Thanks to Melissa Pearl for allowing me to be part of her True Colors Masquerade Ball launch party, which you can find at Facebook, going on right now as of this posting. This is my secret reveal: I have a book to be released soon titled The End of Feeling. Here's the blurb, and a sneak peek at it! Enjoy!
Benjamin Nefer seems to have it all. He’s the most popular guy in school, the star quarterback with college scouts looking at him, his grades are near the top of his class, he can get any girl he wants . . . but he hides behind his dreams life to mask the nightmare of his reality.
Charlie Austin is the new girl. Forced to move in with a bitter aunt, she only wants to protect her fragile mom from the world’s cruelty. When Benjamin sets his sights on Charlie, she’s armored against his charm—friends warned her about Benjamin’s game of pursuing and then dumping a long line of girls, not caring about the broken hearts he leaves behind. She doesn’t count on how single-minded he can be when she refuses him, or how charismatic, easing into her life through what he claims is just friendship.
Benjamin thought he could keep Charlie in the same place he keeps all girls—something to be used and then discarded. But Charlie has as many secrets as he does, secrets he’s determined to discover while keeping his own hidden. He realizes she’s the perfect girlfriend candidate . . . someone he can use to keep up the façade of a perfect life. Now he just has to keep his frozen heart from softening toward this unique girl, because if he doesn’t, his carefully constructed lies might just come thundering down around him, crushing him beneath the burden of feeling.
I don’t feel anything anymore.
If I were going to feel something, it would be for my sister, Mia. She’s gone now, has been for the last eight years, since I was nine . . . and I somehow doubt she’s coming back.
I loved her when she was here. I tried to protect her.
When he finally hurt her so badly that she nearly died, torn up inside and out, she came and took her. She left me there, left me with him, completely at his mercy. As far as I know, she didn’t even come back to see if I was okay, if I needed help, if I needed to go, too.
I don’t hate her for that. I don’t even envy her that she got out so much earlier than even Mia. To do either of those things requires feeling, and I don’t feel. Anything. So I live with him still, numb and beyond caring. How else could I be?
Daniel and I relax at a table in the center of the common area. School begins in less than fifteen minutes, so many of the other students have already begun to gather their stuff and move toward their first period class. Those who remain behind, unhurried and unworried, are the seniors. It’s the sophomores and juniors that worry about being late.
Daniel sits on the bench, his back facing the table, elbows propped on the edge and his legs sprawled in front of him. I’m lying flat out on the top of the table, arms propped behind my head as we discuss the upcoming football game. Some of our other buddies are sitting around with us as well, but they’re almost unimportant. Daniel and I rule the school and they know it. The others serve the purpose of having a crowd to rule.
“Whoa,” Daniel says, sitting up straight. I turn my head in his direction. “Hot new girl at ten o’clock.”
I turn my gaze to the ten o’clock position and see nothing or no one unusual. I sit up and see that Daniel is staring straight ahead. I roll my eyes. I should have known. Clearly Daniel has no idea how to read an analog clock. Every time he gives a position in relation to a clock, he’s nowhere near correct. I follow his eyes and see exactly who he’s looking at.
Alexis, Phoebe, and Cozi are emerging from the main office, and in the center of them is a stranger. Granted, with a school as large as ours, it’s not possible to know everyone, but she’s one I would have noticed. She’s about the same height as Phoebe, which puts her around five-and-a-half feet. She has straight, blonde hair. Nothing extraordinary in either of those features but she’s definitely on the gorgeous side of life, I can see that even from here. She laughs at something one of the other girls says and Daniel turns a look to me, grinning. Her laugh carries across to us, throaty and joyful, one of the greatest laughs I’ve ever heard.
“We should go say hi,” I say.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Daniel replies, scooping up his backpack from the floor as he rises. When we near the group, Alexis sees our approach. Her gaze finds mine and I see a flash of anger mixed with hurt. Her eyes flick to the new girl and then back to me as understanding dawns. She knows I’m not coming to see her, but to meet her new friend.
“Hey, guys,” Daniel says.
They all respond, except the new girl. I’ve got my gaze locked on her and she’s looking back.
“Hi, Benjamin,” Phoebe says.
“Hey, Phoebe,” I say, my gaze flicking to her quickly, dismissively, before returning to the new girl. She’s even better looking up close. Her eyes are a hazel green, wide and almond shaped, surrounded by thick, dark lashes. I wonder if they’re fake. Plenty of girls have fake lashes. “Who’s your new friend?”
