Finding Kate: Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest 84th Annual Writing Contest

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Disclaimer: You can find the competition piece below if you want to skip my little motivational speech.

A few months ago, my old creative writing teacher, who was the first person to encourage my love of writing, emailed me about this writing contest.

“What could it hurt?” he says.

Right? What could it hurt? It was a short story contest, I was in the thick of editing my manuscript (again) and needed a little fun. So I put it on my to-do list and forgot about it. For a few hours. Then his email pushed through in my notifications again. And again. And again. Now, I’m sure this was a total malfunction, but I’m a huge believer in signs from the Greater Above. I made it a top priority and sat down to have a go.

I thought about what I wanted to write, and all I could think about was science fiction and fantasy story lines. Everything I prompted myself to write wound up rolling into some significant idea I was using in my book series, and I really didn’t want to exhaust those ideas on short fiction. I wanted to savor them in detail with my girls (Emmy and Lillian of Dream Wakers). Instead of getting frustrated over something that was supposed to be fun, I readjusted my sails.

I’m not the type of person to do anything for an empty experience, so I took a minute to think about what I wanted to gain out of entering a writing competition. The chances of being recognized seemed too small. I thought about where in my skill I needed to grow. At the time, I felt like I had been a little out of touch with a lot of the mainstream interests and I wanted to tune my skills for a type of reader that I hadn’t really approached yet. Not knowing where to start, I looked through random writing prompts. I picked a whole bunch of them and did quick writes (which I have posted in an older blog) until five ideas stuck. Eventually, with the help of my best friend, I narrowed it down to one and just went with it.

I didn’t overthink it. I didn’t try to build an enormous storyline. I literally let the words come to mind and I put them to paper without second guessing it. It was stream of conscious writing at its best. Once I hit my word count, I went back and considered what had been created. The ending got changed. A few things were tweaked. That was it. Now I can say that I’ll be mentioned in the November issue of Writer’s Digest.

My point is to show you that sometimes the smallest exercise in the field of your passion can be a giant starting point for the rest of your life. It wasn’t about winning. It was about learning how to reach different people. It was about entering into worlds I hadn’t explored yet. THAT is writing. THAT is creating. THAT is manifesting. All of these things can be integrated to all aspects of your life. All of these things enhance a human experience. I am such a big advocate in BELIEVING. In yourself, in others, in love, in the things we can’t explain. I hope this can be a small example to whoever reads this. Life can be what you want, you can be successful in small endeavors, you can make dreams come true. You just have to believe it. 

Since my contest piece won’t be published in the magazine, I’d love to share it with you now as I really did have so much fun writing it.
kateFinding Kate by Rebecca Wright

I was on a date. Again. I was supposed to be charming. I was suppose to laugh at his jokes and look him in the eye and seem interested until the bill was paid. Forks clinked against plates in the background and I tried to focus on what he was saying. Politics always bored me. I couldn’t be interested in what a bunch of old men had to say about a future that didn’t include them. I smiled and shoved some more spaghetti into my mouth. I had given up the salad rule months ago. I didn’t care anymore. The excitement in meeting strangers had dulled. My date laughed and so did I. He didn’t care if I was listening or not, the sound of his own voice seemed to make him happy.

“How is everything?” the waiter purred.

I nodded and tried to swallow the carbs swelling in my throat. I never understood why they waited to ask you how your dinner was until you had food stuffed in your mouth. I looked up to answer and my pulse surged. His chiseled face marked a sense of keen intelligence. There was something wild in him. It writhed underneath his tightly buttoned collar. He stared at me. Did he just lick his lips? I blinked and looked back at my plate feeling unexplainably dumb. He smiled and I swear I heard him laughing under his breath as he walked away.

“And that was how I came to possess a yacht in the Virgin Islands,” my date rambled on.

“Lovely,” I mumbled, forcing myself to pay attention again.

Rich men were supposed to be exciting and care free. They had the money for it. I wanted an escape, I wanted adventures only rich people could afford. I wanted to see exotic places. I recharged my interest and tried harder to like him. He could give me whatever I wanted. But every time the waiter came to check on us, I couldn’t help but wish he were the one I was sitting across from. I couldn’t stop watching him move around the restaurant. I dragged the date on. I ordered dessert. I made any excuse to see him. More water. More wine. I was getting drunk. I was breaking my rules. I chatted more with my date, asked more questions, listened to more boring answers. I was feeling looser and braver. I stole glances to see what table he was serving.

