I hated the way I flinched when I saw her. My lips turned down, and my gaze shifted sideways. I shouldn’t feel this way. I should be understanding and kind. But seeing her like this—well, it was something I didn’t think I’d ever get used to.
My mother wasn’t the woman I remembered from my childhood. Her blonde hair, now streaked with silver, was a mass of unkempt knots around her shoulders, and her lips—pale and thin—hung open. Saliva pooled between her bottom lip and teeth, and when her head fell forward, it ran down her chin and dropped to her lap.
“Oh, Momma.” I rounded my parents’ kitchen table to her side. Lifting her head with gentle fingers, I wiped the mess and took the seat to her right.“I brought your favorite. It’s lemon cake.” I cut a piece and lifted it to her mouth.
She swatted at the fork with a lazy hand. Daddy had said she was having a good day. That must’ve ended at some point prior to my arrival because these kinds of days were the worst. I set down my fork and sighed, not knowing what to do or say.
“I graduate in May. Can you believe it?”I placed my hand on top of hers and, because she always seemed so lifeless, was surprised at her warmth.“Feels like I just started college last year, and now it’s about to end. Time flies, doesn’t it?”
Her head lifted, and she turned to face me. The movement was slow and stiff, unpracticed and awkward.
“Abigail.” My mother breathed my name as if she’d just realized I was sitting next to her. Her gaze darted over my face, and her wispy, white brows lifted a fraction of an inch. “Time doesn’t exist, baby.” Something in her eyes sparked to life, wild and frantic.“It’s continuous. Just when you think it’s over, it begins again. Always repeating.” She nodded violently to help me understand.“They’re keeping that from you. They aren’t telling you the truth.”
Her hands shot out, and she gripped my upper arms with a strength at odds with her frail frame. Her nails dug into my skin, but I didn’t move. I didn’t react. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, my mother often lived in a world outside my own, with grand fantasies of a life I didn’t see or understand. When she wasn’t whispering frantically to me about people that didn’t exist, she was comatose, lying on the couch in a drug induced haze, sometimes drooling and yelling out in her sleep.
I studied her pale blue eyes, eyes that looked astonishingly like my own, and tried to see the woman I called Mom. She wasn’t there. I didn’t know this person. I’d tried so hard to keep myself separate from her, distant even. Anything to keep my heart intact. But no amount of hardening could seal off hope. Hope that one day she’d wake up and be the mother I so desperately desired.
I blinked back a sudden burst of stinging tears. I didn’t want her to see them. From past experience, I knew any emotion from me only incited her special brand of dementia. But she saw them nonetheless. A sigh fell from her mouth, and her blue eyes softened. She recognized me. Really recognized me, not just the idea of me. Releasing her grip on my arms, her lips tightened, and her eyes crumpled at the edges.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. I don’t want to be like this.” She hiccupped and pressed a shaking hand to her lips.
“Mom?” A flurry of hope circled inside my chest. I reached out to touch her shoulder, but she stood and moved out of my reach.
“I didn’t want this life,” she said. The air crackled with tension, and her chin trembled.“Don’t ever let them tell you you’re crazy. I want you to listen to me. Listen carefully.” Her eyes were wide and rimmed in red. “When time bends, and you’re everywhere at once, you’ll understand where I am and where I’ve gone. I hope. I hope—I hope. I hope…”
She walked away repeating those words, her voice soft and sad. The tears I’d held back surged forward. She was gone as fast as she’d come, trapped inside an illness that refused to let her go.
That was the last time we spoke. Later that evening, she stole the keys to my father’s car and ran it into a concrete pylon at a speed of over ninety miles per hour. I wasn’t prepared to lose her, and to this day I replay our last conversation, worrying her suicide was a result of something I’d said, or something I’d done.
My entire life, I’ve feared I would end up like her. That one day sanity would elude me and ten kinds of crazy would make me blind to everyone I knew and loved. My father assured me it wasn’t likely, but as a child, and later as an adult, those words were far from comfort. Even if he was a psychiatrist. Even if he was my dad.
