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About the author:
Ren Alexander was born in Wheeling, West Virginia. She graduated from West Liberty University, where she received a B.S. in criminal justice. Although interested in that field, her true passion was reading and writing. She currently lives in Detroit, Michigan with her husband, two daughters, and two cats.
Ren's novel, "The Keys to Jericho," was chosen as an "Official Selection" in the Romance category of Apple Literary's 2017 Annual Book Awards.
What inspired you to write your book?
Greg Rodwell is my favorite Wild Sparks character. He's funny, raunchy, foul-mouthed, but the best guy ever. But beneath the laughter is a tarnished heart of gold hiding his darkness. His story had to be told, even if it was the hardest for me to tell.
Here is a short sample from the book:
If you’re reading this, I’m dead. Shocker. I know. I hope you made sure I didn’t look like a clown prostitute in my casket. Mom was always big on trying to make me normal and not the queen of the damned I was. Her normal was most definitely not mine. I swear if she made me look like I hawk Avon, I will haunt your dumb ass.
I wish I could comment on what heaven or hell is like. I’ll just say that either one could use more nachos. I’ll always remember that time we ate nachos in the backward seat of Aunt Amy’s old station wagon. Being the faulty tool you are, you blew chunks everywhere. It dripped down the back window! Even if I did beat you within an inch of your eight-year-old life, that was a special memory for me. I’m telling everyone here about it.
You’re probably wondering why I’m writing to you. In a diary. On my borrowed time. Sitting in the bathtub. I’ll pause while you think about your naked sister. Pervert.
As I was saying, you’re probably killing your brain cells trying to think of reasons. Pencils down. I’ll give you the answer. You need me. It’s as simple as that. I’m about as deep as a clogged toilet. I can’t stand being all sentimental and shit, even in death.
I’m not writing to you just to ramble. When I have something to say, I’ll say it. When I don’t, piss off. Figure it out yourself.
The point of today’s writing is that I know your secret.
Get over her, little brother.
You fucking have to, Greg.
Have a wonderful day.
Get fucking bent. You think you know me, but you don’t. Nobody really does. And secrets? There are a couple I’ve never told a soul that would curl your hair. I’m not going to start by telling a fucking ghost.
I know you left this diary for me to find but hiding it in your damn underwear drawer is repulsive, even for you. Are you satisfied that you’re still ruffling my feathers after you bit the dust? How fair is that shit? I don’t sit at your grave, spouting ridiculous theories about your life. No. Instead, I’m sitting here writing to a dead chick who didn’t have the courtesy to say goodbye before she croaked.
Hey, you also had a little secret. I know you had the hots for your physical therapist. Wasn’t his name Ernie, as in the Keebler Elf? Aside from his porn ‘stache, his toothpick arms and crooked legs didn’t inspire confidence in me that he was qualified to help your lazy ass. Maybe he did, just in ways that make me want to claw at my brain.
So, fucking thanks for making incorrect assumptions about me. I guess it’s all the same since everyone else does it. I don’t need you or your daily affirmations from beyond the grave to give me insight into my life. I just don’t. I got it all under control, sweet cheeks. Go back to your harp playing or pitchfork sharpening.
You have a blessed evening.
P.S. Don’t haunt me. I have enough problems.
P.P.S. Okay. Disregard most of that shit.
P.P.P.S. You can still get bent, though. Wherever you are.
P.P.P.P.S. Like Gloria Gaynor said, “I will survive, motherfuckers.” Or some shit like that.
Do Jewish vampires avoid the Star of David?
Does killing time damage eternity?
Do you need a silencer if you shoot a mime?
Can a hearse carrying a corpse drive in the carpool lane?
If a person dies and then rises from the dead, do they get a refund for the coffin?
“Did you fall in?”
Widening my eyes at the piss-colored wall tile, I restlessly sigh, dramatizing my annoyance. Can I not get a moment of fucking peace around here? It’s the only place I’m able to ponder life.
“Just taking a piss break, Amos.”
“Could you at least give a courtesy flush?” The fucker laughs, and it echoes midstream while I throw him a middle finger from behind the door. Without seeing him, I know he’s checking out his bald reflection in the mirror, blinding the room.
“I’ll get right on top of that,” I reply like a dial tone as I near the finish line, imagining I’m pissing on his face. He’d probably like that shit, though.
“You know, there are urinals in here.” His pompous voice reverbs, giving me a double dose of his assholery.
“Oh. I thought they were snooty sinks.” I yawn as my actions also echo within the stall. Jackwad.
“Don’t be playing around in there. I need a face-to-face after lunch, so make sure I don’t see more than your face and zip your pants.” He just wants to think of me holding my dick. Perv.
On the third shake, I qualify for playing with myself as I check my watch at the same time. I don’t want to see him when I leave this stall. I guess it’s time for the big guns, so to speak.
Rolling my eyes, I moan—not my greatest moment—and noisily suck air between my teeth, praying to God nobody else walks in right now. With a loud, stuttered sigh, I give the fourth shake, grinning to myself. I hear his jaw, and his disbelief hit the sink. Don’t fuck with me, comrade. You’re no match for me.
Amos mutters, “Okay. Okay. Just stop. I was only kidding. I’m leaving. My office in 30.”
Because Amos Vaughn is so transparent, I know he’s squinting his eyes at me from the other side of the door, unsure of how to respond. Lacking comeback skills, he heaves his brawny body into the door, at the mercy of my patience. “It’s 29 minutes now, Rod.”
Rod. Yeah. That’s me. I used to be just Greg Rodwell. A nickname given to me by a former coworker troll has transcended even her tenure here. Now, most of my coworkers and my godforsaken boss call me it. Though, that’s the tamest version of names the bitchtress used to call me, giving that my middle name is Richard. Draw your own conclusions. Sometimes I’m still Greg at work, but not often and only by a select few. I’ll never escape Rod while working here. I’ve accepted it. I just hate the source.
