TWO PLANETS IN CLOSE PROXIMITY TO EACH OTHER IN THE SKY.
“Hey, babe, hand me my smokes.”
“I’m not your babe,” Josie replied.
“Fine. Hey, bitch, hand me my smokes.”
She laughed darkly and complied with his request. One-night stands were not afforded the privileges of pet names. Contrarily, the neatly arranged rails of white powder on the tray across the room meant he could call her anything he damn well pleased.
As the stranger lit a cigarette, Josie sat up and stretched her arms over her head. The air reeked of sweat, sex, and tobacco. The humming fan that helped lull her to sleep a few hours ago now got on her last sober nerve.
Spotting her underwear across the room, Josie slid from between the sheets and retrieved it. She slipped on each article of clothing as she found it, eventually donning her outfit from the previous night. The young man’s eyes followed her around, seeming amused by her hunt-and-gather technique.
“You were amazing,” he said.
His voice rasped like he had cotton and sawdust in his throat. The way his slate blue eyes shined, she could see all his lust. She had no interest in dwelling there.
Josie ignored him and leaned over the tray, holding the rolled-up dollar bill to her nose. She closed her eyes and smiled as she inhaled the drug, knowing that numbing bliss would soon find her. With a final sniff, she stood and let the chemical absorb into her blood. It was soft feathers across her skin, drifting down from the sky and landing around her toes. Her body tensed and prickled with the warmth of a prolonged orgasm. In this high, she had no name, no past, and no future. All she had was now. And now was amazing.
“Can I get your number? Sam Bradley is playing the Casbah on Wednesday. My boy could get us in for free.”
His words punched holes in her buzz. Irritated, she slung her bag across her body and pasted on a smile. The morning light peeked through the vertical blinds, casting stripes of gold across his body. He smiled and she could feel his desire for her again. To Josie, he was just a guy—a guy with a warm bed, pleasurable hands, and a large supply of coke.
“It was fun. Let’s just leave it at that.”
She spun on her heel and headed for the door.
“Yeah, whatever. I’ll see you around,” he shouted.
“Not likely,” she answered, stepping out into the blinding light of another morning after.
* * *
Josie sat back in the dark corner of the familiar bar. Graffiti-riddled walls and empty chairs were her only company. A journal lay open in her lap while her charcoal-stained fingers clutched the pencil hovering above the page. Hundreds of words flashed through her mind, yet she did not possess the will to choose one and write it down. The first word of a sentence, the precipice of an idea, usually held all the power as far as she was concerned. This is why, most nights, she kept to sketching—the curved lines and shading smudges were easier to commit to.
Most bar patrons took no notice of her. They were too busy, focused on their immediate goals of sex and intoxication. Josie’s intentions were the same as every other night spent in this establishment. She’d come to see about a boy.
Routine was not something she was accustomed to, though lately she’d been devoted to him. She always arrived an hour before his shift started and slipped out when he took his last break. She’d convinced herself that her obsession was normal.
With glossy eyes, she glanced up from her blank paper, awaiting the arrival of her muse. She sighed and blew her bangs from her eyes, wishing she’d smoked a bowl before coming here, something to take off the razor-sharp edge.
Since she was fourteen years old, Josie Banks had existed this way. She floated on whatever high she could get, reluctant to touch down, afraid reality might never let her go again. There wasn’t a physical addiction to the drugs. She never used one long enough to develop a taste for it. The addiction was solely to the state it provided, a numbing blissful high of indifference. Her savior wasn’t always drugs or sex with strangers. Sometimes her pencils, along with fresh paper and a silent room, could deliver the much-needed feeling of ecstasy. The rough scratch of charcoal or the shake and rattle of paint cans calmed her in a way that no therapist ever had.
Josie looked up to find a stranger staring down at her. He seemed to stand at the edge of her personal space while wearing a brittle smile. She did not respond but impatiently waited for his next line. It was delivered like a rehearsed speech.
“You’re too pretty to sit alone. Can I join you?”
Her silence answered. The man turned swiftly and retreated to where he came from. Josie didn’t watch him go. In any other place, at any other time, she would have entertained the idea. He was tall and handsome and she loved how nervous she made him. But not here.
Plenty of charmers had told her that she was attractive, but she always dismissed their words as a systematic technique to get into her pants. If only they’d known she didn’t need to be seduced. She gave it up freely and often. Shame did not exist in her bank of emotional labels; it had no place in the life she led. Fucking was always enjoyable. Even bad sex was still sex. Ever since she’d lost her virginity, she’d felt empowered by her feminine allure. No man or woman, no matter how attractive, had ever held her attention for longer than it had taken to get off.
She leaned back in her seat, curling her fingers around the nearly empty glass, and thought back to their first and only encounter.
Clouds stretched across the moon, stealing her natural light. Josie settled herself on the fire escape, drawing by the glow from her apartment window. Dirt and dust on the glass cast a freckled pattern over her. Haunting eyes stared up from the page as she tried to recall a connection to them.
A hooded figure stormed into the alley below, catching her attention. The lead of her pencil ceased in its track, its intended path abandoned. His dark garments blended into the shadows as if she could smudge him out of one of her drawings.
