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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.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 32

My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing as I approached Kelly’s door. I had been a terrible friend. Jamie was right; I’d been so self-absorbed that I didn’t know anything about what was going on in Kelly’s life, even as she was working behind the scenes to help fix mine. Throw in the fact that I’d jumped to the conclusion that she was sleeping with Jamie and there was no mistaking it: I was the worst.

Before I could knock on the door it flew open and I was nearly knocked down by Jamie’s brother, Chad.

“Alexis!” He grabbed my shoulders to steady me, his eyes wide and his mouth open. Once we had both recovered from the shock, he pulled me in for a quick hug. “It’s good to see you. I, uh, better get going so you two can talk.”

He skipped down the stairs, calling over his shoulder, “Go on in. Kel’s in the kitchen.”

Feeling like I was headed to my executioner, I trudged into the house, closing the door behind me. When I reached the kitchen, Kelly was leaning against the counter, a mug of coffee in her hands and another sitting next to her. She looked up when I came in and flashed me a big smile.

“Hey,” I said as I fidgeted in the doorway. It was kind of hard for me to look her in the eye. I didn’t think she knew what I had thought about her and Jamie, but I did and that was bad enough.

She set her mug on the counter and flew across the floor to me, hugging me tight. “Lex! It’s so good to see you! I missed you.”

Returning her hug, I knew without a doubt that I didn’t deserve her. “I missed you, too, Kel. And I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” She let go of me and brought me the other cup of coffee, indicating for me to take a stool at the counter. “I can’t think of anything for you to be sorry about.”

I sipped my coffee and watched her. She was smiling, she seemed genuinely happy to see me, but there was something…else. Something hidden just below the surface. Her smile was a little too big, the lilt in her voice a little too peppy. I felt like I was talking to a Stepford Wife.

“Come on, Kelly, I know that’s not true. I’ve been a rotten friend. I haven’t been around. I didn’t even know about you and Chad until Jamie told me – today! Trust me, there’s plenty for you to be mad about.”

Her smile faltered a bit, but she shrugged and waved me off. “Don’t be silly. Why would you know about Chad when I didn’t tell you about him? I’m the one who should be apologizing.”

Yeah, this was all wrong. I didn’t know who this was in front of me, but it sure wasn’t my best friend. Kelly had never been one to be too accommodating. If she thought you were being an asshole she’d tell you she thought you were being an asshole. The way she was taking the blame for this was making my skin crawl. I set the mug down harder than I intended and stared at her.

“What the hell, Kelly? Knock it off. I know you’re pissed at me – hell, I’m pissed at me! But we can’t get past this is you won’t talk to me.”

She held my gaze for another minute, keeping very still, then her shoulders slumped and the pleasant expression dropped from her face. “You’re right. I’m pissed. I’m pissed at you, at Jamie, at Chris – hell at this whole screwed up mess!”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching across the counter to grab her hand. But Kelly yanked her hand out of reach and jumped up from the stool.

Rubbing her hands over her face, she started pacing the white tile of the kitchen. “I have seen you do some stupid things, Lex. You are my best friend and I love you, but this latest bullshit has really been a challenge for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I have tried really hard to be supportive and understanding and to just let you figure your shit out on your own. But Jesus Christ, Alexis! You are being a complete and utter moron!” Kelly stopped suddenly and covered her face with her hands.

The tears started to build and I blinked fast to try to keep them away. “Kelly, I-“

She turned and pointed a finger at me, scowling. “No. Lex, no. I am talking right now. Just-just let me say what I need to say.”

Clamping my lips shut and folding my hands in my lap, I nodded and waited. She deflated a bit and sighed.

“Sorry. That was uncalled for. But please, let me explain why I think you’re a moron.” Our eyes locked and we both tried to suppress a smirk. Kelly snorted and sat down across from me again. “Okay. I’ve gone over this conversation in my head a million times and, now that I have the chance to let you have it, I can’t think of a single word of what I wanted to say.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Kelly took my hand and started fiddling with the engagement ring I still wore every day. “Jamie is amazing. Can we agree on that?” When I nodded, she continued. “Lex, everyone – and I mean everyone – dreams about finding the perfect partner. Someone who knows all their flaws and neuroses and doesn’t love that person in spite of them, but because of them. You and I both know that is Jamie, inside and out.”

