"I know what it is."
"What what is?"
"My desert island band."
"Tell somebody who gives a shit."
They couldn’t save Pat’s hand. They being the doctors and the surgeon after EMS shoved each of them into the back of their own ambulance, and not Tiger and his roll of duct tape. He got to keep the rest of his arm though.
Reece fared better, but maybe only in that sense. All limbs attached and accounted for. Whatever. It’s not like just because they both survived they gotta talk about this shit.
Pat’s real quiet these days, which is fine, because Reece is real quiet, too. They sit around in silence a lot of the time. It’s mutual, which means Reece doesn’t think it’s a problem. They snagged an old Playstation off of Pat’s brother and sometimes they play that and other times they watch old Cronenberg movies or Ghostbusters or Mad TV reruns. One night, the better part of the way through a twelve-pack, Pat says something about the Big Bopper. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens. “The day the music died,” that’s the line he says, and Reece has always been very good at not listening and that much hasn’t changed about him. He tunes Pat out as he talks, too afraid he might be saying something about Sam, about Tiger, about the band. About how the two of them are supposed to go on living now.
Reece lifts his can of beer to his mouth. Squints in the general direction of Pat without fully looking at him. “You go all Don McLean on me, I’m gonna have to move out.”
Pat’s smile is very small and very soft. He can see that much. “Yeah? Where the fuck would you go?”
The Ain’t Rights are dead, and of course the band is. Half of the members of it are, too. It’s been a year, since that shit went down. One year without Sam and without Tiger. He and Pat got matching tattoos for them a couple months back, drunk on cheap whiskey but not nostalgia (they avoided that like a roadside bomb), walked back to the apartment in silence and sleeting rain. It wasn’t nearly enough. They’re still gone. It’s not something you get used to. He’d bet it’s the same way Pat is with his hand—that phantom pain shit he’s read about. Pat doesn’t say much about it, if anything. “It’s weird alright,” that’s one of the things he’s said about it, like he was talking about a run-in with an old friend or fucking deja vu and not the fact that he got his hand chopped up by a crew of neo-Nazi fucklords.
But life does resume itself, or they try to resume a life. Pat goes back to school. Community college. He gets a job at the library there, and when he is asked about either his answer is always a default and perfunctory, “Fine,” that means absolutely nothing.
Reece gets a job at a local bar. Not far from the metro stop, frequented by recent twenty-something graduates new to the city. Young women, especially. It’s easy to hook up with them, and he likes it or he likes well enough to pretend he likes it. He runs a lot now. He’s getting back into jiu-jitsu. He fights a lot—both at the gym and out of it. He’s regained the muscle he lost while recuperating. He locks doors. He doesn’t make eye contact with people in parking lots. On dark roads. At the bar where he works now. He doesn’t bother to pretend he likes these things.
He won't ever tell Pat this, but he misses performing. He misses the rush of the crowd. He hasn’t touched his drum kit in months. He tried, not long after he got out of the hospital. One-handed, he picked up the sticks. It felt wrong to look up and no one else was there so he didn’t even play a single beat. Instead he ate a lot of Grape Nuts and he laid out on the futon and did little more than listen to the same Misfits record until even that was nothing more than noise.
They’re boring now. That’s the real sad truth of it. They work jobs and mostly pay their bills and ignore the mountain of medical debt their survival earned them. Their bodies hurt constantly and neither of them knows what to do with the sadness and fear that have hollowed out places to live not just inside of them but between them.
When they first got back to Arlington, they were hot shit. They’d been all over the news—Neo-Nazi Slaughter Outside Portland—so of course it was all anyone wanted to fucking talk about. He didn’t want to talk about it and neither did Pat. But what Reece fast learned was no one really wanted to hear what they had to say: they just wanted to talk about what they heard. It was easy enough to nod along, grunt when appropriate, accept the beer and the booze offered. People liked to use the word brave, which Reece has since decided is just a nobler word for stupid.
“What do we come to these parties for?” Pat had said it, that first month back. Reece didn’t have an answer he was willing to give. They both wore their arms in slings, Reece’s contraption more complicated and obnoxious to take off, and at these parties, they both stuck to the kitchen. No moshing there. Less potential for injury. Typically, a clean line to the front door and the exit.
Pat’s got a thing about exits these days. Reece doesn’t. Reece doesn’t care. That’s what he says, anyway. One year out, and he’s finally getting back into the MMA scene now that he’s done with PT and his shoulder and his bicep aren’t completely fucked anymore. He fantasizes effortlessly and often about that tiny club, that small locked room, out near Portland. What he might’ve done if he was stronger. Better. He pictures the blade, Amber’s steady hand, all that fucking blood. He sees red.
He thinks about Amber often enough that when he does see her—actual and in the flesh—there’s a flicker of beer-tainted and weed-stinking doubt that maybe he conjured her. She isn't real.
He and Pat had headed into DC for the night, coaxed into coming out to some punk club he remembers frequenting before. Before and after serve as a dividing line that’s crashed down into his life with the same destructive and nonnegotiable force as the cleaver that stabbed through his flesh. He tries not to think about that; he thinks about it all the time. He thinks about her all the time, too.
She looks different. That’s the first thing that jogs him back into reality. He wouldn’t have known to picture her like this. She changed her hair, for one thing. Somehow she looks that much more wraithlike and cruel, flatly vicious, in the dim and flashing light of the darkened club. Like she belongs on the cover of a metal album that managed to go mainstream. Like she’s definitely capable of murder. Her hair is unkempt, near white in the bright glare of the lights from the stage, darkening to a dirty blonde when she gets closer, the ends lighter than the roots. She’s cut it into an uneven blunt bob at her chin, like a kid’s bad haircut. She still has mascara or eyeliner smudged around and under her eyes, just like she did that night.
She approaches him like she doesn’t have a choice and neither does he.
“Did you come here looking for us?” he yells in her ear over the band.
Amber stands there all petulant, like she’s just been sent to detention, but it’s a porno, and she might be willing to do something about that. Or maybe that’s just Reece reading this wrong. He’s watched a lot of porn while laid up at home. Anal, mostly. Her hip is cocked though and insolence is easy for her to wear when she isn’t terrified, and her mouth is really wide.
The song winds down, the only sound the reverb of the guitar and the crowd shouting.
“Now why would I do that?” Amber says.
He thinks about Amber slitting Justin down the middle all the fucking time. It’s not an active thing, it’s just there, in his head, whether he wants it or not. He can see her, eyes wet but otherwise calm, unaffected, as she dragged the blade through him. Flesh parting like a drawn curtain, black-red gurgling hot out of him, too human and terrible to achieve any distance from it. Sometimes he thinks about her doing that to him. Sometimes, most times, he thinks he wants her to.
“She’s not staying here.”
Seated at their kitchen table, Amber lifts an eyebrow in what he guesses passes as surprise for her. He’s not sure why she's surprised. They maybe got along for a night and he maybe respected her capacity for violence, but emergency life-or-death circumstances are hardly the same thing as everyday life, thank fuck. That hardly meant he ever wanted to see her again.
Pat, on the other hand, had been nothing but happy to see her. Back at the club, when he found her with Reece at the bar, he reached for her like he was considering hugging her but thought better of it at the last minute.
“I like the,” and Pat gestured towards his own head, meaning hers.
Amber lifted a hand and brushed it through the ends of her hair before giving a small karate chop to her jaw. Her face, even when she wasn’t trying, rested easily in a mask of uncaring mockery. “Yeah. My mom came to visit. Back, after the surgery. She made me cut it.” Reece couldn’t really imagine anyone making Amber do anything. He kinda thought he’d like to try. “I looked like Rosemary’s Baby.”
“Like the Antichrist?” And if that wasn’t the most pedantic-ass shit Pat could pull. Reece grinned, mouth tight, in spite of himself.
Now that they’re back at the apartment—Amber’s presence not even discussed, debated or questioned: she trailed after them when they left the club, and as they waited for the last train of the night, she waited with them too—Pat’s still happy enough. If anyone should be surprised, Reece thinks it’s him. In the last year, the best word to describe Pat has been cautious. Everything Pat does is cautious now. He's fucking vigilant. He double-checks the deadbolt on the front door each night like he’s expecting a home invasion and he walks down the street glancing over his shoulder with every other step. That’s supposably normal. Reece has his own shit he does, he just likes to think he’s less obvious about it.
“Come on man,” Pat says. He flops down onto the futon. Reece crosses his arms and leans back against the wall, equidistant between Pat and Amber in the kitchen. The apartment is fucking tiny, part of a shit complex decently close to the bus stop but a solid mile and a half away from the metro. Each day he treks up the open stairwell that regularly collects rainwater, freezes to ice in the winter. Their apartment is on the third floor of one of eight buildings all clustered around the same squat concrete building that houses the rusted mailboxes and the three washers and the three dryers that haven’t worked in the last year and a half. The rent’s cheap at least. He can't imagine how much smaller this place'll feel if they let her stay.
“No, you fucking come on. We’re not gonna have a fucking Nazi living here. It’s not right.”
“I told you. I’m not a fucking Nazi,” she drawls. Reece barely shoots her a glance before he turns back to Pat. He’s having a hard time looking at her. He doesn’t get how Pat can and not have that night come rushing back at him, overwhelming and too real.
“She’s not a Nazi,” Pat says with, like, fucking absolute full-bodied earnest belief they can trust this girl. It really is a fucking miracle he’s still alive.
“Nah, man, right. It’s just her moral judgment that’s absolutely fucked.”
“My judgment helped get us out of there in one piece, didn’t it?” She purses her lips. “More or less. No offense.”
“None taken,” Pat says.
“I won’t crash long,” she says. “I just don’t have anywhere else to go. Yet.” She doesn’t say it like she wants pity, but as a fact. The same way she said shit that night like, they’re gonna kill us and every other awful tidbit of wisdom she had to offer about their doomed fate as they tried to get out.
When he looks over to her, he finds her staring back at him. She locks eyes with him. He doesn’t look away even though every fiber of himself is telling him to. “I’m very neat and I’m very quiet. You won’t even know I’m here.”
He fucking doubts that.
The last time he saw her, they were at the scene of the crime. The literal crime—they killed no less than three people out in the woods—and the fake crime scene. The conversion van was out by the gate and both Tiger’s and Sam’s bodies were laid out in the grass, mauled and dead. They were dead.
Reece dropped down, first to his knees and then onto his side. The pebbled gravel along the side of the drive dug into his skin through his clothes but moving now felt beyond his ability. He was dimly aware of Pat and Amber. He was closest to Amber. He could see her hand, in the grass, by his head. Close enough to touch him, but she didn’t. He heard her voice, a low, dragging creak.
“Your friend doesn’t look so good.”
Reece laughed, or he tried to. His mouth tasted metallic and his head felt both too light and too heavy. He couldn’t move his arm. The crash-out from the adrenaline was swift and merciless. He smelled his own sweat and damp earth. He still clutched the gun in his hand.
