#ThrowbackThursday Fiction: A Love Affair With Jazz

From an earlier version of Love Poetry, here’s a Throwback snippet that will hopefully jolt me back into writing this novella, so I can finally, finally finish it.

To see how Love Poetry began, read my very first A to Z Challenge here. With the monstrous blog hop not even two weeks away, it feel  fitting to take you back to the beginning… 


A Love Affair With Jazz

Jessica didn’t know much about Eartha Kitt—only that she played Catwoman in the Batman television series and had an affair with Eddie Murphy in Boomerang—but she would’ve done anything to get out of her dismantled apartment. Her grandmother’s shattered china on the kitchen floor. The hole in the wall next to the photo of her mother. The front door, almost completely off its hinges after Whitmore slammed it behind him and kicked it with all his strength before finally leaving.

When Bruce called in the aftermath, Jessica said yes before he could ask the question, and now, as she sat at the table in the dimly lit restaurant, listening to the jazz musicians’ tribute to the late singer, she couldn’t help but feel intoxicated. Transcending the problems of her current relationship, she snapped her fingers, rolled her neck, and let out a deep moan.

“I knew you would like it,” Bruce whispered in her ear. He was suddenly standing behind her, massaging her shoulders. She hadn’t noticed him leave his seat across from her.

“You’re trying to seduce me,” Jessica said. “You know I have a man.”

“A man?” There was a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Jessica tried to laugh, but her weak chuckle pained her side. She knew this blissful moment couldn’t last. Even as she yearned for Bruce to wrap his arms around her and move her body with the soothing notes of the trombone, saxophone, and trumpet in harmony, every other man in the restaurant resembled Whitmore. She felt trapped, the walls closing in, the airways to her lungs blocked.

As if reading her mind, Bruce placed a hand on Jessica’s cheek. He wiped away invisible tears with his thumb. He nuzzled her neck and inhaled her perfume. “Lilacs,” he said smiling.

Jessica pursed her lips. “Dance with me.”

Bruce took her hand and together they glided to the dance floor just below the stage. The music had stopped, replaced with a rhythmic beat on a djembe drum. Jessica lifted the hem of her skirt, bounced and rocked her hips as the woman on stage sang into the microphone deep from the back of her throat.

Come oooonnnn-a my house . . .

Jessica danced and spun and let Bruce take her by the hips and pull her into him, his lips grazing behind her ear. She forgot about Whitmore. His unreasonable demands for affection. The tantrum he threw after she’d declined his third proposal. She threw her head back, wrapped her arms around the back of Bruce’s neck, pulling him closer to her. They danced for what seemed like hours.

The final beat on the drum sounded, and the piano, bass, and horns returned.

Oooooh, John, pleeease don’t kiss me. Ooooh, John, pleeeease . . .

Jessica rubbed her cheek against the coarse stubble on Bruce’s chin.

Oooooh, Bruce,” she echoed. “Pleeease . . .

And he kissed her.

—Nortina

Originally published February 12, 2015

 

“Hiding in Bathrooms” — An Excerpt from Love Poetry

Now she really had to go to the bathroom. She pushed her way into the narrow stall directly behind her, hiked up her skirt, dropped her panties to her knees and fell into a squat over the too short toilet, suitable more for kids than anyone over five feet, despite being in a facility requiring an eighteen-year age minimum. She held her phone away from her ear and let herself go, hoping the sound of her peeing would deter him, but either he didn’t hear it or he chose to ignore it because he continued to talk. 

“If you had answered any of my earlier phone calls–“ 

“What do you want, Whitmore?” Jessica repeated more sternly, speaking over the automatic flush of the toilet.  

There was a long pause; he must have heard it this time, contemplating whether or not to continue with the conversation, Jessica having no more respect for him than to wait until they were off the phone before she decided to use the bathroom. But there was also the possibility that it flattered him, that she valued their relationship so much that she would stay with him on the phone, even while having to relieve bodily urges. Bile rose at the back of her throat. Please don’t let it be the latter. She didn’t want to give him any more hope that this relationship could be saved. As far as she was concerned, it was over. There was no coming back from the invasion of her privacy, even if he suspected her of cheating. Confront her like a normal person and break things off. But she knew Whitmore could never do that. He was too desperate to be loved, even if it meant forcing a relationship with a women who didn’t love him back. 