He was a waiter. He was probably poor, living in a small apartment. Or worse at home. What future could we possibly have together? But I wanted him. Badly. I shifted in my seat and tugged on the hem of my dress. My feet were hurting. I should have worn something more comfortable, something easier to get out of. What was I saying? Was I planning to strip right here? I was overloaded with sugar and wine. I looked one last time before leaving. He was gone. I sighed and stood with difficulty. My date touched my arm to help and I smiled sympathetically. He wasn’t awful. He was just so damn boring.

“Thank you for a lovely night,” I lied as I departed from another unsuccessful night.

The cool air pressed against my neck. It was going to be a long walk back to the apartment. I was getting used to it. In fact I almost looked forward to the time I spent alone. It wasn’t that I hated being single. I hated being too poor to distract me from my miserable life.

“You left without saying goodbye.”

A hand gripped around my arm. I spun around. The waiter met my surprise with a smile. My heart was in my throat. My body tensed under his hold. Whatever sense of wildness I had seen inside had slipped out in the dark. I couldn’t believe he was standing in front of me. I didn’t know what to say.

“I watched you all night,” he went on, “I watched you watch me. I watched you want me. Did I assume wrong?”

I shook my head and laughed nervously. He never took his eyes from mine, never stumbled through his words. He was precise and alert. I could feel my body responding to his blatant hunt.

“Good. Then come with me.”

My numb toes crashed into the front of my heels as I chased after him. I cursed under my breath before kicking them off to keep up.

“Where are we going? Who are you? I don’t even know your name,” I protested a few feet behind him.

He said nothing. I kept following. What was I doing? Was I really that desperate? I stopped walking. I caught my breath, cleared my head. It took only seconds for him to sense my absence. He reached me before I could blink again and stood inches from my face. His breath was cool against my skin, his eyes penetrating whatever I wanted to keep hidden.

“Come with me or don’t. Keep going on boring dates. Or don’t.”

I was thrown off my game. I wasn’t used to being submissive. I couldn’t remember the last time a man took charge for me.

“But I don’t know you or where we’re going.”

“You didn’t know the man you dined with. You had never been to this place before. Why do you care now? Because you’re out of your comfort zone? Are you scared? Is it because it’s dark and I’m a stranger? You are responding to every social condition you have been trained to fear. Step out of the little box, Kate. Live a little.”

I swallowed.

“How do you know my name?”

“I’m a waiter, my job is to listen when everyone else stops. This is your last chance.”

He held out his hand. I placed mine in his. We slid through side streets and avoided being noticed like fugitives. He moved like an animal; precise and soundless. Maybe he was a secret agent. Maybe he had been watching me my entire life, waiting for the right opportunity to take me away. I smiled to myself wondering what kind of agent I would be. I could be just like Scarlett Johanssen in the Avengers. He was probably Iron Man. His intensity suggested a kind of brilliance. He was lean, but not bulky like Chris Hemsworth. Definitely Iron Man. We were going to his expensive tower. He had disguised himself as a commoner so no one would identify him. We walked faster. He looked over his shoulder as I trailed slightly behind, lost in my day dream, and smiled. We turned a corner and before I collected my sense of direction, he had me pinned against a wall. My heart flew into my throat.

“Do you know who I am?” he prodded smoothly.

I shook my head and swallowed. I should have felt afraid, but I was aroused.

“Kate, tell me who I am.”

“I don’t know who you are.”

“Kate, you know who I am, tell me,” he said, his lips inches from mine.

“I’ve never seen you before.”

My mouth parted, my eyes closed.

“Dammit! Tell me who I am!” he yelled.

Startled, I opened my eyes and stared. I didn’t think.

“Iron Man!”

He looked to my bare feet and sighed. He ripped his shoes off and kicked them towards me.

“Put these on, quickly.”

I obeyed. He turned and we kept walking. I wanted to cry. He should have kissed me. We emerged from city buildings and trailed along the park’s outskirts under the night sky. I was getting tired. He slowed his pace. His fingers wrapped more firmly around mine. His shoulders relaxed and I could feel him watching me out of the corner of his eye. The trees seemed taller without the sunlight shining on them. Shadows stirred in the bushes and I watched, waiting for his assailant to coming flying towards us. If I was going to follow James Bond I’d need to be prepared for attacks. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, looking around as acutely as I.

“Does it make you nervous to walk here at night?”

