Read without scars epub format

Authors: Ayla Jones

without scars

 

Without Scars

 

Ayla Jones

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

Without Scars © 2015 by Ayla Jones

 

Cover by Janiel Escueta

 

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen.

 

No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the author.

 

In the totality of your life, may more than your mistakes define who you are.

 

 

Chapter One

Charlie

I was calling the guy who stole my wallet a fucking asshole when I noticed her next to my chair. I thought I was hallucinating. It wouldn’t have been the first time this week. She tilted her head questioningly, probably to mock me for mumbling at the clipboard in my lap. I ripped my ear buds out. “
Gee,
I just wanted to know if you were done,” she said, pointing to the police station’s binder of seized stolen property photos in the chair next to me.

“Sorry, I wasn’t…I didn’t mean…” I stammered, but she grinned as I handed it to her. Then she sat two chairs over.

“Biscayne Bandit?” she asked and I nodded. “Where’d he get you?”

“Sol Café. On Sixth.”

“Whole Foods parking lot. iPod.” She sighed, curled her legs under her, and flipped through the photos. She was a smoke show. I didn’t stop filling out the claimed property form to stare at her, though; my brain wasn’t
completely
made of dick. But made of dick
enough
that details about her
got filed away: thick, dark brown—almost black—hair wrapped around her fingers, plump lips, really nice legs,
great
tits—

And…

And…almond-shaped, dark brown eyes.

I had complex brain function up there, too, so my gaze did eventually float back to her face. “Wallet,” I said. See? Power of speech.

“Oh. That sucks. Did he at least buy something cool with your credit cards? When someone stole mine a few years ago they went crazy at Whataburger and bought a lot of mini Thomas Jefferson busts off eBay.”

I laughed. “No, just shitty Chinese food from Golden Dragon.”

“Uh, Golden Dragon on Market? That
is
cool. Golden Dragon—”

“Is the crappiest place to get food.”

Her mouth hung open for a blink. “Wait. Where do
you
get Chinese?”

“Eastern Gardens.”

“That hole-in-the-wall with the rude staff?” She tapped on her cellphone screen. “It has two stars on Yelp. From, like, three thousand reviews. Three thousand people and one thief can’t all be wrong.”

I leaned toward her. “You’re there for food not friendship…” She stared at me for a moment, smiling, and shook her head before she turned back to the binder. I wrote a short statement at the bottom of the form and then signed it. I’d replaced all my credit cards already, but the cops put up pictures from their Biscayne Bandit seizure on the station’s website and asked owners to do an in-person identification.

“You mind if I get that back?” I asked the woman, and she nodded and passed the binder to me.

“It’s no help, anyway.”

“Sorry about that.” I took it and the sheet up to the reception window, and pointed out where in the binder the photo of my wallet was. “That’s definitely it. I know because it was more or less that empty
before
he stole it,” I said. A giggle hit my back. “I won’t need it back ever, obviously.”

“Thanks for coming in, anyway. We’ll call you if we need to follow up. And Mr. Dara…if not for your video we probably wouldn’t have caught the suspect so quickly, but please refrain from chasing down perpetrators in the future.” Laughter erupted behind me again.

“I’ll do my best,” I said with a parting wave, heading for the door.

“I can’t believe he kept your wallet and apparently tossed my iPod…” The footsteps caught up to me before I reached the exit.
Her.

After
going through the trouble of breaking the car window. For a 3rd generation one. You know, with the scroll wheel.” She grinned—it was equal in excitement and rebellion. “She’s wrong, you know. You took down a criminal enterprise. Should’ve demanded keys to the city and your picture in the paper…” She slipped between the door and me, and held it open behind her.

Truth was I’d only gone after the guy because I’d practically put my fucking wallet in his hand when we were in the café. One minute I was sitting at a counter, staring at downtown skyscrapers, and in the next, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen any creature as beautiful as the polar bear. I should’ve known something was off; I was in Florida…and in general, what the fuck?

I got robbed because I was dead asleep. And it was only after some keen observer yelled that I was startled awake. Because I’d gone three days without sleep at the time. And if I hadn’t stopped to eat, I would’ve been behind the wheel of my car, nodding off.

The woman only walked a few feet before she turned back. “Can I see the video? I’d love to see the guy who cost me my entire Ramones collection.” I passed my cellphone when I reached her, and we watched my profanity-laced short film. “Haha. Listen to you. You were so pissed you went into crotchety old man voice.” A swatch of sunlight washed her golden. I filed away more details: a small gap between her front teeth and a tiny scar on her nose. “I would’ve chased him, too. For Green Day and Bad Religion and The Hives. I would’ve tackled him.”

I laughed. “What else was on your iPod?” I said, finally. Because she was walking away again. My brain was still filtering in pieces of her:
Funny. Has amazing taste in music.
My interest was definitely piqued.

“Everything. Stuff I had on CDs I’ve lost…” She smiled but barely let the corners of her mouth go up. “I’d had that iPod since I was a teenager.”

