Betrayal 15

A week passed without any contact from Jay, and by god, it was blissful. Emma, Rose, and Kimmy had all blocked Jay, a sign of true solidarity. Emma had been kind enough to reach out to him and tell him to give me space until I came around, and that sometimes I overreacted when I was scared. It was a lie, something to make him back off enough for me to feel safe, but it had worked perfectly well so far.

I had another usher day on a day Jay had off, which was particularly nice for me, as I got to enjoy the shows without checking over my shoulder constantly. Watching the shows meant I would get to see new evening shows– and, if I stayed late enough, rehearsals for the annual winter flashmob– a tradition Steph had that involved volunteer performers to come out and dance with patrons in the lobby between evening shows. As Nutcracker and the Holiday Show had become a nightly routine, one show at five and one at eight, it left plenty of opportunities between shows for the morning performers to interact with the patrons of the theatre.

The day went by slowly, the first two shows only attended by one school and a nearby daycare, Brigadoon relatively well attended by two nursing homes and a large college theatre class. I went to lunch with Dakota at Taco Hell, sitting across from him and distracting myself with my phone from the itching paranoia that kept eating at me.

I looked up when Dakota laughed at something on his phone, grinning slightly. “What are you laughing at?”

“If you’d sat over here you’d have seen it yourself.”

I laughed at his quip. “You could just turn your phone–”

Come sit over here,” he growled.

“Shit, fine,” I said, putting a hand on my chest as I stood up. “Jeez.” Once I had sat down in the booth next to him, he proceeded to shower me with tumblr screenshots and cute animal videos, until I couldn’t stop smiling.

“Dakota, hey!”

We both looked up at an older, portly man in a chef’s coat– one of EJ’s employees, I assumed. I smiled while Dakota reached across the table to shake the man’s hand. The chef’s attention was purely focused on Dakota, however.

“I saw your post on Facebook about your great-granddad,” the man said. “How’s he doing?”

“We’re just waiting,” Dakota said softly. I looked back at my phone, hiding my wince. I had forgotten about Dakota’s family drama in the midst of all this Jay bullshit. How self absorbed could I be? Stupid, insensitive–

“Nothing else to do sometimes,” the chef said, giving Dakota a sad sort of smile that told me he knew Dakota’s struggle on a personal level. “Send my love and prayers to your family.”

“Thanks, man,” Dakota said, and the chef wandered away to get his food.

“Are you okay?” I whispered. Dakota shrugged, focusing on his phone again. I sighed and left it alone until we both had to head back.

The rest of the shows were well attended, and I loved every second of both. Dakota was only in Nutcracker for tonight, as Steph tried to alternate performers as much as she could so nobody’s schedule was over-full, which meant he was rehearsing for the next night’s flash mob during the Holiday cabaret show. I enjoyed Steph’s angelic performances of O Holy Night and Noel 1913, marveled at the choir-style performances of S’vivon and Carol of the Bells cackled at the parody of Twelve Days of Christmas the cast had put together, and was dazzled by the various dance numbers.

The thing that really got me, though, was Steph standing in the middle of the empty stage, lit by only a spotlight, reciting the poem Alfie the Christmas Tree. When she’d been singing, she’d been in a well fitted red gown that highlighted her baby bump beautifully, or in the choir numbers, a simple black dress. For this number, however, she sparkled, in a white gown that sparkled like freshly fallen snow, her long hair falling over her shoulders in doll-like coils, glistening silver pins keeping the curls from her face. I was struck down to my soul, watching this wonderful woman– a woman who had become a sort of parental figure to me, an idol, someone I aspired to be like someday– spoke of giving and loving, of nature and nurture, of peace.

The audience gasped as one as the orchestra began to play The Peace Carol, and the black curtain behind Steph opened, revealing the entire cast in all black, save one woman, a stunning blonde with a round face and a full figure, who wore an emerald gown that almost– almost– rivaled Steph’s. The two held hands as they sang the verses, looking more at each other than the audience while the other was singing, until they sang together, completely ignoring the rest of the world. I wondered who this woman was that Steph obviously adored, as much, if not more, than her own husband.

Once the song was done, Steph and the blonde hugged, and I realized my face was wet. I swiped away the tears and applauded, probably louder than anyone else in the audience. My boss, weird as it was, slayed me.

Steph grinned and turned to the pit, waving her arm to signal them to start the last song, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

By the time I left, I was in the Christmas spirit and then some. The other ushers and I did a final check of the auditorium before heading out, waving idly at the performers as they put their stuff away, and the evening costuming crew who were handling the last of the laundry. I got on the bus with Mindy, who had stayed to watch the Holiday show, sitting in the back as I usually did. We were chatting about the show and how wonderful it had been when a familiar face caught my eye.

I choked.

Jay sat at the front of the bus, his eyes darting over to me over and over, failing miserably at any attempt to be discrete. I gripped my phone like a lifeline as I started to type out what was going on in a note, shaking too hard to spell words correctly. It turned out I needn’t have bothered.

“Is that Jay fucker still bothering you?” she asked, her tone hushed enough for the other chatter to cover it.

“He waited for me in the parking lot the other night,” I whispered, staring out of the window. I wished Dakota was with me, then shook the thought from my head. Just because he was male didn’t mean he’d want to protect me from an overzealous ex. Hell, he might even find it funny, for all I knew. When I’d told him about Jay following me out of work the other night, the only response he’d had was to ask if I was okay. Even still, I texted him.

Jay’s following me again. He wasn’t supposed to be here today.

“I’ll walk you to your car,” Mindy promised, then linked her arm through mine. Whether it was to comfort me, or to send a blatant signal to Jay to stay the hell away from me, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t particularly care.

We lingered once off the bus, watching Jay walk away. He loitered by the benches at the stop for a few moments while Mindy spoke, loudly, about work and how hectic it had been, and how she really wanted to punch someone to get the frustration out. Eventually he took the hint and walked away, and Mindy put her arm back in mine to lead me through the parking lot.

“Look, if he ever approaches you at work, let me know,” Mindy insisted. “I’ll kick his ass.”

