torn all the cabinets off the wall, ripped up the linoleum flooring, and removed all the countertops. He has destroyed far more than my imaginary baked grandma ever could. Now I’m on the fence regarding the man’s sanity, and I know why he said he was going to be here for several more days. Game on, David. Game on.

Chapter Three

He comes out of the bathroom as I am busily looking in the fridge for something to eat. I am relieved that he hasn’t taken the doors off any of the appliances—at least not yet anyway. I pull out some cheese, an apple and a container of yogurt, and I walk past him to set them on the small table in the living room. Then I go back in for a bottle of water and a knife. As I step across the now-exposed plywood, I can feel him watching me. It is a very small kitchen, and I am silently hoping that he doesn’t come in here until after I walk out. My “fuck you” hangs in the air between us, and I want to somehow take it back but only because he seemed to enjoy my hostility, not because I didn’t mean to say it.

I grab what I need and move quickly out of the kitchen. He is regarding me intently, and it pleases me. It’s because he is surprised that I haven’t said anything about the state of my kitchen. Frankly, I am, too. But I will no longer let my irritation become his diversion.

“I figured while I was cleaning up after your raging grandma, I might as well fix the rest of your kitchen, too,” he says, almost thoughtfully. “Carl is a really shitty landlord. He doesn’t fix anything he doesn’t have to, so I am taking some liberties on your behalf. Don’t worry. When he sees it, he’ll be pissed off at me, not you.”

I’m not sure what to say, but inside I am hoping that neither Carl nor David expects me to pay for the impromptu remodeling. The cabinet repair was part of the rental agreement, yes, but everything else wasn’t.

“Oh,” I say. “That’s cool. Thanks. But, just so you know, I’m not paying for all this.” I probably put too much emphasis on the word “not” because he raises his eyebrows and looks almost hurt.

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” he says. “Don’t worry. Carl will be the one paying. Trust me.” The way he says it makes me wonder exactly how he is going to make Carl pay for it, but frankly, I don’t really care. Just as long as I’m not the one opening my wallet.

“You want some lunch?” I ask.

Shit. It appears that my mouth is now speaking of its own accord. But at this moment I am stuck. I tell myself the intention of my offer was to take some of the sting away from my “fuck you” comment a few moments ago, but frankly, he doesn’t appear the least bit stung. He was clearly thrilled by the whole thing.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed that my kitchen is a bit of a chaotic mess at the moment. Some ass decided to take a few liberties on my behalf, and so I can’t really cook anything, but I am happy to share what I’ve got,” I say calmly. “I guess I’ll have to thank the ass for leaving my refrigerator intact.”

His face does not change. “I’m sure the ass has good intentions,” he says, looking directly into my eyes, which I am trying to keep from rolling. “And, yes, lunch would be great.”

Excellent. Now I have to give the ass lunch. I get up from the table and head back into the kitchen. As I am getting out more food, he washes his hands at the sink. While he lathers the soap, I can’t help but look at his tattoos. His arms are covered in birds. Dozens of them are delicately woven together in flight. Their wings overlapping, their tails trailing and swirling together. I am astounded by their elegance. Each bird is a different size and shape, and every feather is exquisitely detailed. They are strikingly beautiful. I want to touch them. To see the colors up close. To ask him about the person who put them there. But I don’t, because I am speechless.

As I look at his arms, I almost feel guilty. As if I have seen something that was supposed to be private. Intimate even. I only see them for a few brief moments, but they tell me more about David than I suspect he wants me to know. Anyone can see his arms, of course, but I feel as if I have exposed him somehow. As if my looking at them might make him embarrassed. Vulnerable even. But I know thousands of people have probably seen his tattoos and didn’t think twice about it.

Maybe it’s me who feels embarrassed.

The two of us together in my very small, and very demolished, kitchen is suddenly awkward, and I want to get out. I have to pass him sideways to fit between his body and the wall, and I take care not to touch him as I go by. I put the rest of the food on the table and divvy it all up. He comes around the corner drying his hands with a paper towel.

“How long ago did you move in?” he asks. “I haven’t really seen you around, so it must have been pretty recently.” I want to make a smart-aleck comment about all the moving boxes sitting around, but I decide that I’d better not.

“I’ve only been here a few days,” I answer as we both sit down. “I start my new job on Monday.”

“Oh, yeah?” he asks with what might be a hint of pride in his voice. “Good for you. What’s the job?”

“It’s for the FBI,” I say. “I’m going to be investigating a con man who swindles women into paying for remodeling projects they didn’t ask for.”

And there it is. His smile. It’s not big, and he doesn’t show his teeth, but still, it’s a smile. And I smile back.

“Wow. Now that sounds like an interesting case, Emma,” he says. “I bet he’s a good-looking bastard.”

“They say he’s a conceited son of a bitch, too,” I add.

“Don’t worry. You won’t be paying for a single penny of your new kitchen.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I play poker with Carl every Tuesday night, and I have already won you your new kitchen. You want a new bathroom, too? I can have that for you by Wednesday morning.”

“Ahhh. It appears that the con man is indeed a conceited son of a bitch,” I say. “But I’m glad he’s spending his winnings so smartly. I didn’t know philanthropic con men even existed. How unexpected.”

“Con men are notorious for the unexpected,” he says, and I feel a lump in my throat. The whole time we have been talking I have been watching the birds on his arms in my peripheral vision. I suddenly feel remorseful for taking what could have been a normal conversation and turning it into a series of jokes. He is still smiling, though, which tells me he likes it.

“Unexpected is nice,” I say. Nice? That’s the best I can do? The word seems wrong.

We sit there eating without saying another word. I am looking at my food and not at him. When I glance up a few minutes later, he is looking right at me, and he’s still smiling, even as he eats.

“What?” I ask.

“Are you going to tell me what your new job really is?”

“I’m going to work for a company that designs telecommunication systems for office buildings. I’m an electrical engineer.” He actually looks pleased, and it surprises the hell out of me. “Welcome to Geek-ville,” I add as I shrug my shoulders. Oh, God.

“Geek-ville?” he asks, half laughing. “I think that shit is awesome.” I must look shocked at his reply because he shrugs his shoulders, too.

“And how long have you worked for Carl?”

“Almost two years. He owns a couple of apartment buildings, and I do all the maintenance for them in exchange for my rent.” Oh. David lives here? In this building? “It’s a pretty good deal. I just do some odd side jobs to pay for food and stuff, and I usually end up kicking ass on poker night, so I’m good. I’m really a carpenter, but I’ll do whatever the hell he needs just so I don’t have to get some nine-to-five shit union job.”

“I’m not looking forward to nine to five myself, but I think it will treat me pretty well.”

“I’m sure it will,” he says as he gets up from the table. “I’m going to get a few more things done in here, and then I’ll get going.”

He goes back into the kitchen, and I follow behind him carrying our plates. As I drop them into the sink, he hooks his tool belt around his waist and nestles it down on to his hips. I glance at the birds again, knowing that his eyes are on the belt clip and not me. They are breathtaking.

“Do you live in this building?” Really, Emma? Do you really want to go there? I curse my curiosity and tell it to go fuck itself.

“Yes,” he says. “Right above you, but two floors up.” That explains how he knew which apartment was mine and exactly where the kitchen was. It doesn’t explain why he used the door buzzer.

“Oh. Then why did you use the door buzzer this morning?” I ask.

“Because intercom introductions are my thing.” He holds his arms out in front of him and adds, “If you saw me through the peephole in your door, would you open it?”

“Yes...but only because of the tool belt.” I mean it as a joke, but I’m not sure he’s going to take it that way.

He chuckles and says, “Works every time.”

I spend two more hours in my bedroom unpacking and hooking up my computer and television gear. I hear David’s cell phone ring. He walks out of the apartment and closes the door behind him, and I wonder if he’s coming back. A few minutes later I hear the door open again. He is talking with someone, but I can’t hear what they are saying.

I walk out into the living room, and he and an older man are carrying boxes into my apartment.

“Your new kitchen tiles just arrived,” he says. “Once we get them unloaded, I’m heading out.”

“Okay,” I say, watching the other man walk back out of my apartment, presumably to fetch another box. They each make another trip outside, and then David shakes the man’s hand and sends him off. I am trying to find something to do in the living room—I want to be out here when he leaves and not in my bedroom.

I decide to open a box of books and begin stacking them one by one on to my bookshelf. As I do, David goes back into the kitchen, and I hear him taking off his tool belt and putting it on the floor. He comes back out, walks to the door, and turns to look at me.

“Thanks for lunch, Emma. I’ll be back tomorrow. And I won’t use the door buzzer this time.” He is out the door before I can say goodbye.

* * *

What the hell has happened today? I am used to people getting me fired up. I am used to being angry. I am used to my temper. But I am not used to squelching it...and I am exhausted. Was all that crap flirting or mocking? I can’t figure out if I should be pissed off or flattered. Goddamn me. Goddamn him. He’s probably going to some bar tonight where he’ll brag to his friends about the smart-ass redhead he is working for and how much he enjoys watching her squirm. I decide to be pissed off instead of flattered...which doesn’t surprise me one damn bit.

I walk back to my room to check my email, and while I am there, I check my cell phone. There is no message from Carl.


Page 3

Chapter Four

Emma—Age 13

That prick Michael has taken my mom away yet again. This time for three weeks. And I am left in this house alone. Carol doesn’t come watch me anymore because Michael says he is not paying for a nanny when my brothers can keep an eye on me. I’m thirteen now and both my brothers are in college—I don’t understand exactly how that translates to “keeping an eye on me,” but it’s definitely better than having that chimney Carol here for three weeks.

Mom left a check for me on the kitchen counter. It is signed but otherwise blank. It’s what she does every time he takes her on one of his trips. He calls them “buying trips,” but I have no idea what they actually buy because they never come home with anything more than they left with. I am supposed to fill out the check for however much I want, make it out to cash, and then walk it down to the bank. How the hell do I know how much money I am going to need to live off of for three weeks? I decide to screw them both and make the check out for two thousand dollars. That should do it, right? Michael will probably kick my ass when he sees the amount, but he is a thousand miles away right now, and I don’t give a damn. He’s going to be pissed no matter how much money I take out, so I might as well make it worth it.

I spend my time going to school, which I actually like, hanging out with my friends, and playing volleyball. I’m on the girls’ team at school, and I’m actually half-decent at it.

When Saturday comes, my brother Ricky calls. I think he is drunk, and it’s only three o’clock in the afternoon.

“I’m coming to get you at eight o’clock,” he says. “Michael told me to keep an eye on you while they’re gone. You can hang with me and Evan.” I feel disgusted. My brothers are practically grown men, and I have to go and hang out with them on a Saturday night. They’ll probably take me to some R-rated movie just to watch me squirm. Do they not realize that if I wanted to get into trouble, I could do it whenever I damn well please? I don’t have to wait until a Saturday night. I am thirteen and pretty much living by myself for weeks on end. The potential for trouble is slapping me in the face.

I gotta say, though, for being alone so much, I really don’t get into that much trouble. I don’t steal or drink or smoke or have sex. Not yet anyway—but I’m working on the sex part with Jack Darris. He’s a smokin’ hot tenth-grader. We’ve come close but haven’t gone all the way yet. The only trouble I actually get into is for fighting—and that’s only when I get caught, which I usually don’t. A good scrap makes me feel better. It makes me feel better about Michael, about my brothers, about life in general.

My mom says I have a hot temper, which is definitely true. What can I say? People piss me off. And when I get pissed off, I go all postal. I want to beat the crap out of them. I know that my mom has been trying to talk Michael into sending me to some shrink for my—what was the word she used? Oh, yes—rage, because I heard them talking about it one night. He said that God would fix it and that I just needed to keep going to Sunday school. Fuck him. What he doesn’t know is that every time I look at my Sunday-school teacher, it makes mewantto go postal. Seeing her definitely does not fix my “rage issue.” It aggravates the hell out of it.

I hang around the house for a few more hours, make myself some dinner, and watch a couple ofLaw and Orderreruns. A little before eight o’clock, I run upstairs and change into a better pair of jeans and a clean shirt. I decide on the one that Jack says makes me look older. I put on a little eyeliner and mascara and brush out my hair. I’m skinny, yes, but I think Jack is right. This shirt does make me look older. Sixteen, at least.

Ricky is pretty well trashed when he picks me up, but I don’t say anything because I don’t want to start a fight right now. Chances are, he’ll pass out halfway through the movie anyway, and then I’ll only have to put up with Evan, and he isn’t half as bad as Ricky. In fact, Evan’s a half-decent guy when Ricky isn’t around. It’s as if Ricky’s presence instantaneously turns Evan into some kind of stupid minion. I hate it.

As I open the car door, thinking about Ricky’s flair for brotherly manipulation, a memory comes crashing into me, one that almost keeps me from going with them. It was the summer after my mother married Michael, and my brothers and I were still pretty close. Michael had just begun to weave his way in between us. My brothers and I were playing in the creek behind the house, throwing stones and swimming. It was my turn to swing out on a rope and drop down into the water, but I was afraid and I didn’t let go in time. Instead of falling into the water, I dropped on to the ground. My leg scraped against a stump, and I knocked my head hard enough to give myself a ringing concussion. I was crying when my mother came rushing from the back porch. She knelt down beside me and brushed my hair out of my eyes, asking me if I was all right. My brothers were looking down at me, their faces streaked with worry, their fingers fidgeting.

Then I heard Michael’s voice. He was walking toward us, asking what I did this time, sighing as if my falling was the biggest hassle he’d ever faced. As soon as my brothers heard his voice, their faces changed. They stepped back away from me and tightened their expressions, replacing their worry with casual indifference. Toughening themselves up. Michael walked up to us and put a hand on each of their shoulders, telling my mother how clumsy I was, berating me for being dumb enough to forget to let go of the rope. I was scared, I told him, not dumb. When he asked my brothers if they thought that their little sister was being dumb, Ricky looked up at Michael and enthusiastically nodded his head. Then he elbowed Evan in the ribs until the pair of them were nodding and smiling at Michael like a pair of twin cronies begging for his approval. As they walked away from me and my mother, I saw Evan peek back, and for a split second, a small, sympathetic grin flashed at me. It was the first time I felt betrayed.

In the years since then, betrayal and duplicity have become second nature to my brothers, and I’ve been stung by them more times than I can count. I’ve learned to distance myself from them, to shut them out whenever possible. Tonight, however, shutting them out is not an option. Unless I want to get into a huge fight. Which I do not.

I get in the backseat and buckle up.

We stop by Evan’s apartment to pick him up, and he fist-bumps Ricky as soon as he gets into the car, then turns around and gives me a nod. I think for a few moments that maybe it will be a decent night after all. But then Ricky pulls out of the parking lot and turns left, away from the theater and toward the university. Ricky and Evan start talking, and their conversation makes it clear that we aren’t going to see a movie. We’re going to a party. A fraternity party.

Ricky looks at my reflection in the rearview mirror and starts talking to me. He says all sorts of shit about where we are going and how I am supposed to behave while we are there. I wonder what my Sunday-school teacher would think about my going to a college party. I’m silently laughing at the thought of it all when we pull up to the house.

I am going to my first fraternity party at thirteen years old. I am both nervous and excited. Ricky’s behavior lecture was pretty clear. I can drink, I can smoke, I can dance...but I cannot tease his friends. I believe his exact words were: “If you are going to flirt with my friends, then you damn well better be prepared to put out. Nobody likes a dick-tease, Emma.” Uh, I am thirteen years old, you asshole. Putting out is not on the evening’s agenda.

There are about a million people in the house. The floor is sticky, and I can barely hear myself think over the pulsating music. Evan introduces me to their friend Lainey who decides to take me under her wing. She grabs my hand and hauls me to the basement for a beer. My brothers disappear to God-knows-where. At least in the basement the music is quieter. People are playing Ping-Pong with cups of beer lined up on the table. They are shooting pool. They are bouncing quarters off the table and into full cups of beer. It is a brand-new wonderland, and I can’t stop watching them. They are all laughing and talking, and there is no awkwardness. There are no social bystanders. Only people having fun. I have been to a few high school parties with Jack, and I can tell you that they are nothing like this. High school parties are freak shows of self-consciousness. Everyone is too busy caring about what everyone else is thinking. This, though...this is different. Suddenly I cannot wait to get to college. Screw Jack Darris. I want a boy like these boys. One who doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. One who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything but being himself.

Lainey comes back with a couple of beers and starts chattering with a bunch of other girls. I am left to my own devices in the basement of my brothers’ fraternity house, and before I know it, I am playing quarters and drunk off my ass. Nobody asks me who I am or how old I am or why I am here. They just feed me their beer and their laughter and treat me like I am their very best friend.

At three in the morning everyone starts to filter out of the house. The music has stopped, and the kegs are kicked. Through my beer-bleary eyes, I watch couples leave together. I watch groups of girls walk arm-in-arm out the door. I watch boys stagger down the front walk and out on to the street. I feel euphoric, and I don’t quite think it’s entirely due to the beer. I want to skip over the next five years of my life and get right to the good part. I want Ricky and Evan to bring me back here again.

As I stumble around trying to find them, two boys come up behind me and hook their arms into mine, one on each side. I think for a second that they might be my brothers, but then I realize they are far too cute to be Ricky and Evan. They are laughing at me, and I think it is because I am not at all walking straight. I feel sloppy and small between them. The boys take me up the stairs to where the bedrooms are. I am leaning on them hard, and my head is wagging from side to side. I try to look up, but my neck feels like jelly. When we get to the top of the steps, I see Ricky. He is standing with his arm around Lainey’s shoulder, and there is a big smile on his face. I can hear him laughing at me. Laughing at his drunk-off-her-ass thirteen-year-old sister. I want to punch him in the fucking face, but I can’t because my two escorts have turned left and are walking me down the hallway.

Then from behind me I hear: “I warned you, Emma.” And more laughing.

Chapter Five

Emma—Present Day

I wake to a scraping sound. I look around my room, bleary-eyed and blinking. The light is coming in between the blind slats, and it’s far brighter than it should be for so early in the morning. I glance at my bedside table and see my mother’s sweet face nestled tightly against my own. The picture never fails to make me smile. I can’t contain the rush of memories the image brings, and I take a moment to collect my thoughts before I check my alarm clock. Shit. It isn’t early at all. It’s nearly nine-thirty.

As I swing my feet to the floor and sit up, I hear the scraping sound again. What is that? I wipe my face with my hands, rub my eyes, and run my fingers through my hair. I can’t believe how rested I feel, and I still have the whole weekend to relax before I’m off to my new office on Monday. I stand up slowly and head to the bathroom. I desperately need to brush my teeth.

I enter the bathroom, and out of habit, I almost shut and lock the door behind me. But then I remember that I live alone now, and I don’t have to close the door if I don’t want to. I leave it open and smile at myself in the mirror. I brush my teeth, splash some warm water on my face, and sit down to have a pee. As I head to the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee, I hear the scraping sound again. I stop in the hallway, and hear a series of smaller, quieter scraping sounds. They are coming from the kitchen.

Without thinking twice, I round the corner into the kitchen, and there on the floor on his hands and knees is David. What the fuck? How did he get in here? He looks over at my feet, and in what seems like slow motion, his eyes make their way up my body to my face. I can see that he is spreading some kind of thick glop on to the bare floor and scraping it out with a flat trowel. A few rows of tiles are positioned on top of the glop with little plastic X’s in between them. He looks up at me as if he wants to say something, but he doesn’t open his mouth. I think he can see my skin starting to burn.

“What the fuck, David?” I shout. “What are you doing here? Don’t you know how to fucking knock? Jesus Christ. You scared the shit out of me.”

“You couldn’t have been too scared, since you stopped for a piss on your way out.”

Oh, my fucking God! I want to kick him in the face.

“And for the record,” he says, “I did knock, but I also have a key, so when you didn’t answer, I let myself in. I’m not going to miss half a day’s work just because you sleep like a fucking rock.”

Now Ireallywant to kick him in the face. “You have a key to my apartment? What the hell.” I swear I am going to punch Carl in the teeth the next time I see him. I am enraged. David is now sitting back on his feet with his hands on his thighs. He is calm as fuck and looking right at me.

“I can’t imagine what the hell would possess you to think it would be okay for you to come in here—without my permission—while I am sleeping!” I am screaming at him, and my skin is searing.

“I did tell you I was coming back today, Emma,” he says, barely loud enough for me to hear. “And we had lunch together and a decent conversation. I honestly didn’t think it would be a problem.” He is looking up at me, and even though he is fully collected, I can see that crazy current running through him again. Damn it. He did this on purpose. He came in here, without my permission, just to watch the fireworks. Well played, David. And, Emma, you are a fool.

I want nothing more than to tell him to fuck off, but I know that is precisely what he wants. So instead, I try to rein myself in. “Well...itisa problem, David,” I say as coolly as I can.

“Well...then I won’t do it again, Emma,” he adds, almost penitently. He is still on his knees looking at me, and all I can do is sigh and shake my head. I am furious with myself for not recognizing his game and letting him get the best of me. And I am furious with him for coming in here and making me feel this way.

I suddenly want to be by myself, to let the adrenaline run its course. I don’t want to look at the wreckage of my kitchen. Or at him. Or at those damn birds. “I’m going to take a shower, David,” I say with blatant resignation in my voice. “Please, tell me you don’t have a key for that door, too.” He smiles a wicked, closed-mouth grin, and I can tell that he has found my whole incensed reprimand quite satisfying. Bastard.

“I’m sorry, Emma. Really. I won’t come in here again without you opening the door.” I can’t believe it, but he actually loses the grin and drops his eyes to the floor as he says it. I can’t quite tell if it’s real remorse I hear in his voice or if it’s just part of the game.

I shower, dress and fix my hair and makeup, all while attempting not to lose my temper. I have so much to do this weekend, and I try to focus on creating a mental list of the items I’d like to check off. I consider adding “Ask Carl to change the door lock” to my list, but since David is his maintenance guy, he’d probably just give him a copy of the new key anyway. Eventually, I come out of the bathroom and walk toward the kitchen to get some breakfast. I smell coffee.

“I made some coffee,” David says as I turn the corner. “I just used the bag of Dunkin’ sitting next to the coffeemaker. I hope you don’t mind.” Of course I mind, you arrogant ass. This is not your apartment. That is not your coffee. You don’t even know how strong I like my Dunkin’.

“That’s very nice of you, David. Thanks.” I walk over to the coffeepot. It is sitting on a place mat on the little table in the living room. Sitting next to it are two mugs, which I do not recognize, a spoon, a cup of milk from the fridge, and a bunch of tiny packets of sugar. I don’t have any tiny packets of sugar, so I immediately wonder where they came from. “Oh, wow,” I say. “Quite the setup.”

“Yeah, I couldn’t find your mugs or your sugar, so I ran up to my place to get some.” He shrugs and then adds, “At least I waited a half hour before I broke my promise not to come into your apartment without you opening the door. I make a mean cup of coffee, though, so I think you’ll find it was worth the risk.” Ugh.

I pour a cup for each of us and notice that he takes his black. I usually do, too, but I feel strangely guilty about not using any of the sugar he went upstairs for. I tear open one of the packets and pour it into my coffee.

“Just so you know, your new cabinets and countertops are going to be delivered today,” he says. “They said we should expect them sometime this afternoon. If you’ve got shit to do, I’ll be here all day, so don’t feel like you have to stick around. I’m not going to steal anything, especially since you know where I live, and I’m not into trying on your panties or anything like that. I promise.” He puts his hands up in surrender as he says the last sentence.

“Will it only take a half hour for you to break that promise, too?” I ask. “Cause I don’t want my panties all stretched out.” The image of David wearing a pair of my panties pops into my mind, and I have to try hard not to laugh out loud.

“Very funny,” he says. “But thanks for the compliment.”

“It wasn’t a compliment.”

“Oh, yes, it was,” he says with an expression full of innuendo. “Look, I know you’re probably still really mad at me about this morning, and I get it. Really I do. I didn’t think about the whole woman-living-alone thing when I came in. I just want to finish your kitchen for you. I want you to be happy here, and I know how you girls like a fine-ass kitchen.”

He wants me to be happy here? Why? “A fine-ass kitchen? Is that what you’re doing in there?” I ask, pointing to the massive mess.

“Yes, Emma, it is,” he sighs. “I know you didn’t ask for all this, but I’m doing it because it’s what I am good at.”

“Okay,” is all I can think to say. “But the whole panty thing is irrelevant anyway because everything I have to do today is right here in this apartment. I don’t have anywhere to go, so you’re stuck with me all day. And, no, I will not help you with anything. But, yes, you can use my head whenever you need to.”

“Thanks,” he says.

“And thank you for the coffee.” I walk away from him and over to a box of food on the living room floor. I pull out two breakfast bars and toss one to him. He catches it and retreats to the kitchen.

* * *

I put my iPod in the dock and ask David what kind of music he would like to hear.

“Whatever you like,” he says. “It’s your place.”

I decide on Killing Heidi, a now-defunct Australian band that my college roommate was nuts about.

I spend the next hour unpacking. I empty all the boxes in the bathroom and organize my towels and toiletries in the linen closet. I hope David didn’t mean it when he said that he will make me a new bathroom after their next poker game. I like the bathroom just the way it is. I joke to myself that I’d better not let my fake grandma in here.

I am making my way out to the living room when the album ends.

“How about you pick out something you want to hear now?” I say. “You’re working here, too, and I don’t want to force you to listen to my crap all day.”

“I liked that last one. I used to listen to that album when I was living in New Orleans.”

Oh. “New Orleans, huh? What was that like?” I ask, my voice traveling through the living room wall and into the kitchen.

“A hot mess. I hated it there. Too many drunks and a fucked-up girlfriend,” he answers casually. I want to ask him more, but I don’t because I’m not sure I really want to know.

He walks out of the kitchen, pulling his iPhone out of his back pocket. I watch the birds move as he takes my iPod out of the dock and puts in his phone. After a moment, the music starts. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. I don’t know who it is, but she’s one hell of a singer. David looks over at me, and I raise my eyebrows in question.

“Feist,” he says on his way back into the kitchen.

Somehow, David listening to this kind of music is amusing to me, and I am glad he is back in the kitchen. I don’t want him to see my smile.

