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Truth or Dare

By C. Spencer

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 C. Spencer

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Truth or Dare

It’s a long weekend among six friends whose lives have intertwined through years of U-Hauls and regrets, almosts and what-ifs. As that poorly timed snowstorm whirls into town, it threatens to kick pent-up desires and tightly held secrets over the edge—especially for Jessie, who can’t stop thinking about her best friend Hadley.

Meanwhile Brie’s past overshadows her present-day, and the Lasleys just hope to enjoy their much-anticipated wedding anniversary. If everyone would just keep it together for the next few days, and if this snow would taper off, they just might pull off Sunday’s celebration. Drama free.

Truth or Dare

© 2018 By C. Spencer. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-147-1


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: March 2018


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


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Credits

Editor: Ruth Sternglantz

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design by Tammy Seidick

Acknowledgments

I began writing fiction assuming not a soul would read it. In fact, I’m not sure if I wanted anyone to. I just hoped to tell a story about a bunch of friends I wished I had topped with romance and regrets and that good kind of angst that comes along for the ride. And that story somehow made it to you. The fact that you chose to pick up this book means more than you’ll ever know.

The truth is, though, this book represents the culmination of talent, hard work, and advice offered by so many amazing people. First, I am exceedingly grateful for Ruth Sternglantz, an editor extraordinaire, for all of the time, brilliance, and creativity she put into this. Her ideas were essential to making Truth or Dare extra better in every single way. I’m also grateful for established authors for welcoming me, along with Bold Strokes Books and the entire team for saying yes and offering this amazing venue specifically for LGBT publication. And I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my daughter, who cannot read this but offered so much encouragement—not to mention tips on how to use a mobile phone since I don’t own one.

A special debt of gratitude goes to my wife for reading and suggesting and (even) disagreeing—and always saying yes, you can if I dare say I can’t. I love you.

To all of life’s perfectly imperfect mishaps.

Thursday

Chapter One: Jessie

Catholic girls are easy to pin. They’re either buttoned to the chin (translation: don’t bother) or they have a regular booty call programmed into their phones and visit confessional to repent every Sunday, religiously. I prefer the latter.

That’s what brought me to this campus. Her building’s just ahead past another group of stressed-out undergraduates lugging North Face backpacks and travel mugs. The snow has just started to come down, and it’s crunching with each step I take. It’s a decent beat given I’m still humming that tune I heard two days ago and wishing I could replace it with something better.

The main doors ask for a badge after hours, but they’re unlocked now. I pass the elevator and take the wide stairs, which impress me with their marble, exiting into a hall that echoes. Door after door touts a new name, each engraved in brown plastic and ending in PhD. I’m surprised I fit in. I expected this place to be all corduroy; it’s not.

I hear her in someone’s office and they’re talking about a mass spectrometer. I go unnoticed and wait outside, wandering. Across the hall is a lecture, and it’s brash like a loudspeaker.

The airs of academia: that idealism and disappointment.

As soon as her conversation enters the doorway and hallway, I get that lingering look. It means I’m glad to see you. It means I’ll be right with you. She looks amazing. Her hair’s inelegant at the collarbone, and freckles flush that nude complexion left over from her stay in Barcelona. I’m picturing her in a bikini under a beach umbrella, feet tucked in heated sand. It’s a nice fantasy right now in twenty-eight degree weather.

As I admire her small build, we share too many distracted glances. Finally I catch their good-byes and I can’t help but notice how soft her tone is when she greets me. “Jessie Miles.” It’s not the same as the voice I heard a minute ago. “Your hair.”

“I know. It’s a mess,” I tell her. “It’s really starting to come down out there.”

She takes me down a hall with walls covered in posters and ads for graduate programs. She’s walking like we don’t know each other. Eventually we reach her name plaque. She keys the door, and I follow her in. She shuts it.

Inside shades are wide open letting overcast shine its way through. Snow tries to cloak her mountain view.

“Early day?” I want to know. With every other school in town canceled, I’m surprised higher education isn’t as well.

She tugs the cord on a green lamp. That unusable desk squeezes into a corner.

“Class is canceled tomorrow. It screws up my entire lab schedule.” It’s more than uptight—she’s bordering on irate. “I’ll get my things.”

The office has no floor space. It’s clean but paper littered with books and binders towering above us. I’m thinking it beats her bedroom with that crucifix staring down over the door frame.

She does this thing where she stands on tiptoe to reach for something. I’m watching the muscles in her calves flex. It’s up there with that librarian…When was that? She’s kind of a contradiction like that, which is what I get into. I push into her, and she sinks down into my arms. Determination’s written all over her face.

“Why do you do this to me?” I ask. She’s just giving me this look of indifference. But this kiss is shameless, which is why I’m beginning to imagine that taste between her legs. I’d rather be there. That’s where my hand goes.

“You’re hot, you know that?”

And this look is why she’s naturally mistaken for pious, haughty. It doesn’t matter to me. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s why I’m drawn to her. Besides, her touch is quite the opposite. It’s more timid, sensual. I don’t have to understand her, do I?

She’s exhaling thick and heavy between my lips as we make our way to that door and I back her up against it. I slide my hand up her blouse.

“I’ll get fired,” I hear.

“The perks of tenure,” I mumble. I love when she feigns virtue.

She seems torn or trapped but more overindulgent than anything else. She tends to do everything in excess. Drinking. Learning. This. That’s how she’s always been with me.

When I hike her skirt, she’s not resisting anymore.

“I don’t quite have tenure yet,” she tries to say.

The hem of this blouse untucks too easily and the arch of her back makes everything that much more accessible. I’m pinching around her back and thinking, Who wears this to work? It’s sheer, this mesh, and I let it fall aside and off her shoulder.

And I’m tracing tan lines.