“They’re still inventorying his stash. Maybe it will turn up in the next batch. They’ve still got to check out the pawnshops, too. He was probably so impressed an iPod that old is still working that he hid it somewhere to keep...”

“Well, my music collection is pretty dope, honestly. He’s probably an old-school hip-hop fan. I have entire discographies on that thing…and I still have to tell my mom about her car window.” Sighing deeply, she shut her eyes. The small amount of amusement from before was gone when she reopened them, only hesitation there now. Only reality. “She’s going to flip her shit when she sees it. I didn’t even have the car that long before he broke in.”

“It wasn’t your fault...” I spotted the vehicle easily. Sharp shards of glass lined the edges of the passenger window, like the teeth of a laughing mouth.

She snickered. “I must’ve left out the part where it was on the seat.”

“On the bright side, at least it’s not the windshield…” I strode toward the damaged window and carefully stuck my head in for a moment. She’d gotten most of the broken pieces out of the interior, but there were a few crystal crumbs still on the seat. My gaze drifted around: shoes and bags from clothing stores. Like most women I knew, she treated cars like closets. “At least you can still drive it safely.”

“It’s not what you think,” she said. Her face was red when I turned to her. She gestured at an uncovered box on the backseat with six bottles of liquor inside. I hadn’t given it much attention until she pointed it out, but she was mortified, like I’d stumbled upon her fresh crop of body parts. “They’re all unopened. It’s so early I would never—”

“Wasn’t thinking anything,” I said, shrugging. I’d bought alcohol earlier in the day than this before. Even though she nodded, the look of distress didn’t fade, so I changed the subject. “I wouldn’t worry too much about the window. It’s an easy replacement.” Actually, I had no idea, but I hated seeing a pretty girl upset.

“You know cars?”

“Not really, but…I spend a lot of time with someone who does. My roommate’s brother, who is one of my best friends, works at an auto shop.”

“Oh! This is a long shot, but I’m going to ask, anyway. Are they open today? Would they be able to work on it?” Her look turned hopeful, and my weak heart melted.

“Yeah. They’re open. It’s called Las Olas Auto. They do good work,” I said. She reached in for a pen and paper, and I jotted down the address. “Just make sure you ask to see Ghost before you talk to anyone else. Tell him to call me and I’ll explain.”

“Ghost?” Her eyebrows went up. “Is he not alive because now I’m
really
uncomfortable…”

I laughed. “His last name’s Specter. First name’s Gabe…somehow we made the connection with the ‘G.’ He became Ghost.” I stuck my hand out. “Oh! By the way, I’m—”

“Charlie…” She gestured at the upper right part of my chest before shaking my hand. “You’re wearing a nametag.” I looked away to peel it off my shirt. “I’m Nicole—Nikki, which everyone now uses as my real first name.” She grasped my hand a moment longer before dropping it. “I have somewhere to be...I can’t get to the auto place before the afternoon. Hope that’s okay…”

She aimed her chin at the sheet I was still holding. I flipped it and gave it a glance. It was a printout for a dance audition with the address, time, and attire information. “Oh…yeah…the guy from YouTube who landed that record deal, right? The ass song guy.”

“Yup. Audition to the audition for his first music video. This is the first hoop to jump through to get to the one that’ll show on…Vevo? Because MTV doesn’t do that anymore, right? Not a hip-hop dancer by any means, though. I’ve really only done classical ballet and some modern dance. Who knows what kind of choreography will go with those lyrics. Something my future children will surely need therapy for when it’s all over the Internet, and they can’t ride the school bus in peace anymore.” She hid her face in her palm. “Oh God. I’m giving you my entire rambling life story. A life that hasn’t even happened yet. Geez. In case you can’t tell, I’m
kinda
nervous about it.”

I shrugged. “No worries.
Stories
are my favorite part. I hope it goes well.”

“Me too. It’s getting harder and harder to convince the people in my life that I can make a living out of this again,” she mumbled, eyes shifting away from me for a moment. Even with the doubt in her voice, though, determination burned in her expression.

“I don’t expect Ghost to give you trouble about the time thing, but I’ll text him,” I said as I backed away toward my car.

“I don’t know what the rest of your day is like, but if you’re still in the crime-solving mood, I’d love my iPod back.” She was frozen at the driver-side door, one foot inside the car, one out. “And thank you for the repair lead.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Hands shoved in my pockets, I turned and walked away, but the farther I got, the more inadequate the goodbye felt. I should’ve asked for her number or given her mine.

As I flew down the highway a few minutes later, I was still regretting that I’d done neither. Glints of sunshine bounced across the towering condominiums that lined the beaches on this side of town. I grew up around here—son of a doctor and lawyer and all—but I preferred where my roommates and I lived now: the food was better, we couldn’t really see the water, and we could mostly avoid tourists stopping abruptly to take pictures of things.

I turned into the Biscayne Heights gated condo community and sent a text to my friend, Fallon Gregory. She was waiting outside her building—in a robe and pajamas—and directing me to the nearest visitor parking space.

