James squirmed in the beautician’s chair as the makeup artist rubbed another layer of concealer over the letter’s FTW on his left forearm. She worked downward, toward his wrist where his favorite tat, a depiction of Van Gogh’s skull smoking a joint, camouflaged a fair amount of scar tissue.
His wrist was the last place he wanted to be groped.
He twisted to make urgent eye contact with Caleb who sat one chair over, ready for the photo shoot. Caleb missed the SOS. Instead of having James’ back, he stared down at the open pages of a discarded Cosmopolitan magazine.
James cleared his throat—but got nothing. His stomach tightened. Something had been off with Cal since school let out for summer, and two weeks of prying hadn’t loosened his tongue.
“Stay still, por favor.” The woman frowned as her fingers skimmed Van Gogh. “Almost done.”
A familiar shiver trickled down James’ spine. A warning. He needed out of the chair. Now. Before she asked what happened to his wrist—or didn’t ask—and assumed the worst. Slouching forward, hand on his groin, he flashed his most persuasive smile. “Skip that one…Cierra. I’ve got to piss.”
She glanced at his pants but shook her head. “You’re not moving ‘til I finish your arm.”
Trapped. The air around him tightened. His body teetered weightless as his mind fought for distance. Detaching would be a relief.
But since Dr. Madison decided dissociating was not an appropriate way to handle stress, he doodled circles on the smooth surface of the pop-up table with the index finger of his free hand. Grounding techniques straight from the shrink. The exercise worked until Cierra thumbed the patch of skin still sensitive from nerve damage.
Screw grounding himself. Dr. Madison didn’t know shit. If he didn’t block Cierra out, he’d knock her on her ass. Once he switched off, she could do what she wanted with his body. A tiny whimper squeezed through his clamped jaw as the solid edges of the table receded into background.
“James. Stay with us.” Caleb let the magazine slide from his knees. He thumped over it as he rolled closer. “Stop messing with him. I heard your instructions. Cover everything R rated, leave the rest.”
“What does Nár laga Dia do lámh, mean?” Cierra’s Spanish tongue slaughtered the Irish verse wound around a Celtic cross.
“Leave it.” Caleb’s voice was flat.
“May God not weaken your hand,” James answered, the conversation a means to keep him in his body, on planet earth. Where—according to everyone—he needed to be.
Cierra selected a foundation brush from a clear plastic bag. “All these tattoos must limit your work opportunities.”
“Bloody hell, Cal.” James closed his eyes as the brush assaulted his skin. “I’ll never be gainfully employed. Whatever will I do?”
Caleb chuckled. Cierra didn’t. She tapped the serpent on the inside of his right forearm. “I do like the snake, though.”
Twisted into a knot and dangling a clover from its mouth, the serpent was James’ biggest tattoo. It hid a long, straight scar—newer than the rest—but like most of his others he was clueless how he got it.
Not that he cared.
He turned toward Cierra’s voice. “All the girls like my snake, CiCi.” He waited for Cal’s rebuke, reining him in, telling him he’d gone too far, but got nothing.
“Keep your eyes and mouth closed, chaval.” Cierra shielded his nose and blasted his arm with setting spray.
He knocked her hand away. “I’m eighteen. Legal. In case you were… curious.” He wasn’t eighteen yet, but she didn't know that.
“All done.” Her voice came from his right. “They are still setting up in the next room. Put a shirt on and wait until they send for you.”
James kept his eyes closed but smiled. He’d managed his stress without dissociating. Sure, Cal helped, but he could have handled it on his own.
He sucked in a breath and exhaled, rolling the remaining tension from his shoulders. “What do you think, Callie? You’re staring holes through me. Do I look as preppy as you?”
Caleb’s seat squeaked. “How would you know what I’m looking at? Your eyes are shut.”
James opened his eyes. Sure enough, Cierra cleaned supplies at the adjacent table, and as he guessed, Caleb stared at him from his chair.
“How would you know my eyes were shut if you weren’t looking?” It was unarguable logic and he waited for a smart-ass reply, but Caleb only scratched the back of his neck and turned toward the long wall of windows. They were high enough up to see Lake Michigan, sandwiched between Chicago’s metal skyline. Scenic, sure, but it didn’t warrant more than a two-second glance.
