The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 2

Shortly after 5:00, I pull into my dad’s driveway. Thankfully, there’s no sign of his black truck, so that gives me some time to myself. I’ll need it and a lot of alcohol to get through these next two months.

Unloading a suitcase, along with a case of Budweiser off the rear seat of my black Dodge Charger, I head to the front porch, hoping my dad remembered to leave a key for me under the mat. I don’t want to feel like some poor kid whose father forgot to pick up at school. I’ll sooner break a window.

“Well, it’s about time you got here!” I jump back, nearly dropping my beer, shaking it up in the process which pisses me off.

“Damn it, Dash!” He expertly leaps over the porch railing, landing between two yew bushes. His bleach-blond hair bounces as he trots over to me and takes the beer, of course. “My dad will stab you in the face for screwing up his mulch.”

He waves me off, grinning like a jackass. “Nah. He loves me.”

We stop in front of the porch steps, and I scoff, “Not that much.”

Dash points to his face. “He wouldn’t want to mess up this adorable mug now, would he?”

Adorable,” I repeat with a laugh. “That you are. Just wait until you hit puberty.”

His jaw sourly drops. “Bite me, Jericho!” Oh, yes. Dash’s stupid nickname for me he picked up in Bible school during the summer before fifth grade. We’ve been friends since the first day of second grade when I saved him from a pile-on beatdown. A bunch of third graders thought it’d be fun to pick on the second-grade runt, who looked more like a kindergartner. I had recognized him from my class and felt bad for him, and since I was tall enough to take on the bigger kids, I did. I kept an eye on him after that, sort of serving as his bodyguard. All the teachers thought he was a precious fucker.

Dash hasn’t changed much over the years. Grown taller but still forever a pre-pubescent adolescent, even at thirty. Yet, he’s a month older than me.

Stretching to set my suitcase on the porch, I look back to the driveway. “How in the hell did you get here?”

He follows suit and puts the beer down on a step. “My mom dropped me off.”

“Which one? The lesbian or the experimenting, straight one?” I have to laugh at his frowning face. Dash’s mom is a former-stripper-turned-lesbian florist. Dash and I were thirteen when his strip-club-owner dad split from Dash’s mom after she made that small announcement.

I press, “You have your own car, your own apartment, and your own life for that matter. Why’d your mommy have to give you a damn ride?”

“Her car’s in the shop, so I let her borrow mine.”

“You let her drive your brand-new car?” I shake my head in disbelief. I wouldn’t let Dash drink water in my Charger for months after I bought it. “Why didn’t you keep it and take her where she needs to go?”

He shrugs with a lazy grin as he leans against the railing. “I’m not a damn taxi.”

“So, you let her be one?”

“She raised three boys. She’s used to it.”

Across the street, the old man wearing overalls yells a hello from his mailbox. Forgetting his name, I limply wave back and quickly look away, so he doesn’t think I’m interested in boring chitchat about his lawn tractor or gout. Instead, I say to Dash, “Ok. So, how do you think you’re getting home?”

His grin takes an evil turn, and I testily roll my eyes. “You owe me, Calder.”

He laughs, putting his hand on his chest. “You love me.”

Shaking my head at the porch post I’m holding onto, I mutter, “Not even close.”

Crossing his arms, he asks, “How’d last night go with Lindy?”

Releasing my grip on the post, I take a deep breath before walking back to the car. “Oh. Was that her name? It should’ve been Loony because she was batshit crazy.”

He follows me. “She seemed nice. Drunk, but a nice drunk, at least.” Always the optimist.

Reaching into the back seat again, I drag out a box. Pivoting to face Dash, I roughly hand it to him. “Why in the fuck did you let me go home with her? I was drunk off my ass.”

“Yeah, you were.”

“So, I guess I should thank you for being my taxi last night.” I grab another box and shut the door with my ass.

“Yep. Anytime.” We start walking, and he offhandedly asks, “Why do you have boxes when you are only here for two months? Don’t you have your shit in storage?”

“The movers put some of my clothes in boxes, and I didn’t know if I’d need them or not. Are you taking inventory?”

“You brought more clothes than my mom owns.”

“Yeah, but most of hers are G-strings and push-up bras.”

“Not anymore!”

I laugh. “It’s not all clothes, dipwad. I threw in other things I might need.”

“Ooh. Anyway, you don’t usually drink that much. I was surprised. You’re usually the sober party pooper.” I hate being vulnerable to people, especially in public. Last night was a rare exception, and I got grossly carried away celebrating my new job. That’s why I don’t drink to get plastered in public, and I definitely don’t bring anyone home with me when I’m sober. If I leave with anyone, I sweet-talk them into going back to their place or getting a room.

I sneer, “Someone has to be sober since you can’t handle your liquor.”

We again reach the porch, and I set the box on a chair to look for the key.

“That’s not true!”