“I’m fine,” he said. Or he tried to.
Amber wasn’t lying. She is quiet—for the most part.
She sleeps on the futon. Pat has the one bedroom; it used to be Sam’s. Reece, as he always did, sleeps on a mattress in a cordoned off section of the main room, a strung up sheet serving as both wall and door. Amber doesn't talk much, even when they talk to her. Reece doesn’t talk much to her. She never asks them about the band, and Reece can't decide if that’s a deliberate act of kindness, the answer a foregone and obvious conclusion, or instead her typical indifference.
It’s weird though, having a girl live with them again. For one thing, she’s nothing like Sam. Not that Reece thinks all girls are Sam, but she is the only girl he’s ever lived with. The only girl that really mattered. Unlike Sam, Amber doesn’t have a nurturing bone in her body. He had failed to realize just how much Sam took care of them. The bills, the tour, navigating both the road and their day-to-day lives, the ins and outs of staying fed and alive.
Amber doesn't have any of that. And Amber's not neat.
She takes over their place in her own tacit and encroaching way. Her life, spilled over into theirs. They’re her shoes kicked off by the front door. Her clothes strewn around, nowhere but the duffle bag she brought with her to keep her shit, at least at first. She brings home a clothes rack one day, sets it up in the corner of the room and starts to hang her shit on it. She leaves cups and mugs all over the apartment and her attitude towards dishwashing can be classified only as conscientious objection. She uses their record player to play the music she likes. She’s really into 80s New Wave and synth-pop now. She listens to the same Soft Cell song for an entire weekend before Reece threatens to take the record out with the bag of trash he’s bringing down to the curb. When it’s not that, it’s 60s girl group pop, like the Shangri-Las. None of it makes any kind of sense, doesn’t match with the girl they first met. It’s like, he thinks, she shed every bit of her identity and left it out west, a snake without its skin.
“It’s a good song,” Amber says, each word drawn too long, whiny. That’s not the point.
There are tampons in the bathroom again, a different brand than Sam’s. Mascara and make-up Amber leaves out on the bathroom sink. Her own shampoo in the shower that smells expensive for a drug store brand. Gardenia, according to the label, more feminine than anything else about her. She uses their soap, Irish Spring, and if he thinks about that, it’s fine. If he smells the shampoo straight from the bottle, that’s fine too. No one needs to know. He doesn’t even need to know. He knows now there are things a person does, reflexive and in the name of survival, that don’t do any good to interrogate. Investigate. People do a lot of shit to stay alive. People do a lot of shit.
Reece’s strategy is to ignore her, even if she’s fucking everywhere. He comes home one night from a shift at the bar to find her sitting on the folded-up futon. She’s at one end, Pat’s at the other, Playstation controller held in one hand. Amber’s knees are tucked to her chest, a giant-ass book open in her lap. From what he can see of the cover it’s some Cold War history thing. The whole scene rankles, comfortable and domestic. He hates it.
“What?” Reece says. He drops his keys on the table, opens the fridge. Nods towards her and the book. He ignores her, until the strategy is more effort than it’s worth. “You gonna cosplay as a commie now?” He pops the tab on a can of beer.
Amber cuts him an icy glare before turning back to her book. “I like to read.”
“Yeah?” He doesn’t know why he feels like goading her, but he does. Fuck that; he knows. He’s been at the bar all day, since noon, a twelve-fucking-hour shift, and since she’s moved in, she’s been little more than a small splinter in his side that only seems to embed sharper and deeper. “What else you like to read? Mein Kampf?”
Amber ignores that. She shrugs her shoulder. “Anything. Everything.” She sets the book down, still open, against her thighs. “You know, Vice came out to find me. After I got out of the hospital.” He doesn’t know what that has to do with anything, but she has Pat’s attention now, the game paused on the screen. "They wanted to do a story about me. Surviving white supremacy and male violence—their words.”
“Did you do the story?” Pat asks. A dumb question; if she had, Reece bets fucking dollars to donuts they would’ve seen it.
“I told them no comment.”
Pat frowns. “How do you feel? About surviving white supremacy and male violence?” His frown has shifted into a dim smile, kind, without mockery. Reece snorts. He pulls out a chair at the table and takes a seat.
Amber hefts the book off her and sets it down beside her. She stretches her legs out in front of her, her entire body unwound and slouched low. “No comment,” she finally says.
“What did end up happening?” Pat says. Reece stills. He’s interested now, too. They somehow have managed to go this long without directly talking about what happened. That’s not entirely fair—there’s no somehow about the whole situation. Reece refuses to talk about it, and Amber, for as good as she might be at pressing buttons, knows when not to. She's got that self-preservation instinct still one-hundred percent intact.
Amber’s face is completely blank. “What do you mean?”
“Like, you know. After. The police, and all that.” Before they left Oregon, Reece and Pat had to give statement after statement to a parade of local law enforcement officials. The DA came to visit too, before they were released. She said based on the overwhelming evidence and testimony, their actions were clearly in self-defense and they wouldn’t be charged. Reece didn’t ask about Amber. He didn’t know if she was categorically included in that they. He didn’t think he cared. The DA wore an ill-fitting brown pantsuit and when she spoke he could see a fleck of something green stuck in her teeth. She told him he might have to testify.
“What the fuck,” he had said. It wasn’t a question, just an acknowledgment. The nightmare was never-ending; he'd never be rid of it. She never did reach out to him.
“Oh, yeah. That.” Amber shrugs again. “Nothing, really.”
“What do you mean nothing really?” Pat’s voice rises. “Those assholes tried to kill us. They killed Tiger and Sam.”
“And then we killed them. Justice served,” she says drily. She must not like the way he and Pat are looking at her because she rolls her eyes. “You guys can’t be that fucking dumb. How do you think an outfit like that survives?”
“The cops are in on that shit?”
“Well, yeah. Read a book.”
“What about—what’s his name? Gabe?”
Amber’s face goes that much more guarded, if it’s possible. “I don’t know. Gone.” She drags her knees back in to her chest and rests her chin on one. “Some people said he went up to Canada. Everyone else thinks he’s dead.”
“Killed?” Reece finally speaks. Her eyes flash.
“Duh,” she says.
“But we killed that guy, the main guy, he's dead,” Pat says.
Reece doesn’t think it’s very fair that Amber gets to act like she’s the only one of them who knows a thing or two about the world and the people in it. The bad people. She’s looking at them like she’s thinking exactly that. “Just because you take out the leader, doesn’t mean the movement dies. ‘sides, he was always talking like it would happen. Catastrophizing," each syllable plucked like a taut string. "People would move against him, take him out. That's what he said. Their job was to seek his retribution, or what the fuck.” Her face almost looks innocent now, which is just wrong. “He came to me, Gabe, before he was,” and she stops. “He told me I should go, if I didn’t want problems.”
So Reece was right. She did come looking for them. Pat has this incredulous look on his face that Reece has only ever known when cut with a considerate amount of humor. No humor now; he’s deadly serious.
Amber turns her head until her cheek rests on her kneecap. “I told you it’s a problem where I’m from.”
“So you came here?” Pat says.
“I don’t know a lot of people. A lot of people don’t like me.”
“Jesus, wonder why.”
"You're exceedingly easy to find."
“You think we like you?” Reece’s arms are crossed over his chest.
She meets his eye. “I thought you’d tolerate me.” She pronounces each word with precision, icepick sharp. Making sure he knows—there’s a difference.
You have to have a strategy. That’s true for everything, but it’s especially true for survival. Cutting things off before they start—that’s a good strategy. Anticipation, absent anything else, makes for the best defense.
Reece tells himself that’s why he says it to her.
They’re both in the kitchen, eating cereal for a late lunch. Chipped bowls with He-Man’s face on them. Tiger got them a million years ago, around the time Pat dropped out of college so they could all focus on the music. Go on their first tour. A million fucking years ago.
“Pat’s too good for you.”
The words sit there between them like a hastily built wall. Amber slurps the cereal milk off her spoon. She licks it then, eyes fixed on Reece. He doesn’t like that. Her tongue is pink and wet. “Most people are,” she drawls. He drops his gaze down to her hands. She has small tattoos on her fingers, a diamond on her hand by her wrist. If any of them were ever that Stormfront shit, she’s had them redone enough to be just the usual nonsense he’s seen plenty of girls put on their bodies. None of it looks like that astrological shit, far as he can tell, and he’s weirdly grateful for that. She has a sword down the line of her middle finger. Sometimes, a lot of times, he thinks about sucking on it.
He points his spoon at her. “Don’t get any ideas.”
There’s nothing but the obnoxious clink and clank of her spoon against the side of her empty bowl. She lifts her eyes back up to him. “You’re not though. Are you.”
The back of his neck feels very hot. “Shut the fuck up. Eat your cereal.”
The mat smells like Lysol and old sweat. He hisses in a spray of spittle as he levers himself back up, and with very little thought, he lunges. Aerosmith drones over the speakers. He feints right. Air rushes past his face as a fist fails to connect. There’s a tournament coming up he’s still not sure he’s going to participate in. The muscles of his left arm, along his shoulder into his back—they’re still not reliable enough for him. Maybe that’s a more tolerable way to say he doesn’t trust himself.
He still likes the fighting though. Practice is almost enough for him. Almost. He likes when he gets taken down almost as much as he likes taking his opponent down with him. His mind goes blank, white and manageable. Completely empty, like static on a busted television. No messages to transmit.
He’s fighting hard today—his sparring partner, Eddie, leagues better than him on the best of days—but today Reece is giving even better than he’s getting. Today Reece is seeing red instead of white. He’s always had a temper, always been known for it, the joke easy and obvious, hair to match a hothead, but even he’s noticed: it’s getting worse. He can lose himself to it. He’s losing himself now.
He gets Eddie down on the mat. His thighs lock around the bulk of his chest. Reece grips his arm, hyperextending Eddie's elbow. He doesn’t even realize what he’s doing until he has him in position—the crucifixion hold arm lock. His mind empties out, but it fills just as quickly. The body under him isn’t Eddie, but Justin. He can hear Pat screaming, wailing in pain. He can smell the piss and beer and hot blood in that tiny fucking room. He’s soaked with sweat. He can see Amber, standing there above him. The boxcutter in her hand. The boxcutter coming down. He’s breathing hard now, on the mat, and he thinks Eddie might be saying something, but Justin said shit, too. He broke Justin’s arm. Amber slit him up the middle like it was fucking nothing. All that blood. Jesus, all that fucking blood. He can practically taste it.
Eddie taps out, but Reece barely registers it. Reece’s face is wet and he’s wheezing when he finally comes back to himself. Unwinds his legs from Eddie. Releases him.
Eddie sprawls to the mat gasping. “What the fuck, Reece?”
“If you’re gonna stay here, you’re gonna have to pay rent.” He said that after her first week crashing on the futon.