I’ve also accepted that I’m the office clown, making everyone laugh. In reality, I should be a goddamn marvel for the services I provide since most of my coworkers are garbage humans. I’ve crafted my distance, deflecting with my carefully sculpted wit, aged to perfection in oak barrels for nearly 29 years—an undiluted, rye wit, you could say. That’s my superpower. Fuck me. I need a job at a distillery.
Tucking myself and my shirt back into my pants, I kick at the handle. Emerging from the stall as I buckle my belt, the sound of the flushing toilet swirls the Amos-free room just as Crick Scanlon enters. I instantly grin. With his Caesar haircut, circa George Clooney 1996, this particular coworker is a favorite of mine. Maybe it’s because he’s the Arctic opposite and doesn’t outwit, allowing me to polish my skills. To those who don’t know him, he has a wallpaper-paste personality. That’s their loss. Because of his eerie quietness and formalness, his rare laughter is a goldmine. He takes anything I lob at him. Crick is the coloring book to my bucket of crayons. I aim to shock the hell out of him, making him laugh or gape in horror, which, coincidentally, is how my mother often looks at me on any given day. “Hey, Crock. Get fucked last night?”
His face reddens faster than a novice ass at a BDSM club. He looks at the wall with an expression like I just kicked him in the liver. “Uh, no. Um…you?”
My grin doesn’t falter even as I go for a depressing lie. “You know it. All night. Every night.” He’s a decent-looking guy. He could probably find a date if he tried. I’m pretty sure he’s gay like Amos, not that they’re dating each other. That would be fucking disturbing. Crick deserves way better. Not Amos Vaughn. He’s a sick fuck.
Crick makes an effort to not look at me. I dig his awkwardness, so I grab a bigger shovel. “If you’re like me, I bet you’re a beast in the sack.” When he looks at my hands working my buckle, I tease, “I’m not doing no replay of last night for you.” He swallows loud, gaping at me. Bingo. “Just yanking your chain, Crack. Calm down.” I laugh when he looks at the ceiling, still quiet. “Maybe I can help you find a date. What’s your type?”
“I’m not really into dating right now.”
Finished with my belt, I go for the sink. While washing my hands, I watch Crick scratching his arm through an unnecessary sweater for the early October weather. “Come on now. I know a sex fiend is hiding beneath that submissive exterior.” Images of him being collared at one of those clubs make me flinch at my own reflection.
He shrugs as I catch a surprising quirk of his lip in the mirror. “I’m boring, Greg. I don’t have much luck as you do, especially with a certain coworker.” Goddamn it. Don’t say her name.
The sudsy water swirling in the sink temporarily enthralls me, so I don’t have to see either of our expressions. “Uh… She’s… We’re—”
Looking up at the mirror, I glare at both of us. Shit. Joke’s on me.
Shasta. Enough said.
Actually, no. I have plenty I want to say about that meat sock. I wish I could blame Shasta for what we did, but I was the one who went to her. It was a last-ditch effort to forget my life for the night. And shit did I do things with Shasta I’m not proud of, not that I wouldn’t do them again. Just not with her. And thanks to a busted condom, I’m glued to her. Enjoy that mental image.
Grabbing a paper towel, my smile shrinks faster than my dick earlier, feigning jerking off for Amos. “Never.”
“Well, Greg, I mean, you do have a daughter with her.”
Shooting my wad—not that kind—into the trash, I try to laugh, but I’m still caught off guard by his unusual commentary. “No. Yeah. I meant, never again, not even if hell froze over, melted, caught fire, and then froze again. Damn, Crick. You know how to destroy a guy’s day.”
He clears his throat as he inches toward a urinal. “I didn’t intend to. I’m sorry. I thought since you were joking around, I needed to engage.”
“Jesus Christ. What a day for you to grow a vagina.”
I return to the mirror, adjusting the Windsor knot of my Storm Trooper tie while he says, “Um, right. Well…” Through the mirror I see him staring at the urinal, and I’m half expecting him to start singing In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel. I never said he wasn’t peculiar.
I snort. “You need a bathroom pass or an engraved invitation?”
He slightly smiles. I’ll take that as a win. “No. I was just…”
“I’m just busting your balls.” Crick looks away from me, and I feel super awkward now for saying that. “Uh, right. Anyway, enjoy. Not too much. There’re some sick bastards working here.” Why can’t I just shut the fuck up? As I leave, I hear his quiet laugh. There’s that, at least.
When I reach the hallway, I’m ticked for now thinking of Shasta. I guess talking to Crick does have its drawbacks.
Taking a left, I steer clear of my office since it’s attached to Amos’. I’m not ready for that follicle-challenged psycho again yet.
Approaching the open door, I hear a familiar voice. Stopping in the doorway and leaning against the frame, I straighten my tie and cross my arms.
She looks my way with a bright smile as she talks. I don’t know how she does it, but I grin back at her. It’s a requirement.
My favorite person.
Well, I guess next to my infant daughter and my older sister, Eden, but to be fair, my daughter is new in town, and my sister is dead.
I watch Hadley move as she talks. I’m always watching her.
Hadley and I have been BFFs since I started working as a paralegal at the law offices of Rhodes, Dryden, Charleton & Associates over three years ago. Only that long? It feels like I’ve been rotting here for a century and a half.
Hadley turns her attention back to her computer screen as she nods. Her honey-brown ponytail dances along while I stare, and I can’t help but do that, even though I have no right. When she laughs, my gaze drops to her bouncing tits, larger than they used to be only months ago. Her left hand goes to her chest, and her sapphire and diamond rings catch the overhead light, blinding me while reminding me. I didn’t give her those rings, but I may as well have with the lengths I went to get them on her finger.
Forget Crick. I’m the masochistic submissive.
Hanging up her desk phone, she turns her full attention to me with bright green eyes and a bigger smile, making me roll my eyes as I lose control of my fucking grin.
