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Yearning. Intelligence. Desire.

Excerpt: Harder

THE END

 

West

When I had to say goodbye at the airport, I thought, This is the last time.

The last time you get to kiss her. The last time you get to touch her.

This is the last time you’re ever going to see her face.

And then, after I turned and left, That was it. It’s over.

I guess I went to the gate. I must have boarded a plane. Someone sat next to me, but I don’t remember if it was a man or a woman, what they looked like. What I do remember is thinking everything would have to get easier from that point forward, because nothing could be harder than walking away from Caroline.

It almost makes me laugh now, if you can call it laughter when it comes with the salt-copper taste of blood at the top of your throat. If it’s still a smile when you have to swallow and swallow around it, unable to get rid of the bitter flavor of your mistakes.

I went home to Silt thinking I was heading into some kind of Wild West showdown. I’d call my dad out onto the public street at high noon and we’d draw our pistols. I’d fire straight and true and take him down, and then . . . well, that was the part I had to avoid thinking about. That was the part where the screen starts to go dark, the edges drawing in around a black-bordered circle that shrinks until it’s the size of a quarter, a nickel, a pinhole, nothing.

Nothing. That was where I would live after I drove my dad out of my life once and for all. Inside that blackness where the pinhole used to be, where the light had disappeared from, I’d pitch a tent, pull a blanket around me, and endure.

I was the sheriff, right? And he was the bad guy. But after I took him down, my reward would be an eternity of nothing I wanted. Maybe a gold star to pin on my shirt.

I was so sure I was the fucking sheriff, it almost makes me laugh, because what happened when I got home was that everything sucked in a completely different way from how I thought it would.

I did the impossible and walked away from Caroline.

After that, everything in my life that was hard got harder.

 

Caroline

When West’s ringtone starts playing in my darkened bedroom, it slips into my subconscious, and I have one of those last-second-before-you-wake-up dreams that’s pure sensation—his skin warm against me everywhere, his weight and smell, the muscles in his thighs against the backs of mine, his hand sliding down my stomach. All of that, slow and melting and West, until the song finally manages to pierce through the haze of my sleep and pinch me awake.

I fight my way from under the sheet, turned on and pissed off because I know how this goes. The rock in my stomach, the day ahead during which I’ll try and fail to shake that flood of sense-memory.

I’m going to have to live through it, and then I’m going to lose it, every good memory I have of West, again, when what I want is to drop back into that dream and live there instead.

It sucks. It sucks, and I’m so distracted by the suckage that I’m picking up the phone and swiping at the screen with my thumb before I completely register what’s going on.

West’s ringtone. West is calling me.

West is calling me at one a.m. when I haven’t heard from him in two and a half months.

If he’s drunk-dialing me, I’m going to fly to Oregon and kick him in the nuts.

That’s what I’m thinking when I put the phone to my ear—but it’s not how I feel. I wish it were. I wish I could say Hello? and hear West say Hey, and not feel . . . I don’t even know. Plugged in. Lit up. Juiced.

I stand in my dark bedroom, aware in every centimeter of my skin that he’s breathing on the other end of the phone, somewhere on the far side of the country.

I have too many memories that start this way. Too many conversations where I told myself I wouldn’t and then I did.

I have this enormous burden of longing and pain, so heavy I can hear it in my voice when I snap, “What do you want?”

“My dad’s dead.”

My head clears in an instant, my attention sharpening to a point.

“He got shot,” West says, “and it’s . . . it’s a fucking mess, Caro. I know this is—I shouldn’t ask you. I can’t ask you, but I just need to tell you because I can’t fucking—” A crackling whooshing noise interrupts him, the kind of interference that fills your whole head with white sound. I just stand there, waiting for his voice to come back.

I’m pushing the phone so hard against my ear, my breath coming shallow and fast, aware with the kind of clarity I’ve only found in moments of crisis that it doesn’t even matter. Whatever he says next. It doesn’t matter.

The thing I never understood before West was that there are some people who, when it comes to them, reason and logic are never going to be in charge.