She slid into the passenger seat once I cut the engine off. “Before I forget…” she said. Fallon pulled a script I’d written called
Confessions of a High School Dealer
from her bag and tossed it to my lap. Her bag was enormous, big enough to house a small village, and worth enough to feed it, too.

“This was for you. I insist,” I said.

She held up her hands when I offered it back. “I want more.
I
insist.”

I sighed. “I don’t know if there is more.”

“There’s always
more.
That’s the…pilot, right?”

“Yeah, hypothetically speaking.” I did love the story though—drug-dealing anti-heroine falls for prep school golden boy and thinks she’ll ruin him. So far it was just a pet project, which meant I could write it without insecurity and crippling anxiety. I had written a third of episode two already at the screenwriting workshop I went to this morning at Miami-Dade Community College. It was worth the sacrifice of not sleeping in on Saturdays—not that I slept. When I was there, I felt like I could write anything; it always came easy when there weren’t deadlines or pressure. I felt fearless.

“Write another episode, please, especially because I’m way more awesome in fictional form as Tara. I
never
would’ve thought of dealing through a tutoring business and hiding in plain sight. The tutoring rates as code for pill and weed prices? And then Cody, the guy she likes, actually signs up for
real
tutoring? I’m so in love with it.” She snatched the script from me and flipped to a page where she’d bent the corner, and spread it between us, pointing to a line of text. “

Audience hears TARA’s voiceover as CODY BLAKE approaches her table from the lunch line: (
V.O. begins
) Cody always smiles at me. It’s because he doesn’t
know
yet. He doesn’t suspect that the princess of Century High is also its dragon. God help him when he finds out. God help
me
.’”

I interrupted any further reading with a groan and tipped my head back against the headrest. “Jesus, don’t do that.” I took the script from her because Fallon didn’t actually listen to anyone…except Fallon. “I was really just messing around when I wrote—”

“Don’t leave me hanging, Dara. Please.”

“You like it? You really think it’s good?” I asked and she nodded. Of course she did; it was about her. I shouldn’t have encouraged Fallon but from day one the script had started writing itself:

DAYLIGHT: A man, nervous, mid-twenties, handsome as fuck, DRIVES into an overpriced condominium complex. He’s here to buy PRESCRIPTION DRUGS. He’s only SLIGHTLY embarrassed about it.

CUT TO: Teenage girl STANDING out front of a building. She’s the dealer. She only LOOKS
like she gives a shit about anything.

“Well, I’ll think about it,” I said.

“Fine. I can take ‘think’ over ‘no.’” She glanced at her cellphone. “Shit. We have to wrap this up. I told my parents I’m returning a necklace to a friend a few buildings over. I’m already grounded for missing curfew last weekend. Parents are on me like white on rice. Anytime I’m out of sight for more than ten minutes they think I’m up to no good.”

“You
are
up to no good…”

“That is
besides
the point, which
is
…the lack of trust,” she said with a smile, holding her palm out to me.

I pulled cash from my pocket, way too much of it, and handed it over. “You were serious about the ten dollars each price? It was seven last time.”

She rolled her eyes. “Dude, all the juniors are going nuts right now. I barely have any
study buddies
and Xanax left for myself. Supply and demand. It’s
just
business.” Due to her square frame glasses and usually unassuming sense of style, someone who didn’t know her would’ve written her off as just a pretty prep. But she was a shark of an entrepreneur, hence why her
operation
interested me enough to write about it.

Fallon counted the stack of bills with a lick of her finger. “How
is
business?” I asked.

“Really fucking great, especially because I go to school with people who consider anything below a 3.7 remedial. They’ll do anything for a little extra help…”

“Do you sell to my sisters?”

Her eyebrows went up but she didn’t answer. “Hey, Mr. George!” She yelled out all of a sudden and an exaggerated wave flailed out the window at the older man slowly,
nosily
, driving by.

Shit. “What the fuck, Fallon?”

She giggled. “He’s a granddad to, like, four little kids. You’ve watched too many reruns of
The Wire
. He doesn’t know what we’re doing. At the most, he probably thinks I’m giving you a hand job.”

What the fuck. “Fallon!”


Okay,
you naughty boy,” she teased, elbowing me. “
Blowjob.

And that’s somehow
less
illegal to you than drug dealing?”

“Relax, I’m eighteen.”

“I know that. I meant—”

“Shit. In our society, I’d probably fare better as a drug dealer than a ‘slut’ in a car holding a dick. Also, don’t turn Tara into a drug-dealing slut.” Satisfied with the cash amount, she wrapped a rubber band around it. Heh. But
I
was
the one who watched too many episodes of
The Wire.
She stuffed the payment into her bag, and the muffled interior sounded like maracas. When we first met I asked her what else she had and she said, “I’ve been worried about graduating top ten percent and getting into an Ivy since I was seven, what
don’t
I take?”

Fallon pulled a plastic baggie from a side pocket and dropped several pills into it, casting a concerned look at me. “So…fifth time I’ve seen you in three weeks…” she said.

