My head was resting on the card table that served as Malachi’s kitchen table, and dining room table for that matter. The kitchen was a small square without much space to move around with just one person. The whole apartment consisted of small boxy rooms. The fact there was five people and a dog trying to exist inside there didn’t leave space. I had been sleeping next to Molly and Matilda on the floor for a week. All of my surroundings seemed surreal, the life I was leading was so unfamiliar it didn’t resemble something that belonged to me. My world had never felt more temporary than it did there living with people I barely knew.
I wrapped my hand around my bright yellow mug. Lincoln’s leg rubbed against mine under the table.
I sat up, looking at him as I brought my coffee to my mouth.
“You seem like you are worlds away,” he said to me taking a sip from his own mug which consisted of more milk and sugar than coffee. His dark hair clung to his face in pillow-flatted curls. His lips were beautiful.
“My head belongs to another planet.” I leaned my head onto his shoulder for a brief moment.
“Take me with you,” his words were dangerously smooth. The fact that I was so obviously in over my head was hard to ignore.
Molly staggered into the kitchen with Matilda by her side. Molly’s red hair was pulled back on top of her head. An oversized t-shirt hung right above her knees. “Your dog loves me.”
“You feed her from the table,” I mumbled as I shifted in my seat positioning myself closer to both Lincoln and my coffee.
Molly tossed her hand back, “She’s too hard to say no to.” Molly pulled the pot of coffee from the machine as she reached over the sink stacked with dirty dishes and grabbed a chipped mug from the rickety wooden shelf. Everything in the apartment was falling apart, but anything remotely affordable and willing to rent to college-aged guys usually was neglected and in disrepair.
“You got work this morning?” Molly asked, looking at me.
“We both do,” Lincoln answered for both of us.
“I’m gonna head to the mall later and look for something.” Molly poured coffee into her mug, then returned the pot to its rightful place.
“Aw, babe you’ve said that every day this week,” Malachi grumbled as we walked into the kitchen without a shirt.
“Well, I mean it today.” Molly snapped lovingly at him. Their bond was deep enough that it made me wonder what it was that brought them so close. Pete, of course, took that moment to show up in the forefront of my mind, letting me know that our years of friendships were wrapped up in an impossible situation. We had never really had a fight before that night in the mall parking garage. Going a week without talking to Pete was brand new for me. I hated it.
“Well, you all need to figure something out fast. My landlord is coming on Wednesday with some guys who are installing the new dishwasher. There needs to be no evidence you guys and a dog were here at all. He’s been looking for a reason to evict us. Mr. Deson aspires to get rid off all the rent control tenets. The job and this place, I’m making it work. I’m sorry, please know I don’t want you guys to leave. It’s actually been a blast. ” Malachi slumped down into the metal folding chair across from me.
Molly leaned against the counter, “We got your back M.” Molly smiled at him. “We’ll figure something out.”
“I hate this.” Malachi shook his head. “Four days before Christmas, I’m like the worse Disney villain ever.”
I reached out and gave his arm a quick squeeze. “Stop. You’ve already done so much.”
Lincoln slid his arm around my shoulders, but looked at Malachi, “You’re not a man. The three for us will stick together wherever we head. I’ll keep the girls safe.”
His words and touch came together, overwhelming any sense that should be applied. I wasn’t able to really understand what the aching feeling in my stomach meant, but whatever it was, it was intense. Malachi smiled, his eyes drifting toward Molly.
Molly nodded. “That’s right.”
“Can you go back to your aunt and uncles?”
“Definitely, not an option, but I’m looking for one. I’m close to a lead.”
Malachi widened his eyes in warning.
“A buddy of a buddy,” Lincoln replied. One thing I was learning about Lincoln, was that there was a lot of subtexts, thousands of unspoken stories. It was unclear if his mystery added to my anxiety or to why I was so crazy about him.
There was a good chance it was both.
“Crazy night last night,” Malachi said changing the subject, his intense brown eyes focused only on me.
My stomach sunk. Last night was Pete’s show in the Village. I wasn’t there. It was the first show I ever missed. One show I couldn’t physically be there because I was sick with the flu, so Pete called me right before the show started, then set the phone on stage and I listened to the entire thing.
“Yeah?” My voice was barely audible in response.
I waited a moment, expecting to hear my mom’s voice break in, it’s normally a time I’d hear her distant voice weighing in with her opinion. There was nothing but silence. I’d been hearing her less and less since I winded up on Malachi’s floor. I wasn’t sure if it was because everywhere I was had no ties to her, or if I was getting better or worse.