The next time I kiss her, it’s weaker but feverish. I move past the hem of her skirt and glide a palm under and behind elastic. She’s too driven without me, too pent up, and I’m thinking it’s been far too long (at least that’s how she feels) when I slip two fingers inside her. She’s slick.

It’s always that first moan, isn’t it, when she gets what she wants. It’s merciless. It’s the loudest one. Someone’s going to hear in the hallway, but she’s forgotten already.

Instead she glides against my fingers—rigid, unyielding, oblivious. I like when she gets like this, warm and throbbing, legs parted, swelling and tightening around my knuckles. I’m using hips to push my fingers deeper. When I look over again, her cheeks are flushed, and I watch as she fades into soft, to serene, and then to absolutely uninhibited. Her breath like steam on my cheek and I need more and so does she. I want trembling. Shuddering. Disheveled. I want painfully spent and hunched over. Clinging to me. I want to bolster her up so she doesn’t fall down. And I’m thinking about that small desk over there, but the wall’s fine once I can get this off her.

By the time I head out, before I even hit the lot, I get a text. Make that two. I file both under maybe next month if I’m lucky. Because it’s five at night and I need a bite before heading home. My cooking skills are, to put it mildly, sub-amateur. That’s not to say I’m amateur everywhere. Trust me on that. It’s just that food prep was never a zone I could master. I do appreciate good food, though. Home cooked, take-out, gourmet, grill. I’m not all that discriminating. As long as it’s a meal that someone else has prepared.

In fact, I have this nostalgic peculiarity about me. I recall people by the way they cook, what they cook, why they cook, how they cook. Sometimes I remember the food and not her name.

Take Elaine for instance. We lasted a pretty long time—four weeks. Elaine was a bona fide vegetarian, which conjures images of tofu to some. But she never used tofu. Ever. Despised people who automatically assumed she ate tofu just because she was vegetarian, so she stopped talking about it altogether. If you ask me, she was a culinary artist, her spices and sauces. She made a mad black-bean burger with sweet potato fries and, once in a while, I’m tempted to ring her up just for one of those meals. At least my stomach is. Her current girlfriend might not appreciate that. For anyone to convert a meat lover like myself into a proud bean-burger eater is extraordinary. She did that.

That breakup was tough. I mean, it was cruel enough losing the conversations, the Friday nights, and the sex. But I also lost her cuisine, and no two women cook quite alike.

And who doesn’t like watching a woman cook? The flex of her forearm as that blade comes down. When the back of her wrist brushes her forehead because every fingertip is covered and untouchable. How feminine her fingers look when they pinch.

I met Sophia before I broke up with Elaine. Full disclosure, they did overlap a few days. But my short-lived romance with Sophia was bound to end if only for the fact that I could not eat the sheer quantity of food she served. Her enchiladas, though, with hot Spanish rice and her red sauce. Mercy. I don’t know if anyone, even Sophia, could’ve maintained that body eating like that for the long term.

Lynn didn’t cook. Not at all. Since I didn’t cook either, we survived for two full weeks on deli sandwiches with a wide assortment of cheeses and crackers, fruits and berries, nuts and breads. I’m keen on those fresh bakery rolls and baguettes. Ciabatta. Cheese breads. With Lynn, I learned to appreciate the nutritional benefits of the almond and the vast diversity of apples—from Gala to Empire. I heard she married a chef. Hats off to her.

I met Ella shortly after that split. She runs the bakery downtown, with partial credit to yours truly, and she’s in happily married bliss. Even with too many years’ distance, I’m still not ready to resurface her. After Ella, I didn’t get too serious with anyone—not that I was alone, mind you.

Then came Alicia, my last girlfriend. She made me lose interest in nourishment altogether, of the food variety at least. Take the time she greeted me in nothing more than her twenty-four-year-old splendor topped with a strappy tank top and loose-fitting boxer shorts embellished in teeny tiny red hearts. She fed me Swiss chocolate that evening, served the sweetest red wine, and the rest of that night could have gone down in history.

And that it did. I called it quits two weeks ago. I’m not sure if that’s registered with her yet, given her text bombs today, but it will.

Tonight, without a personal chef, I’m fending for myself. And I’ve decided to grab a quick bite out before the worst of this snowstorm hits and I’m holed up in my tiny studio, all by my lonesome. I know, woe is me.

To this end, I spot the perfect parking spot right up front at Hops Brewery and walk in, helmet in hand. I sit at one of those two-seater wooden tables. It’s packed wall-to-wall with regulars as well as plenty of unfamiliars.

This place is low lit and appealing, brightened by mini lamps and a few open laptops. The kind of lighting you pray for at two a.m. after a few pints too many. Bookshelves are filled with creased paperbacks that attract the geeked-up literary crowd from nearby colleges. A sunken section in the rear seats the see-and-be-seens in firm leather chairs where they sip cappuccino or tea or one of Hops’ infamous custom ales.

The wall beside my table is a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard with a menu written out by hand. All of that dusty script spans the entire length of the room, from the front windows to the bar in the far rear. A bar that’s always crammed, even on a slow night like this.

I rest my boots on the opposite chair. And I already know what I want.

After a glance at a new text that rattles my phone, I slip it back on the table without a response. It’s just Alicia. Again.

Hadley creaks the floor as she ambles over, Chapstick lipped, recently cropped Bobby Brady hair, black-rimmed glasses, cute plaid skirt, and a powder blue oxford shirt buttoned conservatively.

“Back again?”

“I know. This is getting to be a bad habit. You look pretty thin staffed tonight. Why are you out here?”

This is the only friendship I haven’t ruined by taking things too far.

“I’m down three servers. Of course it was three of my best. They couldn’t make it, so here I am. On the floor.”

And that prudence has earned me the ultimate best friend. I’m talking decades long. She and I go way back. We’re like glue.

“Could be worse. Job security.”

“I know. I’m off in a few hours,” she tells me. “The usual?”

“Yeah.”

