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Within (Part 4)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

With a jolt, I’m back inside my own aching body, the cold of the cinder-block wall I’m propped against seeping into me.  My cheeks are wet, my head is throbbing with every heartbeat, and I feel excruciating pain in parts of my body I’d forgotten still existed. A musty, damp smell seeps into my nostrils, the soft whoosh from the vent the only sound. There’s very little light here, filtering through a grimy plate-glass window on the other side of the room. The walls are painted a dingy white, orange rust stains dripping down from the ceiling. What is this place? Where the hell am I?

I bet Kyle’s out there, on the other side of the glass, waiting for me to scream and cry and throw myself against the walls trying to escape. The energy has been sapped from my body, even moving my head is like trying to shift a boulder.

What the hell did he do to me? Every incident leaves me depleted and weak, but never like this. So, what’s different? He injected me with something. What the hell could do this to me, to Them? God knows I tried to tamp it down, hold the power at bay with anything and everything. Alcohol never worked. Not even ketamine. Whatever this is…I need more.

A creak catches my attention and my eyes focus just as Kyle steps into the room.

“Hello, Desiree.” He shuffles around the edges of the room. “How are you feeling?”

My mouth opens, but I can’t force out any sound. I can’t lift my hand, can’t speak, can’t wiggle a foot; and that knowledge seizes my heart in my chest. But that’s nothing compared to the chill that skitters down my spine at the cruel grin that slithers across his face.

“Very good. Excellent. You’ve been kept on a steady diet of succinylcholine and a lead derivative—my own little concoction—to keep you under control without killing you. It seems to be working very well, indeed. You can see me and hear me and register what’s happening to you, but powerless to do anything about it.” He closes the space between us and is suddenly kneeling in front of me. “Because there are plans for you, Des. Important plans.”

I cast my eyes around the room, anywhere but into his cold eyes, hoping to stave off the tears that are trying to spill out. Just kill me! I want to scream. I know he wants to, I know it as surely as I know I deserve it, and yet here we are. The tips of my fingers start to tingle, a shadow of feeling returning, and my breathing quickens. Kyle sneers.

“Yes, you should be afraid. You see, we don’t just need to know how you do what you do. No, you’re far more useful than that. We’re going to figure out how to harness your mutant power to use against our enemies. I can’t guarantee it won’t hurt…” He pauses to trail a finger along my cheek, then throws his head back and guffaws. “Who the fuck am I kidding? It’s going to hurt. A lot, Desiree. You are going to feel every ounce of pain you deserve and more. And I’m going to enjoy watching all of it.”

His laughter rings off the walls as the pale, violet glow seeps from my skin…

END

Within (Part 3)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

“Mama, mama, watch me!”

My heart lurches. Her eyes are bright and she’s smiling as she pumps her little legs to make the swing rise higher and higher. My Lily, my darling girl. I glance around at the park, the bright summer sun, the other families enjoying the playground. How is this happening? The bench I’m sitting on is solid and warm, my hair is even waving in the breeze. Am I dreaming? Or is this yet another way my ‘gift’ manifests?

“Lily, be careful! Don’t go so high!” I jump up from the bench, ready to scoop her off the swing and hug her tiny body in my arms. But a voice over my shoulder stops me cold.

“Just let her be a kid, Desiree. Jesus, you can’t control everything.” Kyle frowns at me as he sits with his hands folded in his lap. “And you can’t keep avoiding me. We have to talk about this and we have to talk now.”

A chill shoots through me from head to toe. I remember this day, and I don’t want to see it again. Please, please, God or whoever—whatever—is doing this to me, don’t make me live through this again. Maybe I’m in Hell. Maybe, by some miracle, I finally died and this is how my eternal torment is going to play out.

Turning to Kyle, I keep one eye on my little Lily-pad, wanting to absorb the details of her, to replace the memory that haunts every second of my existence. “She’s my daughter and you have no right to take her away from me.” The squeak of the rusted chains on the swing provide a sinister soundtrack to the conversation.

“I have every right.” He bares his teeth as he snarls at me. “You’re not well, Des. I don’t know if it’s drugs or schizophrenia or if you’re just fucking around because you hate me and want to torture me, but Lily is seven years old and shouldn’t have to deal with your lunatic ravings.”

Spying his new wife lurking on the edge of the park, a fire builds in my chest and I wrench my arm free. “I’m not crazy, you asshole. Something is happening to me, if you’d just listen—”

“Mommy, Daddy, look at me now! I’m touching the sky!”

“Wow! Look at you go!” Kyle beams the brightest, most charming smile at our daughter before he turns his attention back to me, his face twisting. How does he do that so quickly? I can feel the hatred wafting off him. “She deserves stability. She shouldn’t have to grow up scared of what you might do to her. Just let her go, for her own good. Jenna and I can give her everything she needs, and you know it.”

“Except her mother. She needs me, Kyle.”

He steps back and crosses his arms. “No, she doesn’t. Jenna will love her better and more than you are even capable of right now.” The smile that spreads over his handsome features chills me to the bone. “Besides, it’s already done. The judge signed the paperwork this morning, based on your own psychiatrist’s recommendations and my tear-filled testimony. That’s why I’m here. Lily is coming home with us, and your parental rights have been terminated, effective immediately.”

My hands start to tingle, then tremble, the vibrations running up my arms. “No…you can’t do this to me, Kyle, you can’t do this to Lily!” My breathing becomes erratic, blood rushing to my head as I struggle to remain in control.

No! Don’t do it! Stop it, fight it, don’t let this happen! I scream into the memory, but everything is unfolding exactly as it did that day. I’m as powerless now as I was then.

Pushing past me, Kyle calls to our daughter in a bright voice. “Hey, Lily-pad! It’s time to go! Jenna and I are going to take you home with us and we’ll order pizza for dinner and watch a movie. How does that sound?”

I snatch at his arm, trying to hold him back. “No. No, Kyle, please. I’ll do anything! Just don’t take her away from me!” My whole body is shuddering and Kyle knows it. He slaps my hand away and rounds on me with a sneer.

“Get a grip, Des, and keep your fucking theatrics to yourself. No one here is buying it.”