“Hey. You going for coffee?” Hadley’s voice momentarily shakes me from my daily beatdown. I instantly look away from her not-all-that-innocent face and shift to the window overlooking the cemetery across the street. I appreciate cemeteries, not because they harbor the dead, but for how their stories end—happy, sad, cliffhangers or mysteries. All that shit’s there. On a less tragic note, they’re an excellent place to eat lunch and escape your coworkers. Almost. It doesn’t help when I invite a certain one with me all the damn time.
I realize she’s still waiting for an answer, so I forget the cemetery, but again, I’m caught up in her smile. “Yeah. You all done milking yourself?”
“Rod!” She giggles and my attention again falls to her chest as she laughs. Before she notices me foaming at the mouth, I look at the gray carpeting. How have I made it through years on end here? “I already pumped this morning. I just need to finish this one thing.”
“Whatever. I’m in no hurry.” Amos can take a flying leap off the James Monroe Building downtown, boss or not. He’d be lost without me. I’m never on time for that schmuck’s meetings, and we practically share the same office.
As I wait, I look to her desk. Next to Hadley’s computer are pictures that choke me, never letting me live down my stupid life choices. Every damn time I step into her office. The picture on the left is a cruel joke rattling through my tin-can soul. Her wedding picture. Though her husband owes me for what I did for him, his triumphant grin mocks me, day and night.
Averting from his victory, I look at the other picture. It makes me smile back, just like her mother does. Hadley’s baby daughter is the same age as mine—about two months. Cute little shit. I can’t help but stare at that picture the most, for a reason I can’t even admit out loud.
“Earth to Rod.” Hadley smiles, catching my attention. Smirking to cover my mental hiatus, I veer away from the torture, automatically moving to the hallway. Still, when she joins me, I notice how perfect her neck is and how her tits swell under her black blouse—Liz Claiborne. She always shops at JC Penney, so an easy guess. Before her curves were new and improved, I touched some of them. I still can’t forget how she felt. Or how I did.
That night in the parking lot, Hadley sat in my truck with the door open. I stood against her legs, silently pleading with her to want me like she wanted him. But deep down, even though they had broken up, I knew Hadley would never. But if she had wanted us to be a couple, I would’ve settled for fucking second place.
Before I could stop myself, I took the chance. I leaned in and kissed her. She wasn’t just a fantasy anymore. Her lips were begging mine to kiss her faster. Harder. And fuck, I did. I couldn’t help it when my hand went to her leg, touching her soft, bare skin. When she opened her legs and skirt, pulling me closer, I nearly lost my fucking mind and my load. I was harder than usual, jerking off to her picture on my phone, which is something I had started doing recently. I mean, I thought about Hadley a lot, but I hadn’t taken it to that level of depraved until after she had broken up with her boyfriend. I always make sure to take new pictures of her, whether she knows it or not, just for that purpose. Little does she know how often I come on her face.
I licked her lip, tasting her, and I had no control when my fingers dug into her skin. But maybe she didn’t either when she put her hand on mine and pulled it under her skirt. Since my restraint was long gone, I pushed even farther, until my thumb grazed the crotch of her underwear. When she gasped, I was toast. She wanted me. Or at least, wanted to use me. I didn’t want to be used. It brought back severe flashbacks of a night I’ll never purge from my fucking brain.
It was Hadley. I wanted her to forget her problems, even if it brought more problems for me to endure for the rest of my life.
I moaned. Hadley moaned. In her apartment’s parking lot, I fingered her. It wasn’t planned. We weren’t together. But after facing off against Morgan and with Hadley being recently single, we were drawn to each other that night. I pressed my thumb into her, with only her underwear stopping me from totally feeling her. Even so, I had no idea what I was doing. At 27. Laughable, yeah.
For the first time in my life, I wanted more. Jesus Christ, I wanted her. I had never been so goddamned hard. Our bodies were close as we kissed, I fingered, and she begged. She didn’t have to with words. Just by the way she was trying to fuck any of my fingers she could, that was all she needed to say.
We were in a rhythm, only she was oblivious to me humping the inside of her thigh, near my hand. When she came, I came. We were breathless and dripping on each other. When I moved my hand away from her, I dragged it along her thigh, feeling how I left her wet there.
She suddenly whispered, “Go upstairs with me.” I wanted to. But…
“I can’t.” Shit.
“After what we just did? Why not?”
“Because.” Because I’m not him. And because I didn’t want her to see my fear.
And since I didn’t go, claiming it was my principles—I wanted her to be mine before we went there—we argued, and I stormed off. That’s the night I lost Hadley to another understudy.
We didn’t talk after our argument. Instead, Hadley fucked the other guy. He went past her underwear when I couldn’t.
There are so many things I’ll never forgive myself for, and that’s number one right there.
Still, I had another chance with her weeks later. Yeah, I fucked that up, too. All because I’m a broken pussy.
Hadley and I have come a long way in our friendship since that night.
Only, I stalled somewhere.
Hadley laughs, giving me a questioning look. “What’s your deal? Amos ride you too hard this morning?”
I glance at the wall while I stifle a sigh for the complex and go with the simplistic. “Don’t make me snap your neck or yack my breakfast.”
As she walks in front of me, her hips sway slightly in her red-and-black plaid pencil skirt, like a naughty forest ranger responding to a horny camper. Hey. Don’t judge me. Forest rangers like it in the bush, or something like that. Only, I did it in poison ivy.
“Where’re you going?”
I stop, jamming my eyes shut, realizing I just walked past the kitchen. I need to get my ass with it since my dick is apparently a goner.
Taking backward steps, I swing into the kitchen, bracing my hands on the doorframe. Hadley looks at me with amused doubt. Her soft lips slightly pucker when she tries not to smile. I hate how her lips are inviting. I had a temporary pass to them for a short time. Too bad my long-term invite was lost to another male. Or two. The night in the parking lot has been the most significant highlight…and one of my worst failures…of my life so far.
Tilting her head, she asks, “You have a long night or something?” They all are, especially jerking off in the dark with only my phone to light my way out of bed. What a fucking disaster for my sheets and my phone.
“Uh, no. Why would I?”