“You got a problem with me giving you money?” I frowned at her.

“No, I got a problem with being seen with someone who looks like shit when he shows up. Especially if I’m giving him blowjobs.” She slapped my shoulder while getting out of the car. “Write me more of
Confessions,
please.
Maybe
I’ll
consider
giving you a discount next time.”

“Hey, consider
this
…” I waved before shifting to a middle finger as I drove out of the complex. In my rearview I saw her return the gesture. We had a great friendship.

I tossed the baggie to the passenger seat, next to the script. Tingles of anticipation coursed up my arms, and I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. I was almost salivating.

I was Pavlov’s goddamn dogs.

Fallon had ADHD, and I bought her pills to help me write much longer and focus better, even though I didn’t have it. Added benefits: the euphoria and barely ever needing a second wind. But insomnia was a side effect, even when the drug was out of my system, and as a consequence of that, severe sleepiness. Since the robbery, though, I’d been better about sleeping, and paying attention to how and when the pills were affecting me most. But I was still napping instead of getting a full night. Fatigue was creeping up on me now and while I loved medicated energy, I needed sleep more. Plus, I didn’t want to hear Fallon’s criticism again for a while. Had I really been going there that often? And why was the judgment of an eighteen-year-old
pill pusher
bothering me?

Because she was right. I caught a glimpse of the bloodshot eyes under my droopy eyelids, and one week’s worth of beard; I did look like shit. Maybe it was better that I hadn’t asked Nikki for her phone number.

Fuck.
I should’ve tried anyway.

Focusing on the road as if my entire life depended on it, I drove straight home for my bed, hoping she was kicking ass at her audition. Hoping that for just a split second she was thinking of the guy mumbling about the fucking asshole.

Chapter Two

Nikki

I gave the chick next to me a weak smile. I recognized her from the last time I was standing in front of three stoic judges with a number pinned to my tank top, in a room wrapped in mirrors. “From the Lincoln Hayes tour audition, right?” she asked. I guess she knew me, too. Eyes narrowing, she stared like she could see straight through to bone. “Oooh. Tough loss. Maybe next time.” She was trying to psych me out. There were forty of us in here vying for four spots. I didn’t blame her.

But if she was here
today
, she hadn’t been chosen, either. Sabotage worked both ways. “Oh, is that where I know you from? A few others we both didn’t get were coming to mind,” I said. “Good luck,” I added—with resting bitchface—before I found another spot on the floor. In my new place (under a whirring ceiling fan, no less), the girls on either side of me didn’t even look my way. Much better.

God, the universe really rallied when it wanted to mess with you. I didn’t need the added stress. Not when I hadn’t told my mom about “the incident” yet. And not when cute wannabe vigilante Charlie was elbowing for space in my head, too. He was kinda rough-looking, but like those college guys who rolled into Starbucks in last night’s frat party clothes and thought putting on a baseball cap was better than using a brush. Because they were too sexy to even have to
try.
You scrunched your nose at them, yet somehow always thought, “I
so
would.” And Charlie? Tall, muscular, with a buzz cut, and
really
cute? I
definitely
would’ve. But that was presumptuous, because he hadn’t even asked for my number or if he could see me again.

Maybe I should’ve asked for his. I’d talked his ear off about my attachment to an old iPod and exposed my alcohol paranoia; what was reversing expected gender roles after all that?

A man moved to the middle of the floor and clapped to get our attention. Focus. I needed to focus. “Everyone who learned choreography from Claudia, you’re up first. All the odd numbers.” At open dance auditions like this, we were on a conveyor belt. Sometimes you danced an entire song; other times you were lucky to get a sixteen-count. Outside of auditioning, being seventeen years old and on my back on Jordan Turner’s mattress, looking up at his eyes squeezed shut and slack-jawed expression, was the only other instance when time had mattered so much in my life.

A rumble of footfalls moved to my left, and we rearranged ourselves. My heart nosedived into my stomach. It had been sitting in my throat the last hour. I clung to the hem of my tank top and my earlier freestyle performance for hope. 

False hope.

Claudia walked to the center of the floor, and she five-six-seven-eight’ed herself through the routine for a futile refresher. I didn’t even try subtle mimicking gestures. If we didn’t know it by now, she was only inspiring self-loathing. The intro eight-count of a hip-hop song bleated into the air. The women on my row beamed with renewed confidence. Had it been Tchaikovsky, my pulse would’ve eased back into its regular rhythm. I also wouldn’t still be in bitchface.

I loved all music and I could handle this in a nightclub, but classical ballet was my comfort zone. And every judge, whose eyes moved from my resume to the person standing in front of him or her, knew that it wouldn’t work out. So why was I even here? Several strides and a few erratic heartbeats and I’d be at the door. At least this time it would be quitting and not rejection.

Or a dismissal.

