Home > Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(6)

Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(6)
Tammara Webber

Francis gave me a How’d that get there? look as I lifted his butt off my buzzing phone.

It was Joseph, one of the full-time maintenance technicians at the university who scored me occasional extra income doing odd jobs on campus – usually legit contract labour, sometimes under-the-table cash. I wasn’t choosy; I’d take either. ‘Hey, man.’

‘Duuuude … you busy tonight?’ Stoned.

I shook my head. Joseph was fond of his recreational pharmaceuticals, especially at the end of a crap week of dealing with some of the more condescending academics, harried admins or bosses on power trips of their own.

‘Just studying. What’s up?’

Francis took advantage of my distraction, plopping his fluffy, twenty-pound body on top of my textbook and half my class notes. I shoved at him halfheartedly and he swiped my pen off the sofa in retaliation.

‘On a Friday night? Dude, you have got to stop that shit.’ This was a frequent assertion of Joseph’s. He knew I wasn’t going to change – he just felt like he had to restate his objection from time to time. ‘When are you going to live a little?’

‘Soon as I graduate, man,’ I promised. ‘Soon as I graduate.’

Sighing heavily, he turned to the purpose of his call. ‘I’ve got a little … proposition for you.’

If I had a best friend, Joseph was probably it. The weirdest thing about our friendship was the fact that we had only two things in common. First, our nearly identical tastes in music, and second, an affinity for compartmentalizing our lives, something we did with equal compulsion.

After spotting me alone at several shows last spring, he’d walked up and stuck his hand out. ‘Hey, man – Joseph Dill. Don’t you work on campus?’

‘Yeah.’ While we shook hands, I tried to place him. He wasn’t an engineering classmate, but he seemed a little young to be a professor. One of the slightly older students from one of Heller’s classes, maybe?

‘Campus cop, right?’ His tone wasn’t contemptuous, but it wasn’t complimentary, either.

I cursed that job for the millionth time, for all that those ten hours per week paid enough to cover nearly half my tuition. ‘Oh, uh – not really,’ I said. ‘I just write parking tickets. It’s a work-study position. Still have to wear the dumbass uniform, though.’

‘Ah,’ he nodded, sizing me up. ‘So … you’re a student.’

Though we inhabit the same small realm, maintenance and groundskeeping personnel don’t generally interact with students. He gestured to himself after the merest pause, stepping across that invisible border. ‘Building maintenance.’ He smiled. ‘Thought I’d buy you a beer and ask what are a couple hot guys like us doing going to concerts alone?’

I smiled, but it abruptly occurred to me that Joseph might be interested in more than a conversation, because my gaydar was blaring.

‘You’re legal, right?’ he asked.

‘Uh, yeah …’ Raising my red-banded wrist, I told myself this would be no different than turning down a girl when I wasn’t interested or in the mood – something I’d done often enough the previous three years.

‘Cool.’ After paying for two beers, he handed me one and clinked the necks before taking a long swallow.

I thanked him guardedly, not wanting to shoot him down before he asked a question.

He picked at his bottle’s label, finally coming to some conclusion. ‘So, my boyfriend is a musical-theatre guy. And f*ck if I wouldn’t rather be chased by starving zombies than be forced to endure Rent ever again. He has no problem getting a friend to go to that shit with him, thank Christ. I don’t have the same luck with my musical tastes in our circle of friends, ya know?’ He eyed me then, waiting for either confirmation or a prejudiced response.

Relieved, I smiled at the thought of this guy, who looked as if he’d be more at ease in a biker bar than a Broadway show. On the heels of that thought, a buried memory pushed to the surface – my father, standing awkwardly next to Mom at one of her gallery showings, clutching a fluted glass of champagne. Dad was a sports-watching scotch/rocks guy, not an art enthusiast. But he loved and supported my mother.

‘I don’t really know, but I can imagine,’ I said.

Joseph’s mouth pulled into a half smile, and we’d been friends since then.

‘Okay,’ I said now. ‘Proposition away.’

‘You, uh, have experience fixing AC systems, right?’

‘Yeah?’ I’d worked for Hendrickson Electric & AC my last year of high school, assisting old Mr H on hundreds of maintenance calls and repairs – but I’d never been in charge of diagnosing a disorder. After a year of working with him, he joked that I’d learned just enough to be dangerous, which summed up my level of expertise perfectly.

‘Here’s the thing. I just got an after-hours call to fix the AC at one of the frat houses. And dude, I totally forgot I was on call this weekend … and I am baked.’

I smirked. ‘You don’t say.’

‘Yeah … There is no way I should be operating heavy machinery. Like. My truck.’