“Oh, um, this is Charlie. Charlie, this is Benjamin and Daniel.”
I hold a hand out and her eyes look at it. She hesitates just a nanosecond before placing her hand in mine. She grasps my hand tightly, gives it a single firm shake then pulls her hand back before I have a chance to give her my usual soft squeeze and gentle brush of the thumb across the back of her hand. It always works to throw girls a little off, when they’re not sure if they’ve had their hand shaken or caressed.
Alexis bites the inside of her cheek and I can see she’s trying not to laugh over Charlie’s handshake. Alexis is one of my most recent heartbreaks—her heart, not mine. To be fair, I only went on two dates with her. That’s my absolute maximum. Any more than that and the girl might think I’m interested in some kind of relationship. Sometimes they fall too hard for me. If I’m being honest, most times they fall too hard for me. Not my fault. Now, Alexis smiles at Charlie’s apparent rejection of the vibes I’m trying to project.
Charlie turns and juts her hand toward Daniel, giving him the same brusque handshake, but smiling at him as she does. Alexis laughs outright this time. I ignore her, awed by Charlie’s smile. It reveals deep dimples in both cheeks, with smaller ones at each corner of her mouth. Her smile is even better than her eyes and her laugh.
“Charlie?” I say. “That’s an unusual name.”
“Short for Charlotte,” she says, gazing directly at me. I try using my most intense, come-hither look. She remains unmoved.
“Down, Benjamin, she’s new here,” Cozi says, linking her arm through Charlie’s and leading her away. Daniel and I watch her go. Daniel is grinning, but I watch her intently. It’s not usual for a girl to be immune to me, particularly when I’m pouring on the charm.
Well, I decide, nothing like a good challenge to begin the football season.
“I’m home,” I call, stepping through the front door. I drop my backpack by the door, then remember my aunt’s obsession with order and pick it up again. I can hear the TV playing in the family room at the back of the house. I look around the strange entryway, allowing myself one moments longing for my grandma and her home where we lived until her death a month ago.
I walk into the family room and see my mom, sitting on the couch, watching Barney. I dig my nails into my palms. Man, I hate that stupid, annoying, dense, purple dinosaur. “Hi, Mom,” I say.
Mom jumps at the sound of my voice. She’d been too intent on Barney to hear my earlier greeting. She turns my way, a wide smile splitting her face. I smile back. Her eyes crinkle with joy as she jumps up from the couch, stray, wiry gray hairs escaping her messy ponytail. I grit my teeth at my aunt’s lack of care of her.
“Charlie!” my mom yells brightly, running to me and throwing her arms around my neck, kissing my cheek noisily. I hug her tightly, cringing at the slightly sour smell.
“Mom, did you take a bath today?”
“Mimi says I don’t have to bath today.”
“Mom, we talked about this, remember? You need to bathe every day.”
She shakes her head, mouth drooping. She refuses to shower, has ever since the incident. So we compromise with a bath, followed by a lotion rubdown. If she could manage to go a night without wetting her adult diapers, she could skip a bath. In all the time I can remember, she’s been able to skip only a handful.
“Should we go take a bath now?” I ask.
“Barney’s on,” she whines.
“Yes, and if you take a bath, you can play with your Barney toy. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
As fast as her mouth had drooped, it now is replaced by a big smile. She claps happily and skips to the bathroom. I follow and run the water while she undresses, singing the annoying theme from the TV show. I pull the rubber band from her hair and dump water over her head. She blows bubbles as I do so. I get her washed as she happily plays with the big purple dinosaur and I then have to convince her to get out of the tub. Convincing her to get out is as difficult as getting her in.
Once she’s dried and dressed, she sits back in front of the TV to watch cartoons, Barney long since forgotten, while I start dinner. I’m angry that my aunt is still not home. I wonder how long my mom sat here alone, unsupervised, until I arrived.
She comes in when I’m just about done with the spaghetti, acting like nothing is wrong.
“Hi, Charlotte,” Naomi says. I bristle at the name. It’s not that I dislike the name; my grandma chose it for me because it was her own mother’s name. It’s because my aunt refuses to call me Charlie like everyone else does simply because it’s the nickname my mom gave me.
“Where were you?” I ask.
She stops in the act of setting her purse down to stare at me. “That’s none of your business.”
“It is when you leave my mom home alone,” I retort. “She can’t be left on her own.”