I open the rest of the boxes in the living room and finish filling the bookcase with my favorite novels and some college textbooks I can’t bear to part with. David is still working in the kitchen when the door buzzer rings.

“Ah,” he says. “That’ll be the cupboards then. Would you mind letting them in? I’ve got my hands full of spackle in here.”

“Sure.” I head over to the intercom just as the music ends and slide the door release button. I walk over to the apartment door and open it to wait for the deliveryman, who I can hear walking up the steps. I am looking back into the apartment waiting for David to come out when I hear a voice.

“Hi, Emma.”

My head whips around, and Michael is in my face. That filthy fucker. The moment I see him, my heart drops into my gut, sinking me deep into a well of fear and rage. The sick, burning taste of bile rises up in my throat, and a surge of hate-fueled adrenaline rips through me, causing an instant rush of panic to streak across every nerve in my body. I immediately step backwards into the apartment and try to close the door on him, but his hand is sprawled out on it, holding it open. He is standing just inside the doorway.

“Nice place, Emma.” His eyes quickly scan the room. Then they examine me from head to toe, and a split second later, they land on my eyes. It makes me sick.

“What the fuck are you doing here, Michael?” I say with forced calm.

“I just wanted to see you. Did you get the boxes I sent?” His voice is cold.

“Yes.” I know he wants me to thank him for sending them, but my mouth is refusing. He wants me to say “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” But I am not a ten-year-old anymore, and he can’t make me.

“Were you going to thank me for going through all that effort?”

“No, Michael, I was not.” Oh,thatis not going to make him happy. “You need to leave now.”

“But I just got here, Emma. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“Michael, you are the last person I would ever invite into this apartment. Get the fuck out of here.” My skin prickles with energy, and the anger in my throat is fueling my words, making them sound far stronger than I feel. I promised myself I would knock him in the balls if he ever showed up here, but even though I am no longer a child, I can’t bring myself to do it.

Michael steps inside defiantly, closing the door behind him. He is walking toward me. “Emma, your mom told me to look out for you and your brothers after she died. How can I do that if you won’t let me in?” He pauses and looks at me with his twisted-up smile. “God, you know, you look just like her. Except you...you don’tactlike your mother at all. She was a woman who knew how to be a lady. She knew when to shut up and do what she was told. You, on the other hand, you are a fighter, Emma. Youneverdo what you’re told. You’re too strong for your own good, and I know you’re already aware of precisely what kind of trouble that can get you into.” He raises his hand and skims his fingertips down the length of my arm. It sends a wave of nausea through me. “I miss her, you know.”

“Get out.” I spit at him. I push his hand away and straighten my body.

A snarky chuckle escapes from his closed mouth, and he grabs my arm with his hand. My other hand immediately starts to claw at him as I try to pull away.

“Come on, Emma. You don’t want to fight with your dad now, do you?”

“You are not my dad, Michael. Fuck you. Let me go.” My voice is no longer steady. It’s cracked and weak. I want to scream.

Then I hear a slow clicking noise behind me. Michael looks over my shoulder and lets go of my arm immediately. I turn to see David leaning casually against the kitchen doorway with his arms crossed over his chest. He’s taken off his shirt, as if he’s ready for a fight. David is shaking his head gently and clicking his tongue as if he were softly scolding a naughty child. His dark eyes are pinned to Michael’s. There is absolute control in his every move. A smile begins to form on Michael’s lips, and I’m not quite sure what it means.

David drops his arms, steps away from the wall, cocks his head to the side, and narrows his eyes. But he doesn’t take them off of Michael’s. He stops the clicking and starts to smile himself. His moves are so deliberate and slow. I think he is calculating something.


Page 4

Michael raises his eyebrows, his eyes remaining on David. “Jesus, Emma. You’ve only lived here what, three days, and already there’s a man in your apartment? Isn’t that a little quick, even for you?”

David is walking leisurely towards me, still looking only at Michael. When he reaches my side, he very slowly snakes his hand across my lower back, curling his fingers around my waist and pressing me to his side. It is a sign of possession. Michael recognizes it immediately and steps back.

“She asked you to get the fuck out,” David says, almost peacefully. “I think you should listen. And if you have half a brain in your body, you willstaythe fuck away from her.”

Michael smirks in acknowledgment of David’s threat and raises his hands in capitulation. He walks to the door, opens it and steps out. He turns to David and says, “Whoever you are, young man, I want you to know that you are getting what you deserve. That girl and her stupid fucking attitude are all yours.” I can hear Michael going down the steps and out the front door.

David releases my hip and strides over to the apartment door to slam it shut. By the time he turns back around, I have dropped to my knees. My mouth is open, and I am staring at him. He is standing above me, his arms sheathed in birds and his chest nothing but bare flesh.

“Turn around,” I whisper, and he does. His entire back is covered with the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. A magnificent phoenix, with gnarled wings and a crooked body, reaches across his shoulder blades and down his sides. Its feathers are saturated with color. Its sinewy tail wraps under David’s arm and curls into the flesh at his side. Brilliant flames emerge from the waistband of his jeans and lick the bird’s talons. I have no words for the creature twisting and writhing across his skin. I stare at it, soaking it in.

David turns around to face me. I am on the floor in front of him, and I want nothing more than to weep. He reaches for my shoulders and helps me up. Once I am standing, he wraps his arms around me, lifts me up, cradling me like a child. I take my eyes off his, and my face sinks into his bare shoulder. He carries me down the hallway and lays me on the bed.

Standing next to the bed, he leans over me, his hands braced on the mattress.

“I will not let him touch you ever again.”

Chapter Six

David takes off his black work boots, and slides into bed next to me. His feet extend beyond mine, but our eyes are even. He wraps his arms around my shoulders, hugging me tight against his bare chest. He doesn’t let me go, but he pushes himself up toward my headboard, so his chin rests on the top of my head. My face sinks into his neck, and I start to cry. Relief swirls through me.

“I know all about assholes like him, Emma,” he murmurs. And I openly sob against his body. I feel sad for David. Sad that he has to know this about me. Sad about what he heard. Sad that he knows how damaged I am. I do not want his pity.

I don’t know how long I cry, but it is a cathartic, religious experience. When I finally stop, he remains frozen. I know he isn’t asleep because I can feel him swallow from time to time. But he is so still, I am afraid to move. I don’t want him to release me because I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know what he will do next. I am just so tired. I close my eyes.

* * *

I wake up to soft light outside my window. How long have I been asleep? Is it morning or evening? I glance at my alarm clock, and it says 7:30 p.m. Fuck. I slept the entire afternoon. Then I remember why I was so tired, and the memory of Michael’s hand on me makes me feel sick inside. David is gone, and I think to myself that he is probably never coming back, that Carl will have to hire someone else to finish my kitchen. I feel beat up.

But I am not sad about Michael anymore. Instead, I am furious that he came here to try to scare me. To do God knows what to me. My hate for that man crawls through me again, burning and scarring. It was splendid, though, to watch David ruffle him. I don’t think I have ever seen anything so satisfying in my life.

As I climb out of bed, I realize that I’m starving. I haven’t had anything to eat since the breakfast bar and sugared coffee this morning. I wonder how I will navigate my kitchen floor if it is still covered in glop.

I stop in the bathroom for a pee. “Oh, man,” I sigh as I look at myself in the mirror. My eyes are bloated and raw, and my eyeliner and mascara are smudged across my freckled cheeks. I quickly wash my face and rub some lotion around my eyes. I swipe on some ChapStick because my lips are puffed up like a harlot’s. I look like hell.

When I get to the end of the hallway, I see three massive boxes sitting in my living room. On top of them are two sections of blue countertop. There is also a large toolbox sitting there and a plastic briefcase-like thing with black clasps holding it shut. I forgot about the delivery. Shit, did I actually sleep through all this? If this kind of noise didn’t wake me, then it’s no surprise that I missed David’s knock this morning. Suddenly I regret yelling at him about it.

I can see that he’s left all his tools here, and it makes me sigh with relief. It looks as if he is coming back to finish the kitchen after all, and that makes me feel very, very happy. I owe him one hell of a thank you.

Then I notice something sitting on the table. I walk over and see two water bottles and a pizza box with a note on top. I pick it up and read.

Emma—

Shit,girl,you do sleep like a fucking rock.

I’m glad you didn’t wake when my cell phone rang,

or when I got out of bed,

or when the door buzzer sounded,

or when we unloaded the delivery,

or when I went upstairs three times to get my tools,

or when the pizza delivery guy came.

But I’m especially glad you didn’t wake when I went back into your room and tried on all your panties—becausethatwould have been embarrassing for us both.(They are pretty hot,by the way...but not so much on me.)

Ifigured you would be hungry when you woke up,and you can’t walk on the kitchen floor until tomorrow,so I took yet another liberty and ordered a pizza.You’ll notice my half is already gone.Ithought you might not be reading this until tomorrow—you were pretty fucking tired.

And just so you know,I’m not coming by tomorrow because I have other plans,but my cell is 230-693-2261.Iwant you to call or text me if you need anything at any time.And DO NOT,UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES,LET ANYONE INTO THIS APARTMENT BUILDING WITHOUT KNOWING WHO IT IS FIRST!Use your peephole for Christ-sake!

And promise me you’ll be especially careful if it is some other guy wearing a tool belt.

Good night(or good morning?),Emma.

David

Jesus. I read it again because I can’t believe his words. For whatever reason—or maybe a bunch of them—I am wearing a shit-eating grin when I finish. He isn’t completely freaked out about the Michael thing. And, I’m pretty damned sure that this is flirting and not mocking. Was that what he was doing this whole time, and I was just too busy being angry to see it? God, I hope he is kidding about seeing my panties.

I sit down and set to work on the pizza. It is cold but delicious. Rather than open a bottle of water, I get up and hunt in one of the kitchen boxes for a bottle of wine and the corkscrew. After a brief search, I find both. I fetch David’s coffee mug and pour out the dregs, rinsing it out in the bathroom sink and smiling at myself in the mirror.

Back at the table, I pour myself a hearty mug of wine and pick up my phone. I press the text messaging icon and type in David’s cell phone number.

Emma here. Thx for the pizza...and the rescue.

I press Send and go back to my wine and pizza. Before I can even take another sip, my phone buzzes.

U r welcome. U ok?

Yes. U?

Of course. That bastard is your stepdad?

Sadly, yes.

I wanted to beat the fuck out of him.

I wanted you to beat the fuck out of him.

Next time.

Please.

R u eating?

Yes. And drinking.

What?

Wine. In your mug.

Excellent.

What r u doing?

Hanging with friends.

Where?

Upstairs.

Have fun.

Lemme know if you need anything, anytime Emma. I mean it.

Ok.

I’ll call u tomorrow about Monday.

Me and my panties will b waiting.

I cannot believe what I just typed. Several seconds go by before my phone buzzes again.

I hope they r the light blue ones with the black lace...

Shit. I think maybe he did see my panties. I run back to my bedroom and open my underwear drawer. I can’t tell if they have been disturbed or not, but on top of the pile are a pair of light blue panties with black lace trim. This should piss me off. This should make my skin burn. This should make me want to punch him in the face. But it doesn’t.

Next thing I know, I am standing by my dresser quickly taking off all my clothes. I pull the light blue panties out of the drawer and slide them up my legs. Then I put on the matching bra and plump my breasts into the cups. I go to my closet to find my favorite dark green dress and drop it down over my head, smoothing it over my hips. I am not going to wear shoes. Then I go into the bathroom and brush my teeth and hair. I hastily put on eyeliner and mascara and more ChapStick. I raise my eyebrows at my reflection and wonder what the hell I am doing.

Before I can think any more about it, I am going upstairs in my bare feet. Two floors up. Right above mine. When I get to his door, I stop. Seriously, Emma. What the fuck are you doing? You’re nuts.

And then I hear the music coming out of his apartment. It is pounding and warped, and it sounds far more like “David music” than what I heard earlier. I don’t hear any voices, though, but maybe that’s because of the music. I take a deep breath and knock on the door. I wait, but no one answers, so I knock again, a little louder this time. Still, no answer.

He came into my apartment this morning without my permission, so I decide to do the same to him. I put my hand on the knob and twist.

The door opens. I look inside, but there is no one there. He’s got two brown sofas, a coffee table, and a flat-screen TV. There is a lamp on a table in the corner, but other than that, the room is dark. The music is coming from down the hall, and it isn’t as loud as I thought. I close the door behind me and walk in. As I head down the hallway, I can hear people talking. They are in the bedroom, and the door is open. I can only hear male voices...maybe a half dozen or so, and one of them is definitely David’s. I can’t understand what they are saying, but it is clear that they are having a good time. I stand just outside his open door. It’s dark in the hallway, and there is only a bedside lamp on in his room. The five of them are sitting around the room, one on the bed and the rest on various chairs, and all but the one on the bed has his back to me. David is sitting in a wooden chair with his feet up on the end of the bed. I lean against the doorjamb and cross my arms over my chest. The music is loud but not so loud that they can’t hear each other talking. It takes a moment for the one on the bed to see me there, but once he does, he doesn’t look away.

“David,” he says, raising his chin in my direction, “you’ve got a guest.”

They all turn to look at me. I am looking right at David, and I can see that he is shocked as hell. His feet drop off the bed as his upper body turns towards me.

“Emma,” he says. Everyone else is quiet.

I drop my arms and walk toward him slowly, keeping my eyes on his. When I reach his chair, I hike my dress up over my hips and raise my leg over his thighs. I stand straddling him for a second before I sit down in his lap, snug against his body and looking right into his eyes. I slowly run my hand across his shoulder and up the side of his neck, curling my fingers into his hair. Then I put my mouth on his.

He kisses me back immediately, pushing his tongue into my mouth and holding me by my hips. I slowly push my pelvis against him, and he moves his hands down to my ass and then along my bare legs to my knees. He pulls his mouth away from mine and, looking into my eyes, shouts, “Get the fuck out!” But I know he is not talking to me.

I have no idea if everyone leaves, and frankly, right now I don’t give a fuck if they all stay. My eyes are on David. He puts his mouth back on mine, and I can taste his skin and his lips and his tongue. They taste of confidence and control. I curve into him again. This time he pushes back against me, and I feel him through his jeans. His hands move up my sides and slip softly across my neck to the back of my head. The movement sends a shiver down my spine and my entire body echoes. I feel a hint of a smile in his kiss, so I grind my hips against him again and then pull my mouth away from his. I lift off his shirt, and he begins to kiss my neck, tugging my hair gently to the side. A bead of lust runs through me, dashing through my brain and steeling my confidence. David pulls my dress up over my head and drops it on the floor. Then he unhooks my bra and slides the straps down my arms, looking at my breasts and then at my eyes. I tilt my head back, arching my spine and wordlessly begging him to touch me everywhere. I am completely exposed, but somehow, it feels right. The risk feels right.

“Emma,” he says again, as his hands slide across my body, running up my stomach and over my breasts. The fire under my skin dances and burns. He pulls me back to him and kisses me again. It is deep and purposeful.

When the kiss ends, I push his hands off me playfully and get off his lap. The music is still playing, and I see a wicked grin of belated recognition cross his lips as he looks down at the light blue panties. I drop to my knees in front of him, open his button, and pull down his zipper. His eyes are filled with surprise and anticipation and need. He is hard, and he pushes himself against my hand. I bend down and put my mouth over him, sucking hard. He continues to rock his hips forward slowly and rhythmically, forcing himself deeper into my mouth each time he moves. I can hear him breathing. I can hear his want. With each exhale, the rush of air sends a small murmur of pleasure out through his parted lips. The sound of it makes my body sing.

I can tell he is getting close, but I stop because I want more. I stand back up. He sits forward and grabs me by the hips, pulling me straight toward him. He hooks his fingers into the black lace border of my panties and slides them down, sprinkling small kisses across my lower stomach as he does. With each one of those kisses, a morsel of my self-doubt disintegrates. Everything inside me is awash with nervous energy because a man I hardly know stood up for me. A man I hardly know showed me that I am worth something. Showed me that I am worth fighting for. I straddle his lap again. He still has his jeans on and the added friction feels delicious against my skin.

He grips my waist and pushes himself into me. Our eyes align, and we kiss, his pace quickening as I curve my hips into him. I am nearly ready to burst as his hips rise hard and slow, again and again.

My mouth is just outside his ear, and I am breathing in stops and starts. When I come, my exhale releases a soft sigh, and I can feel his body tense beneath mine. My breath is heavy now, my eyes closed, and I can feel my heart pounding against my ribs. He holds me there as he quietly whispers my name against my neck.

“Again,” I say.

A second later he is standing up, gripping me by my ass. I wrap my legs around his hips. He is looking at me, still inside me, and I am sick with want. My body is vibrating with it. David walks to the wall and pushes me against it. I’m pinned there, my back sliding up and down the wall with each thrust, my arms wrapped around his back, fingers digging into his shoulder blades. He lowers his mouth to mine, and as our tongues tangle again, his pace intensifies. He tilts my hips forward. It is deeper now, and I can feel his every movement. Fuck.


Page 5

“David,” I whisper. “Go.” He continues pushing into me until I shatter in waves around him. The last few remaining morsels of self-doubt have not only disintegrated, they have imploded. All because of him. I open my mouth to say something, but all that comes out is my breath. His face is against my neck, his lips on my skin, and on his last push into me, his breath stutters. I hear both wonder and reverence in the sound.

David leans into me for a moment until our bodies steady. Then, with his hands still on my hips and my legs around him, he carries me back over to the chair and sets me down. I sit there with my head bowed and my hands on my knees, still breathing roughly. I can feel his eyes on me, but I don’t look up. His bare feet and his black jeans are in front of me, and I hear his zipper close. A second later he is kneeling on the floor before me, pushing himself between my open legs and laying his head on my lap. His arms are spread out and hanging off the sides of my hips.

The phoenix is stretched out over my lap, rising and falling as he breathes.

Chapter Seven

Sarah

I am standing on this damn bridge, and it is ridiculously cold, but David thinks this is going to be a great way to get back at my dad for being such a jerk, so here I am. David is still over at my car getting the stuff out of the trunk while I am standing here in the wind freezing my ass off. Damn me for not wearing my parka. My dad is going to completely freak out over our little stunt. I cannot wait to see the look on his face when he shows up.

David has a wicked mind and I love it. We have pulled off a lot of pranks together, but this one is going to be exceptional. It’s going to be even better than when we stole Debra Gilbert’s car from the school parking lot. Man, she was pissed, but it was one of the best moments of my life. She totally deserved it, too. The way she treats Zack is so cruel. I mean, who does she think she is to treat him like that? I told David we should have painted her car orange or something, but he thought that stealing it would be better. And he was right; it was. Watching her bawl like a little baby in the parking lot was so much more than satisfying. I think I actually even saw David smile that day, and Ineversee him smile.

Today’s little act of revenge is going to feel so good. I mean, when David and I got our matching falcon tattoos, it was pretty sweet, but since my dad still doesn’t know about it, I can’t say the revenge factor is as rewarding as I wanted it to be. This, though...this, my dad is going to know about, big-time. And he is going to shit a brick over it. I can’t wait.

Sometimes I cannot believe that David and I have been dating for five months now. Well, I’m not sure you would actually call what we do “dating,” per se, but still, we’ve been together since the fall. No one knows about us though, because my dad wouldkillme if he found out I have a boyfriend. And he would really flip out if he knew I was sneaking out my window nearly every night to meet up with him. The funny thing is that David and I don’t really actuallydoanything together. Mostly we just smoke cigarettes and talk about shit. He’s only kissed me a couple of times. His dad seems like a bigger asshole than mine, so sometimes I think he just wants to get the hell out of his house. Things there seem pretty out of control, and I know how much David likes to keep his life in check. His mom died when he was just a little kid, and it kind of seems as if he’s never gotten over it. I think it must have really sucked.

School is pretty shitty for me. I hate this town, I hate my teachers, I hate the principal, and I especially hate the other kids. David is the only one who matters. I met him right after I moved here. It was the end of summer, and he was hanging out with his friends on the basketball court at school. My mom and dad made me go to some stupid new student orientation, but right after they dropped me off, I left. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the meeting before it even started. I went outside and sat on the bleachers to have a smoke. I watched them play basketball for a while, and when they were done, David came over to bum a cigarette. The rest is history.

I can’t believe how crazy this is. I look over the edge of the bridge and imagine myself doing this for real. Life would have to be really, really fucking messed up for me to do something like that, though. Even though my dad is a hard-ass and my mom is Martha Fucking Stewart, I know that it’s not going to be like this forever. I know that when I go to college, everything will change. Life will be different, and I can leave all this high school bullshit behind me.

David is really serious about pulling off our plan. As usual, he’s thought of every detail. We even stopped at the hardware store on our way over here, and he made me run in and buy a bunch of rope and some sandbags to make it look as if I’m actually going to do this. And I am trying to make myself cry, which is way harder than it seems. If it doesn’t sound real, my dad won’t believe it, and he’ll probably just stay home. For the plan to work, my dad has to come to the bridge and find me here, with the sandbags on my feet, ready to jump. I muster up some tears and lay it on thick.

“Hi, Dad. I just wanted to say goodbye,” I cry into my cell phone. “I’m on Clawsen’s Bridge right now, and I’m going to jump. Don’t bother trying to save me because you can’t. Goodbye.” By the time I hang up, I am laughing my ass off, but David is serious as stone. But then again, he always is. He needs to lighten up.

David makes me use the rope to tie the sandbags on to my own ankles. He says he’s afraid he’ll hurt me if he does it himself. Plus, when my dad comes, it has to look as if I put them on there without any help. David is going to run and hide in the bushes across the street and videotape the whole thing so we can watch it later for laughs. I finally get the rope knotted tight enough, and now we just have to wait for my dad. I only live like ten minutes from here, so he should be here really soon.

David is standing behind me now, and he is joking that he’s going to push me off. He grabs my hips and gives me a little shove. Jesus. My body bends forward, but he snatches my shoulders and pulls me back just before I fall. I punch him in the arm and tell him he’s a dickhead.

He must be really excited about this because he’s smiling. He’s got his hands on my hips again, joking that he’s going to do it for real this time. I smack his hands and tell him it isn’t fucking funny. He’s laughing softly at his little joke, and it’s starting to really piss me off. I tell him to stop it because it’s freaking me out, but he doesn’t. He keeps pushing me forward and then pulling me back at the last second. What the hell, David? I am beyond angry with him, and I try to back away from the bridge, but the bags of sand are so heavy on my feet. I am yelling at him to let me back into the car, telling him this whole plan is ridiculously stupid, and he is a sick motherfucker for teasing me like this. But he isn’t listening. There’s a gritty look in his eyes, one that tells me he’s enjoying his little power trip.

He pushes me again, but this time it’s a lot harder. I feel my body tipping forward, and when it’s nearly parallel to the water, I feel his hand swipe at my arm as if he’s trying to catch me. Only he doesn’t. Then my heavy feet leave the bridge, and again, I feel his hand grabbing at my ankle, but he misses that, too. Fuck. I am falling. My dad is going to be furious.

Chapter Eight

Emma—Present Day

David is sprawled out across my lap, and I’m not sure what to do next. I don’t know how long I’ve been watching the phoenix rise and fall, but I know that it’s been long enough. I place my hands on his back, rubbing the phoenix softly. I am afraid that such an intimate touch might freak him out somehow, but he doesn’t even move.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?” I ask, with more than a touch of irony in my voice.

“No, Emma, I’m not,” he says flatly, his face still pressed against the side of my hip.

“Why not?”

“Because those bastards just saw you lift up your dress, climb on to my lap, and shove your tongue into my mouth. They would fight me to the fucking death for a crack at that.”

“Are you saying you disapprove of what I did?” I ask with a smile that I know he can’t see.

“No, Emma. Quite the opposite. I’m saying I think thateveryonein the room heartily approved of what you did. Those fuckers out there will try their damndest to charm the pants off you, and I don’t even want them to have the chance. So, no, I’m not going to introduce you.”

“Then I’ll just have to introduce myself,” I say. His body lifts immediately, and he sits back on his heels, looking at me with a smirk. I have to say, he looks pretty damn fine after our tryst. His eyes are relaxed, and he seems at ease with himself...and with me.

“Very funny,” he says, still kneeling on the floor in front of me. “I’m serious. My friends are pricks. They’ll tell you lies just to get in your pants—and half of the lies will probably be about me.”

“Does that mean that half of what you say is a lie, too?” I’m only partially teasing.

“They’re my friends, Emma, but they would gouge my eyes out for a girl like you,” he says. “And, no, half of what I say isn’t a lie. None of it is. I don’t need to lie...I have the tool belt.” He shrugs, and a boyish grin tugs at his mouth. I can tell he’s proud of his little joke. I can also tell he is serious about not introducing me to his friends. I immediately think his reluctance to do so is both complimentary and possessive. And, surprisingly, I am okay with both.

“Mmm...the tool belt.” I sigh in a mock sexual thrall. “Do any ofthemwear a tool belt?”

“Again, very funny,” he says while standing up. He looks down at me, his eyes leisurely rolling over my entire body. It makes me feel shy and excited at the same time.

“I think I’d better go now. Would you mind seeing me out?” I say, mustering the courage to stand up fully naked and face him. He looks almost stunned. Did he think I was going to stay here chatting or screwing or whatevering all night while his friends hang out in his living room?

“Um, sure,” he says.

“Just give me a second to get dressed,” I say. He watches me intently as I put on my bra and my dress. Then I reach down, pick up my panties, and casually hang them over the back of his chair. “These you can keep,” I say. His eyebrows go up, and he grins again, but as usual, his lips remain closed. He turns and opens the bedroom door, stepping aside so I can pass.

I breeze down the hallway and out into the living room. Four of David’s friends are on the brown couches and one is sitting on the floor. David, wearing only his black jeans, is just a few steps behind me. I stride right past his friends without making eye contact. But I know they are all looking at me...and I like it.

“Bye, boys,” I say, pleased with the confidence in my voice. I stop just inside the apartment door and wait for David to catch up. Once he’s next to me, I turn and push him into the wall. I hold the back of his neck and press my mouth to his, twisting against his tongue. He pulls me towards him by my waist. We kiss hard, and for a moment, I consider staying for the screwing and whatevering, but then I remember myself and pull away.

