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Tooth & Claw: Part I

Rudy’s dick curves to the left.

It doesn’t put me off or anything. I don’t need a flawless lover to turn me on, and anyway, who isn’t warped in some fantastically weird way—inside and out? Boxer’s nose. Asperger’s. Protruding clit. Debilitating fear of clowns (that’s mine, don’t judge).

No one’s perfect.

My right boob is larger than the left. Not if-you-squint-you-can-kind-of-see-it larger. Seriously larger. Like a whole cup size (and when you’re talking about the difference between an A and a B cup, that shit stands out). Either I wear a tiny bra that crushes Big Thelma, or I buy one big enough to accommodate Thelma and pad the cup supporting Little Louise. I suppose I could just skip the bra entirely. But winters are cold in Massachusetts, and unprotected torpedo nipples have a tendency to chafe.

Whatever. It’s me, you know?

I like watching people react to my unveiling of the ladies. You can tell a lot about a person by their response to a shattered fantasy. Taking my clothes off is like an asshole litmus test. Most people are too busy getting off to even care, but every now and then I see that flash of shock, that slow swallow of acceptance, and I know things are going nowhere fast. Oh, well, their eyes say, I guess I can work with this. Like my tits are a consolation prize. Like I’m a fortune cookie minus the fortune.

But would I change it? Fuck no. I like my body—lopsided boobs, tomboy build, and all. I figure being flawless comes with a price: Barbie Dolls have hollow heads to go with their perfect figures.

I just point out Rudy’s curvy banana dick because it’s currently brushing against my right cheek, and I’m trying not to laugh as I chase after it like a rogue straw in a soda glass.

Come here, you!

Laughing in this situation would not be good. No guy with his junk in your face wants to be laughed at, but with the way things ended between Rudy and me, an inappropriate snicker is like a triggered landmine. I can kiss these booty calls goodbye if I laugh at him right now.

Rudy’s cute, he’s a demon in the sack, and he was a passable boyfriend … but he’s a shit director. I don’t know how anyone could have kept a straight face. Lights dim, screening room packed with his greasy MFA friends, and Rudy’s magnum opus, Backwoods Butchers, oozing into my brainpan like so much fake blood. The worst part was how earnest he was, how proud. By the time I realized I wasn’t watching a brilliant horror movie satire a la Christopher Guest but a corny Hills Have Eyes rip-off, it was too late. I’m snorting Cheetos out of my nose and congratulating him on a thorough skewering of slasher movie tropes, while the whole theater’s gaping at me like I’m covered in rainbow-colored jizz (or sporting an un-ironic ax through the head).

So, yeah. Laughing: bad.

Mercifully, there’s no screening room in Unbound Books’ storage closet, and the rogue cock doesn’t elude me for long. Once I capture it, my mouth has no room for laughter. My mind has no room, either. As Rudy groans his approval, all thoughts of slasher flicks and curved dicks and asshole customers float away like smoke on the breeze. I don’t feel the concrete floor through my jeans. I don’t think about the pack of Brentwood College freshmen perpetually lounging on the store’s couch, comparing notes on their Intro to Bullshit class. I don’t think about Prama and her five-minute smoke break that turned into twenty at the busiest point in the afternoon. I don’t think about the books scattered across the floor of the children’s section and how I re-shelve the same fucking Eric Carle and Dr. Seuss every single day. And I don’t think about tomorrow. I don’t think about any of it.

I’m taking in Rudy’s musky, masculine taste and enjoying how familiar and comforting it is. I’m feeling slick flesh slide along my palm as my circled index finger and thumb meet my lips: suck and stroke and twist. I’m listening to Rudy’s murmured curses—“Holy fuck, Cort, your mouth … goddamn!“—and smiling around him before taking him that much deeper.

And honestly, this would be enough. I don’t even care if I get off, you know? I just need to tabula rasa this shit day. But Rudy’s a stand-up guy, so he’s not willing to leave it at that. Just as I feel him edge toward the point of no return, he pushes me away, firmly but gently. He leans against a stack of boxes, thighs shaking and curvy dick bobbing left and right, like it’s unimpressed with this change of course.

“Come here.”

He pulls me up from my knees and kisses his taste from my mouth. I love the way Rudy kisses; how he works his way up to it with pecks and nibbles, how he lets me take control too. Kissing boys is different from kissing girls—not better, just different. The way you’re sometimes in the mood for chocolate fudge ice cream and sometimes you want cherry? Today is a chocolate fudge day, and Rudy has the perfect chocolate fudge kiss: bold and confident, just on the edge of overpowering.

But we’re both in this for more than kissing, so he moves things forward, momentarily breaking from my mouth to pull my shirt up and off. It’s cold in the storeroom, and goosebumps trip up my arms. Rudy’s right hand seeks out Little Louise, pushing my overly-padded bra out of the way and exposing her to the cool air. Confident fingers squeeze and tug, and both girls tighten in response. Other parts tighten too. Warmth spreads between my legs, and I suddenly wonder how I ever thought a blow job would be enough for me tonight.

Curvy is still standing at attention, slick from my mouth and nudging my hip like a kid who’s afraid of being forgotten. I work my jeans loose, then give the not-so-little guy a squeeze. Rudy thrusts into my hand and grunts into my mouth. Slip and slide. Smile and groan.

Rudy’s hands are everywhere: exploring, pinching, teasing. My skin tingles where he touches me, crying out for more. His fingers are smooth and soft—the un-calloused hands of the privileged. I wonder if he’s ever done a day of physical labor in his life. My kitty protests the unwelcome distraction and tells my brain to shut the fuck up. As Rudy’s pretty-boy fingers find the sweet spot between my legs, it’s easy enough to comply.

Hell, yes. Right there.

My head tilts back, mouth falling away from his, as the sensation slides through me. A satisfied smile teases his lips. Heat flickers in his coffee-brown eyes—so dark they’re almost black—and I feel the same wild intensity stirring inside me. I want him to empty me out. I want him to fill me up.

As though reading my mind, Rudy takes my shoulders and leads me in a balletic sort of spin until he’s behind me and my arms are propped on a box of coffee cup lids. The Solo cup logo meets my gaze—red letters stamped onto brown cardboard, little O’s in “Solo” hollowed out with coffee mugs. Clever. Rudy bunches my pants around my knees and fumbles with a condom. With little fanfare he pushes in, and my arms buckle. The box demands, THIS SIDE UP!

Oh God, yes, this side up.

His fingers are iron claws around my hips. I smile at the sweet ache and push back into him, meeting him thrust for punishing thrust.

“Is this what you wanted, Cort?”

Long strokes. Steady pace. I’m panting—heavy and low. When the writing on the box goes wibbly-wobbly, my eyes fall shut.

Is this why you called?”

Sometimes, I’d like to duct tape Rudy’s mouth. I don’t want to fucking talk. Still, his crooked dick has its advantages, and the little swivel at the end of his thrusts hits me right there. I moan my approval, but that only seems to encourage his loose tongue.

“Like that, huh?” he says through strangled breaths. “Like my big cock?”

Oh my fucking Christ! Enough already.

“Rudy, shut the fuck up. I’ve got a vibrator at home that won’t run its mouth.”

His rhythm falters, and I’m afraid he’ll stop.

Oh God, don’t stop. Don’t you fucking stop.

He’s too close to give it up now, so he clams up—but not without making his irritation known. Rudy shifts, chest pressing down on my back, and I feel a sharp tug at my shoulder where his teeth clamp onto tender flesh. Still, it’s a good pain, and I’m happy to take it if it means he’ll leave the color commentary behind.

Aside from a tendency to run his mouth, the sex is always good with Rudy, which is probably why he’s my go-to guy for a quick fuck these days. I don’t have to guess what he’ll like or tell him what I want. I don’t have to think. As he rocks into me over and over again, a blissful calm washes through me. I’m empty of everything but the feel of his hips slapping against my ass, his driving strokes reaching deep inside.

It’s gorgeous, the oblivion. The silent exit of my faculties. Like the essence of Courtney Joseph can be stripped away to heat and passion and quivering, fucking pleasure. Like everything else—the strangling bullshit that colors so much of my life—is just meaningless noise.

Is sex an escape? Hell yes.

Is that healthy? Ask me another time—I’m a little busy right now.

I hear a high-pitched whine—my own, of course—and smile. Rudy’s strokes are fast and hard, hitting me in a place that makes my legs shake and turns my mind to pudding.

“Yes …” I sigh as Rudy’s teeth dig in.

His arm is wrapped around my waist—holding me close, holding me together—while the other is propping us up. My fingers claw at the abused box. It’s starting to bend under our weight, but I don’t care. I need more.

“Harder. Please, just—”

But I can’t finish the thought. My mouth doesn’t seem to be working. I’m all instinct—higher function lost to primal need. Want. Take. Now.

Rudy releases my shoulder and pushes up, gripping my hip, palm splayed on the base of my spine. He holds me there and slams home with a fantastically ugly grunt.

Slam.

Grunt.

Slam.

Grunt.

Slam.

Like a depraved duet, our music fills the cramped closet. Slapping skin, slick with sweat. Ragged breath and broken gibberish falling from our mouths. My thighs scream with the effort to keep me upright, and my ass is bruised and abused, but I don’t care. This is the best I’ve felt all day.

All week.

Have I ever felt this good?

I’m falling into a kind of in-between space—past and future crumbling to ruins while the present looms large. Nothing matters but this. Nothing could ever be as important as the ecstasy teasing the edges of this moment.

So close. I’m so fucking close.

Rudy’s close too, rhythm faltering and breath stuttering. Just as I start to panic, start to think he’ll finish without me, he slams home one last time, stilling with a heavy groan as the spark and swell of my own bliss rockets through me.

“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuuuuck!”

This is it—free fall, miles of empty air between the Earth and me. I am a leaf on the wind. Watch me fucking soar. It’s beautiful and perfect and—

… so unbelievably fleeting.

Before the last of the aftershocks have worked their way through me, I’m mourning the loss of my sweet oblivion. Reality crashes down as we collapse onto the mangled Solo box, crushing cardboard and tumbling to the ground in a sweaty pile. We lay there, boneless, catching our breath. The floor is cold. Rudy’s mouth is hot against my neck.