James unstuck himself from the sweaty confines of the chair’s black vinyl and scooped up the Cosmo magazine. Are you an enabler? the cover enquired. He dropped it on Cierra’s table then strolled across the dusty wooden floor, toward a metal rack containing the required outfits. The first shirt tagged for him, Fitzpatrick, was black with silver pinstripes. He slipped it on, leaving it unbuttoned, then freed his hair, sticky with product, from the collar.
“Keep the sleeves loose for now.” Cierra’s gaze lingered on his Irish Republican Army tattoo, half-visible above the low waistband of his trousers. Her complexion darkened. “So, how long have you two been a couple?”
“I like women.” James sat down. “Older ones.” He pushed his hips forward, letting the flat front pants illustrate his package.
“We’re brothers,” Caleb offered, still facing the windows.
They weren’t brothers and looked nothing alike. But James smiled at the term of endearment Cal picked up from the years they lived together, courtesy of the Department of Children and Family Services. “Twins,” he added, “identical.” He searched Cierra’s face for a reaction.
She dropped the bag of brushes into her tote. “I know all about you, James. Including how old you are.”
“Great. She’s been warned about you.” Caleb faced him. “I’m surprised you haven’t gotten fired yet.”
James dug his smokes out of his backpack. Cierra didn’t know shit about him, and Cal, who knew everything about him, needed to chill. Cigarette between his lips, he spun the chair on its axis. After a couple lazy rotations, he stopped at Caleb, whose brows were pulled into a stern, blond line.
What is going on with you, he wanted to scream, instead he said, “seen Alexa? Cause, I have.”
The muscle in Caleb’s jaw twitched. “Tell me you’re not…” He glanced toward the table where Cierra zippered her bright pink tote.
“I’m not… not.” James thumbed the Zippo’s wheel, but Cierra’s raised brows stopped him from lighting the cigarette.
She lowered her tote to the floor and extended the handle. “Are you dating Alexa Patrov?”
“Dún do bheal.” Caleb pointed at James.
James chuckled. Cal telling him to shut his mouth in Irish sounded as funny as Cierra’s use of the word dating. But at this point, he welcomed any reaction.
“He’s kidding.” Caleb widened his eyes. “Tell her you’re not breaking the ‘no inter-agency dating’ rule.”
“Si. Mamar gallo. Of course, I’m not,” James said what Caleb wanted. He always did.
“Is there anyone at the agency you haven’t slept with?” Caleb asked as soon as Cierra shut the door, “or in the city limits?”
James shrugged. “I haven’t poked the blonde ride that moved next door.” He meant it as a joke. He caught Caleb spying on her as she unloaded boxes and hadn’t let him forget it.
“She’s not a ride,” Caleb said with more conviction than a girl they hardly knew deserved. “She’s from Kansas, and I’ve been meaning to tell you, I want to get to know her; do the girlfriend thing this summer. Also… I prefer she didn’t know about this.” He motioned to the rack of clothes in the otherwise barren loft. “When girls find out about modeling, they treat you different. You’re in the same boat. Think about it.”
The sporadic jobs they went on hardly made them models, but James shook his head. Thinking about it was pointless and introspection was something he got plenty of during therapy.
He picked his cigarettes off the table and exchanged the smoke for a blunt. One quick hit was all he wanted. “You don’t think this girl will check you out? I guarantee she’s already scoped out your Instagram.”
Caleb eyed the blunt but let it slide. “I edited my bio and removed any incriminating pictures. Besides, she lived in the country. How much can she know about fashion?”
“You just called her daft cause she’s not from the city. Fine way to start a relationship.” Not that he cared how Cal maintained his girls, as long as they stayed out of the way.
He licked the length of the blunt, the weight in his stomach lighter. If Cal’s issue was getting to know some random girl before screwing her, he’d wasted two weeks of vacation worrying for nothing. Caleb would never put a girl over him. Besides, from the glimpse he got of her, half-hidden behind boxes, she wasn’t even hot.
He shifted the blunt to the corner of his mouth. “When do I get to meet the girl that has you wanting to hide who you are—before you learn who she is?”
“You’re on a need-to-know basis,” Caleb said, “you have a big mouth. You’d spoil it for me.”
“I might.” James lit the blunt and inhaled deep. Smoke filled his lungs and would work its magic on his head. He offered up a hit.
