Ryder's Diaries (Caskets & Conspiracies)
As mentioned in the post entitled Ryder's Diaries, I wanted to include these perspective short stories to enhance my reader's experiences. There are multiple spoilers contained within this story. Please only read after you have finished reading Caskets & Conspiracies. I hope you enjoy Ryder's perspective as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
After the Johnny's by the Border
I met a girl tonight. Out at Johnny’s bar. She’s a little dodgy, and maybe I should forget about her, but you don’t find chemistry like that every day. It’s been a couple years since Mollie, and even that, I mean, that was just to please Charles, back when I still called him dad. This was…. volatile, but in the exciting way. Being next to her reminded me of when Ted Baker dared me to mix all three of Mr. Keyes chemistry bottles together when he wasn’t looking. Nothing happened, probably for the best if I’m being honest, but that feeling of watching Ted distract him, my heart pounding, both tubes shaking in my hands as I tipped them to the full beaker, that’s how it felt talking to her. As if something wonderful was about to happen.
I guess this is a little like Cinderella, or some other fairy tale. I don’t have a shoe exactly, but I have a clear picture of her in my mind and her number in my phone. Maybe I need to see if the ice queen will melt a little if I offer up some warmth.
I should call her, and maybe I’m chicken because I text her instead. I watch the words sit on the screen for five minutes before I give up and walk away. I should have called.
Day Dreams & Dust
I’ve texted her three more times, still no answer. But, she hasn’t blocked me yet. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I set aside the sheet metal I’m welding for a new piece and pull out a sketch pad and the box of charcoal mom gave me for my last birthday. I think it was her way of saying she approved of me walking away like I did. She was the reason I was brave enough to do it. Yeah, listening to Steve talk about how happy he was to be a doctor, that got to me, but if mom hadn’t walked away from everything shortly after, I never would have had the guts to do the same. We’ve been pleasing him, Charles, my father, ever since I can remember. It’s never been an option not to, not until last year, and now I’m trying to figure out how to live.
I take a deep breath and blow across the pad. Charcoal dust skitters and tumbles from the edge until all I can see is the mystery girl staring back at me. I can’t help but smile, there’s something about her I can’t forget, not yet. I carve the only name I have for her under her portrait.
“Huckleberry,” I read aloud as if her name will make her materialize. Meeting her is the first time I’ve gotten excited about anything in months. I’m not sure what I’ll do next, but for now it’s time to go to work at the docks. Fish won’t load themselves.
Dad and the Docks
“Yeah?” I ask as I answer my phone. The water is whipping off the bay tonight, catching in the air and darn near dripping from my face. I’m between loads, hanging out with Pedro and Miguel trying to catch a quick nap before the next boat docks.
“Ryder, it’s dad.”
The chill from the dew has nothing on what’s flowing through my veins at the sound of his voice.
It might be the first time he’s ever called himself that, though I’ll be the first to admit that my childhood is hazy. I don’t have many memories, either it wasn’t good enough to want to remember, or I’ve blocked it out.
“I’m hanging up,” I say as I pull the phone away from my ear.
“Wait, no, hold on,” he says and there’s just enough desperation in his voice to keep me on the line. “Ryder, I need to talk to you.”
“It’s 3 am,” I tell him as if he doesn’t know. “What on earth do you need to talk to me about at 3 am? You haven’t spoken to me in months.”
Pedro kicks my boot with his and points to the bay. The boat is coming in, though it’s still a ways off.
“That’s it exactly. We haven’t talked in so long and,” the sound of ice clinks against a glass through the receiver, “I miss you, son.”
He’s drunk. I should have known. My head falls forward into my chest. “Dad, I’m working.” I kick myself for falling back into old habits. He’s not my dad anymore, he’s Charles, the guy requiring me to pay off the debt of the medical school he forced me to attend.
“Yes, that’s why I’m calling. I put some cash in your account. I heard you were doing unsavory work, menial labor. It’s beneath you.”
“I didn’t ask for your help,” I say as I rise up to my feet.
“It’s a couple hundred dollars, Ryder. I drop that at lunch for heaven’s sake.”
“Take it out. I don’t want it.” His money comes with strings attached, though from the slur I’m hearing in his voice, I doubt he’s going to remember making this call, let alone giving me the money.
“No, I won’t,” he says.
“I have to go. Bye, Charles.”
I’m stewing over the call for the next hour, furious that I haven’t remembered to disconnect that last account from his. It’s just one more way he can hang on to me, keep his thumb on my head so to speak. The two hundred could help a lot, but that’s the thing, I don’t want his money, even if it’s the difference between living and starving. I’ll eat my oil paints before that happens.
But another thought occurs to me, an ironic use for the money, and a way to connect with my Huckleberry Girl.
Uncle Shane the Detective
“Yeah, I get that I need a name to file a missing persons report,” I tell the woman behind the desk. “But I thought you could make an exception.”
“Is she in danger?” the sergeant asks me.
“Ehhh,” I’m trying to flirt to get my way, but this lady ain’t buying my brand. That’s a first for me. “She's in danger of missing out on a date with me.”
“We don’t do missed connections at the Ferndale Police department. Take up an ad in the newspaper.”
The cop behind her laughs. “Can you imagine if we did?”
“Can I at least hang this reward sign?” I ask. I flip the copy of my drawing over with the mock missing ad and Huckleberry’s portrait. “I mean, it’s a small town, maybe someone has seen her.”
By the way they exchange looks, I’m pretty sure they both know her. The second cop is laughing to himself as he leaves the lobby. “I’ll get Shane. He’ll want to see this.”
I glance at the desk sergeant who’s got one of my posters in her hands. “You draw this?” she asks me.
“Yeah, why do you know her? $200 reward if you can get me a name and maybe a chance to talk with her again.”
It’s all a joke to them, one I don’t understand. “Oh honey,” she coos, “I think you oughta keep your money. There’s no hope with this one.”
The cop comes back with another officer, this one in plain clothes, likely a detective. “Here he is Shane.”
“Detective Robertson,” the officer says with his hand outstretched. “I heard you have a missing person’s case for me.”
This has gotten too real, too fast. Obviously I didn’t think this through.
“Not really, but I met this girl at a bar and I didn’t get her name. She’s not answering her phone and I thought…” I let it trail off because what? I thought the Ferndale police force could track down this crush of mine?
“Look, unless you think she’s in trouble or, if you have some reason to believe there was foul play—” The detective is shutting me down when the desk sergeant interrupts him.
“Just look at the picture, Shane.”
He pulls one of the flyers from my grasp, annoyed with all of us, but the second he sees her face it all fades into wicked delight.
“You met her at a bar?” Shane asks me as he taps the picture. “Was she drinking?”
“No,” I answer, unsure of why that matters or why that’s the first thing he asks me. “I mean we had soda, but she was sober, and no I have no reason to believe she’s in danger. But I’d like to talk to her again if you know who she is.”
He does. But he’s not going to tell me.
“Let me think on it,” Shane says. “I’ll call if the winds tip in your favor.”
If she were easy to forget, I would have had the chance because I don’t get that call for three days. I’m standing in the hardware store looking at pipes I need for my newest sculpture. Gene, the shop owner, lets me work by stacking boxes in back, and trades me store credit for paint, pipes and other supplies. Since he gives it to me at cost, it’s worth not getting a paycheck.
I answer the call on the third ring and wince as the pipes clang against each other in the shuffle. Gene glares from the front and I raise a hand in apology as I put my phone to my ear. “Yeah? It’s Ryder.”
“I made up my mind,” I hear a man’s voice say. “Thought I’d let you know she’s gonna be down here at the station for a bit. You hurry you might run into her.”
The detective, Shane Robertson.
“You got a name for me?”
“No, I’m not suicidal, son. You get over here and get the name yourself. And bring that cash, I got something in mind for my lady.”
Maybe I should be nervous that everyone treats Huckleberry like she’s an armed bomb, but I’ve always loved a little adventure, and she could be my greatest one.
“I’m at the hardware store. It’ll take a minute before I can pull the cash out. You’re saying she’ll be there a little while?”
“Yes that’s right. But you better hurry.” His voice is guarded, and I wonder if she’s beside him now. My heart quickens a bit because this is like tag on the playground all over again. The pipes can wait, I've got a girl to catch.
That went nothing like I expected. I figured she’d be impressed by my romantic search for her, not annoyed. I swear I can see her cracking though. I’m tenacious. After she stormed out of the precinct, Shane suggested I stop by the memorial.He's her uncle, and I've got a feeling he wants to see Huckleberry settle down a bit.
Hardware Store Hassles
I’m staring at my phone as it rings. It’s Charles again. Likely noticed he transferred that money. Too bad, I spent it, and a lot of good that did. Not even an inch closer to Huckleberry, maybe further away. I shouldn’t answer. I never know what kind of mood he’s going to be in, or whether he’s sober or not. It’s Russian roulette for my emotions every time. As much as I want to hate him, he’s my dad. I swear there’s some hardwire in a child’s brain that short circuits when they try to hate their parents, granting the sorry good for nothings umpteen billion tries to screw up it again and again.
Against my better judgement, I click on the call. “It’s Ryder,” I say, just in case he didn’t mean to call me.
“Ryder, it’s your father.”
Stone cold sober.
“What do you need Charles?”
“Payroll has a check for you. They said it was a bonus leftover from the work you did this last summer. Are you going to come in and pick it up, or should I put it in the mail?”
I know people have normal relationships with their parents, but I don’t, not even close.
“Just send it on to my school loans, that’s where it’s headed anyway.”
He catches the tone of my voice and bristles. I should know better, but being on the phone grants me some bravery I wouldn’t normally have.
“You made this choice, Ryder. I’m only enforcing your responsibility to that choice.”
“I made the choice to leave, Charles, but we both know I never chose to become a doctor.”
“Oh this again? You’re playing this card. As if your life was so difficult.”
He’s a professional when it comes to guilt. I’ve spent most of my life trying to claw out of the shame he piles on my head. I’m never good enough.
“I never said it was difficult, I’ve only said the choices weren’t my own.”
I shift the Tahoe as if I might pull out and drive this off, but I shift the stick back.
“Stop being dramatic. It’s a check, Ryder. Just take the money, and get a real job. My friends are talking about you and I am sick of hearing about my son the fish monger and bar bouncer.”
I laugh, but not because it’s funny. “Seriously? That’s what you’re worried about? I barely have the cash to eat and you’re worried about what your friends are saying?”
“You have a duty, Ryder. You were born into that responsibility—”
“Save it,” I snap the words out, “I’m not interested in your expectations as my father. I’ve never been a good enough son, and I’m tired of coming up just short of what you want.”
It’s silent and for a second. I’m reeling in the knowledge that I’ve slapped him back for once.
I should know better.
“Just short?” He finally replies. “You’ve never come close to what you should be. I won’t bother to reach out again. As far as I’m concerned, I have no son. You might as well be dead.”
I hang up the phone before he can spit another word of venom over the line. It’s a moment or two before I can even catch my breath. He’s my father, the man who brought me into the world and yet the contradiction is there and I can’t escape the reach of what he said.
It’s not the first time he’s talked like that. I know it, I can’t remember it, but I know I’ve been down this road before. I click off the ignition and rest my head against the wheel. I’m stupid to care. Wasn’t I the one who didn’t want him in my life to begin with? But that’s all a farce, of course I want him in my life. I want both my parents in my life, but without the control and the strings attached. I want to be my own man and choose my own path. Is that too much to ask?
Tired of him and all the pain he puts me through, I pop open the door and start up the alley that runs between the hardware store and the shop next door. There’s a commotion as I step out to Main street. A couple lunks are running, tripping over themselves it looks like. Probably a bar fight that got moved outside for fear of damage. I have a brief moment of pity for whoever they’re chasing, it doesn’t look good for that guy. But it’s not my problem, I have enough on my own.
The bell jangles once as I shove it open. Gene’s head comes up from where he’s counting leather gloves. He gives a quick nod and returns to his work. I’m old news, especially since I’m not here to work. Tina give a little wave from behind the counter but I move to the back where they store the metal pipe. I had an idea for a sculpture this morning, the motion of a crashing wave, but build out of welded pipes. At least it’ll keep my hands busy. If I stop and think about everything I’ve given away, the panic sets in.
I shuffle the pipes aside, remembering for a second that last time I was doing this I got the call that my girl was up at the station. None of that panned out. Never met a girl who contradicts herself like this one does. Her eyes say she wants me, but her mouth speaks a different language, always pushing me away. That desk sergeant was right, likely not worth the trouble.
The front bell clangs and quick feet patter down the middle aisle before they drag across the floor and something clatters from the shelf. I can hear her breathing even before I turn around. Whoever she is, she’s scared, maybe even terrified.
I search her out, not willing to let her fight on her own if she’s needing protection, and I stop cold as I see her. Her eyes are closed tight, as if she thinks she can, poof, disappear if she tries hard enough. Muscles ripple at her jaw as she clenches her teeth at intervals. Her hands shake once to relieve the tension, but the tremble remains even after she’s done.
“Huckleberry?” I ask, because I’m not sure if I’m right or not. She’s not wearing makeup, not even a splash. The jeans and t-shirt are nondescript, and nothing like that dress she more to Milton’s memorial, the one that had me choking on words when I first saw her.
Her eyes flash open as she hears my voice. Regret closes them again, but it’s not regret at seeing me, it’s regret because she promised she’d never use me again. I have a feeling she needs me now more more than ever.
The bell rings again and her body goes tense like a deer in the forest. I hear the men I saw on the street and it doesn’t take much to figure out they’re after her. She’s moving around the endcap, keeping distance between her and the biggest of the bunch, the one who’s taunting her. I wait because I expect her to ask for help, but she moves away from me, not toward me.
I could walk away, pretend I never saw her. She’s used me more than once for her own schemes. I don’t owe her anything. But some part of me understands fear, and danger and I can’t walk away from her if she’s caught between those and I could do something to help.
“Hey Buddy, you seen a girl in here? Dark hair, attractive, about this tall?” The big galoot asks me.
“Sorry, just me back here,” I tell him, and it’s not a lie. Huckleberry is nowhere near me now.
“Naw, she’s in here,” he says as he turns and surveys the store again.
“What do you need her for?” I ask. It’s possible she’s a criminal and I have no right to protect her. Seems prudent to check on that sort of thing before I risk life and limb.
“Not much,” he answers with a sneer that makes my stomach churn. “I owe her something.”
I’m not sure it matters if she’s a criminal or not at this point. I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I let him put his hands on her. He takes the aisle where I think she’s hiding, but I don’t hear anything so she must have moved on. It’s hard to look inconspicuous as I’m searching for her as well. I pick up some gloves and drop them, duck my head down an aisle like I’m looking for something. Where’d she go? He’s just one aisle behind me and I can feel my heart against my ribs. I take a silent step forward, and she’s there, crouched and ready to run like a gazelle on the prairie, but she won’t make it, not with this guy’s friends at the front and him about to turn the corner.
I grab her arm and I’m surprised how easily I can maneuver her from the aisle and against my body. Six steps and we’re tucked against the paint display. “Stay small,” I whisper to her. I didn’t plan this out. I don’t think this guy can see her as long as I keep my back to him. There’s a cardboard ad blocking where he’d see her legs, but if he comes closer, we’re both sunk.
To help our alibi, I reach for a few paint cards on the top shelf. It increases my size as well, and the timing is perfect as the guy hunting her starts my way. He thinks better of it and backs away. My gazelle shifts like she’s going to make a break for it and my instincts tighten my grip on her. She looks up at me with questions in her eyes, as if she trying to tell me she didn’t mean for this to happen. If she’s expecting much rational thought with her pressed up against me, she’s crazy.
“Stay put,” I whisper.
I hear that idiot’s feet move toward us and she tightens against me. I’m shifting for other paint colors, trying to think of what I have at home and what I might need, anything to keep my mind off of her breath against my skin. He’s coming closer and I twist, but it just pushes her in closer and the fabric of my top shifts as she clenches down for balance. My mind is wandering, unconcerned with the rage-filled mad man creeping up behind me. Instead I’m devising plans, schemes, anything that will get this woman in my arms for real, because this hum that’s resonating through me, the fever pitch ringing in my brain, I need this all the time. I breathe in her scent, a mixture of fresh detergent and strawberry shampoo and I nearly melt. No, I didn’t think this through.
“You still haven’t seen her?” her stalker asks from where he’s still looking.
“Sorry man, I don’t think you’re going to find her,” I tell him as I slip a few cards back into the display.
“Well, if you ever run into a girl like that, take my advice, and run as fast as you can. She is nothing but trouble.”
Truer words have never been said. I don’t even have my arms around her yet and I’m rattled to the core.
“I think you are probably right,” I say as he’s walking away.
And he is. But the problem is I think it’s too late to run. I’m already in trouble.
It's not a date...
I must have told myself a hundred times on the way to her house that this was crazy.
Uncle James told me once that women make you do stupid things. Right now I gotta figure he was right. Because here I am, going out with a girl to commit a felony, for no reason other than to satisfy her curiosity, and to know that I didn’t let her get killed.
I knock twice and draw in a deep breath. It’s drained from my lung just as the door peels back.
And I forget how to take another breath in.
She's gorgeous in dresses.
The silver beading hugs her waist in a way I never could have imagined. She has curves that she keeps hidden away under baggy t-shirts and relaxed-fit jeans. But the dress, the dress turns her into a new person, and I can’t help but want to see how it would feel to slip my arm around her and pull her against me like in the hardware shop. I’d feel like an idiot staring at her this way, except she’s doing the same dance. I know I look good in a tux, years of social engagements have gotten it down to an art for me, but I think this is the first time I’ve cared what someone thought about it.
“I told you that you look good in dresses.” It falls out before I can think of how stupid it sounds, but it earns me a smile and my insides are melted butter.
“Just keep repeating it in your mind,” Lindy says.
I have to shut my mouth because it’s going dry from the way I’m gawking at her. “Repeating what?” I feel like she’s got me on a string, trailing after her, willing to do whatever it takes to get through her shell.
“Keep telling yourself, ‘This is not a date’.”
I laugh because that was my stipulation, not hers.
“I’ll do my best to remember, I promise.”
For the first time I wish I’d called Charles and begged the Porche off of him for the night. If I gave in to his demands a little, I could really wine and dine her, show her the perks of being with someone who knows how to spoil a lady. But, I climb into my busted Tahoe instead and hope my pride and dignity is just as attractive as fancy jewelry.
It’s quiet for the first hour. She’s trying to start up conversations, weather, local politics and I’m not giving her much to work with, but not because I don’t want to. Every thought in my head has to do with kissing her. From the front door until now, when I look at her it’s taking all my self control not to steal a quick kiss, or reach across the cab and take her hand. I can remember how soft her skin is, I felt it against my cheek that night in the bar. I know she smells like strawberries and roses and I’m humming just thinking about being that close to her again.
The Truth & The Lion's Den
I’m trying to think of a way around this. I want her to be lying, another manipulation or something because I don’t want it to be true.
It’s not cancer.
It’s not a death sentence, but it’s not easy either.
We're out of the Tahoe and moving toward the building. I don’t mean to walk faster than her, but maybe I'm hoping I can outrun what she told me. I know I’ve gone to steel because she’s quiet. After the last hour of interrogation from her side of the car, I wasn’t sure she would ever be quiet again, but she’s trying to respect my need to process what she just told me.
I want to tell her she’s crazy, it’s not that bad, no reason to shut down a whole branch of living just because… But it’s not that crazy. She’s right, she’s got some hard times ahead of her, and maybe she’s also right that I might not want to be a part of it. I just learned her real name. Diving into a relationship would require some commitment on my part and I’m not in a place to do that right now. I’m barely taking care of myself.
She’s looking over the check-in table with those eyes of hers. I don’t have a clue to what she’s searching for, but I wager it’s got something to do with any weapons she might be packing under her skirt. Her arm is tucked in mine as if we’re a couple and the irony is cutting at me. She says something about having fun and I growl back an answer between my clenched teeth.
Why am I mad? Am I even mad at her? No. I’m mad at myself. I never should have walked up to her at Johnny’s. Or searched her out. Or said yes to this crazy idea that could get us both killed, or thrown in jail, best case scenario. That meathead from the hardware store was right, I was better off running. Maybe I'm just mad at fate for bringing someone perfect into my life, only to have it all be for nothing.
The guard parts the curtain for us to step through and it falls closed behind us. Lindy’s arm slips free of mine as she notices the masks for the first time. She’s talking with the attendant and I should hang on to all the regret and frustration I was feeling, but that same desire is back again. I can't escape it. I want to kiss her.
There’s a curl in the ends of her hair and I can’t help but wondering if they’re soft. I step closer and realize once more that it’s her shampoo I’ve been smelling all night. I don’t know why that strikes me, but it does. She’s not the type to wear perfume, just like she’s not the type to wear makeup or dresses, and yet, I’m attracted to her without all that because she’s more than her looks. She’s a force of nature, refusing to conform. Seeing her now, transfixed by the masks, a little girl playing dress up, I need to know who she is under the armor. The MS doesn’t scare me, not really. I’ve seen worse. Better to have a failing body than a black heart. Her heart is steel, but only on the outside. There's more to her, and I'm dying to find out what mysteries she holds. She doesn’t know it yet, but she needs me, just as badly as I need her.
“I could never decide,” I hear her tell the attendant. This isn’t an act, this is her. I’m getting a glimpse of what’s behind her walls. She's bashful, polite, out of her element in a place drenched in wealth and luxury. It speaks to the protective parts of me that want to guard her and keep her safe. The man pulls a small mask from the display, lace, delicate. It’ll look amazing on her, but she needs a shield.
“If you don’t mind, I have another one in mind,” I say as I step in behind her and move to the masks. Lace will give her the softness I’m craving, but I need her face to be hidden so they won't know her. My fingers catch a mask with a metal butterfly. I couldn’t have thought of a more fitting metaphor for Lindy, delicate but unbreakable. To keep it in place, I hold it over her eyes. I expect her to look away, uncomfortable because of how close we’re standing, but she doesn’t drop her gaze. She meets me full force and lets it burn.
“Exquisite,” I whisper as the mask ribbons are tightened. If I look at her lips now, there’ll be no stopping me, so I stay fixed on her eyes.
She breaks contact first, looking for a mask for me. Returning my favor, she holds the mask in place, her satin glove against my hot skin. My hand slips over hers, flattening her palm so that part of it rests on my cheek. Six inches, that’s all I’d have to cover to kiss her, but that’s not why we’re here, and it’s getting harder to remember that.
“Are you ready for this?” I ask as I feel the attendant back away. Is it crazy for me to hope she says no? There’s a safety in this booth, closed off from the rest of the room and I don’t want to leave it. Her walls are down and I can see it, for the first time I can see she wants me just as bad as I want her. I inch closer until I feel her breath. I smile as she cracks a little more.
“Into the lion’s den,” she says, and it might as well be an invitation for all my unspoken curiosities.
Ryder's Diaries (Saddles & Sabotage)
As mentioned in the post entitled Ryder's Diaries, I wanted to include these perspective short stories to enhance my reader's experiences. There are multiple spoilers contained within this story. Please only read after you have finished reading Saddles & Sabotage. I hope you enjoy Ryder's perspective as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
I’m bouncing out of my skin. I think I’ve only ever been this excited once before. Mom took me to the Modern Museum of Art when I was 12. Charles thought we were touring military academies, but mom said she’d never let him send me. We spent the entire day there. I met three professional artists. I picked their brains for what I needed to do to get where they were. We ate pizza, and had ice cream at Ghirardelli square. I rode on that subway they have, BART, I think. My father was absent, and for once we could both be ourselves. We were happy.
That’s where I am now. Singing along with every cheesy song on the radio, checking my reflection at the light, hoping I chose the right cologne because I have one shot with her, and it this has to be perfect. I turn in at Skyline Grill, park and take a deep breath. This is it. The start of something amazing.
Waiting on a girl
They let me have the table I wanted. I called ahead a couple days ago. I know the restaurant because I’ve done deliveries here from the fish market. There’s one table tucked back in a corner, candlelight is just about the only lighting left back here. It’s what I thought of the first time she knocked on my door and said she wanted a date.
Me, Huckleberry, and a couple candles.
I’m watching the door, desperate for her to come. She’ll wear a dress, I’m positive about that. It’s out of character for her, but tears me down to my last shred of self-control when she does it. Maybe it’s the feminine appeal on someone so self-assured. Maybe it’s the way the fabric clings to her figure. Those jeans and t-shirts hide away too much of what she’s worked for. The masquerade was my first glimpse at her real shape, and kickboxing has served her well.
The candles are shaking, and I realize my leg is bouncing hard. She’s a few minutes late, but nothing to be worried about. Seattle traffic is tough. I should’ve picked her up. We could’ve had all that time to talk along the way. But I was busy meeting with lawyers downtown.
I still can’t wrap my brain around the numbers they told me. Mom won’t touch any of it. Even when I told her we could use it to pay the mortgage on the ranch. I paid off my student loans. It only took twenty minutes. Since I accrued that debt because of Charles, it only seemed fair that he should pay it off.
But the rest?
I don’t even know where to start.
“Hi,” a feminine voice says from my right. “My name is Vanessa. I’ll be your server tonight.”
She gains my attention, but only long enough to catch a quick glimpse. Sure, she’s gorgeous, like supermodel grade beautiful, but I’m waiting on what I suspect could be the rest of my life to walk through that door, so I don’t pay her much mind.
“I know you’re waiting on someone, but can I get your something to drink? Maybe a starter?”
“Two cokes,” I say, because that’s what Lindy drinks when she’s feeling fancy. The thought alone brings a smile to my lips. “And some kind of bread, surprise me.”
Lindy can pack away carbs like she’s going into hibernation. I love that she eats in front of me. In the hospital she was constantly stealing my pudding cups and cornbread, and I let her. I’d give her anything if it meant she’d stick around a little longer.
“Okay,” Vanessa says, “I’ll get right on that.”
The bread is mostly gone. Just a heel and a slice of bread. Her drink is untouched, ice melted and water separating from the soda. Mine has been refilled at least three times.
“Just call me when you get this, okay?” I say into my phone. It’s the third message I’ve left her. I should leave, go see if she’s back at her place, but I keep wondering if she’s on her way here.
I called the hospital. Madison is answering phones tonight, and she knows me. Said she’d call if someone matching Lindy’s description comes in. My leg is still shaking, but now it has more to do with the fact that I’m losing my mind.
“Nothing yet?” Vanessa asks as she pulls my glass from the table. She doesn’t wait for the answer she knows. “I’m sure she’s caught up in traffic. She’ll walk through those doors any second. A guy like you doesn’t get stood up.”
She’s hitting on me, but I can’t peel my eyes away from the doorway. Any other date, I’d agree with her. But Lindy isn’t any other date.
She could’ve been kidnapped.
She could’ve gotten in an accident.
She might be stuck on the pier searching for her car after pulling surveillance.
Or the worst.
She might’ve run.
Vanessa leaves the table and I stare at my phone. It’s not going straight to voicemail; maybe I’d be calmer if it were. That would mean she was working a case.
I look back to the doorway. I told her this was it.
Maybe that was my mistake.
I put too much pressure on the night. She freaked out and figured she blew the one shot she had. It’s stupid because it was an empty threat. If the phone would ring and she was on the other side telling me that she needs more time, I’d give it in a heartbeat.
Lindy is the kind of woman I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Smart, pretty, a quick wit, and strong in every way possible. That kiss on the bluff, that’s not the kind of kiss you just move on from. It’s the kind of kiss that will haunt me if this all goes wrong.
I’m fixed on the doorway, willing my circumstances to change and for her to stumble in, maybe dressed in her recon blacks from head to toe because she just exposed a drug lord on the docks and didn’t have time to change.
But the doorway remains empty.
It’s been three hours. She’s not coming. I can’t help the ache in my heart. Either she’s left forever, or she’s in trouble. Either way, it’s not good. I flag my server, Vanessa, and pull a card from my wallet. She slips it in the black case and walks away biting her lip, likely because she can see I’m close to falling apart. I can’t let Lindy do this to me. We’ve done back and forth tug of war on my heart, and I have to protect myself, don’t I?
Still, what if she’s hurt? What if someone broke in to her place, and I’ve been sitting here playing mooney eyed school boy? I need to go by her cottage. Maybe I’ll find some answers there.
“Here you go,” Vanessa says as she hands me the black folder. I take it, but she doesn’t back away. Cracking it open I see her number scrawled on the receipt.
“I’m flattered,” I start to explain to her that I’m involved with someone else, but it sounds insane since I’ve spent the last three hours falling apart in the corner booth with the melted candles.
“I just thought, if you wanted to talk, or if you needed someone who would show up. I’d never miss a chance with you.”
I should probably crumple the receipt in front of her, just so she knows it isn’t possible, but I tuck it in with my card back in my wallet, smile and leave for my Tahoe.
Her place is dark. I hate that I’m hoping for a busted door, or a window smashed in. I need something to explain why she wasn’t there, but there’s nothing. Gravel crunches under my feet as I take on the driveway. The porch echoes as I step around the side, peering in windows as I move. Every footfall radiates from impact, like a drop in a pond making a ripple. Only it’s sound, and I’m sure she likes it because no one can sneak up on her.
I circle back once I get to her punching bag and head for the front door. I can’t see the interior in the dark. There’s a flashlight in my trunk. If she’s hurt inside, if she needs me…
That’s a stretch.
I don’t think she ever needs anyone.
Before I go for the Tahoe, I set my hand to the front door. The knob turns, and the door glides open. My breath stills.
I might not be that far off thinking she's in trouble.
“Huckleberry?” I call. “Lindy, you in here?”
I flip on a lamp from where I remember it. Her place is tiny, but perfect for her. Nothing is out of place, no signs of struggle. Determined to figure it out, I move back toward her bedroom. The air smells like her. I’ve noticed a perfume she wears, only started when I was in the hospital, and a couple times since then. She told me Stella gave it to her. It felt like a good sign that I gave her a reason to start wearing it.
The light in the bathroom flickers and then brightens. Makeup is scattered over the small counter top. The curling iron is still on. I click the switch and watch the red light go out. The counter beneath it is hot. She left in a hurry if someone as careful as Lindy forgot to turn off her curling iron. I flip the light off and dial the number I have for her Uncle Shane.
“Yeah?” he answers on the second ring. It’s late, but that doesn’t mean he’s not working.
“It’s Ryder,” I say, “Ryder Billings, I know your niece.”
I’m realizing how dumb this is since we’ve barely met.
“I know who you are,” Shane says. It’s not terse, just a statement so I’ll move on. “Lindy said you were taking her out tonight. Did she finally take up drinking? I always said that girl would go down after one shot if she ever started.”
“She never showed up,” I tell him. There should have been more of a lead up, but I don’t know what to make of this. He’s a cop, maybe he can figure it out.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I waited for three hours and she never came. I’ve called, I’ve texted, but she’s not answering. I’m at her place, and she’s not here, and I’m guessing she’s not hiding out with you either.”
There’s a pause in his words because he’s running through the scenarios as well. “She’s not with me,” is what he finally gives me. And it’s not enough.
“Is she working a case right now?” I ask him.
Her bed is made. It’s a scarlet comforter pulled back tight. White filigree is woven into the pattern, but no flowers. She’s not the type.
“Not that I know of,” Shane says. “She might have taken something on and not told me though. It’s not like Lindy shares every part of her life with me.”
Their relationship has been strained since Shane lost his wife. Lindy told me it was getting better, but I can hear the wedge in her uncle’s voice.
“Is it me?” I ask. “Is it possible she ran because of me?”
His breathing clouds up the phone as he considers his answer, but his hesitation is telling me everything I need to know.
“Lindy isn’t good with relationships, romantic or otherwise, but even then, I’d put money on a case before I thought she ran away.”
He’s pretty sure of himself, but I’d never take that bet. She’s been skittish the whole time. Chances are I pushed her a little too far.
“I’ll put an APB out in the morning. I’ll say it’s been 24 hours even though it hasn’t. I mean, I haven’t seen her in 24 hours, so it works.”
“Yeah,” is all I can manage to say. I’m glancing around her room, searching for any clue of what might have happened, but all I see is evidence that she left in a hurry. Shane could be right, I shouldn’t give up.
It’s been three days. Her phone goes straight to voicemail. She’s dead in a ditch for all I know.
But no, she’s stronger than that. She just took off, like a gypsy in the wind. I mean she left everything she owns, but I can’t figure a girl like Lindy is real worried about material possessions. Meanwhile, my heart is aching from the disappointment of what will never be.
Keeping Promises & Moving On
I waited three days before I called Vanessa.
She picked up.
We met for dinner that night.
She showed up.
It’s day four and I’m seeing Vanessa again tonight. I still wish she was Lindy. I saw Shane when I took Vanessa to breakfast this morning. My arm was around Vanessa’s waist, and those cop eyes of his saw it and took note. I thought about pulling back, just in case he finds my Huckleberry, but what’s the point? She’s going to run every time I get close.
"Ryder?” Shane’s voice comes through my phone. “Ryder, I have a possible match on Lindy.”
“What?” I ask, ducking out of the bar and away from the noise. “Are you serious? Where is she?”
“Bozeman, Montana,” Shane says. Before I can ask, he says, “I don’t know why she’s there. I’m not even sure it’s her. I thought you might want an update, considering how things were progressing with you two.”
Guilt claws at my heart as I look over my shoulder into the bar. Vanessa is in a tiny tank top and skin tight jeans. She’s doing shots with Johnny, and a crowd has gathered to watch the show. I’ve been doing my best to forget Lindy, but even six days in, she can pull me back in a heartbeat.
“Look, she didn’t show up, and no matter the reason, she should have called me,” I say. I have to protect myself.
“And if this was a case she was working?”
“Then she still should have called,” I say. “It’s the decent thing to do, wouldn’t you think?”
His silence tells me he doesn’t agree. But they both share the mindset that the case comes before all else. Vanessa catches my eye, shoots another mouthful of alcohol, and waves me back in with a smile.
“You don’t have to update me anymore, Shane,” I tell him. “I’m glad she’s not dead, but I’m moving on.”
The line falls silent and cuts away. Whether he’s a cop with no social protocol, or an uncle who’s protecting his niece, I’ll likely never know. But there’s a girl at the bar waving me back, and I’d be crazy not to join in her shenanigans.
“I’ve got Johnny on the ropes,” she says as I step in close. “Two more and he’s wasted, and we’ve got free drinks the rest of the night.”
Johnny’s eyes are red, but he’s miles from wasted. Still, he’s happy to see so many interested, and he knows how to make a bar a good time.
“Tell you what, gorgeous,” he says to Vanessa, “you keep down one more shot of vodka, and I’ll put the next round on the house for everyone.”
Cheers flood up around us as she nods. Johnny spills about as much as he pours. I think I’m the only sober one left in the place. Vanessa takes the shot glass between her fingers, draws in a breath through her nose and shoots the whole thing in a single jerk. The glass lands hollow and hard against the counter as she slams it down. Her fan club goes wild, and her arms wrap around my neck. My hands are on skin as I press her close.
She’s not Lindy. Lindy would never let this much skin show. I have no idea if it’s as soft as Vanessa’s. Lindy would pick a back corner before she ever became a side show attraction at the bar. Lindy doesn't drink, and even if she did I know she'd never act like this. Vanessa hangs off me, and her wandering hands have my heart slamming against my chest. Lindy keeps everything between us private, careful not to make anyone else uncomfortable.
She’s not Lindy, but is it bad that she’s not?
Vanessa is thinner, prettier, emotionally available, but I can’t stop thinking about Lindy just the same.
I should have asked Shane more questions. Was she working a case in Bozeman? Had she assumed a new identity? He said someone matching her description had come up, but does that mean she’s in police custody? My mind is whirling with questions I need answers for, but as usual she’s not around to give me what I need.
“What can I get you, Ryder?” Johnny asks. “Whiskey? Tequila? What’s the poison tonight?”
“Coke,” I say without thinking. Vanessa shoots me a strange look. I don’t want to explain my real reasons, or my loyalty to someone like Lindy, so I give her something close to the truth. “I’m driving. You have a good time though.”
"Three more shots,” she tells Johnny, and I have to wonder if I’ll be pouring her into my Tahoe later. The girl likes a party.
“Your girlfriend can hold her liquor,” Johnny says to me.
The title sticks on me like a thorn.
Is that what Vanessa is? We’ve been seeing each other nearly every minute for the last week. She’s watching me with those dark eyes of hers, waiting to see if I’ll correct him. I wanted that to be Lindy’s place. I can still feel her shape and the way she molded next to me in bed. It sounds like so much more than it was. Looking back now, I doubt I was much more than a warm body to remind her she wasn’t in a coffin any longer. Maybe she doesn’t even remember it.
But I can’t forget. Her body had a way of wrapping around me, face against my skin, starting fires I’ve never felt before. It was all clear back then, her need for me to protect her, shield her, comfort her, and now I’m standing here with empty arms because she ran two states over to get away from me.
“Yeah, my girlfriend is a little wild,” I say to Johnny. Vanessa’s hand squeezes mine to show her approval. Maybe that’s all Lindy was, a catalyst to get me with the one I was supposed to find in the first place. Granted, I’ve never put much weight in fate or destiny. Too much of life is random.
While Johnny is pouring her drinks, Vanessa’s free hand slips over my chest and wraps around my neck. Her teeth are pressed against her lip, making it fuller than it is, like a peach at picking time. “Girlfriend, huh?”
“You don’t look like you mind the title,” I say to her. She’s nowhere near sober, and the alcohol has her feeling handsy.
“Mmm-mmm,” she makes the sound as she shakes her head. “I was wondering what was taking you so long.”
Her eyes are on my lips. I know what she wants, but kissing her means erasing Lindy. Tingles run over my skin at just the thought of our time on the bluffs.
I pushed her there too. I shoved against every emotional wall Lindy threw up at me, because I knew they were just knee jerk reactions to keep her safe.
But that’s what Lindy never seemed to understand. She’s always safe with me. And when our lips finally met, when all that waiting finally paid off, I got to be there to witness something so near perfection, it stole my breath right from my body. Nothing has ever come close to what I felt with her that day.
Walls down, she’s like a forbidden city, untouched, perfection, full of emotion and passion like I’ve never experienced before. Where I thought I’d lead, I was lucky to catch up. We were lost in it, trapped by each other, and not caring what happened beyond that crest in the bluffs. Nothing mattered when she was mine. I could see our future in that kiss, splayed out like a road map in front of us. The simple perfection of finding my true soul mate.
Vanessa’s eyes close and she’s a breath away from my lips. Lindy is gone. I need to understand that. There’s nothing that can change the fact that she ran.
She didn’t call.
She didn’t stop for one second to explain.
I can’t keep clinging to her when she’s constantly pulling away.
There are no soul mates, the world couldn’t make sense if there were.
I bend and Vanessa closes the gap between us.
There are no fireworks, no revelations of deeper meaning. It’s a kiss. A good kiss from a beautiful woman.
And my heart pulls for Bozeman, Montana.
It’s been three weeks and I haven’t heard another word from Shane. I guess I thought he might call, or at least send a text to confirm if his Jane Doe was Lindy or not, but I told him not to, and he’s respecting my wishes.
I’m headed for Seattle from the manor. Vanessa wants to go hiking today, and I know about a waterfall and a secret cave. Candles and a picnic are packed. I plan to push things a bit further in our relationship. I’ve been the one dragging my feet, not her. She’s been hinting at this since the second date. The flame I’m carrying for Lindy is dwindling. I guess it’s natural, and expected.
Unattended fires go out. It’s the way of the world.
My phone buzzes from the seat, and I press the Bluetooth button on my wheel. “Yeah? It’s Ryder,” I say.
“Shane,” comes his reply. “Look, I know you said not to call, but I need a favor.”
I’m looking for a place to pull over because none of this sounds good. “What’s going on? Is she okay?”
It’s funny how quickly a fire can gain steam with even a scrap of kindling.
“She’s—” Shane doesn’t want to answer that question. “I mean she’s—”
I slide into a parking lot and jerk the Tahoe to a stop. “Is she alive?”
My breath locks up in my chest as I wait on his answer. Hospitals are the other place that cops search when someone goes missing. It didn’t occur to me until now that she could be hurt.
“She’s alive,” Shane says. “She had some complications in— well, she’s at the center in Bellingham getting an MRI, but the tight space got to her.”
“Because of the casket,” I say, more to myself than him. “She’s claustrophobic now.”
“Yeah,” Shane says. “They called me because I’m her emergency contact. She can’t drive home because of the sedation, and I’m on a stake out. If Stella were still alive, obviously she would go, but there’s no one else.”
My hands tighten on the wheel. “How long has she been back?”
Once more he doesn’t want to tell me.
“Two weeks now, maybe a little more.”
I draw in a deep breath. For once the heartache is drowned out by my anger. Two weeks and she hasn’t bothered to say a word?
“There’s no one else,” Shane says again. “I know it’s not ideal, but it’s just a drive home. It might give her a chance to explain what happened. I think you’d be interested to know why she—”
“I’ll do it,” I say, and I end the phone call before I can say anything else.
Two weeks. She’s been sharing my air for two weeks and nothing? Yes, answers are what I want. Answers so I can have my closure and move on with the woman who actually shows up.
Old Habits & New Reality
Vanessa drops me off at the entrance. She has errands to run before our hike and she’s being gracious about this whole mess. It helps that Lindy has a chronic disease that my girlfriend doesn’t understand.
Pity is a good motivator.
Lindy would hate hearing it, but it’s true.
I check in at reception and a nurse escorts me down to the basement. There I’m traded off to a technician who shows me down a hallway and through an open door. There on the gurney I see her for the first time in almost a month.
Her dark hair is pulled into a braid on the side. Freckles splatter across her nose. I take a step toward her and feel the ache of what could have been. I can’t help flashing back to the casket, looking in at her much like this, hands clasped at her waist. The only difference now is the hospital gown. That night broke me, seeing her there with dirt scattered around her as if I’d unearthed the dead. It makes me want to pull her up again, check her respiration rate, hold her close, and never let go.
“She’s going to be a little loopy for a bit, but give her five minutes and she’ll be coherent enough to get dressed,” the tech tells me like I’m her husband, and I have some right to stay in this room while she changes from the gown.
My hand is on hers, familiar in more ways than just physical. I pull back because it hurts to touch her. It’s painful to be this close to her again.
“I’ll wait in the hall.” I leave before he can tell me otherwise. I don’t take a breath until the tech shuts the door, and even then all I can feel is the emotion building like an eruption. Moments later sounds of movement filter through the door. A sharp cry of pain follows what sounds like a fall. I nearly shove open the door to help her, but it’s not my place, not any more. Maybe not ever. What I have with Vanessa is already deeper than anything I shared with Lindy. So why can’t I let her go?
The door clicks open, and she steps out. Her eyes meet mine and go wide. I’m the last person she expected to be here.
“Hey there, Huckleberry,” I say and the anger is gone, at least for a minute. She’s alive, and I’m happy for that.
“Hello, Ryder,” she says. I watch her teeth capture her bottom lip. She does it when she’s nervous, when she’s not sure what comes next. She takes a step, but her balance shifts like the floor went out beneath her. Without a real thought, my arms capture her waist. She smashes against the door frame, but I take her weight before she collapses. I shouldn’t be touching her like this, not while Vanessa is waiting on my call to get our day started. Brushing the hair from Lindy’s eyes and pressing my lips against hers shouldn’t be on my mind when I have candles and a picnic in the backseat of Vanessa’s convertible. Rattled, I step back once she’s steady and try to put space between us.
