With less than four weeks until release day, here's a Teaser Tuesday treat! The first three chapters of AS I AM (All Saints #3). This is the third book in a series, but can absolutely be read as a standalone book.
Dr. James Taggert double-checked the wall clock time against his wristwatch, a little surprised that Will was late for his appointment. He was never late. He often showed up ten minutes early for their twice-monthly sessions and then had to sit in the waiting room with Gina. Today he was three minutes past due.
His desk phone buzzed. “Your three o’clock is here,” Gina’s voice piped over the speaker.
He hit the talk button. “Thanks, Gina. Send him in.”
Will knocked gently, as was his custom. But as he strode into the office, everything else about him was markedly different. His normally shaggy brown hair had been combed and slicked back a bit, showing off more of his face. Instead of his customary loose pants and baggy sweatshirt—even in the summer, he wore that sweatshirt—he had on clean jeans that fit and a blue button-down shirt.
Dr. Taggert had probably done a poor job of hiding his surprise, because Will froze halfway to the armchair he favored for their sessions. He glanced at the clock. “Crap, I’m late.”
“It’s okay,” Dr. Taggert said. “You’re dressed differently than usual.”
“I had to. I had a job interview before this.”
“You did?” He was impressed that Will was finally being proactive about his future. “Do you want to tell me about that?”
Will shrugged as he sat, shoulders back, less guarded than even their last few sessions. He’d changed so much in a year and a half and was nothing like the terrified, mistreated boy Dr. Taggert had first met in the emergency room. Although lately a kind of anger had clung to him, indistinct, but lurking beneath the surface. “I mean, it wasn’t for like a big job or anything,” Will replied. “Kate helped. She probably feels sorry for me because I’m such a nutcase I can’t get my own interviews.”
Kate Alden was Will’s social worker. She had referred Will’s foster mother, Jennifer, to Dr. Taggert for treatment, and Will had been one of the biggest challenges of his career. He’d survived a childhood full of neglect, including two years of horrific abuse by his drug-addicted mother, been placed in emergency foster care at age sixteen, and for the last year and a half Dr. Taggert had worked with Will over simple tasks like eating three times a day. Taking care of himself. Believing in his own right to be happy.
Kate took a genuine interest in the kids she helped, too, and they were both concerned about Will with his eighteenth birthday looming in two months. He’d no longer be a ward of the state; he also had nowhere to go except a halfway house, and Dr. Taggert worried for his safety. Will was still emotionally fragile, and his recent foul moods troubled him.
“What kind of job is it?” Dr. Taggert asked.
“Part-time Food Lion stock boy.”
“Any particular department?”
“Um, produce, I think. They made me pick up a few cases of things to make sure I was strong enough.”
“I’m assuming you are?”
He shrugged. “I guess. I had a little trouble with a box of apples, but it was slippery. No handles to grab.”
“Do you think you got the job?”
Dr. Taggert’s heart dropped. “Why not?”
Will grunted. “Because as I was leaving, I heard one of the guys who interviewed me say, ‘He’s too fucking little.’”
Hell. A stock boy job would have been perfect for Will, because it required little contact with the public. And the last thing he needed was more people giving him crap about his size. Five feet tall and ninety pounds soaking wet, Will had grown up with very poor nutrition, and two years of hell had left him with a serious aversion to food. Dr. Taggert could help him with certain things, but nothing could be done about his height. Muscle tone, maybe, but Will was terrified of gyms because they were full of strange, half-naked men.
“They haven’t officially said no,” Dr. Taggert said. “When did they tell you they’d let you know?”
“Tomorrow, but there was this big kid waiting to go in after me. I won’t get it.” Will leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, frowning. “I know you and Kate and Jennifer all worry about what will happen when I turn eighteen. Believe me, so do I. A halfway house terrifies me, but I can’t stay with Jennifer. She needs the room to save her next foster kid. But how do I pay for food and rent without a real job? And what about therapy?”
“Do you wish to keep coming to therapy?”
“Yes. I know I’m way better than I was, but once I’m out of the system…I can’t pay you with money I don’t have.”
“Don’t worry about the money. I’ve done pro bono work before, and I’ve worked with other clients on a sliding scale based on their income. I’m not going to abandon you, Will, I promise.”
Will seemed to relax a fraction. “Thank you. But I still need money. I mean, I liked the idea of piling apples and filling in bagged lettuce. It’s kind of solitary, you know? Plus I didn’t graduate high school, so the list of places that will hire me with zero work experience is, like, as long as my finger.”
He made a mental note to do some digging into work opportunities based on Will’s history. As much as he hated the idea of suggesting he apply for disability, Will’s PTSD was both well documented and extremely crippling.
“Have you talked to Jennifer about any possibilities?” Dr. Taggert asked.
“Not really. She’s got Darren to worry about right now.”
Will had mentioned Jennifer’s newest foster child during their last session. He was on the autism spectrum and required a lot of her attention. Darren also had frequent outbursts that frightened Will, especially if it woke him out of a sound sleep.
“And she’s already done so much for me,” Will added. “Especially those first eight months or so I was with her. I hated making her upset when I didn’t eat.”
“She understands why that was going on, and she isn’t keeping a scorecard. None of us are. We want to help you, and that’s why we do. We care about what happens to you.”
Will held his gaze for several long seconds before blinking. “You do, don’t you? I guess I’m still not used to that. Adults giving a shit.”
“You had a lot of adults in your life who failed you. Who hurt you instead of protecting you. And I can’t promise you that no one will ever hurt you in the future, but you’ve already survived the worst kind of hell, and you’re still in one piece.”
“They can’t hurt me if I don’t let them.”
Dr. Taggert tilted his head. “Do you mean by protecting yourself physically?” He’d suggested Will take self-defense classes in the past, to help him feel less anxious in public spaces, but Will hated the idea of having to touch the instructor—and the instructor touching him in return.
“Kind of. More like up here.” He tapped the side of his head.
“Shutting out the possibility of relationships seems good in the short term, but what about a few years down the road?”
“Can’t think about a few years. I can barely think about a few months from now.”
He understood Will trying to protect himself, but closing off from other people was rarely the best way to go about it. “Will, no one can truly take power from you unless you give it to them.”
Will’s expression hardened. “Those men took power from me.”
“No, those men took from you physically and emotionally, and you are healing from that one day at a time. But the only way they can take power from you now? Is by letting what they did continue to control your actions.”
“So I’m supposed to grow up and magically forget that I was fucked six ways to Sunday for two years?”