Lifting the mat, I see the key is thankfully there. I grab it and unlock the door. “It is, too. You can only handle liquor as long as it remains in the bottle.” He growls in protest, and I probe, “What about Duquesne? I don’t remember how drunk he was.” I pick up the box from the chair and go inside, setting the box on the floor, against the wall. Dash puts his on top, and we go back outside for my suitcase and beer.

“He wasn’t, which is stupid since I was the DD. What an asshole.”

Wheeling my suitcase through the door, I affirm, “That bitch of his is sucking the life out of him.”

“She’s not all that bad. Give her a break. Why’re you two like oil and water?”

“She’s more like an oil spill.” I seize the beer from Dash and put it on the kitchen table, not wasting more time than I have. Returning to the living room, I drag my suitcase upstairs.

Outside my bedroom door, Dash stupidly says, “You need to find yourself a girlfriend. You’ve had maybe three in your life, but none of them lasted very long.”

I scowl at him before walking into my nearly empty, blue-and-beige bedroom. All my sports posters and football pictures are long gone. “Why in the hell would I want a damn girlfriend? Having one is a hassle. I don’t need one to validate me, make me look like a schmuck, or tell me how to live my life. Damn. I have my dad to do all that for me.”

“You don’t want to eventually settle down and get married? Have kids? We’re thirty. We’re supposed to be thinking of that kind of thing.”

As I park my suitcase next to the bed, I frown. “Are you smoking crack again?” I feel like I’ve walked into an Oprah Winfrey interview. He sighs and looks around the room. “Where in the hell is that coming from? You don’t even have one at the moment.”

“Yeah, but I wish I did.”

“Maybe you should scout colleges since you look closer to their age, anyway. Didn’t you find your last girlfriend there?” I smile, knowing that’ll piss him off.

“Up yours, Jericho.”

I laugh and check my watch as he sits down on the bed. “We need to go. I want to split before my dad gets home.”

He dubiously wrinkles his nose. “Why don’t you want to see him?”

I fling my arms out. “Are you fucking serious? He’ll grill me and then go on about Hadley. No, thanks. He has two full months to drown me in that shit.”

“Why do you hate her so much? I remember when you two were close.”

Lifting my blue Indianapolis Colts hat, I sigh and run a hand through my light brown hair. “I don’t hate my sister.” Hadley has never overtly done anything wrong to me. It’s just that living in her glorified shadow can be overwhelming. “She didn’t do anything.”

“But you act like she took your last beer and kicked you in the nuts.”

Baffled by his statement regarding my supposed behavior, I pull my lips to the side. “Ok…”

He leans back, making no effort to get off his ass. “Do you think you’ll see her during your stay?”

Putting my hands on my hips, I nod. “Definitely. My dad will make sure that happens.”

“Is she seeing anyone?” He looks away from me, biting his lip. So obvious.

I grimly laugh. “Oh, no way in hell you’ll ever date my sister. I don’t care if she rents a billboard, begging for a date.” I cross my arms and shrug. “Whatever. I told you she’s dating a hotshot sportscaster in Richmond.”

Dash sits up, practically pouting. “She’s still with him? Are they getting married?”

I cringe. “Shit. I hope not. They’re better off just living together, even though they’re not right now, I don’t think.” I blow out a huff of air. “Come on, Dash. Marriage is for the birds.”

“You hate everything. Damn.”

“Especially you right now, given that you won’t shut up and get your ass in gear.”

He continues to ignore me and again looks around the room. “Remember all the time we spent here playing video games?”

I proudly grin. “You mean, all the time you spent in here getting your ass kicked?”

He smirks. “I was good at some.”

“Yeah, Mario Paint and Wheel of Fortune.”

Dash finally stands. “Well, you can still kiss my vowel.”

“Why don’t you buy a clue first?”

“I have an F. Now, I’ll buy a U.” We both laugh, but abruptly stop when we hear the front door.

“Shit!” I angrily whisper.

He spits out a laugh which if he had a drink, it would’ve been all over my face. “What are you, sixteen?”

Pushing up on my cap, I quietly sneer, “I guess the only place we’ll be going now is to a funeral home because he’ll talk us to death.”

Hearing him bound up the stairs, I continue to glare at Dash as my dad enters my bedroom. His scratchy voice says, “Hey, bud.”

Turning to see him smiling, I give him a quick one in return. “Hey.”

Adam Beckett is tall and lanky with brown eyes, graying brown hair, and an even grayer beard. From old pictures of him in high school wearing his basketball uniform, he pretty much still looks the same, only with grayish hair and lines around his eyes. Without the gray hair, he could pass for someone years younger, even looking too young to be my dad, probably. For the most part, my dad is reserved. My sister takes after him in that regard.

He looks over at Dash. “Good to see you, Dashiell.”

Without hesitation, Dash retorts, “Same to you, Mr. Beckett.” For some fucked-up reason, my dad calls Dash by his full name, and for the same stupid reason, Dash calls my dad Mr. Beckett. It’s too idiotic to even question them about it.

Dad asks me, “How was your drive?”