“Have you seen Birdy lately?”
Talons grab my arms, yanking them off the frame. “No, he hasn’t.”
I step aside as Shasta oozes past me. Her new, darker brunette hair flies behind her like a witch soaring on a broom during a midnight ride. Shasta Montgomery is stage props in a Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera. They’re amazing to look at from the audience, but up close, you see it’s just cheap plastic and flimsy cardboard. I found that out when I had a backstage pass for a one-night-only performance with her.
Turning in her stilettos, she shoots me a pissy-assed glare. Not having a good excuse, I turn my head, landing my eyes upon the trash can, symbolic of my life right now.
As much as I had fantasized about what it’d be like to sleep with Shasta, I didn’t really want to fuck her—too many complications. The first being she’s about as worthless as shoes on a newborn. There was only one woman I wanted, but I couldn’t have her for a couple of reasons, even when the opportunities were on my jock. So, Shasta was a necessary escape from the constant aching. I can only bend so many times before I snap. And snap I did.
So, I took the dead-end route of desperation. I went to Shasta’s house. More like a den of whores, since finding out that she does threesomes with her mother.
Last October, she had answered the door in a cut-off shirt and tiny cut-offs that used to be sweats. “Roddy, what’re you doing here?”
I wanted to run. I wanted…not her. I wanted to be…not me. The perpetual loser. “I… I just… Can we…? You said…” I looked to the street, hoping to see the Grim Reaper, but he was probably laughing at me. Everyone else does.
Shasta ran her hand down the front of my lavender Calvin Klein button-up, not having gone home after visiting Hadley in the hospital—I was that fucked up. I looked at Shasta, and she smugly grinned, asking, “You want to fuck me, don’t you?”
She’s not the one I wanted to be looking at that second. “Maybe… I don’t… I think…” Without obsessing anymore, I snapped, “Fuck it. Please? I just…”
She laughed and flipped her long hair, hitting me in the face, but I didn’t flinch. “Took you long enough. I thought you’d nail me after the Halloween party Saturday night, but then—”
“I don’t want to talk about that.” Or her.
Shasta nodded as her eyes traveled over my body, making me wish I hadn’t shown up. “Okay. Let’s get to it, then.”
Looking over at Hadley, Shasta says, “I hope your baby daddy is doing a better job than mine is. Mine worries more about his designer clothes than he worries about seeing his daughter.”
The truth hurts on every level imaginable. I do dress well. I have since starting here. I spend a large part of my paychecks on clothes and shoes. It makes me feel more important than I really am. It gives an air about me, albeit false. It’s more than just clothes. It’s almost a status statement. I’m not the poor schlub from Durham, North Carolina when I’m at work. Here, I’m Greg Rodwell, successful paralegal. A somebody, even if it’s all in my head. That shallow concept is the self-esteem boost I need to get me through my day, besides Hadley.
Most of the time.
Hadley crosses her arms, assessing Shasta. The look on Hadley’s face would resemble territorial if I didn’t know it wasn’t. She says, “Rod is going to be a great father. He just needs time to adjust.” Hadley’s either gullible or good at blowing smoke up an ass. I choose the latter.
Shasta slams the fridge door. “Stop defending him, Hadley.”
“It’s the truth. He’s a good guy. Even you know that.” Maybe gullible is a better choice.
Shasta ignores Hadley and glares at me. “It’s been two weeks, Roddy. Your daughter misses her waddy.”
“Is that a maxi pad?”
“Her father,” she clarifies with a you’re-too-stupid-to-breathe-outside-a-uterus frown.
Behind Shasta, Hadley grins at me, but I can’t summon one for her. I know I haven’t seen Birdy in a while. I shouldn’t be laughing, even if I can’t help mocking Shasta’s idiotic baby talk.
Sucking in a deep breath, I can only cross my arms and lean against the metal doorframe—my typical stance of faux indifference. I watch Hadley’s face. Her forehead wrinkles, her lips purse, and her green eyes hone in on her target, Shasta, who’s bending into the refrigerator. Yeah. She has a nice ass too. There was a time I imagined tapping it, but just in passing. She never made it to my spank bank. Nevertheless, been there, done that, stayed for the encore and the backstage show. Impregnated her, even. To be honest, I don’t know how I did. I want a literal, fucking refund. I’m still obsessing over it. Over more than that.
I tell her, “I’ve been sending money.” Shit. I do not want to have this conversation here.
“You think that’s enough? What’s wrong with you?” Where do I start?
“I’ve been busy with work, and I don’t know when you’re home.”
“There’s such an invention called the phone. Use it. You have my number.” Yeah. The one written on every men’s room stall in a 300-mile radius.
I side-eye Hadley, who is back to glaring at Shasta. Pushing off the doorframe, I walk over to Shasta, and when I’m closer, I quietly ask, “What about Brandon? Will he be there?” Brandon Rhodes is the big chief here. Married. A goddamn grandfather who fucks Shasta on the reg.
Her eyes become as large as my truck tires before she smacks my bicep. “Shut up!” Hadley moves closer to me like she’s going to throw herself at Shasta. That might be hot.
“Everyone knows about it. Is he ever there? Is he playing waddy?” He’d better not be. This kid is apparently mine to fuck up.
Shasta crosses her arms, giving Hadley a nervous glance. I’ve recently found out Hadley makes Shasta insecure. She should. Hadley is all woman, unlike the industrial parts constructing Shasta’s tits. Her nipples are like day-old gum on a cold sidewalk. I know that because she had me pull them, reminding me of fucking Silly Putty. Thank God she’s not breastfeeding my kid.
Shasta points her finger into my chest, jostling my tie. “I said I wouldn’t get the court involved. If you did your part, besides paying money for your sperm spill.” When I look at the cabinets next to us, I see Hadley’s mouth hang open, and I feel shittier. “You need to come get your kid during the week, so I don’t lose my damn mind.”
“Uh, yeah. I will.”