I shook my head. I wouldn’t make the mistake of telling him what imaginative roll I had cast him in again. The pathway took a small bend and reached a fork. We either took the bridge over the harbor and to suburbia, or we dared to enter the park at night with all sorts of strange things crawling around unsupervised. He stopped and turned to me. He looked me in the eyes.

“Are you afraid, Kate? You don’t know me. You don’t know where we’re going. Where do you think we will go? Where do you think I am taking you?”

He spoke closely. He tantalized me. Each word dripped over my body and prickled all of my senses. It was hypnotizing. I begged him to touch me with my eyes. He wanted an answer.

“I’m not afraid that I don’t know you. I don’t know where you’re taking me,” I purred.

“Not knowing is not living. It is accepting a fate that is handed to you. You are already dead if you cannot think for yourself. Where am I taking you?”

I bit my lip. He was annoyed and it only made him hotter. Had he unbuttoned the top half of his shirt? My god, I wanted to feel his chest.

“You’re taking me home,” I mumbled, “to your….place.”

It wasn’t a guess, it was a plea.

“And which way is that, Kate?”

It better not be the park. No. He was James Bond. He was Iron Man. Not the park. I jerked my chin towards suburbia. He said nothing and tugged me in the direction I had guessed. How boring. He held my face in his hands, lowering his lips just over mine.

“You are almost there.”

I reached out to pull him against me but he had already started moving forward. Now I was on edge. I couldn’t take the teasing any longer. I was a toy for his amusement and I didn’t even care. I wanted to tear his clothes off. Another couple approached and he linked his arm in mine, laughing out loud, pretending as if we had been old lovers. I looked at him and smiled, automatically sliding back into the persona I’d become so comfortable with on dates. The others passed by without suspicion and he stopped laughing as soon as they were out of sight. I looked up at him.

“I knew you’d think quickly. You are so good at faking it. You can slip in and out of personalities better than any professional. It’s as if you’ve forgotten who you actually are. Tonight, you will not be able to do that. Tonight you will have to be yourself, Kate. Do you even know who that is anymore?”

I didn’t answer, and he didn’t stop for a reply. He already knew it. There was no need for me to try and smooth over the reality he’d witnessed. I was a fraud in my own life. I spent endless nights on endless dates to forget who I was. I used men to placate my boredom. My endless appetite for adventure was just a distraction from the dull fate I had accepted. I was a nobody.

We walked through tidy streets with clipped lawns and freshly painted houses. We walked up a driveway. His driveway. He unlocked the door. My heart raced. It was happening. Finally. He lead me through the dark, up the stairs and into the bedroom. I groped the wall for a light.

“No,” he whispered, grabbing my hands, “no distractions from this. Just you and I in the dark.”

He lead me towards his bed and the back of my legs touched the mattress. A finger traced the vein in my neck.

“Do you know who I am?” he whispered against my ear.

I wasn’t allowed to say I didn’t know. I wasn’t going to risk screwing it up. But I didn’t know who he was. I thought quickly.

“James Bond,” I replied through a tight throat.

He smiled against my cheek and he dragged his quivering lips towards mine. He kissed me with patience and intention. I melted under my clothes and I scrambled to get them off. He wrapped his fingers around my wrists and pushed me back against the bed. Maybe this was a game of fantasies.

“I’ll undress you, Kate. You will be too busy to worry about clothes. Now tell me who you are.”

He slid my dress up my thighs. I said nothing. I couldn’t. He lingered, unmoving, his breath warming my inner thighs.

“I’m Kate Neilson,” I whispered.

He pushed my dress up over my hips. He waited for more.

“I’m from Chicago and I work in a law firm as an office assistant.”

“I don’t want small talk.”

His tongue darted along my hip as his mouth worked its way up my stomach. My mind scrambled. I couldn’t focus on anything meaningful when his gorgeous body was discovering mine. I closed my eyes and turned my head to the side. His hands were following the trail his mouth had left.

“Why do you go on so many dates, Kate?”

“I’m bored. I want adventure. I want you,” I pleaded.

He pushed my dress off my body.

“Why are you bored?”

Jesus he knew how to drag it out.

“Because I’m broke. I can’t afford to see the things I want to see.”

He unhooked my bra and it disappeared. His fingers ran freely over my body.

“Why are you broke, Kate?”

I didn’t want to answer. I wanted to lie. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I tensed underneath him. His mouth explored my breasts and I couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t fair. No one needed to hear this story. It was sad. I had worked hard not to think about it every waking moment of my life. Tears gathered in my throat. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry because of what I had to say or at the thought of stopping him if I didn’t. Damn it.