“In a car.” He frowns, and I clarify, “It was the best drive of my life. Action-packed, dramatic, and laughs all around. Something for everyone.”

“You’re so funny.” Dad looks back and forth between Dash and me with quiet suspicion. “How’d you get here, Dashiell? I didn’t see your car.”

I answer for him. “A stork dropped him off. Surprise! It’s a bouncing baby douchebag.”

Scratching his stomach, Dash grumbles, “Awesome, Jericho.”

Dad frowns again with an eyeroll. “What are you guys up to now?”

Dash jumps in. “Jared and I are grabbing dinner. You’re welcome to join us.” Thanks a lot, Calder. I desperately refrain from rolling my eyes in my dad’s face.

Dad warily smiles. “Thank you, but I’ll let you two catch up.” Guilt unexpectedly washes over me. I see Dash all the time. There have been plenty of occasions I’ve stayed the weekend in Annapolis at Dash’s but didn’t take the time to see my father, even though I didn’t live that far away in the first place.

Dash keeps it up. “It’s no problem. Rio will be there, too. It’ll be cool.”

“That sounds like trouble.” My dad shakes his head. “Some other time.”

Wanting to get moving before Dash schedules a nightly dinner with my dad, I glance at my dumbass childhood friend and nod at the door. “We’d better go. You know how Rio gets when we make him wait.”

Dash scowls. “I doubt he’s there yet, and he wouldn’t care.” True. Hardly anything rattles that guy.

I widen my eyes at him and grit my teeth, wordlessly promising him a certain ass-kicking if he doesn’t shut his damn mouth. Flinching, Dash wisely sucks in his lips, clamping his mouth shut.

Interrupting my wordless death threat, Dad asks, “You have the spare key, don’t you?”

I slowly look away from Dash. “Yeah.” Please don’t lecture me about what time I should be home. I just might have to move into a hotel. In Philadelphia. Tonight.

“If you have too much to drink—”

I loudly sigh, displaying my irritation. “I know, Dad. Dash here said he’ll be my DD, so don’t worry.”

“I did?” Dash sadly questions.

With my hands on my hips, I clear my throat and glance down at the blue carpet, scrounging the last of my restraint from kneeing him in the nutsack.

Dad says, “Jared, I mean it. If you need a ride, call me.”

I agreeably nod at the floor just to get him off my back. “I will.” I peer up at my dad to see if he believes me. I’d ride naked in the back of Rio’s truck, hanging off the tailgate, before I call my daddy to pick me up like some teenager. Even back then, I never called him.

Doubtful, he nods, and I silently let out the breath I was holding. Lying to my dad is an art I’ve perfected over the years. That probably makes me a typical person who lies to their parent, but I also know it makes me more of a horrible person than I already am because I have no remorse. I just don’t know how to be any different. I’m not even a friendly person most of the time. I don’t date. I’ll put on my mask and fake it when I see a pretty girl, but after I get what I want, I get them as far away from me as possible. No strings. I cut every single one. I don’t even know how I’ve made friends and kept them. I’ve always had to be on the offensive because being on the defensive only exposes weakness to others. It’s a pre-emptive strike, really. I refuse to be a fucking victim.

Not waiting around for more lectures, I brush past Adam Beckett and out of my room. When I reach the porch and hit the cement stairs, Dash shuts the door, trailing me in a rush. “Where’s the fire?”

Agitated, I pick up my hat and run a hand through my hair as I hiss, “Does your mouth have a damn leak?”

“What? Your dad’s a nice guy. Why couldn’t he go to dinner with us? Rio likes him, too.”

Opening my driver’s side door, I glare at him over the roof. “Are you serious right now, or are you having a stroke? Because if you are, I’ll leave you here for an ambulance to pick up.”

I hear the crackling of a wrapper and roll my eyes as he pops an ever-present sucker into his mouth, twisting the candy with his tongue so that the stick wobbly spins. He garbles around it, “You wouldn’t even take me to the hospital?”

Shaking my head at his absurdity, I duck into the car, and upon shutting the door, I start the car, shouting, “I’m hungry!”

Dash gets into the car and petulantly yanks on his seatbelt. He removes his lollipop long enough to whine, “Ice cold, Jericho.”

I try to keep a straight face as I back out of the driveway. Still, I can’t resist the urge to shove his head. “I’m kidding. I’d at least drop you off at the ER doors.”

Sitting up, he crams the orange sucker back into his mouth and says a mangled, “What a true-blue pal.” I bite a smile as I pull away from the house.

We’re quiet as we head to Glen Burnie, backtracking to Baltimore, but it’s not far, and it’s the halfway point since Rio will just be getting off work. He’ll be away this weekend with his warden, so tonight is the only time he’ll be free for a couple of weeks. It’s infuriating how she steps in and prohibits my best friend from spending time with me anymore. With Dash’s motor mouth, I’d rather the bitch date him.

“He’s only looking out for you.”

I momentarily glance at Dash, confused. “Who?”

“Your dad.”