“Stay for dessert. Look at you. You’re too skinny.”

“Hey, hey—I’m working out.”

“Yeah, yeah—you’re working out.”

“It’s stress.”

“Can you give me some?”

“Some what,” I ask, admittedly flirtatiously.

“Some of your appetite-sucking stress.”

“You don’t need it.”

She rolls her eyes, changing the subject. “Looks awful out there.”

She’s chewing cinnamon gum. I can actually smell it over the aroma of grilled burgers.

“That would be why I’m in here.”

And she’s not-so-subtly eyeing my dripping boots and the sopped jeans I’ve propped on a chair. I take the hint, settling my feet on the floor.

Then she asks, “Think I’ll get home?”

“So far, so good. I made it. On my bike at that.”

“Why on earth are you still riding that thing?”

“My truck’s on its last leg. Not much good that’ll do me.”

“Take it in.”

“Dude,” I say. “We don’t all make what you make.” Over my water glass, my gaze trails a twosome.

“How’s Alicia?”

“Fine.”

“She stopped by the other night. I guess you had a late shift or something?”

“I did.”

“Is that who’s texting you?”

“Possibly.”

Hadley flattens a palm softly on the table and whispers, “You know? You’re way too good for her.” Her voice is high, unassuming.

I lift my shoulders.

“I swear I just don’t trust her.”

If you only knew the half of it, I think.

The lady at the next table raises a finger, catching Hadley’s eye. “Shouldn’t be long,” she tells me. It’s not until she darts away that I realize I was distracting her from a busy shift, which is a tad embarrassing. After her quiet exchange a seat over, I watch those hips curve around the bar to enter my order.

Let me pause right here to say that the bar is wicked. Like the kind you’d find at some gilded hotel or something—carved wood and glass shelving. I’d probably eat here just for the atmosphere.

There’s a takeout counter near the bar where a fidgety girl waits to pay and pick up, dark somber hair covering her eyes. She’s hard to miss, like some eighties British transplant. A little Echo & The Bunnymen. A little Dr. Martens. She sports nothing now, though she can’t be older than twenty.

I drop my head to thumb through messages, not because I want to but because I have to. Her last one reads, Miss you. That just angers me. Until I catch one from my professor earlier today.

A happy couple pushes in making a loud ruckus. They bring another gush of cold air in along with them, both hunched in laughter and slightly out of breath. I watch as one takes the other’s coat and hangs it. Then she pulls her own down over her wrist. They share a kiss. How cute is that?

It’s not. So I go back to my phone, which I’ve hidden under the table rim, shifting to an incoming text. I need 2 C U. Guess who?

“Veggie burger and sweet potato fries with a side of mayo,” Hadley announces, startling me for a second. I set my phone down, covering the screen. Okay, that looks suspicious but it’s not meant to be. She’ll just lecture me. She sets a tall glass of water in front of me and picks up the empty one. The water-stained coaster makes me smile. Keep Calm and Move On. How utterly appropriate.

Then Hadley puts a hand on mine for what seems an eternity. She’s worried about me, I can tell. It’s a pleasant thought, I confess, but I’ll be damned if I look up. I feel more than a little wobbly after this fallout, and my heart thumps. I pretend not to notice, like it’s nothing. I use the other hand to grab my napkin, glancing over at her gold ring. And I’m torn. Just when I’m ready to look up, she makes the decision for me, slipping her hand away.

“Just give me a shout if you need anything else.”

I grab a fry, eating quickly. I’ve got to get home before the roads get too slick. I overhear my pal striking up a conversation at another table beside mine. I listen for a while, then I block it out.

It’s dark out, but the mere speed of headlights on the other side of that window tells me traffic has already slowed to a snail’s pace. You know, blizzards are about the only time people drive reasonably well. For that reason, I wish storms like this would travel through these parts more often.

I scroll social media as I eat. #Snowmageddon. The general consensus: Bring it. That said, the governor has declared a state of emergency and a driving ban after midnight.

When I finish, I leave cash on the table to cover my bill plus some, make my way through a party of four, and use my body weight to shove open the heavy door. The wind cuts. It’s dropped at least ten degrees.

I use my glove to brush powder off my seat, swing a leg over, strap my helmet on. Then I weave my way into northbound traffic.

Handling a bike in the snow and slush is a feat. I focus on balance and swerve around patches left by tires and plows, taking it easy on the blacktop and keeping to the main drag where cars have already trod a pretty smooth path. My apartment’s right downtown, but five minutes from here in good weather.

I creep past the few remaining parked cars along the curb. Shopkeepers are flipping door signs from Open to Closed. Pedestrians are using mittens and hats to block wind. Two dash to their car, one in a long black coat, another wrapped to the nose in a rust-colored scarf. Holiday lights blink from trees, flashing across patches of salt-thawed pavement.

I make a spontaneous loop on a road that slants down past Ella’s bakery. You know, just to check up on it. It’s off the main drag but still humming with pedestrians. This town’s relatively safe, and you can walk pretty much anywhere even at night and not be afraid in the least. I pull a stop. It looks like she closed early, which is expected. I hope she made it home okay, at least before it got too bad out here.

The town’s installed a system of small blue lights that flash when there’s a parking ban. One casts a reflection on the front window signaling the impending storm, and snow continues to spit in my face. I’m not sure why I drive past here anymore. I guess it’s just an old habit I really need to break.

Home is just around the bend. When I pull in, I take my usual spot in the lot right next to my door. Beside me is a half-full bike rack and a handicapped parking sign. As I cut the engine, my phone rattles in my coat pocket. Again. I roll my eyes and tap the screen mechanically, not really wanting to answer.

But it’s not what I expect. It’s a text from Hadley, which hits my pulse first—then my brain.

car wont start want company?

* * *

I’m sunk in my chair watching television when I hear the feeblest knock on my door, happy that all of my appendages are thawed after kicking it weekend-style for two straight hours.

