This is a work of fiction intended for adults only, as it contains explicit scenes not appropriate for minors. By continuing to read, you are acknowledging you are of legal age to do so. All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2012 by AJ Rose
The ringing phone echoed through the silent rooms several times before a mechanical click sounded and a voice filled the silence. It wasn’t Grady, so Ty didn’t move from his position.
“Ty, if you’re there, pick up. I need you to answer.” His publicist’s voice was kind, but stern. “Ty, I can’t help if I can’t get your feedback.” There was a pause. “Okay, then. If you won’t pick up, I have no other choice than to resign. I can’t do anything for you when I can’t even get you to speak with me. I’m sorry, Ty.” The click of disconnection was soft, and yet, so loud.
“And so goes the final nail.” The raspy voice was muffled beneath pillows, from which protruded a set of shoulders and a torso that barely moved. Unsurprised, Ty rolled over, leaving the pillow covering his face. The light bleeding through the windows and beneath the pillow signaled daytime. The fact barely registered, and he didn’t really give a shit either way. His sleep schedule was all fucked up thanks to insomnia and an overactive pestering mind. Time fuzzed and blurred, and his sleep deprived brain registered only that he’d been abandoned by everybody.
“Fuck them all,” he murmured. He kept hearing the last two words Grady said pinball around in his head. Get out, get out, get out. He told himself none of them mattered, but he knew it was all bullshit. If that were true, he’d have resumed normal life in the last few weeks instead of slothing around, coasting, wallowing.
He stumbled out of bed, realizing he only did so due to the empty state of every bottle of booze in the place. No reason to quitdrinking if no one was there to care about it and no one believed he’d quit anyway. He certainly didn’t care, though he did find it ironic that he’d been ditched for a phantom drinking problem, and was coping with it by cultivating a drinking problem.
“Fuck it. I have no work, no friends, no Grady.” Even the name burned on Ty’s tongue, and he branded himself with the guilt of it several times a day, prodding the wound to make the pain flare. Dressed in a t-shirt with holes in the hem, a pair of running shorts. ratty flip flops and sunglasses even indoors to hide his bloodshot eyes, Ty aimlessly wandered the aisles of his grocery store. He stared blankly at shelves of food as if he’d forgotten its purpose, only getting the bare minimum to keep afloat. He began to wonder if he shouldn’t just sink, disappear into the depths and be gone, let the pressure of the darkness obliterate him. But the pain was something he couldn’t shake. He wouldn’t allow himself to shake it. He needed it. When all else was gone, the pain reminded him he was still alive, however much of a shell he’d become. It was his punishment, his reminder that as long as he hurt, he wasn’t dead. And as much as he hated himself, he wasn’t ready to give up completely. Close, but not yet.
Absently perusing the liquor bottles, putting three or four in the basket over his arm, he wandered along, paying no attention to his direction, surroundings or actions. It wasn’t until he heard his name called, the voice sounding as though it had been repeated several times before he’d heard it, that he came back to himself. Looking up, he was standing in front of the artisan cheeses and a vaguely familiar girl.
“Ty,” she said again.
“Yeah?” He squinted at her. “Oh, you’re the one… You didn’t freak out.” He snapped his fingers in recognition. “I remember you.” He knew he made no sense, and he waited for her to scoff at the effort of keeping up with his numbing brain function and walk off in a huff. He was surprised when she didn’t.
A hint of a smile crossed her lips, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Her eyes, as blue as his own, pooled with concern and perhaps in their shadows, embarrassment on his behalf. “Ty, are you okay?”
She was slight, with silky blond hair and those jeweled eyes. Her skin, smooth and pale, struck him as strange in the land of the California tan. She was porcelain and only slightly pinkish at her cheekbones with a dusting of freckles across her nose. The freckles reminded him of Grady’s, light across the tops of his shoulders, and how he used to trace them with his fingertips during pillow talk. He stared for a long moment before blinking to shake himself back to reality. Drifting was a new thing for him anytime someone tried to talk to him in the last few months, since the day of the pictures. How could he pretend to carry on normal conversation about the weather or whether he wanted paper or plastic bags when the end-times had come for him. Get out, get out, get out.
“I’m… fine.” His voice was gravely with disuse, and he cleared it to dust off the vocal cords, send the cobwebs from his brain.
“I’m sorry, Ty, but you don’t look fine. You look like you’ve been run over, used to wipe the blood off the front bumper of the car, and left for dead in the gutter. Forgive me for saying so, but I barely recognized you, and that’s saying something.”
Only slightly interested in the conversation as his thoughts veered to whoever was sitting behind the wheel of that metaphorical vehicular weapon, Ty blinked at her again.
“Who are you, and why are you talking to me?”
