Tag Archives: sandpaper fidelity

Is There Such a Thing as Happily Ever After?

Let’s be honest: life sucks, especially when you’re in your twenties. Everything that can possibly go wrong does go wrong. It’s a given. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Can things ever go your way?

In college, I drove a clunker that I called Lisa Mazda, a play on the name of a character from a cartoon I grew up watching. It had electrical problems that were so bad, I had to unplug the battery at night or I’d wake up to a dead car. I drove it from campus to my boyfriend’s house, which was on a hilly road. He lived in a quiet neighborhood, but could always hear me coming. We had lots of fights in that car, but it also got us to a lot of great dates. Just when I started to think we were going to be together forever, he broke up with me—the night before Valentine’s Day.

All I had left was the car. After a while, it shit the bed, too.

I had to get rides from my parents from home to school to work. At nineteen, the last thing I wanted was to lose my newly found freedom. I especially dreaded riding to work with my grandfather. He drove so slowly, but yelled at everyone else on the road. Now, it’s one of the things I miss the most about him. Whoever was available would drop me off at Toys R Us, where I would pretend to not care that my ex still worked there, too. I punched in, tugged on my red collared shirt, and reported to R Zone, the electronics and video games section.

I worked under a supervisor named Jean. She was sort of like a work mom to me. One day, while we put new merchandise away, she told me that my ex was going to come crawling back to me.

“Give it time,” she said, smiling. “He misses you. He loves you.”

I snorted. He had broken up with me because I’d tried to tell him that I loved him.

Two months after we broke up, he started calling me again. Then he asked me out to go see Grindhouse. Before the night was over, he apologized and asked for me to take him back.

Seven years later, we’re married. Mike totally knows that he was an idiot.

Life is hard, but it’s also good. We appreciate the little things. We carry each other through the hard times. The world may not always be happy, but we’ve found our own ever after.

Ever After (On the Edge #4), by Elizabeth Barone

The On the Edge Series is Now Complete!

Post Grad Doesn’t Always Go As Planned

Ever After (On the Edge #4), by Elizabeth Barone

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Determined to honor her friend’s legacy, Ingrid finally finds her true purpose in life. When a sudden disaster threatens everything she’s built, though, Ingrid resolves to fix everything—or lose it all.

Ever After is the fourth and final novelette in the On the Edge series, and the story of how five friends find their own ever after. (Sandpaper Fidelity fans: Ever After contains what would have been Episodes #31-40. Complete your collection now!)

Excerpt

Five Years Later…

Chapter 1

David pushed the stroller over the hump of the door jam, gritting his teeth as the stroller leaped four inches into the air. His eyes flew down to little Nana Josalee, his heart fluttering in his chest. But Nana Jo only laughed with glee, clapping her hands together.

“Again, Daddy!” she cheered.

They went through this routine every day. He shook his head at himself. He was turning into a helicopter mom. He wondered if it would be worse if Nana Jo was biologically related to him. Named for the Japanese lucky number seven, his two-year-old daughter was nothing but. She had been born to a scrawny woman who spoke no English—unless she needed to buy some smack. Nana Jo had been born with HIV and left in the hands of the maternity ward nurses. Lucky for her, David had been hoping to adopt a baby. He just hadn’t planned on getting a daughter who might die before he did. Every sniffle and every ache she expressed threw him into a panic.

“Good morning,” chirped a familiar voice.

David looked up from Nana Jo to see Ingrid waddling toward them, a baby in her arms and a toddler wrapped around her leg. He snorted. “They look good on you,” he said.

She beamed. “I thought so, too.” She bent toward Nana Jo. “Good morning, Nana!”

The little girl smiled up at Ingrid. “Innie,” she cooed.

Ingrid smiled wider at the nickname.

David shrugged. “She still can’t say your name yet, or Auntie.”

“That’s okay,” Ingrid told Nana Jo. “I’ll take Innie any day.” She straightened.

“It’s amazing,” David said to her. “I never expected my life to be like this.” He swore he could see Josalee in his daughter. Over five years had passed since he lost Josalee and their unborn child, and even though it got easier, he still grieved for them. Things were definitely better, though. Although his speech was slightly slurred, and he still had to go to both occupational and speech therapy, he was alive. As soon as he had found a job, he started thinking about adopting.

The road had been long and hard, but worth it. He lifted Nana Jo from the stroller and kissed the tip of her nose. Thrusting her up into the air, he wiggled his fingers under her armpits. She shrieked with laughter.

