I’m unsure as to where to start, so I will just begin somewhere.
I knew where Maddy and Jackson’s story was headed, but I felt like it needed something different. Since this is going to be the last Bottom Feeder novel (though not the last you will see of the characters, but I’ll talk about that later), I wanted all the unanswered questions answered. I didn’t change everything from the original story, and the ending doesn’t change, but the means to get to the ending did. Why? I wish I could tell you something exceptional happened. Like maybe I had epiphanies in the form of dreams and rainbows and unicorns and maple bacon donuts. Truthfully, I had a lot happen in my life and in my job (yes, I have a job outside of school and writing) that changed me. I mean, completely changed my outlook on a lot of things. I work in healthcare so I won’t break any HIPPA violations to say what happened. I will say that I had to step back and rethink about everything in my life. Everything I want to do. Everything I will do. This leads me to the next thing.
I had so many issues with the schmublisher that extended past what I told anyone. I didn’t want to write anymore. At all. To say that I was disheartened and beyond angry are massive understatements. I’m not angry anymore. As a matter of fact, I’m thankful. I like doing my own thing (though having an editor provided to me was going to be nice to catch grammar errors, but I’m working on finding a company I trust) and not worried about someone telling me what kind of characters I cannot have. With that said, after Lowlife is released, my next goal is to start a small publishing company for authors like me who want the independence of a self-published author without all the stress of formatting, finding someone trustworthy to make their own covers, editors, beta readers, promotions and everything else that comes along with releasing a book. I'm still in nursing school, but I no longer work full time. This project is in the research stages, but I am hoping by the time East Saint is released, it will be released under my publishing company. Now . . . here are a few sample chapters to, hopefully, hold y'all over until its release.
Fort Stewart, Georgia. That’s where the Army wanted to send me. One hour from Tybee Island. One hour from home. Or at least, what used to be home. Instead of accepting the assignment, I did what I had to do to get out of it. That’s why now, three weeks later, I am standing on a C-17 plane over twelve hundred feet off the ground with a parachute strapped to my back, waiting to jump out of the aforementioned C-17.
I was fine during week one and two of the Basic Airborne Course. We qualified on this thing called the Swing Lander Trainer, mastered exit technique from a 34-foot tower, and learned how to maneuver the parachute from a 250-foot tower. Oh, and we ran everywhere. I’ve ran in boots so much that my blisters have blisters that have baby cousin blisters waiting to move in when the others start to move out. Needless to say a career as a foot model is on permanent hold.
Today is the last day of week three and my fifth time jumping from a plane. I wish I could tell you I was all High Speed Super Soldier. I did well in Advanced Individual Training, where I learned how to be a medic. Airborne School, however, is kicking me when I’m down. Did I ever I tell you how terrified I am to be on an airplane? How the very thought of being inside this contraption makes me feel claustrophobic and nauseated to the point where I throw up right before I step inside the door and immediately after I land.
“Five minutes!” the Jumpmaster shouts from the opening.
I try to stop my body from dancing with excitement at this news. See, jumping out of planes is much better than being inside one. I think maybe the Jumpmaster respects that I’m so eager to jump. Really, I just need to get off the plane before I hurl on his—or her—boots.
I glance to the men and women standing on the opposite side of the plane. It’s too loud, so no one really talks. The Jumpmaster doesn’t like to hear talking unless it’s coming out of his mouth. I place my feet shoulder width apart and grasp the static line above my head tighter.
“Red light red light red light!” Jumpmaster yells.
That’s not what I want to hear.
That’s what I want to hear.
I hand off my static line and I’m falling eleven hundred and ninety-nine feet to the ground. I only have a moment to
loathe appreciate the beauty of Fort Benning’s
terrain in late February. We don’t float to the ground slowly like a skydiver.
We don’t float like a butterfly with all the time in the world. We don’t land
soft on the ground. Sometimes we don’t land on the ground at all.
This time I land with a grunt, tucking and rolling my body like I’ve been trained. As soon as I stop rolling, I rise to my knees and promptly throw up.
Training was officially over the next day when the Jumpmaster pinned silver wings on my uniform and sent me on my way with a, “Good job, Airborne.”
Next stop: Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
I wish I could tell you something about a storm that sounds poetic. Lightning flashes across the sky. Thunder rumbles in the distance.
Maybe the storm itself is poetry.
The flag outside the open window pops violently in the wind, symbolizing that freedom stands strong in the midst of chaos. That’s poetic, right? No?
“What do you think, Jackson?” He calls me by my first name instead of my last name or rank. None of that is supposed to matter here. Right. Rank always matters.
I sigh. Behind the building, skinny pine trees bend at awkward angles, stretching like they might break at any moment. The slow, malicious roar from the clusters of branches mimic the way I feel inside.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a stigma in the military. I am branded with this mark that is physically invisible. PTSD is a weakness that crawls inside my brain and snuggles in my dreams, conducts the movements of every cell in my body. Some days I feel out of control. Some days I am out of control.
Maybe the storm is music. Or a battle between God and the devil.
“What do you think?” the doc repeats.
Or maybe it is what it is: just a storm.
The man sitting in front and slightly to the right of me sighs. He says I need better coping skills. Says I need to learn my triggers before they happen. Then. Then he asks me to do this BS.
Of course I do what I can to piss him off. I wait to answer. And wait. I study him like he studies me. His relaxed expression never wavers.
I scoot forward and put my elbows on my knees, clasping my hands beneath my chin. “I bet you go home at night and tell your family about us,” I say. “You take off your loafers and slide into a pair of Uggs slippers, the wife hands you a glass with two fingers of twenty-five year old scotch. She massages your shoulders and asks how your day went. You begin your reply as you do every single night, ‘These pitiful bastards . . .’ and the conversation moves to the dining room where she fucking serves you meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans and says you need to find another job if you hate listening to sob stories so much. Then you take a sip of your scotch and you both laugh, because you know she knows you fucking get off on hearing our bullshit all day.”
“There are laws against sharing anything that is said here, Jackson.”
“Bullshit, Dave,” I sneer.
“Back on topic,” he says. “The simulation? It could help with your triggers. Our goal is to find what triggers your episodes and stop it before it starts. Or stop it quickly once it starts.”
I stand and walk to the door. “I’ll do it,” I reply with immediate regret. Will I ever learn?
“Isotoners,” the doc calls out. I turn to him. “I slip into Isotoners before I pour myself two fingers of scotch.”
“Bastard,” I mumble.
The classroom is silent aside from the sound of pencils scratching across paper. Heads are bent over desks that were obviously picked out for 2nd graders instead of college students. I double check my completed Ethics in Government test again to make sure I’ve answered everything. Whether or not the answers are correct is up for my anal retentive professor to decide.
I glance to Beraz. His 6’5 frame is folded in the tiny desk. Like an adult squeezing into a toddler onesie, he has to slouch in order for all of him to fit. He raises his chin in a You good? gesture. He knows today was a simulation session with the psych. I nod. I’m good. For now. I’m on edge, but I’m good.
Beraz continues biting his pinky nail, a universal Beraz sign that says he’s bored. I wish I could be so at ease. I hate coming to the main campus for class. The classrooms are too small, too enclosed.
I look over at Dominguez. He is sweating like a sinner in church as he glimpses the time and vigorously erases half a page of answers.
I look at Morris gnawing on a wooden pencil, his brow furrowed in concentration. Or possibly the look is leaning more towards disgust at the test questions.
Laughter erupts from the chemistry lab next door. My professor shakes his head at the noise. He probably doesn’t know laughter symbolizes happiness. Or maybe he does and loathes the sound. I’m positive he’s had a corncob stuck up his ass since the seventies.
Sergeant Wotley kept us late every day this week, so we missed our final exam on the Fort Bragg campus. That’s why, instead of hanging in Maddy’s room at the barracks and stuffing our faces with enough pizza to feed a third world country, the four of us loaded in Morris’s SUV and drove an hour to the main campus in Buies Creek.
A loud screech like air being slowly let out of a balloon sounds from the chemistry lab. Then quiet. More screeching followed by quiet. Why is my heart racing?
Pop Pop Pop
What the . . .
Pop Pop Pop Pop Pop Pop
I don’t think. I run to the front of the classroom, slam the door shut and close the blinds.
“Get under the desks!” I yell.
Pop Pop Pop
I begin pushing the professor’s desk in front of the door, building a blockade. I duck and spin when a hand grasps my shoulder.
“It’s a chemistry experiment,” Beraz says quietly, cautiously.
Oh. A chemistry experiment.
I let him push me in the direction of my desk. I sit with my back stiff in the chair. My stomach hurts. My head hurts. My ego hurts as I watch Beraz raise the blinds and open the door. He and Morris pick up the professor’s desk and move it back to the center of the room. No one else makes a sound.
“Psychopath,” some guy mutters. “Crazy as hell.”
Beraz lowers the desk. “The fuck you say?”
The guy blanches then notices the eyes of everyone in the room are on him. He sits taller in his desk. “I said your boyfriend is a psychopath and you are gay as hell.”
Morris’s back stiffens.
“Oh they’re not gay,” Dominguez chimes in, bored. “But if you need some action, mamabicho, you can bend over and suck this di—”
“Enough!” The professor commands. “Finish your exams and get out of my classroom.”
Beraz and I turn in our papers. Morris and Dominguez follow. Dominguez kicks the guy’s backpack across the room on “accident” as he passes. I wait until I’m outside to empty the contents of my stomach in the shrubs.
We stop at the closest Cookout drive-thru. I need to drown my mood in fried deliciousness. Morris and Dominguez order burgers, fries, and a soda. I order the same, only upsized. Plus chicken strips, 2 hot dogs, and a Cheerwine float. Beraz orders the same, adding a barbecue plate.
“Both of you are going to get Type 2 diabetes,” Morris declares.
“Eat your diet crap,” Beraz says, “And leave me to my Type 2.”
Morris looks at his burger and frowns. “This isn’t diet f—”
“If we wanted your opinion,” I say, snatching a forkful of Beraz’s barbecue. “We would’ve given it to you.”
“I hate both of you,” Morris replies.
“Impossible,” Beraz grins. “I’m lovable as fuck.”
I guess you could say Beraz and I have become friends after everything that happened last year. We don’t talk about those few days, but the topic is always floating just below the surface, ready to take us under.
Having someone here that I actually hang out with is foreign to me. Yeah, I had acquaintances in high school. Maybe I was considered popular. Does anyone really pay attention to that stuff?
Lamont was the only person I ever considered a friend. Our friendship is non-existent now. Chris and Lamont have completely disappeared. Even Jeremiah claims to not know their whereabouts.
These days I have a small group of people that I hang with here, including Maddy and her roommate, Jocelyn Cavelli.
Maddy came to Bragg in early March. I’m working on not being a selfish bastard so I try to keep my distance. I’m about thirty percent there. Just don’t ask me tomorrow. I’ll probably be back at fifteen percent by then.
“Let’s get back,” Dominguez announces. “I was up all night studying for that Gov test. I’m ready to sleep for the rest of the weekend.”
“Drop me at Maddy’s barracks,” Beraz says.
Morris nods. “What about you, Monroe?”
“Me, too,” I reply. “I’ve got a Madden score to settle with Cavelli.”
Dominguez shakes his head in disgust. “I can’t believe you let her beat you in Madden.”
I shrug. I don’t tell him I spend hours on the Xbox in their room just so I can be closer to Maddy. That would make me a stalker.
I’m not a stalker. Am I?
Damn. Guess I’ll be back at fifteen percent before midnight.
“LBXABYRB!” my roommate, Private First Class Jocelyn Cavelli, yells. “Get it together, Carrington!”
I frown. “What does that even mean, Cavelli?”
“Push the da—unnnf!” she grunts.
“Why do you want me to play, anyway?” I place the controller on the bed. “I don’t know anything about sports.”
“I’m trying to beat Monroe.” She grips the controller in her hand like it holds the last bit of patience she has for me.
“Playing someone that sucks is not exactly good practice.”
“Touché, madam,” she says, lifting her chin.
I raise an eyebrow. “Touché, indeed.”