He left me. He hurt me.

But I stand there in the dark, holding the phone, and I know that in a few hours I’ll be on a plane.

 

SILT

Caroline

I emerge from baggage claim in Eugene to the sight of West leaning against a dirty black truck. The first thing I think is, He cut his hair.

The second thing I think is, Maybe he did it for her.

If there is a her. I’ve never been able to accept that there is, despite what West said.

If she exists, she’s not here. I am.

West looks scary. Stubble covers his scalp, a dark shadow that throws the shapes of his face into relief: jawline, cheekbones, eye sockets, protruding brow, jutting chin, scowling mouth.

The muscles in his crossed arms belong to a brawler.

The West who left me in Des Moines more than four months ago was a guy, sometimes a boy, but this person who’s waiting for me is a big, hard, mean-looking man, and when he glances in my direction, I freeze. Mid-step. I’m wearing a white cardigan over a new green top that cost too much. Designer jeans. Impractical flats. Ridiculous clothes for August, because it’s always cold when you’re flying.

I wanted to look nice, but I got it wrong. I got everything wrong, and yet I think nothing I’ve done is as wrong as whatever is wrong with him.

He straightens and steps forward. I start moving again. I have to.

“Hey,” I say when we meet a few feet from his truck. I try on a smile. “You made it.”

He doesn’t smile in return. “So did you.”

“Sorry you had to pick me up.”

I’d texted right before I boarded the first flight to tell him I was coming. I didn’t want to give him a chance to say no, so I just gave him my flight number and announced when I’d get in.

When the plane landed in Minneapolis, I had three texts and a voice mail from him, all of them variations on the theme of Turn your ass around and go home.

I waited until I was boarding for Portland to text him again. I’ll get a rental car.

Walking off the jet bridge, I got his reply. I’ll pick you up.

Since that was the outcome I’d been angling for, I said, Okay.

It doesn’t feel okay, though. Not even close.

West wears cargo shorts and a red polo with a landscaping company’s logo. He’s tan—a deep, even, golden brown—and he smells strongly of something I don’t recognize, fresh and resinous as the inside of our cedar closet after my dad sanded it down. “Did you come from work?” I ask.

“Yeah. I had to take off early.”

“Sorry. You should’ve let me rent a car.”

West reaches out his hand. For an instant I think he’s going to pull me into his body, and something like a collision happens inside my torso—half of me slamming on the brakes, the other half flying forward to crash into my restraint.

His fingers knock mine off the handle of my suitcase, and the next thing I know he’s heading for the truck with it.

I stand frozen, gawping at him.

Get your act together, Caroline. You can’t freak out every time he moves in your direction.

He opens the passenger-side door to stow my bag in the back of the cab. The truck is huge, the front right side violently crumpled. I hope he wasn’t driving when that happened.

By the time he emerges, I’m comparing the musculature of his back to what his shoulders felt like under my hands the last time I saw him. The shape of his calves is the same. He’s West, and he’s not-West.

He steps aside to let me in. I have to climb up to the seat. The cab smells of stale tobacco, and it’s sweltering. I leave my sweater on. Even though I’m too hot, I feel weird about any form of disrobing.

I turn to grab the door handle and discover him still there, blocking me with his body.

That’s when I figure it out. It’s not his hair or his tan or his muscles that make him seem different: it’s his eyes. His expression is civil, but his eyes look like he wants to rip the world open and tear out its entrails.

“You need to eat?” he asks.

I don’t think the simmering cynical hatred I hear in his voice is directed at me. I’m pretty sure it’s directed at everything. But it sends a shiver of apprehension through me, because I’ve never heard West sound like that before.

“No, I’m good. I had dinner in Portland.”

“It’s almost three hours back to Silt.”

“I’m good,” I repeat.

He’s staring at me. I press my lips together to keep from apologizing. Sorry I came when you called me. Sorry I needed a ride from the airport. Sorry I’m here, sorry you don’t love me anymore, sorry your abusive asshole dad is dead.