I stared at my reflection in the mirrors behind the judges. I had my physical hang-ups but I’d always thought I was beautiful—even through my cystic acne phase and self-cut hairstyles, copied from
People
. What I liked most, though, was that I was strong. I loved the way I looked in a tight tank top and spandex shorts. When I could see the muscular arms and legs that years of dance had shaped. When my hair was pulled up so tight in a donut bun that it hurt. And when I couldn’t fight getting wide-eyed or a stupid dreamy smile. I always looked stronger and braver than I felt. Than I
was
, really. So I knew leaving would be much harder than staying. My heart was rooted in my limbs—in twisting them and moving them and defying the natural bend of my body, for the sake of telling a story the music left out. That’s why I was putting myself through an audition where I stood no chance. For a spot I wasn’t even sure I wanted.

Just to feel my heartbeat.

The silky voice of an R&B singer flowed out, and the dancers flanking me spun with their arms raised. I was already off. I spun. Oh my God! Oh crap! Arms raised! Kick-cross-step. Ass-shake. Pop and lock. Floor slide on a knee. Ass-shake on all fours. Hair-flip right. Then left. Writhe up to a standing position. And then some girl touching other girl for viewer titillation.

“You may go…fifteen. Three. Eleven…” Oh, that was my number. “Twenty-three…” None of us talked as we exited, everyone’s attention on their cellphone, fingers flying. I wasn’t texting, though, just staring at my locked screen. Ironically, communicative technology made avoiding people so much easier. We scattered in the streets like frantic ants.

I’d messed up in there, as expected. But I was still rocked by my disappointment. My shaky hands fished the keys from my bag. My vision was a watery blur. The sting of rejection from something you
didn’t
want could hurt just as much. Like even it couldn’t be bothered with you.

I took an aimless stroll down the block. There was no way I was going to cry in the car; this wasn’t a
Lifetime
movie. So I soaked in the clear blue sky and bright sun, a Miami morning just as beautiful as most of the other ones that preceded it. Eventually, I got into my mom’s Volvo. I unlocked my phone and went to the dance audition database I always used. I didn’t dare click “ballet” to filter results. It was just there because someone would’ve noticed if it weren’t. The Miami City Ballet only held auditions through the company itself. And there was no way in hell my scarlet letter from So Cal Ballet wouldn’t flare up like the Batman signal once someone started calling around.

My eyes caught the time on the dash and I dialed my best friend, Lea. Oh crap. The tears were coming. Cue the melancholy instrumental crescendo. She answered in two rings. “Hey. Are you awake?” I asked.

“Yeah…” She wasn’t. She was in her last semester of the Geography BA/MA Program at the University of Miami. She’d probably been up all night. “Are you okay? Is it the audition?”

“It was horrible.
I
was horrible. I never should’ve come.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. Where are you? You’re still there?”

“Sitting in the car outside the building.”  I sniffled.

“Oh no.”

“Yeah…”


Lifetime
?”

“Got my forehead on the steering wheel and everything.” We both laughed.

“Well, it was a onetime pay thing, right? And think about how that stupid song would’ve gotten stuck in your head after you spent all those days dancing to it.”

“I know, right? That song sucks. Ugh, and he got famous from YouTube. Whatever.” File this under “Things Bitter Bitches Say
.”
Actually, I thought it was awesome he’d paved his own way to stardom. He was living his dream now. While I…I was just the creator of my own misfortune. A cautionary tale. “I keep thinking I’ll finally get one of these brief gigs I don’t really want and then network my way to something steady. It’s been one small thing after the other. And now I’m shooting mostly blanks. Probably because I’m just throwing myself at every freaking one and hoping I stick. I just want something to stick…” A few weeks ago, I’d booked all of International Fashion Week as part of the entertainment for social events. It paid really well. I’d gotten comfortable with working a dance gig every night.              

“I know, babe. I’m sure worrying about the break-in didn’t help any. I think you should just tell your parents, by the way. They’ll know it was a robbery, Nik. They’ll believe—”

“No. Don’t you understand that I can’t?” I snapped, without meaning to. “Not yet. It took a lot for my mom to lend me her car for this long. I want to return it like she gave it to me. Then I’ll tell them…”

“Okay. I’m sure you’ll handle it, and everything will be fine.” She sighed. “Hey…wanna meet at Starbees? We could put together a gigantic list of every dance audition in Miami, and narrow it down to your absolute best options.”

“Yeah. I would appreciate that,” I said, feeling like a terrible person for getting irritated at her unjustly. “I think I get so anxious when I do it on my own, and I don’t focus on what I
should
be auditioning for. How about tomorrow? I’m on my way to see your sister.”

“You know you don’t have to go today, right?”

“Yeah, I do. It’s my turn this week. And she likes it when I go.”

“She does. But you know I worry about you just as much as I do her, Nik.”

“I know. I’m fine. I’d tell you if I wasn’t. Call you later.” After I ended the call, I pulled off to the only other place I usually went on Saturdays.

The Thurston Rehabilitation Center was a small but state-of-the-art facility, so everything was white and had an iPad attached to it. I flashed my volunteer ID at the desk and continued down the hall. I still used the badge, even though my days of court-mandated visits were over.