“Thank you,” I said, lost for words. For all Mindy’s weird quirks, namely her ability to switch from cute to scathing to cute again in less than five seconds, she was being fiercely protective. I couldn’t help but feel grateful to her.

“Here, take down my number and text me when you get home safely.” We stopped, about halfway through the parking lot, so that she could add her number to my phone. “I’m parked right over there, where are you parked?”

I looked into the considerably full lot and frowned. “That way, pretty far out I think,” I said, though I wasn’t entirely sure how far. “I should be okay from here.”

“I don’t want that douchebag following you to your car or waiting for you there.” Mindy looked behind me and smiled. “Hey, Dakota.”

I turned, relief and embarrassment hitting me at the same time when I saw him walking up behind us. He put an arm around me and smiled at Mindy. “Hey. You two okay?”

“Piper needs someone to walk her to her car,” Mindy said sweetly. “You’re probably parked closer to her, would you mind?”

“Sure thing,” he said, stepping away. “Come on, Doofus. Night, Mindy.”

“G’night guys! Text me when you’re home, Piper!” Mindy trotted away toward her car as I shouted an okay after her.

Dakota took my hand as we walked, listening to me babble in my panic. “He wasn’t supposed to be here. It’s his day off. Why is he here? How could he have known I’d be here? Is it just a coincidence? What the hell?”

I couldn’t keep myself from scanning the rows of cars, looking for Jay’s or his friend Nikkie’s. I saw neither, though I’d taken several double-takes, paranoia playing tricks on my eyes. It wasn’t until we were almost to the back of the lot that I realized I had absolutely no idea where I’d parked. The panic escalated, my throat closing, my entire body trembling as I tried to think back to that morning, tried to ground enough to remember where I was, where I’d left my car.

“Piper.” Dakota’s voice was level, calm. He stood in front of me and spoke softly. “Were you past the first stop sign?”

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling my face heat up. “I don’t remember what I was listening to this morning.”

Dakota frowned. “I don’t understand, but okay?”

“I associate almost everything with music,” I explained, trying to dig through the panic and the fog and remember this morning. “People, places, events– I can remember what I was doing when I listened to a specific song, most of the time.”

“That’s weird, but okay.” Dakota looked out to the lot, still frowning. “I can only imagine what song you associate with me.”

Bulletproof,” I said immediately. I didn’t have to think about that one.

“Shoot me down, but I won’t fall,” Dakota sang, and I shook my head.

“That’s Titanium. Bulletproof by La Roux is the song I meant. That and Honeybee, kind of. But only because you sang it to me so many times.” Before he could respond, my memory clicked into place. “I know where I parked.” Without waiting for an answer, I strode off toward the farthest corner of the lot.

“At least you found your car,” Dakota said, catching up to me. “I’m not far back that way.”

“Want a ride to your car?” I asked, but he shook his head.

“Nah. I’ll be fine. Just worried about you.”

As I reached my car, I regarded him. For a wiry beanpole of a man, he was stronger than he looked. I had no doubt that he could protect me if he wanted to. Clearly, he cared enough to worry about me and my stalker problems. “Thank you for walking me to my car.”

“No worries,” he said, as I threw myself at him for a hug. He gave me a squeeze, then stepped away. “Get home safely.”

“I will,” I promised, getting into my car and watching him walk back to his. I gave the lot one more nervous glance to the rows of cars around me, then peeled out of the lot and headed for the safety of campus.

Betrayal 14

Jay called before I’d even gotten home. I answered in a state of panic that bordered hysteria.

“You’re a lying bitch–”

“What the fuck are you on about, Jay?” I spat, flooring it on the highway home. I was a good twenty over the speed limit, my eyes frantically darting around in search of cops and other cars.

“I saw you leave with Dakota. If you wanted to fuck him all you had to do was tell me.”

“How could you have seen me?” I demanded, stopping at a red light. I kept my eyes on my mirrors, looking for cars to come up behind me on the empty road. “You left at four, I didn’t leave til nearly seven.”

“I stayed to help an extra hour,” he said, “and then I waited in the parking lot for you. I wanted to see you.”

“I didn’t see your car.” It was the only thing I could focus on, the fact that his car hadn’t been anywhere around mine in the parking lot, which, as far back as I’d been parked, had been damn near deserted.

“I waited in Nikkie’s car.”

The light changed, and once again, I floored it. My engine whined in protest as it accelerated. “You waited in your friend’s car for two hours to see me, after I told you I wasn’t going to see you?” My heart thundered wildly in my chest, so hard I thought I was going to vomit it up. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I wanted to see you!”

“I SAID NO!”

“But–”

Leave me alone!” I hung up on him, proceeding to decline every other call from him as I finally reached the safety of the student apartments, putting a shaking smile on for the security guard as he checked my student ID and driver’s license.

Kimmy saw my face when I came in, her welcoming smile disappearing. “Piper?” I didn’t respond, just dropping my purse on the floor and heading toward her. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

The shaking wouldn’t stop, even when she wrapped her arms around me in a sturdy hug. “Jay…” I choked, tears of panic and anger spilling over. “He waited for me in the parking lot, in someone else’s car, and watched me leave work with Dakota.”

“Oh shit.” Kimmy led me to the couch and made me sit. “Are you okay? Did he try to follow you?”

“I don’t think he did,” I said, ignoring her first question. Of course I wasn’t okay.

“Let’s get some food into you,” Kimmy said, going back to the kitchen. I nodded, then began to whine as Jay called me yet again.

“Go away!” I hit decline again and shoved my phone across the coffee table, then rethought it and snatched it up again. Without a second thought, I pulled up Jay’s info and selected block caller.

Kimmy returned with a plate of food– pasta with her avocado pesto, somehow weirdly comforting right now– and sat back down beside me. “Talk to me, babycakes.”

“I’m scared,” I whispered, picking at my food. Eating was important, I knew that, but my appetite was virtually nonexistent. I shoved a forkful into my mouth and chewed, my actions mechanical.

“He can’t get you on campus,” Kimmy pointed out. “And I think if you tell Steph, she can work something out for you.”

“I’m in Narnia for the next week at least,” I said, referring to the storage and laundry area in the lower levels of the theatre. “He can’t get me there. He doesn’t work for the next two days either, so I can avoid him.”

