Good morning readers and writers and internet users! Hope all is well ❤
While I’m working to get my second manuscript, titled Moody Blue, published, I am also working on a new book! I’m sharing the prologue with you below, and I am DESPERATELY BEGGING for feedback! PLEASE let me know what you think!
The only people who ever really cared about Duke, the only people who ever honestly gave a shit, were gone – one of them forever, a recent member of the dearly departed. The other was away, becoming a better human being who’d have no time for addicts who couldn’t stand to see their own faces in cracked bathroom mirrors. Duke was currently studying his own reflection in just such a mirror and recognized himself, but he hated it, hated the reflection. His hair was too long and his eyes were too red, and he wasn’t fucking high enough. He turned away from his face, sick of looking at his stupid, fucking face. There wasn’t much to like about Duke, and Duke knew that, but he didn’t want to have to face it day in and day out. He needed relief, which was why he self-medicated. He’d used all the heroin he’d had in the house, which was impressively more than usual, but now it was gone and he had to rely on alcohol.
Duke didn’t want to rely on anything anymore; or anyone, for that matter. Come to think of it, Duke didn’t think he even wanted to be in the house anymore, either. Bottle of whiskey clenched tight in his fist, Duke stumbled over to the small coffee table by the front door. His keys were laying there and he reached to grab them. The world seemed to tilt as he did so, and the wooden table went crashing to the floor, taking two picture frames with it. Duke grabbed the corner of the wall to keep from falling completely. Had his other hand been free, he might have been successful, but that damn bottle wouldn’t let go of his hand. Whiskey splashed all over him as he went down hard on his ass. Cursing loudly, he threw the bottle at the nearest wall. Duke watched the glass shatter, seemingly from the inside out, and he saw the tiny shards explode into the light and catch it. The glass metamorphosed into stars and Duke watched, transfixed. The cuts the stars inflicted on his cheeks went unnoticed, were inconsequential. Duke watched the glass fall until it all lay on the floor.
His discarded, cold, metallic keys winked at him. Duke suddenly remembered he had to leave. He crawled to gather his keys, cutting his palms on the fallen stars from just moments before. Scooping up the keys, Duke rose shakily to his feet and made his way out through his front door. He left the door open behind him so that it resembled a large, gaping mouth, howling in pain and protest. Duke also left a bloody palm print on its face, cackling wildly and falling three times before he was sitting behind the wheel of his yellow Cadillac Seville from 1987. He’d bought it cheap off Matt to replace Uncle Rick’s rusted Ford because Duke couldn’t bear to drive it. Duke couldn’t bear to sell it, either. He didn’t want it but he couldn’t let go, and that, ladies and germs, was the story of his life.
The engine came to life loudly, but the radio was louder. It was Bruce Springsteen, singing “Atlantic City” with a supreme kind of melancholy that just fit the moment. Duke’s face fell and became serious as he thought hard, carefully considering everything making up the moment. He suddenly had a destination in mind: Aurora’s dorm, and he’d have to get there fast, or it’d be too late. He’d have to race the devils brewing within him to reach Aurora before she realized she was not only better than Duke, but better off without him as well. He backed out onto Broadway Boulevard, neatly knocking his mailbox to the ground. Duke was indifferent to it, sped down the quiet residential streets until he hit the highway. It was when he was pulling onto the ramp for the Garden State Parkway, heading north, when it happened: the accident. Duke took the ramp too fast, at seventy miles an hour, and the car rolled over and over, leaving the pavement to tumble down a grassy hill before slamming into the trees.
Duke lay bleeding, inside and out, for a devastating ten minutes before someone finally saw the mess and called the proper authorities. The Boss was still growling through the speakers to no one in particular. “Everything dies, baby; that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
Aurora had just drifted to sleep after a late night of paper writing. It had been interesting at least, discussing what it means to be human through the novels Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Aurora thought college was pretty cool. She was happy in college. Even sleeping, she was happy. It all felt right and Aurora had discovered she was right where she was supposed to be.