Chuckling, she shrugged. “I mean, he’s not my type, of course. He’s far too sweet and I need a little spice and fire, ya know? With Chad, it’s like he knows exactly how to get me mad and push me just far enough to make things hot, and then-”

She stopped abruptly, her cheeks red. “Sorry. Different conversation. But seriously…it’s like Jamie was custom-made for you. He’s kind and patient. Jamie is funny and smart and just dorky enough to be adorable.”

We both laughed at that. He was a movie nerd and was part of a few fandoms. I had been dragged along to a few ComiCons and, even if they hadn’t been a blast for me, too, his enthusiasm alone would have made it fun.

She cocked her head and frowned. “What are you doing, Lex? I don’t understand what would have ever made you think this marriage wouldn’t last. If anyone in the entire world had ‘happily-ever-after’ written all over them, it’s you and Jamie. This trip down Memory Lane is pointless. Your future is not with Brian or any of the other exes. And, I’m sorry, but it is not with Chris, either.”

I pulled my hand out of hers and stared at my lap. My feelings for Chris were so complicated it made my stomach hurt just to think about him. He deserved to be happy and the way I was dragging him around behind me was unfair and, to be honest, cruel.

Kelly seemed to sense that I was still conflicted about Chris and she sucked in a deep breath. “Look. I totally get that Chris is fantastic. He is a great guy, a good dad, seems to still care about you after all this time. But-“ she held up a finger and raised her eyebrows. “But he is your past, kiddo. He can’t be your future.”

Nodding, I couldn’t stop the tears this time. I knew she was right.

She pulled me up off the stool and into a hug. “Chris is a great guy. But you’re trying to recapture something that you used to have, that isn’t right for you. Not anymore. The two of you are very different people now. I’m sure there will always be an affection between you, but it isn’t anything more than that.” She grasped my shoulders and pushed me away to look me in the eye. “Am I wrong?”

“No,” I sniffled. Kelly handed me a box of tissues and squeezed my shoulder.

“Do you still love Jamie?”

I gaped at the question. “Yes! I love him and I miss him and I’ve been such a bitch and a crazy person and I don’t deserve him.”

Shrugging, Kelly sipped her coffee. “You’re not wrong.” But she winked at me over the top of her mug.

Taking my cup out of my hands, she pulled me to my feet and guided me toward the front door. “Look, I’m sure you two have a lot of things to talk about and a lot of amazing make-up sex to get to, so get out of here and un-postpone your damn wedding.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 31

The color drained from Jamie’s face which was not a good sign. He launched out of his seat and started pacing, rubbing his chin, one hand on his hip. I wasn’t hopeful that I was going to like what I was about to hear.

He finally stopped and faced me. “Okay, you’re right. You definitely deserve an explanation.”

“The truth, Jamie. I deserve the truth,” I corrected. “Please don’t try to spare my feelings. I need to know what’s happening between you two, how things started, and what it all means for the future – for our future.”

My stomach was knotted and my throat was tight. Anxiety wrapped itself around me as I imagined all the things he might say: He and Kelly had been sleeping together for years, or he was really in love with her and didn’t know how to call it off, or that it was Kelly and always Kelly that he’d wanted to be with and only had the opportunity once I’d postponed the wedding.

I was ready for anything he had to say.

“Kelly’s dating my brother.”

Except for that.

“What? Chad? Kelly’s dating Chad?” When he nodded, I rubbed my forehead. “How did I not know that?”

He threw his hands in the air. “You’ve been a little self-absorbed recently, Lex. They’ve been seeing each other for a couple months now. I probably see Kelly more often than you do, these days.”

I felt sick. While hearing that Jamie and Kelly were romantically involved would have been painful, knowing that I had failed my best friend was like a knife to the gut. Throw in the fact that I had suspected the two people I loved most were sneaking around behind my back and I would have been happy to be swallowed by the earth at that exact moment.

“With everything that’s been going on in your life, she’s been missing you, just like I have. She and Chad started inviting me over for dinners or along to baseball games or farmers markets.” He raked his fingers through his hair then spread both hands out in front of him. “We felt like we had both lost you and no one but the two of us could understand how we were feeling. She and Chad are crazy about each other but she and I have a connection they never will: you.”