“I just want to apologize for this morning.” 

“You can’t even say what you did.” Which told Jessica he didn’t think what he did was wrong, and if he in anyway tried to justify himself, she would hang up. 

“But you’ve got to understand my point of view.” 

Hang up, Jessica. 

“I didn’t know where you were, and I kept thinking about what happened with Layla.” 

Hang up, Jessica. 

“She was cheating right under my nose, and I was too stupid and naïve to see it.” 

Hang up, Jessica. 

“It killed me, and I couldn’t help but go back to that dark place when you–“ 

Finally she hung up. Pressed her thump firmly on the end key. She wasn’t listening to that sob story again. How he attempted suicide the night Layla finally called it quits, took half a bottle of sleeping pills and washed it down with vodka. Whitmore was the type of person to threaten with self-harm to guilt a woman in to submission, but not for a second did Jessica believe he actually went through with it. And she wasn’t going to let his little pity part keep her hostage in this bathroom another second.  

It was times like this, when she wished they were still in the flip phone age of cell phones, she would slam the top down with such emphasis. Or if she had a landline she would slam that handset back on the switch hook, knowing surely he would hear the force behind it, at it loudly collided with different parts of the base before at last connecting with the hook, sounding the final dial tone to solidify her complete annoyance and frustration in having to speak with him at all, leaving no doubt in his mind that the conversation was over and that she wanted to hear nothing more from him that night. 

The touch screen hang up was too soft, easily misinterpreted for a weak signal, a dropped call, and inadvertent swiping of the face which ended in an accidental disconnect. It would prompt him to call back, innocently asking questions like “What happened?” and “Are you still there?” 

Not wanting to give him the chance, Jessica quickly pressed the power button until the screen faded to black. If there was any question behind why she hung up, going straight to voicemail would give him his answer. At the very least she could finish this night without further distractions. 

She shoved the door open, clouds of smoke engulfing her. She was greeted by a shower of applause. Not good. Out of habit she checked her phone for the time, and groaned at the black screen. She cursed Whitmore under her breath, then sped walked down the corridor. Seeing the shadow of someone standing at the end, she assumed it’s Yolanda, and fabricated some excuse for why she missed her own deadline. Emergency on the phone, that time of the month, duty calls? She looked to the stage, Jamie Marie already at the mic, preparing to perform her first piece to the background music of the string bass and piano. Behind her a whisper in her ear. 

“Hey there. Still hiding in bathrooms, are we?” 

She turned and met the wide gaze of Bruce. The color of his eyes looked even darker under the haze of the hookah bar.  

“Very funny,” she said. She tried to hide her phone behind her and subtly drop it into her purse, but he caught her, literally. She suddenly felt his arms around her waist, under her jacket, the tips of his fingers on her hip, too close to skin. Fire ignited deep within her, and it’s as if she could exhale smoke. 

She broke away, if only to catch her breath from the sudden sexual tension between them, but his demeanor didn’t seem to change. He leaned back, one foot and the opposite shoulder propped against the wall.  He faced the stage but his eyes were still on her. It reminded her of the way Whitmore looked at her whenever he was trying to catch her in a lie, though not at all as invasive or exposing. Mostly endearing, admiring, like looking at fine art. Thank God she’s wearing something she’s comfortable in, something that’s definitely her. 

She wanted to spin for him, give him the full effect. Better yet she wanted to undress for him. Imagining Whitmore as Bruce did her no favors last night, not now that she has seen where his hands have been, those lips, that tongue. She glanced below his belt then quickly looked away. Not here. Not in front of all these people, and her boss, standing at the bottom of the stage, a scolding look in her eyes. She should probably try to explain herself, but she felt the heat rising again, Bruce had snuck up on her, she turned her head and their lips were mere inches apart, a continuation of how their date ended last night. Before this night is over, she will kiss him, can’t stand the teasing anymore. 