She awoke with a start from Bruce Springsteen suddenly proclaiming triumphantly that tramps were born to run from her cell phone. She scrambled to answer it, not wanting to wake her cranky roommate, so she didn’t even pause to see who was calling. “Hello?” she croaked.
“It’s Matt. You’ve got to come home. I’ll come get you if you want, but you gotta get back here.”
Aurora sat up in bed. “Matt, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Duke’s had an accident with my car and it’s not looking good. Christ.” Matt paused. “He’s dying.”
The tears came surprisingly fast, before Aurora could even really understand all that Matt was saying. “Matt, I … um, I’ll come home right now. I’ll call you when I’m close.”
“Are you okay to drive? I shouldn’t be telling you like this, I’m sorry. I didn’t know who else to call. He doesn’t have anyone else,” Matt said. His voice cracked at the end and Aurora heard him swallow, likely to keep from crying. There was another pause. “I can –“
“I’ll be there soon, Matt. I’m on my way. Just call me if anything changes, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course.”
“Okay, I’m on my way.” Aurora hung up before Matt could say goodbye. Throwing the covers back, she got moving, had to keep moving to keep her mind occupied. Aurora tossed clothes thoughtlessly into a duffel bag, not pausing to think about Duke being dead, not being around, not being Duke anymore. The thought of him scarred and bloody, and slowly becoming pale and cold, was enough to render her useless, but goddammit, she didn’t have time for hysterics. Aurora couldn’t curl up into a ball on the floor and sob like she wanted to. Slipping flip flops onto her frantic feet, Aurora threw open the door to her room, hurried down the hallway and bolted down the stairs. Her duffel bag and purse swung heavily as she ran to her car, so she was thankful she had forgotten her book bag. There wasn’t time for stupid, fucking homework. She had to have enough time to say goodbye.
Normally, it’d take Aurora over an hour to travel back home from the college. That night, it barely took her forty-five minutes.
Matt met Aurora in the parking garage of the hospital and escorted her inside, explaining to her in hushed tones that Duke’s condition was improving, miraculously so, and that they needed to remain cautious but could afford to be optimistic. They seated themselves in terribly uncomfortable vinyl-covered chairs and waited.
Matt stood and walked a few paces to stretch his legs and ease his aching back. “He’s been in surgery for two and a half hours now.” Matt leaned against the cool glass framing the operating room. He hadn’t really looked at Aurora since she’d arrived.
“What happened?” Aurora asked. She was trembling.
“He was high as fuck and tried to get on the parkway.” Matt was silent after that, listening to Aurora sob softly behind him. He did not reach out to her, did not offer to hold her or console her or anything. Aurora wasn’t mad about it. She knew they were both drowning in misery and that neither of them was strong enough to hold the other one up, at least not yet.
Two crippling hours went by, during which Duke emerged from his surgery and all his friends could do was wait until he woke up. When he did wake up, the doctor came and told Aurora and Matt, but the doctor also said that Duke was not out of the woods yet and that it would be some time before he could see visitors.
Matt yawned and stretched, and turned towards Aurora. “You gonna go home?”
Aurora shook her head and rubbed her eyes. Mascara was smeared all underneath her eyes and she knew she must have looked awful. “I don’t want to be too far, just in case …” Her voice trailed off as her mind traveled to horrendous possibilities, just the worst of the worst. She cleared her throat to find her voice and said, “You know, just in case something happens. I guess.” She swallowed hard.
“I get that, but you look like shit,” Matt said with a laugh that was more forced than anything else. “You need to sleep, and if you won’t do that, then you need to eat.” Matt studied her for a moment. “Let me take you to get some food.”
“I don’t want to go too far, you know, in case-“
“There’s a diner right down the road,” Matt interrupted. “We won’t be too far and we won’t be too long. You can just guzzle some coffee or something. Let’s go.”
