“Asking All Them Questions” — An Excerpt from Love Poetry

“I was with Alex.” She said it without thinking, surprising herself at how naturally the lie flowed from her lips. Technically, Alex was the reason she was out with Bruce, and she was with her earlier that day, so it wasn’t a total lie, but she still felt guilty for trying to deceive him. Maybe she was more like Layla than she wanted to admit. She spun around, took three steps to her right toward the kitchen, and flung the Styrofoam to-go box in the trash. Her rumbling stomach filled the silence between them, but she wouldn’t touch that lumpy mush that place had the audacity to call authentic risotto. She absently opened the refrigerator and considered the leftover Chinese food from two nights ago, but remembering that Whitmore was still there, promptly shut it, turned around and drummed her fingers on the edge of the island counter.  

“Dressed like that?” Whitmore pointed at the dress under her cardigan. He stared at her—she hated when he stared—his eyes shifting back and forth as the scenarios played out. He analyzed everything—her dress, the style of her hair, the light makeup on her face, the gait in her walk, the sway in her hips, anything to indicate she was anywhere other than where she had said. 

“We were going through her closet,” Jessica said. “This is hers.”  

“And you went to eat like that?”  

“Yes.” She kept her answer short. Any further explanation would cloud the lie. With less information for him to over-analyze, maybe he would believe her.  

His eyes were on the trashcan now, the smell of lobster rising from the lemon-scented bag. It wasn’t fresh; that’s why it looked like rubber. She would have to take it to the dumpster before her whole floor started to smell like a fish market. She wondered if Whitmore would take it out for her, on his way out the door, to his car, and back to his own apartment.  

But now Whitmore was next to her behind the counter. Whitmore was only a breath taller than Jessica, but despite having such short legs, he moved quickly. Before she could react, he clasped her face in his hands and pulled her in for a long, drawn out kiss, until her lips were almost raw. He pulled her hard, putting tension on her neck and she tried to break away. But he wouldn’t let go for anything, as if he were afraid he would lose her for good if he did. He pressured his nose into hers, making it harder to breath. She opened her mouth for air and received his tongue instead, pushing deep inside until their teeth knocked, and the saliva dripped from his glands onto her bottom lip. He backed her into the stove, peeled the cardigan off her shoulders, and feeling how naked she was underneath, he stepped back and further examined her. 

“Why did Alex give you that?” 

“Good question.” Without letting him speak, she took him by the wrist and dragged him down the hallway. He would keep asking questions until she gave him what he wanted. This was their routine now. Whitmore’s persistent prodding, his insecurities and suspicions mounting with each evasive answer she gave until finally she caved, frustrated with always having to explain herself, desperate to do anything to shut him up…

© Nortina Simmons

 

Z is for Zucchini #AtoZChallenge

As I said in yesterday’s post, “Love Poetry” has a very different ending. Still on a high note, because what is a romance novel without a happy ending?  But in keeping with the title, it will end with a love poem instead of a zucchini. You’ll see soon enough. 😉


It started with the breathing exercises.

“Sometimes, all you need is to exhale,” the yoga instructor whispered.

Spread your feet equally apart. Stand erect, stretching your spine. Relax your shoulders. Place your palms on your abdomen. Inhale. Take a deep breath through your nose. Expand your diaphragm. Hold it. Hold it. Release. Exhale through your mouth. Form a circle with your lips and push the air out. Contract your diaphragm. Press your palms into your abdomen.

“Do you feel it? Do you feel it leaving you? Breathe in again.”

Jessica breathed in deeply, inhaling the last 36 hours. The fear. The feeling of entrapment. Whitmore’s attempt to force her into marriage and motherhood. Dancing light on her feet to jazz music. Her sexual liberation with Bruce. The echoing sound of death ricocheting off her walls just as the bullet ricocheted within Whitmore’s skull. The rotten fresh spurted just across the threshold into her apartment. The ghostly image of Whitmore trying to drive her down into his hellish nightmare.

She drew everything into her. Let the particles deposit on her lungs. And just as swiftly, she breathed it all out. Pushed it from deep within her gut. She could feel herself gaining control as she relieved herself of all the extra weight and baggage. By the time they began to transition to the poses, she felt light as a feather. When she bent over for the downward facing dog, her head floated above the mat, no blood rush, no weight of guilt or shame, only the air filled her.

