Main 99 Percent Mine: A Novel
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This is just awesome????????????????????
09 August 2020 (03:08)
SOOOOOOO GOOD. JUST DOWNLOAD IT ALREADY!
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Soooo entertaining!!! I loved it!!
03 January 2021 (15:22)
Sally Thorne, you are a genius
12 April 2021 (00:13)
Dedication For Roland, the Flamethrowers, and me Contents Cover Title Page Dedication Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Acknowledgments P.S. Insights, Interviews & More . . .* About the Author About the Book Read On Praise Also by Sally Thorne Copyright About the Publisher Chapter 1 Nobody taught me this when I first started as a bartender, but luckily, I was a quick learner: When a group of men are walking in, you should work out which one is the alpha. If you can handle him, you might get a bit of respect from the rest. Tonight, I can pick him straightaway. He’s the tallest and best-looking, with a you’re welcome gleam in his eye. How predictable. He and his friends have spilled out of a local frat party, bored and wanting adventure. They’re all wearing pastel polo shirts. Well, buckle up, buttercups. If you play your cards right, things could get downright exhilarating. Devil’s End Bar is not for the faint of heart. I see some of the bikers exchange amused looks over the pool tables. By the door, our security guy is sitting up straighter. Weird how we have the most trouble when this type of boy walks in. I don’t smile at the alpha. “Are you lost, kids?” “Hey there, mister,” he responds—a jab at my short haircut—and his friends laugh and intone, “Ohhhh shit.” My name is Darcy and he’s unknowingly made a Jane Austen joke. I doubt he’d get it. The laugh fades out of him a little as I narrow my eyes and stare harder. Alpha Boy remembers I have full control of the alcohol. “But seriously, it looks hot on you.” My colleague Holly is backing away. She’s too new at this, and she’s feeling their eyes. “I’m just going to get more . . . register rolls.” She vanishes out back in a puff of gardenia body spray. I’m still holding my hard stare with the alpha and I get a ping ; of triumph in my gut when he looks away first. I’m the alpha now. “We must go to the same barber, because you’re looking real pretty, too. Now, order something or get out.” The boss boy is not used to this from a woman and to his surprise he likes it. He chews gum in an openmouthed way, his avid eyes on my face. “What time do you get off work?” I imagine a Ken doll left out in the sun too long, and I step on that soft tan head like it’s a cigarette. “Not for a million years.” He’s visibly miffed. After all, being good-looking is his life’s backstage pass. Shouldn’t it work on me? Am I broken? The light hits his face in a shadowless beige pan of color, and he’s nothing that could interest me. I’m a face snob. It’s all about the shadows. “What do you want?” I’m already gathering shot glasses. “Sambuca shots,” one guy shouts. Naturally. The elixir of morons. I pour a row and take payments, and the tip jar gets fuller. They love being treated like dirt. These boys want the full biker-bar safari experience, and I am their tour guide. Their leader continues to flirt with me, determined to wear me down, but I walk away midsentence. It’s Sunday night, but the people in here aren’t worried about being rested for work tomorrow. My grandmother Loretta said once that if you know how to pour a drink into a glass, you can get a job anywhere. She was a bartender in her twenties, too. It was good advice; I’ve poured drinks into glasses all over the world, and I’ve dealt with every possible variant of alpha male. I wonder what Loretta would say if she could see me now, pouring this beer with an insult preloaded on my tongue. She’d laugh and clap and say, We could have been twins, Darcy Barrett, because she was always saying that. There was a slideshow of photographs at her funeral, and I could feel the sideways glances at me. Twins. No kidding. Now I’m sleeping in her bedroom and finishing off her canned goods. If I start carrying crystals in my purse and reading tarot cards, I will officially be her reincarnation. Holly must be picking up those register rolls from the factory. One of the leather-jacket bikers has been waiting too long, and he’s looking sideways at the Pastels. I nod to him and hold up my finger—One minute. He grizzles and huffs but decides against causing grievous bodily harm. “Are those leather pants?” A Pastel boy leans over the bar, looking at my lower half. “You’re like Bad Sandy from Grease.” His eyes focus on the fake name tag I’ve pinned above my boob. “Joan.” His skeptical eyes slide lower. I guess I don’t look like a Joan. “I’m obviously Rizzo, you idiot. And if you don’t quit leaning over like that looking at my tits, Keith is gonna come over. That’s him, by the door. He’s six foot ten and he’s bored.” I twinkle my fingers in a wave to Keith and he copies the wave back from his stool. “He’s bored, I’m bored, and the Leather Jackets are very, very bored.” I move along the bar, handing out glasses, taking payment, bumping the till drawer closed with my hip over and over. “Joan’s right. We’re very bored,” one of the younger bikers says in a droll tone. He’s been leaning against the bar, watching the exchange with interest. The Pastels all flinch and stare at their phones. The biker and I grin at each other and I slide over a beer on the house. I’m sick of their huddling. “Sambuca will shrink your nuts. Oh wait, too late. Now, go fuck off.” They do. Holly’s big eyes peep around the door when the dust has settled. There is nothing in her hands. She’s all legs and elbows, and she was hired by our boss, Anthony, without being asked a single interview question. Faces like hers are very hireable. She can’t count change, pour drinks, or deal with men. “I’m always so relieved when I see we’re rostered on together.” Holly sits on the bench and exhales long and loud, like she’s been working hard. Her name tag says “HOLLY” and she added a pink glitter heart sticker. “I feel safer whenever I’m with you. I bet you’re even looking out for Keith.” “That’s true, I am.” I catch Keith’s eye and he tips his chin up in acknowledgment, leaning back against the wall on his stool. Another bartender tip? Make friends with security. I get these guys drunk, and Keith keeps the lid on this place. It occurs to me that I should be giving Holly these pearls of wisdom. But I don’t want her sticking with this job longer than necessary. “When I quit, you’re going to have to get tougher.” Holly purses her lips. “How much longer are you here?” “The renovation on my grandma’s place starts in two months, unless it gets pushed back again. And then I am outta here.” Holly’s glitter sticker stresses me out. “I’d never put my real name on my chest in this place.” She tips her head to the side. She’d be a great bridal model, in a full white cupcake gown and tiara. “I never thought of making a fake one. Who could I be?” If my old pal the label maker has any clear sticky roll left inside it, it’ll be a stone-cold miracle. Anthony’s care factor about employee turnover is summed up by this bulk pack of name tags. There are about a hundred more to go before he needs to give it any thought. “You’d be a great Doris.” Holly’s nose wrinkles. “That’s so old-lady.” “You want a sexy fake name? Come on, Hol.” I crank out a label and assemble the tag. When I give it to her, she’s silent for a while. “You think I’m a Bertha?” “Definitely.” I serve a few more customers. “I’m more of a Gwendolyn. Or a Violet?” Dutifully, she pins it on anyway. I make her hand over her old tag and I throw it in the trash. Maybe I can relax a fraction on my shifts if she continues this trajectory. “One day you’ll be Dr. Bertha Sinclair, counseling depressed parrots, and tucked up in bed every single night at nine P.M.” I sound like an overprotective sister so I tack on, “Or you might be a vet in the South American jungle, helping the macaws learn to love again.” She tucks her hands in her tight pockets and grins. “We honestly do more than parrots at vet school. I keep telling you.” “Hey, babe,” a guy says to Holly. Bad boys love good girls. “If you say so,” I say to her. To him, I say, “Fuck off.” She keeps playing our game. “I bet that when I’m performing a diagnostic laparoscopy on an old tabby, you’ll be in the South American jungle, with your big backpack on, hacking through the vines.” She makes a chopping motion. “I’ve actually done that in the Andes,” I admit, trying to not sound like I’m boasting. Nothing worse than a smug world traveler. “Boy, I could use a bush machete right about now.” I look across the room at our clientele. “I looked through your Instagram a bit. I lost count of how many countries you’ve been to.” “I misplaced my passport, otherwise I could count the stamps for you.” I begin gathering up dirty glasses. I mentally scan the floor plan of the cottage again. Loretta’s ghost is possibly messing with me. Either that, or my brother, Jamie, hid it. Just the thought of Holly’s pretty eyes looking at my old life is giving me the privacy prickles. Imagine my exes scrolling through it. Curious one-night stands. Old photography clients. Or worse, Jamie. I need to make that account private. Or delete it. “And there were photos of you and your brother. I can’t believe how much you guys look alike. He’s so good-looking. He could be a model.” Those last bits were said in an involuntary blurt. I’ve heard it many times before. “He tried it once. He didn’t like being told what to do. Anyway, thanks. That’s a compliment for me, too,” I say, but she doesn’t get it. Jamie and I look alike because we’re twins. There’s a twin ranking, and we’re at the bottom. A boy and a girl. We can’t even dress the same and swap places. Fraternal, what a yawn. But if we reveal our twin status, we are fascinating to some people. They always ask, who was born first? Can we hear each other’s thoughts? Feel each other’s pain? I pinch myself hard on the leg. I hope he’s yelping in a fancy downtown bar, spilling his drink. If he’s handsome, I should be good-looking in theory too, but I’ve been called Jamie in a wig in school too many times to believe it. If you lined us up side by side, with my face washed clean, I’d be mistaken for his little brother. I know this because it’s happened. “Where will you go to first?” Holly is definitely the kind of girl who would wear a beret on a cobblestone street. A baguette in her bicycle’s basket. “I’m going to bury all of my name tags in a Japanese death forest called Aokigahara. Only then will my soul be free of Devil’s End Bar.” “So, not Paris,” she says, toeing a mark on the floor with her white sneaker, and I nearly laugh at how right I was. I lean a mop against her leg but she just holds it in both hands, resting the pole against her cheek, like someone in a musical about to break into song. “Why do you travel so much?” “I’ve been told I have impulse control problems.” I pull a face. She’s still thinking about what she’s snooped. “You were a wedding photographer. How?” She looks me up and down. “It’s pretty easy. You find the lady wearing a white dress and go like this.” I hold up an invisible camera and press my finger down. “No, I mean, weren’t you always traveling?” “I worked the wedding season and lived here with my grandma. I traveled the rest of the year.” Shoestring budget would be an understatement, but I maintained this arrangement for six years. “I work in bars when I need cash. I do some travel photography, but it doesn’t sell too well.” “Well, no offense—” “This is usually the part where someone says something offensive,” I cut in, and am saved by one of the old biker guys, blue tattoos bruising his forearms and a brown stain in his beard. He’s the physical embodiment of repugnant, but he says nothing as I pour his drink, so I smile at him as a reward. He looks disturbed. When he’s gone I go to the bathroom and politely smile at myself in the mirror. I look like I haven’t tried that in a while. My reflection looks like Shark Week. Holly is good at pressing pause on her thoughts. I mess around with my hair, put on more eyeliner, wash my hands for ages, and still when I return she continues seamlessly, “But you don’t seem to fit into the wedding scene.” “Why ever not, Bertha?” I’ve gotten this comment from countless drunk dudes at wedding receptions, jostling around by my elbow while I’m trying to get the first-dance shots. Holly says, “Weddings are romantic. And you aren’t romantic.” “I don’t have to be romantic, I just have to know what the client thinks is romantic.” I shouldn’t be offended, but I kick a cardboard