My phone beeps with a text. I’m too tired (read: lazy) to stand and retrieve it, so I crawl across the small room to my phone. Who knew working in a hospital could be this exhausting? I’ve been at Fort Bragg for almost two months and I’m still not accustomed to my schedule. When the AIT drill sergeant told me Fort Bragg was, and I quote, “A whole ‘nother breed of U-nited States Army” he wasn’t exaggerating.
Other than PT (Physical Training) and my actual job, I also have to periodically ruck march anywhere from three to twelve miles, cover jumps as a medic and participate in jumps as a paratrooper. Because my commander says he’s not going to have, “Pansy ass medics”, I’ve been called up on five jumps so far. Like Pavlov’s dogs salivating over a bell, every time I hear the rumble of the plane’s engine, I want to throw up. And I do.
“The guys will be here in 10 minutes,” I say, looking up from my phone.
Jocelyn gently places the controller on the floor next to her and places her hands primly in her lap. “Monroe, too?”
I nod. Joceyln nods. Pauses. And scrambles to her bare feet. “What should I wear?”
I roll my eyes. “What you’re wearing now is fine, Jo.”
“No, it’s not,” she pouts and disappears on her side of the wall locker that divides our room in half.
Jocelyn and I couldn’t be more different, but our friendship works. She is Brooklyn-bred, outgoing, outspoken, loud, confident, and curses more than any person I’ve ever met. But we get each other’s personalities and quirks.
Jocelyn is a dental tech. Yep, the Army has dental techs. It’s not all guns and fighting. Soldiers like Jocelyn and I, for example, are the support behind the ones who fight. We take care of them while they take care of us. It’s a good trade, I think.
“What do you think?” she asks, model-walking at the front of our room. “Too much?”
I take in her pale blue summer dress and strappy sandals. “Are you going on a date or playing video games?”
She frowns and strips off the dress. I look down at my flip-flop clad feet, skinny jeans and Wu Tang Clan t-shirt and wonder if I should change for Dom.
“What about this?” Jocelyn reappears in a purple tank top and cutoffs that stop two centimeters below her butt. “This is sexy without being obvious, right? Take a pic and send it to Dom. Ask if he thinks I’m being obvious.”
“You’re beautiful, Jo,” I say, snapping a picture with my phone. “You could wear a trash bag and guys would fall at your feet.”
“I know,” she shrugs, slathering cocoa butter oil on her long legs. She lifts one to admire it. Her mocha skin glistens in the dim light of the room. “Monroe just needs a little more coaxing than most. Do you think he doesn’t date black women?”
Jocelyn is a gorgeous mix of Somalian and Italian with a body and face to die for. I’m only slightly jealous of her looks. And by slightly, I mean very much. The downside to her beauty is that she knows she’s drop-dead gorgeous and uses it to every advantage. That’s just one of her quirks that is growing on me. I’ve never had a female friend before. It’s different than Dixon. Not bad. Just different.
My phone beeps. “Dom says you’re not being obvious.” Another beep. “And they’re on their way up now.”
Jocelyn squeals and sits cross-legged on the bed with the controller in her hand. I prop the door open so Dom and Jackson can come inside.
Dom walks through the door first and wraps his arms around me. I wrap my legs around his waist as he lifts and carries me to my side of the room, behind the wall locker. “Hi, baby,” he mutters.
“Hey.” I smile shyly. Even now, almost a year later, I’m still shy with him.
“I missed you this week.” He places a soft kiss on my lips. Although we live and work within ten miles of each other, I don’t see Dom very often. Sometimes during lunch if we are working normal hours, but I work nights every now and then. Sometimes I work split-shifts. Sometimes we both work weekends.
“I missed you, too,” I reply. He places another soft kiss on my lips.
“I swear,” Joceyln says in disgust. “You two are giving me a cavity. Stop with the sickening sweetness. Go have a fight or something.”
Dom chuckles and kisses me again. He lowers me to the floor.
Don’t bite your lip. Do not bite your lip. Don’t—
I straighten my shirt and join Jocelyn and Jackson. “How was the final?”
“Not too bad,” Dom replies.
“So . . . Monroe,” Joceyln begins. “Do you date black women?”
“I didn’t stutter,” Jocelyn replies in her thick Brooklyn accent. Her eyes never leave the game.
I shift uncomfortably. “I don’t really date at all.” I’ve never been anybody’s boyfriend. Sure, I’ve taken girls to the movies and dinner. But those were only a means to an end. Yes, that end. What? Don’t act surprised. You already know I’m an asshole. I’m working on it, okay?
Jocelyn nods thoughtfully. “So do you sleep with black women?”
Maddy’s cheeks flush pink. I grin at her. I do like that.
Beraz snorts. “Don’t be shy about your intentions, Jo.”
Jocelyn shrugs. “I’m twenty. I’m too old to be shy.”
“I don’t discriminate, Cavelli.” I glance to Maddy while Beraz gets a drink out of their small refrigerator. “I have a type. That type includes all races.”
The truth is, dating—which is the word I will use for all intents and purposes—is on the backburner. When I’m not working, school takes up a lot of my free time. Plus, I’m on the fast track to be promoted to Sergeant and I’ve been studying non-stop for the Board. Hopefully by August I will earn my E-5.
Jocelyn rolls her eyes. “And a vagina, right?”
“Basically,” I nod. And sapphire eyes. And chocolate brown hair. And a nose with a small, rounded point on the end. Oh, and short. Like 5’0 or something like that.
My cell chirps with a text. I don’t recognize the 602 area code.
I frown at the message.
Who is this? I reply.
I’m not in my room.
I know where you are. Another immediately comes through. Come outside. Need to talk.
I shrug, supposing it’s someone new from work. Maybe Morris told him, or her, where I am or something.
“I’ll be right back,” I say.
“This conversation isn’t finished, Monroe!” Jocelyn yells.
I walk downstairs and out the front door. I look around for a familiar vehicle or someone standing outside.
A guy steps out of a white SUV parked a few feet from the entrance.
I narrow my eyes. “Why are you here?”
He scrubs the top of his bald head with both hands. “Really? That’s all you have to say?”
He crosses his arms and leans against the vehicle. “What does that mean?”
“Eleven months and nothing.”
The last thing I heard about Lamont’s well-being did not come from Lamont at all. His aunt called Mama and told her he was awake from the coma. He went through months of physical therapy and, shortly after, he was medically discharged from the Marines. Then he vanished.
Not long after Lamont went missing, Chris disappeared. He sent his mom a text saying he had to get away and would call her soon. Jeremiah, the other victim in the accident that ended Lamont’s military career and placed Chris’s football career on hold, stayed in Savannah. He remained tight-lipped about the accident. When the police interviewed him a second time, he suddenly developed amnesia.
“You don’t call. You don’t text. You deleted your email.” I run my fingers through my too-long-for-regulation hair. “You disappeared without a word to anyone.”
Lamont looks at me with disgust. “You sound like a female, J.”
“You show up here eleven months later and you expect what? A parade? A fucking cookie? A sticker for your effort?”
“Gentlemen,” Maddy greets. “Can we be civil, please?”
Beraz trails slowly behind her. The passenger door on the SUV swings open. Maddy simultaneously kicks off her flip flops and rolls her long hair into a bun.
“Damn, killer,” Lamont says, raising his hands in surrender. “We’re not here for that kind of meeting.”
She approaches cautiously, sans flip flops. “Are you working for him?”
“No,” another voice says. Chris steps out of the vehicle and takes a step forward.
Maddy raises her hand to stop him. “Dom?”
“Watch them while I search the car?”
“Of course,” he replies.
She turns to Lamont. “Open all the doors and pop the hood, please. Then step away so Dom and Jackson can see both of you.”
Lamont nods and does as she asked. Maddy thoroughly searches the vehicle. She runs her hands between the seats, beneath the floor mats, in the cargo area, and checks for—well, I don’t know what she checks for—beneath the hood.
She closes the doors.
“Did we pass?” Chris grins.
Maddy smiles and throws her arms around his neck. He lifts and swings her around.
“You’re okay?” she asks.
“Better than I used to be,” he shrugs.
“Why are you here?” I repeat, more than a little angry.
What? They think they can just show up and everything is fine? No. Lamont ignored me and Chris ignored Maddy for damn near a year like neither of us mattered enough to be updated on what was going on with them. Yeah, that makes me sound like a whiny bitch, but I would do anything for Lamont.
Chris lowers Maddy. “We have a message.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” I say at the same time Maddy asks, “From who?”
Beraz draws closer to the group. Lamont eyes him warily.
“You good, baby?” Beraz asks. Maddy leans into him and nods.
“We need to talk,” Chris says. “Privately.”
“We can talk here,” I reply.
Lamont shakes his head. “Not with him.”
“Bullshit.” I stab my finger in Beraz’s direction. “He’s part of it just as much as any of us. You want to talk, he stays.”
“Let’s go somewhere else,” Maddy suggests. “Dom, do you want to go?”
Beraz lifts his chin to Lamont and Chris, sizing them up. “Yeah, I think I do.”
We load in Maddy’s car with Chris and Lamont following in the SUV.
I run my hand across the new upholstery. Her car looks like a piece of sh—crap on the outside with its chipped paint and small, random dents everywhere. But she loves this piece of crap and put a lot of work and money into it.
The first Friday after Maddy arrived at Bragg, Beraz and I went with her to several Buy Here, Pay Here lots in Sanford until she found exactly what she was looking for: a vehicle—not too old or too new—that blended in. She paid cash for a black 1999 Camry sitting in the back corner of the crappiest lot we visited.
Even the salesman tried to talk her out of it.
Maddy had new tires put on, the entire motor rebuilt, inside re-upholstered, and windows tinted with the darkest and most reflective film North Carolina state law allows.
The color was chosen because no one ever remembers a basic black car. She selected the dark, reflective tent so she could see out, but no one could see inside. The engine was rebuilt and a new transmission added so she could feel safe driving long distances if she needed to do so.
One thing that confused me was she didn’t get everything done in one shop. The tires and upholstery were done in Fayetteville, the motor replaced in Dunn, transmission in Raleigh, and the tint in Raeford.
I was amazed how meticulous she planned for something she was only driving. Maddy chose that specific car because it’s one of the most driven mid-sized vehicles in the country. I asked why she didn’t get a newer one she would not have to sink so much money into up front. Maddy simply explained she didn’t want any technology that could track movements. Plus she wanted to pay cash with no credit check, which could also track her.
“Where are we going?” Beraz asks.
“The Murc,” she replies.
“The Jamaican place?”
She nods. “It’s usually empty at this time.”
“Maddy,” I say slowly, “There’s a reason businesses are empty on the Murc at night.”
Her reply is a shrug.
“You brought us to the ghetto,” Lamont says flatly. Chris steps out of the car and surveys his surroundings.
“You want food?” Maddy asks. “This is some of the best in the ‘ville.”
We step inside the small shack. The smells of curry and jerk seasoning settle in my nose. I know I ate two hours ago, but I think I could go for some beef patties.
“Cooh deh!” a woman says in greeting to Maddy. “Hay wah gwaan, guh?”
“I’m good, Melcia,” Maddy replies. “How are—”
“Ah hell,” Lamont says. “I have to learn another language just to eat here.”
Maddy shoots him a look.
The woman laughs. “Dah bredda mout ah massy, eh?”
Maddy chuckles. “He’s just hungry.”
“Is she talking shit about me?” Lamont asks.
“Yuh all right bwoy,” Melcia says. “Sidung.”
Beraz connects two corner tables together and we sit. Melcia takes our orders and brings our drinks shortly after. We sip something called Bob Marley punch—Maddy’s recommendation—and wait for the food to arrive. No one speaks. Ten minutes later, Melica delivers our food to the table. We dig in immediately.
“Ow is ev’ry ting?” she asks.
We mumble our full mouths in approval.
“Melcia,” Maddy says. “Could you make sure no one comes to this corner?”
“Shwa ting,” Melcia mutters and walks away.
“Talk,” I say to Lamont.
“We are asshole deep to a giraffe in shit,” Lamont starts.
Always good to begin a conversation with a good Southern epithet.
“One of the nurses warned me not to say anything,” Chris chimes in. “She said the accident was just that: an accident.”