“Good, that’s a start. That’s a very good start.”

“Yeah.” I shoveled more food into my mouth, now more because it was something to do than because I was hungry. “I just don’t understand–”

“Stalkers are heroes in their own minds,” Kimmy said, rising to go back to the kitchen, presumably to get her own food. “He’s not healthy, Piper. His mind is sick, and he’s obsessed. Don’t forget that.”

“You’re right,” I murmured. “I should have seen the signs.”

“You did.” She set a glass of water down in front of me and then returned to the kitchen. “You saw the signs and talked about them and even responded to them, pushing him away.”

“It wasn’t enough, obviously.”

With a shrug, Kimmy sat back down beside me with her own food and water. “Sometimes drastic measures must be taken when people go completely off their rocker.”

“But he has kids,” I said, imagining the repercussions of taking drastic action. “And what’s her bitch is on maternity leave. They’ll have no money to support their kids.”

“They shouldn’t have the kids to begin with.” Kimmy’s voice was flat, detached. I shuddered; she never used that tone, except with Jay. “You have empathy even when you’re being wronged, do you have any idea how strong that makes you?”

A bark of humorless laughter escaped me. “I always thought it was a glitch in my genetic makeup, but thanks.”

Kimmy brushed a hand over my hair. “Avoid Jay for awhile, block him everywhere he can see your information, and see how things go. If he escalates, report him to Steph, or a manager. Someone who can get people involved.”

“Steph’s got some security guards,” I murmured. “I’m sure they’d be willing to help.”

“Perfect.” Her arm came around me in a side hug. “You’ll be okay, Piper.”

“I hope so.”

Betrayal 13

I’d been fending Jay off for– god, nearly a week now. It was Thursday, he’d been a tool since I’d gotten back Sunday night. I just wanted him to leave me alone. It had become increasingly clear that we were in desperate need of space.

Luckily for me, I was supposed to take Val home after work. Except that I’d also been given the option to go to Dakota’s and– as Kimmy now referred to it– sacrifice chickens. Either way, I had plans, and Jay was not a part of them.

The dilemma came up however, when Val asked at intermission what my plan was.

“So, are you going to go hang out with Dakota or take me home? Because I need to know if I’m taking the bus or not.”

I sipped at the cup of water I’d been holding onto, mulling it over while the cast prepped for the second act. “I hadn’t decided. Would you be upset if I made you take the bus?”

“Not really, but I’ll be sure to tell Jay to go fuck himself if he sees me.”

“He got off at four so there’s no way you’ll see him. He has a brand new baby to go home to anyway.”

Val coughed. “He what?

I smirked. “Didn’t I tell you? His ex wife had their second child.”

“I thought it wasn’t his!”

“So did he, but apparently he was wrong.” I was straight up grinning now, still sipping my water. “I’m so smug about this. I should really look into my petty tendencies.”

Val had her hand over her mouth, staring at me like she’d just heard the best news of his life. “He fucking deserves it.”

“I know.” I couldn’t speak without laughing, so I chugged the last of my water to maintain composure.

“So go get some nice Dakota D and tell me how it goes.”

I choked. “Sorry– what?”

Val winked, then turned away to go help a lead into her corset, leaving me to gape after her, wondering just how much she’d put together. Shit. I thought I was being careful. Having a crush on him and flirting and just being an annoyance at work, to me, didn’t read as actively being with him– but maybe Val figured this would be the night I finally was. She was a perceptive person, not in the quietly critical way Cait was, and not in the analytical way Dakota was. She just knew things. It was so blase when she mentioned things I hadn’t talked to her about, or admitted to in general. That part of her was, by far, one of the more disconcerting.

The show finished smoothly. When we’d finished our work for the day, I walked Val to the door and gave her a hug. “Get home safely.”

“I will,” she promised, and then turned her head so her lips nearly met my ear. “Get him, girlie.” With that, she sashayed away with a wink and a kiss on the cheek. I snorted and shook my head, then quietly ducked back to the labyrinth of hallways downstairs to wait for Dakota.

He arrived as he always did– basketball shorts, black tee shirt (this one with a show poster printed on the front from Chance’s run of Fiddler on the Roof), his backpack slung over his shoulder. I fell into step with him on the way out the back door to the bus, the usual questions bubbling from my lips– how he was, how the last show had gone. Other performers chatted with us both as well, all the way to our parking lot, where a good amount of them were also parked. The sun had long since set, the stars sparkling above us, streetlights filling our path with a hazy white glow.

“So you coming over?” Dakota smirked at me as we reached our cars, parked only a couple of rows apart.

“If the invitation is still open.” I looked to him for confirmation, and he shrugged.

“It’s your call.”

I stared at him, trying to read him and– as usual– finding myself unable to. He wouldn’t have invited me if he didn’t want me there, I told myself, and smiled. “I’ll see you at your house, then.”

He drove like a madman, speeding away through the parking lot light as it turned yellow. I caught up to him, almost, twice, on the way to his house, but never managed to actually stay with him as I drove. When I finally got to his house, I grinned at the Christmas tree cheerfully blinking– actually, no, that fucker was like strobe light, a seizure waiting to happen.

He hadn’t turned on any lights when I came in, the room only illuminated by the brightly flashing pine.

“I like your tree,” I said casually, waving at it as I closed the door.

“It’s a rave tree,” Dakota said flatly. I snorted, then bent to greet Wade as he came purring to wind around my legs.

I had barely righted myself when Dakota seized me by the arms and yanked me up to him, our lips meeting in a jarring flash of heat. I grabbed his shirt, thrown off balance, my eyes falling shut. My mind went utterly blank, leaving me speechless as he pulled away. “Wanna go upstairs?”

“Sure,” I breathed, wondering if I looked as flustered as I felt.

I followed Dakota upstairs, wincing as he turned on a light. He looked over at me and immediately turned it back off, leaving us in near pitch darkness. The only lights came from the gaming consoles in the cabinet under his TV, bright blue and green, giving us just enough light.