It shouldn’t come as any great shock then, one afternoon, when she steps out of the bathroom dressed neatly and cleanly in a pair of black slacks and a crisp, new white shirt. Her hair is pulled back as best as she can off her face. She looks shiny and young.
“You clean up nice,” Pat says.
“I’m adaptable,” she says.
“Where’re you going? Church?” Reece says.
“Work,” she says.
Work is a job as waitstaff at the overpriced steakhouse restaurant on the ground floor of the new Hilton hotel frequented for banquets and political events.
“How’d you con your way into that gig?” Pat asks on a laugh.
Amber shrugs. “Different venue, same kinda people.”
The better part of a month passes without incident. Reece watches Amber enter the bar, backlit by the late afternoon July sun, and he wonders if this is gonna be an incident. She’s still dressed in her work pants and white button-down, but her hair’s messy in a way he knows has to be against regulation.
Reece pretends he didn’t see her. He picks up a dirty dishrag and starts polishing the bar for lack of anything else to do but look at her.
Her fist invades his line of sight and raps against the bar, knock knock. He gives up the act.
“What’re you doing here?” he snaps.
“Hey to you too.” She eyes the line of empty barstools and then takes a seat. It’s not even four yet. “Pat told me, where you worked.” She sighs, weight of the world and all that shit. “And I was thirsty.”
“No, like. I mean, why aren’t you at work.”
“Come and gone. I had the lunch shift. Daughters of the American Revolution high tea.” She mimics vomiting.
“There’s a lot of bars between there and our place.”
“Yeah.” Her mouth tips upward. Smug. She heard it, too. Our place, fuck off. "But you work at this one.”
“I’m not gonna give you shit for free.”
“No. Never. But it is happy hour.” Amber braces her elbows on the bar and nothing moves over her face as she stares at him. It’s unsettling. “Are you avoiding me?”
“What? No,” he spits out. His face feels over-warm and irritation prickles over him, like he’s been caught doing something no one was supposed to know. Like avoiding her.
“Okay. I’ll have a whiskey then, please. With some cherries.”
They engage in a silent stand-off, if only for a second. He breathes hard through his nose. He reaches for a glass and gives her what she wanted—whiskey, one maraschino cherry dropped in to sink to the bottom.
He sets it down hard enough on the bar top for the drink to threaten to slosh over the sides of the glass. Amber looks from the glass to him, mouth pursed, eyes bright with amusement.
“I said some cherries.”
Reece shrugs, his arms held open wide, spite intoxicating and warm as it rushes through him. “That’s all I got on offer.”
Reece starts when he feels a hand land down heavy on his shoulder. No one but Toby, the bar back on shift with him. Toby, who never knows when to shut the fuck up.
“Look at this. Reece, you got a visitor? And you thought you'd get away without introducing your good friend Toby here to the lady?” Reece shoves him off. Toby holds a hand over his heart, dramatic and annoying and the furtherest fucking thing from a friend Reece might have. “You gotta tell me, who’s the babe?”
“I live with him.” Amber answers before Reece has the chance, her tone glacial and bored. Reece glowers at her all the same.
“Temporary,” he clarifies, uncertain for who's benefit. She lifts her glass in silent salute.
“Alright, alright.” Toby turns his attention back to Amber. He leans his forearms against the bar. “You from around here?” Reece rolls his eyes. He’s doing that thing they all do with the summer interns, when they hike up their summer dresses or their work skirts and sit down on the bar stool in front of them—smug and easy flirtation, like they’re gonna show them a good time, if they’re willing. Something ugly starts to crawl its way up Reece’s chest as he looks from Toby to Amber.
“She hasn’t got anything interesting to say.”
“Jesus, Reece. Let her speak for herself.”
“I really don’t.” Amber pokes at the cherry with the tip of the plastic drink stirrer. “Have anything interesting to say, that is.”
“Yeah? I doubt that,” Toby says. “How you two know each other? That’s interesting. Are you a musician, too? Lemme guess: tambourine. You’re the tambourine girl in his band.”
“Would you shut the fuck up, Toby. Don’t you got work to do?” The heat in Reece has gone ice cold. He glances quickly at Amber only to find her face equally shuttered. Reece uncurls his fingers, unaware he had even clenched his hands into fists. He’s not gonna talk about the band, not with anyone. The band’s dead.
He wasn’t going to die. That was what he told himself, when they first stepped out into the hall. Down the stairs. As he fled. He wasn’t going to die.
Reece made it to the kitchen. Before he could try the window, there was movement at his left and then a breathtaking, searing pain at his shoulder. Then his neck. His arm. His left side, from the neck down, bleeding openly and hot. No, cold. He was both; he was fucking dying, he was pretty sure, and even then, he moved fast, hard, on instinct—blind panic more than rage. None of the hesitation, the dread, of when he had his arm locked tight around Justin’s throat, the kill too slow. This guy, Reece got him to the ground, he slammed his elbow to his throat, brought his arm down hard against his wrist and the cleaver clattered to the floor. Reece didn’t stop. He picked up the broken chair leg, his lone weapon when they left the room, and he bashed his head in. He could hear himself, making these snarling noises, spit flying, that kept ramping up more and more high-pitched, strangled. Hysterical, like he was crying. Maybe he was. Gore was splattered all over his hand, his upper arm, his face, and he could barely hear anything over himself: the pounding blood in his ears, his harsh breathing now that he had stopped. The pain was there but distant enough, eclipsed by a visceral fight or flight reflex. Adrenaline made it tolerable, but left the rest of him shaky and clumsy. A squawk of feedback over the sound system startled him, the speakers crackling with it. A dog whined, then growled, wet sounding. Animal fear clutched deep within him. A girl cried or screamed or both. The feedback shrieked again, deafening. He felt nauseous as he got to his feet, his good hand braced against the countertop as he pushed himself up. The left side of his neck felt terrifyingly wrong. His sneakers slipped in the spilled blood and his hip banged into the metal tabletop, rattling the bowls and utensils left out. He couldn’t turn his head quickly, but he tried, breath held, looking to see if he’d attracted any attention. No one came. He snatched an apron off the wall and hastily knotted it around the worst of the damage at his shoulder and lurched forward, cleaver in hand.
Pat yelled his name, his voice cracking with it, and Reece said something like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m here,” but Pat was still yelling his name. He herded Amber down the back hall as she limped and Reece followed, the three of them back where they had started. He slid the deadbolt in place and leaned back against the door.
He looked at the other two. Pat cradled his arm against his chest and Amber was pale, her leg chewed up and raw-looking above the laces of her boots. She paled that much more as she looked at him, which answered the question he wasn’t about to ask.
“Jesus Christ,” she said.
“You okay there, man?” Pat asked, mouth grim as he tried to smile. Reece swayed on his feet.
“Sit down,” Amber was saying. “Make him sit down,” and Pat was saying, “hey, yeah, come on, we’re gonna sit,” and Reece more or less collapsed down on the couch. That fucking hurt. He winced.
“Tiger?” he managed to say. “Sam?” All Pat did was shake his head, everything about him trembling but especially his face, that close to breaking. Reece took a shaky inhale. “Oh, fuck. Fucking—” and he stopped himself. He scrubbed a hand over his face. His skin felt tacky and he could smell blood. He felt dizzy.
“Amber, can you,” Pat said. He gestured towards Reece, his duct tape-wrapped arm lifted in half-apology. Amber did nothing for a long moment, a distant look of empty horror on her face, and then she was moving. Playing medic, crouched practically in his lap. Her knee dug into his thigh and her breath was hot and rapid against his forehead. His temple, his cheek. It was easy to focus on that. He put a steadying hand on her thigh and tried to ignore what she was doing to him.
“This is a lot,” she said.
“He tried,” he joked. Sort of. He thought it was supposed to be a joke. She didn’t laugh.
“I don’t have—fuck, we need a fucking doctor, let alone a first aid kit. What the fuck am I supposed to,” and her voice broke off. He could feel her fingers at the ruined collar of his t-shirt. “There’s a lot of blood.” Her hand wasn’t very wide but he grit his teeth as he felt it cover the wound, a deep gouge cut into the muscle between shoulder and neck. She pressed down and he hissed. With her other hand, she was petting his hair, distracted, like she wasn’t even aware she was doing it.
“Here,” Pat said, and he sounded very faraway. Even Amber, close as she was, was faraway. Everything was fuzzy and distant, and maybe even manageable. She’d fix him up well enough and they would try again. He’d be fine. He wasn’t going to die, not here. No one else was going to fucking die. He heard the sticky drag of duct tape off the roll and he heard Amber muttering under her breath. Then, there was pressure and adhesive and the weight of her as she leaned harder into him. He felt a hand on the other side of his neck. The good side. Pat. He clapped his hand against him and said something like, “Dude, you’re gonna be fine,” which when said out loud was such an outrageously dumb lie Reece couldn’t help but laugh.
“Don’t do that,” Amber said, like she was performing fucking surgery on him, and that only made him laugh harder, wheezing and hysterical.
His jaw was in Amber’s grip. She made him look at her. The laugh died in his throat instantly. There was blood all over her—his. It was on her face too, a thick streak of it below her eye, along her cheek. She looked as feral as the dog that bit her. She was very serious and very cold but still alive, and so was he.
“Get it the fuck together,” she said.
He lets the door slam behind him. Yanks the earbuds out of his ears and pulls his t-shirt, soaked through, over his head. A mid-morning run was a good idea until the late summer heat rose up to meet him. His chest feels tight, his breathing still rough, sweaty and worn-out, but good. Punch-drunk. Alive.
He tosses his t-shirt in the general direction of the bathroom. For a brief, and equally good, moment he forgets it’s no longer just him and Pat who live here.
Amber is in the kitchen. Reece barely breaks his stride as he walks past her to the sink. She has a mixing bowl he didn’t even know they owned and a frying pan out. He’s not sure he trusts her with an open flame. He’s not sure he trusts her. He gets himself a glass of water, drinks from it noisily and quickly, water spilling down his chin, mixing with the sweat on his chest. He stills when he looks over to her. Amber’s staring at him. Open, unabashed, to the point of fucking distraction. Rather than flattered, he feels caught out. She’s got that way about her, that way of looking at him, where even when her own face is hunted—because that is how she always looks: hunted, like someone’s out get her and if she’s suspicious enough she’ll live to see another day—that makes him feel like prey.
Reece slams the glass down beside the sink. “What?” he snaps.
“Nothing,” she says, something kind of dreamy about her face, like she’s deep in thought. Her eyes lift from his chest up to his face, drop back down to his stomach, the waistband of his shorts, to his shoulder. His neck. The scar tissue. She stands up a little straighter. “Just checking out the damage.”
There’s nothing he’s got to say to that. She must take that for some kind of unspoken invitation, because she steps towards him. She comes closer. Inspecting him. First with her eyes, and then with her hands. He doesn’t try to stop her. He could push her away easily. Kick her out of the apartment. Demand she show him her scars in a spirit of spite, not fairness. He doesn’t do any of those things; she’s touching him now.