“Bullshit,” I say.
Lamont scoops up the curry chicken with a piece of coco bread. He chews slowly, regarding Beraz. “It’s not bullshit,” he says, turning to me. “Whoever was in that truck was hitting Violet’s car. Once Chris sped up to help, the driver realized his mistake and covered it up by hitting Chris and Jeremiah.”
I had a feeling the accident was meant for Mama. Even she knows it was meant for her.
“I’m not going to live in fear and hiding, Jackson,” she said. “Nobody’s going to have that kind of power over me.”
“The day I was discharged,” Chris goes on, “I found fifteen thousand dollars and surveillance pictures of Mom on my desk. Some were taken at the hospital while she sat next to my bed. Some were taken at the house—from inside the house.”
“So that means you saw the person who hit you?” Maddy asks.
“Yeah,” Chris answers. “I met him at your house the day before you left Georgia.”
“Larry Duvall,” Beraz states. “Right?”
“No one invited you to this conversation,” Lamont snaps.
“I did,” Maddy says.
“If it weren’t for you,” Lamont points his finger at Maddy. “None of us would be in this shit in the first place.”
Beraz’s chair smacks against the floor. He leans over the table to get in Lamont’s face. I sit back and say nothing. I’ve said worse things to her than what Lamont just said and, even now, I find myself blaming her. Though I know none one of this is her fault, and I’ll never admit this out loud, I guess I still need someone to pass my anger to.
“Nunnah dat,” Melcia calls from the front.
“Say something else sideways,” Beraz says, turning his chair upright. “And we will take this straight the fuck outside.”
Maddy turns to Lamont. “There’s a reason you sent Jackson and me text messages to talk to you together. What is it?”
“Tell me something, gangbanger,” Lamont says to Beraz. “Did you get out of that life or do you still ’bang on the side? I’m sure her daddy needs a man like you on his team.”
“For the love of cheese and rice and hallelujah on Sunday!” Maddy exclaims, throwing her hands up. “This show of testosterone is ridiculous. If you want to have a pissing contest to see whose junk is bigger, do it after this conversation.”
Lamont sneers. “Funny, Miss Carrington, I don’t remember you being so hostile.”
Maddy quirks an eyebrow. “Funny, Mr. Washington, I don’t remember you being such a douche nozzle.”
I chuckle. Beraz shoots her a heated gaze that says he likes when she’s feisty.
Lamont grins. “Touché.”
“The FBI contacted us,” Chris says quietly. “Jeremiah, too. He claims he didn’t see the driver, but I know he did. He kept his mouth shut from the beginning, even when the nurse who talked to me asked him what he saw.”
“Why come to us now?” I ask.
Lamont sends a quick text message and looks at me. “Because I’m out of this bullshit,” he says. “I’m moving as far away from Georgia as my little bit of money will take me. That might be Milan, Tennessee or Milan, Italy. When the Feds come to you—and they are coming—don’t bring my name up.”
“Or mine,” Chris says quietly. “I want my life back. If I keep quiet, it’ll keep Mom safe. Maybe I can salvage my scholarship and get back into spring training next year.”
“I will not mention either of you or your family,” Maddy replies. “You have my word.”
As pissed off as I am at Lamont for disappearing and not coming to me, I understand completely. I understand his need to get away, to disappear. He was messed up from his deployments and when he came back to the States after the last tour, he managed to get caught up in bullshit that wasn’t meant for him in the first place. I’d be pissed right the hell off, too.
The door chimes. A vaguely familiar man steps inside the restaurant and approaches our table.
“Suit,” Maddy sighs.
The man frowns. “I hate when you call me that.” He turns to Melcia. “Could I get a beef patty and oxtails, please?”
“I dun serve de beasts,” she says with disdain.
Maddy laughs. “He’s okay, Melcia.”
She harrumphs and turns on her heel, returning a few minutes later with the man’s food.
“I need to talk to Madelyn,” he states. “Alone.”
“I’ll move to the other side of the restaurant,” Beraz says evenly. “But I’m not leaving.”
“Fair enough,” the man replies.
Lamont stretches his arms. “Come on, J. I’ll take you back.”
I take another look at Maddy before walking out the door. Her stony expression and tense body language screams for me to stay with her. Beraz is here, though. She doesn’t need me.
“That’s a big ass dude,” Lamont says once we are outside.
I nod because it’s true. Beraz is a big ass dude.
“What do you know about him?”
“Why?” I ask, climbing in the back of the SUV. “Take a left and a keep going straight. It’ll run us directly to Bragg.”
Lamont doesn’t speak again until we’re on a darkened stretch of 210. “He has a lot of tattoos, huh? Does he usually wear a watch?”
What the hell with the weird questions? “Yeah, I guess. For work.”
“I saw the star and pitchfork peeking out of one of the cover-ups on his left wrist. Who does he rep? Disciples?”
“I don’t know,” I say truthfully. “I think he got out of the gang life when he joined the army.”
He shakes his head. “Nah, man. No one gets out of the Disciples. Not alive, anyway.”
“Beraz doesn’t talk about his past and I don’t ask,” I say. “I have too many demons of my own. I don’t question anyone else’s.”
“Except Maddy’s, right?” he smirks in the rearview mirror. I flip him the middle finger. “Cordell has gang ties. From what I learned about him—and trust me when I say I learned a lot—the Disciples might be one of them.”
I snort. Cordell, with his custom-made suits and shoes that cost more than I make in a month deals with street gangs? “Right.”
“I’m serious,” he says firmly. “I know you’re still drooling over Miss Carrington, so you might want to let her know that her boyfriend is probably bad news.”
Agent Mace stuffs an entire beef patty in his mouth before washing it down with half the glass of Bob Marley punch.
“What’s in this stuff?” he asks, taking another big drink.
“Pineapple juice, mango juice, passion fruit juice, and fresh lemonade,” I reply. “It’s Melcia’s recipe. Everything is made here.” He grunts with pleasure. “Can you eat and talk at the same time, Suit?”
He scoops up rice with his coco bread and shoves it in his mouth. I sigh. I guess the man needs to eat.
I glance to Dom. He’s talking and laughing with Melcia. He looks over, his eyes meeting mine. He winks and shoots me a sexy grin. Flutters stir low in my belly.
Calm the hormones, Carrington.
“I’m off the case,” Agent Mace says minutes later.
“You didn’t come to North Carolina to tell me you’re off the case,” I reply. “What else?”
Over a mouthful of food he claims, “You used to be nice.”
I’m still nice, just not a pushover. I will never have a real life as long Cordell is walking free. He has ruined too many lives for me to breathe easy. As upset as I was at Lamont’s comments, I know he’s right. I brought all of this on by turning Cordell over to the FBI. At the time I felt like there was no other options. My decision has gotten a lot of people hurt. But what was I supposed to do?
Yeah, I’m still nice. But being flat-out mad trumps that these days.
I never gave myself time to be angry at all that happened throughout my life. I thought anger wasted too much time, too much energy. That changed when I joined the army.
During my months of training I had time to think. I mostly stayed to myself, only concentrating on work or whatever task I was given. I was an outcast because I made myself an outcast. I didn’t take time to get to know anyone or go out with them on nights or weekends we were allowed to leave the base. I made myself scarce on purpose. Essentially, I became the mythical Gray Man. Or in this case, Gray Woman.
The concept is that The Gray Woman is invisible in plain sight. She stays in the background of things, never drawing attention to herself and, when in distress, she never shows all her skills—or lack thereof—to anyone unless and until absolutely necessary. She might even come off as confused or ditzy in certain situations. She is unassuming and easy to forget.
Which is the reason my wardrobe outside of work are simple dresses and t-shirts and jeans. The concept of The Gray Woman is also the reason for purchasing a piece of crap, 1999 Camry from a Buy Here, Pay Here lot and getting the necessities repaired in shops across four counties. No one ever remembers a car like mine. Not to mention I pay cash for everything. I have no cell phone contract. I have two pre-paid phones: one for work and the other for everyone else. I change the number for the second phone every time the minutes are out. Social media is out of the question. I have no laptop or tablet. I go to the library if I need a computer. I have an email address I use for Dixon and Violet. I have an assigned work email address accessed only from work.
I understand this makes me a Level Eight Psychotic Mofo. Yet another thing my future therapist will want to talk about someday.
“The CIA is taking over,” Agent Mace says. I nod. “You don’t seem surprised.”
I shrug. “I’m not.”
Since Cordell was working so much overseas, I’m surprised it took this long for the CIA to take over. I don’t know how jurisdiction works between agencies, but the CIA deals mostly with matters outside the country.
He leans forward and lowers his voice. “They think he’s in Turkey.”
“And he’s not?” Agent Mace shakes his head. “How do you know?”
“I’ve been working on this case for five years, Madelyn,” he says, the anger evident. “I have insiders even my boss doesn’t know about who tell me everything. They have been mostly quiet, but the last message I received two days ago said he boarded a cargo plane in Djibouti.”
“Cargo plane?” It’s not like Cordell to ride in anything less than luxury.
“It was filled with a shit ton of opium and enough hardware to put a weapon in the hands of every rebel in South Sudan.”
I choke back the gasp that almost escapes. I release it in the form of a sigh. “Please tell me that’s not where the plane landed.”
The agent sits back and regards me over his empty glass.
“This is why you’ve been building his case for so long.” It’s not a question, but he nods anyway.
“He’s leading us to larger players, Madelyn.”
Control your body. Keep your face neutral. Don’t give away any signs of distress. Relax. Breathe evenly.
I sit back in my chair and sip what’s left of my drink. “You haven’t said what any of this has to do with me.”
“Cordell has no ties,” Agent Mace continues. “Regardless of what others may think, he doesn’t operate under mob strategy. This has nothing to do with the family he was born into, though that is where it began. This is not about territory. Cordell lives for the fear others have of his power. There’s a saying amongst the agents who have worked this case before me and with me. And that is, ‘Each breath Cordell Carrington takes comes to him by the last breath of every person he has murdered.’”
I choke back the bile that rises in my throat.
“The only side he knows is whoever the highest bidder is for his services. Enemies, allies, militias, terrorists, crime organizations. God, why do you think he has his hands dipped in so many legitimate businesses?”
I take a deep breath out and let it out slowly. “Again, you haven’t said what any of this has to do with me or why you are here now.”
“I’d like you to draw him out.”
I laugh without humor. “So I’m the raw meat dangling in front of the lion?”
Agent Mace rolls his eyes. “I’m not throwing you in the lion’s den or to the wolves or throwing a curve ball or doing any other idiom you can think of.” He pauses and looks to the ceiling. “I know you can’t handle that right now.”
“What?” I ask, my anger quickly rising to the surface. I wait for my usual pep talk to come. Nope. Nothing.
“You’re eighteen,” he says simply. “Just a child. I’m not asking you to be in danger. I learned my lesson from the warehouse incident.”
I rise from the chair and lean with my palms against the table. “I might be eighteen,” I begin slowly. “But never underestimate me. Never. When life throws me a curve ball, I swing. Sometimes I hit, sometimes I miss, but you can bet every pressed suit in your closet that I give my everything.”
I stab the table with my finger. “Go ahead and throw me in the lion’s den, Suit. I might have to deal with some scratches, but you can bet that stick up your ass the lion will come out tamed.”
“Throw me to the wolves and I’ll come out as the got-damn alpha.” I lean closer. “I am not that scared little girl you met fifteen months ago, Agent Mace. I’ll do what you want to help draw him out, but I want something in return.”
He raises his chin for me to go on.
He shakes his head. “Kevin Underwood has been wiped from every system. If you were to look up his name in our database, you will see he was found dead in the Everglades. I’m talking protective custody so deep, I don’t know anyone who can find him.”
I step forward and punch my finger in his chest. “Find him.”
“Monroe, formation!” Beraz yells across the field.
I jog to the edge of the field where the rest of my Company stands in our end-of-the-day formation
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Wotely says. “Who’s ready to go to Louisiana for a month?”
Cries of “Hell yeah!” and “About damn time!” shout all around me.
A month in Louisiana means deployment soon. I haven’t come up on my one year mark yet, so maybe I’ll be in the clear with this one.
