By M. Pierce
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 M. Pierce
All rights reserved.
I remember the book signing — I always will — when so much else is forgotten.
I helped convince Matt to do it, along with Pam and his editor.
People know who you are, we told him. The secret is out; you have nothing to lose. Do this, at least, for your local fans. Think about how they've supported you.
And Matt agreed, after weeks of resistance. One signing. A stand-alone event, lightly publicized, to be held at his favorite independent bookstore — Flight of Ideas.
That Saturday afternoon in December, the crowd filled the store and a line formed down the street. Readers drove in from surrounding states. An Arizona local, unprepared for the Denver cold, collapsed in line and brought a screaming ambulance to the chaos. News stations deployed their vans. Reporters and photographers clamored for a word with Matt, flashing their press passes as if they meant anything.
A modest stock of Matt's books sold out within an hour.
The store manager and employees moved through the mob, wringing their hands.
And I stood beside Matt, watching the madness. What had we done?
Matt sat at a small table with Pam to his left and me to his right. We brought water, coffee, tea, cookies — but he touched nothing. Empty displays loomed around us. A printout dangled from the table, half torn: M. PIERCE EXCLUSIVE BOOK SIGNING.
Readers came bearing multiple copies of his books, hardcover and paperback, various editions. They chattered at Matt as he dashed off his signature. Their stories were variations on a theme of adoration. I read Ten Thousand Nights in high school. I've read all your books. I've reread this book so many times. I can't wait for your next book.
Matt met each fan with a stomach-level stare. He looked grim and determined.
When his pen died, he slid it across the table to Pam.
"The pen," he whispered.
About twenty minutes into the signing, Matt rose and disappeared into the crowd.
I found him in a storage room.
He stood facing a shelf of boxes, a hand covering his face.
"Matt?" I touched his back. He didn't move. I slid my fingers up his spine and kissed his shoulder blade. "Hey, that's a lot of people out there, huh?"
Matt's silence frightened me — always. We'd been living together for just a month and a half. Matt spent most of his time writing. My job at the agency absorbed me. In so many ways, we were still strangers, circling the mystery of one another. And when I was alone with Matt, as I was in the storage room that afternoon, I sensed I was alone with something volatile.
Finally he said, "Do you think my editor did this?"
"Did what?" I moved to get a look at his face.
Another long silence.
I waited it out.
"You don't know what it meant to me," he said.
Matt pulled me in for a quick hug and walked out of the storage room.
The signing ran for another half hour, during which Matt sat with his hand half covering his face. Pam gave me a few puzzled looks. I shrugged.
Matt said I didn't know what it meant to him. He was right. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know what the hell it was.
But now I know. It was his privacy. And now I know how he valued his privacy. Above me, above his family, above everything.
* * *
Two months after the book signing, I stood in a phone booth in New Jersey, just outside my motel.
I listened to the ringtone on the line. I listened to the rain, a steady frigid patter.
What I am doing, I thought, is wicked. How can I?
And then I pictured Matt.
The scenes of our last days together were surreal.
Matt moving money into the wall safe in our condo.
Matt pacing, talking excitedly about freedom and his writing.
Matt vanishing onto a snow-choked trail in the mountains.
Watching him go — watching him smile back at me. Real fear in my heart. Confusion. And now this: a facsimile of grief that I would present to Matt's family. Who had I become?
The voice sounded far off. I crushed the phone against my ear.
"Matt ... hi."
"Hannah. Are you okay? I miss you. Fuck, I miss you."
My eyes began to sting.
"No, I'm not okay. How can I be? How can I be okay?"
"Listen, Hannah. This is as hard as it gets. Everything will get easier after this."
"No." I clenched my teeth. "I don't think so."
"It will. Baby bird, trust me. I don't even want you there. Why are you going? Tell Nate you can't go. Call him now and tell him."
"No. I'm going. I deserve this."
I swallowed thickly and closed my eyes. A car passed, crunching over old ice and snow.
