39,329
07.03.2019

Okay, my interest is fuckin’ peaked now.

Still glaring at the ass, I ask, “What do you mean?”

Nik’s smiling face becomes thoughtful as he replies, “Nat isn’t the type to do anything half-assed. If she wants it, she wants it all. She might be happy with what you’re givin’ her right now, buddy, but sometime in the future, she’s gonna expect you to man up and bite the bullet.”

What bullet?

Confused, I ask, “What bullet?”

It’s Nik’s turn to glare at me. He says, “Wake the fuck up and clue the fuck in. Marriage, Ghost. She’s gonna want it. Is that something you can offer her? Because if it’s not, I suggest you break it off right now.”

Marriage? Fuck me.

Random thoughts swirl through my head.

I want to be with her. I don’t want anyone else to have her. If I put a ring on her finger, it would mean she’s all mine and will be for life. I suddenly wonder why the thought of marriage used to make me feel like I’d swallowed a pint of lead paint. I could do marriage with Nat.

Nik breaks me out of my thoughts. He quietly tells me, “She isn’t going to want someone who pushes her away when shit gets tough. She’s going to want a man who’ll talk to her, talk through issues and she’ll want to help with those issues.” Leaning back again, he says, “Love you like a brother, man, but Nat’s like my sister, so if you break her heart, you leave me no choice but to break your nose.” I look over at him and his lip twitches as he says, “Not that you’re dating her. Just saying.”

Without another word, he winks at me, stands and leaves me sitting on the sofa with a hundred more questions than I had to begin with.

The question is, can I be the man Nat needs?

Walking into my apartment after a long day at work, I slip off my heels and yell out, “Honey, I’m home!” I’m a very 1950’s sitcom way.

No response.

My brow furrows.

That’s strange. Ash is normally here and waiting on me after the longer shifts I have. He must still be at home, which is fine because I need a shower real bad before I get some sweet, sweet lovin’. I stink.

Dropping my bag on the counter with a sigh, I walk into my bedroom and turn on the light. I squeak when I see Ash sitting on the edge of my bed, waiting for me. Clutching my chest, I chuckle and say, “Babe. Word of warning. No sneaky-ups on me. That’s the best way to get a concussion.”

His elbows rest on his knees and he holds his fisted hands in front of his mouth. He looks deep in thought, so I figure I’ll leave him to it. I walk over to him, kiss his forehead and tell him, “I got to have me a shower. Your lady is a very stinky one today.” Just as I walk away from him he says, “Nat, come back here.”

Not turning, I utter, “In a second, babe. I really need that shower.”

He says, “Nat. I’m leaving.”

I walk into the bathroom to turn on the shower and reply, “Okay, I’ll be over in about fifteen. I just gotta-”

My body shakes in shock as he roars, “Sit. The fuck. Down.” He yells so loudly that the veins in his neck bulge.

Placing my hand on my chest, I feel my heart race through my palm. I whisper, “Okay,” then move to sit on my bed. Something tells me this is not the time to argue so I don’t.

I know. I’m as shocked as you are.

Unease flows through me. Something’s not right.

Searching his face, my heart squeezes as I take in his cold expression. He says firmly, “This- this thing. It’s not good and it has to stop.”

No. God, no.

Tingles hit the bridge of my nose and my eyes sting. I ask quietly, “What thing?”

He waves an arm out to me and mutters, “This you and me thing. I’m changing everything about myself for you and I don’t like it. So, no more. We said that when one of us wasn’t into it anymore, we’d call it quits and I’m not into it anymore.”

My chest aches with every beat of my racing heart.

My heart is breaking. Shattering into a million pieces.

His gaze hits the floor. He places his hands on his hips and stands tall. He says, “I liked it. I mean, I do like you. It’s just not for me. You need another type of guy. A guy I can’t ever be.”

Where is this coming from?

My stomach clenches. Lifting myself from the bed, I croak, “All I need is you.”

He looks me in the eye and spits, “I’m not even a full man, Nat. Fuck! I’m barely half of one.”

