Tag, You’re Dead – excerpt

TAG, YOU’RE DEAD

PROLOGUE

Who am I without you?

 

Two Years Ago.

Jake Holley stood still as a statue beside his best man. Jennifer should’ve been here twenty minutes ago. He prayed she was just late or simply leaving him at the altar. He loved her, and was afraid for her for myriad reasons. The old fear was creeping back in. He couldn’t take another dead fiancée.

Bridesmaids milled around in the outer chamber. The organist was playing something. He couldn’t place it. Couldn’t think for the what-if’s screwing with his brain. His heartbeat sped up as his eyes wandered. His mouth was dry, and his palms were sweaty. People talking sounded like a dull roar; he was on the outside looking in at his own wedding. And he had a really bad feeling.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. He’d meant to give it to Mike, his brother. His best man. The man who lived the same nightmare Jake did, bearing responsibility for the death of his own fiancée. Some brotherly bond that was. Seemed like loving a Holley could be pretty damn lethal.

His phone vibrated again. Jennifer.

sorry

so very sorry

Jake stared at his phone. After the second-longest minute of his twenty-five years, he threw his phone down the aisle where Jennifer should’ve been walking toward him.

Sorry? He watched his phone slide away.

What the hell does sorry mean?

Without a word, he walked off the small stage, down the aisle past a hundred staring eyes, and out the church doors. He ripped crepe paper off his pickup and tried to wipe off the soaped-on lies covering his windows. He picked up each can tied to his bumper, cut the twine, and threw it as far as he could.

His father and brother had just about reached him when Jake got in his pickup and roared off. He sped up the road to his cabin. Minutes later, he was screaming up the mountain on his dirt bike. An hour after that, he pulled to a stop, threw down his bike, walked to the edge of a cliff, and stared into the depth of the narrow canyon with which he’d become so familiar.

It was the place where he spilled his guts and allowed solitude to calm his soul. A place where he could stand on a precipice and decide how to live again, something he’d needed too many times.

On the ride up the mountain, he’d thought the worst things he could think about his loser self. Why else would Jennifer betray him? True love number two straight down the toilet.

He stood with his toes at the edge of the cliff, wondering what was next for him besides a heart as empty as the hole in front of him. He didn’t have to wonder long to know it was a whole hell of a lot of nothing. Then he heard her.

“Hi, Jake.”

Jennifer?

He turned slowly, not believing his ears.

“I knew you’d come here,” she said.

He stared at her. Son of a bitch. There wasn’t one damn word he had to say to her.

“Jake,” she said. She stood in front of the very boulder where she’d saved his heart ten short months ago. It was a sheltered enclave where they’d both brought their sorrows for as long as either could remember.

“Come talk to me, Jake.” She held out her hand. “Please.”

Without volition, without feeling the ground or his movement, Jake walked toward her. She’d cut his heart out and stomped it. Now she reached for him. Maybe he did have something to say to her. Maybe he did want to hear what she had to say.

Jennifer pulled Jake with her as she sat on the ground in front of the boulder. She entwined her hand with his. This was a perfect replay of their beginning—perfect down to his broken heart.

“Deep in your heart, Jake, you must know.”

“I know this was supposed to be our wedding day.” He sorely wanted to hurt her, to leave her heart bleeding the way she had his. Instead, he just stared straight ahead, but he could feel her eyes on him.

“The heart is a crazy thing, Jake.” She squeezed his hand again. “Sometimes it partners up with our brain to make us believe something that isn’t true. I’m sorry it took me so long. Sorry I’ve been such a coward about it. But I found the truth today, Jake, and I faced it.”

“What truth would that be, Jennifer?” he snapped. He hated responding to her, and he wanted to do a lot worse than snap at her. He wanted to freeze her out, make her feel alone and deserted. He wanted to scream at her. He wanted to shake her. He wanted to cry.

“We’re a lot of things to each other, Jake. Friends, saviors, strength. But we’re not in love.”

“We’re not, huh? Could’ve fooled me.”

She squeezed his hand between both of hers, but he wouldn’t acknowledge it. Neither did he pull his hand from hers; he just tried to imagine never feeling her again.

“Fooled me too, Jake. I wanted so badly to be in love with you. To marry you, settle down, have a family. The whole dream. A little while ago, I realized that what I really wanted was another family.”

“Just not with me.” He clenched his teeth together.

He felt her move as she turned toward him, but he just stared straight ahead.

“What I realized, Jake, was that I was substituting you and your family for mine. I had been so lost and so alone until I hooked up with you. You saved me, Jake. Your family saved me.”

He didn’t say anything. Didn’t intend to fall into a sappy stew of bullshit reasons he should be happy she fucked up his life.

“I love you, Jake. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You grounded me when I couldn’t hold on. And you let me return the favor. But that’s not enough, and I can’t trade our chances for true love so that I won’t be alone.”