“Uncle Shane was supposed to come,” she says. I can hear how sorry she is that she’s interrupted my life. I want to scream at her because she should have interrupted my life over a month ago, then we wouldn’t be here, awkwardly trying to figure out how to walk down a hall without her hand in mine.
“He was working, so he asked if I could get you,” I tell her.
“I’m sorry if I had known—“
“You had a panic attack,” I stop her because I need this to stay logical. Friends drive friends home from the hospital without any romance. That’s where I need to be right now. “I know tight spaces bother you.” I step quicker to press the button before she can make it to the elevator. The doors slide open, and we’re that much closer to surviving this ordeal.
I step on first and go to offer my arm, but it falls to my side as I remember we’re not in that place any longer. Her eyes hit the ground, and it’s then that I know she’s not in the dark about Vanessa.
He saw us that day at the cafe, and he likely told Lindy. Add to it that conversation we had over the phone, and she’s just as awkward as I am trying to find footing in this shifting world.
The doors slide shut. I try not to notice the way her vertigo grips her, or the way her hands tighten on the rail to white knuckles. I wanted to be there for her. In my mind, I was going to be this guy, with her at every appointment, holding her hand through therapies, whatever it took, but she didn’t want that. She wants to be alone, and this is where that choice takes her.
The doors open and I feel her rush of relief to be free of me. Her gait is off. I can’t help but notice it. Likely from the sedation, but it’s worse on her right side, like her foot is dragging a half-beat behind her.
“Where’d you park?” she asks me as we leave the building and start toward the parking lot.
“I didn’t. Vanessa dropped me off.”
Yeah, I should have buffered that a bit, but I needed to know if she knew. She does. I can see it in the way she clenches her jaw and four wrinkles carve between her eyebrows. I’m a terrible person because the fact that it hurts her, makes me a little happy.
I go to get her door on her run down sedan, but she beats me to it and jerks it open just a second after the lock releases. Lindy all but falls into the passenger seat. She collapses forward into her hands to stop the swaying. I should feel bad for her but I can’t believe she hasn’t questioned Vanessa’s name.
“Nothing?” I ask. “You have nothing to say to that?”
Her deep breath fills the car with sound before she says, “I’m not quite coherent, Ryder. Give me a second to adjust.”
It’s not like I don’t notice the way she’s stumbling over her words, or that I don’t see how pale her skin is, it’s that I’m too frustrated to give it much clout. I jam the keys in the ignition and twist it before I shift to reverse, then drive and punch the gas. It’s a bad habit of mine that I tend to drive off my anger. A coping mechanism from my youth and sports cars at my ready disposal.
“Where did you meet?” she asks as I’m headed for the freeway. I know it’s her attempt at conversation, but maybe I wanted her to look more upset, rage about how I’ve forgotten her, so I can scream right back at her for the way she abandoned me.
“She was the waitress the night you stood me up,” I answer without pulling the passive aggressive tone from my voice.
Let her hear it.
She earned it.
Her mouth falls open like she’s trying to speak, but nothing comes out. Frustration rises in her expression. I turn my attention back to the road to avoid the guilt I might feel for her pain.
“The waitress?” she finally asks, and it’s there, the anger I’ve been wanting all along. Under the sedation she’s seething over what I’ve done.
“I waited for three hours,” I tell her. I twist my hands against the steering wheel and my skin catches on the vinyl material. “Vanessa was kind to me. She kept saying you’d be coming, probably stuck in traffic, things like that. I called you at least twenty times.”
It’s too short a phrase and my foot hits the gas to expend some of the anger that floods my veins.
“I know? That’s it? That’s all I get?”
I’m not regretting anything at this point. She ran off, for whatever reason, and nothing has changed. She’s the same selfish person I knew she was, and I’m lucky to have a girl like Vanessa.
“I can’t,” her tone catches my attention, weak and exhausted. “do this,” she’s still struggling, “right now.”
“You left with no warning, and now you’re back out of nowhere. I have a million questions and you’re not ready?” I’m nearly shouting the words, and her tiny car is amplifying everything I say.
Out of the corner of my eye I see her head drop forward like she can’t hold it up another second. My foot eases off the accelerator.
This is more than sedation.
I feel her gaze, and I can’t deny her my attention.
“I know you need answers,” she says in a voice barely above a whisper. There’s a tremble in her hands like she’s falling apart next to me. “And I’ll give them to you,” Her head falls forward again, and I can see just how broken she is. “But not right now.”
She’s stolen my anger. Not because of an apology ,or because I still have feelings for her, but because I’ve put it all together now.
The jilted walk.
Her jumbled words.
I should have seen it.
“You relapsed, didn’t you?”
She waits through the silence for a moment before she says, “Among other things, yes.”
I let her rest with her head against the window. It’s not right to interrogate her when she’s this weak. Closure isn’t worth pushing her to her brink. My phone lights up with a text from my girlfriend. Vanessa is just three minutes behind us. I’m almost finished with this errand.
Her head pops up when she hears her gravel driveway under the tires. Her fingers are looped through the door latch like she’s not wanting to wait for the car to stop. I turn off the ignition, and she’s already struggling to get free. Despite the fact that I jog to get to her side, she’s determined to get it done without me. My hand goes to her hip, and my other to her elbow to steady her. She’s lost weight. Where was she? Every scenario is billowing up in my mind with worry.
In one sweep of my arms I could have her against me to carry her into the house and kick the door shut.
Can’t she see that I’d be good for her?
This disease will tear her apart without someone there to protect her.
“I have to walk,” she shoves me back, and I grimace but not from physical pain. “or I’ll never get stronger.”
“Let me help you,” I say, trailing her side in case she stumbles.
She pauses on her front step like she might let me, but I hear a car and her walls go back up.
“Your girlfriend is here,” Lindy says.
Knowing the sound of the engine, I turn to wave to Vanessa. When I turn back, Lindy is on the other side of her door. It shuts, and I’m forgotten once more. When will I ever learn not to try with her? I jog down the steps, as my girlfriend steps out of her car. She’s wearing the hiking boots I bought her last week. Her stomach shows at the waistband, and I feel that surge of excitement that I get every time I see her. Long arms loop around my neck as she pulls me close to kiss me hello.
“Is she okay? Do you need to help her?” Vanessa asks as she looks over my shoulder to the house.
If I want to move on, I can’t look back. I ease my arms around her waist and tighten up the space between us, bringing a smile to Vanessa’s full lips. “She’s fine. She doesn’t need me.”
She never needs anyone.
The Consequence of Stolen Hearts
It’s not fair.
None of it is fair.
I glance across the cab of my Tahoe at Vanessa. She’s styled to perfection, anxious about meeting my family. We were supposed to be spending the weekend in Seattle at a high rise and drowning in romance, a weekend meant to consummate this relationship, but I couldn’t shake that phone call from Lindy. I acted like a jerk when she came looking for solace. It was genuine fear I heard in her voice and I shoved her away. Now I’m here, bringing Vanessa ‘home’ to meet my mom, and I can’t help feeling like it’s a mistake.
Lindy’s a thorn, or maybe more like a splinter, because no matter how hard I dig, I can’t get her out of my system. I’ve never heard her weak like that. I should have handled it differently. I was bitter over the guy in her room so late at night, the one who was ‘working on something’. She’s not mine, not by a long shot, and I can pretend all I want that I was mad she wasn’t doing the job that I’m paying her for, but it’s more than that. I figured that if she didn’t want me, then she didn’t want anyone. To hear that she’s with someone new, it’s like opening these wounds up all fresh.
It’s possible that it’s all her cover. Cass is a flirt, it makes sense that Lindy would take on some of that as well. I just never thought she had that in her. That’s where I suspected she’d struggle, and now I’m worried she’s thriving.
“Ryder!” Vanessa’s excitement is bleeding into her voice. “It’s so quaint, it looks like a real ranch and everything.”
We pass under the arch and turn to the dirt lot behind a bus kicking up dust. I grip the wheel and try breathe out the anxiety. Vanessa’s tender touch glides over my back.
“Baby, you okay?” she asks me. I pull the car to a stop under a tree and take inventory of the truth.
No, is what I should say. No, because you’re the last person I’d ever bring home to meet my mom. No, because I have to pretend not to have feelings for the girl who is pretending to be my cousin. No, because nothing about this is right.
“Yeah, just a long drive,” I tell her before I pop my door open.
I hear my mom shriek her excitement. I’m glad because it gives me a split second before she slams against me and tries to squeeze the life out of me. She’s been different since Charles died, like she’s finally free to love me. I sink into that love and clutch her just as tight. There’s something I can hang on to. It’s good to see her. Nothing can replace a mother’s love.
“Ryder,” I hear Tate just a couple seconds before his palm catches me square between my shoulder blades. I stumble, and fear flashes in my chest, though I don’t know why. I hate being jerked around, always have. But Tate means nothing by it and I recover quickly. “Great to have you. Didn’t know you were coming.”
“Yeah, we decided to surprise you and come for this big bonfire thing.”
Vanessa’s boots grind against the rocks embedded in the dirt. I reach out to bring her over. “Mom, this is Vanessa, my girlfriend.”
My mom doesn’t waste a second wrapping her up in her arms, and it takes me by surprise. Mom isn’t a hugger, but she looks like she approves for sure.
I’m about to introduce Vanessa to my uncle when Tate interrupts me.
“Your cousin Cassidy has been working real hard on this event. I think ranch life suits her.”
His pointing finger leads me to her without any trouble at all. My gut drops out and I swallow my heart. After all this time it’s shocking the way my lips burn for her. The breeze catches her blonde hair and blows it back across her face, off her shoulder. We’re caught in a stare, and the rest of the ranch is fading. I could run to her right now and wrap my arms around her, carry her off and never look back. It’s all waiting for me, every emotion and feeling I’ve ever tied to this woman.
An arm cuts across her collarbone and another captures her waist. He’s lean, but athletic. I know I’m thicker with muscles, but I’ve got no doubt in my mind that he’s strong. Probably faster than me as well. Must be him, the guy from the phone, the cowboy my mom called Dallas when she said she thought Lindy was distracted. He’s not that attractive, not that I’m a great judge, but if we’re comparing our significant others, I know I’d win with the girl to my left. But it’s the way she sinks back into him, the way Lindy doesn’t weasel out of his grasp, that creates this churning in my gut. He’s got her in ways I’ve only imagined.
Her hand comes up, a little wave, a betrayal of her cover, but I doubt anyone can see that crack in the façade but me. For a second I can see her, the girl I had if even for a split second. I thought I could forget her, thought I could move on and find happiness, but that was stupid. I need her in my life, no matter the cost. I’ll never get over her.
Lindy’s not happy I was arguing with him. I can see it in her eyes when she glares at me. We’re having full conversations every time our eyes meet without speaking at all. Will there ever be a time when I’m not mad at her? Dallas is hanging off her like cheap flypaper, and I’m dying. If she notices, she doesn’t care.
“Do you wanna dance?” I hear the cowboy ask her.
I’m nearly elated in my foreknowledge and blurt out, “Cassidy doesn’t dance.” But that excitement of knowing some part of her that he doesn’t is cut short.
“Unless the circumstances are right,” she corrects with a sharp glare in my direction.
“And are they?” Dallas asks her.
The smile she gives him slices me down the center. “Absolutely.”
He’s leading her away from me and my right hand has curled into a tight fist. It was a nod back at our first night, back before I knew her name, before we were anything all, back when we were raw attraction, because whether she was using me or not, I know the spark was real. To hear her turn it around on me, to give up that space to him and never to me… This is unbearable.
“They’re cute together,” Vanessa says as she watches Dallas try to teach Lindy a two step rhythm.
“Adorable,” I say, but it has zero warmth.
Vanessa snaps away from me as if this is the last straw. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she shakes her head, “you’re still hung up on her?”
I don’t give her an answer. I don’t have one to give.
“Is this why you changed our plans? So you could see her?”
I wish she’d drop the volume. I hate being a spectacle. Too many years of knowing Charles wouldn’t approve. My hand clenches then releases again. Lindy’s laughing, not just a quiet laugh, but deep from her belly as she stumbles through where he’s leading her.
I’ve never heard her laugh.
It’s an awful truth as it dawns on me, but I’ve never heard her laugh, not once, not a real carefree, unburdened by sarcasm or stress, laugh. Like music it rolls on the air and cradles me before it dissipates.
“You’re not going to say anything?” Vanessa asks.
We haven’t been on the same page for a long time. She’s talking rings, and saying that she loves me, and I’m just trying to keep my head above water. But here watching Lindy, I’m drowning.
“I’m leaving,” Vanessa snaps. She turns on a heel, and I only watch long enough to know if she’s going to the car or the cabin.
I’m using her. Maybe I’m just like Lindy. She used me back in the beginning. The bar, the funeral, the hardware store, the masquerade, time and time again I signed up for her abuse and to any sane person I looked like a punching bag. I felt like I was waiting around for her to let her guard down, let me in, but the music has changed and he’s got her in his arms. Lindy goes on tip toe and presses her lips to his.
I can’t breathe.
How can she do this when she knows I’m right here?
A whoop goes up from the crowd of workers by the fire. It’s obvious they’ve had a romance because people are pulling for them to work it out. I blink back the emotion that’s burning me. Their swaying has brought her around to where our eyes meet again. She can see it in my face, she never misses anything. For a second I can see her compassion, but then it’s gone. I spin and walk away before I crumble right here.
“Ryder,” my mom calls from the path. “Ryder where are you going? Vanessa said you’re leaving—”
“We’re not,” I assure her by setting my hands to either shoulder, “but I do think we should talk, all of us. We need everyone on the same page.”
“She’s keeping things to herself,” mom says with a tilt of her head in Lindy’s direction. “I don’t like it.”
“Yeah, she’s secretive that way,” I agree. “Get her, alone, and meet me in the cabin.”
She nods and starts off to fetch Lindy. I walk down the hill that leads to the cabin. If Lindy wants to play it like we never were anything, then I can do that. Boss, employer, that’s a relationship I can handle right now. Years of living with Charles taught me to bury emotion. Piece by piece I’m trying to shove everything I feel for her under every rock I can find. People can’t hurt you if you don’t care anymore.
The Weight of Our Decisions
"I need to talk to Ryder alone,” I hear her tell Uncle Tate. My heart sinks. She’s accused just about everyone else of being a murderer, maybe it’s my turn. That would be better than what I suspect is coming. For years I’ve been able to keep my thoughts to myself. No one ever cared enough to try to pull them from me, but Lindy, she doesn’t pull them, she surgically removes them with a pry bar. When I think of all the secrets I’ve been keeping, nothing about this conversation is going to go my way.
“What’s going on with you, Ryder?” she asks me.
I turn away so she can’t see how the sound of her voice stabs me in the gut. Did she feel this way when she saw me with Vanesssa the first time? I’d never wish this pain on anyone.
I hate him.
I don’t know him, but I hate him.
I stare out at the night. Lindy doesn’t know it, but this is all I could do the nights Charles used to come in and lay into me for whatever he felt I did wrong that day. He’d scream, and I’d stare out my windows trying to block out the acidic words he hurled at me. Once or twice he figured out that I wasn’t listening and shoved me as hard he could to get my attention. Even as a teenager, I cowered around him. Most nights it worked though, a couple nods to agree with him that I was worthless, and before I knew it the barrage of insults had ended, and I’d survived another day being his son. Suppressing my words became a survival tactic and she doesn’t understand how hard it is for me to explain what’s going on in my head.
We argue, that’s all we do since she got back, argue. We’re arguing about who said what and who didn’t follow protocol, and how I’ve screwed up again. That’s what it boils down to every time.
It’s my fault, just like Charles told me every day of my life.
“I’ve been struggling since you left,” I say. It’s a semblance of the truth at least. Struggling doesn’t begin to cover it. Two nights ago I uncovered paperwork showing experiments Charles conducted on me as a child. He poisoned me intentionally and let me fade so that he could study the effects on a toddler. It was only after he gathered all the information he needed that he wrote in the margin, Gave the subject the antidote. Subject should recover. If not, we can make another.
Struggling feels like an understatement at this point.
Lindy wants to know why and it warms me up that she cares. Vanessa will listen, but the second her phone chimes, she’s on it, and I’m pushed to the back burner. I tell Lindy what I can. It hurts too much to admit out loud what I know. It can’t be real.
“It must be difficult keeping all these secrets from her,” Lindy says as I finish. It pricks my pride and I feel the need to lash out.
“She knows everything. I’ve been very upfront with her.”
It’s not exactly the truth. Vanessa doesn’t know I’ve been talking with Estate lawyers and looking into my options. She knows about the files I’ve found, but I doubt she remembers any of it. Still, it feels wickedly satisfying to see that I’ve hurt Lindy like she’s hurt me. And then in the next instant I feel the guilt. Her innocent blue eyes are full of pain for what I’m going through. Say what you want about our romance, but our friendship has never faltered.
“But I worry that she likes having a rich boyfriend.” I list off all the benefits Vanessa enjoys from Charles’ money and glance into to those pools of crystal blue. She’s hanging off every word, and I’ve acted like a jerk since I got here. “It’s not something I ever had to worry about with you.”
It strikes a nerve because she breaks her stare and looks away. “You’ll figure it out, Ryder. You’re smart, and you make good decisions.”
I can’t stop the words before they fall out.
It’s that decision I made, the decision to take Vanessa’s number when I left the restaurant. I gave up on Lindy right then. As much as I want to say that I waited a respectable three days, I didn’t. I made a choice the second Vanessa handed me her number, and I let Lindy go. Doesn’t sound like a good decision to me.
She turns away from me, but I hear the pain. “Don’t do this.”
“Do what?” I ask, though I know what she’s talking about. I close the space between us.
“You know what.”
My heart is hammering in my chest. I’m burning to touch her again. “You asked a lot of questions, Lindy. I think it’s my turn.” She won’t look at me, but I ask her anyway. “Why him?”
I have to know. None of it makes sense.
“Why’d you pick him? Why does he get what I could never have with you?"
The memory of her laughter is twinkling around my mind, haunting me with its music. “He’s not better looking than me. It sounds conceited, but it’s true. What does he have that I didn’t? Give me an answer, Huckleberry. I think I deserve that.”
I shouldn’t have called her that. When she faces me, she’s captured the fire I lit in the hearth earlier, and it’s raging in her eyes. “You don’t get to call me that, not while she’s waiting upstairs for you. It’s not fair to keep pulling me back to be your lady in waiting. Dallas is here, and he’s good to me. It’s not serious, not like you two.”
That’s the sad part, this won’t even be my last fight tonight. She’s talking about what’s waiting for me upstairs. All that’s waiting is another round of female rage. Vanessa is furious over what she saw, and I know I’ll pay for it. For whatever reason, I don’t care. I half hope I can work this out with Lindy and dump Vanessa two beats later, but the look on her face tells me I’m dreaming.
“I don’t know where I’m at with Vanessa, but when I saw you with him tonight it hurt, because I never got that from you, not ever.”
“Got what?” She hurls the words at me.
“That look you gave him. I tried to pull it out of you, but I never got close.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ryder.”
“Happiness,” I say and it lands like brick on glass. “He’s managed to find this carefree attitude inside of you and it’s not your cover. I want to know. Why him? Why did he find that and I couldn’t?”
She starts talking about her health of all things. It’s the last answer I expected. Amazing kisser, sure. She’s got a cowboy fetish, yeah, I could see that, but health?
“I forget injections because I forget that I’m sick.”
Her words catch a flag in my mind. Fresh off a relapse, she can’t skip injections. She’s begging for another relapse, a bigger one. She’s being reckless.
“You shouldn’t forget your medication, no matter how good you feel. Relapse can happen even when you feel—”
Her frustrated shriek splits my sentence in half. “That Ryder, that’s why.”
We’re arguing again, going back and forth about her cover and where to draw the line. I’m going to say something I regret, I know I will. I clamp my mouth closed and watch her fury soar to new heights.
“No, Ryder, if you have something to say, say it.” She’s still ranting as she fishes around on the top of my mom’s desk. Her fingers lock on a silver tin before she hurls it at me.
Mom’s lemon drops.
It’s dumb, and I’m angry, but it means something to me that Lindy understands that they might help me. I slam them down, determined to get through to her.
"Fine, you want to know what I think, Huckleberry? I think this is just another version of you running away. You’re sinking into Cassidy’s life because it’s easier than yours. He’s bad for you, I can see it. Pick someone, but not him.”
There’s a pause where I think she’s heard me. I want to tack on, “Pick me, Huckleberry,” but I’m afraid of what she might say and how much it’ll hurt.
“Did you just drag me back here so you could yell at me?” she fires back.
“No I brought you back here so I could yell at you with your real name!”
They’re a funny thing. As much as I regret slipping that number into my wallet, I have to wonder if she regrets that choice she made to leave me waiting at dinner. I could go back further, erase what I said about having only one chance. Tell her she has many chances as she needs, because I know that’s why she wasn’t honest with me about leaving.
I close the gap between us. This fury isn’t far from passion and it’ll translate, I’m sure of it. My arm slips around her waist and I bring her against my body. With my hand in her hair, I press my lips to hers and let her know how desperately I’ve missed her, every day, every hour, every second. I’m falling for her, and she’s not even mine.
I take her weight and lift her up on the edge of mom’s desk, never leaving her lips. She’s starving for me, kissing me back and clinging to me the same as she did on that bluff. My name rolls off her lips every time we break for breath. But she’s insatiable. She’s wanted me just as bad I as I wanted her. It’s timing and sometimes you have to force the timing to sync, or you’ll never get ahead.
I whisper my apologies against her cheek, chuckle at her blonde hair and consider buying her a box of color to fix it back to the Huckleberry I know. It’s freaking me out to kiss my cousin. She laughs and it’s real, and it’s mine. There’s nothing special about him. It was all in my head. Lindy’s changed, and I didn’t think it was possible.
I could assign it to him, but it’s not, it’s the choices that have changed her, our hard times and the struggle, and I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay here. I’ll sign the Tahoe over to Vanessa if that’s what it takes to make her leave, but don’t make me stop kissing my Huckleberry girl to do it. She’s everything I’ve ever wanted and I can’t live without her.
That’s what I should have done, but I missed my chance.
In the split second I took to consider the choice, she made her own.
“Why him? This is why, Ryder, this is exactly why.”
My mouth falls open, but her name won’t tumble out. I stand there watching her fade while I die in this place where I could have had her.
Destroyed by decisions.
Daisies & Dust
This is it. I’m gonna tell her. I’ve been thinking about it since the last time I was here at the ranch. I messed up. Where I should have been honest, all I did was yell and chase her back into his arms again. That’s on me, but if I let her slip through my fingers again, I don’t know how I’ll live with myself.
Vanessa is gone visiting her mom on the East coast, so this is the perfect opportunity. I park near the main cabin, but secretly hope my mom won’t see me, at least not yet. Begging Lindy to come home with me, explaining all these feelings I can’t seem to shake, I need to get it done before I see my mom. The case is over. She can blow her cover and run away with me for once. There’s a few thousand dollars on the front seat for her payment. But I don’t want her looking at me like a boss ever again. There’s only one way I want her to look at me. I debate what to do until I smash the envelope into my back pocket and start for the tack shed.
She’ll be there, playing her part of Cassidy. I’m choking on my nerves.
This is reckless.
But I can’t sleep.
I can’t eat.
I need her back.
I have to have her back.
Even if I have to get on my knees and-
Laughter catches the air and stops me dead in my tracks. My grip turns sweaty on the single daisy I’m carrying. My breath dries out my mouth as I stare after the sound. It’s her. He’s got his arms around her waist. She’s struggling, but not because she’s in danger, but because it’s a game. His hat is in her hands and his fingers are dug into her rib cage.
I never knew she was ticklish.
“Gimme that back!” I hear Dallas’ voice from across the ranch.
“What are you gonna do if I don’t?” Lindy asks as she holds the hat out of his reach.
Her body whips up against him as he lifts her with ease. Legs dangle without touching the ground because she’s his and he has her tight in his arms. The hat is on her head and my heart is in the dirt.
“I bet I’ll think of somethin’.” I barely hear Dallas before he presses his lips against her lips. I watch her melt against him, and wrap her arms around his neck as he scoops her up into his grasp. Weakness pours into every one of my joints as he carries her up to the sea of cabins. The daisy snaps and tumbles to the earth.
I can’t breathe.
She’s falling in love with him.
I’d be an idiot not to see that.
I’ve been stabbed, that’s the only way to explain the pain gutting me right now. I stagger back a step and struggle to erase what I saw from my mind.
I never made her smile like that, not once. She’s laughed, but it’s always been careful, guarded, like her happiness is a treasure, and I never found the map. It was stupid to come, to think I could be something for her. No, I led her into the arms of love on the lure of a paycheck and a mystery. This is my doing.
And now she’s gone.
It’s been almost two weeks since the ranch. I turned in the money, dodged my mom’s questions about why I was so upset, and made the trek back, passenger side empty. Vanessa knows something is up, but I’m not talking.
How can I? How do I explain that I never thought I’d lose my huckleberry? It was stupid to think that she’d be waiting for me when I got done punishing her for leaving. I can’t blame her for leaving either. Or for not thinking straight when that call about her sister came in. In hindsight it looks easy to say she should have called me back, but in the moment it’s not like she understood what was going on. All she knew was her sister was alive, and she could find her.
A time machine is my only hope now. I’m smart, but not that kind of smart, so I forge ahead with Vanessa. Second place is still good, right? Athletes are happy with a silver medal.
But I have to wonder if they all sit around wondering what the gold one would feel like.
Bad News at Johnny's
“Yeah I’ll be there later,” I say to Vanessa through the phone. “Johnny asked me to stop by and help him with some heavy cases. His delivery guy quit.”
“Baby,” she says, “you don’t have to do that stuff anymore. You’re rich. You don’t need side jobs.”
I haven’t told her my plans, about giving the money away and turning the manor into a shelter for battered women and their children. She’s not going to like it, but I don’t particularly care. The money is tainted and nothing gives me more joy than knowing Charles Harrison is going to be rolling in his grave for eternity over the way I’ve spent every dime.
“He’s my friend,” is all I tell her. I shouldn’t have to explain myself to her. I miss the work anyway. Rich playboy has never fit me well. I miss the smell of the docks at 4 am, catching fish and tossing them. Keeps me in shape. I picked up a night shift unloading boxes at the hardware store in town, the one where I had Lindy pressed against me for the first time. I avoid going inside for the most part. When I look at the paint display, I swear I can feel her breath on my collarbone.
Mom said she asked to stay on, says she likes the work on the ranch. I didn’t believe it and I drove by her place last night. It’s still dark. I called her Uncle Shane and he confirmed it. Last he heard, Lindy is finishing the season before she comes home.
I banish the thoughts because the next ones will be heavy with thoughts of him, the guy who has his hands on my girl. Jokes on him, won’t be long before he’s in the wind and she’s back home. That’s my only hope. If she can remember who she was before him, then she might remember me and we can give this another go.
One week left in the season.
I can wait.
“Back here, Ryder!” Johnny’s voice carries over the boxes of liquor. My fingers lock in around the handles of a case as I heft it from the stack and follow him inside. The bar is closed for the night for inventory and everything we gotta get done. Johnny made a joke about Vanessa drinking him dry, and I’m a little worried I might not get paid for this because of it.
“You look like crap,” Johnny says as he passes me. “You sleeping at all? I swear you’ve dropped ten more pounds.”
“I’m fine,” I say as I shift the crate of tequila. “Just burning at both ends, that’s all.”
There’s more he wants to say. But thankfully he doesn’t, and I’m left to the crates and boxes. Three hours later I can still feel him wanting to ask more. The crates are inside, but he’s been stacking the bottles, and I’m making notes of the inventory while my arms recover.
Gotta get to the gym to rebuild this. I almost laugh because in about two weeks time I won’t be able to afford the gym anymore. Or nights out. Or drinks at Johnny’s. Or much more than canned soup. I sigh instead.
“Weight of the world in that sigh,” Johnny comments from beneath the bar. “Sure you don’t want to talk about it? I’m a barkeep, we’re a poor man’s therapist.”
“Not much to talk about. Just thinking about where my choices have landed me.”
His head pops up behind the bar like a gopher from a hole. “You have a smoking hot girlfriend and more money than Buffet. I don’t think you have anything to be upset about. I know at least ten guys, myself included, who would sell their souls to trade places with you.”
Funny how life looks different from the outside in. I mark three more cases worth before I feel my phone buzz from my back pocket. Knowing it has to be Vanessa whining about how long I’m taking, I pull it free to silence the distraction. But her name is written at the top of the text.
My mouth goes dry as I suck in a sharp breath. I can’t even still my thoughts long enough to read the words at first. It’s been months since her last text. I sent her an apology for how I acted, but never got a reply. I didn’t think it was possible at the ranch. She’s coming home. She’s reaching out because she’s on her way back to me.
If only reality could suspend because my mind settles and I read what she wrote.
You wanted me to be happy, and I am. I’m leaving with Dallas. I don’t know if I’ll ever come back. Wiley Fox is a murderer. His knife is between his mattresses. I can’t find your mother, and I’m starting to worry. Send help if you can. I can’t trust Tate.
I read it and then read it again. I stare at my phone. My lungs are burning for oxygen, but I refuse to live in this world she’s sent me to.
“Ryder,” I hear Johnny call my name. “Ryder, what’s going on?”
“I have to call my mom,” I say, but the words are disjointed from my body. My fingers run over the list in my phone until it’s ringing. I can’t deal with what she said about leaving.
This is triage. Deal with the emergency piece by piece.
Get the news to the cops.
And I’ll have to stop because I can’t deal with her leaving me, not for good.
“Hello?” My mother answers the phone and I know she’s not in danger because it’s the same voice she always has.
“Mom, are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“No,” she says, but I can hear the rising alarm in her voice. “What’s wrong sweetheart?”
“Lindy sent me a text,” the pain of what she said goes sharp again, and I press it back. “She found a knife in Wiley Fox’s cabin. He’s the guy. She mentioned something about Tate.”
Mom is talking to someone else. I can only hope it’s the cop she’s been friendly with. I’m not keen on her dating, but at the same time at least she’s safe.
“Dayton and I are out of town. Where’s Lindy, son?”
“I— She—” The words won’t come for me. “She’s leaving me, mom.” I don’t even try to pretend to act like I don’t have feelings for Lindy. “She’s going off with Dallas.”
My mom’s exhale filters over the line. “Sweetheart, she told me she was going to. They’re gone now. I know I should have—”
“Are you kidding me?” My words slam against hers. “You knew and you didn’t say anything?”
“You have a girlfriend, Ryder, I didn’t think you’d care. You’ve moved on, she’s moved on. It felt as though we could let the whole thing die. I mean, you’ve seen them together. She’s happy.”
I feel sick. The bench smacks against my hip as I collapse. Only my white knuckle grip on the table keeps me from falling the rest of the way to the floor.
“I’ll make sure Spencer checks into what she said though. I knew Tim had nothing to do with it…”
Her voice is still going, chirping along like the atmosphere hasn’t shattered. My phone clatters against the floor and I can feel Johnny watching me.
“Ryder, you okay?” he asks. He’s come from behind the bar. He’s saying words but it’s underwater and I don’t understand a single syllable. A cold glass wraps into my hand and he guides it to my mouth. I swallow only because he’s pouring it and my other option is to choke.
Fire streams down my throat. I cough and blink back the tears that pinch my eyes.
Johnny pours another double and I shoot it without pausing. The glass clatters against the table top. I jam the heels of my hands against my eyes. The burn is everywhere, as if I poured the liquid over me and set the flame.
“Ryder,” Johnny’s voice slams against my fuzzing consciousness. “Ryder, what’s going on? Is your mom okay?”
I nod but only on reflex. It’s too hard to say it out loud. It makes it real.
“She left me. She’s gone, man. She left with Dallas. I blew it.”
“Vanessa?” Johnny asks.
“Lindy,” I answer as I pour a triple. “She’s gone.”
Johnny falls back a step. “Lindy Johnson? The same chick I know? The P.I.?”
“Yeah,” I take a breath and swallow the whiskey in a gulp. “I’m crazy about her, and she’s fallen for someone else.” It’s the first time I’ve admitted my feelings out loud and the irony slices into me.
“But you have Vanessa,” he says it like I should understand how lucky I am. But I never will, not when I know what I’m missing.
I don’t remember inventory, but I know we got it done. Johnny left me there to sleep off the liquor. Maybe he thought I’d stay asleep, but somewhere around three I have a vague memory of starting up again, taking shots of vodka on the barstool where we talked for the first time. I played every sad song on the jukebox. I ran through our first conversation from memory and pretended as though she decided to dance with me. I imagined what it would have been like if she’d told me her first name that night. I pretended I took her home, but all I had was a bottle of brandy in the janitor’s closet. I only know that, because that’s what I end up cradling in my arms the next morning instead of Lindy like I thought.
When the light streams in, Johnny’s voice hits me like a jackhammer to my temples. “Ryder, are you dead?”
“Yeah,” I say as I wipe the drool from my chin, “I must be, or I will be soon.”
I’m about to say more, but the vomit is faster. Thankfully, I dunk my head into a trash bag. Every muscle and bone hurts, but nothing hurts like the knowledge that she’s really gone.
Reality is Worse
It’s over a week later when mom’s call comes in. I’m painting, that’s all I do right now. Vanessa came over yesterday and complained that I’m depressed. She doesn’t know why, and I don’t intend to tell her. Every time I look at her I see my mistakes.
Nights I stare at the portrait of Lindy. It’s hidden on my third floor, against the back wall. I touch her face, count the freckles on her nose, stare at the charcoal transferred to my fingertips because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to her now.
We’re as good as ash.
Blue arcs over the white canvas. I allow the paint to drip down and create paths in the clean space. My fingers lock around a second brush loaded with a deep purple, and I slice through the blue paint. Purple mixes with blue, paths carve new channels and birth explosions of color as they slide under gravity’s weight.
I don’t feel the buzz at first. I keep my phone in a side pocket when I paint, set to vibrate so it won’t distract me, but I can’t ignore it once it does.
Expecting Vanessa, I’m surprised to see mom written over the screen. I click the call through and say, “Hello?”
“Ryder,” her voice sets me on edge because of all her tones, I know fear the best. “Ryder, sit down.”
“Mom are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“I’m safe dear, but Lindy, she’s—” She doesn’t finish it and my brain starts the chain of horrible ideas.
Been in an accident.
“You said she went to Colorado. What’s going on?”
Her tears are filling the phone. Whatever it is, I’m losing hope.
“That’s just it,” she says. “Dallas was the one killing people. They never left, Ryder. He’s had her in the old cabins this whole time.”
“What?” My question is breathy because I’ve stopped drawing oxygen in. “Mom, is she alive?”
“Yes,” she says, and my body collapses forward. Tears flow over my cheeks as the relief sears my skin.
“She killed Dallas. We found his body by the haystack. She must have fought for her life. But she’s hurt. They’re loading her in the ambulance now. I don’t know who to call in her family. I don’t know what to do, Ryder. She’s not talking. She’s barely moving. Her eyes are open. She can see me. She knows who I am, but something is wrong, terribly wrong.”
“Where are they taking her?”
“She’s lost a lot of blood. There are so many cuts. I’ve never seen someone so pale, Ryder.”
“Where?!” The demand is unfair, but I have to know.
“Twin Falls doesn’t have what she needs, I heard them talking to the hospital on the radio. I think they’re taking her to Boise. Spencer is on the phone with the hospital right now.”
I can hear voices talking to her, hurrying her along.
“Ryder, call someone. I can’t make the kind of decisions she’s going to need.”
The line goes dead, and I’m staring at the phone. The kind of decisions… She means whether to leave Lindy on life support. She means intensive care. Ventilators and life support, mom doesn’t want to be the one to pull her plug. The pain I feel in my heart is excruciating. I need to be there with her.
I take the stairs two or three at a time until I’m on the third floor. I tear a bag from the closet and start stuffing clothes inside while my phone is dialing Shane with the speaker on.
“Yeah?” he answers.
I know he’s not my biggest fan, not since everything went down with his niece, but he’s the only shot I’ve got.
“It’s Ryder Billings.” I don’t wait to lessen the blow, we don’t have time for that. “Lindy’s hurt, real bad. That guy, Dallas, he was the real killer. He’s had her in a cabin for,” I do the math in my head and my voice cracks under the knowledge, “eight days. She’s on her way in an ambulance to Boise Hospital. I’m headed there if you want to come with me.”
The line is silent, so quiet that I stop packing to check the screen.
We’re still connected.
“I’m here,” he says, but I can hear the emotion in his voice. “Is there a chance she relapsed?”
“What?” I stare at the phone like he can see that I think he’s lost his mind. That’s the last worry I have right now.
“In your medical opinion, is there a chance that she’s relapsed?”
I’m about to tell him off for getting stuck on something like this, but I remember what my mom said about something being horribly wrong. Not moving, not talking, the vacant stare.
“Yeah, I think it’s likely,” I tell him.
“Then she needs to come home.”
“She won’t make it,” I start to tell him every reason that he’s out of his mind.
“Even if they save her from her injuries, it won’t do a squat of good if they ignore the MS. She needs to come home to her doctor. He’s the one she trusts. He’s the one who knows her.”
“I get that,” I say, because he’s right. There’s no way of knowing who the neurologist on call will be in Boise, or what they’ll choose to do. “But they won’t do it. The drivers are instructed to take her to the nearest facility that can save her life.”
“Can we life flight her?” he asks. Shane is running through a dozen scenarios, but I’ve stopped listening because I have a plan forming in my mind.
“I’ll call you back,” I say before I hang up the phone.
Names blur as I scroll through my contacts, one after the other until I land on Colin Teasom. I press call before I can think twice about what I’m doing.
Three rings feel like an eternity, but Colin picks up.
“Ryder? Is that seriously you?”
“It’s me, Colin. I’m cashing in my IOU.”
The line is silent for a moment.
“What do you need?”
“You have your service still right? I need you to pick someone up.”
Colin started a private ambulance service with another paramedic three years ago in Boise, Idaho. He swears there’s a load more money in working outside the system. He sets his own hours, has time for his family, and goes where the money calls. That’s what I’m counting on.
“You don’t need a favor for that, it’s my job. Where is the pick up?”
“Near you in Boise. I need you to pick her up and bring her here. I’ll pay you eight thousand dollars.”
“You’ve got to be joking. I’m not a taxi service, Ryder. Put your girl on a plane if you want to see her this bad. I transport medically fragile people.”
“Trust me, she is, and if I knew someone with a plane or a helicopter, I’d be cashing in on them too. But you’re the one with a life debt, so you’re the one I’m talking to.”
He’s not going to argue that. Back in medical school we took a hike in the back country to blow off steam. Colin took a nasty fall down a cliff, ended up with a tree branch through his left kidney. I’m the only reason he’s still alive today. and he knows it.
“Yeah man, I’ll be there,” he says.
I’m staring at my phone for the next hour. Shane knows the plan. Dayton used his influence to get the drivers to carry on for Boise. Colin texted ten minutes ago to say that he has her. But that was all he said, and I’m vibrating out of my skin waiting on news.
I should have told them to admit her in Boise.
I can’t help feeling like Shane was wrong and this could cost her life.
My phone rings two hours later. Colin’s name splashes across the screen. I fumble the phone twice before my shaking fingers can press the accept button.
“Is she okay?”
“She’s still alive.” I hear the concern in his voice. “Are you sure this is the best idea? She’s in bad shape. I’m dumping blood into her, but her color isn’t coming back. What happened to her?”
I wish I knew, and yet I’m glad I don’t.
“She was held captive by a lunatic.” It’s the best answer I’ve got.
“I’ve done the best with her wounds that I can, Ryder. I mean, you’re lucky I’m a med school dropout. None of this would have worked if—”
“I know,” I say before he can finish. I can’t acknowledge a world where Lindy could die. “We’re square. Just get her here.”
“We’re two hours out at the rate we’re going. Mountains are going to slow us down, but I’ve phoned ahead and there’s a team waiting in Seattle for her. I haven’t finished cleaning the wounds yet. That’ll take more time.”
“Is she conscious?”
“Not really. I’m keeping her sedated. She woke up in the transfer and went 5150 on me. Not taking that chance again. I’ve got antibiotics running at the same time, per her docs orders from Seattle.” He pauses before he starts up again. “Whatever she’s been through, she’s never going to be the same, Ryder.”
“I know. I can’t imagine the cuts and—”
“No,” Colin says, “those cuts will heal, at least most of them. What I saw in her eyes, that’ll scar me, bro. There’s no way I’ll forget that. Your girl sat on the brink of death from what I can tell, and clawed herself out by her fingernails. She’s never going to be the same.”
Those are the words he leaves me with. Those are the words that eat at me until I’m starting to feel like her wounds are mine. But it doesn’t matter. I have to get her here, back to her family, back to her doctors, and back to me.
If she’ll have me.
Ryder's Diaries ( Sparrows & Sacrifice)
As mentioned in the post entitled Ryder's Diaries, I wanted to include these perspective short stories to enhance my reader's experiences. There are multiple spoilers contained within this story. Please only read after you have finished reading Sparrows & Sacrifice. I hope you enjoy Ryder's perspective as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
But I do
For two words, it’s impossible to escape their reach. I lay my head against her hand. She didn’t mean it. She sacrifices herself all the time to keep people around her safe. Always willing to take the risk on herself rather than make someone else face it.
That’s what it had to be.
Why didn’t I see it? Why did I blabber on like that when she was dying in my arms? A full day’s worth of worry spilled out of me when I should have been thinking more like a doctor.
I fail her.
I can’t ignore the wounds. Even wrapped in gauze I can still see them. That could be the reason she said ‘I don’t’ too. I saw them together, her and Dallas. That kind of betrayal might be enough to jade her against love. Her hand is limp as I press it to my cheek and kiss the inside of her wrist.
“But I love you, Huckleberry,” I whisper. “And I won’t ever hurt you.”
But she can’t hear me. My voice is drowned out by the machines keeping her alive.
“Ryder,” Shane’s voice catches my attention at the same time his hand shakes my shoulder. “Ryder get up.”
Waking up from sleeping with my head on her hospital bed is worse than any hangover I’ve ever felt. Fuzzy thoughts won’t congeal and I’m shaking to clear the garbage from dreams I wish I’d never had.
“What’s going on?” I ask. My eyes snap to Lindy, but her vitals are strong. Her eyes are closed. She’s not in trouble.
“You slept late. Pam’s here,” Shane says. “I ditched her at the car, made an excuse about needing the bathroom, but you better clear out before she sees you.”
I nod and push to my feet, but not before I kiss the back of Huckleberry’s hand, the one with the fewest injuries.
“Any news from her doctors?” I walk with him for the door.
No.” he glances into the hallway and takes a shaky breath in. “They’re worried about brain damage, not to mention organ damage. The infection is finally gone, but it was rampant for way too long.”
I’m the one with the medical degree. I know how bad this is, but what Colin said about the mental scarring is what scares me. “They’re keeping her sedated?”
“For another week, maybe two,” Shane says. The elevator dings, and he curses under his breath. “Should have shoved you out the door sooner.”
"I’ll keep my head down.” I pull on the cap I keep in my back pocket for moments like this. Yanking it over my eyes, I duck into a crowd of nurses headed for rounds. Pam Johnson steps off the elevator. I step on. Our eyes meet for a split second as the doors close, and I hear her shout Shane’s name like I’m some kind of criminal.