“I’m Veronica, and you can just call me a concerned citizen. You may not believe that I’m talking to you out of the kindness of my heart given who you are, but I’d like to think that if anyone were in this store looking like you, I’d at least stop to offer them help.” She gave him an appraising look after a pointed glance into his basket. “I’d ask you if you were up for a drink to talk about it, but you look all set.”
“Looking like me? How do I look?” Irritated with himself for drawing out a conversation when most of his neurological function was devoted to getting back home to blur the face of reality with booze, he scowled. His attention refocused on her, however, when she said something about getting a drink. It struck him as strange, someone offering to get a drink with him to talk, to be concerned about him. He didn’t know her from anyone else in the store doing their weekly shopping, and yet she was extending a thread of kindness and he was doing nothing short of setting it on fire.
“You look like Auschwitz, Chernobyl, and September 11th, all rolled into one,” Veronica replied, shifting her own basket to her other arm.
“That great, huh?” He chuckled. Well, looked like he’d finally found a way to keep the paps off him – trainwreck himself into unrecognizability.
She hesitated before her face set in a mask of resolve. “Come with me.” Her cool hand on his arm led him to the front of the store and the checkouts, where she graciously paid for both her groceries and his, then walked with him to his car in the parking lot. “Where do you live?” she asked, slamming his trunk after loading his groceries into it.
He eyed her warily. She could be anyone, some kind of deranged fangirl thinking she’d just hit the jackpot, but at the moment, his give-a-damn was busted. After only a slight pause, he told her his address.
She pointed an authoritative finger at him, just shy of making contact. “We’re going back to your house and putting all this away. Then you’re going to clean up, and we’re going out for a drink wherein you are allowed to tell me anything you want, or nothing at all, but I think you shouldn’t be by yourself. You look like you could use an intervention.” Blinking at her stupidly, Ty couldn’t help nodding at her instructions, then getting in his car and following her to his own driveway.
Nearly an hour later, he found himself across from her in a back booth of the bar he’d frequented with Grady, the smell slamming him in the face the minute he walked into the coolly manufactured air. Sticking with beer given the fairly early hour of the day – which brought him an internal chuckle, as if he really needed to obey societal drinking etiquette anymore – he stared at Veronica, considering whether or not he was really going to tell her why she found him wandering lost in the store with a box of crackers, some squeeze cheese, and enough alcohol to pickle himself. Maybe it was Veronica’s guileless face, her kindness at the store, or the fact that it had been months since anyone gave a shit. Regardless of why, his mouth opened and formed words.
“I honestly don’t know what happened. Nothing changed, but rumors about me drinking too much started circulating, and work dried up.” Nice understatement, he thought. But hardly knowing the girl, perhaps it was best not to give her more than the bare bones. Except his mouth didn’t exactly cooperate. “I wasn’t drinking any more than I ever have, but my friends started treating me like a leper. Gra… My boyfriend ignored them, but there were times when he looked at me like he believed them instead of me, like he was convinced I was lying to him. Things went south, and then… I don’t know where they came from, but he got pictures of me fucking someone, only I’ve never fucked that someone. I don’t even know how those photos are possible, but it was his last straw. I haven’t seen him for three months. I can’t explain something to him that I can’t explain to myself. I can’t fix it, so I’m trying to forget it.” He raised his beer in salute and took a deep drink.
His eyes remained fixed on his hands as he told himself he didn’t care about Veronica’s reaction to the admission of a boyfriend—his most carefully guarded secret—but it was a lie. She was the first kind face he’d seen in months, the first person in so long not to look at him skeptically or with any hint of judgment. He needed the validation, even if it came from a stranger. In that moment, he hated himself, his vulnerability, and how trapped he was, unable to see where he’d gone wrong. Risking a glance at her face, he found a careful expression, showing surprise and concern, but not loathing, not disdain. A flicker of hope filled his chest, like the fluttering wings of a baby bird thrown from its nest in order to teach it to fly.
She remained stoic through his rambling, neutral and unreadable. He couldn’t help but wonder if he hadn’t fucked up again in spilling the secret to someone he didn’t really know, though at least he’d caught himself before Grady’s whole name came out of his mouth.
“Yeah, I guess it doesn’t matter if people know I’m bi now that it’s over with him. I have no career left to protect.” The misery on his face was plain.
Veronica reached over and brushed a fingertip across his knuckles before pulling back. He looked into her eyes then, seeing past her reaction to him and at her as an individual, someone nice enough to care, to put up with a depressed blossoming alcoholic in an attempt to help. He chased her hand across the table, giving it a quick squeeze before relinking his fingers around his beer bottle. An unspoken thank you.