I almost hate to admit it but I’m psyched to see Hadley again. I mean, who wants to be company-less during a snowstorm? Not I. I just hope that hike wasn’t too painful. In any case, I do have extra blankets—and the heat’s cranked up to seventy-four.

Half self-conscious, half fidgety, I check my hair in the mirror. Then I get the door. The girl’s red faced and drenched. Frost coats her specs to the point of opacity. Ice is caked on her hat and it’s thick on her scarf. And that’s when guilt hits me. I should’ve insisted, demanded she accept a ride. What does this girl have against my bike?

The least I can offer is an arm around those shoulders, which she gets. I shut the door.

“You poor thing!” I snicker, hiding behind my hand. “You should’ve let me pick you up.”

“I’m not riding on that thing,” begins her monologue. “I’m so afraid they’re going to tow my car.” She sinks in that chair, unlacing her boots, her thoughts. I stay where I am, just listening. “It’s totally insane, I mean, I can’t believe it didn’t start. I just thought, why me, why now? Nobody made it in. And all night, why is everyone so angry all the time? I did my best and got atrocious tips. I’m just glad I don’t do this thing full-time—you know what I mean, serving.”

She slides one boot off. Her specs frost up again. She pinches the joints, lowering the frame to her skirt and clearing the glass before moving to the next heel.

“I tip well.”

With a shrug, I make my way to the kitchen.

“You do, Jess.” She’s behind me, following.

“Let’s see what I’ve got that’ll warm you up. Cocoa, coffee”—I shove things around for a better view—“and chai. What do you say?”

“Aren’t you the hostess?” She grins all smart-ass like, now close enough that I can take in her faded perfume. “Tea’s delicious. Thank you for this.”

I center that teakettle on a burner. She makes her way to the window. Though I wouldn’t call it a view per se, it is pretty as a postcard right about now, icicles yanking at gutters. Trees weeping, limbs drowning—even the stern and stubborn of them. She unwraps and unwinds and continues to liquefy.

“I’m getting your floor all wet. Towels still over here?”

“Hall closet,” I say.

And the kettle’s already shrieking at me. I drizzle it (steaming) into two huge mugs over bobbing bags. I’ve tied the strings around their handles. Then a spiral of spice: cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, clove. I set them on the kitchen table and pull up a chair, hers first. I motion with the milk.

“I’m okay, I mean, just this way is fine.” She holds the mug with two hands, partially hidden behind it. I settle in my seat, and our eyes lock for a passing moment.

“Is it all right,” I ask.

“What, the tea? I mean, sure. Why do you ask?”

“No reason.”

She sounds drowsy.

“So maybe we can pick up where we left off? You know, I mean, what gives?”

I knew she wouldn’t let me off easy, but still. Why does she have to harp until she gets every last detail? I slouch. “Things just suck.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“Not really.” I wink.

“I don’t mean to pry, but…you two split up, didn’t you?”

“It’s complicated.” I try to brush off the questions with a hasty blow on my mug.

“Isn’t it always. But I’m usually the first to hear when things go south. It bugs me when you wall up like this.”

None of my friends like Alicia. That should’ve tipped me off. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

She peers over her mug as if to ask, What for?

I trace the seams between boards on the table. “She stepped out on me.”

“You are joking.”

“She stepped out on me,” I repeat, frustrated. “A week ago. But, get this, that’s not even the best part.”

She sits closed off yet open at the same time.

“She slept with a guy.” I chuckle.

Then I get those eyes. That inquisitive stare. Deep. Sensitive. This girl could get secrets out of a CIA agent. She can get anything out of me.

“Dude, you told me so—go ahead and say it. The girl’s straight and I’m her big experiment.”

Aside from a hum of acknowledgment, she’s hush.

My knuckles crush my mouth. I glance outside. “She doesn’t even know what she wants—and the lies. Christ, the lies. This, though…” I start to recall a conversation I actually had with Alicia. “Fuck—it’s nauseating.”

“She’s foolish.”

“Whatever, it’s for the best. That’s behind me.”

“So,” she starts in. “You back to playing the field?”

“I’m back to playing nothing.”

Now I’ll get the lecture ending with, Oh come now.

“I’m done.”

“You’ll have three girls lined up before next weekend. You always do. I’m sure they’re texting you already. Word gets out, you know. You’re a catch, Jessie Miles.”

My eyebrows jump. She’s hit last name status. “We all have our sins. But, no.” Because I’m not even going to mention my professor earlier. She’d flip her shit.

Then she continues, “Exactly why I’m glad we never went there. I don’t like Alicia or what she did, but I tip my hat to the girls in your rearview mirror.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to be here. Not back with them in your history book.”

“You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself.” I mess her hair. “You look kind of…” I grunt. “Out-of-the-shower hot like that, but here, I’ll get you a blanket. At this rate, you’ll never dry.”

In the closet, a few blankets tumble down on me. When I get back, she’s at the window again admiring the snowscape. Her mug’s still frosting her specs. I flip the kitchen light off to watch as the storm takes over. Then I wrap a tartan blanket across her shoulders, leaning against the window myself until I zone out.

I feel eyes on me when she says, “It’s pretty awesome, wouldn’t you say?”

“That it is.”

“Have I ever told you my blizzard story?”

She’s the best person to be around when I need to get out of my head. She talks and talks about anything and everything.

“No, spill.”

“Well, you were all into…Who? I can’t keep track. I was with April, so this was before the ceremony and we wanted to do something different for the New Year. Just the two of us. No ball drop, no Lang Syne. I booked a couple nights at this really, really sweet bed-and-breakfast.” And then she turns. “Is it okay to talk about her, you know, like this?”

“Of course. Why not?”

“I don’t miss her or anything. Just for the record. I want to remember the positive, don’t you think?”

I nod.

“So we had three nights on the slopes. Night boarding under the stars. It’s incredible. You’ve never really lived until you’ve night boarded in Stowe.”

