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You guys! Year 28 releases TOMORROW and I am beyond excited to share this book with the world. If you are reading this it is likely because you subscribe to Mac Mail and knew I would be posting an exclusive, early first look at Year 28 here, on my blog. The first FIVE chapters are all yours. If you stumbled upon this blog post subscribe to mac Mail ( Mac Mail --> eepurl.com ) you're already here and all. :) Enjoy!
Amazon 🇦🇺 https://amzn.to/3bw2dhf
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By J.L. Mac
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the expressed written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the authors’ imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Robin Harper, Wicked By Design
The most beautiful and tragic love stories are usually the true ones.
“He had been held to her by a beautiful thread which it pained him to spoil by breaking, rather than by a chain he could not break.”
― Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd
17 years old
I came directly home, dropped my backpack in my room, grabbed my robe and made a beeline for the shower. It’s the only thing I want right now. I am filthy, and there is no way I am going to let my momma or daddy see me this way. If they saw the state of me they’d know something was wrong.
With trembling hands and my mind racing, I turn the shower on and step into the scalding spray. It’s far hotter than I would normally set the temperature to, and it causes my skin to turn bright pink. The mascara on my lashes is clumped together and mist from the spray of water hitting me in the chest gathers on the tips of them. Black globs obscure my vision around the edges. I open my mouth wide and tilt my head back. Hot water fills my mouth and I swish it, then spit it out at my feet. The unwelcome taste of whiskey remains, so I rinse my mouth several more times to no avail. The taste won’t go away.
My mind is spinning in every direction. What the hell just happened? These things don’t happen to me and they definitely don’t happen in sleepy, southern Palmetto Grove, Louisiana. I hold my hands out in front of me like they will somehow tell the story, recap it for me so I can either wake up from this nightmare, or try to understand it. Steam billows around me and I inhale deeply, closing my eyes and trying to gather my thoughts. After Teddy, when I didn’t want to deal with reality, I followed the grief counselor’s advice and began “listening to my gut, my inner voice, for guidance when feeling overwhelmed” just as he had suggested. Unfortunately for me, my gut is comprised of several versions of myself sitting in a circle, comparing notes and arguing while I look on.
I cover my eyes as they all file in one by one, taking seats like they’re at an AA meeting. The low hanging pendant fixture casts my circle of inner selves in an umbrella of light while the edges of the room are dark. That’s where I picture myself hiding.
Does the water get any hotter in this joint? Self-Loathing says, breezing into my thoughts. I imagine her dragging the metal folding chair to the center of the room. The legs screech noisily and she flops down, folding her arms over her chest. I always picture her wearing a gray hoodie ten times too large. She has on excessive, dark makeup and her black hair is shaved on one side while the other side comes to a neat, pointed bob. She immediately begins picking at a scrape on one of her knuckles.
It wouldn’t matter if she were bathing in lava. There’s no washing this mess away. Negativity tsks on her way to the circle. She’s wearing the black dress and pumps I wore to Teddy’s funeral. She gathers herself neatly in the chair and looks over me from head to toe with obvious judgment.
You two need to stop. You aren’t helping and if you aren’t part of the solution; you are a part of the problem. Right? So, just… let’s think this through, okay? Practicality breezes in at a brisk pace. She scoops up a chair on her way to the circle, but she doesn’t have a seat. She looks a lot like my normal self. She’s wearing a National Honor Society polo shirt with khaki pants and my favorite Converse. Self-Loathing and Negativity both make mocking noises.
Honestly, what were you thinking? You knew you had no business going, but you did anyway and got us all into this shit-show. You know this is your fault, right? Regret says so matter of fact, I flinch as she prowls toward the circle, the shadows under her eyes seemingly darker at present.
I, for one, vote that we go back over there and kill him. We watch enough crime shows and we have a decent IQ. We could get away with it, Blind Rage sneers with her fists balled. She, too, doesn’t take a seat, opting instead to shift her weight from one foot to the other then back again.
Absolutely not, Practicality nearly chokes.
You’d never pull it off, Negativity sighs, running her fingertips over the pendant hanging from her neck on a silver chain.
Theoretically, if we did something like that, I vote we dispose of his body in the swamp, Self-Loathing says sagely while picking at her black fingernail polish.
You two are not getting us into any further trouble. Where’s Happiness? Practicality whines.
Leave of absence. Self-Loathing snickers. Negativity joins her and they laugh raucously. Blind Rage is turning red in the face.
I think we should probably just go tell Mom, Practicality suggests, nodding her head.
Hell no! Negativity coughs. She will lose her everlasting mind. She won’t understand how Miss Perfect Daughter got herself into such a pickle. She says pickle like it’s a swear word.
Obviously, we should just put a lid on this, set it in cement and bury it twelve feet deep. You’d destroy people that love you if they ever found out, Regret says in a tone laced heavily with accusation. It makes me want to mentally crawl away because I know she’s right.
“Rae? Are you okay in there?” Momma knocks on the bathroom door.
“Yeah! Yes!” I startle. “Be out in a minute, Momma!” I shout above the noise of the water. I hold my breath until I hear her footsteps trail away, down the hall.
Anxiety gets up from her seat and paces the room, shaking her head and muttering to herself while occasionally wiping sweat from her hairline. We’re so fucked. Everyone is going to find out. People will spread rumors about us and then momma and daddy will have to hear all of it. This is bad, bad, bad.
Would you sit the hell down? You’re making even me nervous and I don’t do nervous, Self-Loathing clips, pressing her lips into a harsh flat line.
Optimism, do you have any suggestions to add? Practicality asks pleadingly.
I—I’m sorry. I got nothing. Optimism grimaces, then hangs her head while pretending to pick lint from her bright yellow sundress. All at once they begin shouting over each other, rolling eyes, glaring, displaying wary expressions, and I shrink further back into the shadowy corner, preferring to be anywhere else except my own head right now. It’s a jumbled mess in here.
This looks like the right place, a version I don’t recognize shouts from the doorway. Everyone goes quiet and sits up straight, eyeing her from head to toe. Her long black hair is pulled back into a slick ponytail. Her black skinny jeans pair nicely with black leather boots and a white tank top. Happiness is going to be away for a while. She sent me, she explains with calm command oozing from her pores.
And you are? Negativity narrows her eyes.
Self-Preservation. I’ll take things from here, she says firmly, leaving no room for argument, and for the first time in what feels like a long time, my heart slows its rushing pace and I breathe deeply, prepared to hand the reins over to someone else.
Don’t fail me now, Self-Preservation.
The water out on Cattail Bay is still and calm this morning. Year Ten cuts through the nearly nonexistent chop on the bay, her three outboard motors barely putting forth any effort at all. She’s the smallest in the fleet, but she’s the vessel I am most partial to. When I came home to Louisiana with nothing to devote myself to, my mind tormented, and my heart aching, Year Ten and the work we accomplish together soothed my wounds—both physical and mental. Buzzsaw Chartered Fishing, my nonprofit organization has kept my mind calm since the maiden voyage.
I breathe deeply, trying to draw some of the water’s stillness deep inside me. I’m not attending to any guests or doing anything for anyone else this trip. This trip is about me. I’m zeroing in on myself, my thoughts, and seeking an even keel in oncoming turbulent waters.
The thing about having a past is that it comes back in waves like water against the shore, regardless if it is a good or bad past. Stormy or tranquil, it always rolls right back in to touch the place it doesn’t belong. Unfortunately for me, my waves of good are interspersed with the bad and they all center on one woman—one unforgettable woman who has an uncanny ability to make me feel whole, then obliterate me in the very next breath. Like the damned waves that roll forward touching dry land where they don’t belong, memories of her roll forward kissing my heart where she doesn’t belong—where she shouldn’t belong.