“We leave in two weeks,” Wotley says, handing out a roster with names on it.
Please don’t let me be on it this time. Just give me a few more months to clear my head.
I glance at the paper and quickly find my name near the middle. I close my eyes and release a shaky breath when really all I want to do is punch something.
Beraz nudges my side. “You good?” he asks quietly.
I nod. I look over the list again. “Why isn’t your name on here?” I ask.
“My Ranger packet got approved.”
I forget all about my shitty news for a minute to give him a fist bump. “Hell yeah!”
For the past six months, Beraz has been trying to get approved for the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program. He spends his off time training that includes twenty mile road marches in full gear with a sixty pound ruck strapped to his back, or in the middle of the woods teaching himself land navigation. He takes Krav Maga and MMA training with Maddy to help his combative skills. None of this is counting his extra training in and out of the gym.
Dominguez bellows over the commotion. “Sergeant Wotley! Where are we deploying?”
Sergeant Wotely raises an incredulous eyebrow. Crap. We all know that look.
“Wherever you land, Dominguez,” Beraz chimes in before Wotley gets a wild hare up his ass and makes us stay at work longer.
I eat dinner with Dominguez at the DFAC—Dining Facility—and head back to my room to assess my gear. I pass by Morris’s open door. Since we returned from deployment, he usually sleeps with it open. Says he feels like the walls are closing in on him if the door is closed. He is sitting on the edge of the bed staring at the wall.
I poke my head inside. “What’s going on, man?”
He holds up a piece of paper similar to the one in my pocket. Damn.
I step further into the room. “You’re going with us?” He nods. “The docs cleared you?” I try to hide the shock in my voice.
He gives a hollow laugh. “I guess I hid everything a little too well, huh?”
“Just tell them,” I say, leaning against his desk. “Tell them you’re not ready.”
“I can do this,” he states. “I’m not the only one who lost someone.”
I shake my head. “You loved Sam.”
Private Samuel Trakt was eighteen years old and fresh out of Airborne training. He died in Morris’s arms. They were best friends since daycare. Morris loved him more than a fellow soldier, more than a brother, and definitely more than a friend.
“I can do this,” Morris repeats. “Maybe a new chapter over there will help me get past what happened.”
I stay for a few more minutes then go to my room. With how messed up my mind is, I would be a hypocrite if I attempted to give Morris advice. All I can do is be there for him when he needs to talk.
I lay out my gear on my roommate’s side of the room. Well, I guess I don’t have a roommate anymore since he decided, after he came back from deployment, to change his job to Civil Affairs. He is currently in training for the next ten weeks and thankfully I have a room to myself for now.
As I am making a list of everything I’m missing from my rucksack, my cell phone rings. “Hey, Mama,” I say, placing her on speakerphone.
“Hey, darlin’,” she says. “How are you?”
“Are you lying to me, Jackson Benton-Monroe?” I swear I can see her eyes narrow through the phone.
“I’m okay.” I begin stuffing my equipment back in my rucksack. “I’m just tired.”
“You work too much. You should come down for Memorial Day to see me.” She pauses. “Or maybe I could come up there.”
Damn. I wanted to wait to tell her about the deployment, especially since I don’t have real orders with an actual date. “Actually,” I reply, “I’ll be training in Louisiana for a few weeks.”
She gasps. “The last time you went to Louisiana for training, you deployed a month later.”
I spend the next half hour explaining to her that I’m not deploying right now, the deployment could be scrapped altogether, and I’m only leaving for training. I spend the half hour after that telling her why I am going to make the army my career and I love my job and blah blah blah. All the reassurances she needs. I love her more than my own life, but she worries too much.
Now if only I can convince myself not to worry.
“Please tell me there’s food I don’t I have to eat with my hands.” Jocelyn curls her lip and turns her perfect nose to the ceiling. Since her jobs requires her hands to be in people’s mouths, she has issues eating anything without utensils.
“This is fast food,” Dom says. “You eat everything with your hands.”
He places a plastic fork and knife on her tray. “Problem solved.”
“You saved the day,” I tell him. “She would’ve gone on about that all through lunch.”
I wedge myself at a table with Jocelyn on my left and Dom on my right. Terrance, Jackson, and Sean—a medic attached to their unit—sit in front of me.
“Are you seriously eating a burger with a knife and fork?” Terrance asks.
Jocelyn shoots him a look that says she wants to slap him. “I’ve been knuckle deep in people’s mouths all day!”
Jackson shrugs. “I guess that would make me want to eat with a fork and knife, too.”
“You don’t use gloves or wash your hands, Jo?” I laugh. “I’ve been wrist deep in vaginas all day and you don’t see me with utensils.” I know it’s gross, and she hates when I do this, but nothing makes Jocelyn Cavelli uncomfortable. She is non-stop talking about something sexual or downright gross, so I take every opportunity I can for a little verbal revenge.
Every person at the table pauses with food halfway to their mouths.
“Did you just say—” Terrance begins.
“‘Wrist deep in vaginas’?” Jackson finishes. I nod and take a bite of my chicken sandwich.
The guys erupt in laughter while Jocelyn stares at me with wide eyes. “This is why I can’t be friends with a medic,” she says. “You talk about the nastiest shit ever.”
“What?” I ask innocently. “I’m assisting in Women’s Health today.”
“I’ll be your friend, mami,” Terrance says. “If you describe to me, in detail, what you have seen.”
I scrunch my nose. “Terrance.” I point to the far right corner of the restaurant. “You’re on time out. Go sit over there and think about your actions.”
Jackson chuckles while Jocelyn nods her agreement. Dom leans over and whispers in my ear. “You’re cute when you’re feisty.”
I bite my lip. I can’t help it. The combination of his lips close to my ear and his thumb rubbing circles on my leg is driving me crazy. We cannot be seen fraternizing or showing PDA while in uniform, so I whisper to him, “You’re earning brownie points, good sir.”
“Good,” he replies, his breath warm on my ear. “I plan on cashing them in soon.”
“Get a room!” Jocelyn exclaims. “I’m eating over here.”
I laugh. “You don’t even know what we were talking about.”
“No,” she replies. “But I see his hand on your leg underneath the table, so I can guess.”
I feel my face flush fourteen shades of red before it decides on the color of cooked lobster. Everyone laughs except Jackson. He is frowning at his burger.
“Is something wrong with your food?” I ask him.
He shakes his head. Maybe he’s thinking about their upcoming training in Louisiana. Dom told me yesterday the majority of their unit is going to JRTC in Louisiana in a couple of weeks. He said this means a deployment will likely happen soon.
My mind flashes to the night on the roof when Jackson woke up screaming from a nightmare. I know he still has flashbacks, trouble sleeping, and issues coping in large groups of people. He opened up to me about it in some of the letters I received from him in Basic Training. I want so badly to help him, to take away his pain.
I look at Sean. He hasn’t touched his food or said a word since before we sat down. He is going to Fort Polk, too. Dom said Sean’s best friend died in his arms in Afghanistan.
My heart breaks for him. I could never imagine Dixon dying, let alone him dying in my arms. The thought makes me lose my breath.
When everyone except Sean gets up to leave, I move to the seat beside him.
“Hey,” I say.
He doesn’t look up from his food. “Hey, Maddy.”
I wrap my hand around the clenched fists in his lap. “I don’t know you very well,” I say. “But I want you to know you can come to me for anything.”
He looks in my eyes like he’s searching for something. “Anything,” I repeat. “You need to know about tomorrow’s weather? Call me.” He gives a sad smile. “You need to scream at someone? Call me. You need a shoulder? I have two. Choose one or both and they are yours.”
“What’s your number? I’ll text you and you can save mine.” He sounds off his number and I promptly send him a text. I dump his tray of untouched food and give him a protein bar from my pocket. “For when you get hungry later.”
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
Sergeant Wotley decided to keep his squad until eight o’clock, so instead of spending time with Dom, I am sitting at my desk watching an American Sign Language video. Cordell made me take a class a few years ago to learn. I’ve only used it with a girl that went to Coastal High, but I like keeping up my knowledge. Cordell taught me a few good things. Granted, the bad outweighs the good, but any time I can, I hold on to good stuff like a life raft.
I realize now that most of those things were probably for his benefit instead of mine. Maybe he was training me to work for him later on down the road. Maybe he thought we were going to be a Father-Daughter Power Murder Squad thingamajig.
He used to sit me down and have me study puzzles and riddles. It usually took a while—longer than he liked—but I always figured them out. The more practice I had, the quicker and better I got.
When I was thirteen he started teaching me how to read lips, body language, and involuntary facial microexpressions. The science behind microexpressions isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty close. Every weekend Cordell took me to the mall, Forsyth Park, and other public areas to test my skills and knowledge. Sometimes I studied photographs or videos of random people. He would ask if I noticed certain expressions or emotions on their faces. He taught me that even if someone hides things in a masked, neutral, or simulated expression, everyone has their own facial and body blueprint. That might be a twitch of the fingers, white knuckles clamped into fists, nervous tapping or shifting of feet, even a yawn at an opportune time.
Cordell made it into a game for me and I loved it all. He is the reason I applied to Duke and wanted to double major in Neuroscience and Psychology. My love of wanting to understand how the mind and body work stems from his constant pressures to learn about human reaction and interaction. All the hours he spent teaching me how to read body language, lips, and facial expressions—not to forget studying all the books on how the brain and body react to sorrow, happiness, fear, pain and any other emotion you can think of—taught me about human nature rather than reaction and interaction. Those lessons showed me the difference between someone who tells the truth and someone who is a good enough pathological liar to look like they are telling the truth.
The point of going to Duke was to learn everything I could and do something good with it, something to help people who need help. Instead, he sent me to a city where he could end my life and blame it on a mugging or robbery gone wrong.
But I made it out of there alive and I darn well plan on taking every opportunity I can to stop Cordell Carrington for good.
“What do you want out of life?”
I glance over at the pretty red head like she is speaking another language. “I’m sorry?”
“Life,” she says. “What do you want?”
I want to sleep at night. I want a day of being something like normal. Instead of saying this, I give her a generic answer. “To be successful in whatever I do.”
I’m really not in the mood to talk or even be out on this date tonight. I have not been physical with anyone in almost a year. Not since the night I drank too much and passed out in the club. The night before Maddy left for New York alone. Sometimes I miss sex, I guess. When I do, I go out on a date like this one in hopes that the night is the night I get over whatever is wrong with me.
“What do you want out of life?” I ask to avert her attention from me. If I continue to pour out question after question, I will not have to speak about myself at all. I do this for the rest of the night and get lost in my thought as she speaks.
After dinner, I drive back to her dorm. I open the door and help her out of the car. She stands in front of me, almost eye-to-eye, and kisses my cheek softly. I wait for my body to respond.
“Do you want to come up?” she asks. “My roommate is away for the weekend.”
“I’ve got duty first thing in the morning,” I lie. The disappointment on her face is evident so I quickly add, “But I will call you soon if you’d like.”
No you won’t.
I drive pitch black back roads for the next few hours with Three Days Grace on repeat talking about breaking away from everybody and the animal inside them and starting riots. I stop for gas and enough junk food to hold me over for a few more hours. I drive to Texas Lake on Honeycutt Road and stare out my windshield at the darkness.
I grab the bag of junk food, the sixty-four ounce cup of ice, and a two liter Dr. Pepper and make my way to the edge of the tree line. I settle on a pile of pine needles and disturb the silence with the kssshkk of the soda bottle opening and the crinkle from the bags of beef jerky, Doritos, Skittles, and a slew of assorted Little Debbie cakes.
I make it through half the bag of Doritos and four snack cakes before I see headlights pull in the sandy parking area next to the Barracuda. I should probably feel panicky or at least get to my feet, but that would take too much energy. The car door closes softly. The approaching steps are even softer.
I smile to the darkness. “Hey.”
“Where are you?” Maddy asks.
“Fourth tree over, third tree back,” I reply. I open the flashlight app on my cell phone to help guide her.
“What are you doing out here?”
I notice her legs first, bare up to mid-thigh in a pair of high-waisted black sailor shorts—fashion knowledge courtesy of Jocelyn, of course. My eyes travel to a red button-up shirt that hugs and covers her just right.