“Kyle, no, it’s real!” I shove my hands in my pockets to quell the electricity that’s building in them, the purple glow that’s pooling in my palms. I call them nightmares, but I’ve seen what I can do in my waking hours. “It’s not me. I have no control over Them, I swear on my life! You can’t take her, you just can’t!”

Clouds are swirling into view, obscuring the sun as a frigid wind picks up. I can’t hold Them back anymore and They tear through the thin material of my hoodie, writhing in the air. Kyle stumbles backwards, his upper lip curled back, his eyes wide and unblinking.

“Mama! Are you watching? Look how high I’m going!”

The purple tentacles burst out of my hands and straight toward Kyle, but he ducks, just in time. They shoot over his head and straight into Jenna’s mouth, her jaw dropped low.

“No!” Kyle rushes toward his young wife, heedless of the waving death as it retreats from her body, but we both know it’s too late. He rounds on me, a guttural scream ripping from his throat, and he charges.

I can’t move, take a step, get out of his path. He leaps at me, arm outstretched, and the first I see the blade is when it plunges into my shoulder, inches away from ending me. But no sooner does the weapon find purchase, then a massive shockwave emanates from me, catapulting Kyle a hundred yards away.

I block out the searing pain in my shoulder and cry a warning to Lily, screaming at her to run. The clouds chase each other in the darkening sky and I can feel the pressure building. I watch, helpless, as my Lily clutches at her throat, gasping for air, and tumbles off the swing to the mound of woodchips below.

I scream. Every fiber of my being is screaming for my daughter, begging for her to be spared, seconds before her fragile little body is torn to shreds.

Within (Part 2)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

Livid tears stream down my cheeks and I can no longer hold back. I open my other hand and the purple haze washes over me, pulsating like a heartbeat. The tendrils tear out of the man under the light, his empty meat sack dropping into an unnatural heap where he stood. They wind around me, lifting me from the ground and suspending me in the air, a helpless witness.

Kyle’s gone. He’s seen this episode before and his heartlessness allows him to disappear, leaving his underlings to face my wrath and a power they could never imagine in their worst nightmares. I hear the report of gunfire, see the muzzle flashes all around me, but none of their bullets touch me. Screaming through my tears, I beg them to stop, to run, to save themselves, even though it’s too late. It was too late the minute I turned onto this street and stepped into their ambush.

My head is forced backwards, the pressure emanating from inside me and bearing down on me at the same time, almost tearing me to shreds. God, if only that would happen—could happen! But there is no God. Only the force that’s woven itself into my DNA, part of me and wholly separate, simultaneously saving me and dooming me to walk this earth with no peace.

The sky rips open, all air sucked into the gaping hole it creates. Metal clatters to the ground as hands release weapons to grasp at throats, unable to breathe. There are no cries of fear or pain. The silence is bone-chilling and I force my eyes open to see if it’s over. Human bodies with absolutely no right to are being stretched, elongated, as the Black Hole’s gravity works on them. Mouths freeze open in silent shrieks while the bones of their skulls and their spines are pulled up and away from their shoes until they are torn apart and swallowed.

There is no stopping it: I’m not in control, I was never in control. All I can do is wail and scream and beg for it to end, to spare someone—anyone—from this destruction. The pressure is almost unbearable now, every cell in my body rioting. The tendrils wrap themselves tighter around me, the frenzied wind in my little bubble threatening to flay me alive. And then, with a crack like the world is splitting in two, it’s done.

I’m kneeling on the dark sidewalk and all around me is silent devastation, as though I’ve survived a nuclear detonation. Cars mangled and flipped, the lamp post impossibly twisted, the cement buckled and cracked. And not another soul in a half-mile radius.

My body is numb at first, wasted and weak. Fiery pinpricks burn across my skin. It’s not my time to die. Not today. Maybe not ever. Pain and fear and shame and loneliness are all I have to look forward to for eternity, death nothing more than a dream.

While I wait for enough strength to return to my legs to get them under me and to haul ass, I let the tears pour onto the cement. I’m exhausted. Each outburst leaves me wasted and heartbroken. Just in time for the highlight reel of the past four years’ torment to start.

One after another, I see the faces of all those this curse has touched. Their screams, their prayers and their bargaining play out inside my head, and then their gasping and the watery squelch as their bodies are overtaken. One voice always filters to the top and it’s enough to rip my heart out of my chest.

Wallowing in the vision of her face as it swims behind my closed eyes, approaching footsteps catch me off guard. My eyes fly open and I pop to my feet, fists at the ready, but a quick punch to my nose sends me staggering, stars filling my vision. I fall back on my ass, hard, and the shockwave travels through my bones, rattles my teeth. My arms are grabbed from all around me, several pairs of hands holding me in place. It’s starting again, I can feel the tingling build in my palms as They try to return.

Then his voice is in my ear, his warm breath causing the wisps of hair around my face to tickle my cheek.

“It didn’t have to be this way, Des.” He strokes my hair and my scalp crawls, right before I feel a sting and burning pressure behind my ear. “Shh…Don’t fight it. While I would love nothing more than to see you suffer, I’ve been ordered to make sure you arrive mostly unharmed.”

His poisonous voice is still ringing in my consciousness as I feel the effects of whatever he just fucking dosed me with. I can’t hold my head up, my sight narrows to a dark tunnel, and the tingling in my hands fades to nothing.

“What have you done?” I think the words came out of my mouth but my head is so stuffed with cotton that I can’t be sure.

My teeth clack together as Kyle clutches my hair and yanks my head back. “Shown you mercy, which is far more than you deserve, Des! I should slit your throat right here and now, consequences be damned.”

Then all is black.

Within (Part 1)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

A bus whips around the corner, the headlights washing over me, and I flinch back into the shadows. I pull my hood tighter around my face: That life is long behind me and recognition isn’t a risk I’m willing to take.

I pass through yellow pools of street light on my path to nowhere. The scar on my shoulder twinges painfully, as though it heard my thoughts. Yeah, yeah, I remember you. No need to be a dick about it.

There’s a man leaning against the lamp post on the corner, smoking a cigarette. He’s watching me, one foot propped up and his head cocked to the side. Even from a hundred yards, his greasy smile is repulsive.