At Wade’s amiable chirp, I sat on the ground, running my hands over his fluffy fur. He’d gotten bigger since I saw him, but was still tiny, and barely weighed anything. I scooped him up and buried my face in his fur, scratching behind his ears and earning a contented purr.

There was something hauntingly intimate about sitting in Dakota’s house in the dark, alone with him. It was a feeling I’d never forget, this blindness, the sounds of the road outside and the cat’s purring, the gentle hum of the fan above us, the faded scents of sage incense and dust cleaning spray.

I let Wade wander away as Dakota sat down beside me and then pulled me onto his lap. I wound my arms around his neck and started pressing kisses to his cheeks and forehead. “How are you?”

“I’m good,” he said, squeezing my waist. “How are you?”

I kissed down the strong line of his jaw, the cord of his neck. “I’m good.”

“You sure?” He murmured, tilting his head. “I’ve read plenty of your Facebook posts that would suggest otherwise.”

“Oh?” I leaned back, smiling despite the darkness. “You’re keeping tabs on me, then?”

He shrugged. “Your stuff comes up and I read it. It’s almost like you put some things on there specifically with me in mind.”

Which I totally was, but he didn’t have to know that. “And what have you learned from my Facebook? What great insights have you gathered?”

He rearranged me slightly, so that I could wrap my legs around his waist, sitting in the cradle of his legs as he sat pretzel style. “You look for a specific kind of attention– like validation, almost. You care about other people’s opinions of you, probably more than you should. You’re opinionated yourself.”

“That’s… apt,” I decided, resting my head on his shoulder. “Anything else?”

“That’s about it. Now,” He grabbed my hips and rocked forward, earning a gasp from me as I sat up to look down at him. “What have you learned about me?”

My brain stalled, completely focused on what he was doing between my legs. “Um…” I grasped his shoulders and shifted, not sure if I was aiming for more friction or less, but stilling above him so I could concentrate on my words. “Uh… you like your privacy. You’re very guarded. You don’t show a lot of your emotions as openly as I do.” I arched back, gasping again as he surged underneath me again.

“Keep moving while you talk.”

Easier said than done. I shifted against him, trying not to work myself up too much so I could think relatively clearly. “Ah… you like making people happy. Cheering them up, distracting them…” That was as far as I got before he leaned forward and bit my neck I cried out, dragging him closer, completely forgetting what we’d been talking about or that we’d even been talking. Sliding my hands through his hair, I pulled his head back and fixed my lips on his, rocking against him wantonly.

The intimacy of this darkness, of blindly trusting him, hit me with a force that stole my breath. I trusted this man with my body, with my life, and– most terrifying of all– with my heart. I had given him a power I hadn’t given anyone, truly, in years. It was scary and exciting, it was awful and wonderful all at once, it was… it was…

Oh, my god, I was in love with him. I had fallen in love with Dakota. And for some strange, unknown reason, I was completely okay with that.

He pushed me back, and I went willingly, adjusting myself to accept his weight over me. Again he bit me, and I almost purred, dragging my nails down his back with delight. His hands ghosted over my breasts and down my body, one pulling my leg up over his hip. I locked my legs around him to pull him closer, closer, wanting more and more and never wanting to let go.

Dakota drew back. “Do you want to keep going?”

I frowned, though I knew he couldn’t see me. “Only if you do.”

“I’d be rough,” he admitted, and I felt a chill of delight go down my spine.

“Oh?” My tone was suggestive, maybe a little sultry, but definitely consenting.

“I’d be taking out a lot of stuff on you,” he continued, staying at arms length even as I reached for him.

“Oh.” Another chill, this one decidedly less delighted– something wary, something nervous. I thought for a moment, trying to decide if the (probably incredible) sex was worth the emotional backlash that would come with it.

In that moment, I created one of my biggest regrets. I would look back on that night for the rest of my life and ask myself, “Why? Why was that the choice you made? What drove you to that decision?” And in the end, the answer would always and forever be consent.

“It wouldn’t be fair to either of us if you weren’t really emotionally involved,” I told him, pushing him so that I could sit up. “If you don’t really want to, then I don’t.”

I felt more than saw him shrug. “Okay.”

Feeling, inexplicably, as though I’d disappointed him, I reached over to my purse and pulled out my phone to check the time. At the sight of the single text I’d gotten, I felt my heart stop dead in my chest.

Jay had texted me.

If you didn’t want to spend time with me you should have just said so.

My mind scattered in every direction possible, contentment replaced with blind panic. Had he seen me with Dakota? How could he have, if he had gone home nearly three hours before I’d left for the day? It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be possible.

“I have to go,” I murmured, trying not to let my voice shake. I was suddenly beyond grateful Dakota couldn’t see me, and the pure fear on my face.

“I’ll walk you out.”

He helped me stand, and squeezed my hand. It helped, having him there, steady and strong. Would he protect me, if I asked him to? I wanted to say yes. I wanted to believe that he felt that way about me, felt strongly enough to come to my aid should I ask him to.

We went down the stairs hand in hand, and at the door, I turned to kiss him goodbye, aiming for just a gentle peck on the lips.

He blindsided me, as he usually did. In a burst of movement I found myself hauled up, my legs wrapping around his waist as he slammed me into the wall and kissed me more fiercely, more possessively, than he’d ever kissed me before. If I could have fallen harder in love with him, I did in that moment, lit by the strobe light tree, the cat winding around Dakota’s ankles in an oblivious demand for attention, and Dakota downright claiming me as his own.

When I started to slide down, he carefully set me back on the ground, giving me one more kiss.

“You make it so hard to leave,” I told him, putting on a faux pout. “See you at work.”

“Later, Doofus.”

“Bye, Nerd.” I waved as I headed to my car, dread starting to pool in my stomach again. I really didn’t want to deal with Jay tonight.

Betrayal 12

I had never struggled to maintain composure so hard in my entire life, and I hoped I would never have to do it again.

We drove for hours, the sunlight passing over my face, the deep country of Pennsylvania passing us in a haze of frosted pastures. Rose and I had spent the trip to the farmer’s market singing, laughing, taking snapchats and posting them to Facebook and Tumblr. I’d sent Dakota so many pictures and videos I’d lost count, and he humored me. It was surreal, feeling like there was an actual connection there, a friendship to build off of. Potential, maybe.