“Pete was pretty drunk when he was performing. There was a big blowout at Wilson’s after…They kicked him out…of his band.” Malachi’s voice was low and careful.
My stomach twisted into a series of harsh knots. I felt sick. “What?” My voice cracked into pieces on their way out.
“That’s messed up,” Molly added.
Lincoln remained silent, but his eyes held me in his gaze.
“Is he okay?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“What do you think?” Malachi’s eyes held more back. Of course, he wasn’t okay.
Lincoln stood up, kissed me on the forehead, and mumbled, “I’m gonna grab a shower before we leave for work.”
“Okay,” I smiled at him, but my smile felt broken and misplaced on my face.
The moment Lincoln was fully out of the room, Malachi sung, “You two are sweeeet.”
“I keep telling Elliot I can take the sofa from Lincoln, but she’s all into taking it slow.” Molly rolled her eyes.
I slid my phone from my pocket, pushed the button with my thumb to check my notifications. Three from Brian, four from Glen. None from Pete. I clicked on Glen’s recent text. All it said was, Your phone gets turned off on December 31st.
“Anything from Pete?” Molly’s voice was a whisper.
I shook my head and shoved my phone back in my pocket.
“Are you gonna reach out to him?” She slid into the seat Lincoln had been using.
“I would if I knew what to say,” I spoke into my mug before chugging the rest of it down. I had no idea what to do next.
Lincoln and I sat on the counter, my back faced the register, and my legs intertwined with his. The store had been almost completely dead all morning, so we resorted to Lincoln’s comic book education. We were both bent over The Amazing Spiderman volume one. We both were reading it silently. Occasionally Lincoln would point to a panel and say something like, “Crazy cool right?” or “Did ya see that coming?”
Pouring over comics with Lincoln had become one of my favorite things in the world to do. The stories of underdogs rising, the inner struggles, and the proximity to Lincoln all came together to be some of the best moments.
I turned the page to reveal the cover of the next issue.
“Well, what did you think of that one?” Lincoln’s mouth was so close to mine.
“I wouldn’t want to be up against Vulture.” I leaned in and kissed him, which I was finally confident enough in our weird little thing to do that.
“I think you could handle him,” Pete mumbled onto my lips.
Three girls dressed all in black with hair all dyed that same navy blue sauntered into The Angry Crow. I recognized them as the same girls Molly pointed out to me the first day she took me to the mall as the girls that could steal anything.
The shortest of the three with purple painted lips winked at Lincoln, then stuffed a handful of bracelets into her purse.
“Let them do their thing,” Lincoln whispered in my ear. The warmth of his breath caused chills to run down my spine. “It comes in handy to have them on your side.”
I nodded as I watched the three girls spread systematically throughout the store, filling their bags with various items. Before they left, the same girl with purple lips that winked at Lincoln gave him a nod, then eyed me briefly. I smiled awkwardly then turned back to the open book on the counter. I stared at the title ‘The Terrible Threat of “The Living Brain”’ as the sounds of girl’s boots dissipated down the hallway.
“You okay?” Lincoln’s hands were on my hips.
My breath caught in my throat. His lips grazed my neck. My heart starting pounding in my chest. An image of Pete drunk on stage forced itself into my thoughts causing me only to feel guilt as Lincoln turned me to face him.
His eyes were so dark and marked with scars from a past I knew nothing about.
Pete needed me, and I was nowhere.
Maybe he doesn’t want to talk to me, I thought as Lincoln leaned in to kiss me. For the first few moments, I blocked out all guilt and just kissed him back. But Pete, then Brian continued to force me to think about them.
I took a step back from Lincoln. His eyes pierced through me a hundred times. I touched the side of his face gently with the tips of my fingers. “I’ll be right back.” I slid away from his arms and out from behind the counter.
“Where ya going?” The left corner of his mouth twisted up in a dangerous smirk.
“The bathroom,” I mumbled blushing as I made my out of the store.
When I got into the restrooms on the other side of the food court, the three girls who cleaned out the Angry Crow’s POP inventory were in there reapplying lipstick and eyeliner. The second I stepped fully through the doorway all their eyes were on me.
They watched me as I headed toward the stall. Just as I pushed open one of the doors, a small voice asked, “Are you dating Lincoln Bachman?”
I turned to find out the owner of the voice was the same girl with the purple lips.
“Something like that I guess,” I mumbled uncomfortably.
“We dated last year. Broke my heart.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I said nothing. The other two girls watched me a little too carefully.
“He’s trouble. Be careful.” Her words didn’t come across as jealous or an attempt to stir the nest only as a sincere warning.