***

“I just wanna say your skin looks ten times brighter than it did this morning!” Alex said, skipping around Jessica to stand in front of her.

“I feel better,” Jessica said with a smile.

“No more thoughts about Whitmore?”

Jessica curled her lips in thought. “I mean, I know it wasn’t my fault, but—”

“No but. It wasn’t your fault. Whitmore was a disturbed person, and it wasn’t your job to fix him.”

“I just wish I knew why.”

“You can’t ask people like that why. They don’t even know why themselves,” Alex said. “There are people out there who’d rather hurt and live off the pain, and they’ll blame everyone else but themselves for that pain because they don’t want to admit that they’re enjoying it, that they’re the ones causing it.”

“Misery loves company,” Jessica sighed.

“Yep, but it can’t have yours!” Alex said. She took her phone out of her purse. “Now, are we good, because Mr. Girlfriend Whisper just texted me and said he’s cooking his signature zucchini and chicken stir-fry for dinner, and he wants you to come.”

“OK,” Jessica said, a bounce in her voice.

“OK? Does that mean it’s a date, or you’re gonna let ol’ Whitty’s ghost possess you and stab Bruce in the back with the knife he used to cut the raw chicken?”

Jessica threw her head back and laughed, her cackles vibrating her chest.

“There’s my girl,” Alex said. “C’mon.” She put her arm around Jessica’s shoulders. “You can take a shower at my place.”

—Nortina

Y is for Yoga

Originally published April 29, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge. This and tomorrow’s post was the originally ending for “Love Poetry.” Since then, it has drastically changed, and I can’t wait for you to read it… eventually. 😉


“So, Bruce is in the dog house, huh?” Alex yanked the blinds on the window open, allowing the sunshine to pour in and brighten the room. “Wake up. It’s almost noon.”

Jessica winced at the sudden light and pulled the comforter over her head. “Who are you, my mother?”

“If I have to be.” Alex snatched the covers back. She took Jessica by the wrist and jerked her out of bed. “I’ve been watching you kick and punch the air for the last hour. You wanna tell me what’s going on?”

Jessica swayed in place, temporarily losing her vision, and fell back onto the bed. She pressed her palms against her forehead and sighed. “I keep seeing him.”

“Who?”

“Whitmore. I think he’s haunting me.”

“That’s your reason for being cold to Bruce?” Alex asked, placing her hands on her hips.

“He’s the reason Whitmore killed himself.”

“Whitmore killed himself because he’s a fool!”

“How can you be so insensitive?”

Alex sat next to Jessica and rubbed the middle of her back. “Whitmore was being selfish,” she said softly. “He killed himself because he knew you would eventually leave him. He wanted to make sure that even when you move on, he’ll always be there in your mind as the boyfriend who committed suicide because of you. It was his way of ensuring his legacy with you anyway, and you’re letting him!”

“No I’m not!” Jessica protested.

“Yes you are. Your nightmares. This thing about him haunting you. Bruce said he thought he saw you choking yourself at your apartment. Are you gonna tell me that was Whitmore too?”

“It was—”

“Come on. You have to pull yourself together, Jess. Exorcise this demon.” Alex stood, pulling Jessica to her feet with her. She guided Jessica to the bathroom across the hall. “Freshen up,” she said, tapping Jessica on the behind.

“Why? Where are we going?”

“There’s a yoga studio down the street. The next class is in fifteen minutes. We’re getting rid of this tension once and for all.”

—Nortina

X is for Xenophobia

Originally published April 28, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge. For this post, I used the word, “xenophobia,”  in reference to Whitmore’s ghost coming back to haunt Jessica in her guilt. The poem pretty much describes the fear and insanity she’s descended into since Whitmore’s suicide. This poem won’t appear in the novella (maybe). Like V is for Visitor, it veers into a different [paranormal] direction that doesn’t really fit into how “Love Poetry” has developed. 

This is also a re-working of a poem, “Necro-Lovers” originally published in FishFood Magazine.


