Authors: Tabatha Vargo
I WOKE THE
following morning on the couch with one hell of a hangover. My body ached from being squished on the too-small couch, and my head banged like a hammer to my brain.
I smacked my lips together trying to rid the disgusting, dry flavor of old beer from my mouth. When I sat up, I gripped the side of my head to keep my brain from exploding from my skull.
The sun glared through the curtains, cutting into my eyes and making me flinch in pain. I felt like hell, and no matter how hard I massaged my temples, I couldn’t get the pain to lessen.
The room shifted when I stood, forcing me to grip the arm of the couch to keep myself from falling.
“Holy fuck,” I muttered as I worked my way across the living room toward the bathroom.
The drinking thing was getting old, but it tamed the nightmares and kept me sane. After what I’d seen in New York—after seeing Nicole kiss another guy—I had to do what I had to do to keep myself from flying back to that fucking ritzy school and putting my fist through Ballet Boy’s face.
The night before was a blur, but I remembered Nicole being in my apartment. I remembered her standing there staring back at me with a look of anger in her eyes, but that’s as far as my memory would stretch. I worried that I’d said or done something I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t dwell on it. I had to get my ass to work, and then I had to make it through Christmas with a clear head.
The hot shower water cleansed my mind, and I took a few Tylenol to knock out the headache. Once I was dressed, and once I cleaned the broken beer bottle from my living room floor, I locked up and went to my car.
It was colder outside than it had been the day before. South Carolina didn’t really have winter. Once every decade, we’d see a few flurries of snow, but we always had days when the temperature would dip and a coat was required.
I pulled my hoodie over my ears and turned on the heat in my car hoping to defrost the windshield. I was already running a bit late to work, and I knew I had a Chevy sitting at the shop waiting for a new transmission. It was going to be an all-day thing, and I was already dreading it.
After the garage, I’d spend most of the night at the tat shop laying fresh ink and bullshitting with the boys. But no matter what I did, I knew I’d end up right back at my apartment with a beer in my hand and Nicole on my mind.
Other women were a consideration. It’s not as if I didn’t have my fair share of women flirting. I knew I could spend the night with someone else and lose myself inside a woman for a few hours, but I hated the guilt that followed. My soul went blacker with every woman I touched, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until I was a pile of soot—remnants of the man I used to be.
I wasn’t about that life so much anymore, and I feared my sickness would leave me lonely for the rest of my days.
“You’re late,” Nate muttered when I stepped into the garage.
He didn’t look up from his clipboard as he scribbled something across the page. When he was done, he hung the clipboard on a nail sticking out of the wall and tossed his pen on the counter. It was then that he finally looked up at me.
“Holy shit, you look like hell, bro. What the fuck happened?” he asked.
I shook my head and started toward the Chevy on the far right side of the garage. “I’m good. Nothing happened.”
“Liar.” He chuckled. “How was New York?”
“Full of New Yorkers. It’s not my scene. I’m glad to be home.”
Short and sweet.
When I had days like that, the boys knew to leave me alone. It was the same with them. We were guys. We didn’t have heart-to-heart talks over Starbucks. We left each other alone when it was obvious the other was having a shitty day.
I dropped a new transmission in the Chevy and hummed to Lynyrd Skynyrd on the tiny radio mounted above our pin-up girl calendar. Sweat dripped from my brow, and I wiped it with the back of my arm. Working hard always made me feel better—as if I was accomplishing something in a life with no accomplishments.
Once I was done with the transmission, I did a quick oil change and wiped up afterward. The guys were still working when I left. I stopped and grabbed a burger before cleaning up and getting ready to lay some ink at the tat shop.
The rest of my night was spent at The Blind Tiger. I tatted a simple butterfly on some chick for her twenty-first birthday. She was cute with black hair and blue eyes, and she spent most of the night hitting on me and giggling with her little blond friend, who just so happened to remind me of Nicole.
Needless to say, I was happy to see them leave. After the butterfly, I cleaned my station and hung out with the guys. Weeknights were sometimes slow that way. I ended up strolling into my apartment at eleven at night, and instead of grabbing a beer, I showered and went straight to bed.
The nightmares were bad that night. There were hands all over my body—touching and exploring—burning my young flesh with the tips of cigarettes while my father watched and got high. I screamed so hard my neck ached from the strain.
I dreamed of Needles and his tattooed fingers. He was everywhere, pushing my body past the brink while I was tied up and couldn’t escape.
I begged for mercy until a tattooed hand covered my mouth, muting my screams and cutting off my oxygen. I was defenseless as my body was probed hard—stretching skin that wasn’t meant to stretch until it bled—and hurting me until I became weak from the pain and lack of oxygen and passed out.
Then I was standing across the room from Nicole—her fear-filled blue eyes on me, begging me to save her. A group of guys attacked her—touching her the way I’d been touched—burning her flawless skin and making her as black on the inside as I was. I fought to get to her, but sticky shadows with tight grips held me away from her as her light slowly flickered and faded.
Suddenly, she was before me—her eyes red-rimmed and her jaw slack. She was high—stoned from the same toxic mixture that I’d used to kill my father. I placed my hands on her cheeks to comfort her, but every time I touched her, I sucked the life from her eyes. I tried to keep my hands off her, but I couldn’t control myself. The more I touched her, the more the life left her body, until she wasn’t breathing anymore and she fell to the floor in a lifeless heap.