My own father didn’t want me to come. At all. I had to quit my job a few weeks early and hand over almost everything I’d earned as a dental receptionist this summer to pay for the plane ticket—a move Dad called “boneheaded.”

He doesn’t trust West, and worse, he doesn’t trust me when it comes to West. Which means we argue whenever the subject comes up. We fought like cats and dogs at breakfast this morning when Dad realized he wasn’t going to be able to talk me out of this.

To make matters worse, we’re close to being ready to file the petition in my civil suit against Nate, my ex-boyfriend, for infringing my privacy and inflicting emotional distress. Dad wants me close at hand so we can read through the complaint together four thousand more times.

He’s a judge by profession, a single parent of three daughters, and a fretful micromanager by nature. Which makes him, in this situation, kind of unbearable.

I reminded him that poring endlessly over documents is what he paid our lawyer a zillion-dollar retainer for, but Dad says this is a learning experience for me. If I want to be a lawyer myself, I ought to pay attention.

I am paying attention.

I’m trying, at least. It got hard to pay attention right around the time West told me he was seeing someone else.

When he called me last night, all other thoughts flew out of my head.

The upcoming trial is important. Keeping my employment commitments is important. But West is more important. I’m not going to abandon him when he needs me.

“You don’t have to make a big fuss,” I say. “I’m just here to help.”

Without another word, he slams the door and gets behind the wheel, and we’re on our way.

I thought Eugene was a city, but after we leave the airport we’re instantly in the middle of nowhere, and that’s where we stay. It’s so green, it makes me thirsty.

West turns right, heading toward the mountains.

It’s nearly seven, so we won’t get to Silt until ten. I don’t know where I’m staying tonight.

I’m going to be sitting in this truck with West in the dark.

I take off my sweater. West fiddles with the air conditioner, reaches across me to redirect a vent, and suddenly it’s blasting in my face. My sweat-clammy skin goes cold, goose bumps and instantaneous hard nipples.

He turns the fan down.

“You’re doing landscaping?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“Do you like it?”

The look he gives me reminds me of my sister Janelle’s cat. Janelle used to squirt it between the eyes with a water gun to keep it from jumping on her countertops, and it would glare back at her with exactly that expression of incredulous disdain.

“Sorry,” I say.

Then I try to count up how many times I’ve apologized since I walked out of the airport.

Too many. I’m letting him get to me when I promised myself on the plane I wouldn’t let anything get to me. This is a convoluted situation. Someone’s dead, guns are involved, West was torn up enough to call me—my job is to be unflappable. I’m not going to get mad at him or act heartbroken. I’m not going to moon around or cry or throw myself on him in a fit of lust. I’ll just be here, on his side.

I’ll do that because I promised him I would when he left Iowa. I made him swear to call me, and I told him he could count on me to be his friend.

He called. Here I am.

After marinating in tobacco-scented silence for a while, I find myself scanning West all over again, looking for similarities instead of differences. His ears are still too small. The scar hasn’t vanished from his eyebrow, and the other one tilts up same as always. His mouth is the same.

Always, for me, it was his mouth.

The scent coming off him is like a hot day in the deep woods—like a fresh-cut Christmas tree—but it’s not quite either of those. On the seat between us, there’s a pair of work gloves he must have tossed there. I want to pick them up, put them on, wiggle my fingers around. Instead, I look at his thigh. His faded shorts, speckled with minuscule pieces of clinging bark. His kneecap.

I look at his arm from the curve of his shoulder to the banded edge of his sleeve where the polo shirt cuts across his biceps. He doesn’t have a tan line. He must work with his shirt off, and the thought is more than I know what to do with.

The last time I saw him, we were kissing at the airport, holding each other, saying goodbye. Even though I know everything’s different now, it doesn’t entirely feel different. It’s cruel that it’s possible for him to have told me what he did and for me to still be sitting here, soaking him up.

I’m not over him. I’ve tried to reason myself into it, but I’m learning reason doesn’t have anything to do with love, and West has always made me softer than I wanted to be, weaker than was good for me.