Look at her face. Don’t look down. Look at her—
My eyes travel back to her feet, clad in a pair of red peep toe heels that adds at least five inches to her height.
I stuff an entire Fudge Round in my mouth. “Just hanging out,” I say over a mouthful of snack cake.
“Just hanging out?” she asks flatly. “Right.”
I chuckle. “I had a date, but it didn’t really work out. So I just drove around until I found somewhere good to stop.”
Maddy looks around at my junk food buffet. I offer the bag of beef jerky to her. She smiles. “You sure you don’t want some insulin to go with that? A salad, maybe?”
I frown. “Why would I want a salad? The food my food eats is salad. That’s the only way I eat salad.”
“I’ll accept that,” she replies.
“Thank you,” I reply. “Why are you so dressed up?”
She shrugs. “Jocelyn and I went for pedicures on Ramsey before Dom and I were supposed to go out tonight. He sent me a text after Jo and I separated and he is still out in the woods doing land navigation.”
“Cavelli picked your outfit, huh?”
She smiles again and plops down beside me. “That obvious?”
“Maybe.” I nudge her shoulder with mine. “It’s good, though. Beraz will like it.”
“At least I can take these shoes off for a while.” She raises her right leg and removes the heel. “I’m so used to wearing boots now that I forgot how to walk in these things.” She raises her left leg and removes the heel. She stretches her legs out and wiggles her red-painted toes.
“Your feet hurt?” I ask.
She nods and leans back against the tree. “We had a road march this morning.”
I move to sit in front of her and pat my thighs. “Put your feet here,” I command.
She laughs. “Why?”
Instead of answering, I lift her right leg and place her foot on my lap.
“Shh,” I tease. “Just let it happen.”
She laughs again, but the sound becomes uncomfortable as I gently massage her foot. “I am immune to your seduction techniques, Jackson Monroe.”
“Darlin’, if my techniques were activated, you would definitely be vulnerable to my strain of seduction.”
Her voice is low, unsure when she replies, “This is probably inappropriate.”
I roll my eyes. “It’s a foot massage, Maddy.”
She clears her throat. “How are you feeling about going to JRTC?”
I focus on the firm, but gentle, ministrations on her foot. My feelings about JRTC make me feel like maybe I’m in over my head. I am a fool to think deploying a second, third, or fourth time would never happen to me. Too much conflict exists in the world to think that. I love being in the army, I really do. The problem is I thought I was untouchable. I was eighteen years old, fresh out of high school with a Nothing Can Touch Me outlook on life. I thought I would deploy somewhere, diffuse some explosives and come back home to chill before doing it all over again the next time around.
No one ever tells you war will change your life. Maybe the knowledge of that should be a given, but until you live through it, you never know exactly how much.
A friend of mine in another company set off a single missile that killed over fifty Taliban. He says he has never lost sleep over this fact. Morris saved dozens of soldiers and civilians, but not his best friend and he loses sleep over that every night. Then there’s me. I cannot say how many bodies fell at my hands because I simply do not know. Some people keep count, but I am not one of those people.
I have good and bad nights. On the bad nights, my sleep is plagued with nightmares. On good nights, sleep evades me completely, keeping the nightmares at bay. I will take any reprieve from them I can get.
I tell Maddy every word of this because I know she will never judge me for acting like such a bitch. I also know she will never pacify me and allow me to feel sorry for myself.
“Tell me about the simulations,” she says.
I gently place her right foot to the ground and bring her left to my lap. I tell her about one of the shittiest days I’ve had in a long time. And that’s saying something.
The psychs set me up in a computer simulated model of an Afghanistan mountainside. I’m unsure if this treatment is still in its experimental stages or if they really believe it works, but I call bullshit.
Maybe it works for some people, but not me. Definitely not Morris, who came back to my room the day he went through his session and slipped himself into a stupor with a bottle of Maker’s Mark and Ambien. I discovered the half-empty bottle of pills when I went to wake him the next morning.
It took almost a full minute of shaking him and slapping him as hard as I could on the face to finally wake him. I threatened to kick his ass myself and tell First Sergeant if I caught him doing stupid shit like that again. He told me about the simulation experience; the sights and sounds. The shouts and gunfire. The sound and vibration of a Rocket Propelled Grenade hitting the Humvee.
I mentally prepared myself for my session. My experience was a little different than his. I wasn’t prepared for the electrodes attached to my body like a science experiment or the goggles wrapped tightly around my head and fake gun shoved in my hands. I especially was not prepared for the smells of gasoline, burning flesh, and a smokeless propellant called cordite assaulting my nostrils.
The computer simulated convoy took me through a deserted Afghan village. We are driving along when suddenly a sniper hits the side of the vehicle and the soldier to my right takes shrapnel to his body.
My heart rate increases and my fight or flight senses kick in. I do and say everything I am supposed to, which impresses the doctors. What they obviously do not realize is that I know my job. I know what I’m supposed to do in combat. What they don’t seem to understand is that it’s not my mind that shuts down during these times. The problem is my mind never seems to shut down.
“They are trying to help you to control your emotions, right?” Maddy asks.
I nod. “The only thing any of the sessions helped me control is my ability to lie with a straight face.”
“I hate this,” she says quietly. “I wish there was some way I could take it away.”
I place her foot on my lap next to the other one and continue massaging her insteps with my thumbs.
“Just listening to me helps more than anything,” I reply. “The psychs hear sob stories all day. They don’t live them. All they know is how to push meds. They cannot relate.”
“I haven’t been to war, Jackson.”
“Not in the sense I have, but you’ve been battling for years.” Maybe the darkness allows me this honesty. Or maybe she needs to know she’s not alone. Not anymore. “You have dealt with this alone for too long, and trust me when I say I know that being alone inside your own head is not a good place to be. Not when you’ve been fighting essentially all your life.”
She rises to her knees in front of me and takes my face in her hands. The distance between us is close, but not too close. Intimate, but not too intimate. She would never cross that line. “You are not alone in this, either. We started on shaky ground, but sometimes that kind of instability helps build a better foundation. I’m here, Jackson. I’m here until you tell me I’m no longer welcome. Okay?”
I try to answer, but can’t. All I can manage is a nod.
We landed in Oklahoma City around 3:30 Thursday afternoon. The flight took seven hours with a layover in Charlotte and another in Chicago. I thought Maddy was going to have to be tied down.
“I hate this,” she whispered as we boarded in Charlotte.
“I’m right here, baby,” I said. “You can squeeze my hand.”
She smiled that beautiful, sweet smile that I love so much and raised on her tip toes to kiss my cheek. I turned my face in time for our lips to meet. “I love you,” she whispered against my lips.
“I love you, too.”
Maddy says she trained her body to know that when she gets on a plane, she will soon jump out of the plane. Since that wasn’t happening today, I allowed her to squeeze my hand until I swore it was going to break.
On the flight from Chicago to OKC, we ended up with a seat towards the front, a kid sitting between us. He noticed her shaking, sweating, and grasping her knees in a death grip.
“Hate flying, huh?” he asked. “Here, take this.” The kid handed her a coloring book to settle her nerves. At the end of the flight he made her sign the pages she colored so no one would think it was him who colored outside the lines so badly.
My dad is waiting for us at baggage claim. He’s a little shorter than me with a lean frame, large brown eyes that always seem to be smiling, and shoulder-length black hair. Maddy settles behind me like I’m going to shield her from my family. Not a chance. I pull her to walk in stride with me and wrap my arm around her waist.
“Is she hiding?” My dad calls out extra loud. Maddy leans against my arm. I laugh and kiss the top of her head.
“Dominic,” Dad shakes my hand. “I’m happy your home.”
I nod. “Me, too.”
“Come here, pretty girl,” he laughs and drags Maddy away from me. He hugs her like she’s the most precious thing on earth. To me she is. Because of that, she is precious to the rest of my family, too.
Maddy laughs. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Mr. Beraz.”
“You make me feel old,” Dad says. “Call me Will.”
I watch Oklahoma City pass by out the window of dad’s 30 year old Chevy pickup. We take the scenic route to bypass our old neighborhood. I love being with my family, but I hate everything this city represents for me. I have no one to blame except myself. I robbed my family’s happiness for reasons I thought were selfless. Selfish is more like it.
Gang structure has splintered over the past few years in this city. Shit was already unraveling when I left for Kentucky the summer before senior year. I was never jumped out of the Disciples. They would never present me with the option.
I spent a year at the Bluegrass Academy on Fort Knox. My brothers and sisters think I was forced to go. The choice was mine. I needed an out so when the opportunity presented itself, I took it. My parents would never admit they needed the out, too.
I was expected to do my time in Kentucky, come back to Oklahoma and move up in the ranks of the Disciples. Instead I joined the army the day I graduated and never looked back. I bought my parents a house with my VA Loan. The process in how I did so is against the rules, but the loan guy found some loopholes in the paperwork. I didn’t know anything about paperwork other than signing it and getting my parents out of the shit hole they were living in.
The house they have now isn’t much, but it’s on twelve acres of secluded land away from the city. Away from the violence. Hopefully far enough away from the Disciples that my little brothers and sister do not have to deal with them.
Maddy breathes out a hard sigh and leans into me. She’s nervous to meet my family. She spoke to Dad on the phone enough to be somewhat comfortable around him, but Mom is often too sick to get out of bed. She’s currently in partial-remission from T2a ovarian cancer. The cancer is in one of her ovaries, extending into her pelvic tissues. It recently metastasized to her fallopian tubes.
I regret telling Mom that Maddy grew up with money. I didn’t tell her anything else about Maddy’s past. Those aren’t my secrets to tell. But now Mom is nervous Maddy will judge our family for being poor. She will just have to see for herself that Maddy isn’t like that.
We bounce down the long, rut-filled drive. Maddy is taking in her surroundings. To someone who doesn’t know her, she’s just checking the scenery. I know better. She’s memorizing the land, the trees, every distinct marker. She’s making sure there is an escape. Making sure we’re not being watched.
I hate that she has to live her life like this. I’ll admit, though, her skills are pretty badass.
My family comes running out when we pull to a stop. As usual, they line up in order from oldest to youngest. The formation makes it easier for newbies to remember names. My mom is the last to come outside. My heart clenches at the sight of her. She’s always been beautiful, but she’s so much thinner now. Not frail. No matter how sick she seems, frail would never be a word to describe Lori Beraz. She’s a fighter and an ass kicker.
Mom’s coal black hair has begun to grow back. The dark circles make her chocolate brown eyes appear tired and worn down. A smile spreads across her face as soon as she sees me. I smile back, relieved. At least one thing hasn’t changed about her appearance.
Hugs and kisses come from my mom and sisters and one armed hugs and back slaps from my brothers. My dad steps forward with Maddy’s luggage.
“Pretty girl,” he says, beginning introductions with my older sister and ending with my youngest sister. “This is Adrienne, Joseph, Micah, Cameron, and Savannah. Zane is away at football camp this week.”
“Nice to meet, y’all,” Maddy says in her southern drawl. Everyone greets her with smiles and hugs. At least my brothers are behaving. For now. Mom probably sent them out here with a warning not to scare her.
Savannah, only four years old and ever the bold one, steps out of line. She gestures for Maddy to bend down. “You talk funny,” she says. “I like it.”
“Thank you,” Maddy smiles.
She reaches out to touch Maddy’s hair. “You’re pretty.”
Maddy reaches out to touch Savannah’s hair. “You’re beautiful.”
Savannah blushes and smiles. “Wanna see my tree house?”
Everyone laughs. I don’t know how much climbing Maddy’s going to do in a dress and flip flops.
“Absolutely,” Maddy says and takes Savannah’s outstretched hand. “Let me put my bag away, okay?”
“Dominic will put it away,” Dad offers.
“Thank you.” Maddy kicks off her flip flops and runs barefoot into the field beside the house.
“I like her,” Mom says quietly, watching as Maddy follows Savannah up a rope ladder of the only willow tree in the center of the field.
