Authors: Season Vining
“What? It couldn’t be that bad. I’ve seen
Gone with the Wind
like a hundred times.”
“I believe the entire Confederate infantry just turned over in their graves.”
Monica laughed before emptying her glass. It felt amazing to have the attention of
such a handsome man, and she wondered how she’d gotten so lucky. She flirted as best
she could, touching his forearm to keep his attention and adjusting her cleavage discreetly.
She’d been out of the dating game for a while, swearing off awkward meetings and cheap
bastards for the past year. Somehow she knew coming out of retirement for this man
would be worth it.
When he excused himself to use the restroom, she pulled out her compact and reapplied
her vanilla-flavored gloss. She barely recognized her tired eyes as they stared back
at her. While she still felt youthful, the tiny lines around her mouth and at the
corners of her eyes gave her away. Perhaps if she didn’t worry so much, Monica thought,
pulling taut the soft skin to smooth it out.
“Want to get out of here, darlin’?” he whispered from behind her, while his hands
came to rest on her hips.
Monica could feel his body against her back, his warm breath sliding down her neck
and settling over her skin. Every touch felt undeniably right.
Without another word, she nodded and signaled to the bartender to close her tab. There
was no uncomfortable air as they shared a cab in silence. Within the confines of her
modest yet impeccably decorated apartment, they discussed her passion for changing
the world and his passion for burning it.
Monica delighted in Rob’s daredevil approach to life and his lilting drawl. Among
hours of conversation, they kissed until breathless and held each other tight. By
the time the morning sun’s rays filtered through her curtains, Monica Templeton had
fallen in love. She never knew it would be so easy.
* * *
On the other side of the city, Tristan stirred from his sleep. He rolled over and
found a book pressed into his back. He reached beneath him, pulled it out, and marked
the page. He wondered if its sharp dialogue and methodical plot had spurred the fantastic
dreams of sexual banter and foreplay in a sleek limousine with Josie. He could still
picture her straddling his lap with her hands braced on the roof. Soft lighting highlighted
her face while the black windows blocked out the bustling world. He could almost hear
her voice chanting his name in pleasure. Tristan groaned at the memory and willed
away his morning wood.
He worked the early shift today, and that meant that he’d see Josie soon. He ran his
fingers through his hair, a nervous habit developed years ago, but his hair was gone.
A couple weeks ago, he’d needed a change, so he’d shaved it off. While liberating,
it had left him with nothing to calm his anxiety. His hand passed over the fuzz, but
it didn’t have the same effect.
Tristan’s theory was that this new coif would make him less recognizable to his former
associates. Those people were tainted by Fiona and her father’s manipulations, not
to mention they held all his secrets. When he left the business, Tristan assumed they
would come for him, but apparently he’d overestimated his worth. Still, he slept with
his cold steel piece tucked safely beneath his pillow each night.
Smirking up at his ceiling, Tristan considered what his pompous father’s reaction
would be to the black oxide Desert Eagle pistol that had saved his life too many times
to count. He pictured rolling up to the Fallbrook estate in his 1967 Impala and mowing
down a few of the perfectly manicured hedges. Parading his branded skin, he would
shove bars through his flesh, filling each pierced hole just for the reunion. His
poor, docile mother would have a stroke and his father would call the authorities
before he even recognized his own son. Tristan laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Some days, he missed them. He missed his mother’s hugs and the way she sang church
hymns as she cooked that evening’s dinner. Even though he’d read them all, he missed
his father’s library and their afternoons of “man time” spent fishing or watching
football. The country singer Kinky Friedman had said, “A happy childhood is the worst
possible preparation for life.” Tristan couldn’t agree more. He hadn’t been prepared
for any of this.
He found his nerves frayed and anxious for Josie again. His chest seemed to vibrate
with the need to see her, touch her. Soon, the need to move, to fly took over, and
he flung himself from the bed.