I sat up in bed with a gasp. The sheets clung to my body, and I peeled them away to let the cool air soothe my overheated skin. The nightmare had been terrible, but I knew it was a sign. Fate was telling me I was doing the right thing by staying away from Nicole. Otherwise, I’d kill her with my sin and black touch.
THE HOLIDAYS MEANT
tons of family time. I was a part of the Palmer’s family; at least, they treated me as such. And being in a family was super important to me, which meant I wasn’t going to miss any of the festivities … even though I wasn’t a very festive guy.
Mrs. Palmer went out of her way to make sure everything was perfect. The least I could do was show up with a smile on my face. I’d wanted a family for the first twelve years of my life, so I wasn’t about to take my good luck for granted because of a little issue with Nicole.
Okay … a big issue with Nicole.
I’d told myself I’d stay away unless I absolutely needed to be around her and that meant holidays. Although she made it super easy for me since she went out of her way to stay away from me.
Something had happened the night she came to my apartment, but I was too drunk to remember and too prideful to ask. All I knew was, whatever it was, she’d changed toward me. She’d been changing toward me since the day in her room before she left for school.
I should’ve been happy about her shift in attitude. It was difficult to act normal when every time I looked across the room, she was looking back at me with a longing in her eyes I understood all too well.
But the truth was I hated the distance she put between us, even if I knew it was the right thing—the easy thing—the best thing.
If the family noticed, they didn’t say anything about it. We decorated the tree as a family the day before Christmas Eve, and since I was the tallest one in the house, they always designated me to attach the topper.
“It’s way tilted,” Brian said with a chuckle.
It was weird, him being social and not glued to his phone, but the Palmers had asked that we all put our phones away and enjoy each other’s company. Since Nicole had gone off to school, family time became way more important than usual.
“Better?” I asked after I’d adjusted the white and gold angel on top of the tree.
It was older and had seen some wear since we’d always used that topper. I could remember my first Christmas with the Palmers. I remembered thinking how much the angel tree topper reminded me of Nicole … blond and blue—white and full of light—beautiful and illuminating in its beauty.
“Much better,” Mrs. Palmer said with a smile.
She was perched on the arm of the couch next to Mr. Palmer. Nicole and Brian were sitting on the couch beside them. And when I turned around and looked down at my little adopted family, my heart flipped in my chest.
I didn’t deserve so much happiness, but I couldn’t help myself. I sucked it up and smiled back at them.
Would they still care about me if they knew what I’d done when I was younger?
Would they still smile at me if they knew the dirty, disgusting things that squatted in my memories?
The things they did to my body and mind—the ghosts that haunted my nightmares at night.
Would they still be there looking back at me if they knew that I’d killed my own father?
I shook my head and stepped away from the tree. Swallowing my emotions, my eyes moved over the glowing lights and yearly ornaments—each one a different theme—each one with the family member’s names on it. My name wasn’t added until the later ornaments, but seeing
etched into the golden figures with such amazing people felt wrong. It was a thought I had every year when we pulled them out of storage.
“Let’s eat.” Mr. Palmer stood. “I’m starving.”
Dinner was quiet, with the occasional question and bits of conversation here and there. Nicole seemed to check her phone more often than usual, and I wondered if Ballet Boy was texting her. My muscles tightened with that thought, and the food that had been delicious just seconds before became bland and dry.
She finished her text and set her phone to the side. Her eyes connected with mine across the table before she quickly looked away.
She was definitely texting the new boyfriend.
“Tyson, please say you’ll stay here Christmas Eve so we can wake up as a family,” Mrs. Palmer said.
Again, my eyes connected with Nicole’s. She looked away again, her eyes nervously going to her mom’s.
“Mom, we aren’t little kids anymore. Don’t make him stay if he doesn’t want to.”
Her words burned me. She didn’t want me there. Maybe, she realized I didn’t belong in her world. Maybe, she finally understood I wasn’t good enough. Either way, I turned back toward Mrs. Palmer to tell her I wouldn’t be staying Christmas Eve night, but before I could open my mouth, she spoke.
“I don’t care how old you kids get. Christmas is Christmas, and it’s important to your father and me for everyone to be here Christmas morning. Right, Don?”
Mr. Palmer nodded and shoved another forkful of food into his mouth.
I couldn’t say no to them. I’d never been able to. Instead, I smiled at Mrs. Palmer and nodded. “Yes, ma’am, I’ll stay.”
“Good. You can stay in your old room. It’ll be just like old times.” She grinned.
Old times weren’t easy—my room being across from Nicole’s and all—but it was going to be even harder now that she’d so openly announced how she felt about me. Now that she’d practically given herself to me only to have me push her away. She couldn’t know how difficult that was for me—she’d never understand the blackness.
The garage was closed on Christmas Eve and so was The Blind Tiger. I spent most of the day grabbing a few last-minute gifts and making sure I picked up the rolls Mrs. Palmer asked me to bring for dinner. I wrapped the few gifts I had picked up for the family then sat and watched TV to kill even more time.