Dr. Taggert took a breath, choosing his words more carefully. “I am absolutely not asking you to forget that. It’s impossible to forget that kind of pain. But allowing your pain to dictate your actions gives those men power all over again. I’m not telling you to jump on social media and start chatting with every person you stumble across. But please don’t cut yourself off from forming actual, real-life friendships. Especially with people your own age.”
Will shrugged. “No one wants to be friends with a wreck like me.”
“You aren’t a wreck. And I think if you gave it a chance, you might surprise yourself.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I’ll prove myself right.”
They still had some work to do on Will’s self-esteem. “Why do you think no one wants to be your friend?”
“I’m a mess, Dr. Taggert. I have panic attacks, I don’t like to be touched, I hate being near older men I don’t know, my mother is in prison, I never met my father, I didn’t finish school, I don’t even have a GED yet, and oh yeah, I’ve had more dicks up my ass than Johnny Rapid.”
Will’s volume had risen with each item rattled off his list of supposed flaws, and he’d ended with a sharp snap. Will often got upset and frustrated during their sessions, but this cold anger was new and startling.
Also kind of startling was the fact that Will knew the name of a gay porn star.
“None of those things makes you unlovable,” Dr. Taggert said. “Especially not your abuse, and anyone who treats you poorly because of it isn’t worth your time or energy. Not everyone could have survived the hell you went through, but you did. You are alive and you are making great progress. You have people in your life who care about you, including me. Give yourself a chance to live, Will.”
Instead of soothing his anger, Will only looked more obstinate.
“Tell me what you’re thinking about,” Dr. Taggert said.
“Punching you in the face.”
He tensed, more concerned for Will than his own safety. In all of their sessions, Will had never once become physically violent with him or needed to be restrained against hurting himself. “Why do you want to punch me?”
“So you stop being so nice. So you see me how I see me.”
“How do you see yourself?”
Will cast around the room before his attention settled on the glass coffee table. Dr. Taggert had left a notepad and pen out. Will ripped a sheet of paper off the notepad and crumpled it in his hands. Then he tried to smooth it out flat. “Like that. Doesn’t matter what you do to it, but the wrinkles and dents are never gonna go away. It’ll always be ruined.”
“It’s hardly ruined.” Dr. Taggert leaned forward and snatched the pen. He flattened the paper a little bit more. “You’re right, the wrinkles will always be there, but it can still do its job.”
He wrote something down, then pushed the paper toward Will.
You have value, Will. Never doubt that.
Will picked up the paper. He stared at the words, his expression blank.
Dr. Taggert held his breath, hoping like hell he’d gotten through.
He held out a hand, and Dr. Taggert gave him the pen. Will scribbled something on the paper, crumpled it up, then tossed the wad across the room. He stood without a word.
“I’m done,” Will snapped, then left the office.
Concerned by the abrupt departure, he briefly considered following Will to clarify what exactly he was done with. Instead, he crossed to where the paper had landed near his desk and opened the wad far enough to read what Will had written under his own handwriting.
Believe me, I learned my value in that bedroom.
The awful words disappeared in his closed fist. He ached for Will, and for all of the progress he thought they’d made. He debated calling Jennifer, giving her a heads-up. He couldn’t tell her about the note or anything they’d discussed, but he could warn her to watch Will’s mood tonight, especially if she was likely to be focused on Darren.
Will’s final spoken words concerned him more than the words on the paper. He hadn’t specified what he was done with, exactly—their session today, any future therapy, or life in general? Even though Will had never shared suicidal thoughts with him, it was the kind of thing that set off alarms.
He picked up the phone and called Jennifer.
Sixteen months later
Will Madden tore through the front door of Carter House, gave a cursory glance at the two shapes in the living room—Natasha and Cherie were watching something on the ancient television—and made a mad dash for the stairs. His chest hurt, his lungs weren’t working right, and he was teetering on the edge of a full-on panic attack. He needed to get to his room at the halfway house before he fell into it completely.
He hated having attacks in public. Or even in the living room where the other residents could see it. Mostly they didn’t care. Natasha had anxiety issues too. But Will cared. The attacks made him look weak, vulnerable.
Three rooms upstairs, plus the shared bathroom. His was at the end of the hall, tiny, barely more than a glorified closet, but it was his own room. It didn’t have a lock. None of the doors did (house rules), but no resident was allowed to enter another resident’s room without permission (another house rule). Only the two social workers who ran the place were allowed in the rooms, but only if they suspected trouble. Like drugs or alcohol. Those got you tossed out, period.
Will had never tasted alcohol, and his one experience with drugs had been neither fun nor exactly his choice, so no thanks. He had enough trouble remembering to take his prescription meds.
He pushed his bedroom door open and then shoved it closed when he was on the other side. He soaked in the familiar smell of his spray deodorant. Bright afternoon light reflected off white walls made the shoe box feel bigger. A bed and dresser were the only furniture.
The size was worth it for the privacy.
Will sat on his narrow bed directly under the curtainless window and dropped his head between his knees. Pulled a deep breath in through his nose. Pushed it out through his mouth.
I see the moon and the moon sees me. The moon sees the somebody I’d like to see.
Some of the pressure in his chest eased as he pulled on the familiar nursery rhyme.
God bless the moon and God bless me. God bless the somebody I’d like to see.
More pressure went away. The cold panic that had settled in his gut earlier in the day began to thaw.
I see the moon and the moon sees me. I see the moon and the moon sees me.
Deeper breaths eased into regular ones. He sat up, glad to have warded this one off before it consumed him. So stupid. Stupid-ass thing to get so worried about, anyway.
He heard his shrink’s voice in the back of his head, asking the familiar chestnut “Why do you feel stupid?”
“Normal people don’t panic at being assigned to a fund-raiser’s setup team,” he told the wall, since his shrink wasn’t in the room. His appointment was tomorrow, so yeah, he’d have to bring this up. Dr. Taggert didn’t like it when Will kept his attacks to himself.
And it wasn’t so much the fund-raiser itself. He’d helped on a bunch in the almost year he’d volunteered for Sam Hartley at the Stanley Center. It got him out into the world a few days a week and made him confront his PTSD-related anxiety head-on.
He curled up beneath the window and tried to figure out what about this fund-raiser had sent him into a blind panic the moment he left the office. It was for an LGBT teen homeless shelter they’d worked with last fall. All Saints House. The Stanley Center wasn’t involved directly, but Sam wanted Will to be available to Jonas Ashcroft on setup day, since this was Jonas’s first time coordinating a benefit by himself. Jonas had filled in as a temporary full-time assistant this past winter, so Sam had a soft spot for him. Will had been sad to see Jonas leave.