But riding back, dread seeped in, apprehension for what was to come. I didn’t want to think of my grandfather as he was now, didn’t even want to admit that he wasn’t the strong, dependable man who’d helped raise me.

I shut my eyes and thought back, reliving moments spent with him with painful, beautiful clarity. Standing in my grandparent’s townhouse, in the living room, The Lawrence Welk Show playing big band music in the background as Grandpa and I swayed together. Eating cookies on the couch as he tried to teach me algebra– which never really worked out, but bless him, he tried so hard. Listening to him tell me all about historical figures he admired and read about. Sharing his cereal as a toddler. The smell of his deodorant. The feel of his shirt under my cheek whenever I hugged him. Cheeto stains on his tee shirts. German chocolate cake.

He was the kind of man I would have chosen as a partner, if I chose a man in the long run. Dependable. Honest. Strong. Brilliant. He always found a way to fix things, to solve problems. Perhaps he was colorblind and almost deaf, but by god he never let that stop him. He provided for his family, lent a hand when he was needed. He spoke well of people, and despite his conservative views often clashing with mine, he wanted to see good in the world. He cared about his fellow men, but most especially, he cared about his family. He was proud of all of us, and he loved us dearly.

At his funeral, Mom would tell us how sitting and talking with him during her twenties shaped her worldview, her religious beliefs. My cousins would talk about him telling stories, or holding their children. My uncles would both talk about how dependable he was. Grandma wouldn’t speak, because she’d be barely keeping herself together. Whatever story I told would be trivial and simple in comparison, but it would be my story, whatever memory struck me at the time as the most Grandpa-ish thing he’d ever done, the thing that shaped my view of him. I would shake, and stutter, and cry, but in the end, I would speak. And I would remember.

Grandpa hadn’t been himself for years. It was overnight– one day, he just began to shuffle rather than walk. He misplaced things more easily, threw things away by accident, forgot what he’d said or done recently. He got frustrated more easily. But still he remained proud of us– of me, his youngest grandchild, the baby of the family, save my cousin’s twin toddlers. Grandpa always told me how proud he was of me, how much he loved me.

Perhaps that was why he was the only man in my life I’d ever genuinely respected and loved, without reserve or exception.

I didn’t want to see him today. I didn’t want to face the idea that he wouldn’t recognize me, that he’d be anything other than strong and happy and kind. Alzheimer’s changed people, not always for the better, and I didn’t want to see its effects on him. Without a doubt, I knew that this would be my goodbye to him. I would not see him after today.

As the sunlight flickered over my face, I opened my eyes and turned to Rose, who had her hand on mine. She smiled and laced her fingers with mine, and we rode in the backseat of my mom’s car together, just like that, watching the cows and horses pass us by.

Betrayal 11

There was nothing quite like having my very best friend of ten years laying by my side in the dark like old times. In the quiet softness of my childhood bedroom, both of us marginally intoxicated, giggling like schoolgirls and doing very little to control our voices or our words.

The day had been a long one, but fun nonetheless. I’d met with Emma for lunch, delightfully spending an hour with her at a quiet hole in the wall restaurant near her work, with my brother Ernie to drive me around. I’d be seeing her again before I left on Sunday, for longer, but getting to reconnect with her after so long had lifted my spirits considerably. After lunch, I’d helped mom with her afternoon classes, talking to them about internships and college and jobs and adulthood. I’d even sung for them for fun when we had extra time leftover, excitedly choosing a song from Brigadoon since I’d been hearing the songs constantly for almost six months already. Then dinner with the family at my old workplace, a family owned sushi restaurant, waited on by my best friend, and bringing her home with us for a sleepover.

I listened to Rose tell me about her beau, telling me all about his accomplishments and wrongdoings in their relationship, and even the mundane aspects, and just being generally in love with him as she spoke. It was odd, being able to listen to someone be so very much in love, so very into their relationship, and not being able to relate to it in the slightest.

Rose had always been like that. The first time she’d come to my house, excitedly telling me how she’d lost her virginity, I hadn’t been able to relate. She’d loved it, had it frequently, enjoyed it every time, no matter her partner (though she was decidedly straight). I had only experienced that once. And her relationships, all but one, were all stable, healthy, based on mutual trust and respect and something akin to love. She’d ended her past relationships cleanly, but kindly, and maintained a friendship with most of her past lovers.

I couldn’t relate. On any account.

Envy struck me to the bone as I listened to her speaking, its scorching hot claws grasped around my throat, choking me, simultaneously squeezing at my heart. I wasn’t a lush like Rose; I was a lightweight who didn’t particularly like alcohol. I didn’t particularly enjoy sex except with Dakota. I had one truly healthy relationship to look back on, where it hadn’t been a rebound for either party or straight up abusive, where I hadn’t been the other woman. It stung deeply to hear about Rose’s happiness in the wake of my inadequacy.

“So tell me, Piper, my love, my darling, is there anyone down south for you, Darling?” Rose curled on her side, grabbing one of my arms like a teddy bear and clinging to it. “I want to see you happy and sexually satisfied.”

I laughed. “There’s… a person I’m sort of involved with, on the down-low.”

“Oh boy.”

Rose had always been able to read me. She’d been the only one who knew about my abusive relationship while it was happening. We had both been too young to know what to do about it. I smiled up at the shadowed ceiling. “He’d be perfect if he wasn’t taken.”

“That’s never stopped you before.”

I winced– she was right, and I couldn’t dispute it. My first girlfriend and my abuser hadn’t been taken, but after them, in most of my relationships I had been a rebound– or in Jay’s case, his baby mama had been an on-and-off, “we’re not actually together but we’re not not together” shitshow, with me as the long term side hoe. “You’re right, but usually when someone talks about ending a relationship, they follow through.”

“So this prick hasn’t dumped his girlfriend for you, despite talking about doing so?” She snorted. “He must hate himself.”

“He’s never said he’d leave her for me,” I clarified, “and I’m not about to force him to make that decision. I tried that with Jay and look where it got me.”

“Sleeping with someone who’s taken because you feel like you don’t deserve better, and defending the cheating dickhead because you hate yourself more than you hate him for being a lying prick.”