The sudden intimacy of it is like a punch to the side of the head. Her fingers brush lightly against the worst of it, still raised and angry-looking. He grits his teeth and inhales sharply. He ducks his head; all he can see is her body, the sliver of daylight between hers and his, her bare feet between his dirty running shoes. Her toenails are painted purple, chipped. He wants to see her face, see what she looks like when she’s touching him, when she’s touching him there, but he also doesn’t think he can bear it. Her fingers press down harder against what was the deepest cut between his neck and shoulder. Just like she did, when the wound was fresh and he was bleeding.
His heart is kicking hard in his chest, like he’s back out on his run again. He jerks his head up quickly, rears back from her. The sink is at his back and he has nowhere else to go. “What?” he says again, nonsensically.
Amber shakes her head. “They did a better job fixing you up than I did.” There’s warmth in that familiar wry humor. He doesn’t want it.
“I’d fucking hope so.”
Amber drops her hand. She takes a step back. It takes a lot more fucking strength than he cares to even think about not to follow her.
“I’m making breakfast. If you’re hungry.”
Reece used to fuck around with Pat, sometimes. Nothing regular and nothing meaningful in it beyond the fact they were together and they were on the road and sometimes it was the resolution to a fight and sometimes it was a senseless product of boredom, and Reece was horny most days, exceedingly so after a show. Handjobs, mostly. Sometimes they’d jerk themselves off instead of each other. Make out a little. Whatever. One time Pat used his mouth and Reece came so embarrassingly fast he hid his face with his hands even as Pat swallowed him down. They haven’t done that since everything happened.
He’d hook up with Sam sometimes, too. Always about her, getting her off, and she’d never return the favor. That wasn’t what that was about, and they both knew it. He was good at it, his mouth on Sam. He’d make her red-faced and whiny, incredulous, and then they’d get back in the van and it was business as usual—Sam playing navigator or Sam double-checking the details of their next venue or Sam digging through her bag looking for loose change. It was Reece quietly minding his business in the back, sleeping through all their shit more often than not.
He never fucked Tiger. Maybe Pat did. None of them ever talked about this shit. It was like anything else on the road—it existed in some sort of liminal space. Inconsequential. Bound solely by travel and the guarantee that things could only last in the distance between two locations but never the destination itself. Now that he’s grounded in Arlington he misses it. Sleeping in the back of the van, passed out from too much cheap booze or cheaper weed, living exclusively on a diet of convenience store beef jerky, shooting the shit with them, more than friends and more than a family. More than all that. God, he fucking misses them. He misses everything.
“Do you want me to tell you why “Like a Prayer” is the single greatest song recorded in human history?”
Reece scratches at the back of his neck. He’s fucking wrecked, tired and hungover and every muscle in his body is twinging in protest from the beating he took on the mat yesterday. And Amber, for all her tight-lipped secrecy, has lately taken to opening up, revealing herself, in jagged unsolicited fragments. She wields conversation as an inconvenience for others to endure. “Not particularly.”
Amber sets one hand on her hip, a spatula gripped in the other. She points it in his direction, decisive. Like it might double as weapon should it come to that. Like he might like that. “I’m gonna tell you,” she says, and then she does.
He’s very good at listening to people without hearing what they’re saying. The only real girlfriend he ever had in his life, Katy Deakins, senior year through his nineteenth birthday, once said to him: “You look like you’re listening, but you don’t hear a fucking thing.” It was pretty astute for a fellow teenager with a fondness for doing whippits in the grocery store parking lot and little else. And most likely true. Right now, he’s not so much as listening to what Amber is saying, but how. Her voice.
He likes the grit in her voice. He thinks that’s the kind of shit someone would pay for, pressed on vinyl. He’d pay for it. He thought it when he met her, if you can call the first time they saw each other, spoke past each other, raw panic and terror overwhelming them both, as meeting another person. It was one of those nonsensical thoughts you get sometimes as everything around you is going to shit. Same way it was when his dad died. At the wake, standing there by the open casket and for no good reason he thought: I’d kill for a fucking plate of nachos right now. It was like that with her. He heard her say shit like they were all gonna fucking die and these Nazi motherfuckers really were gonna kill them and, sure, he thought, fuck, but he also thought—the girl’s got a nice voice. Nice is the wrong word for it, but he’s tired of trying to think of the right words, tired of assigning meaning to things. He likes her voice. If he could, he thinks he’d like to fuck it.
Most mornings, Amber makes pancakes. They’re usually raw in the middle; he eats them anyway. She buys a new coffeemaker, or she steals one (he doesn’t ask), and she makes coffee strong enough to make his hair stand on end. She drinks it black, by the pot. That’s as far as her domesticity ranges.
“Did you think because I was the girl I’d, what? Take care of you?” She says that one morning, a mouth full of mostly pancake batter. “That shit’s some backwards fucking thinking.”
“Come on, don’t do that, I’m a feminist,” Pat says. “And, like you, I just can’t cook.”
“Ha.” Amber eyes the pile of dirty clothes and wet towels accumulated in the overflowing laundry basket. “Or much else apparently.”
Pat raises his left arm. He didn’t bother to attach the prosthetic this morning. “Doctor’s orders,” he says, all teeth and bright, laughing eyes.
“Fuck off,” Reece says, but he can feel his mouth curve into a grin of his own.
That’s how he and Amber wind up at the laundromat down the block. They sit in silence, the laundromat mostly empty, a muted soap opera playing on the one television mounted over the change machine. Amber has a thin book she brought with her—curiously, and inexplicably, a Chekhov play—and Reece kills time scrolling through his phone. He’s trying to figure out who the fuck texted him a photo of a pair of tits the other night. No name, the contact not saved in his phone. Just a number. They’re nice tits.
“Who’s she?” He looks up and Amber has leaned in way too close, her own tits now pressed against his upper arm. He clicks the screen to black and tries to wave her off.
Amber shrugs. She settles back in her chair, the plastic squeaking under her boots as she curls her legs under her. “She’s got a killer rack.” He can’t tell if she’s making fun of him or not. He assumes she is; that seems to be her default setting—smug irreverence.
“Would you shut the fuck up. Please.”
The look she grants him is withering and maybe, at least partially, deserved. “I’m just trying to make conversation, man. We haven’t even hit the rinse portion of our afternoon.”
“I don’t know who she is,” he finally says.
Amber lifts an eyebrow. “You just got random girls sending you shots of their boobs?”
Reece’s mouth twists in what he thinks is triumph but what she’d probably classify as patriarchal arrogance, or whatever. “Yeah.” His shoulder twitches, the good one. “That’s what chicks do.”
“I don’t do that,” Amber says, archly. She stretches her legs out in front of her. She’s wearing a pair of combat boots with a pair of tattered jean shorts, her legs sickly pale. It’s ninety-five fucking degrees out. “I wouldn’t do that,” she says, the emphasis settling on the second word.
Reece slouches that much lower in his seat. He spreads his arm across the row of chairs, reaching towards her but not touching. “Maybe your tits aren’t worth the effort.”
“Maybe I just don’t trust strange men.” There’s steel to her voice now; that might be hotter than naked tits. “And they’re fine, thanks.”
His phone dings. Reece is at the bar, about to start his evening shift. He pulls it out, glances quickly at the screen and frowns. AMBER. Two messages. What the fuck does she want now. He swipes the texts open, and then he freezes. It's like his brain won’t compute what he’s seeing. Tits. He’s seeing a pair of tits. They’re hers, no question. Her face isn’t in the shot, but her chin is and the lower half of that fucking mouth. He’d recognize that mouth anywhere. He stares for a long moment, not even opening the photo, just staring at the thumbnail embedded in the text. He finally reads what she sent beneath.
told you they were fine.
He scrolls back up. Finally clicks on the photo. Jesus Christ. Fine is the fucking dumbest word in the history of the English language. Her tits are small, but of course they are. He’s seen her around the apartment often enough without a bra. They’d fit well in his hands and he doesn’t even bother to try to stop himself from imagining it. That ship has fucking sailed. His dick twitches in his jeans. Her nipples are pink and hard in the photo and she’s pale, like corpse pale, especially in the shitty lighting where she took the picture. He can see the stack of clean laundry mostly cropped out of the photo behind her.
what the fuck amber, he types quickly, not really thinking at all as he sends it.
Three dots appear on the screen as she types. There’s an answering hot clench in his gut. He wants it to be another picture. Maybe it’ll be her cunt this time. Maybe she’ll be wet. Maybe he’ll be able to see her entire face this time. His eyes drift back up to the photo, torn between her tits and the low swell of her mouth, curled with easy, lazy cruelty. His phone buzzes with her incoming text.
I’m just making conversation
Reece exhales heavily through his nose. He locks the screen on his phone. He slips it into his back pocket, covertly tries to adjust the crotch of his jeans. He curls and uncurls his hands into fists. He wants to break something. He’s so keyed up he knows, the next decently attractive girl that comes through that door and orders something as boring and generic as a vodka soda, he’s gonna fuck her. Or, at the least, get his tongue in her mouth and his hands on her, in her panties. Fingerfuck her in the employees only bathroom. He wants to make a girl come; he tells himself it doesn’t matter which one.
He does just that. The girl’s nice pinstripe pencil skirt is shoved up as far as it’ll go over her hips and his fingers slide easily into her. She told him, after her second vodka soda, that she was interning for a congressman from the great state of Oregon for the summer.
“I’ve been to Oregon,” he said to her, and she did this light, pretty laugh thing where she smiled and opened her mouth wide and he knew, from that and a multitude of other small details (the pearl studs in her ears, the smooth straight hair undeterred by D.C.’s late summer humidity, the same oversized expensive handbag on her arm that every girl with family money and zero experience carried), nothing bad had ever happened to this girl. Nothing ugly would be found inside of her if he went digging. An image of Amber’s mouth flickered in his mind and was gone just as fast.
“Yeah?” the girl said. “You have fun?”
Reece leaned over the bar and girls like her, girls who didn’t even know how to imagine the worst thing a person could do to another if pushed and shoved into the right wrong dark corner—all you had to do was look at them like you could eat them up. He did that, and even though that smile remained fixed on her face, her eyes went dark. That was better.
“I fucking hated it,” he said.
Now, in the grimy employees only restroom, with two fingers in her and her face flushed, noisy gasps he can’t decide if he’s actually earning or if she’s performing slipping from her mouth, he’s disappointed to find it’s not enough. He wants more. He’s thinking about the photo again, even as he touches this girl. Her tits. They’re bigger. She makes a cooing sound he doesn’t care for and her mouth tastes like sterile citrus, chemical and fake, when she kisses him. It’s not nearly enough.
Reece pulls back from her. “Hey. You wanna go back to my place?”
The apartment is dark when he gets the front door open. He’s drunk, drunker than he realized when he closed up the bar. The girl—“Ashley,” she said, first when he passed her a second cocktail, and again when he had her body against his, before he started kissing her—sat on a barstool. Her legs kicked as she sat there, content enough to wait for him.