He was dead before I met him
A walking corpse
His discolored skin clung
To his bones like bed sheets hanging
On a clothesline

His vacant, gray eyes revealed no soul
Only memories of deceased relationships
A mother’s abandonment
A lover’s betrayal

He sought a woman whose essence he could feed on
Drain her of life
replace it with misery


He arises from the sinister world beneath
Hovers over my sleeping body
Ejaculates rivers of possession into me
You belong to me
He whispers
Nibbles on my ear
Gnaws on my breasts
Bites my bottom lip

Let’s drown together in this memory foam

I scream and he cups my mouth
I beat his concave chest and he spread my legs
He feels his foreskin peeling
I am inside of you

He stays there to morning
Until he feels the last, faint throb in my neck
Then he rises, taking my skin with him

—Nortina

W is for Wall

Originally published April 27, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge. 

Jessica woke up to the smell of pancakes and bacon. She opened her eyes, and was blinded by the sun bearing through the white blinds of the window to the right of the bed. She raised herself above the covers and looked around the room, trying to piece together where she was. The room was slightly messy. The door was standing ajar and behind it, the hamper was overflowing with clothes, mostly shirts—t-shirts, button downs, Polos. Jessica looked down and realized she was also wearing a t-shirt. It hung on her loosely—part of her should exposed. She sniffed the collar. It smelled of mint cologne.

On the mahogany dresser to her left, lined up against the mirror, were bottles of Axe body spray, all different scents—Apollo, Gold Temptation, Anarchy, Phoenix, Essence. Of the nine drawers on the dresser, five of them had been pulled open. They hung over the floor—a few so low, she thought they would fall. Each drawer was stuffed with clothes. Shirtsleeves and pants legs dangled over the handles. Jessica got out of bed, the hem of the t-shirt kissing her thighs just above the knees, and folded the clothes neatly into the drawers pushing them closed. When she came to the top left drawer, the underwear drawer, she perused through it, looking at batteries, dirty socks, and socks with holes at the toes and heels, several pairs of plaid boxers, and a few briefs.

Behind her, there was a knock on the door. She turned around to see Bruce holding a tray of food. She immediately slammed the drawer shut and fell back onto the bed, pulling the covers over her.

“Curious?” He sat on the edge of the bed and placed the tray on her lap.

Jessica shrugged her shoulders. She looked down at the plate of food—three blueberry pancakes, two strips of crispy bacon, and fluffy, bright yellow scrambled eggs. There was a drizzle of maple syrup over each food item.

“I didn’t know what you liked, but you can never go wrong with bacon and maple syrup, right?”

“It’s fine,” Jessica said flatly. She picked up the fork and knife and cut into the stack of pancakes.

“Did you sleep alright? You were twitching a lot.”

“How do you know that? You slept with me?” Jessica asked in between chews.

“Well, yea.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little inappropriate? I mean my boyfriend just died.” Jessica pushed the plate back to Bruce and scooted to the center of the king sized bed. He reached to touch her leg, but she pulled away, drawing her knees to her chin.

“After what happened at your apartment last night, I was worried,” Bruce said. “You looked as if you’d seen a ghost. I didn’t want to leave you alone.” Bruce tried to hand the plate back to Jessica. “Here, you need to eat something.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Bruce sighed. Standing, he said, “Look, Jessica. I know you feel guilty about what happened. Especially given what we were doing when it happened, but please don’t put up a wall between us. I only want to help.”

Jessica stared straight ahead, fixated on the sweat stains on the armpit area of a shirt hanging out of the hamper.

“OK, well, I have to get to the station. I’ll leave this in the oven in case you change your mind,” Bruce said, standing by the door. “Alex is on her way. I left a key for her outside. She’ll take you home if you want.”

Then he closed the door behind him.

—Nortina

V is for Visitor

I love a good ghost story, but this haunting excerpt doesn’t quite fit in the “Love Poetry” novella. While Jessica will still face something close to a haunting as she tries to come to terms with Whitmore’s suicide, she won’t almost be killed by a vengeful poltergeist. 🙂


They drove in silence. Jessica folded her hands in her lap and glued her eyes to the glove compartment in front of her. Occasionally, at a red light or stop sign, Bruce turned to her, opened his mouth to speak. Jessica’s body immediately tensed upon hearing his intake of breath. She pinched her eyes closed, braced herself for his pathetic apologies and condolences. She wouldn’t accept them. What they had done was unforgivable. A man was dead because of them. A man who loved her. A man who would’ve done anything for her. Either Bruce recognized his culpability, for he didn’t say a word the entire drive back to her apartment, or each time he attempted to speak, his tongue caught at the back of his throat, and he choked on his words.

The flashing cameras, the uniformed men wearing white latex gloves, the caution tape, and the red and blue flashing lights were all gone when they arrived.