I could fight back against thoughts of her. God knows I’ve trademarked the craft of suppressing memories pertaining to her, but today I choose to not fight it. I’ll let all memories, confusion, and emotions anchored to her wash over me and I’ll embrace it all. I have to because if I am going to have to face her again, I must have my game face on and be fully acclimated to the feelings she stirs in me. Better to do this in private, in one of my favorite places, on my boat, and on my terms. Facing her again for the first time in years unprepared would be a mistake, and it would only screw up my plans. She made one big promise that I fully intend on making sure she follows through on. At the very least I will confront Miss High And Mighty given the opportunity. I’m not delusional enough to think she’d even consider honoring her promise to me, but she can at least explain herself. She owes me and I’m in the collecting mood. I’ve waited years, and now my waiting is over.
“So is this considered fraternizing with the enemy?” Preston’s lips move against my skin as he murmurs, his mouth coaxing against my bare shoulder blade. “Because if it is then consider me a bona fide traitor. Heavens, you’re amazin’,” he praises. I’m lying beside him, wrapped only in luxuriously soft sheets and the afterglow of mutually fulfilling sex. His fingertips run feather soft up and down my spine, winning a sigh of satiation. Apparently it sounds all too sexual because Preston growls playfully and nips at my earlobe, making me instinctively jerk away. It disrupts my reprieve. With my head turned away from him, fine sheets cocooning my body, the effect of endorphins coursing through me, I was peaceful enough to not worry or think about… anything.
Not work. Not the Senator’s campaign. Not the travel schedule. Not the wedding I’m expected to attend. Not my hometown. Not the deal I had made. Not him.
“I need to get going,” I say, feeling suddenly suffocated. I take a deep breath and begin peeling myself out of Preston’s bed when his hands reach for me, tugging me back down. He rolls on top of me, his chest presses heavily against mine. I clench my jaw and stare unflinching into his dark blue eyes. “Off.” My demand is damn concise, but my knee to his ball will be more so if he doesn’t get his ass off me. He hesitates with a pouty look that only further extinguishes the afterglow I had been enjoying. He releases me and I stand, taking his sheet with me as I zigzag through his space, collecting my discarded clothing like little prizes.
“Why don’t you just stay the night, darlin?” His eyes hold a glimmer of playfulness that radiates the implied promise of multiple romps through the night. For a moment I am tempted, because Preston is a good lay, and given that he’s twelve years older than me, not entirely surprising. Most men in their twenties are still discovering how to pick a woman’s lock, so to speak, and I have zero interest in being their practice dummy and even less time. But his grabby hands coupled with the use of the word darlin’ is ice water on my desire to dwell here a moment longer than it will take to slip back into my designer pencil skirt, silk blouse, and Louboutin heels.
“Another time,” I say coyly, allowing my façade to take over.
“All right then, but I am going to hold you to it, darlin’,” he drawls.
His Tennessee accent drips heavily from every syllable when he’s attempting to flirt, which I suppose is a tact meant to make women swoon and throb for the next orgasm. Me? Not so much. His sugary, drawled words make my anxiety ratchet up and my walls draw closer, tighter. I can’t handle this. “Oh, and—uh—this,” he says motioning one pointed finger between us, “… is between us, right darlin’?”
That’s not insulting at all, is it?
I cock my head at him with a genuine smile, drawing my lips back to reveal my straight, TV-ready, white teeth. “Preston, if I wanted your dirty little secrets or even Senator Holiday’s, I would already have them. Perhaps I already do,” I purr with a wink as I slip my foot down into one heel, then the other with a muted foomp! “And this,” I mimic his motion, waving my pointed finger between the two of us, “… is just sex. Simple as that. Not all women in this town fuck men to gain a thing beyond an orgasm, and even that’s iffy.” I faux-grimace and wiggle my flattened hand side to side like a plane caught in turbulence. “Last I checked, I’m the highest-paid campaign manager out there right now and I did it without fucking anyone for gain.” To his credit, Preston gets up on his elbows and narrows his eyes at me. The campaign manager in him is now officially on the scene. Gone is the heavy accent and flirtatious crap, replaced by shrewdly assessing eyes. I can practically see the cogs in his brain grinding on, considering if he should prepare to run damage control. I know the drill. I smile at the sight of his narrowed eyes and flattened lips.
That’s much better.
Politics seemed to be my predetermined destiny, having been born to an American politics and history junkie like my mother. She named all three of her children—myself included after American political history icons. The Centrist she is, she hand chose the names of the icons she revered most not caring much for party lines. It’s one of the several reasons I admire her. I have disregarded party lines, too, by screwing around with Preston. Not the savviest move, but I have it all in hand.
We’ve only slept together twice, and he has turned all syrupy-sweet while attempting to make this a thing between us so I don’t anticipate seeing him again, anyway. I much prefer enemy version of Preston than the southern drawl, sugar-coated compliment machine version of him. This city is dog-eat-dog. This industry rewards ruthless manipulation for personal and professional gain. The news cycles are twenty-four hours a day and the material never changes. It’s always political stunts and sensational headlines because that’s what sells. These people are about trading and bargaining for dirt. They cut deals with demons and devils in suits with a little American Flag pinned to their lapel and faux-patriotism oozing from the speeches they didn’t bother to write themselves. These things all fall under my job hazard column. Most don’t have the stomach for this, but I do. In fact, this is perfect for me. My job requires me to be the way I am. All of thisI can handle. This is what I do. This is my safe place. These are familiar, predictable monsters. This is Washington, D.C. These monsters are my pets, and this is my playground.
I wasn’t always this way. I used to be a naïve, vulnerable girl with childish notions about love and life and career. And then life happened. The girl I was had been meted upon by a monster, and I had not been prepared. Now, I am prepared for the monsters because in many ways I am one of them. Get or be gotten is the motto. Ironically, it’s safer for me here with the monsters I know and see coming than it is back home. It’s safer to be this version of me, and it’s just good fortune that my career requires that I be exactly this way.
Here, a “fuck you” means, well… fuck you! Back home, “Bless your precious heart” could mean, “I’ll destroy you in your sleep and steal your dog, so fuck you!” Or it could mean someone from the Baptist church is going to drop off a peach cobbler the next day because truly, “Bless your heart.” You never quite know which to expect. Yes, D.C. is my safe place.
Southerners have a knack for sandwiching judgment and insults between hugs at Sunday service and the occasional Hallmark card. The political strategist in me can appreciate these antics, but the rest of me is content with living my life free of “bless your heart” and peach cobblers. I prefer apple, anyway.
Three days later, I find myself staring at the beautifully embossed invitation to my sister’s wedding.
Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Potter request the honor of your presence
at the marriage of their daughter
Eleanor Jacqueline Potter
Douglas Scott Kearney
The invitation is gorgeous. The bride is stunning. The groom is handsome. The venue is ideal. The catering is the best available. It will all be perfect, I am sure, and yet I can’t bring myself to find joy in any part of this because it just means I have to make the trip home. As though she’s felt me thinking about her, my personal cell phone rings. I groan at the screen displaying a photo of my baby sister’s serene face. I slide out of my leather chair, leaving my heels beneath my desk, and walk to the windows in my office. I stand here, peeking down at the screen, hoping she will hang up before I force myself to take the call.
Hang up, Ellie.
No such luck. I swipe my thumb across the screen and force cheer into my voice. “There’s the gorgeous bride to be,” I say in a carefully honeyed voice. She squeals into the phone, that high-pitched dolphin shrill in a key and octave that only women can accomplish. I pull the phone from my ear, wincing. “You looked ravishing in every gown at the boutique, but the more I look at the picture of you in that De La Renta gown...” I trail off and whistle low. “You chose the perfect dress. Honestly, the most beautiful bride I have ever laid eyes on.”
“I’d better be! It was six grand,” she wheezes. “Oh, Rae, I wish you could have been there, but I understand your calendar is bonkers right now. Thank god for video calls, huh?”
“Absolutely.” I could have been there. I wish I were a better woman. Then I would have been beside you but I’m not a better woman and Self Preservation knows best. I press my lips together in a hard line, not allowing the words I’m thinking to manifest in my mouth. They would only move across my tongue and make their way over my lips where I can’t take them back.
