Authors: Hope Conrad
I swallow a nervous lump in my throat. How can he know that? Has he been following me? Stalking me? There’s no possible way he could know. “How would you know something like that?” I ask as if it were a hypothetical question, not as if he’s onto the truth.
He doesn’t say anything, but his eyes point to several scars on my arm. I’d gotten them before I started working at the prison, when Brett broke my arm so bad the bone pierced skin. It still aches all these years later. I fold one arm over the other. I pride myself on being strong, and my battle scars are a reminder that I wasn’t always strong enough.
“There’s this look in your eyes,” he continues, reading me like a book he’s read a thousand times before. “The way you carry yourself. Even if you didn’t have the scars, I’d still be able to spot it from a mile away. I’ve seen it all before, too many times to count. My past has molded me, and my past hasn’t been a good one. So what does that tell you?”
I shift my gaze away from him and opt to stare at the floor. “Whatever you’ve done in the past, you’re capable of changing,” I say, trying to shift the conversation from me to him. I’m much more comfortable that way. Comfortable enough to lift my gaze from the floor to see him looking intently at me. “You can get a fresh start just like I did. If you just believe in yourself, then the people around you will believe in you too.”
He doesn’t take his eyes off me, but there’s a beat of silence. I can see his mind turning behind an empty stare. Slowly, reminding me of a lion stalking his prey, he approaches the register again. He puts his bag down with a thump, rests his palms against the counter, and leans forward. “Would you say that if you knew all the dirty thoughts I had about you in prison? If you knew how many times I fantasized about you, and wondered what color panties you were wearing on any given day of the week? How many times I wanted to fuck you in the middle of that cafeteria after everyone had cleared out, and sometimes even before they did?” Lifting one hand, he runs his thumb seductively across his mouth, then bites the swell of his bottom lip. “What would you say if I told you I was thinking about doing all those things to you right now?”
For whatever reason, behind this countertop, I feel safe. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. Still, the things he’s saying unnerve me to the point that I begin to question if it’s too dangerous to have him around—question if I’m wrong about him. Everything he’s thought about, I’ve thought too. But it was different when it was a fantasy that had never been spoken aloud.
He keeps talking, and it’s as if his smooth voice is touching me all over. The way I long for him to touch me with his hands and body.
“What would you say if you knew the incident on the courtyard happened because the guy was talking shit about you? Talking about you even worse than Kurt had. Talking about what
wanted to do to you, all the while knowing you were mine to dream about? You still think you’d want to work with me here?”
My eyes round and my mouth trembles and when I simply continue to stare at him, he grins, but there’s a dark undercurrent in the trace of his smile. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. So thanks, but I don’t need you putting in a good word for me.”
Then he turns to leave, walks to the door, and pushes one firm hand against it.
His actions jolt me out of my paralysis. My mind is pounded by thoughts and questions and fears and images of all he wants to do to me. By warnings to let him go. But the thing that stands out most is the knowledge that if he leaves now, I might not ever see him again.
“Wait,” I yell and rip an application out from under the register. “You forgot your application.” I round the counter, chin tilted high, and hold it out to him.
His eyes do acrobats, screaming
Did you not listen to a word I just said?
There’s a tense silence between us as I wait for him to grab the application, and after a few heart-splitting seconds, he does.
“Challenge accepted,” he says with an amused smirk, and then he’s out the door.
I take a long breath of relief as he rounds the corner. When he’s out of sight, I stumble back to the counter and lean against it for support.
I can still smell him.
Still hear his voice as he quoted Dylan Thomas to me.
What the fuck is wrong with me?
But then I return to the poetry section. I find another book with the poem.
My tears are like the quiet drift of petals from some magic rose. And all my grief flows from the rift of unremembered skies and snows…
It’s only after I’ve bought the book and head home to my daughter that I remember what he said.
“You say you have great instincts, but you had an abuser for a boyfriend.”
Like he’d known I’d broken up with my abuser of a boyfriend since leaving the prison.
But how in the world could he have known that?
Well, that was a fucking plot twist and a half. It had never been my intention to walk into that bookstore. I’d been steadfast in my resolve to leave her alone. The plan was to stay as far away from her as humanly possible. I needed to leave that fantasy behind in prison. That’s what I told myself. But I couldn’t let it go.
I asked a favor of my friend, Slate, a man I had no business asking anything from. I found out where she worked, and where she lived. I found out she’d left her boyfriend, and that she’d had a baby.
Then the plan changed to keeping my distance, only not quite so much distance. I couldn’t resist getting closer to her. Watching her from afar.
Just like I used to do in prison, where my fantasies were wilder than any reality could ever be. But given freedom outside those walls, I hadn’t been able to control myself. I suppose it was just a matter of time. Really, what harm could come from going inside the bookstore? All I’d wanted to do was see her up close, maybe talk to her, even as I pretended I didn’t know who she was, but somehow I screwed that up.
I suppose that was just a matter of time too. Because I know exactly what she is to me.
An unobtainable obsession. For almost three years, I fantasized about everything I wanted to do to her. I wanted to be inside of her, and to feel the warmth of her flesh around my hard cock. I wanted to tear her apart from the inside and make her mine.
I still want all of that, and that’s the fucking problem. The closer I get to her, the more the walls between fantasy and reality shatter, and the more I want her. It was easier back then, when my wants and desires seemed next to impossible.
But on the outside, I’ve been lured into her trap.
I’m still shocked she didn't run screaming from the store when I walked in. It was obvious she recognized me instantly, and just as obvious that she truly thought I didn’t recognize her. I’d almost barked with laughter at the lunacy of it.