“Well, we were at the police station for a while,” Bruce said. His voice was hoarse, as if he’d been screaming.

Jessica nodded.

“I guess they would finish up quickly. There’s not much to investigate when it’s a su—”

Jessica flinched. “Don’t say it.”

“I’m sorry. That was stupid of me.” He reached over to cup her cheek in his palm, but she jerked her head back. “Are you hungry?” he asked, squeezing the steering wheel until his knuckles were white. “We can find a place that’s still open. Get something to eat.”

“I don’t want fast food. I have food inside.”

“Look at me.” He leaned over the dashboard, lifted her chin, forcing her to look at him. “You don’t have to go in right away. You don’t have to go in at all. You can stay at my place tonight.”

“No, I have to do this.”

“Ok, I’ll walk you—”

“No. I’m fine by myself.” Before he could speak, Jessica scurried out of the car, slamming the door behind her. She hiked the stairs two at a time, however, once at the top, she couldn’t move any further.

Her vision blurred, but from eight feet away, she could still see the blood. The authorities hadn’t cleaned it up. They’d left it for her as a haunting punishment. She shuffled her feet forward, but as she slowly approached her apartment, a sudden spell of vertigo swept over her. She was halfway to her door when her view of it began to skew. Her once white door was painted the color of a blood orange. Thick blood pooled from the crack at the bottom. She felt a bar of weights drop onto her shoulders and pin her to the ground. Down on her hands and knees, she coughed and retched at the reeking smell of Whitmore’s decomposing body on the other side.

Jessica crawled to the door and pounded against the wood. “Whitmore!” she screamed. “Whitmore, please! I’m sorry!” She called his name repeatedly. The pool of blood gathered around her legs, and she started to sink. She frantically wiped and scratched at her arms, coated from elbows to finger tips in an even red. Suddenly, she could no longer feel the ground beneath her, and she went under. Her cheeks swelled as blood filled her mouth. Hot iron singed her taste buds.

Something grabbed her hair at the crown of her head and pulled her up just as she was beginning to lose consciousness.

“Help!” she said as blood drained from her mouth. She blinked her eyes open, drops of blood clinging onto the ends of her eyelashes. Through the red curtain, she looked up and saw a cocked smile and thin, uneven eyebrows. “Whit—” she began, but before she could finish, he pressed his palm flat on her head and dunked her under again. She flailed her arms and legs. She tried to scream, but the blood poured into her mouth, filled her lungs. She couldn’t breathe. She coughed and gurgled. All around her, she saw red. A black veil crept down over her eyes and from the sides until all she could see were tiny circles of red as if she were looking through binoculars. Then then those vanished, and her body fell limp.

“Jessica!”

Jessica opened her eyes. She was back on her hands and knees, the dry concrete cold underneath her fists. She tilted her head toward the door of her apartment. Only the single slash from where Whitmore’s head slid down covered the white-painted wood.

“Jessica!”

She turned around. Bruce was running toward her. He fell to his knees beside her and pulled her into a tight hug.

“I heard you screaming. Is everything alright?”

“He tried to kill me! He tried to take me with him!” she cried. Her shoulders trembled from her sobs.

“Come on. You’ll stay with me tonight.” He stood to his feet, picked her up, wrapping her arms around his neck, and carried her down the stairs back to his car.

Jessica buried her face into the crook of Bruce’s neck, afraid that if she looked up, she would still see Whitmore’s murderous ghost standing outside of her apartment, waiting for her to return.

—Nortina

U is for Under Pressure

Originally published April 24, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge.

The two detectives left Jessica alone to get Bruce’s statement. Still shivering from the chilly air in the room, she tucked her arms inside her shirt and crossed her legs underneath her in the chair. She tried to focus her mind only on warming herself up. She rocked back and forth. She rubbed her arms and legs. She pulled her shirt down over her knees. Anything to keep from thinking of Whitmore’s lifeless body lying on her floor, blood spurting from his head onto her carpet, seeping into the split wood at the center of her front door.

She had believed that his talk of suicide had only been an idol threat.

Cheat on me, and I’ll go back to that dark place with Layla. Refuse to love me, and I’ll go back to that dark place with Layla. Leave me, and I’ll go back to that dark place with Layla.