“Sure. I’ll hold my breath. If not, I’ll have Brandon handle it.” She takes her blueberry yogurt and bumps into me. For a second, Shasta and I lock gazes, both of us continuing to wordlessly argue before she leaves the kitchen. From behind me, I hear Betsy laugh in the hallway. Great. An even bigger audience.
Sighing, I look to Hadley, but then quickly away, the shame hitting a crescendo while degrading the rest of me.
Returning to the counter, Hadley reaches into the upper cabinet, and even at a low point, I instantly look at her ass. It’s not my ass to admire. It’s his. Her husband gets to put his hands all over, and I have to remember I pushed him there.
Still, I can’t help it if my dick responds. Before she turns around, I send my hands to my pockets. Holding my favorite SpongeBob mug, she goes for the coffeemaker, but I go for the doorway. “I’m not in the mood now. I have a meeting with Amos. See you later.”
“You’re going to softball practice after work, aren’t you?”
Stopping, I make a face but still avoid eye contact. “Why wouldn’t I? It’s our last practice.”
From the corner of my eye, I see her shrug, so I look over. “Just making sure.” Hadley smiles, compelling me to smile back. Looking past me to the doorway, she whispers, “Don’t let her get to you. I know you’re trying.”
“Not hard enough. I know that.”
I sigh to the window overlooking the cemetery across the street. “Hadley, not here. She’s right anyway. Don’t go defending me.”
“I’m not just defending you.” Returning to me in the middle of the kitchen, Hadley reaches up, straightening my tie. I look back at her, watching the top of her head as she moves her fingers to my collar, fixing that too. The scent of her shampoo is intricate. It calms me and arouses me at the same time. It’s the scent that engulfs me when I’m desperate to come, alone in my room with her picture. “I know you, Greg Rodwell. You’re nothing like Shasta thinks.” You don’t know everything about me, Hadley. I’m a fraud.
“Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t know me because everything she said is pretty accurate.” Goddamn Shasta.
“I do know you. You’ll do better.”
I back away from Hadley, not wanting to but needing to for the sake of my sanity and workplace decency. I practically beg, “Like I said, not here.”
She nods. “Okay. Later, then.” Exactly what I want to talk about with her. I’d rather have bleeding hemorrhoids.
As I turn and go to the doorway, she says, “Hey.”
Reluctantly, I stop and pivot just as she circles me. Hadley’s arms go around my waist and her cheek against my chest. When she sighs, I feel the heat through my shirt. Fuck. I chomp on my bottom lip while cautiously, and stupidly, wrapping my arms around her. It’s like she’s my puppet master. I knew one of those. She pulled both Hadley’s and my strings. Morgan adored Hadley but loathed me with every evil shred of her being. I was a threat.
I don’t want to be in this situation, but I can’t stand here like a floppy dick, which mine isn’t at any given time around her, so I make an effort for space. Only, she hugs me tighter, saying, “It’ll be okay. I’ll help you through this.” I know she will. That’s the problem.
I hold my breath, not needing to smell more of her, and while I look around the kitchen, dying for a convincing excuse, including sudden death, she looks up at me. Her green eyes are crystal clear. Those, along with Hadley’s smile, have me paralyzed. Her fingertips go to either side of my jaw, and she whispers, “I promise. I’m always here for you.” Again, that’s my best hope and goddamn predicament, wrapped into a nice shitshow.
Hearing carpeted footsteps nearly tripping, I yank my focus away to catch Amos walking past the kitchen, kind of in slow motion. The look on his face is worth 10 cents, but the thoughts most definitely running through his mind equal blackmail. Damn it.
Before I can disengage myself, but knowing he hears this, all the same, Hadley says, “You always smell good. What is it? Drakkar?”
Seizing that as my break, but now preoccupied with her presence, and unfortunately, Amos’ drive-by, I pull her hands off my face, holding for a split second longer than I should. I switch my ultimate weakness to bogus irritation. “Bite a grenade, hag. It’s Chrome.” Always go for a joke—a swerve. So much safer.
Hadley giggles and I silently bargain for impotence as I again need to return my hands to my pockets, looking to the doorway for that Grade-A clinger. When I see he’s gone, I turn back to Hadley. She curls her black finger-nailed fingers into her honey-brown ponytail and says, “Oh. I don’t know that cologne.”
“Yeah, you wouldn’t know when your husband wears whatever’s on clearance.” So much safer.
Walking over to me, she laughs. “Not so. He wears Hugo or something.”
“You don’t even know?”
“He buys it.”
“My condolences on his lack of originality. I’ll send an Edible Arrangement.” I edge for the door, stuck between relieved and frustrated in a fuckton of ways.
Hadley laughs. “Why are you in a hurry?”
I force a smirk, trying to keep myself in check as Hadley’s perfume lingers on my clothes. Because of that, I’ll be wearing these clothes when I beat off to her tonight. “You know Amos. He’ll make me listen to Streisand or some shit if I’m late. I don’t do show tunes.”
Not waiting for a response, I grab the doorframe, propelling myself into the hallway, elated to have Amos as an excuse. I’d happily sing Streisand right now.
Reaching my office, I see Amos on the phone through the adjoining door. His laughter is more annoying than a burning ice cream truck flying down a hill without brakes on a rainy day. It’s a distinct sound.
Tossing an eye roll to the ceiling, I go into his domain of doom. Amos nods at the wall, not acknowledging me yet. His suit jacket is draped behind him on his chair, so his dark arm tattoos are visible through his peach button-up shirt—Van Huesen. Spread collar, even. Tragic. He could definitely do better in the clothing department, being a lawyer and all. In his spare time, Amos covers his bald head with a paisley do-rag, and leaving his Range Rover at home, straddles a motorcycle. Probably a Harley, but I’m not keenly aware of motorcycle brands other than that one. It could be a Schwinn for all I know.