Tristan threw on some shorts and a T-shirt while trying not to glimpse his pathetic
face in the mirror. He laced his running shoes and stretched his hands toward the
ceiling before heading outside. Mornings on the California coast were so different
from back home. The air was cool and welcoming. His steps sounded off left, then right,
left, right. He emptied his head and pushed himself harder, sprinting up every hill
until his lungs screamed for more air.
Every piece of graffiti caught his eye. Every colorful scene, every line of illegible
text brought him back to her. He wondered if any of them had been done by Josie. By
the time he made it back to his block, he was exhausted. He felt emptied and exorcised.
A young couple passed him on the sidewalk. Their joined hands swinging between them
as if love could not nail them down. They barely noticed Tristan there, huffing and
It was easy to imagine a different life, playing out in an alternate universe. He
would be graduating from college about now, then moving on to law school. Nothing
but pride would reflect back at him from his family.
Dreams were something his parents encouraged. For a long time, Tristan had dreamed
of McKenzi. In all the times he’d imagined a bright, shining future, he’d pictured
her by his side.
Tristan had always been the most accomplished student, the shining example. He’d won
science fair ribbons, academic awards, and scholarships to the nation’s most prestigious
universities. Through all his accomplishments, Tristan never disclosed, not to his
jealous classmates or his adoring teachers, the secret behind his success. It was
his ace in the hole, the one thing that guaranteed a future. However, when it had
come time to cash in his chips, he’d thrown it all away for the love of a girl. Perhaps
if McKenzi hadn’t left him with an expansive pit of sadness and hurt, he would have
never sought out the company of Fiona Moloney. He wouldn’t have been dragged into
Fiona’s world and her crooked family. He wouldn’t be a shadow of his former self.
Though he may have been misguided and misled, he’d made every bad decision on his
own. He didn’t blame McKenzi or her father, Earl. Tristan understood now what he never
could as a child. McKenzi was taken from him by a father who wanted only to provide
a new beginning for his little girl. After suffering the loss of his wife, he was
hurting and wrecked and needed to distance himself from everything familiar. He doomed
them by trying to save them.
Tristan took the stairs to his apartment two at a time. He thought of a cold shower,
then falling back into bed and more dreams of Josie. But the thought of seeing her
in the flesh kept him motivated. Today, he’d be a half hour early for his shift.
* * *
Josie approached the Darkroom knowing that Tristan would already be a couple of hours
into his shift. She walked down the sidewalk, flitting between other pedestrians.
She slid down the urban hill, watching the sun disappear into the bay. The orange
hues looked like flames on the water. Soon the night would come, that purple-blue
polka-dotted sky that embraced her like nothing else. Josie turned the corner and
sighed at what she found there.
Tristan was leaning against the brick, smoking a cigarette like it was his last before
execution. She watched as his eyes squinted when he inhaled and the long fingers of
his free hand tapped against his thigh. When finished, he threw the cigarette into
the street, letting it roll downhill and out of sight. She stepped closer, finally
gaining his attention.
His lips volleyed between a half smile and nervous frown as he took in her appearance.
Every curve of her body called to him, every nerve ending felt frayed and drawn to
her. Free from the oversize hoodie, she looked amazing, and he instantly felt the
familiar stirring of lust.
Silently, Josie made her way over, grabbing his hand to tow him along. She didn’t
shy away from his shocked expression. They ducked into the alley and she pushed him
against the wall. Her small, frenzied hands ran from his belt buckle, up the hard
planes of his chest, and around his neck. His eyes flicked back and forth between
her mouth and her cleavage, while he denied the temptation to return her touch.
Her slight pucker hovered just below his, her heels giving her the perfect height
to reach him. Their ragged breaths washed over each other while the heat radiating
between their bodies created an almost visual aura of need. She had always taken her
conquests with no apologies, but with Tristan it was different. More than she wanted
him, she wanted him to want her too. Josie hung there, just out of reach, waiting
to make sure he would not reject her. She wasn’t sure if he gave in or gave up, but
she moved forward when his eyes fluttered closed.