“What the hell does that have to do with shit?”

He waves his nearly finished candy in the air. “The way you blow him off and think of him as your mortal enemy. It’s weird.”

“Drop that thing in my car, and I’ll ram the stick down your throat.” He rolls his eyes, and I argue, “Why does it matter to you? Your dad is pretty great. He owns a strip club for Christ’s sake! Why do you care about mine?”

“Because yours is pretty damn great, too, and you need him.”

“I am not a little kid who needs his daddy to fix his problems.” I grip the steering wheel as I impatiently shift gears.

“I’m not saying that. He went through hell right along with you, if not more. You don’t even remember your mother leaving you. He does.” I stomp on the gas, passing slower traffic. “All you do is complain about your grandmother or make fun of my mom. What really are you missing out on, if you think of it that way?”

I look at him in disbelief. “You’re actually suggesting that I’m crazy for being crazy? Rio’s the psych major. You’re a fucking elementary school gym teacher.”

“I had to take psych classes!”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I was unaware that to be Richard Simmons, you had to study Barney the Dinosaur’s social anxiety and mommy issues.”

“I’m only trying to help!”

“Can we not talk about this? Fuck, Dash. What’s your problem?”

“I just feel bad for the guy when you treat him like he’s nothing.”

“Then, on Father’s Day, you can send him a cheap card and give him the obligatory phone call.” I look at him again with suspicion. “Are you ragging it?”

“Yeah. That’s it.” Sighing, he shoves the sucker back into his mouth so he can check his phone and distortedly mumbles, “You’re definitely an Aries, through and through.”

Another fun fact about Dashiell Calder: He reads his horoscope every day and makes damn sure that Rio and I have our daily dose, as well. It’s annoying as fuck, but they sometimes have some truth to them, weird as that may be. He alleges that an Aries is a born leader, independent, and surprisingly, has an engaging personality. On the downside, we’re also very moody, have the propensity to be childish when we don’t get what we want, and we loathe taking orders from anyone.

That’s way off.

I pull into the parking lot and antsy as usual, Dash is out of the car before I turn off the engine. Looking out the passenger window, I see him jogging over to Rio’s black truck—the color of choice for all three of our vehicles.

Getting out of my car, I already hear Dash excitedly yipping at Rio about nothing in particular. When I’m closer, I see Rio rolling his eyes and hear Dash say, “Scorpio,” which makes me laugh because Rio has to put up with him now.

Dash reasons, “Like I told you before, Scorpios are extremely determined, loyal, temperamental on a dime, and control freaks.”

Rio coolly counters, “Yeah, and you also said we have excellent memories and rarely forgive but never forget. So, before I hate you forever and never forget why, put a cork in it.”

When I stop next to Dash, I see his face fall. “Damn. Did you and Jericho take the same bitch pills this morning? I think you two who are on the rag.”

Rio’s eyes lift to mine. “Hey, Beckett,” he greets with a relieved smile, probably because he doesn’t have to listen to Dash alone.

River Duquesne—Rio—as I’ve called him since college, for the Spanish word of his name. He’s the quiet one, but you know what they say about those fucks, and it’s all true. He’s also the pretty one which he hates being called. Girls love his habitual facial scruff, rebellious brown hair, and orgasmic blue eyes. Ever since Dash referred to Rio’s eyes that way, it’s the only description that comes to mind now. Asshole.

At Johns Hopkins, I needed a job nearby to pay for my car and insurance, so I got one at Target, where Rio happened to work since high school. He showed me around and helped me not look like a total fuckup. We became immediate friends, which surprised the hell out of me. The next semester, we even took Spanish at the same time so we could help each other. Then our sophomore year, we found an apartment between our campuses and moved into that so we wouldn’t have to live in the shitty dorms.

We actually share some similarities. We lost our mothers when we were kids. He lost his mother to ovarian cancer when he was sixteen, shortly after being diagnosed. Rio had majored in psychology to help people with their losses, but then he decided that becoming a physician assistant was what he really wanted. Currently, he works in a gynecology/obstetrics practice. I think he’s looking for that one to save, honoring his mother. Whatever. I still have to razz him for hanging between legs all day for money. That absolutely cannot be helped.

I slap Rio on his gray-T-shirted shoulder as we turn to walk inside. “What’s up, doc?”

Shaking his head, he mutters, “Same old, same old.” He looks over his shoulder and then past me, shrugging. “I can’t complain.”

I laugh and give his shoulder a shake. “You never do.” I probably could torch Rio’s truck, and he still wouldn’t complain. Much. He’d break my legs with a baseball bat, but he’d do it without complaint.

We walk into the building, and Dash does the talking, as usual, shamelessly charming the hostess, who happens to be gawking at Duquesne instead, also as usual. Glancing at the floor with his hands in his pockets, Rio doesn’t typically acknowledge any attention he gets from females since it makes him uncomfortable. Cool and collected Rio is somewhat socially awkward when it comes to the opposite sex. I can’t comprehend how Rio snagged a girlfriend, let alone a mouthy one. I’m guessing she flashed him her tits or something.

