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       After Taste, p.1

           InkSpell Publishing
 
After Taste
he characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or

  dead, places, or events is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  If you purchase this book without a cover you should be aware that this book may have been stolen property and reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher. In such case the author has not received any payment for this “stripped book.”

  Aftertaste

  Copyright © 2012 Stephanie Lawton

  All rights reserved.

  ISBN-13: 978-1-61979-786-4

  This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. The copying, scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic or print editions, and do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  The first time was the worst. I woke up clutching sweat-soaked sheets and flipped on the light to make sure. It was so real, so pleasant, and then so very wrong and horrible. It was the night after I found her purple and pliant in her studio. When I’d offered her help, she’d curled into me like a kitten, then pinned me in place with a look and a desperate gesture. I should’ve walked away after that. I tried. But I’m tired of walking away. Besides, she needed me. I’d done nothing wrong. I still haven’t done anything wrong.

  Today, I’m grateful for the birds’ racket outside my window, thankful that they interrupted the dream again, the one where I’m a monster and I don’t seem to care.

  I stretch my arms over my head, trying to shake off the earthy aftertaste of the nightmare, when the smell reminds me I still haven’t changed my sheets. God, what a slob I’ve become. It’s been, what—four weeks? Five? Extra insurance, I guess, that I won’t be bringing anyone up here.

  Especially not her.

  I pound on the wavy glass, and the birds scatter to the nearby rooftops. One fat loner remains on the brick windowsill. It cocks its head at me, issuing a challenge with its beady black eyes.

  “Can I help you?” It dips its head in response. “Yeah, okay. Thanks for the wake-up. I owe you one.”

  And now I’m talking to birds.

  I pull on last night’s pants, shuffle across the bare floorboards and down the hall to the bathroom. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as the first piss of the day. If nothing else goes my way all day—and it probably won’t—at least I can count on getting this right, this small satisfaction. Except that I had that dream again, and now I have to stare at the cause of most of my trouble.

  But it’s just a piss. And it was just a dream.

  A cold shower should stop this forbidden onslaught. The ancient plumbing rattles to life, and water dribbles into the porcelain tub. I notice—not for the first time—that it’s big enough to easily accommodate two people. It would be perfect if she wanted—

  I close my eyes and bang my forehead against the wall, but the images just come faster: long legs, long hair, long, graceful fingers traveling the length of my back, innocent lips gasping for air. My fingertips burn with remembered skin that isn’t really remembered, just imagined. I hope it stays that way.

  I force the feelings down the rusty drain and grab a towel. Like my sheets, I have no idea when it was last washed. My duplicity stares me in the face. All these private things remain dingy and hidden while the outward trappings are spotless. For who? For her? Appearances are deceiving. The deception isn’t intentional or malicious, just necessary.

  Steam collects on the peeling paint of the high ceiling. I add further insult by dripping water across the floor. I’ve been meaning to sand and refinish it. There never seems to be time. There’s plenty of time for too much thinking, too much reflection, too much visiting old haunts and new impossible intrigues, but never enough time to invest in actually moving forward. It doesn’t add up.

  A close inspection in the accordion shaving mirror reveals three gray hairs on my chin. One more than yesterday. Would they scare her? (They scare me.) Or would they fascinate her? She’d probably rub her thumb over them, testing, like she tests everything else. If this were my dream—and I’m still in my head, after all—she’d brush her thumb over my lower lip, like I’ve wanted.

  No, that’s not true. I haven’t wanted any of this. None of it was in the plan. Not the move, the next move, the dream nor the temptation. Not the guilt, the confusion nor the fatalistic expectation. For her, the nearly eleven years between us don’t seem to be a difficulty. She has no idea of the consequences. Perhaps concrete evidence of time and experience would stop this prison camp train ride we’re on.

  A few well-placed strokes of the razor and the evidence is gone, at least until tomorrow. My face is smooth and clean, unlike my conscience. I run my fingers through my damp hair and think of her accusation: “Do you know you always run your fingers through your hair when you’re about to give in to something?”

  Except it’s not true. I do it when the dream creeps unbidden into the daylight and I can’t push it away or stuff it down. It doesn’t fit in my head or my pocket, or even my closet or car trunk. These days, it seeps through the cracks in the floorboards, bubbles up between the piano keys. Sometimes, when she’s very close, it escapes from my lungs and bathes her face. It merges with the sunlight, and it takes all my strength to distinguish dream from reality. Knowing the difference is the most important thing.

  Out in the hall, I listen to the house. It has its own repertoire of creaks and groans, its own filter for the cars and foot traffic outside. According to my trained ear, there’s nothing out of place. I shuffle back to my bedroom and survey the damage. Pillows on the floor. Dirty clothes helter-skelter on the chair. Naked light bulb in the lamp. Empty bed. Always an empty bed. Inside the closet is a different me: formal, casual, business casual and work, all on hangers spaced an inch apart, each smelling like the fabric softener I measure out like an antidote. It’s always been a habit, but it became a religion the day she buried her face in my shoulder and found solace there.