I notice potato latkes, egg rolls, knish, and Schlubby fries, and that’s just appetizers. It’s 10:00 in the morning for Christ’s sake. Whenever he wants me sitting across from him at his desk, Amos always orders nearly the entire menu at Perly’s, a Jewish deli, because I’m Jewish—half Jewish from my mother’s side. Taking that and running like hell, he has it in his head that I’m Orthodox and only eat kosher. I barely eat like a human most days. Plus, the doofus doesn’t take any of that into account when he sees me eating chicken and cheese fries or pepperoni and sausage pizza all the damn time—mixing fleishig with milchig, not to mention eating pork. On top of that, Amos makes it a point to remind me of upcoming Jewish holidays. I think he has an ongoing Google alert set up just for that. Oy. What a shlemiel.
It’s free food, so I don’t argue. Picking up my usual Hirschfeld sandwich sitting next to his Jewbano, I shake my head as I sit. He hangs up his phone while I take a bite, letting cucumber and tomato hang from my mouth like a dead carcass. Being a proper biker dude, he cringes, tossing napkins at me. “Have some decorum, Rod.”
I slurp them in a brilliant display that makes his face crinkle like foil. “Lost it years ago.” That’s the truth. I had no choice in the matter.
“I won’t argue that.” As I take another extra-large bite, he stands and goes to the door, closing it, which sends a warning shot throughout my mind. I make it a point to never be in a closed room alone with Amos Vaughn. No witnesses.
Losing my appetite, I drop my sandwich onto the wrapper, watching him shove his chubby hands into his Dockers—another unfortunate style choice—making a leisurely stroll back to his side of his mammoth desk. He jingles always-present loose change. Who in the hell carries loose change in their pockets in this day and age? Amos never buys anything out of the vending machines here. Did his piggy bank run away? Is he waiting for a Salvation Army bucket emergency? Is he looking to start a failed one-man band? I need answers.
He returns to his ostentatious red-leather throne, making loud farting sounds. Ordinarily, it makes me laugh, and he has to yell at me for 10 minutes to get it together, but like Phil Collins, I feel it in the air.
Oh, shit. I need to scram.
Grabbing a napkin, I look to his window. “Thanks for the food, but—”
“We haven’t even started.”
“Oh. Right. What…?” I sit back, fidgeting like hell with my hand to my hair, my hand to my thigh, my hand to my jaw… I’d even grab my balls if it’d help me relax, but definitely not in this case or audience. He’d enjoy it.
Amos looks over my head to the door and then back to me. His mouth is set in a straight line, which is the only straight thing about him. To each his own, just not my own. I wasn’t born that way. “Hey.”
I look up from my staring at his desk, just now realizing I was. “Absolutely.”
“Absolutely what? What’s going on with you lately? Is it the baby?”
I clear my throat, and my hand goes back to my jaw. “Uh, um… Some. Yeah.” Mostly, I’m thinking about what Amos’ plans are for me in this room alone. If he pulls a knife, I’m legit screaming louder than any baby.
“How’s she doing?”
Weirdly, I give Amos the truth. “I haven’t seen her in a while.” With that said out loud, I feel worse for that.
He sighs, sitting back, squeaking and clasping his hands over his Harley—Kia—gut. Whatever. “Why not? You scared?”
I readily nod before I can stop myself, and even worse, say, “Shitless.”
“I figured. It was a shock. It was for everyone here. I can’t imagine how you felt.”
Staying in this lane of morality, I skid down the off-ramp, confessing, “How I felt? I feel idiotic, Amos. I can’t even fix the mistake.” I need a severe head injury to shut me up.
“I can see you’re having problems. With your sister passing away last year, an unexpected pregnancy, and with…” He squints at me and then to the latkes on his desk. “Well, I know you’ve had it rough lately.” Shit. If it’d help, I’d sell my soul to Satan just so Amos will shut the fuck up.
“Whatever.” I can’t get into it with him. I don’t know if I’ll shut the fuck up.
“There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”
I lightly pound my fists on the arm of my chair, grateful for the change of subject. “That’s why I’m here. Right? The McCutcheon case—” He kills that with a wave of his hand, essentially rendering me a deflating limp dick, not knowing what the fuck happened.
“No. Not that. I put Scanlon on it.”
“But…” I drop my foot to the floor, almost with my sandwich. “Why? I’ve been working on it for months now.”
“Because you need to focus on another task.” Motherfucker. If he thinks I’m going to suck— “Law school.”
I let out my held breath, blowing my napkins across his desk and onto the floor. Amos’s eyebrows become a V that cradles his cue-ball head. Picking up scattered napkins from his desk, he asks, “Why haven’t you taken me up on my sponsoring your education? You want to become an attorney. Have you applied to take your LSAT yet?”
“Uh…” I shrug as my leg starts bouncing. “I’m scrapping that.”
“Why? And don’t say it’s the money. As long as you go to an ABA-accredited law school and not clown school, we’ll pay for it.”
“It was mime school anyway. Forget it. I don’t have time for school.”
“I just cleared your schedule.”
“Seriously? That’s why you gave Crick the case?”
“Seriously? You’re worried about that case?”
“Don’t mock me, Amos. I have a kid.”
“So? Val did it. Her first husband was deployed overseas, and she had two kids at the time.”
“I’m not Val. That woman comes from a mystical realm of superhumans. I’m only from Durham, North Carolina. Totally unmagical.” Hadley’s boss is the real deal. Val Dryden is the original Wonder Woman.
“I don’t want excuses. The LSAT is only given four times a year. It’s now October. Will you be ready for this month’s test? If not, there’s still December, June, and February. I have some materials you can use to study. After passing the LSAT, then you can apply to a law school. The University of Richmond School of Law is a good school and close by. I’d recommend William & Mary—my alma mater—if it weren’t an hour away.”
“William and Mary? Jesus’ parents? They own a school?”
He sighs, and I watch his forehead dribble more than my showerhead right after I shut off the water. “I'm serious about your future.”
I sigh back at him, needing a shower just from watching him. “So am I, Amos. Just let it go.”