Walking closer to him, I reach out and touch his arm. I say through my stuttering breaths, “I’ll help you. We’ll go through it together, one day at a time.”

Snatching his arm away from me, he yells, “You can’t fix me!”

Losing my shit, I yell back, “I don’t want to fix you! I love you!”

He lowers his head in defeat. Placing his hands on his hips, he says quietly, “I have nothing to offer you.”

Tears stream down my face. I tell him, “Your love is something.”

“I don’t know what love is,” he whispers, avoiding my gaze.

Silence.

We both stand so close to each other, but I feel like I’ve lost him. I’m not losing him without a fight. I wipe my fallen tears and ask quietly, “Where is this coming from, Ash?”

He exhales loudly and paces in front of my closet. Not answering my question, he says, “When we’re little, we ask our moms to check under the bed for monsters. My monsters weren’t living under my bed. My monsters…” He points to his temple. “…My monsters were in here. They still are. You wanna be with someone like that? Someone like Cole? Because I’m worse than him. You wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve done. It would make your skin crawl.”

Liquid anger singes my veins. I cry and shout, “You’re nothing like him! Don’t say that! You’re not like him!”

His face changes to something cruel and dark. He takes the two steps over to me and wraps his hands around my throat, gripping tight. He cuts off my air slowly, slowly til I can’t take in a full breath. And I’m letting him. He snarls through gritted teeth, “You think I’m not like him? I’ve killed before. I’d do it again. You can’t change me. Evil breeds evil. Just like my dad.”

I reach up and hold onto his arms, I don’t claw, I don’t fight, just hold onto him. My vision turns fuzzy as pressure builds in my face, my ears block. I choke out on a whisper, “You’re not him,” then gasp, “I know what you’re doing.”

His face changes to something more than pained. Devastation.

He drops his hands from my throat and I sink to my knees in a heap, gasping and coughing. His voice is cold when he speaks without looking at me, “I’m leaving. Got shit to work out.”

A single tear trails down my cheek. Breathing heavily, I clutch my sore throat with shaking hands. Looking up at him, I whisper, “If you leave me now, I don’t know if I’ll ever want you back.”

His eyes hold mine for a solid minute. Then he turns and walks out of my room.

I start to hyperventilate.

I hear the apartment door close, and it feels so final that I do the only thing I can in this situation.

I slump forward, my shaking hands barely supporting me, close my eyes tight and howl my sorrow.

Someone knocks on Asher’s apartment door.

It’s been four days since he left. He hasn’t come home. Not once.

I’m worried.

He won’t return my calls or even text me that he’s okay. I spent yesterday night in his bed, hoping that if he came home, he wouldn’t have the heart to move me or tell me to get out, but he didn’t come home.

The girls are trying to figure out what’s wrong with me, but I can’t stomach telling them. I called Nik last night and begged him to tell me where he was, but he said Ash never told him where he was going. So now Nik knows. He said, “Give him time, sweetheart. He’s got a lot to deal with. The demons in his head are sometimes stronger than he is.”

So now someone knocks on his door and my heart pounds. I automatically think the worst. I imagine it’s a couple of officers standing there, bracing themselves to tell Asher’s loved one that he won’t be coming home. Ever.

My gut twists and tears blur my vision.

I may not have been loved back but he was my loved one.

Unable to stand not knowing, I throw open my door and glance down the hall. A tall, older woman stands there. She turns to face me. I get a good look at her face and immediately I know who she is. My face voids of any emotion and I ask, “Can I help you?”

She asks politely, “Excuse me. I was just looking for my son. Do you know Asher Collins? I’m Grace.”

My heart races in anger and my breathing heavies. Rage twists my gut and I flush.

Grace.

I want to punch this woman in the throat. No wonder Ash threw his phone at a wall. It was his mother calling.

How dare she come here?

She’s dressed like any other mom. This could’ve been my mom. Wearing white linen pants and a light yellow blouse, she looks as if she could be Mother of the Year. Her hair’s styled in a short, neat bob. She looks prim and proper.

Oh my, how looks can be deceiving.