We’re escorted to our booth, where Dash eagerly slides across the shiny, dark green bench.

The hostess asks, “Is this booth okay, or is there anything else I can get for you?” She looks at Rio, who’s staring down the front doors like he wants to escape.

I nod at Dash. “He could probably use a kid’s menu and some crayons.”

He scrunches up his face in a pout, and after the hostess leaves, gripes, “Kiss my ass, Jericho.”

Since Rio sits in the middle of the other seat, I sit down next to Dash and laugh at his sulky expression before I try loosening up Rio. “How was work, Duquesne?”

Ever cautious whenever he discusses his job, he shifts in his seat and carefully answers, “It was fine.”

“Did you get into any hairy situations? How much you make in tips?”

His sharp look could crack pavement. “Hilarious.” Rio checks his phone for the fifth time since sitting down, no doubt waiting for permission to take a piss.

Dash leans forward with a wicked smile. “Come on, Diet Dr. Pussy. Nothing happened today?”

He tears his eyes away from his phone with a glower aimed at Dash. “Bite me, Douche Calder.”

Looking between Dash and Rio, I laugh and shake my head just as our waitress stops at our table. Dash and I order beers and then look expectantly at Rio to do the same. However, he orders a goddamn Pepsi.

I reach over my chest, pointing at Dash. “Shouldn’t you card him?”

She pauses then opens her mouth to say something. Dash mumbles, “Damn it.” Moving beside me, he slides his license across the table before she has a chance to ask. I laugh, and Rio cracks a smile.

When we’re again left alone and Dash is stuffing his license back into his wallet, my smile dwindles as I suspiciously glare at Rio opening his menu. “Why didn’t you just order chocolate milk? At least you could keep the cup.”

Baffled by my comment, he guardedly watches me for a few seconds. “What’s with you?”

“I just thought you were drinking a beer with us.”

“Why’s it matter what I drink?”

Sitting back and crossing my arms, I ask, “Aren’t you out of your shackles tonight?”

Before he replies, a voice from behind me shouts, “Why, Dr. Duquesne! Is that you?”

I look behind me to see a pudgy, hunched-over artifact that appears to be wearing pajamas of some sort. Her hair is white and stringy, and her pale skin sags, resembling that of a basset hound’s face. She’s holding onto a walker with one hand and waving to Rio with the other.

One of Rio’s patients.

Holy shit.

Stunned by her decrepit appearance and knowing that Rio has to see her naked, I instantly turn to look at him as he slaps on a smile. “Mrs. Selznick. It’s nice to see you.”

I mumble to Dash, “At least with her clothes on this time.”

Dash whispers, “Fuck me.”

I whisper back, “Do you want me to ask her for you? Then again, she may take your virginity and then steal your lunch money.” He pinches my arm hard, and I jerk away from him as I return my attention to the looming train wreck before us.

She finally makes it to our table without collapsing. “Now, now. I told you to call me Midge.” The smell of Ben Gay and impending death mixed with the light smoke from the grill assault my nose. I subtly lean closer to Dash, whose Backstreet Boys or Michael Jordan cologne is now greatly appreciated. If I could put my nose against his neck and not look like I’m trying to make out with him or suck his blood, I’d be all over him.

“And I told you I’m not a doctor and to just call me Rio.”

I’m pretty sure Grandma Moses can’t hear me, so I quietly inform Dash, “He just pretends to be one to get into their pants.” Unfortunately, Rio isn’t deaf, and he subtly pounds his fist on the table, warning us to shut our mouths.

“Oh, hush. Rio is that damn movie my grandkids watch.” My fist automatically goes to my mouth to stifle a howl. Without looking at me still, Rio irritably clears his throat and anxiously pulls on the edge of his menu, which only makes me laugh more, causing a chain reaction with Dash.

The lady goes on. “Who cares about if you’re official? You deserve that title with all you’ve done for me.” Fuck, the mental pictures will keep me awake for years.

She turns to Dash and me, and I miraculously sustain a straight face. Then, she points to Rio and loudly exclaims, “This young man found my polyps, and since they’ve been removed, I’m pain-free! He’s such a prince!” She claps her hands together and grins at Rio. “My uterus thanks you!”

Our waitress picks this exact moment to deliver our drinks. Hearing that bit, her eyes pop open along with her mouth. No longer staring at Rio in awe, she instead looks scared. She stammers that she’ll return for our orders and makes a hasty retreat.

Once more hiding my mouth behind my fist, I try like hell to not blatantly laugh. Dash isn’t so capable as I feel him shaking beside me, no doubt covering his mouth with his arm to be stealthy yet looking anything but. I can’t look directly at him, or I’ll lose it.

Fed up with us, Rio steely glares at Dash and me with a telepathic fuck you.

She pats him on the arm, which makes his face turn a bright red. “Have a good evening, doc.”

