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Authors: Frey Ortega

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And as he caught sight of Thad with a large black eye
laughing as he spoke with some manager or the other near the elevators, Daniel
could only feel the burgeoning resentment bubble up inside him.

None of this was fair. Hell, none of this was
right.
How was there any justice in this
world?

This week literally
could not
get any worse.

****

In the downward spiral that was becoming Daniel’s
life, only a few things remained constant. At this point, constancy was a good
thing, considering how everything around him was being snatched up like prizes
at a county fair.

One of those things was his best friend and
ex-roommate. The other had been chocolate-covered potato chips. But his
roommate beat those out by a small, seemingly insignificant margin.

His bastion fortress when things became rough, Daniel
had relied on his best friend, Cecilia, even before he’d ever said yes to being
Thad’s boyfriend.

Thad.
Daniel scoffed. That name was like poison to him now.

Dr. Cecilia Savard, or Cece as Daniel called her, was
a woman of grace and poise and an exceedingly dry and sarcastic sense of humor.
Daniel had met Cece when she was in medical school, and he was just a college freshman.
The two of them lived in off-campus housing. Cece, in fact, owned the
apartment, an apartment she lived in to this very day. And in spite of their
difference in years, the two of them got along pretty well. It probably helped
that Daniel was the kind of guy who didn’t disturb her when she had a horrible
test the next day, and Cece was the type to provide insight into whatever awful
thing was happening in Daniel’s life at that moment in time.

This time, it happened to be the breakup.

 
And as with every
horrible event in Daniel’s life, the two of them had a ritual. Daniel would
appear on Cece’s doorstep, either crying or angry or both; she’d break out the
wine and cheeses; they’d sit and talk until the sun rose in the morning, and
Cece would call in sick to work.

It was one of the perks of not continuing on to work
for a hospital
,
Cece said time and time again. “I’m already working with a dead guy.
What’s the worst that could happen?”

Daniel appreciated her attitude that way. Cece didn’t
open up to very many people, but he was lucky enough to be one of them. Plus,
there was that deadpan, emotionless way that she spoke, as though nothing could
faze her.

Nothing probably did, considering what she saw down at
the morgue.

Cece flipped a hand through her long black hair, tying
it up with one of those banana clips before swiftly uncorking the wine bottle
with a satisfying little pop. Sitting herself on the couch right beside Daniel,
she poured both of them a healthy dose of red wine before settling back against
the chair.


So.” Cece took a long sip of her wine. “He cheated on you.”

Daniel nodded bitterly. He took a long swig of the
wine before placing it on the coffee table in front of them.

Cece looked Daniel straight in the eye as she sipped
her drink, speaking in her mirthless tone. “He also fucked you out of your
apartment and your job. A good one, I might add.”

Again, Daniel nodded bitterly.

It was Cece’s turn to frown ever so slightly. “That
sounds horrible. I mean, I had to pry a dead guy’s chest open to find out how
he was murdered today, but your thing sounds bad, too.”

She then placed a hand on his knee, awkwardly patting
him there. Daniel frowned.


Are we trying to one-up each other right now? Because we both know
police medical examiner beats bad breakup any day.”


It’s not a competition,” Cece answered. “But if it was, I’m winning.
Still, I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I told you so, but I think we can
definitely agree that I’ve warned you, on more than one occasion, how Thad was
bad news.

Daniel nodded. Cece
had
warned him about that. “Love gives us rose-colored glasses.
Suddenly all of the bad stuff isn’t so bad because you love the person. And
damn it, I still love him, you know?”

Daniel’s voice teetered on the verge of tears once
more. Shaky and soft, he had to stifle it by taking another swift gulp of wine.
Get it together, Walsh!


Why else would you be acting this way? You obviously still have feelings
for him,” Cece said, reaching for a little slice of sharp cheddar to dip into
her mouth. “Love sucks. It’s both incredibly terrible and awesome. I’m also
pretty sure your mind is still in that twilight state between feeling bleak
about the breakup and absolutely hating his guts. Don’t worry. You’ll want to
dig your key into the side of his car and carve your name into his leather
seats.”