He lets go of my waist, and I walk out.

I contemplate standing outside his door to see if I can hear what they say, but then I decide I’d rather not, just in case it isn’t very flattering. I feel pretty damned convinced that David enjoyed that as much as I did, and I don’t want to hear otherwise. I walk my confident self back down the stairs and into my apartment.

It’s only eleven, and because of my impromptu nap this afternoon, I’m not the least bit tired. I take a long shower, washing David off my skin, and get dressed in sweats and a T-shirt. I spend the rest of the evening camped out on the couch watching reruns ofSouth Parkand drinking the rest of the mug wine. I think I occasionally hear someone going down the steps and out the front door, but I’m not about to peek out the window and see. I don’t want David to know I’m still thinking about him.

* * *

The sex, wine and reruns cause me to sleep in way later than I had planned. I haven’t checked anything off my weekend to-do list yet, unless you count the few boxes I unpacked yesterday before Michael showed up. After eating a breakfast bar, I set to the task of unpacking the rest of the boxes. When I am done, the only ones remaining are those from Michael—which I shove to the back of my closet and try to forget—and the ones containing the kitchen stuff that I can’t unpack until David is finished.

I spend the rest of my Sunday doing the mundane. Since I can now walk on the kitchen floor, I make a quick trip to the grocery store for some food, beer and more wine, and make myself a late lunch as soon as I return. Part of me was hoping to run into David while I was out, but then I recalled his note saying that he had plans for the day. When I finish washing my lunch dishes, my phone buzzes. It’s him.

Hi.

Hi back.

What r u doing?

Getting my shit together.

Shit?

Unpacking and grocery store. Going to hang pictures now.

Need my tool belt?

He is flirting again. I want to be coy, but...

U left it here yesterday. I’m wearing it right now.

Is that so?

Yep. And it looks damn fine on me, too.

I’ll bet it does.

Where r u?

Boating with the boys.

Any girls?

Do I really want to know the answer to that?

None wearing a tool belt.

So what r they wearing then?

Nothing that matters to me.

What the hell does that mean? That he isn’t looking at what they are wearing because he doesn’t give a damn, or that they aren’t wearing anything at all?

Define nothing.

It means that it doesn’t matter what they r wearing, or not wearing, as the case may b.

Because...?

Because whatever it is, it isn’t u in those blue panties.

U aren’t going to let any of those girls sit on your lap r u?

No, Emma. I am not.

Because I will kick your fucking ass if u do.

I know.

I slide my phone closed and put it back in my pocket. I can’t believe it, but the thought of David on some boat with a bunch of barely dressed women makes my skin sear. Why? I don’t understand how I can be so jealous when we only spent one night together. And shit, it wasn’t even a night. It was barely an hour. But then I remember our conversation about me meeting his friends. He was jealous, too, wasn’t he? Possessive, even. I’m beginning to wonder where this is all going.

I spend the rest of the afternoon clumsily hanging pictures on the walls, ironing my work clothes for the week, and mapping out the bus route for my morning commute. I am excited and nervous about starting my new job tomorrow. As the evening rolls in, I check my cell phone occasionally to see if David texted. There is nothing, and I am highly disappointed in myself for caring so much. I feel like a damn stooge every time I look at my phone.

I make myself some pasta for dinner and finish the employment paperwork that’s due at the office tomorrow. I hate myself for it, but I’ve been listening for noise on the stairs the entire evening. What the fuck is he doing? He can’t still be on a boat; it’s pitch-dark outside. I don’t want to care about where the hell he is, and honestly, it’s none of my damn business. But I do care...and it’s driving me fucking crazy.

I walk back to my bedroom and pull my pepper spray out of my purse. I carry it back to the living room and put it on top of his tool box. Then I get a piece of paper and place the following message under the spray canister:

David—

Next time you are going to be out late with a bunch of half-naked whores,please take this with you.Feel free to use it liberally.Iknow where to get more.

Emma

PS.Please tell me I don’t have to kick your fucking ass...

It’s midnight now, and I go to bed.


Page 6

Chapter Nine

I am up and out of the apartment by 7:05 because I suspect it will take me a good forty five minutes to get to work. I’ll have to make at least one bus transfer, and until I know the route better, I want to give myself plenty of time. Turns out it takes me a little over fifty minutes to get downtown, and by the time I walk into the office building, I only have a few minutes to spare. I like to be early, though, so I decide to be out the door by 6:50 from here on out.

My new office is just as excellent as I suspected it would be. I’m not overly enthused about sitting in a cubicle all day, but the work I’ll be doing is precisely what I was hoping for. Everyone else working here seems to be very nice—and very normal. I discovered in college that engineering is full of quiet, thoughtful men, which means that I don’t exactly fit in, but their ordinary and orderly nature always felt right to me. Plus, the logicality of the work is therapeutic. Even when I was working on a project in my college classes, my temper never got the best of me. Calculations and design and organization are predictable, which is precisely why I know I am going to be happy here.

After a morning filled with personnel introductions and discussions involving various H.R. formalities, I am assigned my first project. And my first project partner. His name is Matt, and he’s been working here for a little over two years. I have my suspicions that his job is really to keep tabs on me. I’m sure they want to make sure the new girl isn’t a complete fuck-up. But I won’t fuck up on this, or any other project, for that matter, because this...this, I am good at. This I know.

* * *

Soon enough, my first day at work has passed, and I am walking back to the bus stop. The sun is starting to sink behind some of the taller office buildings, and I’m enjoying watching the city move. It’s invigorating, really, to see all the life happening here. I love it.

On the bus ride home my iPod keeps me company. I have managed to escape thoughts of David for most of the day today, and I’m pleased with myself for it. But now I am wondering if he ever made it home last night and if he made it to my kitchen today. I wonder if he read my note.

The bus drops me at the corner, and I walk into the building and up to my apartment. The first thing I notice is the absence of the gigantic boxes in my living room. So he was here. The second thing I notice is that someone has used the vacuum cleaner. My visual of David running the sweeper while wearing his tool belt nearly makes me laugh out loud. Then I walk around the corner and into the kitchen. Oh...seriously?

I slide open my phone, touch the text messaging icon, then David’s name.

What the fuck, David.

His reply comes almost immediately.

What the fuck, what?

Seriously?

Quite.

This is crazy. Carl is going to kill u.

No he won’t.

What is this?

It’s your fine-ass kitchen, Emma.

It’s too fine for this shitty apartment.

I know.

I don’t understand. How did he do all of this in one day? He must have had help. The cabinets are hung and the countertops placed, the walls have been painted a beautiful blue, and a lovely blue-and-white backsplash of hand-painted tiles lines all the counters. And...all the appliances have been replaced. A shiny new stainless steel fridge, dishwasher, and gas range are all staring back at me. Not to mention the new light fixture and the ceramic tiles on the floor. It is indeed a fine-ass kitchen.

Are you going to come down here and teach me how to use it?

Less than a second after I press Send, there’s a knock at the door, and I know it’s him. I take a quick look out the peephole just to be sure, and then open the door.

“Emma,” he says, standing in my doorway. He looks at me carefully from head to toe. His expression is both flustered and surprised. “You look...really great.” Before I can respond, his phone buzzes in his hand. He glances at it quickly and smirks at me. “I don’t think I’m the best person to show you how to use your new kitchen. I just make them. I don’t actually use them.”

“Well, you can come in anyway,” I say. “Did you eat yet?”

“No.”

“Me neither, and I’m starving.” I close the door behind him and walk towards my new kitchen. “I just got some chops at the store yesterday—that is, as long as they were moved to my new fridge. Do you want to stay and have dinner with me?”

“Yeah. That’d be great. But you should know that I’m carrying my pepper spray, and I know how to use it.” He’s flirting again. But I am not in the mood for flirting. I’m itching to know about where he was last night. I only briefly consider my words before I speak.

“Yes, but I’m no half-naked whore, David, so you have nothing to worry about.” It comes out sounding way angrier than I intended. “And, you can rest assured that I will never sit on your lap again. At least not until I know you’re not fucking any of the half-naked whores. I don’t share.” And here I go turning a nice conversation into something else yet again. I have no reason to be, but I’m angry at him for doing whatever it is he did yesterday. But, hell, I don’t even know what exactly he did. And maybe that’s why I’m so pissed. I don’t know anything about this man, and I have already laid my cards on the table. He could be playing me so much more than I already think he is. It makes me feel vulnerable...and there’s nothing I hate more than being vulnerable.

“You’re pissed off that I did something with my friends yesterday? Jesus, do you know how wrong that sounds? We’ve known each other for four days, Emma. Four days.” He’s right and I know it.

“This from a man who wouldn’t even introduce me to his friends because they’d want—and I quote—’a crack at that’.” My skin is getting hot, and I feel a lump of rage growing in my throat. And he is standing there so calm and reasonable. It is making me want to scream.

He stares at me for a minute, and I can see that he is thinking carefully about what to say next. I suddenly realize what a clever man he is. After knowing me only four days, he has figured out that he has a choice. Either he can play his little game and say something that is going to send me over the edge, or he can say something that pulls me back from the brink. My cards really are on the table.

He catches me off guard though, because instead of making one of those choices, he walks away. He sits on the couch, facing away from me. He leans back, clasps his hands behind his head, and crosses his ankles out in front of him. What is this? Because I don’t know what to do, I decide to mimic his actions. I turn my back to him, walk into the kitchen, and start to cook.

Ten minutes later, I have the chops in the grill pan and I’m cutting up some veggies for a salad. I’m bewildered about what happened and why he is still here, sitting on my couch. Not saying a word.

Then he walks into the kitchen.

“I think maybe we’d better just run with this,” he says quietly. “I don’t want to think so much about it.” What the fuck does that mean? “I know why I don’t want to introduce you to my friends, and I know why you don’t want me around any half-naked women. Because we are two of the same, Emma. Because neither one of us likes to share. We shouldn’t have to think about it—the jealousy, I mean. We shouldn’t have to put energy into all that bullshit.”

In my mind, my jaw hits the floor. In reality, I am standing in my fine-ass kitchen holding a pair of tongs, trying to fathom what he has just said. Do I want to do this? I take exactly three seconds to decide if his words mesh with my own feelings.

I drop the tongs, grab his face, and kiss him.

He kisses me back, his hands at the back of my head, pushing my mouth to his. I hear the chops sizzling behind me, and when I smell them starting to char, I pull away and switch off the burner.

David looks at me before turning to walk out of the kitchen. With his back to me, I hear him say, “There isn’t going to be anyone else.”

Chapter Ten

Emma—Age 16

Tonight at my Sweet 16 party, I am going to have sex with Bobby Sarson. I’ve already done it with a couple of other boys, but I think it’s going to be different this time because I really like him, and I’ll bet he’s probably pretty good at it. I know he’s already had sex with Jenny Thomas because her best friend, Susan, told me. I’m on the volleyball team with Susan, and she tells me everything about the two of them. They aren’t together anymore, though, so I’m pretty sure he’ll be into me. He’s a senior and I’m a sophomore, and my brothers always told me that senior boys like sophomore girls the best. They never told me why, but I really don’t care. I can’t wait for tonight.

My mom somehow convinced Michael to let me have a party with both boys and girls for my birthday, and they actually rented a room at a fancy country club for it. All my girlfriends bought new dresses, and the boys have to wear ties and everything. There’s even going to be a DJ. Most of the kids at my school have big Sweet 16 parties, and I just cannot believe I am going to have one, too. I have no idea what my mom had to do to get Michael to agree to this.

At five o’clock, we drive over to the country club and put up some decorations. Then, at six, everyone starts to arrive. I look pretty great in my new dress. I hope Bobby likes it as much as I do. After dinner, the DJ starts, and everyone gets up to dance. I am grateful that my mom and Michael are being cool and have pretty much left us alone. Instead of chaperoning the party, they are sitting in the lobby bar drinking, which somehow doesn’t surprise me at all. Hell, I’ve beenlivingwithout a chaperone since Carol stopped coming five years ago. Why do I need one now?

Now that I’m in high school, my mom and Michael are gone nearly all the time. They go all over the place on these crazy trips for Michael’s job. I’m still not sure exactly what he does, but it is totally awesome having that huge house to myself all the time. Even my brothers are gone. Evan is living out of state, so he’s completely out of the picture, and the other asshole is living with his friend downtown—he’s working in some restaurant as a waiter or something lame like that. Evan is a real fuck-up now. He makes me look like a freggin’ angel. It’s a shame, really, because he used to be such a nice guy. He moved away when Ricky decided not to pay attention to him anymore. Evan said he had better things to do than hang out with his brother anyway. Turns out those “better things” were drugs. He got busted for possession again last year, and Michael refused to bail him out. Evan was really pissed, and Mom and Michael got in a huge fight about it. Michael said two nights in jail was an appropriate punishment for Evan’s actions. I wish my punishments were two nights in jail. That would be way better than the punishments I get. When Michael is around to bust me for some bullshit thing I did wrong, my punishments are way worse. I remember when I was nine and Michael caught me stealing two dollars from my mom’s purse, he locked me up in the attic for a whole Saturday. I wasn’t allowed to have food or water the whole time. He wouldn’t even let me turn on the lights when night came. It was summer, and it was really fucking hot up there. Then there was the time I got in a fight at school with Sadie Wilkinson. She said I was looking at her boyfriend—which I was not, because her boyfriend is Ted Yingst, and he’s not even worth looking at, let alone fighting over. She got up in my face and slapped me. And I was not about to let her get away with that. When the principal called Michael about it, he came down to the school, dragged my ass to the mall, and made me stand at the entrance holding a huge sign that said “I am a terrible daughter” until it was dark outside. I have never been so humiliated in my life. Michael is a cocksucker. I hate him.

The DJ has turned down the house lights and pumped up his colored stage lights. For an older guy, he’s playing pretty good music. I am dancing with some of the girls on the volleyball team, and Susan is prodding me to go talk to Bobby. Every time I look over at him, he’s looking straight at me. And the greatest part is that he doesn’t look away when I glance over at him. He keeps looking at me, which means, of course, that he wants to have sex with me tonight. I knew he would.

By ten o’clock, the room is full of swirling lights, twisted bodies and loud music. Crazy Ava Zimmerman stole some whisky out of her dad’s stash and brought two full bottles with her. Ava is totally rowdy, and I love her. She hid the booze in the trash can in the women’s bathroom. We’ve all been taking turns dashing in there to pour some into our sodas, and I for one am pretty damned buzzed.

The party is supposed to end at eleven o’clock, so I figure if I’m going to make it with Bobby, I’d better get to it. He is sitting with some of his friends, and I walk straight over to him, grab his hand, and pull him out of the room. I have to be careful not to walk through the lobby because my mom and Michael are probably still at the bar. Instead, I drag Bobby down the back hallway and into one of the locker rooms.

I know how to give a blow job because of my brothers. I learned when I was eleven. They were always having their high school friends over to watch porn movies when my mom and Michael were away. Ricky thought it was so fucking funny for me to be there while they were watching those things. They used to tease me relentlessly about it, and most of the time, I would cover my eyes so I didn’t have to see. At the time I thought they were total sickos, but now I’m kind of glad because I know how to do lots of stuff while most of the other girls my age don’t have a clue.

Bobby and I are making out in the locker room, and when I rub up against him, I can feel how much he likes it. I unzip his pants, pull it out, and start messing with him. For some reason he isn’t trying to take off my dress or anything, he is just letting me touch him. I drop to my knees and start sucking him, and he is shaking like a leaf with his hand on the back of my head.

The next thing I know, the lights go on and I hear my mother screaming. Crap. Crap. Crap. I look up at Bobby, and his eyes are wide open. In an instant, he has tucked himself back into his pants and is rushing out of the locker room. I turn my head around after him and see that he is face-to-face with Michael.

“Don’t worry, son,” Michael says to Bobby, putting his hands on Bobby’s shoulders, “I know what a manipulative little thing she is. It’s not your fault she dragged you in here. You go ahead back to the party. We’ll be there in a minute.” But I know that it isn’t true. I will not be going back to the party. I want Bobby to stand up for me, to tell Michael that he’s wrong, but I know he’s not going to. Why would he? Even my own mother won’t.

Michael turns to her, runs his hands over his greasy hair, and shakes his head. “See? Do you see why she never deserved to have this fucking party in the first place? Do you see why I told you this was a bad idea? We have just paid two thousand dollars for that boy to get his cock sucked.” My mother is standing there doing nothing, and I can see that Michael is livid. His head is getting red, and his neck is stiff. I’m not sure exactly why my body decides to laugh, but it does. And the next thing I know, I am rolling on the floor in the men’s locker room laughing my ass off.

“Emma,” he shouts, “stand up.” But I can’t because I am laughing so hard. I am laughing at the look on Bobby’s face, at Michael’s red cheeks, at my mother’s doe-eyed obedience, at the thought of myself rolling on a locker room floor. Michael reaches down and jerks me to my feet. “Do you think this is funny? You wanna be on your knees, huh? Well then, let’s leteveryonesee you on your knees.” He grabs my upper arms, pulls me past my idiot mother, out the locker room door, down the hallway, and out the door of the building.

We are standing in the parking lot now, just outside the front door, and Michael pushes me on to the ground and tells me to kneel. The parking lot is unpaved, and I feel tiny pieces of gravel dig into my knees. Ah, here we go again. Michael and his fucking punishments. I am going to have to kneel here, on this sharp gravel, for the rest of the night. I’ll be kneeling as all my party guests pass by, as all their parents drive up to take them home, as all the country club employees leave for the night. I’ll be kneeling here for as long as he tells me to. For as long as he sees fit. For as long as he thinks I deserve to.

I can tell you this much, though, I am not going to cry. I am not going to give him that pleasure. I am going to keep my burn inside, just like I always do with Michael.


Page 7

Chapter Eleven

Emma—Present Day

David doesn’t say another word, but I can hear him walk down the hall to the bathroom. I finish making the salads and put the chops on a plate. I set the table, putting out utensils, napkins and place mats. I want to get us something to drink, but then I realize I don’t know what David likes to drink.

“What’s your poison?” I ask him when he returns from the bathroom.

“You mean other than redheads in heels?” he asks. I immediately walk out of the kitchen and put my shoes back on. I try to do it as seductively as I can, but I think it might look more cheesy than sexy. He’s looking at me in surprise, though, rubbing his chin with his thumb and forefinger, so I know it worked. Me and my heels walk back into the kitchen where he can’t see me smiling.

“Yes,” I say, “other than that.”

“What are you having?” he asks.

“You mean other than a good-looking, cocky bastard?”

“Yes,” he chuckles, “other than that.”

“I’m having a glass of red. But I have beer, too, if you’d rather have that.”

“Yeah, um, about that, Emma,” he says, sheepishly, “you actually don’t have the beer anymore.”

I put down the corkscrew and peek around the corner into the living room. He’s sitting on the sofa again, just like he was before. He looks over at me, and I put on my best ‘what are you talking about?’ face.

“I had to get two of my guys to help me finish your kitchen today, and I gave them those two six-packs when they left,” he says.

“Oh. Well, I guess this fine-ass kitchen was worth a couple of six-packs. Were they some of your friends from Saturday night, then?”

“Yes. But, don’t worry, I made them go up to my place to use the bathroom. I don’t want them looking at your stuff,” he says. “Ever.”

“I’m not worried one bit,” I say sarcastically, “especially now that I know we aren’t spending any energy on all that jealousy bullshit.”

“Very funny,” he says. “Seriously, I was just as worried about them stealing something as I was about them looking in your bathroom drawers.”

“I’m sure the tampons would have thrilled them,” I tease.

“That’s the truth, Emma.” He is teasing me back now. “After seeing what you did on Saturday night, those fuckers probably would have jacked off in there if they could have.”

“Someday I will have to meet these gentlemen,” I mock. “It’s a rare breed that is willing to jack off to a box of tampons. They sound like people I might like.”

“Maybe you could introduce them to your grandma,” David says in complete deadpan.

“Now there’s an idea!” I carry the full plates out of the kitchen. “Come on, let’s eat. I’m completely famished now. And my grandma died a long time ago, so your friends are out of luck. Unless they are into that, too....” I cannot believe I just said that.

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” David says, in jest—I hope, anyway.

When he gets to the table, he adds, “This looks great, Emma. Thanks.”

I open the bottle of red and pour us each a glass. We sit down opposite each other and start to eat.

“So, if you weren’t here eating with me, where would you be?” I ask him out of pure curiosity.

“Probably upstairs eating a sandwich or something. I’m not much of a cook. My mom died when I was eight, and my dad pretty much raised me—if you wanna call it that. He didn’t even know how to turn on the oven, let alone cook something in it. We ate a lot of fast food.” I can’t tell if he looks sad or if it’s merely resignation on his face.

“Oh. I’m sorry about your mom. Mine’s gone, too. She died when I was eighteen, a few months after I went to college. Car accident,” I say quietly. “Is your dad still around?”

“Yeah, but he lives in Illinois, where I grew up. I haven’t seen him in years. We didn’t get along so well. Actually, he might remind you of your stepdad.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” I say, pouring on the inflection. “Michael is one hell of a fucked-up asshole. I don’t think anyone is rotten enough to deserve that comparison.” I sigh softly, then I quietly add, “I don’t know what kind of man your dad is, but he can’t possibly be like Michael.” I am hanging my head now. For some reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel ashamed of myself. Ashamed that Michael is—was—part of my life.

“What did he do, Emma?” I can hear the apprehension in David’s voice, but I can’t bring myself to look up at him. “What happened?”

There is no way in this fucking world I am going to tell David about Michael. Frankly, I have never toldanyoneabout the extent of Michael’s depravity. About all the crap he’s done. I don’t want David’s pity. I don’t want anyone’s pity.

“He’s just a fucked-up asshole,” I say again emphatically, looking up at David. “That’s all.” He’s staring at me now, and I can tell that he wants to ask me more, but he doesn’t. He just cocks his head to the side and takes another bite of dinner.

“Well, my asshole dad was a drinker. He probably still is. And the trouble with Pops is that he was never a nice drunk. Rather belligerent, actually. Things at my house were usually completely out of hand. I just tried to stay the hell out of his way,” David says. “The only good thing he ever did for me was make me his apprentice. He’s a master carpenter and has his own construction business. Eventually I became a journeyman, and I worked for him for a couple of years before I moved to New Orleans when I was twenty-one.”

“How long did you live there?” I ask, thankful that the subject is no longer Michael.

“Almost three years,” he says, “then I moved here because I needed to get the hell out of New Orleans.”

“The fucked-up girlfriend?” I ask.

“Yeah, pretty much,” he says with a shrug, not offering anything more.

We sit in silence for a few minutes, eating and drinking. I admit that I am almost relieved to hear that his family is nearly as messed up as mine. I feel as if he’s less likely to judge me because of it, and that makes me happy.

“So, you’ve got a couple of brothers, huh?” he asks. Michael’s words from the other night bite into me. “Older or younger?”

“They’re both way older than me. Evan by six years and Ricky by eight. By the time they graduated from high school, they were a couple of complete football-playing dicks, but looking back on it, I learned a lot about life because of them, I guess. I definitely learned to stand up for myself. And they kind of taught me how to watch my back. Mostly becausetheynever had my back, so I had to look out for myself, you know? Let’s just say they did not turn out to be protective big brother types. Quite the opposite actually.” Not for the first time, I wonder what life would have been like if Michael had never entered our family. “What about you? Brothers or sisters?”

“Nah. It was just me,” he answers. “My parents didn’t even want the one they had, so they definitely weren’t going to make any more.”

“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say. I wonder how he knows his parents didn’t want him, but I decide I’d better not ask. I probably won’t like the answer.

We both empty our plates and finish our wine, and as I carry everything into the kitchen to wash up I realize I never actually thanked him for my fine-ass kitchen.

“Thank you, David, for my new kitchen,” I say as he follows me into the kitchen. “I love it, and I know that you said that Carl is paying for it, but I know that he really isn’t. I know it’s you. I still don’t understand why, but I am grateful for it.” I turn to him, and he’s looking thoughtfully at me.

“You’re welcome, Emma,” he says, looking borderline confused. “You should know, though, that I don’t do dishes either, so you’re out of luck there, too.”

I smirk at him. “Go home, David. Your ineptitude is exhausting.” He actually looks hurt. Really? I think he’s probably kidding, but I can’t quite tell. I decide I’d better try to salvage the conversation with further explanation, “Seriously, I have to be out the door by seven tomorrow to get to work on time, and I need to get a couple of things done tonight. Trust me, I’d love for for you to stick around, but I know what will happen if you do, and I need to get some sleep.” That should do it.

He throws his hands up in a pretend surrender. “Well, okay, then,” he says with a look of absolute surprise.

“What?” I thought he would want to leave. I thought he would be thrilled to be off the hook for anything beyond a free meal.

“You’re kicking me out,” he says, “and I’m surprised how much it pisses me off.”

“Sorry.” I shrug. “I’m not kicking you out, David, I’m letting you off the hook.”

“Off the hook, huh?”

“Yes, off the hook. That’s all. Now, go.”

“I won’t see you tomorrow, you know. Tuesday is poker,” he says as he walks toward the door. “I gotta pay off that fine-ass kitchen of yours.”

“Ahh, poker with the boys.” Damn, I forgot about that. Now I’m regretting letting him off the hook. His hand is on the doorknob. “Well, if you need some extra incentive to win tomorrow night,” I add, “you can just imagine me bending over my new countertop, ass up and wearing heels.”

He doesn’t turn around, but his body visibly stiffens. “That’s not incentive for me to win at poker, Emma, that’s incentive for me to throw myself at your feet.”

“Your choice,” I say. “But I think you may want to consider doing both.”

His back is still to me, and he bows his head and sighs as his hand twists the knob and opens the door.

“Good night, Emma,” he says as he walks out.

As soon as the door closes, I grab my phone and flip it open.

Good night to u too, David. And thanks...for everything.

I get no reply.

I kick off my shoes and head to the kitchen to clean up. By the time I am finished, it is nearly ten o’clock. I am exhausted. I walk into my bedroom to change and see something small and dark sitting on my bed. When I get closer, I see that it’s a handgun. Holy shit. I am dumbfounded. Where did it come from? David enters my mind immediately. But so do his friends. And so does Michael. What the fuck am I supposed to do? And then I notice a note sitting next to it.