“Jesus, Cort, you’re a fucking beast.”

“You’re one to talk.”

Rudy caresses the welt on my shoulder, and I slant my gaze to inspect the damage. The bite mark lies atop my cherry blossom tattoo, double crescents blooming a complimentary shade of pink. No big deal, but he’ll be feeling guilty about it. Like most suburban-bred college boys, his momma told him it’s wrong to hurt girls—even if those girls want you to hurt them. I don’t let myself linger on that thought too long. My momma told me it’s wrong for boys to hurt me, too.

“I shouldn’t have done that.” Tender lips brush across mark, smoothing over the presumed sin. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I liked it.”

He responds with a final peck and pulls away, my body rebelling as I’m left empty. He deals with his business, and I push up from the floor, righting my pants with shaking fingers. Adjust the mismatched twins, drag my shirt back on. My legs feel like carved marble, my arms like fluttering canaries. Rudy’s shoes scrape against the concrete. A bare bulb flickers overhead.

I think this is the worst part—the return to real life. Like walking through flood waters—everything heavy and slow. Everything lopsided and surreal.

“So … you wanna go get something to eat?”

He always does this. Chivalry demands he give me an out—a kind of slut antidote. Like if he spins it the right way, I won’t have to feel guilty about being such a dirty whore. But Rudy doesn’t understand that I have absolutely no problem getting off and saying adios. In fact, I’d rather be alone right now.

“No thanks. I gotta finish closing up.”

Grey clouds gather in his eyes, then swiftly retreat.

“Here, let me—”

He kneels down to the crushed box and tries to repair some of the damage. Seems like a lost cause. I imagine my boss walking in here tomorrow and laugh.

“What?”

“Beverly’s going to be so pissed. She told me to stop fucking people in the store. I bet she takes that out of my paycheck.”

His thick black brows reach toward the sky.

“People?”

I feel the involuntary roll of my eyes and shrug. Oh, spare me the wounded puppy act.

Rudy knows the deal. We’re not exclusive, and I’m not going to apologize or try to boost his ego by lying. His eyes return to box as he closes the ripped cardboard flap, but it flops open again, defiant. I give a final check of my clothes and reach for the doorknob.

“Ready?”

He sighs, running a hand through his messy tangle of hair.

“Sure.”

As we make our way to the front of the store, red and pink hearts flutter overhead like vibrant birds of prey. The store is splattered with Valentine’s Day crap in honor of the approaching holiday. I straighten a Nicholas Sparks novel as I pass an end cap. Aside from the flowery shit vomited all over the place, everything’s pretty tidy. I’d nearly finished closing up before I called Rudy, so there’s not much left to do.

I unlock the glass door and let Rudy out. Main Street’s deserted, but that’s no surprise. Nightlife in Brentwood is limited to mill workers taking the edge off at Stumpy’s and Brentwood College freshmen with fake IDs lurking outside BJ’s Liquor.

Rudy pulls his peacoat tight against the cold and hugs me with one arm. There’s a finality to the way he touches me. I guess I knew this arrangement could only last so long. Still, I don’t like goodbyes.

“So I’ll see ya?” A lonely snowflake falls from the sky and lands on his shoulder—white on navy. A few more make their lazy way down, dusting his hair and eyelashes.

“Sure.” He doesn’t meet my eyes.

I lock the door behind him and finish counting out the register.

Later, when I crawl into bed, there’s a satisfying ache between my legs. It’s nice, but not enough to distract me from the unyielding upward tick of the digits on my clock. I’ll be okay if I can just fall asleep before midnight. Perhaps then tomorrow won’t come.

 …

The sky is clear and blue, but the air is cold as fuck. Leafless oaks fringe the space all around, reaching claw-like up to the heavens. On the ground, a thin sheet of snow covers frozen earth—the result of last night’s late-season flurries. Headstones stretch out in a disorderly fleet, anonymous under a dusting of white. The cobbled path is familiar to me, even under the cover of snow, but I make my way in a winding trail through the rows. I tell myself it’s because I enjoy the quiet, but I’m really just putting off the inevitable.

I keep a measured pace, my fingers brushing along the stones and etching curlicues in the snow. Temporary art.

Even as a little girl, I could never manage to walk away from Hamilton Park Cemetery without leaving something behind. When I was still too young for school—brunette pigtails swinging as I skipped out the rusted gate and into my backyard—it was abandoned fairy houses and half-finished daisy chains. When I was old enough to enjoy the company of boys, but not yet old enough to understand why, it was swords made out of sticks and gnome caves assembled out of jagged chunks of granite (if it was creepy to use broken headstones for my play, no one told me). By the time my lopsided tits made an appearance, I’d developed a bit of a rebellious streak. I wouldn’t call cigarette burns and lipstick graffiti “art”, but it was my creative contribution all the same. Used condoms and stubbed-out roaches came later. Dad and big brother had their hands full with me in those late teenage years, but—baffled as they were by the whole of womanhood—they mostly left me to my own devices.

These days, I try to leave pretty things behind, making up for a misspent youth in my own small way.

I still come here a lot. Not as much as I did when I was a girl, but with more private nooks and fewer visitors than the local parks, it’s nice for a solo picnic in the spring or a quick shag when the mood strikes. I’m rarely here to visit anyone. Sometimes I go for months without setting my eyes on that particular marker at the far edge of the grounds. But it’s a special day, and she’ll be expecting me.

It’s funny how a few days of the year feel heavier than others. It’s not like anything is different just because it happens to be February fourth, but try telling that to the nest of squirrels now occupying my stomach.

Soon I’ve reached my destination, and the crunch of snow under my boots falls silent. I sweep away the loose flakes from the face of the stone and scratch the ground with my foot. I didn’t bring any flowers. It’s always seemed like a stupid tradition—what does a dead person care about flowers? It’s the kind of shit the living does for the living. As though a few cheerful blossoms will do anything to make someone you love any less gone.

I realize too late that I should have brought a blanket to cover the ground, but I no longer live in the little blue house behind the cemetery, and I’m not going back to my apartment to get one. I sit down with my back against the face of the stone, and the cold creeps through my clothes. At least I wore thermals underneath, so I’ve got a little while before my ass goes completely numb.

“Rudy didn’t call this morning.”

I know it’s stupid to talk about this, but it’s stupid to talk about anything, you know? It’s not like anyone is really listening. Still, I’m here, and it’s what I’m supposed to do.

“It’s not a big deal—I’m glad he’s not hovering, like usual. But … I don’t know.” I lick chapped lips and watch the naked arms of a nearby oak sway. “He always calls.”

You’d think with as much time as I’ve spent in this cemetery over the years, this wouldn’t feel so awkward. Or that it wouldn’t hurt so much. But it does. It’s awkward and it hurts. Like I’m treading water and can’t catch my breath—limbs burning, lungs stretched thin. Like … I’m sitting on someone’s grave and talking to them.

Brilliant observation. Just the kind of gold that’s sure to get me published. (Insert wry smile here.)

“I was thinking about Sebastian Tierney the other day. Remember him—Bash? I found that book we wrote tucked into a shoebox under my bed—Dragons at the Gate. My words, his drawings?”

I gather snow as I talk, forming snowballs and stacking them to my side. My gloves are frayed and fingerless, and the chill creeps from my hands through to the rest of me.

“It was a total piece of shit, but what do you expect from twelve-year-olds?”

It really was awful. I had aspirations of being the next J.R.R.Tolkien in those days. We were going to have a fantasy empire, Bash and I. Best friends. Creative geniuses. My words, his drawings. There’d be comic books and movies and a whole series of novels. We’d know we’d made it when our brave heroes, Caroleen and Saber, were plastered across lunch boxes from here to L.A. Lunchbox fame was the ultimate.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Dragons at the Gate was our first and final work. Bash moved to Boston that summer and never came back. An hour from Central Mass, and he never even visited. I suppose it was the first time I realized someone could go away and never come back. For a kid who spent most of her time in a graveyard, I was a little slow on the uptake.

The pile of snowballs is growing. I’m not sure what I intend to do with them, but it’s nice to keep my hands busy, even if they’re shaking. Plumes of winter air float from my mouth.

Man, I’d really love a cigarette right now.

“Did I ever tell you he was my first kiss? It happened here, under the big willow next to the Brewster crypt.”

I remember the way Bash looked at me right before he dove in—as though he was trying to figure something out. As though the girl whose sentences he could finish was suddenly a mystery to him.

“God, it was horrible! It was slimy and weird, and I’m pretty sure I bit his tongue. Huge mistake. Best friends shouldn’t kiss.”

I was completely unprepared. One minute we’re eating the lunch my mom packed for us and plotting the second Dragon tale—The Burning Castle—and the next he’s got his face mashed to mine and his tongue slithering in my mouth. I hadn’t ever thought about Bash that way before, but knowing he was thinking about me made something click. My surprise was overcome by immediate investment. I wanted this awkward kiss to work. I wanted to do it right. He was storming the castle gates, and I wanted to let him in.

He tasted like peanut butter. I remember thinking he had the perfect sandy blond locks to mimic Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo + Juliet style, but mine were too dark to ever resemble Claire Danes’. A tiny voice inside kept whispering we were folically incompatible—doomed from the start. Prescient insight or self-fulfilling prophecy? Either way, the lip smashing and tongue wrangling was a colossal failure, in spite of our best efforts. Bash sat back, defeated, and we couldn’t meet each other’s eyes.

Later, I figured out he must have already known he was moving. His family started packing that week, and by the next weekend they were gone—he had to have known. I guess he thought he had nothing to lose. If the kiss didn’t work out, he wouldn’t be around for the fallout.

“I just wish he’d given me some warning. I mean, I kind of grew up here, but I don’t know that I would have chosen to have my first kiss in a graveyard, you know?”

Did it change me in some fundamental way? That my first sexual experience happened here, among the dead? Would I have turned out like … this … regardless?

I don’t know. What’s the point in asking unanswerable questions?

A voice disturbs my quiet, and I cringe, wondering how long he’s been listening.

“Thought I might find you here.”

Without looking, I toss a snowball behind me and smile when it splatters against my mark. He squeals like a little girl.

“You ass!”