That’s why the panic. Jonas didn’t frighten him. Total opposite. Jonas was model gorgeous with dark hair and piercing eyes, and he smelled fantastic. Will’s stomach wobbled as that panic tried to come back. Working around Jonas again, even for only eight hours total, terrified him, because he’d been attracted to Jonas from the instant he’d walked into Sam’s office asking to volunteer last fall. He’d silently yearned for someone like Jonas to say his name the same loving way Jonas said Tate’s.
Not that he ever had or ever would say anything about his stupid crush. Jonas had Tate, and even if he didn’t, no one wanted a hot mess like Will. No one ever would. He’d resigned himself to that after Guy. Fast, sweaty fucks were all he got.
Except he wasn’t even supposed to have that anymore. Not for a while, thanks to his shrink.
I wonder if Taz is online.
The therapy-induced restriction on anonymous hookups had been the catalyst for Will’s newfound obsession with online chat rooms. A few weeks ago he’d signed up for several, unsure what he was looking for. Some of the rooms were for guys looking to hook up. Some were strictly chat only, and Will had gravitated toward those to avoid temptation. About two weeks ago he’d struck up a conversation with a guy whose handle was TazManicDevil, which he thought was hilarious. Last week he’d admitted his nickname was Taz and that Will could call him that.
Will’s handle was WillHeWontHe, so he’d told Taz to call him Will. They’d bonded over having PTSD—although neither had confided why—and how it restricted their abilities to move around in the world. Taz made him laugh when few other things did. He was only pixels on a screen, but in some ways, he was the only real friend Will had. And he also lived in Wilmington, which made Taz seem even more real to him.
He dug his refurbished laptop out from under the mattress and plugged it in. The stupid thing would run for maybe ten whole minutes without being connected to the wall outlet, but it did its job of getting him online and providing him some ability to interact with the world. Plus he’d saved up and bought it himself. He was proud of it, from its bad battery life to the crack on the top cover.
Taz had admitted to working from home—lucky him—which meant he was online a lot. Almost every time Will logged in, he saw Taz’s handle, even if he was idling and not currently active. Will waited for his laptop to connect to the house’s Wi-Fi, then opened his browser. Last week he’d set his homepage to this chat room.
TazManicDevil. Idle mode.
Will poked him. Dude.
He waited, declining two requests to private message with other people.
Taz went active. Hey. You work today?
Will’s heart did a funny flip. Yeah. Just got home. You?
Finished about an hour ago. Was watching TV.
Nah. Mostly waiting for you to get online.
He grinned at the screen, strangely happy over the idea that Taz had been waiting for him to chat. Here now.
Yup. How was work?
Usual, aside from working through a panic attack.
??!! What happened?!!?
The instant concern knocked away the tiny fear that confiding in Taz was the wrong thing. His own obnoxious habit of second-guessing every decision in his personal life.
Assigned to a new fund-raiser for this weekend. Shouldn’t be a big deal, but people, you know? One on one is okay, but groups freak me out.
I get it, trust me.
I know you do. And I know the guys I’ll be working w/ but still. It’s scary.
Can’t keep an eye on or control a crowd.
Christ, but Will loved having someone in his life who got it. Who didn’t question him or second-guess him or tell him to just get over it and try to be normal. But was Taz really in his life? Right now he was only a name on a computer screen. His shrink kept hammering at him to establish relationships with people his own age, to make friends he could spend time with, and he wanted to do that. It was just so damn hard to trust anyone.
He really, really wanted to be able to trust Taz. To know Taz was real, really understood PTSD, and wasn’t catfishing him for kicks. He needed to know now before he got too invested.
Will held his breath as he typed: Can we talk in person?
Taz was silent for so long that Will’s stomach soured, positive he’d just ended this semifriendship over his stupid need hear a compassionate human voice.
Never mind, it’s okay, he typed. Send.
Sorry, you surprised me. Chat only and all.
I know. Sorry.
I do want to meet you in person, Will.
Will smashed down a bloom of hope before it got too big. But?
An invitation to use the voice chat feature popped up on screen. They’d never done that before. Will clicked on it before Taz changed his mind, eager to know what his friend sounded like.
“You there?” Taz asked.
Will closed his eyes and let the warm, deep voice slide over him like hot fudge on a sundae. Smooth and wonderful and stupidly comforting, considering it was coming over his computer’s crappy speakers. “Hi.” He’d kind of squeaked that, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Hello. Taz?”
“It’s me. Hi there.”
“Hi back.” Will dragged a trembling hand through his shaggy hair, glad they weren’t doing a video chat or anything. He didn’t want Taz to see how stupidly nervous he was.
“This felt easier than typing out a bunch of personal shit,” Taz said. “This okay? Us talking?”
“Of course.” He’d just asked to meet Taz in person; this was a good compromise. “You sound kind of how I imagined you would.” They hadn’t exchanged good photos—the profile pics on the chat site were obscured for both of them—but the stats made Will want to get under him fast. Six feet, 180, green eyes, ginger. Former college wrestler.
“I do?” Taz asked. “How do I sound?”
“Strong. Friendly. Do you sing?”
He chuckled, and that sound skittered down Will’s spine in a nice way. “Not really. My gramma took me to church regularly when I was a kid, so I sang hymns, but it’s not the same.”
“Oh. You sound like a singer.” Stupid small talk sounded stupid. “So we both want to meet in person, but…?”
“It’s why I’ve got the PTSD shit to deal with.”
“You don’t have to tell me.” Didn’t sharing personal shit require tit for tat? Will didn’t want to dig into his own issues, especially not over a voice chat.
“Except I kind of do, if we’re going to meet. It’s not something I can hide on the outside, and I should warn you anyway so you don’t freak out.”
Will snorted. “I just freaked out over doing a fund-raiser with people I know. Hit me.”
“I’ve got scars. Bad ones.”
Taz paused. “They’re on my neck and the left side of my face. Acid burns.”
Surprise jolted through him. “Acid? Shit, are they healed?”
“Yeah. It was two years ago. The doctors, they did some skin grafts, but you can still see how it doesn’t look right. It’s all waxy and discolored.”
“That’s…” He had no words for the shock and anger rolling around inside him. Shock because acid burns. Anger because even though he didn’t know Taz well, he hated the idea of someone hurting him like that. “How’d you get burned with acid?”
“It was back at college. Jealous, bigoted fucktard who didn’t like that I was bi and openly dating a dude.”
“Christ, Taz. Was the fucktard arrested?”
“Yeah. Plea deal. Got twelve months and a day. Two years’ probation.”