I’m thinking I have to do this one day.

Then she says, “Maybe you and I could do that. You know, one day.”

We’ve got a lengthy bucket list by now, and it keeps getting longer. The French Riviera and Notre Dame and Versailles, that’s hers. Vatican City, that’s hers as well. I only seem to remember hers.

“Not there, though. Somewhere better,” she says. “I’ll take you somewhere way nicer.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

That’s a pretty nice smile I get.

“So, you know me, I made reservations months and months ahead of time. Still, you never really know. Sometimes we don’t get a flake by then.” She takes a drink, speaking as she swallows. “Next thing you know, this fantastic storm rolls in. You must remember. You got it down here. So like this.”

“Yeah, yeah, I was house-sitting for you, right? That morning, damn, I wasn’t feeling too hot.”

Her expression is more than mildly critical.

“Somebody made martinis, strong ones. I can’t remember who.”

“I bet.”

“Dude, it was New Year’s. Sorry, go ahead.”

“Okay so we couldn’t leave. Nobody could. The innkeepers just let us all stay two more nights. That probably happens a lot up there, right? But, anyway, we had nothing to do. So we all hung out in this common room—me and April with four other couples. Playing board games. Charades.”

“You rock at charades.”

“I kind of do. So there we were, a room full of strangers stuck at this inn. And you’d think we’d all go mad. But we didn’t. It was really cool. We just talked and listened and talked. And some of the stuff that came out…You look at folks every day and you never really know what they’ve gone through or what they’re thinking. Who they are. You’re too busy living. Why does it take some sort of disaster to slow us down like that—to look at each other?” She won’t turn away. She wants an answer. “I mean really look at each other.”

I think about that for a millisecond, grateful she’s here for me tonight. She eventually turns back to the window. “I hear you,” I say. Her cup’s empty. I’m about to take it and mine back to the kitchen when I hear a knock. She looks to me like I should know who this is.

“Maybe a neighbor needs help,” I say. “I don’t know.” We don’t get it right away, like maybe it was the wind or something.

Then comes another but, this time, a heck of a lot brasher. I sense her next to me as I make my way to the door.

“Who is it?” I want to know.

“It’s me.” The voice is muffled, but I recognize it along with Alicia’s distorted features peering through the peephole. Shit.

I unlatch the bolt, and Hadley ducks to the dining room. I hang my head out the narrow opening. “What are you doing here?”

“I was worried. I kept texting. Did you get them?”

“A few.”

“Why didn’t you respond?”

I think that answer is obvious. Still, I’m struck because, mercy, why does she have to have the most erotic voice ever, and I’m hearing it again, which is so different than a cold text on a screen. It drives me sort of…I don’t know, and she knows that. Smooth. Southern. As if she just lit her cigarette afterward.

“I’ve been busy,” I lie.

“With what?”

“With work.”

“I haven’t seen you.”

“I’m on mornings.”

“I didn’t wake you, did I?”

Snow blows in through the door. She’s shivering.

“What’s with the questions?” Post-breakup conversations are so much easier by text.

“It’s just that—it was dark. Your lights are out. Can I come in?” She’s reaching for my fingers, which are curled around the door. But her face hardens when dishes drop in the sink.

“I kind of, well…” Before I can think, my coat’s on and I’m heading out in unlaced boots.

“That was quick.”

“What are you talking about?” I figure whispering will shroud this drama from the neighbors. “Can you please keep it down?”

“Who is she?”

“You stepped out on me. Not vice versa. You’re not in a good position to be asking these questions.”

“You don’t even understand.” Why is she touching my cheek? Maybe I’m just reading into this. “Jess…I miss this.” I’m listening until it dawns on me that her words are slick as can be. “How do I say I’m sorry? I know I’ve said this ad nauseam. I wish you could physically feel this remorse.” She wets her lips, guiding my bare hand behind her coat. “I can’t breathe without you.” Nor can I, but I’m not about to bend.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask.

“Why are you? Why can’t you believe me? That wasn’t me—it wasn’t.”

I hurt. And I’m starting to buckle, which is why I’m getting pissed. “Here you go. You fuck someone and regret it. There’s your closure.” I’m about ready to lose it. “Head home. Get somewhere safe.”

Still her eyes won’t let go and they’re welling up. “I didn’t mean it.”

“I know. What’s done is done.” I’m relieved to sound semiconvincing, yet admittedly, I’m losing courage. “That sort of thing, it can’t be undone. You do know that, right?”

And while we stop speaking in words, we’re still having a conversation. She’s saying, Remember? I button her coat, and I am remembering. I purse my lips, searching for that anger. She’s saying, Let me in. And I want her just the same. Her hair glides between my knuckles. I’m saying, No, I can’t. Her chin falls. We find our voices again.

“Why’d you go home with him?” And there’s that sting in my eye. “You didn’t think that would hurt me?”

“I can’t say what I was thinking. I was—”

“No, wait, I don’t want to know.”

“But—”

“I really, really don’t want to know.” Her cheeks look raw. Her eyes glisten. I wipe her tears off with one singular index finger. And I enjoy it. I like seeing her this way. I want to hurt her more. I want to dig into my arsenal of don’t go theres. But I’m frightened by that side of me—the side that wants to break her down to the ground until she grovels.

So I just say, “It’s freezing,” and find that my tone is alas indifferent. “You’d better get off the streets before you can’t. Isn’t this your shift? What time is it?”

She says nothing. I walk her toward the parking lot. We pause. She kisses my cheek. It’s a good-bye; it feels it. Then she turns, walking into the storm. And she gets smaller and more hidden in the darkness. It feels colder. My rage whips away in a gush. I feel deserted.

I don’t go in right off. Instead, I watch as she makes that curve and vanishes, hair tangled in a twirl of flakes.