I keep my head down and press a little closer to the buildings. Maybe if I can keep out of arms’ reach it’ll be more work then he wants. Come on, man, just look the other way and we can both see tomorrow.

“Hey, baby. Where you goin’ in such a hurry?” He tosses his smoke into the street and takes a step toward me. “A pretty thing like you shouldn’t be out here all alone.”

“Fuck off.” I speed up, keeping my head down. A few more strides and I’ll be flush with him, but I can tell by the change in his stance that I won’t get any farther. Shit.

“What’d you say to me?” He pulls up to his full height and blocks my path. My stomach twists into a knot: he’s easily six inches taller than I am, and he’s faster than he looks. Doesn’t matter. He’ll never move fast enough—none of them do.

My heart starts racing and I fight to keep my breathing even. I’ve been found. Again. Is he the only one here? Don’t be stupid, Des, they’d never send just one poor sap to round you up. They’ve learned that lesson.

“Come on, sweet thing, ain’t you gonna talk to me? Tell me your name at least? Don’t be mean.”

From the corner of my eye, there’s movement in the shadows across the street, that bus that passed me earlier. Parked on the next block, the windows dark—except for the red tracer lights trying to get a lock on me. Fuck.

“Look, man.” I keep shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to make myself small and give the illusion that I’m scared of him. “I don’t want any trouble. I’m just trying to walk here, that’s all.”

A man steps out of a shadowy doorway to my right, and my heart sinks into my feet. “Give it up Des. You’re surrounded and we’re going to take you in one way or another. So, just don’t make this difficult.”

I shake the hood off and my hair gleams in the artificial light. “Don’t call me that, Kyle. You don’t get to call me that. And you aren’t taking me anywhere.”

Without taking my eyes off the creep in my way on the sidewalk, Kyle watches me, perfectly calm. Sandy-blond hair falling into his eyes, his lips pressed into a thin line, his hands resting loosely in his pants pockets. My own hand itches to smooth the hair off his forehead and see that smile he saved just for me once upon a time. But that was years ago and too much has happened since then for him to ever look at me with anything but pure loathing.

It would never match the loathing I feel for myself, not even a tiny bit.

My hatred for myself and for these monsters is making my skin crackle with energy. Taking a deep breath, I clench and release my fists, still in my pockets, hoping against hope to be able to hold it back, just this once. “Please, Kyle, let me go. Don’t make me do this.”

“Then come with me quietly, Des. We can help you.”

That name again. The tingling in my hands flares, then my head snaps up and I lock onto his sky-blue eyes. He has to see how futile this is—he has to! I plead silently with my eyes, but there is no compassion left in his.

He nods quickly and God damn it, I know it’s on. Why does he keep doing this to me? The man closest to me twitches in my direction and I jerk back, my hands low at my sides. He hesitates when he sees the pale violet glow leaking out between my clasped fingers.

“You moron,” Kyle bellows. “What are you waiting for? Get her. Now.”

Kyle’s lackey takes a step closer, but I open one hand and the tendrils fly free. As they travel over him, tasting his fear, his eyes are wide and his body is rigid. He opens his mouth to scream, but no sooner do his lips part than they are inside of him, gorging on more than the stench of his terror. I squeeze my eyes shut.

“Desiree!”

Kyle’s hands are clamped in fists and trembling at his sides, but he’s taken a step back, one foot inside the doorway he had emerged from earlier. Red laser dots, dark like blood, light up my chest, as the glow envelopes me.

“Don’t, Kyle!” I struggle to keep the sob out of my voice. “You know how this ends—please call them off, get them away from me!”

His eyes narrow and his chest puffs out as our eyes meet over the writhing body of his flunky and I know. I fucking know. With nothing else to live for, vengeance has made him cruel and nothing else matters to him but winning.

“You know I can’t. I won’t.”

“Do you think I don’t pay for what I did every second of every day?” My voice breaks. “There’s nothing you can do to me that’s worse than what I do to myself.”

“Well then.” His smile sends a chill down my spine. “You can call this mercy.”

Chasing the Enemy

When I start on one of these prompts, I write notes about where I see the story going. The funny thing is that it’s very rare for those ideas to make it into the story…For instance: one of the original ideas for this prompt was a man with a special parakeet that could identify demons. 🤔😈

I hope you enjoy this story – leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts!

Title: Chasing the Enemy

Words: demon, bystander, escaped, parakeet, destiny, hammer, singing, ash, cathedral, heels


Cigarette smoke curled into the night air in the circle of light cast by the lone street light. Outside of that circle, however, the shadows writhed with everything dark and dangerous. The gloom concealed the thieves, the prostitutes, the murderers. At least until an unsuspecting bystander got caught in a snare and was swallowed by the night.

Damien was no stranger to these shadows. In fact, he often sought them out. He dropped the spent cigarette and crushed it with his toe, brushing the ash from his jacket lapels. How many nights had he held vigil on this corner? Two? Three? Rubbing his eyes, he yawned. Too many nights, that’s how many. But he’d been chasing leads and suspects long enough to know that sleep would only come once his quarry was caught and neutralized. Then he could safely trudge home and sleep in his own bed, under the same roof as the one he’d sworn to protect.

Shaking a new smoke out of the pack, he pulled it free with his lips before touching the bright flame of his lighter to the end. No spring chicken, Damien was gruff and scruffy, loud and bossy. He wasn’t bad to look at even though his jet-black hair was now streaked with a dirty gray and he couldn’t seem to keep his chin free of whiskers for more than an hour. It was the way he carried himself that had kept him alone for nearly a decade. He was aware of  his permanent scowl and his hunched shoulders and his angry tone of voice if anyone dared show him kindness.

He knew he didn’t deserve it.

Taking another long drag from his cigarette, he turned his eyes to the lighted windows of the cathedral across the street. His friends, when he’d had them, tried to get him to find peace in the church. Any church. After his wife had been murdered and the perpetrator escaped into obscurity, however, Damien felt that God was mocking him. He was being punished, his destiny twisted and mangled until he had lost all traces of humanity.