“And thank you so much for arranging the appointment and the travel and for buying my dress,” she says softly, her voice wobbling slightly. I swallow, feeling uncomfortable with her getting emotional on me. “I still can’t believe you got me in at Keaton Bridal. I heard there are celebrities that can’t even get in.”
Yeah, well, demons and devils and all that jazz, I privately muse. So I called in some favors. It was well worth it to me. “It was my pleasure. Truly,” I lie. It wasn’t my pleasure, it was my penance and quite frankly, my way of making it up to her for not being there. It was payment. An effort to ease my guilt, but I had no choice. Regret is alive and well, the bitch.
The Bride Tribe, their collective name according to the garish shirts Ellie had them all dressed in, met up at our parent’s house and they took a party bus to Keaton Bridal in Dallas. I wasn’t about to go home twice within one year. It’s some kind of miracle I am being selfless enough to attend the actual wedding. Going home is high on my list of Things I Would Prefer Not To Do. It ranks somewhere between root canal and unplanned pregnancy. I’m going, albeit reluctantly, to the wedding, but I am taking a pass on the rest of the festivities, citing work obligations, and I’ll get my butt back to the east coast just as soon as the bouquet has been tossed. In truth, my deputy campaign manager is capable enough to handle my duties if I wanted to take my time and stay for a visit, but going back to Palmetto Grove, Louisiana is most certainly not a vacation. It’s more like a nightmare.
On top of that, I didn’t become one of the most sought after campaign managers in the smarmy arena of American politics by skipping off for parties. Hell, I don’t even have a social life. I count myself lucky to pencil in the occasional meaningless hookup. Politicians don’t just want support of their staff, they require blood oath, and that means you work like a machine, sacrifice like a saint, battle like a soldier and kneel to pray before the deity which is the American voter. It’s a perk I happen to be emotionally bankrupt enough to love all of it. Burning the candle at both ends is something I am good at. I get paid a fortune to not have to think too much about how my personal life closely resembles Chernobyl, and my team gets a world-class leader. It’s a win-win for everyone.
“How’s the campaign trail? Fun? Stressful? Mom said you had to go to a doctor for stomach troubles? Spill!”
I roll my eyes.
“Oh, the campaign is great. Senator Cline is up in all the polls and we expect him to win handily. The travel is awesome. You know this is my scene, so I don’t find it stressful, really. It’s exuberating and my stomach is fine. Anything else is fake news. No worries there,” I say, injecting the right amount of pitch in my voice to sound convincing while I rattle the last two antacids from the container I keep in my bag. I make a mental note to remind Bethany, my assistant, to keep her trap shut about my appointments, even to—and maybe especially to—my mother. She called the office weeks ago when she couldn’t get a hold of me on my cell and Bethany promptly informed her I was out of the office to see the gastrointestinal doctor about scheduling an endoscopy—the same endoscopy I haven’t bothered to have done. I don’t have time.
I tap the screen putting my sister on speakerphone while I fire a text to Bethany directing her to get me another bottle of this heartburn stuff minus the press release about it. She’s smart enough to understand that I am aware of her indiscretion. My gut burns up to my throat. Ugh! I’ll have a dozen ulcers before Election Day finally arrives in two months. I exit the texting app and open Facebook. I pop the chalky tablets in my mouth and munch on them while pulling up Ellie’s profile to search for relevant talking points and intelligence. On my sister. I’m a terrible human.
Ever the politico.
“You killed that interview on the news last night. That one guy on the panel really thought he had you backed into a corner. Mom records all of them, you know.” I stifle a groan and change the subject, grateful for her propensity to over share the shit out of every morsel of her life on social media. I flip through post after post she has made to her profile, speed-reading things she has typed and mentally scanning the photos included.
“How was the bridal barbeque Aunt Joy hosted for you?” I ask, clicking through the pictures she posted. Bridal barbeque luncheon, reads the caption.
How very southern of Aunt Joy.
“It was great! Uncle Carl made his famous brisket, Mom made her potato salad and baked beans, and Aunt Joy made a pile… and I mean a pile of that green marshmallow stuff.”
“Watergate salad.” I smile genuinely at that bit and it feels weird. It seems like years have passed by since I’ve smiled sincerely.
It has been years, Self-Loathing, the wicked inner bitch of the west remarks.
“Yeah, that stuff. So good, and Doug can’t get enough of it. Anyway,” she carries on yammering away, but I register nothing else at all because my smile melts from my face and my eyes are glued to the picture that has just filled my screen. I swallow, feeling nausea roll like a rock tumbler in my stomach, clattering away. I grab the seltzer water on my desk and take a sip.
“Who all came?” I ask absently, my voice softer and my accent eddying to the surface just enough to make me cringe.
“Huh? Oh, just the same old crowd, really,” she says, sounding chirpy, nervous. It’s hard to believe that I can be such a seamless liar while my sister, my flesh and blood—someone who was raised in the same home by the same loving parents as me—can’t even string together two white lies without instantly giving herself away. There is only one person on this earth I can’t confidently say I can dupe. I can sell a fib to anyone, with exception to him, and considering there is something like seven or eight billion people on the planet, I think that is a damn good ratio.
“Mmm,” I hum a noncommittal noise with my eyes still fixated on the picture on my screen.
I flick the nail of my ring finger against my thumbnail, making a clicking noise. It’s an old nervous habit that I haven’t done in years, so doing it now grates on my delicate nerves. I reach for the bottle of antacids again, before I recall I just chewed up the last two I had.
Familiar dark eyes seem to stare right at me through the screen, making my gut twist and my fingers fidget faster. He used to laugh at me when I was doing it and demand I tell him what had me riled up. He’d flash that infectious grin and crinkle his knowing eyes, then he would call my bluff when I swore I was fine. He knew me. He really knew me. All the sides and edges and the little nuances uniquely mine. He was privy to the vulnerable, soft underbelly, to all the little things humans keep hidden from others out of fear and self-consciousness. He knew the geography of my teenaged body, heart and soul, and his betrayal was that much worse because of it. Our unceremonious end was worse still. He forced his way into my heart and the result has been my own private hell for more than a decade since it all came undone. I grit my teeth, pressing my manicured nails into the too soft flesh of my palm until it hurts.
“So when do you get into town?”
“My flight leaves Thursday afternoon,” I say on autopilot, my eyes locked onto the picture of the man who destroyed me and screwed everything up. The hilarity of it is unless he’s a mind reader, there is no way he understands the extent of how badly he screwed up both our lives. No one aside from myself knows how wide sweeping the fallout was when a nuke fell in my lap and detonated, pulverizing the life I had and the future I thought I had laid out before me.
Being forced to go within one hundred square miles of my hometown all but guarantees I will undoubtedly have to endure countless reminders of the life I left behind when I ran from my only home and all the people I have ever known or loved. I’ll drive down the streets we walked along, hand in hand. I’ll see the high school where our connection bloomed and intensified. From my mom and dad’s house I’ll see the Friday night lights of the high school football stadium thrusting skyward above the tree line, casting their yellow-white light over other young girls and guys cheering for their team like we once had. I’ll smell the salt water from the bayou where so many hours were spent discovering each other and growing deeper in love by the day. It all seems like memories belonging to someone else, from a lifetime ago.
I tried to persuade my sister to have a destination wedding. Given that I don’t plan to ever marry or have children—two morsels of happily ever after that I can’t say I deserve—I was happy to give my sister the money. I don’t need the money for myself, but I definitely need the penance.
I had even offered to pay for it, but she refused. I had directed Bethany to email her information regarding the top ten destination wedding locals and package deals to get the entire show done and over with. She stuck to her guns, and of course she would. Ellie has no reason to not love everything about our hometown including everyone in it, and she wants to be married there with everyone in attendance.
