Home > Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(3)

Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(3)
Tammara Webber

‘Um …’ She fidgeted with the books in her arms as my heart thudded out dammit, dammit, dammit, until she said, ‘I’m not really allowed to go out with boys yet.’

Huh. My turn to fidget in response.

‘But maybe … you could come over and watch a movie at my house?’ She was hesitant – like she thought that maybe I’d turn her down.

I felt like I’d been dunked head first in cold water, yanked back out and then kissed, but I just nodded, determined to play nonchalant. So I’d asked a girl out. No big deal. ‘Yeah, sure. I’ll text you.’

Her friends showed up at the end of the hall, summoning her and eyeing me curiously. ‘Hi, Landon,’ one of them said.

I returned the greeting with a smile and turned, hands in pockets, mouthing yes, yes, YES under my breath, as though I’d just fired a puck into the goal right past the goalie’s padded knee. Saturday was only five days away.

Twenty-four hours later, my life had shifted into after.

LUCAS

‘You. Are. An. Asshole! ’

My lips pressed into a thin line, and I struggled to contain the retort flashing across my brain: Wow. There’s one I’ve never heard.

I continued filling out the parking ticket I was thankfully nearly finished recording.

I feel sorry for people whose meters run out before they get back to the car. I feel sorry for people parked in admittedly ambiguously labelled lots. I do not feel sorry for a student who parks directly under a FACULTY PARKING ONLY sign.

When she realized that her appearance and predictable insult hadn’t motivated me to quit writing or even glance up, she tried a different tactic. ‘C’mon, pleeease? I was only in there for like ten minutes! I swear!’

Uh-huh.

I tore the ticket off and extended it towards her. She crossed her arms and glared at me. Shrugging, I pulled out an envelope, placed the ticket inside, and stuck the envelope under her windshield wiper.

As I turned to get back into the cart I drive lot-to-lot around campus, she yelled, ‘Son of a monkey-assed whore!’

That, on the other hand, is new. Well played, Ms Baby Blue Mini Cooper.

Man, I wasn’t sure they paid me enough to compensate for this type of abuse. I sure as hell wasn’t doing it for the prestige. For this, I tucked my hair under a polyester-coated, navy hat that made the top of my head feel like it was on fire when I stood out in the sun too long on hot days, which described seventy per cent of the year. I replaced my lip ring, its piercing thankfully several-years healed, with a clear retainer for the duration of my shifts. I wore a uniform that was the direct opposite of anything else in my wardrobe.

Granted, these three things kept every student I’ve ever ticketed – even, in a couple of cases, people I sat right next to in class – from recognizing me while I was in the process of ruining their days.

‘Excuse me! Yoo-hoo!’

This is the sort of summons usually delivered by someone’s grandma – but no, it was my thermodynamics professor from last spring. Hell. I pocketed the ticket pad, praying he wasn’t Mr Brand-New Mercedes, who I’d just ticketed for parking across two spaces at the back of the lot. I wouldn’t have thought Dr Aziz capable of being such an asshat – but people were weird behind the wheel of a car. Their personalities could morph from stable, sane citizens to road-raged dipshits.

‘Yes, sir?’ I answered, bracing.

‘I need a jump!’ He panted like he’d sprinted across a football field.

‘Oh. Sure. Hop in. Where’s your car?’ I ignored the girl in the Mini Cooper, giving me the finger as she squealed by us.

Though he didn’t comment, Dr Aziz wasn’t as inured to the gesture that was all too routine for me. Brows elevated, he climbed into the passenger seat and held on with both hands after fumbling for the nonexistent seatbelt. ‘Two rows over.’ He pointed. ‘The green Taurus.’

I slowed to keep from flinging him out the cart’s open side while making a U-turn at the end of the row, reflecting that my usual, antisocial incarnation would’ve been way less likely to get flipped off in the middle of a parking lot. I was a walking target, patrolling the campus in this damned costume.

Once I got his car started, I removed the cables and dropped the hood. ‘Be sure to get that battery charged or replaced – this box provides a jump, not a charge.’ I knew my engineering professor didn’t need this advice … but I assumed I was unrecognizable.

Wrong.