Jamie knelt in front of me and took my hands in his. “Alexis, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be an asshole here. But you haven’t really been present. Kelly has been trying to support you, to be there for you. She doesn’t feel right talking about her relationship with Chad when you’re confused and hurting.”

There was no way I could look at Jamie so I stared at our hands in my lap. When the first tear plopped into my lap, he cupped my cheek and swiped the next one away with his thumb. That small gesture of kindness pushed my guilt over the edge and I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. He tried to wrap his arms around me but I stood and pushed roughly past him.

“How can you try to comfort me? I deserve to feel every ounce of guilt and pain. I’m so ashamed. How could I be so selfish?” I finally looked up at Jamie to find concern lining his face as he watched me. “And you…” I gulped. “I don’t understand how you’re still here, how you haven’t washed your hands of this whole nightmare!”

He frowned and flew across the room to me, grasping my upper arms and pulling me close. “How can you even say that? For being so smart, you really can be stupid sometimes, Alexis!”

Releasing his grip, he pulled me into his arms, the rough stubble of his chin pressed against my cheek. His voice was soft and full of pain when he said, “I am here – and I will always be here – because I love you, Alexis. My world was dark and cold before I met you. I had no direction, no joy in my life before you.”

I clung to him, bunching his shirt in my fists and trying to press myself closer to him. But he pulled back and smoothed my curls from my forehead, framing my face in both hands. A small smile curved his lips.

“I’ve never told you this…I’ve never told anyone this, not even Chad. But I was in a very dark place the night we met. I felt helpless, hopeless, floundering in an ocean of despair and going under quickly.”

My eyes wide, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Oh, Jamie.” He waved me off.

“I hadn’t made a plan, I wasn’t committed to doing anything, but I sure didn’t see any future for myself. Until you. I saw that smile, got a glimpsse of your enormous humor and heart, and for the first time in a long time I saw beauty in the world. That night I met you, at the karaoke bar, was the night my life truly started.”

Searching his face, it was like I was seeing him – really seeing him – for the first time. “I had no idea. Jamie, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugged. “It wasn’t important. That wasn’t me anymore. Everything had changed and I didn’t want my past to be part of our future.”

“I can’t believe what I’ve put you through,” I murmured, pressing my face into his shoulder to hide the fresh wave of shame trying to drown me. “If I had known…”

Extracting himself from my embrace, he held me at arms’ length and cocked his head. “I didn’t tell you that to make you feel bad or obligated. That’s the last thing I want! I’d never want you to be with me because you felt like you had to be.” He dropped his hands and took a step backwards. “Please don’t think I’m going to backslide or fall apart if you decide not to be with me. It will hurt, a lot, but that’s kind of what I’m trying to tell you. The world is a different place to me now. Knowing you, loving you, has shown me there is endless possibility and hope all around us. You saved my life, even if you choose not to be in it anymore.”

Words wouldn’t come to me. I had never heard anything so heartfelt and honest in my life. In the years we’d been together we’d shared nearly everything and I had always felt closer to Jamie than to anyone else. But the raw emotion in his words made me realize there was still so much more to learn, so much I wanted to discover about him and my heart swelled with affection. I stepped closer, reaching for him, wanting to feel his arms around me and to press my lips to his.

He held out his hands and moved out of reach. “Hold on, Lex,” he said. I blinked. “Don’t you think there’s someone else you need to make things right with, first?”

My cheeks flushed and I nodded.

Jamie kissed my forehead and whispered in my ear, “Call me when you’re done.” Then he handed me my phone, the call already ringing into Kelly’s line.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 30

I watched Chris leave, thinking about what he’d said. He really wasn’t pushing me. So why did I feel like I was under pressure?

That was all on me. It was classic Alexis; the weight of the world balanced precariously on every decision I made. Logically, I knew that very little hinged on what job I took, where I went on vacation, what I had for dinner. But somehow my anxiety had convinced me that if I chose poorly the repercussions could be catastrophic.

Being around Chris felt good. He was kind and considerate and probably the sweetest man on the planet. Could I see myself with him? Easily. We would wake up and make breakfast, then spend the time before we had to work drinking coffee and discussing the latest news. On the weekends we could stay in bed and binge tv or get up to wander around the Farmers’ Market, holding hands and meeting up with friends for brunch. Our life together stretched out in front of me, calm, peaceful, and full of love. We could get married and buy a house, get a dog and have a baby. He’d be the best dad.