“Because of my brother,” I whimpered.

He sat back and stood off the edge of the bed. My heart slammed in my belly. It was done. I had killed the mood. I should have lied. I should have said I was a Bond Girl. I heard him undoing his belt. His pants fell to the floor. His shirt too. I was quivering uncontrollably. He ran his hands up my legs and hooked his fingers around my underwear.

“What did your brother do?” he asked hoarsely.

For the first time, his nonchalance had cracked. The hair on my arms stood. I hadn’t talked about it for years. I didn’t want to.

“Why are you broke because of your brother?” he asked again, impatient with my hesitance.

I forced the tears back.

“Because he died.”

I was naked in seconds and his body was hovering over mine. I could feel him waiting. I didn’t have anything else to say. He didn’t need to hear about the car accident. He didn’t need to hear about my depression or the fact that our deadbeat parents couldn’t afford a funeral. He wasn’t going to care about how I dropped out of college and a journalism internship to deal with the hardship. He already knew I was just existing, just passing time until I too would die. He was forcing me to face my life. I’d do anything to forget it. I needed him to take me past the point of feeling, to balance the equilibrium with a little ecstasy.

“We were in a car accident. A drunk driver hit us and killed my brother. I survived and I hate it. It should have been me. Please,” I begged.

Tears ran down my cheeks and he slid in between my thighs. I arched my back and gasped. I wanted to turn on a light, I wanted to see his body moving in mine. I wanted a distraction from the headlights glaring behind my eyes. My hips moved into his with desperation. I groped to hang on and clenched my fingers into his back. Tires were screeching in between my ears. A raspy moan crawled out of his mouth and I clung tighter. We moved faster, connecting and disconnecting. The jolt from the car collision boomed in my chest and I yelled out, hopelessly wishing to be saved. I felt the stars rise from my toes and explode through my head. He fell limp beside me as I reeled. Silence hung in the darkness. I smiled to myself, I finally found exactly what I needed to come back to life.

“Kate, do you know who I am,” he whispered, voice trembling.

“I thought you were James Bond,” I laughed a little hoarsely.

He didn’t laugh.

“It was June, two years ago. I was leaving a cast party at the theater. We were celebrating. Our show had sold out on opening night.”

My body went numb. I stared upward into the darkness. I felt him leave the mattress. He padded around the room. Pacing.

“I had to get back home to my mother. She was very sick. I was too drunk to drive.”

I sat up. I needed to leave. Now. The lights flipped on. I jumped out of the bed and met him face to face. Naked bodies. Naked souls. His eyes were red and broken. His poignant glare had softened.

“I’m so sorry, Kate. I’ve tried for two years. I tracked you down to apologize, but I never had the balls to tell you. I watched you struggle, I watched you cry when you walked home from dates and back to your empty apartment. I knew why you suffered. I didn’t know how to make it better. When you showed up tonight, I knew it was time.”

I stepped away from him. I fell to the floor, scrambling to find my clothes, sobbing.

“Kate, stop. Please. It’s sick, I know. But tell me you didn’t feel something too. Maybe it’s fate bringing us together. How could you ignore what has happened tonight?”

He was pleading. I was trying not to listen. I didn’t want to hear the confession hanging on his tongue. He kneeled down next to me and cupped my face in his palms. He forced me to look him in the eye. My tears soaked his fingertips.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for killing your brother. I don’t want forgiveness. I don’t want anything. You shouldn’t have to battle this alone anymore. Look how strong you were tonight. Look what we did together, Kate. You were so alive. Let me help you.”

I couldn’t breathe. My entire body trembled. What kind of sick human being would orchestrate a meeting like this?

The zipper on my dress caught and I tugged with my numb fingers, cussing as I scrambled for the door.

“Kate, wait.”

I spun around, tears streaming down my face.

“Fuck you. You murderer. You sick piece of shit.”

He didn’t try to follow me. He stood still, arms limp at his side. But I yelled anyway.

“You better not follow me. Ever again.”

My legs shook as I made my way down the stairs and the door slammed behind me as I walked out. This felt like a nightmare. My brother’s face flashed in front of my eyes and I dropped my heels from the crooks of my elbows. My knees scraped against the sharp blades of grass and I crumpled into the dew that was collecting on the lawn. A hellish cry tore from my throat and I called out.

“Lucas. It was supposed to be me!”