Aurora sighed heavily. There was no real reason for her not to go, so she acquiesced and didn’t even protest when Matt bent to retrieve her purse.
In the few minutes it took for Matt to drive them to the local diner, Aurora fell asleep. She thought she knew what it was to be exhausted, but she was wrong. Matt reached over, gently grabbed Aurora’s shoulder and shook her awake. Aurora was momentarily confused and simply sat, staring at Matt with bleary eyes until she blinked slowly, stupidly. Matt laughed and it was a pleasant, genuine sound. It felt good to be out of the hospital, removed from the sterile, suffocating tragedy. “We’re here,” Matt smiled. “Need a minute? I can go in and get a table.”
Aurora nodded after she yawned loudly, somewhat obnoxiously, and stretched and rubbed her eyes, mascara be damned. “Yeah, sure.” She looked at Matt seriously. “Can I bum a cigarette?”
Matt snorted. “Since when do you smoke?”
“I’ve become quite cultured since I’ve been away at college, I’ll have you know,” Aurora said. She rolled her eyes but smiled partly to let Matt know she wasn’t really annoyed, and partly because she was pleased to have surprised her longtime friend, happy to have actually changed something about herself. Aurora didn’t want to waste her “college experience” by adhering to a behavioral code that had suited her in her small hometown, in a comfortable environment void of any really challenges and thereby void of any real personal growth. Aurora couldn’t elaborate, couldn’t say any of this to Matt, because he was born in Ocean Gate, still lived in Ocean Gate, and would most likely die in Ocean Gate without ever feeling stuck or disappointed or unfulfilled. So Aurora just looked at him expectantly.
“I guess so,” Matt smiled, but eyed Aurora warily. He reached for his pack of cigarettes in his coat pocket. “I wonder what other morals Little Miss Perfect has let fall to the wayside.” Matt was half-serious and hesitated just a moment more before suddenly pressing the pack close against his chest. “Tell you what; a real gentleman never lets a lady smoke alone.” He offered her a wink before a cigarette, and she was definitely more interested in the cigarette. She slid one delicately from the crowded pack (it was brand new; Matt had stopped on his way to the hospital, correctly figuring that the combination of caffeine, nicotine, prayers and Aurora was the only combination to get him through whatever lay ahead) and thanked Matt graciously. He did the same, lit Aurora’s and then his own with the green lighter he stole from Duke at a house party a month earlier. The pair of lifelong friends both took long, deep drags and exhaled slowly, just breathing and thinking in the silence, which is really all most humans are capable of in times of crisis; the normal ones, anyway, very much unlike the heroes that make the paper or the evening news.
“Where was he going?” Aurora asked.
She took another drag of her cigarette, realizing too late the question was better suited for being posed after sleep, after a shower and over alcohol. Ironically, she was too tired to care and continued. “Where was Duke going?”
Matt paused. He too pulled on his cigarette before he spoke. “Damned if I know,” Matt said without looking at her.
Aurora’s shoulders were heavy with skepticism. “You didn’t talk to him at all that day? Seriously? You expect me to believe that?”
“He was fucked up,” Matt said. He was rubbing his forehead and continuing to avoid making eye contact. “We talked, maybe, but he was high as hell. What he was saying probably didn’t even make sense, you know?”
“But he was saying something wasn’t he? Isn’t that what you just said?”
Matt groaned. “He was upset by the same old things he always complains about, drank too much and God knows what else, and decided he was finally going to get out of town.”
“Jesus Christ, Rory! What do you want me to say? Do you really need me to point out the obvious, that you’re the only person he’d ever visit off the parkway? What could- I mean, how could that possibly matter? Fuck off if you’re going to make this about you,” Matt said. He had exploded and been unfair, cruel even. Somewhere deep down inside, Rory knew Matt could blame his exhaustion, his stress and heartbreak, but none of it could excuse the way he had attacked her, using her nickname and reminding her of how personal everything was. The car was filling with a shocked silence.