box straight under the counter and glare out at the unwashed masses. There’s a couple making out right now on the back wall by the bathrooms. The humping swivel of his hips makes me want to barf. But every now and then, when they come up for air and their lips break apart? His hand is in her hair and they look at each other. That’s when I’d click. I could make even those assholes look beautiful. Then I’d turn on the fire hose and spray them out of here. “So, no romance with that guy Vince?” Holly asks like she already knows the answer. When she first saw him slinking in here, she said, He’s not a nice boy, Darcy. I replied, He has a tongue stud, so part of him is pretty nice. She was open-mouth speechless. I review the stock levels in the fridge closest to me. “I’ve got a sonnet in my back pocket. When I see him next, I’ll read it to him.” “But you’re not in love.” I laugh in response to that. I’ve given up on feeling anything with a man. “He’s a way to kill time. I’ve been here a lot longer than I was planning to.” Please don’t ask the follow-up question, Have you ever been in love? “Hmm, okay, I guess I’m unromantic.” “Why’d you quit weddings?” That word quit is a sore point, and Holly sees it in my eyes. She looks down and fiddles with her Bertha tag. “Sorry. Your website said you’re closed for bookings indefinitely. And you do product photography now. What’s that?” “Why don’t you google it, Bertha?” I try to make it a joke but I’m angry. Why does she constantly try to be friends like this? Doesn’t she get I’m leaving? I am deleting that entire website. “You never tell me anything properly,” she protests in a weak voice. “You’re never serious.” Her beautiful face is all pink and smushed up with concern. I go to the far end of the bar and turn my back on her. I take down the beer glass containing my name tags. I’m sick of being Joan. I decide to be Lorraine for the rest of the shift. I’m sick of being Darcy. “I’m sorry,” Holly says again in a small voice. I shrug and drag around bottles of vodka in the end fridge. “It’s okay. I’m just . . .” Trapped, without a passport or a booked plane ticket. Living my nightmare. “A bitch. Don’t mind me.” Out of the corner of my eye I see the light catching in a bottle of whiskey, giving it a gold glint. I feel a twinge low down in my stomach and I exhale until I have nothing left inside. I’ve had a chronic case of the heavy sad sighs lately, especially when I think about weddings. Which I refuse to do. I ran my own business for years, and I feel like I have X-ray vision for things that are going to become a major problem. Holly still hasn’t been given any payroll forms. Stock levels are alarmingly low. Maybe alcohol is not Anthony’s main source of income. I go to the back office and write on a Post-it: Anthony—do you want me to do a stock order? —D For a tough bitch, I’ve got embarrassingly girly handwriting. I sure don’t see the guys on the daytime shift writing conscientious notes for the boss. I scrunch it up. When I come back out and begin to count cash in the till, Holly tries again, rewinding to the part before she blew it. “I don’t think Vince is the guy for you, anyway. I think you need one of them.” She means the Leather Jackets. I keep counting cash. Five hundred, five fifty. That’s interesting, coming from her. She’s petrified of them. If a glass breaks, it’s me trudging out with a dustpan and broom. “Why do you think that?” Holly shrugs. “You need someone even tougher than you. What about him? He looks at you all the time, and he always makes sure you serve him.” I can’t be bothered even looking up from the register to see which one she means. Six hundred, six fifty. “I’d rather die alone than end up with one of these assholes.” The same young Leather Jacket who helped me scare the college boys is weaving back to us. Free beer obviously goes down easy. “Thirsty boy tonight,” I say, and pour his usual whiskey this time. “Very,” he says in a way that sounds sexual, but when I look at his face, he’s serene. “Bored and thirsty, that is.” “Well, that’s why you’re here. Now, if you’re gonna beat up those kids later, do it in the parking lot, please.” His crystal-blue eyes flick to my name tag. “No problem. See you around, Lorraine.” He pays, tips me, and walks away. “That’s the one that loves you,” Holly says, far too loud. Chapter 2 His boot misses a step and a splat of whiskey hits the ground. Gamely, he recovers and walks off, looking rattled. I hiss at her, “Shuddup.” I’ve never even registered his existence properly, but he reveals himself to be tall, handsome, tattooed. Muscles, butt, boots. Tick, tick, tick. Decent bone structure, too. I picture myself trying to talk to him. Touch him. Know him. Then I think of him trying to do the same to me. Maybe he could drive me to the airport. “Pass.” I give her a mind-your-own-business look and she receives it, loud and clear. We avoid each other politely for probably close to an hour; she serves drinks, each transaction like a novelty for her, blinking at the register in earnest. I dread to think whether the final tally will balance. I lug a new keg out of the storeroom and a familiar chest-rattle begins. I should know better, but every time is a surprise, because I’m a moron. You’d think that a lifelong heart arrythmia would be something I am used to, but every time: Gosh, that thing again. It’s the tripwire that I forget about the instant I’m past it, and despite my being an otherwise healthy twenty-six-year-old, I have to sit in Anthony’s chair, my vision pixelating and my heart palpitating. “You okay?” Holly calls, her face peeping around the corner. “Girls aren’t supposed to get the kegs.” “Twinged it a little,” I lie outright, indicating my back. “Go out front.” “Shoulda gotten Keith,” she says mutinously, and I point my finger until she leaves. Meanwhile, my heart is running up a skyscraper’s fire stairs, and it’s got a little wooden leg. Step-pause—hop-scramble. Up and up, no handrail, don’t panic, don’t fall backward into black. I’ve just got to endure the blip until it passes. But this time, I’m breathing like I’m taking the stairs, too. I can almost feel Jamie’s angry alarm fogging around me in these moments; he’d be using his strength of will to make my heart beat right. Jamie caused my heart condition. He unplugged my umbilical cord to take a leisurely swig, smirking, watching me turn blue before giving it back. My cardiologist told me that was impossible, but I’m still convinced. That’s very on-brand for Jamie. Apparently, I was lined up to be the firstborn, but at the last second, Jamison George Barrett swooped around and beat me to it. He belted out of Mom first, rosy and strapping, screaming Touchdown! He was in the upper percentile for everything. I came out jaundiced and was kept in one of those newborn pressure cookers for a week with a heart monitor. Jamie’s been outpacing me ever since, scoring endless touchdowns in classes and offices and bars, mirrored surfaces, and probably beds. Ugh, gross. Maybe the reason I can deal with the guys in the bar is because I was dealing with an alpha male in the womb. It was raining today in Jamie’s new city. I can picture him walking down the pavement to his dream job as an associate at an investment bank. I don’t know what he does except I imagine it involves swimming in a vault of gold coins. He’d be in his Burberry trench coat, black umbrella in one hand and phone in the other, Blah, blah, blah. Money, money, money. What would he say right now, if he were speaking to me again? Breathe, you’re going gray. Distracting myself with thoughts of Jamie always seems to work. I can focus my irritation on him rather than my faulty engine. My tormentor is also my anchor. Darce, you gotta do something about this heart. I pay exorbitant health insurance premiums, on account of my dud heart, and my earnings from this place only just cover it each month. When I think about it, it adds an extra layer of depressing to this job. My heartbeat is now back to its sad version of normal, but until Jamie speaks to me again after my epic fuckup, I’m attempting the impossible: being twinless. I contemplate sending him a casually abusive text, but then I remember I can’t, even if I want to. I’m attempting a second impossible thing in this day and age: being phoneless. I was out with Vince two weekends ago at Sully’s Bar and I dropped my phone in the toilet. As it sank to the bottom, the screen lit up with an incoming call and a picture of my brother’s smug face. How typical; the first time he’d tried to contact me in months, and he was forty fathoms deep in pee water. The phone went black, and I washed my hands and walked out. My parents would kill me if they knew I had no phone. They would kill me if they knew I don’t wear a bathrobe around the cottage on cold nights. Your heart! Smother, smother! I have a worse feeling that no one will even notice I’m uncontactable. Ever since I fucked things up and Jamie left, my phone had stopped ringing. He’s the bright sparkling one everyone gravitates to. I hear a smash out front and a few guys echo oooh. Men are electrified by breaking glass. I hear the fortifying inward breath I take. I’ve done this on and off for years, but still, I wouldn’t describe this part as getting any easier. “What’s up?” I clomp out in my boots and a row of guys are smirking. Holly is trying to stack pieces of broken glass and her face is red. There’s beer everywhere and the front hem of her T-shirt is soaked. I’ve never seen a girl more in need of rescuing. “Dumb bitch can’t even pour a beer.” The alpha of this group is a mean-lipped construction type. “Lucky she’s hot. Unlike this one.” He means me. I shrug. “It’s okay,” I tell Holly. She nods without a word and disappears out back. Is this the shift that’s going to break her? This guy won’t just pay and leave. He’s looking for stimulation. I argue on autopilot and the details are boring. I’d be better-looking if I didn’t have such short hair. I’d be so good-looking if I tried harder. I kinda look like a guy wearing makeup. Okay, that one stung a little. I’m a real tough bitch, aren’t I? Every comment or insult is something I can easily bat away, and I’m counting out five double whiskeys when he goes too far. “Who do you think you are, anyway? Someone special?” His voice cuts through the fog and I jerk my eyes back to his face. There’s a sensation inside me: a big split, like I’ve just been axed in half like a dry log. I cannot come up with any response to this. He sees he’s hit the mark and smiles. I’ve been abused so much worse than that, in so many languages, but tonight it feels like the worst thing anyone’s ever said to me. Actually, it is. It’s the same thing my brother said to me before he left. “This one,” I tell Keith, like I’m choosing a goldfish, and he muscles him out by the scruff. The rest of the group mutter and curse. Anger is a blowtorch-bright inside me. “All you have to do is order, pay, and tip. Don’t talk. Just do those three things and get out of my face.” Holly returns and gets down on her knees beside me, scraping glass into a dustpan. “Ouch!” Now she has a thin line of blood running down her shin, into her white sock and shoe. “Show it to me,” I manage to say without sighing. As I dig through the first-aid kit, I think of where I can rehome her. “Can you do any basic sewing? My friend Truly might need an assistant soon. You could probably do it from home.” “I made the quilt on my bed. It’s just straight lines though, it wasn’t hard. I could do it if it was simple.” She wipes away her melted mascara and looks around herself like she’s realizing what I’ve known all along: This place is a mistake for her. I patch her up, split our tips, and send her home early. “If you don’t want to come back, just text Anthony.” She tearfully nods. She is the nicest girl, but for her sake I hope she quits. She might end up like me. It’s almost ten P.M. The bar doesn’t close until four A.M., so the real bad bitches who do the graveyard shift arrive. They’re what I’ll become. I put my tips in my purse and we spend a few minutes talking over which douchebags in here to keep an eye on. “Bye,” I tell Keith as I walk past his stool near the door, but he’s already hauling himself to his feet. “You know the rules.” “The rules here are bullshit.” “That’s life,” he replies with a shrug. “Who walks you to your car?” I watch him mull that over. “You probably would.” He smiles at that realization. “If you ever want extra cash, I could probably hook you up with some security work. You’d be a natural.” “I probably would be, but no.” I push through the front door, resigned to the fact that he’ll be behind me. I step out into a