“Why? You haven’t given me a valid reason to. All I hear are excuses. It’s a free ride through law school. Even your textbooks.” When I don’t comment, Amos squeaks forward, putting his elbows on the desk. He’s eerily quiet, so I look up at him to see the fucker staring at me.
“Are you afraid you won’t be around much? For Birdy?”
“Yeah, of course.” And no. I’m not even around her now.
“You won’t have to go it alone. I’ll help you study for exams, answer questions, and pose legal scenarios for you to work around. Think of me as your go-to. Your mentor.”
I make a face I can’t help, which in turn, Amos sports an offended one. I dig for more excuses. “Thanks, but I’d just be a pain in the ass.” I can’t believe I just said that. I rephrase. “My mouth will get on your nerves.” Nice, Greg. Just nice. You practically propositioned your gay boss, not once, but twice.
Amos laughs. “Too late for that.” He looks to the doorway, which makes me look, hoping someone’s here to decapitate one of us. No such luck. When I reluctantly turn back to him, his hands are fisted against his mouth.
Leaning forward, I grab a handful of fries. Fucking Moses on the Mount. He’d better be done talking about this.
He returns his arms to his desk, and I want to hang him with his TJ Maxx-bought tie. You can always tell. “Rod, I want to help you, but something is holding you back from doing this.”
I concentrate on my fries, not interested in his theories. He’s way wrong anyway.
“You’re afraid to fail.” I look up from my goddamn Schlubby fries. Literal cocksucker.
I don’t have to answer him. The jackass sees right through me. I pride myself on being hard to read. I’m always joking, just to keep people at football-field length. I guess I fucked that up.
Unable to look at him, my gaze falls to my now-smooshed fries. Story of my life. Amos sighs. “You only fail if you don’t try. You’re afraid of disappointing people. But I don’t know who you’re afraid of disappointing more: Birdy, yourself, or…” Fuck you, Vaughn. You don’t know me.
Seizing the situation by the balls before I grab his and use them for softball practice, I toss the smashed fries into my mouth and a grin as I sit back. “I’m pretty sure my parents are just happy I’m not in prison.” It’s a miracle I never ended up there.
Amos leans forward more like he’s going to reveal who killed Mr. Boddy with the lead pipe in the library. His voice low, he says, “Rod, I know you don’t want to hear this from me, but… What you do with your personal life is your business, but when it seeps into work…”
Grabbing some napkins, I nod, now uncomfortable about my dick slip with the human version of a pair of scissors. “I know with Shasta… I mean, it was a one-time thing that shouldn’t have happened. I screwed up in the most literal way possible. But I’ll try not to let our drama or my kid get in the way of doing my job here.”
Amos shakes his head. “No. Your daughter isn’t the problem. Actually, I’m still confused by the whole situation with Shasta and…”
Forgetting about all the food in front of me that I’d rather be eating, I insist, “Let me reiterate that sucker. We are not, nor were we ever together.” I roll my eyes. “Yeah, I mean, we were together one night, but not together, together. Make sense?” When he keeps staring at me with his beady eyes, lost in his abundance of cheeks, I say, “That ex-coworker and devil incarnate, Morgan, had pulled her little stunt at the Halloween party last year, and being at the hospital all night with… I had a shitty weekend. When Monday rolled around after I visited the hospital… I don’t know. I was miserable. I don’t even remember driving to her house. I-I just gave in to Shasta, Amos.” I look to the rest of my lonely sandwich on his desk, fucking agitated that I told my boss way too much. Where’s that head injury or decapitation?
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
I meet his gaze, now confused. “Afraid of what?”
“Your focus. Your head’s not into becoming a lawyer because your heart is elsewhere.”
“Jesus. Don’t go waxing lyrical on me. I just told you I don’t give two shits about Shasta.”
“I know you don’t. But… Hadley. She’s a different story altogether.” Shit. He did not go there.
I’m instantly on defense. “What about her?”
Amos squints his eyes at me, an annoying trait when he’s focused himself. “You know what I’m talking about. Your relationship with her.”
“We’re friends.” The worst phrase in the English language. I can’t look directly at the jackass when I say that. Just as Amos can see through me, I know that’s not the truth either.
“I guess you’re her work husband, as they would say. But I think it’s more than that.” Not for her.
I revert to my pubescent, 12-year-old self as I croak, “What makes you say that?”
“You did. Your body language. You’re like reading a billboard—incidentally, similar to one Hadley’s actual husband graces all over Richmond.”
I laugh since it’s the only motor function I have now. I’m so fucked. I can’t even run away. My goddamn office is on the other side of the door.
Amos patiently waits for me to stop laughing. When I do, I say, “Shit. We all know him. You act as if I don’t know she’s married to him. I was there. I gave her away at her wedding.” One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, besides bringing the prick back to Richmond for Hadley. And I even had to bury my sister.
He sighs, squeaking his chair, at least making me blink again. “Something changed. When she went through that tough breakup last summer with him, it looked like you grew closer to her, but then you two were fighting. We all knew about it here. Some of your coworkers overheard you arguing with Hadley at the reception desk.” Oh, yeah. Right. When I accused her of buying yard sale shoes while she regretted ever wanting to fuck me. That one still hurts.
“Golly gee. I wonder who.” Shasta and Betsy are the worst bitches here now that Morgan is gone. There’s no way I’ll ever fuck Shasta again, and the only way I’d touch that skankwad Betsy is with an electric fence.
The deeper he delves, the quieter Amos gets. “It doesn’t matter. We all know something’s going on between you and Hadley. It’s not just friendship. What you do is your business, really. I’m not going to scold you for what you do with your private life until it affects your professional life. Your career. I’m not into office gossip, but I am into your future with this firm. I want you to succeed. I want you to be focused. But you’re not, especially after what I just saw in the kitchen.”
I laugh. “The kitchen? She was trying to make me feel better.” Shit. That’s no help.
He has the nerve to chuckle. “I’m sure.” I make a face at Santa Claus’ head elf but don’t argue. Amos picks up a pen and watches himself drum it on his desk, as do I. Anything to escape this fucking conversation. This fucking office. This fucking planet. “I don’t spread gossip, but I do hear it. You seriously need to watch it, Rod. People are talking.”