As she waddles away, Dash and I are no longer able to contain ourselves, leaning against each other and gasping for air.

Dash urgently whispers, “You see her naked?”

Still in disturbed awe, I say to Rio, “Holy fuck. Remember in The Shining how that kid was called Doc and when that naked broad suddenly turned old? That was—”

“You two assholes need to shut your mouths,” Rio interrupts me, but it only serves to make us laugh harder.

“I’m so sorry, Prince of Polyps,” Dash wheezes in between laughs.

Swallowing my own laughs, I add, “Your Majesty, I’d spread my legs for you, but I don’t have polyps or a pussy.”

He narrows his eyes, darting them wildly back and forth between Dash and me. “She’s a very nice lady and my patient, so cut the shit.” He irritably glances over our heads, and his frown immediately converts into a smile, inexplicably forgetting what just happened. Instantly curious, Dash and I turn to look but don’t see anyone behind us.

Apparently, we were too slow because next to our table, a familiar, nasally voice says, “Hi.”

Whipping our heads around at the same time, Liberty slides in next to Rio, kissing him on the mouth.

Right in front of me.

And where I’ll be eating my food.

And stealing the air I breathe.

What the fuck?

Dash cheerily says, “Hey, Liberty! Nice to see you! You’re having dinner with us?” Clenching my hands tightly and glaring at the side of Dash’s blond head, I’ve never wanted to throttle the living shit out of someone as much as I want to right now.

“Yeah, if that’s okay?” No. You need to get up and drive somewhere far, far away. Like Taiwan.

Dash delightfully answers for me, “Of course it’s okay!” I can’t believe killing someone with a look doesn’t work. Fucker.

“Jare?” Rio presses me. Didn’t the asshole next to me just answer him? Do I actually have to verbalize an answer? Because I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to hear it.

“What?” I finally look away from Dash, who is purposefully ignoring me. Grabbing my beer, I open my menu and pretend to peruse the options.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” Rio asks with an underlying edge.

Without looking up from my menu, I dutifully reply, “I guess I’ll order the buffalo burger.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he states, sharpening that edge.

Dash kicks me from the side, and I turn to glare at him again, clenching my jaw shut. How in the fuck did I get into this situation? All I wanted to do was spend time with my questionable best friends, not that ball-busting skank.

Still glowering at Dash because that’s the only place I can look without vomiting the food I haven’t even eaten yet, I angrily sigh and mutter a compulsory, “Hey, Libby.” She hates that, so it makes me smile and for Dash to kick me again.

“Jerry.” And I hate that.

Touché, bitch.

I fleetingly glance at Rio, giving him a brief but unmistakably irritated glare before forcing myself to look at Liberty. Her blonde hair is taco-shell yellow, slightly darker than Dash’s color, and her eyes are blue, just like everyone else’s at this table, except mine. However, unlike Rio’s or Dash’s, her blue eyes remind me of a choking jellyfish.

“What’re you doing here?” I demand.

“I invited her,” Rio snaps, boring his eyes into me. Perching my elbows on the table, I shake my head and look away.

As our waitress cautiously returns, we all give her our orders. Not really interested in eating anymore, I sit back and start picking at the corner of my beer label.

When she walks away, Rio sharply repeats, “I invited her.”

I continue giving my bottle all my attention but spare effort to curtly respond, “Because you had no choice.”

I know she is shaking her head. I can tell because I hear her large, silver hoop earrings metallically swishing along with her ponytail. “River asked me to come.” River. Liberty refuses to call him Rio. On the other hand, if she did, I think it would also piss me off.

I reluctantly look up from the bottle to the intruder across from me. “Can’t you let him have a night to himself?”

Liberty opens her mouth to spew something, but she’s cut off by Rio, the coolness he previously displayed seconds ago slips. “I asked her to be here. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

My frustrated gaze slides to him. His lips are pursed, and his eyes are intense but don’t really give anything away. “Why? You need a chaperone, Duquesne?”

Dash hits my hand with his fork, causing pain to reverberate across my knuckles. Skating my hands off the table, I swiftly give him a dirty look, only for him to respond with one of his own. As much as I’m used to Rio keeping his cool, I’m also not used to Dash being anything but cheerful.

This is an odd turn of events. I’m usually the unstable one, and ironically, I’m the only one here making any sense.

Retreating from Dash’s condemning scowl, I peer around the room at the décor, anything to avoid looking at anyone. I feel Rio’s glare, but if I return the look, he’ll see in my eyes just how much I don’t care.

After a few hushed minutes, Dash starts yacking again, and I have to drown out the casual banter between Liberty and him because it makes me physically ill. Rio remarks here and there but doesn’t say as much as Frick and Frack do. I count down the seconds until I can eat my dinner and get the fuck out of here.

My stomach twists and I reach for my beer to douse the feeling, although it’ll take more than beer to eradicate this revulsion.

“Jericho does.” Dash elbows me, and I unwillingly look from the giant swordfish hanging on the wall to Calder’s expectant face.

“What?”