haze of cigarettes and exhaust fumes. “Seriously, you don’t know how much I hate you babying me.” “I’ve got a fair idea,” Keith responds dryly. When I look back, he’s scanning the parking lot with practiced eyes. Something happened a long time back to a girl who worked here, long before my time, and the side alley feels tainted with an awful, shivery wrongness. I give up and start walking. “Come on, guard dog, time for your walkies.” Keith’s insanely long legs easily keep up with my irritated marching through the little groups of guys standing around near their bikes. Someone says, “Wait around a minute, babe.” “I can’t tonight,” Keith replies in a girly voice, causing them all to crack up. “Are you okay, Darcy? You seem a little fragile.” I shouldn’t underestimate how perceptive he can be. He watches people for a living. “Ha, me? I’m fine. Thanks for before. Must be the best part of your job, watching them bounce across the concrete.” I dig in my bag. I don’t need a key clenched in my fist with a shadow this big. “Not quite.” Keith leans an elbow on the roof of my car. He’s Sasquatch in size, on the handsome side of plain, and he has a gold ring. “By the way, I still owe you that twenty bucks from the other night. I wanted to say that I appreciated it . . . and thanks for listening.” I feel bad now, because I wasn’t listening at all. I checked the roster like a compulsive brownnoser, circling the fuckups and gaps, while Keith sat on a bar stool telling a story about his wife, mother-in-law, and a misplaced wallet. Something about sickness and working all the time. Some sighs and a drink coaster torn into tiny shreds. As doleful and sweet as he is, twenty bucks was a bargain price to end that conversation. “Don’t worry about it.” I always get a proud swell in my chest when I’m generous. I wait, but Keith just keeps leaning. “Seriously, I don’t care about twenty bucks. You can buy me a drink to celebrate when I finally get out of this place. I’d better go. Wine doesn’t drink itself.” “Could drink it in there,” he points out. “It’s a bar, you know.” I make a face. “Like I’m going to breathe the same air as those dudes for longer than necessary.” “I’ll get you a stool next to me,” he offers, but I shake my head. “I do my best drinking at home on the couch. With no pants. And the Smiths getting me all nice and depressed.” That was a bit too honest. I put my hand on my car door, but he just blows out a deep breath. He’s stalling for some reason. I’m beginning to think he’s working his way up to a bigger loan. “God, what is it? Spit it out.” He squints up at the stars. “So, some night, huh?” I put my hand on my hip. “Keith, you’re being really weird. Please stop crushing my car.” “You feel it, right?” He looks down at me in a strange way. Sort of like he needs to sneeze. “A stampede of dinosaurs?” I don’t make him smile. He just keeps looking at me and he won’t let me leave. “What? What am I supposed to be feeling?” “Me and you. This.” He points between us. Shock plus surprise equals anger. “Keith, what the hell.” “You look at me a lot.” “Because you’re the bulletproof vest we keep on the stool by the door. No, don’t even try.” I snatch my arm back when he reaches for it. “I bet your wife would be real impressed with you.” Unfaithfulness is the most abhorrent thing I can think of, because it’s the opposite of weddings—and that’s what I’ve marinated myself in for years. Someone promises to love you forever, and then you go staring at girls at work? “Fuck you, Keith, seriously.” He slumps, hand on the back of his neck, the picture of misery. “She’s barely got any time for me since her mom got sick. I feel like you and I have a connection, you know?” “Because we were friends. Were.” I wrench open my car door and feel a spike of fear when his hand wraps my wrist, holding me in place. I pull and he gets tighter. I get angrier and pull harder. My wrist is burning worse than when Jamie twisted it on purpose when we were kids. But I want it to hurt. Better than standing still. “If you would just listen—” Keith tries, but my skin is too soft for him to retain any purchase on, and I slip out of his grip like a silk scarf. The parking lot is now inexplicably deserted. My heart rate perks up, like a guy looking over the top of his newspaper: What’s going on here? If it craps out on me now I am going to be furious. I point my finger at Keith’s face. “I thought you were one of the good ones. Wrong as usual.” I get my butt in my seat. I slam the door and hear a faint woof of pain. I’m out of here, doors locked. This is my personal specialty: slipping out of a too-tight grip and getting the hell out. My former friend just a cheating cardboard cutout in my rearview mirror. “Wrong as usual, because there are no good ones.” When I hear my voice say it out loud, I know it isn’t true. There’s still one solid-gold good man left out there. He’s the high-tide mark in a world of inch-deep puddles. Quick, I’m having a winemergency. Drink tonight and go to sleep and forget. I drive a meandering route to the convenience store near my house, checking my rearview mirror. I put my heart back in its box and I endure a ten-minute argument with my base female self. Was I too friendly with Keith? Too casual, too naughty and rude and loose with my smiles? No, fuck him. I rework different conversations that I’ve had with him, cringing at how easy and enjoyably platonic I found them. Maybe I even used him as a substitute for my brother. Did I pay Keith twenty bucks to be my friend? Oh God, I’m pathetic. I wonder how many Keiths are in wedding portraits I’ve done over the years. I prod my stinging wrist. It’s a good reminder that no matter how careful I am, it’ll never be enough. I am going to need a lot of wine tonight. I pull my car up at the curb. This used to be a piece of parkland, stitched into the seams between my childhood home and Loretta’s cottage. Progress was unavoidable, but a neon-bright 7-Eleven store just feels insulting. I still can’t drive past my old house. It’s been painted mauve. Still, I could probably stand to look at that purple palace before I could make myself turn and look at the run-down white house across the street. Feelings again. Wine. Wine. “Not again,” the cashier, Marco, says when I walk in. “Not. Again.” “I’m too tired for your shit so don’t even start.” This place is as convenient as the neon sign out front says. Otherwise, I wouldn’t endure this. Marco read a book about sugar and it changed his life. “Sugar is white poison.” He starts telling me a fake-sounding story about sugar-addicted lab rats. I choose a cheap bottle of sweet white wine and a can of fish guts for Diana, and then go into my favorite aisle in the entire world. “They chose the sugar over food and eventually died of malnutrition.” Marco sells a pack of cigarettes to someone without comment. I put my head up over the aisle. “That’s what I plan on doing. Please stop talking to me.” I hate that I’ve been stuck here long enough that a store clerk even knows who I am. I will not let him ruin this. This moment is special. It’s incredible the forms that sugar can take. It’s art. It’s science. It’s cosmic. It’s the closest thing to religion that I have. I am in love with these cartoon colors. Acid gummies crumbed in granulated cane sugar. Patent leather licorice twists, happy bags of Skittles. Pink and white marshmallows, softer than rose petals. It’s all here, this rainbow spectrum of sugar, and it’s waiting for me. “Diabetes . . . cancer . . .” Marco is a radio being tuned in and out. My friend Truly—my only friend from school who still lives here—thinks that women should buy themselves an indulgent weekly consolation prize. You know, for putting up with the world’s shit. She buys herself flowers. As my treat, I jack up my insulin and blood alcohol levels. Sunday night is my personal weekly Halloween. I walk along slowly and drag my fingertips along the bars of chocolate. Goddamn, you sexy little squares. Dark, milk, white, I do not discriminate. I eat it all. Those fluorescent sour candies that only obnoxious little boys like. I suck candy apples clean. If an envelope seal is sweet, I’ll lick it twice. Growing up, I was that kid who would easily get lured into a van with the promise of a lollipop. Sometimes, I let the retail seduction last for twenty minutes, ignoring Marco and feeling up the merchandise, but I’m so tired of male voices. “Five bags of marshmallows,” Marco says in a resigned tone. “Wine. And a can of cat food.” “Cat food is low carb.” He makes no move to scan anything, so I scan each item myself and unroll a few notes from my tips. “Your job involves selling things. Sell them. Change, please.” “I just don’t know why you do this to yourself.” Marco looks at the register with a moral dilemma in his eyes. “Every week you come and do this.” He hesitates and looks over his shoulder where his sugar book sits under a layer of dust. He knows not to try to slip it into my bag with my purchases. “I don’t know why you care, dude. Just serve me. I don’t need your help.” He’s not entirely wrong about my being an addict. I would lick a line of icing sugar off this counter right now if no one were around. I would walk into a cane plantation and bite right in. I’ve been working on this jet-black disguise for many years now, and it’s bulletproof. But some people can tell that I’m a weakling, and they try to baby and help me. It must be a survival-of-the-fittest thing. But they’re all wrong. I’m not a lame gazelle; I’ll be the one chasing the lion. “Give me my change or I swear to God . . .” I squeeze my eyes shut and try to tamp down my temper. “Just treat me like any other customer.” He gives me a few coins’ change and bags my sweet, spongy drugs. “You just remind me of how I used to be. So addicted. When you’re ready to quit, borrow the book from me. I haven’t had sugar in nearly eight months. I just sweeten my coffee with some powdered agave . . .” I’m already walking out. No sugar? Why is life just about giving things up? What have I even got left that I enjoy? The heavy-sigh feeling inside me gets worse. Sadder. I pause at the door. “I’m writing to your head office to complain about your service.” I’m a hypocrite, pulling the customer service card, but hey. “You just lost yourself a customer, sugar.” “Don’t be like that,” Marco roars as the doors slide closed behind me. I settle back into my car, lock the doors, idle the engine, and crank the music even louder. I know he can see me, because he’s banging on the window of his little murder-proof cube trying to get my attention. Men in a Perspex nutshell. I open a pack on my lap and cram four jumbo pink marshmallows into my mouth, resulting in chipmunk cheeks. Then I give him the finger and his eyes pop out of his head. It is one of the best moments of my life lately, and I laugh for probably five minutes as I drive, sugar dust in my lungs. Thank God I’m laughing, otherwise I think I might be crying. Who do I think I am, anyway? “Hey, Loretta,” I say out loud to my grandmother. She’s hopefully up there on a cloud right above me as I stop at a red light and put my hand inside the cellophane bag, pillowy softness on my fingertips. If anyone is going to be my guardian angel, it’s her; she’d insist on it. “Please, please, give me something better than sugar. I really need it.” Just saying it aloud chokes me up. I need a hug. I need someone’s warm skin on mine. I ache with loneliness, and I still would, even if Vince came and went. Who do I think I am? I’m unloved, untethered. And I’m twinless. The light turns green like it’s given me an answer, but I have a few more marshmallows before I bother accelerating. The world has gone to bed, and I’m completely alone. Except maybe I’m not. I pull into Marlin Street and see a strange car parked in front of my house. I turn down the music and slow down. It’s a big black utility truck, just like that construction redneck would drive. It looks brand new and shiny, with out-of-state plates. He’s found where I live? The hairs on my arms are standing on end. I turn my head as I roll past slowly. There’s no one sitting in it. It can’t possibly be Jamie—he’d never accept a truck from a rental place, and he’d park in the drive, not in the street. I drive around the block with my heart trying to beat itself to death. I briefly wish for Keith before I remember. Then I get mad. I pull into the drive with an aggressive engine-rev and put my headlights on high beam. Rolling my window down a few inches, I say over the deafening throb of my heart, “Who’s there?” I hear a yap and a stiff-legged old Chihuahua canters out of the shadows, dressed in a striped sweater. A man emerges too, and