I pick up the note and see right away that it is from David. It is not in Michael’s handwriting, and even though I know that David and his friends were here all day and there is no way Michael could have gotten in, an enormous pulse of relief smacks at me.

Emma—

Do me a favor—keep this please.Put it in a drawer or a shoebox or something.It will make me feel better.I’ll teach you how to use it,if you want.

Male coworkers can go a little crazy around pretty girls(especially those quiet engineer-types).Not to mention stepfathers.

David

PS.It’s loaded so be careful.

PSS.Your pepper spray is on the dresser.Idon’t need it because I’m not interested in any of those half-naked whores.Only you.

What am I supposed to do? Should this make me angry? He obviously put the gun and note here long before I offered to make him dinner. Before our conversation about jealousy. Before our kiss in the kitchen. But most importantly, it happened beforeheremindedmethat we have only known each other four days. Then it hits me: He wants to protect me. Jesus, for the first time in my life, someone wants to protect me. Where the hell was he fifteen years ago when I really needed to be protected? He was protecting himself, of course, while I was busy trying to do the same. He was right; we are two of the same.

I have no clue how to use a gun, nor do I have any interest in learning how. Still, having a gun is not a bad idea. Living alone for the first time in my life does make me a little nervous. I decide not to make an issue of it and put the gun carefully in the back of the bottom drawer of my nightstand. I agree to be protected.

Chapter Twelve

My alarm goes off at six, and I’m not sure why, but I open the bottom drawer of my nightstand and look at the gun. It scares me to have it there, so close to where I sleep, just beneath the picture of my mother and me looking so very happy. I pick up the gun, sit up and turn it over in my hand. It’s heavier than I remember it being last night, and I’m a little freaked out about the fact that it is loaded. I imagine what it would be like to shoot it. The most important thing I know about guns—okay, one of the only things I know about guns—is that they have a safety feature. I look for some kind of button or something, and I see what I assume is a safety slide. I don’t dare touch it, though, and decide that I will definitely ask David to show me how to use the damn thing. I sure as shit don’t want to wind up shooting myself by accident.

I put the gun back in the drawer and push it closed. Then I climb out of bed, shower, dress, and have some toast for breakfast. I am out the door by six-fifty.

The morning proceeds quickly at work. Matt is there to hold my hand through the initial stages of the design process we are assigned. He’s nice enough, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is here to make sure I don’t fuck up. We make small talk while we work, but I’m only feigning interest in what he has to say. I think he’s trying to impress me with stories of his mountain biking trips through Utah and partially clever jokes about the office politics. I listen politely and answer his occasional questions, but it feels so fregging superficial. I wish he wasn’t trying so hard. I’m trying not to get annoyed with Matt, and I figure that if I just keep my comments to a minimum, maybe he’ll realize that I’m not interested and start being himself. Of course I consider that maybe thisisbeing himself; maybe posturing is his thing. Good lord, I hope not. If it is, this fucking project had better be over sooner rather than later.

At lunchtime, I walk to the cafeteria downstairs to grab something to eat. I check my cell and see that there is a text from David. It was sent at eight-thirty this morning. I inhale deeply and open the message.

All it says isHi.

I type my reply and hit Send.

Hi back.

Ten seconds pass until his reply arrives.

I’m sorry, Emma. I forgot to ask u last night how your first day went.

It was fine. Day two going good too.

Glad to hear it.

What r u doing today?

Prepping for tonight.

Poker, u mean?

Yes.

Jesus, u need to prep for that? Really?

Yes really.

Hummm. How do I get invited?

U don’t want to be.

Is there fancy food involved or something? Caviar? Shrimp cocktail?

There is no cock, or tail, involved. I promise.

I feel eyes on me as I laugh out loud in line at the salad station.

Well then, I guess I don’t want to be invited after all....

Not unless u want to lose all the money u r earning at that new job.

I wouldn’t lose a dime.

Is that so?

Yes. If I take my shirt off, no one will even notice their cards.

Now THAT would be a sight to see.

Tell me where u r going to be and u can...

Tempting...but I can’t.

Suit yourself. See u Wednesday?

Wednesday it is. I have something I want to show u after work. Can I pick u up downtown?

Yes. In front of the Union Building. 6:00. I’ll b the one in heels.

Ass up?

I’ll consider it.

When two minutes pass and I don’t get a reply, I put my phone back into my purse. I pick out my lunch and head back upstairs to eat it at my desk.

The afternoon passes uneventfully. I work with Matt for another hour or so, then I spend the rest of the day in my cubicle working out how to split a video conferencing line to forty-seven different offices. I’ve got a good grip on this project, and I feel satisfied that the whole thing is moving along perfectly. At five-thirty, I gather my things and head home. I am looking forward to an evening by myself.

When I get back to my apartment, there is a man mowing the lawn in front of the building. He looks vaguely familiar. As I am walking up to the building, digging around in my purse for my keys, he cuts the mower engine. When the silence strikes, I look over at him to see what happened, and he’s just standing there looking at me. I recognize him now. He was the one sitting on David’s bed on Saturday night. I smile a half-smile at him, and continue to search for my keys.

When I find them, I go to open the door and see that the man is standing to my left, only a few paces away.

“Hey,” he says as he continues to walk toward me, “you’re Emma, right? David’s...um, friend?” Oh, this is going to be awkward. Very, very awkward.

“Yes, that’s me,” I say tartly. He offers his right hand for me to shake, but my own hand is already occupied with the keys. He stands with his hand out for a few seconds while I open the door and prop it open with my knee. Only then do I reach across myself to offer him my hand in return.

“My name is Brad,” he says. “It’s nice to meet you. David is a friend of mine. I helped him finish your kitchen yesterday. How do you like it?”

“It’s very nice. Thank you,” I say, wanting to go inside and be by myself.

“Yeah, it turned out pretty nice,” he says lightly. “David was a fucking slave driver, though. I think he wanted us the hell out of your apartment.” He is smiling at me, and I wonder if he knows precisely how true his statement really is. A few seconds pass, and I can tell he is waiting for my reply.

“Yeah, well...” I say quietly as I shrug.

“At any rate, I’m glad you like it,” he says kindly. “I guess I’ll be seeing you around, then.” I can’t tell if it is meant as a question or a statement. “I’ll tell David that I met you when I see him later tonight.”

“Oh, you’re playing poker tonight, too?” My skin prickles. He is going to see David tonight and I am not. It isn’t envy I’m feeling—I don’t know what it is. “Where do you guys play?” I ask. Hell, if David won’t tell me, maybe Brad will.

“We play in the basement of some building. The guy who owns this building, Carl, he has a couple of other places, and so we play at one of them. It’s a shithole, but it’s private,” he says.

“Would you mind giving David a message for me when you see him tonight?” I ask. This is going to be fun.

“Sure. What is it?”

I pull off my shoe. It’s one of my favorite navy blue high heels. I hand it to Brad with a smile.

“Just give him this, and tell him I’ll need it back in time for work tomorrow.”

At first he looks at me as if I am from Mars. But then something sinks in, and a smile grows on his face. I smile back at him knowing that, yes, he probably would like a crack at me. He would have to take down David first, though, and I don’t see that happening. He shakes his head slowly and lets out a near-silent laugh.

“It’ll be my pleasure,” he says as he takes my shoe by the heel. He’s a handsome guy, this Brad, and at least as far as looks go, I can see why David didn’t want to introduce me. I hope I am not inciting a riot with my little game, but we did agree to nix the jealousy bullshit. Brad looks a little too excited with this opportunity, though, so I decide I’d better set a ground rule.

“But, you have to promise me that you won’t lead him to believe that you were the one that took it off me,” I say. “Because if he thinks for even one second that you and I did anything more than say ‘Hi’...” I raise my eyebrows and trail off, figuring that Brad knows David way better than I do. I’m sure he knows precisely what David will do to him if he thinks something happened between us.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” he says. “I’ll make it perfectly clear that I am nothing more than the delivery boy. He already beats my ass at poker. I don’t need him beating my ass for this, too.”

“Thanks, Brad,” I say. “It was nice to meet you.”

“You, too,” he says as he tucks the heel of my shoe into the back pocket of his jeans. After I go inside, I turn to close the door behind me and see him restarting the lawn mower, the front of my shoe dangling out of his back pocket.

* * *

The next morning, I somehow manage to wake a few minutes before my alarm. I love it when that happens, and take it as a sign that I am well rested and settling nicely into my work routine. When I turn the alarm off, I smell something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know it isn’t a smell that belongs here. It’s an earthy mix of turpentine and tobacco. I prop myself up on my elbows and inhale again. It’s not a bad smell, just a curious one. It’s raw and masculine.

I click on my bedside lamp. I don’t see anything unusual about my room, and I begin to think that perhaps the smell is coming in through the closed windows. I swing my feet off the side of the bed and stand up. Sitting on top of the dresser, at the foot of my bed, is the navy blue shoe I had given to Brad. Shit. It means that David was here last night. Once again, I must have slept like a rock.

I pick up the shoe and smile, thinking about what David’s reaction must have been when Brad presented it to him. I’d bet my first paycheck he was pissed off, at least initially. Obviously Brad gave David my message; otherwise my shoe wouldn’t be here right now, so at least I know that Brad had the opportunity to explain how he got it before David went crazy on him. I begin to think my little stunt went off without a hitch.

I open my dresser drawer and pull out a clean pair of panties and a bra. I already have the rest of my clothes picked out for the day, and I walk over to my closet to get them out. Suddenly I understand where the smell is coming from. There on the floor next to my bed is David. He is naked from the waist up, his T-shirt bunched up underneath his head like a makeshift pillow. He is lying on his left side, his knees curled up toward his chest and his arms splayed out in front of him. I have been to enough high school and college parties to know that he is passed out drunk. As soon as I see him there, my mind deciphers the smell. It’s the whisky coming out of his pores, mingled with sexy-man-sweat and sweet cigar smoke. I suppose I should feel lucky that he didn’t puke. At least not in here, anyway.

I bend down closer. He is in a dead sleep, and I watch his chest rise and fall a few times before I sit down on the floor next to him. The birds are there, of course, twisted around his arms. I want to touch them, to lie down next to him, but I don’t. Instead, I just watch him. This is what he looks like when he sleeps. I like his stillness, his exposure. He is strangely perfect like this, asleep on my floor curled into himself.

I don’t wake him. Instead, I get my clothes out of the closet, grab both of my navy blue heels, and head to the bathroom, closing my bedroom door quietly behind me. Once I am showered and dressed, I eat a quick breakfast. Before I rush out the door, I pull a piece of paper out of my bag, write him a note, and put it on my little table.

See you at 6:00.


Page 8

Chapter Thirteen

Kelsey

I am standing on Clawsen’s Bridge dressed for work in my khakis and blue polo shirt. David is late, which isn’t like him at all. Despite his rough edges, he’s always both punctual and orderly. Which is perfect, because I’m the exact same way. I suspect he’s late because he got stuck in the line of traffic going to Beth Lanko’s funeral. I think the whole town is there. Well, everyone except for us, that is. I knew Beth, but not well, so we aren’t going to her funeral. Instead, I am on this bridge waiting for David.

David and I met when my family hired him and his dad to rebuild the kitchen in our restaurant. I waitress there and hope that, when he’s ready to retire, my dad will let me take over the business. It’s just a little bistro, but I grew up with it and can’t see myself doing anything else. Plus, when David and I get married and have kids, it means we’ll be able to stay close to my parents.

Thankfully, my mom and dad both think David is a decent guy. They recognize how disciplined he is. They appreciate that he always picks me up on time and brings me back home well before my curfew. He is always courteous and polite, and despite his father’s alcoholism, David seems to have a good grip on where he wants his life to go. David is a methodical, planned thinker, and even though he doesn’t go to church or college, my folks consider him to be a part of our family. But most of all, my mom and dad recognize how important I am to David’s future. They know I am saving him. They know thatour familyis saving him. They see their acceptance of him as part of the Lord’s work.

What they don’t know, though, are all the details of David’s messed-up past. It explains a lot about him. About his need for discipline. About his need to be in command of his life now that he is an adult. His childhood was completely contradictory to mine. But I can’t tell my mom and dad about it because David made me promise not to.

The important thing is that I know he wants to be with me, and I love him. I’ve told him so many times, but for some reason, I don’t think he believes me. And he never says it back, which my sister says is just a guy thing. But I actually don’t think he’s going to say it at all until I agree to have sex with him.

When he found out that I am saving myself for my wedding night, he told me that he didn’t understand why. That was eight months ago, and we haven’t talked about it since. He never pushes me about it, but sometimes I think that our lack of sex is stopping him from expressing his love for me. And yet here we are, still together—nothaving sex.

A part of me can’t help but think that we would be closer if we were. The same part of me thinks that maybe we should just do it and get it over with. What if I end up never having it? Never knowing what it’s like. What if something happens to me before I get married? I mean, look at Beth Lanko. There she was, a twenty-five-year-old woman, healthy as can be, and whammo, she dies of a brain aneurysm just like that. You never know when your time is up, and by not having sex, I can’t help but feel that maybe I am missing out on something. But I have so much time.Wehave so much time. We’re only nineteen years old, for Pete’s sake.

I have even talked to my youth minister about all this, and he says that God’s will is for young people to wait for marriage. He says that premarital sex is a sin, and though I can ask for forgiveness, doing “it” takes the sanctity out of marriage. You can’t get your virginity back, he said. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. So I am pretty sure that I am keeping mine, until I give it to David on our wedding night.

My mind is reeling about why he asked me to come here. He brought me here once before, a few weeks after we met, to show me where some girl from his from high school committed suicide. I went to the Christian Academy, but I remember hearing about her jumping off this bridge the winter of my senior year. The whole town was shattered about it, even though it seemed that no one really even knew her. I guess she didn’t live here that long and had a hard time fitting in. David said he had a biology class with her or something, but that he didn’t know her very well.

My guess is that Beth’s death has triggered something for David, and he wants me to help him reconcile with his past. With his mother’s illness. With his dad’s alcoholism. With all the parts of his life that have gone wrong. David can be very deep sometimes, and when he called to ask me to meet him here, I could hear the edge in his voice.

He is here now, at last, parking his truck against the guard rail at the entrance to the bridge. I can see the seriousness on his face as he walks toward me. He’s got his backpack on, and he’s busy apologizing about the funeral traffic holding him up. We kiss and hold hands and walk together to the middle of the bridge. I can see that he has something on his mind that is distracting him, making him look past me.

He tells me that he sees Beth’s death as a sign—I was right! A sign that life is too short to be anything less than happy. I tell him that I couldn’t agree more. I tell him, again, how much I love him, and for a second, I think that maybe he’s going to say it back. But he doesn’t. Instead, he says that he’s getting tired of hearing me say those words. He says that instead of telling him how much I love him, I need toshowhim. I don’t understand why he can’t see how much I love him already. Does he think that we need to have sex in order for me to prove my love? Can I not prove it some other way? I ask David what I can do to show him how much I care for him. I’m expecting him to threaten to leave me unless I agree to make love to him right now. I don’t want to lose him over this. There has to be some other way to show him how much I care.

But he doesn’t say sex. In fact, he doesn’t say anything at all. Not out loud, anyway. But I can see it in his face. I can see that he is going to leave me if I don’t fix this.

I tell him I am desperate to show him how much I love him, but I don’t know how. What will make you happy? I ask. How can I show you we belong to each other, without having sex?

He scoffs quietly at me, narrows his eyes, and shakes his head in disbelief. Then he tells me that this isn’t about sex. It’s never been about sex, he says calmly. He turns away from me and starts to walk away. My desperation is growing. My heart is screaming at my body to make him stop. To keep him from leaving. He can’t leave me. He can’t. I won’t let him leave me because if he does, it means I failed at saving him. Without me, David will never have the opportunity to become the man I know he can be. He needs me, and I must make him see that. I step forward and catch his arm before he’s out of my reach. What is it, David? I say. What can I do? There has to be something. Anything. I’ll do it. I don’t want you to leave me, David. I want to make you happy. I love you. Let me show you how much.

He takes his backpack off and puts it on the ground. I can see that it’s heavy because of the way he moves. I want you to jump for me, he says. Jump off this bridge and let me save you. Then I will believe that you love me, and I will love you back. If you let me saveyou, it will saveme, he says. And it will make me happier than I’ve ever been. Everything will be all right.

What??? Jump off a bridge? Let you save me?Thatwill make you love me back? But then I see it. I see it very clearly. I see why he is asking me for this. For all the parts of his life that have gone wrong,thiscan go right.Thishe can reconcile.Thishe can control.

I understand now. I’ll do this, and he can “save” me, and we can move on. I will let David resolve all the bad in his life through my decision to do this. I love him, and I want to make everything better. Fine, I say quietly. I’ll do it.

David opens his backpack and removes a length of cord. He ties my hands together behind my back. Then he takes a pair of sandbags out of the backpack and ties them to my feet. I am confused until I realize that he wants to save mecompletely. He wants to do it without me having any ability to save myself.

I am suddenly struck with the bitter realization thatthatis the surrender he has asked for. He has asked me to surrender complete control of my life to him. He has asked me to surrender the choice of my own life or death to him. And I have agreed to it. Whether or not he chooses to save me doesn’t matter to him. It is only my surrender that matters. That is what will make him happy. That is how I will show him how much I love him.

This is not right. His want ofcompletecontrol of whether I live or die is not right. I am afraid now. Afraid that he will make the wrong choice. That he will let me die. I tell him that I changed my mind. That I want him to untie me. I try to step away, but the bags are so heavy. I am yelling at him, telling him let me out of this stupid rope. David, I shout, please, please, untie me. This is so messed up. I don’t want this. I don’t want to do this. Please, untie me. Please. We can find another way.

Because I don’t know what else to do, I drop to my knees and tell him again to let me go. As I kneel at the edge of the bridge, I look up and see that he is smiling. It is the first time I have ever seen him smile. And it is a genuine, face-splitting smile. He is beautiful, and I am sure now that he is not going to save me because he is already happy. He is happy knowing that this moment—this choice—is his.

David moves behind me, and pushes me off the bridge. My feet are the last thing to leave, and as I am tumbling toward the water, I begin to pray. I ask God to forgive me for making my parents suffer. I ask Him to watch over my sister and to help Beth’s parents through this difficult time. I ask Him to forgive David. Please, God. Please, forgive him for this. Amen.

Chapter Fourteen

Emma—Present Day

It’s a few minutes before six, and I am nearly crawling out of my skin. The day has gone achingly slow. Matt has been a fucking drag, talking incessantly about a trip to Mexico he is taking with some friends in a few months. I’ve tried all day to disconnect from him, but apparently social cues are not his thing. I did manage to escape to the ladies room more often than usual just to break away from the banter. And, despite his invitation to eat lunch together, I ate my meal in the peaceful company of a few other male coworkers. At first I worried about hurting Matt’s feelings by lunching with them, but then I decided I needed to preserve my sanity. His prattle is exhausting.

I haven’t heard from David all day, which means that either he is fuming about my shoe stunt or embarrassed about passing out on my floor. Or, I hope, maybe he’s just busy with his own work. Whatever the reason, I am surprised at how much I missed hearing from him. In part, I think the day passed so slowly because I missed the diversion. As I gather my purse and satchel, I briefly wonder if he’s all right and what kind of shape he was in this morning when he woke up. I can’t imagine David wears a hangover badly, but he must have had a lot of alcohol in him to smell that fierce.

As I push the elevator call button, my phone pings. I pull it out of my purse and slide it open.

Hi.

I wonder immediately if he forgot that he offered to pick me up. Maybe he didn’t see my note.

Hi back.

R u coming? I’m waiting outside.

Yes. On my way now. B down in a sec.

U had better b wearing those shoes...

Why?

Because I had to fuck a certain someone up to get the left one back.

WHAT????

He wouldn’t give it to me voluntarily.

Jesus, David. U should have let him have it.

I did.

I meant the shoe.

No way in hell.

R u ok?

Did I look ok this morning?

Yes. Sort of.

That’s because I won.

The elevator arrives, and I shuffle inside. Matt is there, too, along with three other guys. I am engulfed in David’s text and don’t even look up. One of them pushes the lobby button, and we head down. I want to ask David if Brad is all right, but then I decide that’s a very bad idea. Clearly David knows his friends well, and I’m beginning to think that jacking off to a box of tampons is, in fact, not above any of them. Why did I think my little game would end differently? Still, knowing that David kicked the crap out of one of his friends just to get my damn shoe back is kind of arousing. It makes me wonder what else he would do for me. The elevator door opens, and I walk absently through the lobby as I type my reply.

Should I come out of the building ass up for your victory parade?

I walk out the front door of the building with Matt and the other three guys flanking me. One of them holds the door open for me, but I don’t see who it is because my face is still aimed at the phone.

No.

Shit. Heispissed about me giving my shoe to Brad. Then, why show up here at all? Why not make me take the bus home? Why not just let Brad have the shoe...and me, for that matter?

“Bye, Emma,” says Matt. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay. See you then,” I say, looking up at Matt who is now standing in front of me. I am flustered about David’s text, and I can feel my skin heating.

“Are you okay?” asks Matt.

“Yes, I’m fine.” I say quietly. “I, um, I just got a confusing text, that’s all.” And then I see David. He is walking straight toward us. No, he’s not walking exactly. He’s striding. Like a real bad-ass. Like some movie guy about to take over the world. I can’t look anywhere else. I want to smile at him or something, but my face is frozen because I don’t know what the hell is happening. His eyes are locked on mine and when he gets to us, he reaches for my waist, pulls me against him roughly, and kisses me hard. My hands are dangling at my sides, but I kiss him back like a sailor. Our teeth click together, and I push my hips into him. It is a long kiss. The kind that makes me want to sink to my knees. When David pulls away, he is still holding on to my waist and looking right at me. Fucking hell.

“We should go,” David says, and I watch his face turn toward Matt who, for some unknown reason, is still standing next to me.

“Okay,” I say as David lets me go. I give Matt a sideways smile and a nod. As David and I walk side by side away from the building, he snakes his hand across my back and around to my other hip. His fingers squeeze into me as he pulls me close to his side. It is the same sign of possession he displayed to Michael. And now he is doing it to Matt. I can see Matt in my peripheral vision, standing there with his mouth open, watching us walk away.

David and I walk down Wood Street and into a parking garage. He keeps his arm around my waist the entire time but doesn’t say a word. I can hear him breathing as we walk, and an image of a fire-breathing dragon pops into my head. I can tell he is angry. I can tell because of his silence. Because of the way he is breathing. Because of the rigidity in the arm that is wrapped around me. But he can’t be that angry, right? Otherwise he wouldn’t be here. It’s bullshit.

“Tell me what you’re so mad about.” I say as we walk down the rows of cars.

“Mad?” he questions, an eerie calm in his voice. He stops in the middle of the lane, disconnects from my waist, and looks at me quizzically. “You think I’m mad?”

“Yes, I do,” Does this mean that he isn’t mad? If this isn’t anger I’m sensing, what is it? “Look, if it’s because of the shoe thing, I’m sorry. I didn’t know my joke was going to end in warfare. I thought he would do what he promised he would. I thought he would give you the shoe and my message and be done with it. You can’t be pissed off at me because your friend decided to be a dick.”

“My friend didn’tdecideto be a dick, Emma. He’s always a dick. They all are. I told you that already. And I’m not fucking mad about the shoe. I enjoyed wiping the floor with Brad. It was a long time coming. Whatever message you gave him never made it to me. He called a bet with your shoe, dropped it on the poker table, and told me you were one hell of a screw. I though he stole it from your place the other day. What was I supposed to do?” He really isn’t angry about it. In fact, he’s quite relaxed.

I, on the other hand, am anything but relaxed. “That fucking asshole,” I say bitterly. “I am going to run him over with his own goddamned lawnmower the next time I see him.” Now I am the dragon, and if I knew where Brad lived, I would burn his fucking house down right now. I can feel the swell of rage boil up under my skin. It makes me wish I had someone to hit.

“Ah, so that’s how you met him,” David says. “Now I get it.”

“You might not be pissed off about this, but I sure as shit am,” I sneer. “I was feeling guilty as hell about the guy getting beat up, but now, now I want to punch his teeth out myself.” I think David is a little startled at the extent of my anger. He takes a small step backwards and puts on a tiny, sideways grin. I forgot how much he enjoys seeing me angry.

Then something else strikes me. “Wait,” I add, “if he didn’t give you my message about needing the shoe back this morning, then why the hell were you sleeping on my floor last night?”

“Look, I had just beat the living shit out of one of my best friends because of you. I was shit-faced, Emma, and I needed to see you.”

“And?” I ask, the pounding in my veins waning.

“And you were doing the whole rock-sleeping thing, and I knew you had to work today, and I didn’t want you to be pissed off at me for waking you up. So I just lay down on your floor, and that is that.”

“Oh,” I say awkwardly.

“But then, I spend the whole day today feeling like an ass for passing out on your floor and wanting to text you but feeling like I can’t because you are at work. And when I finally get to see you, you come out of the fucking building wearing those heels and looking likethat—but you are surrounded by four other men.” So this is what his silence and rigidity were about. “I wanted my victory parade, Emma. But instead, I got to see you with the men you spend nine hours a day with, and maybe I am a little mad. Well, not mad really, more jealous. But I hate jealousy. I don’tdojealousy. Ever. Look, I know I gave you that whole goddamned speech about it the other day, but I don’t think I can help it. I guess I’m angry at myself for feeling that way.” He’s saying the words with great conviction, yet his voice isn’t hurried or heated. It’s as if he has thought them out and practiced them very carefully.

“Jesus, David.” I want to smile at him, but I don’t want him to think that I am laughing at his words. It’s just that the thought of someone like him having those feelings because of me seems ridiculous. And unbelievable.

“I’ll try to keep it in check, Emma. Really I will.”

But that’s not what I want.

“I don’t want you to keep it in check,” I say, holding his face and lining up our noses. “I like it. No one has ever wanted to protect me before. No one. And I am happy as shit about it.”