Liberty clears her throat. “I was just asking if any of you like to go to the beach?”

I revert my attention to the dead fish on the wall but attempt to be somewhat cordial for Duquesne’s sake. “Why?”

“Just curious.”

I shrug as I study the swordfish, wanting to catch one like that someday. Hell, I’d go for catching a bluegill if it meant I could be anywhere but here. “I grew up not far from the beach, so it’s kind of passé.”

Rio bitingly says, “Shut up, Jare. You love the water. Don’t be pissy.”

Mercifully, our food is brought to the table, and I instantly start on my sandwich, gawking at it as if it’s giving me a lap dance, just to avoid looking in front of me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of Liberty’s hand moving up and down Rio’s leg, and I pause.

Struggling to swallow my food, I take a long drink before loudly whispering, “Could you not jack off your boyfriend in front of me? I’m trying to eat.”

She nearly spills her drink as she quickly puts it down, protesting, “I-I’m not!” Liberty pulls away from Rio. “I was rubbing his leg. That’s all.” She looks to Dash for sympathy, which she probably gets.

“Seriously?” Dash squeals and punches my arm with the side of his fist. Unfortunately, killing him will have to wait.

“Jared.” Rio’s blue eyes flash brighter. I can’t help but roll mine at him.

I pick up my burger and try to gag the rest of it down. The table is thankfully quiet as we eat, but it only lasts a few minutes before Dash has to open his mouth. Vaguely, I hear Liberty saying more about a beach. If it doesn’t involve her drowning at one, I couldn’t care less.

I’m content enough to eat in silence and be left out of the conversation until Dash asks, “Why don’t you stay at my dad’s beach house with Rio, Jared, and me for the Fourth of July weekend?”

My burger topples out of my hand. “Dash, shut up!”

Rio bellows, “Jared!”

“No! That’s our fishing trip and our time. No ball-and-chains allowed!”

Rio argues, “We’re not twelve, and it’s not a treehouse! None of us had a woman we wanted to bring with us before!”

Liberty meekly says, “That’s okay. Thanks anyway, Dash.”

Dash continues to plead his fucking case. “No, it’s cool. Really. You don’t have to fish. We also have bonfires, watch movies, play beach volleyball with the neighbors, and just relax. You can always hang out on the beach or whatever.”

Tearing his blazing eyes away from me, Rio strokes her back. “Dash is right. You should come. We each have a room there. It’s not like I have to bunk with anyone.” He swiftly glares at me, and I shake my head as I turn to stare at the fish again.

As I take a swig of my beer while looking out the window on the other side of the room, I hear Dash dragging his bottle across the wooden table before he jokes, “Yeah, just keep it down when you two are getting it on.”

I slam down my bottle, facing the three most irritating people here. “Oh, hell no. You can fuck her elsewhere, Duquesne. Like Iowa.”

He roars, “Jared! Outside! Now!”

Liberty leans over to say something to Rio, but without taking his cold stare off me, he whispers some shit in her ear. She then jumps up to allow him out of the booth. I grab a handful of my French fries and shove them into my mouth before I stand.

Dash sighs and pushes his plate away, shaking his head at the table. When Rio stands, he snarls, “Go.”

As soon as we barrel through the front doors, Rio shunts past me and looks over his shoulder, nodding ahead for me to follow. He leads me to the end of the building and around the corner, where there aren’t people standing around. Satisfied where we are, he spins around and is in my face.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, Beckett? It’s like you have a screw loose or a short circuit!”

“What? Am I a fucking robot?”

He bleakly laughs. “No. A damn robot has more feelings than you do! Why are you so mean to Liberty?”

Now, I have to laugh. “Mean to her? I tried not talking to her, so I didn’t have to be mean to her!”

“What did she ever do to you? You barely even know her!”

“You call me a robot? You’re a goddamn puppet! She pulls your strings, and you dance!”

He steps closer, and I cross my arms, squeezing my fists, holding my ground. I don’t want to argue with Rio, but he brought this on himself.

“She doesn’t tell me what to do! I like spending time with her. If you’re pissed off at anyone, then it should be me!”

“She keeps you away from your friends! We never see you anymore! It’s not like she encourages you to ditch her! You have to ask for permission to hang out with your friends!” I take a deep breath and slide both hands up into my hair underneath my hat, hovering it above my hands, frustrated that he can’t see his girlfriend the way I do.

Slightly calmer, I look around us before resting my gaze on his chest, unable to look him in the eye when I say, “Since I’ve known you, none of your previous girlfriends kept you away like this.”

Equally as composed, he replies, “Because I didn’t have feelings for them like I do for her.”

My breathing slams to a halt at the same time my stomach crashes, and I instantly look up at his face. “Oh, no.” I swallow and laugh, but not really laughing as I turn away and shake my head. “No, no, no, Duquesne. Don’t you fucking say it.”

“I’m in love with her, Jare.”