When I do make my way back, I’m greeted at the door. It’s a long, needy hug.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I lie as I step out of my boots.

“I made you another cup of tea, chamomile. Here, have my blanket.” And she drapes it over my shoulder the way I did for her before. Her eyes are prying again. They’re asking questions, but they don’t push. We settle into the couch, and I scoot down to rest my head on her shoulder. She knows what just happened, and she’ll be the first to hear when I need to talk. But that won’t be tonight. Right now, we can just enjoy this silent cup of tea together.

* * *

I can’t place this. “Jessie. Jessie.”

Huh?

“Jessie, the power’s out. The whole place is pitch.”

I bolt up, still in bed and still in a fog. “Huh? Are you serious?”

“Not really. I needed an excuse to slide into bed with you,” Hadley says. “Of course I’m serious.” But there’s a lag between her words hitting my ear and the time it takes to actually register with my brain.

I get out of bed—a warm bed, a comfortable bed—and I dog-ear the flannel behind me. A rush of cold jets up my pants and straight down my neck. Damn, I think. I was actually having a pretty good dream there. Can’t I just go back into that?

But I’m wide awake the second I flip a switch up, as in on, and nothing happens. I’ve lived here for eight years, and I’ve never, ever lost power. I’m not even the least bit prepared for this.

I stretch my hands out sightless, finding that familiar door frame and then the front room. It never dawned on me how much light shines in from outside—until it’s gone. I see Hadley’s silhouette against the window burritoed in a thick blanket she pulled from her makeshift bed on the couch, which is unmade. I make my way over.

“The refrigerator stopped humming,” she says, brushing the hair off her forehead. “That’s what woke me. It doesn’t look like anyone else is up.”

“What should we do?” I ask dumbfounded.

“Don’t look at me.”

Then a memory hits, one of those déjà vu things. “Remember way back when—”

“When you tripped the power off and freaked out because you thought you broke the house?”

“Yeah!” I chuckle. “You were over at my parents’ house—just like this—”

“We had the whole humungous house to ourselves. They went away, right?”

“That was awesome,” I say with a nudge.

“No kidding.”

This was the era of slick new technology called CDs that played Dave Matthews and Nirvana. It’s when plastic handle bags at the grocery store were new and novel and not yet the environmental disaster they are today. Movies were just beginning to be affordable for purchase on VHS, so everyone wanted a home movie library, including me. And computers were at someone else’s house. Not your own. And we all wore bobs.

“You built a bonfire,” she says with a far-off look.

“I did.” I’m a lumberjack, what can I say? Just hand me an ax and call me Paul Bunyan. I did wear flannel, and I do remember feeling rather rugged and scout-like when that flame sparked, even though that bonfire was a hibachi with grates removed. Hardly rugged. She didn’t have to know that I had absolutely no confidence in myself up until the moment that orange flame lit. In reality, I went through two packs of matches as she wandered the yard gathering bits of sticks that had fallen from trees.

I wink at her rather smugly. “You were impressed.” Her cheeks flush. I love toying with her.

“What, with your culinary finesse? We ate s’mores for dinner.”

“We did. And you loved them, don’t lie. All chocolaty and marshmallow gooey.”

“I was sixteen.”

“Was it really that long ago?”

“We were really young.”

“I was still a virgin.”

She laughs through her nose. “That can’t be right. I didn’t even know you when you were five.”

“Shut. Up.”

“That was the best night, ever,” she says with a shoulder bump.

“What, losing power…breaking the house?”

“No, we sat up in front of that bonfire and played truth or dare.”

I chuckle. “Yeah, the dangers of truth or dare.”

“Come on. I told you too much that night. And that rainbow sunset. Remember?” I do remember that sunset. Fiery red melting orange, dissolving teal, smudging indigo. The air was wet, the kind that curls your hair. “All those fireflies. You got that humungous bedspread out and we found the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper.” A smile curls up her cheeks as I duck under our blanket. “You know,” she says, “if I could point to one moment when our friendship began, it was that night.”

“You could say that.” I’m not sure what came into me that night. As I recall, I think I tried to make a move on her. You know how it is when you’re a teenager. Parents being gone is the best thing ever. Add an illicit sleepover with a hot girl and you’re golden. And truth or dare got a lot out of her. One, that she liked girls, and two, she was sort of into me. Sort of, she told me with air quotes.

“And even when crazy bad shit happens in our lives, we still pull each other through. To this day. That’s kind of cool.”

I can see my pajama top peeking out from under the blanket along with a wee bit of cleavage. Hadley’s blessed in that department. I am not. Her wet clothes are hanging in my shower, and I’m pretty sure they’ll stay damp without that heat going. Whatever. She’ll look way sexy in my clothes tomorrow. With her bedhead right now, she kind of looks like we just did the deed. I raise my eyebrows at the thought.

“What?”

“Nothing,” I lie. “Listen, we can’t just sit in the dark. It’ll get colder. I can actually see my breath. We need to call someone. See what’s up.”

She shuffles to find her phone.

That’s when I catch a flashlight moving around from room to room in the apartment across the way. Then one flashlight splits into two. And those beams bobble their way window to window. It’s pretty hilarious.

The snow’s still intense. There were benches, but now those are buried, and taking a wild guess, I’d say we have about two feet.

“What’s this, you rearranged?” Hadley asks, breaking me out of my drowsy voyeurism. “Where’s the phone book?” When I turn, she’s carrying her phone like our own flashlight.

“In the kitchen drawer.” I hobble toward it. Under a box of envelopes, some click pens, a random loose cap, my wallet, and car keys, I find that thick bound yellow book. Do people use these, still? I use Google. I drop it on the counter with a thump and start flipping thin sheets of newsprint. Meanwhile she’s sparking her lighter inside a few pillar candles and carries one over to help me read, careful not to drain her phone battery.

“Don’t tip it. The wax’ll spill.”