I could never forget her. Not those beautiful hazel eyes, not that angelic body, and not her chocolate brown hair that rains across her face like tapered curtains giving teasing glimpses of all the beauty underneath.
When I walked into that store, I had no intention of applying for a damn job. I have a job pumping gas. But once I’d gotten close to her, close enough to touch her, to see her tremble when I recited poetry to her, all my good intentions had vanished like smoke. I saw the Help Wanted sign and jumped at the opportunity, cutting through all the bullshit and letting her know I remembered her. Because if she reacted in fear to that revelation, I’d leave immediately. But if she didn’t…
She didn’t. She fucking argued with me about how I deserved a second chance, about how she’d put in a good word for me with her boss. She’d literally chased me to the door and handed me an application, her eyes sparkling and her chin tilted in defiance. And I’d been drowning in all the possibilities of what that meant.
If I get the job, I’ll finally be able to get closer to her without breaking any rules. Instead of watching her from afar, I’ll learn everything there is to know about her up close.
I’ll make her mine, and my fantasies will cease to be fantasies, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll become something I only used to ever dream about—a reality so good it wipes away the sting of all the shit that came before.
The only question is whether I’m willing to put Katie at risk for a chance at it.
She said there’s good in me, and that I can turn my life around. She believes I’m worthy of a second chance, but she’s wrong. She doesn’t know anything about me. After all, she hasn’t spent nearly the same amount of time watching me as I’ve spent watching her.
Some people can’t be saved, but it’s an intriguing idea. I’m not the worst man in the world, but I’m certainly not all that’s good and holy. I’ve done things. Reprehensible things. Some of those things, I did for Katie, but mostly I did them for myself, for my own reasons at various points in my life.
So, can I change? Can I be redeemed? Only the future can tell, but for now, I’m drawn to Katie like a moth drawn to a flame. I’m going to get burned, and it’s going to feel fucking orgasmic.
* * *
I can’t shake thoughts of Katie as I wrestle the key to my shitty apartment from the pocket of my jeans. I can’t shake the tenor of her voice, or how goddamn wonderful she looked dressed casually, her hair loose and her curves noticeable in a way they hadn’t been in her prison work uniform.
But most of all, I can’t shake the idea that there’s no turning back. Now that I’ve seen her up close, and felt her breath dance along my skin from across that fucking counter... Now that we’ve spoken and we’ve finally acknowledged each other’s existence …
No, I can never go back.
I twist the key into the lock of the thin, tattered door and push it partway open. I’m hit with an instant cloud of marijuana smoke, and my blood begins to boil. My heart begins to race. My hand rolls into a fist as I bang the door all the way open and see my piece-of-shit best friend Trevor choking on a hit from a bong as he cranes his neck to face me.
He doesn’t live here. He’s just visiting. Only he’s not supposed to be visiting. He’s a fucking ex-con, just like me, and a term of my parole is to not hang out with any ex-felons, in particular the guy who I committed burglary with all those years ago. But Trevor is like a brother to me, and he’s trying to stay straight. He needs my help to do that. So I’ve let him crash at my place a couple of times, on the condition that he never stay long and that he stay clean. It’s a big risk—if my parole agent stops by for a surprise inspection, I’m fucked.
I’ve never been able to do the smart thing when it comes to Trevor. But now that I have the promise of spending more time with Katie in my future, that has to change.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I inquire, because it’s always best to ask a question or two before beating your friend’s ass. I’m under court-ordered sobriety, and one failed piss test from either drugs or alcohol will be enough to send me back to prison. A stranger would have already been on the ground with a broken nose. But this was Trevor…
“What…” He coughs against a clenched fist. “What does it look like, Bro.”
“Don’t call me Bro,” I say and slam the door shut behind me. I cross my arms over my chest. “What happened to staying clean?”
“It’s just weed, man. Not even enough to charge me with possession for sale. It’s not meth or coke.”
“Weed is enough to get my ass thrown back in jail, Trev. Just like associating with you is.”
Trevor grinned. “Associating, eh? Careful, Street, you’re using them big words again. I might start to think you think you’re better than me if you keep talking that way. And maybe you are. But that hasn’t always been the case. I remember a time when I was better than you. Funny how that changed.”
There it was. The same old shit. The hammer Trevor kept hanging over my head and has ever since we were kids. Because of it, I’d let him pull me into his shit over and over again. I’d even spent time in prison. But this was where it stopped. I’ve finally made contact with Katie, and the thought of going back to prison for a parole violation and never seeing her again is unbearable.
“You need to leave. And I mean it, Trevor, this time you need to stay away. When I think it’s safe, I’ll come see you.”
“And where are you going to do that, Bro? I don’t have any place to stay. The old lady kicked me out again. If you do the same, who knows what kind of trouble I’ll get into.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. “Damn it, Trevor—”
For seconds, I wrestle with feelings of loyalty and self-preservation.
“I’m sorry about the weed, Street.” I open my eyes at Trevor’s quiet, serious tone. He’s sitting up straighter and he’s put down the bong. “I don’t want to get you in trouble. It’d kill me if you went back to prison. You’re all I have. I need you, man. And I need a place to stay.”
I stare at him, feeling what I always feel when Trevor gets this way—a combination of affection and resentment. We grew up together. Survived a shit storm together. And Trevor had stepped up for me more than once, in ways I can never repay.
Sometimes I wish he hadn’t. That he’d let fate have its shot at me. Because at least I wouldn’t owe him. But Trevor had saved me. He was my friend.