Amber is curled up under a blanket on the futon. Light pollution filters in from the parking lot through the cheap curtains and the crooked blinds, and he can see her, the silhouette of her body. She never did put away the laundry; it’s still in a neat stack beside the futon. She looks small, inconsequential. Breakable. Ashley sees her, too.
“Is that your girlfriend?” she asks. She giggles when she says it, so Reece doesn’t think the answer really matters to her one way or the other.
“Nah,” Reece says. He grips her by the back of the neck and he kisses her, noisy and open. “She’s nobody.”
Reece isn’t interested in motivation. He never has been. The important thing is what you do, what you did—the why’s aren’t gonna wash that out. They don’t change anything. He keeps the curtain pulled back, he keeps the sheets kicked to the foot of the mattress. He lets Amber see, if that’s what she wants. If her eyes are open. He fucks this girl, Ashley, and he doesn’t dare say her name out loud, terrified something else, someone else, might escape instead. He gets her on her knees, her head bowed between her shoulders, his body draped over and hiding hers from Amber. All that’s visible is him. He’s deliberately louder, more performative, and that pisses him off, even as he tells himself intent changes nothing. Fucking is fucking, killing is killing. It doesn’t matter that he knows exactly why he’s saying each thing that comes out of his mouth. Doesn’t matter that he couldn’t stop speaking even if he wanted. He demands that she be good, that she acknowledge how good he’s fucking her. He slaps her ass and the sound is as sharp as the crack of a gun in the quiet room.
He rolls over, off her, when he finishes. He catches his breath. He tries to. In the gloom of the room he can see the bright gleam of Amber’s open eyes. He meets her gaze across the room and something hot and molten catches and sticks in his chest. A small rational part of himself is hyperaware of what he’s done. The rest of him is rage, roiling beneath his skin. He doesn’t get how Pat can have her here, in this apartment, and continue to live. How he can look at her and not think of every detail of that miserable night. Not feel a single thing Reece does. Maybe he can. Maybe, in that sense, he’s stronger than Reece.
He gets up off the mattress. He stands there, in the space between his bed and hers, his back to his, facing hers. Naked, his cock softening but still heavy against his thigh. His body is striped from the light coming through the open venetian blinds. Amber is sitting up now, her back straight against the wall. Her eyes are huge, watching him. Never leaving him.
He passes her quickly. He slams the bathroom door shut.
That night never leaves him. It’s with him constantly. He remembers it in stark and merciless detail, slow as it plays out in his mind. Like sleep paralysis. That’s a thing he has now. Started in the hospital and he thought he was dead. He never dreams about it though, not really. Not that he remembers. Some nights, Sam and Tiger will be in his dreams, unclear if it’s a memory or worse—a memory tarred with dream logic. Nothing ever really happens to them in these dreams, but he always wakes with a sob stuck in his chest and an amplified self-loathing helplessness he has yet to shake. He cries, sometimes, but only in the shower and that doesn’t count.
He dreams about Amber sometimes too but he always dreams it wrong. She’ll take his hand and place it on her thigh and beg him to fuck her, and he will, two fingers spreading open the wound left by the bullet, wet and animal hot as he sinks into her. He’ll wake hard and sick. He’ll jerk off in the shower. That doesn’t count either.
Reece gets home late, after two. The apartment is still and quiet. Pat is in the bedroom, studying. Asleep. One or the other. Amber is in the kitchen, the refrigerator door held open. She’s always hungry. He’s never met another person who whines that she’s starving more than her. She shuts the door and leans against the closed fridge as he steps into the kitchen. It’s still decorated with old memorabilia from The Ain’t Rights. Flyers from old shows, polaroids from their first tour, a handful of tourist-y magnets Tiger stole on the road. An old shopping list in Sam’s hand that neither Reece or Pat can bring themselves to take down. TOOTHPASTE, TP, GRANOLA THE CHEAP SHIT.
“We’re not sentimental. We’re just lazy.” He had told Amber that not long after she moved in. She had gestured to the list and said, flat as anything, “Your needs are simple.”
Amber twirls something between her fingers. A cigarette, unlit. She must’ve just showered—her hair’s still wet, her face bare. She’s wearing an oversized t-shirt and a pair of panties and his first impulsive thought is to kick her legs apart and get his thigh between hers.
“You better not smoke that in here. Pat’ll kill you.”
She hums her assent. She doesn’t do anything more than fiddle with it. Her attention finally lands on him, and he doesn’t know what to do with it now that he has it.
“We don’t have anything good to eat,” she says.
“That supposed to be my problem?” He sits down heavily at the kitchen table and kicks off his shoes. He stretches his arms overhead and something pops and shifts satisfyingly beneath his skin. It’s been a week since he brought that girl home and he’s been living with the strangest of all possible outcomes since: nothing has changed. The next day, she left early, blushing and embarrassed and definitely hungover, and Amber didn’t once say a thing. No digs, no carefully sharpened insults, driven between his ribs like a homemade shiv. Nothing. Her silence has the opposite effect on him. There’s no comfort there, but instead he’s that much more on guard. He’s waiting, he thinks, for her to do something about it. Waiting to see what he might do.
“I got a question for you,” he finally says, his voice a deep rumble in his chest. He traces the scratches gouged into the kitchen table. “And I don’t want you getting all offended.”
“Well, this sounds promising.” Amber hasn’t moved from her post at the fridge.
Reece ignores her. “Before that night—you ever kill anybody?”
Amber’s eyes go that much wider, if that’s possible. “No. Had you?”
“What? No, obviously.”
There’s more he wants to say, but he doesn’t know how to say it. He wants to know if she killed Justin so he wouldn’t have to. He wants to know why that distinction matters so much to him. He wants to know if he owes her, wants to know if this shit weighs on her the same way it weighs on him. He wants to know how she’s managed to live with herself, but he can’t ask her that. It implies he can’t manage to live with it himself.
Instead, he sighs heavily. He leans forward, his elbows against his thighs, his head in his hands. “What’re you even doing here? What’d you come here for?”
Amber cocks her head, like she wasn’t expecting the question. He feels a tiny swell of triumph: he’s finally found a way to catch her off guard. She pulls her hand close to her mouth, the unlit cigarette all but grazing her lips.
“I’m sorry about your friends. I don’t know if I ever told you that.” She hadn’t, but he doesn’t want to hear it right now. He grunts, the sound caught in the back of his throat.
“Why are you here.” There’s not enough inflection to make it a question.
“That night? I thought you were gonna save me.”
He gets to his feet abruptly. It takes exactly three steps to cross the kitchen to her. His hand closes around hers tightly. Her hand fits easily in his and she makes a small noise as he crumples her cigarette. Surprise, he thinks. It’s definitely not outrage. There’s too much amusement to the curl of her mouth.
“Look at you,” she says. “You’re so mad you don’t even know what to do with it.”
Mid-afternoon and Reece passes through the apartment quickly. He’s already running late for his shift. He grabs his keys and pauses at the front door.
“Yo, I’m gonna go.”
“See ya,” Pat calls from the futon. Amber is seated next to him. Too close, their arms touching, Amber easily invading his space. The intimacy is as casual and effortless as it is obvious between them. She rests her head on his shoulder and glances over to Reece. She waves her hand. Fury wells deep inside him as something else, uglier and unnameable, hitches in his gut.
He goes to the bar. He gets reamed out by his boss for being late. The tips are as miserable as the patrons who leave them. He spends the entire shift unable to decide which of them he is angrier with—Amber or Pat. Who it is he actually feels so possessive, so envious, of. What he can do to kill that feeling.
The anger doesn’t subside the next day. He stews in it, finally relents after Amber leaves for work. He crashes into Pat’s room without knocking. Pat set up a small desk in here, cramped like everything else in this fucking apartment.
“Hey, man, what can I do you for?” Pat looks tired, or maybe that’s just how he always looks now.
Reece doesn’t say anything. He shuts the door behind him. Pat says, “Hey,” again. Softer this time, like Reece is someone that can’t handle hard edges, not anymore. You have to reach for him gently. He doesn’t think he wants to be that kind of person. Reece stands there, by the door, and he lifts his chin. He still doesn’t say anything. Like his presence alone should be enough to make Pat move, and it is.
Pat gets up from the desk and he steps towards him. Reece moves quickly, same as he would on the mat, in a fight—without thought and on the offensive. Instinctive. He has his hand against the back of Pat’s neck, and he presses their foreheads together. Pat stumbles into him, his hand catching against Reece’s chest, his t-shirt, his fingers curling. Their chins threaten to collide but Pat balances himself, holds himself steady.
“Hey, man. What’s—what’s going on?” Pat’s mouth is so close to his he considers kissing him. It wouldn’t be the first time, a history of clumsy, stage adrenaline-fueled make-outs shared between the both of them. Reece doesn’t think that’s what he wants right now. “You wanna talk about it?” Pat’s voice is muffled, and, no, Reece doesn’t want to talk about it. What he wants is for it all to stop, for nothing to matter, not the way it does now. He gets his free hand between Pat’s legs, first over his jeans and then under, near mechanical about it. Pat’s breath is hot against his mouth, quiet, helpless and panting, and it’s not that he wants Pat specifically to feel that way—helpless, needy, desperate and maybe even afraid—it’s that he wants someone other than himself to feel it, too.
They haven’t done this with each other in fucking forever. They never did this at home; this belonged to the road the way a lot of things became forgivable and allowable in transit. But the body doesn’t forget. Fuck, he’s learned that lesson but good. The body does not forget. Fear becomes hardwired, easily tripped. Muscle knows how to coil and bunch, tighten and prime for action. His hand remembers the shape of Pat’s dick, how some nights it was almost a relief to touch someone other than himself. He remembers what he likes, fist tight and twisting at the head. He likes the friction, likes it drier than Reece would tolerate. Pat sways into him, and Reece can feel Pat’s arm, the solid stump where his wrist ends, as it bumps against his hip. Reece sucks in a shuddering breath; he works his hand faster. He needs him to come, he wants to feel it. He can’t find any relief in this now.
Pat’s chest is flush with his, his heart beating fast, when he does come.
“I’m sorry, man. Fuck,” Reece says. He wipes his hand off on the hem of his t-shirt, resists the urge to hide his face in his hands. He’s fucking depleted, he’s so fucking tired. Pat frowns. He reaches for Reece, gently, but he dodges out of his grasp.
When he and Amber talk, they talk past each other. That’s fine. If they’re going to live together, he’d rather it be parallel not entangled. Not touching.
One night, it’s the three of them and cold Chinese leftovers and a few beers. Pat’s razzing him, and it’s good, it’s normal. Like old times. Like the other afternoon didn’t even happen. Pat’s on a tear now, wound up, saying something dumb—or maybe it’s smart and it’s only his communication of it that’s dumb—about cell phones and the surveillance state.