She leans in and I’m reminded again of how busty this girl is, pressed against my arm. For a second, I forget it’s Hadley and get a little worked up.

RheTsW. Here’s W, and here’s the number.” She recites the digits, sliding a perfectly manicured nail down this shadowed page to bolded letters. I listen as her phone beeps with every number. A ring. “Outage,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Report an outage.”

I get a fake smile before she presses that tiny receiver against my ear.

“Why me?” I protest.

“It’s your apartment.”

I have no time to think before hearing the dreaded recording.

She’s still pressed against me, and it takes more than a little effort just to focus on what the heck I’m supposed to do. I click through a string of options, choosing two then four then finally reporting the outage.

When I end the call, Hadley’s stare is more than a little nervous. “This night can’t get any weirder. First my car. Then your ex. Now this.”

“Alicia showing up. Yeah.” I laugh. “I’m glad you were here.”

“Why?”

“Why? Isn’t that obvious?”

She shakes her head.

“For starters, you’re an excuse to come back in.” I tip my eyebrow. “Plus you’re my rock. You know that.”

“Aw, Jess. Look at you. You’re getting all sappy on me.”

“Sap I’m not. I just…I appreciate you, that’s all. You know.”

We share a long comfortable pause, frozen with the same corny grins. Then she lets her head tip back as if unsure of her next move, which is when it dawns on me that it’s kind of hot, her head tilted back like that. So when she’s not looking, I find my eyes dawdling down to her shirt again and I linger a little too long. That’s when I sort of forget where I am and zone out.

When I look back up, she’s looking right at me. Which is why I dart my eyes away so quickly, but not before a dash of apprehension settles in the pit of my stomach.

It’s too dark, I tell myself. She didn’t see.

“On the topic of Alicia, can I just say I don’t care who did what to whom. Do what’s right for you. But…” She pauses.

I motion her to continue.

“Well, do you realize that something sabotages every relationship you ever have, and it always happens when you give a shit about them? The only exception being Ella.”

If words could physically pierce my heart, the last one did. Don’t even go there.

“And now with Alicia. Something’s seriously messed up with that. I love you. But.”

“So this is my fault?”

“I feel bad for her.”

“Why would you say that?”

“She wants you back.”

“She can’t have me back.”

Her eyes roll.

“Why would you want me with her?”

“I’m not saying you should go back to her,” she tells me.

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m just wondering.”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Like, if you’re afraid of commitment or something.”

“No,” I answer. She gives me her don’t-mess-with-me face. “No, I’m not afraid of commitment.”

“And—”

“And what?”

“If you’re over Ella.”

“Whoa, where’d that come from?”

“I don’t know. Are you?”

“Of course I am.”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

Why is she so angry all of a sudden? I’m not quite following. This is a topic we don’t speak of. What could’ve come of Ella and me had I not—okay, had I not been such a commitment-phobe. Full disclosure, maybe I used to be. Maybe I fucked up there. Maybe if I hadn’t, this might be our anniversary.

Do I care that she’s celebrating her anniversary this weekend? No. Ella’s an old habit. We’ve changed. That simply will never be again, even if we both wanted it. Which we don’t.

I walk over to my couch and her bed of blankets topped with two pillows. I’m not going to spend the evening fighting with my best friend. That’s for sure. Besides we’re stuck together all night, like it or not. So we might as well get along.

I sit smack dab in the middle of her makeshift bed, kick my heels up (stocking-footed), and pat the couch beside me. “C’mon,” I say, gesturing her over. “Let’s make up.”

She makes her way to my couch. “I guess the only way we’re going to stay warm is bundling up,” she says as if surrendering. Then she binds herself using two hands to secure the top of that blanket. When she does, I think back at being caught peering down her shirt and have to wonder if she’s doing this deliberately to block my inappropriate view. Once she sits next to me, I prop my arm around her and yank her stubborn self to my chest. And here come those nerves again.

“Gimme some of that, stingy,” I tell her with a tug. She breaks out of burrito mode and offers me a wee corner, which I graciously accept. She’s never been the generous type, so I take what I can get. When I do, she reclines against me. I inhale and it’s my shampoo. In the silence, a muffled whop of snow hits the ground.

I sit in this, the here and now, the faraway look in her eyes, the sleepy sultriness of her voice. But with some angst. With her body pressed against mine, I try to recall a time in my life when I’ve ever felt this much love unconditionally toward another human being, and I can’t.

I hear her swallow. The building settles, and more snow crashes to the ground. Soon the moment passes and my drowsiness takes over. My body begins to collapse.

“Look. We can’t sleep here,” I say. “We can share my bed. But don’t get any ideas.”

“Keep flattering yourself.” Her hand rests on my knee.

At the count of three, we rise in unison, huddled and waddling clumsily to the bed giggling as if we were still sixteen.

I’m feeling more than a little something here. I don’t think she actually thinks of me that way—at least not since that fated bonfire a good twenty years ago.

In bed, I’m tempted to reach over to her side and see where my hand might land. On a hip? Down the slope of her waist? Damn, I want to touch her skin, her lips, those curves that fill out my pajama top better than I ever could. If I did, though, then what?

“Are you awake?” That voice of hers jars me, and I drown in shame as if she heard my thoughts.

“Yeah. I can’t sleep. It’s too quiet.” A sleepy stillness envelopes us.

“Me either.” It’s an unnatural silence. “I was just thinking. And…well. I wanted to say thank you.”

“Thank you? For what?” I ask.

“For always being here for me, like even now when my car breaks down. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Thanks for letting me crash here.”

I roll over, but her back’s to me. Then I put my hand on her shoulder. In my world, she’s here for me tonight. She’s always here for me.

And I tell her just that. “I’m the basket case. You’re doing me a favor.”

“Whatever, Jess.”