“Hey, I meant to tell you, you sound good,” Ingrid said over Nana Jo.

He lowered his daughter to the floor and watched as she ran off toward a group of kids her age. “Thanks,” he told Ingrid.

“I mean it,” she said, her blue eyes shining. She tucked a strand of blonde hair behind one ear—her signature habit, for as long as he could remember. “Josalee would be proud.” She flushed as she said it.

He remembered when, not too long ago, none of his friends could say her name in his presence. He nodded and pulled Ingrid into a one-armed hug. “She would be proud of you,” he told her. Tears stung his eyes. He closed them, hoping she wouldn’t see. It was one thing to grieve. It was another to still completely lose it five years later. One day at a time, he reminded himself. Those were the same words he used when he wanted a drink. One day at a time.

He opened his eyes to see Edric come out of the office. Like Ingrid’s ex-boyfriend Victor, Edric was tall and dark, but their similarities ended there. The daycare’s occupational therapist laughed more than anyone David had ever met, and after three years of romantic dating, he hadn’t hesitated to put a ring on Ingrid’s finger. Edric was the kind of man that David would date, if Edric were into men. Anyone who shunned reality television was a friend of David’s.

Edric put his arms around Ingrid’s waist and kissed her on the cheek. As they linked hands, their wedding rings flashed in the light. David smiled, watching his friends. Ingrid may have singlehandedly brainstormed the daycare for children with HIV and AIDS, but it was Edric who made it work. Together, they were a powerful force.

“Wanna tell him, babe?” Edric asked Ingrid. She nodded eagerly. “We have an announcement,” he told David.

“We’re pregnant!” Ingrid burst out. No baby bump showed under her sweater, but she glowed all the same.

David’s eyes widened, his lips spread into an ear to ear grin, and he gasped. Rushing over to them, he wrapped his arms as far around them both as he could. He bounced on his feet. “Girl, I am already planning your shower!”

David knew exactly which decorations he would use, and the perfect gender-neutral color scheme. He could practically see his and Octavia’s living room, a pyramid of gifts for the new baby almost touching the ceiling. “Of course,” he said, releasing them and winking at Edric, “it’ll be a Jack and Jill.” He clapped his hands. “Oh, I’m so excited!” He hugged Ingrid again.

The door to the daycare opened, sending in a rush of cool air from outside. Having the store front suite kind of sucked sometimes. David, Ingrid, and Edric all turned in unison.

A man wearing round glasses stood at the entrance, his lips turned down. He paused for a moment, then strode toward them. David crossed his arms, stepping protectively in front of Ingrid.

“Good morning, Jonah,” she called to the man.

The name sounded familiar. David moved aside. A knot formed in the pit of his stomach. Even though the man’s name brought no negative feeling to mind, David still had a bad feeling.

Jonah gave David and Edric a curt nod, then turned to Ingrid. “I have some, uh, news,” he said.

David watched as she nibbled on her lower lip. “Oh?” she said. A crease formed in the center of her forehead.

Jonah sighed. “As you know, this building holds my office and some other offices, as well as your daycare. I’m here to let you know, in person, that I am selling the building.”

Suddenly, David remembered where he heard the name before. He, Ingrid, and Edric gasped. For a moment, he thought Ingrid might faint. Her face paled and her eyelids fluttered. Then she put her hand on Edric’s arm.

“You’re selling?” she repeated.

Jonah Morgan nodded. “I’m sorry, Ingrid. To be quite honest, I’m losing money. I may not look it, but I’ll be retiring in a few months. You understand, right?”

Ingrid nodded. “Of course,” she stammered.

“This, of course, voids our current lease. I’ll get you something in writing this afternoon.” Jonah wrung his hands. “I just wanted to tell you in person. You’ve been a good tenant, and I think what you’ve done here is really amazing.” Before anyone could say anything else, Jonah fled the daycare.

Silence fell over the small group. In the background, the toddlers shrieked and giggled.

“Um, excuse me,” said a familiar adult voice.

David glanced at Kimie, Josalee’s younger sister. Ingrid seemed to not notice her.

“What’s up, Kimie?” Edric asked, his voice soft.

Kimie’s eyebrows furrowed, but she didn’t ask any questions. “It’s, um, time for OT to start.”

Edric glanced at his watch, then nodded. “Of course. Give us one more minute, and I’ll get started. Maybe read them a quick story,” he suggested.