“I don’t give a damn what people say about me.” I only care that I look good flipping them the bird.
“I get that, but that’s not the point. Your private business is the worst-kept secret in this office. Yet, I’m utterly confused by it all.”
“What the hell does everyone know? It’s not like I’m taking over an anchor desk and broadcasting it all at noon.” Fucking hell on a stick. “Why is my personal life suddenly on display? You know who else Shasta is sleeping with, don’t you? I won’t even say our supreme leader’s name. Did you know Grant and Sylvie are banging each other? They’re both married. How about good old Betsy? She keeps a sex toy in her office. I hear it at least twice a week. It sounds like a garbage truck. Gloria! Gloria is barely separated from her husband, and she’s dating someone young enough to be her great-grandson. How about that one? You? Well, I heard you’re squeaky clean.” I have to save my ass somehow. Christ.
Amos holds up his hand. “Yeah, I’ve heard it all. But they’re not my concern or my employees. You are. You’re my paralegal. It’s more than hearing the office gossip. It’s what I’ve seen. Your focus disappeared way before your daughter was born. Morgan had something to do with it. Val filled me in on some. But I think none of them are your focus. I think you have a serious problem with Hadley.”
As I morph into any given statue in downtown Richmond, staying silent, Amos sighs. “Look, Rod, we’re adults here. I don’t condone what you two are doing… It’s only my business at work. If you’re worried I’m feeding the rumor mill, think again. I don’t do that. Just… Be careful. She’s married now.”
“Hold up. What exactly do you think I’m doing with Hadley?”
When he looks back to me, he asks, “Are you and Hadley…more than friends?”
I stare past him, focusing on the stupid artwork of a serene lake. I’m anything but fucking serene right now. I don’t want to admit to it, but I can’t deny it either. Whichever way, it’s not an answer I want to give. Hadley would be mortified if I didn’t tell the truth. Or even if I did. She wouldn’t want me to be talking about this at all with Amos. But I just can’t do it. I can’t deny she’s more to me than just my best friend. She’s my everything. That kills me, knowing she’s sleeping with another man every night because of me.
Amos is right. After the night in her apartment’s parking lot, things forever changed. Another change occurred after my sister’s funeral. I showed up to Hadley’s hotel room, kissed her, practically soliciting her for sex, even using the death of my sister to guilt her. Hadley was unwillingly willing. How stupid does that sound? She said yes, and I kissed her some more as I coerced her to the bed. Being the fucking humanitarian I am, when she hesitated that millisecond, the weight of what I was asking her to do with me was too much. I hadn’t had sex in a tragic decade and the last time I did hadn’t been anything like I’ve led Hadley to believe. That night with her in the hotel room, I needed to forget it all and fuck Hadley over and over, savoring her, because I knew it wouldn’t go past that night. But I couldn’t even do that much. The guilt. The fear. They won out as they always do.
We didn’t have sex, but for me, that’s not how it ended. I couldn’t even face Hadley in the morning because of what I did during the night.
Manning up, I instead maintain eye contact in a shitty effort to not look guilty. It’s hard, but I handle it. What’s not hard is admitting to anything, either way. Let him think what he wants. They all do anyway.
“Okay. If you won’t answer that, which you don’t even have to, answer me this: Why didn’t you start dating her when she was single?” Because I was third in the queue.
I clear my throat but don’t back down. “I plead the Fifth.”
Amos abnormally grins, making me queasy. “Good. I like that you won’t be swayed into incriminating your client and in your case—yourself. It’s a required skill to have as an attorney.” As I wallow in shame, guilt, rejection, and low-simmering anger, Amos says, “I carpooled to the funeral with Nico and Val. Later that night after we had stopped for dinner, Val wanted to check on Hadley at the hotel since she had been upset earlier at the wake. We saw your truck parked next to her car. I mean…” He shifts around like he wants to take off. The fucker should try before I choke him with his Jewbano.
Hadley and I are close. Too close most of the time for my intake level. She’s always touchy-feely with me, just not the parts I want her to feel. I’ve known for a while now that most of the office thinks we’re having an affair. But it’s still kind of shocking to hear Amos believes it too. It doesn’t matter. Hadley and I have both denied it before, but no one listens. So, now, I just don’t care. If they think they know for a fact we’re fucking, then let them. It’s true, then. I can at least live out my fantasy vicariously through the office rumor mill, even if it’s a figment of all of our imaginations.
But more importantly, it’s nobody’s fucking business what we’re doing.
Amos says, “You’ll find that as an attorney, you need to have good communication and analytical skills. You have those. But you also have to have good judgment. Yours needs some work. And just like you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, you don’t show up to court unprepared.”
“Okay?” Crazy, drunk bastard. His rambling is driving me up the fucking wall, and I hate the scenic route. “What’s your point?” Shit. Maybe if I slam my head off his desk, it’ll serve as my closing argument.
“You were devastated about your sister’s death, which is understandable. So much so, you didn’t go to her wake. Val, Nico, Hadley, and I were there. Hadley was worried about you, and she wanted to be with you but didn’t know where you had gone. She was in tears. When Nico and I left the table for a few minutes, I overheard Hadley admit to Val that she loved you.”
“So? She tells me that all the time.” Just with less feeling. Studying my navy Ralph Lauren pants, I blandly repeat, “We’re friends.” Propping my elbow on the arm of my chair, I study my fingers as he watches me. I see him in my peripheral, so I make it a point to be blasé about it even as my heart beats faster than I can beat my dick.
“The way she said it, I didn’t get that impression at all. That’s why I’m worried about you, Rod. I know she’s in love with you.”
What. The. Fuck?
Losing control of myself, I drop my arm. I fidget. I cross my leg over my knee, but then restlessly kick it out in front of me. I scratch my head. I look at the wall. If this is what a stroke feels like, I’m in full swing.