“That’s not fair!” Will grabbed hold of his temper before he shouted again. Last thing he needed was someone coming to see if he was okay. “That’s not enough.” Not for scarring Taz. Not for all the shit that came with PTSD and having to warn a guy before they met in person the first time.
No amount of prison time was ever enough for ruining someone’s sense of safety and ability to freely move around in the world.
“It is what it is,” Taz said. “One of the things that helps when I get really down is remembering he’s stuck in Minnesota for another year and a half. The boogeyman can’t get me here.”
Meanwhile a few of Will’s boogeymen still wandered the streets because they’d never been identified. He’d blocked out a lot of those two years, especially the faces. He didn’t want to see the faces in his nightmares anymore. But the voices.
He hadn’t forgotten their voices.
I see the moon and the moon sees me. I see the moon and the moon sees me.
He startled at the worried voice from his laptop. “I’m here.”
“You doing okay with this? Hearing this?”
“I’m sorry you were hurt.” He chewed at his thumbnail, grateful for the sharp spike of pain he got when he bit at sore flesh too close to the nail. “That’s why you have PTSD?”
“Yeah. Scared me really bad. It was someone I knew, you know? Plus all the pain afterward. It all jumbled into this big mess in my head.”
“It was someone I knew, you know?”
Oh yeah. He knew.
“A big, jumbled mess that’s so overwhelming it’s easier to ignore it than try to untangle it,” Will said.
“Exactly. Fuck, dude, are you a shrink in your spare time?”
Will laughed. “No, but I’ve been in therapy since I was sixteen. Some shit stuck.”
“And you’re nineteen?”
“Yeah. Twenty in November.” He could finally leave his shitty teens behind.
“That’s a lot of therapy.”
“I have a lot of shit jumbled together.”
“Does it help?”
“Therapy?” Will’s mind tried to turn back to that black moment he’d had a year and a half ago. “It’s had some really awful times, but yeah. Therapy saved my life. My doctor’s really good, too. He isn’t just head-shrinking you and plying you with pills; he really gives a damn.”
“Wish I could afford a therapist like that.”
Taz sounded so sad that Will wanted to reach through the computer and hug him, and hugging strangers wasn’t usually an impulse he felt. “When I was in foster care, the state paid, but now that I’m over eighteen, he does our sessions super cheap. It was free until I got my income figured out, and then I wanted to pay.”
He’d needed to pay. To use the money he was getting for something useful besides rent and food.
“When you say income figured out,” Taz said, “you mean your job? The fund-raiser thing?”
Shit, he’d said too much. He also didn’t want to lie. Even though he’d graduated from a name on a screen to a name with a voice, Taz was still mostly an unknown. So why the hard-on for honesty?
He’s the first real friend I’ve had since I was thirteen.
“No, I volunteer at the Stanley Center,” Will replied, voice a little shaky. He hated telling people about the source of his greatest humiliation. “I get disability.”
That was it?
He couldn’t see Taz’s face, but he got the impression his expression was as mild as his response. Usually people looked at him like he was some sort of nut job or a liar, because what seemingly healthy nineteen-year-old got disability checks?
Mental cases who couldn’t hold a dishwashing job for longer than two weeks, that’s who. Dropouts with no diploma, no GED, and no actual work experience. And no fucking way could he put “excels at being fucked up the ass” on a résumé. He’d either get laughed out of the office or bent over the desk.
No, thank you.
He wanted to work. He wanted to get a regular job and pay taxes and be a normal human being, like the other people he knew. Sam and Kerry and Jonas and Dr. Taggert and all of their friends and loved ones. Volunteering at the Stanley Center was helping by degrees, but he still had a hard time with any task outside the actual office. He’d never attended any of the fund-raisers or community functions he’d helped coordinate or set up. Never seen the results of his own hard work in motion.
“Yeah?” Had Taz been talking?
“You went away again.”
“Sorry. I do that sometimes. Get caught up in my own head. Used to scare the hell out of my foster mom.”
“You like your foster mom?”
Will grinned at his laptop screen. “I do. Did. I was a pretty tough case, and I know I scared her a couple of times with my shit, but she stuck it out. We still keep in touch.”
“You haven’t talked about what your shit is yet.” The comment was tentative, uncertain, but it hit Will like a brick.
His entire body went cold. “I, uh…”
“You don’t need to give me details or anything, I’m sorry. I just… Ballpark? Please?”
Taz had taken a huge risk in telling him about the acid attack and his scars. Will didn’t want to open a vein over the years he’d lived in complete and utter hell, but he could give Taz something. Something to explain his issues and his inability to work. “When I was younger, I, uh…” He swallowed hard against rising acid. “I was molested for two years.”
Those six words barely scratched the surface of everything he’d endured, but Taz didn’t need to know. The only person who ever got those words were Dr. Taggert, and half the time it was through written notes, instead of actually speaking them. Things that, even years later, could turn him into a shivering, sobbing, terrified mess in the blink of an eye.
I see the moon and the moon sees me.
He clung to Jennifer’s nursery rhyme like a talisman to ward off the demons of his past.
And Taz hadn’t spoken. Hadn’t even acknowledged he’d heard the confession. Will checked his laptop, but the voice chat was still open. “Taz?”
“Sorry, just…” He sounded weird. Sharp, gruff. Mad.
Great, he’d just fucked up his first real friendship in years. Who’d want to keep being friends with a basket case who couldn’t work, and who was as used up and tossed away as Will felt most days? Just like that wrinkled ball of paper.
“They arrest who did it?” Taz asked.
Will blinked at the screen, uncertain how to answer that. “Some of them.” Three men, plus his mother. But the case was still, technically, open, even three years later.
“Some of them?” His voice went darker, deeper, and Will was glad they weren’t in the same room, because the force of Taz’s anger, even through the crappy speaker, was making his insides shake.
“I can’t talk about this anymore.” He hated how his voice was shaking, but he couldn’t stop it. He drew his knees to his chest and started rocking.
“Okay. I’m sorry.” Soothing now. So much better than mad. “I’ve never wanted to hurt other people so badly before. Jesus Christ.”
Will blinked hard. No one had ever wanted to do violence to others on his behalf. Not ever. Didn’t stop the shaking, though. Or the driving need to change the subject. “Why do you like being called Taz?”
He made a funny sound, like he was trying to laugh but it got caught on his temper and strangled. “My real name is Thomas Zachary, so the initials were kind of there from the start. But in elementary school I started acting out a lot. Got the nickname Tasmanian Devil, and the name kind of came out of that.”
“Oh. I like it. Will’s boring.”