“Sure,” Kimie said, bouncing away.

“Are you okay, babe?” Edric asked Ingrid.

David touched her arm, steadying his friend.

“Everything I’ve done,” she whispered, “gone, just like that.”

“Nah,” Edric said. “We can figure out something else.” He pressed a kiss to Ingrid’s forehead.

She pulled away, shaking her head. “This was the cheapest rent I could get. You don’t know this, but he gave me the first year for free.” She bit her lip, turning to David. “We’re in the red, David. We’re just barely making it.”

He forced his lips into a smile that he hoped was reassuring. “It’ll be okay.” They all knew that wasn’t true, though. The downtown building could be renovated into apartments, turning the store front and upper offices into a cash cow. No one in their right mind would purchase it and leave it the way it was—not with the college campus so close. Anyone with half a brain could purchase it on a mortgage, take out a loan for the renovations, and rent it out to college students who were also living off borrowed money.

“We’ve got to get rolling, babe,” Edric told Ingrid gently. “For the kids?” He lifted her chin and kissed her.

She smiled, swallowing hard. “Okay.” She blew David a kiss. “See you this evening?”

He nodded and walked out of the daycare, clutching his car keys. There was nothing else like JoJo’s Daycare. It was the only one he knew of that specifically took children with HIV. Not only did Ingrid teach them, but she and Edric also worked with them to make them stronger. Even the sickest kids had gotten so much better. Slowly but surely, Ingrid was buying all of her students more time—even if her business wasn’t making much money.

Other daycares were filled with germs that would make Nana Jo sick. If he worried about sniffles, he would never sleep knowing that she was smack in the middle of so much uncleanliness. Sweat beaded on his forehead despite the cool air outside, and he had to lean against the building. His heart hammered in his chest, and his body shook. Not only was his heart broken for Ingrid and heavy to see Josalee’s legacy die so young, but he also had no idea where Nana Jo could safely stay while he worked.

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Thank You

Thank you so much to everyone who supported this series from the beginning. When I first started Sandpaper Fidelity in July 2012, I had no expectations. I just wanted to try writing a serial, and had these incredibly loud character ideas jump into my head. From Josalee’s dislike of music to Octavia’s love affair with orange juice, it’s been a wild ride. Thank you for reading.

The On the Edge series now has special pricing!

  • Positive (On the Edge #1): $0.00*
  • Upside Down (On the Edge #2): $0.99
  • Losing It (On the Edge #3): $1.99
  • Ever After (On the Edge #4): $2.99

Enjoy.

*Kindle and Nook readers: please use Smashwords to download your free copy.

Now Available | Losing It (On the Edge #3)

Post Grad Doesn’t Always Go As Planned

Losing It (On the Edge #3), by Elizabeth Barone

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Alexandra’s alcoholic mother is ruining her life. One minute, she is a college student, and the next, she’s homeless. Her mother refuses to leave Tent City, though, and Alex is forced to make a choice: save her mother, or save herself.

A fatal accident changes the lives of Josalee, David, and Ingrid forever.

Losing It is the third novelette in the On the Edge series, originally serialized under the title Sandpaper Fidelity. (If you are looking to complete your Sandpaper Fidelity collection, Losing It contains Episodes #25-30, plus a never-before-published bonus chapter! See this post for more information.)

Excerpt

Chapter 1

I

The light turned green. Josalee eased off the brakes and lightly pressed on the gas. The late afternoon sun shone brightly, warming her face and hands. She reached toward the dashboard and shut off the air conditioning, then rolled down her windows. The breeze was warm and humid, but felt like a caress on her skin. She would have to make a point of spending a day at the beach soon, she mused. The sun dipped behind the buildings as she turned along onto a lower road.

She couldn’t help it. Almost every week, after going to the ATM to withdraw some cash from her BB Couture sales, she went straight to the thrift store.

“This stuff is so old,” David complained one morning when she came home with a solid cedar changing table.

She merely stuck her tongue out at him, then smiled in victory as she thought of the pressed wood versions sold in the big box stores.

“And it’s so much cheaper at the thrift store,” she said aloud. If she was truthful with herself, she didn’t actually need to save any money by shopping consignment. BB Couture was netting around $1,000 in sales every week. She could afford to open a physical store front, if she wanted to.

The road stretched ahead of her, empty and open. She pressed down harder on the gas, bringing the car up to the 45mph speed limit. Too many drivers overdid it on that road, but not her. She patted the bump at her belly and smiled.