“Reece likes to be watched,” Amber says suddenly. Reece stills. Pat snorts, unclear what exactly he thinks that statement means, but Reece’s face feels hot, all of him burning. Prickly. The worst of it is, the part that sticks in his head when he finally turns in for the night, he’s not sure he’s ever heard Amber say his name out loud. It’s impossible; she must’ve. He thinks about her saying his name when he’s not around to hear it. He thinks about her watching him.
And fuck her, maybe he does like it.
Amber started tagging along with them to parties not long after she arrived. Usually, she drifts away, finds her way back to them by the end of the night. Tonight, it’s Reece who finds himself alone—drunk, a lapful of some random girl on a ratty old couch in an empty room. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches as the door starts to open. He drags his mouth away, his hands still curled into the low curve of her hips.
“Occupied,” he calls, but the door only opens wider. “I said—”
Amber. He freezes, even as the girl in his lap keeps grinding down onto him, her mouth and her teeth dragging down his neck. He shivers. Amber enters the room, watchful. Deliberate. She slowly closes the door, as if waiting for him to say something else. Get the fuck out. Leave. Fucking go. He doesn’t say anything. He rolls his hips up, his dick aching against the seam of his jeans. He keeps his eyes open as the girl’s mouth descends on his. He jerks her head to the side, his attention focused exclusively on Amber. She finally approaches. Without a word she takes a seat beside him, a thin stretch of worn upholstery separating them from touching.
He tips his head back. “What the fuck,” he breathes.
“I’m not sharing,” the girl (Elise? Eloise? Ilene?) says. She’s stopped moving now, too.
“I didn’t ask.” Amber slouches low beside him, her eyes heavy and glassy. Clearly fucked up. There’s still that sharp alertness to her that he’s never seen completely absent from her. She’s too aware. He can’t figure out if that’s because she sees herself as predator or prey. She’s both, he’s sure of that. He wants her to be.
The girl glares at Amber as she gets down on her knees between his legs. Reece jerks when her hands grab for first his belt and then the fly of his jeans. She undoes both, the expression on her face equal parts questioning and daring. He doesn’t stop her. He can feel Amber watching him, her attention fixed on him, pinning him back against the couch. She’s always fucking watching. Those big eyes find him and follow him in every room he enters. He takes a shaky breath in; the girl smoothes her hands up his thighs. It feels wrong, but not wrong enough for him to stop. He cuts his eyes quickly over to Amber, and her gaze is on his face—critical and assessing. He looks back down, at the top of the girl’s head. She has his cock out now, hardening quickly under Amber’s scrutiny. She’s silent, and he can’t decide if that’s worse than anything she might say to him. He glances over at Amber quickly, and her mouth is parted slightly, her eyes fixed between his legs. His cock twitches in the girl’s loose grasp.
She slicks her mouth over him then takes him inside, hot and wet and all suction. He can’t stop looking over at Amber, unclear what he’s looking for exactly. That only makes him angry. Angrier. Every day he wakes at a low boil and the temperature only ramps up, especially when she’s near. He doesn’t want to know why. It doesn’t matter why. He fucks up into the girl's mouth and she startles a little, a bit of teeth on the underside of his dick, and he hisses.
“Is she doing a good job?” It’s the rusty, mean way Amber asks that’s a hit straight to his spine, down to his balls. Fucking hotter than anything this girl’s doing with her mouth. He thrusts his hips up too hard again, down her throat, and she gags. Doesn’t stop. She swallows around him and he groans.
He looks over at Amber, and she’s still sitting, mostly upright, but she’s curled her body onto her side so she’s facing him. Her legs are crossed, pressed tightly together. She’s so close. She’s so fucking close it would take next to nothing to lean into it, lean into her, finally get a taste of that mouth.
He feels a light brush against the side of his hand. He tears his eyes from her face to look down. It’s her pinky finger, barely touching him.
“Jesus,” he mutters. He doesn’t look away from her now. He’s going to come and he watches Amber’s face for as long as he can.
After, Amber reaches down. She rubs her thumb over the girl’s wet mouth. “That’s better,” she says and then she stands. It lands like a punch to the gut, and he makes a helpless noise to match.
There’s a violence in Amber that’s unpredictable at best. Pat likes to think it was an environmental thing, that she was the way she was because of where she was or what-the-fuck-ever. Reece doesn’t think people work that way. He thinks they’re all baked into one kind of thing and there’s nothing you can do to change that.
“She’s not a bad person, I guess,” Pat said, not long after Amber moved in. And Reece never said she was. But Pat didn’t see the look in Amber’s eyes when she brought the boxcutter down, then drag of it upward. When she cut through a man’s fucking flesh with it. There wasn’t anything there at all. And if Reece knows anything, and he likes to think he knows some things, that’s the exact fucking thing you have to fear in another person. Well, that, and the willingness to kill in the first place.
They’re at another house party, out in Alexandria. The usual kind of shit. Rundown house, a lot of cheap beer, some better weed, some even better shit that Reece doesn’t partake in as a general rule. Not tonight, anyway. A girl with dark bangs in her eyes and clunky Docs weighing down her legs has him cornered at the top of the stairs. He’s pretty sure he fucked her a few months back. She’s looking at him like they did, or like she wants to, which for him is more or less the same thing.
Before he can do anything to the girl, including talk to her, yelling erupts from one of the bedrooms. The party’s loud, but this yelling is different. It’s ugly. The kind that precedes the first punch thrown. He pushes past the girl and heads down the hall, oddly certain of what he’s going to find. Sure enough, there she is. Amber, a scowl unfurling her face into absolute vengeance, her body tensed, ready to receive if not deliver the first blow. Pat’s got his arms spread, trying to play ref. A crowd has already gathered to watch whatever might happen next.
The guy Amber’s pointing at, her finger not touching him but near enough, says something to her. Calls her something. It’s hard to hear from the doorway, but Reece can imagine. Dumb slut. Filthy whore. Ugly bitch. The kinda shit men like to tell woman to make sure they know they hate her.
Amber lunges near immediately, pouncing on the guy easily twice her body weight. She raises her fist and brings it down against the side of his neck, just under his jaw. He makes a wheezing, furious noise, and Reece is pushing through the crowd, Pat still yelling, “Guys, guys, guys, come on, guys!”
Amber doesn’t want to yield. That much is obvious. Reece gets his hands under her arms and he pulls her off the guy, her legs still flailing and kicking, desperate to bruise in any capacity she can achieve. She rears her head back and Reece dodges her just in time. He tightens his grip, and she’s light enough for him to get her to the ground easily. Throw her to the floor and set himself down on top of her. His shins are braced against her shoulders and his feet are digging into her ribs. His thighs bracket her face and he squeezes. She’s still snarling, her legs still kicking out, so he clenches his legs tighter, settles his weight against her chest, and then she’s gasping, her hands pushing against the meat of his upper thighs. He pulls back a little, lets her get her breath. She’s not moving now, the fight gone out of her that quick. He can feel when she takes a shuddering breath in underneath him. She still hasn’t taken her hands off of him.
Reece glances over his shoulder. “Get out.” The words sound gravel-thick. He nods at Pat. “You too, man.” He jerks his head towards the door. “Me and her, we’re gonna have a conversation.”
“You don’t have to hurt her,” Pat says, his voice stupidly small.
“He won’t,” Amber says. Her voice cracks like she’s on the verge of a wild laugh. Reece tries to take his own steadying breath in. His hands are shaking. He thinks he wants to wrap his hands around her throat. Cover her face with the palm of his hand so he doesn’t have to look at her anymore. Make her stop looking at him. Get his fingers in her hair and pull.
He does just that. His grip is unrelenting and tight and Amber doesn’t make a sound. Her neck goes long as he pulls her hair by the roots, her face half turned into the carpet. He glances back again at Pat. “I won’t,” he says. He can feel Amber’s body under his, the way her spine arches and his breath goes stuttering and funny in his chest. He waits until the door shuts and then he turns his attention back to her. Her eyes are closed and her mouth is parted open, a flush settled on her cheek. Her teeth aren’t straight and even opened as slightly as her mouth is he can see the wet pink of her tongue. He jerks her head. Her nails dig into his jeans and her eyes flash open.
He likes to think of her as empty. Now, she’s full of more than a little something—anger, spite, heat. He watches as her gaze cuts from his face down to his crotch. He briefly thinks about her being full of him. He’s not sure when he started getting hard—when he wrestled her to the ground, when got his hand in her hair, when she opened her eyes. When she first went at the guy. He doesn’t let himself feel ashamed of it. Embarrassed. Fuck that. Fuck her.
“This what you do with all the girls? Get ‘em on the floor and shove your dick in their face?”
“You don’t seem to mind.” He can barely get the words out, he’s breathing so hard.
“So this is your idea of calming me down?” Mockery is obvious in how she says it, but she still hasn’t moved against him. Her hand is so close to his dick, tucked to the right. She’d barely have to move at all to touch him.
“Worked, didn’t it?”
“Hmmm,” she says, which isn’t an answer.
“You gonna behave if I let you up?”
A flash like quicksilver passes over her eyes, sharp and assessing. Like she’s just spotted something to exploit. No, something she wants to eat. “If I don’t? What’re you gonna do to me?”
He squeezes his thighs, puts that much more pressure against her. “Get you right back here under me.”
“That guy was a fucking piece of shit.”
“Yeah. You don’t gotta kill him for it. Not a capital offense, being a dick.”
Amber rolls her neck. He can see both her eyes now, both of her flushed cheeks. She ignores the dirty carpet, the flecks of ash and god knows what else embedded in the worn fibers, most like collecting in her hair. His fingers are still snarled in it, but he releases his grasp, more of less cradling her skull in the flat of his hand.
“Maybe it is for me,” she says.
“Nah,” he says. He shakes his head. “Don’t.”
“You got a temper, don’t you.” He hates more than anything how she says that, low and creaky. How he wants to give in to whatever violence she’s trying to goad him into. “I think about it a lot.” Her voice has that hot vamp from those old movies by way of a pretty heady death rattle to it. He feels hot all over, sweaty and out of control.
“What’re you gonna do to get me to be good?”
He exhales loudly, too much spit in his mouth. He wishes he had more to drink, thinks maybe he drank too much.
“Reece,” she says. “What’re you gonna do?”
He draws his hand out of her tangled hair. He drags his fingers down the side of her face, reverent, maybe, if they were different people, and he pauses. He cups her cheek. Thinks maybe that’s something Pat would do, with his good hand, if Pat gave in maybe a fraction to just how fucked they are and how much a person who could survive all they did might need now. He pulls his hand away, and he sees as much as feels the slight tremble to her open mouth, the line of her jaw.
His hand settles on her throat. Her front teeth sink into her bottom lip. Her body goes very tense under his. Expectant.
“Do you need me to do something bad first?” He can feel the words vibrate under his hand. He can feel her pulse, each breath in, how very much alive she is. How fucking stupid. You don’t put something like that in somebody else’s hands.