The unfortunate cherry on top was that she chose an early fall wedding date during midterm elections and the same week as my twenty-eighth birthday. Fabulous, sis. She doesn’t know a thing about my stupid promise or what any of it has to do with my birthday or him, the last man on the planet I want to bump into. I would much prefer a front-page public relations disaster for Senator Cline with me at the helm. Running disaster management for our team followed by an interview with a panel consisting of political opposition sounds far more appealing than seeing him again. Work catastrophes, I can handle. A trip to Palmetto Grove, Louisiana, where I will face the insufferable, persistent man and the old wounds he carved out in me… not so much.
“Happy birthday!” Bethany, my assistant shouts, bursting through my office door like a goddamned maniac with a cake balanced in one hand and a gift bag in another. I yelp and nearly jump out of my skin.
“Dammit, Bethany!” I growl under my breath, hating that she scared the hell out of me. If I weren’t constantly so lost in thought, perhaps I wouldn’t be so jumpy, but there is no helping it. The impending trip home is happening. As the seconds tick by, I imagine an invisible tether looped around my neck, dragging me inch by inch back to the place I’d prefer to see swallowed up by the earth, dragging me back to him, back to the summer everything changed.
“Happy birthday to you,” the group of staff members filing in behind her begin singing and I smile and nod. I pretend to be delighted with their impromptu birthday party when really I’d be far more delighted if they were combing the web for all things campaign intelligence related while simultaneously checking in with our extended team. Senator Watson is said to be battling back against an accusation of drug addiction levied by his college sweetheart, and if there is any truth to it, I want the details… like yesterday. “And many more,” they chorus, then break into applause.
“Thank you all very much,” I give a saccharine grin and blow out the cartoonish candles—gaudy fluorescent pink numbers, two and eight. They snuff out and within an instant they fizzle back to life. I laugh tightly, glance around at my grinning team. They collectively cackle and whoop at the prank candles. I scowl at the wax dribbling down and with a stiff smile puff them out yet again. They spring back to life and I grumble, snatching the offending numbers from the top of the cake. I promptly plunk them down into the glass of sparkling water on my desk. Everyone laughs at the gesture, amused by the afternoon theatre taking place in my office. They chatter, and smile, and nod, and begin passing plates amongst themselves while pouring coffee into paper cups from an insulated carafe. Fabulous. My office is now a staff lounge.
“Please, allow me,” I chirp, snagging the serving spatula that doubles as a knife with a sharpened edge on one side. I slice like a fanatic and plop large portions of chocolate cake on everyone’s paper plate, eager to boot them all from my office so I can dive back into work and pretend I don’t have a flight to catch in three hours.
“I know it’s not your birthday today, but I figured since you’ll be gone for it…” Bethany smiles and shrugs sheepishly. She’s clueless, but sweet, really. In another life—perhaps the one I had pictured for myself as a teenager, I would be the type of woman that accepts her offer of friendship. It’s a pity I’m the me I am, and that she works for a bitch like myself. In another life, under different circumstances, I think she and I could have been great friends. She’s one of those perpetually bubbly, outgoing types. She’s pleasant to be around, even with her tendency to sing like a bird when questioned about nearly any topic.
“Thank you Bethany,” I say conjuring as much sincerity as I can manage. “I appreciate it.” She bobs her head, grinning while I fight the urge to click my ring fingernail back and forth against my thumbnail.
As it turned out, flying first class was a luxury lost on me and my wallet considering no amount of VIP boarding, supple leather seating, and complimentary beverages could have made me relax during my flight from DC to good old Louisiana.
More booze may help, Practicality chimes in as I stand in front of the counter at the car rental desk. Bethany said she rented a midsize sedan on my behalf, but according to the attendant they only have a green hatchback four-cylinder economy car that I fear runs on dashed hopes and dreams booked under my name.
Great. I’ll be rolling around Palmetto Grove in something that resembles a pregnant roller skate in the shade ‘Sinus Infection’.
“It’s a stick shift,” the attendant lifts one over plucked brow in warning. I note her flimsy plastic badge hanging from a lanyard around her neck, displaying her name.
“Of course it is, Patty,” I reply dryly with a stiff smile.
“That gonna be okay, hon?” she asks, surveying me as though she can physically see whether I know how to drive a car with a manual transmission. I haven’t driven a stick shift since I was a teen hopelessly in love and cruising all over town in a cherry red mustang which was the other love of my life back then, second only to him. It’s been a while, but that’s the thing about stuff like this. It’s muscle memory, and picking up where you left off is just a matter of jumping in and doing it.
“I’ll manage,” I declare. “Any other surprises?” I ask with a return lift of my brow. The attendant chuckles, her belly jolting repeatedly as a result.
“Nope. That’s all.” She slaps down folded paperwork and keys in front of me. “Now, if ya want, I could call our other location and see what they have on hand,” she offers.
“Not necessary, but thank you,” I say, plastering on my most diplomatic smile. “This will do fine.”
“Palmetto Grove is what—an hour and some change away? Good thing this sucker gets thirty miles to the gallon,” she says with a nod, clearly not considering the fact that a woman wearing a Givenchy shift dress with coordinating Jimmy Choo heels would not necessarily be the type to give two shits about fuel economy.
“Too true.” I nod absently, sliding the keys and rental agreement off the counter between us. “Thank you, Patty.” I turn on my heel and snag my rolling suitcase ready to locate bay four, lane A, spot sixteen where my roller skate is said to be parked. That’s when a low whistle catches my attention and my stomach plummets to the floor. I swivel my head to my left to see a very familiar face.
“I knew I smelled high class and a ton of sass,” one of my closest friends from high school says with a huge smile on his handsome face and his gray-blue eyes twinkling.
“Chicken Nugget!” I laugh and charge at him at a brisk pace, my heels clicking crispy against the airport floor. He scoops me up roughly and I yelp before his grip around my ribs squeezes the breath out of me.
“I wasn’t sure you’d drag your hoity-toity tail back to piddly old Palmetto,” he laughs into my ear as we hug. His arms around me are familiar but foreign at the same time. They are no longer thin, boyish arms. These strong, filled out, manly arms are a reminder we have all grown up.
“Yeah, well, if I could skip my little sister’s wedding I would but don’t tell anyone,” I whisper conspiratorially.
“Trust me, I don’t have to. Anyone who knows Raegan Potter knows all too well that you want nothing to do with our little town anymore,” he laughs, but I wince at the truth tucked neatly in his lighthearted words. God, this visit is going to drain me, but seeing Chick is high on the brief list of perks.
“Need a ride home?” he asks, and I ignore the hike in my pulse and the squeeze of the knot in my chest at his use of the word home. Home? Is it? No. Not anymore. I mentally maneuver around my private thoughts and jingle my rental keys in front of me.
“And miss out on driving this sweet thang,” I drawl sarcastically. “Not a chance, Chicken Nugget.”
“All right, all right,” he nods, displaying that same grin I’ve seen a million times. The dimple in his left cheek pops out and even though he’s grown a thick beard, his dimple is still there as clear as ever. His face is that a of a man now with fine laugh lines bracketing his eyes and mouth but their presence on his face only adds to his appeal.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” I ask, steering my thoughts away from the boys who I grew up with that turned into very handsome men.
“I just dropped off a friend,” he shrugs. I nod and begin shuffling toward the exit. Chick walks along with me. “We are bowling tonight at eight if you wanna come. Beer’s on me.” My mind reels back over ten years and memories of loud music, musty bowling alley carpet, neon colors and black lights flood in.
“Rock and bowl Thursdays?” I whisper wide-eyed.
“Yep. Still dirt-cheap and a whole lotta fun. You comin’?” The hope in his eyes is hard to snuff out but I can’t handle running into him. Not yet.
“Uh…” I say shifting from one heeled foot to the other. Chick’s smile falters slightly and a look of pity takes its place.
“Sy won’t be there. He’s out-of-town getting ready for this big thing he has coming up,” Chick says quietly. I swallow and force a smile.