I’m not supposed to go in. She had me banned from the room right from the start. I guess she waited for Lindy to be in surgery first. Pam blames me for Lindy being hurt. In a way she’s right. If I hadn’t sent Lindy off to help mom, none of this would have happened. If I hadn’t called Colin and cashed in that favor, she would’ve gotten help a lot sooner. I don’t know what lies Pam Johnson told hospital admin to make it happen, but I’m not supposed to be in her room.
Right or not, I can’t stay away, not when she’s perched on the edge of survival. Charles used to work here, and I’ve done my fair share of time getting to know everyone over the years. As much as it pains me to use any contacts related to my life as his son, it’s worth it for her. The night shift lets me sneak in. Admin is never around. But I have to clear out by morning when Pam comes back. None of the staff want to do me favors if they could lose their job.
Every day is the same. Waiting for night to come so I can sneak back in to hold her hand and help the night nurse clean her wounds. Vanessa dumped me when I wouldn’t leave the ICU. I wish I cared. Maybe I should. But I don’t. All I care about is back in that room. I want one more chance to tell her how deeply in love I am, and how I’ll wait, no matter how long it takes.
An App For That
“You really use this to keep track of her?” I stare at my new account on PI Net, the app Lindy uses to find work.
“Of course,” Shane says. “It’s not like she tells me anything. I’m not one to try to pull it out of her. At least this way I can see that she’s busy on safe work, and I can relax a little. Also helps me to know when she’s not busy and will come over for dinner more often. You’d be amazed at how much she can eat. I have to be prepared with at least three gallons of ice cream.”
“What’s her favorite?” Curiosity begs me to ask. It’s not like we’ve ever had a chance to talk about the mundane. She knows more about my family than any girl I’ve ever dated, but I can’t guess her favorite color.
“White chocolate raspberry, from Edaleen’s in Lyndon.” He’s got his feet kicked up on the end of her bed. He stops by on the nights he’s working late, and I’m always here with her. He’s gotten used to the fact that I won’t drop her hand. I think he’s even come to approve of it.
"Word of warning though about that app,” Shane sobers up, “don’t talk with her. Keep your head down. She’s too good. She’ll figure out who you are if you start chatting with her, and she’ll make you pay for it.” His boots drop to the floor, and he slaps his leg. “Coming over for the game on Sunday?”
“Yeah.” Lindy’s mom is here all day, and usually into the night on the weekends. Shane’s been nice enough to let me watch some football at his place to pass my time. He knows plenty about heartbreak and loss. I think he’s part of the reason I haven’t lost my mind.
“See ya then,” Shane says before he ducks out of the room.
I nod and stare at the screen. Sleuth28. At least when she’s up and running again I’ll have a way of knowing what she’s up to.
Her eyes remain closed and the machines chirp out her vitals. But I have to hang on to the hope that she’s still in there.
“My Huckleberry,” I whisper as I rub my thumb over her hand.
Compromise & Contraband
She’s been home three days. It’s harder now. I can’t be close to her. Her mother’s a warden, and I’m the contraband. Even that last week at the hospital, administration got involved and no amount of favors could get me back in her room. That’s when it would have counted. That’s when she was awake.
Lindy opened her eyes once for me. I touched my palm to her face, rubbed my thumb over the clear space of skin. She searched for my identity, but it wasn’t where she left it. Still, she smiled at me, and it was enough. I would have kissed her, hoping to jog her like sleeping beauty, but her mom walked in and the world flipped upside down.
I don’t remember the exact words, but I know the feelings of anger and betrayal, shame and frustration. I remember screaming at her that I loved her daughter and Shane trying to get me from the room before security came. But the memory I can’t shake is Lindy’s hands pressed over her ears as if every word caused her pain. That’s the last thing I want, I don’t want to hurt her. That’s why I’m here. I need to apologize, to her, to her mother; I need to set it right.
I step up on the porch and clench the bag of sour gummy worms tight in my hand. She brought them to me when I was in the hospital. Seems appropriate considering the way things have shifted. As I lift my hand to knock, the door flies open and Pam Johnson steps out.
“What are you doing here?”
My mouth goes dry as I struggle for words. “I want to see her.” The candy feels stupid as I’m facing her mother’s rage. “I need to know that she’s okay.”
“She’s alive, no thanks to you.”
“No thanks to me? If you’re blaming me for the delay— Shane was the one who insisted she come back to Seattle. I was leaving to meet her at whatever hospital they sent her to when he called an audible and changed the plan at the last second. You can’t blame me for the time we lost in transit.”
“I blame you for more than that time,” Pam says. “I talked with your mother when she came to visit Lindy. I asked her point blank if you told Lindy the risks going in to this last case. You didn’t. You both knew the killer had to be a member of the staff and neither one of you told her that. Shane said Lindy thought it was simple recon, just interviews and checking things out, gathering evidence for the cops. You both lied to her.”
I drop my eyes to the floor because she’s right. She didn’t even have to twist the truth to get there. We knew what was really happening. My mother asked me not to tell Lindy everything, and I was mad enough that I didn’t.
“She didn’t have to stay,” I say, but it’s empty.
“Then you don’t know my daughter. She can’t leave it alone. Once she knows there’s a case, she has to solve it.”
“I know,” I say, taking a step back, “I didn’t think she’d… I never would have sent her if I thought she’d get hurt.”
“Well she did get hurt, and you’re responsible.”
I can’t argue that. The plastic slips in my clammy hands. “I want to apologize, to you, to Lindy, to anyone else who feels offended so I can be part of her life again.”
Pam’s features tighten into a scowl. “She doesn’t know who you are. The brain damage has erased almost everything. It’s like I’ve got my teenage daughter again, before all this PI business ever took root.”
As if to confirm what she’s saying, I hear Lindy’s laugh catch the wind at something Shane said to her. They’re on the back porch. I could outrun Pam easy. Dive around the corner and insert myself back into my huckleberry’s life.
“She’s happy,” Pam says. “Seeing you could bring it all back. She’s never going to take another case. She’s never going to put herself in danger again. Do you really want more of her blood on your hands by taking that away?”
“No,” I say feeling the emotion in my chest, “but I love her. I can’t stay away.”
One eyebrow cocked, she fires her last shot. “If you love her, you’ll move on. You’ll let her forget.”
“You’re asking me to stop breathing,” I say. But it doesn’t crack her. Maybe she’s right. None of this came into Lindy’s life until she met me. It was my father wrapped up in the secret society, my mother who got her locked up with a psychopath. Maybe leaving her is the best gift I can give.
I extend the bag of candies to Pam. “Can you give her these? So she knows I was—” I can’t finish it. “Just give them to her?”
She takes them and crosses her arms. I reverse and back down the stairs. It’s not until I’m at the second stair that she’s willing to go back inside. From where I stand I can watch her through the window as she dumps the candy in the trash, one worm at a time, then dangles the empty bag for a second before she lets it go.
Crushed, I return to my Tahoe. The memory of Lindy’s laughter catches the edges of my mind. If this is what she needs, then I should give it to her. But I can’t help wondering if I’m strong enough to stay away.
Forget Me Not, Remember Me Always
I’m glad Vanessa has her own car. I couldn’t ditch her fast enough. Rage boils beneath my skin. I haven’t been this angry since—never. I’ve never been this angry.
Pam Johnson lied to me.
Lindy never forgot me. I saw it in her eyes. Everything was just where we left it.
I scream out my frustration. The sound bounces off the interior of the Tahoe. I clench my hands over the wheel and scream again. I never should have believed her. Not in a million years.
What did that look like to Lindy? Like I ran away the second life got hard and took up with my ex. There aren’t enough curse words in all the languages I know to express my anger.
I tried to touch her. I couldn’t keep myself from her. I reached out to touch Lindy’s face, and she pulled back hard. Like I was the one who hurt her. Like I was him.
I’d never hurt her.
I’ve been hitting the gym twice a day since she went in the hospital, on the off chance that if she ever needs me to protect her I’ll be ready. I hoped we have a run in at the hardware store, or another funeral, or maybe she’d rob the grocery store for some widow, and I could fend off the cops if I had to. I wanted to see her, see if she’d remember me, and then there she was shopping for new clothes. I nearly ran to her, but I thought my eyes might be playing tricks on me. Crazy thoughts, but now these new muscles ache to wrap around her, hold her tight and never let her leave my side.
I have a girlfriend.
I’m in love with Lindy.
She’s terrified of me.
She’s scarred physically, but even more psychologically.
I’ve made a mess of my life.
I have no way to fix it, not yet.
She hates me. That’s my only explanation for this whole thing. Lindy hates me. The lighthouse door slams on its own. Steel has a way of weighing itself down, and the high winds today aren’t helping anything.
The door, my mood, nothing.
I went to tell her what had happened while she was in the hospital, try to have some semblance of a rational conversation, but the reasonable Lindy was gone. Instead I found the tight ball of anger who hates me.
My phone calls out to me because she’ll talk to Sleuth28. I created the profile to track her cases, assuming she recovered. I couldn’t be in the dark again, waiting, wondering, desperate to know which way the axe would fall. Shane was the one who showed me the app in the first place. Maybe he could see that I was losing my mind sitting next to her near corpse day after day. He admitted to creating his own profile to keep tabs on Lindy. Lot of good it did him. I was the one who sent her on the most dangerous case of her life. It was me who pushed her away and nearly got her killed.
Shane warned me not to talk to Lindy or interact with her. She’d see right through it, but I watched two other users demean and ridicule her, and I couldn’t stand by when she needed me.
A mistake, maybe, but when she’s open to the world, vulnerable as she is now, I can’t help but protect her, even if she hates me.
I pick up my phone and log on. She’s there and she wants to talk. Strange since we just fought on her back porch. Strange since she tried to take my head off with that roundhouse kick. But there’s safety in the anonymity I guess, for both of us. We don’t hurt each other here. It’s like the first date we never got.
“Baby, you in here?” I hear Vanessa call from the bottom floor.
Cursing, I shove my phone under my leg so she won’t see. It’s not cheating, at least not real cheating. I’m just trying to connect with Lindy.
No, it’s not fair to Vanessa.
I love Lindy, and Vanessa loves me. All screwed up beyond belief. I’m a horrible person. I’d dump Vanessa in a heartbeat if I knew Lindy would want me back.
How can a person want you back when they’ve never wanted you in the first place?
Her dark hair pops over the railing, then her face. By the world’s standard she’s drop dead gorgeous. Full lips, large blue eyes, mocha tinted skin, but where she used to make my heart floor the gas, now I’ve begun to dread her being around so much.
“What are you doing?” she asks it with caution, maybe she can sense that I’m up to no good.
“Just sittin’,” I say as casually as I can. “I didn’t know you were coming over.”
Her shrug is slight. A curl tumbles behind her shoulder. She’s trying to look nice for me. Trying to get my attention back again. “I thought I’d surprise you.”
More like, she wanted to be sure Lindy wasn’t here with me, alone in a lighthouse, doing who knows what to her boyfriend. She has every right not to trust me. My allegiance is too flexible. When Lindy was in the hospital, I abandoned Vanessa. I was a horrible boyfriend, she told me as much when she broke up with me outside the ICU.
“Well it’s a surprise,” I say while miserably hiding my passive aggressive tendencies. I learned them from my mother, the only way she could get back at Charles in public.
“Do you want me to leave?” Vanessa asks and her eyes go fishbowl with tears.
I’m a jerk. Because I do want her to leave. It’s stupid. She’s my girlfriend. That’s on me.
When Lindy was in the ICU I spent every waking moment there, crashed in the hall, sleeping on lobby chairs, hiding from her mother when necessary. Friends at the hospital let me use the resident’s facilities when I needed to, perks of a past life I guess. Vanessa lost her mind over the whole ordeal. Claimed that she wasn’t as important as Lindy since I refused to leave. In my shattered state, I agreed, not only that, I told her she never would be.
That’s what I can see in her eyes right now. That fear that she’ll never be Lindy.
That’s the problem.
She won’t be.
I took her back a month or so later. Lindy’s mom told me Lindy had suffered brain damage. Everything was gone from the last six months. I was erased, but that meant the psychopath, Dallas, had been erased as well. I knew enough about neurology to know that if I went back into her life, I stood the chance of bringing it all back. Me and him, tangled together like a package deal.
For her, because I love her, I walked away. I’ve been trying to make a happy life with Vanessa, but since seeing Lindy, knowing I won’t break her, knowing that everything her mother told me was a lie, she’s crawling under my skin, demanding me to scratch that itch.
“You don’t have to leave,” I say to Vanessa, but I don’t sound sincere. It’s stupid. She’s driven forty minutes to see me.
“Did I interrupt something?” she asks as she steps up to the landing. Her eyes are scanning the space, as if Lindy might pop out from behind the couch.
“No, just thinking, like I said.”
It irks me that she’s asking, but only because of the guilt. Sleuth28 or not, Lindy doesn’t want me. I know that. I’m bashing my head against a wall again. My hand goes out to my girlfriend and her soft palm glides over mine as I pull her into my lap. I could be happy with her. If I tried a little harder. My lips find hers and it’s familiar, more familiar than Lindy because we’ve only had snatches of time where it all worked out. Vanessa has been here through it all. I just need to try harder.
A Meddling Uncle
My knuckles hit twice against the door, but it’s just a formality. Shane always unlocks it so I’ll walk in and he won’t miss any of the game. I’ve got a six pack for him, his favorite beer, and a six pack for me, Coke. Not like I’d be drinking real heavy anyway, I have to drive home later, but abstaining makes me feel loyal to her, and even a small connection is better than none.
“Shane!” I call out and I hear him yell at the TV, not me. His team is losing. Seahawks against the Niners. I’m not Seahawk nation, and I’ve never bled red and gold, but human interaction is something I need. My only other options are Johnny’s bar, where I know I’ll get wasted, and Vanessa’s place, and I can’t be trusted in the mood I’m in. It’s too easy to pretend she’s the one I want, too easy to morph her face into something I need.
"Grab a chair,” Shane says without breaking away from the TV.
“I’ll put these in the fridge,” I say and move to the kitchen because I know the way. We’ve been doing this awhile now. He’s lonely, I’m lonely, and he doesn’t make me talk, but he’ll listen if I need it. We hit a rough patch last week when I confronted him about what Pam, Lindy’s mom, told me. I demanded some sort of apology for him letting me believe she forgot me, and Shane simply said, “If you’re dumb enough to believe that girl could forget you, you deserve to be forgotten.” I guess, being guys, we called an unspoken truce and moved on.
I sink into the matching leather recliner. Shane doesn’t have couches. I think it’ll encourage visitors. The second leather recliner only showed up after our second game together. He said he got it on a deal, but I figured it was his way of telling me I was welcome, as long as I brought drinks, of course.
"What’s the score?” I ask, not because I care, but because he does.
“14-6, Niners, but it’s still the first quarter, so you know anything can happen.”
I know better than to talk during the game, let alone a Seahawks game. I’m surprised he invited me, normally he watches these alone. But I got the text late last night, right after I stopped chatting with Lindy through PI Net.
The game cuts away, and Shane is back in the real world for at least the next two minutes.
“You look like crap,” he says as he glances my way for the first time.
“You’re not much better,” I tease back.
He’s getting old; Stella dying hit him like a semi.
"I know my reasons, too old for the job I got, too lonely for the nights, but what’s your excuse?”
I can’t look at him. He pulls me apart like his niece, and I know he’ll see the truths I’ve been hiding. “Just the same old stuff.” I can feel his eyes on me still, so I don’t dare look up as I tack on, “Lindy has a new case, I hear.” He doesn’t correct me so I push further. “Is it dangerous?”
He hesitates, so I have to look up. I need to know if he’s going to try to lie to me.
“Yeah, it’s dangerous,” Shane says without breaking his stare. “But I don’t know who else to send in. We’ve already lost a few.”
I choke on my churning bile. “Lost? Like dead?”
“We don’t know,” Shane says without sugarcoating it. “They’ve never checked back in, so they could still be undercover, or they could be…”
“Dead,” I finish for him. “But you’re sending her with someone, right? A cop?”
“Yeah,” Shane says with a nod, but I feel his reservations. “She doesn’t trust him. I’m afraid she’s going to break off on her own once they’re in the back country.”
“On her own? She’s barely stable, physically and mentally.” My voice is betraying all the fear I have locked inside of me. “She’s not ready for this.”
Shane weighs the thought. “She’s capable of more than people give her credit for.”
“Yeah, when she’s healthy,” I say it like he’s lost his mind. Maybe he has.
“If only I could send her with someone she trusts…” Shane lets his voice trail off as the game returns.
What’s he getting at?
Does he mean me? I can’t keep her safe. Sure I had boxing lessons, I’ve been working out, but I’ve never thrown a punch in a real fight.
“It can’t be me,” I say. “You have to convince her not to go.”
Shane puts his finger to his lips to shush me like I’m a child, and my frustration peaks.
“No, we’re talking about this.” I don’t care about the game, or his rules, not when her life is in the balance. “She can’t go, Shane.”
“You know her well enough to know that you can’t talk her out of it either,” he says. “When she gets her claws in something she can’t let go.”
“But coming from you, it could work. She trusts your judgment. Tell her it’s too dangerous or too soon. Tell her she’s in over her head. Tie her up, lock her in a holding cell, I don’t care, just don’t let her go off and die again!”
Shane takes the remote in his hand, and the screen goes black. He’s selecting his words with careful precision. “Ryder, she’s going. She’s leaving in two days. I have no doubt in her ability to blend in and find the information she needs. But I do doubt that she’ll know when to stop. She could relapse out there and push through it until she’s gone. Cox can shoot and fight, sure, but he doesn’t know Lindy. He won’t see when she cracks, or if she needs help. You would see it. You have the medical training to keep her safe. You know her personality well enough to see when she’s breaking down. You would know when to pull her out.”
My head is shaking on its own, as if my brain understands that this is a suicide mission for one of us, if not both of us. He’s worse than her. I’m having flashbacks of telling her she couldn’t break into that masquerade, and she was going to do it with or without me. How am I back here again? Same situation, same players and the same stupid non-choice: Go with her and get killed, or stay back and watch her get killed.
"I can’t do it,” I say to Shane. “She doesn’t even want me there. Every time I get around her she lashes out—”
“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, Ryder. Lindy is lashing out at everything and everyone. You’re not alone there. But staying here with that girlfriend of yours, it sure ain’t getting you any closer to her, is it?”
He’s got a point there. I’m treading water with Vanessa, too insecure to be alone. I'm waiting for Lindy to get better, maybe remember what we had before I screwed it up.
"She has a chance at a shot within the department, Ryder. Captain is talking about bringing her on if she can do this. She’ll make detective in a couple years, maybe less, I know she will. After that, it’s on to the FBI, and she has her life back.”
That’s what she wanted all along, all those years ago. I know she blames her disease for the setbacks, but it’s been more than that. Not that I want her involved with the FBI, or the department, or chasing these risky cases she finds in the first place.
But I want her to be happy.
I want her to pluck every star out of the sky and realize how amazing she is. I’d give her everything if I could.
“Just think about it.” Shane sinks back into his chair and the game is chirping at me again. It’s all bright colors and loud noise, but I can’t find clarity in any of it.
Could I do it?
Could I actually go with her?
Alone with my Huckleberry for days? Weeks even?
It’s somewhere past halftime when I realize I have to do this. I can’t let her go out there on her own again. But there’s more to it than that. I need to break up with Vanessa. This is a cliff, and if I’m gonna jump, I can’t be tethered when I fall.
Cops & Ryder
Cop lives in Bellingham, the one she calls the lunk, I think Shane called him officer Cox. I pull to the curb. A blue neon beer sign flashes from the window. I check the address again. It can’t be right.
But it is.
I grab the envelope, draw in some courage, and open the car door. This idea is crazy, following her on a case. She’s gonna freak out. She might bail.
I guess if she does at least she won’t be risking life and limb. It’s a win either way, other than the five thousand dollar set back on my part. I sold the wave sculpture I’ve been working on since I met her. Took a hit on it. Could have gone for twice what I sold it for, but that’s the thing about desperation, people can smell it and they’re willing to rake you over the coals.
The path to his place is littered with glass bottles and crumpled takeout wrappers. Bass is leaking from his house, as if it’s seeping out the cracks with every thumping beat. Action movie or music, I can’t be sure. My medical training warns that he’s headed for hearing loss if he’s making a habit of this. The closer I get, the louder it sounds. I hear other voices. Maybe he’s having a party. Just my luck that I’m showing up to bribe some cop when he’s likely got seven other cops with him. I’ll be lucky if I avoid getting locked up tonight.
I rap on the door three times and wait. I swap the envelope to my other hand and wipe my sweat on my jeans. I’m about to make a run for it when the door pulls back.
Glass bottle in one hand, tipsy girl in the other, what a winner. Can’t imagine why Lindy didn’t fall all over herself trying to get with him. But I’m not dumb enough to share my sarcasm. Even with my time at the gym, I know I can’t take the guy. He’s got at least 80 lbs on me.
“Yeah what?” Cox asks.”
I’m hoping it’s enough to get across why I’m standing on his doorstep.
“Shane was supposed to call you.”
“Yeah okay.” He leans into the young woman’s neck.
By the way she blushes, I’m glad I don’t know what he’s telling her. She turns to leave but not before his palm catches her rear. She squeaks like a chew toy and giggles.
“More of that coming for you,” he calls after her as she leaves. He watches her exit, nearly drooling, completely unaware of my discomfort at the whole ordeal.
“Shane said you had a proposition for me.”
My stomach twists. I’d hoped Shane would explain it all. But no such luck.
“I want your place on this case with Lindy Johnson.”
“Nah, the money is too good and Under the table, I’ll be out in a week tops, not to mention being in the Chief’s good graces. I’d be stupid to pass that up.”
Out in a week? By my calculations we’ll be lucky to find them in a week, let alone retrieve Tasha Saunders.
I’m about to speak but Cox starts up again. “I mean, the chick is nuts. Kinda hot besides those scars. But I think she might get a little crazy, if you know what I mean.”
I hate that I know what he’s getting at. The thought of anyone with her makes me sick, but listening to hs filthy tone churns my anger
“I’ll give you three thousand to bail.”
“No way. I mean, it’s more money, but the perks I’ll get outweighs the money.” He makes a lewd gesture I won’t bother repeating. No way can I leave him alone with Huckleberry.
“Five.” I meant to build up to it, make him feel like he’s got negotiating prowess.
Cox’s eyebrows jerk up. “Double?”
“Double.” I lift the envelope so he’ll know I’m serious. “Five thousand to walk away.”
He snatches the envelope and peels it open, counting the contents. “You’re serious?”
“Do we have a deal?”
Cox thinks on it, rubbing his massive palm over his mouth. “Why do you want to go so bad?”
He’s feeling around for more cash, but I’m spent.
“That’s not important.”
“You got it bad for her, huh? Figure you can get your piece of tail once you have her alone.”
My temper sparks again. I look away to avoid his stare. Blood rushes in my veins.
“Yeah, I’ll do it.”
It quells my inner storm for the time being. I release my right fist, never having realized I’d clenched it in the first place.
“Shame though,” Cox pulls the cash free and fans his face with it, “I was looking forward to seeing if those scars were everywhere. Girl like that, you know she’s a good—“
My fist cracks against his face. I bounce back, shaking out my hand, tears stinging my eyes and nose. I forgot how much punching hurts. Cox drops to a knee, swearing under his breath. He spits blood at my shoes where he dropped his money.
I strengthen my voice despite my fear. ”Don’t show your face for a few days. Say you got food poisoning or something.”
He’s still cursing my name and cleaning up the money he dropped by the time I get into my Tahoe.
I punched a cop.
Somehow there’s always a connection between me, Lindy, and felonies. I dial Shane’s number, turn on the speaker function, and toss it on the seat before I pull away from the cop’s house.
“Yeah?” Such an abrupt way to answer a phone call.
"I did it. Plan’s in motion.”
“Did it go smooth?”
I flex my injured hand. “For the most part.”
“Did something happen?”
I hesitate. “He had some lewd stuff to say about your niece. I punched him for you.”
Shane laughs even if it’s heavy. “Thanks for that. Lindy did the same. Cox seems to bring it out in folks. Now you’ll have something to bond over“
I end the call, more apprehensive than ever.
The New Plan
I’m waiting outside the captain’s office. My heart is slamming against my chest because I know this isn’t going to go over well. Lindy may have hated Cox, but me? I’m thinking she’d take the lunk over me.
"Come on.” Shane pushes open the door. I take half a step in and her voice explodes.
"No. This can’t happen,” Lindy is already yelling at the captain, “I will walk before you bring him in as my partner.”
Yeah, that’s about the reaction I expected.
“You are not in charge of this precinct, Miss Johnson!” I’ve never met the captain before today, but it feels like Lindy has met her match.
"This isn’t even official police business!” Lindy’s volume is rising. “I get to have a say in who I work with!”
Shane takes a step toward his niece to try to calm her, but he should know better. “Lindy, think about it. It’s not a bad idea. You have a rapport with Ryder. You—”
“This was you, wasn’t it?” Her bright-eyed fury turns on him. “You went meddling—”
“Enough!” The captain silences all of us with one word. He’s talking to Lindy, reminding her that he’s in charge. A whole lot of good that’ll do him. The girl is a wild mustang, build a wall and she’ll still find a way over. I see the tremble in her hands, and I want to take them in mine to still her anxiety. It’s been awhile, but I remember how she feels against me. The ache to have that again is sharp, and I hope this is worth the risk.
Lindy’s slender finger whips back to point between my eyes. “He can’t fight. He can’t shoot. Other than his medical training he is of no use to me. You’re saddling me up with a hospice nurse, and I can promise you that if he gets hurt, I am holding you personally responsible.”
I frown and lean closer to Shane. “That last part was almost endearing.”
And I mean it. If she really hated me she wouldn’t care if I got gutted and left for dead.
Shane nods to the hall, and I follow him, though I was barely in the office to begin with. I let a stream of air slip from between my tight lips. I knew it would be uphill, but maybe I thought some part of her would be happy to have me instead of the meat head.
The thought brings to mind being there at his house. The neon beer light, the tipsy companion, and loud music, the place smelled like a bachelor pad, and my knuckles still ache. I have $8 left in my account. Took everything I had, some money from my mom, and then I had to sell a couple pieces I wasn’t planning on.
That Lindy piece is still upstairs. I have a standing offer, but I can’t part with it, not yet. Not if I may never get the real thing.
The door clicks shut, and she’s glaring at me like I just torched her house.
“Well that went about how you said it would,” Shane says it like we’re alone. But we’re not and she’s caught deciding between running and clawing my face off.
She picks running.
“Lindy!” Shane shouts after her, but she’s not going to stop. She might not even take the case at this point. Despite my instincts telling me to leave her alone, I’m already jogging after her. I get caught between two officers and have to wait for Sergeant–eating-a-bear-claw to get out of my way. Cursing under my breath, I shove open the outer door and scan the parking lot. Her SUV is in the lot still. It’s new, well not new, just new to her. She totaled her last car on that suicide mission I sent her on. Regret pulls at my heart. I hear a sound and turn.
She’s against the wall, arms crossed at her chest, blonde hair blowing in the wind. It’s remnants of Cassidy. I see her natural hair at her scalp, but I can’t picture what it would look like anymore. I take a step toward her, careful like she might spook. She looks away, but lets me move to her side.
“Can we talk about this?” I ask her when I’m still a ways off.
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
I stop short because I feel like any closer and she might bolt.
“Are you still going?”
“I don’t know,” she says, but she’s avoiding me.
“It wasn’t my idea,” I try to explain it, but I have nothing to give her.
I’ve done something wrong because she takes a step away from me.
“I’m sure it wasn’t. This has Shane written all over it.” Lindy squints back at me as if she’s trying to see through my charade. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand why you are willing to come.”
I can’t give her the real answer, and the first thing that comes to mind is my dwindling back account. “I need the money, I guess.”
She growls at me and starts away because she doesn’t know about the manor or the foundation. She thinks I’m still drowning in my father’s fortune. We haven’t had a civil conversation long enough to cover any of this. My fingers catch her arm, but she jerks herself free and takes three more steps back. Once more I realize how much she hates me.
“Calm down, would you?” I beg. She’s not willing to even take a breath of my air, so I give in and tell her the truth. “Fine. Shane brought this to me yesterday afternoon. He said he was worried that you might relapse out there, or you might do something stupid and you needed a partner you could trust.”
For a second I see terror, not fear, a flash of terror in her eyes like I’ve become someone else, but then it’s gone.
“Wait, afternoon? Cox wasn’t admitted until late last night. How did Shane know that he was…”
Now I want to run because she’s figured it out.
“Wait, let me explain,” I say, but she’s nearly jogging toward her car.
Lindy turns and walks backwards, the hair whipping across her face, almost the portrait I have in my room, but the blonde hair takes it twelve degrees off center and it grates on my memory.
“Are you kidding me? You two poisoned him?”
We’re in a police precinct parking lot. I’m fast to claim my innocence. “No. Nothing like that.”
Once more she’s ready for a fight and stares me down. “What then, Ryder?”
“I paid him,” I admit. My feet shift, and I might as well be a scared little boy waiting for punishment.
“I paid him twice what the chief was paying. He got a week off work, and I’m short a decent chunk of cash.” I look up and her lips are parted. Every part of me is reaching out for her. Can’t she see it? “It was worth it.”
"I can’t believe you did that.”
She means it because she doesn’t throw the words at me. They inch over my skin, velvet and cream.
"I don’t want you to go alone,” I say. “I can’t stay here waiting again.”
Memories of sitting next to her as the nurses cleaned her wounds, or worse the ones they let me dress so I wouldn’t feel so useless at her side, billow up in my mind.
Lindy glances toward the mountains, maybe contemplating what we’re about to do. “What about your girlfriend?”
That’s tonight. Vanessa is coming over, and I’m breaking it off with her. But I don’t want to tell Lindy that. She’ll assume more than I want and once more she’ll bolt.
“Don’t worry about her. She’ll be fine.” I wait a minute, but she’s done talking. “Are you still going?”
Her eyes close and for one second I consider crossing the space and kissing her, just enough that I can remember how it felt.
Like a song I heard once, but never again.
“I’m going. Meet me at my place at six.”
On a Break
This date was set up long before now. I’m supposed to make dinner, but I want to rip this bandage off as fast as I can. She’s gotta know it’s coming. I’ve been moody and distant lately. Maybe on some level I’ve been trying to see if she’ll break up with me first.
“Baby? Are you in here?” She calls as the steel door groans.
The maps crinkle under my touch. I’ve been studying them all afternoon. Preparation is the only cure I know to quell anxiety. But it’s not working this time. I can study all night and still not know where to find these people. Or worse, what to do once we find them.
“Up here,” I call from the second floor. I don’t have a pet name for her, not even a shortened version of her full name. Maybe that should have been my first clue that this would never work out. Her footsteps echo on the stairwell, and I rise to meet her.
She’s dressed in light pink, sweet and innocent, lamb to the slaughter I suppose. “I thought you were cooking,” Vanessa says with a quick glance for the kitchen. “Are we going out?” Three steps toward me, and then she stops. Something is wrong.
“We need to talk,” I say as I motion for the empty couch. The four worst words in the relationship language. I should shorten this and just say, “It’s over,” but I suppose she deserves more.
“I’ll stand,” she says as she clutches her purse against her stomach like a stuffed animal. “What’s going on? What’s with the maps? Are you leaving?”
I sigh because this is going to hurt. “I am, yes. I’m backpacking in the Cascades.”
“For how long?” she asks. “Who’s going with you? Why are you acting like this, Ryder?”
Every question is more panicked, as if she suspects the answer, and I still won’t give it to her.
"I don’t know how long. I’m helping Lindy on a case.”
Her blue eyes go to wide pools of emotion. “Lindy? Are you kidding me? No! No! No Ryder!”
I look away, out over the still water of the bay. “It’s not up for debate. I leave in the morning. And I’m breaking up with you, Vanessa.”
The thud of her body snaps my head back around. She’s hit the floor on her knees, shaking and shrieking as if I’ve stabbed her. My feet move without permission, and I pull her back to her feet.
“It’s her!” She yells through ugly tears. “She’s ruining everything! We were happy, Ryder, can’t you see that? She’s poison!”
I set her at an arm’s length, but her limbs cling to me like some creature bent on sucking the life out of me. “Please,” she begs me, “please, don’t do this!”
"We haven’t worked for a long time,” I tell her, trying to remain calm despite her antics. “This isn’t about Lindy.”
Black streaks pour from her eyes as her makeup wilts under the emotion. “Oh right,” she snaps. “You want me to believe that? Not about her? It’s always been about her. She’s the reason you and I are even together!”
Veins pop from her forehead, red as a beet as she screams at me. Fists pound against my chest, but it’s hardly a threat. I’m more afraid for her safety than mine.
“You’ll be okay,” I whisper as she folds into me. “You’ll bounce back, and find someone new.”
“I don’t want someone new,” she whimpers against my shirt, “I love you, Ryder.”
"I know,” I say, because I can’t say it back to her. “I know you do.”
“Say it once,” she stares up at me, snot, mascara, and lipstick smeared over her cheek, a wreck of the woman she usually is. I’ve done this. I’ve destroyed her. “Tell me you love me, Ryder.”
“I can’t,” I whisper. “You know I can’t.”
“She can’t either,” Vanessa says as she straightens. “She’s not capable.” With two swipes she clears the black tar from beneath her eyes. “You’ll want me back when she turns you down, you always do.”
“We’re over,” I say again as I take a step back.
"How about this,” she says, “we’ll take a break. You can go off with your little patchwork doll and I’ll wait around because I know you and I know her, and no way will she do what you want.”
"I don’t want you,” I say and it cuts me to be so harsh. “We don’t need a break because I’m done.”
“She won’t love you, Ryder. He cut her up. You saw her. You saw how ugly she is now. Can you really look at that for the rest of your life? Every time you look at her, you’ll see him all over her.”
Vanessa is angry, that’s why she’s like this. She’s never been like this before. Like she wants to hurt me. And it does. Yes, I see him every time I look at her. I see the man that had her in ways I’ll never understand. He set her free just to cut her down. Dallas made her beautiful, then destroyed her to a broken shell. Is Vanessa right? Did Dallas shatter the woman I love? Do I have any chance with her?
“We’re on a break though,” I say. “A real one. If anyone asks, I’m single. You’re single.”
“And when she hurts you again, I’ll be here to pick up the pieces,” Vanessa whispers as she worms her arms around my waist.
Lost in Dreams
I hear her voice, and I have no choice but to go to her. She’s owned me from that first night, controlled me from the first kiss, and I belong to her.
“Huckleberry,” I whisper, but she’s far away, far enough that I’ll never find her. My hands go out into the darkness, grasping at vacant air and pulling it back to me in its empty loneliness.
“Ryder.” The sound comes again, but this time she’s here, slinking around me, fingers trailing over my skin. Lips against my neck. Fingers tracing my chest. I’ll reach and she’ll be gone, just black night. But my fingers tangle up in her shirt, far too real for me to move away. Hunger lights me up as I pull her close, tuck her in my arms and kiss the bare skin of her neck. She pulls me back to her lips. Control is fleeing me. Every kiss destroys my rational thought.
“Huckleberry,” it seeps out of me as if I’m begging her, but I don’t know if I’m begging her to stop or keep going. “I want to be with you, be yours, forever.”
“Me too,” she whispers. Her kiss brushes over my cheek. “Just lean back, baby, I’ll make you happy.”
It jerks me awake. I have her face pinned between my palms.
“Vanessa,” her name falls out with my heaving breath. “What are you doing here?”
We haven’t shared a bed. I’ve never let her on the third floor of the lighthouse. She’s wearing my shirt like something’s happened. Panic wells up inside me like a rising tide. Please, tell me nothing happened.
“I was downstairs.” She jerks her head free like I’m hurting her. “You said I could sleep over so I didn’t have to drive back tonight. It’s the least you could do considering the way you hurt me.”
I find my discarded shirt from the night before. The cotton glides easily over my skin as I replace it. “But why up here?”
She’s sitting where Lindy once sat, occupying the same space. I want to shove her off even if she falls on the floor.
“I heard you talking. I wanted to be sure you were okay.” Her smile goes crooked, and her hand trails over my chest. “I thought you might like the company. I could be so much more for you if you’d let me”
I catch her hand in mine like a spider that needs to be crushed. “I think we covered what I want from you last night.” She pulls loose. I fumble for my phone. I swear between clenched teeth the second I see the time. “I’m gonna be late.”
Vanessa stands so I won’t shove her. Anger builds in my chest despite my need to smash it back down.
I have his temper—My father’s.
Years of practice have kept it in check, but I hate manipulation and tricks.
“Why didn’t my alarm go off?”
She looks away. I grab her arm to force her to look at me. A soft cry pulls from her throat, and I know I’ve hurt her.
“What’d you do?” I demand.
“I turned it off,” she says. “I wanted you to stay. If she left again, you might see me for once. I’ve become invisible since she’s been back, baby.”
Not wanting to touch her any longer, I fling her arm from my grip. “Get your stuff. I have to leave.”
She lingering as I’m standing to change from my sweats, that same coy smile that caught my attention the first night I met her. “Or we could…”
“We could nothing, Vanessa. I’m leaving.”
Her bottom lip drops out, but I’m too upset to care. It’ll cut at me later. Guilt has a way of resurfacing. I change quickly and drop my bag off the side of the nautilus staircase to the second floor landing. She’s standing there in her dress from last night. I should make her get her stuff from the drawers, make this a clean break, but I can’t shake the feeling that she’s right. We’re not over. Lindy might not want me.
She marches down ahead of me as if she’s my prisoner. I flip lights as we move, turn off the heat, and try to shake the memory of Lindy in my dreams. It’s not the first time I’ve had that dream. Stupid since reality is nowhere near where I’ve landed.
“Wait outside,” I say to Vanessa. It’s not just the manipulation that’s making me angry. It’s the way I truly believed she was Lindy. Vanessa stole that from me, and I’m furious. I flick off the lights in the studio and arm the alarm before I pull the steel door shut and lock it.
“When will you be back?” she asks.
I shove my bag in next to my other gear.
“I don’t know.” It’s the truth. How am I supposed to know? Details from Shane were not forthcoming. I might die out there.
Nerves quiver to life as her palms slip over my back and around my waist. Too much is still awake from the dream. If I close my eyes, it’s Lindy again, happy to see me for once, eager for more than what we have. But it’s not her and the truth makes me ache.
“Stop.” I mean for it to be strong, but she can hear my need and she’s willing to shove the crack open.
“Stop what?” she whispers back. “Loving you?” She snakes her way under my arm so that she’s back in my embrace. “I can’t. It’s not possible.”
It hasn’t all been bad. She’s a good girlfriend. Any sane man would realize he’s won the lottery. Her hair is silk beneath my touch as I push it away to look at her face. It’s harder now to say goodbye. She’s not crying. Her skin is clear. We’ve been together for months, am I crazy to let her go?
“She’ll never love you,” Vanessa whispers as she presses her lips against mine. “She’ll never love you like I do.”
I have nothing left, not even enough to wipe the tears from her eyes. All I can do is slam the back of the Tahoe and climb in the driver’s seat. I shed no tears for Vanessa, but as the words, She’ll never love you, bounce around in my brain, I fall apart and drown in the likelihood that she’s right.
Too Broken to Heal?
She’s ten inches away. Lindy, the woman I actually love, she’s finally sleeping next to me again. I reach out once I know she’s drifted off far enough. My hand compresses the thin sleeping bag she’s brought. I want to capture her waist and pull her against me like the teddy bear I slept with as a kid. If I thought it was hard to keep my hands from her at the precinct, now, looking nothing like my cousin and everything like herself, I’m helpless. I’m lost to her.
I need to find a way to tell her what really happened after she told me, “I don’t”. The anger in her eyes speaks volumes about her side of the story, but she has no idea what actually happened. There’s a bench outside the ICU whose cushions likely will still mold to my shape.
My palm wraps around her shoulder through the nylon sleeping bag. Even in her sleep she jerks away from me. I hate that Vanessa seems to be right. She’s broken.
I should have reached out to her earlier, after we fought, before we went to bed. That moment when she walked away from me and stood at the edge of our camp, I should have stood up and wrapped my arms around her. Temper got the better of me. I have the bad habit of rehashing everything in my mind, playing her sins on repeat and stirring up the anger in my heart. I know better. I should be better, because all that I’m left with is regret for not making the right choice. As usual, I’m left wondering what to do to get closer to her. I need to fix this, but how do you fix someone this broken?
When I was little, Charles bought mom a bouquet of flowers. He made a big show of bring it home. The whole staff had to make a comment on it, all the roses and lilies and the way the crystal vase sparkled. I clearly remember it because I sat at the kitchen table coloring, careful not to break any of the crayons while I worked. I felt his stare fall on me. My tension doubled. It’s hard keeping up perfection when someone expects you to fail. The longer he watched me, the more my nerves and hands trembled.
“Careful,” he said, “you’re getting too close to the lines, Ryder. A good surgeon keeps a steady hand. You do want to be a doctor, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, knowing no other answer. But my hands didn’t listen. They shook in fear.
Mom came into the kitchen, freshly showered, a new dress and more makeup than normal. Some of my fear drained when his eyes landed on her instead. I would have been happy to fade into the walls if I could have. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but mom’s voice pitched up. She gasped. My crayon swerved. The pressure gave way and the crayon snapped. Mom hit the floor. The vase flew through the air and shattered against the wall, crystal raining down like hail in a winter storm.
Charles stormed from the room. I stuffed the crayon pieces in my pocket. I looked up to mom, her palm pressed over her red cheek, tears glistening in her eyes. She couldn’t believe I’d broken the crayon either.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. Without thinking, I ran to the broken vase, the pile of shards and petals and water seeping all over the marble floor.
“Ryder, no! Careful!” She peeled her hand away from her red cheek and bent to pull me back. “I’ll call Miss Polly. She’ll clean this up.”
“But your pretty vase, it’s ruined.”
Miss Gladys already had my hand, muttering something about my mother’s fits and how she never seems happy with anything. I looked over my shoulder, filled with regret, wishing I could piece mom’s vase back together again.
I feel that way now. Lindy’s whimpering in her sleep, but every time I touch her she retracts deeper into the pain she’s feeling. She’s a pile of broken pieces, and once more I’m helpless to fix any of it.
Tangled In The Net
Something woke me. My muscles tense, waiting on the sound again. These people, this group we’re searching for, they might have found us. I wait, listening for a cracking branch or feet outside our tent. The cold air catches my growing perspiration. Between my nerves and the sleeping bag, I’m already feeling warm.
Lindy steals a breath. For a second I worry she’s heard something I didn’t, but she’s breathing deeply, still asleep. I have to correct myself. She’s not breathing deeply, her breaths are speeding, sharp and shallow. A soft whimper bursts from between her lips. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard her struggle in the night. It’s no wonder she’s exhausted every day. Between the fatigue from her disease and the nights she fights her demons, she can’t find rest. I’ve tried reaching out to her before, to try to comfort her, but my touch only deepens her pain. It’s as if I bring it into reality, making the nightmare three dimensional. Most nights she fights it back and eases into some hiding place in her mind where the nightmares can’t find her. I wait, listening to her fears bleed into the night, but she’s not beating them back tonight.
We’re nearing sunrise. Black is easing to gray, not enough to wake up, but enough to see her features twist and pull in terror. I ache watching her. I breathe with her when she draws a deep breath as if she might scream. Her lips press tight as if she’s trying to keep her agony to herself. Is this what she went through? Am I reliving it with her? Her chin trembles. A soft whimper breaks from her chest. Her body caves forward. I can’t survive much more of this. I have to help her. I have to free her from the torture this time.