The sound of an engine revving and rubber grinding against asphalt shattered her reverie. In front of her, a car peeled out of the lot of a mechanic’s garage. Clenching the wheel with both hands, she had a moment to decide: try to swerve to the right and hit the garage itself, or try to stop. The other driver was too close, though, and she had no time. A millisecond later, the car slammed into hers. Metal ground against metal, tires squealed and, as she looked into the eyes of the other driver, Josalee wished she hadn’t unbuckled her seat belt to give her swollen belly a break.

II

David’s phone went off in his pocket, a cheerful chirp that pulled him out of the doze he’d fallen into. The birth story he had been watching was over. Josalee watched them all the time, and although he poked fun at them to her face, she unknowingly had him hooked. Grinning, he put the phone to his ear.

“Yellow,” he drawled, yawning. Outside, the sun glowed a bright orange, the world suspended in that warm light.

“Curls, you need to get down here right now,” Octavia said breathlessly.

He sat up straight. “What’s wrong?” Already, he began mapping the fastest route to her apartment. “Is it that Niall asshole?” he asked, narrowing his eyes. He crossed the room and seized his keys from the bowl they sat in.

“No, you need to come down to the emergency room,” she said.

He frowned. “Are you all right?”

For a moment, she said nothing. The seconds stretched into space, streaming out into the deep orange sunlight. David swallowed hard. He knew before the words were even out of Octavia’s mouth. “It’s not me. It’s Josalee.”

He asked the first thing that popped into his head: “Is it the baby?” Josalee wasn’t quite five months pregnant. While she probably could safely deliver the baby via C-section, she or he would be at incredibly high risk. He swallowed hard.

“Just get down here,” Octavia barked. She hung up on him.

Walking on numb legs, he left the apartment.

III

Alexandra Moreau sat huddled in one of the stiff waiting room chairs. She shivered, despite the Southern Connecticut State University sweatshirt she wrapped herself in. The hospital was always cold, even in the winter. A crease blemished her forehead, and she chewed on a fingernail.

“Ma’am?” A man in a white doctor’s coat looked down at her. She straightened in her seat, rubbed the fatigue from her eyes, and nodded for him to continue. “Your mother?” He didn’t sound sure.

“Liza Moreau, right?” Alexandra asked.

The doctor nodded. “She’s asleep. We had to pump her stomach. She’s very lucky.” He pulled out a packet of tissues and held it out to her. She waved them away. He sat down next to her. “I looked at her records,” he said, as though he were confessing some deep secret, “and I think it might be best if your mother checked into our rehabilitation program.” He pulled out a pamphlet from another pocket. Alexandra wondered what else he carried on him.

She took it from him with numb hands, and said nothing.

“In fact, you may be able to admit her forcibly,” the doctor continued.

She only looked at him, using what she called her stone face—something she had practiced for years and perfected only recently. She tried to imagine a life without her mother for a couple of weeks. A pile of textbooks and notebooks sat in a corner of the ripped tent they slept in—things that Alexandra thought she might be able to attend to if she could get a break from the barrage of late night binges and visits to the emergency room. Then she remembered that she and her mother no longer had health insurance, and there was no other way to pay for rehab.

Alexandra gave the doctor a tired smile. “Okay,” she said. He sat there for a moment longer, perhaps soaking in her once chocolate brown hair that hung in greasy strands, or the dirt stains on her leggings. Without another word, she stood and left the emergency department, slipped through the double doors, and burst into the fresh summer air.

She couldn’t afford to get her mother help, but she needed to do something. She pulled a crumpled soft pack of cigarettes out of her hoodie pocket and lit one, grimacing at its stale taste but inhaling anyway. As she pulled it away from her lips, a man with a wild mop of curly hair crashed into her. He whirled, holding out his hands for balance, then continued through the entrance. She knew the vacant, desperate look in his green eyes. After all, she saw the same expression every time she looked into her own ice blue ones.

IV

Victor shut off the car engine. Birds chirped from their nests atop the trees, sending messages he couldn’t decipher. He stared through the windshield at the cabaret. From the outside, it looked as harmless as a restaurant. He opened his car door and put a dress shoe clad foot on the ground. A trio of men emerged from the cabaret, each sporting an equally sparse head of hair. One looked as though he hadn’t bathed in years.