“Oh,” he says, looking very confused. I kiss him, and he weaves his fingers through my hair to the back of my neck. He holds me there, against his mouth, for a long time. My tongue laps against his in a slippery, seductive dance. He pulls his hands out of my hair and picks me up by the ass. I wrap my legs around his waist and press myself against him. He walks with me swathed around him, our lips still together and my bags hanging from my shoulder, until he gets to what must be his car. He sits me up on the trunk and stands between my legs. My skirt has lifted to my hips and I feel exposed, but his body is blocking the view. Our lips eventually separate, but he’s still touching me, touching the tops of my thighs. Rubbing them. Making my body fill with need. I want him to fuck me in this parking garage on top of this car. But when I tell him those words, he steps back with a smirk and tells me to get in the goddamn car. And so I do.

It is a red BMW, but not a fancy-ass new one. An old, reconditioned one. It must be twenty or thirty years old, but it looks and feels awesome. The leather seats are soft, the paint is fresh, and the engine hums far better than I expected. I’m willing to bet my right shoe that David fixed it up himself.

We drive out of the parking garage and head out of the city. The sun is starting to drop in the sky, and I wonder where he is going, but I don’t ask. Neither of us says a word. He is headed toward home, and he is driving at the speed of sound. The radio is off, and the only noise I can hear is the tires whirring against the asphalt. He said he wanted to show me something. I thought we were going somewhere. But we aren’t, and before I know it, we pull up to our apartment building. It has taken precisely twenty-nine minutes of silence for us to get here. Way faster than the bus. He pulls into the lot behind the building and parks in one of the back spaces. He puts the car in park, sets the brake and cuts the engine.

“Come on,” he says, as he opens his door and gets out of the car. I follow suit, grabbing my purse and bag from the floor behind me. We walk around to the front of the building together, and he opens the door. He starts up the steps, and for a second, I think he is going to stop at my apartment door, but he doesn’t. He keeps on going. I stop at my door, though, thinking maybe I am not supposed to follow him. Maybe he really was just giving me a ride home. Maybe he doesn’t want to show me something anymore. He must hear that I have stopped because he turns around on the landing and starts walking back down toward me. He grabs my hand and walks back up the steps, pulling me along behind him. When we get to his door, he opens it. It’s unlocked.

The moment we step into the door his hands are on me. First, they touch my neck, then they move down to my shoulders, pushing my bags to the floor. They travel down my sides and around to the small of my back. His touch isn’t soft. It isn’t a caress. It is too needful for that. This man fuckingwantsme, and the mere idea of it is more arousing than any pornographic material known to man. Sweet Jesus. He kisses me across the top of my shoulder and up the front of my neck to my mouth. He begins to undress me. When he completes most of his task, he stops kissing me just long enough to take off his own shirt. I run my hands across his chest and down his arms and wrap my fingers into his. He begins to walk backwards toward his bedroom, still holding my hands at his sides and looking lustful as hell.

When we reach his bedroom, I unbutton his jeans. As I am sweeping them down over his hips, he touches my breasts, rubbing them coarsely between his thumb and forefinger. My blood rushes and my nerves jump to attention. A rough sigh claws its way out of my throat. As David’s eyes move to mine, a deep longing furrows his brow. My body responds with want of its own, pushing all semblance of self-possession out of my brain and replacing it with absolute desire. The chair we fucked on the other night is right next to us, and in one swift motion, David swings it around and folds me over the back. I rest my hands on the seat. I am ass up. And still wearing my heels.

He stands behind me, kissing my back and sliding my last article of clothing down over my hips. He kicks aside my panties and parts my legs while his hands move smoothly across my skin. Being like this should make me feel exposed, vulnerable, but it doesn’t. I want him to do whatever he wants. I want this to be his victory parade. His fingers skim down the outside of my leg and slowly back up the inside of my thigh. My eyes close, and the sweet pleasure of expectation rolls over me. When he reaches the top, his fingers rub me in small, tight circles. My body loosens instinctively, and I push my rear upwards, silently begging for more. Two of his fingers are inside me now, moving in and out and around in a delectable, rhythmic pattern. I am swimming in a river of bliss. I want to grind backwards against his fingers, but I don’t. Because I don’t want to come yet. I don’t want to be too eager. I want to make him wait.

But I think he knows that I am holding back because he pulls out, drops to his knees, and puts his mouth on me. Jesus. If he is good at this, it is over for me. His mouth is hot and slick, and his tongue sweeps at me in quick, supple strokes. I am lost. I want to touch him, to hold his head and control him. I want to make him move a certain way, but I can’t because I am holding on to this chair. I am at his mercy, and even though just a few minutes ago I wanted to make him wait, I don’t want to wait anymore. But now... now, he is taunting me, bringing me close and then pulling back. And then, as his tongue circles me, I feel his fingers glide inside, and it is heaven. He pushes deeply into me only a few times before I lose it. My blood is rushing, and I am singing inside. Singing like a goddamned bird. One of David’s birds.


Page 9

He stands up and tells me to go bend over the bed. I rest my face against the mattress, my legs are apart, and once again, I am ass up in my heels. Then he is inside me, lithe and swift. In and out. His hands latch on to my waist, and he pulls me towards him in tempo with his own movement. I cling to the covers, trying to hold myself in place, trying to keep a tangible grip on reality. I am almost there...again. He slides one hand around my hip and down between my legs. Over and over his fingers move in those small circles while he is pushing into me. I am undone. Unfurling like a motherfucking flag on the Fourth of July.

“Fuck, Emma,” he says as my body shudders with satisfaction. His voice sounds taut and throaty.

When my body calms, I crawl forward on the bed, releasing him from inside me, and turn around to face him. I kneel, looking at him and thinking about how powerful he makes me feel. About how much confidence his touch gives me. I tug him forward by his shoulders and kiss him hard. I reach down and latch on to him, stroking him firmly. He is slippery, and my hand glides back and forth, over and over, while we kiss. Part of me wants to play his game, to taunt him as he taunted me, but I can’t. I want to make him come. I want to make him happy. I want to show him the power he gives me. In a second I am on the floor, kneeling in front of him with my back against the bed. I take him into my mouth; he is sweet because of me. I suck him and stroke him and he grips the back of my head, holding me there, on him. Around him.

“Emma,” he says again, and I know he is telling me that he is ready. But I don’t stop, I don’t move away. I keep my mouth on him, and he pushes himself into me deeper, nearly too far. He exhales harshly and stiffens.

The parade is over. And I am smiling inside.

He stands in front of me for a few minutes, breathing heavily. I am still kneeling on the floor, but I am sitting on my haunches now, my eyes aimed at the floor. Then I feel his hand on my face. It is cold against my hot skin. I press my cheek into it and look up at him. His face looks serious, somber even. I wonder what he is thinking.

“Why so serious?” I ask with a smile, not sure I want to know the answer.

“You know what kills me, Emma?” Uh-oh.

“What?”

“Knowing that you’ve done this before. With someone else.”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t with anyone that mattered, that’s for sure.” And that is the truth. No one has ever made me feel this way before, and I sure-as-shit have neverwantedsomeone like this before. I’m not telling him that, though, not yet anyway. We haven’t even known each other a week, for Christ’s sake.

“And do I?”

I smile up at him. That is all I am giving him—and it is probably too much—but it makes him grin a little, and because of it, I know that I matter, too.

“Well, then,” he says, “let’s go. I still have something I want to show you.” Oh, yes. That.

* * *

Twenty minutes later we pull into a gravel parking lot off the side of the road. It is not somewhere I have been before, but I haven’t lived here very long, so, frankly, there are lots of places I have never been. I saw the entrance sign to Addison Park a mile or so ago, and I am now aware that it is the largest of the county’s parks. When we pull into the lot, I begin to wonder if he is taking me somewhere to teach me how to use the gun. It’s nearly dark outside, though, and I can’t imagine myself shooting the gun in the light, let alone in the dark.

We get out of the car, and David pops the trunk. He grabs a cooler and a pair of flashlights, and he heads down a small gravel path on the side of the parking lot. He hands me one of the flashlights on his way.

“David,” I say, “you do know that I’m wearing heels, right?”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. Wait a sec.” He puts down the cooler, walks back to the car, and pops the trunk open again. Out of it he pulls a pair of shit kickers and hands them to me. “Here, you can wear these.” Really?

Since I don’t want to ruin my favorite shoes, I dutifully take them off and toss them into the trunk. The boots are way too big, and I stumble along the trail behind him, my flashlight wavering through the dark. He doesn’t walk for long, though, thank goodness, and about fifteen minutes later, he stops. We are at the tree line now, and there is a pile of huge rocks next to us. He clambers up the rocks and reaches down to help me do the same. It’s tough going in my skirt, but, since I know no one else is here, I hike it up so my legs can stretch farther. I wish it were light enough for me to see his face.

When we get to the top of the rock pile, he stops. And once I am no longer worried about tripping over my own feet, I raise my head and draw in a quick breath. There is just enough light left for me to see the drop-off in front of us. The ledge is pretty sheer, and it is definitely not a place where I want to lose my balance. But out in front, below the cliff, stretches the entire city. The grid of the streets is laid out in lights. There are barges on the river, cars cruising the roads, and buildings of all shapes and sizes. From here, the city looks so handsome, so active. I love it, and I am grateful to David for showing it to me.

“Wow. It’s beautiful. Really. I had no idea.” I sit on the rock, tucking my legs up to my chest and wrapping my arms around them. David follows suit, stretching his legs out and crossing them at the ankles. He puts his flashlight down and opens the cooler. God, I hope there is food in there. Despite my want of a sandwich, he hands me a newly opened beer, and I swallow. It is cold and fresh, but it’s no ham on rye. Still, I drink it in the darkness, enjoying the quiet view.

“David, I need to know something,” I finally say. “It’s been bothering me since I met you, so I’m just going to ask.”

“What?” he says. “Ask whatever you want.”

I take a long, dramatic pause and breathe in deeply, pretending to think hard. “What’s your last name?”

He throws his head back and lets loose a gigantic laugh. It’s the first time I’ve heard anything more than a soft chuckle from him. It is unabashed, lucid laughter. And it sounds at once both heavenly and demonic. I can’t help but laugh myself, and soon we are immersed in a fit of laughter, together. Both of our flashlights are off now, so I can’t see him, but I imagine what his face looks like wearing a full-blown smile.

I wipe the tears off my eyes, and in a few minutes we both wind down.

“Calgaro, Emma. My last name is Calgaro.” As he says it, he scoots his bottom over next to mine and wraps his arm around my shoulder. It’s starting to get chilly now, and I am thankful for his closeness. We sit in silence and drink another beer. I don’t want to ask him anything else. I don’t really want to know anything else about him. And I don’t want him to ask me any questions either. Because I don’t want to tell him about me.

Eventually he lies back on the rock, resting his hands behind his head. I lie back, too, putting my head into the crook of his underarm. His body is warm, so I push myself a little closer to him and line my torso and legs up snugly with his. A few minutes pass, and I can’t help myself. My stomach is growling.

“Do you have a fucking sandwich in there or not?”

I can tell he is thinking about my question. “Shit, Emma. You haven’t eaten, have you?”

“Not since lunch.”

“Damn it. I’m sorry. I ate downtown before I met you, so it wasn’t even on my radar. Come on, let’s go.” He flips on his flashlight, stands and extends his hand to help me up. We walk back down the trail and get into the car.

“Where do you want to go?” he asks.

“Home,” I say. “I want to make us something in my fine-ass kitchen. But you should know that this time I will not let you off the hook. Tomorrow morning Iwillwake up with you in my bed.”

He starts the engine, backs out of the lot, and floors it all the way home.

Chapter Fifteen

It is ten-thirty, and we are eating pasta alfredo at my little table and discussing all the things I need to see in the city. David tells me about his favorite Thai restaurant, the best mountain-biking trails, the bars he hits with his friends on the weekends, and the shooting range he would like to take me to. His voice comes alive as he is talking. His enthusiasm for the city is clear. I know he has lived in at least two other states, but he tells me that this is the place he’d like to stay. This is where he has been the happiest, he says, and it is only getting better. I’d like to assume that the last part is in reference to me.

When we are finished eating, we carry everything into the kitchen, and he scrapes the plates, hands them to me, and I put them into the dishwasher. When I am finished, I turn around and look at him, leaning my back against the counter’s edge.

“So, where did you live before you moved here?” he asks. Okay, here we go. Here come the questions. Damn it.

“Well, I lived in a shitty little apartment in Chicago for a year, and before that, I was in college at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.”

“Chicago, huh? Why were you there?” I want to cut off the questions somehow.

“I was working as an intern at an engineering firm.” I walk out of the kitchen, past him, and head straight down the hallway. He follows me to the bedroom and leans on the doorjamb with his arms crossed. I open a drawer and pull out my boy-shorts pajamas while I am talking. “I thought the internship might lead to a permanent position, but it wasn’t really a company I wanted to be with for the long haul. So, I started looking for another job and found this one. I was actually born here, while my dad was finishing his basic training. We moved away when I was just a baby, but I still feel a connection.”

“A connection to what?” he asks sweetly.

“To my mom and dad, I guess.” And I do. Even though a half-day’s drive isn’t nearly as far away from Michael as I’d like to be, I feel as if I belong here.

Before he can ask another question, I start unbuttoning my shirt. I know he is watching me, but I don’t look up. I take my shirt off, unzip my skirt, and slide it down my legs. I am barefoot because I left the shit kickers on the floor of his car, and my heels are sitting by the front door. All I am wearing now are my undies and cami. I grab a ponytail holder from my nightstand and casually gather my hair up. I take off my earrings and necklace and put them into my jewelry box. Then I head for the bathroom. I am very aware that I have to pass David, and when I look up at him on my way to the door, I can see that he is itching to touch me. Instead, one arm hangs at his side and the fingers of his other hand touch his lower lip.

“Excuse me,” I say as I brush past him, “I need to use the bathroom.”

“Don’t be long,” he says.

I am in the bathroom now, turning toward him, ready to close the door. “Why not? Are you going somewhere?”

“I’m not going anywhere, Emma,” he says with a mouthful of boyish charm.

* * *

My alarm sounds, and I lean over quickly to shut it off, hoping to catch it before it wakes David up. But when I turn back over, he is propped up on his elbow, his eyebrows raised.

“How long were you going to let that damn thing buzz?” he asks.

“What? It was only going off for a few seconds.”

“Uh, no. It was going off for like ten minutes. I was wondering if it was going to wake you at all.”

“Oh. I guess maybe I’d better set it to the radio from now on and tune it to the death metal station you and your friends were listening to the other night.”

“That wasn’t the death metal station; it was a friend’s band.”

“Really? You have a friend in a band? Do they play around here? Will you take me?” I sound way too enthusiastic for this early in the morning.

“Yes. Yes. Yes. And, yes,” he says, pretending to count on his fingers. “Maybe this weekend. If they have a gig. And if you don’t have any other plans.”

“Well, I have to check with all my friends to make sure they haven’t already made plans for me.” I look up as if I am concentrating on something. “Oh, yeah...right. I don’t really have any friends, so I’m pretty sure I’m clear.”

“You don’t have any friends?” He looks surprised. “No one from college or high school you keep in touch with?”

“Not unless you want me to go out with the guys from work.” David does not look pleased with my little jab. “And, the only person I really keep in touch with is my high school friend, Susan. She lives in London now, so she’s out, too.”

“So, there are no ex-boyfriends I need to know about?” he says dryly.

“Ahhhh,” I say with a nod of my head. “None worth worrying about, that’s for sure. Trust me. It seems that the world is full of shitty-ass boyfriends.”

“Shitty-ass?” Damn, he looks hot in the morning.

“I’ll tell you all the shitty-ass things boyfriends are capable of sometime when I’m not going to be late for work.” I climb out of bed and start to get my clothes together.

“Good, cause I want to know all the things I should avoid doing.”What?Is he intimating that he wants to be my boyfriend? I would not have put the words “boyfriend” and “David” together in a sentence...ever. “Lover” and “David,” maybe. “Fuck Buddy” and “David,” for sure. “Boyfriend,” though—he hardly seems the type.

“Yeah, well, it’s a pretty long list.” I hang my skirt and blouse on the doorknob, grab a new pair of panties and a cami, and head out the door to the bathroom.

“Will you at least tell me one? Just to get me started.”

“Started on what?” I ask from the bathroom.

“Started on being your boyfriend.” Jesus H. Christ! Seriously?

“You’re a long way from that,” I say with all the sass I can muster. “But, just to get the ball rolling, I’ll tell you that they’re never covetous enough.” I smile to myself as I say it.

“Well, no problem there,” he says. “Too covetous is more likely to be the issue.”

“I already told you there is no such thing, not when it comes to a girlfriend, at any rate.”

“But you aren’t my girlfriend. You’re a long way from that.” Ha. Ha. Ha.

I turn the shower on, so I won’t be able to hear what he says next, but before I get in, I say, “Yeah, well, it counts for fuck buddies, too.”

I undress and climb into the shower. I bend my head back under the stream of water and begin to lather the shampoo. A few moments later, David opens the shower curtain.

“Hi,” he says, his eyes roaming playfully over me.

“Hi back.” I am happy to see that he is completely dressed. That means he is less likely to get in with me and make me even more late for work than I already am.

“If we go see my friend’s band this weekend, is that how you want me to introduce you? As my fuck buddy?” he asks.

“Introduce me however you’d like. But, I thought you weren’t going to introduce me to any of your friends anyway.”

“Those were my poker friends, Emma. And, no, I am not going to introduce you to them. Not on purpose anyway. We already got a taste of what will happen if I do. But these guys are a whole different group of friends. These guys are musicians, and I’m not worried about any of them trying to get into your pants.”

“Aren’t you worried they’ll try to win my heart with a song?”

“The kind of music they make isn’t going to win any hearts, so, no, I am not worried about that. You’ll like them, though—as people, I mean. They are a hell of a lot of fun.”

“Good, ’cause I could use some fun,” I say with a coy smile. “Now, get out, so I can finish getting ready for work.” I grab the curtain and pull it closed briskly.

“You mean you don’t want me to come in there with you?” he asks.

“Not unless you want a face full of fist. I’m already late. Trust me, if you try and make a move on me this morning, the outcome is not going to be nearly as fantastic as it was yesterday.”

“And fantastic it was,” he says under his breath as he leaves the bathroom. I don’t know if he intended for me to hear it or not.

I finish my shower, towel off, put on my underwear and makeup, and dry my hair. When I step out of the bathroom, I can smell that he has made coffee. I dress and put on some jewelry and shoes and head out to the kitchen. David is sitting at the table with a mug of coffee and his keys dangling from his index finger.

“Let’s go,” he says. “I’ll drive you.”

“That’s sweet, really, but I’m okay with taking the bus. You don’t have to drive me.”

“Oh.” He sounds disappointed. “I was kind of hoping maybe you could tell me more things on the shitty-ass boyfriend list during our ride.”

“Item number two—shitty-ass boyfriends always want to talk while they’re driving, and I prefer to ride in silence.”

“I won’t say a word,” he says with a grin. “Scout’s honor.”

“Good. Let’s go. And thanks.”

* * *

Matt is the same as yesterday. I thought that his encounter with David might make him a little more standoffish with me, but that is clearly not the case. I am thankful, though, that he isn’t asking me a lot of questions about David. In fact, he doesn’t bring him up at all. Instead, he is rattling off assorted things about himself; it’s as if he is filling in an old friend he hasn’t seen for years. I just let him go and escape into my own thoughts whenever I need a break from his fucking drivel. At one point in the morning, I suggest we separate for a few hours after lunch so we can each work on our own designs. I want to bow down and thank him when he agrees to it. We make plans to connect again at three-thirty.

When lunchtime arrives, I slip away to the cafeteria. I check my cell, and sure enough, there is a message from David. It came in around eleven.

Hi.

Hi back.

They r playing Friday night at The Trash Bin.

I’m in.

Sweet.

I’m guessing that’s a bar?

It’s a club.

What kind of club?

You’ll see.

I’m Googling it.

Go ahead. You won’t find it, though.

Intriguing. Do I have to wear a cat suit or something?

Yes.

Ooookkkkkaaaayyyyyy....

U good to take the bus this afternoon?

What’s with the complete change of subject?

Yes. I was expecting to take it.

Ok. Friday at 7:00? Wanna grab some eats first?

Sure.

Out with friends tonight. Just in case u care.

Ok.

C u Friday.

Bye.

Bye back.

About five minutes pass, and my phone pings again. I am in line for a deli sandwich.

Fantastic was the right word, by the way.

Huh?

Your description of last night. At my place.

Glad we agree.

I’ve never had it so fantastic.

Fuck u.

I’m being serious.

Really?

Yes. U r one exceptional fuck buddy, Emma.

Years of experience.

Don’t go there.

Feeling covetous?

U have no idea.

Atta boy.

My phone is silent again for several minutes while I pick out and pay for my sandwich. I am walking to a table in the back of the cafeteria to sit with Matt and a few other guys when it pings yet again. I put my tray down on the table, pull my phone from my pocket, and slide it open.

Tell me u aren’t having lunch with the douche bag u were talking to last night.

I could. But it would b a lie.

I hate him.

U don’t even know him.

I don’t have to.

Well, if it makes u feel better, I hate him too.

Then why r u having lunch with him?

Item number 3: Shitty-ass boyfriends are always too quick to point out the obvious.

Just sayin’.

I know I am wearing a stupid fucking smile, and when I slide my phone closed and look up, Matt says, “I want some of whatever Emma’s smoking.” They all chuckle and look at me in expectation. As if they want me to tell them why the hell I am smiling. As if they want to know what is so goddamned funny.

“You couldn’t handle what I’m smoking, Matt,” I say with a knowing smirk.


Page 10

Chapter Sixteen

On Friday, I leave work a few minutes early because, once I get home, I won’t have much time to get ready before David picks me up. I have no idea what I am supposed to wear to the club, and I hope to hell that he was kidding about me wearing a catsuit. When I walk into my apartment, it’s already six-twenty so I grab a quick shower and dress in a pair of black jeans and a dark purple shirt. I finish getting ready and am done by the time he knocks on my door at precisely seven.

We head into the city, and this time David is actually driving like a normal person. When we get downtown, he pulls into a metered space and gets out. He wraps his hand around mine, and we walk together down the sidewalk for four or five blocks. He tugs me into a side alley and up to a door. When he pulls the door open, my nose is saturated with amazing smells. As soon as I look inside, I understand. He has brought me to the Thai restaurant he told me about a few days ago. It’s a tiny space crammed full of chattering people. I am very, very excited. I have never eaten in a place like this.

“I love this place already,” I say shyly to David. He looks over at me and softly grins and squeezes my hand. When the hostess comes over to seat us, she greets David by name and takes us to a small table. It is the only open table in the place. The other people standing near the door, presumably waiting for a table of their own, look at us with envy or spite or whatever. I really don’t give a damn. I am hungry as shit and loving David for bringing me here.

“Just wait till we eat,” he says, “then you’ll really be in love.”

While we wait for our food, we talk about his friends in the band and how he met them. They were practicing for a gig at a bar he was working in, and they have been friends ever since. He assures me again that the kind of music they make is not going to win any hearts, and then he tells me that I might hate the club, and I might hate the music. And if I do, I should let him know and we can leave. As the waitress is putting our food down on the table, I tell him that, no matter what kind of music or club it is, I won’t be asking him to leave.

“I have never in my life asked a date to leave somewhere,” I say. “I’m game for whatever.”

He raises his eyebrows at me. “Wait,” he says dramatically, “did you just imply that this a date? Do fuck buddies even go on dates?”

“Sure, they do. Especially when one of them wants to be shown a good time before they get to the fucking.” I can tell from his facial expression that David has never, ever had a woman say such a thing to him before. My insides are jumping with amusement, and I am trying to keep from smiling.

“But I thought the fuckingwasthe good time?” he says. Damn him. I can’t think of a single thing to say in response, so I just sit there smiling like a total crackpot. “Emma, wherever you come from, it must be one hell of a place,” he adds while shaking his head and looking down at his plate.

“You have no idea where I come from. Well, actually, yes, you do. You already met Michael, so that should give you a pretty good idea.”

“Yeah, well, we all got strange shit in our past.” He trails off as if he is thinking hard. A few seconds later he adds, “That picture in your room, is that your mom and you?” Oh. He noticed the picture.

“Yep. That’s my mom. Before Michael was in our life. We didn’t have a lot, but we were happy. My brothers were decent kids back then. But once Michael got a hold of them, everything changed.”

“Michael really fucked things up for you, didn’t he?”

“Between him and my brothers, I was royally fucked up by the time I was eleven. And literally fucked at thirteen.” I am telling him too much.

“Thirteen, huh?” He looks more concerned than surprised.

“Yep. Thirteen. And not by my choice either.”

“Jesus, Emma.” Now he looks downright distressed, and I am feeling an overwhelming need to sink my face into my hands. But not because I’m embarrassed. Because I don’t like the way he is looking at me. I need to steer the conversation.

“How about you?” I ask. And his face instantly changes. He looks humored now. Thank fucking goodness.

“Let’s just say I was way older than that,” he says, “and it was totally by my choice.”

“Who was it with?”

“My dad’s secretary.”

“No way. Seriously? Did she go all cougar on you when you were in high school or something?” Oh, sweet mother of God, why did I say that?

He chuckles. “Kind of, I guess. She was a little older than me, but I was twenty, so I don’t know if the whole cougar thing applies.” He was twenty-fucking-years-old? I don’t believe it. By the time I was twenty, I had already screwed more boys than I care to remember. I suddenly feel really, really weird. And self-conscious. Which, of course, is total bullshit.

“Twenty? You’re full of crap,” I say, in hopes of calling his bluff.

“Dead serious. I was twenty.”

“And how old are you now?” I ask.

“I’m twenty-six.”

“So you’ve got four years up on me in age, but I’m three up on you in experience.”

“I guess so,” he says with a shrug. “But there’s really no need to point out all my inadequacies.”

I lift my eyes up from my plate and look him straight in the eye. “David, there is not a single thing inadequate about you.” I know he is flattered by my comment because he looks a bit sheepish and he doesn’t offer a smart-ass kickback. “Not so far, anyway,” I add with a smile.