“I think Will’s a nice name.”
The compliment eased some of his nerves. “Thanks. I mean, I guess I could have been stuck with something really weird, like Ernest or Voldemort.”
Taz laughed. “I hear you. When I was in foster care, I was in a house with two brothers named Romeo and Tybalt. For real.”
Will had never read the play, so he tried to remember the weird modern movie version he’d seen on TV a long time ago. But it was so hazy, his early life. When things were sucky but hadn’t descended into hell yet. No luck remembering who Tybalt was, but he played along so he didn’t sound stupid. “Guess their parents were Shakespeare fans,” Will said.
“Guess so. Anyway…you still keen to meet?”
He could hear Dr. Taggert’s voice in the back of his mind, warning him about meeting up with near strangers he’d met in an online chat room.
It wasn’t in a hookup room. Chat only.
Predators know how to put you at ease, he’d reply.
We’ll meet in public.
The voice stayed quiet. Good. Besides, he was making friends.
He hoped. He really needed Taz to be who he said he was.
“Do you know Benton Park?” Will asked.
“Yeah, it’s not too far from where I live.”
It was three blocks’ walking distance from Will, which meant they at least lived on the same side of the city, possibly even the same neighborhood. “There’s some trees and benches on one side, opposite the bus stop. Want to meet there?”
“Right now?” Taz didn’t sound keen on the idea.
Will wanted to meet him now more than anything else in the world. He needed that stable connection he’d thought he’d found in Guy. “Sure. I can bring food. It’s getting close to dinnertime. We can picnic or something.” Christ, could he sound any cheesier?
Oh shit, I fucked up again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think,” Will said. His hands were trembling again, damn it. “I know you don’t like going out because of your scars. Shit. It’s just, I don’t know you, so I can’t go to your place, because that’s a guaranteed freak-out, even though I don’t think you’ll hurt me, but…fuck.”
Taz laughed. “We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
“I guess. Maybe we should stick to talking this way.”
“No.” Resolve deepened his voice. “It’s evening. Trees cast shadows. I’ll wear a hat. I can do this. I need to do this. I haven’t walked farther than the corner bodega in over a year.”
“Yeah. I can walk to meet you.”
Hope tried to rise up again. “Are you really sure? What if you have an episode? I don’t want to be the reason—”
“You didn’t throw acid on me, Will. It wouldn’t be your fault.”
It would feel like his fault. “What do you like to eat? There’s a great sandwich shop near here. One of those quirky places that sells giant kosher dills right out of a barrel.”
“Um, they got roast beef?”
Will ran down his mental list of the different sandwiches on their board. “Yeah, pretty sure. Special fixings?” He yanked a notebook off the stack under his bed and scribbled Taz’s complex list of toppings on an empty page. “Okay, if they have all that, I’ll ask for it.”
“Thanks. And I can bring sodas. I have root beer, cola and diet cola in my fridge.”
“That’s a lot of soda for one person.”
“Don’t like water. I know it’s good for you, but…”
Will heard the shrug he couldn’t see. He laughed. He really liked how easily Taz made him laugh. Few people could, besides Sam and Jennifer. Sometimes Sydney, the only other male resident in the house, but that wasn’t usually on purpose. Sydney had issues with paranoia. “I like root beer.”
He glanced at the time. “So meet you there around six thirty?”
“If it helps, I’m nervous too.”
Taz let out an audible breath. “It does help. Thanks. So I’m looking for a guy with shaggy brown hair, little shorter than me, on a bench beneath the trees.”
Will groaned. “Um, I may have exaggerated one thing on my profile.”
That got another well-deserved laugh, because the chat-only profiles didn’t have a spot to list those inches. “No. Height. I said I was five-six, but I’m only five foot. I’m a midget.”
Taz chuckled; Will really loved that sound. “Don’t worry about it. But thanks for the heads-up. Otherwise I might have stepped on you without realizing.”
“Ha. Ha.” He owned his size. Shit diet from birth to adulthood, combined with unlucky genetics. His mother had been petite, too.
His gut rolled, and he shoved all thoughts of Marjorie away.
“So I’ll see you at six thirty?” Taz asked.
“Absolutely. See you then.”
Will snapped his laptop shut, then stowed it under his mattress. He ripped the sheet of notebook paper out and tucked it into his pocket, stupidly excited to try something as panic inducing as dinner in a public park. With a man he’d never met before. A man he wanted to get to know better instead of run away from.
A man whose laughter made him feel safe instead of cornered.
Dr. Taggert might have put a moratorium on Will’s obsession with anonymous sexual hookups for a while, but he couldn’t possibly have a reason to object to Will making a new friend.
And even if Dr. Taggert did object, Will was pretty sure he wouldn’t give a shit. Not this time.
Taz stared at his computer long after he’d shut down his browser, equal parts thrilled and terrified and not sure which one was going to win this time.
He’d joined the chat room six months ago out of sheer loneliness, needing to establish some sort of connection with other human beings, without the awkwardness of face-to-face meet-cutes. No one wanted to look at him for long periods of time, not even his own dad.
Not that his dad, Peter Callahan, avoided looking at him, exactly, but Taz remembered what it was like before the acid. When he’d been a good-looking athlete with a ton of friends. Now he was a guy folks either stared at in fascinated horror or they avoided looking at altogether. Considering his dad had only ever known him with the acid scars, he did a better job meeting in the middle.
Peter visited several times a week, bringing him cold groceries and things he couldn’t get off Amazon. Treating him like a human being with thoughts and feelings, reminding Taz there was someone out there who cared about him.
Taz tried to stand, to go get the two sodas he’d promised to bring to this meeting with Will. Even thinking Will’s name made him smile. Taz had surprised himself by initiating the voice chat, and then immediately wondered why he’d waited so long. Will had an addictive voice. Soft without being weak. Strong, even when he sounded upset. And his laughter made Taz’s heart flutter.
Will was also the first person he’d told about the scars who hadn’t stopped messaging him right away. He still wanted to meet Taz in person, and that scared the holy hell out of him. As much as Taz craved communication and contact beyond his father, he didn’t want to get his heart broken again.
You’re just friends, moron. You’re having dinner like friends do. Don’t make it bigger. Give him a chance to run away before you hand your heart over like a desperate idiot.
He got his body to cooperate and stood from his desk chair. Stretched, since he’d been sitting for about two hours straight. His work-at-home job as a transcriptionist had been a godsend—one more thing to thank Peter for—and he loved his ergonomic chair, but all that sitting had given him a pooch he’d have tormented his own damned self over in college. Sometimes he really missed the energy of the gym. The teasing, the camaraderie, the push to do better. Hell, he even missed the smells of pit sweat and funky socks.