“Lindy,” I try to keep my voice soft and soothing, “Lindy, wake up.”
As expected, I release a torrent of fright within her. She twists, balling her fists tight and presses them against her forehead. Her sobs continue, growing deeper and stronger. I shift to take her hands, but she strikes out. Her arms flail through the air. I catch one but the other strikes me across the cheek.
“No! Stop! Please stop!” She screams the words at me as if I’m him. I struggle to keep a hold of her, but she’s strong and breaks the grip.
“Lindy! Wake up!” I don’t want to hurt her. Her fists slam against me, pummeling my chest, my arms, my face, as if I’m her attacker. In the dim light I have no way of predicting which way she’ll come and her pain becomes mine. I fight for control over her frantic body.
“Please Dallas! Please don’t do this!”
I catch her arms again. She shrinks back, terrified to be in my grasp. My stomach twists at her torment. I feel sick seeing how far he pushed her to her brink. She begged him. She pleaded with him, and obviously he never relented.
It takes most of my strength to pin her arms from their attack, but it only intensifies her terror. A scream bursts from her chest. I call her name again, but she won’t break free.
“Get off! Get off me!”
I lose my grip on her arm. It catches me upside my head. Reaching out, I capture her again, pulling her up until she’s sitting. I shake her hard, once, twice.
“Lindy, it’s me. It’s Ryder.” I’m desperate to free her from her prison. “Please, listen to me. You’re safe.”
Her body collapses in on itself, limp for three seconds. A shaky inhale tells me she’s finally awake. Her braid came loose. She’s kept it tight every day. Even in her distress, she’s beautiful. Her head drops into her chest in defeat. I release her hands and let them fall, worried I might have left bruises on her wrists. Gravity pulls a chunk of hair over her shoulder. Her head snaps up, eyes far away, drowning in fear. She spins away from me. I move to catch her again but her hand locks around the knife she keeps next to her bag. She flips the blade free with one hand. My heart drops. Is she still dreaming? The blade moves and for a second I worry she might come after me, but worse, she starts for her throat. I grab the blade from her hand and throw it to the opposite side of the tent. She dives after it, as if she can’t handle one more moment living this nightmare. I lock my arms around her waist.
“Lindy, stop.” I toss her back with ease. Her eyes go wild, locked somewhere between reality and nightmare. I have to pull her free. I have to give her something to hang on to. Against my better judgment, I grip her shoulders and pull her to my lips.
It’s better than I remember.
Addictive. When she relaxes into me, I pull her closer, transferring a hand to her lower back to steady her weakened body. She’s exhausted from her fight. I need her to feel safe. I deepen the kiss, trying to show her everything I haven’t been able to say. This isn’t a school yard crush. This is a love that crushes me every time I look at her. I won’t only never hurt her, I’ll protect her to my dying breath. She’s more than everything. She’s my world.
I break the kiss, resting my head against hers to catch my breath. She’s as sweaty as I am, like we’ve done battle and only now is she willing to surrender.
“I probably shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t know how else to reach you.”
I want to add that I’m glad I did. Maybe now she can start to heal. Maybe now we can have something real between us. Could it be that easy? A kiss to solve everything? Have the fairy tales had it right all along?
I press my lips against hers, fully expecting her to melt into me like she has in the past. She stiffens and presses me back with both hands. Every inch carves away at me. She won’t face me. I crumble inside like discarded paper. “You’re frozen. Let me hold you.”
She debates her answer. The argument is written across her face. I once thought of her like a steel butterfly, and those walls are rising in front of me.
Her answer hurts almost as much as hearing “I don’t”.
“You’re cold.” I take her hand, but she slips it free again.
“It doesn’t matter.”
I watch her, waiting, hoping she’ll change her mind. But she doesn’t. Maybe Vanessa was right. Maybe love isn’t something Lindy is capable of. Not anymore. Disappointment bleeds into my heart. To rise to such a place of perfection only to fall seconds later, I can’t keep doing this. I can’t wait for her forever, not without some kind of promise for a better day. My heart won’t survive.
Giving up, I sink back to my side, burrow into my bag and search for sleep again. It’s stupid to be obsessing considering what the day will bring. I need to remember why I came. It wasn’t to win her back. I came to protect her. If my reflexes are dulled by a lack of sleep, her pain will be on my hands. I won’t let that happen again.
Still, as I drift off to sleep, I can’t help but wonder if she felt what I did a second ago. Did she feel that rush, that indescribable heat? I’ve never felt it before, not even with her. I want to sink into it and drown. Some part of me wonders if I can survive in a relationship without her love? Would this, this other feeling, suffice me? If she can’t love, could I limp along with stolen moments like these instead? Is half a life with her better than all the love from someone else? I don’t have an answer, not yet.
My limbs go heavy, relaxing into exhaustion. I drift, as if on a canoe pushed back from shore, lazily skimming over sleep. A sensation rips my body awake and alert. Her hand lifts my elbow, as if she can weasel under me without letting me know. The bag rustles between us. I shift to take her in my arms, pulling her to my chest, resting on my back. I can’t believe this is happening. Emotion pricks my nose. I’m fading back to that night in the lighthouse, sleeping with her against me, knowing beyond a doubt I’d found the one I’d searched for my whole life. My heart races at the thought that I’ve got her back in my arms again, but I know it has to be on her terms. One wrong move, one word out of place, and she’ll scatter. I wait, ready, willing, I’ll give her the world if she wants it. If that’s what it takes to have her, I’ll find a way.
“When?” Her whispered question catches me off guard.
“When what?” I can’t control my voice. I might as well be thirteen again with the way it shifts and cracks.
“When did you fall in love with me?”
I want to laugh. Such an odd question, but it fits her. It’s almost an accusation, like she’s interrogating me for a crime. It’s on par with, “Where’d you hide the diamonds?”, as though I’ve done something wrong in loving her. Maybe in her eyes I have. I broke the cardinal rule.
“I’m not sure. When I first say you on that bar stool?” The memory of her shifting her hair to the opposite side drifts through my mind, then the way we sparked when I kissed her cheek. “Maybe on the bluffs?” Hard not to fall in love with her then. I feel like that’s the first time I actually connected to her, no walls, no games, just my huckleberry girl.
“I don’t think it was all at once but a little at a time, more like realizing it one day like something I’d known all along.” That moment is clear in my mind as well. Stepping out of my Tahoe. Seeing her across the way with someone else’s arms around her. “But I knew it as soon as I saw you with him. He had your heart, and it belonged with me. I had to get you back.”
I want to confess it all. The time in the hospital. The stupidity of trying to put distance between us by sending her to the ranch. The profile I’ve made just to talk with her again. But I have a bad history of laying too much on her at once. I can only hope she’s this willing to talk in the morning. Until then, I’ll rest better with her back where she’s supposed to be, wrapped up in my arms.
The Men's Side
Walking away from her is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. The bruises on her face are darkening. I try to find comfort that I didn’t put them there, but does that really matter? Without her next to me, I’m about to burst out of my skin.
“Move.” Raife’s command is simple, but forceful. My heart slams against my chest, but I put one foot in front of the other, headed back down the trail for the male side of the encampment. Knowing how easily I could lose my mind, I fall back on years of therapy. All through med school I dealt with anxiety, deep, paralyzing anxiety. I never knew why, other than the high stress of my work load built it from nothing. I lied and told my parents I needed extra cash for tutors. As long as I drew that blasted symbol on my thumb, Charles would give me anything I asked. That extra cash paid for a therapist on campus. It was supposed to be mindfulness, or ways to connect me with reality to keep the anxiety at bay. Count four things you can see.
I look up ahead.
A bird perched on a stump.
I draw in a breath and start again. Name four things you smell.
I close my eyes for a second to focus.
A hand slams against my back. I trip over my feet and crash against the dirt. Pain lights up my side where those boots caught me earlier. I groan and tuck into a ball.
“Get up,” Raife says. “Act like a man.”
It jars something in my mind. I shake my head to chase the memory away, but like fog, it has no real shape, and therefore nothing can hold it back from infiltrating my mind.
“Act like a man, Ryder,” Charles’ voice catches me like the boots from earlier. I shake my head again and it fades away. Flattening my palms against the ground, I push myself to standing, smothering the pain I’m hiding inside.
“Brother Gabe! Brother Liam!” Raife moves away from me to other men. I take a moment to touch my tender ribs, checking for broken bones. In the distance, two men pull away from the larger group. Raife says a few words to them before they start in my direction. I brace myself for more pain, but they each take an arm and move me toward a cabin. The taller one kicks open the door, revealing two sets of bunks. They help me to a lower one and release their grip. Without a word, the shorter one tilts his head like a signal and the first loses the door and latches it. Light fades back until only the most prominent features on their faces can be seen. For a moment, we stare.
“Who are you?” The shorter one takes a knee near me. “Raife says you’re friends of his wife Fern, but it makes no sense. They’ve been here too long. She can’t get word out. No way is that true.”
My eyes dart to the gun in the taller one’s hands. He holds it with more confidence than I could ever hope to. I thought we’d proved ourselves. I thought we’d made it, and now I’m faced with execution all over again.
Lindy would lie. I know I should. I should make up some story about Fern getting a letter out to us, despite the setbacks. But the man in front of me narrows his eyes.
“You’re different.” He tilts his head in the opposite direction as if to see me from a new angle. “Would it help to know that not all of us approve of the way things are done here? I love my wife. Liam,” he points back at his companion, “he does too. Neither one of us would ever hurt her, or any other woman or child here at the camp.”
Something near hope starts to flood my veins. I look to the short one and say, “I’m Ryder Billings.”
“Gabe Renner.” He extends his hand to me. The familiar social construct feels out of place here, but I grasp it and follow through with the handshake. Gabe waits a second before he asks again, “Why are you here?”
“We were backpacking and got lost.” The lies fall about before I have a chance to think about them. “We lucked into Fern and that story. I think they were going to kill us.”
Gabe glanced over his shoulder to Liam. With a nod, Liam sets his weapon against the wall.
“No doubt about it, they would have killed you. But now, you’re as good as dead as the rest of us. There’s no way out of this place.”
“Not yet at least,” Gabe says. “But we’re working on that.”
“What does that mean?” I looked to both of them for an explanation, but nothing came.
“Don’t worry about that yet. You’ve got bigger issues.” Liam sat on the bunk across from mine. “You have to survive the cleansing.”
Gabe looks away for a second before he says, “That’s what we’re supposed to be starting in here. Propaganda, rewiring your brain,” sarcasm stains his speech as he adds, “cleansing you of the outside world.”
“But you’re not?”
“No,” Liam says, “we’re gonna teach you to survive. Teach you how to hide in plain sight. That way when the others start in on you, you’ll have a fighting chance of staying in control.”
Gabe leans a little closer. “They’re gonna beat you. You’re going to hurt like you’ve never hurt before. The Cleansing is about torture, about stripping you back to a shell and rebuilding you from the foundation up. We can help you make it through, but it’ll be easier if you don’t have anything for them to prey on. Tell me Ryder, do you have any demons in your past?”
Don't Lose Yourself
Days mean nothing. Time means nothing. It’s all a mess of pain and bad memories. Every impact brings up a ghost from my past. Every poison word sent slithering into my ear jars loose a repressed piece of my childhood. I keep my face blank. I fight to stay level. I cling to my identity even while repeating back to them that I’m Brother Ryder, member of the fifth infantry and Soldier 382.
Gabe taught me that. I repeat their commands, but I rebel inside. I tell myself I’m Ryder Billings, son of Isabelle Billings. I paint and sculpt. I like to watch the sunset over the Sound from my third story of the lighthouse I live in. They ask me who I serve, I tell them Cyrus, but in my mind I’m wrapped up in Lindy’s arms, standing in her driveway again, reliving that stolen kiss after the masquerade. They tell me I’m a solider, I nod, but I know inside I’m hers, nothing but hers.
"To the house,” Nick says with a shove to my shoulder, “even scum like you need to eat.”
I could take him. I outweigh him by at least thirty pounds, maybe fifty. But Nick has advantages. Power and no pain. I could swing and catch his jaw with a right hook. Might lay him out cold, but the retaliation from those who respect his authority might land me in the pit. If I don’t knock him out, all he has to do is connect with my rib cage once. Too many more hits and I know a couple will crack. I’m a walking bruise. The right hit and it won’t matter if I outweigh him by a hundred pounds.
I fall in line, soon joined by Gabe on one side and Abram on the other. For the first time all day I feel safe. They both have sway within the ranks. When they’re around, the pain lessens.
Gabe pulls back the swinging door into the house. Smells of roasted chicken, potatoes and ham slap my face. At least we eat between the rounds of abuse. I take my seat on the back side of the table, sandwiched between Liam and Gabe, once more protected by them. I can’t show weakness, but I want to rest my heavy head in my hands and sob for what I’ve survived. That will come later. Safe behind the cabin doors. None of my cabin mates ever talk about my breakdowns, and for that I’m grateful.
Food slides across the table. Gabe stiffens. His eyes lock on her, carefully taking inventory of every part of her. I get it. Harmony is his wife. Every meal she carries the food to the house, every meal he sees her, but every meal Cyrus pins his wicked glare on Gabe and dares him to break a rule. It’s a different kind of torture than mine, but excruciating for one of my few friends in the camp.
"Looks good!” Nick slides in behind Harmony, too close, close enough to breathe in her scent and sigh out his approval. “Smells good too. Good enough to eat.”
Gabe’s chair jerks against the floor but Abram puts a hand to his arm under the table. Cyrus waits. When Gabe doesn’t push it any further, Cyrus gives a nod to Nick and he backs away. Harmony gathers her skirt and her breath before she rushes off in a hurry. It’s only once she’s gone that Gabe starts to relax.
They pass the drinks, beers and ales, stolen from what I’ve learned. Thomas and Raife hit a truck three weeks ago. They claim to be like Robin Hood, but I don’t remember the story saying, ‘Steal from the rich to give to ourselves’. I pass my bottle like I always do. Gabe nudges me with his elbow drawing a wince from me that I can’t subdue. I shake my head and he glares again. He thinks I should drink more. It would dull the pain, both physical and mental, but I need to stay sharp if I’m going to make it out alive.
“Sky!” Cyrus calls. “Sky, you’re needed.”
The name is new. I learned early on that Cyrus has his own team of women living in the house. None are his wives. I’ve met Lavender when she bandaged up a knife wound I received during training. I met Coral when I helped her carry the bed linens to the line to dry. Sky is new to me.
She pushes open the door. Her left eyebrow tweaks up with more challenge than I’ve seen since arriving. Her mouth skews to the side, evaluating the table full of men. “You called for me Cyrus?” She sweeps her long blonde hair to one side and smiles as if his every wish is her command.
He takes her hand and pulls her closer. “Eat with us, my child. Bless us with your beauty and grace.”
“I’m tending to the other house servants right now.” Sky effectively peels her hand from his without offending him. “I’d hate to neglect my chores.”
Thomas, seated near the head of the table , sneers in her direction. “I believe your chores involve pleasing the men.” He swings a hand back and grabs her rear like it’s the dinner on the table.
Without warning, Sky twists into his grip, snagging a knife from the table and jams it against her offender’s throat. Thomas’ eyes triple in size. Sky glares down at him without relinquishing her grip, or lessening the pressure.
“I think you’re mistaken, Brother Thomas,” she barely breathes the words loud enough for the rest of us to hear, “I live to serve Cyrus, and him alone. Wouldn’t you agree to the same?”
Afraid to nod, or speak, Thomas lets a whimper slide free. Sky’s blade pulls back and clatters against the table. She stands once more and smoothes the front of her dress. I don’t know what I expect, but it isn’t Cyrus’ laughter.
“Sky, you never cease to stop amusing me. Such a spitfire in her sweet devotion. You live to please.”
Her smile turns tight, but spreads. “Of course. Is there anything else, or may I return to my duties?”
Cyrus waves her away with a hand and all too eager, Sky retreats through the door. Slowly, talking and eating resume. When he thinks no one will hear, Gabe leans close to me and whispers, “Sky always surprises me with the way she fights back and gets away with it.”
But that’s thing, she didn’t surprise me. After all, I’d met her dad. Nerves of steel likely ran in their genetics. Somehow I had to let Lindy know that I’d found Tasha Saunders.
I don’t know if Lindy knows why I hate guns. I’m not sure I really knew before I came here. Little by little it filtered back. Charles’ insisted I know how to shoot. He’d take me on walks in the forest behind our manner. That wasn’t new to me. I’d always had that memory, but the darkness that followed those first step into the woods cleared when I held a gun in my hands at Eden’s Haven. Just as Charles used to slip a revolver into my young hands, Nick hands me a gun and tells me to shoot.
I hated every second of it as a kid. That’s why I blocked it out. He made me kill animals until there weren’t any left in the forest to kill. I’d sneak out after he fell asleep and tried to find them, maybe to doctor them and save a life, but all I ever found was corpses.
I remembered missing on purpose. Charles’ hand caught me upside the head and a second later I collided with a tree trunk. He screamed at me that I’d never be a man. I fell in a heap of tears and bruises, left out in the cold to find my own way back. It helped me become a better marksman, not because I wanted to kill, but because if I was forced to do it, then I wanted the suffering to end in an instant.
They gave me Lindy’s gun most days. I knew the shape of it better than I knew the shape of her. It molded to my grip, submitted to my strength, and for a few hours the pain stopped because they’d found my aptitude.
The new guy could shoot.
Once they trained me in rifles, the long range games started. They’d set apples on tree branches to see if I could pick them off. Two hundred yards, easy. Three hundred, not a challenge. Five hundred, took some concentration. Fifteen hundred yards, I made two out of four shots.
I watch as Tasha is shoved from the house. Nick snags my arm, pulling me away from my post at the top of the hill. I’d just spotted Lindy in the garden. Frustration pulls at me and leaves me hesitant.
“What’s going on?” I ask the weapons guard.
“Cyrus needs your help, sharpshooter.” He shoves me again. I have no choice but to follow the path in front of me. Visions of picking off innocent animals shift to Cyrus asking me to pick off intruders infringing on Eden’s Haven’s land. I can’t shoot innocent victims, and yet if I don’t, he’ll kill me. The conflicts and contradictions in this trap clang around in my head. The path empties into a clearing. Cyrus waits with an assault rifle, complete with a long range scope.
“Brother Ryder, what a joy to see you on this occasion.”
I stiffen because Cyrus’ joy is usually my torment, but Gabe has trained me well and I reply, “I live to serve, sir.”
He extends the rifle. My grip locks around it, even while my body is repulsed. “We’d like to test your skill. Shoot the water jug.”
I know there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. Every minute of living in this nightmare is like setting a foot in a snare and hoping it doesn’t go off. Regardless, I take my space on my stomach, rifle over the top of a log. I spot a few markers, nylon tags tied to trees to tell me wind speed and variables. I stare through the sight and try to locate his target. I adjust the sight and find the jug, but my heart drops. Tasha is holding the jug on top of her head.
I draw in a quick breath. It’s involuntary, I can’t help it. What he’s asking me to do, I can’t take that risk.
“What did she do to deserve this?” My question isn’t allowed, no way should I be asking it, but I need to find a way around this.
“We’re testing her allegiance,” I’m surprised Cyrus is willing to tell me, “if she stays still and has faith in everything we stand for, she won’t move. If she flees I know she’s a traitor.”
My stomach churns. “How far back are we?”
“Two hundred fifty meters,” Nick says. “You’ve done this a hundred times. It’s not a challenge for you.”
I realize quickly that this is not only her test, but mine as well. If I refuse, then I’m outing myself as a traitor as well.
I settle back in to my space. I swear Tasha is staring at me through my sights. As long as she doesn’t move, we’ll both survive. I drew in a breath, hold it, and squeeze the trigger. Water explodes over her head, but she’s still standing. Another jug replaces the last, and I know what I have to do. I repeat the steps, water explodes and Tasha visibly shakes.
“I think it’s too easy.” Nick speaks only to Cyrus. “This is hardly a challenge for him.”
“Three hundred,” Cyrus says. “Set it up.”
I push to my feet, unwilling to take that chance. “There are too many variables. I’m not familiar with this gun. She’s proved her faith, hasn’t she? She didn’t twitch once.”
The proverbial snare tightens around my ankle. Nick’s back hand whips me to the ground. I cough twice to catch my breath. Cyrus’ boot slams against my abdomen. The butt of Nick’s rifle crashes down on my shoulder. Pain and abuse ring in from every side. In my mind Charles yells and screams. His fists pummel me until I’m nothing more than sobs and shaking. Finally, the beating stops. I tremble, but keep my tears internal.
“If he can still shoot, I’d wager we’ve handicapped him enough that two-fifty will be a challenge now.” Cyrus doesn’t bother to look down at me huddled in the dirt. “Have him shoot until the jugs are gone. If he misses even one, put a bullet in his head.”
The underbrush snaps with Cyrus’ exit. Nick nods to my gun. “You heard him. Get to work.”
Movement only heightens the pain, but I push through, trying to simultaneously silence the demons and memories let loose in my mind. I groan once as I lay out. I keep the rest inside, for fear that Nick will see it as weakness. I line up my sights, draw a breath in, hold it and squeeze the trigger. Water bursts near Tasha’s hand. She drops the jug. A cry of pain lights up my ears. The next time she’s in my sights, her nose is dripping blood, someone punished her for showing fear, but she’s alive.
I focus harder because our lives depend on it. Ten more jugs pass. Ten more bullets I could have put through her head. Ghosts swirl around me, howling my sins in my ears. Every day I spend in this place I come closer to a mental break. No amount of Gabe and Liam’s tricks will save me, not with the darkness I’m uncovering.
But today, I’ll hang on to my win. Tasha is soaked. I’m bruised. We’re both alive.
“At least we didn’t need a sharpshooter,” Gabe whispers from my side.
I nod because it’s not the first time it’s occurred to me. They could have me picking off cops. I never could, and disobedience would mean a bullet through my head instead. Reality dawns on me all at once as the van slows.
I’m robbing a bank.
Not me personally, but I’m part of a team that’s about to rob a bank.
“Brother Ryder,” Raife calls from the front, “you’re up.”
Gabe gives me a quick nod. He’s my real commander. It’s his orders I’m following, but I still have no way of knowing if he’ll cause my death just as fast.
I exit the van, take the keys from Raife and slide into the front seat of the convertible we’re using for getaway. That’s what Gabe meant when he told me at least they didn’t need a sharpshooter. It was his way of apologizing that I had to be involved, but at least I didn’t have to kill anyone. Four other men, including Thomas and Raife, follow me into the car.
“Go,” Raife says, fastening his seatbelt.
It strikes me a bit funny that criminals care about safety first, but I dare not laugh. We ease into Seattle traffic, another reason I was chosen to drive, I’m one of the few familiar with the surface streets. We make good time traveling in silence to the bank. Two minutes out, Raife goes over the plan again.
“Thomas and I will enter the front. You two move up the street, ready and waiting. Ryder, keep the engine running. In and out in seven minutes, understood? Then we rally with the others and return home.”
Home. Home isn’t that far away for me. My real home. The lighthouse, even Lindy’s cottage. The manor sounds better than returning to Eden’s Haven. But dies were cast and my fate is sealed. I park out front, tires pointed toward the street for a quick getaway. The rest of my crew climbs out. Right on time the armed car appears in my rearview mirror, cresting the hill behind us.
“For communication.” Raife sets a phone in my hand. “If we get separated. At eight minutes, you drive away, got it?”
“Got it,” I repeat back like a good soldier. I watch them leave, note the time on the dash and start my counter plan.
Gabe knew they’d give me a phone. Good because I had to leave mine back at camp with Lindy in case she needed to escape. I flip it open and dial the number I’ve memorized.
“Yeah?” Shane says seconds after the first ring.
“They just went in. You have seven minutes.”
“Understood.” The line goes dead. I swipe at the call record to erase it. In the distance sirens begin to wail. This won’t bring them all in, but catching Raife will strike a serious blow to Eden’s Haven. At eight minutes I’ll pull away, leaving them all behind. I’ll rally with the others, tell them the whole thing went south, and we’ll return to Eden’s Haven. With Raife caught by authorities, they’ll have all the information they need to raid the compound, and I’ll be waiting to help.
Four minutes left. I clench my grip around the wheel. Up the street the two men I don’t know watch the armed guards remove the bags of money. Three minutes left. They move in, weapons concealed beneath jackets. Up the street, two cop cars turn the corner. I twist the wheel, set my foot to the gas and draw in a deep breath for courage. The passenger side rips open. Raife falls inside. Seconds later, Thomas jumps the side into the back. His palm slams against my head rest. “Go! The cops are already here.”
“What about the others?” I hope to stall a minute longer, allow the Seattle cops a chance to apprehend us, but Raife’s gun stares me down.
I pull into traffic, too aware of the pressure of the muzzle against my temple. My mind spins with some kind of plan, but there’s nothing. I weave traffic, trying to hold back long enough that a cop will see me, but they’re focused on the two we left behind, I’m sure of it. I have no way of telling Shane our plan was ruined.
“How’d they get there that fast?” Thomas casts glances over his shoulder, searching for threats.
Raife chews on the question. “No way they could, unless someone tipped them off.”
My gut clenches tight, but I keep my mouth shut. Still, a voice inside me whispers that I’ve exhausted my luck. I’ll never make it through the day alive. I need a miracle at this point.
Night Before The Raid
I pull her a little closer, relishing the way she melts into me. Strange to find love this deep in a place like this. She doesn’t pull away when I thread my fingers through her hair. The grip Dallas had on her is fading. He’s sinking into the water as I pull her out. My desire to kiss her becomes almost unbearable, but I hold back. She needs sleep. Yesterday I watched her gait falter. Her words are locking up, even if she doesn’t realize it’s happening. Whether it’s her disease or this place that’s making her weaker, the least I can do is let her sleep.
Lindy shifts once, likely trying to become more comfortable. Leaning against a wall in the corner of a cabin, comfort isn’t a luxury we enjoy. We shouldn’t be touching like this either, but the two children sleeping won’t tell, and I latched the door and closed the curtains last time I came in. With the raid in less than four hours, we need this quiet sanctuary.
If she’d have me, I’d marry her tomorrow. She worries so much about the future, about everything she’s bringing into our relationship, but I doubt she considers all my issues. Being here, at this compound, it’s all been set free. I think back to that moment when Gabe asked me if I had any demons. I’d told him no, but that’s because I hadn’t met half of them yet.
Now I worry for my sanity. No one knows what’s going on in my head. I’m sitting on the edge of a total meltdown and no one knows. I keep those thoughts from me, those memories that threaten to steal the last string of sanity I’m clinging to. I play a good game, pretend I’m okay, but I’m not. I’m not even close to okay.
The truths I’ve uncovered here, the trauma I’ve endured, I don’t know how I’m going to function ever again. I worry Lindy has no idea how bad it is. I worry she may not want me anymore if she does know. Is it possible for two damaged people to make things work?
I hope so. I can’t imagine a life without her in my arms. If I hadn’t found her yet, I think I’d keep looking until I did. I need her, no matter what the future holds.
Last Words Left Unspoken
The door to Willow’s cabin sticks a little when I yank it open. Maybe it’s trying to protect me from what waits inside. Lindy stands against the counter, her back to me. She’s arranged the knives in order, longest blade to shortest, like a childhood game turned morbid by this nightmare landscape we lived in. I don’t have to touch her to know she’s tense. I run my hand over her back, testing the waters so to speak.
“Is it time?”
“No, not yet,” I say to her, “The ammunition hasn’t arrived. FBI wants those guns.”
She doesn’t say anything. Instead she bundles the knives together and starts to order them again. I should be more scared, of what we’re facing, of this ball of anger I’ve chosen to love who’s just as skilled with a knife as she is with her gun, but I’m not thinking about any of that right now. We might die today, in less than ten minutes in fact, and all I can think about is getting close to her one last time. If this is my last dance on earth, I want to spend it with her.
“How are you holding up?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
She’s angry, but it’s not real. It makes me laugh to myself. It’s a knee jerk reaction to everything we’re facing. And she’s right. It was a stupid question. You don’t ask someone who’s facing death how they’re holding up. It’s nowhere near what I really want to know.
“I know I’m supposed to be waiting patiently,” that’s what I promised her at the start of all this, before the world fell apart, “but we could be home tonight. I’m wondering where that puts us.”
I’m doing too much waiting right now. Waiting on the authorities. Waiting on the guns. Waiting on Lindy to know where we stand. Patience has never been my strong point.
Her fingers spin the largest knife so the hilt will land in her hand. Gripping it tight, she slams it into the wooden countertop. “She’s prettier than I am. Vanessa, she’s prettier than I am.”
A smile slides across my cheeks. Lindy Johnson, insecure, never thought I’d see the day.
“I guess she is.”
Her fingers lock around the next knife and I’m lucky she doesn’t jam it into my chest. It sinks deeper than the last, evidence that I said the wrong thing.
“You’re a jerk.”
I roll my eyes because I’m not used to seeing this side of her. I plan to squelch out any misgivings she has on the subject. I turn her words from earlier on her. “Well, it was a stupid thing to say.” And it was. Vanessa is gorgeous. I’d never question that. Walking down the street, the average guy would rubberneck to catch another look at her, Lindy’s beauty isn’t less, it’s different.
“It’s true, she’s pretty, but beauty fades.” Taking my life in my hands, I slip my arm around her waist. “But you don’t.”
She’s likely still considering stabbing me for what I said, but instead she asks, “I don’t what?”
I ease closer, noting the way she twitches when I pull close. I love that I get to her. I love the way she comes unhinged for me. I love knowing I’m the only one who’s been here, treading on her heart like it’s a first snow, and I’m the only prints. She draws in a quick breath as if I’ve stolen it away. I ache to give in to what we’re feeling, but I need her to understand what I’m saying.
“You don’t fade. Not in presence, not in personality, and never in my heart. You don’t fade. She’s pretty to the world. You are my world. She’ll never have anything on you.”
The fire of her anger extinguishes but a new flame ignites. It’s been happening more and more since the bonfire, since she kissed me on her own. Since the beginning I saw traces of this, Lindy wanting to have a future with me, but where her body told me yes, her words held me back. That’s fading. Those moments I stole on the bluffs, they’re expanding as she’s opening her heart to me.
“When I ask you how you’re holding up. I don’t mean about all this.” I can’t help myself when she’s this close. I’m weak. I twist my head, leaning into her neck. Her body eases near, though I doubt she’s aware. Every word brushes my mouth against her skin. She trembles in my arms. “I mean you, Lindy, how are you holding up? Has anything changed? Are we any closer to being free of those memories?”
Her grip tightens on the knife, but I doubt it’s anger that grinds it against the countertop. She’s used to holding back, keeping herself safe, and I’m wearing on her self-control. I catch her earlobe between my teeth, before I spread kisses over the crook of her neck. Puffs of air escape her, but she’s still not willing to let go.
“I swear I’ve lost my mind a thousand times since we go here, but you stay strong no matter what.” I tuck her hair behind her ear, kissing the ridge of it, relishing the way her opposite arm clenches over the one I’ve got wrapped around her waist. It’s moments like this where I know I’m the only one who’s held her this way, kissed her like this. She’s mine. I’m hers. This is all that matters. She’s changing. Any second her walls will crumble, I can feel it. “When do you let yourself lose control? When do you fall apart, Huckleberry?”
The knife falls with a clatter, but she’s not thinking about weapons or raids, or anything beyond this moment. Her body presses back against mine, neck swayed far to the side as if giving herself up for sacrifice. Trust. That’s all I see in her. For the first time in a long time, if ever, she trusts me. It feels bigger than love from someone like Lindy. She’s never given this side of her to anyone. The responsibility to keep it safe weighs on me.
“I try not to,” she says, “I never know if I’ll be able to put it back together again.”
I know it’s true about her. She waits for the quiet in the storm and cries her tears alone. I don’t want that for her, not ever again. I want to be there through it all, the good and the bad. For the first time I feel like she might let me. We’re stronger together, I think she finally sees it.
“You can break with me. I’ll fix you every time.” I can’t stand another second without her lips. I take her hips and spin her to face me. “I’m not going anywhere. You know you can trust me.”
Every other time I’ve said that word, she’s flinched, like Dallas is cutting her again. But it’s not there this time. She’s free, or at least she believes me. Breath is rushing in and out of me. My heart races like we’ve gone running, but it’s not exercise, it’s her. It’s being close to her, it’s seeing this change in her since the bonfire. I have to know. I have to see how it’d feel. Her hands light me on fire, trailing up my chest, destroying my self-control like tinder in a flame. I capture her and press my lips to hers.
Passion nearly cripples me. I can’t pull her close enough. I can’t get enough of her. I could kiss her the rest of my life and never be satisfied. My hands travel over her back, constantly trying to steal one more millimeter. Her hunger steals my breath. No ghosts, no walls, nothing but… I stop myself. I can’t let myself believe that she might love me. I don’t know if she’s capable, and if she isn’t, I finally have my answer; a life time of whatever this is will always trump a life with anyone else. She presses closer, yielding to my need and it only fuels my fire.
I grasp her hips, easily lift her too slender body up on the counter, eager to live out the fantasy I had months before at Rockin’ B. I cling to her thighs, trying to steady myself, but with her hands cupping my face, I’m losing this battle. She pulls away and I follow her, desperate for just a minute more of whatever this is.
“Ryder,” she swallows hard between rapid breaths, “Ryder I have to tell you something.”
At first I worry she’s going to do what she always has, tell me we can’t be together, but when I look up into her face, that’s not what I see. What I see steals me breath. I take it back. No way, in no world, will Vanessa ever be prettier than the woman looking down at me. She’s about to say it, the one phrase I’ve been waiting on. But here? In this moment? I’ll always wonder if she said it because of what we’re about to face. Does she mean it because it’s true or is this her way of giving me something to hold on to moments before we’re killed?
“No, whatever you want to say can wait. I don’t want a deathbed confession I have to question later. Tell me tonight. Whatever it is, tell me tonight.”
She’s going to argue with me. I know what to expect, so I pull her from the counter and stop her from speaking with a kiss. She wraps her arms around my neck, barely balanced on her toes, letting me hold her whole weight. We’re lost to this, slaves to the feelings driving us. I could stay here and let the battle outside wage, never caring once what happens, as long as she’s mine.
The door creaks open and true to Tasha’s nature she strings together a line of curses. “Really? Right now?” I push back, leaning on Lindy’s collarbone to catch my break while Tasha says, “Come on, it’s time. The guns are here.”
The door closes a second later leaving us alone once more. I hate the way reality squeezes the life out of us. We have no choice. We’ve made commitments, there are people counting on us. We have to follow through.
“I guess it’s time, Little Sparrow.”
She pulls the medallion from her shirt. Thumb trembling, she presses the little bird twice. I pull her close, pressing a kiss to her forehead, much like I did before she left for Rockin’ B. We’re back together again, reunited once more.
That’s something that keeps dawning on me.
We always find each other.
Whatever the raid brings, whatever paths lie ahead of us, I’ve found my soulmate.
We’ll never stop looking for each other.
I’ll always find her.
Whether in this life, or the next.
Ryder's Diaries (Fables & Felonies)
As mentioned in the post entitled Ryder's Diaries, I wanted to include these perspective short stories to enhance my reader's experiences. There are multiple spoilers contained within this story. Please only read after you have finished reading Fables & Felonies. I hope you enjoy Ryder's perspective as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
Ink Blots & Loathing
I stare at the picture again, but only because he told me I had to. If I focus hard enough I can keep the images from my mind. The trick is to look at the spaces between the pictures. On this one, it’s easy. Instead of looking at the campfire, I focus on the darkness between the rocks. The first time I saw the campfire I could hear women screaming as loud as if they were sitting beside me. That’s why Dr. Tarleton made me look again.
I shuddered the first time. Nearly crumpled the entire picture into a ball with the way my hands jerked together. It wasn’t just the screaming. I felt her get ripped out of my hands. I don’t know who, but I can feel the pain and the terror as if it were happening right now, right in this instant, and I don’t want to go back there again. Back to a place where I am helpless. Where I’m pointless. I don’t want to feel that way.
“What did you see, Ryder?” Dr. Tarleton asks me.
“Rocks,” is all I say in return.
“No, not this time. When you looked the first time, what did you see?”
“Nothing,” I say and it’s the truth. I didn’t see anything. I heard something. I felt something, but I saw nothing.
“Take this picture,” Dr. Tarleton says as he holds another one out to me. We’ve been doing this for a couple weeks, looking at pictures, writing down feelings.
I hate it
I just want it all to come back at once, and then sometimes I don’t want any of it.
I’m different now.
I don’t know how I was before, but I know I am different now.
The picture is of a small boy and his father. The father is hunched over talking to the boy. His right arm is outstretched, pointing off into the distance. I can’t see all of the father’s face, but the boy isn’t looking up, he’s staring at his shoes. I can remember staring at my shoes when I was little. It was safer that way. Looking up at Charles was like staring at the surface of the sun, fried you from the inside out until your soul was black.
“What is happening in this picture, Ryder?”
I hate the way he pronounces every sound in every word. I shouldn’t hear the ‘g’ in ‘happening’ and yet I do. I’m on edge today, unhinged by the screams that keep bouncing around in my mind and the way she was ripped out of my arms. I want to reach out to her, but if I did, I’d be reaching for air, like falling from the fourth story. She’s not there. I don’t even know who she is, or where we were.
“It’s a father and a son,” I tell him. We’ve looked at this picture before. I wonder if he’s cycling them on purpose, or if he’s just given up hope.
“What is happening between them? What do you think the father is saying to the son?”
My eyes squeeze shut as his words echo in my mind.
Such a disappointment.
Good for nothing.
Just kill yourself, Ryder.
I know Dr. Tarleton is staring at me, scribbling notes ferociously on his notepad that I never get to see, and I have to hide my reaction away.
My breath is not as steady as I would like, but I say, “He’s mad at his son.”
“Why? Why do you think he’s mad at his son?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “He left his baseball glove on the lawn, or he came in second in the spelling bee. Any number of things could have set him off.” I can feel the anger and frustration mounting inside of me, and I know I need to shove it down, but it’s stronger today, and I can’t control it. “It never takes much to make him lose it. All I have to do is screw up something small, and I’ll pay for it.”
“How do you pay for it, Ryder?”
I wish he would stop saying my name. Does he think I forgot that too? I haven’t. I know my name. Ryder James Billings, middle name is after my Uncle Jimmy. He’s Cassidy’s dad, and I don’t know why that comes into my mind every time I think of his name, but it’s important. I stare up at the clock. Just a few more minutes. A few more minutes and then I’m free until tomorrow.
“Ryder,” Dr. Tarleton says, “how do you pay for it?”
He never lets me not answer. I can give lies, but I can’t avoid questions. I usually lie if I don’t know the answer. Pretty sure he knows that though.
But this. I know the answer to this.
A quick slap to the face if I left my glove on the front lawn, maybe two if it got wet in the sprinklers. Second place in the spelling bee meant no dinner, possibly no breakfast if he was still home in the morning. I let my play dough dry out on the table when I was in kindergarten. I remember because it was the first time he told me I should have just killed myself. Six-years-old and contemplating suicide.
The answer to Dr. Tarleton’s question is easy, and I don’t have to lie.
“Pain,” I reply. “He makes me pay with pain.”
Katie. She’s my solace right now. I went looking for Lindy, but as usual I can’t find her. My leg won’t stop bouncing. It does it every time I sit down. Dr. Tarleton calls it nervous energy. He says it’s latent from what I’ve been through. My body is producing more adrenaline than it should, and it makes me feel as though I’m in the middle of a fight.
I think the reverse is true. I wonder if I’m in the middle of a fight and that makes me produce more adrenaline.
“You’re back,” I write, “I was worried.”
I don’t have to wait long before she writes, “You shouldn’t worry. I was just working a case.”
“That was the reason I was worried.”
PI’s take dangerous cases, Lindy had taught me that. The idea that Katie could vanish just as easily out of my life, leave me staring at my phone waiting for another woman to call me and tell me if she were dead or alive—that thought nearly leaves me catatonic.
“I’m okay, I promise,” Katie writes back.
The couch in my living room shifts as Vanessa sits next to me. Her hand slips over my thigh to stop the bouncing. It bothers her. Everything I do bothers her. She’s my girlfriend, at least that is what she keeps telling me, but it itches at the back of my mind every time she says it.
I don’t think of her as my girlfriend. In amnesia, or repressed memories, or whatever they’re calling me these days, I think you’re automatically single, back to square one because nothing you remember can be trusted. Even worse, nothing anyone tells you can be trusted. They just want you to be who you used to be, and you can’t. You never will be again.
“Baby,” Vanessa whispers as if she might break me with her full voice, “I was going to make you some dinner.”
'I’m not hungry,” I say as I tilt the phone away from her. She can’t see Katie. It’s not cheating, but the secret is mine, and I won’t share it. “I told you not to call me that anymore.”
She smiles and I feel like dirt. Vanessa is gorgeous, exotic, I’ve seen other men stare at her when we go out. They envy me for having my own supermodel, and the best I do is tolerate her while she bends over backward to make me happy. I often wonder if I was this mean before my head injury, or if this is new.
Maybe I’m becoming him.
Maybe Charles was just a nice guy that got pushed too far.
Vanessa kisses my forehead, and it just drives the guilt deeper into my gut. I’m too hard on her. I haven’t even given her a chance, not from the first moment I saw her in the hospital. It didn’t matter that she was beautiful, she wasn’t Lindy.
I flip my phone back over, and my leg begins to bounce once more. The door downstairs opens then shuts again, and I know it’s my mother, or my warden, they are the same person and completely interchangeable.
Katie is still active online, and I can feel the cold relief in my veins. It’s not romantic, it can’t be because it’s not real, but she listens and I desperately need someone that will listen without ulterior motives.
“I was beginning to think I’d imagined you or at least imagined that we had talked. I’m having a hard time with my memory right now. It’s hard to trust anything.”
"Well,”she writes back, “now you know it wasn’t imaginary. We talked. I enjoyed it.”
My heart swells at the idea that she enjoyed talking with me the other night. No one enjoys me anymore. I used to have friends, but now my wardens keep me isolated, afraid someone will trigger the wrong memory. Mom won’t let me go to Johnny’s out by the boundary. I can’t call Shane and watch a game. They freak out any time I leave the house alone, like I might just drive off a cliff. If they could read my mind then they would know I have far more imaginative ways of ending it all, but not before I get some answers.
I realize I’ve been staring at my phone instead of writing back and I feel the need to apologize to my only friend in the world.
“Sorry,”I write, “things just get blurry for me right now.”
“Tell me about your day,” Katie writes, “that way you’ll have someone to help you keep it straight.”
I nearly laugh out loud. That's the last thing I want to do. Admit that I’m close to a psychological break and have to see a psychiatrist daily? No, that doesn’t seem like the best way to make friends.
“You’ll think I’m crazy,” I write back.
“In my line of work, not likely.”
Fine. I warned you, I think.
“I had to see a psychologist,” I write, “he showed me pictures and different things to see if they could make my memory come back.”
“Did it?” she writes almost immediately. I stare at the screen for a second. It hadn’t even fazed her.
“I told him no,” I wrote back, wondering if she’d catch my hidden meaning.
“But did it?”
She caught it. Shouldn’t be surprised since she’s a PI.
“I don’t know,” I admit through the chat window. I start writing, then stop, then start again. Should I really tell all my secrets to some girl I don’t know? But then, maybe that’s the safest way, like whispering sins in a dead man’s ear. “I saw things in my mind, but not enough to connect them. I should have said something, but I don’t trust him. I don’t trust anyone.”