I also kind of want to slash a hole into his tires,” Daniel said,
feeling just a little bubble of satisfaction at the idea.


Just remember to only slash three tires. That way, his insurance won’t
pay for damages and he’ll have to pay for it out of his pocket,” Cece chimed in
helpfully. “Then again, he’s the son of a millionaire. Tires are the least of
his problems.”

Daniel felt that bitter bubble of resentment once
more. “I’m so sick and tired of this. He fucks another woman, I punch him in
the face, and now I’m out a job and an apartment. My entire life is a mess
because I based so much of it around him and pleasing him and loving him and …
and…” Daniel took another deep breath. He sipped his drink, but he couldn’t
fight back the lone tear that fell down his face and the quiver in his voice.
“I haven’t even told my mother yet, and who knows how she’s gonna take it? I
can’t even imagine. How am I going to tell her that I have basically nothing in
my life now?”

Cece raised an eyebrow. “Oh, you know your mom’s
tougher than that. She got through when you came out to her, so she can
certainly get through you telling her you broke up with Thad.” She then took a
sip of her wine. “Besides, you don’t
have
nothing. You still have some money saved up. It could help you get right back
to job hunting. You could go back to school. Hell, you could go visit home for
a little while. Besides, you know you’re always welcome here. Your old room is
yours whenever you need it.”

Daniel looked at her and felt that little pinch in his
heart whenever someone was being nice to him. He even stuck out his bottom lip
a little. “Do you really mean that?” he asked, in his best impression of what
he thought was a cute puppy dog.

Cece rolled her eyes.


Yes, but I also think getting Thad out of your system is going to be
good for you.”

Daniel sighed. His heart ached, but his head hurt as
well. There was so much involved with breakups. Cece was right. He needed to
get Thad out of his system, and truthfully, he just wanted to get away from it
all.

That’s when a bright idea popped into Daniel’s head.
Well, bright
enough
, anyway.


What if I go on a trip?” Daniel asked. “I think it might just be what I
need. I can’t deal with all this drama.”


Well, do you have enough money saved up?” Cece asked.


I have some, but I can sell the stuff I bought for our apartment and
just go on a long, long trip. I got my passport renewed because we were
supposed to go to Hong Kong for our next anniversary, but…”

Daniel closed his eyes.
Stop thinking about that shithead. Right now. You have to get on with
your life.


But that plan is basically moot now. Well, okay. If you have some money
saved up, you know, you’re an adult. You’re twenty-four years old,” Cece said,
filling in the details. “You can go wherever you want. Hell, I heard you can
hire a male prostitute in some places in Southeast Asia for about fifty
dollars. Maybe less if you haggle.”

Daniel gave his best friend a look. “Cece, I’m not
going to go on a sex tour of Asia.”


Hey, some of us get drunk and make bad decisions when we have a shitty
breakup. That might include fucking someone you shouldn’t sleep with, like a
drifter who injects meth into his taint, or a Wall Street guy. But that’s only
probably because we have a job holding us back and no money to do the things we
want to do,” Cece said. “Do something that makes you happy and fuck what anyone
else thinks. You’re free! Make good use of it. My only real piece of advice is
to tell your mother before you do anything drastic. Also, don’t stay in the
vicinity of sharp, bladed objects. Suicide is never the answer.”

Daniel couldn’t fight the urge to grin. “What the
hell, Cece? You had sex with a Wall Street guy?”


Hey, I didn’t say it was me,” Cece said, putting both her hands up and
shaking her head. “You know I like my men like I like my fast food. Dirty,
cheap, and only on Saturdays.”

Daniel laughed. Cece shared the slightest of grins
before
 
refilling her glass. “So are you
going on that trip?”


Yeah. I figured I could probably still go to Hong Kong. Maybe visit
other countries, too. And if I really like it, I could apply to volunteer
somewhere, or something,” Daniel said, simmering down a little and looking at
his best friend. “All I know is that I really need to take some time to myself
and just relax. Then I can finally move on. I’ll figure it out as I go.”