No one who thought death could be achieved by taking a few sleeping pills with vodka was truly ready to die. They hadn’t fully committed themselves to the task. They would rather leave the world peacefully, sleeping, not to violently testify to the world, This is what you’ve driven me to!

But had Jessica driven him to his demise? Could simply not loving him back be the key to his self-inflicted mutilation, or had Whitmore uncovered that Jessica was no different from the last woman who had broken his heart?

Just like Layla . . .

Was it possible that he had known about Bruce? That he had never left the premises after she’d kicked him out of her apartment? Instead, he lurked in the shadows of the parking lot. Watched as Bruce wiped away her tears, took her by the hand and led her down the stairs, opened the passenger side door for her and ducked her into his car. He followed them to the restaurant. Observed as they danced, kissed, and groped each other until the lust had grown so great, they rushed back to her apartment to consummate it. What pushed Whitmore over the edge? When Jessica had straddled Bruce’s lap in the driver’s seat, or did he reach his breaking point when Jessica wrapped her legs around Bruce’s waist and they fell into her apartment? Did he wait outside the door to confront them? Could he hear her loud, desperate moans through the walls?

The door to the interrogation room suddenly swung open, and Dan poked his head inside. “Miss, you’re free to go.”

Jessica uncurled her body from within her t-shirt and slid her feet into her flip-flops on the floor. She hesitantly walked by him, afraid that he might see the guilt on her face.

“I’m, er, sorry for your loss,” he said as he closed the door behind her.

Jessica nodded.

Bruce had been waiting by the door, leaning against the wall. “Hey,” he said. He touched her arm, behind her elbow. “Let me take you home.”

Jessica nodded again. She had lost her ability to speak.

—Nortina

T is for Type

The following poem, originally published April 23, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge, will open Act 2 of “Love Poetry.” You already know what happens in this part of the novella. Whitmore unfortunately takes his own life and now Jessica must deal with the guilt…


The Relationship Type

I’m not the relationship type.
My hands and feet are too cold,
the tips of my fingers and toes,
underneath the nail,
a purple-blue tint.
A lack of blood flow, a lack of oxygen.
My pulse beats to a different rhythm
opposite of the symphony he composes
for our love.
I’ll admit I can’t feel anything
when I touch him—
my senses numb to his warm affections.
“I love you” tastes like heated
mayonnaise on my tongue.
His kisses fail to thaw my icy lips,
frozen in a pout, unwilling to smile
to his presents and poems.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be the meek
lover you desired of me.
It was never my intention
that you grow so attached,
that my absent devotion
would rip you in two,
that my cold heart would be the reason
yours stopped beating.

—Nortina

S is for Suicide

Originally published April 22, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge

“Do you have any idea why your boyfriend would want to kill himself?”

It was the third time the detective had asked her that question and Jessica still didn’t hear him. They sat at the cold metal table at the center of the gray interrogation room. A second detective stood by the one-way window.

Jessica wrapped her arms around herself. When she had finally gotten over the shock of seeing Whitmore dead on her floor, a bullet hole in his head, she’d only had enough time to put on a pair of shorts and a tank top before emergency personnel arrived. The police tried to interview her at the scene, but she was too distracted by the men snapping photos and taking samples. Then Bruce behaved so inappropriately. He kept touching her shoulder, squeezing it, telling her everything was going to be OK. Every time he opened his mouth, a film of mucus crept up her throat, tickled the back of her tongue. Stop it! She wanted to shout. Stop acting like the concerned boyfriend. He’s dead. We did this! You. Me.

Jessica wasn’t wearing panties. She didn’t have on a bra. The draft in the room caused her skin to prickle up into goose bumps. Her nipples hardened underneath her shirt, and she felt as if they were pointing out toward the two officers like daggers. I’m not attracted to you, she tried to explain away. I wasn’t fucking when it happened. I didn’t kill him.

She wished they would quit stalling and arrest her for murder. She knew they suspected foul play the second they stepped over Whitmore’s body. She could see it playing out in their scheming minds. She was having a steamy affair with Bruce. Whitmore caught wind of it. She couldn’t keep it a secret any longer; they had to get rid of him. She was the brain, Bruce the brawn. He pulled the trigger. They staged his suicide. Then she assumed the role of the grieving girlfriend.

“Ms. Ryan.” The first detective snapped his finger in front of her face.

“She may still be in shock, Dan. That was a pretty horrific scene,” the detective by the window said.