The words are nearly instant. “You can trust me.”
My mom steps up the last step and braces herself on the railing. I’m not sure why she gets winded every time. She’s not overweight, there’s more oxygen here than at the ranch. She claims it’s because she never has to do this many stairs at home and the spinning nautilus shape makes her dizzy.
“Hello Darling,” she says. I want to believe all the love I see in her eyes, but the worry and pity are there too. They're pushier than her love, and then that’s all I can see.”Is Vanessa here?”
Stupid question. I swear Vanessa is always here. When I want her, when I don’t want her, it doesn’t matter.
“I think she’s making dinner,” I say as my mom kisses the top of my head. She’s been doing it like that since I was young. It took me a while to figure out that it was because she was avoiding any possible bruises my father might have inflicted on me during the day.
“Who are you talking to?” Mom asks as she spots the chat window.
My mouth tilts to a frown without my permission and I smash he screen against my leg like a naughty child. “No one. Just someone I met online.”
Why is her voice so cold? The prickle in my spine says danger, but is it because of my mother, or because of Lindy?
“Not Lindy,” I say and it’s the voice of a child, the little boy that had to lie to get her attention, to misbehave to get her to pull away from her socialite life. The little boy who couldn’t seem to keep his head above water for more than ten seconds all through his childhood because his parents appeared determined to drown him.
She doesn’t say, “Good” but I can see it in her eyes.
Someone erased Lindy’s number from my phone, and the picture I kept from the first night we met. I tried to find her online, but Lindy works through PI Net, and I couldn’t find any other listing for her. I’ve called her Uncle Shane a dozen times, but he hasn’t picked up, and he won’t return my calls. I can’t get Lindy’s number from PI Net unless she’s actively accepting cases, and her profile is dormant. Makes sense since she is working a case right now.
That’s been rattling around in my head for a few days now too, smacking into the screams every now and then. She’s run off with an ex-boyfriend and left me here to rot.
I’ve gone crazy.
That’s the only explanation.
“I have to go, Katie,” I write quickly. “My mom’s here.”
I click out of the chat window before she can pull me back into her world. It’s stupid. For all I know she’s a hairy Sasquatch from Wisconsin with a beer gut who gets his jollies by messing with mental patients.
It’s not real.
But then, nothing feels real right now.
It’s Vanessa again. I look up at her. She’s a little scared of me. I see it in her wide eyes. They’re big anyway, but I can see the whites around her irises when I get like this.
Over Vanessa's shoulder, my mother watches me as well. Do I look crazy? Am I drooling? Is my hair a mess? I never bothered to comb it. But no, that’s not the fear. I’m acting like him. I’m becoming Charles.
That’s why she’s afraid of me.
“Baby,” she catches herself and corrects, “Ryder, I was thinking maybe we could barbecue tonight. I’ll do all the work. You can relax up here. I know you love a good barbecue.”
She knows that, does she? I don’t know that. How does she know more about me than I do?
“Sure,” I say. “Whatever you want.”
I don’t even have a pet name for her. How can she be my girlfriend if I don’t have a pet name for her?
I had one for Lindy. I can’t remember now, but I know I had one. I don’t think she liked it. I can remember her annoyance when I used it. The thought makes me almost laugh, and Vanessa thinks she’s caused this crack of happiness in me.
“See?” she says as she sets her hands to my shoulders. “Better already.”
She lowers herself to sit on my lap and my body goes rigid. If she feels it, she ignores it because she wraps herself around me, long arms curling around my neck, hand against my head, tight, and I can’t move.
That’s the thing. I remember being with her, belonging to Vanessa. I can remember laughing and trips, and dates by candlelight, but it’s not mine. It’s someone else’s life that got shoved into my head, and no matter how many times I try to claw it out, it remains there, taunting me that it was real. We were real.
Vanessa touches my face, and I stare at her trying to place the memories as they bombard me. I can see dark hair, but is it as dark as Vanessa’s black hair? I’m not sure. Her fingers brush over my lips, and I squeeze my eyes shut because in my mind I’m in a cabin, not in my lighthouse. I can see the rough plywood walls, and I can smell the herbal concoctions of some mad witch. This has happened before, but I didn’t get a good look because I pushed Vanessa away before I saw the memory’s face.
I can’t tell if it’s Vanessa or the memory that kisses my mouth. But I know I want more, more of the memory. I want to fall into it and hide. My hands tighten, and I can feel her body in my grasp, slender, slight, smaller than Vanessa. I can feel the worry from my memory that she’s too thin.
I have to get her out.
I have to save her.
She needs me to be strong.
She needs me to keep her safe.
Her lips are on mine. It’s important. This kiss is different, that’s why the memory is here, because this meant something to us. Whoever she is, I’m crazy about her.
It breaks apart, the memory, and Vanessa is there, but the memory is too, and my hand tightens in the memory’s hair, ferocious, terrifying. He’s there. Charles. Inside me. Panic rises because I don’t want to hurt her.
Tell me I didn’t hurt her.
My hands are in her hair, but I’m so scared. Why am I scared? I can’t find my way out.
Vanessa’s voice pulls me free, and the cabin is gone. All that is left is the feeling of my hand intertwined with dark hair. But for what purpose? Was I pulling her closer? Was I dragging her? Did I kill someone? Is that why they’re protecting me? I’ve seen blood in my memories and instinctively I’ve known it’s not mine. Was I brainwashed?
What did I do?
Who is the girl with dark hair?
Vanessa? No, I don’t think so.
I stand and nearly knock Vanessa to the floor. My keys jangle as I pull them from the bowl I keep by the door. I can hear mom yelling after me, but I’m not a boy anymore and I’m sick of these games they play with me. If I drive off a cliff, that’s my choice, not theirs. They won’t own me.
The engine revs in my Tahoe and gravel refracts from the underside of my car as I pull away from the lighthouse. I don’t have a destination. Maybe I’ll drive to Johnny’s and get plastered. That would bring back some memories, or bury them forever. One or the other, and I don’t know which one I want anymore.
Maybe I’ll drive to Shane’s and demand we watch that game from last night because I’m sick of him avoiding me. Maybe I’ll drive all night, and when I get to the California border I’ll just start shouting her name until she finds me.
That is, if she’s looking.
If she even cares anymore.
Or if she’s wrapped up in the arms of someone new.
I lose myself sometimes. I tell myself that Lindy’s done that. I don’t know why I know it, but I do. I can hear her telling me that she’s lost time before. When I open my eyes, or come to, or whatever, I’m parked at her house. I’ve been here before, peeked in the windows, tried the doors. She’ll unlock me. I know she will, so maybe her house would do the same? I don’t even know what to call us.
I know she wasn’t there our first date. That’s how I met Vanessa. I know when she came back she was broken. I have bits and pieces of horses and Lindy and the manor. But it gets cloudy after that, just wisps of memory. I want to remember, but the second the memories come, I pull back hard because it’s terrifying. Everything I’ve hidden is violent and dangerous and tangled with my childhood beatings.
Her gravel crunches under my feet and the memory of our kiss out here is strong, unhindered by whatever blocks the rest of it. The whole choice was impulsive that night after the masquerade, but I find my best decisions are impulsive. I can still feel the beading of her dress from that night, rough under my palms. I thought she’d scream, or punch me, but she melted. She surrendered.
She was mine, for fifteen seconds she was mine.
The porch is hollow as I step up and start for the back. I’ve been here before. It’s hitting me now as I walk. I can hear her grunts and the sound of her fists hitting the canvas bag. She’s so strong. It should scare me, but I feel safe with her. Not because she’ll protect me, but because she won’t attack me.
The closer I get to her bag and the memory, the more I ache. But I don’t know if I ache because that’s how I felt in the memory, or if I ache because I need her now and she’s not here.
The porch is empty. The bag is still. I put my hands on the canvas, and I can hear her voice.
“What are you doing here?”
Out loud, I say to the memory, “I said I’d stop by.”
I got the answer right, and the memory plays on.
“That was a week ago, and I said to call.”
She was mad at me. Why? Did I hurt her? I squeeze my eyes shut and drag my hands against the canvas until it grates my skin.
“I was in the neighborhood,” I say aloud.
“I’m a little busy,” the memory replies and I can see her. Crouched down fixing her shoe before she rights herself. Her hands run down her arms, and then I see them. Scars. Long and short. Nicks all over her body. My heart pounds and I reach out for her, even if it’s just a memory, because she needs me.
I can see it in her eyes though. She hates me. She stares past me like I don’t matter anymore. The memory begins to splinter, and I scramble to catch it before it’s gone. Her foot swings high and she kicks the bag. Her toe catches my ear.
I hear my own voice. “You clipped me!”
“It wasn’t intentional,” she says, but I can taste the doubt in my mind.
I can hear myself arguing with her, but all I want is to pull her free and demand my answers, make her tell me where I went, because I know she knows. I need her to tell me what happened to the girl with the dark hair. To the little girl with blonde hair, the one I saw lying sick in bed.
I know the girl was dying. I saw the cabin walls and I could feel the fear in my heart that I couldn’t save her. I’m not a doctor, why was I treating children?
My fist collides with the bag and pain lights up my arm.
I swing again and derive way too much pleasure from the pain. The pain pulls me out of the memory and makes the present tangible again. Charles made me take boxing lessons as a teen, said I needed to learn to fight. He’d stopped hitting me by then. I was too big. It always felt strange that he wanted me to learn to fight, strange until I figured out that he was grooming to become the newest version of him.
The thought releases a new bout of anger and the punches come faster, both fists, relentless until the pain is unbearable and I’ve left bloody streaks on her bag. I should feel bad, but a part of me is here with her now, maybe forever. Why does that give me hope? My hands find the wraps on instinct, hidden at the base of the trunk by her back door. Have I seen them before?
Dr. Tarleton told me about this study psychologists did on blind sight. This group of people had damage to their striate cortex, or the primary visual cortex. The relay that sent messages to the occipital lobe was destroyed, but their eyes were healthy and normal. They found that sometimes these people could navigate hallways of obstacles, even though they were blind, or reach out for something, adjusting grip to match the object. He says that’s how I am, blind sight for memory. The memories are all there, but I’m repressing them to stay safe. Maybe that’s how I know that she keeps gauze at the bottom of the trunk, and athletic tape to hold it in place.
All I know is I need her. Sometimes it’s more than just needing her to fix my brain, sometimes I need her against me, my arms around her. Sometimes I feel ripped in half, and she’s got my missing piece.
But all the time I miss her, and I don’t understand why she won’t come back.
Gratitude & Gravy
Vanessa’s voice shatters my peace. Dr. Tarleton said I should try meditation. For the most part, I either fall asleep or get bored, but today I actually had something. Sunlight through dark hair, a daisy behind her ear, I was chasing the girl with the dark hair again. I have to know what happened to her. I’m worried I hurt her.
“Ryder?” She speaks my name with guarded fear. I can’t ignore her any longer. I open my eyes, annoyed that once more she’s stopped me from finding my answers.
Her large eyes widen for a split second like she’s regretting coming upstairs to see me. “Johnny called. He’s having a party, a get-together, like a barbecue.”
I laugh once but not because she made a joke. “Now you’re telling me about everything I’m missing out on? That’s new. Your idea or mom’s?” I don’t give her a chance to answer before I start in on what she must be thinking. “Let’s see how depressed we can get him. Trap him in this tower, take away his freedom, but as a new treat, let’s tell him what his friends are doing so he knows he’s missing out. Won’t that be fun?”
Her bottom lips quivers before she swallows hard. “I wanted to know if you were interested in going with me.”
The words sting. My stomach turns to granite. Regret doesn’t even come close to what I’m feeling. I open my mouth to apologize, but what can I say? Sorry, I was channeling Charles for a second there. Regular Ryder programming will resume shortly.
I hate myself.
“Yeah,” I say after a second. Every trace of animosity has been replaced by shame. “That sounds fun.”
She brightens and runs her hands over her green sundress. It’s late in the season for something like that. She’s probably freezing, but she’s doing it for me, trying desperately to get me to notice her.
I’m a jerk.
“I’ll be downstairs,” Vanessa says. “We can leave in twenty minutes?”
I nod and push to my feet. She takes the nautilus staircase, but before her head disappears, I blurt out, “Sorry.”
She pauses for a second, long enough that I know she heard me, but doesn’t respond.
It’s not much, but it’s a start at feeling human again. I take a fast shower, and comb my hair for the first time since I don’t know when. A haircut is becoming a necessity. When I let it go long, curls start to appear. I consider shaving, but the stubble and the overgrown hair leaves me looking dangerous, and I like that feeling.
I pick out jeans, a Henley, and my leather jacket. My hands run over the textured feel of the Henley. All at once, I feel her, the girl with the dark hair. Her hands push up over my chest, wrap around the back of my neck and twist up into my hair.
I’m alone in the room, but not in my mind. She’s like a ghost that pops in to torment me.
Only identifiable by the burning heat in my chest.
She vanishes in the next second like a blast of wind carried her away. I might have killed her. Maybe that’s why I’m seeing doctors and stuck at the house. Maybe mom hasn’t told me I pled guilty but managed house arrest on grounds of mental instability. Shouldn’t I wear an ankle bracelet? Am I allowed to go to Johnny’s party? Maybe they’ve got plain clothes cops in hiding, or a doctor with some pills to make it all go away again. Some trap door I’ll never see until it’s too late.
I take the stairs quickly. Vanessa waits at the bottom, a cream sweater buttoned around the dress. I should say something about her looking nice, but my mouth won’t. I feel like I’d be betraying the phantom living in my mind. The girl with dark hair might hear. She’s already mad at me for murdering her. I can’t take any more chances.
“Ready?” I grab my keys from the bowl, but Vanessa jangles her own. She doesn’t say it, but she doesn’t trust me to drive. She tries to smile, but it comes out strained. I don’t know why she stays. I’m not nice to her. I’m not rich any more. I don’t know who I am, but I know I’m not the person I used to be.
She drives a silver convertible. Thankfully the top is up, or my carefully combed hair might be a disaster by the time I get there. I don’t care, not really, and the thought makes me laugh. Instead of smiling, Vanessa stares at me like I’ve lost my mind. It shouldn’t be news to her. I’ve known since I woke up that I’m not stable.
We don’t talk. I let the radio fill the silence between us. I feel like a dog on the way to the park. If I had a tail, I’d wag it. I haven’t see Johnny in, I don’t know, but I know it’s been a while. He lives by the border, a two-story cabin close to the water. We pull in and park near the other cars. She wasn’t kidding when she said he was having a party. I count at least ten vehicles, and my anxiety rises with each one.
Johnny’s waiting on his back deck when we pull up, like he knew we were coming. “Ryder!” He jogs the steps to meet me.
Apprehension burrows in my gut. I know him, at least, I feel like I do, but I get nervous around people who knew me from before. They expect me to be one person, and I’m not him. I hate disappointing them, but I have no manual to tell me what comes next. It’s all empty halls and blank paper in my mind.
His arms clasp around me in a bear hug. My healing wound screams out, but it feels too good to be accepted, and I ignore the pain as long as I can.
“I was so glad when Nessa told me you were coming. It’s been too long.”
Nessa? I jar on the familiarity between the two of them.
Did I call her that before?
No. I’ve never called her anything but her name.
“Yeah, I’ve been out of it, I guess.”
I don’t miss the hard glare from Vanessa to Johnny. She doesn’t want him asking about anything. Johnny nods slowly as if the telepathic communication went through.
“Hey, let’s get you inside. The turkey’s all carved. We’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”
I feel like I’m constantly ten steps behind everyone.
“It’s Thanksgiving?” I grab Vanessa’s arm. “You said it was a barbecue.”
“I—I— wasn’t sure how you’d react.”
Johnny stalls on the back steps. “What’s wrong with Thanksgiving?”
“Nothing.” I shake it off and try to find normal again.
Nothing is wrong with Thanksgiving, except I guess I didn’t register the amount of time that had passed. Sure, I saw the dates on my phone, but I didn’t pay them much mind. Now I feel like I’ve lost too much time all over again.
The back door slides open. Faces spread into smiles around the table. Everyone is happy to see me. Panic buzzes through my hands. I want to run. It’s too much. Their faces morph into other faces. We’re in the woods. The table is plywood balanced on stumps.
“Gabe.” The name falls from me like a whisper. Like a print job waiting in the queue for the power to flip back on. “Liam.”
“No.” Johnny points to the two guys on the end and their faces shift back to strangers I don’t know. “That’s Ben and Tanner. We went white water rafting with them a few years ago, remember?”
Remember is the worst thing you can ask a person when they have repressed memories. Vanessa shoots him another hard look. I’m starting to see why mom hasn’t let me out yet. The world is a minefield, at least anything that’s familiar to me.
“Hey, let’s get you some food. Johnny barbecued the turkey. Isn’t that cool?” Vanessa loops her arm through mine, but I feel like a convalescent, not her boyfriend. I wish she’d stop talking like I’m brain dead. My brain is alive and well, albeit, a bit holey.
We take our spot on the end of the table, Vanessa on my right, Johnny on my left, like two sentinels there to guard me. The chatter resumes at the table. Johnny spends his night talking to Vanessa. When did they become friends?
“I know at least ten guys, myself included, who would sell their souls to trade places with you.”
Johnny’s words flash through my mind. He said it once, though I can’t remember when. Is that what’s happening here? Vanessa’s eyes are bright when she’s speaking to my old friend. For all her talk about wanting to be with me, I never see this side of her. My stomach twists. I force mashed potatoes down my throat to convince myself that I’m going to be okay. Life happens all around me, but I’m removed from it. Like I’m part of a parallel dimension, close enough to see them, but not close enough to interact.
I’m the invalid.
I’m the weirdo sequestered to his lighthouse prison.
How nice of my captors to give me some yard time.
I guess I’m the Thanksgiving good deed as well. Let’s invite Ryder. He’s weird and little busted, but we’ll feel good having him there, pretending like he’s not so screwed up.
She should be here.
It comes out of nowhere. Lindy knows Johnny. I’m not sure how, but that’s where we met, and he was all too comfortable with her. Not comfortable in the same way he’s shooting bedroom eyes at my supposed girlfriend, but comfortable like he’s been around her for years. He might have invited her if she was still here. It seems like the sort of invitation she’d turn down, but for fantasy’s sake I’m willing to indulge it.
I imagine what it would be like with her next to me. She’d be watching every face at the table. By the end, she could tell me who was mad at who, who was going to hook up tonight, and who would be breaking up by morning. We used to play that game when I was in the hospital after the first case we worked together. She’d push my wheelchair to the cafeteria, and she’d watch people around us, telling me stories about who they were. Whether she was right or not, I’ll never know, but I loved every second of it.
People start pushing back from the table, cocktails in hand. Once more I’m behind. Barely touched my food, but I’m starving. I like eating alone. No one is watching me for drool or waiting to see if I’ll go ballistic at any second. A woman steals Vanessa away. She casts a quick smile at me and a sharp warning with her eyes to Johnny. My heart starts to slam as she walks away. I don’t want her, but then I do. I need someone to work as a buffer. I can’t handle the whole world without a filter.
“You’re looking great, man.” Johnny leans forward on his elbows. He extends a beer toward me, but I shake my head to turn him down. “What can I get you then? I’ve got hard ciders, wine, whiskey.”
“Coke?” It’s the only drink that sounds good right now. Like maybe it’ll comfort me.
Johnny laughs to himself but leaves to retrieve my request. He sets the can in front of me, smiling. “You’re still drinking her drink, huh?”
I pop the top and take a long sip. I wish I knew what he was referring to. Finally, I set the can down and shrug. “What are you talking about?”
“Lindy.” Her name perks my ears. “She’s normally water on the rocks, sometimes just rocks, but it’s Coke if she’s blending in or celebrating. I just thought it was funny that you’re still drinking the same.”
“I didn’t know.” But the second I say it, it catches like it’s stuck on a memory. The first night, that’s what we drank. I asked her why she needed to go to a dive bar to have a soda. She claimed she liked the ambiance.
“Glad to see you with Vanessa again. Never thought it would happen with the way you were hung up on Lindy.” He takes a long swig from his bottle. “When I heard you two took off together, I figured you finally got your wish.”
“We took off together? How’d you hear about that?”
Johnny shrugs. “You know how things are around here. People talk. Besides, Nessa spent her share of time at the bar drowning her sorrows.”
“So I broke up with her?”
Johnny stiffens. Maybe he’s realizing he’s overstepped. I don’t care. If he’s got some answers for me, I deserve to know.
“She wasn’t happy you went off with—” Johnny stops before he says her name. “How about we go play darts, man?”
“No.” I grab his arm to keep him next to me. “Where did I go, Johnny? Where have I been?”
“John!” Vanessa’s voice breaks over the top of mine. “What’s going on? Why is he upset?”
She talks like I’m a child. Like I’m not coherent enough to follow any of this.
“We were just talking.” Johnny pushes to his feet, jerking his arm free of my clenched grip. “I didn’t mean anything by it, Ness. He was doing fine.”
The room is spinning. I stand, knocking the chair back. My stomach lurches. My mind is going far away. I’m not at Johnny’s anymore. There’s a man watching me, silver hair to his shoulders. I’m in danger. Voices scream around me. Hands pull on my shoulder. I jam the heels of my palms against my temples to keep the chaos out, but that’s the thing, it’s inside me.
“Ryder!” Vanessa’s voice breaks over the din. The silver-haired man fades away, but not without burning his wicked smile into my memories.
I stare into the wide eyes of the woman who calls herself my girlfriend. She’s afraid of me. That’s smart. She should be. Her expression matches every other face in the room.
I’m something to be afraid of.
“I want to go home.” I swear the room sighs relief at the words. “Take me home, Vanessa.”
No one says goodbye as we leave. Why should they? It would be more like good riddance. The silence keeps up in the car. My leg is bouncing again. She tries to steady it, but I shift to stay out of her reach. The bouncing helps. It keeps me from breaking wide open. She doesn’t understand how it feels to always be on the brink of losing my mind.
“Do you see now?” Vanessa only ends the silence once we’re on my property again. “Do you see why we’ve kept you here, away from everyone?”
Shame clouds my thoughts. I’m that little boy again, ready to hide in my closet where no one can find me.
“Yes,” I whisper. “I get it now.”
Just Beneath the Surface
I sent her a letter through her uncle, but that was a while ago. Well no, I sent her a letter through my mother, who then sent it through her uncle. She still won’t let me see Shane, and I know it has something to do with triggering memories. He’s a cop, so that tells me I was working a case, likely with Lindy. It’s not much, but it’s something.
Dr. Tarleton says he’ll let me know about what happened once I deal with everything from my childhood. Does he know how big that mountain is that he’s wanting me to climb?
Here, take on Everest, if you survive, then I’ll tell you what you want.
I don’t trust him.
For once Vanessa isn’t around, and I feel like I can breathe again. My mom isn’t even around, but I know she hid my keys when she left, or took them with her. Does she know I could just as easily throw myself from the bluffs?
I’ve thought about it. That’s why I’m standing here now, staring over the edge, wondering if the fall would snap my neck, or just leave me broken and back in the hospital. Then I would be in trouble.
No, if I end it, it has to be permanent.
Therapy isn’t going well. The doctor did the gun test again. He set it on the table at the start of our session. It’s been two weeks of therapy now. The gun glared at me until the doctor asked me if there was something I wanted to do with it. My hands grabbed the gun and disassembled it, laying each part down in a perfect row. Without thinking, my hands grabbed the pieces and reassembled it.
Less than twenty seconds.
But that wasn’t the disturbing part. He’s done this test three times now. Normally, at the end I set the gun back on the table. This time I pointed it at Dr. Tarleton. The trigger clicked before I realized what I’d done. The shrink’s face went shock white before he remembered the gun wasn’t loaded.
I doubt we’ll do that test again anytime soon.
I searched online for information about conditioning and sleeper agents. Was that what had happened to me? I hate guns. I know that as clearly as I know that I hate needles and injections. I sometimes wonder if that phobia stems from the shots my father gave me as a child. The ones that made me sick for days before he administered the antidotes.
What kind of parent poisons their own child?
But more disturbing is the ease with which I hold the handgun. The way I know it’s a 9mm, and I know it holds ten rounds, and I know Lindy has the same gun. I know where the safety is. I know how the sights line up. I know the gun better than I know what’s hanging in my closet upstairs, but I don’t know why and the questions might drive me crazy.
Or more crazy.
I’m already there. The doctor wrote something on his pad once his color returned. I’m guessing he noted that my first instinct was to shoot him, not myself. It’s all about the little triumphs, at least that’s what he keeps telling me.
The wind blows up the cliff side and pushes me back. It’s enough to stop the thoughts for now. At least the wind cares if I live or die. Lindy doesn’t. Clearly. Or she would have called when she got my letter.
The wind. My hands. My heart.
I started poking through my dresser the night before. I wanted to find the knife my grandfather had left me. Dark thoughts have a way of burrowing deep. It was gone, probably for the best. Probably because of my mother, she knows about dark thoughts. In the final drawer, I found something far more dangerous than a knife, or a gun, or a noose.
I found a framed picture of Lindy and me, that first night at Johnny’s. The night she was working and she led me on so she could get the picture of the couple in the back. But this picture, it was the moment she cracked, just a little and it was real.
Mine for a millisecond.
I slept with the picture next to me, my hand over the frame like that night I held her after she was buried alive. Has our entire relationship been me clinging to her as she runs from me? Is there a word for that? A title?
A title other than stalker?
Because that’s how I feel. Or used. That’s the other title. Why can’t I let her go? If she’s so horrible, why can’t I just release her to the abyss where her memories are hiding?
I sink to the edge of the bluffs and run my fingers over the green grass. It’s damp. My pants are going to be soaked. My first thought is how badly my father will beat me for ruining my jeans. The fear is innate, even if he’s dead. Have I always been like this? I don’t think so. I think this is the part of me that’s different.
The doctor slipped yesterday while we were talking. I could tell because he back tracked so fast that if his words had been steps, he would have fallen.
“We have to uncover these old memories before we can deal with the new ones.”
It was the word ‘Uncover’. Uncover meant I had buried them. Had I done this before? Repressed other memories? A different time the doctor had told me that brains learn coping techniques. Had mine just found a technique it liked?
Bad situation? It’s okay, just shove it under a boulder where it’ll never be found. Stupid brain. I still have to live my life and uncovering memories is not a hobby I enjoy.
I find myself reaching my hand out to someone, but I’m alone. It’s strange the way my body takes over sometimes, like the memory is playing just below my conscious, an old movie at the park like the ones mom used to take me to.
I’d fall asleep on her lap as she watched Doris Day and Carey Grant. She played with my hair as I slept, or pretended to sleep. Love as warm as a blanket, our quiet escapes from the prison he’d created for us. I could see the flickering light through my eyelids as I let her fingers tickle over my scalp, trace my ear, squeeze my shoulder. All the gestures Charles never allowed her because it would ruin me in his eyes. That’s how this feels, a memory tickling at my brain, flickering just beyond my grasp so that I reach out for a hand that isn’t there anymore.
“Lindy,” I whisper, as if she’ll whisper back. And then it comes.
It’s a wave, an entire tidal wave crashing over me until I drown in her. The bluffs, the one place that is ours, will always be ours, because this is the one place where her walls fell and she was mine, not a millisecond, not fifteen seconds, but hours. Hours of her long fingers wrapped around the base of my skull because she couldn’t bear to be apart from my lips. Hours of my hands tracing her shape, pulling her close, knowing it might be the only time I got with her, but she was mine. No games. No walls. No withholding.
And I was hers, because for the first time she actually wanted me. She forgot she was sick. She forgot her rules that kept her safe, and she let herself live.
I can feel her fingers weaving through my hair, clenching her grip when it’s too much, when the passion is more than she can bear because she never lets herself feel this way, and I can’t help but wonder how I forgot this. How could I ever forget this passion, and longing, and hunger?
Just a kiss, that’s all it was to the outside world, nothing like I’ve had with other women, but it’s more than all of them combined when it comes to its value. One kiss from Lindy is equal to a lifetime with anyone else.
I’m breathless when the wave subsides, the memories slink back, but I’m left with pieces of her scattered around me like shells in the sand. Her eyes, not as dark as mine, not sharp like Vanessa’s either, but alive, so alive with the way she watches me. Her lips, surprisingly full for how slender they’re shaped. The splattering of freckles across her nose that I long to kiss, one by one, counting them off as I go. She’s wickedly smart. It’s another shell to pick up from the wreckage. And she’s fragile.
What a strange thing to think about a girl as strong as Lindy. But I know it’s true. I can’t hold her too tight, or she’ll break and crumble in my arms. Is that what happened? Is that why she’s gone?
I push to my feet just as my mother’s BMW pulls into the driveway. I bought it for her. It occurs to me all at once, maybe residual pieces from the memories. With Charles’ money. Before I gave it all away. I made a refuge for battered women and children at the manor, or at least that’s what she told me.
Then all at once I’m holding Lindy. I can see tears in her eyes, like she’s begging me to stop what I’m doing. She’s terrified, and because of that, I’m terrified as I remember it. Did I hurt her? Did that part of me that belongs to my father do something to injure her?
“I have to go, please let me go.”
I can hear my voice, ruined, ragged at the edges.
“Promise me you’ll be careful.”
I can feel the pain my chest as she answers me, “If you want results, I can’t promise that.”
I want to kiss her. Why didn’t I kiss her? I can feel how close she is to me even if it’s not real. Inches. I was inches from her lips and I didn’t, why didn’t I? It hurts. It physically pains me not to press my lips against hers, and yet I didn’t.
“Come back to me in one piece.”
And just like the blind sight, I know she didn’t. She came back changed. I can feel her skin against my mouth. I’m wishing it was her lips. I’m wishing I could take it all back, convince her not to go. Apologize for everything I’ve done wrong. Disappear into the manor and not come out for weeks. Why can’t I? Why am I sending her away?
The sounds my mother makes tickle at my subconscious like she’s knocking at my mind’s door, but this memory is new, and I have to see the reason why I let Lindy leave me. Was this when we separated? Was this recent? Was she leaving to meet her ex? Is that why I didn’t kiss her?
My mother calls out to me, but I squeeze my eyes tighter and fit my palms over my ears to shut her out and chase the memory.
I walked back in the manor and long arms looped around my body, kissed my lips and whispered, “It’s good that she’s gone. Now you won’t be so confused.”
Vanessa. That’s why I didn’t kiss Lindy. That’s why I wanted to apologize. Because I had Vanessa. It’s an old memory, not so buried after all.
“I love you, Baby,” she whispers from my memory, and I know she wanted me to say it too, but I couldn’t because my heart left with Lindy. Even when Vanessa kisses me in the memory, I’m betraying her because my thoughts are with Lindy, and it’s her that I’m kissing, a lie fed to the one I was with.
“Ryder.” My mother’s voice is insistent. She won’t let me stay in my mind. “I’m worried. I’m calling the doctor. I think I’m losing you.”
There’s panic there, and I don’t want to frighten her, so I let the memory go and open my eyes.
“Sorry,” is all I can say. “I got swept up.”
She’s frightened, almost too scared to ask. “What did you remember?”
Now it’s my turn to be afraid. She won’t like my answer, but maybe she can fill in some gaps.
“Lindy, when she left. I don’t think it was this time though. Didn’t you say she left when I was still unconscious?”
She thinks about her answer. She always does, like she’s trying to see the path and where her words will take us.
“Yes, she left before you came out of your coma.”
“Why did she leave me before? From the manor?”
She’s stuck on the way I said, “leave me” as if it’s an issue, or a bug she wants to squash.
“She came to help me,” my mom says carefully. “People were dying at the ranch and Lindy came to investigate.”
“I sent her away?” It's phrased like a question, but I don’t need her to answer it like one. It was the truth. I sent her there. I knew the risk and I sent her because I needed her gone. Vanessa was right that I was confused, and it was easier with Lindy gone.
“You knew she could help me,” mom says as she places her warm palm on my cold cheek. “And she did.” There’s a hesitation there. Lindy could tell me what it meant just by looking at the muscles in her face.
“But she came back different,” the blind sight takes over again as I add, “scarred.” The bit from her back porch fits after the ranch. Like a puzzle piece that slides into shape.
Mom doesn’t like the guilt I’m feeling. I can see it in her eyes.
“Lindy fell in love with the wrong person, and he nearly killed her.” She says it like she wants to hurt me with the information, and she does. It slices me as sharp as a blade, as if I’m wearing one of Lindy’s scars.
“Lindy fell in love?” It’s the little boy’s voice again. The one who hid under his bed when the bruises hurt too much. The one who waited there for his mother to find him in the middle of the night, after Charles was asleep. The little boy who knew his mother would hold him until the throbbing stopped. The mother who knew to kiss the top of his head so her affection wouldn’t hurt.
Her eyes are a crisp blue as she takes my face in her hands. She needs me to focus, needs me to hear all of her words.
“She never loved you, Ryder. No one that loved you could have put you through this—” she stops herself because she’s not supposed to tell me what I went through, what everyone is protecting me from. “She’s selfish. She does what’s best for Lindy and deserts you. That’s all you need to know. That’s all you need to remember about her. She’s cold.”
My vision starts to stray because I don’t like this. It’s itchy, because I think it’s wrong, but she forces me to look at her again as she says, “Vanessa loves you, and you loved Vanessa. You were very happy before Lindy came back and ruined it again. You were going to marry her. That’s why she sticks around. She’s waiting for you to ask again.”
It’s as if the ground falls out beneath my heels, because I stumble back out of her grasp.
“Marry her?” I can feel the tension between my brows, so tight it hurts.
“You asked for your grandmother’s ring, dear. Why else would you want it?”
I search her face. Muscles twitch at her inner eye, but I can’t figure it out. I don’t have the skills to know if it’s a lie.
“I don’t remember that,” I admit. “Not any of it.”
Her smile is soft and loving. “Of course not, and she’s going to be patient. It’ll come back. Just give her a chance, dear.”
My mother’s arms wrap around me, and on instinct I lean into her love. How can I still be this little boy when I’m a grown man? How can I still yearn for her affection and acceptance when I know my mother deserted me? That memory never left, but I’m so lonely and Lindy surrounds me, even if she’s hundreds of miles away. The little boy in me wants my mother to protect me from the monster that Lindy became.
Katie says it’s good to talk to me. After the day I’ve had, I need to hear that. She has a boyfriend, or at least something like a boyfriend. We covered that last time we talked. It makes this whole relationship we have safe. I have girlfriend, or at least something like a girlfriend, not one I want, but every time I go to break up with her, I have this voice inside me that sounds like my mother reminding me that I haven’t give her a chance. I don’t want to give her a chance. I don’t want to give anyone a chance. I just want to be alone. I want to sort through the wreckage of my mind and put the broken pieces back together instead of looking at a doctor who constantly says my name and reminds me that I’m broken.
“I had a hard day,” I write to Katie, “I was hoping I’d have a friend here to cheer me up.”
Sometimes I wonder what she looks like. Her profile picture is blank. It also shows no open cases, but I wonder if she just doesn’t record them like she’s supposed to. Maybe she’s a rebel. I think she’s blonde. Like my cousin Cassidy. Blondes are fun. I dated some in college. They giggle a lot, they’re up for anything, and right now I feel dangerous. Maybe I need a blonde in my life, someone to get into trouble with. Maybe Katie doesn’t want her kind of boyfriend anymore. We can split the difference and meet in Oregon, erase a few of the memories that are determined to haunt me today.
My leg is bouncing again. I can’t make it stop. Even when I clench the muscle, it just bounces harder and my eye starts twitching. I’ve completely lost it.
It’s Lindy’s fault. She has my answers, and I can’t find her.
I look at the screen and realize she’s already written back, “What happened? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” is the automatic response I write because that’s what I tell everyone. I’m fine. I’m not, but the doctor seems to think it’s okay if I lie, as long as I don’t keep silent. It’s not right to tell Katie about Lindy, not when I’m having thoughts of meeting Katie around Roseburg, Oregon, at midnight. Yes, I’ve already calculated the distance and how fast I’d have to go to get there. We could have all sort of mischief before I come to my senses at sunrise. Maybe then I could leave Lindy behind. Maybe then she would stop haunting me.
“You have your guy, so I guess it’s safe to talk about this kind of thing.” I stop myself, but remember Dr. Tarleton’s words about honesty this morning and the power it has to wake up our minds. It sounded like mumbo jumbo hippy nonsense to me, but it might be worth a shot. “I started painting today, early this morning, and the more I worked, the more I remembered.”
It was true. That was what drove me out to the bluffs. I’d been painting, nothing in particular, at least not consciously. Blind sight took over and when I stepped back, I could see her hands painted there, long lines, a soft palm, stretched like she was reaching for me. Maybe that’s why I reached for her on the bluffs. Maybe that’s where the memories came from.
“No real memories,” I write, just in case Katie gets excited and thinks I’m healed. If I ask her to run away with me tonight I don’t want her thinking that I’m whole. She needs to know that I’m still shattered and she could get cut in the process. I add, “and not recent I guess. Just Lindy, all Lindy. Her eyes, her long fingers, the scars she carries, all of it. She flooded me today, and I couldn’t get away.”
It was the best way I could describe it. Flooded. Drowned. Almost dead now. She’d tried to kill me again, maybe finish the job. Maybe I’m haunting her as well and that is why she’s trying to kill me now.
Katie hasn’t written back, and I can feel my adventure slipping through my finger tips. Maybe she’s wised up. Blondes aren’t dumb like they say, and I’m sure anyone can see just how dangerous I am. But if I don’t get to have some drunken escapade with a stranger, then I might as well speak my mind.
“She’s gone,” I type into the box, “and they’ve erased her from my phone, so I can’t even find her. She hasn’t logged on here in ages, and I don’t even know if she’s alive or not. I don’t even know why I can’t get her out of my mind.”
I expect her to say something like the rest of them. It’ll take time. This is a process. Be patient with yourself, but true to Katie, she writes, “What did you paint?”
I’d forgotten the pieces I’d done. I look back over my shoulder and stare at the three canvases in the corner, each on their respective easels. My favorite is the blue version, the chilling cold of it all, as if she’s made of ice. From what my mother says, Lindy might be. I twist in my chair until I can capture the canvas in the best light and press send.
Patience is not something that has ever come easy for me. My father trained it into me with a belt, but even then, without the threat of physical harm, I don’t wait well. I swear nearly five minutes go by before my self-conscious vulnerability makes me type in, “Well?”
“It’s beautiful,” she writes, “Is this Lindy?”
I thought it was obvious, but it’s not like Katie knows Lindy. Maybe blondes aren’t that smart. Maybe I’m not that good.
“Yes,” I answer back.
“Is there a reason you used blue?” she asks.
I bristle at the question. I’ve never been to art school, too busy with med school and my father’s expectations. Any time someone critiques my work I can’t help but feel my defenses rise up.
“It’s cold,” I write. “Distant. Like her.”
“Is that how she is?”
I’m split in half. I want to defend Lindy because I remember the bluffs and despite the wind and the wet ground beneath us, no part of it was cold, but then there’s everything my mother said and the way “she never loved you” clings to me like the mud on my jeans. I don’t know what Lindy is, because she’s not here to show me.
I write the closest answer to the truth that I can manage. “I don’t know, but it’s how I feel now.”
“You seem angry,” Katie writes after my quick reply. “Are you mad at me?"
“No.” It’s an easy answer. She’s my saving grace right now.
“Are you mad at her?”
“Yes.” I type it on instinct and press send.
It pops up immediately. “Why?”
Where do I start? How can I explain what a mess my life has become since I woke up from that coma? The way the memories bombard me, and yet I still squirrel them away because I don’t know what is going to get me in trouble, or when someone is going to decide that I truly lost it?
Will I even know?
The only one who could answer my questions is hidden, sealed off behind some invisible wall that I can’t get to. Close as I can tell, she doesn’t care. Why would she? She’s with an ex-boyfriend, maybe the one that gave her the scars, maybe someone else. But she must love him if she left me. There’s no other answer that fits. She doesn’t love me. She’s with the one she loves. That’s why she doesn’t care that I’m dying inside.
“She’s not here. Other than one letter I haven’t heard from her at all. I can’t find her because everyone I know is hobbling me. I’m lost and confused and she has all my answers, and yet she’s deserted me. So yeah, I’m mad. I’m furious because I don’t understand how she could leave me like this.”
The words pour out of me, successively making a block of anger, hot as magma from the center of the earth. It’s easier to write them. It’s easier than admitting out loud that everything between us was a game to her.
Katie is quiet for a minute before she writes, “Maybe you don’t have all the facts. You said you’re having a hard time and seeing a lot of doctors, maybe you’re being protected.”
She’s distancing herself. She’s finally able to see that I’ve lost it. I’m unhinged and there’s no reason to stick around anymore. She sounds like the rest of them, and it does nothing to abate my anger.
“She’s broken the rules for everyone else,” I write. And I know it’s true. She steals files, she picks locks, laws are pliable for Lindy. “Why not me? Do I really mean that little to her?”
‘She never loved you’ clangs around in my mind once more, and I can feel my mother’s hands on my cheeks.
Katie’s reply comes quickly, especially for how long it is.
“Maybe she’s dying inside because she can’t get to you. Maybe she needs you just as much as you need her. I bet she’s thinking about you every day, every minute. She can’t sleep. She’s stopped eating. She looks for every excuse to talk to you, and stares at your number in her phone knowing that even though you can’t call her, she could call you, but she doesn’t because she knows more than you do.”
I stare at the block of text. It’s different. She’s different. Like someone stole the phone from her, and I have a new voice to listen to. One that knows more than Katie should know.
Maybe. Why does that stick to me? Why does it highlight itself in my mind. Just one word, but I’ve heard it this way before, used as more than just a hypothetical.
Maybe means yes.
It’s not true, but it is, right now, the way she used it. Maybe means yes. How do I know that? What part of my blind sight is kicking in?
More text pops up. One more block, then two, nearly seconds away from each other, so fast I can’t read one before the next is there, and it’s one huge block of words.
“You have to know that feelings like hers don’t just fade away. She couldn’t forget you if she tried. I can’t handle being away from you, but because of medical advice she listened. Just because you don’t know why I’m not there, don’t assume it’s because I don’t care.”
My mouth goes dry in an instant.
She said I. It can’t be a mistake, well no, it’s a mistake, but not because it’s Katie. It’s someone else. Then it snaps back. The reason I created this Sleuth28 profile in the first place. Lindy wouldn’t talk to me. The memory is clear as it forms, like a wall crumbled in my mind to reveal a secret room. I left her place after our argument on the porch by her punching bag. I logged on to PI Net, and she was there, waiting for me, ready to talk and interact. I did this to her, and now she’s done it to me.
“Lindy?” is all I write at first. I need her to confirm it. I need her to tell me that she’s been talking with me under pseudonym because I’m haunting her like she’s haunting me, and this is the only way to find peace.
“Lindy, is that you?” I write, because it’s all making sense now.
The way I don’t scare her.
The draw I feel toward her.
It has to be her.
“Lindy, have you been talking to me this whole time?”
I want to tell her I’m not mad. Maybe a little mad, but if she could explain it, I could forgive her.
“Lindy where are you?”
I need to know. Is she with him? Does she share his bed? I can hardly breathe at the thought, and I’m panicking at her silence.
“Huckleberry, talk to me.”
I know I’m begging. I know it’s pathetic, but I need her. Even if she’s moved on, I need the memories she shares so I can put my broken brain back together.
“Please, I need answers.”
Silence. All she gives me is silence. The anger is riding in my chest and my fingertips are white as I hold the phone.
“PLEASE!” I write all in caps so she knows the urgency. But nothing.