© Nortina Simmons


Just a P..S.A., these excerpts are roughly edited, and I’m still struggling to decide if I want the novella to be in past or present tense, so if it reads kind of crazy, please go easy on me! 😉

“Morning Run” — An Excerpt from Love Poetry

Whitmore pulls the comforter to his chin, and she snatches her hand back as he rolls over to face the wall, stretching his feet to the end of the bed before drawing them back into the fetal position. Jessica lies stiff until his breathing returns to a steady rhythm, and then she dashes out of the bed, sprints toward the window where her little friend has long since flown away, and the room feels deafeningly silent, as if it’s not yet morning, as if the sun hasn’t risen, as if she is back in last night and Whitmore is still breathing down her neck, pressuring her to sleep with him, refusing to take no for an answer, already in the process of laying his claim.

She spins around and watches Whitmore’s chest rise and fall. She looks down at her breasts, goosebumps rising under the spinning ceiling fan above her. Suddenly the room feels too small and Whitmore too close. It’s the last place she wants to be when he finally does wake up, standing at the foot of the bed, fully naked, nipples harden from the chill in the air.

She bends over the dresser, feeling exposed, quickly puts on a pair of sweats, tames her breasts with a bra, throws on the first t-shirt she sees, Wrightsville Beach splayed across the chest. She reaches under her bed for the worn pumas, the only tennis shoes she owns, and steps into them, no thought about socks. She creeps out the door, closing it behind her, down the hall a little faster now, picking up pace, as she grabs the keys and her phone off the kitchen counter, where she left them last night, on her way out front door.

By the time she reaches the stairway she’s running. And when she gets to the bottom, she’s sprinting through the parking lot, dodging Whitmore’s Sonata, parked crookedly in the space reserved for her. She continues to the sidewalk that forms a semicircle around the back of the next building in her complex, turns to run parallel to the road for a quarter of a mile, before veering off into the scenic greenway leading into the heart of town. She runs the whole time and doesn’t stop until she can no longer see her apartment jetting out above the trees when she turns to look over her shoulder.

When she stops, she wants to collapse. She plants her hands on her knees, puts her face between her legs and gulps in sharp inhales of breath. Her heart is breaking through her chest, her lungs on fire, she’s never run like this before. In fact, she can’t remember ever having to run, except in required gym class in high school, and twice she tripped over her own feet, and dove face first into the hardwood floor, sliding across the court, the high squeak echoing in her ear as her skin on her cheeks tore.

How pathetic is she that’s she’s let Whitmore run her out of her own damn apartment? She looks back, then takes off again, a bench in sight. When she gets there, the thought crosses her mind that teenagers could have had sex here, homeless men could have masturbated here—the trees surrounding them, extensive branches heavy with leaves overhead to cover their secrets—bugs crawling in and out of the cracks, bird droppings in hidden places. But she’s too tired to care. So  she falls onto the bench, spreads her legs, throws her head over the back, waiting for all of her feeling to come back to her.

When a real jogger passes by, she folds into faux stretches, but the woman barely notices, eyes on the path, ears plugged in. Maybe that’s what Jessica needs to relax herself too. She takes out her phone and turns on the FM radio station app. She finds herself tuning to 107.1. The sound is fuzzy coming in, because she doesn’t have headphones to work as an antenna, but she turns the volume up, holds the phone to her ear, and lies back on the bench, listening to the croons of Shawn Mendez push through the static, and the soulful melancholic cries of Sam Smith, and when she begins to drift, a familiar name comes to her ear.

“Good morning, good morning, Triad! You’re listening to 107.1 the B.E.A.T. The time is 10:21 AM. I’m your boy, D.J. Ronnie G, and I’m here with our host . . .”

Jessica perks up when she hears his voice, low and nonchalant like last night, slightly muffled from his lips being too close to the microphone. Like a drum roll, he mumbles, “The Girlfriend Whisperer.”

Bruce.

© Nortina Simmons

“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

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