“Yeah, I mean I don’t care. Ancient history,” I shrug, feigning indifference. “I’ll see what’s going on at Momma’s house with wedding madness and all of that but if I can sneak away I will.” I promise knowing it is highly unlikely that I will be going anywhere near one of our favorite hangouts during high school. Chick hugs me again and a lump forms in my throat. What the hell is my deal already? If I plan to survive this visit home I had better don my best battle gear and pull myself together. I swallow the lump away and tip my chin to Chick. “See ya, Chicken Nugget.”
“You bet your ass you will,” he grins. “That’s the best part about small towns. Can’t miss people if you tried.”
That’s my fear.
Chick waves off and we part ways with me feeling a little less confident about this visit home than I had hoped to be.
Louisiana’s humid climate and accompanying musty air clings against my skin like my great aunt Gerdy’s metallic pink lipstick. Familiar, expected even, wholly loathsome all the same. I can feel my makeup melting away on my trek through the rental car parking area. I locate my lime green roller skate, toss in my luggage, and roll my eyes as I fold myself into the driver’s seat. Switching the radio station, I try, with great difficulty, to focus my attention on the satellite news station but the minute I hit the highway toward Palmetto my mind drifts back and I’m along for the ride no matter how I resist.
13 years old
“Welcome to eighth grade, y’all. Now almost everybody here knows each other already but we have a new student this year. If you don’t mind, step forward and introduce yourself, son.” Old Coach Thibodaux nods looking down at his clipboard. He tugs at the waistband of his polyester blend shorts, adjusting them higher on his hips.
“Hi y’all. I’m Jeremy Chennewitt,” the tall, skinny, cute boy with one dimpled cheek says. I smile at him and give a small wave.
“Do what?” Coach says with his Cajun accent really underscoring his words. He tilts his head and kind of leans forward like he’s hard of hearing and I think I’ve heard Momma say that he is from his time in Vietnam.
“Jeremy Chennewitt,” the boy clarifies through a laugh. He repeats himself, annunciating his odd last name a little more. Most everyone here in Palmetto is a Landry or a Thibodaux or a Le Blanc or Fontenot or some other common Cajun last name.
“Son, I don’t reckon I can say this,” Coach sighs glancing down at his clipboard again.
“Chin-uh-wit,” the boy says, slowly breaking down his last name.
“Yeah, okay, then,” coach nods still frowning. “Sounds like chicken nugget. Chicken nugget, then,” he says resolutely, scribbling something on his clipboard.
“All right then,” Chicken Nugget says smiling. The rest of us giggle at the nickname our old gym teacher has assigned to the new kid. Credit to him for smiling and taking it in stride. Sylas Broussard grins at the new kid and bumps his shoulder against Chicken Nugget’s.
Leave it to Sylas to be the first to strike up a friendship with the new guy. It doesn’t shock me. Everyone is a friend of Sy’s. Everyone loves Sy. Everyone except me of course. It’s not that I don’t like Sy. I like him okay I guess, but he never leaves me alone. The problem is Sy’s mom Audrey and my mom are best friends, so I get forced into spending more time with Sy than anyone else at our school. He’s either at my house for some holiday, party, barbeque or Sunday dinner, or my family is at his house for the same. He’s always smiling and laughing and cracking jokes. It’s dumb. And annoying too. Sucks for me that there is no escaping him.
If it weren’t for the iPod, I would avoid him much more than I already do. Gym class passes in usual fashion. The girls group up and giggle and gossip like it’s a sport. The boys horse around and act like cavemen. The nerds read. The misfits sit aside and… do whatever misfits feel like doing. Me, I visit with all of them. Except Sylas. The bell rings and we all grab our backpacks and begin filing out the door. It takes Sy all of twenty seconds to find me in the crowded hallway.
“My turn. What did ya listen to last night?” he asks with his hand thrust toward me expectantly. I swing my pack around and dig into the recesses for the iPod and headphones.
“Um… The Beatles, The Supremes, Simon and Garfunkel,” I mutter. “I’m so tired of the same old music on this thing,” I whine slapping it down in his hand. He squeezes my hand, trapping it in his for a second then lets me go.
“I know we said I would ask my mom and dad for a laptop for my birthday this year so we can add more music to the playlist but don’t you think we should just ask both our parents and let them know we can just share it?”
“Uh-uh. No way am I sharing anything else with you, Sy. Sharing the iPod is bad enough.” I shake my head hard sending my long ponytail over my shoulder.
“Aw, c’mon, Rae, I ain’t that bad.” He smirks.
“You’re literally the worst,” I insist as we bump shoulders on our trek through the crowded hallway.
“Take it back,” he demands in a disgruntled kind of voice.
“Not a chance. It’s the truth.” I hold my head high and keep my eyes locked on his, refusing to back down or show weakness. Teddy said I should show no fear. Of course Teddy also said the reason Sy picks on me is that he likes me… like that, so I take my big brother’s advice with a grain of salt.
“Fine,” he says smugly then fast as lightning his lips are on my skin in the spot just below my ear and his arms around me like we are together. The whole hallway which is filled with classmates, erupts. They’re all cackling and laughing and oh’ing and ah’ing. My stomach dips, my cheeks burn and I shove him back, glaring at him.
“Not so bad,” he says in a way that I can’t tell if it’s a question or a statement. He smirks arrogantly then turns to walk away, high-fiving Chicken Nugget on his way. I can already see those two conspiring to get into trouble together.
The main highway coming into town seems all at once familiar and foreign. It’s been a decade since I’ve driven these roads. The tall grass along the roadside still sways smoothly in the breeze as though it’s underwater. The buildings downtown are all accounted for as I drive past them. Red’s Garage is on the left, Lovely Locks hair salon where the “purple-haired’s” as daddy calls the old ladies in town—go to get their hair rolled and set every week is on my right. I smile. The town florist, Palmetto Grove Growers has a fresh look on their storefront but the marquee is the same. Old Bayou Diner, a place I ate countless meals with Sylas. I swallow hard and press my foot down on the accelerator, eager to get to my parent’s house and away from memory lane.
The minute the lime green nightmare pulls into my parents’ gravel driveway, relatives begin filing out waving from the front porch like Forrest Gump waving to Lieutenant Dan on the dock.
“Jesus fuck, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and crew,” I whisper as I wave back, a stiff smile plastered on. I put the car in neutral and pull the e-brake behind dad’s pickup, the Gold Star sticker in the back window of his Ford not going unnoticed. A stab of pain pierces my chest at the sight of the Gold Star no family wants attached to them. I take a fortifying breath, forcing away all thoughts of Gold Stars and how people acquire them before facing my relatives. I swing the door open and the hugging and petting begins.
“Oh, hon’ you made it! Look at you,” my mom says like it’s a miracle and yeah, okay… perhaps it is. It’s no secret I am not keen on being back home. She hugs me then holds me back from her by my upper arms, the blue eyes that match mine surveying me in that way mothers do.
“You’re like a celebrity, Rae! My goodness this dress,” she beams touching the fabric like it’s a foreign substance, and to her I suppose it is. My mom’s closet contains nothing designer and why would it? This is Palmetto Grove. High fashion doesn’t even get their attention. It’s not what blows their hair back around here. What does blow their hair back is Friday night football games and Homecoming and Mardi Gras and crawfish season and the annual July fourth celebration downtown. Shopping for the hottest new pieces from all the trending designers is a small vice of mine, and while it provides me with a sense of catharsis Gucci, Tom Ford, Givenchy and all their expensive comrades are irrelevant to people here. Mom steps aside, making room for my dad to retrieve his hug. He’s already pulled my suitcase from the pregnant roller skate.
“So glad you made it honey. You look even better in person than on the TV,” he says in his gentle voice, his blue-green eyes sparkling down at me.
“Thanks, Daddy,” I whisper, briefly resting my cheek against his chest the way I did when I was a girl. I may be many things but I will always be a daddy’s girl at heart. While I don’t enjoy the idea of this trip, I do very much enjoy smelling my father’s aftershave with his arms around me again.