I’m okay now. Even without the dog, I’d know his huge shape anywhere. I’m not about to be murdered. I’m now the safest girl on the planet. “Thanks, Loretta,” I say to the cloud above me. There’s only one thing sweeter than sugar. “That was quick.” Chapter 3 Tom Valeska has an animal inside him, and I’ve felt it every time he’s looked at me. Jamie found him locked out of his house across the road. Jamie called it that house for poor people because sad families moved in and out with alarming regularity. Mom would scold him for that. Just because we have a lot, it doesn’t mean you can be nasty, Prince. She made Jamie mow that lawn for free. Every six months or so, we’d make a welcome basket for our new neighbors—usually scared women, peeping around their new door frames, shadows under their eyes. But summer had been hot. Mom had a lot of singing students, Dad was busy at his architectural firm, and Mrs. Valeska had been notoriously difficult to pin down. The welcome basket was already wrapped in cellophane and tied with a ribbon, but Mrs. Valeska was off at dawn in her rusty car, always carrying buckets and baskets of cleaning gear. Her son, eight years old like us, strayed around, chipping at a log on his front lawn with an axe to pass the time. I knew because I saw him days before Jamie found him. If I’d been allowed outside past the doormat, I would have gone over and bossed him. Hey, aren’t you hot? Thirsty? Sit in the shade. Jamie, allowed to roam the street as long as he could see the house, found Tom locked out late and brought him home. He dragged him into the kitchen by the sleeve. Tom looked like he could use a flea bath. We fed him chicken nuggets. “I was going to sleep on the porch swing. I don’t have a key yet,” Tom explained to my parents in a shy husky whisper. They were so used to Jamie’s bellow, they could barely hear him. He was so calm about the prospect of no dinner and no bed. I was in awe. Dazzled, like I was in the presence of celebrity. Every time he took one-second glances at me with his orange-brown eyes, I felt a zipper in my stomach. He looked like he knew me, from A to Z. That night was a game changer at the Barrett dining table. Tom was virtually mute with shyness, so he weathered the onslaught of Jamie’s talking. His one-word replies had a growly edge that I liked. No longer required to referee the twins, our parents could smooch and murmur cozily to each other. And I was forgotten and invisible for the first time in my life. I liked it. No nuggets were stolen from my plate. Nobody thought about my heart or my medication. I could play with the old Pentax camera on my lap in between bites and sneak glances at the interesting creature sitting opposite Jamie. Everyone had accepted at face value that he was human, but I wasn’t so sure. My grandmother Loretta had told me enough fairy stories about animals and humans’ swapping bodies to make me suspicious. What else could give that edge to his stare, and make my insides zap? The welcome basket was delivered to his exhausted mother late that night. She cried, sitting with my parents for a long time on the front porch with a glass of wine. We decided to keep Tom for the summer while she was at work. He was the buffer our family never knew it needed. My parents literally begged to take him to Disney with us. Mrs. Valeska was proud and tried to say no, but they said, It’s really for our benefit. That boy is worth his weight in gold. We’ll have to wait until Darcy’s medication level is worked out, and then we’ll all be free to travel a lot more. Unless we leave her with her grandmother. Maybe that would be best. And after that first dinner, I admit I did something very weird. I went to my room and I drew a sled dog in the middle of a notebook I kept hidden in the heating vent. I didn’t know what else to do with this sensation that filled me. On the sled dog’s name tag, too tiny to be read, was: Valeska. I imagined a creature that would sleep at the foot of my bed. He’d take food from my hand but could tear out the throat of anything that opened my door. I knew it was weird. Jamie would crucify me for creating a fictional animal based on the new boy across the street—not that he’d have proof. But that’s exactly what I did, and to this day, when I’m alone in a foreign bar and want to look busy, my hand will still draw the outline of Valeska on a coaster, with his eyes like a wolf, or an enchanted prince. I’m an excellent judge of character. When one of the spoiled blond Barrett twins fell into a crevasse, our faithful Valeska would appear. His pretty, spooky eyes would assess the situation, then you’d feel his teeth on your collar. Next, his strength and the humiliating drag to safety. You’re useless, and he’s competent. Barbie convertible broken? It’s just the axle. Click it. Actual car broken down? Put the hood up. Try it now. There you go. It wasn’t just me as the female twin. Tom has tugged Jamie by the collar out of fistfights, bars, and beds. And in every city I’ve ever traveled to, when I’ve turned the corner into a dark scary alley by mistake, I’ve mentally summoned Valeska to walk the rest of the way with me. And that’s weird, I guess. But it’s the truth. So, to recap, my life sucks, and Tom Valeska is on my porch. He’s lit by streetlight, moonlight, and starlight. I’ve got a zipper in my stomach and I’ve been in a crevasse so long I can’t feel my legs. I get out of the car. “Patty!” Thank fuck for small animals and the way they cut the awkwardness. Tom sets her down and Peppermint Patty taps stiffly up the drive to me. I’ve got one eye focused on the black porch behind Tom. When no elegant brunettes step out into the light, I get down on my knees and say a silent prayer. Patty is a shiny shorthaired black and tan Chihuahua, with a big apple dome head. She’s got a judgmental narrowing to her eyes. I don’t take it personally anymore, but sheesh, this dog looks at you like you’re a steaming turd. It’s just her face. She remembers me. What an honor to be stamped permanently in her tiny walnut brain. I pick her up and kiss her cheeks. “What are you doing here so late, Tom Valeska, world’s most perfect man?” Sometimes it’s a relief to hide your most honest thoughts right out in plain view. “I’m not the perfect man,” he replies in kind. “And I’m here because I’m starting on your house tomorrow. You didn’t get my voicemails?” “My phone is in a bar toilet. Right where it always belonged.” He wrinkles his nose, probably glad he wasn’t summoned to retrieve it. “Well, everyone knows you don’t answer your phone anyway. Approvals came through already, so we’re starting . . . well, now.” “Aldo kept pushing us back for the most bullshit reasons. And now it’s two months early? That’s . . . unexpected.” Nerves light up inside me. Things aren’t ready. More specifically, me. “If I knew you were coming, I would have stocked up on Kwench.” “They discontinued Kwench.” He smiles and my stomach zips, silver strong, all the way up to my heart. In a confiding tone, he adds, “Don’t worry. I’ve got a wine cellar full of it.” “Ugh, that stuff is just black plastic water.” I feel my face go weird; I put my hand on my cheek and I’m smiling. If I’d known he was coming I would have perfectly folded a bath towel and stocked the fridge with cheese and lettuce. I would have stood at the front window to watch for his car. If I’d known he was coming, I would have gotten my shit together a little. I walk along the edge of the path, feeling the bricks wobble. “You should only drink it on special occasions. You could have a glass of Kwench with your cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches on your eightieth birthday. That’s still your lunch, right?” “It is.” He looks away, defensive and embarrassed. “I guess I haven’t changed. What’s your lunch?” “Depends what country I’m in. And I drink something a little stronger than off-brand cola.” “Well, then you haven’t changed either.” He still never gives me more than a one-second look before blinking away. But that’s okay. One second always feels like a long time when I’m with him. I talk to Patty. “You got my Christmas present, little girl.” I mean her sweater. “Thank you, it fits her great. Mine does, too.” The vintage St. Patty’s Day T-shirt he’s wearing, probably out of politeness, is stretched wafer thin, trying to cope. If it were a person, it would be an exhausted wraith, gasping, Please, help me. It fits like a dream. The kind of dream you wake up from, all sweaty and ashamed. “I knew you wouldn’t be too cool to wear a Patty T-shirt.” I found that T-shirt in a thrift store in Belfast, and in that moment, I’d found Tom again. I hadn’t talked to him in a couple of years, probably, but I felt lit up on the inside. It was the perfect gift for him. I sent an airmail parcel containing the two garments addressed to “Thomas and Patricia Valeska,” laughed for ages, then realized his girlfriend would probably sign for it. I’d completely forgotten about Megan. I didn’t even slip a key ring in the package for her. I check his left hand—still bare. Thank fuck. But I’ve got to start remembering Megan’s existence. Right after I say this next thing. “So, good T-shirts can die and go to heaven.” I grin at his expression: dismayed, surprised, and flattered. All erased in one blink. I’m addicted. “You’re still a teenage dirtbag.” Prim with disapproval, he looks at his watch. “And you’re still a hot grandpa.” I press that old button and his eyes glow in irritation. “Had any fun lately?” “I’d ask you to define fun, but I don’t think I can handle the answer.” He lets out a grumbly sigh and taps his boot on the dilapidated stairs. “Want me to fix this or not, smart-ass?” “Yes please. While Daddy stays serious, we’ll have fun, won’t we, Patty?” I bounce her gently like a baby. Her eyes have a milky blue tinge. “I can’t believe how much she’s aged.” “Time passing generally does have that effect,” Tom says dryly, but he softens when I look up. “She’s thirteen now. Seems like only yesterday that you named her for me.” He folds down to sit on the top step, his eyes on the street. “Why’d you drive past just now?” I’ve still got one eye on the dark space behind him. Surely Megan’s about to step out. This is the longest uninterrupted conversation Tom and I have ever had. I need Jamie to slap through the front gate. I can never decide if Tom’s hair is the color of caramel fudge or chocolate. Either way, yum. The texture is like a romance novel that’s fallen into the bath, then dried: vaguely sexual crinkle waves with the occasional curled edge and dog-ear. I want to jam my hand in it and make a gentle fist. Those muscles. I think I’m starting to sweat. “You scared the shit out of me. I thought you were—” I shut my mouth and dance Patty on my folded knee. “Honestly, she’s so cute.” “Who’d you think I was?” His husky voice gets more bass to it and a scared-twist feeling in my gut tightens. Big men are so casually brutal. Look at the size of those boots. Those fists. He could kill. But then I overlay the memory of an eight-year-old boy over the top of his adult shape, and I remember Valeska, and I exhale. “Just some dude I threw out of the bar. Seriously, Tom, you nearly gave me a heart—” Goddamn it. His eyes snap to my chest. “Don’t,” I order firmly, and he slouches, picking at the side of his boot. He knows the rules. Fussing is forbidden. “I can worry if I want, Princess,” he grumbles to the ground. “You can’t stop me.” “No one calls me Princess anymore. Do I look like a princess?” I put Patty on the grass. He gives me a one-second glance, top to bottom, and looks away, the answer locked in his head and a lift to the corner of his mouth. Oh man, the urge to get that answer out of him is intense. It’d probably require putting my hands on him and squeezing. I get to my feet slowly to avoid a heart scramble, then look back at the decal on the side of the black truck. The penny drops. I spin around to him. “Valeska Building Services. Holy shit. You’re free.” “Yeah,” he says like he’s admitting something, one eye narrowed as he looks up at my face. “You did it.” I can’t stop the smile spreading across my face. “You got away from Aldo. Tom, I am so fucking proud of you.” “Don’t get too proud,” he warns, ducking his head so I can’t see that he’s pleased. “I haven’t done anything yet.” When Aldo came through town to assess the cottage, he suggested a place where we could hire a bulldozer. That’s his level of tact, discussing our deceased grandmother’s estate. Jamie laughed at the joke, so there’s his tact level, too. I reminded them that it was literally in Loretta’s last will and testament that the cottage be restored, and she’d stipulated a