“You shouldn’t sneak up on people.” I hold my position and grab another ball for insurance.

“I wasn’t sneaking up—I was talking to you, wasn’t I?”

My brother’s knobby face comes into view; he’s brushing away the crust of white fanning out around his ear. His hands are free of glacial weapons, but he’s fisting a bunch of pink carnations. I’m sure they were just the cheapest ones at the shop, but I find it more than slightly amusing that he happened to choose a flower representing a mother’s undying love.

Richie makes no move to join me on the ground. Unlike me, my brother has never felt comfortable in this place. He still lives with Dad in the little blue house across the way, but as far as I know, he only crosses the gate twice a year.

“Why do you do that?”

“What?”

“Sit there? Don’t you know it’s fucking disrespectful?”

Richie is of the belief that cemeteries are Sad Places. His face is twisted into a proper mask of grief in deference to convention. It occurs to me how much he’s starting to look like Dad—dull, thinning, dishwater hair; tired eyes, puffy from too much beer; leathery skin from working at the plywood mill all day. He’s only twenty-eight, but he could be forty.

“You think she minds? Really?”

His brows shoot up. Duh.

“Under me is six feet of dirt, a rotting box, and a pile of dry bones. If she’s anywhere, Richie, she’s not fucking there.”

His nostrils flare, but he holds his tongue. This is one subject on which we will never agree.

“Look, Dad’s gonna stop by on his break. Don’t let him see you like this, okay?”

“Whatever.” My ass is cold, and there’s really nothing more to say with my brother here. “I gotta go to work.”

I stand and dust the snow from my clothes. Richie scatters my stacked arsenal with his boot.

“Fucking snowballs. You’re a piece of work, you know that, Cort?”

He flinches from an icy pat on the cheeks.

“So glad we had this little chat.”

I’d like to leave it at that, but there are some conventions to which even I pay heed. I turn my back on big brother and give my attention to the stone, smooth and bitter cold under my hand.

“Happy birthday, Mom. Love you.” It’s been eleven years, but I still can’t say the words without a lump in my throat.

I’m halfway across the grounds before Richie stops me.

“Hey, Cort!”

I turn. Pink carnations rest in the spot I just vacated. Richie looks ready to bolt.

“Dinner at the house this Sunday?”

“Yeah, sure … I’ll make pie.”

Family’s family, right?

Beverly corners me as soon as I walk into Unbound Books. I’ve barely had a chance to put my bag down in the office and clock in before I’m staring down her ample, maternal bosom.

“Something you want to tell me?”

Silver and turquoise earrings dangle above her shoulders, and her salt and pepper hair is swept into a gravity-defying bouffant—both the jewelry and hairstyle are holdovers from her Southwest upbringing. I like to imagine she was a real looker in her heyday, the kind of desert rose people referred to as “statuesque”. The years, however, have been … not unkind, but rather … aggrandizing. Everything about Beverly is big, from her big, twangy voice to her big, bulbous tits.

“Um …”

Of course she’s calling me out on last night’s sexcapades, but I’m not going to admit guilt before she shows her hand.

“Look, sweetie, I know what day it is, so I’m going to call it temporary insanity and give you a pass. But I’m serious. You cannot keep defiling my store with your after-hours activities, or we’ll have a real problem, you and me. I don’t know what kind of hanky-panky you got up to last night, but the storeroom looked like it was hit by a hurricane.”

I love her euphemisms. Beverly Shelton is too much a lady to ever curse. I’m pretty sure I’ve never even heard her say “sex” unless she was naming a book title.

“Aside from the mess, it’s just plain unsanitary. Keep it in your pants or take it home, okay?”

I nod sagely and try to look contrite.

“I’m sorry, Bev. Really.”

Times like this make me thankful for the friendship Beverly had with my mother once upon a time. I’m sure I would have been handed a pink slip long before now if it weren’t for that lingering connection. I make to squeeze between Bev’s gigantic tits and the doorway. My stomach sinks when she stops me.

She levels her gray eyes at me and rubs an encouraging hand on my bicep. It feels as welcome as an octopus’ caress, and I fight off a shudder.

“Courtney Clair Joseph,”—Oh yes, please use my full name; I love feeling like a toddler—“I know I’m not family, but sometimes I think I’m the only person in this world willing to talk sense to you.”

Her lilting, empathetic tone makes me want to hurl. I take a deep breath and ready myself for the impending lecture.

Just smile and listen.

“Your momma was a special woman. Do you really think Maddy would be happy about what you’ve been doing with your life? You think these shenanigans would make her proud?”

My smile collapses. The double-barrel shot of my mother’s name blasts a hole in any humor I might have found in this situation. I take a steadying breath and tamp down the fight-or-flight impulse burning through my veins.

“Look, Bev—”

“I’m sorry, no. I’m gonna say my piece. You are twenty-seven years old—it’s time to get serious. The path you’re on isn’t gonna lead anywhere but trouble.”

My vision narrows until all I see is ruby lips slapping over sharp white teeth.

“You need to start thinking about your future.”

My hands curl into fists, blood pounding in my ears. I imagine my knuckles connecting with her yammering maw, the picture so vivid I almost feel the satisfying crunch. If she doesn’t shut the fuck up, I’m going to do something we’ll both regret.

“My future’s just fine.” My words are clipped, my mouth twisted into a grimace. “I figure if I fuck my way through every storeroom in town, I can make it into the Guinness Book of—“

“Enough!”

I hardly register her tightening grip on my arm. There’s a lump the size of Cleveland in my throat, but I feel no pain. Beverly takes a huge breath—bosom and belly ballooning out—then exhales with a sigh.

“I think you need to take the day off. Go visit your momma. Be with your family.”  She meets me with an unblinking gaze, and I fight back tears. I’m just pissed. I’m not fucking sad. I’m not. “Then I want you to think long and hard about whether you want to come back here tomorrow.”

Before I have a chance to respond, she’s gone, the stench of White Diamonds and self-righteous conceit trailing in her wake. For a moment, my shoes are glued to the ugly checkerboard laminate; I can’t seem to take my eyes off the scuffed, speckled surface.

I feel wrung out, twisted like a wet towel.

After a minute, I become aware of the growing ache in my hands and shake my fists loose. Spell broken at last, I move toward the time cards at the opposite wall and punch out. A quick calculation tells me I earned about three dollars and seventy-five cents—before taxes—in exchange for that fifteen minutes of abuse.

Not fucking worth it.

“Hey, Cort. What can I get ya?”

Beth McCallin takes a swipe at the counter with a beer-stained rag and waits for my order. She’s wearing hip-hugging jeans, a blue flannel shirt buttoned just below her cleavage, and an expression that isn’t remotely scandalized to find me in a bar at eleven-thirty. I’m grateful for all of the above, but mostly that last. Of course, if she looked sideways at every asshole who needed a drink before noon, she’d have a row of empty barstools and a dusty tip jar to show for it.

“Whatever IPA you have on tap.”

“Wanna look at the menu?” She licks her lips and smiles; I can almost taste her strawberry lipgloss.

“No, thanks. Not in the mood for food.” Let her take that however she wants.

Stumpy’s was the easy choice after Beverly’s colossal steamroll this morning. I wasn’t about to go mope at home, and none of the diners in Brentwood serve alcohol. About ten minutes after the final bell rings at the Blue Creek Plywood Mill—which employs just about every able body in a ten-mile radius—you can’t take a breath in here without unintentionally humping your neighbor. But it’s blissfully quiet now, and no one’s going to hound me for conversation. That a certain blonde bartender usually works the daytime shift might have informed my decision to hit the local dive as well.

Beth and I have had fun in the past, but we haven’t made a regular thing of it, since her dad—Stumpy himself—has made his position on “those fucking queers” pretty well-known. Maybe his anger was always simmering under the surface, but ever since his run-in with a table saw—one that left him minus an index finger and thumb—Sam “Stumpy” McCallin’s rage seems to be constantly on the verge of boiling over. That nubby fucker is one surly son of a bitch.

I’m not exactly out and proud, but I don’t hide who I am, either. Mostly, I try to stay out of Stumpy’s way. Beth, on the other hand, is firmly locked inside the pussy-loving closet. I can only imagine the apoplectic fit dear old dad would have if he found out his beloved Bethany was one of those “damn faggots” he rails about. Mostly, she hangs with the muff-divers on the Brentwood campus, and Stumpy Sam is none the wiser.

When she finishes her pour, Beth pushes my beer across the bar. Her hand lingers on the glass, sliding across my index finger as I take it from her. Not subtle. Good—I appreciate the direct approach.

“You got anything going on today, Beth?”

She combs through her long hair, scratching over her scalp. Her shirt pulls up just enough to flash a slip of unseasonably bronze stomach. Maybe she’s only trying to relieve some tension, but all I can see is teasing flirtation.

“Just work. I’ll be off at five.”

“Maybe you could come by. Watch a movie or something.”

She smiles, round cheeks turning rosy.

“Sure.”

Beth is the perfect mix of sexy-sweet. She’s curvy in all the right places, with enough baby fat to allow for a satisfying squeeze. Wide, cerulean eyes and cupid’s bow lips frame a face that can shift from innocent to predatory in an instant.

Aside from her inarguable beauty, I think my attraction to Beth stems from how opposite we are. She’s like my Bizarro World twin. Where I’m tall and bony, she’s plump and petite. Where my hair is nearly black and cropped short, she’s got warm honey locks even Rapunzel would envy. Where my skin is pale, inked and pierced, she’s smooth and tan.

She’s gorgeous. She’s smart. She has a tongue with no rival and an unexpected kinky side—she’d be the perfect girlfriend, if I were looking. But I’m not. And thankfully, she doesn’t seem to be, either.

Beth checks on a few old-timers at the end of the bar, and I sip my beer. It’s cold, smooth, and just bitter enough to fit my mood. On the TV above dusty rows of liquor bottles, Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia are sharing a late-night dessert in an ancient episode of The Golden Girls. A little rebellion on Beth’s part. Her dad has a strict edict about what graces the screens of his bar, and none of these ladies are named Pat, Sox, or Bruin.