When we finish eating, I tell David that it’s easily the best Thai food I’ve ever had. He picks up the tab, even though I tell him I’m happy to pay my half, and we are out the door.

As we walk out the alleyway and back towards the car, David tells me we are going to drive to the other side of town and have a few drinks at a bar. Apparently underground clubs don’t open until midnight, and the band won’t start playing until well after that, so for the next two hours we drink beer and talk about everything from carpentry training to where I can get a good white pizza. He tells me about how he got the BMW from an old lady who used to live in one of Carl’s buildings and how he did, in fact, fix it up himself. He tells me about how Carl was once so drunk after poker that he stripped down naked and walked home wearing nothing but his shoes. And they were on his hands. As I listen to him, I realize that David is pretty damn amusing. I find myself smiling a lot at his stories. I tell him a few stories of my own, too, but none of mine seem to be as interesting as his. And, before I know it, it’s twelve-thirty. David settles with the bartender, and we start walking down the street.

Fifteen minutes later, David rings the buzzer next to a large metal door, and after that I hear a clicking sound. My mind is a riot of curiosity. He pulls the door open, and we walk together down a long corridor and then up several flights of stairs. When we get to the top, I can hear loud but muffled music. He opens another metal door, and we walk into a massive warehouse-like room. The room is absolutely filled with people. The whole place is glowing under multicolored lights. I can see immediately that I am the only one here without a tattoo. I am also pretty sure that I’m the only one here without a parole officer. It makes me wonder if David has one.

I glance over at him, and he is watching me keenly. I know he is trying to gauge my reaction to this mass of pulsating, freakish humanity. I narrow my eyes at him and give him a sideways, smart-ass-y smile. We walk together towards a long bar on the left side of the room. David talks with the bartender, and then he presses the front of his body into my back and wraps an arm around my waist, pulling me close. He reminds me that we can leave at any point. I cannot take my eyes off these people, and right now you couldn’t pay me to leave.

We walk down the length of the bar, through all the people, and up some steps to the left of the stage. A large man is standing on a platform at the top of the steps. When we reach him, he puts his hand out to David and greets him with a handshake and a back-slapping man-hug. He looks at me and smiles and whispers something into David’s ear. They both grin. David takes my hand, and the man steps aside and opens the door for us. As soon as we enter the room, I can see that it’s where the band is camped out. The room is filled with smoke, and there are about a dozen people sitting and standing around, talking and drinking and smoking. Four of the guys stop what they are doing and come over to us immediately. David greets them with more back-slapping man-hugs and then introduces me.

“Gents,” he says, “this is my girl, Emma.” But he isn’t looking at them when he says it. He is looking at me. He wants to see my reaction to his words. No one has ever referred to me as “my girl” before. “Emma, this is Steve, John, Caleb and Saz.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say to them, only taking my eyes off of David’s well after I say it. I shake their hands one by one, and we make small talk about how David and I met and my job and my initial impression of the city. David is right. They seem to be really nice guys, and I like them immediately. Soon they decide it’s time to head to the stage, and we say our goodbyes. They tell us to stick around after the show so we can hang out more, and they can warn me about David. They joke about how they want to figure out what the hell I am doing with the likes of him. I smile when they say it, and then I tell them that I only like him for his tool belt and that I’m perfectly prepared to heed any warning they’re willing to share. David looks back and forth from me to them.

“I don’t think we’ll be sticking around,” he says. “Not this time, you fuckers.” I think he’s only half joking. Then he leans toward Caleb, shakes his hand and says something to him that I cannot hear. Caleb laughs out loud, and David takes my hand. We walk out to a chorus of goodbyes.

When they step onto the stage, they seem very different. The music they play is raw and loud and enraged, and the mass of people congregated on the dance floor in front of them rage right along with the music. The room is like an enormous tangle of energy. After two songs, they introduce themselves as Noel’s Sex Toys and call the audience a “bunch of fucking unemployed cocksuckers.” Everyone in the crowd lifts their beer into the air and screams.

David tells me that most of the songs they play are originals, but somewhere in the mix, I catch a fast and deafening cover of Metric’s “Gold Guns Girls”. Every time I look over at David, he is perfectly still. We are standing next to the front of the bar, and I want to go dance, but instead I just drink my beer and watch and listen.

After a few more songs, they stop playing, and Caleb pulls the microphone to his mouth. “Our mate David has a new girl,” he says. “This one’s for her.”

David’s eyes widen and then briefly close. When he opens them, he turns to me and mutters, “Those fucking assholes. I’m gonna slash their goddamned tires.” I can tell he is joking, though, because of the lilt in his voice as he says it. He must recognize the song before I do, because soon after they start, David’s chin sinks to his chest, and he shakes his head.

I know from the lyrics that it’s “Creep,” but the music is faster and far more incensed than Radiohead’s original. Caleb’s voice sounds sinister and, yes, creepy. By the time they reach the middle of the song, David’s head is raised, and he’s giving them the finger. With both hands. I don’t think they can see him, though, because of the stage lights, but David keeps his hands up anyway. A minute or so later, he drops them and wraps his arm around my shoulders.

“Assholes,” he mutters again.

“You want me to kick the shit out of them?” I tease. “’Cause I’ll go up on that stage right now and take those boys down.”

He grins with pride and says, “Atta girl.”

We stay for the rest of the show, drinking and watching. When they are done, and the DJ clambers back up onto the stage, David tells me it’s time to go. On our way out, I stop to use the ladies room. I’m decently drunk, and when I open my cell phone to check the time, I see that it’s nearly four o’clock in the morning. Fucking hell.

When I am done, I go back out to David. He pulls me out the door, down the steps, and to the car. All without saying a word. My ears are ringing, and I am exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. David starts the car and drives. But he isn’t headed toward home. At least not in the direction I recognize as home. He switches on the radio and turns it up loud. I don’t know where we are going, nor do I care. I open my window and stick my head out, breathing in deep pulses of air. After a few minutes, I pull my head back in and lean over, laying my head down on his lap. I twist myself around so I am face up. He looks down at me in surprise, and I smile up at him.

When his eyes return to the road, I look up at the birds. He is holding the steering wheel, and I run my index finger from his wrist up to his underarm, tracing the outlines of their bodies, touching their feathers, feeling David’s skin. In my drunken haze, the birds seem even more vivid, more alive. The dash lights cast shadows on his arm, but I can see that the bird closest to his right underarm is a raven. It is larger than the rest, and its black feathers stand out against all the colors. I trace the raven, pushing the pad of my finger softly against David’s skin.

“I like this one the best,” I tell him as I move my finger down the raven’s back.

“Oh, yeah? Why that one?”

“Because ravens are clever and self-assured. And peculiar.”

“Huh,” he says. Then after a pause, he adds, “Sounds like you.”

“And you.”

“Like I said, we’re two of the same, Emma.”

“Indeed.”

He pulls the car off the road and down a steep, narrow gravel lane. From his lap, I can see the lights from a bridge above us. David parks the car off to the side of a small parking lot and turns off the engine. When I sit up, I see that we are facing the river, not far from the shore. He gets out and walks over to my side of the car. He sticks his face into my open window, clasps my head between his hands, and kisses me. I close my eyes, enjoying the way his tongue caresses mine.

His kiss twists my mind into a flurry of want, curls my body into a gnarled-up ball of need. My breath is heavy, and it is taking everything in me not to leap out of the car and throw myself at him. Instead, I climb up on to my knees and push my upper body out the window. My hands are on the sill, holding me up like a couple of shaky sticks. Before they give way and cause me to collapse like a moronic, redheaded marionette, he grabs me by the waist and pulls me out of the car. Thank God.


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I’m standing in front of him, looking straight at his remarkable face. I feel like a fool on fire.

“Thanks for the good time,” I say, my insides turning to liquid.

“You’re welcome.” We stand there looking at each other for a few seconds, and it’s pretty clear that we both know what is going to happen next.

“So, you’re a creep, huh?” I ask. He shrugs and puts his hands into his pockets.

“According to some.” He doesn’t look amused, but he doesn’t look angry either.

I lift my shirt up over my head, kick off my shoes, and step over to him.

“Okay,” I say dismissively. Then I kiss him again, pushing my tongue between his lips and feeling the softness of his mouth. Complete happiness bubbles up into my chest, and my veins fill with a rush of endorphins. The high I get from David is unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. It’s like a surge of perfection and clarity and power pumping straight through me. It’s bliss in its purest, most craze-inducing form. I press myself into him, hoping my happiness will form a perfect circle around both of us. He pulls his hands from his pockets, unbuttons my jeans, and slips his palms down the back, sliding across my panties and squeezing my behind. He drags my jeans down off my legs. Before I know it, he has my back up against the car. The metal is cold against my skin, and David is grinding himself against me, rubbing the front of his jeans roughly into my skin. The force and purpose in his movements make it clear that he feels the same happiness and perfection and clarity that I do. And the power. It’s there, too. Ringing through him like a motherfucking freight train.

We kiss like this for a long time. As we do, his hands move with certainty—they move over the back of my neck and my shoulders and across to the front of my collarbone. His arms wrap around my waist, and he begins to step backwards, pulling us around to the front of the car. He sits me up on the hood. I tilt my head back and lie down, feeling his hands move up my thighs and pull down my panties. There is a ping of ecstasy in every brush of his fingertips, in every tiny connection. He begins swirling his thumb against me, and the pings turn into punches, jolting me with pleasure and burning my insides. I prop my feet up on the bumper and hold my stomach in an attempt to control myself. David grabs both of my wrists with his left hand. His strength surprises me, and my eyes fly to his. The skin on his scalp creeps back, and his lips curl into a slight smile. I see the power in his eyes, and it excites me to know that I am the one giving it to him. He holds me there, squeezing my wrists tightly together, his right hand continuing to circle over me. Despite the heady mix of emotions whipping through me, or maybe because of it, I beg him not to stop. I beg him to go faster, to put his fingers inside me, to make me come quickly. And he does—but when I am right there, at the verge, he stops. He pulls his right hand away and uses it to turn my body. I am now lying sideways across the hood of the car with him still gripping my wrists and my mind swimming in a pool of lust and want and frustration. David uses his free hand to unbutton his jeans and pull down his zipper. He pushes himself into my mouth. He holds the back of my head, forcing me toward him every time he pushes his hips forward. I am reeling, but not because of what he is doing. I am reeling because I want him to touch me again, to bring me back to where I was. I want to feel the swell of pleasure wash over me again. I want more punches.

I push my head back against his hand and turn until he drops out of my mouth.

“Touch me,” I tell him. “Do it. Please.”

He is looking down at me, but he doesn’t say anything. His face doesn’t change. The motherfucking freight train is still there, though, in his eyes. He turns my head back towards him again, and I take him into my mouth, licking and sucking and wrapping my tongue around him. I see his head tilt back, and he lets go of my wrists. Then, at last, I feel his fingers. They are sinking into me over and over, nudging me closer to where I was. My back arches up off the car, and I try to hold myself steady as I push my hips up to meet his hand. Each time his fingers glide into my body, his hips push forward and his hand tightens against the back of my head. He begins to go faster, and I am starting to feel frantic, anxious that he is going to stop again. He doesn’t, though. He keeps going, and a minute later, I am there, wrapped in a blend of his strength and my own ecstasy. When I come, my hips lift completely off the car, and I let out a deep, choked groan. He pushes himself all the way to the back of my throat and lets out a harsh sigh of his own. When he is done, he steps away from me, and I can hear my heart beating in my ears. I close my eyes and flatten my entire body against the car.

The freight train ran me right the fuck over. Jesus H. Christ.

I hear David breathing, and I open my eyes as he is zipping up. I watch him walk around to the side of the car. A minute later his is back, holding all my clothes in his arms.

“Emma...” he says, as he hands them to me. I am sure he is going to say more, but he doesn’t.

“What?” I ask, swinging my legs off the front of the car and slowly sitting up. He is standing in front of me, holding my clothes and suddenly looking very shy. His eyes are still charged, but this time I think it’s with contentment rather than with power.

“I just want you to know that I think we’re pretty great together. That’s all.”

“Oh,” I say, as I slide down off the hood of the car and begin to get dressed. “Yeah, well, now that you mention it, I guess we are pretty great together. For a couple of fucked-up creeps, anyway.” I look up at him as I button my jeans and smile one big fucking crackpot smile. He wraps his arms around me and squeezes tight.

A few seconds later he hoists me back up onto the hood of the car, hops up next to me, and leans his back against the windshield. We sit there, watching the sun rise over the city. When it is bright enough to see, I look up at the bridge. Its trusses are covered in a riot of graffiti, the words and pictures blended together in a surprisingly beautiful way. David is looking at it, too, and the next thing I know, I am listening to his awed voice singing the praises of the artist, telling me how this bridge is someone’s masterpiece. Some kid’s, most likely. Some kid who doesn’t even know how good he is. Some kid the rest of the world will probably never know. I hear admiration in his words. And I am enthralled.

Chapter Seventeen

Elizabeth

I am standing on this bridge fully aware that Shep Calgaro is watching me from the bushes. He’s hunkered down in the honeysuckle at the end of the bridge. I don’t know why he thinks he’s being so stealthy—he’s drunk off his ass again, and anything but quiet. The moment I got out of my car and started walking across the bridge, I knew he was there. I could hear him moving around, and I could smell the Scotch and sawdust on him from across the street.

He knows that it was David. He must have overheard our conversation in his office yesterday, and now I have to do this in front of both of them. And that sucks.

I started working for Shep three years ago, when David was still in high school. I never aspired to be a contractor’s secretary, but the pay was decent, and when Mark left me for that strung-out hussy, I had to start paying the bills somehow. What I didn’t plan on was falling for Shep. Yes, he’s a bit of an asshole when he’s drunk, but when he’s sober, he’s sweet as pie. Buying me flowers and jewelry and taking me dancing down at Peyton’s nearly every Friday night. When you date an older man they work harder to impress you, and Shep did a fine job of that.

His relationship with David, though, isn’t nearly as sugary. I have seen how raw they are together. How they can spend an entire day working side by side, building some rich woman a gorgeous kitchen, and not say a single word to each other. There is so much bitterness between them, and I don’t think it will ever go away. And now, somehow, I have managed to make it so much worse. But, in all honesty, if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing. I complicated things for sure, and I know there will be a price to pay, but now that I am here, I am going to be honest with David and ask him to forgive me. To move on. I want all this bullshit to be over.

David walks toward me now, carrying a duffel bag. I am beginning to think he is going to call it quits. I have a sudden and sinking feeling that he isn’t going to listen to me; he isn’t going to forgive me. He is next to me now, asking me what the hell I was thinking. Asking me why I thought it was all right for me to do this to him. I tell him that I don’t know, and that sometimes life is complicated. I didn’t know all this would happen. I didn’t know it would be like this. I didn’t mean to hurt him.

When Shep and I first got together, David was dating Kelsey. I thought they were going to get married someday. Shep and I would sit at Peyton’s drinking beer and Scotch, and he would go on and on about how Kelsey was too good for David and how one of these days she’d figure it out and dump him like the loser he is. But I always thought they were sweet together. They were an unconventional pair, for sure, but sometimes there is balance in those kinds of relationships. They were together for nearly a year when Kelsey ran. That’s when it started for David and me. He came to me for help when he found out she was pregnant. David was sure that Kelsey’s parents would disown her, that they would make her life miserable, and that he would be to blame. He didn’t know what to do. Kelsey would not terminate the pregnancy, that he was sure of, because she was so Jesus-y. He told me that he begged her to run away with him, begged her to let him take care of her and the baby somewhere far away from this town. But she refused. She said she didn’t want to be with him anymore because this whole mess was his fault. She was going to do this on her own, and God would take care of her and the baby. David was devastated. He wept in my arms.

David made me promise not to tell anyone that Kelsey was pregnant. And three days later, she was gone. It was the day of Beth Lanko’s funeral. Kelsey never showed up to work, and within hours, everyone was frantically looking for her, the police included. David came to my house that night. He was so composed, so cold. I think he was in shock. He said he didn’t want to talk about it. I had to drag the words out of him one by one. He couldn’t believe she actually did it. She left him, left her family, left everything. He asked me what he should do. I told him that he had to go to the police, but that he needed to go to her parents first, to explain what had happened, to explain why she left. To apologize. He walked out my door that night and did exactly what I told him to do.

He must have lost a bit of himself that night, because after that, David was different. He withdrew from everything. I think he was mad. Mad at Kelsey, mad at the police for not finding her, mad at her parents for choosing their religion over their daughter. They were furious with her, just as David had suspected they would be. They refused to forgive her, or David, for the mess the two of them had gotten themselves into. Within two days of learning that Kelsey was pregnant, they told the police to stop looking for her. They said that wherever she was, God would take care of her. God would help her find her way. She would come back when, and if, she was ready. And they would be waiting for her—praying to find a way to forgive her.

Shep was furious at David. He said that David had ruined Kelsey. That Kelsey deserved better, and that he, too, would never forgive his son for knocking up such a nice young lady. David was a disgrace, Shep said, and he should be kissing his father’s feet for permission to continue to work for the company.

A few weeks later, David started regularly showing up at my house. I think he just needed someone to talk to. He needed someone to listen. We would talk for hours. About his mother, about my ex-husband, about life. I was connecting to David in a way I never had connected with Shep. Shep was fun, but David was deep. Then one night, he told me about when his mother was sick and about how his father refused to get her the help she needed. But she never asked for it either, he said. David didn’t think she wanted to be helped. It was hard, he said, especially because he was so young. He loved her, and he thinks she might have loved him back, in her own strange way. But he was never certain of it. His mother’s illness and Shep’s alcoholism clearly put David at the mercy of their diseases, rather than providing him with the stability every child craves. I can’t imagine how it would make a child feel to have to deal with such unpredictability. For things to always be so out of their control. It must have been hard for David. It would be hard for anyone.

To make matters worse, David told me that shortly after his mother died, in a drunken stupor Shep told David that he’d been an accident. That he was never supposed to “be.” That he was responsible for his mother’s death because their life would have been different had he not been born. She wouldn’t have gotten sick, Shep said, and she wouldn’t have died.

The night he told me all this was the first night we slept together.

I never intended to be in this position. Caring for a father and son in two very different ways. When David and I started sleeping together, I thought he knew about me and Shep. I thought he must have seen us together. I thought that, at some point, his dad would have mentioned it. But then, when I realized that David didn’t know, I made the conscious decision not to tell him. But it all got so complicated, and I couldn’t manage the secret, emotionally or physically. My guilt was drowning me. Drowning David every time he opened his mouth. I decided I needed to end my relationship with Shep, find another job, and continue life. With David.

But before I could do it, David saw us together. He came into Peyton’s yesterday afternoon when he was supposed to be on a job. Ken was with him, and the pair of them stopped dead in their tracks when they walked in the door and saw Shep and me snug against each other on the same side of the booth. David’s eyes settled on mine, his face blank, his body frozen. I thought he was gonna lose it. I thought David’s calm was going to unfurl into rage. I waited for him to splinter. But he didn’t. He didn’t go ballistic; he just stood there breathing. Shep was looking at his menu, and before he could look up, Ken pulled David back out the door. He knew they would be in trouble if Shep saw them drinking when they were supposed to be working. I told Shep I needed to go out to the truck to get something I had forgotten. But when I got outside, David and Ken were already driving away. I stood outside Peyton’s trying to collect my thoughts. Deciding if I should get in Shep’s truck and follow them. I didn’t, though, because I realized that I needed time to think about how to fix this. And I was sure that David needed time, too. Time to fume.

After a few minutes, I went back inside. I told Shep that I couldn’t do this anymore. That we were done. He balked, told me he loved me. I can’t work for you anymore either, I told him. I need this to be done. I’m sorry. He asked me if there was someone else. If I was screwing someone else. At first I didn’t answer. I stood next to the table looking at him. I wanted to calculate my words very, very carefully. I told him that, no, there was no one else. Then I made up some bullshit excuse about our age difference. I turned on my heels and walked out the door.

I figured that Shep would stay at Peyton’s, drinking until he couldn’t stand. But he didn’t stay at the bar because he is here now, hunkered down in the bushes.

I wanted Shep to know immediately that it was over between us, so I walked back to the office to clean out my desk. When I got there, David was standing in his dad’s office with his hands on his head. He was so calm. I could see it on his face. I was expecting seething anger. But it wasn’t there. I told him I was sorry, that I would do whatever it takes to make it better. I want to be with you, David, I said. I ended it with Shep. It’s over and I’m sorry and I love you. He sighed and stood staring at me for a long time before opening his mouth. He said he didn’t know if he could get over this. Knowing that he had made love to the same woman his father had made love to disgusted him. Filled him with contempt. Contempt for himself. Contempt for me. He told me all of this without a trace of anger in his voice.

We stood in his father’s office for a long time, looking at each other, breathing and thinking. Finally, he told me that if I want to try to make this better, I need to prove how much I care about him. I need to prove to him that I am choosing him and not his father. I need to show him that I am serious about wanting to make this work, about wanting his forgiveness, about loving him. I told him that, yes, I will prove it. I will do whatever it takes to prove that I love him.

He told me to meet him here, on Clawsen’s bridge. And so here I am, standing next to David and listening to myself tell him about how complicated life is. Apologizing again and again for my dishonesty. Telling him that I love him and that I will do whatever he needs me to do so that maybe, just maybe, we can move on. I don’t know if Shep can hear us from his place in the honeysuckles, but if he can, I hope he is sober enough to understand what is happening. I hope he doesn’t hate me. But more than that, I hope he doesn’t blame David.

David puts down his duffel bag and tells me that he forgives me. I am relieved, and I want to kiss him, to wrap myself around him and say thank you. As I lean forward, he reaches into his pocket, and in a second I am turned around and he’s wrapping something around my wrists. By the time it registers that he is tying my hands together, he is done. What the hell, David? What the hell are you doing? He tells me that before we start things over again, he needs to know that I am serious about not wanting to be with his father anymore. He bends down, places the duffel bag on top of my feet, and begins to tie it there. It’s heavy. I am in a complete state of confusion.

When he is finished, he stands up and looks at me. He tells me I am going to jump. I am going to jump off this bridge because if I don’t, then I might as well have chosen his father. It is all or nothing, he says. I don’t understand. Is this for real? It can’t be. He must be bluffing. This has to be a joke. If I jump, I tell him, then you’ll know I love you, but I’ll be dead and that’s not good for either one of us. But if you don’t jump, he says, I’ll know you never cared about us in the first place. Jump, he says, serious as stone. Jump.

Fine, I tell him, hoping to call his bluff. Fine. I will jump. I will jump because I love you—but you are a sick motherfucker, David.

I am laughing now because I don’t know what else to do. Peels of nervous laughter pour from my throat, and when I look at David, he is smiling. A huge, face-splitting grin. Thank God. Itwasa joke. I look down at the ground and tell him he can untie me now, take this bag off my feet. I am his. But when I look back up, he is still smiling. Only it is different now, more twisted. Power-hungry. But also controlled. I stop laughing and I know. I know this isn’t going to end the way I thought it would.

And then I hear something coming from the honeysuckles. It’s Shep. But he isn’t coming to help me. He isn’t coming to stop David. He is snoring, loud and deep, because he is passed out in the bushes, drunk to hell. I deserve this, I tell myself with a bitter chuckle of resignation. I deserve this, because somehow I have managed to align myself with an alcoholic and a psychopath. Apparently, I’m a goddamned genius.

I start to scream at David to let me go, not to change his mind but because I want Shep to wake up. I want him to come flying out of the honeysuckle and stop all this craziness. Please, David, I yell, please, let me go. I will walk away, I tell him. I will not tell anyone about any of this. We can pretend it never happened. I try to pull away, try to run. But the duffel is heavy, and my legs are bound together.

I get no answer from David, and his smiling, powerful silence brings on another fit of nervous laughter. I can’t help myself. I am laughing at my own idiocy. David shoves me forward, and I spiral off Clawsen’s Bridge in a fit of giggles. I cannot believe this is happening. And I cannot believe that Shep is still asleep.


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Chapter Eighteen

Emma—Present Day

The sun is fully up, and the city is slowly starting to wake. Saturday morning traffic is light, and on the opposite side of the river, I can see people walking their dogs along the shore. David is asleep with his head in my lap on the hood of his car. I am exhausted, but my complete lack of sleep is probably the reason I don’t have a hangover—you can’t get the bed-spins if you never go to bed. Right now, however, I want nothing more than to sleep for the rest of the day. I gently shake David by the shoulders to try to rouse him.

A few minutes later, we are on the road, and before I know it, we pull into our building’s parking lot. Together we walk inside and up the stairs. I don’t want to invite him into my place to sleep because I would actually like to sleep, and so we stand outside my apartment door with a haze of expectation hanging between us.

“Thanks, David. Really. I had so much fun last night. Everything about it was exceptional,” I tell him as I put my key into the lock.

“Yeah, it was a pretty great night,” he says, his voice trailing off and his eyes dropping to his shoes. “Thanks for not taking those guys too seriously. They get a real rise out of the whole ‘shock and awe’ thing.”

“I’m not usually shocked or awed by guys like that,” I say. “It takes a lot more than that to impress, or intimidate, me.” I try to laugh as I say it, but I’m just so damned tired that I can barely muster a smile.

“I can see that you’re itching to get some sleep, so I’ll just call you later, okay? You wanna get some dinner Sunday night?”

“Sure,” I say, twisting my doorknob. I hear someone coming down the stairs. Both David and I turn to look up at the landing, and there stands Brad. He has a black eye and a very swollen cheek, and he’s wearing a pair of jeans, a dark green T-shirt, and a ball cap with the Twin Cities emblem on it. He stops short when he sees us. Then he walks very deliberately down the rest of the stairs until he is standing directly in front of David.

“Where the fuck have you been?” he says to David, raising his hands in emphasis. “What the hell. Did you forget? You can’t just forget. That’s not how it works. We’re already so fucking late. Let’s...let’s just go.” Brad turns to me, smiles a conceited-prick smile, and looks me up and down. “Thanks for the black eye. It was a hell of a lot of fun.” And just like that, my anger comes back, rushing into my veins and burning. Making me want to take a swipe at him. But I don’t because suddenly David has his arm around my shoulders, and he is pulling me snug against him. He knows I am angry, and I think this is his way of telling me to shut it down.