budget be set aside for it. The laughing stopped. Aldo heaved a sigh and filled out the council approval paperwork, saying several times that his pen didn’t work. I slapped another one in his hand, and he narrowed his bloodshot eyes at me. This will be a labor of love, Aldo said. A huge expensive risky mistake. I told him, No shit, Sherlock. Keep writing. Why did Loretta make the final condition that Jamie and I sell? Did she never stop to consider that I might want to live here forever, wallowing in my loneliness? With twins, everything has to be split and fair. “I guess Aldo taught you the most important lesson of your career.” I wait a beat as Tom mulls it over. “What not to do.” “True,” Tom says with a faint smile, his eyes on the decal on his truck. “When in doubt, I’ll ask myself, what would Aldo do?” “And you’ll just do the exact opposite. You know he grabbed my butt? Like, when Jamie and I visited you on your very first job site? What a piece of shit. I was barely eighteen. Just a kid.” “I didn’t know that.” Tom’s mouth flattens. “Did you break his hand?” “You’re lucky I didn’t call you to bury a body for me. You would, right?” I can’t help it; I want to know if I can still summon Valeska, as much as I shouldn’t. He belongs to Megan now. “I’ve got a shovel in the back,” he says, nodding at the truck. It’s a disturbing thrill to know he’s not kidding. If I needed him to, he’d dig a hole with his bare hands. “I know he was an unprofessional asshole, but he gave me my first chance. I didn’t have a lot of options, put it that way. Not like you and Jamie.” He sits himself up straight and puts his boots together like a good boy. “There will be no ass-grabbing on my site.” “Depends on who’s doing the grabbing,” I say in a thoughtful tone, but crack up when Tom’s eyes get scary. “I know, I know. No one is more professional than you. My butt is safe.” “I’m going to do everything perfectly.” Tom won coloring-in competitions as a kid. This house is going to be his big-boy equivalent. “I know you will.” I look down at Tom’s shoulders. His T-shirt is trying its hardest. He’s gotten so big since I saw him last. He’s always been tall and muscly, but this is next level. He’s been working himself into the ground. “Well, what are you waiting for? I bet you have a key. Let the renovations commence.” “I might start in the morning, if you don’t mind.” He laughs, groans, and stretches in one movement. Like he’s flat in a bed instead of on some rickety old stairs. “I do have a key. But I know how you feel about . . . privacy.” He says it like privacy is only one of the options he could have gone with. He always does this; he gives me one tidbit on what he thinks I’m like, then he clams up until Megan jingles her car keys and he’s gone for another six months. The tidbit leaves me ravenous, and I’m wiring my own jaw shut to not press and ask for more. I’m sweating so much my tank is stuck to my back. We watch Patty as she paddles through the leaves on the lawn, nose to the ground. She half squats and changes her mind. Tom sighs wearily. “Now it’s time to pee? She’s had nearly an hour to do this.” “Well, I’m more determined than ever to find my passport now. It’s definitely in the house, but Loretta’s hidden it.” I click my fingers for Patty. Come back, li’l buffer. I haul myself down to sit on the step beside him. “Might have to order a new one,” Tom says with a tone of reluctance. “The old one has all my stamps in it. It’s like my scrapbook. I’ll find it tomorrow when I pack.” Looking up to the sky, I tell Loretta, “I need to get out of here. Give it back.” “Maybe she wants you to stick around for once.” He took a risk there, tacking on for once. “I’ll ignore that,” I warn him, and he just looks up at the starry sky and smiles. I’m predictable, apparently. So is my stomach. It fills with sparkles. His is the kind of bone structure that makes me blurt stupid things. So I do. “Every single time I see you, I can’t believe you’re not a kid anymore. Look at you.” “All grown up.” His torso looks like a pack of chocolate, with the squares visible through the wrapper. You know how chocolate has that matte-glossy texture? That’s his skin. I want to scrape across him with my fingernails. I want to start my weekly Halloween binge. Megan, Megan, diamond rings. The incantation doesn’t completely work. He has the kind of density that makes me constantly guess to myself how much he’d weigh. Does muscle weigh more than fat? He’s a ton. He’s six-six, and I watched him get this tall, but it’s a surprise every time I see him. It’s the body you see on first responders. Think big-ass firemen kicking in doors, ready to save you. “How do you cope with a skeleton that big?” I ask, and he looks down at himself, mystified. “I mean, how do you coordinate all four limbs and actually ambulate around the place?” My eyes are back on his shoulders, following the round lines down, the flat sections, the dips and shadowed lines, the creases on the cotton. I can see his belt, which doesn’t know how lucky it is to be strapped around that, and a lush half inch of black underwear waistband, and my cheeks are burning and I can hear my heart and— “Eyes up, DB.” He’s busted me. Not that I was very subtle. “Me and my skeleton get around just fine. Now, what’s going on with this rickety porch?” I try to think of how I can explain it. What did happen to the house? I think I messed up and neglected it. That loose board, for example? I should have found a hammer and whacked it flat. “My theory is that Loretta’s magic held the entire house together.” I rub my palms briskly on my thighs to banish the crying feeling I know is going to well up inside me. He always knows when I need him to change the subject. “And what happened to your hair? Your mom broke the news.” “I think she called everyone she knows. Hysterical, over a freakin’ haircut. Oh, Princess, why?” I mock, trying to keep my movements casual as I pass my fingers through it. It feels like a boy’s head now. I cross my legs and my tight leather pants squeak. I smooth them with a black-nailed hand. I have never been less of a princess. If Mom knew I have a nipple piercing now, she’d give me the lecture about how my body’s a temple. Sorry, Mom, I hammered a picture hook into myself. “She rang me, crying. I was up on a roof. I thought that you . . . anyway.” Tom’s forehead creases at the memory. “Imagine my relief that Darcy Barrett had just cut her plait off. You went to a barbershop?” “Yeah, I got an old barber to do it. What? I wasn’t going to a women’s hairdresser. They’d give me a pixie cut or something nauseating like that. I specifically wanted a World War Two pilot’s haircut.” “Okay,” Tom says, amused. “So, did he know how to cut it?” I slap at a mosquito. “Yeah. But he changed his mind and didn’t want to do it.” Tom looks at where my hair used to be. “It was kind of special.” I didn’t know he thought that. Goddamn it. “He’d forgotten lady hair was soft. He begged but I made him. The sound of the scissors going through it . . .” I still get goose bumps. “It sounded like he was hacking through sinew. He prayed in Italian. It was like being exorcised.” Tom is wry. “Making scared men pray. You really, really haven’t changed.” “Amen.” I stretch my arms up to the sky and my humid clothes barely move with me. Sitting around with Tom Valeska has given me one hell of a lust-sweat. The urge to take it too far always overwhelms me. It has since we both hit puberty. “I love it when they pray in Italian,” I whisper, sexy hushed, and he won’t meet my eye. “Please, please, Signora Darcy, don’t make me.” “Signora means you’re married, doesn’t it? You’re not married.” His voice is faint and when I study him sideways, the hairs on his forearms are raised. How interesting. “Yeah, who’d marry me.” It’s now my turn to slouch down, pick at my boot, and change the subject. I do it clumsily. “Hey, does everyone assume one day they’re going to get a call that I’ve dropped dead?” He doesn’t know how to answer that, so I guess it’s a yes. “Mom’s good at dramatic phone calls and forwarding photos. I got a Mom Special about you.” I refuse to look at him now. I wrap my arms around my knees and growl. “Goddamn it, Tom. What the hell.” He knows exactly what I mean. “I’m really sorry.” Tom’s engaged! Finally, it’s been so long! His mother is fit to burst! Two carats, can you believe? Darcy, say something, isn’t it fantastic? If I’d been up on a roof, I would have ended up in traction. Instead, I went out and drank twenty toasts to the beautiful couple. It was a bender eight years in the making. I woke up to a photo of a sugar-lump diamond on a perfectly manicured hand and puked. I was late to the wedding I was shooting. One of the main courses at the reception was sea bass and the room stank like a wharf. After the bride articulated her opinions about my lack of professionalism, I threw up in an umbrella stand by the door. And meanwhile, Loretta was going out into the garden to hide her coughing fits from me, and Jamie was applying for fancy jobs in the city and spending less time with me. That entire year was one massive vomit, and the taste is still in my mouth. “I don’t accept your apology. You never called me yourself, you jerk. Do we just use my mom as a communication method these days? Aren’t we pals?” I kick his boot with my smaller one, more gently than I want to. “Am I gonna be blinded by this ring when I see it?” It’s as close to Congratulations as I can manage. Or, When’s she getting here? Hey, I sent them a card. They probably laughed their asses off picturing Darcy Barrett in the Hallmark section. Tom opens his mouth to answer but is distracted by a car that grumbles past the cottage at a walking pace. It’s a muscle car, heavy and low to the ground. Its engine thrums as it rolls up to the curb. I have a bad feeling I know who this is, and Tom doesn’t like him. Chapter 4 Tom begins to stand, and the car accelerates and squeals off. Oh, to have such a big scary silhouette. Life would be so easy. “Who was that?” Tom sinks back down. It was Vince, coming around here like a tomcat. “No idea.” I put a marshmallow in my mouth so I can’t talk anymore. Tom knows I’m lying, and when he begins to argue, I stuff a marshmallow in his mouth, too. He’s annoyed and amused. I felt his lips on my palm. This night isn’t all bad. As his eye fixes onto my boot, the streetlight creates a black blade under his cheekbone. I’d click my camera right now. Now, as he looks at my legs and his lashes create a dark crescent shadow. Now, when those eyes cut to mine and there’s a spark of light in them, and another thought about me in his head. Then he looks away. One second is all it takes to get my heartbeat flipping like a fish in a net. I blurt, “Can I take your photo yet?” “No,” he replies, soft and patient, like he has every time before. He doesn’t understand his own face. He has to be dragged into the Christmas picture, posed behind Megan with an unconvincing smile that looks more like concern. Oh, that’s right. I’m a prime candidate to be taking pictures of him in a suit at the altar. “That’s okay. Human faces aren’t really my bread and butter these days.” I link my fingers together and try to dredge up some self-control. Get it together, Darcy. It’s not his fault he was born with your favorite kind of bones. He’s a sweet shy solid-gold human. Someone’s fiancé. You’re a teenage dirtbag. Leave him alone. He’s clammed up completely. We’re running out of topics. Work is a safe zone. “So you’re finally your own boss. How did Aldo take it?” Tom huffs a relieved laugh. “How do you think he took it?” “He’s going to have to do some actual work himself. Yeah, I’d say it went badly.” I feel myself inflating with overprotectiveness. Bigger. Darker. “Do I need to go and make him apologize to you?” Tom laughs at whatever I look like. “Don’t get growly.” “I can’t help it. People take advantage of you. Even us.” Us means the twins. You guys don’t take advantage of me.” He’s braced back now with his palms flat on the porch, endless legs splayed out. I lean back too, just to feel how our bodies compare. My hand is positively Chihuahua-sized next to his Valeska paw. My boot is halfway down his shin. I turn my head. My shoulder? It’s an upturned mug sitting beside a basketball. I’m not a particularly petite woman, but he makes me feel like I’m soft. Little and light. A princess. I frown, sit up, and force myself back into a geometric shape. “Aldo wanted to bump your house for a bigger, easier job. I said it couldn’t wait any longer. If you guys have changed your mind about renovating, I’m kinda screwed,” he says, barely joking. “I took most of the crew with me.” “Don’t worry, we’re