"It doesn't matter," I whispered. "If I seem guilty or sad, if I can't look your family in the eye ... however it goes. Maybe that's what grief looks like. I don't even fucking know. I don't know anything. I don't know why I agreed to this."
"Is that how it is?" Matt's voice chilled. "Then tell them I'm alive."
"Matt, no. I —"
"No, go on. Tell everyone the truth. I won't do this. I won't be made to feel like I've conned you into this, like I'm manipulating you. Mm, I know ... it was all well and good when we were together, but you get away from me for a few weeks and suddenly you can't remember why you did this? I thought you wanted this for me."
"I did. I do. Stop it. You can't get —"
"What can't I get? Angry? I'm not angry, Hannah. Do whatever you want. I told you not to go out there. I told you to stay away from it all."
I stayed quiet then and so did Matt. He was right. He told me not to get involved with his family. He knew how it would hurt and how guilty I would feel. And I, a self-saboteur of the first degree, did it anyway.
I helped my lover fake his death.
I lied to my family, Pam, the police.
Now I would lie to Matt's family. I would show them my phony grief. I would watch their sincere suffering. I would go to Matt Sky's memorial.
"This is crazy," I whispered. "I feel sick every day. I'm lonely. I have a z-zillion questions. Are you okay? Do you have enough food? The book ... I mean, did anyone —"
"Hannah, I miss you so fucking much. Please ..."
Simple longing filled Matt's voice, and just like that, the tension between us faded.
"I have to see you," he said. "Soon. I'm fine. Food's fine. No word on Night Owl. I put out some feelers, posted questions on forums. No replies."
"When I'm back, I'll drive out."
"Yeah, when you're back. Soon as you can. It's been so fucking long. I'm going crazy, bird." Matt's breath quickened. He hesitated, and then went on in a rush. "I want to be with you. I want to be inside you. For hours. Here, by the fire. I need you like that ..."
The cold of the phone booth disappeared. I pictured Matt in nothing but his skin, and I could practically feel his breath on my lips.
"I need you, too." I lowered my voice. "Like that. In ... inside me."
"God, you're so good. So good to me. Hannah ..."
Matt was probably touching himself. I heated at the thought. How unfair, his unimpeded access to that beautiful body. And how strange that our romance reverted to this: furtive phone calls, lonely nights, waiting, touching ourselves.
Were we moving backward, or was this new and exciting?
"How ..." he said. "This thing with us — how is it still so —"
"Intense," I murmured.
A car door slammed.
I lingered a moment over my vision of Matt — his body draped across the couch, his back arching and hips seeking mine as he played with himself — and then I opened my eyes. The morning light stung.
"Shit," I hissed.
A silver Cadillac sedan was parked across the street, and striding toward my phone booth was Nathaniel Sky.
I gazed at the cabin's vaulted ceiling. Thick stained beams formed a truss from wall to wall and they gleamed in the firelight.
I needed Hannah on top of me, riding me hard.
My dick rose against the fabric of my lounge pants.
"Intense," I repeated. "Mm ... say that again. Talk, I want to hear your voice. Tell me what you want. Are you alone?"
I strained to catch the sound of Hannah's breath.
I lay on my back on the couch, my fingertips skating up and down my stomach.
"Shit," Hannah said.
My hand paused. "What's up?"
"God, I don't care," I said, and for a moment, I didn't.
I sneered and sat up. My T-shirt flopped into place.
"I have to go," she said.
"I know. Fine. Good luck."
"Don't be angry, Matt."
"I'm not. Are you? Is he listening?"
"No, he's waiting outside the phone booth."
"The phone booth? What the fuck, Hannah?"
"I can handle it. Gotta go. Bye."
"Fuck." I dragged a hand through my hair. "Fine. All right. I love you ..."
The call ended with a loud click.
I frowned and flipped my TracFone shut.
"Goddamn it," I whispered.