Cece nodded. “Wherever your feet take you, just know
you have a place here. And for what it’s worth, I think it’s a wise decision to
take some time for yourself. Get to know what you want now that you’re an adult
who can make your own decisions, you know? You knew Thad basically out of high
school. This could be healthy for you.”

Daniel nodded. He smiled at Cece, although he didn’t
know how much of that smile actually reached his eyes, or if he just stared
sadly at her. “Thanks, Cece,” he said softly. “I don’t know how I’d ever get
through this without you.”


Not well, I’d imagine,” Cece replied in her usual deadpan manner. “But
you’re a survivor. I know you can do it.”

Daniel took a deep breath. Maybe the first real one he
took where everything actually felt real.

Thad was gone, and he’d spent a good chunk of his
young adulthood trying to please a guy who only ended up breaking his heart.

Now, he could think only about himself and what was
good for him.

Now, he could heal.

Chapter One

 

Two years later


So, Mr. Walsh.”

Daniel’s eyes darted from the beautiful view of the
Austin skyline to the woman before him. It was beautiful as always, although he
still didn’t quite feel like he was home. Even though the city was still
basically the same as two years ago, some things seemed irrevocably changed.

Maybe it was just Daniel.

The woman in front of him seemed pleasant enough. She
was definitely on the nondescript side. A little bland, bored, as though she
was only here because it was her job, she was the epitome of cold
professionalism, and it was obvious to Daniel as soon as he walked in that from
the way she glanced at him, up and down, that he was
not
going to get the job.


Your resume says you’re twenty-six years old,” the interviewer started,
gently placing his resume on the desk in front of her. Ever so slowly, ever so
drawn out, ever so sluggishly did she then move her gaze over from the paper up
towards him. She then offered only the slightest, weakest smile. “Yet you have
a two-year gap from your previous job to today. Why is that, may I ask?”


I, uh, well, it’s a bit of a long story,” Daniel admitted as he adjusted
himself, resting his weight from one butt-cheek to the other awkwardly. “I
spent the two years seeing parts of the world and—”

As soon as the words left his mouth, the woman in
front of him could barely contain the displeased pursing of her lips as she
plopped open her pen and wrote something in a flourishing script right on top
of his resume. When Daniel peered down, it looked oddly like the words
typical millennial
in a sprawling
script, but he couldn’t be too sure. The woman had covered up what she’d
written just as quickly as she’d written it.

“—
volunteering to help this charity organization in the Philippines, and
in other Southeast Asian countries, with teaching children basic English and
other skills.”

The woman smiled, though her smile didn’t quite reach
her eyes. “That’s impressive,” she said, tenting her fingers together. “How
competitive do you feel your skills are in contrast to the other applicants in
this position? You know, the ones who didn’t take…” The woman seemed to be
trying to find the right word. Honestly, she looked like she just smelled a
really bad fart. “Sabbaticals?”

This was the point where Daniel would have rolled his
eyes if he could.
This job is for an
assistant position. How fast has technology changed in two years? I’ve been
using the same apps and programs on my laptop. It’s not like I can’t access the
internet in Thailand or Singapore.

Although he already knew that he wasn’t going to land
the job, this farce of an interview was going to continue anyway, until the
woman went through all the motions of reading through, and then denying
Daniel’s application.

Fifth time this month,
Daniel thought to
himself. But it was fine. He still had a little money left. He regarded the
woman before him and started to answer.


Well, I would say that my seeing the world actually puts me in a little
bit of an advantage,” Daniel said, but he knew almost immediately that the
woman in front of him wasn’t really listening. He inwardly sighed.

This would all be so much easier if he were a
millionaire.
More money, no problems.

****


Thank you for your application and we’ll contact you
if you get to the next stage of interviews.”

Those words were just another way of saying,
“We’re sorry, we don’t want someone who
spent two years abroad.”
Daniel frowned. That’s fine. He didn’t want to
work for that dumb company, anyway.