‘Yes, yes, Mr Maxfield, I think I am quite familiar with auto charging by this point.’ He laughed, still wheezing a bit. ‘This is a fortunate meeting, I think. I was mentally reviewing former students just this morning. I’ll be contacting a handful of these, inviting them to apply for a research project that begins next semester. Our objective is the development of durable soft materials to replace those normally damaged by thermodynamic forces – such as those used in drug delivery and tissue engineering.’

I knew all about Dr Aziz’s proposed research project – it had been animatedly discussed at last month’s Tau Beta Pi meeting with the sort of enthusiasm that only a bunch of engineering honour society nerds can supply.

‘You’re a senior, I believe?’

My brows rose and I nodded, but I was too stunned to reply.

‘Hmm. We’re primarily interested in juniors, as they’ll be around longer.’ He chuckled to himself before pursing his lips, watching me. ‘Nevertheless, the founding team of a project is critical, and I believe you could be an asset, if you’re interested. The position would be reflected as a special-projects course on your transcript, and we’ve received a grant, so we’re able to provide a small stipend to those ultimately chosen.’

Holy shit. I shook myself from my stupor. ‘I’m interested.’

‘Good, good. Email me tonight, and I’ll forward the official application. I am obliged to inform applicants that spots on the team are not guaranteed. They’ll be quite sought after, I imagine.’ He wasn’t kidding. A few of my peers would seriously consider pushing me into traffic to secure one. ‘But …’ He smiled conspiratorially. ‘I think you’d be a top candidate.’

When Heller gave the class their first exam, I had a day off from attending. Instead of sleeping in like a normal college student, I’d stupidly signed up for an extra campus PD shift. It was like I no longer had any idea how to chill out and do nothing. Between paid jobs, volunteer jobs and studying, I worked all the damned time.

The skies opened up around seven a.m., deluging the area with a surprise thunderstorm just in time to negate sunrise, so I bummed a ride with Heller instead of enduring a soggy, miserable drive to campus on my Sportster. After helping tote a box of books from his car to his office and agreeing on a time to leave for the day, I headed to the side exit.

The sun had emerged in the few minutes I’d been inside, granting a short reprieve from the rain, though trees and building overhangs still dripped fat drops on to the students trudging through puddles and hopping over miniature streams. Given the low, grey clouds gathering visibly overhead, I knew the sunburst would last five minutes tops, and hoped I could make it to the campus police building before the next downpour.

If the rain kept up – and all forecasts said that it would – I’d be stuck inside, answering phones and filing stacks of folders in the department’s wall of file cabinets instead of issuing parking citations. Lieutenant Fairfield was always behind on filing. I was half convinced he never filed anything. He simply waited for rainy days and unloaded the mind-numbing task on me. Strangely, I’d rather brave irate students, staff and faculty than be stuck inside all day.

And I won’t see Jackie Wallace at all today.

I willed my brain to shut up, sliding my sunglasses on and holding the door open for a trio of girls who ignored me, continuing their conversation as though I was a servant or a robot, installed there for the express purpose of opening the door for them. Damn this uniform.

Then I saw her, splashing through pools of water in aqua rain boots covered in yellow daisy outlines. I stood like a statue, still holding the door ajar, even though she was yards away and hadn’t noticed me – or anyone around her. I knew she’d be entering this door. She had an exam in econ in about one minute. There was no Kennedy Moore in sight.

Her book bag threatened to slide down her arm, and she hitched her shoulder higher while fumbling with an uncooperative umbrella that matched her boots. Her agitated body language and the fact that she’d never been late to class before – or arrived without her boyfriend – told me she was running behind this morning. Her umbrella refused to close. ‘Dammit,’ she muttered, giving it a hard shake while pushing the retract button repeatedly.

It folded shut a moment before she looked up to see me holding the door.

Her hair was damp. She wore no make-up, but the tips of her lashes were spiky – she’d clearly been caught in the rain on the way from her dorm or car. The combination of her wet skin, her proximity and the breath I took looking into her beautiful eyes nearly knocked me over. She smelled like honeysuckle – an aroma I knew well. My mother had encouraged a wall of it to vine over the tiny cottage in our backyard that she’d made into an art studio. Every summer, the trumpet-shaped blooms had infused the interior with their sweet scent, especially when she’d cranked the windows open. While Mom worked on projects for fall gallery showings, I sat across the scarred tabletop from her, sketching video-game characters or bugs or the innards of an inoperative appliance Dad gave me permission to take apart.