That was my first conversation with Hannah in three weeks. We spoke a few times before that — when she told me she planned to attend the memorial, when Night Owl happened, and of course when I first got to the cabin. I was in bad shape then.
"I love you," I said again. The wind answered, pressing against the cabin. Hannah would have told me she loved me, but Nate was watching. I understood that.
I tried to picture them together: Hannah and my brother somewhere in New Jersey. Hannah in a phone booth. Nate waiting outside.
Jealousy rose like bile in my throat.
Oh, Nate and his grand house and his do-gooder job and his happy fucking family ... he always swooped in when I checked out. He would comfort Hannah. He would hug her. His arms would be around her, not mine.
I pocketed my phone and began to pace the main floor of the cabin. I kept the place terrifically hot, the thermostat at seventy and a fire always burning in the grate. I would have kept it cooler if Laurence were with me, but the lucky bastard got to stay with Hannah. His absence would raise suspicion. Missing Matt, missing Laurence — doesn't add up.
Though technically I was dead Matt, not missing Matt.
I had a mountain lion to thank for that.
Finally I plopped down at the desk, which I had positioned in front of the deck. The sliding door gave view to pines and mountains caked with snow.
Kevin must have paid a pretty penny for this place. The cabin sat far back on four acres. The nearest neighbors were a mile up the road, and they weren't around.
I was alone.
As far as Kevin knew, I was dead.
Hannah called Kevin a week after my "disappearance." He was a mutual friend with a conveniently remote cabin.
She fed him the lines I fed her. Can I stay at the cabin? I need to get away. I want to be closer to the search. If Matt's out there, I want to be out there. But I don't want to impose. I understand if ...
Kevin offered the cabin without hesitation, as I knew he would. He was in Miami anyway. I felt a twinge of guilt as I surveyed the Rocky Mountains, and I shrugged it off.
I had to remember, I was driven to this.
The media, the public, my editor, even Pam — they drove me to this. I couldn't write in the public eye, and what could I do if I couldn't write? But they wouldn't understand.
I flipped open my notebook and studied the first line of my new story.
December is the cruelest month to die in.
I smiled and slouched in my chair. I couldn't go wrong, riffing on Eliot.
I thumbed my way to chapter one and began to write. A cup of cold coffee stood by my laptop. I sipped it as I worked.
I wrote for three hours, stopping only to laugh or gaze out at the mountains. Once I walked through the cabin. Then I returned to the desk. As long as I was in the story, I wasn't aching for Hannah. As long as I was in the story, I wasn't worrying about Hannah on the East Coast with my family.
I burned out around two in the afternoon. My stomach growled. The fire was dead.
Middle of the fucking day.
I booted up my laptop and connected to the Internet, the dial-up ringing and grating.
I drummed my fingers on the desk as my e-mail loaded.
I had a new e-mail account and a new laptop, bought with cash. New clothes, a new prepaid cell, nothing taken from the condo. The scope of the search for me didn't inspire confidence in Colorado law enforcement, but I knew my finances would be checked, the condo searched, and phone records reviewed. Standard missing persons protocol. I covered my bases.
A new e-mail appeared in my in-box:
YOU HAVE RECEIVED A PRIVATE MESSAGE ON THEMYSTICTAVERN.COM FORUM
My God. I sat forward.
Was this it?
I navigated to the forum and swore as I waited for the page to load. Fucking dialup, fucking dial-up ...
First I checked my forum post. It had forty-seven views and no replies.
SUBJECT: From one NIGHT OWL to another by nightowl on Wednesday, January 29, 2014 Message me. I want to talk. You're not in trouble. I'm not angry. I'm intrigued.
I had one new private message. I clicked the little envelope icon and scanned the sender details. The user name, icarusonfire, was unfamiliar.
The message was four words long.
SUBJECT: [no subject] by icarusonfire on Saturday, February 8, 2014 What do you want?
I replied immediately.