I didn’t care who heard me, who saw, or what would happen. I didn’t care if I died at the hands of the psycho just inside the house. My life had already ended two years ago. The breath twisted out of my lungs and my shoulders convulsed as I cried on the ground, barely dressed. I did not recognize myself anymore. I was a shell of a woman, and the emptiness spread out into the dim light of morning. Lucas was never coming back. His vibrant laughter would never fill my room. He’d never play pranks, never lift me up when things with our parents got hard. He had left me.

The grass sliced the inside of my fingers as I grabbed a handful and pushed upward. I could feel the makeup running down my cheeks. I stood up. I started walking. My eyes burned and I stared numbly in front of me. The house grew smaller behind me and finally I reached into my clutch and grabbed my phone. I hated taking taxis. I hated driving. But tonight I did not care. I welcomed the idea of another crash. I looked around for the closest address to give the driver before sitting on the curb outside another unfamiliar house. Another deep breath. I could do this. Turn it off, Kate.

The cab pulled up and I got in, a little self conscious of the way I looked. The driver smiled sympathetically and said nothing. The walk of shame was never a good look and I knew it.

“Avalon Apartments, please.”

The tires rolled slowly off the sidewalk and I rested my head against the window. I was more tired than I had realized.  My life had become dedicated to strangers and look what it had given me. I had just slept with my brother’s killer. I closed my eyes, but the tears fell anyway. I didn’t cry for Lucas. I cried for my mistake. I cried for my stupidity. I cried for his panther’s eyes, his preying. I cried because I couldn’t ignore the feeling he had given me. I inhaled slowly and forced the tears to stop falling. Last night had been strange and it was time to go home.

I stepped out of the cab and didn’t make eye contact when I handed the driver the last of my cash. I couldn’t stand to see the sad puppy eyes that people seemed to give me whenever I let myself feel. It’s why I often didn’t. It was easier to live without feeling, to live in a world dominated by material possession. I understood why people did it, why it had become so addictive to society. Nobody wanted to spend time feeling their heart obliterate itself.

I buzzed myself through the security gate and walked tragically up the five flights of stairs, feeling sorry for myself. There was nothing materialistically beautiful about this. But his bedsheets had felt unusually soft. Maybe to take the sting out of eating a girl’s soul. I shook my head and shoved my key into the door. I didn’t even know his name. I dropped my purse unceremoniously on the floor and kicked off my shoes. My apartment smelled stale and I sighed, opening the window and walking down the hallway to my bedroom. I had to get out of this dress and into the shower. I had to wash the night away. I turned the water on and listened to it sputter through the shower head. Like I had stuttered through my confession last night. My dress fell around my feet, nothing like the way he had stripped it off. Even my naked body seemed lackluster without his intensity to devour it.

“What am I thinking?” I breathed, stepping into the steaming water. “The guy is a psycho.”

I titled my head back and let the scent of his mouth wash off my body.  I let the adrenaline of following him through the night slide down the drain. I closed my eyes tighter, scrubbing his lingering hands off my breasts, his tongue off my thighs. My skin turned pink from the friction. My pulse raced. Everywhere. I couldn’t believe the memory was turning me on. Maybe I didn’t care in the solitude of my sorry existence. I dropped my loofa and let my soap covered hands run over my body. I retraced the map he’d left. I wanted to find myself the way he did. I left a trail of goosebumps as my hands moved over my stomach. My back arched and my fingertips trailed over the place his tongue had left me senseless. My mouth parted and the sound of the shower fell away. I could hear him begging me to break open. I could feel him move into me. I curled my toes. I searched for freedom from myself. The memory of his shaky breath against my neck raised my pulse and I cried softly into the oblivion of ecstasy. My hands found the cool tile behind me as I leaned against it. I would never get out of here. Out of this shitty pattern I called life.

I turned off the shower and grabbed my towel. My Sunday would be spent in oversized sweats, watching tragically sappy movies on Netflix. Just like every Sunday. I pulled a shirt over my damp skin and headed towards the kitchen, hoping I had something indulgent to eat. I knew I did. My grocery list only ever consisted of ice cream, popcorn, and wine. I’d relied on dates to feed me anything real. I grabbed the Ben and Jerry’s from the freezer and searched for a clean bowl. The intercom next to my door buzzed and I turned my head to look at it before laying one last scoop into my semi clean dish. It was probably Dee, looking to gossip about last night’s escapades. I pushed the button.

“Hello,” I drawled as I licked the spoon, waiting to hear her raspy voice reprimand me for not calling last night.

“Kate.”

The spoon fell from my mouth.