Once, a few months ago, he’d considered one of those gyms open twenty-four hours, hoping he could go in at some obscure hour when maybe no one would be there. The instant the girl at the desk saw him, her expression sent him fleeing. He never went back. When he told Peter about the total failure, Peter had encouraged him to order whatever he wanted in terms of home gym equipment.
Taz had yet to take him up on that offer. He’d cost Peter so much money already.
Now he kind of regretted that. His shirt was loose enough that maybe he’d only look stocky, instead of flabby. Not that he expected Will to cruise him at all; he’d already been warned about the scars.
He strode across the small living room to the attached kitchen. Rustled a plastic bag out from under the sink and put two cans of cold root beer in it. It was off-brand, but he thought it tasted the same as the popular stuff, and hopefully Will wouldn’t mind. He stopped in the bathroom to take a piss and comb his hair into neater waves. Making himself presentable without actually looking at his broken skin had become a kind of game since he’d moved into this apartment.
The row of prescription bottles on the counter mocked him with their sheer number. He wasn’t due anything for a few hours, but walking to the park was going to do a number on his anxiety. He tucked one of the bottles into his jeans pocket, in case.
Then he plunked a Blue Rocks cap on his head and stared at the front door of the apartment for a solid minute. Muscles frozen. Heart fluttering.
Cruel, hateful people were on the other side of that door.
So is Will. He’s funny and nice, and he’s waiting for you.
A roast beef sandwich was also waiting for him, fresh from a deli Will recommended, piled with all sorts of great things. Even if all he got out of this was a sandwich and a conversation, he could live with that. It was more than he’d had in a long fucking time.
Move your right foot forward. Good. Left foot next. Good. Keep going.
The mental exercise got his limbs to loosen, and he palmed his keys as he reached for the knob. Turned it. Pulled it open.
“Push through it, Zachary, you aren’t a quitter!” Words spat at him by his wrestling coach during a particularly brutal training run. He’d been recovering from a chest cold, which had diminished his lung capacity, and he’d fallen behind the other runners.
“I’m not a quitter,” he said to the empty hallway beyond his door. He stepped out, then locked his door behind him.
Sounds from other apartments drifted to him. Voices and noise that could be televisions or music. The hall smelled like old cigarettes and mildew. It was stifling. He wanted fresh air. Needed fresh air. So he started walking again.
His entire journey from the apartment to the sidewalk across from the park was an exercise in stop-and-start techniques. In visualizing himself moving so he could cross the street before the light changed. Keeping forward motion, attention straight ahead, ignoring every single person he passed.
No one ran screaming, so that was something.
He waited for the signal to change so he could cross the street to the park. He was on the bus stop side, so Will would be diagonal from him, the farthest point away. The earnest way Will had admitted to lying about his height came back to mind and made him smile. He really didn’t care much what Will looked like, as long as he stayed as kind and friendly as he’d been online, once he’d seen the monster he was eating with.
Other pedestrians began streaming down the crosswalk. Taz kick-started himself into going with the flow, just another person heading home after work or out to dinner with friends. A normal fucking person.
The small park took up a section of a block that had once all been housing, in a neighborhood effort to get more green areas into their city. The grass was a sickly green, but the trees were growing strong at the far end, and the playground equipment wasn’t rusty enough to be dangerous. Someone had even planted a few flower beds inside old tires here and there.
Instead of walking as the crow flies, he stuck to the perimeter, away from the scattering of kids and various others enjoying the hot July evening outdoors. Two metal benches faced each other beneath the shade of three closely planted trees, and a small, slim figure was pacing between them.
Taz checked the time on his phone—6:50. Shit.
Ice dropped hard in his belly, threatening to keep him rooted to the ground. He was late and if that was Will, he looked frantic.
I’ve already fucked this up. Fantastic.
And he couldn’t get his goddamn limbs to move. Adrenaline spiked, putting a bitter taste in his mouth. His heart raced. This whole thing had been a huge mistake.
Maybe-Will turned a neat pivot, his hands clutching a white paper bag, and he froze. Seemed to look right at him. His entire body seemed to wilt with…what? Dread? Relief? From the distance of about thirty feet, Taz wasn’t sure.
The boy strode toward him, his lean body perfectly advertised under a pair of well-fitted jeans and a green dress shirt that looked tailor-made for his coloring. Shaggy brown hair, as advertised. The closer he got, Taz saw more details. Wary brown eyes. Scuffed loafers on his feet. And fuck, he was small. Barely came up to Taz’s shoulder, and he wasn’t exactly a giant. He also brought with him the intoxicating scents of meat, pickles, and something soapy.
“Taz?” the boy asked.
“Yeah.” Taz cleared his throat hard. “Yes. Hi. Will?”
He gaze lingered on Taz’s face, and for the briefest moment, Taz forgot there was anything ugly to see, because Will smiled at him. He didn’t flinch or grimace or look away fast. He held eye contact, no guard up, but his anxiety was clear in the way his fingers trembled against the paper bag.
“I’m late,” Taz said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be.”
Will nodded. “Was it hard walking here?”
“Yeah. My episodes are more like freezing up. I can’t make anything move, not even to protect myself. I have to work to get going again.”
“I’m kind of the opposite. I go into full-on shaking, shivering, caught in dark moments mode. I fucking hate it.”
“And how sick are you of people who don’t understand saying, ‘But at least you’re alive’?”
Taz snorted. “So true. Platitudes don’t help.”
“Not really.” He held up the bag. “Hungry? They might be a bit soggy, but I’m starving.”
He bit back the boneheaded instinct to say he looked like he was starving, because rude. Will also hadn’t put a lot of oomph in that statement, which suggested he wasn’t actually all that hungry. Taz was, though.
“Definitely,” he replied. “I brought drinks. They might be kind of warm now, though. Sorry.”
“It’s fine, I’ve drunk worse things than warm root beer.”
Taz chewed on that as Will led him over to one of the benches. He put the bag in the middle, so Taz sat on the other side and watched while Will emptied the bag of two wax paper–wrapped sandwiches, some napkins, and a plastic, twist-tied baggie with two giant green pickles in it.
“I love their dill pickles,” Will said. “I got another one in case you wanted one. I wasn’t sure, but you asked for pickles on your sandwich, so…” He trailed off, his cheeks pinking up.
“I do, thanks.” The thoughtfulness made him like Will even more than he already did. He unwrapped his sandwich, mouth watering at the thick stack of roast beef, lettuce, tomato, pickles, sweet peppers, raw onion, and mayo, all pressed between two pieces of thick-cut rye bread.