The thought comes to me, and I begin to navigate PI Net. Her profile as Katie is easy to find and sure enough the phone number is the Washington area code. I copy it down and type it into my phone. It rings, once twice, maybe a billion times, but she won’t answer. Is she there? Did he take her phone? Would he hurt her if he suspected she was unfaithful?
This agony I’m in is exquisite, so close to her, but far, far from her at the same time. Still staring past me like on her deck, like in my painting. I’m invisible. And then I hear her voice.
“Hi, you’ve reached Lindy Johnson, Private Investigator. Leave me a detailed message and your number after the tone.”
The beep sounds and I know it’s her. Katie is Lindy. Lindy is Katie. She never left me, not completely. Tears are streaming from my eyes as I try to make sense of what I know.
“Come home,” I sob into the phone, “come back to me please. I need you. Please, Lindy come home to me.”
I send texts, leave messages, but nothing. She shuts me out until the phone strops ringing, and it goes directly to voicemail. I curl up on a couch on the third floor, clutching my phone near the melting city of Seattle that I painted on my wall. I can hear the wind through my window, feel the night spray on my bare arms.
Somehow I know she’s in trouble. Lindy could die. Would anyone tell me? Or would they hope that eventually I just forgot her? Desperation melts to depression and I don’t know when Vanessa slips in beside me, but she’s kissing me, and she doesn’t care that I won’t kiss her back. She doesn’t care that I’m ruined, that I’ll never be who I was. She tries to peel the phone from my grasp, but that’s the only time that I fight her. I won’t give it up. Not until I know that Lindy is alive, because right now I know she’s in danger, and I’m helpless again. Helpless to save her just like I was helpless by the campfire, helpless to save the little girl, and helpless to save myself as a child.
Vanessa eventually gives up, because how much fun is kissing a corpse?
Is that all that I am? Is that all that’s left of me?
She’s wrapped up in my arms, but I don’t remember doing it. We’ve been here before, but it didn’t light me on fire, not the way my memories of Lindy do.
No. I can’t give up. Lindy didn’t give up on me. She’s been with me the whole time. Lindy has my answers, and even if she doesn’t want me, Lindy is my future.
Charcoal: Life After Fire
Six days. Six days, not a single word. Not a beep, not a text, not one single login on the app. Every day my mind runs away with the fear that she’s gone for good. I can’t shake that feeling that she might be dead .
I’m back to charcoal. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the soot on my fingers. Lately, I’ve been pushing through welding and metal work. Yesterday, I didn’t do much more than destroy a six-foot pipe. Hard when the frustration and anger takes hold. Helplessness drives me to a dark place.
My fingers might stay stained for a few days. I find the charcoal etches deep in my skin where soap can’t reach it. Is that what she does to me? Is that why I can’t turn away? She’s embedded in every crack and crevice, places in my heart and soul I’d never think to check? On the surface, I’m furious with her, unsure if I’m meant to grieve or worry. Deep down, I ache to be near her, but that makes no sense. We shared very little together, at least as far as I can remember.
“Can I get you lunch, bab—” Vanessa catches herself before she annoys me again, “Ryder?”
“I ate.” My fingers move across the paper. I might as well be blindfolded. Nothing is conscious at this point. This whole exercise is about venting my feelings, not creating something beautiful.
“Do you need anything before I leave?” Her slender fingers capture my shoulder. I fight the urge to shake her off. Days like this, I want to be alone. We haven’t talked about that night. The night I realized Katie was Lindy, and Vanessa refused to leave. I never told her. I never explained. She assumes I’m mourning the loss of my relationship with Lindy, when in reality, I’m realizing there may be more to it than I’ve been told. I don’t know what to think these days when truth is the same as a lie.
“No.” I lean forward to examine my work. Her hand falls away. All at once, I want it back, and yet I don’t. I’m a breathing contradiction at this point. “Actually, will you get my phone before you go? I left it upstairs.”
Her disappointment leaks from her pores. She’s been waiting for the breakthrough doctors promised her. I’m a letdown in that category, too adept at keeping my secrets, even from myself. But like a loyal pet, she leaves me to retrieve what I wanted.
I’m a jerk. I’ve thought it at least five times a day for the past three weeks. I don’t know what I want, can’t grasp it with even one hand. It’s like having a craving, but not knowing what the craving is. I scroll through my thoughts like some madman on a binge. Is it salty? Sweet? Healthy? Is it Vanessa? Lindy? Katie? Being alone? Being around Johnny? Maybe Shane? The need to be satisfied burns to my core but knowing what would accomplish that is always too far out of reach.
Her soft footsteps return a moment later. She extends the phone to me, but seeing my hands stained with charcoal makes her think better of it and she sets it on the side table with my water.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?”
I nod because I never seem to have a choice in the matter. She has a key. I didn’t give it to her. Mom will be here in an hour, not that they have a schedule. I notice they never leave me alone for long.
The door creaks shut behind her, and I draw in a deep breath of silence. Wiping my hand on my jeans, relishing the streaks I’ve left in the denim, I click on my phone. PI Net almost winks at me in my delusion, daring me to try again. I’ve left it open most day, screen down so no one else sees what I’m up to. It’s never mattered. Why would it matter today?
Strangely, it’s Charles’ voice I hear in my mind, “You’ll never accomplish anything without trying.”
Shudders roll through my frame as if he can reach me from beyond his grave. Hating myself a little for listening to him, I click on the app. As suspected, her profiles are dormant. I flip my phone over and pick up the charcoal.
Unsatisfied with the work I’ve done, I rip the page from the easel and discard it to the floor. Blank page ready, I decide to try something new. Pulling my shirt from my body, I wind it into a long band. I tie it around my eyes, fully obscuring my view. Darkness on every side, I focus on my memories. It’s cloudy--voices, faces, whispers from a past I can’t recall, but I ignore that. Underneath the confusion, the memories wait for me. Charcoal to the board, I start again.
I don’t expect much, not while working blind. There’s a face in my mind, begging me to draw her. Not Lindy, not even a woman, but a child. Blonde hair, impish smile. I can’t make out her features, not clearly, but I let my hands work where they want to, surrendering to my subconscious. Time has no meaning while I draw. Any second I expect to hear my mother’s key turn the lock, but time stretches out with the art on the paper.
Unable to hide my curiosity, I pull the shirt from my eyes and stare at the picture. It pricks something in my mind. I use my fingers to fill in the missing parts, smooth the edges where my blindness worked against me. She takes shape, coming alive on the paper as well as in my mind. I sketch a deep dimple in her cheek, knowing her portrait is complete.
“Moonlight,” I say without thinking. I write the word above her face in long cursive. Such a strange name for a child. Like a distant wind, another name falls from my lips. “Chloe.”
The second I say her name, another face rushes my psyche, like an evil specter waiting to be freed. Dark tangled hair, swift fists, range and pain tied up in one expression that terrifies me to the core. He’s a nightmare. Raife. He growls my name in my memory, threatening to end me again. I tumble from the stool where I’m perched, scrambling to move away from the ghost in my mind. I catch my breath, hand over my heart, worried for what I might have unleashed.
But I’m alone. It was nothing more than a memory.
My phone rattles from the table. Fearing mom forgot her keys and wants to be sure I’m awake, I push myself to standing to retrieve it. I flip the phone face up, unlock it with the code, and stare.
“I’m coming home.”
I stare a full minute, or at least it feels that way.
She’s not hiding from me.
She’s coming home.
My initial reaction is elation. After wondering for days if she’d been killed, I have confirmation that she’s alive.
“I’m so glad you’re okay, I was worried about you.” I type the words out but stop myself. Is it safe to give in this fast? I erase the words and stare again.
“Don’t go to your place first, come here. We need to talk.” I don’t send it. Not yet.
Once more I worry about the message I’m transmitting. I sound more eager than I feel. It’s not a relationship I want to talk about, it’s my missing memories. I need her to fill in what I don’t know. Tell me why no one will explain what happened. I erase the words and stare.
“I miss you.” I didn’t mean to type it. I don’t know if I mean it. I erase those words as well.
The problem was, I don’t have words for her. I have no way of explaining what I’m feeling, or what I need. Once more, I’m scrambling for a foothold in the world around me. Frustrated, I click on my profile and exit the app. With a final stroke, I delete the app from my phone.
Time will tell if Lindy is my future or not. Right now, I need to do what’s right for me. I draw in another breath, feeling a little satisfaction for the first time in weeks.
That’s what I’ve been craving.
No one making decisions for me. I need some freedom. Maybe I’ll never remember everything. I shudder to think of that phantom from my memories that bombarded me only a few minutes ago. If that’s what waits for me in the shadows of my mind, I might not want anything to do with my past.
Maybe I’ll move. Maybe I’ll go somewhere no one knows me, and no one will ever find me. There’s power in rediscovery. Being a whole new human, don’t I deserve some time to find myself? I think it’s about time I try. If Lindy wants me, she better hurry before I’m gone for good.
It’s time to move on.
Babysitters & Bodyguards (Part 1)
As mentioned in the post entitled Ryder's Diaries, I wanted to include these perspective short stories to enhance my reader's experiences. There are multiple spoilers contained within this story. Please only read after you have finished reading Babysitters & Bodyguards. I hope you enjoy Ryder's perspective as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
I rub my palms over my face again, struggling to stay awake. I couldn’t sleep after she texted me. She’s not only alive, but she’s coming back.
She calls this home.
Not my place, but here, Ferndale, Blaine, all the forests and hills and beauty that makes up the Sound of Northern Washington. But it’s strange to hear her call it home.
She’s been home with her parents. With the guy who needed her. Her ex-boyfriend.
Why does that leave me agitated? He has more claim to her than I do. It’s not like we’ve ever had a relationship, at least not in my memory. But still, it bleeds into my veins like the ink I’ve been using to sketch. Black, poisonous, all encompassing, and impossible to dilute. She left me for him.
I can’t sort through the feelings she’s released in me. It’s not like she’s been around to help either.
“Baby,” Vanessa’s voice calls from the stairwell, “I’m making lunch, okay?”
I don’t bother correcting her. She knows I hate the name, and she still keeps at it. I swear she’s trying to wear me down, like sandpaper taking off the parts of me she doesn’t like. But it’s only pushing me away. I feel the same way about my mother . I’m not sure it’s their fault, or just the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped here. They won’t even let me go to the hardware store. Mom hid my keys after the last time I took off without telling them. She says it’s for my own safety, but the look in her eye tells me there’s more. She likes keeping me here. She likes whatever this captivity is doing to my brain. She wants me to be the person she expects, but that just leads me to want to plan a rebellion.
Given the opportunity, I’ll make a break for it. At this point, I don’t care where. I’m gone.
I stretch my neck side to side, setting my paintbrush aside. I started in ink, switched to charcoal, and finished in paint. Staring at the mess, it’s just as convoluted as I feel. I swivel on my stool, looking for my lighter. Something this bad doesn’t deserve to exist.
I swear I hear a car door slam outside. Mom isn’t coming today. She called to tell me her boyfriend, cue my internal shuddering, is in town. Voices carry on the wind, but it makes no sense. No one comes to see me. I don’t know if they’re not allowed, or if they don’t care about me, but no one comes anymore.
Three distinct voices bleed through the door. I look around my open gallery, eyes bouncing from one piece to the next. They’re all women for the most part, except for the little girl I drew last night. I close my eyes and the voices rise from their sketches. Panic starts to grip my heart. I shake my head, trying to draw out the poison of insanity before it takes over.
My fingers dig in at my temples. The voices become louder. The women, they’re coming to life. Who are they? Why did I draw them? The old woman, the one I named Willow, she speaks the loudest, but her voice is muffled like she’s being smothered. She screams for help but my palm clamps around her mouth. But it’s not real. It’s not happening. I bend into my knees, cowering beneath the shame of my guilt. I did something to them. I hurt them, and that’s why they’re speaking to me now. Their restless souls want redemption.
Three solid bangs on the door snap my head up. I draw in a shaky breath and open my eyes. The drawings haven’t moved. They’re silent. I rub my palm over my face, taking inventory of the room around me. My shrink taught me to take hold of the present and not let the past drag me away. I never remember in time, but occasionally I snap out of it long enough to find a handhold in reality.
Straightening my shirt, I move to the door, paintbrush still in my hand like some kind of security object. I pull the door open, the heavy steel groaning a bit. For a second, light blinds me. My studio doesn’t have any windows, and the darkness has become like my new home. For once, the sky is bright and clear, and their three silhouettes are just shapes in my vision. But unlike the haze in my mind, my vision clears. Shane, looking at least five years older, a woman I don’t know with short dark hair, and last—Lindy.
Her hair is… wrong.
I’ve finally cracked. Like the voices from the paintings. I’m imagining things, bringing hallucinations into full reality but tainted with the ink I was using this morning. It’s leaked all through her hair, pitch black like the color staining my fingers. This is it. This is my full mental breakdown. My grip falters and the paintbrush clatters to the ground.
“Hi.” She says it like we saw each other last week. Like she’s coming over to hangout and watch a movie or something, but I don’t think we’ve ever done either. Because of that, this can’t be real. She ducks, retrieving my paintbrush from the ground. She shouldn’t be able to do that if she’s a hallucination. Maybe the brush was never real either. I run my fingers through the bristles, trying to pick out fact from fiction in my ever-fading world.
“Hi, Ryder.” She says it again, like I didn’t hear her the first time. I don’t know what to feel, let alone what to believe. She can’t be here. She left me.
But she said she was coming home.
I don’t think I believed it was true. Just another one of her lies, but it might be real. She might be here.
“Are you real?” I swallow hard, trying to keep from shaking out of my skin. “Did I finally snap? Am I seeing things?”
She exhales with not just her breath but her whole body, like she was waiting on my first words. “I’m real. I’m here. No hallucination, I promise.”
“Your hair,” I try to put into words the way it disturbs me, looking like I colored it with my own psychosis, “it’s wrong.”
My words bother her, but I’m not sure why. I barely hear the other woman whisper, “Her hair isn’t normally black?”
Shane addresses her question, but Lindy remains fixed on me. “I dyed it. Surveillance work. I needed to blend in with the shadows.”
The idea that she was in danger still feels too fresh in my mind. I’ve been worried sick for days, unsure if she were coming back at all, or if she’d come back hurt again.
“Did it work?” I worry she’ll say no and show me a new scar, a missing limb, tell me she was shot or tortured or nearly killed.
“Not very well. It got messy.”
I try to remain calm, counting her limbs and finding them all there. Two ears, two eyes, I start to reach for her hand, worried she might be missing a finger, but I stop short.
“Usually does.” I feel like I could cry, or maybe yell, maybe both. She doesn’t make me feel one emotion, she brings them all to the surface at once like a rising sea in a storm, but my only refuge is her, and I don’t trust that she won’t let me drown.
“Baby?” My entire frame tenses at Vanessa’s voice. “Lunch is ready. Who’s at the door?”
She doesn’t wait for my answer, instead filling the empty space I’ve left in the doorway. Vanessa’s hand immediately falls on my shoulder.
“You’re not supposed to be here.” But she’s directed it at Lindy, as if this has been discussed. Has she been keeping Lindy away from me? No, Lindy wouldn’t take directions from Vanessa.
“I know. I won’t be long.” Lindy’s answer catches me off guard, once more making me wonder what conversation I missed that’s kept Lindy barred from my doorstep. My annoyance builds, knowing decisions have been made for my life without consulting me in the slightest.
“She can stay as long as she likes.” I don’t hold back any of the venom I feel. “Last I checked, this is still my place.”
Vanessa cowers, but only slightly. “Your mom won’t like it.”
So, that’s my answer. Mom has kept her away. Mom has kept everyone away. My need to escape swells within my chest. Anger crashes over the top of it, raging in frustration for what they’ve banded together to steal from me. Could I have my memories back by now if not for them? Would Lindy have left? What have these two conniving females done to my life?
“Am I a child?” I turn to face Vanessa. “Do you both control my every move now?”
Vanessa steps back, fidgeting her hands as she turns away. “That’s not what I meant.”
Whispers behind me are like the ones in my mind, feathered collections of syllables I don’t understand. I resist the urge to pound my fist against my temple to jar them free.
“I’m Ryder’s girlfriend,” Vanessa says to the group behind me. “Who are you?”
“Josie.” The woman I don’t recognize speaks to the one who assumes she’s my girlfriend. “I want to hire Ryder.”
The words clear my mind like a stiff wind coming up over the bluffs. “A job? Like a case?” I look at Lindy, wanting the truth. “With you?”
She stalls, obviously not eager to answer. Something flickers in her eyes, something more than hesitation.
I didn’t know she was capable.
“Something like that,” Lindy says. “But that’s not why I’m here.”
“Why are you here, Lindy?” For once, words came easy. It’s a question I feel like she should answer. But she doesn’t, not at first. She shifts, uneasy, unwilling to speak.
“I needed to see you...because of the last time we talked.”
A frustrated groan oozes from Vanessa before she turns and makes an exit. She didn’t know I was talking to Lindy, granted, neither did I at first. I’m sure that information messed with her plans for me.
“You didn’t respond,” I say, referencing our moment of revelation. The moment when I found out Katie was Lindy and Lindy never left me, not really. To make sure she understands, I tack on, “Katie.”
She closes her eyes for a split second, like the name brings on a level of shame she wasn’t prepared for.
“There were extenuating circumstances.”
“There always are, aren’t there?” I refuse to give in to her excuses. She should have answered me. That thought latches on to another one. Another time she should have answered me, and she left me with silence instead.
Montana. She left me that night we were supposed to go on a date. She left for a case. Lindy didn’t answer me then either.
“I know.” Her voice tethers me to the present. “I have a lot to explain and some of it I just can’t, not yet. But I promise not to lie to you. I mean it. You can trust me.”
I can’t trust anyone. That’s the only truth I know.
The woman in the back pushes to the front. “How about this? You meet me and Lindy for coffee tonight, and we’ll talk this over, see if we can come to a beneficial agreement.”
My mind flashes backward, dragging me with it.
I shoved a cup of coffee toward Lindy. She gagged and shoved it back. I lectured her about having to do it, having to be like Cassidy, my cousin. But she couldn’t, not with the coffee.
“She doesn’t drink coffee.”
The woman turns on Lindy like she’s an alien, but I’m still flooded by the memory and not interested in what they have to say.
“Ms. Beulmyer, fourth grade. She brewed so much Lindy couldn’t stand the smell anymore.” I look at Lindy, amazed that she jarred the memory from me without a single point of reference. “It makes her nauseous.”
The one called Josie turns to Shane. “Are you sure he’s not her boyfriend?”
All my gentle feelings fade as the frustration of the past three weeks bleed in. “She has a different boyfriend. That’s where she’s been.”
“What?” Lindy’s eyes widen like she’s been caught. “Amos?”
Apparently, the ex has a name. But instead of feeling triumph at outing her secret, I’m confused by her uncle’s laughter, like I’ve got it all wrong. But if she wasn’t going to meet someone she loves, then why did she leave me?
“Amos isn’t my boyfriend. That’s not why I left.”
I need answers, and Shane’s laughter isn’t helping my mood.
“So why, Lindy? Why’d you leave?”
She almost collapses in on herself, even if it’s all internal. I see the struggle, the pain, the desire to explain, but something holds her back.
“It’s complicated,” she says.
“Sounds like a boyfriend to me.” I need to hurt her. I need her to understand the pain she left me to drown in. But now, knowing my mother played a part, all this frustration is flying out of me, looking for a target.
Josie’s hands break between us, stealing the stage. “Look, I don’t care where we meet. I have a proposition for you. It’s low risk and high pay. Can we talk it over?”
“Yeah.” I say it to Josie, but I haven’t taken my eyes off of Lindy, still trying to figure out her power over me. “The dairy has a new shop in town. I can meet you there.”
I nod and watch Shane and Josie leave us for the car. Lindy hesitates, hovering in the doorway like she wants to say something else, but all she says is, “I’ll see you tonight.”
She starts to leave. In that second she’s turning, my heart jolts inside me. Watching her leaves cuts me deep, like I can’t handle it yet. My fingers catch hers, not square, not like I planned it, more like she’s falling from a cliff and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her with me. She stops the second I touch her, like it’s all she’s been waiting for. I let go, hating myself for giving in that fast. But still, I can’t deny the way I feel.
“It’s good to have you home, Lindy.”
She never turns back to face me. With a slight nod, she starts for her vehicle. Not wanting to watch her leave, I close the steel door quickly, retreating into my dark gallery.
“I called your mother.” Vanessa’s voice bounces off the walls like she’s using a megaphone. It jolts me to my core, awakening my fight or flight response.
“Yes, well, best alert the warden that I’m planning a jail break, right?”
“That sarcasm isn’t needed, Ryder.” She crosses her arms and leans against the staircase. “We’re only trying to protect you.”
“You can stop.” I start for the nautilus staircase. “I’ll protect myself from here on out.” I start up the stairs, only pausing halfway to say, “Leave my keys on the counter. I have a meeting tonight.”
It feels good to take control. It feels good enough that I plan to chase this feeling. I told myself I would do anything to feel free again, if that means taking a case with Lindy, then so be it.
By the time I was done showering and getting ready, Vanessa had already left, and my mother never showed up. Thankfully, my Tahoe keys were on the counter in the kitchen. Vanessa did manage to leave me a note.
Don’t forget who really loves you.
Sealed with her lipstick kiss and stained with all the manipulation she could shove into the ink.
I arrive early at Edalene’s. It’s always been a favorite of mine, best ice cream for miles. But that’s a memory I didn’t lose, and I didn’t lose the one of playing cards with Lindy when I was in the hospital. We talked about Edalene’s, wishing the dairy were closer to Ferndale. By the time I talked to Katie and learned her favorite ice cream was the same as Lindy’s, I didn’t put two and two together. But now, it only feels right to be here with Lindy when she gets to see the new addition to Ferndale. No more long drives nearly to the Canadian border. From her cottage, she can probably make it in less than five minutes. I’ve pulled up the memory at least ten times of seeing her on my doorstop today, trying to figure out how she’s changed since the last time I saw her. Besides the hair, she’s too skinny. A steady diet of Edalene’s would help her out.
I stand in line, ordering not only my favorite ice cream, chocolate mint chip, but since I know Lindy’s , I order a bowl for her as well. It’s not really a kind gesture, more of an exercise to be sure I really remember. Every found memory feels like a triumph to me.
I slide into a booth, tapping the plastic spoons on the edge of the glass bowls. I should get a couple silver ones. Then this might feel more like a restaurant, like I’m taking her out, like we’re dating.
My thoughts fall over each other, trying to determine if that’s what I want. But I don’t know what I want. I don’t know who I am, so it’s impossible to know what I want, and that includes Lindy.
Freeing myself from my thoughts, I look up. It’s as if my mind knew she was there. She’s still wearing that same jeans and t-shirt from earlier. I feel self-conscious knowing I changed, but I looked wild earlier. Hopefully, I look a little more human now, less like the mad man hermit living on the bluffs.
We stare for a little too long. I feel like a child, unsure of how to interact with other people. I don’t know If I should wave her over, get up and escort her, or just wait and hope she decides to join me. So much of my brain feels like twisted rope, I don’t know what instincts to trust.
A weak smile spreads over her lips. She mouths the word, “hi” and gives a tiny wave with four fingers. I feel my own smile start to tease my cheeks, but a thunderstorm brews in the background. Memories rush in, slamming against my skull, demanding my full attention with screaming intensity. I bend forward, crushed beneath the weight.
I see her, the woman with the dark hair, but as always, her face remains blurred. She’s across a crowd of women, the women from my paintings. Someone screams. Mud squishes beneath my knees. My head shoves forward as hands grasp me on both sides. The mouth of a gun flashes between my eyes, then digs into the side of my head.
I’m going to die.
The thought is as real as the memory. There’s no way out. No chance to escape. Women scream around me. Maybe I deserve it. Maybe I hurt someone, and I need to pay for it. The fear become acrid in my mouth. I gag on the bitter taste, knowing death is imminent.
The hand on my shoulder shifts. I snap out, snaring the wrist in my hand, determined to free myself from this madman’s weapon. But when I look up, it’s only Lindy, staring at me like I’ve lost my mind.
Truth be told. I probably have.
The Break is Over
My sigh echoes in the gallery. Why do I feel like this is normal? Like every time Lindy shows up, I willingly throw my world into utter chaos. This time, I can’t say she’s to blame. I’m the one who agreed to go along with Josie’s plan. I’m not sure Lindy would have.
I dig my fingers in at my scalp, running them backward, grounding myself in the moment. I find touch has the power to keep me here, to keep me from fading backward into the abyss of half-formed memories. I glance around the studio at the women’s portraits all set on their own easels. If I stare at them long enough, I hear their voices in my head. I want to ask them if it’s wrong to drop everything and follow Lindy. Am I making a mistake? She let it slip that we were on a case together, that’s when I fell apart, that’s where I got stabbed, though I have no memory of that—just a scar. Am I signing up for going after another round of abuse?
Two soft knocks hit the steel door. I don’t have to ask or even stand up to meet her. Vanessa has a key, not that the door is locked. It groans with her entry. Worry etches into her eyes, tiny wrinkles and uneasy tension tightening her as if she’s bracing for the worst. But she should know this has been a long time coming.
“How’d it go?” she asks, no attempt to pretend like she didn’t know I was with Lindy.
“I leave tomorrow.”
She exhales and her chest seems to drop with it. “I can’t talk you out of it?”
“Not this time.”
“Like it’s ever worked in the past, Ryder.” She turns away from me, moving like she might leave. “Lindy calls and you answer.”
Instinct tells me to follow her. She’s hurting and it’s my fault, but I can’t find it in me to care, not this now. I have to many unanswered questions, too many missing pieces from even the last three weeks. I should owe her my loyalty for being here with me through these hard times, but too much doesn’t add up. Does a prisoner really owe his jailer? Isn’t that all this was? She was the guard to my mother’s warden mentality.
“This isn’t about Lindy. I know you think it is, but it’s not. This about doing what I need to so I can put my life back together.” I push to my feet, feeling strong for the first time in a long time. “I can’t stay here.”
“If it’s not about Lindy, then we don’t have to break up.” She crosses her arms over her chest.
Exhaustion rolls over me like a wave. This is a conversation I should have had a long time ago but lacked the bravery. Now, it’s a roadblock I can’t avoid.
“We can’t break up because we’re not a couple. I know you say we are, but I can’t be in a relationship when I don’t even know who I am, let alone who you are.”
Her eyes widen like I’ve ripped off a mask and become someone new. “You’re just tossing me aside? After all these weeks, months even, that I’ve sacrificed for you. I’ve put my own life on hold waiting for you to remember what we had and now you’re—”
“No.” I cut her off. “We’re not doing this. I never asked you to stay. I never even invited you. I was kind enough not to kick you out because you believe we have some kind of connection, but beyond friendship, I feel nothing. I’m sorry if you think this is unfair but—”
“I’ve been cheating on you with Johnny.”
I’m sure she means to cut me, but instead the air between us goes awkward.
“Johnny? Bartender Johnny?”
“Yes. For a couple weeks now.” She draws in a slow breath. “I’ll break it off with him if you’re willing to make this thing between us work.”
I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. She’s trying to emotionally blackmail me into being with her? Is she really this crazy? Or did her time here in my personal psych ward drive her nuts?
“Do what you want.” I reverse my steps, putting more space between us. “We’re through.”
Her eyes well with tears so fast that they spillover and tumble down her cheeks. “You don’t even want to stay friends?”
There’s no escape from this. I sigh, just wanting her gone, but I'm torn by the guilt that she’s sacrificed so much, even though I never asked for it.
“We can be friends, but I need some space. I’m going to Seattle. There’s nothing you can do about that.”
She sniffs, the sound amplified by the cavernous feel of the studio. “What if I need you?” Vanessa takes a step toward me, but I’m careful to keep my distance. I know her power. I know the way she makes me feel, and it has nothing to do with my emotions. Being a gorgeous woman, she knows how to get what she wants.
“Go to Johnny if you need someone.” It surprises me how much animosity shows in my words. It’s not that she cheated. It can’t count if I never felt like the relationship was real in the first place, but it’s the way she lied, the way she’s manipulated my mind and then stepped out to get what I wouldn’t give her. I feel more broken than ever. Not just broken, ugly, trashed, useless. I’ve never had issues with self-esteem, but I’ve never had issues with girlfriends, real or not, looking elsewhere for affection. Maybe I was never as good as I thought I was, or maybe I’ve fallen to depths I never expected.
I stop her early, knowing she’s talked her way out of this before. “I think you should go.”
For once, she doesn’t fight me. She exits with hardly a sound, leaving me with my canvases and fractured memories.
Back to School
“I’m looking for Principal Walton.” I flash a smile at the receptionist behind the desk at the school.
“Are you a parent or…” She hasn’t looked up since I came in. She’s elbow deep in some project, stacks of files everywhere, papers fluttering to the ground like light snowfall as she accidentally bumps one pile and then the next.
“New nurse,” I say, holding the smile a little longer.
She looks up, surprised perhaps that I’m male. Her lips part and her eyes bug like I’ve grown a third arm. I’d be concerned, but she whispers, “My gosh, you’re handsome,” under her breath.
Seems like having some staff member on my side might serve me well. I frown but keep it light and comical. “Actually, I’m Ryder, Ryder Billings.”
It takes a second for the joke to land. Her burgundy lips come to a perfect O before she laughs and snorts once. “Oh, because I called you handsome, but that’s not your name, is it?” She snorts once more. “It could be though. We could just call you Nurse Handsome and everyone would know who we’re talking about.”
“Well, if I'm Nurse Handsome,” I squint but smile at the same time, “they must call you the lovely receptionist, right?”
Her cheeks glow to near fuchsia. “Oh, no, I’m just Susan.” The back door cracks open and an older gentleman pops his head out. Susan immediately remembers her place and motions toward me. "Principal Walton, Nurse Billings has arrived.”
The Principal covers the space between us in five strides. “Great. We'll have a little chat before I show you to your office, and then we’ll let you get settled in.
I start to follow after him, but once upon a time, I was quite the precocious flirt, and I can’t help looking over my shoulder at Susan to say goodbye.
“I’ll see you around, Suzie Q.” To solidify it all, I toss in a quick wink, and I swear the middle-aged woman nearly falls out of her office chair.
It feels good to be single. Familiar even, like I was supposed to be this way and somehow, I got lost in wanting a steady relationship. I might have to chase a few of these feelings a little further.
Principal Walton takes the swivel chair behind the desk and motions for me to take the one closest to him. “You come highly recommended, Mr. Billings. It’s great to have a name to go with the recommendation.”
It makes me uneasy lying about all this. “I’m not sure how much you know about me,” I clear my throat, “or the situation I’m in.”
“Miss Johnson came by yesterday to talk with me.” He gives a tight, albeit exasperated smile that tends to go along with talking to Lindy. At least in my experience. She has a way of exhausting a person in record time.
“So, you know that I’m not a nurse.” I shift in my seat, trying to dispel the nerves. I wonder how much she told him. Did she mention my memory loss or my brief journey into the land of mentally unstable? I’m surprised he’s let me in the room, let alone on campus.
“She assured me that the girls’ safety was paramount, and you would be able to hold the position with ease.” He shrugs. “In all honesty, our last nurse barely knew first aid. She was a favor paid to a board member, and boy howdy, did that blow up in my face.”
His casual manner calms my racing heart. “I’m more qualified than that. I attended med school. I was even in my residency when I quit.”
“So close, just to bail out. What happened?”
That day isn’t one I’ll likely ever forget. “I realized it wasn’t my dream. I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life.”
He frowns, but it’s thoughtful. “I can respect that. What is your dream? What did you trade it for? You’re working with a PI, are you planning to get into law enforcement?”
The thought of it chills me. “No, nothing like that. I’m an artist. I do oil, chalk, charcoal, and some sculptures.”
“That’s a far cry from what you’re doing here, both on the books and behind the scenes.”
It’s an unspoken question. One I’ve asked myself at least half a dozen times.
Why am I here?
“Lindy Johnson is a friend of mine. She needed help.” I realize how it must look, me running to her aid like a heartsick schoolboy, so I amend it the best I can. “Knowing the kids were in trouble, knowing I could help, I couldn’t walk away.”
“Well, we’re lucky to have you for as long as we can. It’s a pretty simple job. Probably more paperwork than medical work, but no needles, minimal splits, and mostly kids trying to get out of class.”
I rise when he does, extending my hand to him. “Thank you. I’m excited to get started.”
For once, it’s not a lie. This feels almost like stepping into the life I could've had. Something I could've done if I'd never walked out of my residency.
It’s not about Lindy.
It’s about keeping the girls safe when they’re on campus.
I slide into the driver’s seat of my Tahoe. I’m due to meet Josie and Lindy at the house to get the rest of our instructions. My pulse reflects a new excitement at the thought.
But it’s about the case, not Lindy.
It’s not about Lindy.
I don’t trust Lindy’s sister. If that’s who she is at all. She introduced us to the girls, took us on the tour of their massive house, but she never seemed to take her eyes off me. Lindy appeared oblivious. I don’t know why that bothers me. What does it matter if she noticed? I carry the last box of clothes into my apartment, dropping them just inside the door.
The world feels new. No one knows me anymore. No one expects anything from me. It’s like falling, but with no fear of crashing. Maybe that’s more like flying. Whatever this is, this feeling of freedom, I like it. I need more of it.
I glance at my watch. I should get to bed soon, but it’s not that late. With a little spare time on my hands, I do what comes naturally.
I slice open a box, pulling out my desktop easel and a sketch pad. It takes less than five minutes to locate my charcoals. Within ten minutes, I’m elbow deep in a new piece that’s been itching at the back of my mind. I add a few more lines, blur the ones on the far left and step back to see my work.
Not a woman. It’s the first time I’ve drawn a man from memory, but it’s not a self-portrait. I expect some level of fear to accompany his picture. Every other memory I’ve started to unearth that involves men has done that, but this time, the image makes me smile.
“Gabe.” I say the name without thinking. At once, the face morphs into a broad grin, deep laughter, and I hear his voice droning on about electricity and solar power.
Feeling safe, I close my eyes and allow the memory to take shape. In my mind, he’s sitting on a bed, no, a bunk bed, the bottom half. He’s talking, laughing a little between phrases. He points to me, says something and then looks to his left. Another guy is there in the room with us, just as comfortable. Without reaching too far, I know his name is Liam. For once, my memory isn’t scary. There’s nothing dangerous about it. Gabe says something and Liam doubles over in hysterics. My heart rises with the feeling of friendship. Why would I bury this memory? It’s safe. They were my friends. I have nothing to fear—
Three bangs on the cabin door bring my heart rate back to a panic. In my mind, I look to Gabe, hoping he’s still laughing. But his feet have dropped to the floor and his hand locks around a rifle.
“Bring him out. It’s time.” The voice beyond the door chills me. I don’t know who it is, but I know I don’t want to go with him.
“He’s still recovering,” Liam calls through the door. “A few more hours.”
A pause sits on the air, weighing it with apprehension and terror.
“No, send him out now.”
Gabe presses to his feet, extending a hand toward me, not to pull me up but to urge me to stay put.
“His ribs are fractured.” Without a sound, he presses his bodyweight against the door. “He can’t go another round for a least a week. You’ll kill him.”
I pull in a sharp breath but immediately regret it. Pain screams through my nervous system scrambling my thoughts until the only cohesive one I have left is that I can’t go with the man on the other side of the door.
“If he can’t survive, then he deserves the pit.” The door rattles once. Someone tries to get in. Liam rises to his feet to join his weight with Gabe’s. It bounces open, then smashes back in the next second. They’re coming for me. But why? What did I do wrong? The world swirls like my vision refuses to take in my surroundings. Why do I deserve this pain? This is all too familiar, but not because I remember this place, but because this was what it was like growing up. Charles would come home from work, furious, frustrated, and needing someone to help him vent. That someone was always me. As I grew, I used to throw myself at my door, pinning it shut with chairs, a bookcase, my own weight. It didn’t matter as long as the door stayed shut.
But it never did.
Gabe and Liam fall back. The door cracks. I scramble deeper beneath my lower bunk. I can’t see the face. I don’t know who he is. I shake my head, jarring myself free of this nightmare.
“Stop!” I scream, but whether it was me in the memory or the real me, I may never know. My apartment snaps back into focus. The charcoal rests near my feet, snapped in multiple places like my grip crushed it to bits. I wipe a hand over my face but sweat covering my skin stops me short. I lean forward, watching my hands shake. It’s still not comfortable to take deep breaths. The doctors told me I’d broken ribs at some point, but I had no memory of it until now. What did I do to deserve that punishment? Did I hurt someone? Did I hurt one of the women? I close my eyes to try to remember, but fear forces them back open, worried the nightmare man will return.
A quick knock on my door brings the exercise to a close. I brace my weight against my legs, trying to steady my breathing. It’s for the best. I should really be getting to bed soon.
I grab a towel out of an open box as I make my way to the front door. I rub it once over my face to hide the evidence of my mental strife then toss it at the couch. Unsnapping the lock, I pull it open. To my surprise, Josie waits for me.
“Oh, hi.” She acts startled, but is a lioness really surprised when a gazelle wanders to the watering hole? “I was in the neighborhood, and I thought I would make sure you’re all settled.”
I step back, allowing her to see the living room with my boxes dotting the surface. Unfortunately for me, that looks like an invitation to her for entry. She steps inside, making her way past me.
“Why don’t you come in?” I make sure to pull any hint of welcome from my tone because she’s not.
“It came furnished?”
“Yeah.” I back up, pulling the door with me, making the exit a little wider for her. “One bedroom, one bathroom, I’d offer you the tour, but you can pretty much see it all from where you’re standing.”
She turns, eyes narrowed, somehow looking more like Lindy by the second. “Why didn’t you want to stay at the house? There’s plenty of room.”
“I needed my own space.” That’s about as specific as I want to be.
“So, this thing with Lindy? It’s not serious?”
My defenses rise with every step she takes in my direction.
“What thing? We’re friends.”
That look of scrutiny melts into something new, something warmer. “Oh, good. Because I was thinking we could get some dinner, and I could catch you up on some of the drama around the school. I’d hate to have you walking in blind.”
She’s asking me out? That’s a twist I didn’t see coming.
Josie’s finger runs down the row of buttons on my shirt. “I didn’t want to step on Lindy’s toes, but if you’re unattached…”
I don’t bother picking up the trail of seductive crumbs she left there. “I thought you were leaving town today.”
“Flight changed. Now, I have twelve hours to fill, if you’re interested.”
I detach Josie’s hands from my shirt. “Right now, I need to focus on my cover and maintaining the girls’ safety.”
Her gaze moves all the way down my frame before it moves back up, like she’s memorizing what I look like for a future recall. “Pity. It could have been fun.”
“That’s not the way you’d treat a sister, is it?”
Her flirtatious manner shifts into a low gear. “She’s not my sister.”
“She seems to think you are, and Lindy isn’t usually wrong.”
“She’s wrong about this one. You were wrong to turn me down too.” Josie winks and finally takes the exit without another word.
The door shuts behind her. I shove a hand into my hair, wishing I hadn’t cut it. There was comfort in hanging on to the long locks and pulling. The pain kept me in the present.
It’s strange having a memory like mine. It leaves me feeling like I’m standing in someone else’s life and trying to make sense of it all. At there at the center of the confusion is Lindy. I don’t know how I feel about that either. With these gaps in my mind, I don’t know how to act. I expected things between us to feel a certain way, after all, that’s what I remember. She pushes me away, she keeps me at an arm’s length except when she needs me. She’s a lone wolf, complete with the ability to strip me down to the bone. Or at least, she was that way.
Now, I’m not so sure. It’s like she’s wounded. A distinct sadness echoes in her eyes when she looks at me. I've put enough of a timeline together to know that when she left for Montana, she left me at the restaurant waiting for our first date. When she didn’t show up, Vanessa entered my life. From there, it gets sketchy. I know she was with someone, a cowboy, at Rockin’ B, and I know he hurt her. Is that where she earned that heartache? Is she still hurt over him? But then she took of to California for someone else and left me at the hospital to fend for myself. None of it adds up. It’s sand in my hands while the waves wash me out to sea.
I glance at the portait from earlier. I called him Gabe. He was a part of my life, and now he’s not. I wish I knew why. I'm left to wonder if he was murdered at that place, or if it’s all some delusion I’ve made up. In my gut, I know we were friends, but how does a friendship like that fade away to nothing?
I need sleep. I’ll have to take something tonight to calm my racing thoughts. Moving to the kitchen, I scoop up my phone, clicking it on to check for messages.
One from Mom.
I’m not angry, Ryder. I’m disappointed that you would abandon your treatment plan to run of with Lindy again.
I close that message without a reply. She wasn’t happy when I told her I was leaving. She made me promise to see a therapist, to find a roommate so I wouldn’t be alone, and take my medications. I promimsed, but she’s known me since birth, she can tell when I’m lying.
The next message is from Vanessa, the third one today.
I’ve got a lot going on. I wish you’d call me. It’s the least you can do considering everything I’ve done for you.
Guilt. Great. Mom trained her well.
I’m about to close out my phone and abandon it when I see the sender of the last message.
With tentative fingers, I open the message.
I survived day one. Might have had an incident too soon to know. Sweet dreams.
Surprised by how much a few sentences can affect me, I pull out a chair and take a seat. An incident? I want to write back, demand more answers, insist that she keep me in the loop, but then I know she’ll do what she’s always done, keep me in the dark. For now, she seems okay. But that last line, sweet dreams. I guess if any gets it, it’s Lindy. The dreams are the hardest. It’s the one time that my walls come down, where I don’t control the content. It’s not even the vivid dreams that are the worst, no it’s the snatches of moments, no cohesion, no reasoning. It’s the feelings pounding in my chest when I wake up, like my life is in danger but I can’t find a threat. Sweet dreams would be a blessing, and I think somehow, she knows that.
Some memories haven’t faded at all. I remember the night her aunt died. I held her until sunrise. I didn’t sleep. I watched her, guided her through those dreams from the outside. Every time the panic took hold of her subconscious, I’d rub my thumb over her face and ease her back to safer thoughts. I wish she could do the same for me. What I’d give for a sentinel to keep the nightmares beyond my walls.
It’s moments like these, moments where she shows a tender side to me, that I’m not sure how to react. I could wish her the same, but time has shown me that it will only end up in heartbreak. It’s better to stay guarded.
I’m all settled in at work and the apartment. I stare at the words on the screen. It’s indifferent, almost clinical. Glad you’re safe. I am glad. I don’t want anything to happen to them, but it doesn’t portray the nervous high I feel thinking about the danger she might be facing. Sweet Dreams. Looking at the words, they don’t feel right. I erase them and type, See you tomorrow.
It’s enough, for now.
First Day Flustered
All these weeks at the lighthouse, all I saw in my reflection was the feral nutcase who took over my body. Hair sticking out at all angles, sweats I wore for six days in a row without showering, the unkept facial hair that never grew in at the same rate or disbursement. Looking in the mirror today, I’m starting to feel like myself again.
It feels good to look good. Slacks, a crisp white shirt, and a tie in the school tartan plaid. I wink at myself in the rearview mirror of my Tahoe and feel a little rush. Once upon a time, I wasn’t a wreck of a human being. Once upon a before Lindy Johnson, I was a different man.
I step out of my Tahoe, adding some speed to my walk. At first, I don’t notice it, but it doesn’t take long before I hear it. The steady hum of women noticing me. It used to be a common occurrence, not just reserved for the lonely receptionist on campus. Wanting to test my theory, I stop near the office, bending down to tie a shoelace.