Before I could say anything the three of them left the bathroom and me alone with even more doubt than I had when I went in there.
When I got back to The Angry Crow. The store was empty and Lincoln was nowhere in site. That’s weird, I thought. I checked my phone to see if he texted, but there were no messages.
I walked through the ghost-townn of the store to the stockroom, so certain to find him there, that when he wasn’t, concern started to take over. The purple lipped girl’s words, Pete’s hurt face, Brian tightly hugging my legs began to swirl around in my head. Where was I going to go? I wouldn’t go back to Glen’s, but I couldn’t imagine where to go. I rubbed my shoulders in a weak attempt to comfort myself.
Was Pete’s still an option?
Angry muffled voices came from the other side of the door that leads to the service hallways. Without any thought, I pushed the door open.
Three large guys wearing trucker hats surrounded Lincoln. These guys were at least ten years older.
“I’m putting something together,” Lincoln’s voice said confidently from the other side of the bodies standing around him. I couldn’t see his face, but the tone of his voice gave me the impression he was okay. Nobody noticed I was standing there. My hand found the hard case of my phone.
“You said that last month.” One of the oversized guys barked, I couldn’t tell which one. I wasn’t able to see anyone’s face.
“Rogerson doesn’t have more patience.” A different, deeper voice growled.
“I need two more days. Tell Rogerson I’ll have in on Monday.” This time Lincoln sounded less calm.
The guy in the middle pulls back his arm and thrusted his fist into Lincoln, knocking him to the ground.
All three guys started kicking Lincoln. Legs pulled back, getting ready and then full force into him. A loud panicked buzz sounded in the center of my head, making it impossible to move from my spot.
A large booted foot got Lincoln right in the face. I yelled, “Stop!”, as I grabbed my phone with trembling hands.
After getting a few more kicks in they took a step back. The guy in the middle turned and took the full account of what I looked like. His beady eyes glowered in my direction. He placed a single finger over his lips, telling me to say nothing.
One of the others, who’s was skin so pale it was almost translucent slicked back his greasy hair. “That’s gonna be a lot worse on Monday if you don’t follow through.”
Then they were gone.
Lincoln was lying on the ground. The left side of his face was already swelling, blood trailed from his nose down to his mouth. I rushed over to him, my heart moving faster than a rabbit’s. My head was a cloudy mess. I wasn’t able to fully understand what I just saw or what it meant. Maybe if I had taken a few longer moments, I would have understood how grave the situation really was, but I was too concerned about Lincoln to consider what any of it meant. I reached out and offered my hand, just as he did the night Pete and I fought. Lincoln grabbed my hand and slowly stumbled up to standing.
He held his side and groaned.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?” I pulled my sleeve over my hand and whipped the blood from his mouth.
His eyes darkened. “Definitely not,” he snapped.
I felt my eyes widen, and he certainly took note.
“Sorry. I’m fine.” He rubbed my shoulder with the hand that was just holding his ribs.
“What was that?” I whispered.
He shrugged. “I pissed off the wrong people.” His voice trailed off as he finished his sentence leaving me to believe there were many things he chose not to say.
Lincoln and I made it down the hallway toward Malachi’s apartment hand in hand. After we had gone back to the store, not another word between us was about what happened or what Lincoln did. A deep purple bruise stretched across half of his face. He walked slowly. I knew he was in more pain than he was trying to lead on. A million questions circled through my head, but I left them in there.
Lincoln pulled a key from his back pocket and unlocked Malachi’s apartment door, with his free hand. He pushed the door open with a grimace.
“Just a little sore.” He shrugged my words off with a quick sentence. Ever since I pulled him from the floor, there has been a distance there. I was hoping it would go away. I was telling myself he was processing.
We stepped in the apartment. Pete was sitting on the sofa Lincoln had been using as a bed, next to Malachi and across from Molly, who sat cross-legged in a tattered armchair. Pete’s sullen blue eyes found me, his mouth twisted into a broken frown.
Startled to see Pete I dropped Lincoln’s hand without very much thought beforehand. Lincoln turned his head to look at me. His dark eyes held me in question. I felt like I was stuck between two walls without a solid move to make.
“I went to the house.” Pete stood up. His skinny jeans hugged his slender body. His black hair fell into his face as he stood a few steps closer to me. “Brian answered the door.” Pete cleared his throat as he ran his hand through his hair, looking away for a minute to collect himself before bringing his eye back to me. “He said you left a week ago. Why didn’t you call?”
“Same reason you haven’t.” My voice cracked.