Their argument that day had been entirely his fault. Jeannie had been asking him for months to pick up his hammer and finish building the bookshelves he’d promised her when they bought the little craftsman-style house. He’d picked out the perfect oak and lovingly stained and treated it, carving intricate designs for accents. But for some unknown reason he was unable to assemble the pieces. Not physically unable, but some kind of mental block stopped him any time he thought about finishing them. His insecurities had convinced him that the one person he loved more than life wouldn’t need him anymore once those shelves were built.

She’d begged him that day, teasing, bribing him with a vacation or tickets to his favorite band. But he refused everything. Jeannie had tried to be kind and he’d been a complete ass. Yelling, calling her names and telling her to get off his back, he’d slammed out of the house and peeled away in his stupid Chevelle SS. An image in his rearview mirror, standing on the front porch looking heartbroken, was the last time he’d seen her alive.

If only he’d been there. If only he’d apologized and kissed her. If only he’d just built those damn bookshelves, she’d still be alive.

Damien didn’t remember anything from the moment he pulled onto his street, singing along to the radio and saw the police cars until everyone was gathered at his house after Jeannie’s funeral. When he came back to himself, all his neighbors and family patting him on the back and vomiting platitudes at him when he was drowning in self-loathing, he checked out. Without a word, he walked out the front door, climbed in his stupid muscle car and drove away. He had no idea what happened to his house or any of his other property – and he didn’t care.

He shifted his weight and stretched his back, lighting another cigarette with a scowl. Ten years. It had taken ten years of traveling, of taking odd jobs just so he could drink himself into oblivion, to bring him to Ellen. He exhaled with a small smile and a shake of his head. How they’d found each other was a mystery and why she stayed with him, well…that was simply a miracle. If it hadn’t been for her parakeet yellow raincoat he wouldn’t have paid any attention to her and she might have gotten away with it.

He had been stumbling down the sidewalk, using the buildings he passed to keep him mostly upright, when she materialized in front of him. At 15 years old and barely five feet tall, Ellen had popped up and caught his attention in that damn coat. When he stopped to stare at it, she offered to help him make his way home. It wasn’t until they were almost at the door of his motel room that he felt her hand in his pocket.

They’d been taking care of each other ever since.

Movement at the cathedral doors caught Damien’s attention and he melted back into the shadows, snuffing out his cigarette. The man exiting the church strolled down the steps and across the street, whistling a jaunty tune to the rhythm of his heels striking the pavement. Damien’s hands curled into fists: it was him.

Counting to twenty, Damien calmed his breathing and slid the knife from its sheath on his hip. He stepped off the curb, his gaze trained on his prey. With quick, silent steps, he drew closer to the demon who had destroyed his life, following him down the steps to the near-abandoned subway platform.

Damien tightened his grip on the handle of the blade and grinned with the knowledge that he’d sleep well that night.

short story, story prompts, fiction writing, #writingcommunity

Drama In and Out Of the Lab

This story prompt was a lot of fun for me and could potentially be drawn out to a novella or something. I’m intrigued by the characters that developed…

Standard disclaimer: This isn’t edited other than for spelling and punctuation so I apologize for any glaring errors.

I hope you have as much fun with it as I did!

Title: Drama In and Out of the Lab

Words: microbiologist, telephone, hidden, bystander, trench, inside, international, shoe, heights, persuade


“No, no, no!”

Carl threw his hands up in frustration. This was all wrong. Again. The samples had been contaminated, resulting in an outcome that would have been impossible if the experiment had been clean.

“Damn it, Isaac,” he murmured.

Slamming through the inner door to the decontamination chamber, Carl was having a hard time keeping his cool. His ‘partner’ Isaac was in the main part of the laboratory, oblivious to everything around him except for the ear-splitting metal screeching he was air drumming to.

“Isaac,” Carl said, once he was out of his clean suit. When the boy didn’t respond, he lost his temper and let loose a bellow to shake the rafters. “ISAAC!”

The boy spun around, eyes wide, slapping at the speaker to make it stop. “Yo, Carl, man, you can’t sneak up on a guy like that! What’re you yelling about anyway?”

Carl pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “Isaac. Did you prep the samples the way I showed you?” When the boy nodded enthusiastically, Carl folded his arms. “Really? Are you sure? You did it all inside the sterile chamber, wearing all sterile gear, protective gear over your eyes?”

The way the color blanched from Isaac’s face told Carl all he needed to know and it was the last straw.

“You are impossible! I don’t know what else I can do to teach you how to work in the laboratory! There are standard operating procedures posted nearly everywhere, plenty of equipment and personal protective gear, and I have personally walked you through the procedures a dozen times.” Carl raked his hands through his hair and paced the small space, trying to control his anger. When he felt he was able to speak without shouting, he turned back to Isaac.

Isaac, who was now standing perfectly still, his head hanging and his shoulders slumped, his headphones hanging limp from his hand. Carl felt a pang of remorse for being so hard on the boy. He was just too damn frivolous and didn’t seem to realize that what they were doing was of the utmost importance and there was no room for careless mistakes.

Approaching the forlorn figure, Carl placed a hand on his shoulder. “Look, kid, I’m sorry for blowing up. But the validity of this research is imperative if we are going to make a difference. If we can isolate the bacterium that is wreaking havoc in China as we speak, we can save millions – maybe even billions – of lives.” Isaac looked up with red-rimmed eyes, his mouth turned down. “Perhaps it’s time for you to reevaluate your desire to become a microbiologist. There are many other worthy sciences that might be better suited for a young man such as yourself.”

With a shrug, Isaac started clearing the clutter he’d accumulated on the desk. “I know, Carl, and I’m sorry. Microbiology is my passion, I swear it! I think I just get too excited and have a hard time being patient enough to go through all the steps. Give me another chance – I’ll do better, I really will!”

“Fine.” Carl ran a hand down his face and shrugged out of his lab coat. “Let’s give it up for today. Go ahead and clean everything up and I’ll see you in the morning.”

In the locker room, Carl stared at his reflection. How did he get here? Mid-thirties, not quite balding but certainly thinning, with a little paunch and an overabundance of tweed in his closet, he had envisioned a much different life for himself. When he got into microbiology he dreamed of saving lives on a massive scale, like in the movies. Where was his opportunity to create and distribute a life-saving vaccine, secreting the vials across international borders, defying evil overlords and corrupt governments? No, instead, he was teaching inept children like Isaac the very basics of just working in a laboratory without even so much as a minor breakthrough.