“I didn’t forget, Brad,” David says with a small, wry smile. “We just got back. And now I’m going up to my apartment to make a cup of coffee. Then we can go. He can wait.”

“You are un-fucking-believable,” Brad mutters as he turns to walk back up the stairs.

And I know that is all they are going to say. I want to ask David what they’re talking about, but I decide it’s really none of my business. When Brad is out of sight and back up the stairs, David lets go of me.

“See you Sunday night,” he says. Then he leans into me and quietly adds, “and I did forget. Completely.”

From the top of the staircase we hear, “You fucker. I knew it.”

David shrugs at me, walks a few steps backwards, turns and goes upstairs. I watch him go. And when I hear his apartment door close, I go inside and straight to bed.

* * *

I sleep for the entire day and spend the evening watching TV and surfing the web. When I Google Noel’s Sex Toys, I see that at one point the band had a record deal, but it fell through when the recording company asked them to change some of their lyrics and they refused. “Creative conflict” appeared several times in articles about them in the local music rags. It seems that those boys know how to stick to their guns. I also Google The Trash Bin to see if the club comes up, but there is nothing. Apparently underground is the right word. Then, on impulse, I Google David Calgaro. I don’t know what I expect to find, but I am curious to see if I get any hits. I come up with seventeen Facebook entries, information about a Swedish musician, several mug shots, two obituaries and a bunch of other random mentions, none of which are the right David Calgaro.

The only item I find that might be referring to my David Calgaro is a link to a newspaper article inThe Times-Picayunefrom almost three years ago. The article mentions a David Calgaro who was being questioned regarding the disappearance of a woman he was living with. I immediately do the math and realize that David was probably living in New Orleans at that time, and this very well could be about him. He did say he left New Orleans because of a fucked-up girlfriend. I search the paper’s website for other mentions of the incident and come up with four articles about it. According to the paper, a woman named Anna Spaight was reported missing by her live-in boyfriend, David Calgaro, six hours after she didn’t return from work. The woman had a history of mental illness. She had been treated for depression and paranoia and was even hospitalized for attempted suicide on several occasions. When the police couldn’t locate her, they questioned David who said that, yes, she was taking her meds but that she had been a bit paranoid the past few months after finding out a neighbor was videotaping her from his window. David is quoted as saying that the neighbor had been reported to the police and evicted a month ago. Anna, however, couldn’t get past it. She became obsessed with keeping the blinds down and even went so far as duct-taping cardboard over some of the windows. The police questioned the evicted neighbor, who now lived in a different city, thinking that perhaps he was involved in her disappearance, but they found no link. In another article, the paper stated that, according to the police, neither David nor the neighbor were suspects and that they would continue to search for the missing woman. Her employer and a handful of coworkers had been interviewed, and they all said Anna seemed distressed. She even told one of them that she was still being watched. She was haunted by it. She said she needed it to end. She threatened suicide if it didn’t stop. The third article, dated three weeks later and titled “Missing Woman’s Body Found,” describes how a boater found her body in a local waterway. Divers searched the river for further evidence but came up with nothing. And nothing on her body indicated any foul play. She had drowned. The coroner ruled it a suicide. The fourth article is Anna’s obituary. In it is a picture of her. David is standing behind her, his face next to hers and his bird-cloaked arms wrapped around her waist. He looks younger for sure but just as brilliant. And Anna, she is beautiful, and she is smiling a wide, toothy grin. I don’t know how to describe her face except to say that she looks medicated. In a haze—but happy.

As I read the words, I’m overwhelmed with sadness for David. And for Anna. I cannot imagine the darkness that he must have felt to see the life of someone he cared about end like that. It is clear that she was a troubled person, a tortured soul, and I want to grieve for her even though we never met. David must have cared for her deeply. No wonder he wanted to leave New Orleans. “Too many drunks,” he said, “and a fucked-up girlfriend.”

I wish I had never Googled him, never discovered this part of his life. Because now, when I look at him, I will be searching for signs of his sorrow. For signs of her. I am mad at myself for being so curious. I don’t know David that well, but I surmise that this is not something he wants to talk about. Three years is a long time, but suicide is surely something that mars you forever. I will keep my mouth closed about this, and if he brings it up, I will play dumb.

I turn off the computer, having discovered quite enough new information for the time being. And I flip open my phone.

Hi.

Two minutes pass before I get a reply.

Hi back.

Did u get some sleep?

Yes. U?

All day.

Glad to hear it.

U home?

No. Out with the assholes.

Your thing with Brad go ok?

No, but I didn’t expect it to.

Oh. Nice shiner u gave him, BTW.

Yes, quite proud.

As u should be.

What r u doing?

My face flushes with guilt, and I am thankful that he can’t see me.

Watching TV.

Anything good?

Just crap.

Go up to my place and pick a DVD. Door’s open. They r in the box next to the TV.

Item number 4: Shitty-ass boyfriends are always trying to get you to watch porn.

Is that so?

Yes. Not interested in your porn either. Not without u anyway.

I’ll be home in twenty.

I don’t want him to come home.

Don’t. I was kidding.

No porn in the box anyway. Sorry to disappoint.

Not disappointed. Enjoy your friends.

Hardly.

Then why r u there?

U were sleeping.

:) like a rock.

Enjoy your movie. Seriously, go pick one.

I’m going to try on all YOUR underwear while I’m up there.

I knew there was a reason to always go commando.

I can think of several...

C u tomorrow Emma.

Good night.

Night.

I flip my phone closed and smile, thankful that what I now know hasn’t changed the spark between us.

I sort through David’s box of movies. He’s right; there’s no porn here. There is, however, a vast assortment of man movies.The Blues Brothers, Star Wars, Field of Dreams.I pull outThe Big Lebowskibecause, even though I’ve seen it a half dozen times, I know it will make me laugh.

* * *

I wake up late on Sunday, eat a leisurely breakfast/lunch, shower, and make a quick trip to the grocery store. When I get back to the apartment building and haul the two bags of groceries off the bus, I see David standing in the parking lot next to his car, talking on his cell phone. When I walk up the steps to the building, I pause and try to make eye contact with him. I don’t want to interrupt his conversation, but I want him to notice me, and eventually he does. As I am pulling open the door, his head lifts and his eyes hit mine. I smile and tip my head in toward the hallway, motioning for him to come in and see me whenever he is ready. He gives me a halfhearted wave. Then he turns around, drops his head, and continues the conversation facing the car.

Ten minutes after I finish unloading the groceries, there is a knock on my door. Even though I know it is David, I peer out the peephole before I open it.

“Hey,” he says, with both hands in his pockets now.

“Hey,” I say. “Everything okay?” He looks a little shaken. Or maybe I am just overly sensitive because of last night’s online revelation. I don’t know.

“Yeah. Everything’s fine,” he says with resignation. “I was just talking to Carl. We’re thinking of moving our poker game to different digs, and he isn’t happy about it. That’s what Brad and I had to deal with yesterday. Carl can’t fucking stumble home drunk if we go to this new place. He’s such an ass.”

“Yeah, I only met him twice, but he definitely set off my ass alarm. I can spot them a mile away.”

David’s face lightens immediately. “Ass alarm, huh? Is that like Gay-dar?”

“Yeah, kinda. Only an ass alarm is far more valuable. Keeps out the riffraff.” I am smiling now, and David’s head sinks to his chest and shakes back and forth. I think he is laughing at me, and frankly, I deserve it. Ass alarm. God, I am a fucking loser.

“Good to know you’ve got one of those. I’ll have to watch myself,” he says, raising his head. “I guess all those shitty-ass boyfriends really light it up, don’t they?”

“Like a goddamned Christmas tree.”

He is grinning again and shaking his head. I turn around and walk back into my apartment. I hear him follow me and close the door behind him.

“So, we still on for dinner tonight?” he asks. “You wanna just stay in and get some pizza or something?”

“Sure,” I say, stopping short of the kitchen and turning to him, “and maybe we can watch one of the hundreds of man movies you’ve got up there. It was like a big box of testosterone. I grew hair on my chest just looking at them.” I am teasing him, and I’m not quite sure how he is going to take it.

“Hair on your chest, huh? You should check out the other box of movies I’ve got up there. They’ll make your hairy chest blush.” Ahhh, so he does have a box of porn. I knew it.

“I doubt it. My brothers got the best of me already on that front. I stopped blushing at porn when I was eleven.”

I don’t think David knows what to say in response to my remark, so instead of talking, he comes over, wraps his arms around me, and kisses the top of my head. He holds me like this for a minute or two, then lets go and steps back.

“I’m sorry,” he says. Then, after a brief pause he adds, “let’s order a pizza. But first, I want to take you to the firing range. I mean, if you still want to learn how to shoot that gun.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

We spend the next two hours at the firing range. David is a very careful teacher, showing me how to load the gun and how to aim. I am completely surprised at the amount of energy contained in such a small piece of metal. Every time I pull the trigger, the gun kicks back at me, lifting my arms and shifting my body. I hit the paper target only three times while we are there. The rest of my shots completely miss. David tells me it takes time to learn how to shoot straight and that it isn’t nearly as easy as it looks in the movies. No kidding. It’s kinda fun, though, shooting the gun. It makes me feel powerful, autonomous even. I can see that David feels the same when he pulls the trigger. He’s dripping with dominance and totally loving it. I make him promise to bring me back here again next weekend, and I tell him that now he is really in trouble if he sets off my ass alarm.

We spend the evening eating pizza and watchingDirty Harry—now, there is a man who knows how to shoot a gun. When the movie is over, we sit on my couch, talking. We talk about our favorite movies, our middle names and our mutual love of Cheetos. David makes me laugh. Makes me feel at home. Makes me feel comfortable in my own company. There is something about him that is so real, so solid. He is soothing, which sounds utterly ridiculous, but I don’t know how else to describe his temperament. I feel natural talking to him. It is genuine and sincere. And even though I am looking for sorrow, I don’t see a single hint of it. At least not when he is with me. He is right. We are pretty great together.


Page 13

I don’t know how long we sit there talking, but when my thirst takes over and I excuse myself to get a drink from the kitchen, the microwave says it’s nearly one o’clock in the morning. Shit. I have to leave for work in six hours.

“Jesus, David. I have to go to bed. I need to be up by six.”

“Oh,” he says. “Okay. Can I stay? I mean, someone should be here to make sure you hear your alarm, right?”

“Very funny,” I say with sass. “Good thing I can hear my ass alarm loud and clear.”

“I’m not trying to be an ass, I’m trying to be helpful. Seriously, I’ll stay and make sure you aren’t late for work. I’ll even drive you to town so you can get an extra half hour of sleep.”

I pause for a moment, not sure how this is going to go. “Okay,” I say. “You can stay. And you can drive. And thanks. For tonight and for tomorrow morning.”

“Anytime.”

Ten minutes later we are asleep.

Chapter Nineteen

Monday at the office is more of the same. More design, more circuitry, more Matt. We are nearly halfway done with the project now, so at least I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. The second half of the project, though, is far more challenging than the first, and because of that, I’m guessing I’ll be working with Matt for at least a few more weeks. Admittedly, he seems calmer today than he did last week. Perhaps my comment at lunch on Friday about him not being able to handle whatever it is that I’m smoking embarrassed him enough to make him want to ease off of the drivel. He is chatting, yes, but it isn’t a steady stream. And it isn’t all about him. Instead he is talking about two of the other guys who work with us, telling me their backgrounds and how he thinks they are two of the smartest people he has ever met. I pretend to listen to him intently and tell him that perhaps someday, if I ever get to work with them, I’ll discover for myself how smart they really are. And then he asks about David.

“So, what does your boyfriend do? I mean, the guy that picked you up on Wednesday. I’m assuming he’s your boyfriend, right?” Jesus. I do not want to do this. I do not want to talk about this.

“Well,” I say without taking my eyes off the papers in front of me, “I wouldn’t really call him my boyfriend, per se, but I guess you could say that he is. Kind of, I mean. He’s a carpenter.”

“Oh,” Matt says, with what I think is a mix of holier-than-thou-attitude and disdain. “A carpenter, huh? How long have you guys been together?”

“Not long.” I am getting irritated already.

“He, um, he seems like an interesting guy.” Matt is fishing for something, but I can’t tell what. “He seems pretty intense, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I say, lifting my head and looking right at Matt. “Look, Matt, is there some point you’re trying to get to here? Because if there is, you can just say it. Or you can ask me about it. Or whatever.” He is staring at me with his eyes wide and his mouth slightly open. I immediately regret being so blunt. I don’t think Matt knows what to do with blunt.

Matt closes his mouth and swallows. His eyes narrow, and he leans over and quietly says, “My point, Emma, is simply to make conversation. There is no underlying motive. I’m not trying to make the moves on you. I’m not trying to be your best friend. I’m just here to do my job, to make sure things go smoothly, and to make you feel welcome here. And, for most people, conversations are a part of the work day. If you don’t want to talk, that’s fine with me. But say so. Don’t dole out the attitude without giving me some sort of warning first.” Now it is me who is standing here with my eyes wide and my mouth open. I didn’t think he had it in him. Shit.

“Look, Matt, I’m a pretty private person. I don’t like chitchat. I’m not patient. I’m not understanding. And I’m not a very good listener. It’s not that I don’t care about you—as a person, I mean—it’s just that I don’t get the point of it all.”

“The point of it all,” he says with irritation, “is to get through an eight-hour work day in a civil way. And to get to know the person you are spending those eight hours with. But, like I said, if you don’t want to talk, that’s fine with me. I don’t want you to start referring to me as the-dude-at-work-who-never-shuts-up.”

I can’t help but laugh. Thankfully he is smiling, too, and the pair of us share a self-deprecating chuckle—I think we both know that I already consider him the-dude-at-work-who-never-shuts-up. I want to tell him it’s too late for that, but I’m afraid that would be taking it too far.

So instead I say, “Yeah, well, I don’t want you to start referring to me as the-bitch-at-work, so let’s meet somewhere in the middle.” I don’t even know what that means. Except, perhaps, that I am no longer going to consider choking him just to get him to shut the fuck up.

“Agreed,” he says. And then he is silent, and we return to the plans spread out across the conference table. Over the course of the rest of the afternoon, with the exception of a brief conversation about what to get for lunch, Matt and I talk only about the project. No posturing. No chattering. Nothing. It is workplace bliss. I wonder how long it will last.

For the first time since I started working here, I’m not watching the clock. I’m not waiting for six to arrive so I can walk out of the building, sink my earbuds into my head, and shuffle out of Matt’s world and into my own. Instead, when six comes, I am still sitting in my cubicle with Matt next to me, typing specs into the keyboard and talking about how we can synchronize five different conference rooms on five different floors. He acknowledges the time first by silently tapping on the clock at the top of my computer screen with his index finger. I turn to look at him, and he’s already up and out of his seat. I quickly hit “save,” tell Matt I will see him tomorrow, and write a sticky note to myself to remind me where we need to pick up the project in the morning. I gather up my stuff and walk out to the elevator.

Matt is standing there, too. While we wait for the elevator to arrive I decide to meet him in the middle.

“So, yeah, I guess you are kind of right. David is sort of intense,” I say, looking up at the digital numbers above the elevator doors.

“What?” I look over at him briefly, and I see confusion.

“My kind-of boyfriend. His name is David.”

“Oh,” he says. Then after a few seconds, he adds, “I didn’t mean to sound judgmental when I mentioned it before. I just thought he seemed pretty intense. About you, I mean.”

“We haven’t been together very long. So I think the intensity you noticed wasn’t necessarily about me.”

“Ah, I see,” he says, the sound dragging out of him, slow and full of sarcasm. “Then I guess he must have just had a bad burger or something.” He looks back over at me and smiles. “In fact, now that I think about it, he did look more like a man with food poisoning than a man in love,” he continues. “It’s kind of hard to tell them apart sometimes, what with both being such intense feelings and all....” He laughs a little bit. I am smiling, too, realizing that maybe he does have a sense of humor somewhere in there.

“It was definitely food poisoning,” I say, nodding in jest. “Trust me.” Because there’s no way in hell it was love.

When the elevator arrives, we get in and ride to the lobby in silence. Matt nods at me as he steps off the elevator, and I say a quick goodbye. I walk through the lobby a few steps behind him, but he holds the door open for me, and we walk out of the building together. And then he splits off without a word, walking toward the parking garage while I turn toward the bus stop. I take a dozen steps and then stop to get out my cell phone. As I am about to flip it open, it pings.

Hi.

It’s David.

Hi back.

Have a good day at work?

Yes. What r u doing?

Feeling covetous.

Why’s that?

Because you came out with the douche bag.

What? David is here? I scan the courtyard. He is sitting on a bench under an island of trees, looking down at his phone.

What r u doing here?

Giving u a ride.

Where to?

Wherever u want to go.

Anywhere?

Anywhere.

Take me to a burger joint.

Done.

I watch him stand up and slide his phone into his back pocket. He is wearing jeans and an untucked, short-sleeved button-down with black chucks. As he is walking toward me his face is turned as if he is waiting for someone to come out of the building. When he’s a couple dozen steps from me, he turns his face to mine and smirks. I put my phone back into my purse. I want to have two free hands. When he steps up to me, I move forward and slide my hands around his waist. He grasps the back of my neck and kisses me. It is fucking amazing.

I don’t know why, but as we are kissing, I think about something Matt said: “He seems pretty intense. About you, I mean.” This is how David kissed me on Wednesday. This is the same kiss that Matt saw. Apparently, this is the kind of kiss that screams “food poisoning.” And that is some scary shit.

* * *

David takes me to a place called Quarter-Pound Love. They must make a mean burger because the place is full. Really full. And it’s a Monday. We decide to sit at the bar in hopes that we’ll get served faster. As we look at the menus and wait for the bartender to come take our order, we are both silent. David’s hand is on my bare knee. It feels light and sweet and still. He brushes his fingertips across the top of my knee, barely making contact. It is enough to make me want to leave. But I don’t say a word. I don’t flinch. I don’t move. I don’t look up at him. I just read my menu and pretend I don’t notice his fingers sweeping under the hem of my skirt, pushing it up just a little higher.

The bartender comes over to take our order, and David stills his hand, laying it flat on my thigh. When the menus and the bartender are gone, he looks up at the TVs above the bar.

“Are you mad that I came to pick you up?” he asks, watching a baseball game. “You haven’t said very much.”

“Mad? No. I love that you came to pick me up. And that you brought me here. What I’m confused about is why you didn’t tell me you were coming.” It’s true, I am confused about that. I sort of feel like maybe he is trying to catch me doing something I shouldn’t be doing. But that isn’t going to happen because everything I shouldn’t be doing I’m doing with him.

“I didn’t tell you I was coming because I didn’t know that I was,” he says, turning toward me with his hand still on my knee. “Until right before, I mean.” He pauses for a minute, but I can tell he wants to say more. Then he adds, “I was worried about you.”

“Worried about me? Why on earth would you be worried about me? This isn’t about Matt, is it? Because he’s just...he isn’t worth worrying about.” Now I’m really confused. David takes his hand off my knee and skims it through his hair, over his ear to the back of his head. He looks nervous.

“It isn’t about Matt. Don’t be mad at me, okay? For looking. But, a package came for you today. It was sitting outside on the stoop, and I picked it up to take it inside for you and I saw the return address. It’s from your stepdad. And it fucking freaked me out.”

“Jesus,” I say, “what the hell.” Now I’m fucking freaked out, too. Why can Michael not leave me the hell alone? “What kind of package is it?” I ask, my heart in my throat. I think he can tell I am completely wigged out about this because his hand is now out of his hair and resting on the side of my arm. Just like when someone is trying to comfort a friend at a funeral. It feels awkward.

“It’s like a cubic foot. Not big at all. And really light,” he says, rubbing my arm. “Look, I didn’t mean to freak you out about it, but I didn’t want you to come home after work and find it by yourself. Plus, I’m worried that he’s gonna show up here again and do whatever it is that he does.” I can hear in his voice that he has moved into his protective mode, and once again, I feel the pull of it. I feel my own thirst for his protection. I feel a selfish need to be sheltered. To let him be my shield against whatever bullshit Michael is throwing at me this time.

“No. No. I’m glad that you came. I’m glad that you told me about the package rather than me going home to find it. Because if I had found the package myself, I would have thrown it right into the damned Dumpster. But I’m opening it when we get back.Weare opening it when we get back,” I say, not giving him a choice.

“Whatever you want, Emma. I just need you to know that I meant what I said to him. He needs to stay the fuck away from you. And I will make sure that happens—even if I have to sit in your cubicle with you all day.” I smile softly at the thought of David sitting on the floor of my cubicle watching Matt and me work together. He grins back at me, and after a brief pause, with mock disparagement he says, “Jesus, I hope I don’t have to do that.” And then he isreallygrinning at me, obviously tickled at the same mental image of us in a cubicle together. Except in his vision I’m sure we are doing something very different....and Matt is sure as hell not there.

“I would like to think that Michael wouldn’t be stupid enough to show up here again,” I say, “but I thought that before, and clearly I was wrong. He’s just a sick asshole who trips on making me feel like I’m still a child. He likes keeping people under his thumb, and frankly, he’s really good at it. He’s really good at manipulation and intimidation. I spent the better part of my childhood being degraded and humiliated by that man. And I am mortified at the thought of him still having any sort of control over me. But he does, in a way, because here I am, a twenty-two-year-old woman, still talking about him. Still making him part of my life. Still wondering what the fuck he is going to do next. I am sitting in a bar with you, and what are we doing? We are talking about him. It makes me sick.” I am angry now, and I can feel the flush in my skin. There is a lump of rage in my chest. And I would very much like to rip it out and throw it across the room.

David is sitting next to me, looking pensive. He stands and scoots his hips in between my parted knees. His arms wrap around my shoulders, and my cheek presses into his chest. He is wrapped around me like this for a long time, right here in this burger joint. Part of me wants to cry, but I won’t. Because that would make Michael very, very happy. So instead, I wrap my arms around David and squeeze back.

When we finish eating and go back to the apartment building, the package is sitting there, outside my door. David was right; it isn’t very big. But I don’t stop at my door. I walk right past it, straight up the stairs. Two floors up, right above mine. David is a few steps behind me, and I can hear his feet pause at the bottom of the steps as if he’s confused about what to do. When I get to his apartment door, I stop to wait for him. I think his door is usually open, but I don’t want to walk in without his permission. The irony, after all, would not be lost on him. When he gets to the top of the stairs, I open the door.

I go in first, and David follows, tossing his keys and phone on to the coffee table as he passes it on his way to the kitchen. I go sit on the couch. He comes out of the kitchen a few minutes later, holding a pair of beers. He hands one to me and takes a long drink out of the other.


Page 14

“I changed my mind about opening that damned box,” I say to him. “I don’t want to. At least for now.”

“Okay,” he says, “do you want me to do something with it? Like run it over with the car or take an axe to it or something?”

I laugh out loud. “No. But thanks for the offer. I think I’ll just put it in the closet with all the other boxes he sent me and try to forget about it. But, if you want, you could runMichaelover with the car. Or take an axe tohim.”

“If I could, I would,” he says with more seriousness than I expect. “In fact, part of me wishes he would show up here again so I can pummel the crap out of him.”

I take a sip from my beer and look up at him. He is very serious. There is no doubt in my mind that he would take Michael down if given the chance. I don’t know what to say next, so I put down my beer and reach for him. His lips are warm and soft, and his tongue is slippery and cold. He tastes like beer. He tastes like a man. David holds me against him for a long time, kissing me softly and running his fingers up and down my spine. His touch strengthens me in a crazy, bizarre sort of way. It makes me feel less needy. More confident.

When he pulls away, he touches my hair and my cheek and asks me if I just want to go to sleep. If I just want to stay at his place for the night.

“No,” I say. “Fuck it. I want to open the box.”

Chapter Twenty

Emma—Age 16

Michael and my mom just got back from Singapore. I only know that’s where they were because I saw the baggage tags, not because they told me. They were gone for six weeks. I had six weeks of paradise. Six weeks of respite. But now they are back—and all hell has broken loose. And once again, hell is in the form of Bobby Sarson.

Bobby and I are together now, even though I was pissed off at him for not standing up for me in the locker room at my Sweet 16 party. He apologized to me at school the Monday after and said that he left because he was scared Michael was going to kill him. I told him half-jokingly that Michael was only interested in killing me and that he had nothing to worry about. And so for the past five months, Bobby and I have been going out. At first, I tried to hide Bobby from Michael and my mom. He would climb into my window at night when I was supposed to be doing my homework, or we would meet somewhere after school, or hang out at one of his friends’ houses. But after a few weeks, I started thinking it was bullshit. I am sixteen years old. Why should I have to hide my boyfriend from my parents? But even more than that, I wanted to tell them because I knew it would piss Michael off.

It sounds weird, but I have discovered that I like pissing Michael off. I like watching him go off the deep end. It probably makes me a sicko, but I get a very real sense of satisfaction in watching Michael burn. If he is going to punish me, then I’m going to make it worth my while. It is a game now, between Michael and me. I come up with some crazy-ass stunt to piss Michael off, and he comes up with some crazy-ass punishment to make me pay for it. Yes, it is twisted, but truthfully, I finally feel like I am exacting some sort of revenge. Like I am somehow getting even simply by driving him to the brink over and over again.

Our little game started the night they found out I was screwing Bobby. My mom and Michael were sitting in the kitchen together when I waltzed in and told my mother I needed her to take me to the crotch doctor. I needed her to put me on the pill because I didn’t want to wind up having Bobby Sarson’s love child. They both sat there, staring at me. My mother’s mouth and eyes open wide, Michael’s nostrils flaring like some animal ready to charge. When neither of them answered, I added that Bobby and I were tired of stealing the condoms from the drawer next to their bed. Plus, I said, it was kind of creepy to see all the lotions and shit they have in that drawer. “I mean, you are my parents, for Christ’s sake,” I said.