“I was gone maybe ten minutes before you got home from school. What can happen in ten minutes?”
A lot, I think. I refrain from telling her though, knowing our living here is precarious and based on staying in her good graces.
“I have a life, Charlotte. Allowing you two to move in didn’t include the requirement that I give up all my freedom.”
“I understand that,” I say, biting my tongue from telling her how selfish she is. “I’m coming home directly after school. I haven’t signed up for any extracurricular activities or anything. I’ll even get up early to bath her if that’s too much to ask of you. All I do ask is that you watch her while I’m gone.”
Naomi sighs. “We need to talk.”
“It’s time to eat,” I say. I have a feeling I know what she’s going to say. I move past her to call my mom when she places a hand on my arm.
“Not all homes are bad places,” she begins, and fury consumes me.
“I will not place my mother in a home,” I spit.
“You shouldn’t have to give up normal teen things to take ca—”
“I don’t care!” I’m shaking with anger. “I don’t care about any of that. I’ll drop out of school if I have to. I’m not putting her in a home!”
Naomi sighs again and I’m tempted to punch her. What does she know of taking care of my mom? She abandoned ship as soon as she graduated high school to get away from the embarrassment of having my mom for a sister. Plus, she knows what happened when my grandma did buckle under pressure—from Naomi, no less—and put her in a home. How could she possibly subject her to that again?
“I know it’s not ideal—”
I spin away from her, refusing to listen to another word. I walk into the living room where my mom sits, curled up on the couch, a blanket pulled up to her ear in one hand, sucking on the thumb of her other. My shoulders sink in dismay as I walk over to her. Her eyes are glued to the TV, but I know she’s not watching it.
“Mom,” I say softly, sitting down and placing a hand on her arm. Her wide, innocent eyes turn to me.
“Does Mimi hate you?” she whispers, voice trembling. Mimi is her nickname for Naomi.
“No, Mom, she doesn’t. Were we talking too loud?”
She shakes her head. “You were yelling.” Gotta love Mom’s honesty.
“I’m sorry, Mom. We were just having a disagreement. I love Mimi, and she loves me.” Blatant lie. “Everything’s fine now. I’m sorry we scared you. You want to come have some spaghetti now?”
She nods and takes my proffered hand, rising from the couch. When we enter the kitchen, Naomi is outside, pacing, smoking a cigarette. I bite the inside of my cheek. I hate that she smokes, but at least she no longer smokes in the house with my mom and me. I suppose I can give her a few points for that.
I sit my mom at the table and fix a plate for her before taking the time to check my blood sugar. I prick my finger at the counter with my back turned because it tends to freak my mom out. She thinks I’m hurting myself. A few minutes later, Naomi comes in. My mom brightens.
“Hi, Mimi,” she says happily.
“Hi, Cora.” Naomi gives her a tight smile then fixes herself a plate. “I’m going to eat in my room,” she says. At the doorway she pauses, and without looking back says, “Thanks for dinner.”
If my mom weren’t sitting here, I’d probably scream. Instead, I smile and play a word game with her while we eat.
Dinner is a lonely affair as usual. I don’t care. I prefer it that way. The microwave beeps, my burritos nuked. I pull on the fridge door and pull out the crusty bottle of salsa and container of sour cream. Opening the sour cream, I see the green fuzz coating the top layer. I consider scraping it off and eating what’s beneath, but then decide I can’t afford food poisoning right now. Not with the game in two days.
I dump what little salsa is left across the burritos and toss the empty bottle into the trash, where it crashes loudly against the other glass bottles that fill the can—empty beer bottles. Guess I better take that out.
My cell buzzes as I sit down and take my first bite. Lava hot beans and cheese burn my tongue and the roof of my mouth. “Argh,” is the sound that comes out of my mouth as I open wide, trying to blow around the bite of burrito, as if that will somehow relieve the burning. I quickly swallow the hot bite and follow it with a large swig of water, hoping it will prevent the burning from continuing down my esophagus.
My phone buzzes again and I pull it out of my pocket. As I suspected, it’s a text from Daniel.
Dude, meet me at the mega-cinema at 9.
I text back, On a school night? What would your mother say, Danny boy?
C’mon, man, what if hot new girl shows?
That stops me from texting my auto refusal. What if hot new girl does show? She intrigues me. I’ve spent a lot of years honing the charm, as well as the biceps and abs, which means it’s a rare girl who can resist me. And yet, Charlie . . . uh, Charlie . . . what did she say her last name is? Anyway, Charlie seems to have no problem resisting. I sense a challenge.