I spend Thursday evening outdoors with Dom’s family. His mom doesn’t say much, but his brothers and sisters make up for it. Savannah sits on my lap or stays at my side no matter where I move. I kiss her chubby cheeks every chance I get because, although I’ve only been here a few hours, I love her already.
Cameron and Micah insist on showing me around the property while Dom hangs out with his older siblings. We come up on a large, manmade lake at the edge of their land.
“Do you swim?” Micah asks. Even at fourteen, he is the spitting image of Dom and a foot taller than me. Cameron, eleven, is close behind him in height. The entire family is tall and unnervingly beautiful. I feel like a Hobbit around them. Minus the large hairy feet, of course.
“I love to swim,” I reply.
“Good,” Micah says before he and Cameron scoop me up and throw me in the water. They jump in, picking me up and tossing me back once I resurface. I squeal and laugh, but inside I’m screaming.
They are only teasing you, Carrington. They are not trying to hurt you. They don’t know what he did to you. Calm down.
They repeat the tossing several times until I finally stay under water long enough to swim away from them. I rise from the surface to see them watching me with curiosity. I swim past them to the shore.
“Hey, Maddy, we’re sorry,” Cameron says once out of the water. “We didn’t—“
I turn on him with a smile of revenge.
“Oh crap,” Micah says. “Cam, run.”
Cameron turns to him, confused. “What? Why?”
Micah is already running by the time Cameron figures out what’s happening. I grab his collar playfully as his feet begin moving. He yells and wiggles his way out of the shirt. I chase after them as fast as my short legs will go.
“When is the wedding?” I ask Adrienne.
“Halloween.” She pulls her long, espresso colored hair into a ponytail.
“Mom’s going to hate that,” Joseph says.
“She already approved,” Adrienne replies haughtily. “She thinks it will be fun.”
Mom’s been more lenient and carefree since she first got sick. She no longer bats an eyelash at things that used to upset her. She laughs more often and, although their rules are still strict as ever, Mom and Dad have eased up. Part of the original reason for the strictness is because of me. Because of the Disciples. Leaving was my gift to the younger kids. They don’t have to look over their shoulders every time they leave the house and now they will be allowed to stay out past dark.
My parents step outside and sit on the porch swing. Savannah sits between them, her short legs swinging off the edge.
“Isn’t Maddy’s birthday this Saturday?” Dad asks.
“Yeah, I th—”
“Oh shit! Ohshitohshitohshitohshit!” Micah yells, running through the field with Cam a few seconds behind him. They’re both soaking wet.
I jump up and start towards them, thinking something happened to Maddy.
“She’s right there,” Joseph laughs, pulling me back.
I look up to see Maddy running barefoot, soaking wet, at breakneck speed behind them.
“Stop!” I command my brothers. “What are you—”
“Now!” Micah yells to Cam. My brothers halt and turn to Maddy, who has also stopped. What the hell? They move in unison to rush her. She shrieks and moves out of the way in some kind of jump I’m sure she learned from years of dancing.
“Go, Maddy!” Savannah squeals. The rest of us watch the spectacle unfold.
“They’re going to hurt her,” Adrienne says as Maddy bobs and weaves out of Micah’s long reach.
“I doubt that,” Mom laughs, at the same time Dad says, “Look at her move!”
Maddy switches position and begins running towards the house. My brothers split up and chase after her until she suddenly stops and turns to Cam.
“Oh, shit!” My eleven year old brother exclaims. He’s almost a foot taller than Maddy and has at least forty pounds on her.
“Such language!” Maddy laughs and tackles him from the side. Savannah shrieks and giggles. My parents are doubled over laughing. Maddy stands and dusts off her dress like she just had a picnic in the park. I guess it’s a good thing she always wears shorts underneath because Micah scoops her up in a fireman’s carry and runs with her towards the house. She wiggles her way down his back and does some sort of acrobatic flip shit. She wraps her legs around Micah’s ankles and sweeps him to the ground.
“Tickle him!” Savannah shouts. Maddy begins relentlessly tickling my brother’s sides. He’s a giant compared to her, but nothing holds him down like tickling. Cam smartens up and jogs to the house. Breathless, he clutches his knees.
“You okay, Cam?” Adrienne laughs.
He looks up with a grin. “We’re keeping her.”
And just like that, they love her.
“Your parents are okay with us sleeping in the same bed?”
I nod. They really aren’t traditional. Their only expectation is that we respect their home. Besides that, we’re in the doorless den on a sofa bed.
Maddy pulls off her pajama bottoms, revealing a pair of tiny pajama shorts beneath. The small sliver of skin between the top of those shorts and the bottom of her white t-shirt stirs something in me that I’m trying to avoid. Her shy smile tells me she’s not sure if I like what I see.
I do. My God, I do.
We’ve been together almost a year and she still feels the need to test the waters with how I feel about her appearance. I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone. Definitely more than my ex, Kirsten.
“You’re beautiful,” I say, kissing her forehead and grasping her hips. She looks into my eyes. I brush my lips against hers once. Twice. “We should sleep. My family’s going to have you running around all day tomorrow.”
She turns out of my arms and climbs on the bed. Her behind is beautifully shaped in those damn shorts that I swear I’m throwing away tomorrow. Or bronzing or something.
I’m trying to wait to have sex with her, to make it special, but that won’t happen if she keeps wearing things like that in front of me.
The last time I had sex was just before I left Oklahoma for Kentucky. That was almost two years ago. Yeah, Kirsten was my first and only. Sometimes I miss it, but it’s not a deal breaker. All I want is for Maddy to know she is safe with me, she can trust me. Not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. If things keep going the way they are going, I will have the rest of my life to be with her.
Maddy looks back with a sexy smile that shows me she knows exactly what she’s doing. I laugh and lie beside her. My front is flush to her back. I kiss her neck.
“That tickles,” she laughs quietly and pushes closer to me.
“You’re killing me,” I groan.
“Sorry.” She shifts away from me. The small space feels like miles instead of centimeters. “Is that better?”
I know she thinks I’m rejecting her when I act like this. I know she thinks I’m afraid of her past and repulsed by her scars. God, that’s not it at all. I want to be closer to her. I want to feel and kiss every inch of her body right now. Every minute of every day, really. But I can’t. I won’t. Not now, at least.
I can’t stand the distance so I pull her close to me, wrap my arms around her and thank God with everything I have that she’s mine.
The next morning Maddy is already awake and in the kitchen with Mom and Savannah. I fold the sofa bed back into a sofa and put away the sheets and blanket. I quietly watch Maddy move around Mom’s kitchen like she’s lived here all her life. Savannah is sitting on top of the table singing a mix of hymnals and Bon Jovi. Mom is snapping a bowl of fresh green beans. Maddy rolls out dough on the butcher block.
“Sing with me, Maddy,” Savannah says between mashed up lyrics of Livin’ on a Prayer and Old Rugged Cross.
“What should we sing?” Maddy asks. She flours a round cutter and begins stamping out biscuits.
“Down to the River to Pray,” Savannah replies thoughtfully.
Mom smiles. “She was baptized a couple of weeks ago,” she says to Maddy. “She’s been singing it since.”
“It’s my favorite,” Savannah chimes in. “You start.”
Maddy nods and continues stamping biscuits. “As I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good ‘ol way, and who shall wear the starry crown? Good Lord show me the way . . .”
Sometimes I forget how hauntingly beautiful her voice is. Mom stops snapping beans to listen. Savannah moves to sit on a chair. One by one my brothers and Adrienne come to stand behind me. Dad quietly enters the kitchen and places Savannah on his knee. Maddy’s eyes are on her task, but her reddened cheeks say she is aware of her audience.
“. . . as I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good ol' way. And who shall wear the robe and crown? Good Lord show me the way.”
Savannah squeals and claps. Mom wipes runaway tears from her cheeks.
“You have a beautiful voice, pretty girl,” Dad says.
“Thank you,” Maddy smiles timidly.
Adrienne steps around me. “Will you sing at my wedding?”
Maddy’s eyes widen. I’m about to inform them of how painfully shy she is when Adrienne breaks out her famous pout. “Please?”
“Okay,” Maddy replies quietly. Guess we’ll be back in October.
I ride into the city with Joseph for supplies and enough food to last the average family two months. The Beraz’s are not an average family, we’re hungry all the time. My entire family—aunts, uncles, cousins—and their friends will be at the house tomorrow. Mom has decided I need a Welcome Home party and Maddy needs a proper birthday party.
While we are in the city, I constantly look over my shoulder, checking for something that indicates a Disciple is close by or on the same street or in the same checkout line. Joseph doesn’t say anything, but my paranoid behavior makes him uncomfortable.
He goes to school at Oklahoma State, over an hour away. He never saw my activity with the Disciples, but he heard rumors. While he was living it up at a frat house, I was putting guns to junkie’s heads when they failed to pay on time.
That was around the time mom first got sick, just after Savannah was born. I helped provide the money for the things she needed that insurance didn’t cover. Trust me when I say I regret the things I did to get the money. Trust again when I say I don’t regret the reason why.
Joseph and I stop by a café to meet Mom, Adrienne, and Maddy for lunch. Mom hands Joseph a list of things to get from the hardware store.
“Why do we need all this paint?” Joseph asks. “And ten bags of glow necklaces?”
I glance at the list. Non-toxic washable paint in blue, red, green, and yellow. Six rolls of plastic drop cloth. Heavy duty duct tape. “Hay tarps?” I ask.
“We’re building a pool!” Savannah exclaims, jumping in Maddy’s lap. “And playing paint Twister!”
For the rest of the meal Maddy is quiet as she braids Savannah’s waist length hair. She steals glances at me the entire meal and forces a small smile.
Her forced smiles are always like a punch to my chest. I’ll talk to her about it when we get some alone time. I kiss her on the cheek before Joseph and I make our way to hardware store.
After a half hour in the hardware store and an hour in a craft store where an elderly lady tries to marry Joseph off to her granddaughter, we head to the grocery store to check off the rest of the list.
I’m excited to see my extended family tomorrow. Some of them I haven’t seen since before I was jumped into the Disciples. After I joined, they kept their distance from me. I was bitter about it at the time, but I understood.
Joseph and I are loading the alcohol into his raggedy Explorer and discussing who is going to be in charge of the music tomorrow when I hear a throat clear behind me.
“Puppet,” the man greets.
I turn slowly to look into the russet colored eyes of Danny Montano, the chief enforcer of the Disciples.
Mother fucking fuck.
“I spoke with the oncologist last week,” Lori announces to the room. “She said it was okay, so I think I’d like to get a tattoo today.”
“Let’s do it,” Adrienne replies.
Adrienne and Lori discuss tattoos while I wipe down the stove. I haven’t been able to cook or clean in a real kitchen in almost a year. When the opportunity presented itself, I insisted the other women rest.
What? I never claimed to be normal.
Dom and Joseph went into the city to get supplies for the party tomorrow night. His dad and younger brothers are working on something in the barn.
“My sister can meet us in the city and take Savannah after we have lunch with the boys.” Lori stands and smiles. “What do you think, Maddy?”
“I’d like that,” I reply. Maybe I’ll even get one for myself.
I toss the cleaning towels in the laundry and stand at the sink overlooking the field of trees and small barn behind the house. Stacked hay bales are dotted throughout the open spaces. Lori’s greenhouse is stocked full of almost-ready-to-pick vegetables and herbs.
I smile. I love it here. I love the privacy the acres of land and trees provide. I love that the house is lived in and full of life all the time. Most of all I love that the Beraz family has welcomed me with open arms.
“I wish we had a pool,” Savannah pouts.
“Those are expensive,” Will says patiently, walking into the kitchen and planting a kiss on his wife’s cheek.
“It’d be cool to have one for the party,” Cam says behind him.
“Let’s build one,” I suggest. Will raises an eyebrow. I point to the field. “It wouldn’t be deep enough to do any real swimming—and it’d only be good for about a day—but if you can spare some of those hay bales, we would only need a thick tarp and sandbags.”
“I love it!” Lori beams. “We have sandbags in the barn. Any other ideas?”
We toss around ideas for activities the kids can do. We decide on constructing a hay bale pool, a massive outdoor waterbed, messy Twister and various game stations.
