The birds were barely clearing their throats to sing their morning songs, the garbage trucks were beeping away, and the sun hadn't cleared the horizon yet. The sky was just beginning to take on its orange haze. I tried to remind myself that watching the sunrise could be a beautiful experience. However, after seeing the miracle forty-two days in a row, I was kind of over it. I'd woken much the same way every morning for the past six weeks, with Katarina Everette screaming in my ear.
I understood that she hated me, but the daily reminders were getting old. At first she'd broken through to torment my dreams as an evil menace, spouting the typical arch nemesis clichés. By now the visits had become tiresome, with more annoyance than threat. The first time Devon had heard her too, but he'd been lucky enough not to have the experience repeat itself. We had yet to figure out how it continued to happen. Even though Zane had been searching, he'd been unable to locate the necromancer guy who'd given him the spell to switch Katarina and I in the first place. Until the master of the dead resurfaced, I had no choice but to continue losing sleep and forced out of bed before the crack of dawn.
On mornings such as this, I was glad not to have a job anymore. Before I'd always been so worried about making a clerical error and shipping a soul off the wrong direction. Now, with a sleep-deprived brain… What a mess that could be.
There wasn't much sense in trying to go back to sleep. I'd only lie awake and stew anyway. I rolled out of bed and opened the bedroom door with my eyes still partially shut. Halfway into my journey through the hall, a door to my left opened. Devon yawned wide as he peered out at me. His long black hair was disheveled and he rubbed his baby blue eyes. “Again?”
“Oh, Christ. She will not shut up,” I moaned, rolling my head back. Devon fell in line, his six-foot frame towering over me. He rubbed my shoulders as we walked downstairs.
Once we made it to the kitchen, I set to work making coffee while Devon hunted around in the refrigerator for breakfast. I managed not to sigh when he pulled out a carton of Egg Beaters egg whites and a loaf of multigrain bread. He'd been kind enough to allow me to crash at his place while I waited for the D.E.A.D. department to find me new digs. He'd also been incredibly hospitable by cooking meals for me on a regular basis. In exchange, I'd accepted a healthy, low-fat, low-sodium diet. It was a fair trade, I supposed, and the egg white omelets weren't bad with melted cheese on top.
I plopped down on a stool and sprawled out on the counter, resting my head on my arm. Devon patted the back of my head as he passed by. I'd discovered in the past few months that he wasn't a chatty morning person, which was just as well because I'm not either. As I traced the square ceramic countertop tiles with my finger, the quiet allowed my mind to drift to other things — mainly the dreams I'd been having before Katarina had so rudely interrupted.
I'd dreamt of Drake many times since my return, but the previous night's vision had hit me harder than usual because we'd kissed. The ones with physical contact always wrecked me the most. I swore I could feel his lips on mine and that amazing tingle wherever he touched my skin. God, how I missed that. I missed everything about us. I hadn't seen or heard from him since that horrible day in the park, but maybe that was a blessing. As much as I longed to lay eyes on him again, it would kill me to see he'd moved on. Meanwhile, I seemed doomed to spend the rest of eternity in love with a man I'd foolishly walked away from.
My fingertips were still pressed to my lips, trying desperately to hold onto the imagined kiss, when Devon slid a plate of food and a mug of hot coffee across the counter. I raised my head to see he'd already melted cheese over the eggs for me. That little kindness made me feel like shit. Here he'd been taking such good care of me, yet I'd been lying to him for months. He still believed I'd been in The Silence, and I'd yet to set the record straight.
The problem with telling him the truth stemmed from not knowing how to start the conversation. As more time passed, the harder it became. It wasn't as if I'd taken a summer vacation; I'd been to Hell. What was I supposed to say or do? Whip out pictures from my trip? And here's one of me and Satan. Oh, and this demon was such a character. He enjoyed plucking eyes out and eating them. Such a hoot!
Yeah, thanks, but no. Even if I was a terrible person for withholding the facts, that conversation just couldn't happen.
Besides, even if I did tell him, then what? What was he supposed to do with the information when I didn't even know what to do with it? Maybe one of these days I'd get it figured out and come clean. Until then it was another load to bear. One of many.
We finished eating in comfortable silence before Devon trudged back upstairs to get ready for work. Since he'd cooked, I set to work cleaning the kitchen as per our usual routine's unspoken agreement. By the time the dishes were washed, he was out the door and I was left to my own devices. I browsed the Internet for a while, but when that got old, I threw on some clothes, stuffed some others into a small duffle bag, and scooted out the door too.