A shrill whistle cuts through the air. I pretend not to notice, assuming humility, but I’ve missed this rush. I’m not sure why I forgot it was possible, but it feels good to remember. I need to go to the office first. Susan, or rather, Suzie Q as she insists I call her, has some forms for me. But I’m supposed to introduce myself at the assembly in the gym this morning.
“Gorgeous.” I hear it on the wind, a whisper that escaped it’s bounds. I try to hide my smirk but fail. I fix my gelled hair where it always seems to come lose and pretend to forget where I’m going.
I’ll call it therapy. My pride could use a boost after the month I had. Searching the quad for my admirers, I spot one woman apart from the crowd, but no less appreciative of how I look. Brooklyn perched on her hip, still in her pajamas, Lindy watches me. It felt good to have the other women notice, but seeing that look in her eye, it’s ten times better. Like conquering a chess master versus an amateur. Hoping to get a little more of a thrill out of her, I send her a half wave. Sparks ignite in her eyes. For a second, I flash back to that moment in the church in Laurel. Shane told me to surprise her, and I’ll never forget that look she shot me, equal parts attraction and frustration.
Some things never change.
“Did you see that?” I overhear another whisper as I continue on my path for the gym. “He waved at me!”
I barely suppress my laughter. Majority of these women are married and nothing would ever come from this reckless flirting I’ve been doing, but it feels good to have a small piece of my life back. I pull open the gym doors and wait patiently to the side. Ember spots me first and waves like I’m some rockstar she’s spotted in every day life. Julia does her best to pretend I don’t exist. The principal introduces me, I take a quick inventory of the crowd, but spot no threats.
Satisfied, I move back toward the my office in the main building. Pulling back the door, my arrogant smirk returns instantly.
Lindy Johnson, filling out paperwork in the corner like a soccer mom.
“Hey Susan.” I pause at the counter. “Did those release forms get faxed in?”
“Sure did, Nurse Billings.” She gives me the stack of completed paperwork for my files. I’m surprise she didn’t call me Nurse Handsome. I might have slipped her a twenty just so I could watch Lindy’s expression.
“Thanks.” I know I could leave, pretend I didn’t see her and I don’t know her, but I can’t help myself. I nudge Lindy’s arm. “Rough night?”
Yoga pants with a few tiny tears and a splattering of random stains, a massive hoodie that looks three sizes too big and yesterday’s makeup under her eyes, this was the Lindy who felt familiar to me. The rough, uncut, unpolished version, typically fresh off a night of surveillance.
“Oh,” my insinuation dawns on her, “no, rough morning.”
I don’t know how I know it, but I know they’ve never been her strong point.
“You never have liked those, have you?”
Her lips move, but nothing comes out. Yes, leaving the average woman flustered is thrilling, but taking Lindy Johnson down to a pile of nerves, that’s invigorating. I forgot how much I like to unravel her.
Confidence soaring, I tap my papers on the counter at the reception desk. “Thanks again, Suzie Q.”
Yes, it’s a shameless attempt to get her to use my nickname, and yes, I’m a little disappointed that she didn’t, but it’s all worth it to catch one last glimpse of Lindy Johnson, flustered.
Health & Relationships 101
It’s easy enough to slip into a routine at the school. For the most part, I’m not seeing many students. There was one head lice scare in the first grade, but I quickly cleared that up. It was rice from her last night’s dinner. The kid needed a shower, but no one was going to catch it. Between her and my regular, Jax, the kid who fakes flu to get out of math every other day, it’s all pretty routine.
“Nurse Billings,” Susan pokes her head through the doorway into my office, “Principal Walton is hoping you’ll have some time to talk to the Junior health classes today.”
Flashbacks of awkward moments from my own high school years start flashing through my mind. I didn’t sign up for anything that has to deal with telling them about their changing bodies or urges. I shiver at the thought.
“The local public school has had an outbreak of mononucleosis. He’s hoping you’ll be willing to explain the risks to them so we can try to keep it away from East Valley Prep. Room 304.”
I point to Jax on the cot. “If you’re willing to keep an eye on my patient, of course.”
She frowns. “What’s wrong with him?”
I pretend to know what I’m talking about, adopting my best impression of a doctor’s voice. “Jax has what we call, forgot to do his homework-itis. It should clear up about the time the bell rings to go to lunch.”
Jax actually laughs. I should probably send him back, but instead I leave him in Susan’s capable hands. It doesn’t take long to get to the classroom in the main building. I spend the time brushing up on the information I need to relay. With a quick knock, I step inside. The woman at the whiteboard only looks surprised for a second.
“Nurse Billings, yes, I heard you were going to stop by.” She smiles, but not before looking me over from head to toe. I repay the favor, noting immediately that her ring finger is bare. “Class, if you could give your attention to Nurse Billings, he has some important information regarding your health.”
“Hello everyone.” I give a lame half wave to the class.
“Hello, hot stuff.” I don’t know where it comes from, but it earns a healthy round of laughter. I give a quick smile, but press on, hoping to curb more outbursts.
“As I’m sure you know, there’s been a bit of an outbreak of mononucleosis at the neighboring schools. Principal Walton asked me to come in and explain what that means for you.”
“No fooling around or you’ll die!” a boy yells from the back. Cheering and shouting follows his statement, a few insults and thrown, but I do my best to maintain control.
“Now, that’s a myth. For the most part, mono isn’t fatal, but it is contagious. Who knows how you catch mono?” I search the classroom for anyone willing to play along. I don’t find anyone, but one pair of brown eyes is locked on me with the deepest scowl I’ve ever seen.
“You get it from swapping spit!” The same kid in the back yells out again. Laughter grows with the rowdy behavior. The health teacher starts to stand and reprimand him, but I feel like I can turn it around.
“Well, now, he’s not wrong.” I laugh a little at that fact. “Exchange of saliva is how it happens. Either from sharing food or drinks or, yes, kissing. That’s why mono is called the kissing disease, and that’s also why teenagers are the most likely to contract it.” I wait for the kid in the corner, but he stays quiet for once. “Does anyone know the symptoms?”
The class remains quiet, not just quiet, absolutely still.
Julia makes the mistake of glaring at me again. “How about you, miss? With the brown hair, do you know any symptoms?”
That glare deepens. Like she didn’t deserve it. I’m here trying to protect her, and she acts like I’m the bad guy?
“Not even a clue?” I frown like I’m surprised. “You looked like the smart one in here.” I move to call on someone else, but before I get the words out, Julia speaks up.
“Fatigue, sore throat, and symptoms that sometimes mimic strep, like fever and swollen lymph nodes. Also, some people report a rash, swollen tonsils and headaches.”
“Thank you, yes that’s—”
“And,” she speaks over the top of me, “while death is not common from mono, complications arise from inflammation of the spleen in some cases, so it’s not all that harmless either.”
“Dang!” That kid in the back takes his chance to speak up. “The nurse just got schooled by Doctor Jules!”
Julia beams at being called a doctor. I have to tip my head to her, she knew more than I remembered, that’s for sure. The bell rings in the next second, signifying the end of class. It’s all I can do to stay out of their way behind the teacher’s desk. Like stampeding buffalo, they storm the exit, eager to escape. Julia holds back, waiting for the others to leave. When she’s satisfied her classmates won’t overhear her, she says, “Are you sure you’re qualified, Nurse Billings?”
“I thought I was. At least I know who to call when I get stumped.”
She gives a short laugh before she leaves.
Once more I debate whether coming here was the right choice.
“You handled yurself pretty well around them.” The health teacher’s voice catches my attention. “They’re like jackals if you let them get to you.”
I turn to face her, taking in her full appearance for the first time. Shoulder length blonde hair, slender silhouette, thin rimmed glasses to give her the sweet librarian look, but an expression that tells me she’s anything but innocent. I gulp back my nerves and lock my grip around the edge of her desk to ground myself.
“You just gotta show them who’s in charge, that’s all.” For all my internal talk of feeling like myself and wanting to flirt, one fact remains true in my life. I don’t know how to handle audacious women.
“Are you single?”
I swear she’s sucked the air out of the room.
“You have to be here at East Valley. If you see something you like, you have to snatch it before someone else gets it.”
I grin, resisting the urge to back away. “Why do I feel like a piece of meat?”
She smiles. “More like the last piece of cheesecake. I can tell, you’re all kinds of sweet.” Extending her hand toward me she says, “I’m Brittany. You’re taking me to dinner tonight.”
“Ryder.” I take her hand. “It would be my honest pleasure to do just that.”
I’d think my interaction with Brittany, the health teacher, was unusual, but by the end of lunch, I have dates with two other women for the following nights. It’s been a long time since I played the field. I may be rusty, but it’s getting easier by the minute.
Like the Rain
I splash through the puddles jogging the next morning to make it to my office on time. It rained most of the night. For once, I wasn’t plagued by nightmares. Perhaps I should have woken up easily, but it was as if my body knew a blissful night of sleep was nearly impossible because I slept through my alarm.
Straightening my tie, I pull back the office door and step inside. My eyes widen. Brittany, the health teacher, is walking out of my office. We went out last night. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a great connection either. Her hands wander a bit more than I’m used to, and I have to admit, I like being the one in the driver’s seat. Forceful women aren’t my cup of tea. The second she rounds the corner, I slip into my office.
I start organizing things, getting ready for my day. A soft knock at the door catches my ear. I turn, finding a sophisticated woman leaning against the doorway.
“Hi, Nurse Bilings, I’m Annie Lemot, the art teacher. I thought I’d come by an introduce myself.”
I rub my palm over my mouth. Beautiful and she loves art? I could get used to this.
We talk for ten minutes, lost in a conversation on French impressionists and the impact they made on the styles in modern art. When she motions that she needs to get to class, I’m happy to offer to walk her there. I gather the courage to ask her out before she catches the door handle. I’m surprised when her yes brings that much excitement to my veins. I glance back at least twice as I walk away, feeling a rush I haven’t felt in who knows how long. Not like I’d remember anyway. I feel like a new human, discovering the world for the first time. I like being single. I like having women chase me while never having to settle on just one. Freedom feels like nothing I’ve experienced before.
A stray giggle lights up the air. For a second, my brain short circuits. The world around me fractures, shifting into an open forest, cabins dotting the land. A little girl laughs again. I trace it, locating a blonde child holding a lollipop. She smiles and my heart soars.
“Moonlight,” I whisper. But the connection forms to that girl I painted. “Chloe.”
As if my brain waswaiting for me to form the bridge, it all dissolves and reality becomes clear again. Not Chole. Brooklyn.
I don’t recognize the woman with her, dressed in a light green sundress with a black sweater. For a second, I worry someone has taken the youngest of our charges, but when the woman turns, I realize all at once that it’s Lindy. She dressed up.
“Lindy!” I find myself jogging toward her. I’m not sure it was a conscious decision, but along the way it became one. She doesn’t stop when I say her name. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, she picks up a little speed. “Lindy! Hey, hold up! I want to talk to you!”
Little Brooklyn bounces from one puddle to the next, spraying water across the blacktop.
“Hey, did you hear me?” I jog ahead to cut off her exit. “Hold on a second.”
“What’s up?” She says it like I didn’t chase her all the way across the quad while she ignored me.
“Nothing.” Lindy won’t look at me, always focused on Brooklyn. I move to find her eyes, but she looks away before I do. “I haven’t heard from you. I wanted to make sure the girls were fine.”
She finally looks up at me. “There’ve been some bumps, but I think we’re okay.”
Bumps? What kind of bumps? She hasn’t mentioned anything other than that first day. All at once, I notice the bruises she’s tried to cover. It looks like a whole lot more than bumps to me.
“What happened?” She tries to looks away, but she’s lucky I haven’t taken her to my office to examine her.
“Someone tried to break in yesterday, and I got in the way.”
She makes it sound so simple, but I doubt it was. Little Brooklyn is happy to illuminate the situation.
“Lindy fought him all over the front lawn!” She throws a couple weak punches and kicks at the air. My heart clenches at the thought of Lindy facing the danger alone. She brought me along for backup, why hasn’t she used me?
“Are you okay?” I ask, hoping she feels my concern.
“Yeah,” I’m not surprised she’s waving me off, “I pulled a couple stitches but—”
“What stitches?” This is the first I’ve heard about stitches. I move around her, searching the available skin for any injuries. Once more, Brooklyn comes to my aid with the truth.
“Right here.” She points to the back of Lindy’s calf muscles where black thread stitches together a wound. “Lindy got shot.”
Shot? I feel like we need to talk about what constitutes a bump in the road and what makes for an emergency. But looking at the wound, it’s not fresh. A week old by the looks of it. I set my knee to the blacktop, ignoring the moisture as it seeps into my slacks.
“When were you shot?” I run my finger over the injury, not loving he way it looks. Medical instinct says it could use some attention. She’s right that she pulled some stitches, but thankfully where the wound is mostly healed. Still, the whole thing leaves me uneasy.
“California. It was only a graze.”
“You weren’t going to tell me?”
“We haven’t really had time to talk.” Her voice wavers when I touch the raw edge that’s turned red with inflammation. “Am I going to live?”
I push back to my feet, all this frustration and annoyance somehow feeling all too familiar when mixed with Lindy Johnson. “This time you will. I’ll come by tonight and clean it up. The scar is going to be a little crooked on that side—” I stop myself short before I point out her other scars that aren’t even either.
“But I was never going to be a supermodel.” She smiles and shifts away from me. “What did you need to talk to me about?”
I was going to tell her about this long line of women wanting to date me, but somehow, it doesn’t feel appropriate anymore. “It can wait. I didn’t know about the fight and everything. It’s not important. I can tell you tonight.”
“No, go ahead.” Brooklyn squirms out of her grasp to find new puddles and Lindy stares at me as if I have the most important message in the world. I feel like a dirtbag.
“I didn’t tell you,” I might as well start at the beginning,” but I broke up with Vanessa before I left. I’m living that single life again.”
Her eyes widen, not much, but enough that it has me interested. Why would she care that I’m single?
“With hardly a memory left, it feels like ages since I was single. It’s only been a few days but so far, I’m really enjoying it. Being the available school nurse seems to have its perks. Nice to be dating again. I figured I should let you know since we never discussed our cover.”
“Of course,” the muscles in her face clench as if she’s trying to keep from showing emotion, “you can do whatever you want, Ryder.”
A tremble seems to ease through her. In her hands, her voice, her full body, but like an expert, she tries to hide it. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I’d hurt her somehow. I need to explain myself.
“I’m different now. I don’t know why, or how, but I can tell I’ve changed. I need to know what it means, figure out who I am.” The urge to take her hands pulses through me, but I won’t allow it.
“Yeah, that seems smart.” She looks away, whole body pulling back like she wishes she could run away from me. I’m not sure how to interpret it. It could mean she’s sick of talking relationships. It’s not like she loves this sort of thing, but the couple times I’ve met her eye, it’s not annoyance there. I swear it’s pain, and it has nothing to do with the wound on her leg.
“If you need me—”
“You’ll come running, I know.”
I start to speak but the second bell cuts me off. As if shoving us apart, the rain picks up pace. Brooklyn spins in a circle and squeals at the rush. Lindy watches her, but I watch Lindy. Reality shifts again. It fades back in a flash. Her dress changes to a black one, silver embellishments covering the top. It’s not hard to place the memory. In fact, I’m pretty sure I never really forgot picking her up for he masquerade, but my mind feels the need to bring it back in near surround-sound definition.
The words almost fall out in reality as they play in my mind.
“I told you that you look good in dresses.”
Her smirk feels like the binding on a book I’ve read a thousand times, but even though it’s familiar in the memory, I haven’t seen it in real life since she came back.
“Just keep repeating it in your mind, Ryder.” I hear her voice even though Lindy in my reality hasn’t said a word.
“Repeating what?” I asked her.
“Keep telling yourself, this is not a date.”
My heart leaps in my chest, the same as it did the first time she said it. I search my mind, struggling to understand why it would surface now. The dress. I take in her sundress, carefully clinging without being too tight. Has there ever been a piece of women’s clothing better than the sundress? I doubt it, and what I said all those months ago still rings true.
She looks good in dresses.
Lindy must realize I’m staring because her eyes narrow, the faintest glimmer of mischief in them. “What?” she asks.
I shake my head, still smiling from that rush I felt from being back in that moment. “Just a memory. I’ll try to swing by tonight.”
I walk away, heart racing like we’re headed off to infiltrate corporate headquarters. All this time later, it’s funny that she still gets to me better than any other woman I’ve ever met.
Your Memory Won't Let Me
I find it hard to focus the rest of the day. As though my mind freed that memory in order to play it on repeat. I do focus on the students when they need me. A girl fell off the play structure and had the wind knocked out of her. A high schooler was itching a rash on his arm that I quickly identified as poison oak and sent him home. Two eight-graders got in a fist fight, and I passed out ice packs for their black eyes while they waited for their parents to pick them up.
But in the down time, the moments when my work doesn’t occupy my thoughts, I run through that night. Picking her, seeing the dress, our long talk on the way into the city, my confessions about Charles and our strained relationship, and her confession about her disease that seemed to cement the nature of our relationship. But I felt hope again when we sparked for a second, my hands on her face to hold the mask I’d selected for her in place. We danced, we committed a few crimes, and I started to feel things like I’d never felt before.
Heat rushes my face thinking about being that close to her on the dancefloor. Her athletic frame felt more delicate in that dress, a tomboy turned princess by the power of sequins. Somehow, I convinced her to let me tag along on her reconnaissance. We needed an alibi to get us out of the ballroom.
“Whisper something in my ear, then count to five and pull me out of the room.”
I don’t know where I got the words, let alone where I found the nerve, but choking on my heartbeat, I whispered, “I could stare into your eyes all night, but your lips make me forget my own name.” Just as strong as the first time I felt the emotions, it all rushes back again.
“Nurse Billings?” Susan pokes her head in the office. “Jax is here on his regularly schedule fake out.”
I shake my head, trying to knock those thoughts from my head. Jax has a habit of getting “sick” right before any major test in his class. We’ve got it down to an art. I take his vitals, he plays on the cot until the next period bell rings, and then he’s miraculously better.
“Come on in, Jax.” I wave him inside my office, motioning for the cot. “What is it this time? Math test-itis, or English-exam fever?”
Jax groans, hardly looking my way at all. He flops on the cot, holding his stomach like he always does. I grab my thermometer and my blood pressure cuff, not because I’m worried, but because the school requires his complete vitals.
Taking his temperature, I note the slight elevation. Low grade fever isn’t an emergency, but there’s a chance he isn’t faking this time.
“Call his mom,” I say to Susan. “It’s not serious, but this looks real this time.”
I turn back to finish my work, but Jax throws his body over the edge of the cot, retching along the way. I shove back on my rolling stool, careful to avoid the splash zone. In the moment, I honestly wonder if that’s why doctors always have these in their offices. I barely escape in time.
Susan rushes for Jax, apologizing for not believing our boy who always called flu. I get on the phone with custodial services. I would clean things up myself, but the school handbook has certain rules.
“Everybody out,” Susan says, looping Jax’s arm around her neck. “We have to close off the space.”
She scoots me out before I have a chance to grab my phone. I leave her with Jax, not dying to hang around a potentially contagious kid. Yet another sign that I never belonged in a medical career. His mother comes in as I’m leaving. Jax must have texted from class.
I shove open the office door, pushing out into the slight drizzle that’s tapered off since this morning. Grateful I’m not covered in Jax’s lunch, I start on one of the paths to the quad, mind wandering again.
We had something that night, Lindy and I. She pushed away from it like she always has, but at the same time, we sparked anyway. Because even after the dancing, the breaking and entering and the fight I had with Charles, even after she told me nothing could ever happen between us, I changed everything about our relationship with one brave choice.
I kissed her.
But then she changed everything all over again.
She kissed me back.
It’s not like I forgot that. I’ve never forgotten, not then, and not the bluffs. But even if it was never taken away from me, I feel it surging back stronger than before. I feel her hands on my arms, tightening and pulling me close. Those silver beads and sequins were scratchy beneath my palms, but that didn’t stop me from granting her wish and stealing any space she'd give me. I wanted nothing else in that moment, nothing more than her. I knew going into it that she might slap me, might never talk to me again, but I had to know if she felt the same way.
It wasn’t a long kiss. Twenty seconds. Maybe.
But those twenty seconds…
As if all my mind needed was permission, that night rushes back in full force. The slight breeze. The softness of her chilled skin beneath my warm palm. The way her surprise melted into desire in less than two gasped breaths. I wanted to see how deep her feelings ran, and I pulled her arm around my neck. Instead of retreating, she surrendered.
I open my eyes, not sure when I closed them. I feel like my necktie might strangle me while I’m breathing this hard. I loop my finger through the knot and yank once before releasing the top button on my dress shirt. Fire rages through my chest, up my arms, churning and spinning inside me like that kiss was all of ten seconds ago, not ten months. I shake my arms, exhale hard, and force reality to guard me from the past. Because I know the truth. None of that mattered. Not that kiss, and not the collection of kisses from the bluffs. None of it was enough for her. We aren’t together now, and that’s because she didn’t want me. It wouldn’t be smart to keep chasing someone who has no intention of being caught.
“Are you okay?”
A dark-haired woman sets her hand to my arm, peering into my eyes. For a second, I worry that I must look insane. Perhaps a little bit of my crazy slipped out after being in check for a while. But she doesn’t look afraid like I used to see in my mom or Vanessa’s faces, no, she looks like she wants to get to know this crazy guy a bit better.
“I don’t mean to startle you,” she gives a gentle smile with full lips she painted dark red, “but I saw you and I worried you might be having a hard day.”
Smothering the memory, I give a crooked smile. “I’m feeling a lot better now, thank you.”
Looking down, then up through her lashes, she says, “Is there anything else I can do to help?”
Some part of me is screaming to run from this woman, but it’s the same idiotic part of me that keeps running back to Lindy. No, she made her choice, and I need to lead a life. Replace one memory with another one, that’s my best bet. Maybe a little time with a new friend could rewrite the memories my brain feels inclined to relive.
The Problem with Assumptions
It’s funny, I never thought Lindy could cook, but I’m surprised at how bad she is. She’s been upfront since I met her about not being one for the kitchen. Even she was Katie, she admitted to having more takeout menus than cookbooks. But choking down that dry hamburger felt like a bit of a chore. The kids didn’t seem to notice. Still, I’m happy she made fries to go with it. Those she cooked with the expertise of one who is used to freezer to oven meals, and I can’t help noticing her proud smile when I reach for a few more.
“Girls,” Lindy seems to have a better rapport with them these days, “Ryder is going to help me with my leg, can you please get the dishes started?”
Julia is quick to pick up the slack. “We’re on it.”
When did she become helpful? Something passes between Lindy and Julia, a stare carrying a thousand girl messages I could never hope to understand. Finally, Julia sticks out her tongue and leaves for the sink. I exhale through tight lips, noting the tension in the room. I want to ask what it was about, but I doubt either one of them would tell me.
Lindy leads the way to the formal living room. It reminds me of growing up in the manor. Certain rooms were made to be seen not touched. Lindy was never one for rules, and I can’t describe the joy I feel when she sits on the expensive couch to have me perform potentially messy work. My mother’s head might explode if it were her house. I retrieve my doctor’s bag, a family heirloom from my grandfather, though I refuse to dwell on the idea. The long line of Harrison family doctors only existed for dark reasons. I should ditch the old thing, but I have to admit, it’s useful and I like to think my grandfather couldn’t have been as bad as Charles. No one has ever been as bad as Charles.
As I set up, my nerves start working against me. I’d never admit it to her, but in reality, I’ve spent most of the day thinking about what it was like for us in the beginning. Specifically, what we could have been romantically if we’d both made different choices. I’m all too grateful when she breaks the silence.
“How do you like your job?”
The question pulls me from the past and makes the work easier. Bottles and supplies laid out, I’m ready. “It’s not bad. I almost got puked on today, dodged it by a couple inches. Still, I’m glad I got my flu shot this year.” An awful thought occurs to me. I was in the hospital when I normally would have gone, and before that, off somewhere undisclosed with Lindy. Did I get one or not? I have no idea. “At least I assume I did. I usually do. Don’t suppose you know that one, do you?”
“No.” She smiles a little like seeing me worry makes me more human. After everything I’ve been bugging her about, answering that question honestly is likely a relief.
“Find out soon enough, I guess.” I copy Jax’s fake puking sound he usually employs to get out of class. When Lindy pulls a face, I can’t help but laugh. It feels good to laugh and do anything remotely close to normal. Even if that normal is dressing a festering gunshot wound.
“This will sting.” I set the disinfectant soaked cotton ball to her stitched leg. Her muscles contract instantly, but she doesn’t pull away.
I’ve been collecting then versus now facts about Lindy, who she was and who she seems to be now. This is one that hasn’t changed. She’s tough. Pain doesn’t scare her. I set a second cotton ball to the area, once again creating tension and stress in her body. “Have you cleaned this even once since you got out of the hospital?”
She draws in a shaky breath and releases it in a tiny stream between clenched lips. It hurts more than she let on. “I take showers, if that’s what you mean.”
Not even close to what I mean.
“I mean disinfectant.” I don’t know how I know it, but this pattern with her, bouncing from one injury to the next with no care for herself, it feels familiar. My eyes wander from the area I should stay focused on to the rest of her leg. The scars are faint, but even healed, I see them.
He gave them to her, that guy she replaced me with. It’s hazy, but I remember it. I remember sitting by a hospital bed, listening to her machines chirp and beep with her heart rate and breathing. I remember dressing her wounds with a nurse while Lindy laid unconscious. My heart aches at the memory. She throws herself into danger headfirst, no thought of the consequences. Is that how I got hurt? Was this a consequence she never cared to watch out for?
I close my eyes, blocking out thoughts of that time, too painful to consider, even with the scars fully healed on her skin. Her quick gasp of air brings my head up, but she’s squeezed her eyes closed, long fingers tightened to fists. My mind starts to fade the background, bringing up something else, something earlier than her stay in the hospital. As she breathes through the pain, I force the memory to meld with reality.
I know the room, the soft blue shades and the plush white carpet. The memory took place at the manor. Lindy was in pain, sitting on the bed, breathing through whatever plagued her. Skin clear, she hadn’t been scarred yet. I begged her to let me help her through it, but she wouldn’t. She only asked for an ice pack and the distance remained between us.
Curious about then and now, I swallow back my nerves and slip my hands over hers, fully expecting the reaction she gave me in the memory. But Lindy relaxes as though she’s drawing strength from me, and even without a new memory, I know this isn’t the first time.
“We’ve been here before haven’t we? Me, helping you through pain. It’s familiar.”
She doesn’t look at me, but she nods her head. It’s enough to give me courage to push for more answers.
“How did I make it stop back then?” Thoughts from earlier invade my mind. Her arm around my neck. My hands in her hair. I find myself easing closer. Heat from her face bounces off my skin. “How did I help you?”
With a final push, I could be there again, lost in her kiss, but I find myself in the same predicament as I did in her driveway after the masquerade. She’ll either slap me or surrender, and I’m not courageous enough to take the chance. I settle for watching her expression, wishing I had her talent of deciphering the words she’s not saying. When she doesn’t answer, I push her hair away from her face, weighing the risks of kissing her. Wondering if it’ll be like the fairytales, if the kiss will solve every problem I’ve been facing.
Muscles in her face tighten even more, deep wrinkles chisel between her brows, but I doubt it’s from the work I did to her leg. No, for whatever reason, it was my touch that hurt her. Like I’m breaking her heart being this close, acting this way. We changed, both of us, but why? My lips burn to press against hers. I find myself staring at them, knowing how they feel, but wanting to remember for myself.
Comparing then to now, she didn’t pull away, and it’s not just because I’m single again. She acted like this was the way it should be and if that’s true, then I’ve forgotten something larger than I ever imagined.
If we were together, why hasn’t she told me? Why hasn’t anyone told me?
I flash back to what Johnny said at his place. He made it sound like Lindy and I finally made it work, but I ignored it because it didn’t feel possible. But this, this inferno building in my chest tells me it’s more than possible.
I just need her to confirm it.
“What happened to us, Lindy? Can you tell me that? What happened where we went?”
Her lips part once but close a second later. I swear she wants to tell me, but she’s holding back. Why? What is she hiding?
“Hold my hands. You always keep me anchored.”
I rock back, sinking down to kneel on the floor. She avoided the subject entirely. Was I coloring what I felt? Just hoping things had changed between us? I rub my thumb against her hand, watching her face. Peace melts over it, like Lindy has found her own memory for sanctuary. But I wish she would tell me what it is that has the faint smile glowing on her face.
“Hey, Ryder.” Julia comes around the corner. “How’s the patient?”
Sensing the change in Lindy, like a mouse knowing a cat is near, I loosen my grip on her hands. “She’s in a little pain, but it’s fading.”
The teen falls onto the couch next to Lindy, only increasing that tension in her hands. I wish I could tell her to scram so I could press Lindy a little more for answers.
“I found Connor’s card if you need to give him a call, Lindy?”
The name isn’t familiar. Is that who she went to see in California? I drop my grip on her, feeling like she’s betrayed me somehow, but that’s crazy.
“He’s the cop who tried to arrest Lindy for breaking and entering but then he asked her out this morning. Lindy said no.”
Poor sucker. He fell in Lindy’s trap like I once did. She always says no. Hearing someone else was as dumb as I was almost brings a little joy to my heart. The only guy she’s ever gone running to is the one in California, the guy she once called her ‘Kinda boyfriend’.
“Probably because she already has a boyfriend in California.”
Lindy’s eyes snap open. If I hadn’t been watching, I might have missed the momentary flash of pain because it’s quickly replaced by annoyance.
“For the hundredth time, Ryder, I don’t have a boyfriend.” Her volume drops a bit. “I don’t have anyone.”
I heard her loud and clear in all those conversations we had, even if she didn’t tell me her real name. “You told me, Katie told me, you had someone.”
She starts to say something but quickly clamps her mouth shut to think about her answer. It’s common when people talk to me. No one wants to tell me the truth, at least not the whole truth.
“It was a cover,” she finally says.
“Everything else was true.”
I mean to stare down the most frustrating woman in my life, but out of the corner of my eye, I catch Julia’s grin, like she couldn’t have orchestrated this better if she tried. But why?
“Lindy said no because there was no one to watch us. I told her we’d be fine alone—”
“No,” I snap in unison with Lindy. At least we’re on the same page there.
“Well,” Julia crosses her arms over her chest, “I think they’re cute together. I wish there were something I could do so she could get a night off.”
Why does that idea bother me? I’ve been out four times in five days. I was on a date before I came here. Obviously, Lindy and I aren't a couple, and yet thinking of her with someone else makes me want to scream. It likely has something to do with where my mind has been all day, stuck on those romantic moments we shared. It’s stupid. I need to put my past behind me.
“I can stay with them. Name the day. I mean, I told you I’m going to start dating so it makes sense for you to start dating as well.” Internally, I groan. That’s something you’d say to an ex-girlfriend, and clearly I was wrong about that. “Not that it matters, because we’ve never…” I watch her face, but she gives me no inclination on whether we've ever been anything more than what we are. “But yeah,” I finish lamely, “you should.”
With a gleeful giggle, Julia starts in on Lindy with that dang card. I feel the need to show that I’m not a sad sack without options. “I’ve got a date on Saturday.” I don’t really, but I plan to. “Don’t plan anything then. Or Sunday.”
Yep, saved it. At least I don’t look like a loser. I make the mistake of looking at her. She’s begging with her eyes, but I can’t understand the request. I wish I knew. I wish she’d tell me what happened between us. But with her quick to call up this cop, I’m pretty sure my memories are wrong, more like hopeful wishes from a guy that lost it all to her too many times to count.
Conner, the Cop
I jog up the stairs to the house. I’m running about two minutes late, and I hope Lindy isn’t waiting there with her date.
That phrase annoys me. Those are two words that don’t belong together.
Like nun and grand larceny. Or computer nerd and monster trucks. Maybe even Ryder and Lindy. Some words just don’t belong in close proximity.
I knock twice and draw in a quick breath. Looking to my left, I take note of the trees and the way the leaves move. Instantly, my brain calculates the speed of the breeze. The discarded plastic bag in the branches would make an excellent marker. I swear I feel a gun in my grip, but it’s not there. I know it’s not. That’s not normal. I know it’s not. I shake my head, pretending they’re not my thoughts. Someone else must have put them there.
The door pulls back. My eyebrows rise without my permission, as if they realize before any other part of me that the gorgeous woman in front of me is the same Lindy Johnson who normally wears stained t-shirts and carries a gun in her waistband. Though, to her credit, within the next second, she slides her gun into a holster concealed by her skirt.
“Wow.” I take a few steps forward into the house, still unable to look away. “You look amazing.”
“Thank you.” But it’s not Lindy taking credit. Julia grins like she’s the painter of the masterpiece. She perks up, changing the subject. “Hey, you’re good at anatomy, right? Can you help me with my AP work?”
“Yeah.” I can’t stop staring at the transformation in Lindy. Her tiny waist, the gentle curves of her silhouette, even the black hair doesn’t look as terrible for once. I finally make it back to her face and notice her noticing me. Needing an alibi for my lingering, I say, “I can pull your stitches out next week.”
“You’re qualified for that sort of thing?”
A vaguely familiar warmth rushes my veins at her teasing. “Just barely.”
I mean to tease her more, but the doorbell cuts me off. With quick reflexes, Lindy pulls her gun from the holster. My body reacts, turning stiff and rigid at the sight of it. I’m not fond of guns, but something about that gun, Lindy’s gun, puts me on edge like I’ve never expected. I turn away, moving toward Julia and the anatomy books.
Over my shoulder, the cop greets Lindy, lavishing her in compliments. I shift where I stand, unable to shake the discomfort creeping under my skin. My only joy comes when Lindy replaces her handgun by lifting her skirt and showing off more than half her thigh. Her tough-as-nails man-candy blushes and has to turn away. I don’t mind catching a peek. I’m only human.
“I got you some flowers, it seemed like a good thing to do. I hope you like roses.”
I manage not to roll my eyes at her date. For being a cop, he’s a pansy. He’s acting like she’s his prom date and her mom is going to ask for pictures before they leave. Jealousy inches into my heart. Stupid since there’s no reason for it. We don’t have a relationship. We’ve never had a relationship, but still the way he’s looking at her, I don’t like it.
“She likes daisies.” I say, partially because it’s true, and partially because I need to them to realize they still have an audience.
Her date turns to me, and all at once, he looks like a cop again. Distrust, suspicion and resentment all fly my way like tiny darts.
“Noted. Thanks for the tip.”
Lindy must feel the testosterone levels rising, because she hands her flowers off to Julia and moves toward the door.
“Home by ten?” I call after her. Julia shoots me a look to say shut up, but it’s a school night. I have to work in the morning. I feel justified.
“Sure thing,” the cop says before he follows Lindy through the door. It shuts and my breath seeps out in something closer to a growl than an exhale. Looking down, I realize I’ve balled both hands into tight fists. I shake them out, happy Lindy didn’t notice, but when I look up, it’s clear Julia didn’t miss a thing.
“So, what’s that about?” She quirks an eyebrow, unable to hide her smug smirk.
“Nothing.” I look around, hoping she’ll drop it. “Where are your sisters?”
“Upstairs. They’re fed. Bathed. All the time in the world for you to tell me the complicated history that goes along with whatever just happened in my entry way.”
I start for the kitchen, thinking maybe I can ditch her. “There’s nothing to talk about. Besides, if there was, I don’t remember it.”
Julia skids ahead of me, slamming her arm across the entry to the kitchen. “If you talk about it, maybe you’ll remember.”
I turn on my heel, but she’s persistent and follows. “I thought we were doing some anatomy studying.”
“Ugh!” she throws her hands up in the air. “Something interesting happened for once in my life, and I need to talk about it, Ryder!”
I pull out the chair at the table where her books are scattered. “I’ll tell you what. For every five correct questions you answer, I’ll let you ask me your own question.”
That gains her attention. “I can work with that.”
Feet thunder down the stairs like a herd of crazed zebras. A flash of neon zips through the room, likely Ember, followed by her younger sister with much shorter and slower legs.
“Emberley, you give that back!”
Judging by the rage in her pint-sized body, I better intervene and fast.
“You study,” I point at Julia, “I’ll put out this fire.”
“And you work on remembering.” She points right back at me like she’s the one in charge.
Who am I kidding?
No wonder my parentsemployed nannies. Kids are exhausting. More than exhausting.
That sounds worse than exhausting.
After pulling Brooklyn off Ember and barely stopping her from cutting her sister’s hair off, I bribed them both with chocolate ice cream. Two bowls later, their energy peaked. Rookie move on my part. That resulted in racing around the bottom floor while trying to wear them out, but all I ended up with was bruised ribs and something near an asthma attack… for me.
I leave them working on a puzzle while I go check on Julia. In reality, I just want to find somewhere soft to rest for a minute. But it’s as if Julia hired her sisters to destroy me on purpose. She sits perched on the edge of the table, grinning like the cat that not only ate the canary, but made sure to dispose of the bones so no one would ever blame her in the first place.
“I’m ready for a quiz.” She smirks, almost arrogant in her confidence.
I sigh, feeling my defeat before it comes. “Name the bones in the arm.”
She rattles them off fast enough that it takes me a minute to remember if she’s right.
“Bones in the leg.”
“Come on,” Julia counts them off on her fingers, “tibia, fibula, and femur. Patella if you want to get picky.”
“Bones in the foot.” I rest my head against the table, not even listening at this point. I need a nap. Her two younger sisters are made of pure nuclear energy. They could power a small city if we had the technology.
“Are you even listening?” Julia nudges my leg with her foot. “How do you know if I got it right?”
“You did,” I lie. “What connects muscle to bone?”
“Tendons.” She slips into the chair beside me. “What connects Ryder to Lindy?”
“History,” I mumble. “How many bones are in the hand and wrist?”
“Twenty-five.” She shoves my shoulder. “How long have you known her?”
“Almost a year.” I twist my head to look at her. “It’s twenty-seven, by the way.”
She rolls her eyes. “You two date at all?”
I shrug. “Not that I remember. Not for lack of trying on my part either.”
Julia shifts to get more comfortable. I didn’t mean to catch her interest. “So, there is some backstory there.”
“Look, Julia, I’ll help you study, but that’s it.”
“My friends call me Jules.” She’s like a freight train, barreling through all my defenses. “She looked cute tonight, right?”
“Seriously, I’m not answering any more questions.”
“Did you have a crush on her at any point in time?”
I can’t help thinking about seeing her at that bar the night we met. She was beautiful, the kind of woman you can’t ignore. I made that wanted poster to try to find her. I gave Shane two hundred dollars for a chance to meet her again. Safe to say, at some point, I definitely had at least a crush on her.
“You blushed.” Julia points her finger like I just confessed to murder. “You did!”
“I didn’t say anything.” I flip through the pages of her textbook, struggling to remember the material.
“You didn’t have to. Your cheeks betrayed you.” She pushes the text closed on my hand. “What happened? Why didn’t it work?”
A lot of my memory is swiss cheese, but not that night I waited at the restaurant. “She stood me up. She went on a case instead of meeting me for dinner.”
Julia’s face falls. “That’s it? She didn’t cheat or anything?”
“She cheated with a case.”
“And if you were a doctor and some emergency went down at the hospital, would she be justified getting mad at you for saving lives?”
“No, but that’s different. That’s life or death.”
“No,” Julia crosses her arms over her chest, “that’s her job.”
“She didn’t call.”
“If you got thrown in the trauma room with a thousand bleeding toddlers, would you take time to call her?”
I frown. “What kind of emergency caused a thousand bleeding toddlers?”
“Bomb at a preschool.” She looks sick at the thought. “Okay, not toddlers, but old people. Two are missing arms. Are you going to tell the man hemorrhaging blood that he needs to wait while you call your date to let her know you can’t make it?”
My annoyance is waking me up. “It’s different and you know it.”
She tilts her head. “Or, it’s the same and you know it. “
“Hey, Ryder.” Little Brooklyn tugs on my sleeve.
I turn to face her, happy to see her bright eyes drooping for the first time tonight.
“Yeah, Brookie?” The rest of them call her that, and she doesn’t object to me using it.
“Can we go to the farm tomorrow?”
“The farm?” I look up, searching for an answer. Ember stands in the doorway, but when I catch her eye, she ducks back into the shadows. I turn, looking to Julia, but she’s stiffened at the mention of it.
“Please?” Brooklyn pulls on my sleeve again, insistent. “I want to see the animals.”
I’m about to answer, but Julia snaps at her sister in another language, maybe Russian. She points for the stairs and Brooklyn follows the command. Silence builds even after she leaves. I wait for Julia to explain, but she glues her attention to her books, no longer interested in my so-called love life.
“Why anatomy?” I ask after a minute or two, hoping to lessen the tension. “What are you going to do with it?”
“I want to be a doctor,” she says. “I want to travel to foreign countries and help them get the medical care they need.”
I wait again, curious if she’ll give me more without prompting, but whatever Brooklyn started, it’s reverted Julia to the serious girl I met the first day.
“I bet with your parents’ jobs that you’ve seen all sorts of countries. Is that where you learned other languages?”
She shrugs, totally non-committal. My question only thickens her foul mood. She flips a page, pretending to be lost in the paragraph on horizontal movement. I push back from the table.
“I’m gonna go check on the girls. I’ll quiz you again when I get back.”
She doesn’t say a word as I climb the stairs and leave her there. Strange how quickly Julia can become someone else. Instinct tells me it’s more than a moody teenager.
Eight books for Brooklyn and two rounds of threatening Ember if she didn’t brush her teeth for real, and they’re in bed. I stumble down the stairs feeling like I’ve survived a major battle. My will is weak, my energy reserves low. I take the chair next to Julia.
She shakes her head. “I’m reading new stuff now. I’m not ready for a quiz.”
It could be the truth, or she might be avoiding talking to me. Either way, I understand what it means to want space.
“Okay, I’ll be right here if you need me.” I flip open her organic chemistry book and lay my head on the pages. I used to take power naps at the library in college the same way. The trick is equal page disbursement or face the consequence of a kink in the neck. I close my eyes, slipping off to sleep faster than I mean to.
Dreams are nothing more than a cluttered mess of pictures and feelings. I wade through them like mud, catching them under my fingernails and embedding them on my skin as I try to make sense of the disaster, but nothing sticks. It slides through my grasp, ending in a mixture of thoughts and emotions. Grating metal jerks my mind back to consciousness. I open my eyes as Lindy steps through the doorway.
At least her date didn’t earn a trip inside.
Unless they said goodnight on the stoop. I stop myself before I get jealous again. I don’t have the right. She can be with anyone she wants. I’d be a hypocrite to say otherwise. I’ve been on three times the dates she has, and she hasn’t said a word.
Likely because she doesn’t care.
“How was it?” I ask before my feelings take control.
Her eyebrows come up at the sight of me sprawled over Julia’s textbooks. “Not as exciting at your night, I can see that.”
“They’re energetic.” I internally roll my eyes at that understatement. Instead, I focus on the good. “Julia’s smart though. She’ll do well in the medical field.”
“Is that what she’s doing?”
I gingerly try to release my skin from the pages of the text. It feels a little too close to tearing off a bandage. Too fast, it’ll burn. Too slow, it stings.
“She wants to go overseas and help third-world countries, probably because she’s seen so much traveling with her parents. We talked about it for a long time, the highs and lows of medical work.” I grab up the papers and sort them for Julia. I debate whether to call Lindy on the way she dodged my question. I’d like to say I don’t care, but truth is, I’m curious how dating Lindy actually turns out at the end of the night. “You didn’t answer my question.”