Yeah, much better we both be alone. She wasn’t catching his foul mood. It’d be easier to fight if she would. Maybe she didn’t give a damn. She sure as shit was a lot calmer than he was. Despite his silence, she kept talking.

“Marriage may suit both of us for a while, but it can’t last. I’ll get past my parents’ deaths. You’ll get past Christy’s.”

“I’m not yet sure of that, Jennifer.”

“See what I mean, Jake? We’re not ready.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going back to school. I want to be a nurse.”

Jake’s shoulders fell. It was over, and he couldn’t deal with it now. He closed his eyes. Dammit. He couldn’t hate her. He took and released a deep, resigned breath, and squeezed her hand. “You’ll be a good one.” He couldn’t deny her that.

As quickly as they had fallen in love ten months ago, they had fallen out.

“I’m going now, Jake. I’m really sorry.”

“Yeah, me too, Jennifer. Me too.”

“I hope you’ll forgive me some day.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Bye, Jake.”

He couldn’t even say goodbye. He just let her walk away. He was adrift again. He was mad. He was humiliated. He knew she was telling the truth. He’d hidden that belief deep in the dark, walled off recesses of his heart, hoping that, unacknowledged, it would disappear.

Christy was dead because he’d wanted to watch the game. Simple as that. He should’ve driven into town to pick her up. He should’ve been watching the weather. He should’ve skipped the game. He should’ve watched it at Christy’s place. He had a whole lot of should’ves in his pocket, always handy when he was in a sour enough mood to kick his own ass. The one thing he did know was that Christy would be alive today if he’d been driving, snow or no snow.

He smiled at the irony. That day ten months ago, it had been Jennifer standing on the edge of the cliff looking down into the canyon searching for her own answers.

She’d said she’d been deciding whether the loss of her family would destroy her. Wondering how she could go on. Wondering if the will to live would one day trump the emptiness in her life. He’d understood completely.

Their deep unhappiness had bound them immediately and grown until they were tightly interwoven in their understanding of the other’s dogged drive for survival and a return to anything that felt near normal.

Well, the whole pitiful parade of hope had just served to prove he wasn’t man enough to keep a woman, even a desperate one.

He walked out to the edge of the cliff. To match his mood, the sky darkened. He felt the thunder when it boomed and wished the lightning across the sky would strike him and deliver him from the hell of his life. But it didn’t.

The summer storm blew in quickly, and the rain came down in sheets. Within minutes, he was soaked. Still, he stood watching the storm. He couldn’t bear to go home. Didn’t want to see anyone. Couldn’t talk about what had happened.

Jake clenched his hands into fists, drew in a deep breath, and yelled out his agony. He picked up a rock and pitched it across the canyon with all the force of his anguish. Then he threw another, and another, and another. He wanted to hurt something, break something, kill something…escape.

He drove his bike back to his cabin, sliding on the wet dirt road like he was skiing. He picked up his emergency survival pack and his rifle, and headed out again. Solitude was something he could trust, and the forest had soothed him before. Before Christy. Nothing had soothed him after Christy. Not even Jennifer. Because it was Christy he still dreamed about.

He drove like a maniac until the trail petered out. Then he walked. This was his element, rain or no rain. No one to hurt and no one to hurt him.

He was exhausted by the time the sun went down. It had stopped raining, but his clothes were sopping wet. So much the better, he deserved to be miserable. He ate peanut butter crackers and drank a couple dozen healthy doses of whiskey, both from his emergency pack, and passed out.

***

Jake woke to a tremendous headache and an urge to puke. He opened his eyes, and the sunshine blinded him. He closed them again and tried to will away his headache. He concentrated on the warmth of the sun and the mild breeze that blew over his face.

He finally sat up and took off his still wet and muddy shoes and socks. His pants had puke on them, and what was once the lily-white shirt of his tux was tie-dyed in mud stains. He stood and took every single stitch of clothing off and tossed each piece away. He couldn’t even remember what had happened to the jacket. Nor did he give a shit.

He grunted and shook his head as he pulled the dry cover for his pack out of a side pocket—too late again. Then he hung the jeans and T-shirt from his pack on a tree branch to dry out and stayed naked. He was going to become a new man, a solitary unhappy figure in a sea of happy couples lucky enough to have found one another. Solidity he would never feel. Companionship he would never share.

Jake picked up his rifle and set off to kill breakfast. Instead, he stopped and shot off every round he had with him into a mound of dirt and wildflowers. He didn’t care that each shot intensified then shattered the pain in his fucking head. He spent the rest of the day wandering and drinking whiskey.

***

When Jake woke the next morning, his skin was on fire. He jumped up and nearly fell back down from the force of his brain bouncing around inside his skull. One hand was on his head and one was on his knee where he could feel something hard and squishy and moving. He jerked his hand off his leg and opened his eyes fast and wide. He thought he’d seen everything.