Carl smoothed his hair back from his forehead and straightened his bow tie. If forced, he’d admit he was lonely, too. The last date he’d been on was with a beautiful divorcee with bangs and a turtleneck sweater who’d been too nervous to keep up any form of conversation. And the worst part was that most of his dates were like that. The women he met were generally timid, intellectual, and sweet – but where was the fire? Everything was so clinical and boring with them. Carl didn’t fancy himself any kind of a playboy or full of thrills, himself, but he yearned for some excitement. Not the emotional drama type, but at least something to get his blood racing. Was that too much to ask?

Tucking a newspaper under his arm, he ventured into the early afternoon sunshine to sit in the park for a little while before heading home. Alone. Again. At least sitting on a bench in the park, Carl could watch all the people and feel like he was part of something. It was a short-lived relief but it would have to do. He settled along the tree-lined path and opened the paper. He didn’t really care about reading any of the articles, it was a prop so he could watch people without being creepy about it. The role of innocuous bystander worked well for him and he imagined the lives of some of the characters who passed by.

There was a man in jeans and a polo shirt strolling with a younger man in khakis and a colorful button-down shirt. The way he kept straightening his collar and touching his hair told Carl that this was more than a friendly chat. The polo man was very interested in the younger man. Was this a first date? Looking at the younger guy with his pink cheeks and inability to make eye contact with his companion for long screamed yes. If not a date, a precursor. Carl smiled. Good for them.

Over the top of the newspaper, Carl scanned the people milling around and frowned. Pretty tame today, full of the same folks he saw frequently. Mothers pushing strollers with toddlers, men and women taking their dogs for walks, couples holding hands or smiling as they rode past on bikes. With a sigh, Carl thought about swinging by the store on the way home and grabbing a frozen pizza and a pint of ice cream. Hopefully tomorrow would be better.

Before he could fold up his paper, he saw her. Dark auburn curls, aviator sunglasses, wearing a trench coat as she stood under a tree across the path. She seemed to be watching him, but it was hard to tell from this distance. Lifting the paper a little higher, Carl took her in, hoping she couldn’t tell. The way she stood so still, her hands in the pockets of her coat, she definitely stood out from the activity buzzing around them. This woman was beautiful and intriguing and no one else seemed to notice her. As he watched, she slid her glasses down her nose, making a point of meeting his gaze, and smirked.

“Shit,” he muttered. He thought he’d been hidden enough to not be caught but she sniffed him out immediately. Peeking again, Carl was mortified to see that she was making a beeline for him, striding confidently across the park, oblivious to the traffic around her which stopped or simply flowed around her. Folding up the paper, he floundered. Was she going to yell at him? Call him a pervert for watching her? God, he hated confrontation. It was one thing when dealing with the drama in his lab – that was where he was comfortable, where he belonged – but out here in the real world? If there was a way to avoid drama out of the lab Carl was one to grab it with both hands and run.

He jumped up from his seat as she drew near but she grabbed his shoulders and swooped in to kiss both of his cheeks. “Don’t panic, darling,” she cooed in his ear. “Just sit back down and act natural. I don’t think I was followed.”

All Carl could think was how amazing she smelled, like summer rain and lavender, but he sat with her anyway. When she pulled off her glasses he tried not to gasp. She was exquisite: deep blue eyes, almost violet, perfect smile with a dimple in one cheek. Sliding under his arm and nestling next to him, she kept talking under her breath and Carl was far too stunned to do much else but go along with it.

“I wasn’t sure you’d show up. You weren’t answering your telephone and I got worried. There is no way for me to stress enough how important this mission is and the role you will play in it, yourself.” Snatching the paper from his hand, she pretended to read the articles, pointing to a story as though discussing it with Carl. “For today, you may call me Natasha but I am not at liberty to reveal my true identity. You will be Kraven for now. No,” she held up her hand when Carl opened his mouth. “You must not tell me anything about yourself. That way, if we get caught, we can’t reveal anything they can use, no matter what torture we might undergo.”

Carl stopped moving – almost stopped breathing – and tried to wrap his head around what she’d just said. “Torture?” His voice squeaked and he cleared his throat, repeating in a deeper tone, “Torture? What are you talking about?”

Glancing around furtively, she took his face in her hands, her eyes boring into his soul. “You know how dangerous The Shoe can be – many of our best agents have gone missing after following her trail of crime and corruption. But together, you and I can bring that vile woman down to meet justice.” She trailed her fingertips along his cheek, a smile trying to burst forth from her lips. “I must leave now, but you must find me again in an hour. Come to the rooftop restaurant at 27th and Elm. Bring a passport and a weapon. I’m worried that we may have already been compromised.” Natasha pressed her lips to Carl’s, drawing him into a deep and passionate kiss. After his initial shock at the contact, he melted into it, wrapping his arms around her, but she abruptly pulled away.

“Not now, darling. There will be plenty of time for that when the syndicate is stopped, once and for all.” Without another word, she rose from the bench with an elegance Carl had only read about, and she disappeared into the crowd.

Carl remained in place on the bench, gaping after her. She may have been a hallucination, something he’d dreamed up and created for himself. But what if she wasn’t? His mind was chasing itself to the point of complete inaction.

On the one hand, he had just been craving ‘excitement’ hadn’t he? This – Natasha – was nothing if not exciting. Women like her never noticed men like him. It wasn’t an intentional snub, it was just that he and others like him tended to blend into the background. Not only had she noticed him, she had called him ‘darling’ and kissed him in a way he’d only dreamed of. And she wanted to meet him again.

Was he seriously considering this? Sure, Natasha was gorgeous. But the word ‘torture’ had come out of her mouth in reference to a possibility in his future. That set off major warning bells and threw red flags all over the place. Not only was there the chance that he could be hurt or killed, but it was also probable that this beautiful woman was completely unhinged. Did he want to invite that into his neat little world?

Carl’s hand floated to his lips, the feel of her lips still lingering. In the lab he only had the drama of Isaac to deal with, predictably negligent Isaac, and the same failed experiments day after day. But here, outside of the lab? An adventure had fallen into his lap, an adventure named Natasha. Well, no, not really. That was only her code name.