Before we crashed and burned, though, I liked the person I was with West. He made me vulnerable, but he helped me be stronger, too.

“You want to fill me in on what’s going on?” I ask.

A muscle ticks in his jaw. “I’ve been at work. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“What was happening when you went to work?”

“My dad was dead.”

“Where’s Frankie?”

Last I heard, his sister and his mom were living with his dad at the trailer park where West grew up. West had dropped out of college and moved home to Oregon so he could protect them, but there’s only so much you can do to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.

His mom wouldn’t leave his dad, and West wouldn’t go near the trailer with his dad living in it. That meant West wasn’t seeing Frankie as often as he would have liked. It bothered him not being able to get close enough to protect her the way he wanted to.

“She’s out at my grandma’s,” he says. “I have to pick her up.”

“Does she seem okay?”

“I can’t tell.”

“She wasn’t there, was she? When he got . . .”

“Mom says she was at a sleepover.”

His knuckles are white on the steering wheel. I watch the color drain from his skin all the way to the base of each finger as he squeezes tighter.

“You don’t believe her?”

“I’m not sure.”

Then we’re quiet. He’s got a cut on his right hand in the space between his thumb and his index finger. The skin is half scabbed over, pink and puffy around the edges with curls of dry skin. I can see two places where it’s cracked.

A burn. Or a bad scrape.

Back in Putnam, I’d have known where he got a cut like that. I’d have nagged him to put a Band-Aid on it or at least spread some lotion around so it would heal better. I probably would have made a disgusted face and told him to cover it up.

I wouldn’t have wanted to touch it, the way I do now—to reach out and stroke that newborn pink skin with my fingertip.

I’m dying to know how he would react. If he’d jump or draw away. If he’d pull over and turn off the truck and talk to me. Touch me back.

“What do you smell like?” I ask.

He lifts his shirt to his nose to sniff it. I glimpse his belt buckle, and the sight slices clean through the twine I’d used to tie up a tightly packed bundle of conditioned sexual response. My cheeks warm. Pretty much everything below my waist ignites.

I have to turn away.

When I glance back his eyes are on me, which only makes it worse, because for a few heavy seconds counted off by my thumping heart, West doesn’t look angry.

He looks like he used to when I was prone in his bed and he was crawling up my body after stripping off my panties—like he wants to own me, eat me, pin down my wrists, fill me up, ruin me for any other man.

I let out a deep, shuddering breath.

West concentrates his intensity on the road, frowning at it as though it might at any moment sprout a field of dangerous obstacles he has to navigate the truck around.

The charged silence lengthens. He exhales, slow. “Juniper.”

It takes me an eternity to remember I’d asked him what he smells like.

“Is that a tree or a bush?”

“Both,” he says. “Kind of.”

He taps the steering wheel with flattened fingers. His left knee jumps, jiggling up and down, and then he adds, “It’s a tree, but most of them are short like a bush. Oregon’s got too many of them. They’re a pest now, crowding other stuff out. The landscaper I work for uses the lumber for decking and edging, but I’ve seen it in cabinets and stuff, too. They make—”

He stops short. When he glances at me, I catch a strained sort of helplessness in his expression, as though he’s dismayed by how difficult it is to keep himself from talking about juniper trees.

West swallows. “I was chipping up scrap wood for mulch. That’s why I stink.”

I wait. His knee is still jittering.

Come on, I think. Talk to me.

“They make gin from juniper berries,” he says finally. “Not the Western juniper we have here. The common juniper over in Europe.”

“Is that sloe gin?”

“No. Sloe gin is made with blackthorn berries and sugar. You start with gin and pour it over the other stuff and let it sit forever.”

For the first time since I landed, I feel like smiling. Whatever’s wrong with him, however twisted and broken he is, this guy beside me is West. My West. When it comes to trivia like gin berries and juniper bushes, he can’t help himself. West is a crow about useless information, zooming down to pluck shiny gum wrappers off the ground and carry them back to his nest.

The girl who took my place—does she listen when he does this? Does it make her like him more?

If there even is a girl.