Whatever illness had stolen my mother’s memories had yet to destroy mine, but everyone knew crazy was hereditary. Even now, as I woke on my twenty-second birthday, three months after my mother’s funeral, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was still me.
I was still me.
“Abby, are you ready?” Gracie—my best friend and roommate—called from inside her bedroom.
“I’m not going.” I walked in the apartment and threw down a stack of newly purchased textbooks and supplies.
“Didn’t you get my text?” She appeared in the living room, perfectly made up, and slipped into a pair of turquoise stilettos. Her dark hair hung in loose waves around her shoulders. Her wide, slightly slanted eyes were heavily shadowed and gave the only hint of the Japanese heritage gifted by her grandmother.
“Yes,” I said as I dropped my bag on the floor and fell across the couch. “I got all fifteen of them. And no, I don’t care if it’s my birthday. I’m not going.”
Gracie hurried to my side. “You’re going. I’m not celebrating your birthday by myself.”
“I didn’t ask you to. Besides, it’s my birthday. Don’t I get to spend it doing something I want to do?” I asked as I pressed a pillow over my face.
“Yes, of course.” She pulled the pillow away. “But choosing to do nothing doesn’t constitute doing something. It’s proven. And besides, I haven’t had a major regret in about a month, so I’m due.” She smiled widely, showing off her perfect teeth.
“What if I don’t want to make mistakes? What if my only wish on this day is to lie right here and watch mind- numbing television until I pass out?”
“That’s stupid. Nobody wants that.” Her eyes twinkled with mischief as she pulled me to my feet and pushed me toward the bathroom.“You’ve got thirty minutes, and tennis shoes are not an option.”
It only took fifteen. I twisted my pale blond hair into a knot on top of my head and changed into one of Gracie’s barely there dresses she swore wasn’t too revealing. I begged to differ.
Gracie whistled when I walked out.“You look amazing,” she said.
The black dress was all see-through mesh and carefully placed elastic. “Shut up. I look ridiculous.”
“Ridiculously hot, maybe. Let’s go.” Gracie winked and opened the door.
I rolled my eyes, but couldn’t keep the smile from my face. I’d never admit it to Gracie, but the truth was, the dress made me feel good. Different, like I could forget who I was and where I came from, even if it was just for a night.
Outside was cold. I shivered in the January air and pulled my black leather jacket to my chest as we walked to my car. Life hadn’t been kind, and these last three months without my mother had been the worst, but through all of that, I couldn’t ignore the feeling of promise in the air.
The bar was packed, and the music was ear-splitting loud. It was everything I needed, because it was impossible to think of anything else.
“Happy birthday!” Gracie screamed over the music as she handed me a shot of something lime green and fizzy.
I clinked my tiny glass to hers and dropped it back, regretting it when the sweetness of the shot combined with the horrible bite of vodka. The sides of my tongue tingled and my stomach clenched.
“That was awful,” I said, putting the shot glass on the bar.
Gracie laughed. “Then have another. It won’t be as bad the second time around. I promise.”
I took a deep breath, drank the second shot, and chased it with a beer. “You’re so wrong. That was just as bad.”
“But it will make you feel so good.” She hugged me to her side and signaled the bartender for another round.
It wasn’t long after that my insides warmed. I laughed until my sides hurt and drank everything that was handed to me. The music pulsed in my bones and fed my limbs a rhythm that moved my hips and had my hands in the air. Maybe it was the alcohol. Maybe it was because it was my birthday. Maybe it was because for the first time since my mother’s passing, I felt light, like the guilt I’d been harboring was finally beginning to lift.
Coming off the dance floor and in desperate need of rest, I grabbed my drink and scanned the crowded room. Just as I was about to turn back to my friends, I saw a guy sitting alone at the corner of the bar. He was impossible to ignore, like seeing the only still figure in the middle of a whirling cyclone, and when our gazes met, the world around me ceased to exist. There was no sound, no movement—only us.