It tasted ten times better than it looked, and Taz was four solid bites in before he realized Will wasn’t eating. He had a half sandwich in his hand, something pale like turkey or chicken, but he was staring at Taz. And not in the “ew, gross” way that he expected from people nowadays, but in a “you fascinate me” kind of way. It made his skin prickle.
“Am I being noisy or chewing with my mouth open?” Taz asked.
“No, sorry. I’m just…taking you in.”
“No!” Will winced at his volume. “It’s not the scars. I mean, I see them, sure, but it’s all of you.” Despite being embarrassed, Will gave him a full once-over that had Taz paying closer attention.
Had Will seriously just cruised him?
Taz glanced at his rounded belly. “Well, there’s plenty of me.”
“Meanwhile, I’m skin and bones. What a pair, huh?”
“Yeah.” He waited for Will to start eating before he attacked his own sandwich again. Will took small bites, chewing each one carefully before swallowing. Actions by rote to get the food down, instead of savoring every bite the way Taz did. He adored all the sharp, tangy flavors in his mouth, all the textural contrasts. “Don’t like your sandwich?”
Will shrugged. “It’s fine. It’s a sandwich.”
“You could have gotten something different if you don’t like sandwiches.”
“It’s fine. It’s food, right?” He took another small bite of pale meat, white bread, and nothing else that Taz could see. Chewed it slow. Swallowed. Almost bored with the whole thing.
Taz had never had much of a brain-to-mouth filter before the acid, and it hadn’t developed any after. “Do you have an eating disorder or something?” It came out gentle, not accusing, but Will still flinched.
“It was a lot worse when I was sixteen,” Will replied, not making eye contact. “After the, uh, abuse stopped. I hated eating. Took months before me and my shrink finally figured it all out, and then it started getting better. I was able to focus on food as necessary fuel, instead of something that could hurt me.” He finally looked up, his dark eyes sad. “I wish I could be the guy who scarfs down a burger and fries with his buddies then goes back for a hot fudge sundae, but I’m not. Doubt I ever will be.”
Taz eyed the other uneaten half of his sandwich, his stomach suddenly unhappy with what was in it. “I’m sorry.”
“It is what it is, right? I’ll never be a competitive eater, and you’ll never be America’s next top model.”
The instant laughter that burbled up from inside Taz surprised him, when all past teasing about his scars had always produced anger. Except Will wasn’t mocking him or pointing out his flaws. He was teasing him in a gentle way that said Will accepted they both had huge flaws, and that was okay.
“That’s good,” Taz said with a grin, “because I look awful in high heels.”
Will’s eyebrows arched. “And you know this from experience? Something I should know about, young man?”
Taz laughed again, and goddamn, it felt good. Sure, he laughed at sitcoms and funny movies, and sometimes his dad even told a good joke. This was different. This was…flirty. And a hell of a lot of fun. “No, sorry, no cross-dressing skeletons in my closet.”
“Shame.” Will licked crumbs off his fingers with a pretty pink tongue, then put about two bites’ worth of sandwich down on the waxed paper. He grabbed the pickle bag. “Speaking of closets, you came out senior year of college?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t really want to head down this particular branch of memory lane, but he could take a fast detour. “In high school, there were a few casual things, but nothing serious. Enough to know I liked guys and girls. I dated girls my first three years of college, partly because I was worried that coming out as being into guys too would affect wrestling. I had a scholarship, so I didn’t want to do anything to ruin that, you know?”
“Makes sense.” Will slid the tip of a fat pickle into his mouth and held it there.
Taz’s heart skipped. Blood pumped into his dick at the very suggestive way Will slowly bit into that fucking pickle. “Uh-huh.”
Will put more force into it, and there was an audible crunch. Juice dribbled down his chin.
Taz grabbed a napkin and dabbed at Will’s chin.
Will’s eyes sparkled. “So what prompted you to come out?”
Had Taz been talking about something? Oh. Right. “Charlie.” The name chilled some of his arousal and left him cold. “We met sophomore year and became good friends very quickly. We were definitely attracted to each other, but I was dating someone at the time, and cheating was never my style. Junior year I got dumped, so I met up with Charlie at a party to commiserate, and we ended up back at the dorm fucking. The chemistry was great, and we wanted to keep it going, but Charlie was out and I wasn’t.”
He always hated this part of the story because it had been so fucking selfish of Taz. “He agreed to keep us a secret until I was done with wrestling senior year. He stayed in the closet for me, pretended we weren’t together even though we were. So after the team didn’t get the win for nationals, I came out. I kissed Charlie in the gym, in front of everyone.”
“Wow.” Will licked the pickle. “That was brave.”
“Seems stupid, looking back. It pissed someone off enough to throw acid on us.”
“How badly was Charlie hurt?”
“Barely. Small spot on his arm. Mostly it hit me.” Taz had been the one suffering, and Charlie had fucking walked away.
Will’s eyes went wide.
Guess I said that out loud.
“He dumped you while you were in the hospital?” Will asked. “What an asshole!” That shout got a few heads swiveling in their direction. Will didn’t seem to notice the uptick in his volume. “Who does that?”
Taz shushed him. “I loved him, but it’s not like we’d exchanged rings and vows for better or worse. He couldn’t handle the hospital and all of the local media attention, so he got out. I don’t hate him anymore.”
“That’s because you’re a decent person.”
“Maybe. He did break my heart, though. Hard.”
“Someone should go break his face.”
Taz blinked hard. “You’re a fiery little thing, aren’t you?”
Will glared. “Are you making fun of me?”
“No. I’m trying to figure you out, that’s all. I like you. Hell, you’re the first new friend I’ve made in two years.”
“Me too. I mean, I know people. But I don’t do this. Meet up and hang out. Getting personal with new people is…problematic.”
“Who are you telling?” Taz smiled, and finally Will’s face softened. “I never really thought I’d make a friend by commiserating over anxiety attacks and past violence.”
Will shrank down a bit. “I still don’t want to talk about that. My past.”
“I wasn’t asking. I made a statement, that’s all. And I’m apparently doing a shitty job of saying I’m glad we started chatting, because I like you and I like having a friend.” He might as well go for it. “Plus, you’re hella cute.”
Will’s lips twisted into a sexy, almost taunting smile. “Cute, huh? Cute like puppies are cute?”
“Cute like I want to reach over and kiss you. That cute.” Maybe he shouldn’t have been flirting so hard, but he liked Will and it felt so good to be around someone he genuinely liked—and was attracted to. Male or female, he hadn’t felt that draw in too damned long. But what if Will didn’t feel—
Will leaned in. “So kiss me, big guy.”