As Dorothy takes a potshot at Rose, I’m transported back to the first time I was laid up with strep throat as a kid. I had to take the week off from school, and I spent most of it on the ugly floral couch in our living room, watching Donahue and The Golden Girls. I had pretty geriatric taste in TV for a seven-year-old. Mom’s influence, I suppose. She stayed home from work to nurse me, and we took turns picking the shows. She’d sit at our scratched Formica dining room table and work on a batch of admissions packets from Brentwood hopefuls while I choked orange juice down my swollen throat.

I spent most of that week in a delirious fog, sweating through the sheets and drifting in and out of sleep. It was a routine I’d repeat half a dozen times over the years—chicken broth, restless nights, spoonfuls of bubblegum-flavored antibiotics, and bad daytime TV. Through it all, Mom was always there. Her job in the admissions department at the college allowed for a flexible schedule, and there was no other option, anyway. To this day, Dad hasn’t taken an unscheduled day off from the mill. Mom may have been in a pay grade above him, but to Richard Joseph, the raising of children was always women’s work.

Made it difficult later, when there was no woman around to do the job.

It was a crappy way to spend time—feverish and in pain—but I sort of loved those recurring episodes of strep. No Richie, no Dad. Just hours and hours of Mom all to myself. She’d buy me a stack of coloring books, and in later years, fresh notebooks with pages and pages to fill with new stories. I loved the sound of her pen scratching as she worked and the smell of her rosewater perfume. In my memory, Mom always smells beautiful. I know it’s not possible; surely, there were days she stunk of photocopy ink or cooked onions or sweat. But my mind can’t conjure any flaws in the woman who left me when I was only sixteen.

I take a chug of beer and try to ease the swelling in my my throat. The memories are painful, razor-sharp even after all these years—like an ax that’s stropped after each use. For the millionth time, I wonder if it’d just be easier to forget her altogether. I sink into the bar and try to push the thoughts away. But it’s like picking burrs off a wool sweater, and when I’ve rid myself of a dozen stinging moments, another ten crop up.

“How’s your brother these days?”

Beth is eyeing me with a tentative smile. She’s a good bartender—not just her skill pouring drinks, but her ability to feel the temperature of a room. Nothing’s more welcome than a pretty distraction like her right now. I take a deep breath and force a grin.

“You probably know better than me. He’s in here most nights with Dad, right?”

“Yeah, but I’m usually heading out just as the boys come in. Stumpy tries to keep the leering eyes to a minimum.” She leans on the bar, elbows resting on dull, scarred wood, chin in her hand. “Kind of a pain in the ass. I could earn more on the evening shift, but he’s worried about protecting my virtue.”

“Oh, yes,” I chuckle. “We both know how much your virtue requires protecting. Maybe he should keep his eyes on BC Women’s Studies majors instead of the mill boys.”

That earns me a smack and a giggle.

“Shut it, Cort! And that’s a gross generalization, by the way.” She leans in close, whispering conspiratorially. The hair on the back of my neck tingles in anticipation. “Girls on the swim team are pretty nice, too.”

I smile into my beer. I’ve got no response for that. Beth’s gaze tracks my tongue as I lick foam from my lips, and I wonder if she has a fifteen coming up anytime soon. I start to ask as much, but I’m interrupted by a wet, gravelly snicker. One of the old-timers down the way is watching us, laughing through teeth like cracked headstones. Beth jumps away from me, her blonde locks swinging in an angry arc as she hones in on him.

“Got something to say, Willie?”

Rheumy eyes meet hers. With his shrunken frame and clothes a few sizes too big, Willie looks like he might be blown away by the force of Beth’s rage.

“Just enjoying the show, ladies,” he croaks and motions to the gray-haired Girls on the tube.

“Right.” Beth eyes him darkly for a long minute. “Well, keep your trap shut, or you can go drown yourself somewhere else.”

The old guy smirks, mute. Beth avoids my gaze and moves to unload a tray of glassware from the steaming dishwasher at the far end of the bar. It’s probably a good idea to tone things down. Wouldn’t want word to get back to Big Stumps that his baby girl is making eyes at the female patrons.

Beth’s hair is fanned across my pillow, gold against black. Moonlight shines on her long, silvery lashes and kisses her flushed cheeks. The light—cold and blue as fairy wings—seems to seek her out, illuminating the rapid rise and fall of her chest, the swell of her hips. I’m propped up on the bed next to her, dipped in heavy shadow. Beth lets out a satisfied little groan, and I tuck myself into her side, hand on her belly, leg slung over hers. Now I’m glowing, too.

“Cort …”

“Hmm?”

“You have magic fingers. Did you know that?” Her voice is heavy, the slurred speech of the drunk—or the thoroughly fucked.

I smile and peck her temple. “You might have said that before, once or twice.”

“Magic.”

A heart that’s full up like a landfill … A job that slowly kills you… Bruises that won’t heal.

Amanda Palmer’s version of No Surprises floats out of the speakers on my nightstand. The pluck of her accompanying ukulele falls like drops of rain while her brooding alto trods on, slow and steady as a funeral procession. Not exactly the mood I usually set for these things, but somehow not entirely inappropriate, either. As it is, Beth is dead to the world.

I’ll take a quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide …

No alarms and no surprises …

Sounds nice. Not the carbon monoxide, of course, but no surprises? I’d be okay with that.

“Hey, Cort?” Beth begins to stir, stroking my arm lazily. “Can we do that thing?”

The girl kills me. We’ve been to bed enough times; I know exactly what she’s talking about. That she feels the need to ask me after all this time—that she’s still so fucking shy about it—makes me chuckle.

In response, I roll away from her, and Beth chirps in glee. It’s nice to make someone so happy with so little effort; I wish it was always this easy. I open the drawer of my nightstand and pull out two lengths of soft nylon rope I keep for such occasions. When I pass them to Beth, the sweet, uncertain girl disappears. In her place is someone confident. In control. She’s come a long way from her first fumbling knots with silk scarves, handling the ropes expertly as she shifts me to the center of the bed and straddles my waist. She once told me the names of the complicated loops attaching my wrists to the iron headboard—a french bowtie? Some sort of hitch? I don’t really care; it’s not my thing. Mostly, I do it because Beth seems to need it, and I get off either way. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think she fancies herself Mistress Bethany or anything, but the woman with the rope in her hands is not the same one who pours my drinks.

After I’m secure and she’s made sure the bindings aren’t too tight, she begins her slow torture. I lie back and close my eyes while shivers of anticipation trip through me. There’s something nice about letting go, knowing I don’t have to do anything but receive whatever attention Beth chooses to lavish upon me. Her curtain of hair tickles as she lowers her mouth to my sternum. She takes her time, moving over me with kisses and caresses that brush across my skin butterfly-gentle—lighting a spark, but never letting the flame truly take hold.

From my speakers, the Radiohead cover comes to a close and another song begins, tone moving from heavy and mournful to sultry and upbeat. Beth works in time with the music, hands squeezing my thighs, mouth nipping my stomach. I don’t know if she’s doing it on purpose, or if it’s some kind of subconscious congruity, but the effect is the same. The matching rhythm is satisfying in an inexplicable way—like the perfect resistance of the breeze against your hand when you drive with the window down. A kind of sensorial harmony.

Maybe I’m overthinking the whole thing and just really enjoying getting off.

As Beth’s ministrations become more … to the point, my control starts to unwind. I tug at the bindings and shimmy my hips. My head lolls side to side, hair flopping over my eyes. Jagged strands form a dark curtain that tickles my nose and cheeks. I’d ask her to sweep it away for me, but I know she’d only refuse—small discomforts of this sort are part of the game.

Beth presses my thighs apart and carries on until I forget all about the ache in my shoulders and the blindfold of hair across my eyes.

Oh, fuck. OH, FUCK.

My heels dig into the mattress, and every muscle in my body tenses. My belly is clenched tight, my thighs shaking. I just want her to finish me off.

Please. Please. PLEASE.

I thrust upward, pressing against her mouth, but she pushes me down with a firm hand on my hipbone. I’m buzzing everywhere. An overloaded circuit. A downed power line sparking hot and bright. It’s too much. She has to stop or I’m going to explode.

I’m going to shatter … I’m going to … oh, God—

AHHHH …

I pull at my bindings as I writhe, screaming my release into the night. Beth stays where she is, pulling every last bit of glorious pleasure-pain out of me. I can’t see past the Fourth of July sparklers dancing in my eyes, and my heart feels like it might burn out of my chest.

For someone who so thoroughly enjoys torturing me, she’s surprisingly considerate when it comes to bringing me down. She works slowly, expertly—pulling away just before my body rebels.

I shudder as she kisses a path up my belly. She’s careful not to jar me out of my lazy afterglow as she unbinds my wrists and massages my aching arms. She sweeps the hair out of my eyes and plants light kisses across my eyelids, over my cheeks. I feel like puddled goo. Solid as a jellyfish.

This is good. We should totally do this more often.

My hands tingle as the blood rushes back in, but it’s a minor inconvenience. Beth nuzzles into my side, tangling our legs together. I ignore the pins and needles and give her hip a tentative squeeze. That plush expanse of flesh is my favorite part—so feminine, so soft. Beth’s cheeks are bright with pride.

Tell me all the things you want to do … I heard you like the bad girls … Honey, is that true?

The slow, moody beat of Lana Del Rey’s Video Games fills the room.

Kissing in the blue dark … Playing pool and wild darts … Video games …

I love when music magically synchronizes with my mood. I feel deliciously sinful, lousy with don’t-give-a-fucks.

By the time the music has shuffled through two more songs and Beth is buttoning her flannel shirt, I realize I haven’t thought about Beverly or my mother in hours. Of course, with that thought my mood immediately sinks, and I curse myself for courting gloom.

“This okay?” Beth asks, pulling out a Camel and moving toward my windowsill.

It’s not, really. It was a bitch quitting, and it’s still hard to turn one down if I’m offered, but I give her a short nod anyway. She cracks the window and sits on the edge of my desk, sandy curls peeking out from between her legs. Her lighter flashes in the dark, illuminating her face like a campfire horror story. My lungs expand in longing as she takes the first drag. I force myself to look away.