“Nikki?” Mrs. Anderson met me where two hallways intersected. The same as the night our fates had crossed on a dark road two years ago. We hugged. “I don’t know if today is one of the good ones.”

When I pulled away, we both gazed at the glass panels of the room behind me. Her daughter, Camryn, was in there with the specialist: sixteen, and devoted to purple eye shadow and a permanent fuck-the-world scowl.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“She’s upset with me.”

“Because of the guy?”

Mrs. A nodded once. “I took her phone away because we were running late this morning. She sat in the driveway for twenty-five minutes and screamed at the top of her lungs in the car. She kicked the passenger seat so much I think she broke it. She’s texting nearly every minute, all day. Literally. She’s blown through the data in a couple of days before. Checking and rechecking for responses. Checking and rechecking. Sitting and staring at the screen in the same spot on the couch for hours. Sending more texts.” Camryn’s mind was the chaos of teenager and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Her arms were folded over her stomach. She was one more annoyed shrug away from popping out of her crop top in front of the red-faced specialist. “How did you get her to calm down?” I didn’t really like to hear about Camryn’s bad days, but Mrs. A only had Lea or me to talk to during rehab sessions. Mr. Anderson never came here. Because of me. So, I was often the unwilling confidante in the unlikeliest friendship.

“I promised she could use her cell all day tomorrow.” Her voice was low and flat. Like she suddenly realized it was a grave mistake. “But small rewards are how we get from A to B.”

“Right.” Guilt struck me. I almost said sorry. But Mrs. A had been treading my river of apologies for so long now.

“So, she’s in a
mood
,” she warned again with a small smile, squeezing my shoulder. “Godspeed.” Questions I never asked out loud rose in these tender moments between us. How could a woman I’d almost killed, whose child I’d changed maybe irrevocably, continue to be nice to me? Had motherhood made her biased? Did she only see me as the child of someone else?  I guess even monsters had moms.

“I still want to see her,” I assured her. This center welcomed approved family and friends during sessions, as long as we weren’t disruptive. Camryn’s face lit up when I walked in. But then it was back to another brain-enhancing exercise. And the scowl. The assistant brought a laptop to her. There was an innocuous demo of an animated mouse moving through a maze on the screen, playing on repeat. The game was supposed to strengthen her problem-solving skills and boost her short-term memory.

Prickly dread slithered up my spine. The specialist’s jaw ticked. Mrs. A’s shadow slanted inside the room. Camryn was about to go into a meltdown. She was the only person who didn’t know.

The maze exercise was simple. Get the mouse to the cheese as efficiently as possible. The first time was a freebie. Then the locations of several new obstacles—mousetraps and waiting cats—appeared before your eyes. It was a sequence anyone could breeze through. Anyone who hadn’t been propelled into a windshield at double-digit miles per hour.

Camryn shifted in her chair, shock washing over her when she learned they were going to tweak the maze after the first time. Whenever she was here, she never remembered she’d heard the instructions the week before. So, she got anxious when the path she chose didn’t work. She went back to the beginning. But she selected the same path again. Frustration simmered. Then came rapid foot taps. And a growl. Mrs. A and I made beelines to her side. There was a delicate balance here—support her but don’t guide.

“Why can’t I just go
this
way?” Camryn said.

“It’s an obstacle, honey. Sometimes we can’t just go
through
them…” Mrs. A explained.

“Look at the maze, Camryn. Work through it,” the specialist said, calm. One of us had to be. “What are your options?”

“My
options
…” Betrayal marked Camryn’s expression. She glared and tapped the laptop screen with her finger. “
This
one is the easiest. It worked the first time. It should work now.”

Mrs. A cleared her throat. “Right, but in life…we have to find an alternative way to our goal—”

“It’s a
maze
with a
fucking rat!
” Camryn slammed her hands on the desk and stood.
“It doesn’t have any fucking thing to do with my life!”
The specialist shot up, too. The assistant lifted her shoulders as she inhaled. They stayed that way. We were both holding our breaths.

“Camryn, do
not
yell at me and don’t use that language.” Mrs. A was seething but she knew that no matter how mad Camryn made her, she had to focus on her daughter’s emotions. “We find other ways to communicate. You know that.” She rubbed the dark crescents under her eyes, looking emotionally exhausted, too. I thought she was on the brink of tears.

“Camryn, what are you feeling right now?” the specialist asked.

“Um, what does it look like? I’m pissed off.”

“Why?”

“Because… because you won’t just…let me—it’s hard, okay?”

“Yes, but think back to last week.” She was triggering frontal lobe functions in the brain: giving her something to focus on, a problem to solve, and calling up memories. I’d researched all of this to know exactly what kind of damage I’d done. “You worked through it, right? And you did great. Tell me what you did when you were here.”