“Amber,” he says again, but this time the second syllable of her name falls apart like maybe he’s falling himself.
She finally moves her hand. She presses the heel of her hand firmly against the base of his cock, and even though it’s his hand on her throat, a choked gasp fills his mouth.
He squeezes his hand. Lightly, experimentally. She reacts instantaneously—a gasping moan, her hand grinding against him, the pressure almost too much. He squeezes harder, one-handed, too afraid of what he might to do to her with both. He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing. He tries to remember what that one girl he fucked a couple years back, when they were down in Texas trying to field some run-off South by Southwest action. He fucked her from behind and she kept pulling his hand up to her throat, saying, “Yeah, baby,” in this awful voice over and over again, content enough just to have his hand there, his grip loose around her throat. Amber doesn’t want the pretend though—she wants the reality. The red face and the streaming eyes and her own hands coming to close tight around his wrist and his forearm. He’s panting. He squeezes harder. He really does think about killing her. Leaving her here on this dirty carpet, and maybe then he can live and it really will feel like none of this ever happened. He knows that’s impossible, untrue, and he loosens his hand on her throat. She gags a little, coughs hoarse and loud, painfully, still clinging to his arm. She’s so pale he can already see where his hand was, his fingers, and he knows with a gross, prideful certainty it’ll bruise. She’ll bruise. He’s so hard he thinks he wants to die, too.
Amber catches her breath, or she tries to. There’s nothing guarded about her now. She’s as open as a fatal wound. As carved open as Justin. She’s looking up at him with absolute clarity and honesty. His own pulse hammers. Beneath his weight, she shifts restlessly.
“I think about you doing this to me all the time,” she says, softly. Barely audible. Reece groans, he can’t stop himself. What the fuck is he even supposed to do with that.
Reece shifts his weight further down her body. He widens his knees, and he leans down. He does the only thing he can think of: he kisses her. His mouth barely brushes hers—it's a strange and tender excuse for a kiss. She kisses him back in kind, careful and cautious in her own way. He opens his mouth wider, offers the soft, wet, brush of his tongue against the curve of her bottom lip. Tasting her. It feels better than he ever let himself imagine to actually touch her. Her teeth bite into his lip and he groans again, louder.
He brings his mouth down to hers, and the kiss goes untenable and wild near immediately. The both of them are making out like dumb teenagers, desperate but still oddly hesitant and uncertain. It feels so startlingly personal, it makes him want to crawl out of his skin, into hers. Just as suddenly, they’re not kissing anymore. Their faces are pressed together and he’s breathing against her mouth and she’s breathing against his, funny and fast, her eyes open wide.
Reece pulls off her slightly. He’s still close enough that the only thing she can see is him.
“Tell me. Are you fucking Pat?”
She snorts. He ignores it. He has to know. He has to fucking know. It’s easy enough to keep tabs on the both of them, the close quarters all three of them keep. There’s a comfortable intimacy shared between Amber and Pat that makes Reece feel like he’s on the other side of a wall without a door. He’s alone.
“No.” There’s nothing in her face for him to go off of. “Are you?”
He ignores that, too. “Why not?” he says.
“Why not Pat?” She says it like the question’s too dumb to deserve an answer, but then, he thinks she approaches most questions asked of her like that. “You’re gonna make me say it?”
Dread pools low in his gut, alongside something worse. Something hungrier. He shifts his hips against her. “Say what?”
“He won’t hurt me the way you would.”
Reece is on her instantly. If there’s any thought in his head, anything transferred from one synapse to the other, it’s involuntary. It’s not deciphered by him. His hands pull at her t-shirt, yanking the hem of it up roughly, baring her tits to him. She’s not wearing a bra. Her nipples are pebbled, hard. Even better in person than they were in the photo she sent him. He drops his mouth to one, briefly, like he can’t resist. He doesn’t see a point in exercising willpower. The hem of her t-shirt is knotted in his hand, his fist solid and heavy against the center of her chest. He sucks her nipple into his mouth and she’s making a different kind of noise now—pleading, maybe; he wants it to be pleading—and her skin smells like the same soap he uses.
He slides his hand down between her legs. He lifts his weight off of her long enough to yank her jeans down her legs. He doesn’t bother to take her panties off, just pushes them to the side. He holds her down, he gets his fingers in her, and she both arches into him and up, her heels scuttling against the carpet, like she wants to get away from him. She’s mostly quiet, but the longer he fucks her, the more sound escapes her. Quiet little noises that sound distressed and desperate, and he likes that more than he wants to. She's so wet, he can feel her, collecting in his palm, dripping down his wrist, his forearm. He can hear it. He fucks her harder, and she writhes against him, her hands grabbing at any part of him she can reach. He doesn't say anything, and neither does she. Her eyes are very wide and very open, nearly accusatory and smug, as she watches him. She comes quickly and wordlessly but not quietly: the sound she makes is pleading enough to almost satisfy him.
He pulls his fingers from her and Amber gasps. Her panties are wet from what he's done to her and she lays there, pink-cheeked and still.
He gets his jeans open, yanks his boxer briefs down far enough to take his cock in hand, still wet with her. It doesn’t take much. Amber watches him, still silent, as he jacks himself off. He can’t stop saying things now that he’s touching himself. Nothing important or damning, or any more damning than what he’s already done. Her name. He says her name. He comes in his hand, spills over onto her bared thigh, and Amber makes a soft sound, like the start of a laugh.
He tells himself and he tells her—he’s not going to let this happen again. She laughs harder.
They shot Amber, when they tried to leave a second time. They crept through the empty club, Reece’s arm tucked close to his body, a makeshift sling Amber fashioned out of her jacket and nearly a yard of duct tape. In his other hand, the cleaver.
They stepped out through that front door and straight into open fire. Amber took it in the leg. She screamed, a guttural howl as she went down, the bullet in her thigh. Amidst the panic, they unleashed one of the dogs. As it lunged at Reece, Pat dragged Amber back into the club. Reece brought the cleaver down and heard a whimper.
His mouth was thick with bile as he stumbled back inside. He slammed the door, wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. Gagged anyway. He followed Amber and Pat down the hall, back to that fucking room. One step forward, three steps back.
Amber was whining, sharp and pained, as she got herself down onto the bloodstained couch. Reece got on his knees, and with Pat’s help started wrapping her thigh with duct tape. She was breathing loudly and quickly, her hands curled into fists at her sides, entire body rigid and taut. Her jeans were already soaked with blood. He clumsily wound another loop of tape around her thigh.
When he was done, he dropped the remaining roll to the ground. He couldn’t get up. Exhaustion, terror, grief, the fucking futility of it all—it hit devastatingly at once. Pain, too. Reece took a shuddering breath in, and Jesus fucking Christ, he was gonna cry. He was crying. He leaned forward, his face buried against Amber’s good thigh. Her hand came down to rest lightly at the nape of his neck, idly combed through his hair, and yeah, he was definitely crying. Tiger was dead and Sam was dead. They were next. There wasn’t any coming back from this.
Amber’s hand stopped moving. “Hey,” she said, enough authority he had no choice but to look up at her. “Don’t be a pussy.”
Pat laughed, croaking and near wild. Reece dragged himself up and sat down on the couch, Amber wedged between the both of them. They sat there in silence, all of them too tired to talk. Too tired to plan.
“We killed people,” Pat finally said. Reece didn’t want to think about that. Not yet, not ever.
“Yeah,” Amber said.
“We fucking killed people.”
“It was us or them.” Amber shrugged. It looked like it hurt. “It’s nothing personal. They just had to die.”
It happens again.
Reece went out for a run. He comes back to find Amber sitting there in the empty apartment, not doing anything at all.
“Fuck it,” he says, and he gets down on his knees.
He eats her out like he has something to prove. Something to tell her but he doesn’t have the words. He keeps his mouth on her, even after she comes—a matter of minutes, her fingers painfully tight in his hair, a wordless shout—wet down to his chin. He knows he’s good at this. He learned between Sam’s legs. The first time was out at a college town in Indiana. They had played a good enough show, and two students gave them their apartment to crash at, bestowed like some great honor, more so to the students than the band. They were bored that night, still keyed up from the show. Pat passed out early on the sofa in front of the TV and Tiger went out, not even bothering to try to convince any of them to join him. Sam, without comment or ceremony, pulled her jeans down her legs and just as quickly kicked her underwear off. She sat on the edge of the bed and she spread her thighs. “You want to?” she said, and Reece was that easy. Half-hard before she’d even fully dropped her panties. She threaded her fingers through his hair and held him back from her—"Only your mouth,” she said. “Let’s see what you can do, pretty boy,” and then she laughed. She showed him everything he still needed to learn about a woman.
Now, he bars his forearm over Amber's hips to keep her down. Even then she keeps bucking violently underneath him. She’s so wet she’s dripping down the crack of her ass and he chases the slick with his mouth. Hears her when she says his name. Like she’s afraid. Like she can’t stop, a tremble to her voice that makes him that much harder.
Reece pauses, groaning. He shoves his gym shorts and his underwear down past his ass. He grinds down into the futon mattress, and with the hand not holding her down he grips himself. His cock jumps in his hand, already leaking. Amber whines when she realizes what he’s doing, plaintive and demanding. He groans again, his mouth smeared against her cunt.
He comes, mouth pressed barely moving to her, before she can again. He gasps, his cheek hot against the soft skin of her inner thigh. There are very few parts of Amber that are soft, but this is one of them. She’s restless though; her thigh tenses under him. She tries to slide a hand down to her touch herself, but he stops her. He bites at her fingers, sucks them into his mouth. Her body jolts and he moves with her, pushes her down again. Holds her down. They’re both panting. He sucks at her clit, lets her hips up, lets her squirm, his hands under her ass, squeezing.
It’s like this that Pat finds them.
“Um. Class was canceled.”
“Do we have to talk about this shit?” Reece finally says it the following morning. Amber’s still asleep, sprawled all limbs on the futon not so much snoring but inhaling loud and labored like a provoked asthmatic. He dumps more cream than he meant to into his cup of coffee.
“Nah,” Pat says, as good-natured as anything. A shit-eating grin starts to spread across his face. “Unless you want to, Romeo.”
Reece glares at the nickname but he doesn’t say anything at first. He doesn't want to talk about this; he really doesn’t want to fucking talk about this. Still, he finds himself saying, “You’re not into her, right?”
Pat looks like he wants to laugh but he knows Reece too well to let himself do it. “Would it matter?” He gives in and chuckles. “No, man. I'm not. Not like that.”
“Yeah, well. Me either.”
Pat laughs for real. “Yeah, that’s why you were nose deep in her when I walked in. Fuck you.”
Reece’s mouth cracks into a grin. “Fuck you.”
“We’re okay, man.” Pat’s face has shifted into something much sadder. Older.
“Yeah,” Reece says.
“We’re always gonna be okay.”