“Kate, just listen to me. Please don’t walk away from that speaker.”

It was him. Here. Of course he knew where I lived. I said nothing. I couldn’t if I wanted to. My throat had swollen shut. I was frozen next to the intercom.

“God damn it, Kate, can you just come to the window. I have flowers. I’m not going to hurt you. Please let me in. Or come down. Please. I brought a bag of stuff from the bakery. And coffee.”

I was out of coffee. Who was I kidding, he probably had been in my apartment and took stock of my entire life. I tiptoed to the window, barely peeking outside to see him standing there. We made eye contact. I dropped to the floor. My heart slammed against my ribs and I held my breath. I had no idea what to do.

“Kate!” he yelled up through the open window. “Kate, please let me explain!”

The entire world told me to call the cops. Everything I had been raised to know as truth said to get this insane person far away from you. Are you afraid because it is what you have been conditioned to believe? His own words rang hard in my ears, and I crawled toward the intercom to buzz him in. I had no idea who I was anymore.

I pushed damp hair off my face and panicked. There was already an ice cream stain on my shirt. I looked like shit. I was hungover and bloated. I didn’t have time to fix my appearance and cursed under my breath for not thinking. This dangerously hot, and insane, man was making his way up to my apartment. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about another round of heartbreaking sex, I was definitely bringing none of that to the table.

He knocked on my door. I looked through the peephole, trembling.

“Open up, Kate. I’m already here,” he said through the door, lifting up the coffee. His eyes seemed gentler than they did last night.

One breath and I unlocked the door. I had sworn I didn’t care about death, and it certainly seemed like I was inviting it into my apartment with open arms. He stood at the threshold and stared at me. I couldn’t tell if he was amused with my appearance or appalled. He smiled.

“Kate, I’m not going to come in without permission. I understand what you’re feeling and I will not terrify you. Changing your life has to be your choice.”

I nodded and waved him in. Who the hell was he to think that he was here to change my life? He was no angel, no savior. My cheeks burned red and he caught it from the corner of his eye. He set the coffee on the table and sat down on my couch as if he owned the room. A fire flashed in his cold eyes before he tucked it away. My bravery caught in my throat.

“Sit down and talk to me. You have every right to be mad. Yell at me, Kate. Feel something for once. Stand up for yourself. Stop living in nonchalance. You might hate me, but at least I make you recognize the life you’ve buried inside a numb existence.”

I boiled beneath my skin, but I stood there. He was right. I had spent so long detaching from the trauma that I had forgotten how to be a participant in the world around me. He laughed quietly and patted the couch.

“Sit down, Kate. We can go at your own pace. Let’s talk about last night.”

What a cocky motherfucker. Coming to my house, inviting me to sit on my couch. He was going to solve all my problems. The problems that existed because of him. I clenched my fists and sat down. As far away as possible.

“You’re an asshole, you know that?”

He blinked. I knew he was trying to hide his pain and it pissed me off. He was also a hypocrite. A really hot, hypocritical asshole.

“I deserve that.”

“I don’t even know your name,” I stuttered, feeling the adrenaline rise under my baggy clothes.

“My name is Eli. Does that help you feel safer?”

“Stop being so condescending. You’re the one you killed my brother, you have no right to hold anything over my head.”

He leaned in, focusing in on every detail of my face.

“At least I had the courage to face what happened and continue forward, Kate. I may be a monster but I can look in the mirror and accept that. Can you look in the mirror and accept what you see?”

I held my breath. He was inches from me, calling me out on all my bullshit and the only thing I wanted to do was rip his clothes off. He smirked.

“Give it up, Kate. You won’t get to touch me until you wake up from your daze.”

I slapped him. Hard. He sat back against the couch, a little surprised but pleased. He was actually pleased. Of course he was, he was a sadist.

“I just touched you, Eli,” I hissed. “I broke your rules. What’s going to happen now that I ruined your little plan? I don’t want you to touch me, you sick bastard.”

My lip was trembling. He was silent for a moment. The two versions of himself battled inside. He was tapping his foot slowly against the floor, staring out the window behind the television. I stared at him.

“You don’t have anything to say? Where are all your fancy tricks and blunt opinions now?”