Camryn took her time and explained what she could remember from last Saturday. Finally, she smiled. “I totally beat my record. Yes! You said I did.” She used to play field hockey and lacrosse for her school. She couldn’t play sports anymore because her brain was now a bomb with a permanently lit fuse; a second hard hit to the head would kill her. But she’d never stopped being a competitor. “I
fucking rocked
it that day. I could beat it again.” She put her hands on her hips and laughed, her eyes brightening with pride. Sometimes when she was like this, I imagined her as the girl I’d never know: who she was before the accident. Happy. Full of teenage coolness. Free.

“Camryn. Language,” Mrs. A warned. “Now, try a few more times? Please?” She forced a smile.

“Okay,” Camryn said with a sigh. I finally breathed normally again when she sat. “I can still have my phone back, right? All weekend?”

When the session ended, she and I walked to the Dairy Queen a few blocks away. Her mom didn’t like for Camryn to be too far out of reach, especially around people who didn’t know about her condition. And a few minutes after I paid for our ice cream and we sat at a table, I saw Mrs. A’s car idling at the curb.

Camryn did most of the talking, telling me about school and the guy she was dating. She was always able to put her incidents away easily. I was still on edge. I listened but the squeezing in my chest was distracting. “Oh
gawd.
Mom’s waving at me to come every time I look up. I have to go.”

“Yeah. All right. Enjoy the rest of your day.” I grabbed her arm when she stood. “I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”

“Ugh,
Ni-cole
,” she said, dragging out my first name, “I know.” She hugged me. “Bye. And get a life, so you have something to talk about, too. You just sit there and then…you’re kinda fucking boring. And take a shower. You stink.” When she reached the exit, she waved before hopping into her mom’s car.

My chest weighed a ton by the time I got back to the rehab center. Disgust poured over me and I cried as I sat outside. I ignored the people who asked if I was okay. I didn’t want to be consoled. I deserved to feel like this. No one liked a story where the bad guy got away.

Not even the villain herself.

Chapter Three

Charlie

I really didn’t know why I went to the auto shop. It wasn’t like I had to. When I called Ghost he said Nikki was keeping him company until she went to work.

Okay, Nikki was still there, so that was why I went.

When I pulled up she was laughing at something Ghost was saying as she poured coffee into a Styrofoam cup. I could see him leaning over the service counter, eyes on her ass. He was the pretty boy of our group—brown hair, crew cut, no tattoos, and hazel eyes. He’d done an underwear runway show during Miami Fashion Week a few years ago, and since then you couldn’t tell him every woman didn’t want him.

“Here he is! Perfect timing!” Ghost announced, raising his arms in the air when I walked in. I did the same. We’d been doing it for years and I wasn’t sure how or when it started. “You picked a place yet?” he asked me.

“No, but everyone wants tapas, right? That should be easy. Why?” I walked over to the couch in the waiting area. There were no other customers in there at the moment, so I took full advantage of the opportunity to recline.

“I invited Nikki,” he said, and I twitched, instantly resentful.

“Oh…” I said. “You invited her.” I was pissed that I hadn’t even thought about inviting her.

“Uh, yeah. Fiona gave me a shitload of tickets to her comedy troupe’s performance,” he explained. Fiona was his boss’s daughter. “Nikki took six off my hands.
She
helped
me
out. Figured the least I could do was invite her.”

“‘Oh’?” She raised her eyebrows; my disappointment was
that
noticeable. “‘Oh’ sounds like my invitation getting rescinded.”

“No!” I said quickly. “You should come…once I figure out where we’re going.”

“You want tapas? Coco’s
is good for that,” she suggested.

“Um…
Coco’s
is where you go when you want to bang eighteen-year-olds,” Ghost explained.

Her snicker trailed off into a burst of laughter. Comfortable laughter. I guess they’d had some time to chat and feel each other out. “Are you speaking from experience?” she asked.

We weren’t but Ghost and I still looked at each other guiltily to mess with her. “Is that why you go?” I asked.

She took a slow sip of coffee then bit her lip as she pulled the cup away from her mouth. “Oh, yeah, nothing turns me on quite like hearing about how Mrs. Perry, the science teacher, is fuckable, even with the cankles.” I grinned. She was really fucking cute. “What
is
tonight, exactly?”

“We get our group of friends together every Saturday night for food and drinks, and just to catch up. Good conversation. Good people.” Right in the moment, though, my body immediately rejected the idea of going out, as a wave of heaviness swept in. I think I literally sank farther down into the couch. I was still at a level of exhaustion that only a coma would fix. Fuck. Maybe if I took another nap and popped half a pill, I could power through tonight and not be a zombie in the morning.

“You guys just bring people off the street?”

“You’re hardly off the street,” I said.

“Oh, right, we swapped robbery war stories...” She dumped packet after packet of sugar into her coffee. Then she shrugged. “Okay, I’m in.” Ghost mouthed
Good God
to me when she turned her back to toss the empty sugar packets.

I clenched my jaw, didn’t smile. We never competed for women, and I wasn’t even sure she was interested in either of us, but I did want to know more about her…without violating the ironclad bro code. There was something about the fire I saw in her eyes when she was talking about dance, a mingling of loss and hope. I wanted to hear that story.