I glance toward the trash can, remembering the sound of the bottles within. I know exactly what that means. My life is nothing if not predictable, and I know the bottles in the can mean I’m not going anywhere tonight.
Sorry, bro, gotta get a report done or my ass is grass, I text. Give her a kiss for me. Wait, strike that. Talk me up to her.
My phone is silent for a few minutes. I know he’s debating trying to convince me to come, but I also know that he’s well aware it won’t work. Finally it buzzes.
Your loss, man. If she’s there I’ll be talking ME up.
I laugh, knowing that’s not true. Daniel and I have a very clear understanding about girls—I get first pick, and he gets either the leftovers or my picks once I’m finished with them. I glance at the time on my phone and realize I don’t have much time left.
I quickly finish the now tolerable-temperature burritos, then rinse my plate in the sink and put it in the dishwasher. After hiding all of the big knives in the freezer, I gather the bag full of glass bottles and take it to the large can outside. Back inside I look around to see what items make the worst weapons and place them in the backs of various cabinets. I can’t move too many items where it’s obvious or that’ll set him off. Avoiding setting him off is priority one.
Then I settle in to wait.
It doesn’t take long. I grab a notebook and sit at the kitchen table when I hear his car, pretending to do homework. I can’t have any real homework out on the off-chance he decides to target that. He’s done it before. He’ll do it again. He stumbles through the front door and I clamp my jaw. Why has he never been DUI’d? The man drives drunk more than he does sober, and yet he’s never been pulled over. Makes me wonder if the cops are simply waiting for him to kill someone before they do. It wouldn’t kill him—I’m not that lucky.
He barrels his way into the kitchen and in spite of myself, I cringe. Shame fills me that I do, but in my defense, I’ve spent a lot of years on the receiving end of his fists. My dad is a big man, roughly the size of a grizzly, or so it seems. I’m pretty tall at six-four, but he towers over me. As much as I work out to build my muscles, I can’t hold a candle to his brawn or his meaty fists that are already clenched before he even sees me.
“Damn loser,” he says in greeting. No worries for him winning Father of the Year. I don’t respond. I don’t even bother looking up, but I watch his feet furtively. I need to be prepared when he nears, which he does rather quickly for an enormous, drunk man.
His fist lands on the side of my head, but the blow isn’t so bad. Because I was prepared, I duck as he swings, causing his blow to glance off the side of my head. I stand, moving back from him as he swings again, this time catching my shoulder. I grimace in pain, in the back of my mind thinking about the possibility that a bruise might affect my playing in the game.
“Stop, Dad,” I say, the words coming in spite of my trying to keep them back.
“Stop what, loser?” he slurs, swinging again, connecting with the center of my back as I turn away. “Fight back, coward.”
I don’t want to. And yet, without a doubt I know what will happen if I don’t obey the command. He’s told me before in no uncertain terms. He even began a convincing demonstration on more than one occasion until I caved. I’ve also learned, though, not to fight back until he requests it.
I turn his way. Because he’s drunk, I at least have a small chance to if not win, at least escape mostly unscathed. And so I fight back, no emotion coming into play as I do. I don’t feel any more or less for hitting him or receiving his blows than I do when I stand in the boxing ring. Ten minutes later, he swings at my head and misses, the force knocking him to the floor. He’s passed out cold as soon as he lands. I wipe the blood that drips from my lip with the back of my fist as I stare down at him. I want to hate him, I genuinely do. But that requires feeling I don’t have. I feel nothing for him.
Shamed at the life I live, the life not a single soul outside of my father knows about, I drop a blanket over his prone form and then drag myself to the shower. The hot water will loosen my tight muscles, and hopefully I won’t show too many signs tomorrow. Since I’ve made a rep for myself for hitting up the local boxing club quite frequently, no one questions the random bruises or cuts I might show up with.
Before stepping into the shower I stare at myself in the mirror. I touch my lip gingerly, turning my head to the side to examine the red mark where he managed to get a blow in. I press against the mark. Not too sore, so likely no bruise or black eye, or at least not too bad.
I avoid looking myself directly in the eye. I can’t do it. Haven’t been able to for years. My life is sick, twisted, at the mercy of insanity and absence of reason. Picking up the bar of soap, I drag it back and forth across the mirror until I’m obliterated.