all good. Make the place beautiful and get me out of here.” He took the crew? I cannot imagine him making that kind of power move. I look at his brute frame in my peripheral vision, and maybe I can. “Take it from me, it’s weird not being on a payroll.” I nudge his shoulder with mine, resisting the urge to rest against him. “Thanks for choosing us over him.” “Well, thank you. For, ah, employing me.” “Oh, I’m your boss now?” Just as a dopamine surge fills me and I think of so many sleazy, funny responses that I could go with, the image of Megan’s face makes me bite my lip shut. Teasing him is my Olympic sport, and I can only compete once every four years. But he’s going to be her husband soon. “Think of us as business partners.” He gives me a strange look. “Are you okay?” “Sure, I’m fine.” He gets to his feet. “I was bracing myself for a classic Darcy zinger. How did you manage to resist?” He holds a hand down and pulls me up so easily I momentarily leave the ground. I sigh. Another of life’s pleasures is over. “I officially retire. For obvious reasons.” I climb a couple of steps to be closer to his eye level. Patty is still tootling around in the garden. “Hurry it up,” I tell her, hugging my arms around my waist. “I’m getting cold.” “What’s that?” Tom’s noticed the reddened mark on my wrist. He can always sniff out danger. “Just a reaction to my new perfume.” Tom reaches for my arm but stops when an inch separates our skin. He opens his hand over the mark and measures it. He’s pissed. Outraged. Mouth open from the sheer audacity. I’m surprised the sky doesn’t unfurl into black thunderclouds, crackling with lightning. “Who did it?” “Don’t fuss.” I wrap my forearm behind my back and put more marshmallows into my mouth. Through the white sugar foam I say, “Looks worse than it is.” What a horrible sentence. “Who did it?” He repeats it, his eyes supernatural orange. He looks back at the street. He’s going to hunt that black car down. He’s going to tear out Vince’s throat. How does no one else ever notice this beast inside him? “No, not that guy. Another fucking idiot at work. He knows to not do it again.” I’ve already got my follow-up retort locked and loaded: I can take care of myself. He knows it. We stare like we hate each other. I can feel the energy in him shimmering. He’s got thoughts and opinions, but he’s swallowing them, and they taste awful. He’s probably thinking about what he’d do to anyone who put a mark on Megan. He’d lick up blood. “If he needs reminding, let me know,” he manages at last. He’s twisting away from me now, putting distance between us. This is something he doesn’t like about me. My dark, messy lifestyle scares the shit out of him. I’m struggling with my temper too, for a different reason. I wouldn’t mind betting Megan’s too simple to realize what she has. She’s at home embalming herself, bleaching her cuticles and lubricating her follicles or whatever it is that well-groomed women do. She’s an aesthetician after all, and no one can trust a slovenly beauty therapist. I bet she’s staring at her own face in the mirror. Meanwhile, her fiancé is like an apple pie on a windowsill, and this world is full of sugar addicts like me. It’s her goddamn carelessness that has always gotten me. If he were mine . . . I can’t let myself think it. My jaw aches from not blurting everything out. “Let’s go in.” Valeska shakes the snow from his fur. I shake the snow from mine. He holds up an ancient key ring. “Check it out.” “Well, that’s a blast from the past.” It’s a key ring given to Tom by Loretta when we were kids; it’s Garfield, wearing earphones, with Odie next to him, mouth open in a bark. Printed is: SILENCE IS GOLDEN! That was Loretta’s nickname for Tom: Golden. I was Sweetness, and Jamie was Salty. Nicknames were everywhere, growing up. Prince, Princess. My dad’s special name for Tom that made him go red and pleased: Tiger. Maybe Dad did know what we brought in that night. “I love that you have a key,” I say without thought, like a creep. “This would be a collector’s item, probably.” I use his Garfield key to unlock the door, and he scrapes his thumbnail into the empty screw holes where my BARRETT WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY brass plaque used to be. He’s probably thinking about how I’ll never shoot his wedding. “Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry.” But also, I’m not. I push the door open with my knee. He’s looking now at the remaining plaque that reads MAISON DE DESTIN, hung by Loretta to set the mood for her tarot clients. Ooh. Something about destiny. Fancy. He’s wistful as he uses his thumb to check if it’s screwed tight. “I miss her so much,” he tells me, and we are sad and silent until Patty does her jackhammer run through our legs, sneezing and huffing. Thank you, little animal. I click on the nearest lamp, and the first thing we see is my underwear. Above the fireplace, there’s a row of fancy black bras hanging up to dry on the old nails that once held our Christmas stockings. “Well,” Tom says after a beat. “That would give Santa a stroke.” I laugh and throw my keys onto the coffee table. “I wasn’t expecting company.” The echo of Vince’s car reverberates through the room like another lie. Patty sets off with single-minded determination down the hall. “If you pee inside, you are getting in trouble,” Tom says to her departing form. I unhook the bras and toss them on the armchair. “Christ, what a night. I’m glad you’re here.” I pull out the wine bottle and use the hem of my top to work on the screw-top lid. He holds out a hand. It would be easy-peasy for him. “Here, I’ll do it.” “I’m perfectly capable.” I step around him into the dark kitchen. If I’m not firm with him, he slips and starts trying to do everything for me. Princess Mode. “Do you want some? Or do good boys like you need to get into bed?” Eyebrows down. “Good boys like me get up at five A.M.” “Bad girls like me go to bed at six A.M.” I grin at his despairing head shake. He reaches for the light switch on the wall, but I stop him. “You’ll get a zap.” “Seriously? Have you been zapped?” Aghast, he looks at my chest. It contains the one thing he cannot fix. “No, because I learned from Jamie’s mistake.” I can’t help grinning. Holy fuck! Ow! Darce, stop laughing! That hurt! “Smiling at the thought of your brother being electrocuted.” Tom doesn’t want to be amused but he can’t help it. “Such a bad girl.” “I’m the worst.” I use a wooden spoon to flip the switch. “Okay, so it’s looking bad in here.” I watch him scan the room from top to bottom: the water-stained ceiling, the bubbling wallpaper, the floorboards that bounce under his feet. I’ve been used to it, but now I see the full extent of the room’s shabbiness. “Can you tell me what your fight with Jamie was about? I’ve heard his side. But I want to hear yours.” He turns away, his eyes following the line of a crack in the wall. Behind his back, I drink my entire glass of wine soundlessly. When he turns around, I’m holding a second full glass. The perfect crime. “What can I say? My temper got the better of me.” I sip daintily. “Okay,” Tom half laughs as he turns on the kitchen tap. It splutters and sprays him, and when he turns it off, we hear a loud dripping. He finds the sink bucket in the cabinet underneath. “Aw, jeez.” His phone chimes, and he looks at the screen, a smile on the edge of his mouth. He texts back, probably something like, It’s okay, I arrived safe. Miss you, Megs. A hot feeling grabs me by the throat. I want to take his phone and flush it all the way to the sewage plant. I drink a mouthful of wine and it helps a bit. “So, the day I made Jamie very mad. Where do I start? We had been driving each other insane. Living in bedrooms next door to each other was easy when we were kids and we had you in a bunk bed to mediate.” But with no buffer, we were agitating and arguing. Jamie wanted us to move to the city. I wanted to stay. I couldn’t buy him out. It was a tug-of-war argument that I couldn’t win, because like Mom said, Loretta wanted us to tart up the cottage and split the money. Think of it as a little nest egg, Mom said, patting my heart. I told her that I didn’t want a nest egg. The way I’d earned it was too much for me to bear. Mom was gentle. I’m sorry, Princess. I know what she meant to you. This is her way of showing what you meant to her. “So there was a knock on the door one Saturday morning. Jamie was out jogging. It was early and I was very . . . tired.” His eyes move to my glass. “Okay, it was like eleven A.M., and I was hungover as hell. On the doorstep was some good-looking hotshot giving me his business card. I thought I was having a sex dream.” “So far this is matching Jamie’s version exactly.” Tom unlatches the kitchen window, lifts it a fraction, then jiggles it all the way open. Only someone who practically grew up in this house would know that little trick. “I always meant to fix that for her.” Sad eyes now. He never met his own grandparents. I’m glad he could share ours. “Loretta would have told you that window isn’t broken.” The wine is warm satin in my veins. I’m somehow pouring my third glass. Tom thinks it’s my second. Heh. “So you were possibly having a sex dream . . . ,” Tom prompts, and I realize I’m standing in the refrigerator light, staring at nothing. What am I going to give him for breakfast? A body like that needs protein. A Viking banquet table, mugs of ale, a crackling fire. An animal skin draped low on his hips. Me, lying boneless and spent in the crook of his elbow, still asking for more. I fill my mouth with wine and shut the fridge. “A sex dream,” Tom prompts again. I spray the mouthful of wine onto the fridge door. My overdue phone bill is now a watercolor. “Yeah, so he’s got me out on the front path. He’s telling me how sorry he is about Loretta, blah blah. He was talking like he knew her. Even though he was flirty, I knew it wasn’t a sex dream, because his clothes were still on. He was bumming me out about how bad the cottage looked. Then I realized. He was a developer.” “Douglas Franzo from Shapley Group, right?” “Yeah.” Jamie’s probably ranted this to Tom a hundred times before. Douglas fucking Franzo! The son of the CEO! Important! Rich! Powerful! “I asked him to leave.” “According to your brother,” Tom says on a grunt as he pulls the stiff window back down, “you went ballistic and he tore up the written offer. Then you chased his car down to the corner of Simons Street, barefoot, wearing nothing but a robe.” “So that’s a detail you remember, huh?” I try my alpha-dog eye-contact stare but he doesn’t look away this time. One second ticks into two. Three. I look down into my wineglass. “You know I hate when you compare our stories. Why even ask me if you already know how it went? Jamie came jogging around the corner in his sweatbands bellowing, What the fuck, and the rest is history.” I hope my twin didn’t finish telling it. World War III happened in this very kitchen. After he left, unable to trust himself to not kill me, I knelt on the floor and picked up the pieces of the Royal Albert dinner set we’d smashed. We’d thrown it at each other, plate after plate. Another beautiful thing the Barrett twins could not deserve. Who do you think you are, anyway? Tom gives me a don’t get grouchy look as he toes his boot around the skirting boards, wiggling and loosening everything he touches. “I don’t believe all the things your brother tells me about you. They always sound made up.” “Then you find out it’s true, and your illusions are shattered, yet again.” “I don’t know about illusions, exactly. I’ve known you a long time.” My third glass of wine goes down the hatch. “Jamie crawled around the front path finding the torn-up pieces of the offer. He taped it together. Can you believe that?” “Yes. There would have been a dollar sign motivating him.” “He set up a meeting with the guy, tried everything. He literally sent him a fruit basket. But I’d fucked it up.” “Knowing you, you don’t regret it,” Tom says. I watch his expression settle into thoughtful, and I lean on the broken oven and watch him move around the room. What’s he looking for? The one thing that is salvageable? “What’s your next big adventure, then?” “I’ll help pack up this place. Then I’m going to get on the first plane I come across.” I shrug when he looks dubious. “I mean it. I’ll probably just get a good deal on somewhere warm that doesn’t need a visa. And what’s your next big destination?” I can’t say honeymoon because it will come out like a burp. I picture Tom and Megan lying on a beach. Then I crop Megan out of the image. “I’ll find something cheap and flip it. That’s what I’m always doing next.” “Enough work! Make sure