An awkward silence stretched between them, until he arched a brow at her. “So I look like the movie 2012 personified, and you know why. I’ve told you some stuff that could do real damage and turn my merely demolished career into a permanent nuclear wasteland. I need to know something about you to balance the scales, something salacious. And I need your word you’re not going to run to some tabloid or other.”
She laughed softly, nodding. “Fair enough. My parents are both plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills, so I have all kinds of dirt on all kinds of celebrities, and I only leak information about them when I need some extra money for drugs or blackmail to keep my parents from knowing that I’m not their perfect debutante.” His eyes narrowed at her marginally, trying to determine if she was kidding, a bit of ‘oh shit’ on his face. She laughed. “In all honesty, only the drugs and blackmail parts aren’t true. They want me to go to med school and take over the family practice at some point, but I can’t see spending all that time and effort to help the already beautiful just become more beautiful and vapid by the day. I’m not interested. Although I can assure you, I know a lot of private things about celebrities from helping in their office and have never once leaked anything. You’re safe with me.”
He raised a brow. “Are your parents anyone I might know?”
She eyed him skeptically. “Seeing that you haven’t had any work done, I doubt it, unless you’ve just heard of them. The Edgar Group.”
His eyes crinkled at the outer corner as he smiled. “I’ve heard of them. So your last name is Edgar?” Her parents were among the most prominent and sought after surgeons in Beverly Hills, and some of the most discreet in the world. They had to be or they’d be killing their access to the flock of golden geese, so to speak. Ty was marginally comforted by the information. “So if you don’t want to be a doctor, what do you want to do?”
Veronica snorted, finishing her drink and signaling for another. “Well, I want to be an engineer. Sound, lighting, cameras. I mean, hell, I grew up in the right town to find a job, right? I want to go for a double major in engineering and filmmaking, but they think I have my head in the clouds. It’s not like I couldn’t go anywhere with an engineering degree, but because it has to do with films, it’s not a sure thing in their opinion. They’re hypocrites, given how they make their living. But I guess they’ll never have a shortage of people to make pretty, even though I tell them that their bread and butter would also be mine if they would just lighten up.”
Ty nodded, an ache rising in his chest that he used to be one of those golden geese, and he didn’t know if he could get it back. Silence descended over them again, though oddly not an uncomfortable one. He was surprised to find that he could still identify with people. The last few months of losing everyone had convinced him he was socially defective, but apparently, just with his former crowd. Maybe it was for the best that he wasn’t around all the pressure anymore. Maybe, although the molting of his golden feathers had been forced, he could survive this.
“Well, Veronica, it was nice having a drink with you, but I’d better let you get back to your real life. No more slumming. Thanks for listening.” Despite that they hadn’t talked beyond what had happened to him, he did feel a little lighter for having unburdened. It made it easier to shoulder as he stood, throwing a few bills on the table. “It was nice to meet you.” He turned and headed for the door.
“Uh, Ty?” Her voice brought him up short, and he turned back to her, watching her scribble on a napkin before standing and holding it out to him. “My number. In case you find yourself with another free afternoon and the need for company.”
He took it from her, staring down at it, snorting at the idea that he wasn’t facing a long stretch of free afternoons. “Thank you.” He hesitated, wondering if he should give her his number, but then thought better of it. He never answered his phone anymore anyway. He turned and pushed through the door into the bright sunshine, suddenly not as intrusive as it had been just a couple hours ago.
The bad thing about having alienated Ty from his social life was that he had no conversations with anyone about the new friend he’d met, no one to tell what he thought of her. At least three or four times during their few hours spent together, she’d had a hard time reigning in her desire to pounce on him, and she was certain several times her expression betrayed her need to be closer to him. The zing she’d felt from his hand when he’d squeezed hers nearly sent her into a crazed meltdown of epic proportions. That she’d managed not to crawl across the table into his lap was a testament of how serious she took her plan, knowing it was the only way to show him how much she cared, how much he loved her, even if he didn’t know it yet. That he hadn’t noticed the jerk of her body towards him on several occasions was a sign of just how much pull that other one, the Baggage as she’d come to think of Grady, still had over him, just how much convincing she still had to do. But Ty had her number, and she watched the bank of monitors for the next several days, his every move hers to see, hers to analyze, hers to own. When he picked up the phone to call her not quite a week after their first real date – because that’s what it was, out for drinks with someone who interested you – she smiled as she picked up, watching his face on the screen as she talked to him, made plans to meet him for another drink later that same day.
After hanging up, she removed the cord attached to her cell phone, flipped a couple switches and chose some options on her laptop. Their conversation filled the room, and at his voice, reintroducing himself, she smiled.
“I know who you are,” she whispered. “And soon, you’ll know me, too. Welcome to the beginning of the rest of our lives together.”
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