Could he be ‘Kraven’, the persona she’d given him? Alluring and dangerous, ‘Kraven’ was a man who ate adventure for breakfast, washing it down with a glass of aged Scotch. ‘Carl’ was a man unironically wearing a bow tie and a tweed jacket, ready for a beautiful woman to persuade him to chase after his own potential death.

Glancing at his watch, Carl knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was going to meet Natasha. How long had he been sitting there? Did he have 45 minutes left? Only 30? He jumped from the bench and dashed home to collect his passport and – what did she say, a weapon? The only weapon he could think he possessed was a police baton he kept for protection and a handful of throwing stars from when he’d been obsessed with Bruce Lee movies. Yes, they would do. Small, compact, easily hidden.

Carl dressed the best he could to fit what he thought ‘Kraven’ might wear. All he owned was a gray turtleneck from his Carl Sagan days and a black leather jacket from…he had no idea where. With everything he needed tucked in pockets, he slicked back his hair and left his apartment, destiny leading him to the rooftop restaurant perched on the tallest building in the city.

Nevermind that he was afraid of heights.

A Family Mystery Uncovered

This is the second story prompt from the book I got for Christmas and it took me several versions to get something I didn’t hate. The title was given to me and the words that had to be included are underlined throughout the text. I haven’t edited this story, either, so I apologize for anything repetitive, misspelled, or just plain idiotic. 

Enjoy!

Title: A Family Mystery Uncovered

Words: Sunday, secret, wallpaper, swap, sister, curiosity, island, notebook, marathon, demand


I laid in my bed, the covers pulled up to my chin, and held very still. Even breathing seemed too loud and made my heart race at the thought that I’d be heard and the ghost would come for me.

Every night for as long as I could remember, there had been unexplainable sounds that woke me up and kept me paralyzed in fear until exhaustion simply won out. I was only fifteen but I didn’t know a time when I wasn’t living in terror. When I complained to my mother about the moans, taps, and scratching I heard throughout the night she shushed me, declaring it all a bad dream. She even took me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with ‘night terrors’ which was absurd. Did you have to sleep to have those?

My sister, who had the attic bedroom, never heard a thing – or so she claimed. She was two years older and so close to graduating and leaving home that we rarely even saw her. But every now and then she’d invite me to her room to hang out or for what she called a sleepover. We’d roll sleeping bags onto the floor and lie awake, gossiping and making up scary stories until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Those were nights that I cherished and would miss when she was gone.

“Do you think mom will let me swap rooms with you when you leave for college?” We were sprawled on the couches one Sunday in the throes of a massive rom-com marathon. “I can’t sleep in that room at all and I’m worried that whatever is in there is going to finally come for me. It seems like your room doesn’t have the noises and stuff.”

Angie glanced at me quickly and popped a chip in her mouth. “Seems that way, huh? Did it ever occur to you that you just don’t notice it when we’re both in there?”

I paused the movie and sat up. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the fact that I hear the same shit you do, it’s just not as loud all the way up there.”

Gaping, I tried to wrap my mind around what she was telling me. “Wait – so you’ve been hearing the same stuff all this time? I was forced to doctors and psychiatrists who tried to convince me it was all in my head and you’ve heard it too?”

She wouldn’t meet my eyes and started picking at her fingernails. “Come on, Mel, what do you think would have happened if I’d said anything? The folks would demand that I get my head shrunk, too. You were already going: if it was determined that you were insane it could be surmised that I was, too, right?”

Just then, our mom walked into the kitchen, tossing her keys on the island and pulling bobby pins out of her hair, letting it hang loose around her shoulders. “You were what, Ang? What are you two lazy bones talking about?” She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms.

Angie and I exchanged a quick wide-eyed glance before answering.

“Oh, you know, Mel’s worried about getting accepted to college. I was just telling her that I was worried, too, but she doesn’t have to worry about it.” She tugged at my hair playfully. “She’s smarter than I am, anyway.”

Mom cocked her head and smiled at us with soft eyes. “Oh, you girls! It makes me all warm inside to see how close you are!” She dashed across the room and wormed her way to a seat right between us and reached for the bag of chips. “So what are we watching tonight? Are we on a romance or horror kick right now?”

*****

The noises were particularly upsetting and my hands were trembling as I clutched at my comforter. I couldn’t keep my eyes still; too afraid to move at all and possibly draw attention to myself, my gaze was constantly flitting from one shadowy corner of the room to the next, certain there was something crouching in the darkness.

Whatever was keeping me awake had moved on from taps and moans to bangs, thuds, and outright muffled screams. How was my mom not racing through the house right now, making sure we were safe? It sounded like someone was being murdered.

There was a creak outside my bedroom and my heart tried to jump out of my chest when the doorknob turned. I pulled the covers over my head and chanted in my head, Go away, just go away!

“Melissa?” my sister whispered from the doorway and I was so relieved I almost burst into tears.

“Angie!” I hissed back, lifting the edge of the covers so she could jump in and we could huddle together for at least the illusion of safety. “Do you hear it, too? It’s so much worse!”

“We have to do something, Mel,” she said. Her hand flashed out from under the blanket and clicked on the lamp next to my bed.

“What are you doing?” I tried to climb over her to douse the light but she held me back.

“Whatever is going on isn’t going on inside your room. Don’t you think if movement or light drew it to us that I would’ve been caught on my way down here?” She pulled a notebook out from under the sheets and placed her palm on the cover. “I’ve been writing down every event over the past year, documenting what I heard, what time, what day, and I think there’s a pattern.”

I couldn’t focus on what she was saying, my nerves were shot and adrenaline was at an all-time high. “A pattern? What does that mean?” I pulled my knees up to my chest and tried to slow my breathing and my racing brain. With my eyes I traced the floral pattern on my wallpaper as the vines and leaves wound around the room, over and under, through and across.

“I mean, there are thumps and bangs nearly every night but things get really crazy every three weeks or so.” She tapped her finger on her chin. “What is going on every three weeks to ramp activity up so much?”