your hotel has a fabulous pool,” I suggest through my teeth. Teenage Darcy used to sit on the edge and count his laps. I’d lose count, hypnotized by his rhythmic gasps of air. It took me a few years to realize they gave me the stomach shivers because they were hopelessly erotic. “You’re still swimming, right?” He rolls his shoulders reflexively. “I haven’t had time. Not in probably two years. Where are you moving after this? Getting a rental?” His nose wrinkles. “Do me a favor, get a nice place.” “I don’t know. I’ve only just gotten used to having a mailing address. I’ll put my stuff in storage and I’ll stay at the beach house when I’m back.” I hope that didn’t sound like, I’m traveling like a big spoiled baby forever, and when I’m not, I’ll be in Mommy and Daddy’s house eating breakfast in bed. “I rebuilt their back deck. It was too small for them.” Typical Tom, sweating for the Barretts whenever required. “I’m sure they’re out on it right now, kissing under the moonlight.” “Ugh, gross. Probably.” Mom and Dad have chemistry. I will leave it at that. “You didn’t even swim in the ocean while you were there?” “I didn’t even think of it,” he says, looking a little surprised. “Whoops.” “You belong in water. Next time, swim.” I go back into the living room and throw myself onto the couch. Patty hammers in from nowhere, louder than a T. rex, a pencil clenched between her teeth. I’ve got to ask the hard questions, to get them out of the way. “Where are you going for your honeymoon?” No answer. I’ll try again. “I’ve been everywhere. I can give you guys help with your itinerary.” He avoids my eyes and I slump down into the cushions. Maybe if I don’t agree to be his photographer, I’ll be lucky to even get an invite. I can imagine Mom explaining it to me now. Small. Intimate. Only their closest family and friends. Holy shit. That’s it. I’m not invited and he’s trying to work out how to tell me. Tom moves to the dining room and risks turning the light on. It’s my little photography studio now. Boxes of merchandise sit against the wall. “This is what you do these days?” “Yep.” I dig in my bag of marshmallows. Time to plug this aching void inside. I hit shuffle on Loretta’s retro stereo and the Cure comes on. The void gapes wider in a delicious way. “Mugs.” He says it doubtfully. “You take photos of mugs so they can be sold on websites? I definitely thought Jamie had made that up.” “It’s true.” I pack my mouth with sweet white foam and sip some wine to dissolve it all. “Not just mugs. Don’t look in that one,” I warn Tom when he goes to look in the boxes. “What is it?” He flips open the box lid. “Okay then.” “It’s surprisingly hard to get the lighting right on a ten-inch purple dildo.” “I’m sure it’s impossible.” He is scandalized to the core. It is adorable. He looks back down, unable to resist. “Don’t go digging in that dirty box, Tom, you’ll need brain bleach.” I have the strongest feeling he wants to. I’d give my left ventricle to know what he thought about all that silicone. Disgusting? Interesting? On par with what’s in his navy cargo pants? It’s so hard to tell when he looks up. He rearranges his expression into prim disapproval. God, such a good boy. I grin like a shark. “They let me keep stuff sometimes.” I watch as he skitters around the room off walls and furniture like a big pinball. Then I relieve him. “I’ve got so many mugs.” “Mugs,” he says again like it’s the cause of all that is wrong in this world. “I don’t think this is very . . . you. You’re an award-winning portrait photographer.” “Au contraire. Wistful portraits of sex toys are very much me these days.” I shrug at his expression. “Hey, I just shoot what they send me. I’ve personally taken every single product shot on the entire Internet.” My voice blurs drunkenly at the edges and I know he hears it. “No one thinks about who takes the photos. They just click and add that dildo to their cart.” I arch my back, unclip my bra, and sag back down with a groan. Out the armhole and I toss the bra onto the pile. Tom averts his eyes through the whole thing. Except somehow, I feel like he watched me do it. Chapter 5 I can’t stop myself from pressing my little wound again. I don’t feel like Tom’s scolded me for it. I deserve a lecture. “Jamie said even Loretta would have said I was crazy to pass up that developer’s offer. Maybe I would have reacted differently if I knew I’d basically lose my brother over it.” Wow. I sounded completely normal saying that out loud. Tom says in such a kind voice that I want to cry, “You haven’t lost him, DB. You’ve just pissed him off.” “I’ve witnessed him ice out so many people over the years. I never thought it would be me. Remember that guy he worked with, Glenn? He made him repay a loan when his wife was in the maternity ward.” “Yeah. Because Glenn got the promotion he wanted. He’s so good to the people in his circle—” I huff. “And it’s a tiny circle.” “But if he’s crossed, or slighted, or he thinks he’s been ‘betrayed,’ he just turns into . . .” “Ice. He’s ice. Just like I’m ice.” “You’re fire,” Tom says back without thought. “You’re opposites.” There’s another tidbit. Another surprise view on me. Any man who saw me at work tonight would have said I was cold to the bone. “I want to be ice.” “Take it from me, ice is the worst. Please stay fiery.” He pauses and sighs. He’s sad about something. “Anyway, I don’t think you did the wrong thing. You’d be okay with an apartment complex here? And going against her final wishes?” “Of course not. Well, it’s never happening anyway now. I pissed that guy off so bad he just picked another street. Let’s just say I can’t go next door for a cup of sugar anymore.” I drink from my wineglass. “As a twin, the bigger issue was that I made a decision on my own. No consultation: the cardinal sin.” “You yanked his chain, big-time.” Tom knows my brother’s buttons just as well as me. There are three big ones, labeled MONEY, LOYALTY, DECISIONS. The wispy remnants of my heart medication, from whenever I last remembered to take it, are mixing with the wine in an interesting way. I’ve worked hard to build up a tolerance. I toe off my boots. “I’m still kind of drunk on the power of actually being fifty-fifty owners with Jamie in something. I don’t think it’s ever happened.” He moves to the wall and begins to press at the bubbles in the wallpaper. “Sure it has.” “Come on, relax.” I point at the armchair. He moves the bra pile and sits. He can be so lusciously obedient. “Jamie has never let me actually have half of anything. Even if Mom gave us a piece of cake as kids and told us to share . . .” Tom finishes my sentence. “Jamie would cut it sixty-forty.” “He said it was because he was bigger. He deserved more.” I eye Tom now, sitting there in that chair, looking like a piece of cake, or another beautiful photograph I’ll never get to take. The lamplight loves that face of his. I’m getting drunk but I can’t stop myself. “I never got to share you.” I watch him mull this over. He can’t deny it. Our entire childhood was spent at opposite ends of the dining table, my bossy blond brother always talking, laughing, dominating. Functioning as the line between us. Leave Tom alone was a common refrain. Ignore her. Sitting here with him alone is a novelty. We’re all shareholders in Tom Valeska: Jamie, Megan, and me. His mom and my parents. Loretta and Patty. Everyone who’s ever met him wants a piece of him, because he’s the best person there is. I quickly count up all of those people. I include his dentist and doctor. Maybe he’s only 1 percent mine. That has to be enough. I have to share. The wine is washing through my veins in a warm cuddly wave. “Why’d he have to be born first? I swear, if I was his big sister, everything might be different.” “Your dad always joked that Jamie was the prototype.” Tom’s sparkling with humor. “That means you’re the final product.” “Pretty crappy final product, complete with defects.” I clap my chest and my breast jiggles shamefully. “I was meaning to ask,” Tom says carefully, avoiding eye contact like he’s edging close to a silverback, “how’s your spool?” That’s what he calls my heart, since we were kids. It’s been too long for me to remember why. To him, inside my chest is a spool of cotton thread. This guy has so many methods to manage the Barrett twins, it’s truly impressive. His cute euphemism always untwists my knickers. “My spool is just fine and dandy. I’m going to live forever. I’m going to pour Kwench on your grave. Ugh. No way I’m going to explain that to elderly Megan. I’ve changed my mind. I’ll die first.” “I worry about you.” “I worry about big hot dorks who ask too many questions, who are stuck in a house late at night with me.” I stretch my legs and my tank slips off my bare shoulder. I wonder if my nipple piercing is doing what it does best, through my clothes: punctuating the obvious. Judging from the way he’s looking at me, the bras, and the darkness outside, he’s just realized that our eighteen-year friendship has finally hit a belated milestone. We’re alone. I look into his eyes and I feel that crackle in him again. Everyone else sees a mild-mannered sweetheart. What I feel, between us? It’s never quite human. “You know why this feels so weird, don’t you?” A door creaks open and we both jump. If anyone had a secret passageway behind a bookcase into this house, it would be Jamie. Loretta’s cat Diana walks in, huffy and annoyed, her green eyes trained on Patty. She’s another one of our inheritances. I dislike her on a personal level, but again I have to appreciate how animals can break tension like magic. I snap my fingers at her and she gives me a look like, You’re fucking kidding, right? “I hate to be cynical, but do you think Loretta had this cat to add to her mystical tarot-reader persona?” Tom shakes his head. “She wasn’t a scammer. She really believed in it.” He’s pretty much tried everything on Loretta’s menu. She was fascinated by his palm. Predictably, he has one hell of a heart line. Like a blade has cut right through you, she told him with a slicing motion. One big one. His little-kid face pinched in surprise as he looked at his hand like he was searching for blood. Loretta’s specialty was tarot, but she offered everything: tea leaves, I Ching, numerology, astrology, feng shui. Palms, dreams, and pendulums. Past lives. Power animals. Auras. Once when I came over as a teenager, I was halted by a Séance in Progress Post-it note on the door. I gesture around us. “I know. And I think she was the real deal. But holy shit, she backed herself up with a lot of ambiance.” The wallpaper is blood-red hyperreal hydrangeas. The curtains are fringed with jet-black beads that glitter in the light. The low coffee table transforms easily enough when a thick, sparkling cloth is put over it, even more so with the crystal ball. It’s like sitting inside a genie’s bottle. When the fire crackles in the hearth and the ruby lamps are on, you could believe anything in this beautiful room. The air is still heavy with Loretta’s signature incense: sage, cedarwood, sandalwood, and the faintest incriminating whiff of pot. In this room, I miss her the least. “That fireplace is in my top five favorite things in this world.” I tip my face toward it. “I can’t wait until it gets cold and I can light it again.” I mentally count forward the pages on the calendar. “Oh. Well, shit.” Tom links his fingers together and leans forward. “We can light it again before . . .” I nod and try to swallow the sad. “Just one more time would be great. I guess I haven’t completely thought about what I’m going to have to say goodbye to.” With a dismissive nose-wrinkle, Diana jumps up on the arm of Tom’s chair and Patty vibrates with outrage. These dear, sweet buffers. “I begged Jamie to take her.” I open a new bag of marshmallows, because the void is getting bigger. “Every evil overlord needs a fluffy cat to stroke.” Tom offers his hand to her and she roughly rubs her white cheek along his knuckles, before looking at me with smug acid-green eyes. Fair enough. I’d love to do the same to him. He yawns and slumps a little, unaware that my screws are getting looser by the second. I remember something. “So, Jamie’s room is an issue.” He seizes the chance to leave the room, so I guess my stare is getting to him. I call after him, “It’s not my fault. I didn’t know you were coming.” “It’s up to the ceiling,” he says from the hall. “Darcy, seriously.” “I don’t have any storage space, and Jamie just won’t come and get his stuff. So I just . . . stacked it to the ceiling.” I am sloshing wine into my glass again when he appears. He confiscates the bottle, towering over me, holding it up to the light to look at the level. “That’s enough