Nikki picked up her purse and dug through it. “I should call a cab now…” She froze when she found her cell, and then looked at me. “Wait, it’s probably going to be expensive with traffic. Can you just give me a ride? I can give you gas money. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, I can take you. Don’t worry about gas money.”

“Awesome. We should go now, though.”

“Think you can get it done today?” I asked Ghost as I got up.

He nodded. “Pretty sure. I have a buddy who can get a replacement here in a few hours. A few people dropped off already. But I told her I’d squeeze her in.”

“Thank you so much, Ghost,” Nikki said.

Then we both waved goodbye to him and walked out. “You can still call a cab, if you’re not comfortable,” I said, as I held the car door open for her. It was probably registering right now that we didn’t know a goddamn thing about each other. “That’s an iPhone, right? Take a picture of me. It’ll sync to your photo stream, and you’ll always have it.” Killers probably didn’t offer ways to be identified so easily. “Or just send it to someone in your phone. Like a fri…” She took a picture. “Wow. I was definitely talking when you did that. I don’t even want to know what that looks like.”

She slid into the passenger seat. “If you turn out to be crazy,” she said, tapping away on her cell, “you’ll be the first person with a wanted poster that looks like you’re sneezing. It’s pretty funny. Anyway, I just sent it to my best friend with your license plate number, name, physical description, the name of this place, and our anticipated arrival time.”

“I get it. I know what kind of world we live in,” I said as I cranked the ignition, and we cruised into traffic. She leaned over the center console and snapped a selfie with both of us in it.

“What? There’s always more than one picture on the wanted poster.” She burst out laughing, glancing between her phone and me. “If it helps, you actually…didn’t look bad that time.”

“Umm…thanks? So where are we headed exactly?”

“Castles and Cupcakes,” she said, telling me the street address so I could enter it into my phone’s maps app. “The Medieval Times knockoff for kids’ parties. It’s not far at all.”


Castles and Cupcakes?
My sisters used to love that place. Whoa. Am I in the presence of royalty? If I had known, I would’ve worn a collared shirt.” I rubbed my chin and shrugged. “Maybe shaved or something...”

She laughed. “Oh God. I’m not part of the show. I work behind the scenes. I manage the schedule. Someone has to make sure Lil’ Susie gets her Princess Rescue party at four on Saturday, and not Lil’ Johnny’s Wednesday two o’clock sword fight. It’s important work, but mostly I do it for the free buttercream frosting.”

I chuckled. “Hey, speaking of, have you actually eaten? I mean, real food. After all that dancing you have to be hungry. I know a really good place on the way. Do you like Cuban food?” I asked. “Stupid question.”

She nodded, smiling. “I
am
Cuban, on my mom’s side. Definitely love the food. Thank you but I’ll get something at work.” She was watching me closely, studying every driving maneuver I made and monitoring my mirrors. “So, what do you do? Ghost and I were talking about you right before you walked in. He said you’re always up at odd hours. He wasn’t surprised you got robbed. He said that guy could’ve stripped all your clothes off because you were probably passed out.”

“Ghost finds any excuse to think about me naked. Actually, I work in a tiny cubicle for a tech company that connects overseas students with American tutors. But I’m in the process of quitting to work on my YouTube channel full-time. My web series. It got picked up by a company that produces Internet shows.”

“Whoa. Congrats. So, you act?”

“And write and produce and edit and get licenses to film in places and hold castings, and pretty much everything…me and my best friend, Samira. With the company, Hillington Media - Digital, stepping in, it gives us a huge break to just focus on the writing and producing and acting part. I do all the writing, but Samira gives a lot of input on the female character she plays.”

“That’s really cool. What’s it about?”

“Well, Samira and I have known each other since we were fourteen, and we both went to Leeward University. We were part of the first group of co-ed roommates when the school changed its roommate gender policy after our freshman year. It made the news. We were always getting media requests for interviews, and I got an idea about doing a Q&A on YouTube. It got five thousand hits in a day or two. So we started doing it weekly, focusing on different topics, like how to handle it when we wanted to have dates over. Or have people sleep over…”

“I’ve never lived with a guy. Was it weird? Did it change your relationship to something more than platonic?”

“She got herself a boyfriend early on—Patrick, the guy she’s married to now—and I dated a few girls over the four years. I don’t think we ever got a chance to even think of each other that way, which is cool. But then I wrote a short story about two childhood best friends, Chuck and Sami, whose relationship starts to change when they room together in college. My creative writing professor loved it and helped me turn it into a full-length manuscript. Two years ago, Samira and I were hanging out and talking about college and she brought it up. She said a lot of people were making their own web shows about all kinds of shit, and we could do it. Our parents gave us a loan, I eventually wrote the pilot, and we turned my channel into a fictional series,
How to Fuck up a Friendship
.


Oh,
so
that’s
why stories are your favorite part.” Snail pace traffic finally gave me a chance to
really
look over at her, and she was holding a smile. Maybe it was just something she did a lot. But I liked that she was talking to me while she was doing it.