“Fool!” he shouted. His voice rolled up the alley walls until being freed into the sky like thunder.
He pushed the hood back, his nails scraping through dirty hair. It wove through his fingers, staying upturned in a veritable crown of thorns. Heavy footsteps counted off his rhythm as Josie watched him rage.
“Unforgivable,” he said. He tried it again, repeating the quiet chant over and over until it mirrored the beat of Josie’s pulse.
She gasped as he ripped off his hooded sweatshirt and threw it to the ground. Brilliant inked images covered his arms, interrupted only by the white beater that molded to his body. He slammed his forehead into the wall and then landed punch after punch. His blood painted the bricks and Josie knew a part of him would die here this night.
She sat stone-faced, her gaze fixed on the raging figure below. She was envious of such a physical kind of anger. She had never unleashed her fury that way and wondered if it would do any good. His chest heaved in a quick cadence, and Josie fought hard to keep her own breath even.
In that moment, the moon broke through the clouds and cast a blanket of silvery light over the alley. He froze, mesmerized by the grid-pattern shadows created by the fire escape. His eyes traveled up the shadow as if navigating a labyrinth, until a small, solid shape obstructed the path. He looked up, catching her.
The pencil slipped from Josie’s grip, rolling and falling over the edge. As connected as she felt to the lead and wood, she did not watch it drop. Instead, she stared down into the face of something so familiar—heartache. She’d never seen such a beautiful, broken expression, and it took her breath away. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she registered the soft tap, tap, tap of the pencil hitting the ground.
Josie felt bound to him in that moment. They were two souls snared by chance and circumstance. Though they did not feel like strangers.
She wanted more, but she didn’t know what. It tugged at her like the undeniable pull of the moon. She couldn’t name it, but she craved it like her drugs and her art.
A siren wailed from somewhere down the block and they both blinked, released from each other in a defeated kind of way. He turned away slowly. Josie leaned forward against the railing as he disappeared back into the dotted path of streetlamps.
When he was gone, she raced down the steps of her building and retrieved his abandoned hoodie from the alley. Josie wrapped herself in the black cotton and, for the first time in years, slept through the night. Almost every day since, she’d worn the oversize article, growing attached to it as if it were a long-lost friend.
“You need another drink?” the waitress asked. Josie made eye contact with the girl and nodded. “Another rum and Coke and no conversation. Coming right up, hon.”
She smirked when the waitress left to fetch her drink. Alone again, Josie began sketching a couple making out against the bar. The woman was standing, squeezed between the man’s thighs, while his hand gripped her waist. Their faces pressed together in heated kisses and whispered words. Their display garnered the attention of everyone in the place before the waitress tapped the bar and told them to take it elsewhere. Josie couldn’t care less. Her boy had arrived.
He took his place behind the bar after a smile and a wave to the waitress. He looked good there, backlit by mirrors, lavender lights, and half-empty bottles. Gone was her tortured boy from the alley. This version was sexy and confident.
It was pure luck that she’d found him here, tending bar at this yuppie establishment. Josie had come in one night, looking for a release of any kind, when she’d spotted him. She recognized his tattoos, and when he turned, she remembered his flawless face as well, even after six months. The images had been burned into her memory on a cellular level. It hadn’t taken long to learn his schedule, and soon she saw him four nights a week. But he never saw her.
Josie wanted him. The one-night stands that left her feeling coveted but isolated were no longer satisfying. She wanted to taste his lips and trace the patterns on his skin. She wanted to live in his clothes and feel the weight of his body on hers. Their relationship was complicated, existing only through one-way glass and never shared. Josie liked it this way. She felt anchored to him but not possessed.
Tristan Fallbrook was complicated and just barely a man. At the ripe old age of twenty-two, he’d suffered heartache, seen his fair share of violence, and thrived as a professional criminal. His life could rival that of a drafted wartime soldier, including battle scars and haunting memories.
None of this was planned. His life should be different. Yet here he was, living in a new place, facing a new direction that still felt faulty. All of his knowledge, through personal experience and countless books, could not help him. Tristan was alone and trapped in the foreign city, with only a 9mm and an addiction to literature to save him. Night after night, he tucked away his one-hundred-thirty-seven-point IQ and stood behind the bar, wearing his inked armor and crooked smile.
“Looks like Bundy is back,” Erin said, sliding her tray onto the bar. “Same as always, rum and Coke.”
“You got it,” Tristan answered. “Why do you guys call her that?”
“Because she’s really pretty and really weird, in a serial killer kind of way. She never comes in here with anyone. She never leaves with anyone. She just sits in that corner, sipping her drink and scribbling in her notebook. Sometimes she draws pictures on the napkins. I feel like she’s leaving them for me on purpose. Like it’s some kind of clue I’m supposed to decipher.”
Tristan placed the drink on the tray and shrugged.
“Maybe she’s just shy, Nancy Drew. Did you know Picasso and Warhol both had the habit of sketching on napkins?”
“So what are you saying? I should be saving them? She’ll be famous and I’ll be rich?”
“Maybe. What’s she drawing, anyway?”