I retrieve my black tank from the floor and drag it on. My underwear are around here somewhere. Instead of searching, I grab a fresh pair from the dresser and return to the bed. The water on my nightstand is stale, but I take a swig anyway. I wonder if Beth will ask to stay over. I wouldn’t say no, but it doesn’t really matter either way.

“So what’s going on with your book? Getting anywhere with Safina Black and her dwarves?”

Beth flicks some ash onto the frozen hydrangea outside my window. The cold air pebbles my skin, and I pull a blanket over my legs.

“It’s elves, and … no. Not really.”

Fuck. I don’t want to talk about this. Why do they always want to fucking talk?

Beth is one of a few people who knows I write. Wrote. Whatever. I was in my last semester at Brentwood College when Beth audited a creative writing course I was taking. She was a sweet young thing—a high school senior—and my eyes hadn’t yet been opened to the possibilities of … well, sweet young things. We were friends. I’d share my stories with her, and she’d try not to laugh. Really shit deal for me all around. To be fair, she’s not a fantasy geek—I couldn’t really expect her be into my work.

About a year ago, I got up the nerve to send something out to a few agents and publishers. Beth read the book for me, gave me the appropriately humiliating critiques, and helped me revise. I never told her about the resounding fuck off the industry gave me. Why would I? Nobody brags about the race they lost.

Beth takes a final drag and flicks the cigarette out the window. There was easily a good puff or two left. I kind of hate her for that.

“What happened? I liked it.”

“Don’t lie. I like you better when you’re honest.”

The hurt in her eyes flickers and fades. She squares her shoulders and slides the glass down. It falls into the frame with a thunk.

“I like you better when you’re not a bitch.”

I smile. Touché.

“I’m just saying I know it wasn’t your thing. Wasn’t for a lot of people.” She raises a brow and nods for me to continue. “I sent it out. It made it through the slush pile of a couple agencies but didn’t go any further. Just didn’t work out.”

“It didn’t work out?” She crosses her arms, flannel shirt hitching up on her thighs. “You mean you gave up.”

I bolt upright, suddenly wishing I’d put on some pants. This is such bullshit. If someone had declared a national Shit On Cort Day, they really should have given me a heads up.

“I didn’t give up. Nobody wanted it.”

“So you’re saying you sent it out to, what, a dozen places and they didn’t bite? So you just stopped trying? God, Cort, that’s fucking lame.”

I’m sorry, Miss, the opening was for the position of Fuck Buddy, not Life Coach. Jesus, it’s like you take someone to bed, and they think they own a piece of you.

“Fuck you.”

She didn’t put herself out there. She didn’t spend two years scribbling during every fifteen, every lousy lunch break. She didn’t wait by the mailbox just to open the same fucking form rejection, one after another.

Dear Asshole Author,

Thank you very much for your submission of FILL IN THE BLANK. We appreciate your interest, but unfortunately blah blah suck-my-cock blah…

“You wanna talk about lame? What about tying girls up because it’s the only way you can deal with your colossal daddy issues? What about hiding so far inside the closet you can practically see Narnia?”

For a second, I revel in my triumph. Beth looks stunned—shocked silent. When the flame of rage I expect never materializes, I hear warning bells. She turns from me, pretty mouth pursed, thoughts locked firmly inside her head. I rub the rope burns on my wrists while she moves around the room gathering her clothes. She’s silent as she slides on underwear and jeans, socks and boots. Her bra is stuffed into her coat pocket, her bag at home on her shoulder. When the room is clear of her things, Beth turns to me at last.

From the speakers, Tori Amos extols the virtues of a raspberry swirl, and I scold her internally for her completely inappropriate timing.

For a moment Beth just watches me. Gone is the thoroughly fucked look she was sporting just minutes before. She looks as cool as a snake charmer, collected in the face of a venomous beast.

“I think you should stay out of the bar. Better you don’t have to deal with any of my daddy issues.”

My shoulders slump under the weight of this stupidity. God, what are we even talking about?

“Beth—”

“I’ve put up with a lot of shit from you, Cort—the casual cruelty, the permanent stick up your ass—”

“I didn’t mean—”

“—because I’ve always known there was more. You have something amazing inside of you, something bigger than this shit town.”

What does the hell does that mean?

“But it’s not enough, anymore. The promise of what you could be is not enough. I’m tired of being your punching bag.”

I want to say something—I didn’t mean it, don’t be mad, don’t go—but my tongue is glued to the roof of my mouth. As the door closes behind her, I find my voice at last. But it’s too little and too late.

“Sorry.”

The word tastes bitter in my mouth—as unwelcome as the stench of cigarette smoke lingering in the air.

“What do you think of Beatrice?”

“I think she’d make a perfect nineteenth century charwoman.”

“Come on, Cort! You don’t like anything!”

Sarah Fowler used to be cool. She was the only other townie in my class at BC, and we bonded over divided loyalties and imagined alienation. She used to be into X-rated anime and classic Italian films. She used to talk about politics and literature.

The only movies she watches these days are birthing videos. The only books, baby name treasuries.

She takes a swig of one of those horrible green health drinks made with wheatgrass and garlic and flips the page of her latest baby tome. I’m on my knees, eye-level with her ever-growing alien bulge. I avert my gaze and continue shelving volumes one to one thousand of Curious George Does Some Annoying Shit and Suffers Absolutely No Consequences. Reorganizing the children’s section is the penance Beverly chose for my perceived transgressions. The red velvet cupcakes I brought in this morning softened her mood enough to let me back to work but did not absolve me completely.

“Why do you have to stray from the standards? What’s wrong with Amy? Jane?”

“Says the girl who refuses to answer to anything as mundane as Courtney.”

I don’t understand why having a baby turns your brain to mush. It’s like as soon as a little swimmer pushes his way in, the resulting spawn latches onto the host’s brain stem. Higher reasoning and cognitive function are immediately replaced with nesting instinct and baby talk.

“I don’t know, Sarah. What does Jamie like?” I honestly couldn’t care less. I just want her to stop hounding me for an opinion on the impending Fowler’s moniker.

“Oh, God! He’s totally obsessed with nature names: Jade, Daisy, Summer.”

Please, tell me more.

“I don’t know … it just seems like it sets her up to be a polyamorous, pot-growing hippie.”

In her third year, Sarah did a conference project on the effects of psychedelic drugs on sex drive. Six months doing “field study”—for which she earned full credits—and now she’s paranoid about a slightly unconventional name?

“What happened to you?”

She eyes me blankly, breathing the oxygen-deficient air of the impregnated.

“I remember the days when you aspired to be a polyamorous, pot-growing hippie.”

A smile teases the corner of her mouth, and for a second I have my Sarah back. She caps her horrible green cocktail and slides down to the ground. It’s not easy—she’s like the Liberty Bell on flamingo legs—but she lands on her bottom at last. I lay down the stack of Questionable Judgement George and join her. She rests her head on my shoulder, warm hand clasped in mine.

“It’s so weird, Cort.” She sighs and rubs her thumb across my knuckles. “It’s like everything is different. Ever since I saw that little pink plus sign, nothing looks the same.”

I don’t know what to say. As much as I pride myself on having a solid imagination, all of this—marriage, babies—is way beyond my realm of comprehension.

“I walk down the street now and see a little kid running in front of me, and all I can think is, Where is his coat? A year ago I wouldn’t have even noticed him.” She lifts her head and meets my gaze. “Is it totally annoying?”

“Yes,” I deadpan.

She slaps my thigh. “Stop it, or I’ll ask you to be my birth coach!”

“Oh, God no!” Groan. “Quick, tell me more baby names.”

Laughter rolls out of us, and curious eyes turn our direction. I feel a looming shadow lift. It’s nice to have a real moment with my friend—I’ve missed her. Bev leans around the stacks and tells us to tone it down, but there’s a smile in her eyes.

“If you’re gonna gossip, at least keep shelving while you do it.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And get Sarah a chair! Can’t you see the girl’s pregnant?”

I clamp my jaw shut, fighting bubbling hysteria. Sarah has no such luck. She tips, falling to the thin carpet in a giggling fit, arms and legs flailing like a beached whale.

“Oh Lord, woman!” Beverly rounds the corner. “Did somebody spike your shake?”

“No, no.” Sarah rolls onto her hands and knees, gasping for breath. I help her to her feet and pull over a pint-sized electric green chair from the kid’s table. She sits down and rubs her belly, beaming. “It’s just the hormones.”

“Hormones. Right.” Bev glances my way, the warm humor in her tone suddenly icy. “Lots of those going ‘round.”

I try to look properly chastised, but I doubt she buys it. I wonder how long Beverly is going to make me pay for my storeroom antics. This could get old real fast.

“How long are you taking off, Sarah?” Bev leans down to pat Sarah’s belly, stars in her eyes.

With my boss’s attention otherwise engaged, I play the good worker bee and continue shelving.

“I don’t know. I’m on leave the rest of the semester. I might take next year off, too.”

“Oh, that would be nice, if you can do it. I loved those early years with Jessie and Cody.” Bev smiles wistfully, and I feel like Charlie Brown listening to the grown-ups “Wah, wah, mwah” overhead. Then I realize what Sarah just said, and the books in my hand scatter to the floor.

“Wait—what? What about your job?”

Sarah is head counselor at Brentwood High. She might get away with taking the next few months off, but if she tries for more than that, it’s likely the job won’t be there when she’s ready to return. The only reason she was hired in the first place was because the octogenarian in the position before her finally retired. If she loses her place at the school, it could be years before another one comes along.

“You really think they’re going to wait for you?”

“I don’t know.” She looks entirely unconcerned about this prospect. “The baby’s gonna need me.”

“What about Jamie? Is he gonna sacrifice his career for the rugrat?”

“Courtney!” Beverly scolds me, but I don’t give a shit. This is Sarah’s life we’re talking about.

“No, Bev, it’s fine. She’s just being protective.” The new best buds share a knowing glance. “This is how Cort shows she cares.”

Beverly nods, radiating condescension. “All teeth and claws, this one. Sometimes I wonder if she’s part mountain lion.”

Like I’m some lab animal. Like I can be catalogued and evaluated. They want to mock me? Fine. If Sarah doesn’t give a shit about her future, why should I?

“Well, if you people are finished examining my flawed character, I’m gonna take my fifteen.”