That same intrusive thought I’ve had a hundred times. A thousand.

Whoever she is, she’s not the one he called last night.

“I like the smell,” I tell him.

“When I’m here, I don’t smell it. But when I fly from Putnam to Portland, it’s the first thing I notice getting off the plane.” This time when he glances at me, his eyes don’t give anything away. “It was, I mean. When I used to do that.”

“I bet when I get back to Iowa, I’ll smell manure.”

“Only if you time it right.”

The silence is more comfortable this time, for me at least. West remains edgy, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel.

“Is this your truck?” I ask.

“It’s Bo’s. He lets me use it.”

Bo is West’s mom’s ex. She and Frankie lived with Bo until she left him for West’s dad.

Bo was at the trailer when West’s dad got shot.

Sticky subject.

“Is he still in jail?”

“No. They questioned him and let him go.”

“Was he . . .” I take a deep breath. “Did he really kill your dad?”

“He won’t say. He was there, shots were fired. There were two guns. I don’t know which one discharged, or if it was both or what. For all I know, it could’ve been suicide.” The anger is back, flattening out his voice so he sounds almost bored.

“Not likely, though, if they took Bo in for questioning.”

“What the fuck do you know about what’s likely?”

“Nothing. Sorry.”

That’s where the line is, then. Junipers are an acceptable topic of conversation. His dead father is pushing it. Speculation about what’s going to happen next? Out of bounds.

West leans forward and flips on the radio. The music is loud, hammering hair-band rock.

I turn it off. “When’s the funeral?”

“Whenever they get the body back from the coroner.”

“Oh.”

“I’m not going.”

“Okay.”

More silence. Dark green forest closes in on both sides of the road. We’re climbing now, heading into the foothills.

“How long are you staying?” West asks.

“As long as you need me to.”

He stares at me so long, I start to get nervous we’re going to drive off the road. “What?”

“When’s school start?”

“The twenty-eighth.”

“Two weeks.”

“Two and a half.”

“You’re not gonna be here two and a half weeks.”

“Whatever you need.”

West looks out the driver’s-side window. “You shouldn’t have come.”

I’ve already thought the same thing, but it hurts to hear him say it. “It’s nice to see you, too, baby.”

“I didn’t invite you.”

“How sweet of you to notice, I have lost a little weight.”

His eyes narrow. “You look scrawny.”

Stung, I drop the act. “I’ll be sure to put on a few pounds for your visual enjoyment.”

“If you want to say Fuck you, West, go ahead and say it.”

“Fuck you, West.”

His jawline tightens. When he reaches for the volume knob, I knock his hand away. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with you,” he says.

“You’re supposed to let me help.”

“I don’t want you anywhere near this shit.”

“That’s sweet, but too bad.”

That earns me a criminal’s glare. “You don’t belong in Silt.”

“I guess I’m about to find that out for myself.”

“I guess you are.”

He reaches for the stereo again. This time, I let him turn it on.

I think about how we’re driving toward the Pacific Ocean, which I’ve never seen.

I think about West and what I want from him. Why I’m here.

I don’t have any answers. I’m not kidding myself, though. Inside a makeup pouch at the bottom of my suitcase, there’s a leather bracelet with his name on it.

I shouldn’t be here, but I am.

I’m not leaving until I know there’s no chance I’ll ever wear that bracelet again.

The road drops away from the pavement on West’s side of the truck.

The guardrail doesn’t look like it would be much help if he yanked the wheel to the left and sent us sailing out over the edge.

Not that he’d do that.

I don’t think.

We climb up and up through a corridor of trees, winding around broad curves to the sound of rushing water. The light starts to fade.

I can’t get over the green. It’s green in Iowa in August, too, but there the color hugs the ground in long rows and flat lawns. Here, it’s all trees. More trees than I’ve ever seen in one place, crowding the road and pulling my gaze up to the sky.

After a while, we descend, sweeping in slow, easy curves downhill as though we’re skiing on an extravagant scale. This heaved-up world is our field of moguls, the tires rocking us back and forth like freshly waxed skis on perfect powder.