My body was shaking, tears welled in my eyes and all the anger and hurt stirred in my body. His silence only reminded me of the constant silence that had filled the air after the accident. I could see the rain falling on the windshield. The red lights flashing as they pulled me from the driver’s seat. The dark, limp silhouette of the brother I’d never see again. I cried. I covered my face with my hands, unable to show anyone the pain. I couldn’t look him in the eye. I couldn’t hear Eli as he sat silent and unmoving next to me. The dispassionate background sounds of the hospital room filled my apartment. No one had come to visit me, no one had cared if I had lived or not. They were busy mourning Luke. I curled into the corner of the armrest, trying to find comfort against the onslaught of memories.

“Kate,” Eli whispered. “Kate, come back.”

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to have to face him. He had shown me the truth of my importance without even knowing it. My entire life had been lived in the shadow of my brother. I felt Eli’s hands wrap around mine and I strained against him, curling harder away from the world.

“Kate, let me help you,” he cooed, unfolding my body.

I gave in against his persistence. He wrapped his hands around my face.

“Open your eyes.”

Swollen lids rolled slowly upward. He looked straight through me, gracefully dissecting all that laid behind the irritation and brightened anguish. I could feel myself grow cold. He was reading me too well.

“It’s time to stop lying, Kate,” he encouraged softly. “Tell me what’s in that expansive mind of yours.”

“I can’t,” I cried quietly, closing my eyes to his interrogation.

His lips brushed against mine. His grip around my jaw tightened a moment before he ran his fingers through my hair. I moaned reluctantly, and parted my lips, losing his to the delicate skin on my neck.

“Tell me,” he asked, raising goosebumps over my entire body.

His hands slipped under my shirt, cupping my breast. I could faintly hear the buzzer on my intercom.

“It’s Dee,” I pleaded. “She’s waiting for me.”

He pushed my shirt up my body and rolled his tongue over my nipple. My head fell back against the couch. I had already played this game. I knew what he was doing. There wasn’t a need to talk, to argue. He wasn’t going to stop until he had what he wanted. And I wasn’t going to get what I wanted until he was placated. My body ached for him as he continued to explore the tender flesh along my ribcage, his hands never leaving my breasts unattended. He wouldn’t go farther and I cursed under my breath.

“I hate my parents for leaving me alone that night.”

His mouth trailed farther, his hands toying with the waistband of my sweats. He lingered and my legs shook.

“No one had come to see if I was okay, and I hated myself.”

He slid my sweatpants to my knees. I was bare in front of him. He wanted to give me what I needed and his hands clenched around my thighs with impatience. I bit my lip. I was suffocating on the confession.

“Part of me was relieved that my brother had died. Without him, I hoped my parents could finally love me.”

I cried when his tongue darted between my legs, his fingers working mercilessly to find my release. I arched against the rise, digging my fingers into the leather, finally blowing above the misery and the secrets. I sighed and he slowly pulled my sweats back over my body. He slid my shirt down over my chest, my skin sensitive to every graze of his fingers. I rolled my head to the side, lazily looking to see the chiseled features of his face. His eyes were broken and he opened his mouth, breath ragged, to speak.

“Kate, I had no idea..”

The apartment door opened.

“I’ve been ringing forever, Kate. What the fuck are you doing?”

I scrambled to recover my composure and twisted to look over at my best friend, who was standing in the door way with coffee and an incredulous smile on her face.

“Well, this is a first,” she laughed.

Dee wasted no time in making herself comfortable and she unceremoniously dumped her things on the coffee table with the rest of the spread that Eli had brought. She looked him wickedly in the eye, understanding exactly why she had to let herself in.

“I see you know Kate well enough to know that you’d better bring food if you actually want to eat anything but ice cream. Kate, where have you been hiding this one?”

I glared at her, smile frozen in the request she was ignoring. She knew I wanted her to leave, and she had no intention of honoring my wish. I looked to Eli, pleading for him to excuse himself. He only smiled and brushed his fingers across my cheek as I leaned over to sip my cold coffee.

“Kate really is an open book, isn’t she?”

My eyes were popping out of their sockets. I sipped slowly on the coffee that was perfectly made. Of course it was. He had been following me for years. These two were the worst and I was stuck in the middle of whatever charade that was unfolding.

“If you mean that she’s a serial dater and you’ve had enough dates with her to realize she doesn’t go grocery shopping, then yes,” Dee laughed, pushing me closer to him and making herself comfortable in my secure corner of the couch.

“Excuse, her. She’s probably more than slightly mortified that I’m sitting here talking to you. I’m Dee.”

Eli reached across to shake her hand, leaning his arm across my breasts, never breaking eye contact with me, watching how I was going to handle the situation. I couldn’t tell if he was protecting me or pushing me through another one of his stupid tests.