Michael jumped up from the table and smacked me hard across the face. Despite the sting of the slap, I smiled. A sense of fulfillment came over me. A realization that maybe I had passed on to them a small bit of my own humiliation. Michael screamed at me to go to my room. He said he would deal with me later. My mother dropped her face into her hands. I turned on my heels and walked down the hallway, knowing that the slap was not going to be the most painful part of my punishment.

And so, every day for the next two weeks, I had to go to the drugstore after school. Michael waited in the car while I went in and bought him and my mom a pack of condoms from the pimply clerk. Then he took me to church, where I would spend an hour listening to my Sunday-school teacher—who probably never even had sex—talk about the dangers of premarital relations. At the end of the two weeks, I had to give a special presentation to the entire youth congregation and all of their parents, professing how I chose to compromise my own chastity by screwing around with lots of boys, and how God has now shown me the right way to live my life. It made me want to gag.

The good thing was that, a week after my church declaration, my mom did end up taking me to the crotch doctor and putting me on the pill. I don’t think she ever told Michael about it, though.

* * *

So here we are, four and a half months later. Bobby Sarson is in my house, and he is the reason that Michael is yelling at me. Again. When my mom opened the front door to let the taxi driver unload their suitcases, I was standing by the television, fiddling with the DVD player, and Bobby was sitting on the couch. They never tell me when they are coming home. I mean, sometimes they’ll say two weeks or four weeks or whatever, but this time I got nothing. I write the checks out for a lot more money than I used to, so I don’t really worry about it. They don’t seem to either. And so it is Saturday, and Bobby and I were just about to watch a movie and order a pizza. I know that I am not supposed to have boys at the house when they are gone but, really? If they are on the other side of the fucking world, how will they ever know? This is not the first time I have done it, but it is the first time I have ever been caught. And it is with Bobby Sarson. The one whose dick my mother saw me sucking in a men’s locker room. The one that I was screwing with their condoms. The one that I am taking the pill for. The one that started this game between Michael and me.

Michael is behind the taxi driver, carrying two more bags. As soon as he walks in and sees Bobby on the sofa, his face changes. It is a look of perverted happiness. He is happy that I did this. He is happy to catch me doing something he and my mother have forbidden. He is happy that I have handed him a reason to go ballistic. Once all the bags are inside and the taxi driver has been paid and dismissed, Michael sends my mother to their room to start unpacking. She gives me a small hug as she passes and tells me it is good to see me. She nods at Bobby, who has since gotten up off the couch and is standing next to me with his hands uncomfortably in his pockets. I hear her suitcase rolling down the hallway behind her clacking heels. Then I hear the door close.

Michael starts by saying hello to Bobby and asking after his parents. He asks him how the baseball season is going and if Bobby thinks they have a chance at a winning season. Sit down, he tells us, relax. It is slow torture for me, and Michael is relishing every second. Bobby has no clue what is going on. He thinks Michael is finally coming around to him. He thinks his curiosity is genuine. Michael asks him if I told him their rule about not having boys in the house when they are out of town. Bobby pauses, unsure of what to say. Then he makes the conscious decision to totally screw me. He tells Michael, right in front of me, that he was not aware of the rule and that I told him that it was okay for him to come over. I want to punch Bobby into oblivion. I want to scratch off his face. I want to spit flames on him. But instead, I just sit there. I am bracing myself for what will come. And I know that in school on Monday, Bobby will get what he deserves.

After a few more minutes of small talk, Michael tells Bobby to leave, and as he is walking out the door, Bobby turns to me and tells me that he will see me later. I say nothing from my place on the couch. As soon as the door closes, Michael is up out of his seat and bent over me, with his hand clasping my chin tightly. He is in my face screaming about my disrespect for my mother and about my disregard of the house rules. I tell him to go fuck himself and swipe his hand off my face.

In an instant he is on top of me, grabbing both my wrists and pushing me into the corner of the couch. I screech at him to get off me, but instead, he twists my arms up and over my head. Stop it, I tell him, you’re hurting me. I try to buck him off me, but he is so angry. He switches his grip to hold both of my wrists in just one of his giant, hairy hands, and he smacks me hard across the face with the other. Then he lands a punch to my stomach. It bites into me and jars my bones into the sofa. I’m still struggling to break free, but his grip is too strong. I scream as loud as I can, hoping my hapless mother might decide to step in. Michael says that I need to change my fucking attitude. I need to show him a little respect. And if I don’t, he’ll send me, and my mother, out the door. I stop fighting immediately, though I’m not sure why.

Isn’t that what I want? For me and my mother to be separate from Michael? For him to be out of our lives? But on some level I wonder, what if she says no? What if she chooses staying with him over coming with me? What if I have to watch her beg Michael to let her stay? I can’t lose any more of her. I can’t be separate from her. I won’t let him have all of her. I won’t let him wreck us any more than he already has. He won’t win.

When I am still, Michael lets go. He stands up and looks over my head. I know that my mother is there. That she heard me scream and that she saw and heard what he did. But neither of them is saying a word. A moment passes, and Michael walks toward the front door, picks up a bag, and heads down the hallway. I hear my mother walking behind me. But her footsteps aren’t getting closer, they are growing quieter. She is not coming to me, she is walking away.

Chapter Twenty-One

Emma—Present Day

It is nine o’clock at night. David and I are sitting at my table with the box from Michael in between us.

“Are you sure you want to open it?” he asks.

“Yeah. I’m sure,” I say, reaching for the box with both my hands. David stands up, digs in his pocket, and pulls out his keys. He uncoils a Leatherman from the key ring and unfolds the blade, handing it to me as soon as it is open. I use the knife to slice the tape, then I fold the blade closed and hand it back to David with an awkward smile. The air feels heavy. And I feel queasy. I hate that I am hesitating. I hate that Michael has such absolute control over this moment. I hate him for doing this. I hate him for doing everything he has ever done. And I hate myself for being so goddamned curious about what is in this box.

“I hope it isn’t a fucking tarantula,” David says, I think to lighten the mood.

“Wouldn’t there have to be two tarantulas for that?” I say, looking up at David with a small but serious grin. I’m joking, yes, but I feel sick. “I’m pretty sure that I would prefer a pair of tarantulas getting it on to whatever is actually in here,” I add as I am bending open the flaps. David puts one of his hands on top of mine, stopping me.

“You don’t have to do this, Emma,” he says. “You can throw it away or we can tape it back closed and return it to him without even looking.” I know all that. I know I don’t have to do this. I know that by deciding to open this box, I am doing exactly what Michael wants, but I can’tnotopen it. Because what if it is something from my mother? What if it is something I am supposed to have?

“I know,” I say, “and I appreciate your wanting to protect me from this.” I pause for a minute and eye the box. “It says a lot about you, you know.”

“Oh, yeah?” he asks in surprise.

“Yeah.” I’m not sure if I should go on, but I can’t help myself. “It says that you care about me. And that all the shit that went down with Michael over the years doesn’t matter to you.Youclearly don’t want to know what’s in this box, and that tells me that you’re willing to know only as much about me as I want you to know. And that, to me, is a respect thing, and I want you to know that I appreciate that. I appreciate that you respect my past as the past. I only hope that by opening this box and possibly dredging shit up, things aren’t going to change between us. Because I like us.” And now, in addition to feeling sick about Michael’s package, I feel sick about Googling David. I feel sick that I couldn’t afford his past the same respect that he is affording mine. I want to spill it. I want to tell him that I know about Anna Spaight and how he lost her. I want to beg his forgiveness for my hypocrisy. But I won’t. Because I am a chickenshit.

“That’s some deep stuff, Emma,” he says with a smattering of sarcasm. I look up at him, and his lips are curled into a grin. I feel relieved and annoyed at the same time.

“Fuck you,” I say as I lightly smack his arm. “But I mean it.”

“I know you do,” he says, “and I do care about you. As a fuck-buddy, I mean.” Now I am really annoyed.

“Okay, fine,” I say, “here’s the deal. If you still like me after seeing whatever the hell Michael put in this box, then you can graduate to being my boyfriend.”

“Really? Jesus, that’s some good shit.” He steps back from the table and puts his hands in his pockets. “Go ahead. Open the box. It doesn’t matter what’s in it. It won’t change things now. Even if it’s a videotape of you snorting coke with the pope, you’re stuck with a carpenter for a boyfriend.”

“Lucky me,” I say as I open the box and pull out a mass of wadded-up newspaper.

“Luckyme,” David says. I look up at him and smile.

In the crumples of the newspaper are my real father’s dog tags. They are cut into pieces, and the chain that used to hold them around his neck—and mine—is broken in half. I sit with these small fragments of my father resting on my open palms. I look up at David, and I feel the blood drain from my face.

“He kept them. That fucker. He kept them,” is all I can think to say. I fold my hands around the pieces and close my eyes. I want to scream. I want to get that gun out of my drawer and pop Michael’s fucking head open with it. David must know that I am swimming in hatred because, when I open my eyes, he is kneeling on the floor next to me.

“Dog tags,” he says, not wanting to ask more.

I take a deep breath. Here we go. “They were my dad’s. He was deployed when I was like three or four. He was gone for a year and a half, and when he came back, he gave them to me. I used to wear them everywhere.” The anger is washing off of me, and now, now I feel sad. I want to keep talking. I want to tell David everything. I want him to fix me.

I slide out of my seat and sit down next to him on the floor. I am still holding the dog tags, my hands in my lap. “I guess I didn’t know my dad that well because I was so young when he left, but I do remember thinking he was the bomb. He was so much fun. My brothers were actually pretty sweet back then—they used to stick up for me. All three of them watched over me and kept me in line. My dad used to play games with Ricky and Evan and me, and my mom was so freggin’ happy all the time. I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t really that way, but I just remember it being so great when I was little. And I remember the day he came back. My mom was so incredible. She made it this really big deal. She made everything special for my dad. And for my brothers and me. That picture of me and her next to my bed, that was taken at a family reunion a few months after my dad came home. He was a hero, you know? I always felt like everybody looked at me like I was special because he was my dad. Because my dad did this amazing thing. Because he came home, and he fit himself right back into life. And my mom, you know, she made it so that he could do that. Without a single glitch. He slid right back into place.”

I look up at David, and he is staring at the dog tags in my hand. I think that he must want to know why they are cut into pieces. And why Michael had them.

“So, life was great. But then, when I was six, my dad got sick. Really sick. He had the stomach flu and then a few days later, he had trouble breathing, and he had this pinched feeling in his chest. My mom took him to the clinic, and the doctor said that he thought my dad had an infection in his heart, something called myocarditis. It’s caused by some kind of a viral infection, and the only way to diagnose it is through a heart biopsy. They came home from the clinic with some steroids, even though the clinic doctor suggested they go straight to the hospital for more tests. My dad said the biopsy was too invasive, and the steroids would fix it. And my mom, she didn’t make him go. She put on her rose-colored-glasses and said that he would be fine. A day later his heart failed and that was it. My dad was gone and everything changed.”

“Emma,” he says, “Jesus. That is horrible.”

“My mom met Michael at some stupid church thing a year later, and before anyone could argue, they got married, but I never understood why. Michael was never nice to her. Or me. I mean, she needed his money—she had three kids to raise. And I guess she figured that if she married him, none of us would ever want for anything. But it was more than that. She thought she didn’t deserve anything better.”

I’m staring at the pieces of metal in my hand, thinking about how different life would be if my mother had taken my father to the hospital.

“My brothers took to Michael immediately,” I continue, “because he let them do whatever the hell they wanted. I watched that man twist my mother and brothers into people they never would have become if my dad was still here. Michael had his thumb pressed down on all three of them right from the start, and I’m the only one that saw it. I’m the only one that stood up for myself and refused to let him take me over. And it pissed him off. He wanted to control me just like he controlled them, but there was no way in hell I was gonna let that happen. I fought back. I always fought back. And the only sort of control he had over me was that he forced me to spend my life walking on eggshells, always wondering what he would do next. At first I thought he didn’t like me because I was in his way, because I was some sort of obstacle to my mother. For a long time I thought he saw me as his competition because I was so young and I still needed her so much. But as I got older, I realized that he was, in fact, manipulating me, just in a different way. Hedidhave control over me. A sick kind of control. And I played right into it.” I look down at the dog tags and sigh. “And, apparently, I still am.”

My eye sockets hurt, and I want to cry. I put the dog tags down on to the floor and press the heels of my palms into my eyes. And then I growl. Not because I am sad, but because the anger is coming back. David wraps his arm around my shoulder. He kisses my cheek. I am sure it is out of pity.

“For five years I wore my dad’s dog tags every day. I wore them everywhere I went. When I was little, I used to pretend they were some kind of shield against Michael and against what my brothers were becoming. I used to pretend they were protecting me from something worse than what was already happening. I would kiss them at night before I went to sleep. Then, when I was twelve, my brother Evan ratted me out. He told Michael that he saw me smoking a joint with a bunch of boys one Saturday night when I was supposed to be at a friend’s sleepover. It was true. I was smoking a joint with a bunch of guys, and Michael freaked out and punished me, because that’s what he does. I was pissed as hell about the punishment, and so I smashed my mother’s perfume bottles all over the kitchen floor. He ripped the dog tags from around my neck and cut them up with a pair of tin snips right in front of me. My mom watched him do it and never said a word. He told me he was going to flush them down the toilet because I was an ungrateful brat, and so I always assumed that they were gone. But he must not have done it, because here they are.”

I touch one of the metal fragments on the floor. I pick the piece up and throw it across the room. The rest of the pieces follow suit. One after another, I sling them against the far wall. They bounce off the drywall and land on the carpet, scattering around the room. And then I am crying. I am sitting on the floor sobbing, and before I know it, the rage takes over and I am spewing words. Everything is spilling out of my mouth. All the humiliating and disgusting things Michael has ever done to me. I am not looking at David, but I can feel his eyes on me. I am churning out a long line of impassioned and enraged words, telling him story after story, painting a twisted picture of me. I can’t stop. I don’t want to stop. I don’t want breathe. I just want to spew. I am rabid.

David gathers me into his lap, chest to chest, face to face. I feel relief and nervousness in the wake of my rant. David knows everything now, and I can’t take it back. My legs are wrapped around his waist, and my arms are limp against my sides. His hands are woven together against the small of my back, and he is looking at my face. I expect to see pity in his eyes. I expect to see sympathy. But I don’t. Instead, I see fire. I see the crazy current. As stupid as it sounds, I see the phoenix.


Page 15

Chapter Twenty-Two

It was after midnight when we finally fell asleep, and now David is jostling me, telling me I’d better get moving. Telling me I’m going to be late for work if I don’t get out of bed. I can hear the alarm sounding, but I am in a mist of sleepiness. I don’t want to wake up. I don’t want to remove myself from David’s arms. I don’t want to see my puffed-up face in the mirror, or the empty box on the table, or the metal pieces scattered across the floor. I just want to lie here.

But David won’t let me. He pulls himself away from me, sits up and climbs out of bed. He walks over to my side and turns me so my legs are hanging off the bed. Then he pulls my arms until I am sitting up.

“Come on, Emma. Let’s go. Get ready, and I’ll take you to work,” he says.

“No. I don’t want to go,” I say as I lie back down.

“You have to,” he says, pulling me back upright.

“Why?” I ask.

“Because if you don’t, then he wins.” Fuck that shit. He’s right. Michael wants me to be wrecked about his little present. And I am. But that doesn’t mean I have to show it.

I stand up and walk to the shower.

I leave the bathroom door open, and a few seconds later, a naked David is standing behind me. Without saying a word, he opens the shampoo bottle and starts washing my hair. I am facing him, and he is watching his hands weave through my hair. Then he tilts my chin up, and the water rinses the bubbles from my hair. David washes my whole body with what I can only describe as kindness. He is careful and slow and tender. I am bewildered. My heart swims with appreciation, and my tired limbs slowly wake with every stroke of the washcloth. His touch is as sensual as ever, but there is no expectation, no innuendo in it. Only care. When he is finished, I offer to do the same for him. But he stops me, telling me I should get out of the shower and get ready for work. And so I do. I get dressed, we eat some breakfast and get into the car.

On the way into town, David mentions that it is Tuesday. His poker night.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to sit in your cubicle with you today,” he says, “but you are coming with me to poker tonight.”

“Really?” I say. “Why?”

“Because I don’t trust him, Emma. And I don’t think you should be alone. Not for now at least.” I am surprised at the resolution in his voice.

“Oh.” It is all I can think to say.

“I’d like to pick you up after work and take you with me. We can grab some dinner on the way,” he says. He pauses for a few seconds, then draws in a big breath before continuing. “But I need you to know that tonight probably isn’t going to be what you expect. I don’t want you to be surprised by that, okay? The whole poker night thing, I mean. It isn’t just a bunch of guys sitting around playing cards, and I need to know that you’ll be cool with whatever is going on. I need to know that whatever happens tonight, you aren’t going to flake out on me.” What the fuck does that mean?

“I’m not sure what to say here, David. I’m not one for flaking out, but depending on what the hell you are talking about, I’m not making any promises.”

“Those fuckers can take things too far sometimes. That’s all I’m saying. And I just want you to be safe. I don’t want you leaving without me or something.”

“Well, since I probably won’t know where we are, or how the hell to get myself home, the chances of me leaving without you are pretty slim.”

He looks over at me from the driver’s seat. “Just promise me you won’t dick around with Brad again, okay? That you won’t give him any more fodder.”

“That I can promise,” I say. “And I’ll keep both my shoes on this time.” David is grinning at me now, and I am smiling back at him. It feels good.

We pull up to my office building a few minutes later. He double-parks and puts on his flashers. Then he tells me to wait. He gets out of the car and walks over to my side, opening my door and helping me out. It is something he hasn’t done before, and I’m wondering why he has chosen to do it now. He closes the door behind me, pulls me against him, and plants a kiss on my lips.

“Bye,” he says. “I’ll see you right here at six. Don’t be late.”

“I won’t be,” I say as he is walking around the back of the car. He opens his door, and without thinking, I add, “What’s with the chivalrous shit all of the sudden?”

He shrugs, and just before getting into the car, he says, “It comes with the girlfriend status.” And with that, his door closes and he drives off.

* * *

The morning passes quickly. The new understanding Matt and I have seems to be working out well. He doesn’t say a word all morning unless I speak first. When I ask a question or make a comment, we have a little back and forth. And then it’s over until I decide to talk again. It’s quite civil. I also discovered that Matt’s witty. I would even say our go-rounds are kind of funny. Entertaining, at least.

At lunchtime, I open my cell phone to discover a text from David.

Hi.

Hi back.

How’s the day?

Good, actually.

Happy to hear. The douche bag there?

Yes.

He keeping his hands off?

Yes. Of course.

Good.

I was wrong about him, though.

Oh?

Turns out, he’s nice.

Nice?

Yes. In a douche bag sort of way.

Oh.

No worries, though. I’m all yours.

Always, I hope.

What?Did he really just type that? I’m not quite sure how to reply, but a heartbeat later I send the old standby....

:)

A moment passes without a reply, and I think that maybe he’s angry I didn’t say something more. Maybe he’s embarrassed and wants to take it back. Inside I’m freaking out a little, but when his reply comes, I’m relieved that it is a complete change of subject.

I’m nervous about 6:00.

Why?

Just don’t run off, ok?

Jesus, David. U r freaking me out.

Worried what you’ll think.

I can tell you right now what I’ll think.

What?

I’ll think u should take me home early and reinstate my fuck-buddy status.

No going back now, GIRLFRIEND.

Damn.

There’s an equation u aren’t seeing here.

What’s that?

Girlfriend status = indescribable benefits + countless perks.

Beyond this morning’s chivalry?

Well beyond.

I decide not to reply. I want to leave all this hanging between us. It could make for a spectacular evening.

* * *

The rest of the day is uneventful. Matt and I do lots of work on the design and even manage to progress to Phase 2 a few days ahead of schedule. The next thing I know, it is ten to six. I shut down my computer, gather my things and head for the elevator. Today was nice. Today was normal. Today was fun.

I walk out of the building alone, expecting that David may be waiting for me in the courtyard again. But instead, he is standing by his car. It is double-parked in the same spot it was this morning. When he sees me, he opens the passenger door and winks at me. He looks seriously delicious. He’s got bed-head as usual, but he’s cleanly shaved and dressed in jeans and a dark, short-sleeved T-shirt. Great. I’m going to look like a freak going to a poker game in my work clothes.

“Hey,” he says as I toss my bag into the floor of the front seat.

“Hey, yourself,” I reply. Once I am in the car, David closes the door and walks around the front. I watch him run the fingers of his left hand lightly across the hood of the car. His eyes are on me, and the thumb of his other hand scuffs across his lower lip. I see a little nervous smile on his face. Or maybe it’s a wicked one. It’s hard to tell the difference.

He gets in and leans over the console, reaching for my neck. His lips meet mine. It is another one ofthosekisses. The “food poisoning” ones. When he pulls his face away, my eyes stay closed, and I am smiling from ear-to-ear. I must look ridiculous.

“What?” he asks with a little chuckle.

“Nothing,” I say. “I’m just thinking about those indescribable benefits and countless perks.”

He laughs a little and puts the car into gear, pulling out into traffic. Once we are on the highway, headed out of the city, David puts his hand on my knee and looks over at me.

“We have a quick stop to make before we grab some dinner,” he says. “I have to pick something up, and you have to get changed.” Into what? I wonder.

“Don’t be mad, but I brought you some jeans to change into. I didn’t think you’d want to wear your work clothes tonight, and I forgot to tell you to bring something,” he adds. “I just pulled the jeans and a shirt out of your closet. I grabbed your chucks, too.” Oh. “I hope that’s okay.”

“Sure it is,” I say. “Thanks.”

He reaches into his pocket and produces my blue panties with the black lace. The ones I was wearing the first time we fucked. The ones I left hanging over the back of his chair.

“And I brought you these,” he says with a slight smile. “I thought maybe you’d like a fresh pair.” My eyebrows go up as his face glances over at me.

“Hmm,” I say, feeling a bit plucky. “I was thinking that maybe I won’t wear any at all tonight. That way I can guaranteeyouwon’t be the one to run off.”

“I won’t run off, Emma. No matter what you are, or aren’t, wearing. That much I know.”

“Good,” I say.

Soon we are pulling into the driveway of a small house. The neighborhood is kind of ramshackle, but the house seems decently well-kept. David tells me this is where some of his poker buddies live and that I can get changed here. He has to grab a few cases of beer from the basement. We walk right in the front door without knocking. It’s open, and the house seems empty. On first sight, it is clear that this is a bachelor pad. There are dishes in the sink, dirty clothes draped over the furniture, shoes piled by the front door, mountain bikes leaning against the wall, and empties scattered around.

David tells me I can go back to one of the bedrooms or the bathroom to get changed if I want to, but there is no guarantee what I might find back there. I tell him that if there’s no one home, I’ll just change here in the living room.

“Suit yourself,” he says as he heads back through the kitchen and down into what I’ll assume is the basement. I open the bag David has packed for me and start to undress. Before I put on my jeans, I decide to switch into the blue panties. I’m flattered that he thought to bring them, and I know I’ll get a small thrill out of teasing him about them all night.

I have one foot into the leg of my jeans when David comes back up the stairs. He is carrying two cases of beer, one stacked on top of the other. His eyes rise and meet mine, and I freeze, bent over my jeans. His eyes are smiling, but the rest of his face is still. He walks over to the kitchen table and puts down the beer.

“Don’t pull them up,” he says. “I want to take them off.”

He is in front of me two seconds later, his hands on my waist, pulling me toward him. His eyes are on mine, and they are full of fire. But he doesn’t kiss me. Instead, he drops down, pulling my jeans and the blue panties off in one swift swoop. He kneels beneath me, looking up at my face. He grips the inside of my thigh and lifts it so my foot is resting on the arm of the sofa. His hands make their way around to my backside, and he forces my crotch into his face. I hear a slow, tense exhale, and then I feel his mouth on me. It is soft and slippery and awe-inspiring. All the feelings of perfection and clarity that I felt lying on the hood of his car under the bridge return and seep into me. Sensation is jackhammering through my body, spreading out from where his mouth is. Out of him and into me.

My hands move quickly to the back of his head, sinking into his hair, goading him on. My hips push forward, meeting his mouth, letting his tongue wash against me over and over. As his fingers enter me, the pins and needles traipsing over my skin sink in hard, biting away every bit of powerlessness that I have ever felt. It is so quick.Heis so quick. His tongue and fingers incite my body until I am hanging right on the edge of an orgasm. Then, as if this was not enough, David’s other hand slips across my ass, spreading my wetness against my backside. In one smooth, incredible motion, he slips a finger into my behind. It glides in and out of me in syncopation with the movement of his other fingers. His tongue is still lapping against me, and I am groaning like a fucking dog. I can’t help it. I want him to know what he is doing to me. I want him to know how right this is. How close I am. How he is the one making me feel this way. How everything that radiates out of him crashes straight into me. And then I lose it. I come, gripping his head and pulling his hair, and shaking until my body is ready to drop to the floor.

I can feel him smile when his hands pull away. I drop my leg down off the arm of the couch to steady myself, and he clasps my hips to hold me still.

“Holy fuck,” I say.

I look down at him, kneeling beneath me, with his hands on my hips. He looks empowered and excited and hot-as-shit. David takes off his shirt and tosses it on to the floor behind me. Without a word, he pulls me down until I am on my knees in front of him. He turns me around and pushes my shoulders forward, pressing my face into his discarded shirt. He holds me that way—facedown, propped up on my knees, ass in the air—gripping both my wrists behind me. I hear him unzip and feel his fingers slide into me again, this time with more force. He is pushing into me hard, and my body ripples with a now-familiar need. He pulls them out only long enough to rub me in a few slow circles, then they are inside me again, pushing me back upwards.

Before I drop over the edge again, he pulls his hand away and stops. I can hear that he is touching himself now, stroking himself feverishly. The sound is primal. Greedy. Masculine. It makes me want to pull my arms out from his grip, and take him into my mouth. It makes me want to fuck him like a madwoman. His breath drags and stutters. A moment later, I hear him come with a deep sigh, and I feel drops of liquid hit my back. He enters me again, quelling my greed, letting go of my wrists so that he can grab my hips. I bring my arms up under my chest and push my body on to all fours so I can look back at him. So that I can see his face. I am watching him do this to me, and it is sexy as hell.

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