Weak willed, I push my luck and scoot in, pressing up tight against those curves of hers and reaching my arm around the nook of her waist. She doesn’t even flinch. Instead, she takes my hand in hers on the other side. I don’t think I’ve ever actually held her hand. I feel her from my chest to my hips and knees, making it excruciating to resist going farther. Molding against her, I effectively eradicate any chance of falling asleep. But I won’t push it. I need to work through this, whatever it is.

“You’re such a tease,” she tells me.

If she only knew. “Right now, you’re the only heater I’ve got. So don’t go getting any ideas.” I grin at my little white lie.

Then I hear, “Love you, babe.”

“Love you, too,” I say. “Sweet dreams.”

Chapter Two: Ella and Sam

Sam


This weekend was supposed to be epic. Like the first time I, along with hundreds of other bare-legged women, saw Melissa Ferrick play at Boston Pride. Or that time Ella stopped at that red, got out, and kissed me through the car window—right in the middle of that intersection.

I need that kind of epic.

Ella planned a modest celebration with a few of our good friends. A nice dinner. A couple glasses of cabernet sauvignon. And the kind of hilarity that only happens among those treasured few. Your confidants. Your compadres.

But things don’t always happen as planned.

Which would be why I’m here at Whole Foods, wheeling past beat-up wooden crates filled with locally grown organic produce.

Because tonight marks the arrival of our first snowstorm of the season. And it’s not just any old blizzard. It’s a nor’easter that has kept our meteorologists teenage-girl giddy for at least a week now. And this right here would be the closest grocer I could duck into on my way home from work.

I do enjoy blizzards. I mean, they’re par for the course for anyone who chooses to live in New England. But the unfortunate aspect of this particular storm is that it just so happens to collide into our five-year wedding anniversary.

So instead of relishing in romance this snowy anniversary eve, which is what we should be doing, it’s been a mad dash, with lines backed up at every gas station, convenience store, and liquor store in town. Folks are scooping up potato chips and brownie mix and dog kibble so even their Jack Russell terrier has a full belly should we actually get snowed in for days on end, which is what they’re predicting.

It’ll be epic all right. Just not the kind I’d imagined.

Which brings me to where I stand right now, staring at the bulk bins under warm ambient lighting, immersed in the scents of spices and whole bean coffees on a day that repels and bonds total strangers who cross paths as they struggle to choose between dried mangos or apple rings.

I guess you could say that I fall hook, line, and sinker for all of that hype because I, too, am filling up this miniature cart with enough food to feed our family of two for weeks. Because that crushing snow could bury us. Or we could lose power. It has been known to occur. And if nothing catastrophic happens, no harm’s done.

Besides, I figure as much as this storm would like to crush my weekend, as much as everything would, I still have tonight. And I’ve made some plans in that regard as well, plans that involve this little bottle of bubbly right here. So the sooner I get home, the better off I’ll be.

Which is why I push forward, determined. Solid 72 percent dark chocolate because, after this week, I deserve it. Smoked whitefish salad to help her recall that summer sunshine. And then I catch baby blue scrubs peeking out from under an unbuttoned navy pea coat with that silver woven basket dangling across a forearm. Of course Alicia has to be here. Just look at her, mindlessly thumbing her phone. I’m just thankful she’s preoccupied, for now at least, and didn’t see my eye roll.

One day, just once before I leave this planet, I’d like to grocery shop without running into someone I know. This is why I buy tampons elsewhere. Not that it would matter if Alicia knew we bought tampons. She probably does as well.

And the closer I get, the clearer I see her more disheveled than usual appearance. In fact, she looks downright sleep deprived and dejected, the poor thing, and that alone tugs at my heart.

I cut off a cart inadvertently as I toss a polite greeting her way, but her eyes don’t break from that gadget. So I follow up with a clumsy elbow nudge followed by a “Hey,” which she notices, happy-exhausted and impishly cordial, turning to me with a swing of thick hair that billows from under that dark hat.

And she starts the conversation, slipping her phone in her coat pocket. “You’re storm-shopping, too, I see.”

“That I am.”

“I’m just picking up essentials before heading in,” she tells me.

I scan the contents of her basket. A bundle of kale. A box of frozen shrimp. A bag of trail mix. Cotton balls? “That moment you realize a storm’s heading in and your nail polish is chipped?”

“Looks to me like you’re living on champagne and chocolate. That lucky girl. Where are the flowers?”

“Oh shit! Thank you!”

She has a vulnerable smile. “Anytime.”

“So they’re forecasting, what, a foot? More?” I ask.

“And hospitals never close,” she tells me. “So a lot of accidents and highly pissed-off people.”

“I don’t know how you do it,” I say, parking my cart along the refrigerated wall of milk, goat and cow, non-fat and whole, strawberry, lactose free. I shiver, resting a forearm on the cart’s handle.

“You get used to it,” I hear as I dodge wheels and arms. “I love going in, gets me away from myself, you know. I’d rather listen to their gripes than think about my own.”

Her eyes are pink, but even that can’t diminish those goddess-like features. Not just the angle of her eyes but fingers that go on and on. Unapproachable if I didn’t know her already. Alicia’s one of the lucky few who’ve made out in the gene pool. Albeit not as lucky as my own wife, who I’d love to get home to. But I digress.

I hear her ask, “Still meeting up Sunday?”

“Of course,” I say. “We’re expecting you two.”

She reminds me of a curious child the way she cocks her head, peering at other shoppers as if to stall. Which makes me want to say something, but I don’t. I just watch her eyes think. Her hair and those fingers. The way these jewelry lights drop shadows across the angles of her face. She’s lovely, even with worried eyes.

And that’s when I hear the sound of rejection as leisurely as thick amber honey down a dipper. “I don’t know.” I can’t figure out if I’m disappointed or relieved. I won’t miss Jessie. Still it’s not like we have an abundance of replacement friends. “I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it all out. Maybe I can ask you something?” Then she wants to know if I’ve heard from her girlfriend.


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