I looked away and picked up my drink. Swirling the contents, I tried to focus on what Gracie was saying, but it was no use. I took a sip and peeked over the rim of my glass to find his gaze hadn’t wavered. He lifted a bottle to his lips and turned away from me only when Xander, Gracie’s best- friend-should-be-boyfriend, clapped him on the shoulder and leaned in toward his ear.
I pulled on Gracie’s arm. “Hey, who’s that Xander’s talking to?”
She glanced at them and rolled her eyes before she groaned. “That’s James, one of his friends from high school. I met him once. He’s—” She lifted her shoulders and scrunched her nose. “Different. And a little frightening.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my curiosity piqued. My gaze wandered over Gracie’s shoulder, unable to keep my eyes from searching for his.
“Look at him. He’s a little too…intense if you ask me.” She sipped her drink, and I stole another look. Intense? I’d agree with that. But frightening? That I couldn’t decide.
Gracie propped an elbow against the bar. “Are you interested?”
“No, of course not.” I waved to the bartender and pointed to my empty drink. “I just haven’t seen him before, that’s all.”
Gracie ran her tongue over her teeth, and her eyes narrowed. “You’re lying.”
I opened my mouth to say something in my defense, but she held up her hand and spoke before I could get out a word.
“Remember when I talked about making some mistakes tonight?” She paused to let that sink in. “Don’t make him one. The things Xander’s told me—you don’t want to get involved with that. Trust me.”
I searched for James, wanting to see the danger Gracie was talking about, but he wasn’t there. He’d disappeared into the crowd, leaving Xander alone at the bar.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I said, pushing myself away from Gracie.
“You want me to come?” she asked when I stepped away and stumbled in my heels. I righted myself and shook my head.
“No, you keep our seats. I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t go looking for mistakes,” she called after me.
I rolled my eyes and shook my head, leaving her standing in my wake. I moved through the sea of bodies, but bypassed the ladies room after seeing the line and stepped onto the patio instead. It was quiet and nearly empty, the cold having chased most everyone inside. My heels clicked against the concrete in an uneven pattern as I swayed across the patio and braced my hands against the iron railing.
“For a girl who can dance like you, I’m surprised you can’t walk a straighter line.” The voice was deep, and close enough that I jumped. My head snapped to my right and my breath caught in my chest, causing my already nervous heart to double its speed. James placed his hands in his pockets and stepped from the shadows, moving with casual elegance—smooth and unhurried—to my side.
His black hair was a little long and curled around his ears. A dark stubble shadowed his face, and thick black lashes framed equally dark eyes. He didn’t smile. In fact, he didn’t look all that happy about being here with me, but when I met his gaze, his eyes told a different story.
My cheeks flushed, and I shook my head to break the connection. “I don’t normally dance. I guess I got carried away. It’s my birthday, and—” I let go of the railing, meaning to turn toward him, and I stumbled. He caught me by the elbow, and my skin warmed as if he infused something of himself into me. “Thank you,” I whispered, unable to think of anything else when the only thing I could concentrate on was his hand and that it was still holding my arm.
Letting go, he nodded, and a few beats of silence followed.
“Your name’s James, right?”
He studied me with an intensity that made me shift in my shoes. “You know who I am?” His eyes were guarded— wary.
“No,” I said. “My friend—the girl I came here with, Gracie—she’s friends with Xander. She told me.” I clamped my mouth shut to prevent further rambling and rolled my eyes. “Sorry, I’m not making much sense…”
My words faded when he gave me a half smile. Well, it wasn’t so much a smile as a quirk of the corner of his mouth, but it was enough to soften the harsh planes of his face. For a quarter of a second, something about that look rang familiar, as if I’d seen it before. I dropped my head, unable to hold his gaze, and swayed in my heels.
As I stared at the pavement, a memory surged forward. The images were blurred, and the voice, rough with emotion, was distant. Tension vibrated under my skin, and when the frantically whispered words became clear, my gaze jerked up.
Over and over, the phrase rattled inside my mind. I covered my eyes, and James’s image—the same but somehow different—appeared before me, his dark eyes pleading, his voice resolute. I shook myself to force the image away, but the words repeated.