Will, Cam, and Micah stay back to move some of the bales closer to the house while Adrienne drives us into the city. Dom and Joseph show up a few minutes after we arrive. A warm, late spring, breeze drifts beneath the outdoor canopy of the small cafe. Savannah insists we share a turkey sandwich and sliced apples. She eats most of it while I busy my hands braiding her hair.
Dom is quiet, contemplative. I wish I could talk to him about last night. Apologize for making an idiot out of myself with wearing those pajama shorts Jocelyn suggested. I wasn’t trying to tease him. Or disgust him. Whichever look that was plastered across his face.
I just . . . I don’t know. Sometimes he is hesitant to touch me. Or kiss me.
I know he loves me, but I’m not going to lie, it hurts sometimes. His rejection, mixed with insecurities about my body and my past makes me want to scream. It’s not just last night. Each time he visited me while I was in training was like that. He always held me, but not too close. Almost as if it pained him. Sometimes I wonder if he feels obligated to be with me after everything that happened in New York.
God, the last thing I want or need is one more person to feel obligated to spend time with me.
I know it seems like my hormones are in overdrive—and yeah, that has a little to do with it, too. But this is not just about sex. Don’t get me wrong, I want to. I’m ready. Not only ready physically, but mentally and emotionally.
I’ve come to terms with the demons left behind by Larry Duvall. As much as I can come to terms with those demons, anyway. I think I do a pretty good job of separating the way Dom touches me from the way Larry touched me.
I try to bury the feelings of the way Larry’s hands felt on my skin. How he mumbled incoherently in my ear while his sweat dripped on my body, seeping into my pores, marking me as his. Marking me as filth.
I release a heavy sigh. Maybe those demons aren’t buried as deep as I thought.
Let me pause for a minute and just be real and open with you. It’s just that I love Dom, but I’m afraid. So very afraid I will never feel like a normal human being. Whatever “normal” means. I understand sex isn’t the be all-end all of a relationship. Is it? Heck, I don’t know. I’m new at this.
I like having Dom pressed against me. The safety I feel when I am in his arm is unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. Maybe I’m overthinking. Probably.
One day he and I will talk about everything. That’s a very grownup thing to do, right? Heck, I don’t know that either. I’m new at being a grownup, too.
Shortly after Dom and Joseph leave, Linda, Lori’s sister, arrives to take Savannah back to her house. Adrienne, Lori, and I are chatting about tattoos when Adrienne looks up and frowns.
“Great,” she says through clenched teeth.
“Adrienne, Mrs. Beraz,” a tall, exotically beautiful blonde says.
“Kirsten,” Lori nods in greeting. Oh. Dom’s ex.
Don’t make this awkward. Don’t make this awkward.
“Who’s this?” Kirsten tilts her head to me.
“Maddy, meet Kirsten,” Adrienne says. “Kirsten, this is Maddy. Dom’s girlfriend.”
Darn. It’s officially awkward.
My manners make me ignore her sneer as I extend my hand. “Nice to meet you, Kirsten.”
She ignores my hand. “I see Dom has moved on to fat chicks, huh?”
Lori and Adrienne tense beside me. I don’t want or need the conflict so I shrug. “Guess so.”
She pulls out a chair and sits without being invited.
Honestly? Rude much?
Kirsten’s thick, honey-blonde hair hits her shoulders in razor-edged layers. Her green eyes gleam with so much hatefulness and spite, she might give Cordell a run for his money. The star and pitchfork tattoos on the inside of her left wrist indicate her association with the Disciples. She gives off the vibe that people should fear her. Sadly for her fragile ego, I do not fear her or her affiliations. Bless her heart.
I watch as she unwraps her cookie and dunks a piece in a plastic cup of milk.
Suddenly, for some unknown ridiculous reason, my insecurities stand proudly on center stage as my confidence cowers in the corner. Jealousy rips through me with a vengeance.
She had Dom. I know enough about their relationship to know how much he wanted her. Was he hesitant to hold her? To touch her?
No. I know he wasn’t.
Unwarranted anger courses through me. I slowly close my eyes. Open them.
“Would you like a bite, Megan?” Kirsten asks. “You look hungry.”
“It’s Mad—” Adrienne begins but I cut her off.
“Not at all,” I reply, bored.
You will not lose control. You’re better than this.
“Dom and I never officially broke up,” she says.
I raise an eyebrow, unmoved by her pathetic attempt at intimidation. Too bad she doesn’t know I’m a pro at dealing with people like her.
Kirsten takes a sip of milk and moves until her face is well within my comfort zone. She leans in until her lips are next to my ear. “Each time you kiss him,” she whispers loud enough for Lori and Adrienne to hear. “Take comfort in knowing that it’s me you taste on his lips.”
Don’t hit her. Don’t hit her.
“And every time you go down on him, know that it’s me you’re tasting. I had him first, fat girl, and I will damn sure have him last.” She laughs. “Tubby, lowlife bitches like you can’t hold men like Dominic Beraz.”
I nod thoughtfully as she leans back.
“You know, Kirsten,” I say, tracing my fingers lazily across her cup of milk. “Studies show milk is good for your bones and teeth. You know what else is good for your bones and teeth?” I don’t wait for her to answer before I jump out of my chair and get in her face. “Keeping your mouth shut.”
I move further into her personal space and place my lips next to her ear. “Because gang member or not, pumpkin, if you ever talk to me like that again I’m going to kick your fucking teeth in.”
Way to keep it classy, Carrington.
“Is that so?” she asks.
I move so our noses are almost touching. “So fast it’ll break the motherfucking sound barrier.”
“I think it’s time for you to leave, Kirsten,” Lori says.
A few hours later, the three of us walk out of a tattoo shop with fresh ink. Adrienne has an anchor, slightly smaller than a quarter, on her ankle. She said it represents her favorite Mayday Parade song. Lori decided on two. The first is splayed the length of her left inner forearm. A simple cross fades into the wavy lines of an electrocardiogram—lines that indicate heart rhythm—which fades into a simple heart. Beneath each tattoo are the words Faith Hope Love. The second is on her left ribcage. The Bukowski quote is inked in all lowercase.
we are here
to laugh at the odds
and live our lives so well
that death will tremble
to take us
I asked the tattoo artist for a private room to do mine. Lori and Adrienne thinks it’s because I’m shy. Really, I never want them to know about my past, including the scars on my back.
“What the hell happened to you?” the tattoo artist asked a little too loud. I felt more than a little violated as she ran her fingers over the scar tissue. I know she doesn’t mean anything by it. That doesn’t stop her words from grating on my nerves. My emotions are all over the place. Kirsten’s words have me on edge and I want nothing more than to cover up my many imperfections and run away.
“I want it in the center, between my shoulder blades,” I said. “Can you do that?”
She nodded and went to work. “I don’t know your story and I won’t ask,” she said, handing me a mirror a short time later. “But the tat seems fitting.”
The fresh ink is not the first place my eyes travel to in the mirror. I begin at the small of my back and trail my eyes up the scar tissue that covers my body like a 3D roadmap. I used to keep track of each scar. I memorized the date, the time, the reason I supposedly gave Larry to hit or burn me. I stopped tracking once I decided I wasn’t a victim, once I decided no one except me would save me from this life.
Finally my eyes land on the simple black tattoo scripted in my handwriting.
Forgiveness is the fragrance
the violet sheds on the heel that crushes it.
Later at the house, I rummage through my bag to find clothes to work in. In typical Maddy fashion, I have nothing but summer dresses, flip flops, and pajamas.
“Hey,” Dom says from the doorway. “What are you looking for?”
“Do you have an old t-shirt and shorts I could wear?” I ask quietly. I don’t know why I feel like crying. I hate that Kirsten got to me like this. I hate that I’m thinking too much. I hatehatehate that I am angry.
You will not cry. You will not show this weakness. You will not give Kirsten the satisfaction.
Dom leaves and comes back with a black t-shirt and navy basketball shorts. “These are Cam’s. I thought they would fit better.”
My hands are shaking as I take the clothes from him.
“Of course,” I say, brushing past him and into the bathroom to change.
For the rest of the evening and night I work furiously through the list of projects we have to complete before tomorrow afternoon. I help Will and Micah stack bales of hay two high, eight long, and three wide. Will drives stakes down through the bales and into the ground. This helps keep the water pressure from bending the stacks outward. I roll out thick hay tarps and Micah inserts large staples to hold the plastic down. They place sandbags around the outer edges while I sweep excess dirt from the inside of the tarp.
“We’ll fill it up first thing in the morning,” Will says. “That way the water will be warm by afternoon.”
“This is amazing, Maddy,” Dom says from behind me.
I nod in thanks and begin working on the massive outdoor water bed. Cam helps me roll out the first sheet of plastic. I keep my distance from Dom. Really, I’m unsure how to talk to him right now. I’m not upset with him. I have no reason to be. Keeping my distance and working through my frustration is the only way I can calm my thoughts and my body from the anger coursing through it.
You’re letting her win. She wanted inside your head and she’s there, settling in. Consuming you. Controlling your thoughts. Controlling how you treat Dom. He doesn’t deserve this.
Cam rolls out another sheet of plastic on top of the first while I begin duct taping the edges. I leave a small opening at one end for the hose. We repeat this six more times, taping each large piece of plastic together.
“It won’t last all day,” I say to Cam. “But when the water leaks out, it will make a good water slide.”
You’re also letting Cordell win. This anger, the way you are acting is exactly how he would act.
“I’m too old to keep up with you young people,” Will yawns. I glance at my watch. 11:15. Dom has been asleep since nine. Guilt begins to take over my anger.
Everyone trudges inside the house except me. I settle on a patio chair. Once the bedroom lights are out, I release a gasp of air. I feel like I’ve held my breath all day. Tears form in my eyes. I allow them to spill over on my cheeks, down to my lips.
My weakness tastes bitter.
I watch tears fall down Maddy’s face for approximately five seconds before I step outside and sit next to her. I pull her onto my lap. She wraps her arms around my neck and cries on my bare chest for what seems like hours. I rub her back and hair, kiss the top of her head. Anything I can do to soothe her without talking.
I need this closeness, too. After my run-in with Danny this afternoon, my body seems to want to move. Move where, I have no idea. Hit something. Run somewhere. Throw shit. I’m angry at myself for letting my guard down. For wearing a short sleeve shirt in the city where anyone can see that my gang tats are now covered with different ink. Covered instead of burned off.
A well-structured gang runs like a corporation, from the CEO to the treasurer down to the minimum wage worker getting shit on every day by the supervisors. Even the CEO has a boss. I never met him or even know his name. I only know he is a legit businessman whose businesses are used to launder dirty money from weapons, drugs, and prostitution.
After I was jumped in, it took exactly one month to move from a spotter to carrier and then street soldier. I wasn’t trying to attain status and notoriety. I only needed work to put money into an anonymous donation account I set up for Mom at the hospital. My involvement mainly included fights, tagging, intimidation, and enforcing. A lot of enforcing.
Once the recruiters started talking about my little brothers joining, I knew it was time to get out. But how?
My answer arrived when an army recruiter came to my school at the end of junior year. I talked to him the first time without my parents. That’s really not allowed, but I lied and told him they were coming to his office later. The second time I went back with my parents and a completed application to Bluegrass Academy. I left the day after classes ended.
No one in the Disciples knows I volunteered to leave. They think it was my parents’ idea. I’m not sure what they thought when I joined the Army after graduation and never came back. Kirsten was beyond pissed. She thought I was ruining my life by becoming a soldier. I laughed when she told me this on the phone. She was okay with me running as a street soldier for assholes who thrived on power and made their money selling meth to kids and pushing underage girls on the street to turn tricks. Fuck that.
Danny is the chief enforcer. He’s only a few ranks under the CEO, who is serving time at Oklahoma State Penitentiary down in McAlester. Danny controls the Disciples’ territory. He also coordinates gang wars for whatever reasons he and the council sees fit. In other words, he’s a war lord.
“You can hide them, Puppet,” Danny seethed, jabbing his finger at my tattoos.
Puppet. My nickname. Because anything they told me to do, I did. Short of killing someone and short of shoving meth-filled needles in between the toes of kids.