“Raaaaae!” Ellie squeals on her way down the steps before tackle-hugging me. “Ohmygod! It feels like I haven’t seen you in aaaaaages!” I squeeze her tightly against me and mentally shove away the emotion clogging my throat.
“Can’t breathe, Ellie,” I joke, pretending to gasp. I hand out hugs to Doug, my future brother-in-law, Uncle Carl and Aunt Joy, as well as my cousin Raven, who introduces me to her fiancé, Will. I smile and nod and put my campaign manager skills to work.
Like midtown Palmetto Grove, my childhood home hasn’t changed much at all aside from a few pieces of furniture I don’t recognize, a slew of new picture frames, many of me, Ellie and Teddy and some including Sylas. While we weren’t a wealthy family, we were lucky to have a nice middle class upbringing. The smell of this house, the familiarity of its contents brings back an onslaught of memories I force away.
Two hours into chatting and eating more genuine southern soul food than we should, the doorbell rings. My mom and dad exchange a look and my hackles stand at attention. I lean back in my seat and train my attention on the both of them.
Fuuuck, my entire mental inner circle gasps in unison. Blind Rage throws her chair against the wall. Regret is smirking with an “I told you so,” expression. Negativity is slumped back in her seat staring at the ceiling. Practicality looks confused. Everyone else ducks out. Self-Preservation straightens her cuffs. Predictable. I’ve got this, she whispers.
“Expecting more guests?” I ask curt as ever as I dab a crumpled paper napkin to my lips.
“Oh, you know our house. There is always someone comin’ or goin’.” Mom waves her hand in no specific direction playing at nonchalance. The woman may have a true fascination with politics but she lacks the capacity to participate with any measure of success given the level of skillful deception that is a prerequisite.
“Mhmmm,” I hum with narrowed eyes still locked on my mother who is now shuffling plates and utensils around the table looking suddenly harried. My dad slips away from the kitchen and returns a moment later with none other than…
“Raegan Potter, as I live and breathe,” Audrey Broussard hums my name like she’s praising me.
“Audrey,” I smile, rising to my feet from the barstool I was perched on. I hug her slight frame to me and feel a surge of sadness creep in at how much older she looks though it truly has only been three years since I last laid eyes on her. For me, Audrey’s appearance is frozen in time a decade ago, back when I was in love and constantly bounding in and out of her house, her screen door clapping against the frame with an echo a thousand times a weekend it seemed like. Ten years and a cancer diagnosis, followed by a fight for life, shows on her. Her body was host to a fierce battle, and it has left her thin and visibly aged, a sight that sends a pang of sadness and guilt through my gut at high velocity. I think those same ten years show on me too, though for different reasons and in different ways.
Like the hunk of ice that you call a heart, Self-Loathing muses.
“You didn’t think you’d be able to come to town and avoid seeing me, did you?”
I had hoped, Self-Preservation says.
“Of course not. I was counting on it,” I lie to her face. Sure, I love Audrey like my own mom but she isn’t my mom in the capacity that I had expected her to be, and for that exact reason I didn’t want to see much of her if at all possible. Her dark eyes glitter in the light like her son’s and it’s more than I can handle, especially when coupled with the sadness I feel seeing her aged so.
“Good! Now how are you doing out in DC? We see you on the news all the time these days.” I ignore her use of the word we and focus on diplomacy.
Oh, ya know, still licking the wounds your bastard son left me with a decade ago, I think.
“I’m great! I love my work and getting to experience the seasons in DC is amazing.”
“I’m so proud of you Rae.” Her eyes twinkle like his as she says she’s proud of me and it makes my entire being hurt. All of me. In and out, tip to toe. Even, all my weird inner selves recoil. It simply hurts.
Twenty minutes of predictable, polite conversation ensues before it finally shifts away from me—thank fuck for small blessings—and I seize my opportunity for escape. I slip upstairs to my bedroom. Suddenly, a night spent with Chick and a pitcher of beer at the Palmetto Grove Bowling Center sounds like heaven. I scroll through the contacts on my cell phone only to realize I don’t have his number. I would love to know whom else I might encounter tonight before I commit to going. I quickly open Facebook Messenger and fire away asking Chick for his cell number. Less than two minutes later my cellphone buzzes as a text comes through.
Get your fancy ass in your go-cart and come on over to bowl! This is Chick by the way.
Me: Hey! How do you have this number? It’s a national secret, you know.
I chuckle to myself.
Chick: Your momma gave it to me and your # ain’t no secret around here. She’d give it to anyone.
“But of course,” I mutter rolling my eyes.
Me: On my way. Anyone I may see that I don’t want to?
Chick: Nope. See you soon.
I slide off my twin bed and flip my suitcase open in search of something bowling friendly to wear. I come up with a pair of black skinny jeans and a cream chiffon and silk blouse that feels like a dream against my skin. I slip on my discarded Jimmy Choos and frown looking down at them. This won’t work.
“I wonder,” I say flipping on the light in my closet. It smells dusty and stuffy in my small childhood closet. I’m a little surprised to see mom hasn’t gotten rid of all this old junk. SAT study guides, cheerleading pom-poms, softball trophies, academic ribbons and yearbooks… and one old broken iPod Classic. I remember breaking it. Spider web cracks destroyed the screen, and I hated myself as soon as I had lashed out and shattered it. I flip the thing over and hold my breath seeing the thick black line drawn with a sharpie marker by Sy all those years ago—the same ink he had to regularly reapply as it wore away in our pockets and backpacks and the center console of my mustang and his jeep. On one side of the damned thing is my name drawn precisely and adorned with one heart and one flower and one squiggly doodle. On the other side of the line is his name drawn in bold, thick, capital letters and underlined with care.
S Y L A S
Ten years old…
“My momma said since I’m older I have to walk you home and make sure you get in the house since your momma is at teacher conferences and your daddy is working over time.”
“Sy you’re not even that much older than me,” I whine as though it makes perfect sense.
“But I’m a boy,” he says back.
“So?” I stop walking and fold my arms over my chest.
“Just walk, Rae. It’s hot,” he complains. I grumble under my breath and resume walking beside him. I keep my eyes down on the road, kicking rocks and pebbles I come across and doing my best to ignore him like Teddy told me to. My big brother is smart so I do as he tells me.
“Hey what’s that?” I mutter and run toward something shiny on the edge of the road where the bushy grass begins. I pick up the little rectangular object and flip it over then whoop loudly when I see what it is. “Ha! Look what it is!” I wave it out in front of me and Sy grins.
“That’s an iPod.”
“Oh man, I wanted one last Christmas but didn’t bother to ask. They’re expensive.”
“Well now we have one,” Sy says proudly.
“We? No way. This is mine. I found it.”
“No. We came up to it together. It’s half mine too,” he says like he knows anything at all.
“I’ll just tell your momma that you are being mean and trying to claim my treasure.”
“Yeah, you could probably lie to everyone else but you ain’t lyin’ to me, Rae,” he smirks folding his arms over his chest like he just won something.
“I saw it first,” I growl.
“How do you know I didn’t see it same time as you?”
“I… well… I…” I stutter, trying to think of a good argument to shut him up. “Fine!” I snap and stomp my foot. “Only half yours, half the time.” Sy swings his backpack around to his front and digs out a black permanent marker. “What’re you doing?”
“We’re makin’ a contract,” he announces snagging the iPod from me. I frown as I watch him draw a line down the backside of the iPod and then write his name in big letters. He finishes and hands me the marker and iPod. “Your turn.”
I roll my eyes but enjoy taking my time drawing my name really pretty and adding a flower and a heart. If I make it extra girly maybe he won’t want to be caught dead with it!
“Good, now let’s see what kind of music is on this thing,” he bosses, figuring out how to work the thing fast. It makes little clicking noises as he messes with it. “Battery is almost dead but we can find a charger for it I bet,” Sy says quietly with his eyes on the thing. I look over his shoulder watching him explore it. “Hey what’s that?”