No job and unlimited funds seemed like it would have been a blessing, but most of the time it sucked. A serious "first world problem," I admit. Still, it meant I ended up with too much time on my hands, allowing my mind to drift. Overanalyzing had once been my thing, but lately I'd tried not to dwell on anything for too long. Horrific memories — the kind I really didn't want to think about — could rise in the silence. A blank mind equals a pleasant mind had become my new motto.
Weeks ago, in this state of blankness, I'd wandered around the city until finally coming up with the ingenious idea to join a gym. Exercising had seemed the perfect way to repress everything I wasn't ready to deal with. In the beginning, I'd wondered what the hell I'd been thinking. Dead girl or not, I had been seriously out of shape. Everything hurt after my workouts, leaving me pissed off and self-deprecating. Yet as much as I'd hated it in those early days, I kept going back if for no other reason than it gave me something to do while everyone else was at work.
The first time I'd gone, I'd felt intimidated just walking into the place. Everyone looked so muscular and tan. Self-conscious little me worried the gym rats would all be watching, wondering what the pasty girl was doing on the treadmill. After a while, though, the simple fact that it got me out of the house was enough reason not to give a shit what the cast of Jersey Shore might think.
I arrived that morning at the Powerhouse Gym ready to break a sweat. After giving a quick wave to the hulk behind the front counter, I went to the locker room to change my clothes. While walking back out, I caught my reflection in the mirror. My skin seemed paler than usual and dark bags shadowed my watery, bloodshot eyes. My workout clothes hung off me like the ill-fitting “slob wear” they were. It was disappointing to know I looked as run down as I felt.
Hell, to be honest, I hadn't slept through a single night since my return from "downstairs." The last time I'd had a full, uninterrupted eight hours had been two nights before my descent — the final night I'd spent at Drake's apartment. I'd always slept better at his place. When I was curled up in his arms, somehow everything seemed right with the world.
I knew without a doubt I would still be there, night after night, if Katarina hadn't stolen it away from us. If only she'd taken her brand of crazy elsewhere. She'd started a domino effect that I was still left trying to deal with. Drake and I no longer had each other, yet somehow I was still stuck dealing with his nutty ex.
This wasn't the way the fairy tale was supposed to go. Wasn't it supposed to be girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, and they live happily ever after? I don't recall any fairy tales about girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy but is too chicken-shit to tell him, girl's best friend lies to boy's ex, boy's ex is a psycho, and everything gets all fucked up. They all live unhappily ever after.
That story sucks.
My story sucks.
. . .
Even though I'd already worked up a fairly decent sweat, I cranked up the speed on the treadmill. What I used to deem a meaningless waste of time had been the only thing to quiet my mind lately. I'm sure there's some sort of metaphorical poetry about the idea of running yet getting nowhere, but that's best left to the wordsmiths to decipher. Their brilliant minds were welcome to toil over paper with pen, to find the deeper meaning of it all. Meanwhile, I just listened to the steady rhythm of my shoes.
I used to bring my iPod loaded with all my favorites, but something about exercising to Depeche Mode or The Cure just didn't quite work. So I'd raided Tore's CD archive to make an exercise playlist. After that, my workouts went a lot faster. I've noticed that listening to Pantera seemed to coincide with the times when I'd be struck by an overwhelming temptation to yell out a growly Fuck yeah! I've yet to do it, but a weird little part of me wants to, just to see what the gym rats would do.
I slipped into what I've come to call the periphery — a nice little zone just off center from where all the bad stuff liked to hang out. It was the place I felt at peace, missing Drake didn't hurt so badly and, for a few brief moments, the psychological torture I'd experienced became something from the distant past. Staring out the window of the gym, I could watch all the people hustling and bustling to get where they needed to go. I may have been running in place, but I got to where I was going just the same.
My feet were keeping the beat to Metallica's "Master of Puppets" when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A handsome young man stepped onto the treadmill next to me. There was a classic Hollywood attractiveness to him, but black-and-white films would have done a huge injustice to the sparkle of emerald in his eyes. If I had to choose one word to describe him, suave would be it. There was little doubt he was the type of man who could have a girl ripping her own panties off with a smile. He waved as I yanked one of the buds out of my ear.
"Thought I might find you here." He walked slowly on the belt of the machine, allowing it to warm up to speed. "What are you listening to today?" He picked up the ear bud dangling over my shoulder to take a listen. "Ah, old school Metallica. Very nice. Good thing, too. If it had been anything post-'92, I'd have stopped talking to you altogether."