Caleb waved him off. “I’ll introduce you when she wants me so bad, she won’t know who she is.”
“You mean when she wants you so bad, there’s no way she’d want me.”
“Whatever.” Caleb frowned. “So, we’re good? You understand, right? I want some alone time with this girl. Think you can survive summer without me keeping you alive?”
James took another hit then licked his finger and extinguished the heater. In a couple days the girl would be forgotten, and he would have his friend back. He smiled wide, all teeth. “Not a problem. I don’t need you.”
Cassie lifted the heavy drapery from the corner of her second-floor bedroom window. Her new neighbor Caleb swam every morning, and his backstroke was the best reason to wake up—ever.
Her father was right. A change of scenery might be good for her.
Caleb disappeared behind the tall, wooden fence, concealing half the pool. He emerged mid butterfly stroke. His arms sliced the water; powerful movements that showed off great form. He had to be on the swim team. The sport she excelled in before she dropped out of senior year—and out of existence.
Three weeks in her new home and so far, the only friend she made was Allison, a girl she met in summer school. Not the successful starting over her father wished for.
Caleb seems nice, her dad said, the third time Caleb stopped by to invite her to swim. Not all boys are like Paul.
Then her dad’s new job started, and he left on a long-haul flight. The opportunity to fly an Airbus A380 was the official reason her father moved his family from Kansas—not just to get her out of the school district. Her mom, a flight attendant, would leave tomorrow.
She would be alone in the huge, old house.
Cassie let the curtain fall into place. So far, her journal entries read, Unpacking sucks… My new neighbor is cute… Yeap, summer school… and… Help. I need a life. Outside of the skinny dipper she witnessed yesterday, a wild blur of dark hair and tattooed skin that left her breathless, her journal contained boring entries to reflect her empty world.
She couldn’t tell if Caleb was trustworthy, but according to Instagram, he was a party boy with a huge following; the lifestyle she wished for in her new home. Best of all, he lived next door. Close by if she needed him.
Her dad didn’t know the whole story—what happened with Paul was her fault and she deserved the fallout—but he did have something right. She needed to move past it, meet new people and get a life. It was time to ditch the V card that decimated her Kansas existence. Caleb would be perfect.
A small cardboard box labeled Swim sat on the corner of her desk; the only box she hadn’t unpacked. She dumped its contents. Last summer’s pink bikini lay on top of her ragged collection of Blue Valley High’s black and gold swimsuits. She tossed the team suits into the garbage. Goodbye, Blue Valley. Goodbye, Kansas.
To avoid her mother, Cassie descended the back, narrow stairway into the kitchen, then slipped into the backyard. She followed the fence until it ended, then padded across the strip of grass to Caleb’s garage. She creaked their wooden gate open. It banged shut behind her; loud enough to inform Caleb and half the neighborhood, of her arrival.
The tight stone pathway, sandwiched between the fence and garage, turned into interlocking pavers ten-odd feet from the pool. There was no sign of Caleb, but the cool blue ripples of the water lured her forward. She maneuvered around a swing, between cushy lounge chairs and past potted ferns.
The view from her window didn’t do his landscape justice. Colorful Adirondack chairs surrounded a small firepit. Across the narrow yard, sweet-scented purple flowers hung from a vined pergola. The tiny yellow guest house visible from her window, looked cozy from the ground.
She reached the deep end of the pool, toes on the curved rim, and bent to test the water. Caleb broke through the surface at her feet.
Gasping, she jumped back.
“Holy fuck!” Caleb’s eyes were wide. “You scared the shit out of me. What are you doing here?”
“You said I should come swim… anytime… remember?” He sounded annoyed. Not at all like the friendly guy who invited her over.
Brows furrowed, he glanced toward the yellow house, then sunk under the water. When he emerged, he smiled. “Sorry. I had a late night and a rough morning. Can we start over?”
“Sure.” She lowered herself to the tiles. Her bikini strap slipped off her shoulder, but Caleb’s attention was once again on the tiny house. Goosebumps pricked her arms at the memory of yesterday’s streaker. She eyed the lavender door. “Are we alone?”
Caleb pulled himself out to sit beside her on the grey pavers; his red spandex suit, a second skin. “My friend likes to sleep in our pool house, but if we weren’t alone, we’d have company by now.”