“Usually faces of people in the bar. There’s a sketch of me on the wall in booth twelve. Some of her finest work, I’d say.” Tristan smiled, amused at Erin’s confidence. “Whatever she is, she definitely needs some wardrobe help. You should see the ratty old sweatshirt she wears all the time. My bet is serial killer. That pretty face could lure you chumps in, no problem.”
Reaching his quota for small talk, Tristan gave her a grin and sent her on her way. He rested against the shelf of smartly lined bottles and considered the behavior of Bundy. He didn’t see anything wrong with someone wanting to be alone with her poison and her thoughts. He wasn’t so sure what solidified her status as a freak. Many nights, Tristan had found himself half deep into a fifth of whiskey while venting frustrations to strangers. Vagrants, fellow employees, even customers had been subjected to drunken rants of pipe dreams. Some offered advice, some only listened. He soon learned that talking about it never mattered. His life’s course seemed to be fixed.
Tristan watched Erin deliver the drink. He forced himself to focus on Bundy, his curiosity piqued. She was shrouded in shadows and he could make out nothing but a faint silhouette. He recognized the intent of her posture and placement. Her hiding was intentional.
Josie did not look up as her new drink was dropped off, her mind preoccupied by the presence of him. The smell of the waitress’s flowery perfume brought forth an angry memory she quickly expelled. Then she wondered what he would smell like. His scent and her memory of it had faded from the hooded sweatshirt. Would he smell of heavy colognes and aftershaves or just a simple combination of soap and cigarettes? She scolded herself, knowing that her fascination with this man was unreasonable. She had no right to want him the way she did.
Josie knew the name the bar staff had branded her with: Bundy. She’d overheard two of the waitresses talking on their break. They hadn’t seen Josie there as they chatted about her weirdness and state of dress. She hadn’t been the subject of their conversation for long, though, easily dismissed as in every other aspect of her life. Her eagerness to simply be in his presence outweighed any humiliation she’d had to endure.
Suddenly, Josie felt a burning fire on her face, a pull from across the room. She glanced up to see his eyes on her. He was looking, really looking. Even though she knew he couldn’t see much, she felt as though she were being dissected in front of a crowd of spectators.
After weeks of her veiled presence, he’d finally taken notice. His muscled forearms leaned on the bar and his gaze stayed fixed. Sure, she wanted him, but on her terms. She wasn’t ready. He wasn’t another man to be conquered and forgotten. He was different. Josie felt smothered with the need to escape.
Spying no movement from her corner, Tristan finally dropped his eyes back to the bar, liberating his subject. He knew she was a creature of habit and wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. He would wait her out.
An hour passed, steady and unhurried, neither one of the players giving up on the waiting game. By midnight, Tristan couldn’t take it anymore and needed to step out for a smoke. He let his coworker know and headed out the side door. The alley welcomed him with quiet darkness.
When he was out of sight, Josie threw a few bills down, including a generous tip, and packed away her notebook. She slid from the booth, hastily making her way outside. When the rubber soles of her shoes hit the sidewalk, she breathed a little easier. Out here, she could disappear again. Out here, she was anonymous.
Josie turned to make her way home but was met by a familiar form leaning against the building. She sucked in the crisp air, almost choking, as his eyes worked themselves up from her feet. Even after all this time, he recognized her.
“You,” he whispered, curls of smoke escaping through his lips.
Tristan dropped his cigarette, crushing it under the toe of his shoe, before shoving his hands deep into his pockets. Before him stood a girl full of secrets and history, and he knew that she was alone in the world. He took two steps toward her, expecting she would retreat. He was wrong.
Josie trembled with some feeling that she didn’t recognize. Her head felt light and her legs became shaky under the weight of this moment. He moved closer, his beautiful face contorted in caution. She wasn’t afraid. Their long-awaited reunion outweighed any unease. Without thought, Josie lifted her hand toward him, wanting to make sure he was real. She had no doubt that her mind could invent his presence just to mess with her. She slid her fingers along his jaw. It felt like warmed stones and sandpaper. Eventually, Josie rested her palm against his face, and he let her.
Tristan leaned into her touch. Their eyes held firm, locked on each other in a battle for understanding. This bond, this connection was undefined yet all-consuming. In the familiar moonlight, their breathing had become synchronized and the rest of the world fell away. Tristan needed to say something but feared that it would end the fragile moment. He took the chance anyway.
“Josie,” she replied.
A long, silent moment stretched between them. It remained comfortable and reminiscent of reunited lovers. Tristan’s brows dipped in confusion as her face morphed into a younger one in his mind, a smiling one. He considered the familiar eyes, measuring them against the dark and guarded ones before him now. Like a forceful blow knocking the breath from his lungs, he connected Josie to the girl who had haunted his memory for the past eight years.
“You look just like a girl I used to know. McKenzi Delaune,” Tristan said. “But that’s impossible.”
Josie, not having heard that name for so long, dropped her hand and looked down at the sidewalk. She didn’t associate with that girl anymore, she hadn’t for years. Fear clawed at her chest as she wondered how much she should say. Something pulled the confession from her.
“I used to be her,” she answered.
“I thought you were dead.”
Copyright © 2014 by Season Vining