An astonished smile broke across Jackie’s face as she glanced up at me, replacing the scowl she’d given her wayward umbrella. ‘Thank you,’ she said, ducking through the open door.

‘You’re welcome,’ I replied, but she was already rushing away. Towards the class where I was the tutor. Towards the boyfriend who didn’t deserve her.

I hadn’t let myself want anything so impossible in a very long time.

4

Landon

Hours after Dad brought me home from the hospital, he’d totally lost it, using a box cutter to rip out the bloodstained carpet from the room, all the way to the structural floor. Without a mask over his eyes or nose, he’d switched on the sander and scoured the floor until the wood dipped like a bowl in the middle of the room. Sawdust wafted from the doorway like smoke, coating the room and everything in it, including my dad.

I sat in the hall with my back to the wall and my hands covering my ears, sick from the sound of his grief and rage, his hoarse tears and roars mixing with the deafening sander, all of it useless because none of it would bring her back. When the motor stopped, I crawled to the doorway and peeked inside. He knelt, crying and coughing, the hated stain fainter but still visible under the now-silent sander.

The day of her funeral, I woke to the sound of his footfalls in the hallway outside my door, trudging back and forth. My room was dark in the predawn, and I lay motionless, barely breathing, identifying the screech of hangers shoved together and the drag of drawers opened and shut before he tramped past my room and back again, over and over. An hour later, the door to their room snapped shut.

He’d moved into the small guest room downstairs. By unspoken agreement, neither of us entered their sealed and haunted bedroom after that.

Cindy stopped by a lot to check on Dad and me, bringing food or straightening up. Usually Charles came with her, or Cole – who said all the wrong things, even though they were the exact same things everyone else said.

‘Sorry about your mom,’ he’d said last night as we sat side by side on my bed, game controllers in our hands.

I’d nodded, staring at the screen where we drag-raced down some famous street – I couldn’t remember which one – mowing down trash bins, trees, other cars and the occasional hapless animated pedestrian. I tried not to hit the people. Cole seemed to aim for them, especially if his little sister Carlie was around, because she freaked whenever he did it.

‘You hit a kid! You just hit a kid on purpose!’ she’d say when his car jumped the kerb and ran over a skateboarder.

I forgave Cole for hitting the people deliberately, and for saying what everyone else said, because he was ten, and because he treated me the same as always. He was the only person I knew who did that.

Murmuring voices drew me from my room and down the stairs one Saturday morning. Cindy and Dad sat at the kitchen table, coffee mugs gripped between them. Their voices reverberated in the room and spilled into the hallway, as quiet as they were. I knew they were discussing me before I heard what they were saying.

‘Ray, he needs counselling.’

Cindy had always joked that she’d happily trade both her sisters for my mom, who was her ‘true’ sister. Like a meddling aunt who’d known me my whole life, she’d always treated me like I was partly hers to raise.

For a long moment, Dad didn’t answer, and then he said, ‘Landon is imaginative – you know that. He draws all the damned time. I don’t think a few sketches are cause for a shrink –’

‘Ray, I’ve watched your child, her child, since he first picked up a pencil. Of course I’m familiar with how he expresses himself artistically. But I’m telling you, this is … different. It’s disturbing, violent –’

‘What the hell do you expect?’ he hissed, and it was her turn to go quiet. He sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Cin. But … we’ll deal with it in our own way. We don’t want to talk about it. When I think about that night –’ His voice broke. ‘I won’t make him talk about it.’

I heard what he didn’t say. That he didn’t want to hear what I had to say about that night.

But he was right. I didn’t want to talk about it.

‘He’s withdrawing, Ray. He barely speaks any more.’ Her voice was choked with tears.

‘He’s thirteen. Reticence is normal for thirteen.’

‘If he was this way before, I’d agree. But he wasn’t. He was happy and communicative. Watching him with Rose gave me hopes of having sons who’d still talk to me and laugh with me and kiss me goodbye when they become teenagers. This isn’t normal behaviour for Landon – thirteen or not.’

My father sighed again. ‘His mother is dead. How can he ever be normal again?’

She sniffed, and I knew she’d begun crying softly.

‘I can’t discuss this any more,’ he said. ‘I appreciate your help, and Charles’s – but I just can’t –’

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