Watching the wisps of hot air coming off of his
coffee, Daniel slowly pulled on the tie around his neck and took a deep breath.
Coming back to all of this normalcy felt a little like being choked. The
sensation was definitely unpleasant.

If it weren’t for a lack of funds, and a powerful
guilt trip from his mother for missing not one, but two Christmases and
Thanksgivings, he wouldn’t really even be back here. He was having fun staying
in the Philippines. He’d been there for about four months. Before that, he was
in Thailand for a couple of weeks, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, and even a
quick trip down under, but before that, his first stop was Hong Kong. He’d
basically spent the last two years in Southeast Asia. Tropical heat was a lot
different from the arid, dry Texan sun, and that was the other thing that made
him think coming back to the city was a bad idea.

The city brought back bad memories. Good ones, too,
but he couldn’t really keep himself from seeing Thad with every corner he
turned.

It was basically as bad as a bag of dicks, but what
could you do? Daniel lifted his coffee up to his lips and took a sip. It’s not
like he was upset about all of that anymore. It was ages ago. He was mostly
only sad about the wasted time and the memories that were now tinged with the
horrible, horrible tint of betrayal.

Okay, so maybe he was
a little
upset.

He remembered the last message Thad had sent him. He’d
seemed almost apologetic. Countless emails, thousands of alibis, hundreds of
attempted phone calls, until he’d finally just stopped. Daniel could deal with
a lot, after all. Cheating wasn’t one of them.

Any reverie he might have pulled himself into was cut
short by the sound of his cell phone ringing. Daniel pulled the phone out of
his pocket, peeked at the screen, and smiled. He swiped the screen and
immediately appeared the picture of Cece holding up a little jar, with what
appeared to be a murky, mummified piece of meat.

What in the world?


Good lord.” Daniel scrunched up his face. “What is that?”


Oh, this is the steak I was supposed to eat six months ago when they
gave me an award for doing my job right,” Cece said dryly, her voice as
nonchalant as ever. “I put it inside some formalin because look how cool it is.
Also, hello. I’m calling to tell you that I’ll be home late tonight and that
you should definitely cook dinner. I enjoy your lasagna in particular.”


You and I still have very different definitions of what’s cool, but I
shall cook us dinner anyway. Today was a bust.”
Just like every other day,
Daniel wanted to add, but he kept his
mouth shut and sipped on his coffee.


Aw, cheer up, you grumpy cat,” Cece replied. “I’m the sad, bitter,
quirky one in this relationship, and I refuse to hand over my crown to you.
Besides, you should focus on getting settled in before you go out job hunting
again. That shit’s hard, and you just came back from removing chigoe fleas from
people’s feet in Kenya, right?”


Yeah, I don’t have the constitution to do that. You know exactly what I
did and where I went. Also, while those people in YouTube are doing miracle
work, you really should stop trying to pepper these things into our daily
conversations. You know how squeamish I am.”


It’s just that seeing you so down in the dumps reminds me of that
bloated corpse I had to clean up the other day. So tragic,” Cece said, taking a
nonchalant sip of her coffee. It made Daniel’s face scrunch up in confusion.
How can she drink coffee mere inches away
from that bloated piece of meat in a jar?
“Maybe these jobs aren’t cut out for
you because they don’t suit you?”


I don’t have the luxury of being picky, Cece. It’s not like I have a
medicine degree and my entire future is laid out in front of me,” Daniel
drawled. “But thank you for your concern. I also will ever forget that chigoe
fleas ever existed. Why do I ever watch stuff on the internet with you?”


Because you love me and also because I own the apartmen
t
,” Cece answered
flatly. “Okay, break time is over. You know what you should do today,
considering it’s only eight-fifteen in the morning and you’re already grouchier
than a cat?”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “Please don’t say visit my
mom.”


Visit your mom,” Cece said in unison with him, before smirking. “Your
schedule is free, and she lives maybe like thirty minutes away. You can get
there by mid-morning, see your home town for a little while, maybe stay the
night. I won’t even blame you for not cooking lasagna for me tonight, even
though I’m clearly the man in this household.”