They call after me, but I’m already outside and leaning against the brick wall before the slamming door silences them. The stench of rotting Thai food wafts from a dumpster across the alley. At my feet is a familiar overturned milk crate. Before I quit, I used to sit out here during my breaks and smoke. Right now it’s Prama’s butts mingling with the crusty brown, day-old snow. I wonder if I can sneak back in and ask to bum one. Maybe I could just slip into the office and dip into her pack. Just one.

Before my plan is fully formed, the door eases open and a contrite-looking Sarah peeks out. She steps onto the icy pavement with care and pulls her tent-like coat closed. It’s only now I realize I’m in a thin pullover and it’s fucking cold. Arms crossed, I shiver as my breath plumes around me.

“Hey.”

My first instinct is to tell her to fuck off. It’s so strong, the words are halfway out of my mouth before I realize how familiar this feels. Friends are dropping like flies these days—I’m not sure I can afford to lose another. I fight the impulse to say something snarky and simply nod instead.

“Bev told me about your mom’s birthday. I’m sorry I forgot.”

Fucking fabulous. My teeth worry at the silver loop in my bottom lip, but I stay mum.

“I’ve been so flighty lately—my brain’s kind of mush about everything but the baby, you know?”

Yeah, I know.

“If there’s anything you want to talk about … anything you need … you know I’m here, right?” Sarah tilts her head, dipping down to meet my lowered gaze. “Right?”

You gotta be kidding me. I push this shit down everyday. The only reason my mom’s birthday is harder than the rest is because everybody wants to fucking talk about it. Sarah’s watching me like I’m some lost kitten, and I feel the familiar burn behind my eyes.

Shit.

I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. Think about Justin Bieber and chimps in diapers and Sarah’s stupid mom haircut. Think about anything but how it feels to be pitied like this—to know you deserve this pity.

Oh, fuck.

A single asshole tear breaks free, but I blink back the rest. If I had any words, they’d be lodged in my throat. But I don’t have any words. Or I have too many. Either way, Mom’s gone and nothing I say will bring her back, so these tears can go fuck themselves.

My gaze is locked on the wall across the way. The bricks are decorated with rorschach-like urine stains—as though the drunks and bums who use the alley as their toilet have a particular appreciation for symmetry.

I can feel Sarah watching me. I wish she’d go inside.

“Cort?”

Nope. Nobody home. I’m looking at piss art.

“Hey, Cort!”

I glare. What?

“You’re so stupid sometimes.”

Before I have a chance to punch the pregnant lady, Sarah traps me in her coat, pressing her massive belly to mine and thoroughly creeping me out.

“What—!”

“You need a hug. Don’t argue.”

Holy shit on a stick, Batman, you gotta be fucking kidding me! I am going to argue. I’m going to push her demon spawn off me and run away.

Any second now.

Seriously.

Fuck.

I think it’s her scent that does it. She smells like peonies—rosy-sweet and a little citrusy. The kind of understated perfume Mom would have worn. But whether it’s her smell or the soft warmth of her sweater or the inviting crush of her swollen boobs, I find my resistance failing as I sink into her embrace. For just a moment, I feel what it’s like to be comforted … the way a mom might comfort me. I let her hug me, and I pretend I’m not in some skeezy alley. I pretend I’m home. Safe. Loved.

The tears well, but they don’t fall. I dip my head to Sarah’s shoulder and breathe. I feel heavy—too heavy to stand on these flimsy legs—but Sarah’s got me, so I don’t buckle and collapse.

I don’t know why this is so hard. How a hug can feel so foreign and a fuck so familiar. It occurs to me that there is something seriously wrong with my head. The irony is, I’d need to be infinitely less fucked up to actually deal with it. That’s not a rabbit hole I want to go down today, so I let the pregnant lady hug me and save my broken brain for another time.

I don’t know how long we’ve been standing here wrapped up inside Sarah’s coat, but I think my fifteen is probably up. As soon as I push away, the cold creeps under my skin. I reach for the door.

“Hey, Sarah?”

“Yeah?”

I hold the door open for her and let her go through first. The back hall is blessedly free from Valentine’s Day crap, but the love-gasm hits me as soon as we reach the main floor.

“You know that Daisy Fowler sounds like a demented douche ad, right?”

Sarah stops mid-stride, and I bump into her. She turns, eyes wide, irises dilating until green is nearly swallowed by black.

“Oh. My. God.”

I press my mouth closed to hold back a smile, but it’s hopeless. Our shrill giggles echo into the store. From across the room Bev hollers, “Don’t you two ever stop?” When we’ve caught our breath again, Sarah eyes me seriously.

“I think you just saved my daughter from a lifetime of torment. You should be her Godmother.”

“Oh, fuck no.”

She trails her hands over my shoulders, down my arms, and ends with a squeeze of my hands.

“Okay. Honorable Auntie. How’s that?”

I consider her ballooning belly. Someday very soon there’s going to be a squishy little drooling monkey in her arms. Auntie Cort? I suppose there are worse things.

“Fine. As long as I don’t have to change any diapers.”

“Deal.”

Sarah’s going to make a good mom. If anyone’s gonna do the job, it should be someone who actually wants it.

The pie is still warm as I make my way up the walk to the single-story robin’s egg-blue craftsman. Grandma Rosie’s strawberry rhubarb recipe in one hand, vanilla ice cream in the other. I kick at the door with the steel toe of my Doc and hope the boys have the TV turned low enough to hear me. Richie opens it without looking and returns to the living room, shouting.

“Oh, come on! The net was wide-open—a blind midget could have scored that goal!”

“Useless,” Pop adds from the couch. “They never should have traded Walker for this numb-nuts.”

I close the door with my butt and wait for Dad to say hi. He takes a swig from his bottle and scowls at the screen. They’ve tidied the house a bit, but I doubt the beige carpet has seen a vacuum in months. The macrame owl wall hanging, the dusty pictures—relics from an era gone by. I examine the tired memories. Me in braces and a denim jumper. Richie in his varsity football uniform. Four eighties hairstyles and a wrinkled, puke-green Sear’s backdrop.

The boys are engrossed in their hockey game, and my hands are protesting the disparity of temperature from the food I’m holding.

“Hi, Cort!” I chirp. “Nice to see you. Come on in—can I get you a beer?”

Dad keeps his eyes fixed on the screen. “Sure, honey, I’d take another Sam. You want one, Richie?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Typical. I cross through the living and dining rooms to the kitchen and put the dessert away. The counter is littered with styrofoam take-out containers full of mashed potatoes, gravy, and corn. Raw chicken sealed in plastic, fleshy and pink, sits next to the stove, waiting to be fried. I don’t know how hard it would be to throw a frozen lasagna in the oven or—heaven forbid—consider something green, but no, fried chicken it is. When they’re not surviving on burgers from Stumpy’s or Chinese take-out, the only food in the Joseph boys’ universe is fried chicken.

After enduring the preparation of the same meal week after week, year after year, the poor kitchen reeks of grease. The once-white lace curtains in the window above the sink have turned a sour shade of yellow, and the cheery daisy wallpaper behind the stove has taken on a reflective shine. If Mom were here, she’d be horrified not only by the state of the house, but the boys’ arteries. But she’s not here. And I’m not my mother.

I pull three lagers from the fridge and pop the caps.

“Want me to start the chicken?”

“Sure.” Dad takes two beers, passing one to my brother. “Richie, pull out the TV trays and we can eat in here.”

“Why don’t we wait until the game’s over and eat at the table?”

That earns me a glance, the first he’s graced me with since I walked in. He seems to consider it—a real family dinner around the table—but decides against it in the end.

“Nah, this is fine.”

Not for the first time, I notice how tired Dad looks. Long, hard days and too many years with no one looking after him have taken their toll. He’s like the house—a crumbling time capsule. I wonder how he might look if he were forced to take a walk or eat a piece of broccoli every now and then. Five years younger? Ten? Might the pallor of his face be replaced with a bright, healthy glow? The thinning hair on his head exchanged for thicker locks, peppered with less gray?

Maybe.

Maybe I should do it. Take the pictures down. Replace the creaking couch, the dusty curtains. Come over every night and cook a real meal. Clean up their wardrobes, find Richie a girlfriend. I could make their sad, stunted lives my pet project.

And how would I look in a year’s time? What toll would that take on me?

I could give and give and give—let them suck me dry like two beer-chugging vampires—and I’m still not sure it would make a difference. Because the truth is, they don’t want to change. They’re actually happy like this. Living simple, boring lives in a simple, boring town.

What a fucking waste.

I leave the boys to their game and turn the heat on the cast-iron skillet. Fried chicken it is.

I’ve been at the register for a few hours now, and my head is starting to ache. I close my eyes and roll my head shoulder to shoulder, neck popping like bubble wrap. At least I don’t have to close tonight. I just want to be in bed with a book and a fat slice of cheesecake. I consider the contents of my pantry and decide a trip to Shaw’s is in order.

The door chimes. I ignore it in favor of sugar-induced fantasies.

“Hey, stranger,” a honey-warm voice says, and my eyes snap open.

Hmm… maybe I should put the cheesecake on hold.

Smile lines fan out from twinkling blue eyes. It’s only been a few months since we ran into each other, but there’s a little more gray in his hair. It looks good. Not the way the gray in my dad’s hair ages him—on Alex Holbrook, the silver at his temples is distinguished, sexy. He’s wearing a pressed suit and dark wool overcoat. His open shirt collar and loosened burgundy tie expose the hollow dip below his adam’s apple. Delicious.

“Hey, Prof. How’s academic life?”

“Same. How’s the book business?”

“Same.”

Heat flames my cheeks, dragging my smile up and up. The man’s cocky grin has always zipped straight to my nethers. He knows it, too. Many a pair of coed panties have fallen in response to little more than an arched brow or well-timed smirk from the Literature Department Lothario.

“Can I help you with something?”

My eyes flick to the storeroom door and back. Not a good idea. Not a good idea.

“Faulkner’s coming up this semester.” He fingers the indigo scarf hanging loose from his shoulders. The man has fantastic hands. “There was a mix-up at the campus store and we’re short. Do you have any Light in August in stock?”