I turned sharply toward Rose, frowning. “Shit, tell me how you really feel, why don’t you?”

“You’ve been doing this to yourself since that fucker Jeffrey,” Rose snapped. “He broke you. He trained you to believe that you weren’t worth anyone’s time or devotion, that you didn’t deserve someone’s one-hundred-percent, that you had to settle for anyone who showed interest.”

I scoffed. “No one wants someone who’s physically, mentally, and emotionally ruined, Rosie.” Bitterness colored my words, an ugly, tarnished color that filled the room. “Sex? This guy I’m sort of with, sort of not, has never made me hurt, but thanks to the rape and the cancer scare surgery and all that fun ass scar tissue up my vag, after awhile I start getting sore. I mean honestly, shove a scalpel up your vag and then stretch the stitches the very next day by walking–”

“I thought someone was supposed to be home with you that day?”

“No, Ernie wasn’t there and neither was mom, so now I get to enjoy scars for days in places I can’t get therapy for–”

“Pelvic floor therapy helped you though–”

“But it doesn’t lessen the scar tissue, joy of joys.” I moved on before she could argue. “My PTSD makes everything difficult. Flashbacks during sex are fucking phenomenal, lemme tell you. Not being able to see my partner is a cruel trigger/turn on combo, and handcuffs are kinky and terrifying at the same time. I’m super into dom/sub culture, I’m definitely a power bottom–”

“Things I’ve been dying to know about you,” Rose commented.

“But being submissive is hell with someone I don’t trust indefinitely,” I finished., ignoring her. “Imagine me actually getting to sleep next to this guy, some day, if that ever happened, hypothetically. Waking up in the middle of the night in a blind panic because oh god, Jeff found me, he’s here, he’s going to hurt me. Or, worse, the sleep paralysis, suddenly jerking awake and having to explain ‘sorry, my body was still asleep but my mind woke up, didn’t work right, and supplied my worst fear in place of reality, and that’s why I’m disoriented and shaking.’ No BFD.” I huffed, releasing the anger that had built up during that little speech. “You’re absolutely right though– I settle. I always settle. But this person doesn’t make me feel like I’m settling, it feels like I’m working my ass off to gain and keep his attention.”

“What a waste of your energy.”

“I’m in love with him.”

Rose was silent for a minute, and so was I, realization hitting me like an entire semi truck to the face. Where the fuck had that come from? When had that happened?

“I take that back,” I said. “I’m deeply infatuated with him and for some reason my brain keeps saying ‘sup Piper, you’re falling in love.’ Which I’m not. At all.”

“How’s Egypt this time of year?” Rose asked flatly. “Is the water warm? Cause you seem to be in denial.

I couldn’t help but snort. “That was actually really good. I love that. I love puns.”’

“Thanks, I try.” Rose cleared her throat. “Now, back to the matter at hand. You think you’re physically broken because of your scarring. Mentally you’ve got PTSD, and that makes everything a clusterfuck, because that little voice in your head sounds like Jeff.”

“Yes, you’re on point so far.”

“Emotionally you’re so dependent on finding someone who can put up with those two problems that you settle for anyone who treats you with kindness and respect once they’ve found out about the abuse.” I nodded. “And this guy… is special because… he’s talented sexually?”

“I’m actually attracted to him,” I mumbled, “unlike most of my other exes, who I was attracted to, but not in that hyper-fixated, completely creepy way.”

“Oh, no,” Rose wailed softly, “he’s the new obsession? That explains everything!

“Look, if I could control it, I’d choose a cute, single gay girl my age, and call it a fucking day.” I squeezed Rose’s arm. “It’s hell. It really is. But he… returned my feelings, sorta, I guess. Responded to them if nothing else.”

“Uh-huh.” She didn’t sound convinced. “Have you talked to him about where the two of you stand?”

It took me a moment to work out the words. “I… don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to scare him away, or overwhelm him, or ask too much, or want too much–”

“Wanting someone to choose you over someone they’ve talked about dumping doesn’t strike me as wanting too much.”

I clammed up. “He… seems like the kind of person who would prefer we remain no strings attached. Like he wants something casual, considering he’s just getting out of a long term relationship. Or would be.”

“You’re a fucking disaster, Piper!” Rose sat up suddenly, tossing the blankets away, pulling me up with her since she still had a firm grasp of my arm. “You deserve someone who’s going to make you happy. Not someone who’s going to lead you on and fuck you over– no pun intended this time– and play with your heart. If he doesn’t feel anything for you, drop his ass.”

I shook my head, squeezing my free hand around hers. “He texted me to check in multiple times so far this weekend. He and Jay are having a death battle over who likes my Facebook statuses first.”

“I swear to god, if this dude uses you as his side chick, I’m coming down with a machete and we’re gonna roast him on a spit in his own front yard.”

Grinning, I pulled her in for a hug. “I know. You’re the best, Rosie.”

She squeezed her arms around me. “My Piper deserves the very best, and anyone who fucks with you answers to me.” Leaning back, she took my face in her hands, staring at me through the shadows of my bedroom. “Find out how he feels, however you have to do it, okay?” I nodded. “If he doesn’t at least mostly return your feelings, with room for development, ditch his ass and go be happy with someone who loves you.”

I nodded again, but the errant thought came anyway– what if I don’t want anyone else? “I don’t want to be selfish with him, Rosie,” I whispered. “I’m– I’m possessive and jealous, I can’t seem to help it, even though I can talk myself out of acting that way, and convince myself I don’t really feel that way. I don’t want to smother him by wanting him for myself.” A half smile tugged at my lips. “I’ve even suggested polyamory to him, in light of the fact that he’s actively cheating on his girlfriend. It seemed like something he’d be interested in.”

“You’ve been forcing yourself to share the people you love for too long,” Rose soothed, stroking my hair once before laying back down. “Just once I’d like to see you with someone who you only have to share with friends and family. Someone who isn’t constantly looking away from you while you’re with them. Someone who doesn’t want to see you with anyone else the same way you don’t want to see them with anyone else.”