“I’m starting to understand that you don’t often meet her dates. I should feel honored to be introduced to the famous best friend. I’m Eli. Kate speaks of you often,” he smiled and kissed my cheek before whispering in my ear. “I can go all day, Kate. Are you going to sell me out and tell her the truth or are you going to choose to create a new story for yourself?”

I was unwilling to give away any of my secrets. I was sitting between the only two people who knew how to push my buttons, and I was lighting up with thinly concealed irritation. Three could play at this game.

“It’s not that Dee doesn’t get to meet them. I suppose the others don’t just show up unannounced outside my window,” I smiled sweetly.

The intensity I had seen outside the restaurant last night lit his steely eyes and I swallowed. Of course this shit would turn him on. What I couldn’t understand was how it was doing the same to me. Dee coughed and I closed my eyes, breaking the exchange of lust between us. I looked over to her. Was she biting her lip? Oh my god. Even she was enamored with Eli. If she only knew the truth.

“So Eli, tell me about yourself,” she coaxed between taking bites of her scone.

“Eli was just leaving, Dee. I told him I was expecting you and he would hate to impose on our time to gossip.”

I was done. He needed to leave, I needed to stop. He was luring me into another trap and I couldn’t forget who he actually was. This fraudulent version was dripping too sweetly into my life. It had been a nice distraction, he’d brought some things to my attention. I was good. He was good to go. I looked back and forth between them, realizing they hadn’t even heard me. Apparently, I really wasn’t a participant in my life. I fell back against the couch and crossed my arms.

“I work in theater production at the ShadowBox, and live across town in a slightly stagnant suburban housing track. I only met Kate last night, to be honest, but I feel like I’ve known her for much longer. There is something about the sheen in her honey colored eyes that draws me towards memories we never shared. Do you believe in fate, Dee?”

My mouth fell open. Dee was drooling.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I growled, rolling my eyes to the very back of my head.

“Tell me about yourself, Dee,” he cooed with practiced interest. He was digging for things about me, and she was certainly going to give it all away. He slowly unfolded my arms and wrapped his fingers in mine. My palms grew warm. He squeezed gently. I knew it was a warning, and I wondered if it was a suggestion to try something new or a threat of exposure.

“I work with Kate at the office as an executive assistant. It’s a bunch of bullshit, but I can wear heels and pretend that I’m important. Plus, I’ve been told I have a sexy phone voice and who doesn’t want that on their resume,” she laughed sarcastically.

What the hell was happening? Eli rubbed his thumb up and down the side of my hand.

“I’m sure that you have all the men in the office hanging on every last word that falls from those full lips. Between you and Kate, I would think very little gets done around there.”

She was giggling and eating it up. I was going throw up. I never in a million years thought that Dee would fall for this shit.

“If Kate’s around, you can be assured that everything gets done. She’s a beast. Maybe the most important player we have. But she’ll never tell you. She’s too busy moping about this and that to realize how amazing she is. I have a feeling you can already see that in her.”

Dee’s dark eyes bore into me, daring me to shut her up. I said nothing. This was a war they waged against me and I wasn’t even going to bother.

“Well,” she said, standing reluctantly, “I’m satisfied, Kate. I’ll leave you to finish whatever fun I ruined.”

“Dee!”

She laughed devilishly and gathered her coffee cup.

“Enjoy,” she chirped, winking on her way out.

The clouds had parted and by the grace of God, I had gotten rid of one. Now I only had to shove this strange pretender out the door. I looked at him, waiting for his own departure. He’d had his fun, now he could leave. But he sat there, looking at me. He said nothing. I swallowed. He was still holding my hand. The electrical pattern of his thought pulsed across his still expression. He was battling the healer and the instigator that lived within him. His eyes softened and he leaned closer to me.

“Kate, you’ve been strong for too long. Please let me have a shot.”

Before I could respond with something mean spirited, he kissed me. His mouth brushed so softly against mine. His breath tickled the nerves pulsing  in my lips and goosebumps ran down my arms. His hands ran through my dirty blonde hair with such careful compassion, I could feel a very broken part inside of me shatter a little more. His tenderness was going to break me open. I leaned into him, and he kissed me more firmly, but not with the intensity I needed to numb what was happening. He left me to linger in the moment of gentility and affection. Slowly, Eli pulled himself away, studying my face, rubbing his thumb up the back of my neck. My eyes closed half way.

“Go to dinner with me tonight. A real date. We’ll have a fresh start, Kate. I want to show you who I can be.”

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