I dropped my hands and focused on James.“Did you say something?”
“I asked if you’re okay.” He took a step toward me, and my pulse quickened. He held his hands on either side of my waist, hovering an inch from my body, ready to steady me if I were to fall.
My stomach fluttered, and I stared at his wide chest instead of his face, which was, for reasons I didn’t understand, feeling more familiar by the second.
The vision came again, and his words—promise me— echoed over and over until I heard nothing else.
Promise me. Promise me. Promise me.
Each word tumbled over the other, starting again before the last had ended. I grabbed my ears in an attempt to make it stop and turned my back to James. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. I’d made it twenty-two years without a hint of a delusion, and while there was a possibility I’d inherit my mother’s condition, I thought I was safe. No, there had to be another explanation. It had to be the alcohol.
I stepped toward the patio door and left without another word to James. Running through the crowd, I pushed against the bodies until I found Gracie. Her cheeks were flushed pink, and her arms were draped over Xander’s shoulders. When she saw me, she disentangled herself and flashed me a sloppy smile.
“Where’ve you been? You’ve got drinks waiting.” To prove her point, she held out a glass and stumbled two steps in my direction.
I ignored her offer and grabbed my jacket from our place at the bar. Shoving my arms into the sleeves, I yanked my keys from my purse. “Do you mind getting a ride home with Xander?” There was a frantic quality to my voice I couldn’t disguise.
She put the drink on the bar and the contents sloshed over the side. “Why? What’s going on?” She widened her eyes and blinked, visibly reaching for sobriety.
“It’s nothing. I just—I’m leaving.” She was ready to protest; I could see it in her eyes. Forcing a smile, I squeezed her arm and nodded in Xander’s direction. “It’s okay…you stay. Looks like things were about to get interesting between you two,” I said to change the subject. “I’ll see you at the apartment, okay?”
Before she could respond, I walked out the door at a pace just short of a run and stopped only when I’d left the bar far enough behind to feel alone. In the quiet of the night, I listened for the words that moments ago wouldn’t stop repeating, but they were gone. Relief settled inside my chest, and I sucked in a breath of cold air.
A blast of music burst from the bar when the door opened behind me. I didn’t turn to see who’d followed me out, and continued to walk to my car as fast as my heels would allow.
“You’re driving?” James’s voice was incredulous and a little bit angry, and the nerves that had only begun to settle sprang to life as he jogged toward me.
“Hey,” he said, catching up and falling into step beside me. “Will you slow down?”
I stopped short and turned toward him. He wasn’t anticipating it and had to walk back a couple of steps to face me.
“What do you want?” I asked, forcing my chin up in order to meet his eyes. James was tall, much taller even than my five foot eight inch frame, and that was saying something since I was wearing three-inch heels.
“Did I do something wrong? Back there, on the patio? I mean, you left like—” James looked me up and down.“Like you’d seen a ghost.”
Something took flight inside my stomach. “No. I’m just tired.” I didn’t sound all that convincing.
His brows furrowed, and I watched his hands move toward me. They were thick and scarred like they’d known violence, but when he placed them on my shoulders, they were gentle and soft. His touch lit my body aflame, my muscles twitched, and the words I feared only moments before returned.
“Promise me,” I said. My voice was light and faint, and when our gazes locked, my vision blurred and the air shifted. James’s face blinked in and out of focus before the world around me turned dark, and a vision of another time— another place—shadowed my sight and stole my breath.
I gasped with every step, running at a pace I couldn’t sustain. James pulled me behind him, his strides so long I could hardly keep up. I stumbled, and the tiny button holding the ankle strap on my shoe broke in our haste. I kicked it off and left it behind so I could move faster, but now my footfalls were lopsided and awkward.
“In here,” he said as he pulled me into a dark alley between two buildings. There were no streetlights, nothing to light the blackened shadows, and the fright trembling inside of me was a living, breathing thing.
“What do we do?” My voice quivered between panic and exhaustion. “Where do we go?”