The good cop, bad cop routine. She was under arrest.

“I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question?”

Dan sighed, shaking his blond hair over his eyes. “Why would Whitmore kill himself? Did he suffer from mental illness?”

Jessica put her fist to her mouth and coughed, but the cough was weak, originating from the front of her mouth instead of deep in her chest. Her tongue convulsed at the back of her throat, and she lightly coughed again, sounding like a child trying to fake sick to get out of going to school. Her lips curled into a smile, and to conceal the imminent laugh, she attempted a truly fake cough, and laughed instead at how pathetic she sounded. Both detectives stared at her quizzically.

“Is something funny?” Dan asked.

“No, no. It’s just—” She crossed her legs, wiped the corners of her lips as if her laugh were crumbs leftover from a dinner long forgotten. “I thought he would kill me,” she finally said.

“Has he ever threatened you?”

“No . . . It was Roger Peacock.”

“The guy in Houston?” the officer by the window asked.

Jessica shook her head. The more she spoke, the more ridiculous she sounded—the more suspicious. “I don’t know why I thought he would kill me. He’s always threatened suicide, though subtly. He would say things like if I ever left him, he would go back to that dark place he was in after his last girlfriend.”

“Layla?” Dan interrupted.

Jessica blinked.

“His final text to you said, ‘Just like Layla.’ I’m assuming Layla is the last girlfriend.”

Jessica nodded. “He admitted that he tried to kill himself then. But it didn’t work. I guess, I just assumed that if he ever had his heart broken again, he would give up hurting himself and hurt the woman who hurt him. He’s never said that to me directly, though.”

“Why do you think you hurt him?” Dan asked.

“I didn’t love him the way he wanted me to.”

“Meaning you cheated,” the man by the window said.

“Excuse me?”

“The man you were with. I assume you two are involved.” He approached the table, pressed his palms down on the metal. He peered down at Jessica over the rim of his glasses.

“I . . . we . . .” She shivered underneath her thin clothing. She could feel her pointy, perky breasts trying to pierce through the cotton fabric of her t-shirt. She wanted to cover herself, but she feared any further gestures to hide her suspicious mannerisms would make her look guiltier.

“Look,” Dan said, “we’re not gonna judge you for what you might have been doing with the radio DJ.”

“I thought his name sounded familiar! My brother-in-law listens to him all the time. Saved his marriage.”

“Jake,” Dan snapped. Jessica could only assume that he was the older and more experienced of the two. He turned back to Jessica. “I don’t care if you were screwing him, sucking him, or watching a movie. All I care about is the dead man on your doorstep and how he got there.”

“We just want to get to the bottom of this. That’s all,” Jake said, recovering the serious tone in his voice.

“The bottom line is he killed himself, and he did it in front of my door to make me suffer for it.” Jessica shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t blame him.”

—Nortina

R is for Ring

Originally published April 21, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge.

“What was that?” Bruce swatted at his ear.

“What was what?” Jessica pressed her lips against his forehead, shingling his brown hair with her fingers.

“I don’t know. It sounded like a fly, or something.”

“Am I making you nervous?” Jessica kissed him on the lips. Then down to his chin. Then underneath his chin, and lower on his neck, near his throat.

“Not at all.” He reclined onto the pillows propped up on the headboard as Jessica moved further down. She kissed his collarbone, then his bare chest. She traced her tongue around the sharpened outlines of his abs. His abdomen convulsed as he chuckled under her light touch. She migrated down to his navel, biting the skin on the outer edges. When she reached the thin trail of pubic hair just below his navel, he suddenly shot up.

“There it is again. That buzzing.”

Jessica searched the bedroom, and her eyes immediately fell on her phone lying on the edge of her nightstand. Bruce picked up the vibrating phone and looked at the picture displayed on the screen. “Is this him?”

Jessica nodded.

“He looks kind of weird. I mean, he has his hands in his pockets. He’s leaning to the left but his head is cocked to the right. He’s smiling, but it’s like he’s trying to show all of his teeth at the same time. Almost like he’s sneering at you.” Bruce leaned his head to the right and bared his teeth to demonstrate.

Jessica snatched the phone from him. “You look like a washed-up rapper.” She tossed it across the floor, and it landed where the door was cracked open.