I’ve been to the mountains, skiing in Telluride and Aspen with my family, but Oregon is different. The road’s so narrow, the forest so dense. It feels primeval, unfinished.

We swoop and curve. The silence stretches out and grows stale.

This drive is interminable.

West reaches past my knees to open the glove box. Careful not to touch me, he extracts a pack of cigarettes.

“You’re smoking now?”

“Hand me the lighter, would you?”

I can see it—cheap bright pink plastic—but it’s too deep for him to reach. I leave it where it is.

“Smoking is disgusting.”

We hit a straight section. He leans over me as far as he has to in order to retrieve the lighter, which is far enough to press his shoulder into my knee.

The lighter snicks and sparks when he sits up, the smell of the catching tobacco acrid, then sugary. The ripples from our brief moment of contact move through my body, lapping against my skin for a long time.

West blows smoke in a stream out the window to dissipate in the dark.

I feel like smoke, my edges dissolving with every mile that passes, every flick of his hand over the wand that makes the high beams come on, a flood of light, then another flick, dimming to yellow. The darkness concentrates his potency, makes him more solid and me less substantial, immaterial, unreal.

When he leans forward to turn down the radio—an obvious prelude to conversation—I have to pull myself back from somewhere far away.

“What’s going on with Nate?” he asks.

“Nothing.”

“He stopped posting the pictures?”

“As far as I can tell. They pop up sometimes, but that’s going to happen. I don’t think it’s him doing it anymore.”

Nate spent most of last school year posting and reposting our sex pictures online while I wasted dozens of hours contacting site owners to get them removed. It was the world’s least fun game of whack-a-mole.

He finally stopped after I took the problem to the dean’s office. When the college began to investigate, I hoped he would end up expelled for violating the campus technology policy, but it didn’t happen. He’d been too sneaky, and he’s a convincing liar. How else would he have convinced me he was a nice person for all the time we were going out?

The college let him off the hook with a suspension of his Internet privileges—a slap on the wrist—but the disciplinary investigation must have shaken him up, because he’s backed off the attack.

“You get a trial date yet?” West asks.

“No, we’re not done working on the complaint.”

“What about the Jane Doe thing?”

Filing as Jane Doe rather than Caroline Piasecki means my highly recognizable name won’t come out in connection with the case, and the public records of the suit won’t identify me.

Which means, in turn, there’s a chance that my entire economic and political future won’t be tainted by what Nate did and what I’m doing to get back at him.

“My dad knows someone who knows someone who says with the judge I’m going to be assigned, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“So when do they set your trial date?”

“After we file the complaint, which is any day now,” I say. “Dad says it will probably be at least twelve months until the trial.”

“It’ll be nice to see that fucker raked over the coals for what he did.”

“I guess so.”

“You guess so?”

“It’s going to cost a fortune.”

“How much?”

“Maybe a hundred thousand dollars, according to the attorney. Could be more.”

West whistles.

“And the lawyer says it could get ugly, like a rape case. They’ll attack my credibility. So I’m trying to get ready for all that.”

“Doesn’t sound easy to get ready for. Douchebag lawyers grilling you about your sex life.”

“Don’t forget my mental stability.”

“Your mental stability’s just fine.”

“I meant that they’ll grill me about my mental stability.”

There’s a smile flirting with the corners of his mouth. “Fucking great. Have ’em call me, I’ll tell ’em what a basket case you were at the bakery last year.”

“That’d be great, thanks.”

“My pleasure.”

I press my hands against my thighs so I won’t press them into the ache in my chest.

It’s too easy. Talking to him. Remembering.

If I close my eyes and pretend, it’s almost possible to forget all the bad stuff between us and drop into my memories of those nights at the bakery when I was falling in love with West.

Maybe he feels it, too, because he leans forward to turn up the music.

I look out at the dark green shapes of the trees, the blurred branches. The trial drops away as I let myself think about why I’m here. What I want. My purpose.

West.

But after a while, even West slips away, and then it’s just dark.