“But you can’t hide what you are. Underneath that fresh ink you are marked and branded with what you will always be.”
Maddy’s deep breathing indicates she has fallen asleep. I carry her into the den and lay her on the bed. As cliché, corny, and weird as it is, I watch her. I memorize her. Memorize every freckle, the arch of her eyebrows, the way she sleeps with her mouth slightly open and her nose turned up. The way her hands clench and unclench as if she’s trying to remain calm. The way her legs move restlessly at times like she’s trying to escape.
I commit her to memory. Because something in my gut tells me I’m losing her.
Maddy is already working on the party when I wake up. I leave a wrapped gift on top of her suitcase. I convinced her to let me read the beloved books from her favorite author. She offered to buy me my own copies, but I refused. Hers would do. I contacted the author through one of his social media pages. I wasn’t sure what I would get for her birthday if he refused, but I had to give it a shot. She takes the words in those books to heart and says she learns about life, love, and loss on every page.
The author wrote back and agreed to what I asked. I sent the books to a post office box—dog-eared, cracked spine, pages falling out and all. He sent the books back, signed, with a personal note tucked inside the pages. I didn’t read the notes. Those are Maddy’s and Maddy’s only.
She worked all morning and afternoon around the yard and in the kitchen. I worked everywhere she didn’t. I had a feeling she was intentionally avoiding me.
People begin trickling in around noon. By three, there are at least a hundred people in my parents’ yard. When some of the older kids rolled around on the waterbed and broke it, Maddy ran out with the portable sprinkler attached to the water hose and a bottle of dish soap.
“What do we do with it?” one of my younger cousins asks.
“This!” I say and run toward the makeshift waterslide. I grab Maddy around her waist on my way down. She squeals as I slide on my back with her on top of me at full speed down the slippery plastic. We finally come to a stop on the grass. I kiss her and help her stand. She steps away. I pull her back and kiss her again. She slowly closes her eyes. Opens them.
“I have to finish cooking,” she says against my lips. I kiss her forehead and let her go.
“She met Kirsten yesterday,” Adrienne says from behind me.
I wince. “What happened?”
She shrugs. “Maddy handled her.”
“Why would Maddy have to ‘handle her’?”
My body shakes in anger as Adrienne recaps the scene in front of the café yesterday. I don’t hit women. Never wanted to. Until now. No. I don’t want to hit Kirsten. I want to fucking choke her out.
I stalk to the barn and slam the door closed. I throw everything my hands touch. I sit with my knees to my chest. Drama. Always drama. Never fucking easy. Never a day’s damn rest from bullshit.
“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” I growl. I stand and tug at my hair, taking stock of the damage, both in the barn and in my life.
Time to man the hell up and get your girl, Beraz.
I sigh and begin picking up the shitstorm I caused with my pathetic temper tantrum.
I saunter back to the party. The sun is beginning to dip below the trees. Music blares from the sound system one of my uncles brought over. Micah stands guard near the system in case the “old people start playing that old shit”—his words not mine. Adrienne dances inappropriately with her fiancé, Austin. Joseph is in the middle of a serious game of dominoes. Cam tosses glow necklaces in the pool, illuminating the water with waves of neon. Mom and Dad are slow dancing to a song one does not slow dance to. Savannah is engrossed in some kind of game that involves pool noodles dangling from trees and something shaped like a foam javelin.
I finally spot Maddy, covered head to toe in paint. She’s smiling and laughing at the game of Yard Twister. The announcer calls right hand on red. Good. Once Maddy’s out of the game I can sweep her away to the lake. There’s no way she can twist her body without mov—
“That’s cheating!” my cousin Leo laughs. “No one can bend like that.”
Maddy has somehow adjusted herself into a backbend, patiently waiting for the announcer to call the next move.
“Lake’s off limits,” I say to Joseph.
“Noted,” he replies, watching my girlfriend with more interest than I’d like.
She arches her back to adjust her hands on the slick paint. Jesus. She’s trying to kill me.
“Hey.” I bend to her upside down head.
“I see Yard Twister is one of your talents.”
She nods seriously. “I spent all those years in gymnastics and dance for this single moment in my life.”
I chuckle and kiss her. She slowly closes her eyes. Opens them. Again with that. Fucking Kirsten. Without a second thought, I scoop Maddy up and stalk in the direction of the lake. Ooohs, aaahhhs, and boos sound among the crowd
“You forfeit that shit, Georgia!” Leo exclaims. “You lose.”
“I admit defeat to no one, good sir,” Maddy replies regally.
He laughs. “You don’t have to admit it for it to be true.”
I look down to see Maddy stick her tongue out at my cousin and cross her arms like she’s in the most comfortable position on the planet.
“Where are we going?”
“The lake,” I reply. “I haven’t gotten five minutes alone with you this weekend.”
“I can walk.”
“I can carry you.”
“We will get there quicker if I walk.”
I reluctantly lower her feet to the ground. She hesitates before taking my hand. Fucking Kirsten. We walk in silence to the dock overlooking my parents’ manmade lake. We sit on the edge with our feet dangling in the water.
“This isn’t easy anymore,” I say quietly. “I guess we were past the easy part the day I met you, huh?”
Maddy frowns. “How so?”
I smile. “Today is the one year anniversary that I fell in love with you.”
Maddy bites her lip and looks away from me.
It’s true. The moment I stepped into her hotel room in Fayetteville I wanted to know more about her. She was so sexy in those little black shorts. It took every ounce of self-control I had not to grab her around the waist and sit her on my lap. When she opened her mouth and began to speak like we’d known each other for years, I knew I needed to know her better. She was a little ball of fire and shy smiles that drove me crazy from the start. She was sunlight shining at midnight. I needed that in my life, especially then.
Before I left the hotel, she agreed to let me take her out for her birthday. When she allowed me to kiss her later that night, I was hooked.
“Adrienne told me about your run-in with Kirsten,” I say. “I’m sorry about that.”
“I’m not,” she shrugs. “I’m only sorry I dropped an f-bomb in front of your mom.”
I chuckle. “I’m sad I missed that part.”
She smiles but it doesn’t reach her eyes. I hate that. I hate that I don’t know how to fix this. “Talk to me,” I say.
She refuses to look at me. I stand, strip out of my t-shirt and jeans and lower my body into the water. I park myself between her legs so the lake is blocked from her view. Instead of looking at me, she drops her eyes to her lap. I tip her chin gently. “Anything. Everything. You can sing the Star Spangled Banner for all I care. I just—I just need you to talk to me.”
Silent minutes drag on before she stands. I take in her paint-stained body from toes to head and back down. Back up. She smiles and quietly begins singing the Star Spangled Banner.
I lick my lips as she reaches to the hem of her dress and pulls it over her head. Her breasts are barely covered in a baby blue bra that plunges dangerously low in the neckline. The dance shorts she wears beneath the dress hit just above mid-thigh. She locks her thumbs in the waistband and slowly pulls the shorts down, revealing a pair of sheer lace hipsters.
And she’s still singing the Star Spangled Banner.
I start to pull myself up on the dock when Maddy decides to back away and do a running jump, cannonballing into the water behind me. She breaks the surface with a grin and dives back under. Small ripples form where her body moves beneath the water. She surfaces a short distance away and faces me. She finishes the song with a sexy smile and crooks her finger for me to follow.
“Now that I’ve declared my patriotism,” she says, wrapping her legs around my waist and her arms around my neck. “Let me just say this: Easy is good. But appreciation for the things you have or want to attain comes from work. It comes from days when you want to throw up your hands and say you’re done with everything, everyone. We don’t have to be perfect, Dom, but we have to know that what we are doing—what we’re trying to achieve—is worth it.”
She kisses my cheek. “Now we can talk.”
I groan. Other parts of my anatomy are protesting anything to do with talking. I can’t think when she’s draped around me like this. “About what?”
“Tell me about Kirsten.”
“I don’t want to talk about her, Maddy,” I say gently. “She is toxic. Together, we were a powerhouse of toxicity.”
I sigh. And I tell her. Everything. From the time I met Kirsten in seventh grade to when we started dating freshman year to when I left before senior year. I don’t leave out anything. If she wants to know, she will know. I tell her Kirsten’s brother joined the Disciples when we were 13 and she joined the next year. She was afraid they’d mess up her face if she was jumped in so she gave her virginity to them and they gave her a life outside of home. Not that her home life was bad. Not at all. She liked the power the Disciples brought her.
Kirsten is higher in the rank structure now, but that doesn’t mean much. As a female, she’s still considered a second-class citizen. For that reason, she tends to be more ruthless because she feels the need to prove herself better than the men.
The Disciples have a female chapter, the Apostles. Kirsten is a board member and spokesperson for them. She communicates with the Disciples at meetings and acts as advisor when gang activities are deliberated.
I mention this to Maddy because she needs to know.
“I’m not afraid of her or the Disciples,” she points out.
“I don’t think you’re afraid of much of anything,” I laugh.
“I’m afraid of a lot,” she smiles. “If I have to deal with them, Dom, they are going to have to get in line. I have other villains to handle first.”
I squeeze her tighter. Her words ring too true for my comfort. That shit in New York last year was almost my undoing. I know it’s not over. These quiet days we are living in now are the calm in the eye of the storm.
“I never want you to think about her again,” I say. “You are mine. I am yours. All of me. Never doubt or question that unless I give you a reason.” She bites her lip and averts her eyes to my shoulder. “Don’t shut me out, baby. Please.”
She buries her face in my neck and mumbles, “M’kay, Dom. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for how you feel, Maddy,” I reply. “Just communicate with me what’s going on inside your head. I won’t push you to talk, but I’ll be here when you’re ready.”
“I love you Dominic Beraz,” she whispers against my skin.
“I love you, too.”
For what seems like hours, we talk. And swim. And kiss. And talk some more.
We talk about the universe, about the man in the moon and which brands of pickles are best. She asks if I ever talk to, or even believe in God, or if my faith is elsewhere.
I believe in something because I need something to believe in. I believe in faith. I wish I believed in absolution. The last time I went to church was just before the Disciples took over my life. The only thing I remember is the pastor saying the definition of faith is belief not based on truth; it is a belief based on something hoped for, but not seen.
Sometimes I do see it, though. When I stare into Maddy’s beautiful blue eyes, I see the result of trusting in faith. Each time I hear my mom’s voice on the phone, I hear the result. Each day I have to opportunity to wake up and live one more day—that is the result of trusting in faith.
“What about you?” I ask. “Do you ever talk to God?”
She nods. “Like He’s my best friend.”
I close my eyes and kiss her. I kiss her like the blood that flows through her veins holds redemption. Nothing else matters except now, except her. Like we have all the time in the world. Like the world will hold on another day just so this moment can continue to happen. I open my eyes at the same time Maddy opens hers and I think maybe, just maybe, I can talk to God like He is my best friend, too.
We finally make our way to the dock.
“I’m not ready to go,” she says, lying on her back.
I hover over her, situating myself between her legs and propping my elbows on the splintery wood on either side of her head. “Can I kiss you again?”
She smiles, maybe remembering those words from our first night together. “You can always kiss me.”
I trace my fingers from her cheek to the lace fabric of her bra. “What about here?” She smiles and nods. I trail down her bare stomach to the top hem of her panties. “Here?” She bites her lip. I dip my hand beneath the fabric. “Here?” She gasps and closes her eyes. Opens them. My fingers lower further. She sucks in a ragged breath. I kiss her lips and move my mouth to her ear. “What about here?” I whisper.
I know I’m treading in dangerous waters. I know what happened to her in the past. I need to know she wants this. I need to know she’s not going to think about Larry Duvall or Kirsten or anything else bad that has happened to her.
I shake my head. “Words, baby. I need your words.”
“Yes,” she replies, her voice barely above a whisper.
My lips follow the same trail as my fingers down her body, my eyes on hers the entire time. Her body trembles as I kiss the lace fabric. She curls her fingers through mine in my free hand and squeezes. I take my other hand and push her panties to the side.
Maddy’s back arches off the dock as my mouth touches her bare skin.
Copyright © 2015 by Maria G. Cope
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, distributed, stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, without express permission of the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.
This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, or any events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.