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.
Copyright © 2014 by M. Pierce