Grimacing, Victor climbed back into the car, shutting the door. With a shake of his head, he turned the engine on and put the car into reverse. A flash of blonde hair in the waning sunlight caught his eye, and he stared, transfixed, as a nearly perfect copy of Ingrid joined the men outside. She pulled her hair off her bare shoulders and into a ponytail. She wore a corset and fishnet tights that reminded him of one of the costumes in Moulin Rouge. As though she could feel his eyes on her, she turned from the men and strut up to his car.

Leaning his head back on the seat, Victor sighed and closed his eyes. When he opened them, the woman stood at his window. She tapped on the glass with a manicured fingernail, smiling. He opened it a few inches, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Hey there, cutie,” she said. Up close, she looked nothing like Ingrid. Where Ingrid’s skin was smooth, this woman’s face was pocked with freckles and acne scars. Her green eyes sparkled mischievously, though, and when she smiled, her entire face lit up. “My name’s Yvette. What’s yours?”

He shook his head. “I just got turned around. I was on my way out—”

She giggled, pressing a hand to her lips. “You should come inside,” Yvette said.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

She leaned on the window. “Are you married?” From the angle she stood at, her breasts were exactly at his eye level. She gave him a wink and tilted her head at him, an impish smile playing on her lips.

Victor put the car into park, but did not shut off the engine.

Yvette turned and walked back toward the cabaret. “Dollar lap dances today,” she called over her shoulder.

Closing his eyes, Victor shut off the engine. “Lord forgive me,” he said, thinking of his mother and her warning to him. He slipped out of the car and followed Yvette inside.

VI

Octavia watched David stride through the doors. She met him halfway through the waiting area.

“What happened?” he asked, his voice wavering.

She took his hand and pulled him into a nearby counseling room.

“What’s this?” he demanded as she closed the door. His eyes darted from side to side, making him look like a trapped animal.

“Sit down, Curls,” she said softly.

“No,” he barked.

She did not plead with him. Instead, she closed her eyes and said a quick prayer, asking God to help her take care of her friend. Then she gave it to him, straight. Her parents were crappy people, but at least they taught her to never beat around the bush.

David crumpled to the floor in front of her, his mouth hanging open, a gasp escaping his lips. He made a sound she would never be able to describe—something like a cross between a sob and scream—and tears flooded his cheeks, dripping onto the floor as he collapsed completely. His body heaved and spasmed, and his heavy weeping echoed through the room.

She hesitated, then sat next to him, placing a hand on his back. He jerked away. He scooted across the bleached linoleum. David ducked underneath the table and wrapped his arms around himself. She reached for him. “No,” he snapped, and buried his face in his hands.

Blinking, Octavia opened her mouth, but finding words of comfort felt as impossible as finding a diamond in the ocean. Instead, she sat next to him, staring at a dust bunny that swayed in the draft.

When he purged all he could for the moment, she stood, held out a hand to him, and helped him out from under the table. He moved the way a war veteran might walk after coming home, as though there was nothing left inside of him.

VII

Dawn broke through the tree line, the sun casting a soft glow over the street. The rays painted the couch David lay on. He stared at the ceiling, his eyes so dry, he thought they might crack if he touched them. When Octavia finally left the night before, he thought he might go into his bedroom, but then he remembered it was right across from Josalee’s. He found himself standing in the hallway at the top of the stairs, staring at her closed door. He wanted to want to go in, but the closest he got was the top of the stairs. After another moment, he turned and went back down.

In the kitchen, he found a bottle of Maker’s Mark that had sat in their cupboard for so long, he couldn’t remember how it got there. He broke the wax seal and poured a shot into the coffee mug he used that morning. David glanced at the table where he and Josalee had sat talking about their finances and the possibility of buying a condo or house. Sobbing, he turned away from the table and downed the shot of whiskey.

What was supposed to be one quick drink turned into several. Every time he thought of her, he poured another shot. Before he knew it, the sky was lightening.

Octavia had promised she would be there for seven. Josalee’s parents had decided to hold the funeral immediately.

“They probably don’t want anyone in their precious family to know she was pregnant with the faggot’s baby,” David told Octavia, his mouth twisted into a snarl.

He looked at the digital time display on his and Josalee’s cable box. Not a single part of him could find the will to get off the couch and into the shower. His fingers brushed at the stubble on his face. The thought of shaving felt as impossible as bringing Josalee back. His eyes burned as fresh tears gushed forth. A hand twitched at his side, but did not move to brush them away.