“If only,” I murmured, laying back down as well. “If only.” A few minutes passed in peaceful silence. I knew Rose hadn’t fallen asleep when she fidgeted, her breathing still irregular and shallow, so I spoke again. “I don’t want him to know I’m falling for him.”

“I know, my love.”

“What if he finds out?” I curled onto my side and wrapped my arms around Rose’s waist. “What if he rejects me?”

“How could anyone reject you? You’re wonderful.”

“Thank you, but I’m serious.” I squeezed her slightly. “What if– god, what if he never spoke to me again? How would he react? What if I ruin everything?” I shook my head. “Better that he doesn’t find out. My internship is over soon anyway; I need to think about the future.”

“Don’t you want him to be in it?” Roses soft query was like having a lantern raised over my deepest feelings.

“More than anything,” I breathed.

“Then, somehow, you need to find out how he feels.” I nodded. “And who knows, that might be what reels him in for you.”

I rested my head on her shoulder, the alcohol and the darkness and the late hour all falling over me like a warm blanket. “I hope so.”

Before we could talk any further, I drifted to sleep.

Betrayal 10

The motherfucker stood me up.

I should have been surprised, but all I felt was a bone deep rage, piled on top of stress and anxiety, to the point where I spent the entirety of Wednesday morning pacing and shaking. With my backpack stashed with Val’s oversized purse in Steph’s office, I’d been ready to go, but no, Jay had to go and say “I thought you meant Thursday!” I was livid, barely less than yelling about how many different ways I wanted Jay dead, and stressing over how I’d get to the airport on time without him. So much so that Cait and Val actually sat me down and handed me a cup of water, then told me straight up to go talk to Steph.

I was shaking so hard by the time I reached Steph’s office that she stopped talking mid sentence at the sight of me. Seeing her eased the fury a little bit, her serenity pulsing out of her like light. She looked like the ocean in a blue-green dress that showed the slight bump of her baby belly.

“I’ll call you back, Bill,” she said when our eyes met, and then promptly hung up on whoever she’d been talking to. “Come on in, Piper, what’s wrong?”

It took me a few tries to manage words. As I sat in the chair opposite her desk, I tried forcing a smile to my face. “I’ve got a flight home tonight, to see my grandfather. He’s in the hospital.”

Steph gasped, one hand going instinctively to her belly, the way new moms seemed to do, while the other went to her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.” I took a deep breath, struggling to keep my voice even, clasping my hands in my lap. “I had a ride initially, but it turns out he can’t take me.”

“Do you need a ride?” Steph turned her chair to look at her computer. “I might be able to duck out. You get out at six right?”

“Yes, I do. That… actually, that would be fantastic.”. Relief began to ebb at the frustration. “Thank you so much.”

“Shit, that’s a no go,” Steph huffed, scanning her calendar. “I’m sorry. I have a meeting with my financial advisor at seven. But–” She looked at me, opened the employee schedule, read it over. “If you can speed run your post-show clean up, I can let you go early. When’s your flight?”

“Eight.”

“Eight?” She gawked at me. “Shit, girl. Yeah, you’re out by five, at the latest, got that? I’ll have whoever else on the team finish anything you can’t, but you get your ass out and get home.”

Tears threatened, but I swallowed them down, squeezing my hands more tightly together. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Steph saw my tears and stood up. As I rose to leave, she came around her desk and wrapped me in a hug. “Everything will be okay. Just keep smiling, okay?” Leaning back, she gave me a toothy grin. “We’ll be here when you get back. Go see your loved ones.”

I nodded, but the tears wouldn’t stop. Steph cooed slightly and pulled me back into the hug, holding me tightly. It was weird being practically cuddled my someone my own height and barely older than me, but comforting nonetheless. I returned the hug and cried into her shoulder; once I was done, Steph handed me a tissue and sent me on my way. “Everything will work out, Piper.”

The day passed in a whirlwind of anxiety, second counting, sheer blind panic. Dakota was probably trying to distract me during lunch but I was too busy stressing to notice. I moved so quickly during pre-show that my cast members were ready to go nearly twenty minutes early. Val grabbed me around the middle during the show and hugged me, keeping me grounded, and Cait made sure I had water. I shook through the entire show.

The Flash had nothing on me post show. I was on shoes as per usual, all but shoving them into their designated places after spraying them with disinfectant and giving them a once-over for damages. I finished at four thirty on the dot, ran up to Steph’s office, and told her I was headed out.

“Right on time!” She gave me a reassuring smile as I grabbed my backpack from her office. “Oh, and here.” She handed me a takeout bag from EJ’s. “It’s just chicken tenders and fries, but I figured it would be one less thing for you to worry about.”

Touched, I took the bag. “Thank you so much. I don’t know what else to say.”

“Send your family love from the theatre,” she insisted. “No go, get to the bus. And have a safe flight!”

I waved a response to her as I bolted from the theatre to catch the bus.

It felt like racing against the clock, from the bus to my car, and then through the horror of rush hour traffic. I didn’t have one of those EZ pass deals, and sped through the tolls anyway, since I also didn’t have cash. Before I’d even actually reached the interstate, I had Emma on the phone, and I was– once again– crying.

“I can’t keep it together,” I told her, blessedly speeding past a clusterfuck of cars to my exit. “I’m so close to the airport I can taste it but shit everyone and their mother and their brother and their second cousins thrice removed are out on the road and all the fucking construction and–” I cut off with a frustrated scream, sliding into the lane beside me with a careless flick of my turn signal.

“Take a deep breath, honey,” Emma said, soothing, calm, “and use your turn signal. You hate it when other people don’t.”

“I know.” I inhaled, blowing air back out sharply. “If I miss my flight because of that slimy, cheating, useless excuse for a worm, I’m going to drive directly to his house and murder him.”

“I’d help but. You know. Pennsylvania.”

I laughed, perhaps a bit desperately. “Can we just roast him on a spit in the front yard?”

“Hell yes,” Emma said. “I’ll get the hot sauce.”