Reece jerks awake. He’s sweating. He kicks at the sheets. Tries to catch his breath. He can’t remember the dream, but he can taste the fear in the back of his throat—hot and familiar. He rolls over with a groan. Amber is sitting on the floor in front of the window air-conditioning unit. He can see the sheen of sweat on her from here. He sits up, his mouth open wide in a jaw-cracking yawn.
Amber grunts something in reply. She doesn’t turn to look at him. She has her knees drawn to her chest and her hair is ruffling in the cold air. Reece drags himself out of bed on another yawn and he sits down beside her. The floor here feels cool under his bare legs.
“What’re you doing?” she says.
“I don’t know. Whatever you’re doing.”
“You can go back to sleep. I don’t need company.” There’s a rich disdain to her tone, but what else is new. Still, it’s at a remove. Something else is slotted in its place.
“I’m awake now.”
“Yeah. Do you ever,” and then she stops herself. He’s not a patient person, but he sits there with her in silence. The air-conditioning unit makes a threatening grinding whir before it quiets. “Some nights, there’s just. I don’t know. Too much noise in my head. And it’s easier not to try. Not to lay there and try to sleep. It’s just not worth it.”
“Yeah.” He kinda gets that.
“I am tired though.” Amber says it like she means more than just tonight. Like she needs more than sleep. He definitely gets that.
“Yeah,” Reece says again.
“It’s like I’m always gonna be running from it.” Her voice is quiet. “Like I’m never gonna get out of that room.”
Reece drops his head. It suddenly feels very hard to breathe and very much so like panic might finally catch him. He’s been on the run from it for so long now, he doesn’t even know if he can remember what it felt like to stand still.
“I know you know what that’s like,” she says, and it’s gentle, like something cupped and offered in her hands.
“That night, that person who did those things,” he says slowly, each word like ripping off an old bandage, “he’s still inside me.”
“Is that how you think it works?” There’s an ache to her voice he doesn’t want to be hers. "That, what? You’re some kind of fucked Russian nesting doll? A you inside another you inside another?” She shakes her head. “They’re all the same person. They’re all you.”
He laughs without meaning to, hard and acidic. “I shouldn’t be alive,” he spits out.
“You want me to do something about that?”
He laughs again, closer to hysterical. He scrubs a hand over his face and he tips his head back. “I thought I could ignore it. What happened. Then you showed up.” It’s the most honest thing he’s said in a long time. He never used to be a person who prided himself on honesty—it just came naturally to him, like a reflex. He didn’t know enough shame or guilt to try to hide parts of himself behind a lie. Since all that, since they came back, he doesn’t so much as lie outright but he dodges the truth. When the truth’s got teeth, you don’t wanna get bit. “I think about it, a lot. I don’t…wanna admit it, but I think about it all the fucking time. How it coulda gone different. Like, how we could’ve been smarter. Gotten us all out, convinced them not to, I don’t know. We wouldn’t have to kill anybody.”
“Nothing doing. You coulda been anyone,” Amber says. “They were gonna kill you. You saw what you shouldn’t’ve. And they were gonna kill you for it. You were all dead the second you walked through that door. We did what we had to do.”
His hands start to shake. Reece turns his head towards her. She’s not looking at him. She’s not looking at anything. Her eyes are flat, reptilian. Like she’s bored. “Is that supposed to make me feel any better?” he says.
She shrugs. “I got no skin in that game. Feel better, don’t. Just don’t labor under the illusion that what happened that night had anything to do with you.”
That makes everything so pointless. Sam. Tiger. They’re gone, and for fucking what? Because Sam left her phone plugged in? It’s so stupid. They could’ve walked out of there, like nothing. Got their gear in the back of the van and started the trek either down the coast or back home.
None of this had to happen. He says that part out loud. His hands are still shaking. He clenches them into fists.
Amber’s profile has become something familiar to him—the long slope of her nose, the set of her mouth, always a pout though always insolent, never seductive. She lifts her chin, her bottom lip caught in her teeth. She reaches for him blindly and curls her fingers around his hand, the ridge of his knuckles warm and flush against the palm of hers. She finally looks at him. That soft hurt has left her voice and she’s back to her old self, or near enough. “Yeah, well. It did.”
“You know, I’ve been doing some thinking. And I’ve been thinking about leaving,” Amber says. The three of them are sitting on the futon. Amber is in the middle. “I'm thinking I should go.”
Pat laughs. He lifts his head. “No you’re not.”
Reece grinds his back teeth. He imagines her gone.
He was always going to fuck her. Reece knows that now. He thinks he knew that the moment he saw her in that shitty club downtown. Now, he has her in his bed. Her hair is spread out over his sheets, her body spread under his.
He kisses her sloppily, his hands rough and demanding on her body. Her hipbones grind sharply against his and he shoves his body against hers. His hand covers the raised scar the bullet left on her thigh and he presses down, hard. Anticipation cuts darkly across her face and her mouth opens. Her legs open wider.
“Are you gonna make it hurt?”
He doesn’t answer her, not with words. He slicks his cock against her cunt. He can feel her thighs seize up against his sides each time the head of it bumps against her clit. He rocks against her harder. The noises he’s making are pathetic, out of his depth. Fuck, he wishes he had never met her. Wishes they never went to fucking Portland, wishes he choked Tad out and he didn’t get them a new gig, called the cops instead. He looks down into Amber’s face. He stills. Would she be dead? Would they have killed her after they did that other girl? Sam and Tiger would still be alive, but what would they have done with her?
“What?” Amber says.
Reece shakes his head. He finally pushes his cock into her, slowly, so slow he can barely breathe through it. He lowers his full weight onto her and the palm of her hand skids over the scar tissue along his shoulder.
“I was thinking if you were dead.” He’s all the way in her now. Amber laughs, brittle, and he can feel it around his cock. He watches as her face goes flat.
“Then fucking do it. Fucking kill me. Make it hurt.”
He fucks her hard, brutal with her body. She has to be aching, he’s so deep in her, moving so roughly, he must be hurting her. Still, Amber keeps begging please please harder please, so he doesn’t stop. He fucks her, he keeps making these choked off loud gasps and grunts. He feels like he’s trying to force something out of her. For the first time, he pictures her on the ground—it’s him with the boxcutter. He feels sick; he pictures her slit open, hot and gasping. He’s inside of her, flesh hot and dripping wet. He feels fucking sick. He makes a breathless, hysterical sound as he holds her down against the mattress. Tries to keep her. What the fuck is wrong with him. She answers him with a strangled moan of her own. What the fuck is wrong with her. She’s clinging to him, his thrusts shallow now, unsteady. This whole time he’s been blindly, foolishly, operating under the assumption that Amber was fine. That nothing that happened to her left a mark. Nothing could ever touch her. But here she is, all but sobbing beneath him, clenching tight and wet, spasming around his cock. He lowers himself to her. He kisses her, he makes her come. She’s just as fucked as he is.
After, he doesn’t let go of her. They’re both sweaty and out of breath, his skin uncomfortably clammy pressed to hers. But she’s warm and here and present, so he can try to be those things too. He buries his face in first her hair and then the side of her face, her neck, breathing in deeply. Amber lets him. She doesn’t react until he tries to pull back from her. Then, her fingers dig into his arm, try to hold him in place.
“You can’t leave,” Reece says. “You know that.”
“Use different words.” She mumbles it into the rough skin of his shoulder, mouth humid and open against the scars.
She tilts her head back to look up at him. “I said, use different words.”
Reece takes a beat. His mouth still tastes like hers. He can smell her on him. “I don’t want you to go. I need you to stay.” The violence of saying that out loud, saying it to her—it’s a near physical pain, stabbing deep.
Amber is silent for a long time. “Okay,” she finally says.
They didn’t see Amber before they left the hospital. Before they headed home. Pat asked about her. “Is she okay? The girl we came in with?” They both were still up to their eyeballs on pain meds and Reece’s wounds throbbed under the new bandages. He had taken his first look, his first real look, at what they had done to him that morning. He had been able to walk to the small bathroom connected to the room he shared with Pat—his legs unsteady, but better than the first time he had tried: an inglorious dead faint, his knees giving out, two nurses and a resident trying to prop him up without ripping open his stitches. In the bathroom, the overhead fluorescent light flickered, yellow and nauseating, and he managed to get his hospital gown off himself. His movements were slow but not necessarily careful. He could feel the pull of his skin where he had been stitched back together. He pointedly tried not to listen when the surgeon would come in, when she or the nurses on staff or anyone tried to tell him how many stitches he now had in his body, holding him together. He didn’t want to know. It was like staring at the sun—you couldn’t look at it straight on without going blind. The wounds had looked gnarly in the mirror, the skin puckered and red and tender. There was a trail of garish stitches in his shoulder, threaded up along his neck. He went cold all over, clammy and afraid. He dropped his gaze from the mirror and took a breath. He thought about Pat, when he had first come out of surgery and he held his arm up. It was like looking at a funhouse version of Pat, parts wrong and missing, his wrist ending in a bandaged stump. “That’ll leave a mark,” he slurred. When he laughed, it was a wheezing gasp that sounded like it hurt.
But, “She’s fine.” That was all they were told, and then they were discharged.
They went to the airport after. Pat’s brother came out—the less said about Reece’s family, the better—and he paid for them to take the red eye back east. The flight attendant had eyed them as they made their way to their seats. “What happened to you boys?”
“Car accident,” Reece said at the same time Pat said, “You should see the other guy.”
Reece was seated carefully against the window, any sudden movement jarring him in a way that felt bone-deep and raw and the kind of wrong that could kill you.
Beside him, Pat’s eyes were closed. He held his arm gingerly in his lap like an old cat. “CCR,” he said. He opened his eyes. He glanced over at Reece. “For the record.”
Reece turned his head towards him as much as his injuries would allow him. It wasn’t much. “The fuck you talking about, man?”
“Creedence Clearwater Revival.”
Pat looked sad. Pat looked fucking tragic, and maybe Reece looked the same. He didn’t want to know. “Never mind,” Pat said. He closed his eyes again. He sighed. “Fuck. We left her behind.”
The plane lights were dimmed. They began to taxi down the runway. Reece waited for the meds he had popped back at the gate to take effect. “Fuck, man,” he said, the drone of the plane drowning him out. “She wasn’t ours to take.”
Amber’s fingers move fast over her phone, the glow of it low but enough to illuminate her face. Music starts, faint but familiar.
“Prince,” she says quietly. Unnecessarily.
“Yeah.” Reece tips his head back. He stares up at the cracked ceiling, his grip still tight on the nape of her neck. The night is cool, the leaves threatening to change color as fall approaches. He mouths along to the words, and then he starts to sing them, low and guttural. Quiet enough that he can still hear the sounds of Pat’s wheezing snores in the bedroom over it. He can hear Amber breathing, can feel it, hot, against his good shoulder. He lets his eyes flicker closed and then open. Amber has started to mumble along with the song too, each word of it unintelligible and sliding, slurring, into the next. He closes his eyes. He takes a deep breath. He tries to forget what it feels like to wait for rescue.