The front door opened. Tendrils of black corkscrew ringlets bobbed as Octavia fought with the keys.

“Jiggle it,” David said, the tears pouring faster. With a gasp, he rolled over onto his side, his knees tucked close to his chest.

“Oh, Curls,” Octavia said. She closed the door and planted two coffees on the end table. Falling to her knees beside him, she brushed a stray lock from his face and dabbed at his eyes with her sleeve. “You’re a mess,” she told him. “I should’ve never left you alone last night.” She stood, plucked the bottle of whiskey from the floor, and brought it into the kitchen.

He stared after her, the world around him a blur as he purged yet more grief.

Octavia returned a few minutes later with toast and a tall glass of orange juice. She set it on the coffee table and lifted David into a sitting position. “All this nursing’s paying off.” She tapped the corner of the plate. “Eat.”

Shaking his head, he slumped back against the cushions. Chewing took too much effort and besides, he wasn’t hungry. He wondered if he would ever be able to enjoy anything ever again. Sleep, food—it all felt so meaningless without Josalee and the promise of a future. Her ceaseless hope had pulled him back from the brink he crashed into the day he found out he was HIV positive. While Octavia’s bubbly personality often lifted his spirits, she would never replace Josalee.

He shook his head again.

“Curls, if you don’t eat, you’re gonna be useless at the ceremony. It’s bad enough you already went and got drunk.” She sighed and sat next to him. “Josalee wouldn’t want to see you this way.”

He reached for the plate.

VIII

Ingrid watched the man in front of her kneel before Josalee’s closed casket. He bowed his head and clasped his hands. He sat like that for a long time, and Ingrid began to panic. She didn’t know how to pray, didn’t believe in any sort of higher power. She worried that the people in line behind her would be able to tell. While they probably wouldn’t kick her out, they would still know that she didn’t truly belong there.

She couldn’t remember Josalee ever talking about her parents’ religious views. As far as Ingrid knew, Japanese people were Buddhist, but she knew Josalee’s mother was white. Perhaps Mr. Sato had adopted his wife’s Evangelist religion. Ingrid chewed on a fingernail—something she hadn’t done since elementary school—and went through her options.

She could just skip that part. She could press a kiss to her fingertips and then touch the casket and be on her way. That would be sweet. People might think it was weird, though. She could just simply walk on, maybe even bow her head a little. Or…

The man stood and continued to the line of family members ahead. Ingrid’s eyes widened and she hurried to the little rest. She knelt in front of the coffin, rested her elbows on the padded bar, and bowed her head.

A dozen thoughts flew through her head about how sorry she was, how much she had missed of Josalee’s life lately, and how she couldn’t believe that in less than a few minutes, the woman who she considered to be her best friend was simply gone.

A tear slid down her cheek. Swallowing hard, she stood and hurried to offer her condolences to Josalee’s family. Half of them she’d never even met before. She shook hands with Mr. and Mrs. Sato, gave Kimie an awkward hug, and said sorry to a tiny wrinkled Japanese woman who had to be Josalee’s grandmother. As for the rest of them, she simply shook hands with them and nodded at them, the words stuck in her throat.

Her feet carried her to a seat as far from the family and casket as possible. She thought it was strange that the Satos decided to do calling hours the same morning as the service. At least they hadn’t done an open casket wake.

Ingrid nibbled at the same fingernail again. The skin around the nail reddened and the nail itself felt rough to the touch. At the rate she was going, she would bite it off completely soon.

She glanced around for David. She hadn’t seen him yet, and wondered why he hadn’t pushed to stand with the family. He was the closest thing to a boyfriend that Josalee had in years. She knew Josalee’s family hadn’t been very excited about her pregnancy, but she thought David was a good man. He seemed to be a little more pouty lately, but the whole dark and depressed thing was working for him, since Josalee couldn’t seem to get enough of him.

Ingrid smiled as she remembered her friend, then immediately had to pull out a tissue to dab at her eyes. It wasn’t fair.

The services began shortly after, but she didn’t remember much of them later. The pastor talked mostly about accepting Jesus to avoid burning in hell. At first, she cringed, but after a little while she stopped listening completely. The family invited everyone to share a lunch after the burial.

After the funeral, Ingrid spotted David and his friend, but they left the church before she had a chance to catch them. She drove alone to the cemetery, her emergency lights flashing along with everyone else’s. It was funny how, even though she lived in a world where people constantly rushed through life, police still held traffic for funeral processions. She wondered if the tradition would ever be overridden by impatient drivers.