Rory grabbed her oversized purse and gracelessly climbed out of Matt’s car. She slammed the door behind her to truly emphasize the exit and it echoed in the silence of the early morning. She marched angrily down the sidewalk outside the front of the diner. She stopped at the bottom of the concrete stairs that led to the entrance, an entrance marked by ever glowing neon lights and double glass doors. She had yet to flick away the cigarette burning slowly between two fingers and her free hand pushed her wild hair from her eyes. She turned away from the diner’s entrance, turning towards the parking lot, slowly realizing there really wasn’t any other place for her to go. She was suffering from the same exhaustion and stress and heartbreak Matt felt, but there was something more, something like confusion and a little bit like guilt since she knew Duke had been trying to get to her. Rory started crying, crying really hard, alone in a parking lot in the gray light before dawn. It was a pitiful sight, especially when Rory wrapped her arms around herself to keep from completely going to pieces. Forgotten, the cigarette was still burning down between her two fingers.
Matt climbed from the car, slipping his keys in his pocket and nudging his door shut with his hip. He called Rory’s name, but she turned away as he jogged over to her. All she offered Matt was her back. “Rory, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was an asshole.”
“Leave me alone.” Her response was cold and clipped.
“I’m mean when I’m stressed,” Matt explained as he halted a few paces behind Rory. “I’m tired and sad and didn’t want to answer your questions.”
“I don’t care.”
“Oh, come on, Rory,” Matt pleaded. He grabbed her shoulder and spun her around to face him. “I didn’t mean it, okay?”
“I feel so bad,” she sobbed. “I feel so goddam guilty because I left him. His uncle was murdered and I just went back to school, back to my own little world, like he didn’t just lose everything he had.” The tears gushed uncontrollably and made her nearly impossible to understand. “I’m supposed to be his best friend and I abandoned him. And I am selfish and I do make everything about me, but he still wanted to see me.” Shuddering, shivering, she said, “As messed up as he was, he still wanted to see me.” The cigarette finally fell from her fingers and she broke. Rory brought her hands to her face, sad and shamed and tired, and Matt took her into his arms.
Matt shushed her. “You can’t feel guilty. I know it’s easy for me to say that, but you didn’t put those keys in his hand or that bottle in his mouth.” He pushed her away from him so he could see her face, but still held her by the shoulders. “You can’t- I mean, you just can’t beat yourself up over this. You’re his friend and you love him, and that’s enough, okay? That’s enough.”
“I do love him,” Rory sobbed, collapsing back into Matt’s arms. “I love him so much, and he’s such a fucking idiot.”
Matt laughed softly and tried to soothe her further by gently rubbing her back. They stayed like that for some time, not saying anything, happy just to be held until the sky turned rosy gold. They headed inside the diner, and over coffee and pancakes, they talked about anything and everything but Duke.
They returned to the hospital a few hours later. Duke was awake but wouldn’t be allowed visitors until the evening. Matt used the time to sleep and shower, but Rory stayed put, dozing across a few chairs for 30 minutes at a time, pacing up and down the hallway, and chugging coffee incessantly. When the doctor came to find her and tell her she could see Duke for just a few minutes, Rory did her best to patiently listen to the doctor; he advised her to speak softly and stay calm. Rory did her best to follow him to Duke’s room as normally as she could but it was a struggle. She wanted to sprint to Duke’s bedside and hold him, and if she broke down yet again, then so be it. But she already felt responsible for Duke’s current physical state. If she were to make it worse, she would not be able to live with herself Rory found herself panicked into silence as the doctor excused himself and shut the door softly behind him. Rory’s breath caught in her throat.
“Aurora,” Duke breathed. He was the only one to use her full name, not even her parents did, and the sound of it nearly caused her to collapse. “You look like shit,” Duke added, soft and low, after using only his eyes to survey Rory. He laughed but it was almost inaudible.