Light stubble shadows his square jaw. He wets his bottom lip and bites down. He might as well say, “I’d very much like to bang you on this counter.” I try to keep my eyes level and voice even, but it’s hard when I’m picturing that beautiful mouth doing naughty, naughty things.

“Let’s have a look.” I scan the store and locate my negligent co-worker behind the espresso bar reading a pilfered copy of US Weekly. “Hey Prama, can you cover the register while I help this customer?”

She doesn’t look up, thoroughly engrossed in the latest on Taylor Swift’s breakup or Kirsty Alley’s weight gain.

“Sure.”

Alex follows me through the stacks to the fiction section. We both know he’s perfectly capable of finding it on his own, but something tells me he’s not just here for the books. Faulkner’s on the top shelf, and I pull a stool over to get a better look. I feel the heat of my former professor’s gaze on my ass and miraculously find myself unable to muster any offense.

“Looks like we have … four here. How many do you—”

As I turn, the stool wobbles precariously. My heart leaps into my throat, but Alex steadies me. Warm palms on my hips, fingers exploring a slip of skin above my waistband. And just like that, the air is evacuated from the room.

“Careful there, Miss Joseph.”

I can’t help but smirk at the naughty professor routine—though, is it a routine when it’s basically how the guy makes his way through life? Either way, a plaid skirt and pair of glasses wouldn’t be unwelcome right now. While I ruminate on the imaginary wardrobe change, Alex helps me down, mischief in his eyes, hands lingering on my hips.

“Want me to check the back for more?” My voice is breathy, foreign to my ears.

He leans down and brushes his nose along my neck. Warmth swirls across the shell of my ear where his lips whisper acceptance.

“Sure.”

Oh, wow.

We’re hidden in the stacks, and I’m sure Prama’s ignoring us, anyway. Bev’s gone for the night, and every other self-respecting person in town has a date for Valentine’s Day. The store’s empty.

Don’t invite him into the storeroom. Don’t invite him into the storeroom.

“Why don’t you come with me?”

He flashes a toothy grin. “I’d love to.”

I’m halfway to the back, Professor Hotpants trailing behind, when I come to my senses. This is a crap job, but it’s my crap job, and I need it.

“Wait.”

I stop mid-stride, and Alex bumps into me. When I make no move to continue, he caresses my shoulders and whispers in my ear.

“Problem?”

God, he smells good. Why did I have to go and get all responsible tonight?

“No, I just …” I turn, and his hands fall away. I can’t believe I’m going to say this. “Bev usually keeps all the paperbacks we have on the shelves. There won’t be any more in the back.”

“Oh.” He looks completely confused. As confused as I feel.

What the hell am I doing? He’s here. He’s hot. And he wants me. What’s the problem?

I swallow hard, my stomach sinking in disappointment. “I can order some more for you—we’d probably get them in a week or two. Would that be enough time?”

“What?”

“The books. I can order more.”

“Oh. Sure.”

Fuck. There’s got to be some way to salvage this.

We wander back to the front desk, flashes of pink and red marking the way. Then it hits me, and my smile bubbles bright as champagne.

“So hey, do you have plans tonight?”

“Plans?”

“Yeah, plans.”

“Tonight?”

I feel like I’m talking to a wall. The man’s life revolves around words, and suddenly he can’t spit out more than one at a time?

“Valentine’s Day.” I motion to the giant heart waving above my head. “Do you have plans?”

“Oh.”

“I get off in about thirty minutes. We could hang out. I don’t know … get take-out and head to your place?” He looks like I just strangled his cat, face mashed into a horrified grimace.

Jesus, is the prospect of an evening with me really that terrible?

“You know, ‘cause it’s kind of a shitty holiday to spend alone …” He isn’t saying anything, and I’m starting to feel like a royal asshole. I mean it’s not like we haven’t done this before. I’m not asking for a ring. Dinner and a tumble—it’s not that big a deal. But I’m clearly missing something. “Okay … no. That’s fine—”

“It’s just …” He worries the fringe on his scarf, eyes vacantly fixed on the counter. “I do. I mean, I have plans. Sorry.”

“You have—?” Realization slams home, and I grip the counter to steady myself.

Holy fuck. Are you kidding me?

He has a date. He’s trying get it on with me the same night he has a fucking date. I know I’m pretty chill when it comes to sex, but Jesus Christ, even I can see how slimy that is.

He meets my gaze, suddenly hopeful. “But, you know, I’m not due for another hour—”

Oh, wow. This is a whole new level of fucked. I send him a pointed glare, and he closes his trap.

“No, right. Of course.”

I don’t think I have ever felt so tainted by another person’s filth. I want to take a shower. I want to scrub my skin raw until there’s no trace of his stink on me. I wonder if he actually needed the books, or if he just saw me in the shop window on his way home and figured, What the hell, Cort’s good for a quick shag.

I feel like a spittoon. A dirty receptacle.

“So …” He lets the sentence hang, desperation clouding his face. He’s hoping I’ll rescue him, but he can go fuck himself. I’m glad he feels uncomfortable. He should. “I guess I’ll just talk to Beverly about the books another time.”

I am one hundred percent certain he doesn’t need any fucking books.

“You do that.”

“Okay, Cort.” He straightens his spine, pulling his professor mask back on. “I’ll see you around.”

Not likely.

The door chimes as he exits, but I don’t watch him go.

How could he think any of this would be okay? How could he think I’d be okay with it? What the hell does that say about me?

“What a douchebag.” Prama’s voice startles me out of my sullen revery. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, Cort.”

I wade through the unending flowery mess to the espresso counter and grab a Taza chocolate bar from its display. Wrestling a chunk out, I chew as I talk.

“I’m going home. Give me a fucking smoke.”

The yellow porch light is making me nauseous. It’s like all the horrible thoughts flying around my head are reflected back to me in glowing ochre. I’ve been standing here contemplating the door’s chipped paint for a full minute—trying to decide whether I should knock or not. The demon light settles it for me.

Tap, tap, tap.

Before my knuckles rap their last, I regret it. I’m sure he’s out. Or he’s in, but he’s not alone. I don’t know which would be worse. I turn to make my escape, but it’s too late. The hinges on the front door are creaking before I’ve made it down the steps.

“Cort? What are you—?” I try to pull my expression together as I turn, but it’s hopeless. Rudy falls silent when he sees my face. “Hey … come here.”

It’s humiliating he can read me so easily, but fuck it; there’s not much left of my pride. He pulls me into a hug before I have a chance to object. In spite of myself, I sink into him. His arms are warm, solid. Safe. I squeeze my eyes shut and block out the hideous yellow glow.

I’m not this girl. I’m not the girl who goes crying into the arms of some guy. I’m not the fragile flower who needs to be rescued. I rescue myself.

Except, tonight, I do need to be rescued. I don’t want to be alone. And I don’t want to feel so … broken.

“What’s wrong? What happened?”

“Can we please not talk?”

He hesitates, then silently pulls me tighter. Rudy’s my height, but I feel small in his arms. I exhale a sigh, my breath fanning out across his shoulder. He smells like deodorant and pizza. It’s a nice combination.

Okay, no, it’s really not—but I want it to be, so I decide it is. I decide everything about this is good. I’m in Rudy’s arms, and everything’s okay. Because the alternative is, this isn’t right. He isn’t right. And then where will I be? There’s a dirty, scrambling beast inside my head telling me—screaming at me—if Rudy lets me go, if nobody’s here to hold me together, then the cracked, useless pieces of me will go spinning off into the ether. If I can just decide that I’m all right—here in Rudy’s arms—I won’t disintegrate.

I’m not going to think about how weak that makes me feel. I’m going to take this from him. He always wants to give, so right or not, I’m going to take.

And it works. The wasp-like buzzing in my brain falls silent. My tears dry. I’m gonna be okay.

When I feel Rudy’s teeth chattering, I pull away. “Shit, you’re freezing.”

“It’s okay.” He smiles, Mr. Rogers-earnest and just as sweet. “But can we maybe go inside now?”

He’s in a thin Green Lantern T-shirt and a purple skull cap. Nerdy clown. Overgrown child. An inappropriate giggle bubbles up as he leads me into the house, but I push it down before it finds its way free. From the TV, Jules is screaming, “Tell that bitch to be cool! Say ‘bitch be cool’!” Pumpkin tells Honey Bunny to be cool, but elects not to call her a bitch. I’ve always appreciated that. Rudy clicks the movie off and offers me a drink.

“I’ve got Newcastle or Heineken. Dean might have left some vodka in the freezer, too.”

“Vodka, please. Splash of juice.”

Rudy grabs a hoodie from the couch and heads into the kitchen. It’s been awhile since I was here, but not much has changed. He has the grad student pad down pretty pat. Cheap Ikea furniture and discarded shit he found on the sidewalk. Beer bottles, movie posters, textbooks.

I drop my coat, slumping onto the couch and closing the lid on a half-eaten pizza sitting on the coffee table.

“Big plans on Valentine’s Day, I see.”

Rudy returns with two orange-tinted cocktails and hands me one as he sits.

“Yeah, well, my company’s not much in demand, I guess.”

Ouch.

“Rudy—”

“No, that was low. Just ignore me.” He smiles tightly. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

I grimace as the burning liquor goes down, but it warms me almost instantly. We sit like that for a while, silently choking down cheap vodka and avoiding the pachyderm eyeing us from the corner. I’m really glad he’s not pressing me for info. I don’t know why I was so upset—it all seems kind of stupid now. But that doesn’t mean I want to talk about it, either.

“Thanks.”

He shrugs. No big deal.

Rudy’s a good guy. Like a really good guy. I wonder if it’s possible for something like that to rub off on me. If I spent enough time with him, could I be a good person, too?

I set my drink down and shift to face him.

“Can I stay here?”

He turns, incredulous. Right. Even when we were dating, I only slept over a handful of times—mostly by accident.

“What happened to you tonight?”

“Rudy, please. I just don’t want to be alone.”

“Look Cort, I’m not—I mean, I think this thing with us … it’s—I like you, and I want—”

“Don’t blow a gasket. Jesus.”

He sighs. He’s right next to me, but there’s not an inch of us touching.