The burial itself only took a few minutes. Josalee’s family members each placed a rose on the casket. David, Ingrid noticed, stood at the very edge of the group. It was almost as though Josalee’s father had forbidden him to get too close.

It wasn’t until after the casket was lowered into the ground that Ingrid discovered why David was keeping his distance. She caught up to him and the woman whose name she couldn’t remember, and immediately the pungent scent of whiskey hit her. Her eyes widened, but then she composed her face. She didn’t have to try very hard, though, because David merely nodded at her and then hurried away with his friend. Frowning, Ingrid got into her own car.

David did not go back to the church for lunch. She stayed the entire time, constantly scanning the faces. No one said a word to her, not even Kimie. Josalee’s younger sister sat in stoic silence with the rest of the Sato family. Ingrid waited until almost everyone else had left, then approached Josalee’s father.

“Mr. Sato?” she asked, feeling like a child.

He turned his sharp gaze at her, and she fought the urge to bite at her nail. “Yes?”

“My name is Ingrid Isaksson. Josalee was my best friend.” She tried to smile, but the man stared at her as though she were something on his shoe. His forehead and nose crinkled. She surged ahead. “I was thinking that it might mean a lot to Josalee if we all donated to some kind of charity for people with, you know, HIV.”

He paled. Waving a hand dismissively at her, he began to walk away.

She tried again. “She was making clothes for babies. I think she would want us to do something for children with HIV.”

Josalee’s father whirled on her so fast, she jumped back. “I do not ever want to hear any more on this subject. Leave, now. Please.” The way he said “please” sounded more like a death threat, so Ingrid nodded and scurried out of the church, her cheeks blazing.

She would have to find another way to honor her friend.

IX

Traffic was heavy for a Tuesday morning. Victor watched as a funeral procession passed. It took an entire ten minutes, guaranteeing him late for work. Slamming his hand against the wheel in frustration, he pressed down hard on the gas when the cop finally signaled the line of waiting travelers forward. As he neared the intersection, the light turned yellow, then red.

“Dammit!” he screamed. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tipped his head back. When he opened his eyes, he realized he was right in front of the cabaret. He could go in, buy a dance or two, and then go to work. He would be late, but he could blame the traffic. For all his boss knew, the procession was much larger.

He blinked. He hated his job, but he could not afford to lose it. He had already lost so much. Tears blurred his vision as he thought of Ingrid and the ring he wanted to give her. Whatever they could have been had dissolved to ashes, and he could only blame himself.

When the light turned green, he went straight through the intersection, but he knew he would be back.

“If not today, then tomorrow,” he said to the empty car. “I need help.” A sob escaped his lips, and he pulled the car over. As he put it into park, his entire body began shaking. He rested his head against the steering wheel, gripping it with his massive hands until the tears slowed.

Wiping his face, he sucked in a deep breath.

“I need help,” he said again.

X

Niall sat on the couch, half watching a cooking show, when Octavia came in through the door. She wore a rumpled pencil skirt and lightweight sweater, both a size or two too small for her. She kicked off her heels and stumbled into the house.

“Rough day at the office?” he asked, winking.

“Funeral,” she said, slumping on the couch next to him.

He straightened up. “Oh,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

She waved a hand at him. “Not anyone close to me. My friend David’s girlfriend or whatever. Baby mama.” She sighed.

“Oh,” Niall said again. “You look shot.”

She rolled her eyes. “That’s because, straight after the funeral, David went to the bar across the street and started pounding shots.”

She tipped her head up toward the ceiling, closing her eyes. He watched her face as she took long, slow breaths. Her skin was creamy and smooth, despite the two worry lines that creased her forehead. Her eyes flew open and he looked away quickly, his heart pounding.

“How was your day?” she asked him. Maybe she hadn’t noticed.

He swallowed hard. “You know. Work. Nothing exciting.” He pressed his lips together. Octavia was his roommate, and strictly off limits. He stood from the couch. “I’m going to order a pizza. Do you want some?”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “You’re seriously gonna feed a fat chick a pizza?”

His mouth dropped open. “Don’t say that.”

She shrugged. “It’s my body. I call it like I see it.”

He shook himself. “Okay. Whatever.” He ambled into the kitchen, shoving away the concern he felt. He just needed to stay a little longer, until he saved enough money to get his own place. He told himself he didn’t need to worry about any of her problems. He had enough of his own.

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