He pushed me farther into the shadows until my back pressed against the cool brick wall. My black and white satin dress stuck uncomfortably to my sweat-slicked skin, and my purse slipped from my fingers, dropping to the ground with a clink.
James placed a hand over my mouth and whispered in my ear. “Whatever happens, stay quiet. Don’t move. Don’t make a sound.”
His hands moved to my cheeks before linking behind my neck.
I shook my head, and tears filled my eyes. “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t understand.”
“Promise me.” His eyes were wide and urgent. His voice was soft but pleading.
“James, I’m scared.” His body pressed against mine, and he kissed me hard and fast.
“Promise me,” he said against my lips.
I didn’t want to and shook my head in disagreement. His thumbs grazed my cheeks, and he kissed me again.“Please.”
I heard the desperation in his voice—the despair—and there was nothing I wouldn’t do to erase that sound. My lips moved before my mind registered what I’d done. “I promise.”
He grabbed my hands. “Do you trust me?” “Yes,” I said.
He pulled me from the wall and turned me to my left. “Now jump.”
In front of me was a freshly dug hole about three feet wide, and just as I was about to protest, he pushed. There was a brief sensation of weightlessness before I landed with a thud, and the shallow puddle of water at the bottom did nothing to break my fall. I moved to my right and into the shadows, expecting James to follow me. When he didn’t, I peered up to find him standing above me.
"James?” I asked. He tossed something down, and I stared at my purse lying at my feet. “James,” I said again. Hysteria rose inside my throat, but it was nothing compared to the crippling panic that seized my voice when he pulled a grate over the opening.
The sky was black above him, and his face was impossible to see. “Remember your promise,” he said. He stepped away, and my knees buckled under the weight of his decision. Choking on a sob, I was left alone with nothing more than the silence of my broken heart.
The air around me cooled, and I could hear muffled music pulsing from inside the bar. Pushing a breath through my lips, I reoriented myself and squeezed my eyes shut against the confusion crowding my thoughts.
“Come on, let me drive you home.” James’s voice was calm and quiet, nothing like the fear-stricken voice from before, and his warm breath tickled my neck. My head was pressed to his chest, and the steady thump of his heart pounded against my ear. “Can you walk?” he asked.
I pushed away from him, needing space more than my next breath of air. “Of course,” I said, but I couldn’t meet his eyes. I was far from fine. “Thanks, though.” I pulled my jacket tight and started walking.
“Wait a minute.” His hand reached for mine, and he pulled me to a stop. “You can’t drive.”
Visions of the darkened alleyway filled my mind, and those words—those words I never wanted to hear again— screamed in my thoughts. What I’d seen when James and I touched wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. Yet my recall of that moment was as real as any memory I’d ever made. It not only confused me, it terrified me. Pulling my hand from his, I stepped back.
“Please,” I said. My breath was shallow, and my limbs quivered with fear. “Don’t ever touch me again.”
With Xander in tow, Gracie approached apprehensively, her eyes wide with concern. “Abby?”
I wrapped my arms around my middle and faced my friend. “You didn’t have to leave, Grace. I’m fine,” I said trying not to shift my gaze to James.
“I know,” she said, the look in her eyes at odds with her words.
“I just…felt funny. Too much to drink, I guess.” The corners of my mouth lifted in a half smile, but I could feel it wobble.
“Come on.” Gracie looped her arm through mine and pulled me away. “Xander’s driving.”
I nodded and let her lead me away.
At home, I paced my tiny bedroom. Up and down the carpet I walked and worried—worried and walked. Since I’d left the bar, the vision hadn’t returned, but I couldn’t stop myself from wondering when it would.
I held myself tight, needing to keep from falling apart, but nothing I did prevented my emotions from unraveling. Lying down, tears spilled from my eyes, and I filled my lungs with air as I stared at the shadows on the ceiling. Was this how it had begun for my mother? Had everything been normal until one day it wasn’t?
Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow will be different.
I chanted that phrase over and over until my eyes felt heavy and I succumbed to the mind-numbing sleep only alcohol could provide.
Tomorrow would be different.
Available August 28, 2017
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