My blood boils and before I can control it, my mouth opens and hate flies out. “Oh no, mommy. You have no right to be here. How dare you come here?”

Her face becomes pained. Her eyes… Asher has her eyes. She opens her mouth to speak but I cut her off. I glare at her through narrowed eyes and tell her, “He is not your son. In order for him to be your son, you would’ve had to protect him at some point in your dismal life. But you didn’t. Did you?”

Her face crumbles, and I get a twisted sense of pleasure knowing that I’m hurting her. I spit, “Despite all the ugliness you helped put in his life, he survived. You know you helped put that ugliness there, don’t you?” Tears of rage pour down my face. I croak, “You stood there while your husband burnt holes into him, cut him like a piece of meat, beat him and broke his bones. You did nothing to stop that. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

She covers her mouth with her hand, closes her eyes and silently sobs.

I need to make her hurt. I want her heart to break.

I say quietly, “You can forget about him…because he forgot about you a long time ago. And I am not a hateful person, but I hate you and your husband both the same. If there is any justice in this world, his daddy will be shoveling shit in hell. You aren’t his mother. You are nothing. I am his family.”

I stop to take a good look at this woman. This awful, awful woman. I tell her, “Don’t ever come back here, Grace.” Then I turn on my heel and head back into my apartment.

Once inside, I rest my back on the door, cover my face in my hands and cry. Sliding down the door, I cry harder.

Sobs tear out of my throat and my heart breaks some more.

Come home, Ash.

God, whiskey tastes like ass.

Cringing as I take another sip, I really have no idea how he drank this shit almost every day of his adult life.

Sitting on my father’s grave, staring into it as if it’ll bring me some answers to the questions I don’t know how to ask, I wonder if he can see me right now.

My father is dead because of me.

I killed him without a bat of an eyelash.

He was a bad man.

It was a couple of months after I’d left that hell-hole. I took another route home, one closer to my old house. I guessed you could say I was curious to see how they’d been getting on without me. Secretly, I wanted them to be worse off. I wanted dad to realize that I wasn’t the shit thing in his life.

He was.

I climbed over the side gate, peeked through the kitchen window and froze at the sight before me.

He was wailing on mom. She looked like I used to. Black and blue. This was obviously not the first time she took a beating since I’d been gone.

My anger boiled into a rage and unable to stop myself, I went around the house to the back door and into the kitchen. I took hold of a ten-inch kitchen knife, tore my father off of my barely-conscious mother and reared my arm back before piercing the very center of his gut. I pushed that knife in as deep as I could.

It took longer than I expected it to, but I took pleasure watching him gurgle and gasp for breath. I saw the exact moment the light faded from his eyes.

Unsure what to do next, I called Ilia. He told me he’d take care of it and to come straight home.

My mom tried to hug me but I pushed her away. I told her someone would be there soon to clean up and that she needed to take care of herself. With only a nod, I left my mother with my father’s dead body and never looked back.

Ilia came home later than normal that night and came straight up to my room. He took the bag full of bloodied clothes I’d been wearing in one hand and searched my face. Just before he turned to leave, he told me in his heavily accented speech, “Turns out your mom knifed him in self-defense. She’s lucky to be alive, son.” Putting a hand on my shoulder, he said, “You did good, Asher. She needed you and you came to her. You are like the archangel Michael. The protector. I’m glad you’re a part of this family.”

Family.

I have one of those.

Coming to an epiphany, I tell my father’s headstone, “I’m nothing like you.”

I have to get home. I have to see my girl. I somehow have to fix what I fucked up.

But before I do, there’s one stop I need to make.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Grace

I knock on the front door and hundreds of memories course through my brain at once.

It’s been a long time. I used to spend most of my summers here.

The front door opens and the short, plump woman asks, “Can I help you, son?”

Shorter than I remember, that’s for sure. Wearing thick coke bottle glasses, I can see her pretty green eyes peeking out from somewhere behind them. Her hair is in a neat bun at the back of her head. Smiling at the sound of her voice, I tell her, “Yeah, aunt Faith, you can help me.”

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