Rory stepped forward, trying to stay composed. She remembered herself after a moment and offered a disappointing smile. “Like you’re one to talk.” The impending silence made the air heavy between them. “I only have a few minutes, but he said I could come back tomorrow.”
Duke nodded, breathed in and out. “I know,” he said.
Rory moved to the side of the bed and delicately took Duke’s hand in both of her own. “But I’ll stay for as long as you need me, for as long as it takes to get you well.” She bent forward and kissed his forehead, then she lovingly kissed his cheek. Trying not to start crying, she let her cheek lay against Duke’s for a few silent, precious moments. “I love you,” she said.
Duke stared straight ahead, blinking furiously. He wanted to say it back and even felt he needed to say it back, but he didn’t trust himself to speak at the moment. He was grateful to be alive and grateful to be loved, especially by someone like Rory, but he was ashamed he’d been willing to throw it all away. He was also terrified of what lay ahead, that he might make such mistakes again. He was sure he didn’t deserve this precious moment with a beautiful woman, this miraculous second chance. Everything he felt and believed he had to consider was overwhelming and he knew his voice would be affected as a result, and sound shaky and overcome with emotion. Duke didn’t want that, not anymore. He wanted to be strong. He didn’t want to be a burden. Duke took a few deep, steadying breaths before he finally said, “I love you too.”
Rory straightened up and looked down at Duke with a soft, sad smile that Duke suddenly wanted to violently smash. He didn’t want to be pitied – that idea had not flown once sobriety arrived. Duke knew that wasn’t fair, but he didn’t have the energy or the knowledge to fix it, so he shut his eyes tight against it and lazily allowed his head to roll to the side.
Poor Rory didn’t know what to make of it. So she said, “I’ll let you rest and come back later with Matt. We’ll get Eric over here, too.” Duke said nothing nor did he move. “Bye Duke,” was Rory’s lame response to his silence before she hurried from the room.
Duke lay there, absolutely loathing himself until he fell asleep.
Rory and Matt returned the next day, sometime in the early afternoon. Rory had smuggled in one of those milkshakes you mix yourself from the local convenience store and she was thrilled to find Duke in much better spirits. She gave the milkshake most of the credit.
The three friends avoided speaking of the past at all costs and focused on the future, on Duke’s next move. Rory offered to clean out Duke’s house, which he had inherited from his recently departed uncle. So one day while Duke was still recovering in the hospital, she emptied and disposed of all the liquor bottles and syringes, moving from room to room, carefully inspecting each for hiding places both clever and obvious. Matt helped, dutifully following Rory from room to room as an extra pair of eyes and as an extra pair of strong and sturdy hands. Rory changed the sheets on Duke’s bed and turned up the heat so it’d be warm and cozy upon his return.
Rory vacuumed the broken glass, removed the wooden shards, and cleaned the bloody palm print from beside the front door. It was almost as if Duke had never left that night, but only almost.
Duke saw the results of Rory and Matt’s efforts just a few days later when he was finally released from the hospital and able to come home. His breath moved in and out in shuddery spasms as Rory pushed his wheelchair over the threshold of his home. It was the same, but it was also entirely different.
Once inside, Duke opted to wheel himself around. He moved from room to room in the same way Matt and Rory had, but it was unclear what it was Duke was searching for. His face was immoveable and his expression was impossible to read. Matt and Rory contented themselves with following just a few paces behind. They were intrinsically and inexplicably cautious, anticipating some kind of outburst from their stormily silent friend. Both assumed his stoicism was only temporary, but Duke kept on keeping on. When he wheeled himself into his bedroom, all Duke said was, “New sheets.”
“Yeah,” Rory lamely ventured. She paused to clear her throat. “They’re a higher thread count and I got you a heavy comforter.” She smiled but it was nervous and queasy. “You need to be able to relax in here if nowhere else.”
Duke raised his chin to indicate a bizarre looking light upon the end table on the left side of the bed. “Is that what that’s for?”