“I think we can be friends. I’d like to be friends. But that other stuff …” He trails off, but I don’t need him to continue. The scales, as they say, have fallen from my eyes. If nothing else, Alex has taught me how it feels to be used.

“I’ve really fucked with your head, haven’t I?”

He grins crookedly.

“Little bit.”

“I’m sorry.” He nods, but says nothing. I don’t know if that means he forgives me or not. “I can take the couch. We don’t have to do any of ‘that other stuff’.”

I’m sure he’ll say no. I don’t know what I’ll do when he says no.

“Okay.” He pats the cushions. “Not very comfortable, but you can have it.”

“Thanks. That’s …” More than I deserve. More than I have a right to ask. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He finishes off his drink in a gulp. “Valentine’s Day is a shitty holiday to be alone.”

“Okay, so tell me about this one.”

I’m on drink number whatever and Rudy has cashed his second bowl, his eyes droopy and red-rimmed. My head is on the armrest of his boxy, gray, assemble-it-yourself couch, my legs slung over his thighs. We’re playing the tattoo game, and he’s stroking the tiny black birds fluttering across the inside of my left wrist. It feels nice. Nice enough that I’m not annoyed to be grilled on my work by a guy with a stormtrooper and roses on his bicep.

“Come on… it’s not that hard to decipher.” The sentence is sound, only the last word comes out as “dah-schi-fer”.

“I can guess, but I don’t know. You’re the one with the ink.”

“I live in the same shit town I was born in. What do you think the birds mean?”

“Okay. Gotcha.” Maybe if he weren’t so stoned, he’d press me for more. But his eyes have already moved on, and his fingers are trailing over the antique Smith-Corona typewriter below my elbow. “And this?”

God, he’s really gonna do every one, isn’t he?

My eyes are heavy. I let them fall closed and focus on the feel of his hands on my skin. The couch sways under me, and my pulse thumps in my ears.

“Gramps gave me his old typewriter when I was ten. He was a newspaper man, but he really only had one true love. See the keys?”

Rudy lifts my arm to take a closer look. Instead of the usual QWERTY keyboard, the circular keys read:

EARL AND ROSIE … 31 AUGUST 1945 … LOVE IS NOT LOVE

“Your grandparents?”

I nod.

“‘Love is not love’?”

I take a breath and try to remember the words.

“Love is not love which changes—” No, that’s not right. “—which alters when it alteration finds … or bends with the remover to remove … O no … it is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.”

“Shakespeare?”

“Shakespeare. Gram’s favorite sonnet.”

He lowers my arm and explores further north. I know where this is going. It’ll all be very innocent—until it’s not. He’ll ask about the dragon appearing as if from a mist out of the typewriter and the fairies fluttering around it. He’ll caress my shoulder, trying to tease out the meaning of the cherry blossoms there. He’ll move over my clavicle to the owl tattooed over my breastbone.

Why the heart gripped in its talons? he’ll say, as my skin flames from his touch. What does that mean?

I’m just sloshed enough to tell him. But this is about more than my tattoos. And while I’m not usually itching to open up to anyone, it’s not the prospect of spilled secrets that has me hesitating. He says he wants to be friends, but this touchy-feely game is heading outside of friendship territory express train-fast.

I’m trying. I’m trying to be a good person here. Good like Rudy. Good like Beth.

“Hey, Cort.” Rudy shakes me gently. “Where’d you go there?”

“What?”

“I asked about this dragon like two minutes ago.”

My eyes peek open. He’s watching me, an amused smile teasing his lips.

I ignore his question and ask my own. “Did you mean it?”

“Did I mean what?”

“Friends.” What am I doing? Why do I care? “Is that really what you want … or are you just tired of being used?”

“I don’t—”

He doesn’t understand. Bullshit. Of course he understands; he’s just too polite to say what he’s thinking. I’m an asshole and a fucking crap human being. We both know this. But was there ever a time when I was more to him? Is it possible I could be more?

“When we were dating, did you ever think of taking me to Connecticut on one of your breaks?”

“Cort, what are you talking about?” He’s struggling to follow this Celtic knot of a conversation. I don’t blame him—I’m having a hard time following, myself.

“Would you have taken me with you? Showed me around and stuff?”

“Brought you home?”

“Yeah, you know, introduce me to your folks. Show me your comic books and action figures.”

This is fucking embarrassing, entirely too much like fishing for compliments. He considers the question, but I’m afraid I know the answer. I sit up and hug my thighs to my chest.

“Nevermind. It’s stupid.”

I’m not the girl you bring home to Mom. I’m the girl you fuck in the back room before you go on a date with the girl you bring home to Mom.

“Hey.” Rudy tugs on my elbow, but I can’t look at him. I don’t want him feeling sorry for me. I don’t think I could stand the pity in his eyes. “Cort, I was never the one with commitment issues.”

He brushes my cheek with his knuckles, and I brave a glance. To my surprise, he doesn’t look anything but sad.

“I would have asked you to come home with me—easy—if I thought you’d actually say yes.”

Inky curls peek out the front of his cap. He needs a haircut. I pull the beanie off his head and scratch my fingers across his scalp. That elicits a satisfied grin, and I puff up the tiniest bit. I feel brave. Reckless.

“You could ask me now.”

His eyebrows crush together. “To come home with me?”

I nod and smooth the scruff on his neck. “I’d say yes.”

“What are you saying?”

What am I saying?

I feel good here. I feel … happy.

I trace lightly down his neck, from the hollow behind his ear to crook of his shoulder, then let my hand fall.

“I don’t want to be friends.”

Rudy studies me for a long time, and I hang—weightless—waiting for his verdict. Everything’s tilted, my world capsizing with glorious uncertainty. Does this end now, or will he give me another chance? I could make all the assurances he might want to hear, but that’s just air. It really comes down to this: does he believe I’m capable of giving more, or does he think I’ll be the same old Cort?

Even I don’t know the answer to that, but in this moment, I know I want to try.

Another beat. Another breathless moment. Then he stands wordlessly and walks away from me. Walks away from my offer. The birds fluttering in my ribcage flail and drop like stones. He’s not interested.

Oh … okay.

Okay.

He’s halfway to his bedroom before it occurs to me I should go. I’m too sloshed to drive, but it’s not that far to walk. I should get up. I should find my coat. I get to my feet and scan the living room for my things, but it’s hard to focus. The room’s wavering like a mirage, and I can’t see anything. I smash my palms against my eyes and pull in a heavy lungful of air.

Fuck. This hurts.

“Hey—” Rudy’s voice startles me.

I don’t want an explanation. Just let me go.

“You coming or not?” He’s leaning against the doorframe, hand outstretched, palm up.

I don’t understand. What is he—?

And then I get it, and I can’t decide if I want to hit him or kiss him. The once-languishing birds fly out of my stomach and spiral into my heart. I’m equal parts angry and ecstatic as I cross to him.

“You are a goddamn fuckwad.”

He smiles, white teeth flashing and apology written in his eyes. “Yeah, but it looks like I’m your goddamn fuckwad.”

I grab him by the neck and pull him into a kiss. There’s really nothing more to say.

There’s a kind of poetry running through my head; an alien voice, so unlike my own. Soft words—softer than I’m used to—matching the tender touches on my skin.

I’m not sure what to make of the light … the air … the effervescent feeling bubbling through my veins. Like I’m floating, though my back is sunk into the mattress. Like I am tiny bits of stardust twinkling high above, though the crush of Rudy’s weight grounds me completely.

Like I said, poetry.

Kinda lame, huh?

He moves slowly, reverently—chest flush to mine, arms cradling my back as he rocks into me. It’s sweet. Intimate. He peppers kisses across my cheeks and down my neck, whispering poetry of his own.

I like it.

I do.

What we lack in heat—in primal urgency—is made up for in quiet intensity. Rudy’s pounding heart, the shine in his eyes. I like being part of that, the cause of that, even if I can’t entirely connect to it. I’m here, but … it’s like watching a really good movie, enjoying the burst of endorphins from the climatic kiss, though you’re sitting alone in the dark. Almost as good as the real thing.

I mean, we’re sharing something, right? Something good. Something new.

Rudy combs my hair off my forehead and sinks his face into my neck. He kisses the site of my long-healed crescent bruise and whispers words of atonement and regret. I shush him and pull him closer.

His shoulder blades flex and roll; his hips tilt and rock. I feel good. I want him to feel good.

“Rudy … Rudy.” I want this for him. I want … I don’t know. I don’t know. “Please.”

I don’t understand what this is. I want him to fall apart. I want to feel his crashing release. I want to capture the moment, bottle it.

“Are you close?” he rasps.

I shake my head. No. No, I don’t care about that.

“Just, please, Rudy. You. You—”

Heavy, panting breaths. Forehead dipped to mine.

“God, I—” Eyes squeezed closed, rhythm speeding. “Cort, I want to tell you—”

Oh, no—don’t say it. Don’t ruin this. I stop the words with a kiss and wrap my legs tighter around him. Can’t we just have this? Please … let me have this.

He returns the kiss—hard—then pulls away. But he doesn’t open his eyes, and he doesn’t speak the words I’m afraid to hear. I breathe a sigh of relief. My hands tangle in his hair. I slide my cheek across his scratchy jaw, nuzzling like a needy cat.

Thank you.

The groan starts low in his chest, building and building until I feel it rumble through me. His eyes fly open, expression wild—afraid. When he meets my gaze, the fear evaporates.

“I’m here,” I urge. “Let go.”

And he does. I feel it—the driving need, the desperation. I take it in, holding him tight while he falls. Watching his face crumble, then smooth in relief. It’s beautiful. He’s beautiful.

He collapses against me, heavy and limp. I stroke every part I can reach, enjoying the press of his body, pulling him close. I’m hanging, floating somewhere high above my own release, but I don’t care. I feel good. Hopeful.

Like spring is just around the corner.

 

Continue reading Tooth & Claw, Part 2 >>

 

Photo: Bird Songs at Eventide #3, Seatory

About the Author S.D. Ryan

S.D. Ryan is a writer and self-professed geek. She enjoys waking dreams, pretty words, and things that are bigger on the inside. One day, she will write something not smutty, but for now, she’s happy to make your cheeks flush and your heart pitter-pat. Ryan lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband and two kids.

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