I laughed genuinely, not one of those flirty bullshit laughs he got from most of the other women around the gym. I had no reason to flirt. If it had been another time or a different life, I too probably would have been giggling or shoving my chest out every time he walked by. Okay, maybe not the last part. It really wouldn't matter what life it was, I'd never do that.
We'd become "treadmill buddies" a few months back. We always seemed to come to the gym at the same times during the week. I hadn't intended on making any new friends; it had just sort of happened. Usually, we were the only two using the treadmills. He'd started on one side of the room while I'd started on the other. I always used the same machine, but he'd continued to inch closer, one treadmill at a time until one day, impossibly, all the machines were full except the one directly next to me. It also happened to be the only day I'd ever left the house to come work out without my iPod.
Without music, the periphery had eluded me that morning. I'd tried to focus on the TV playing in the background instead. One of the twenty-four hour news channels blared, and the anchor made a really stupid joke. Treadmill Buddy and I had scoffed at the same time. He made a comment about the joke being lame, I'd agreed, and we'd sort of become friends. I guess. Although I'm not sure something can be constituted as friendship if you don't even know the other person's real name. We've just always referred to each other as "treadmill buddy." Weird? Maybe a little, but it's the city, so who gives a shit, right?
There were some days — this being one of them — I was glad to have a new friend. Solitude had plagued my days of late and, when it didn't, I was busy trying to hide the truth from my loved ones. It was a nice relief talking to someone who knew nothing about me or my past, and never pushed the issue. Most of the time our topics of discussion were nothing more than light-hearted prattle, but it was still nice.
When I was finally sure my legs would give out, I turned off the machine and made an extremely juvenile exit by riding the belt to the back to jump off. Much to my surprise, Treadmill Buddy followed suit. We called out a quick "see ya" before each disappearing into our respective locker rooms. I took my time showering and reapplying makeup. I pulled my wet hair up into a high ponytail, crammed all my stinky workout clothes into my bag, and shoved off for home.
When I came out of the locker room, Treadmill Buddy was leaning on the front counter chatting with the hulk behind it. His dark brown hair, now clean and dry, hung just enough over his ears to give a girl something to run her fingers through, but not look shaggy. Light stubble shadowed his chiseled jaw. Although still dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt, he cleaned up damn well. Though I'd never asked what he did for a living, I thought it was a safe assumption he had to be a male model. He was too pretty not to be. His good looks made me want to put on a poodle skirt, lean on my arm, and sigh dramatically.
As it stood though, he was just the cute guy at the gym who made nice eye candy, but other than that, there wasn't a spark. A few times I'd forced myself to look at him with some sort of sexual interest, but it always ended with me feeling guilty and comparing him to Drake. Even though my friend was unbearably handsome, he couldn't measure up against the one man I was sure all men were to be measured against until the end of time. And because that was the case, the rest of eternity was going to be very lonely.
Pausing briefly at the counter, I set my phone down and bent to tie my shoe. After another quick wave to my new friend, I was out the door and fighting my way through the hordes of people scurrying around the streets during the mid-morning rush. I'd only made it half a block before realizing I'd left my phone behind. My sore legs sagged in protest, but as I turned back, Treadmill Buddy came running toward me with the phone in his hand. Clearly I wasn't in as good shape since he still had enough energy and willpower to move faster than a snail.
"Hey," he called out, jogging up to me. "You forgot this."
I was so happy he'd caught up, saving me the jaunt back. My legs would have danced a jig if they weren't so tired. "Thank you."
He handed the phone over. "You know it occurred to me as I chased after you that your real name might not be Treadmill Buddy."
I pretended to be surprised by this revelation. "So does that mean your name isn't Treadmill Buddy either?" I held a hand to my cheek. "How can this be? Our friendship is built on lies." He laughed and I stuck a hand out for a proper introduction. "Olivia."
"Simon." He shook my hand and flashed a bright white smile that would have made movie stars envious. "Well, it's nice to officially meet you. Maybe I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Maybe." I shrugged. "Figured I'd wait to see if I can stand first, then decide."
"Fair enough." He chuckled. "Well, if your legs aren't jelly, I'll see you in the morning." He flashed another disarming smile and released my hand.
As we turned to go in opposite directions, I shoved my phone down in my pocket. It had been hard not to notice that he'd held onto my hand a few seconds longer than customary. I hoped I wasn't leading him on by being friendly. He seemed like a nice guy, he was funny, and built like the gods themselves had overseen his construction, but there was just one problem.
He wasn't the man whose very touch made me feel alive.
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