SUBJECT: Re: [no subject] by nightowl on Saturday, February 8, 2014 You know what I want. I want to talk. You're not in trouble, I promise. Call me.
I included my new phone number below the message.
And I waited.
Ten minutes passed without incident. Anxiety began to coil up inside me. Had I scared him away? Him ... her? I checked the profile info for icarusonfire. It was a brand-new forum account, made that same day, with no post history. I smirked. Clever ... and careful.
I checked my phone. It was fully charged and had decent signal. I set the volume to high.
"Call me," I muttered. "Call me, fucking call me."
I browsed the forum as I waited.
That site felt haunted — as much as any digital space can feel haunted — and memories needled at me as I perused the forum.
There was my post in early June 2013: NIGHT OWL SEEKING WRITING PARTNER. I laughed as I reread it. My God, I was such a snob. Please know how to spell. I expect timely replies. I reserve the right to drop you at any time.
It was Hannah Catalano who took the bait.
I know how to spell, she replied, and I can handle being dropped. Can you?
That was the beginning. That was the start of our story, and it was a good story.
The heat whirred on and I jumped.
Fuck, what was I waiting for? A call that wouldn't come. I slid my phone across the desk and moved to restart the fire. I needed a shower. I needed to chop more wood.
Hell, I needed to eat — and to take stock of my food situation.
I was halfway to the cellar when my phone began to ring.
I stumbled out of the phone booth and stood staring at Nate, who stood staring at me, his expression unreadable.
"N-Nate ... hi."
Nate looked paler than I remembered him, his black hair a shock of darkness against the sky. He wore an elegant black suit and tie and a wool coat that reached his knees. Sleepless smudges stained the skin beneath his eyes.
I was running on little sleep, too. My flight from Colorado to New Jersey had landed at seven that morning. Nate wanted to pick me up at the airport, but I insisted on taking a cab.
Then he begged me to accept a ride from my motel to his house, and I gave in because part of me missed Nate. We hadn't seen one another since October of last year, and that was during Matt's meltdown. And even then, Nate made a good impression. Fiercely loyal to his brother. Forgiving. Gracious. Handsome.
I blinked rapidly, clearing that thought.
"Hello, Hannah," Nate said. He opened his arms and I went to him automatically. We didn't quite hug. He gripped my elbows and pressed a kiss to my cheek, and then he drew back and searched my face.
I began to shiver.
What could Nate see on my face? He took his time looking at me. His dark, impenetrable eyes swept my expression, the search so thorough it felt intimate, and at last he smiled and said, "It's good to see you."
"It's good to see you, too."
"What are you doing out here?" He nodded toward the pay phone.
"Oh, my phone ..." I shifted my purse. "My phone died. I wanted to call my mom. She's been really supportive. I needed to hear her voice."
I hated myself for lying. The guilt was acid.
Nate glanced at the run-down Motel 6 behind me. He cocked his head. As always, he reminded me of a hawk. "I take it your accommodations are without phone service?"
"Ah, no. Er, yes, of course." Fuck. "Phones ... they have phones. I was just on my way to —" I looked across the street, where only one establishment stood. SMOKEY'S TOBACCO SHOP. Seriously? I flushed. "Um ... buy a pack of cigarettes. So. The pay phone was on my way." I looked at my boots.
"Cigarettes," Nate said.
"I didn't know you smoked."
"Well, I didn't. But I do now." I lifted my chin. "And I know it's bad for me, and I'd rather not hear some doctory spiel about it. Matt used to smoke. Sometimes."
"I'm aware. One of his many healthy habits. Shall we, then?" Nate turned on a heel and headed for the tobacco shop. I trailed after him.
Fucking Matt, look what you've gotten me into now.
The shop was full of pipes and incense, blown glass, rolling papers, and Rasta clothes. I tried to hold my breath. A gray-haired man with a spindly beard — Smokey, I presumed — sat at the checkout counter. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Last Light by M. Pierce. Copyright © 2014 M. Pierce. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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