“Says notes,” he says before clicking on it.
“To Rusty with a whole lot of love from your favorite blue and brown girl. Kitty,” he reads.
“Aw man. Does this mean we have to find who it belongs to and give it back?” I pout.
“I don’t know nobody named Rusty or Kitty in town. Do you?”
“No,” I admit.
“Well, I say we hold on to it and keep an eye out for the owners,” he nods.
“Okay then,” I agree.
“Check out all the music.” He grins. I smile too, not really minding all that much that I have to share the thing with him—just until we find someone named Rusty or Kit.
Suddenly, surrounded by these things, I’m thrust back in time again and wading through an onslaught of memories. I’m a little girl with her first iPod full of oldies, a pubescent kid in junior high secretly drawn to her best friend, a naïve teenaged girl doing her best to figure out the world. My eyes scan over a small physical representation of my formative years prior to my great escape. It feels like a mausoleum in here, a silent tomb memorializing a dead girl. I say dead, because to me she is definitely dead. That girl—the one I had been, she died one evening over a decade ago and Sylas Broussard is her killer.
If Sy is the killer, you were his accomplice, Regret declares with frostily.
Before I can mentally linger any longer on the topic of dead girls I kneel down shoving random junk aside in search of what I came into this mausoleum for. “Yahtzee,” I whisper dusting off my old black and white Converse.
Going down the stairs dressed for a night of bowling gives me the most intense sense of déjà vu. Racing memories crowd my mind, considering how many Thursday nights I skipped down these same stairs and headed off to spend the night with Sy and Chick and our group of friends.
“Rae, honey,” Momma calls from the kitchen. I peek my head around the doorway.
“I’m headed to hang out with Chick,” I explain.
“Bowling I assume,” she declares, smiling.
“Well when you get back, I’d like to discuss something with you,” she says. I scan her face for insight but she gives nothing away as she keeps at her cleaning up the kitchen the way I’ve seen her do a million times before.
“We can talk now if you’d like,” I offer, walking fully into the kitchen where she’s wiping down the counters. I lean my hip against the breakfast bar and set my purse and keys down.
“No, no. You go on and have fun catchin’ up with Chick. We can talk tomorrow,” she says then comes to me for a hug. “It’s so good to have you in this house again,” she whispers in my ear. “Now go on,” she says before she releases me.
I smile and nod all while being fully aware that for the rest of the night I’ll be wondering what she needs to talk about.
I park my rental and before I can even get out of the car, I hear the bass from the music inside thumping beyond its walls. I climb out and smooth my skinny jeans, peering down at my Converse while I run my fingertips over the silk blouse feeling doubtful of myself, which I freaking despise. I’m a successful, driven, accomplished woman. If high and mighty politicians can’t make me feel self-conscious, then stupid shoes and teenage hangouts shouldn’t either.
I look slightly overdressed with the shirt and all but this is as good as it’s going to get. Someone opens the door to the bowling alley and for a moment the music spills out into the darkened parking lot. It’s enough to distract me from my thoughts. Before diving further down that rabbit hole, I lift my chin and march my ass toward the entrance. They renovated the place to add a real bar which is a welcome sight, but overall the place is exactly how I remember it. The scent, the sounds, the neon colors highlighted by the black lights hanging over each lane they switch on for Rock and Bowl Thursdays. I stand awkwardly at the mouth of the entrance looking left then right wondering where I might find Chick when strong arms band tightly around my midsection lifting me two feet off the ground and back against a hard, muscled chest. For a moment my mind drifts to Sylas, but Chick’s rumble of laughter makes me forget my nerves.
“My god, you actually showed up,” he laughs setting me back to my feet and immediately grabbing my hand. He tugs me toward the small bar situated in the front right corner of the building. And slaps the counter. “Harry, two shots of Jack and another pitcher of…” Chick swivels his head toward me questioningly.
“Uh, pass on the whiskey but whatever beer you like is good with me,” I say with a shrug. He nods.
“Tequila?” he asks. I consider it for a moment then shrug. Screw it.
“Two shots of Patron and a pitcher of… Coors Light.” Harry goes about fulfilling our order and Chick beams a victorious smile at me.
“What?” I laugh and take a surreptitious glance around us. A handful of people take curious glances my way but get back to their drinks and friends.
“I just never thought I’d be in this bowling alley on a Rock and Bowl Thursday night with Raegan Potter again. Damn happy I am though,” he says, lightly bumping his shoulder into mine.
“Yeah, I am too,” I admit just as Harry deposits two shots of tequila and a pitcher of beer in front of us.
“Cheers!” He clinks his shot glass lightly against mine and we swallow down the fiery liquid. It snakes a path of warmth down to my stomach, unknotting tension on its way. I hiss through my teeth and blow out a breath. “Thanks for inviting me. I’m already tugging my hair out at the root at Momma’s house, so it’s nice to unwind with you tonight.” I smile genuinely at him.
“You’re welcome, Rae. You’ve been gone a while but you’ll always be my friend and I will always be there for my friends. Always,” he says, throwing a heavy arm over my shoulders and tugging me close to his side with that signature dimpled grin on full display. “Now how about shot numero dos?” he whoops, gaining the attention of two scantily clad women at the end of the bar and I nod smiling.
“All right, all right. This round is on me though.”
I have just gotten back to town and I’m keeping myself as busy as possible. God knows I’ve got plenty on my mind and a pile of things to get done. My to-do list only seems to grow, never shrinking even when I cross things off at a steady pace. When I started BCF I knew the work would be tremendous but being a non profit, the work seems to be double. Being my non-profit the work is triple because I am determined to make my charity the best it can be in an effort to serve as many people as possible. They deserve it and I need it. Helping them is my therapy.
As busy as I am, I can’t focus. Not with the possibility of seeing Raegan Potter weighing heavily on my mind. I try doing menial tasks instead of focusing on the big fish waiting to be fried. Doing mundane things is a whole hell of a lot better than stewing about Rae and her coming to town. I’m not sure when she gets in or if she’s even still coming. She could be down the road at her momma’s right this moment.
My truck keys are burning a hole in my jeans pocket, but I don’t want to be that creep that drives by, looking to see who is there. I shouldn’t care if she’s there—I wish I didn’t—but it’s just not the case. I heard my mom and dad betting on whether she will actually follow through and make it to Ellie’s wedding. Mom has twenty bucks on her showing up. Dad doesn’t believe she’s going to… and me? Well, I don’t really know how I feel because I was once a Raegan Potter expert what feels like a forever ago. The woman she is today—the one I have seen on the news a bunch—is a fucking stranger. She’s rigid and frosty and lacks all charms and traces of being a girl from Palmetto Grove.
I’m minding my business, rigging up new fishing tackle for my next trip down to the bay, tying careful knots in line when my cell begins vibrating in my jeans pocket. I glance at the screen and swipe to answer.
“Yeah,” I say to Chick on the line.
“You smell that?” he says sniffing exaggeratedly into the phone. I can hear the grin in his voice and loud music in the background telling me he must be out on the town—probably Rock and Bowl given it is Thursday and Chick’s habits didn’t change much since high school. Chick has that tone—the one that makes me think he’s the cat who caught the mouse.
“What?” I put down the fishing reel I am re-stringing and lean back in my couch, snagging my beer off the end table as I go.
“Smells like an IOU that you’re about to issue to yours truly,” he says sounding awful proud of himself.
“And what in the hell could you possibly do for me that would possess me to owe you a damn thing you shithead?” I chuckle and take a long pull from my beer.
“Two words, fucker. Raegan. Potter.” That gets my attention in a hurry.
“What about her?” I lean forward in my seat, planting my feet like I’m ready to take off. For what, I haven’t the slightest idea. The fact that even the mention of her name has elicited this reaction from me not going unacknowledged.