I slid into a parking spot and disconnected my phone from bluetooth and its charger. As I walked to the bus stop, I plugged in headphones and put them in, then tucked my phone into my purse. “I’m finally fucking here. I’m so pissed. I would have been dropped off right at the fucking door but no. I have to wait for the bus to come to the dark, spooky lot.” And it was dark and spooky. The place was near deserted, cool for how far south we were. I had a fleece jacket with me to keep away the winter chill once I landed in Philly, but right now it was more for camouflage.

Emma kept chatting with me as I waited. I boarded the bus and told the driver which airline I was on, then sat– alone– up front, with Emma’s voice in my ear for company. I all but ran into the building with a hurried “Thanks” to the driver as we pulled up to the airport.

“Alright love, I have to go through security. I’ll text you when I’m at the terminal.”

“Be safe, love.”

Security was, blissfully, a breeze. I jogged casually to my terminal, dropped my stuff onto a seat, and plugged my phone into the wall to charge for the flight. Apparently, I’d come without a moment to spare. The plane had already cleared out by the time I got to the terminal, and the first group was preparing to board. Rather than texting a dozen people that I was safe at the airport, I posted a selfie to facebook, and texted my foster brother, who was going to pick me up and Emma.

Look who liked your selfie so far.

Frowning, I opened facebook. To my surprise, only two people had liked my selfie. Jay, which was unsurprising and relatively annoying, and Dakota. That was a little surprising, but I supposed it showed he cared. Or something to that effect.

Maybe I could ask him in person when I got back.

Betrayal 9

I got the call just as I walked into my apartment after work.

My mother never called me. That was the thing about her– for all her whining about me being her sole reason to live, she never talked to me. Even when I reached out, back at the beginning of college when I moved (more or less) down south, the conversations were always short and rushed. When she did call, it was on my birthday or Christmas, and usually the phone was passed to my other family members.

So seeing her number on my cell phone set off the warning bells before I even registered I was answering it. “Hi, Mama.”

“You need to come home.”

This was it. Someone had died. I dropped my purse on the floor and flopped down onto the couch, laying on my back and staring at the ceiling. “What happened? Who’d we lose?”

“Grandpa fell this morning,” Mom said, her voice grave. “He’s in the hospital. You need to come see him soon and say your goodbyes.”

Not dead yet, then. Still, not good news– eighty-five, suffering from alzheimer’s, not exactly in the best shape to be falling from any height, even just from an upright position. I rubbed my eyes with my free hand, thinking about my work schedule. “I have a long weekend this week,” I told her. “Scheduling got wonky with the new holiday show, so I have Thursday through Sunday off. I’ll come Wednesday night.”

We spent nearly a half an hour discussing prices of airline tickets and flight times. By the time I hung up, I had my round trip tickets secured and a relative plan for the weekend. All I needed now was a ride to the airport.

And there was only one person I knew who had a car and availability on Wednesdays.

Mulling around my room packing my backpack for the trip, I listened to the ringing in my ear with a weird amount of dread pooling in my belly.

“Hey, Piper.”

Jay’s voice in my ear was strangely detached. I hadn’t gone out of my way to talk to him for quite some time, though I still considered him a friend. We’d hung out briefly in town a couple weeks back, mostly so I could see his daughter and hang out with her. I slid a smile onto my face, so as not to sound too desperate. “Hey, Jay, can I ask a really huge favor?”

“Sure, what’s going on?” He sounded genuinely worried.

“I need to make an emergency trip home this weekend,” I told him, and then filled him in. When I was done, the smile I’d forced on had become a grimace, my voice shaking slightly. “I just need a ride to the airport and back, is that okay?”

“I’d be glad to help!” So glad I could hear his excitement through the phone. I felt badly, like I was somehow leading him on or using him. “When do you need me?”

“My flight is Wednesday night,” I said, sliding my laptop into my backpack. “I won’t have time to go get my car and then drive all the way to the airport, so could you pick me up at Chance? My car will be fine in the bus lot until I get back, I’m not worried about that.”

“Yeah, perfect, you get out at six right?”

“Yep. Thank you so much.”

“And coming home?”

“I get back Sunday night at nine-ish.”

“Sounds great,” he said. “We can get a late dinner if you like?”

Dangerous territory there, I mused, winding my spare phone charger cord through my fingers. “We’ll see, I have work Monday morning so I don’t want to stay out too late, and I’ll still have to pick up my car.”

“You could stay over.”

With your homicidal ex? I thought bitterly. No thanks. “I’d really rather get my car and come home, so you won’t have to worry about bringing me to work so early in the morning. Thanks though.”

“Okay,” Jay said, and I winced at the disappointment in his voice. “I’ll see you when I get you from work.”

“Thank you, Jay,” I said. “Really, it means a lot to me.”

Hanging up, I sat on the edge of my bed and put my head in my hands. Treating Jay as a friend was just… so weird. He flaked whenever we made plans, but when I had pre-existing plans or just didn’t want to hang out with him, suddenly I “didn’t want to be friends anymore” and he should “just stop talking to me since I hated him so much.”

God.

My phone buzzed, and Dakota’s name came up on the screen. I smiled despite myself, weirdly pleased that he had texted me.

Doofus.

Nerd. I’m going up north this weekend.

Now why had I told him that? He was dealing with his own family drama, he didn’t need mine on top of it.

Vacation? Visiting family?

Something like that lol

Nice. Have fun

I hope so. How’s your great granddad?

Not so good but still alive.

I hope he gets better soon.

….Yeah. It’s not really something you get better from.

I flinched.

I’m sorry. That’s awful.

That was enough sharing for one night, I decided, now that I’d put my foot in my mouth– so to speak.

Meh.

Idly, I wondered if he was really as detached as he came across.

I’m going to see my grandfather in the hospital.

Setting my phone aside, I rubbed my hands over my face, muttering, “God dammit, Piper, what the hell? What happened to not burdening him with your own bullshit?”

I’m sorry.

Me too, I thought bitterly.

I don’t know exactly what it’s like for you, but I guess I can commiserate. He’s been going downhill for awhile.

Good that you’ll get to see him then.

Yeah.

Now, that was really enough, I told myself, and plugged my phone in for the night. Dakota didn’t need my sob story on top of his own, and honestly, I hadn’t been planning on telling him in the first place. At all. Ever.

God, I was such a weak bitch.