With a shock, I realized I had forgotten a very important piece of information regarding Chris: He was already a dad!

I frowned. That tidbit brought with it an entire host of things I hadn’t taken into consideration. His ex-wife would always be a part of his life. It’s not that I didn’t like Angie or that I thought she’d try to come between us, but that reminder that he’d loved someone else would always be present. I liked kids. At least, I was sure I would, if I spent any time around them. Chewing my lip, it dawned on me that life with Chris might cause as much anxiety as it quelled.

When I walked into my apartment, Jamie was standing at the window, hands in his pockets and his shoulders down. He didn’t turn when I came in. He didn’t say anything, either.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s time we had a talk.”

He cleared his throat. “I’ve already lost you, haven’t I?”

I froze, guilt settling like a weight in my stomach. “What do you mean? Of course not. But I think we both have questions that deserve answers.”

Jamie nodded, shuffled his foot on the carpet, then crossed the room and sat in the chair he’d been in earlier.

He didn’t look up at me once.

As soon as I was settled across from him, hands clenched in my lap, I tried to order my thoughts. I had no idea what to start with. Should I tell him things I think he wants to know? Ask him my questions? Keep my mouth shut and wait for him to start?

I watched him and it became obvious he wasn’t about to take the initiative. He was slouched forward in the chair, elbows resting on his thighs. Staring at the floor, his hands hung limp between his knees. Everything about him felt dejected and heartbroken. And, once again, it was because of me.

“Are you in love with him, Lex?” he asked the floor.

Was I? That was the million-dollar question. How did I feel about Chris? There was a part of me that wanted to spend all my time with him, to kiss him again, to just lie in his arms. But the rational part of me was able to look at the situation and see it the way he had described our kiss: ‘It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.’

Looking at Jamie in my living room and seeing what my behavior was doing to him broke my heart. I wanted to gather him to me and kiss him, soothe him, and take away all the hurt.

“I—I don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m so confused. I don’t know if these are real feelings or something left over from high school or just a reaction to the way he thinks he feels about me.”

Jamie sat up and finally met my gaze. His lips curved into the ghost of a smile, but his eyes were still filled with pain. “That’s better news than I was expecting,” he said. “Watching how comfortable you two are with each other, I was sure this was the end for me.” His face darkened and he turned away. “But the fact that you kissed him is going to hang over us for a long time.”

“I know.” I stared at my hands as I picked at my nails. Oh, I was aware that I had hurt him in a moment of stupidity and the guilt weighed heavily on me. “It sounds like a broken record, but I never meant for that to happen. It was nothing but a moment of weakness.”

I was going to say more, try to apologize again, to get him to understand what I had been feeling in that moment with Chris. But as I looked at Jamie’s sad, distraught face, something occurred to me.

“Wait a minute. I’ve already explained this, I’ve already apologized. It’s your turn to start talking.”

His brow furrowed, he cocked his head and asked, “What do you mean? About what?”

I crossed my arms and narrowed my eyes, giving him the best glare I could muster as I uttered one word.

Kelly.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 29

I placed a hand on Chris’s chest to hold him at the door and then turned so I could also see Jamie in the living room behind me.

How had my life gotten so complicated?

“Now, hold on a second,” I began. Before I could launch into a speech about all of us being adults and how we should take a deep breath and just talk, both Jamie and Chris pointed an accusing finger at each other.

“What’s HE doing here?” they both shouted.

I pushed Chris out into the hallway. “You: go outside! We need to talk.” He tried to protest, but the look on my face must have promised danger because he went without another word.

I spun around and pointed at a smug-looking Jamie. “And you,” I snarled. “Are not off the hook. I expect you to be exactly in that spot when I get back!”

At least he had the common sense to look ashamed of himself as I left, slamming the door behind me. I stomped outside to deal with the first crisis.

Chris was pacing on the sidewalk, chewing his lip with his hands deep in his pockets. He seemed to relax as soon as he saw me and stepped up wearing an enormous smile. “Lexi!”

“What are you doing here, Chris?”

He frowned for a second. “I told you – I was worried. You sounded like you might be in trouble.” Dipping his head to get a better look at my face, he asked, “Are you in trouble?”