His heart kicked up. He took in Will’s slightly parted lips, curious how they’d feel against his own. How Will’s lean body would feel pressed up against his. What he’d taste like.
Charlie tasted like mint and chocolate, and then everything was on fire.
The world went briefly gray, and Taz’s entire body seized up tight.
Will was mentally kicking himself for flirting so hard with Taz, especially when he was on a no-sex diet for the next couple of weeks, when Taz’s already pale skin went a ghostly shade of white. His whole body seemed to go rigid, his gaze distant. Frozen someplace else.
Crap, Taz was having some kind of episode. Will replayed their conversation, trying to figure out what he’d said to freak Taz out so badly.
Kiss. Public park.
“Fuck my life.” He’d have clocked himself upside the head for being so stupid if he wasn’t afraid of someone in the park calling the cops on two nutcases sharing sandwiches on a bench. The last time Taz had kissed a guy in public he’d ended up in the hospital, and Will was all fucking casual about kissing him in a park surrounded by people.
Total strangers, and not a gymnasium full of classmates and fans who might give a solid damn about Taz’s sexuality, but still. It hadn’t made a difference to Taz’s brain.
And he didn’t know Taz well enough to bring him back from wherever he’d gone. Touching him while he was out of it might very well end in a bruise or two, and Will didn’t want that on Taz’s conscience. He definitely preferred his own active meltdowns to this quiet, frozen statue his friend had become.
He moved their trash out of the way and scooted a few inches closer on the bench. “Taz? Can you hear me? It’s Will. Taz?”
A slight flicker in Taz’s eyes. Not much, but he could work with that.
“Listen to me, okay? You’re in Wilmington. We’re in a park in the city. No one’s going to hurt you. Taz?”
Taz’s breathing sped up so fast Will nearly shoved the empty paper bag over his mouth and nose. Then Taz shook himself all over. Blinked hard several times. His skin kept that awful pallor, but he looked at Will and seemed to actually see him again. He dropped his chin to his chest and told his lap, “Fuck, Will, I’m sorry.”
Will tilted his head. “What for? It was my fault.”
“No, it’s not. It’s my stupid fucking head.”
“Hey. Hey.” He waited until Taz met his gaze, hating the misery in his green eyes. “Dude, we’re both mental cases, and maybe this is three years of therapy rubbing off on me, but I’m smart enough to recognize triggers. I shouldn’t have told you to kiss me while we’re sitting here in public.”
Taz seemed to study his face while he got his breathing under control. Some color came back to his cheeks, too. “It’s so stupid, though, to freak about a kiss. I bet I wouldn’t have if you were a girl.”
“How do you know that? Have you flirted with or kissed a girl since the—” The what? Accident was wrong, but words like assault or attack were too strong for their conversation. “Since the incident at college?”
“So you can’t be sure if it’s specifically boy kissing that’ll trigger you. Could be any sort of public kissing or displays of affection.”
Taz frowned. “And what do you suggest I do to figure it out? Hit up a bar, flirt with a girl, and see if I freak out?”
“That wouldn’t be my first instinct, no.” Will hated the idea of Taz getting with someone else, guy or girl. But they were friends, and Taz’s dating life wasn’t his business.
Except I want it to be.
He liked Taz. A lot. When six thirty had come and gone with no Taz, Will had started to panic. Seriously panic. He’d second-guessed every part of their earlier online conversation, trying to figure out how he’d fucked up, how he’d scared Taz off. He’d cursed himself for not getting Taz’s cell number beforehand.
And just when he’d resigned himself to being stood up, he’d looked around and spotted a baseball-capped man in dark jeans and a blue band shirt, holding a plastic grocery bag. He was standing perfectly still near a garbage can, still too far to properly see his face, especially with the hat casting shadows, but something inside Will had responded to Taz. In that first moment, he’d known without a doubt that Taz was someone he wanted in his life.
Taz was tall and wonderfully soft around the middle, like someone who’d be crazy comfortable to curl up with in bed. Thick auburn curls peeked out from beneath the ball cap’s rim. And he had adorable freckles all over. His hands and up his arms. His neck and cheeks and forehead.
The scars had captured Will’s attention briefly, because he couldn’t help but see them. Taz’s left cheek and part of his chin had a bumpy, waxy look that descended onto his neck and disappeared beneath the collar of his shirt. But it wasn’t scary or awful. The scarring wouldn’t be all that noticeable if not for the lack of freckles on half of his face.
Plus he made Will laugh when so few people could.
He loved that Taz had trusted him enough to be honest about how he’d gotten the scars, and Will had hated this Charlie jerk instantly for dumping Taz when he’d needed him most. And then they’d flirted and the whole conversation went to hell, because Will was a horny idiot.
Taz dropped his head into his hands, muffling his words. “We were having such a good time, too.” He snapped back to attention. “We were, right? I mean, I was having a good time.”
Will smiled, because episode or not—“This is the most fun I’ve had with another person in forever. Period. To be honest, when I got home today and got hold of my panic attack, my first instinct was to see if you were online.”
That made Taz’s lips twitch. “Really?”
“Yes. I knew you’d understand and let me vent. I knew I’d feel better. And I meant it when I said you’re the first real friend I’ve made in pretty much forever. I don’t want to risk our friendship by flirting you into anxiety attacks, so I’ll dial it back.”
“I started it when I called you cute.”
“I made it worse by daring you to kiss me.”
“I wanted to.” Taz picked at the inseam of his jeans. “I just couldn’t stop the damned flashback.”
“Is that what happened just now? A flashback?”
“Yeah. Flashbacks are different for everyone, or so I’m told. I’m not back there reliving the attack frame by frame, or anything. I get caught up in the emotions. All the joy from being out with Charlie, then the blinding pain and fear, not really understanding what’s happening or why it hurts so much. All those feelings freeze me up and I get stuck.”
Taz grunted. “It still sucks, though.”
“Well, I have to admit, it does bruise my ego that the very idea of kissing me sends you into an episode.” Will’s light tone and exaggerated hand gestures did their job: Taz smiled.
“Sorry to bruise your ego, then,” Taz said, laughter in his voice. His entire body seemed to relax more as they moved past the dark moment. “Tell how to make it up to you.”
Taz was no longer a faceless name in a chat room. He was a real person Will wanted to get to know better. He was safe.
Will leaned in, heart beating a little bit faster. “Invite me back to your place.”
(c) 2017 A.M. Arthur