for tonight.” He tousles my hair with his fingers to soften the scolding. “I can’t get used to it. It really is so short.” He still hasn’t said that it looks good. I won’t ask, because he can’t lie. Megan has a beautiful glossy dark mane. Even I want to touch her hair. “I look like I’m in a Korean boy band, but I don’t care. I can feel the air on the back of my neck.” I stretch as his fingertips depart, and hopefully he doesn’t notice. I need physical touch more than sunlight, and it’s embarrassing. A hologram of Vince appears and I blink it away. “I personally didn’t know you had a neck. What happened to your plait after it was cut? Not the bin.” The thought horrifies him. “I donated it. Someone out there is walking around with a big white wig. So, do I look like Jamie now?” He laughs and the room gets brighter. I’m not saying that to be cute; it’s true. The lamps all blaze up. Shot electrical wiring—or Loretta spying on us? I know which I’d put my money on. “What did your brother say when your mom sent him the photo?” “That I look like a wannabe Goth Joan of Arc and that I chopped off my only redeeming feature. I don’t care. I love it.” He puts the bottle and glass out of reach, then takes the bag of marshmallows that I’ve been cradling and puts them on the mantel. “You look nothing alike.” “I look like Ms. Pac-Man with a bow on my head. I’m like the scale version of him.” “You’re really not.” “Is that a compliment or an insult? My brother is beautiful, as you know.” He shakes his head in amusement but still says nothing. I’ve been fishing on this same pier for many years. He steps closer, and feather-soft, he reaches down and nudges the mark on my arm. “This is not okay. And I’ll . . .” He bites down on the rest of that sentence and the tendons of his jaw flex. The hands by his sides curl and squeeze. I know what he’ll do. He doesn’t have to say it. I feel it. I’ve just decided to reach up to uncurl his fingers when he decides to retreat entirely to the only place I cannot follow. “I’m going to take a shower,” he says, going outside before reappearing with a huge suitcase. “What’s that? Are you flying internationally somewhere?” “Ha, ha,” he replies dryly. He’s not an easy flier. The image of him crammed into a tiny plane seat, nervously clutching the armrests, is weird. And cute. And makes me sad. Wine kind of does that to a person. The Cure also assists. I lie back and cross my legs at the knees. “Now, that shower has gotten a bit temperamental. Should I come in and show you?” I keep my tone straightforward, but I can see a rose-gold blush on his cheekbones as he unzips his bag. “No, thanks.” He pulls out some pajamas and a black zipped bag. “Oh wait.” I get to my feet and run down the hallway, Patty at my heels. “I’d better check . . .” “Darce, relax,” he says behind me as I scoop up puddles of underwear from the floor. “We practically shared a bathroom when we were growing up.” And it goes unsaid but he lives with a woman. He’s seen everything. The room shrinks by half. I don’t leave. “You’ll have to go out now.” His hand cups the hem of the T-shirt. Then he grips it. Everything twists tighter. There’s an inch of stomach, and it’s tanned like caramel fudge. I plead with myself. Eyes up, DB. His knuckles start going white. “Go on. Out.” I don’t know if he’s talking to me or Patty. I pray for St. Megan to give me strength. He herds me out. “Towels in the usual spot?” “Yeah,” I say, hating the fact that he’s audibly turned the lock. How embarrassing. How prudent. “I’m sorry I’m weird to you.” “That’s okay.” On the other side of the door, Tom is getting naked. Come on, Maison de Destin. Collapse your walls. “You forget, I’ve known you a long time.” “And I’ve been weird to you the entire time.” “Yeah.” There’s a banging noise, then a blast, and he yelps. “These pipes.” I can hear the shower curtain flutter. I slide down the wall and Patty looks like she has a twin sister. I’ll keep one when he leaves. “What a fucking lucky drain.” The wine has knocked my legs out and maybe I should be worried. I didn’t have much. Am I dying? My heart feels steady, ticking away valiantly. I look at the two little faces next to me. “Patties, that shower doesn’t know how good life is right now.” Let’s review how this night has turned out. Tom Valeska is putting his flawless face under the spray of my shower, suds sliding down, rinsing his gold skin. Muscles dripping. I have seen him climb out of pools roughly ten billion times by now, so I think I know what he looks like. Almost. I pull up the bottom of my top and blot the sheen from my face and neck. He’s got legs for days and a beefy butt. Straddle-worthy hips. Those shoulders? Streaming with water now. The shower’s off, and now one of Loretta’s towels is probably around his waist. Those towels barely wrap around me. I am having mental images that need to be taped shut inside that box of dildos, like it’s a cursed sarcophagus. I don’t think this can be happening. I’ve fallen asleep on the couch and am having a delirious, dehydrated sex dream. But if this were a dream, the door would be ajar, steam curling out to me. If he asked me to come in right now, I would pull the pins out of the hinges with my teeth, spitting them on the floor. I can say this with absolute certainty: No man has ever made me want to lick a foggy bathroom tile before. “Megan, Megan,” I whisper to myself, icy-white diamonds behind my eyelids as I drag myself to my feet. In my room, I scrub my eyes with makeup wipes and change into leggings and an old band T-shirt. I’ll let my teeth decay tonight. When Tom appears in the doorway, wearing another tight T-shirt and sweatpants, I’m starting to doubt reality again. “You’re forgetting something.” He points a thumb next door. “That room.” His jaw tenses and he swallows a yawn. My hospitality leaves a lot to be desired. “Where do you want me?” “In my bed. Not with me! I’m on the couch tonight.” I eye my bedside drawer. “Wait, let me burn the room down real quick.” He laughs like he’s got my number. “I’ll take the couch.” “You can’t fit on it. Here.” I pull the blankets back, take him by the wrists, and toss him down. It’s weirdly easy. Shouldn’t he be difficult to manhandle and throw down? Maybe I’m super strong. Maybe he’s light as a feather. Or, most realistically, he’s exhausted. But still, he gives me a look that makes my inner thighs quiver. And when he pulls up the comforter, it’s low on his hips. He looks like a beautiful big Viking, even under candy stripes. “I shouldn’t.” He leans back against the headboard and contemplates my nightstand with sideways eyes. I don’t feel too worried. This here is a cast-iron moral compass. Mine, on the other hand? Not so much. I need to get out of this room. Out of this country. “Jamie would kill me if I let you sleep on the couch or the floor. Consider me the hostess with the mostess.” I sound incredibly drunk. How strange; I’m starting to feel very sober indeed. I dig around in the big wooden chest at the foot of the bed, searching for a quilt. I hear an uneasy mattress squeak. The sound seems to come from his soul. I tsk at him. “What? Sleeping in my bed isn’t cheating on Megan. And they’re fresh sheets, before your mind goes there.” In my peripheral vision, he regards the empty space where Vincent would go with slack-jawed horror. I avoid looking in his direction as I snatch up a pillow. I don’t have to look to know that Tom fits my king-sized bed like a dream. One of those dreams you defile yourself after. “Okay, good night.” I retreat backward down the hall, knocking my elbows on everything, and fall onto the couch. I cocoon myself, knowing it’ll be icy in this room by morning, and then I decide to set myself an impossible little target. It’s nothing too aspirational. It doesn’t involve my finding the courage to loosen my fingernails from the edge of this couch and walk back down the hall. Skin-on-skin-on-sweat physical contact isn’t in the realm of possibility. Not now, not ever, not Tom. I thought that having just 1 percent of Tom Valeska’s heart feels like hitting the jackpot, but I think I was wrong. It’s now not enough. I’m going to make him 2 percent mine. Chapter 6 I didn’t sleep much last night, because I kept thinking about that time a long time ago when Tom told me exactly how he felt, and I didn’t understand. That time when I was possibly at 100 percent and didn’t know it. I was eighteen, putting black platforms on over my fishnets to go hang out with a bad crowd, and Tom had leaned on my door frame and asked me not to go out. It had been no secret that he didn’t approve of all the black-clad guys and how I stayed out all night. I thought it was typical Valeska-in-the-snowdrifts stuff. Tug, tug, away from danger. In my careless way, I’d snapped at him. Why not? Why shouldn’t I go? Tom told me in a steady, reasonable voice: Because I love you. And I’d replied without thought or gravitas, I know, because I’d always felt it. How could I not? How many times had he saved me? I’d have to have been a moron to not know it. To this day I know he loves me, in that old, stitched-into-my-family way. Turns out, I know wasn’t the right reply. He’d rusted over with embarrassment and left. He wouldn’t turn around as he walked down the front stairs, through our front gate. He wouldn’t stop even as I chased him across the street and he shut the door in my face. That was the very first time I tore up a once-in-a-lifetime offer. I bailed on my friends and I went to Loretta’s house instead. When I told her what had happened, she said, I saw that coming. What else would I expect from a fortune-teller? She shook her head. That’s not what she meant. That boy would take a bullet for you. We sat outside and shared a joint, and it was a thrill. Don’t tell your father! How’d I birth such a prude? It grows in the earth, for God’s sake. She told me about her first husband, way before she met Grandpa. I never knew she had been married twice, so I was gobsmacked. I was just a kid, she mused, eyes narrowed on her inhale. Maybe if I’d met him ten years later . . . it was a terrible mistake. I hurt him badly, because I was too young and immature to love him right. I still regret it. Let yourself grow up and live your life. You’re a wild one, just like me. I’d laughed and said there was no risk of me getting married. This was just me and Tom kissing, if it didn’t feel weird. Loretta hadn’t been remotely amused. He loves you more than that. I can see you don’t take this seriously. Like it was an emergency, she bought me my first plane ticket and gave me some cash. A few days later, under the cover of darkness, she drove me to the airport. It was a transformative moment. I was suddenly completely responsible for myself and not part of a set of twins. It was like all the turmoil I’d caused was released out of a pressure valve, and I knew it was the right thing to do. Loretta handled the fallout from my parents and brother, and I threw my first coin into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, completely addicted to this new reckless anonymity. Nobody saw a girl with a heart condition and a more electric brother. They saw me for the first time, and even better, I could walk away from anything I didn’t like. My wish, when I threw that coin into the fountain? That Tom wasn’t too bruised by my carelessness. I drift off now, on the couch with the quilt over my face, imagining myself walking down the carpeted jet bridge from the gate into an airplane. That’s my favorite part: walking out of real life so that everyone I love can exhale. Except that first time I did it, I walked out a little too long. When I returned, ready to look into Tom’s eyes and be guided by what I felt, I was pulled up short by the sleek, composed girl at his side who would one day wear his beautiful ring. And here’s the real kicker: Jamie introduced them. “ALIVE?” THERE’S A voice above me. I wake with a snort, flip the quilt away, and open my eyes. “Ouch.” Tom has sympathy in his voice, so I must look pretty bad. He puts a takeout cup on the coffee table. Next, a takeout box. I attempt to speak with my dead mouth. “Have I mentioned that you are the world’s best person?” “A few times. Waffles. That’s still right, isn’t it?” Just like his cheese-lettuce lunch, my hangover food hasn’t changed. I nod and pull myself up onto my elbows. I’m glad he doesn’t know about my trip down memory lane. “What time is it?” The coffee is the most perfect temperature and sweetness and I drink it in a series of gulps. I’m a hummingbird. “Oh my God.” I tip the last drops into my mouth. I lick the inner rim. “How was that so good?” Does everything taste this good when delivered by his han