Rory stepped forward, a dull, pulsing heat rising in her cheeks. “That’s a sea-salt lamp,” she explained. “They’re supposed to reduce stress and anxiety. They’re very trendy.” Again, she tried to smile, tried to be light and natural and normal. But again, all she managed was awkward and forced and lame.
“Oh,” was Duke’s response. He looked around the room once more before deciding to leave.
Matt stepped to the side to allow Duke to roll past, but then he lingered where he was. He waited until Duke was out of earshot before he asked Rory what the fuck Duke’s problem was. Matt explained that Duke was being an epic kind of douche bag and had been that way since they’d left the hospital, and Matt was willing to chalk it up to a million different reasons, but if it was something as simple as sober Duke was an asshole and nothing more, then Matt wasn’t entirely sure what he’d do. When Rory offered nothing in response, Matt asked in a harsh, hissing whisper, “What the hell is his problem?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Matt,” Rory hissed back, functioning at an extreme level of sarcasm. “Maybe he’s pissed he’s stuck in a wheelchair and maybe he feels useless and worthless because he’s going to be out of work for a long time.”
“Eric will hold his job-“
“Maybe there’s no money coming in and all kinds of money going out and he’s worried. There’s medical bills and court fees and prescriptions and regular bills and groceries-“
“The inheritance will keep him comfortable for at least-“
“ –all of that on top of severe physical pain, not to mention what extreme mental and emotional-“
“Okay, okay!” Matt exploded, no longer whispering. “I get it, alright?” He sighed heavily and turned, prepared to finally follow Duke down the hallway. Before he was out of reach, before he was too many steps ahead, Rory reached forward and gave Matt’s hand a reassuring, encouraging squeeze. They were all Duke had, so they could only be sympathetic; or at the very least, that was Rory’s understanding of the situation.
So once Duke was on the road to recovery and absolutely all of the damage could be assessed, Matt stopped dropping by everyday (though he did check in on a daily basis). Rory was more devoted, as she always had been and always would be; she went food shopping, drove Duke to all of his appointments and anywhere else he needed to be, cooked dinners at least once a week, stayed on top of the bills and let Duke know which money was due when. She took care of her best friend until he was able to get around without assistance and was cleared to drive, which was well after the spring semester had ended and well into the beginning of the following fall semester. Rory never registered for classes and much to the chagrin of those who knew and loved her (Duke included), she never returned to school.
Rory moved back in with her parents because the rent was free and she was only blocks away from Duke, so when he needed pain relief in the dead of night or when he woke sweating and screaming from god awful nightmares, she could be on her way before Duke even hung up the phone. It was a perfect situation until her parents started to get pushy about school, until her parents asked her pointed questions about exactly what she was sacrificing and for whom, until she could no longer ignore the valid points her parents raised during difficult discussions that rapidly increased in frequency. Rory had to run away, to shove it all down and away, because that was easiest even if it wasn’t best. With the last of her student loan money, she paid the first and last month’s rent for a quaint, absolutely adorable apartment less than two blocks from the bay. And since she was well-known, and more importantly well-liked, Rory had no trouble getting hired at the local tavern and in the two years that followed, she was able to work her way from hostess to bartender. Between the tips from the regular customers who adored her and the tutoring jobs she scheduled on the side, she made ends meet. It was a quiet, simple kind of life.
And Duke never asked her about it.
He knew that if he thought about it too hard for too long, or if he thought about it at all, he’d begin to feel responsible for nearly all of Rory’s wasted talent and potential. If he thought about it, he’d begin to develop a very real fear of Rory’s eventual and inevitable resentment once she realized Duke was quite content to keep her trapped, regardless of how content Rory might be to be trapped. In Duke’s defense, Rory never said anything about any of it; she just let the situation be what it was. So the all-important conversation about what it all meant for both parties involved never came up. In all the hours spent nursing Duke back to health, spent helping Duke regain mobility and independence and a sense of identity, neither him or Rory talked about the constantly advancing September or points beyond.
It was what it was.