Before I could formulate a hypothesis, something caught my eye. The wall above my desk was moving, almost breathing. I watched a spot bow out and back flat, out and back until I wasn’t sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

Angie was still thumbing through her notebook, trying to figure out what the pattern could mean so she didn’t notice when I climbed off the bed. My curiosity overwhelmed my fear and I advanced on the wall, walking on tiptoes until I could reach out and touch it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

A hand settled on my shoulder and it immediately had a calming effect. I loved that my sister was right there, offering her support and letting me know I wasn’t in this alone. I straightened my spine and lifted my hand once more.

“I don’t know that you want to do that.” My mother’s voice sounded in my ear and I spun around to find her right behind me, a serene smile on her face.

Her blood-spattered face.

“Wha-what happened? Are you okay? Where’s Angie?”

I leaned around mom to see Angie lying across the bed, unmoving, her notebook flung to the floor. Mother waved a hand and said, “Oh, don’t you worry about her. Your sister will be just fine. I only gave her a small dose. She’ll wake up with a doozy of a headache, but nothing a little aspirin can’t sure.”

Pressing my back against the wall, I was horrified at the calm vision before me. My mom’s hair was pulled neatly back into a ponytail that swung against the shoulders of a red track suit. After closer inspection, it wasn’t meant to be red. Her hands and her clothes were drenched in red, carrying with them that distinct metallic smell of blood.

“What have you done?” I barely choked the words out, fear gripping my chest as I stared at this monster who looked like someone I loved.

She clucked her tongue and stroked my cheek, saying, “Oh darling, I hadn’t intended on revealing our little secret quite yet; it’s far sooner than I had hoped. I didn’t think you’d be ready for another couple of years, to be honest.”

My mouth hung open even as I tried to escape her gentle touch. “I don’t want to know your secret!”

“Oh, it’s not my secret,” she chuckled. “This is a tradition that has been handed down through the generations of our family, from mother to daughter, for centuries. Once you see it in motion, actually get to perform the rituals with your own hands, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.”

She reached for me as though to gather me in her arms but before I could slap her hands away, the wall behind me exploded outward, showering us all with plaster and dust.

“Save me!” a voice rasped out as a bony claw clamped onto my shoulder. I screamed and my mom’s eyes lit with a blood lust I never could have imagined in my worst nightmares. She calmly stepped forward and peeled the fingers off me, bending them back until they cracked and the voice in the wall emitted an inhuman screech of pain, before the hand and the voice disappeared in a series of muffled thuds.

I dashed to my sister’s side as she began to wake up, groaning, and I could think of nothing but trying to protect her. Mother smoothed her stained hands down the front of her suit and took a deep breath.

“You two stay put and I promise I’ll explain everything when I get back.” She leaned in to peck a kiss to my cheek and winked. “But right now I’ve got a man to catch.”

END

Return To Me: Part 2

“Uh, can I get you something to drink?” Emma was aware that she was stalling but she smiled at the officers and pointed toward the kitchen. “I can get some coffee going pretty quickly or I have iced tea or some different sodas…”

The officers glanced at each other and the male cleared his throat. “No, thank you. That won’t be necessary. Please, have a seat.”

Her head felt unexpectedly light, and Emma perched awkwardly on the edge of the armchair, facing the officers who were sitting side-by-side on the couch. A muffled voice could be heard somewhere close by and Emma cast her eyes around the room, trying to find the source. She was surprised to see a cell phone in her hand and stared at it for a moment, unsure what to do with it.

Stalling.

Stalling.

She lifted the phone to her ear and croaked out, “Mom? Mom, I have, ah, company. Can I call you right back?” She nodded at whatever her mother had said and disconnected the call without another word, finally turning her attention to the figures before her.

“Mrs. Baker, we have some very bad news to tell you,” the female officer started, and Emma began shaking her head involuntarily. She didn’t need to hear what the woman was about to say. She already knew. Somehow, she already knew it deep in her soul.

Emma wanted to run, to make them leave. Her stomach clenched, on the verge of expelling its contents and she needed to leave. But her body was frozen in place, unable to escape the nightmare that was about to begin.

The officers exchanged another glance and the female officer continued. “Your husband, Justin Baker, was in a car accident this afternoon and was killed.”

Emma blinked.

“I am very sorry this happened.” The male officer had kind eyes, Emma thought randomly as she stared at him, waiting for him to deliver the punchline she knew had to be coming. “Is there anyone I can call for you?”

Her head still wagging back and forth in denial, she locked eyes with the man then the woman, back and forth, trying to understand the words she had just heard.

“I’m sorry – what? What are you telling me? No one died. You’re wrong. My husband is on his way home from work and we’re going to a costume party. You have the wrong house, the wrong Bakers. Justin is about to walk through the door any second…” Emma floundered with her phone, trying to check the time.

He should have been home more than an hour ago.

She felt like all the blood was evacuating her body, starting at her scalp and moving through her face, her chest, her stomach, to her toes. Her feet were suddenly freezing cold and stars began to form in the edge of her vision.

Her phone resumed its insistent vibrating, message after message filling her screen but Emma barely noticed. Her mind was simultaneously racing and immobile. She couldn’t move past the loop that was playing over and over in her head. Justin is dead. He isn’t coming home. You’ll never see him again, never kiss him again. Justin is dead. Dead.

 Justin. Is. Dead.

Lifting her head slowly, Emma realized the officers were still sitting on her couch. The woman was talking. She saw her lips moving, but Emma couldn’t hear anything over the buzzing in her ears. It was the strangest sensation. Her head was filled with static, her fingers and toes felt like they were encased in ice, her cheeks and lips were tingling with pins and needles.

“Ma’am?” The male officer’s voice cut through the other noise. “Mrs. Baker, are you okay? Do we need to call anyone for you?”

Emma shook her head. “I…What – what do I do now?” All the fight had drained out of her and her words came out in a whisper. “What am I supposed to do now?”

Dysfunction Takes a Holiday

For as long as I can remember, I have had a big imagination. I can’t think of a time in my life where I wasn’t playacting in some form or another. Sometimes it was Barbies with my sisters, sometimes it was movie reels in my head, sometimes it was me in front of my bedroom mirror. As an adult, it comes in the form of ‘what-if’ scenarios that play out as I clean or drive or, most often, walk the dogs.

The result of this big imagination is that I have a pile of story ideas jostling for attention.