“How are you holding up?” Pete’s eyes held no anger or resentment like they did the other night, they only carried concern.
He was Pete.
“She’s fine,” Lincoln said curtly.
Pete didn’t acknowledge him. “Wanna walk Matilda with me?” Pete playfully nudged my shoulder with a loose fist. “We’ve got some stuff to catch up on.” Pete forced a smile, but I knew him too well to take it as sincere. He was hurting.
I nodded then looked at Lincoln but being certain that Molly and Malachi were also in my view. “I’ll be back in a few.” I patted my leg, and Matilda perked up from next to Moly and trotted over.
Lincoln grabbed my hand, “You cool?” He asked, his voice sweet, but it was hard to shake that feeling it was more for Pete’s benefit than mine.
“Yep. I’ll be back.”
“Ya know, I was going to let you know Rogerson’s boys were looking for ya, but your face tells me they already found you.” Pete followed his words with an eat-shit chuckle.
I grabbed Matilda’s leash as we walked through the door that I had just walked through with Lincoln. The moment we were out in the hall and the apartment door closed, Pete pulled me into him with a big bear hug. His body was heavy on mine. I wrapped my arms around him. Everything came rushing back. My mom’s smile. Being happy. All the nights Pete stayed with my next to my mother when she was sleeping near the end. Brian and the fight with Glen covered me like I was suddenly me again back in my actual life. I took a step back.
Tears held still in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said in a way that made me feel like I had only done wrongs things.
“I am too.” I really was.
As we made our way out of the apartment building and into the not-great neighbor nothing else was said. We just walked next to each other, both enjoying the fact the other was there at all. When we turned the corner in the direction of the twenty-four-hour deli Pete said, “So you’re sleeping on Malachi’s floor next to a whole bunch of trouble?”
“For now,” I shrugged. “Malachi needs all of us out by Wednesday, so I need a plan.” My words drifted into the cold air carried by the wind that thrashed around us.
“You can come stay with mom and me,” Pete offered for the hundredth time knowing full-well my answer would be no.
“I really can’t.” I chose to watch the cars drive past, everyone heading somewhere all with a story only belonging to them.
“I know. I get it.” Pete slid his hands into his pocket. Matilda walked between us, heeling perfectly. “What are thinking you’re gonna do?”
“Molly, Lincoln, and I are trying to find a place down the shore.”
“What? Why all the way out of there? All three of you?”
“I’m trying to find myself, Pete.”
“I don’t really think this is how you do it.”
“You’re probably right.” I kicked a loose rock a few feet ahead of us. Silence fell between us again. I hated how things were weird and different, but I was happy he was there.
I finally broke the silence by saying, “I heard about last night.”
“Whatever.” Pete threw his hand to the side as if to say it didn’t matter. “I was thinking I’d have a better shot at making it if I went solo anyway. I’ll lean into the girl audience and sing meaningful lyrics about love while strumming the guitar.”
When he mentioned other girls, my stomach clenched with jealousy which it had no right to do. Pete would always have a parade of girls following him around.
“I can picture it.”
“El?” Pete’s voice was soft.
I looked right at him. His face was a map of everything I knew. How could I care so much about someone but feel so trapped went I was near him. What was I really running from? “Yeah?” My voice matched the softness of his.
“Tell me if you decide to leave town. I want to come with.”
“What about your mom?”
“You know she’d understand. It’s not like I need to worry about missing school.” Pete mumbled.
“Why is that?”
“I got expelled.” Pete ran his hand through his hair, a known nervous habit he had.
I don’t know when, but we had stopped walking and were facing each other.
“I put you-know-who in the hospital.”
I just stared at him trying to figure out how he’s managed to screw up his life so badly in just one week.
“He was saying shit about you again. I was upset about us. I screwed up. His parents didn’t press charges but the school couldn’t tolerant that kind of behavior.” Pete rolled his eyes.
“Was Evie pissed?”
“Strangely, not as much I thought she would be. She said you, and I should study together and get our GEDs.”
The idea of this caused my heart to race. I knew full well I needed to put my life together somehow. It could have been that I was afraid or that I wasn’t sure what I wanted. But the truth was I was terrified of imaging a future that didn’t involve my mom.
“I need to figure out some stuff first.”
“I get you might not feel the same way as I do, but don’t leave me behind, okay? I need you more than I think you realize.” Pete started walking.
Matilda and I followed. “Okay,” I whispered so softly I wasn’t sure if he heard me at all.
*Remember you can listen to the audio version of this series on iTunes and Stitcher