Suddenly all my anger drained away and I was exhausted. “No. Maybe. I don’t know, Chris.” I sighed and closed my eyes, trying to regain control of my whirling emotions.

“Are you and Jamie fighting?”

I nodded.

“Is it bad?”

I shrugged. “It’s all gotten completely out of hand. None of this was supposed to happen!” Running my hands through my hair, I paced along the sidewalk. “I mean, I know I cheated first, but god, this is all wrong!”

Chris grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him. “Whoa, whoa. There are a couple things I need you to clarify in that last sentence. You cheated on Jamie? When? And with who?”

I gaped at him. “Chris, it was with you. We kissed? You were there.”

He rolled his eyes and laughed. “Oh my god, I thought you actually slept with someone.”

“It shouldn’t have happened.” I felt the tears coming and closed my eyes again to keep them at bay. “If it wasn’t cheating, then what was it?”

“Lexi, it was a moment, that’s all.” Cupping my cheek, Chris wiped an escaped tear with his thumb. “It was a moment of powerful emotions. Of nostalgia and confusion, loneliness and affection. It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.”

I rolled my eyes and groaned. “Stop doing that!”

“Doing what?”

“Saying the right thing! Saying the exactly perfect thing that I need to hear that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside! I need you to be an asshole and you are failing abysmally.”

Laughing, Chris opened his arms. I only hesitated a second before wrapping my arms around his waist and laying my cheek on his chest. He rubbed my back and kissed the top of my head and it was nicer than I wanted to admit.

Maybe I could just stay out here for the rest of the day – or forever – letting Chris take care of me while he said sweet things to me. Jamie could have my apartment if I didn’t have to go back in there and face him.

His hand stopped moving and he froze.

“What?” I asked.

Holding me at arm’s length, his eyes narrowed, he said, “Hold on. You said you cheated ‘first’. For you to be first there had to be someone second. What did he do, Lexi?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” I backed out of Chris’s reach. “I’m not sure if he did anything, we didn’t have a chance to get into it before you showed up. But…” I bit my lip and stared at my feet.

“That bastard,” he snarled. “Who is she? That tramp he brought to the art show?”

Without looking up, I shook my head. How could I explain my suspicions to him when I couldn’t wrap my own head around it? Gravity seemed to be pulling my tears from my eyes against my will. Chris saw the first one plop on the ground, and I could hear him grumbling under his breath.

“Alexis, was it someone you know?”

I nodded and swiped at my eyes. “I­…I think it was Kelly.”

“WHAT?!”

Chris yelled so loud he rousted some birds from a tree near the parking lot and definitely got my attention. His hands clenched and unclenched, his face turning red.

“He’s lying,” he said. “There’s no way Kelly would do that to you. He’s trying to make you feel bad – feel worse than you already do – by saying you drove him to cheat because he thinks YOU cheated! What a rat.”

Standing with my arms limp at my sides, I waited for Chris to stop his tirade. I didn’t have the energy to argue with him. Hell, I didn’t think I had the energy to go back upstairs and deal with Jamie, either. My eyes followed the path of the sidewalk, wondering where it would take me, how far away it went, and if I could outrun Chris if I got a jump on him.

He noticed that I wasn’t seething with him, and he slowed his frantic pacing until he was directly in front of me.

“Lexi? Are you okay?” He stroked my arm and took my hand, stepping close and lacing his fingers with mine. “I’m an asshole. You’ve got so much on your shoulders you don’t need me freaking out, too. I shouldn’t have yelled. Sorry.”

I wanted to be mad. I wanted to shove him or punch him in the stomach or yell at him. But I looked up at his sweet eyes and his sad smile and I just couldn’t. Instead, I kissed his cheek and grinned.

“You’re pretty wonderful, you know that? But Chris, this,” I held up our joined hands. “This has to stop.” My heart broke at the expression on his face as he disentangled our hands. His shoulders hunched and he stared at his shuffling feet, burying his fists deep in his pockets. “For now. I need it to slow down for now, while I figure out what the hell I’m doing. And what I want.”

He nodded. “You know I don’t want to push you. I want you to be happy, whatever that looks like. Even if it’s not with me.”

Before I could say anything else, he turned with a small wave and walked away.

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