She shifts, tossing her small purse against the wall. “I don’t know. I ‘m not big on dating.”
“I remember.” Talking with Julia tonight, all those feelings are still too close to the surface to keep my tone neutral. “I don’t remember much, but I remember that.”
“You would.” Am I mistaken, or does she sound sorry? “I put you through the ringer.”
It’s strange to have her acknowledge it. The Lindy I remember would have put that off on me, blamed me for things not working out, but she seems like she’s taking full responsibility. After everything with Julia tonight, I have to admit, I feel like I deserve some of the blame. After all, I went home with Vanessa’s number. I called her before I knew what happened to Lindy.
“I’m glad he’s nice.” It’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got.
“We’ll see if you have a love connection tomorrow night.” Lindy smiles, and it catches in her eyes. “I can’t imagine her not falling head over heels for you.”
I don’t know what to do with this version of Lindy. I immediately tank that guilt Julia found and dive headfirst into blaming Lindy again.
“You never did.”
“It’s fine.” I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have said anything. I was here to watch the girls, not rehash whatever happened between us almost a year ago. “I did the dishes; the girls are in bed. Brooklyn kept asking if we were going to the farm tomorrow. It seemed to freak the other two out. I’m not sure what that was about. I thought maybe you’d know.”
“Not a clue.”
“Well,” I make my way to the doorway and cut the light in the adjacent room, “I better bet back to my place.” On a second thought, I add, “I might be around more this week. Julia needs help with all this stuff, and I might as well put my schooling to use.”
“You’re welcome anytime.” She pulls off her shoes, standing barefoot in the entryway, my last hurtle before leaving. If I make it past her, I’m on my own again. I mean to move straight for the door, but my body doesn’t hear the command, instead gravitating toward her like I’m stuck on autopilot.
The air around us changes, colder, darker. The memory builds to surround me. I feel a breeze on my skin but it’s not real. I close my eyes, hearing leaves rustling around us like we’ve been transported to the forest, but we’re not. Rationally, I know we’re standing the entry way of the Porter house. The weight of a rifle rests on my shoulder, but not in my grip and definitely not in reality. As I pass her, my fingers tangle with hers, drawing strength from that moment of connection. It’s important to us. But why? Where is this place where guns are commonplace, and fear is a constant companion?
Coming to my senses, I pull my fingers free before anything happens. Still, I feel tethered to her, as if my body won’t leave. It’s crazy to think about. There’s nothing there. She’s shown me time and time again that she’s not interested in making something more. I hesitate, my hand hovering above the doorknob. She’s also not the same as she was. I can’t put my finger on it, but she’s changed. It’s to be expected, that’s the nature of humans. We are shaped by our circumstances, but this change, it’s not a predictable movement. I never expected her to become… softer.
“He was right.” I match my volume to the quiet stillness of the entryway. “You look incredible.” I turn back, barely able to note her nervous movements when I do because of the low light.
I should leave. But the world in my mind and reality have blurred again while looking at her. It’s like having an image overlayed over what I’m seeing. The leaves from my memory whisper in the breeze again. If only I knew their secrets.
“Goodnight, Lindy.” My mind says turn back, but my body doesn’t obey. Easing closer, I’m surprised at how comfortable my hand feels on her waist. So natural that it slips around until it reaches her lower back. I squint my eyes, trying to see what my memory is showing me. Her black dress flashes to cream colored linen. I know her hair is mostly up from her date, but if I tilt my head, it’s tied in a long braid.
“You’re skinnier than I remember, thinner than the last time I held you.” I’m saying it to myself like a checklist to explain why things aren’t the same, but the whisper bleeds into the air around us. But even that feels false. The last time I held her, the last time I know I remember was before she left for the ranch. Holding her now, I know that wasn’t the last time. I can’t remember it, but this is too familiar to have been that long ago.
“It was worse. I’ve gotten better.” Lindy looks up at me, eyes catching the faded light that filters in from forgotten lamps. She wants to tell me. I know she does, and yet she holds back. Why?
I close my eyes for a second or two, breathing in the scent of the memory that’s creeping at the corner of my mind. The last time I held her, we were there… at that place.
“At that place, the place we went. You were frail, weren’t you?” Saying it out loud helps. I catch the edge of the memory and pull it closer. The feelings from that place come back, not all at once, but more like fog filtering in. I was right to remember fear, but not just for my life. I was scared for hers. “I was worried about you, terrified you might die.” I close my eyes and instead of a gun in my hand, I feel the shape of a roll. In my mind, I extend that roll to someone and her fingers greedily snatch it from my hand. “I snuck you food.” I open my eyes to find her watching me, almost waiting to see what I found in the mist of my hazy memory. “We helped each other, didn’t we?”
She’s never been one for teams or working together. In all honesty, I didn’t think it was possible. Knowing that we were together on this, a team that looked out for each other, it changes things. Not much, but enough that I feel the connection between us deepen.
Lindy draws in a slow breath then releases it twice as slow, as though she’s debating whether to make her confession or not. “We sacrificed for each other.”
It was life or death. The thought descends on me with absolute clarity. That’s why she’s different. We faced something horrible together and survived somehow. But what? And why won’t she tell me? Her guarded lips give no secrets, but if we protected each other then, maybe she never stopped.
“Is that what you’re doing now? Sacrificing for me?” I keep my gaze on hers, hoping she’ll confirm what I hope is true, but she gives me nothing. Frustrated by her silence, I step back, letting my hand fall away from her waist.
And this time I mean it, gone before she has a chance to say another word.
In Too Deep
She’s back—the girl with the dark hair. I haven’t dreamed of her in a week at least, but she wouldn’t let me rest last night. Like a siren calling from the depths of my mind, she wound through my thoughts, constantly whispering my name and running her fingers over my skin. Flashes of our time together flickered through my dreams but not enough to make a memory, not enough to help me know what happened between us. By morning, I’m left with the puddles of emotion her storm dropped in the wake of its fury.
After a night like I had, it’s hard to find reality once I wake. She still calls me. And worse—I want to go to her. I have no way of knowing who she is, or what happened between us. I keep seeing blood on my hands in my dreams. Did she die? Did I kill her? Is that when I lost it? Is she the reason I was stabbed?
Running late for my therapy appointment with Dr. Tarleton, I grab my to-go mug and stuff a bagel in my satchel to eat after our session. I feel sick until it’s over.
I’m unlocking the front door as my cell buzzes. Not recognizing the number, but knowing it’s a local area code, I click the call through.
“This is Ryder,” I say, balancing the phone between my shoulder and my ear. I’m glad I didn’t have to take on an alias for this case. I don’t know how Lindy keeps her different names straight.
I spoke too soon. I still have to deal with some of the names from my past.
“Not anymore.” I’m sure my tone conveys at least a portion of the agitation I feel. “Ryder Billings.”
Hesitation falls over the line as the male on the other side of the call tries to reword his approach.
“Lindy Johnson’s,” he clears his throat, “friend?”
Immediately my guard goes up. “Who’s asking?”
“Officer Nadley.” She stumbles over his words for a second. “I mean, Connor, Lindy’s… other friend.”
Well now, if this isn’t the most awkward phone call of my life.
“What can I do for you?” I don’t bother asking how he found my number. It wouldn’t be hard for a cop to track me down with even a small bit of information like my license plate on my Tahoe.
“I was hoping you could help me out.” He clears his throat again. One more time, and I might suggest he visit a clinic. “I want to ask Lindy out again, but I know she’s careful with the girls.”
“And for good reason,” I say as I jog down the steps.
“Of course.” Conner pushes on. “I could ask her out, but I know she’ll toss up the excuse that she doesn’t have anyone to watch them and—”
“You figure if you already have someone, then she’s out of excuses and might say yes.”
“Spoken like a guy who’s been in my shoes before.”
I don’t miss the jealousy laid thick over his words.
“We’re just friends, I assure you of that.”
“That’s her story too.” For almost a full minute, all I hear is his breath on the line. I take the time to ignore his theatrics and unlock the Tahoe. I have the key in the ignition and my free hand on the wheel by the time he speaks again.
“What do you say? Can you watch the girls?”
My instincts scream no, but I have no reason to deny him this favor.
“Sure, next Monday, okay?”
“Yeah,” relief floods his voice like he was actually afraid I might say no. “Monday will work great.”
I end the call as courteously as I can, but I feel uneasy, even a little twitchy. Is it just my old feelings getting in the way? Why can’t I shake the feeling that he’s walking all over my territory?
I check my phone, not sure why. Instinct tells me I’m waiting for Lindy to text, but she hasn’t and she likely won’t. Whether she’s playing lone wolf life she always seems to, or if she’s trying to give me space, I can’t decide. More concerning is the way I always seem to go looking for her.
Just as I’m about to take the exit to the freeway to make the trek to Tarleton’s office, a text breaks through.
"Ember got hit in the face with a soccer ball today. I think her nose is broken, but she won't let me take her to the hospital. Any ideas?"
I drum my fingers against the steering wheel. I shouldn’t go. I agreed to continue my therapy sessions with Tarleton, but at the same time, I promised to use my medical expertise to help the girls. I groan and yank the steering wheel, flipping around to backtrack. I try to tell myself it has nothing to do with Lindy. I’m not going because she called. If Ember is hurt, then she needs my help. And in reality, it has just as much to do with avoiding therapy.
I hate facing him. Not the doctor. Charles. I swear he’s there in the room every time we start talking. He’s watching me, judging me for spilling the family secrets he forced me to keep. Whatever happened on this case with Lindy, it didn’t break me, or I guess, more accurately, it didn’t break me first. Charles did that. And reliving those memories with a stranger who makes me wallow in the pain, it’s doing nothing to heal me.
I park in front of the Porter home, grab my medical bag and start up the stairs, still feeling guilt for blowing off therapy. The door pops open and a teenage boy stumbles out. Lindy fills the doorway, just at threatening as ever, and yet I feel no fear when I look at her.
“Stay away from Julia!”
The teen walks down the steps, mumbling obscenities under his breath. Before he pass me he says, “Careful man, she’s crazy.”
I want to laugh out loud at how right he is. “You have no idea, trust me. I’d listen to her.” I don’t waste time on him though. I lock my gaze on the woman in the sundress, feeling a pull toward her I don’t understand, but I’m helpless to fight.
“What was that about?”
“My teenager was hiding a teenage boy in the closet while I was gone. Now she’s just as furious as Ember is.”
That laugh I suppressed slips out a bit. “Come on, don’t tell me you never hid with anyone in the closet.”
“That’s beside the point.”
From the way her cheeks burn, I feel like I need to hear that story. I love watching her come unraveled, and it just pushes me to rile her up a little more.
“Are there time slots? You wanna have a go at it?” I expect her to roll her eyes and maybe shove me, but her cheeks flash red, and for a second, I wonder if she might say yes. Instead, the ever-poised and guarded Lindy Johnson melts into incoherent babble while she tries to make sense of what I’ve suggested.
“Relax,” I feel a little bad for breaking her, “I was teasing. Where’s my patient?”
“Upstairs.” Lindy turns and I follow her inside. “I’m sure her nose is fine, it’s just weird the way the family is fighting me on medical treatment.”
Even in my scant experience, I saw more than enough of it. “People are different about medical stuff. Maybe they only deal in homeopathic and natural solutions.”
“Yeah, like Willow.”
Like a rubber band snapping under pressure, something pops open in my mind. A face rushes my memory. I turn to face Lindy, feeling breathless for a second.
“Willow?” Speaking her name draws the silver-haired woman from the depths of my mind. “I knew her, right?”
“Yes.” For the first time since our night at Edalene’s, Lindy looks scared, not of me, but of what she might do to me. Like she’s realized she’s dangerous. Dread grips my heart, as if my mind knows I’m on a deadly path. I see Willow standing on a cabin porch, watching children play. Her linen dress blows in the wind. A voice inside tells me to turn back, survival instinct kicks in, shutting down the memories completely.
I glance at Lindy, hoping she’ll say something more, but her lips remain sealed. Without thinking, my fingers push her black hair away from her face as though I might remove the cobwebs from my mind in the same way, but the confusion clouds me. A scream breaks through my mind, rattling my nerves, but determined, I try to hang on despite my fear. Then, completely unexpected, Lindy’s cheek leans into my palm as if she’s done it a thousand times. The girl with dark hair breathes on my neck, the ghost of a memory that won’t leave me alone.
More confused than ever, I can’t take much more of this. “I’ll go check on her.” I hesitate another second, but the memories tangle together, too messy to pull apart. My hand feels cold once I’m not touching her, but it’s nothing more than body heat, not a connection.
Lindy doesn’t make connections.
I jog up the stairs to Ember’s room, med bag in hand. Brooklyn brightens at the sight of me. The little ball of sunshine could brighten the darkest day, I swear.
“Heard you tried to kick the ball with your face, Ember.” I make a face once she removes the ice pack from her nose. “I hear feet work better.”
The cranky tween rolls her eyes. “I’ll try to remember that.”
I take a knee at her bedside. “Do you mind if I check it for a break?”
She shrugs. “If it’ll get Lindy off my back, go ahead.”
I pull on a set of gloves out of habit and go about feeling the bones in her nose and face for any breaks. “Well, it seems okay.” I snap off my gloves and replace her ice pack. “But you’re gonna have some sick black eyes. Maybe we should get you a zombie costume and freak some kids out for fun.”
At least that earns me a smirk. “I don’t think those are in the dress code.”
I frown. “Good thing you have a guy on the inside, huh?” I motion down the hallway. “Julia still mad?”
Brooklyn presses her lips together until she’s a duck. “She says she hates everyone, and we are the worst.” Her tiny ponytail shakes as she makes her conflict known. “I’m not the worst. I’m always the best.”
I crack a grin. “Yeah, I’m sure she was talking about someone else, Brookie. I’m gonna go check on Julia, okay?” I point at Ember. “You, rest.” I point at Brooklyn. “Nurse Brookie, you help your sister feel better, okay?”
As I leave, Brooklyn starts singing a song to her, lyrics I’ve never heard and a language that’s not familiar. What kind of life does this family live?
I knock twice on Julia’s door.
Without a second’s hesitation, Julia yells, “Go away, Lindy!”
I laugh to myself, but not loud enough that she’ll know. “Hey, it’s Ryder.”
There’s a ten second pause before she says, “Fine come in, but just you.”
I push the door open, hands up like she’s armed. She’s a teenage girl, that’s close enough. Consider me terrified of her hormonal capabilities. “I heard you had a little fight with Lindy.”
She shrieks into a pillow, falling backward on her bed. I keep my distance, careful not to come within striking distance. All at once, she sits back up and throws a pillow at me. “Why can’t you stay with us? You’re so much cooler than her!”
“Uh-I’m not really qualified to—”
“Whatever.” She rolls her eyes so hard I worry I might have to do surgery to get them unlodged from the back of her brain. “It’s not like she knows what she’s doing either. It doesn’t take long to see that she’s just planning on making us miserable. I would have been fine watching Brookie and Ember by myself.”
I shrug. “Except you have no license and you occasionally let strange guys in the house.”
She lobs a pillow at my face. I let it hit me, figuring she needs to feel like she’s won at something.
“Dane is my boyfriend, not a strange guy.”
“Well, from Lindy’s side, he probably looks like a threat.” I shove my hands in my pockets. “She’s only trying to protect you.”
“Protect me? She’s ruining my life!” Julia threw her other pillow, but thankfully at the wall instead of my head this time. “Has she ever met a rule she doesn’t like?”
I can’t help but laugh. I clearly remember seeing her on the camera footage breaking into Charles’ office at the hospital, and that was before I really knew her name. Then there was our hijinks at the masquerade, and I know she said something about picking a lock in handcuffs. No, Lindy has never made friends with rules.
“If you knew Lindy, you’d never ask that,” I tell the moody teen.
Julia grabs the last pillow off her bed, and I brace myself for the attack. But it never comes. Instead, she plants her face in the softness and screams at the top of her lungs. Even with the cotton muffling the sound, it still grates against my ears.
With a deep breath, Julia looks at me again. “Have you known her forever? Has she always been this exasperating?”
We covered the first question last night, but I shouldn’t be surprised she didn’t remember. “I’ve known her for about a year, but it feels like forever. Yes, I can honestly say that she’s always been this exasperating.” A few of our arguments flash though my mind. “Sometimes worse.”
The fire in her no longer rages in fury. I take a seat at the end of her bed, careful to give her plenty of space. “I can tell you this though, when Lindy is asked to protect something, she’ll never stop. She’ll risk everything she has, everything she is, to finish her job There’s no one else you would want to watch over you.” I’m not no sure how I know that, but it rings true. “I don’t remember a lot, and I can’t always trust what I do remember, I know that’s true.”
Julia draws her knees up under her chin, wrapping her arms around her legs. “I know, and I get it, but she drives me nuts.” She throws the last pillow at the wall, but it barely makes a sound.
I laugh, feeling some kindred connection to her and our mutual frustration with Lindy Johnson. “Trust me, I know better than most.”
Her feet slide to the floor. She twists to face me, eyes narrowing with mischief. Wheels turning in her conniving mind, Julia stands to fetch her pillow. “She’s pretty cute though, right?” She reclaims her seat on the bed against the headboard, pillow wrapped in her arms. “I mean, sure she’s got some scars, but the other night when she went out with the cop, she was smoking hot, right?”
How did I land in this mess? One second, we’re talking about her problems, and the next she’s grilling me about my relationship with Lindy again.
“I’m not going there,” I laugh nervously “I told you that the other night.”
“Because you have a crush on her, huh?”
I push to my feet, needing to move. “Not happening Julia. I told you we’re not having this conversation.”
She turns on the bed to face me, unwilling to drop any of this. “First of all, I told you, it’s Jules if we’re gonna be friends.” The pillow smacks against my arm. “Second, Just tell me if you’re into her. If I don’t get to have a relationship, I have to live through someone.”
I shake my head, lips sealed. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I don’t know how I feel because I don’t remember what happened. It’s really unfair to ask someone with repressed memories for an opinion on anything.
“Fine.” Julie leans forward, squinting like a car salesmen trying to unload a lemon. “Tell me if you think she’s pretty.”
I feel like I’m walking into a trap, but I can’t see how it could hurt.
“And you’ll leave it alone? Once and for all?”
Her smile spreads wide. “Totally.”
Discomfort weasels through my entire body. I shift to try to ease it.
“She’s pretty. She’s always been pretty.”
That first night at Johnny’s, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I chased her out in the rain just to have a second chance. It’s not that she’s gorgeous like Vanessa, it’s the way she carries herself. She’s a mystery begging to be solved.
Julia scoffs at my answer. “I need more than that.”
I groan. “It’s that hair of hers, the black hair. I don’t like it. Every time I look at her it grates on me. It’s all wrong.” I laugh out loud. What has hanging out with a bunch of females done to me? “I can’t believe I’m talking like this. I really have lost my mind.”
“You’re doing fine.” Julia slips to the edge of the bed, eager to keep me talking. “So what would be better? Redhead? Blonde?”
I still remember Lindy dressed as my cousin Cassidy and how that was all kinds of confusing for me. I’m not eager to do that ever again.
“Fine,” Julia must have seen my disgust at the idea, “not those, but what then?”
I close my eyes, trying to picture something in my mind. The girl with the dark hair captures my cheeks in her palms. I can almost feel her lips on mine. “Brown,” I try to picture the woman I keep dreaming about, “rich like hot fudge, not as dark as it is now, just, I don’t know, chocolate is the best I can come up with.”
“What is it with guys always thinking about food?” Julia frowns at me. “Hot fudge isn’t a hair color, Ryder.”
“It’s not like I know what it should be called either, Jules.” I laugh to myself. “It’s not what her hair should be anyway. Lindy’s hair is a mousey brown color normally. That fudge color, it’s just a color I like on women.”
“Ms. Health Teacher is blonde, and you went out with her.”
I draw in a deep breath before I exhale all at once. “You sure you want to be a doctor. I feel like you’d make one heck of a lawyer, kid.”
She ignores that and pushes on with her own agenda. “Would you go out with her?”
I eye the door like I might try to make a break for it. “I don’t know.”
“Come on,” Julia glares like I’m the moody teen, “word around campus is that you’re dating anyone with a pulse.”
Well, that’s enlightening. I’m not sure she’s wrong though. I just don’t know how I feel about that reputation.
“Everything with Lindy…” I rub my palm over the back of my neck. “Whatever happened between us, I can’t remember it, and she’s not telling me, and probably for good reason. It feels like it would be best to leave all that in the past.”
Julia watches me, eyes tight, clearly frustrated. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she was Lindy sister.
“So, you’re scared?”
I laugh, but not because it’s funny. “I’m not scared, I’m just—” I don’t know how to finish the rest of that sentence. Dropping my chin to my chest, I admit defeat. “Yeah, I’m terrified. I’m always terrified these days. I press it down, I ignore, I pretend I’m okay, but safe to say, life has me running scared.”
“And that’s why you’re dating everyone but her?”
I sigh, aiming a glare at the insightful teen. “It’s a little more complicated than that, but sure.”
Satisfied, Julia backs off. “I’ve learned that sometimes being brave isn’t an option, you might have to do it scared.”
Bull’s eye, right in the heart. I nod, backing for the door. “I thought I was comforting you, Jules.”
She shrugs, all the fight gone out of her. “Friends help each other.”
“Yes, they do.” I exit the room on that. I barely notice Brooklyn and Ember as I pass Ember’s room, too caught up trying to be brave enough to search out my memories I’ve lost. Julia is right. I’m scared. That’s the real reason I think I can’t remember. When the walls holding back the flood of emotion cracked in the past, the pain of what I saw was unbearable. And that was only flashes. I worry what the full force of that tidal wave could do to me. I’m not strong enough to bear it like I am now.
One man alone can’t survive.
And I am.
I step from the last stair into the kitchen. Lindy stands behind the kitchen island, busy working on dinner. The room shifts as a memory tries to slide into place. I brace myself, not knowing what it’s about. Against my arm, I feel the rough woodwork of a doorway, though rationally, I know it’s not there. I close my eyes, allowing the memory to filter back. My fear keeps it patchy, only snatches of a washed out moment in time.
A woman stands in a makeshift kitchen. Rain falls around us. I shiver because I haven’t felt warm in weeks, not in this place. The fear grows, like a chronic pain I know I wasn’t able to shake. The woman in the kitchen turns and smiles. At first, I wonder if it’s the woman with the dark hair from my dreams. I can’t see her hair at first since a square of fabric is wrapped around her head. But when she turns away for a moment, I note the honey-blonde strands that escaped her makeshift hairnet.
The name comes easily to me. The face belongs to a woman I painted and left on an easel back in the lighthouse studio. The woman sets a finger against her lips, signaling me to be quiet, but it’s not a warning of danger. With a sly smile she points to the other side of their kitchen. Dressed in a cream linen dress, with a square of fabric working as a hair net and bandanna like Harmony’s, Lindy works cutting her vegetables. I look back to Harmony, wishing she could tell me the secrets of this place, but the memory fades and dissipates all at once.
I guess it wasn’t all bad. The memory felt almost sweet, like a deep breath after a bad dream. But it left me with questions. Where were we? Why was she dressed like that, almost a pioneer or a Woodstock hippy? I watch Lindy work, noticing she’s using the same technique as she did in the memory. Was that when she learned to cook? The Lindy I knew lived on microwave dinners and canned soup. And while she’s not a five-star chef for these girls, she’s holding her own.
“It’s not broken,” I say to end the silence. I would worry about startling her, but instinct tells me Lindy knew I was coming before I ever stepped out of the stairwell.
“That’s good. How long should I make her rest?”
She won’t look up at me, and I’m left to wonder why. Watching her, she looks almost agitated by my presence. I move closer, noting her speed accelerating with every inch I gain in her direction, until I lean against the island counter.
“Keep her quiet most of the weekend. She’s going to be in a bad mood, so you might as well sequester her for your own sake.”
“I’m glad it isn’t broken.” Lindy starts in on the carrots without looking at me. Why won’t she meet my eyes? “I wouldn’t have known what to do, and I don’t know if you can fix that sort of thing.”
I barely resist the urge to feel the lump in my nose where it broke the first time.
“I can. I didn’t even learn it in school.”
Before… everything… I thought I got hit with a bat in little league, and that’s why my nose was broken. That’s what Charles told me, and implanted memories feel like the real thing until you know better. Now, with those childhood memories restored, I know the truth.
When I was six, Charles was mad that I struck out in the game. He threw a bat at me and broke my nose. I didn’t know how to fix it then, but when he struck me at age eight for a failing grade on a test, I looked up the remedy and set it right. From then on, I knew how to deal with the pain.
“Charles,” Lindy whispers, like the name might conjure the man. I watch her for a moment, surprised at how she seems to know more about my childhood than I would expect her to.
Taking a chance, I slip my hand over hers. “Tell me something, did I always know about him? About my childhood?”
I know the answer, at least mostly, but I need to hear it from someone else to confirm it. She still won’t look up. I worry that she’s going to stay tight-lipped on this like she has on everything else. I wish I knew why she wouldn’t talk. I release my grip and move away from her, feeling frustration down to my bones that she has all my answers but she refuses to give them.
“I only ask because my shrink said something a couple weeks ago. He said, ‘We have to uncover the old memories before we can deal with the new ones’. And I got to thinking, uncover means I buried them and maybe that’s what I do, I bury tings I can’t deal with.”
I stop walking and turn to face her. Finally, her chin lifts and our eye meet. I see no pity like I might expect, only compassion, almost like it’s killing her not to tell me everything.
“When we met, you said he knocked you around some, but it was the verbal abuse, the emotional games of your teenage years, that seemed to be the worst offenders.” Lindy pauses, but mentally I beg her to keep going. I have a feeling that the rest of it is a memory I’ve lost. “While we were,” Lindy stops again, thinking about her phrasing, “working our case, you began to remember things he’d done to you as a child all the abuse you’d endured. I don’t think your mom even know everything. She thought he’d stopped hurting you when he started beating her.” Lindy brow wrinkles under the emotional strain. “She would have left him years before if she’d known what he’d done to you.”
I don’t want to think about why my childhood memories were triggered, but without my permission, my brain makes the connection before I can shove it away. I endured the same abuse there, and that released those memories. I nearly shudder at the thought. The dreams I’ve had, the violence and pain, it was real. I push the thoughts away as fast as I can. I can’t deal with it. I can’t hear the screaming in my mind again.
Changing the subject to clear my dark thoughts, I ask, “Have you hear of blindsight?”
Of course, she has. Her degree in psychology must have covered the topic from three or four different angles.
“That’s how I feel,” I say, admitting it for the first time. “Sometimes it takes over. I feel like I know how things should go, and I do them before I think about it.” We haven’t addressed that moment from the night before. The moment where I felt like I should kiss her. “That’s why I held you last night, because of the blindsight, because it was what came naturally. I’m sorry if I—”
“Don’t be sorry.” Her sudden interruption takes me by surprise. She wasn’t reassuring me, it was more like she was begging me not to regret it. For a second, we stare, me imploring her to explain herself, and Lindy pleading with me to stop asking her to break whatever promise she’s made to keep it away from me.
“I mean,” she tries to smile, but it falls flat, “I don’t mind helping you find your memories. If that means you cross a few lines without friendship, I can handle it.”
It takes all of my self-control not to call her on her bluff. That’s not even close to the truth, it’s written all over her face. Once more, I’m struck by the difference in the Lindy I knew, and the Lindy that’s before me. If I’m not mistaken, she’s almost asking me to cross a few lines, and I know that’s new.
I can’t help grinning a little at the thought. “You’ll take one for the team, huh?”
“Sure.” Almost fumbling for the knife, she drops her gaze to her cutting board and resumes her work.
“Your cop called me.” I kick myself for bringing it up. We were close to having a moment, and I invited another guy into the conversation. But, I guess I want to know how she feels about it.
“Conner?” She pauses her work to stare at me like it’s the most unusual thing I’ve ever said. “He doesn’t even know your name, how could he—”
“He’s a cop.” With Shane as her uncle, I shouldn’t have to explain this one. “I’m pretty sure this is within his wheelhouse. Anyway, he wants to take you out again, and he knows I’d have to watch the girls.” I watch for any spark of excitement, any girlish glee, but she looks like she’s staring down a train. “I told him Monday would be fine, that is, if you want to go with him.”
I wait again, watching for any indication that she’s into the cop. But she stays silent. I don’t know why it annoys me, but it does. Maybe because the Lindy I knew wasn’t interested in relationships. Why couldn’t she find this side of her when we still had a chance?
“Anyway, he’s going to call you. I wasn’t supposed to say anything, but I know you don’t like surprises. I’m dating so it seems like you should have a shot as well.”
Still noting. No indication one way or another if she’s interested in the guy. It leads me to believe that she’s excited but for whatever reason, she’s keeping it hidden from me. The walls feel tight. I have to get out of here.
“I might be around more this week.” She’s back to keeping her head down, almost ignoring me as I make my exit. “Julia needs help with her AP classes as it’s getting close to finals. I hope that’s okay.”
“Yeah, you’re always welcome.”
I pause in the doorway, choking on the tension that’s built up between us. She’s keeping something from me, and I need to know what it is. In my frustrations, I swing an arm, catching the doorway with a slap. Lindy’s head pops up. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I know it wasn’t tears.
My heart aches at the sight of her. I’ve only ever seen her cry once that I can remember, that night after her aunt was killed. The softness, the vulnerability and raw emotion screams at me to rush around the counter and take her in my arms. My body shifts like it plans to take control, but my mind keeps the reins tight. I’ve been hurt by her too many times. I can’t give in. Julia is right, I’m too scared to open myself up to that kind of pain again.
“I’ll see you around, okay?” I nearly flee from the room, not taking a full breath until the cold evening air greets me on the other side.
That was new ,and I don’t know how to process it. What happened on that case that changed her this much? It’s too much to deal with. I jog down the steps trying to clear my mind. My phone rings in my pocket. When I pull it free, I groan.
I click it through, bracing myself for the call.
“I know. I didn’t make it.”
His voice remains calm and even. “I was concerned when you didn’t arrive. I am pleased that you’re safe.”
He’s glad I didn’t kill myself. Surely that would be a blemish on his record.
“Actually, since moving away, those thoughts aren’t really a problem anymore.” I pull the door to my Tahoe open and slip inside. “I’m feeling really good with everything happening in my life.”
“Change can give us the illusion of healing. You must be careful not to fall into that trap, Ryder.”
Aggravated that he’s turning this around on me, I try again. “I don’t think it’s an illusion. Being at the lighthouse all the time, it was driving me nuts, literally. Having something to do, something that gives me purpose, I feel like I’m processing things better now.”
“You can’t skip our appointments, Ryder. You’ll never hope to regain your memories without a professional there to guide you.”
Years of bowing to authority has me wanting to agree with him, but I glance up at the house, knowing Lindy is inside. I’ve uncovered more memories with her, not to mention processed them a heck of a lot better, than I ever did with Tarleton.
“Yeah,” I take a deep breath for courage, “I found a new shrink. I won’t be coming around anymore.”
I hang up the phone before his creepy calm voice can talk me out of it.
I’m taking care of myself in my own way.
Lindy doesn’t have to know she’s going to be my new shrink.
Dining with the Devil
The buzz of my phone wakes me before my alarm. I fumble for it, frustrated with anyone who cuts my sleep short. For once, the nightmares were absent. I unlock my cell and squint at the screen that’s too bright for my tired eyes.
Groaning, I drop the phone.
She’s texted four times since I left.
The first time was nothing but venom. I ignored that.
The second time she apologized for what she’d said, but when I didn’t reply, she was quick to start spewing her anger with her words.
I ignored that too.
I keep hoping if I ignore her enough, she’ll let go.
This time, it’s just seven words.
“I need you. Call me back please.”
Stealing Julia’s technique, I smother my face with the pillow and scream as loud as I can. When that doesn’t help, I do it again. Four tries in, I feel marginally better.
Sitting up, I turn off my alarm because sleep isn’t happening now.
It’s not in my best interest, but I give in to her request. She picks up on the second ring.
“Ryder?” She sniffles twice to be sure I know she’s upset.
“What do you want, Vanessa?”
“We need to talk, that’s all. Can I meet you tonight?”
“I’m here now, talk.”
“This isn’t stuff you say over a phone line. I need to see you.”
Every part of me knows this is a trap, a manipulation made to pull me back into her web, but for whatever reason, I struggle to tell her no.
“Fine. I’ll send you the address. I’ll meet you in the city.”
“Thank you, baby.”
She hangs up before I get a chance to correct her.
Somewhere inside, I know I had feelings for her, but try as I may, all I feel now is pity.
I picked the coffee shop because I knew it would be full of people, not that a scene would embarrass anyone but me. I wait with a scone and nothing else, unsure of what to expect from my unstable ex-girlfriend.
She pulls back the door and it’s like the oxygen is sucked from the room. She’s just that beautiful. Everyone stares, myself included, but the spell isn’t there for me. Any other schmuck in this place would be tripping over himself to get to her, but whatever we had, it’s gone.
Vanessa eases into the chair across from me, clearly upset when I don’t even stand for her. “Thanks for coming.”
I pick at the scone I haven’t touched. “What do you want?”
She picks out a napkin from the dispenser and tears the corner. “I need to confess some things.”
I feel tired all over. I have work tomorrow, and I don’t feel the need to play games. I never should have come.
Her pouty lip juts out a bit further as if I’ve hurt her. I don’t want it to matter, but I find myself struggling to stay strong.
“Why are you being so mean to me?”
“We broke up.” It feels obvious, but she can’t seem to understand. “I want to move on.”
“Oh, that’s why you’re with Lindy. Because you want to move on.” She scoffs. “You can’t let her go, can you?”
“Like you’re one to talk.” I motion at our situation. “I don’t think you get to give me lessons on letting go.”
“Fine.” Vanessa’s hand slams against the table. “I was going to be nice about this, but I’ll just say it. I was cheating on you with Johnny.”
“What?” I press the heel of my palm to my forehead. “You already told me that. And like I said, I haven't felt like we were in a relationship since my accident, I don't care what you did.”
"But that's the thing I need to confess. I was seeing him way before your accident."
"What?" I lean back in my chair, wanting as much space between us as possible. "We're broken up. Would I want to know any of this?"
“Because I think it's the reason we split.” Tears well in her perfect, rcound eyes. “I get that now. I wasn’t all in. We started seeing each other when you took off with Lindy, but it was just a revenge thing. I was mad that you left me and then Johnny was there.”
I want to stand up, storm out, and never see her again, but I get the feeling she might keep talking if I let her. She might have more answers for me than she’s been letting on.
"So, you were seeing him back then, but we were..." I let it trail off, hoping she'll fill in the blanks.
"On a break. Your idea," she pulls a face, "just to be clear. You wanted to break up, but I knew she'd screw everything up again. I knew she'd ditch you and I'd have to pick up the pieces."
"And that's what happened?" I shouldn't ask. It's too desperate, but in her emotional state, I'm not sure she's noticing.
"Well, not at first. I mean, she was there at the hospital until they made her—” She catches herself, eyes widening. Some failsafe triggered in her mind, something she knows she can’t say. “It’s not important. I’m just saying, I see that I made my own mistakes. I want to make this work.”
“I don’t.” It’s an easy answer. “I’m not interested in a relationship at all right now, and I honestly think this whole thing is coming out of left field.”
She slumps in her chair. “I didn’t know how good we had it until I tried to make things work with Johnny. I think he’s seeing someone else behind my back.”
It’s all making sense now. “So, you thought you’d pick up with me again and teach him a lesson.”
Vanessa rubs her nose while she thinks, only nodding once to confirm the truth. “It’s all a mess, Ryder. I don’t know what to do.”
Seeing her vulnerable and raw, it appeals to my big heart. “You figure out how to be on your own.”
“I’ve never been on my own.” She shrugs. “I must sound conceited, but I’ve never been outside a relationship of some kind for more than a couple days.”
By the way she looks, I know she’s not lying. Without trying, I can count five guys in here who’d be happy to fill the void in her life. But if I’m going to be a friend, that’s not what she needs.
“Look, I know it’s scary, but I think dating yourself for a bit would be a good idea. Figure out what you want instead of becoming the person you think your partner needs. After that, things will fall into place.”
“I don’t know how to do that.” Tears pool in her eyes. “That’s scary.”
I sigh and borrow some teenage wisdom. “Sometimes, you have to do things scared. Don’t worry. I’ll help you navigate the rough waters.”
Her smiles spreads, warm and gentle. “What would I do without you?”
"Vanessa, we aren't getting back together." I try to drive the point home the best I can.
That smile only deepens. "Of course not."
Traces of a Memory
I stretch my neck side to side as I walk out of the office. After everything that’s happened with Vanessa, letting her back into my life, not romantically but as a friend, I feel tired from head to toe. I went out with the art teacher last night. It might have gone better if Vanessa hadn’t texted no less than five times in the hour I was out. It probably wouldn’t have been an issue, but Annie grabbed my phone after the fourth one and demanded to know who I was talking to. I may have forgotten my influence on beautiful women, but along with that I also forgot their ability to swing from one mood to the next in record time. The date ended quickly, but not without a barrage of insults hurled my way.
I jump over a puddle, not wanting my slacks soaked. Lindy has her date tonight. I’ll watch the girls and she’ll go out with her cop. The thought sours my mood even further.
A flash of movement catches my attention. Near the gates, two women argued.
“Go, go, go!” The smaller one shoved the other one toward the gates. My guard came up, worried for a threat, but when she turns around, I realize it’s Julia doing the shoving. But who was she shoving? I stopped by last night to help her study. There was a whole lot of female commotion all centered around Lindy’s hair being dyed. I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now.
Julia waves her arms overhead as if flagging down a plane. I try to look around her but Julia moves to block my view. Still, something is familiar about the woman with her. She’s too far away to see her face clearly, but her hair color strikes so many chords in my mind.
“We’re gonna be late.” Julia loops her arm across my shoulder, nearly shoving me to follow her.
“Late for what?” I try to turn back, but she gives another strong thrust to keep me moving.
“For school! For all the learning and growing. I can just taste the education in the air this morning, can’t you?”
All this coming from the girl who tried to convince me last week that her private school was closer to prison than higher education. It’s obvious she’s trying to cover something, but I don’t know what. Was she trying to hide that woman? Was it Lindy? If it was, then why act like this?
I turn back one more time, but whoever it was, she’s gone.
The Girl with the Dark Hair
I drag my feet longer than I should. It makes me a bit late to watch the girls. I jog the stairs to the front door. I ring the bell and wait. Movement behind me catches my eye. I turn, squinting to make sure there's no threat. For a second, the world falls away. Trees filter in around me. Gabe stands to my left, joking with Liam as usual. He holds a rifle, but it doesn't scare me, not when he's holding it.
The door pulls back, drawing my attention back around. But for a second, the past melds with the present. My breath rushes out of me in one second. I can't trust my eyes, not exactly. She's wearing a cocktail dress, but the memory pulls and changes it to a linen dress. My mouth goes dry. It can't be. I have to be remembering wrong.
I open my mouth to ask her what's happening, but instead a single word falls out.
“Huckleberry.” As if on autopilot, my fingers catch hers. There are others in the immediate vicinity, but I can’t find it in myself to care. She’s all that matters. The linen dress fades away, present retaining a stronger grip than my memory.
“Your hair, it’s back.” I can’t help my smile or the way I tighten my grip on her hand. It wouldn’t take much to have her in my arms again.
“Are you ready now?” The masculine voice has a hint of warning in it. I’m standing in his place. I’m walking all over her territory. How did I let that happen? I drop her hand but feel the absence.
“You better get going. I’ve already made you late.” I move out of her way. Her cop is quick to make their exit. For a second, I focus on breathing. Because I know it’s true.
She’s the girl with the dark hair.
That’s all I can think after she’s gone. Julia keeps asking me how I remember all the bones in the hand, and I know I answered her, but I can’t stop playing that memory over and over again in my mind. The dark hair clutched tight in my grip. It’s so real I can feel every strand as if it’s a rope, but I don’t know what came next. I know I cinched down, but did I hurt her? Was it passionate? Is that why I nearly kissed her in front of her new boyfriend?
I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut and I can hardly breathe.
She’s the girl with the dark hair.
It’s small, at least the sentence is, but no, it’s huge because that’s who they tore away from me at the campfire. That’s who I was worried about dying. She’s the girl that I’ve been searching for.
Lindy is the girl with the dark hair.
And she’s out with someone else.
I’m taller than him, only by an inch, but it’s a check mark on my side of things. Connor understands her world of crime and investigation. He gets guns like I never will. That’s a point for him.
I think I’m more attractive, but I suppose that’s hard to judge. He looks like he’ll get fat if he ever settles down, but it’s not like that could happen with Lindy.
I stop myself because I don’t know anymore. She’s not the woman I knew. Did she change before she left and I don’t remember, or was it this trip to California that changed her? She’s softer, more fragile than I remember and it terrifies me because she was safe before stuck behind walls of steel. Now she wears no armor, and I’m not close enough to protect her.
And she’s out with someone else.
That might be the thought that will finally break me. She’s never had someone else, no one I worried about. She’s only had her work.
No, there was someone else. I remembered it the first night she met me at the dairy. When Lindy stopped in the lobby and waved at me, it all rushed back. It had been a parking lot back then, but a lanky cowboy had his arms around my girl and it cut me deep. Not much different than I feel right now.
My mind is swirling. I can’t afford to break down here, not when the girls are under my protection. But I can’t stop the jealous thoughts and I can’t stop wondering if Conner’s kissed her. Has he kissed the lips that once belonged to me? Does he know what that spell feels like?
If he does, he’ll never let her go.
Never let her go.It echoes and repeats again.
Never is a long time.
The pencil in my hand snaps in half. That brings Julia’s head around but there’s no judgment, she just smiles because somehow she knows. She’s known this whole time. This whole set up was her idea, I’m sure of it. I think the only wrench was that I showed up late and Connor was already here. Even then, she made it work.
“So?” I know I should ask her something about her anatomy homework, but there are too many other questions in line. “Are they serious? Does Lindy talk about him?”
She has other ideas, and like an idiot, I’ve opened the door.
“More importantly, why did you call her Huckleberry?” Julia asks like it’s primetime news and America deserves to know.
It just came out. I’ve been so careful since she came back not to slip, but when she looked so… I couldn’t, it just fell out, but I know I can’t explain that to Julia.
“Answer my question first.”
“No,” Julia says, and I feel my hopes rise that maybe I haven’t screwed it up completely with all my running around and shoving dating in her face like I have.
“But she does blush when I ask about him,” Jules amends.
“You’re killing me.” I let my head collapse onto a stack of books.
“You didn’t ask how she acts when she talks about you.”
My head comes up but only just enough that I can see her sneaky grin.
“Fine. Tell me.”
“She’s sad,” Julia answers and my head comes up all the way.
“That’s not good news,” I tell her and flip the page in her text to quiz her on ligaments.
“She cries at night. I can hear her,” Julia says as if it will make it better.
“Making it worse,” I say as I try to familiarize myself with words long ago forgotten.
“No,” Julia flips the book closed with my hand trapped inside, “she’s heartbroken and I think it’s over you.”
My shoulders shrug as if it’s an answer. “So?”
“Girls don’t cry over a guy they don’t care about. Her feelings are still there. If you want it, you’ve still got a shot.”
I flip her text open again and stare at the page. I spend an hour testing her on what she should know, but I’m stuck on the thought that it might not be too late, or better yet, for the first time ever, I might actually have a shot.