He was covered in a million tan-colored bloodsucking bugs. He frantically scraped at them. Each was dug into his flesh, shielding itself with an armor-like back that was shaped like a shield. When he had picked most of them off, he stretched out in the ice-cold water of the stream where he’d spent the night.

The cold water brought blessed relief, and he closed his burning eyes. He didn’t know how long he stayed there, but it was long enough to know he couldn’t spend the rest of his life naked and hiding in the woods. And through the relentless burning and itching of a million bug bites, he discovered he preferred punishing himself with his heart and brain more than with his body.

It took him a bit to pick up his trail and find his way back to his pack. He dressed in his pants and shirt that were still wet and still a little muddy, hiked back to his bike, and drove back to his cabin.

The next morning, he threw some clothes into a suitcase, got in his truck, and without calling anyone, drove south. Away from Colorado, away from heartache, away from family, away from the snow that had killed Christy, and away from Jennifer. He thought the desert would suit him just fine.

He stopped in El Paso, Texas, but it didn’t feel right. It was friendly enough, but he didn’t get caught up in the life. He didn’t know if anything would ever feel right again, but he was pissed enough to keep driving until he was convinced there was no hope. The next day, he decided to drive across Texas, and headed east.

He was a couple of hours out of El Paso when he pulled off at a rest stop to stretch his legs. But he didn’t get to relax; what he got was another kick in the nuts.

The unmistakable sound hit him the instant he got out of his truck—some girl was sitting on a rock bawling. He looked around; they were the only two people at the rest stop. She was facing west toward El Paso. He couldn’t see her face, but her shoulders bounced in that sobbing way he’d seen in women who were trying not to cry out loud.

Holy hell. He supposed he should at least ask her what was wrong. Maybe he could help, but he’d be dammed if he would have anything to do on any level with any part of another woman, let alone one full of tear-worthy troubles. He turned and went back to his truck. One foot was already on the floorboard…oh, what the hell.

“Ma’am? You all right?” he asked as he walked toward her.

Her head bobbed up and down once.

“Can I help you? Do something for you? Is your car okay?”

“I’m fine. Thanks,” she said without lifting her head.

“If you’re sure.” Because he wasn’t.

“I’m sure. I’m just saying goodbye.”

“Okay. Good luck, lady.”

Jake got back in his truck and drove until he reached Austin. It was a pretty place, green without being in the mountains, easy on his eyes. It was early afternoon, so he decided to drive around town and get a feel for the place. Mostly what he found was traffic. Everywhere. There was no airport on Airport Road. A river ran through town. There was a band playing in a parking lot full of food trailers. There were a thousand beautiful girls on the street in front of the university. A guy at the gas station called it the drag. There was a man in a bikini wearing a boa and sitting in a lawn chair in front of a big cardboard sign that said something about the police. He was soon downtown in what had to be the party district because it was wall-to-wall bars and restaurants. He was home.

That night, he called his parents, but he didn’t call Jennifer.

***

Clara Hawthorne had decided not to cry one more blessed tear over that no-good, son-of-a-bitch ex of hers. Apparently, her heart hadn’t gotten the edict, however, because here she sat on the side of the road leaking like a sieve.

She’d been okay when she’d stopped to say goodbye to El Paso and her old life. She was on her own. She didn’t need anyone, and she would damn well prove it to herself and the whole wide world.

But like every other momentous declaration of independence she’d forced upon the world, her bravado was soon conquered by her cowardly ways. “Stop it!” she said in a growl. But her stupid tears kept right on rolling down her face.

A pickup with a male driver and no passengers pulled into the rest stop. She knew what she looked like when she cried. It didn’t take but a dozen tears to redden and swell her eyelids enough to scare off Beelzebub himself. Nor could she see. She buried her face and tried to pull herself together. Maybe he’d leave soon.

He didn’t leave, and she didn’t get herself pulled together. As those miserable sobs shook her shoulders, a shadow passed over her. Then it spoke.

He called her ma’am, and he wanted to help her.

“I’m fine. Thanks,” she said, without lifting her head. Please leave! She tried to project the thought into his head.

“If you’re sure…” he said. Why couldn’t he just leave her alone?

“I’m sure. I’m just saying goodbye.” She could still be polite.

“Okay. Good luck, lady,” he said. He sounded relieved, and he finally left.

She needed some good luck. She needed to be her own woman. Take care of herself. Not be dependent on anyone else ever again. All that did was break your heart.

The humiliation of being caught crying like a baby calmed her down. Her ex was gone, and he was never coming back, and he was still kicking her in the rump. He’d dumped her like a pile of rubbish, and she was pinheaded enough to cry over it.

She grabbed some ice from her ice chest and held it on her eyelids. When the swelling subsided, she put on her sunglasses and got back in her car and on the road to her brand new life in Austin. She’d heard the folks there liked weird. She should fit right in.