My first story, posted on Channillo in mid-November of 2018 and in a Halloween anthology called Chills Down Your Spine, gave me the confidence to keep writing. After that, I wrote a few other slightly bizarre short stories and started three serials. One of them, The Path of Least Dysfunction, has been shared on this website weekly since it started in January 2019 and I have been so tickled by the responses I’ve received. A couple readers even picked teams, using #TeamJamie and #TeamChris on Twitter. Talk about an ego boost.

That’s why it’s bittersweet for me to say that Chapter 35, which went live on Channillo August 26 and will post here on September 11, is the last chapter of The Path of Least Dysfunction. At least for a while.

I haven’t stopped loving the story or the characters and I certainly adore the people who have been keeping up with it all along. But my attention was fractured and everything I am working on was suffering for it. At the beginning of the summer I sent my first completed novel, I’ll Call You Mine, for editing and haven’t touched it since I got notes back. There are three partial stories that I would still like to finish. November is fast approaching and I have yet another project I want to write for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

The inside of my head is a wild and crazy place and is getting a bit crowded.

For the next month I will be editing I’ll Call You Mine and working on only that. The last thing I want to happen is to leave readers hanging or give them boring stories and sub-par writing. This latest chapter gave me a place I could pause for a while without leaving a cliffhanger. I have loved writing about Alexis and Jamie and their crooked path to wedded bliss. At the beginning of the year I hope to continue their story. After all, they have a lot more story to tell.

Thank you so much for following along! I will continue to write and to post character bios, random thoughts, and story snippets.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below and stay tuned!

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 33

Same restaurant, same table, very different nerves. I was waiting for Chris, the same as I had what felt like forever ago. Last time, however, I was nervous with excitement and anticipation. I had been so looking forward to talking to him and getting to know him again.

This particular meeting would be a very different situation.

I wasn’t sure if Chris knew what was coming. I didn’t know how he was going to react. Or how I was going to react, for that matter. Jamie was my future, I was absolutely certain about that, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to break my own heart.

My stomach was in knots and the number of times I contemplated checking the size of the window in the bathroom – just in case – was astronomical. With a snort I realized I hadn’t tried to run away for quite a while. A little personal growth, perhaps?

Yeah, doubtful.

Chris’s pickup pulled in and I seriously thought I was going to throw up. Watching him get out of the truck and stand there, still holding the handle, told me all I needed to know. It seemed he had a pretty good idea why we were here. He stared at his feet, spinning his keys around the middle finger of one hand, gripping the car door like it was his bathroom escape route. After an eternity, he pocketed his keys, scrubbed a hand over his hair and walked into the restaurant.

I stood and tried to smile as he approached. It must have been a frightening expression that was less inviting than it was horror story because his feet stuttered and I thought he was going to turn around. Instead, he grinned at me without the smile reaching his eyes. He pulled me in for a hug and kissed my cheek, exactly the way he had at our first meeting and my stomach dropped. This was going to suck.

“You look great, Lexi,” he said, holding my chair out for me before taking his own seat. He fiddled with his silverware and only glanced up now and then without making any kind of eye contact. “Do you want to actually order food, or just rip the bandage off?”

I grimaced. “Ouch.”

He shrugged and locked eyes with me. “I can’t say I wasn’t expecting this at some point. Even when we were together you weren’t really with me.”

The tears started to well up and I shook my head. “Chris, you don’t deserve this. I am a horrible human being and I am so, so sorry.”

Grabbing my hand across the table, he leaned forward. “I’m not. Not for one second.” He twined his fingers through mine and lifted our hands to kiss my knuckles. “Lexi, this time with you has been amazing. It’s nothing I was looking for, but something I see now that I really needed. Did you know that I hadn’t been on a date in a year before you called me?”

I raised my eyebrows. “I didn’t know that. But it’s got to be hard to meet people, much less go on dates, when you’ve got a kid.”

Before I had even finished my thought, Chris was shaking his head. “It wasn’t that at all. I’m not sure I know what it truly was, but I kind of think it was fear.” Rubbing his thumb over my knuckles, he stared at our joined hands. As though he’d been burned, though, he released my hand and sat back, crossing his arms. It felt terrible, like the closeness between us had been a dream.

“What could you possibly be afraid of that would keep you from dating? I don’t know why the ladies aren’t falling all over themselves to get to you! You’re sweet. You’re funny, and adorable. You’re an amazing father and a devoted and protective friend. What are you afraid of?”

He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “I’m not sure if I can explain it. After since Angie and I split up, I’ve done nothing but work, sleep, and spend time with my son. Period. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. I know all the people in my life and they know everything about me and love me anyway. The idea of getting to know someone again – of putting myself out there to be accepted or rejected – makes me want to barf.”

The waiter appeared out of nowhere and Chris was about to wave him away when I cleared my throat. “Actually, can we get some chips and queso and a couple of menus, please?” Chris raised his eyebrows at me and I grinned. “What? I’m hungry.”

He laughed at me and sat back in his seat, looking relaxed for the first time that night. “Yeah, okay, so am I. I’ve been too nervous all day to eat anything. I knew why you asked me here but I was still hoping I was wrong.”

“Chris…” But he held up a hand and leaned in.

“No, it’s fine. On the drive here I really thought about it. I said I was scared to let anyone else in, to open myself up again. But this time with you…well, it’s given me some faith in myself again.”

“I’m glad to hear that, but I’m not entirely sure what I did.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, chewing his lip. “How do I explain it? I guess that spending time with you made me realize how much I miss having someone in my life who looks at me the way you did. I want to have someone I can be number one for, a best friend and partner in crime. It’s not you, unfortunately, but I know that I’m ready to look for her. So I suppose I should be thanking you.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You mean you’re not mad?”

“Why would I be mad?”

“For dragging you into my psychotic break? For leading you to believe that we had a future?” I could feel the tears threatening again. “Don’t you think I was unfair to you, maybe even using you?”

“Were you?”

“No! I don’t know, maybe.” I sniffled and stared at my hands in my lap.

“Can you use the willing? No one got hurt here.” He leaned forward and lifted my chin. “Besides, Lexi, I was happy to be your tool.”

We burst into laughter and when our eyes met, I knew we would be okay.

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