I explode. “Fuck! I told you not to say it!” Dropping my arms, I again cross them over my chest and angrily suck in my bottom lip as I stare at the ground, disgusted by this new and disastrous development. Rio doesn’t say anything more. He just quietly watches me as I think of what to say.

Ultimately, I look up at him. “Don’t tell me you believe in that shit, too. It’s bad enough with Dash and his lovelorn whining.”

With his hands on his hips, he glances at the ground with a weighty sigh. “Jare…”

Shit. I’m losing this.

“She’s only luring you in! You’ve got to fight harder!”

He crunches his face in puzzlement, narrowing his eyes at me. “To not fall in love?”

I eagerly nod, trying to save him from crossing to the Dark Side. “Yes! Don’t give in! Just walk away!”

“Instead of falling in love? Are you serious?”

“Damn right, I am! You don’t need that shit! You’ve only been with her a couple of months!” He seems to contemplate that. I think I’m getting through to him.

Rio looks up at the roof of the covered walkway before crossing his arms, mirroring me. He whispers, “Fuck.” We stare at each other in an odd standoff. The parking lot noises accentuate the awkward tension hovering around us. Rio and I never argue. It’s usually Dash and me fighting over something stupid.

I finally ask, “Have you told her… that… yet?”

“No.”

“Don’t do it, Rio. Once you say that word, it’ll be too late.”

The confusion is back on his face as he cocks his head. “Too late for what?”

“Too late to take it back. To stop it. If you change your mind about how you feel about her, you won’t be able to undo it. Those words will forever be hanging over you like a fucking plague.”

He adamantly shakes his head and speaks with unfamiliar fervor. “Jared, I can’t stop it. I don’t want to stop it. It was bound to happen for me someday.” His eyes fly over my face, and he hesitates. “Just like it should for you if you let anyone get close enough.”

I frown. “What the hell, Duquesne? Now you sound like fucking Dash.”

Straightening his arms, he dips his left hand into his jeans pocket. “Don’t you ever want to fall in love with someone? As long as I’ve known you, you’ve never been in love.”

I turn away from him to look out over the parking lot, so tired of this conversation. “And I never will be. Who fucking needs that shit? It’s just an aggravation, and if you break up, it’ll suck the life out of you, along with your bank account. No, thanks.”

“That’s the risk I’ll have to take.” He props his hand on the brick wall, sighing. “What’s happened to you? It’s like you have some kind of vendetta to carry out. You’ve always been cool with me, but I’ve noticed that you’re a dick to women in general. Now, Liberty. Why?” Fuck.

My arms remain locked against me as if I’m really protecting myself from his disturbing observations. I randomly watch people in a grocery store parking lot across the street as he waits for an answer. I shrug. “I’m not. Liberty and I just don’t get along.”

“It’s more than that. You don’t even have any women friends.”

I had one, years ago, but when I wanted to step it up with her, she rejected me. I repeatedly threw myself at her, but you can only push on a redwood tree so much. I didn’t have more to give, so I walked away. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never told anyone about her.

Rio continues, “Your entire demeanor changes around women.”

I’ll never be at the mercy of a female again.

“Yeah. You should talk. If you had an invisibility cloak, you’d use it.”

“You become icy, Jare. You only thaw a bit when you want to use them.”

Stunned he sees through me, I look away from him. “I think you and Dash are smoking crack together.” This is why I don’t have in-depth conversations with Rio about this subject. He’s cutthroat, and I’m transparent.

“Deny it all you want, but you’ll be alone if you keep being this way.”

Seeing a couple kissing, making me want to throw up, I turn back to Rio. “Because I really want to be put on a leash and dragged around.”

“I’m not! Jesus! I’m happy! Don’t you want to see me happy?”

“Not when it comes down to you choosing her over Dash and me.”

He pounds the brick with his fist. “Can’t I have both? Why do I have to choose one or the other?”

“That’s what it’ll end up being. She’ll make you get rid of us. Don’t you see how controlling she is?”

She is? Look at you! You’re telling me whom I can’t love! You’re trying to do the very thing you’re accusing Liberty of doing!”

“No way. This is different. I’ve known you longer. I’m looking out for you!”

He steps closer. “Don’t feed me that garbage, Jare! I don’t want you fighting with Liberty!” He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. When he opens them, Rio evenly says, “She’s not going anywhere. Get used to her.”

I swallow hard and challenge, “And if I can’t?”

He drills his eyes into me. “I mean it.” Does he think I’m joking?

Letting my arms fall, I reach into my back pocket for my wallet, pulling out a twenty-dollar bill. Holding it between my index and middle fingers, I say, “Here. For my dinner.”

He doesn’t take the money. “Why? Where are you going?”

“Dash will need a ride home.” When he doesn’t make a move to grab it, I shove the bill against his chest, and as it falls, he catches it.

As I turn and walk back around the corner of the building, Rio yells, “Jared, come on!”

Ignoring him, I go straight to my car and angrily peel out of the parking lot.

If it’s not my dad, it’s my damn friends.

Fuck them all.

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