Josie crushed her mouth to his, finding purchase on his delicious bottom lip. He moaned
against her mouth, only fueling the hunger that grew inside.
Unable to resist any longer, Tristan pulled her flush against his body. The way she
molded to him, a perfect puzzle piece, told him this was right. They were a mess of
roaming hands and lips, a dance of lust and claim-staking kisses. They were reunited
after what seemed like a lifetime of purgatory, though the moment would be short-lived.
Tristan reluctantly pulled himself from her lips, willing his physical and emotional
need to dissipate. Josie attempted to pull him closer, but he found the strength to
“What’s wrong?” she asked, annoyed with his resistance.
“I mourned you,” he said.
“I’m not dead.”
“I didn’t believe you were dead at first. I begged my mom to take me to New York so
that I could look for you. Well, until I found out there’re eight million people there.”
“You were a kid.”
Tristan shook his head.
“I was pissed at your dad. So mad that he took you away from me just for a better
job. Now I wonder if that’s really why you left, if there wasn’t more to it. You broke
my heart, McKenzi, and here you are. It’s just too much.”
She didn’t correct her name. Instead, Josie was silent as she tried to work out his
declaration. Was she too much? She’d never been too much for anyone. She’d never even
“I loved you from the first time I saw you,” he whispered, placing a soft kiss against
her neck. “We were seven years old. Your hair was in braids. You were new to school
and had nowhere to sit at lunch. You marched over and offered me your pudding if I’d
let you sit down.”
Josie blinked, trying to visualize the scene through his words. She’d never wished
for her memory to come back, scared to tap into the darkness locked away. Now that
she knew there was more than pain, she wished for the ability to reminisce.
“Did you let me sit down?” she asked.
“Hell, yes. It was chocolate pudding.”
He smiled at Josie, his green eyes bright as he tried to push the images from his
head into hers. She started to return his smile before she caught herself and corrected
it. Was this guy for real?
“No one falls in love when they’re seven,” she stated, dropping her hands from his
body and taking a step away.
“‘The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can ever end,’” Tristan quoted.
“Of all the things I’ve ever been unsure of, my feelings for you were never questioned.
It wasn’t puppy love or teenage infatuation, it was real. You loved me too, Mac.”
“My name is Josie.”
She took another step back, fearing the sudden shift in direction. She crossed her
arms over her chest and glared at him. Lust, greed, hurt, pain, fear—these things
she knew. She knew nothing of love.
Tristan had romantically loved only two people in all of his twenty-two years, and
each of them had broken him in her own way. McKenzi had provided him an innocent beginning,
paving the way for many of his firsts. Their relationship had been exciting and fun,
built around a solid friendship. With her gone, he’d lost so much more than just a
girlfriend. Fiona had destroyed him to the very core, crippling his trust and his
future. Every rational fiber screamed at him to use caution, remain distant. Still,
here he was professing his faith in love, surprising even himself.
Josie thought about what a contradiction Tristan was. His exterior was industrial-strength
steel, designed to keep intruders out, but beneath that lay a kind and honest soul.
She squeezed her arms tighter around her body, wondering if he could save her. Did
she want to be saved?
“I’m not McKenzi. She’s dead.”
Josie needed to make this clear. She felt his curiosity, his adoration, for who she
used to be. McKenzi once had him. Josie would never deserve him.
Tristan stepped toward her, cautiously closing the distance between them. He felt
the warning in her words. He understood the significance of her arms wrapped tightly
around herself, her fingers clawing at her ribs.
“But Josie’s not dead.” He spoke softly, placing his large palm over the left side
of her chest. “Every second, your heart valves push blood through here and snap shut,
creating a thump, thump.” He paused. “Thump, thump. You can hear it. It’s proof that
you’re still alive.”
Josie sucked in a deep breath, her brain reeling from his words. Her eyes looked everywhere
but at his face. She knew his sympathetic gaze would unravel every bit of her protective
housing. After a few breaths of silence, she looked anyway.