Daniel nodded. “Fine. I guess I can head home for a few
hours. Hope she’s not entertaining anybody.”


She probably is,” Cece said. “Message me once you make your decision.”

Truth be told, Daniel was dreading seeing his mother.
After his abrupt departure two years ago, she’d tried to keep in contact.
Daniel constantly sent her postcards, and they talked over the internet every
day. But while it was clear she understood why Daniel wanted to leave, she
didn’t quite approve.

And it was totally fine. Daniel knew that she should
have her own opinions about his sudden trip around the world. Not seeing one of
her sons for more than a couple of weeks was bound to be killer on her,
especially when everyone else lived so close. While everyone lived within
walking or driving distance, Daniel basically went as far away as he possibly
could, and that probably pissed his mother off a little bit.

God only knows she
was going to give him the stink-eye later.

****

With a commute of about half an hour to an hour,
Daniel knew there was absolutely no reason not to visit his mom in the suburbs.
That being said, she was probably going to kick his ass the very second she saw
him.

He’d been back from his trip for about a month now.
That he hadn’t even told his mother he was back was probably going to be a big
surprise to her. But better late than never, right?

Only, he knew how mothers operated. Especially ones
from the South. He was going to get the stink-eye, and maybe the ass-whooping
of a lifetime.

Stepping out from the cab and fishing out one of the
last few bills he had on his person, Daniel awkwardly shifted his weight from
one leg to the other as he stared up at his mother’s house.

Catherine Walsh was a sassy broad of a woman. Strong
and independent, she’d raised all four of her children alone after the loss of
their father. It wasn’t until Daniel, the youngest, turned eighteen that she
admitted she was in love with their next-door neighbor, Mr. Stevenson, and
they’d been dating for a long time.

Needless to say, the fact that his mother could hide
the affection that she felt for another man until her children all grew up and
were mature enough to stand on their own was astounding. Catherine Walsh was a
lady of steel, and no one would be able to convince Daniel otherwise.

So his mother and Mr. Stevenson “eloped”—even though
Daniel thought it was silly that they thought they had to do that—and now they
lived with both properties merged together into one, much bigger house. It was
practically a mansion. Building from the bones of both houses, they made a
great big one where Daniel and his siblings, and Mr. Stevenson’s children—who
were far younger in spite of his more mature age—could come and relax every
Sunday for their weekly barbecue.

All in all, it was handled well. Everyone involved
were complete adults, even the mother of Mr. Stevenson’s children. Though,
Daniel supposed, he should have been calling him Mike. That’s what his mother
insisted, anyway. Her new marriage agreed with her.

Well, good for her,
Daniel thought, smiling. His
mom deserved all the happiness in the world. When he heard a soft peal of
laughter from inside, Daniel could only feel the nervousness and excitement
bubble inside him as he pressed on the doorbell.


Well, I wonder who could that be?” Daniel heard his mother say. There
was the sound of a chair grazing against wooden floors.

Footsteps, and then the door opened. Daniel’s smile
widened when he saw his mother dressed in her usual mom jeans and Barefoot
Contessa-esque long blouse. She looked as good as ever, with her close-cropped
brown hair and that constant happy smile on her face. Her eyes went wide as she
flung her arms ou
t
to grab her son in a tight embrace. “Danny! Oh, my boy, come and give
Momma some sugar!”


Mom, it’s Daniel, not Danny!” he said, wrapping his arms immediately
around his mother. “I missed you.”

Almost as suddenly as they embraced Catherine pulled
away from the hug just slightly to smack her son on the shoulder. Her eyes then
narrowed. “You didn’t catch any STDs in Asia, did you? You’re not here to tell
me you’re dying, and that’s why you haven’t sent me a message that you came
home?”


No, Mom, I didn’t have any sex while I was in Asia, and I’m not dying,”
Daniel replied, looking heavenward in exasperation.

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