Jessica climbed onto Bruce’s lap and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I don’t want to think about him. He’s history.” She sighed loudly, her breath ruffling through his hair. “You have experience with stealing girlfriends.” She arched her back. “Steal me.”

Bruce quickly flipped her over and positioned himself on top. “Alright,” he whispered. He sucked on her neck, and she wrapped her legs around his waist as he thrust his hips into her.

Jessica felt as if she would melt, her body like jelly underneath her skin. Two years of built up resentment, dissatisfaction, force appeasement to a tormented love gushed from her pores and onto the sheets in an ocean of sweat. Bruce kissed the tops of her breasts, and she remembered what she had always desired in a relationship. Someone to kiss her, comfort her when she was down, whether that was by lending a shoulder for her to cry on, or through unbridled sex. He intertwined his fingers with hers and pressed her hands on either side of her into the mattress, and she remembered she just wanted to be with someone who made her feel comfortable being herself, whether that meant watching her favorite black and white Alfred Hitchcock movies with her, going bowling just to order the chili cheese fries from the concession stand and using the bumpers to cheat, or dancing under arches of water shot from rusted fountains in the city park with giggling, half-naked two-year olds. He pressed deeper into her, quicker in pace, and she remembered how much she loved to fight. Why have sex in the morning when they could wrestle? Pin each other to the ground; winner got to take a shower first, loser cooked breakfast.

She never had any of that with Whitmore. Whitmore had a plan. He had seen too many movies, read too many blogs. He believed relationships were all about romance, love, working toward marriage. He never allowed them to grow into friends before he began planning a wedding and a family. He’d convinced her that pursuing a friendship wasted time. No one could wait that long. He was so eager to settle down, he never learned her middle name, or her favorite type of food, or what she enjoyed doing in her free time. He missed getting to know her.

She dug her nails into Bruce’s back and released a buoyant moan. She didn’t know what the future held for them, but she wanted him to help her rediscover her passion, the fire that burned within her whenever she became involved with a man who asked for nothing but her company.

Suddenly, there was a loud, piercing bang. It echoed off the walls, rang in Jessica’s ears, ricochet within her skull. Bruce pulled out of her and sprang from the bed so fast he nearly hurt her.

“That sounded like a gun shot. It sounded like it came from your living room?”

“No one else is here. My door makes a lot of noise. I would’ve heard if someone was inside.” Feeling vulnerable, Jessica crossed her arms over her exposed breasts, placing a hand on the opposite shoulder.

“Maybe it was outside your door?” Bruce said.

“There’ve been some break-ins. It could be my neighbor.”

“Stay here. I’ll check it out.”

“Be careful.”

Bruce stepped into his jeans and walked around the corner. Jessica scooted to the edge of the bed, wrapping the bed sheets around her shoulders. She heard Bruce open the door. She heard a heavy thump. Then she heard him gasp. Seconds later, he was standing in the doorway, his lips pressed together. He refused to make eye contact with her.

“You need to call the police.” His voice was short and weighted.

“Why? What is it? What happened?”

“Just—” He bent over and picked up her phone from the floor. “Call the police.”

Jessica was about to dial 9-1-1 when she saw a series of incoming texts from Whitmore.

I need to see you. Are you home?

I’m in the parking lot.

Why won’t you answer the phone?

I want to make us work. What do I have to do to make us work?

I want to marry you Jessica Ryan. That’s what I came to ask you.

So this is it? You’re done with me?

I don’t understand what I could’ve done.

Goodbye, Jessica. It’s obvious you don’t love me as much as I love you.

Just like Layla . . .

 Jessica slowly looked up at Bruce. “What did you see?”

“You shouldn’t go up there.”

Jessica dropped her phone and pushed past Bruce. She sprinted to the living room, and as if she had collided with an invisible brick wall that had suddenly risen from her floorboards, she collapsed to her knees. In front of her, face down, half his body inside across the threshold, lay Whitmore, blood spilling from his right temple. There was a smear of red on the front of her door, midway and on down to the bottom, from where his head hit and slid down as his body fell underneath him. Poking out from underneath his chest was the gun he used to end his life.

Jessica wanted to cry. She wanted to scream, but she couldn’t find her voice, and she realized that all fluids related to Whitmore, tears included, had been purged from her body while she had sex with Bruce. The only word she could muster out of her mouth was, “Oh.”

Behind her, Bruce spoke into the phone. “Yes, I need an ambulance. A man is dead.”

—Nortina