“She’s with me here at the bowling alley. She split for the bathroom so I figured I’d give my good old buddy a heads up that she’s back home and she’s on her third beer and second shot.”
“Hmm,” I say considering how that makes me feel. I lean back again, propping my feet up on the coffee table and hum. “She’s in town,” I state more than ask. I take a moment to consider what I should do with this information. I could ignore it, tell him to have a nice night and that I’ll catch him later. I could march up there and drag her out by her hair and have a big fight, finally hashing things out after all these years so I can put Raegan out of my mind once and for all. Is that what I want? I’m not so sure. I could handle this situation either of those ways or…
Or I could do something entirely different. A slow grin tilts my lips up and I come to a decision.
“She up there with just you?”
“Yep Kayleigh from work cancelled on me so it’s just Rae and me hangin’ out, havin’ drinks. Just like old times,” he says so fucking tickled with himself.
“Do me a favor and make sure she earns a righteous hangover for her birthday tomorrow.”
“You got it. I totally forgot it’s her birthday tomorrow.”
“It’s an awfully special one too,” I add, still grinning like a loon. “If she’s hammered, don’t let her drive. She can pass out at your place.”
“Oh and Chick?”
“Keep your paws off my girl,” I warn him, dead serious. He laughs at that.
“I make no promises! I just had her in one hell of a hug and damn she’s curvy and soft in all the right places—” he hums appreciatively.
“Hey asshole,” I growl through my teeth.
“Buddy, we thought she was hot in high school but you should see the woman now,” he goes on and whistles. “The TV don’t do her justice, man.”
“You tryin’ to test me Chick? ‘Cause you know I’m all too happy to kick your ass if that’s what the occasion calls for.”
He laughs breathlessly for a stretch before gaining his composure. “Yeah, you still got it bad for Rae. I know. And sexy or not, I like my balls attached to my body. I ain’t touchin’ your woman,” he laughs.
“Good and I mean it about the hangover. I want her feeling like hell tomorrow.”
“Got it. She’s walkin’ back now. Gotta go,” he says swiftly then ends the call.
I sit staring at the wall for a moment, hoping for some clarity on what to do now. I’m mad at her. I miss her. I could kill her. I wish I could have her. I get to my feet and go to the shelf on the far side of my living room. I pluck a familiar old book from the shelf and breath in the scent of the pages as I flip through them. Call me sentimental but I just can’t bring myself to toss out this worn copy of a book all about a man pining for a stubborn woman he can’t have. I smile thinking back on reading this book for the very first time in tenth grade for a class I only took because Rae was taking it too and it becomes clear to me.
Whether Rae wants me or not, I want her. I never gave a shit about her shooting me down back then and I still don’t care. I have nothing to lose. Can’t lose something you don’t have in the first place. I’ll confront her, demand answers once and for all. I’ll remind her of the pact she made that I already know she won’t honor. That would be too easy and easy isn’t in Rae’s vocabulary. I’ll do what I have always done best. I’ll bug her to death and burrow beneath her skin because I can and she allows it—or she did back then. I can’t be sure about the woman she is today but I damn sure plan to find out. Maybe I’ll get her exactly where I want her then I’ll ghost on her just like she ghosted on me a decade ago. Let her see how that feels, wondering what the hell went wrong.
I open the browser on my phone and Google her name and click on the first image of her I see. The ink black hair I used to run my fingers through is glossy and done up like a movie star. Her familiar locks are styled in loose waves that hang just beyond her shoulders. She’s at some event of some sort and she’s dressed like a celebrity, every delicious looking curve molding the sapphire blue velvet dress to her body. Her lips are rose red and her eyes are the same vivid blue I’ve seen in my dreams countless times.
“Fuck me,” I groan, pressing my palm to my chest hating that she’s so damn gorgeous, hating that she has such an effect on me. Even after everything. Even after a decade.
And she’s supposed to be mine, but she isn’t.
It makes the ache from her absence that much more acute. Unfortunately her rumored shitty personality does little to turn me off. Rae has always readily bared her teeth with me. If there is anyone on the planet immune to her sass and vacant threats, it’s me.
The breathtaking woman I swore I would marry one day is back in town, and I am itching to be the first person she sees bright and early in the morning. She ripped my fucking heart out and I’ve been hung up on her for the last decade. She’s going to hate life in the morning if I have any say about it. “Couldn’t happen to a nicer person,” I deadpan, talking to myself as stare at the picture of her on the screen of my cell phone.
There are a few certainties about hanging out with Chick that I had totally forgotten. One, he’s a lady’s man. Two, he loves beer. Three, he also loves tequila. Four, he’s great at pressuring his peers into doing dumb things they really should refrain from. Five, he’s a lot of fun to spend time with.
But lying here now in a T-shirt belonging to Chick that I vaguely recall tugging on after texting my mom to tell her I was too inebriated to drive home and would be staying at Chick’s house, none of the fun from last night matters. This brand of hangover is never worth the fun that precipitated it. As the blackness of sleep slips away, the headache and nausea edge in. Somehow, the scent of coffee snakes through the tequila vapors and coils around my sloshed brain. I moan, squeezing my eyes tighter shut while pressing my fingers to my temple. Chick’s couch is comfy enough but no amount of anything good could have prevented the raging hangover I earned with every shot we consumed at the bowling alley bar last night.
Was it four shots or five?
The eerie sensation of eyes on me has me forgetting all about my throbbing head and roiling gut. My pulse quickens and I do a mental inventory of my body. I’m still in the tee shirt Chick tossed at me last night as I stumbled to his bathroom cellphone in hand. The fleece blanket I only half unfolded across my legs is still where I left it, its slight weight a reassurance that nothing unseemly took place last night. Anxiety is pacing the room in my head.
With careful precision I crack open one eye just a sliver then in an instant my heart slams to a violent, jolting halt.
“Happy twenty-eighth birthday, Rae. Ready to be a woman of your word and make good on our deal?” Familiar chocolate eyes twinkle with amusement as a store bought carrot cake is pushed toward me on Chicken Nugget’s coffee table.
I don’t move a muscle—and scarcely draw breath with my eyes still cracked open only a tiny bit. Sylas fishes a cigarette lighter from his shirt pocket and leans his bulky frame forward, then lights a single white candle on top my favorite cake which he did on purpose no doubt. Of course he’d remember a detail like my favorite cake.
Just like I know he too loves carrot cake with Chantilly cream icing.
The orange flame flickers and dances in the stillness between us. He on one side of the coffee table and me sprawled, hung over and significantly worse for the wear on the other. Oh how flattering this scene is.
“Make a wish, Rae,” he murmurs and something mischievous lurks behind his all American smile. I turn my attention to Chick who is by the entrance to his kitchen, apparently freshly showered as evidenced by his wet mop of dark blonde hair. He’s got a mug in one hand and an apologetic smile on his face.
“No thanks,” I snap at Sylas, hauling myself off the couch. I turn and face Chick. “There for your friends, huh?” I growl at him. He grimaces and clicks his tongue.
“Never said which friend,” he smiles stiffly.
“Asshole,” I mouth.
“Sorry,” he says back. I snag the candle from the cake and turn it over, jamming the wick end down into the creamy icing. My eyes find Sy’s and I feel homicidal seeing his mouth twitch in amusement. I don’t know where my car is, but walking back to my parent’s house in the Louisiana humidity is far more appealing than sitting here in Chicken Nugget’s living room with Sylas for a moment longer.
I locate my Converse—one by the front door and another closer to the couch I slept on. I jam my feet down into them, not bothering with tying the laces. I grab my small pile of things off the coffee table and make my hasty exit all with Sylas Broussard’s arrogant smirk crawling over my skin. The bastard! And Chick… I can’t sufficiently begin to describe the tongue-lashing he has earned himself. Seeing Sylas in the same room, breathing the same air, feeling the energy rolling off him in waves… it’s all too familiar, too powerful, too much. But, of course, he always was too much. Even back then. Even now, years later.