  It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t set out to create this co-dependent catch-twenty-two, but now that the gears are running, there’s no concrete reason to stop inertia. It’s just fabric softener. I carefully select casual: khaki shorts, a polo shirt and leather belt. The coordinating loafers are in a boot tray by the front door.

  At some point, I have to go downstairs. It wouldn’t be so bad on a regular day. She doesn’t always cling to me like the dust on the baseboards. Really, I have more pressing issues to deal with, it’s just the mornings after the dream that leave me listing. I don’t need Freud to explain it to me, and I certainly can’t talk to anyone about it.

  Which is why the dream is so bothersome. Is it a prediction? I already know it will end badly. I can’t see that I’d ever willingly go down that path. Then why am I so reluctant to go downstairs? I hear my long-dead daddy: “Man-up, son.”

  I place a foot on the first riser and wait as the crack echoes through the house. I’m barefoot. So was she when I last saw her. Barefoot, shaking and oddly endearing. I still don’t fully understand her reasons, but I made sure she was safe. And later, warm. The sweat on my forehead makes a mockery of my chivalry. If I’m being honest, I just wanted to make sure she was covered. Too bad that thin layer didn’t shield me from the dream.

  At the bottom of the steps, I turn right, then right again into what passes as my kitchen. A cockroach skitters from behind a white drywall bucket and disappears into the heating grate. I find a clean mug in the cupboard and pour the first steaming cup of the day. I hear a noise in the next room and realize I can’t put this off much longer. It’s not
a big deal, really. I’ve already made the proper phone call and left the appropriate message. The car is in plain sight. No one’s out looking, and I have nothing to be ashamed of. I didn’t ask for this, didn’t expect it, and didn’t act on it. I just wish my subconscious would play along.

  I take a deep breath, turn the corner, and there she is: Julianne.

  Long legs, long hair, long, graceful fingers twined in the sheet I draped over her after she crashed on my sad futon. I’m still not clear on why she showed up at my place in the middle of the night, barely dressed and rambling an apology, but I couldn’t turn her away. I don’t have much to offer, but whatever she was looking for, she must have found it because next thing I know, she’s curled up and purring in her sleep. I did take the liberty of tucking a strand of that flaming hair behind her ear. Maybe that’s where the red (so much red) in the dream comes from. Maybe that’s only what I tell myself.

  I’m relieved to see she’s the same as when I left her—tousled curls, milky white skin that refuses to bow to the Alabama sun, and from all outward appearances, completely intact. Unharmed. Innocent. No red-purple pool on the sheet except for her hair. My breath catches as she presses it to her nose and inhales what I hope—what I suspect—for her is the scent of safety. Ironic that she finds safety within these walls, in this neighborhood… in this city. Everywhere I turn I see nothing but danger. But then, it follows me. Or rather, I carry it with me and project it outward as a scrim on life’s stage. Pessimistic? You would be too the day after having the dream I’m forced to repeat.

  She opens one eye and smiles. My heart skips a beat at the same time my gut roils. I don’t know what else to do, so I hand her the mug of coffee. Our fingers touch, and it’s exactly the same as the imagined skin from my dream. From now on, it will no longer be imagined, but remembered. I fumble for something to say.

  “Everything looks better—”

  “—by the light of day.” She finishes my sentence, the one I borrowed from my uncle, her surrogate grandfather.

  I hope we’re both right.

  I tell her I called her folks to let them know she’s fine. I don’t tell her how badly my hands shook as I dialed. Does she even know how ironic—how dangerous—this is?

  “Thanks. But I doubt anyone noticed. Trust me, they’ve got other things on their minds. Their pain-in-the-butt daughter is pretty far down the list.”

  Her self-deprecating comments always catch me off guard. It’s bad manners to not contradict her. And yet, she’s right. I’ve seen the way her family operates. Her second-class status and constant doubts are part of what draw me to her. We’re alike that way.

  I take a chance and motion for her to move over. She pulls back the sheet and I wish I hadn’t. Quickly, so I won’t pick up the scent, I turn my head. But it’s too late. The delicate notes of her soap and skin assail me, inflame my already rapid pulse. I stare at the floor. The white expanse of her long legs teases my peripheral vision. I’ve got to get control.

  “Okay, listen. I’m going to tell you something. About a theory I have.”

  To make her feel better, not so alone, I feed her a line about artistic people embracing their mental instability. I have no idea what I’m talking about.

  “So you understand?” She looks so hopeful. I’m truly a monster.

  “Yep.” I knock my knee against hers and the contact just about kills me.

  “Of course you do. You would. Thanks, Isaac. For letting me crash here. And everything else.” She’s stumbled into the lion’s den and she’s thanking me.

  I tell her where the bathroom is, and while she’s gone, I pace the room. A thousand scenarios flash through my head, each one more lurid than the last. They end with the dream, and that’s just it: they must end before it’s too late.

  More From The Author

  Forbidden fruit can be the sweetest—or the most dangerous.

  Releases on June 7th.

  Pre-order your copy at:

  Inkspell Publishing WebStore, Barnes & Noble

 
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