‘That’s undoubtedly true.’

‘So I was thinking you could go do the job, and I’ll pay you – I get overtime for this shit. That way, I don’t get caught stoned on the job, you make some extra cash, everybody’s happy.’

Going to a frat house to identify and repair an issue with a major appliance that I might not know enough to fix wasn’t exactly an upgrade from sitting alone in my apartment. ‘Er. I don’t have the tools and equipment –’

‘Come over, take my truck – it has everything you need in the box. Those dumbasses won’t ask you for ID or anything. They just want their AC fixed. Why the emergency, I don’t know. It’s like seventy-five degrees out. Probably a party or something.’

I sighed. I didn’t want Joseph driving high or getting his ass fired showing up to make a campus repair while high and paranoid. Plus I could always use extra cash. ‘Okay, man. When?’

‘Uh. Now?’

The subterfuge included wearing one of Joseph’s official maintenance staff shirts – his name stitched in navy blue script into the white rectangle on the left side of my chest.

‘They probably need Freon or a wiring repair.’ He patted my shoulder and dropped the keys to his truck into my hand. ‘Call me if you get stumped. I’m stoned, not comatose.’

He was right about everything – the guys were gearing up for a party, and no one blinked an eye at me showing up in one of his shirts. Some guy answered the door and showed me that adjusting the thermostat didn’t change the temperature in the house. Luckily, Joseph was also correct about it being a simple wiring issue. The unit was close to twenty years old and would have to be replaced soon – but not yet.

‘Oh, man – sweet.’ D. J., the frat’s VP, threw his head back and closed his eyes, exhaling a relieved breath. ‘We blew a wad on this party. It’s supposed to be nice tomorrow, but you never know around here.’

‘True.’ I loaded the tools into the box.

‘Thanks for coming out, Joseph.’ It took me a beat longer than it should have to realize he was speaking to me.

‘Oh, sure thing.’

At the door, he offered a folded twenty.

I waved it off. ‘No problem, man. All part of the job.’ The real Joseph was paying me fifty bucks for doing an hour’s worth of work, and I was apprehensive enough doing this at all.

D. J.’s brows drew together briefly, probably unused to a blue-collar worker turning down an offered tip. ‘Okay, well – if you’re free tomorrow night, we’re having this Halloween party.’

No shit, I thought. The whole house was decked out with imitation cobwebs and black lights and all the furniture had been pushed to the walls, freeing space for dancing or socializing in the centre of the main room.

‘It’s technically for students, but you’re obviously not old, and this one’s not Greek-exclusive, so stop by if you’re open.’

With effort, I kept from smirking. ‘Yeah, sure. Thanks …’ But no thanks.

Then I looked up and saw Kennedy Moore across the room, talking to another guy. That’s when it hit me – this was his fraternity. Jackie might be at this party, even if they were broken up.

Well, damn. Guess I was going to a frat party.

I’d spotted Jackie the moment she walked through the door. Even with the dark and the crush of bodies, I never lost sight of her in the crowd for long. She was dressed in red. Shiny, sparkly red. Perched on top of her head was a headband sporting two pointy red horns. A thin, forked tail was affixed to the back of her skirt, and it swayed behind her as she walked or danced.

Her legs were smooth and bare, and seemed longer than usual. Geometry suggested that her short skirt and impossibly high red heels were responsible for that effect, but no amount of math could lessen my visceral reaction to seeing her again – especially in such a mind-blowingly hot costume. That outfit on this girl was riveting to more guys than just me, though – as proven by how many asked her to dance. She either didn’t know or didn’t care, because nine times out of ten, she shook her head no.

She and her ex – and I was sure, now, that this was the case – remained apart as though they were polarized. He held court on one side of the room, and she made noticeable efforts to ignore him from the other.

I devised and discarded two dozen opening lines.

Hey, I’ve been watching you in econ class, which – I couldn’t help but notice – you stopped attending a couple of weeks ago. I hope you’re planning to drop, because then I won’t be violating campus not to mention personal ethics when I ask you out. Brilliant. And not at all creepy.

I think red just became my favourite colour. Lame.

I can tell you the square root of any number in ten seconds. So, what’s your number? Ugh.

I’ve never wanted to go to hell so bad. No.

Is it hot in here, or is it just you? Jesus Christ, no.

A couple on the dance floor were amusing everyone with an overdone drunk twerking demo – the only time I’d seen Jackie smile in the hour or so I’d been watching her. My view of her was blocked when a girl in cat ears and pencilled-on whiskers stopped right in front of me, peering over the rim of her cup. When I raised an eyebrow, she said, ‘Aren’t you in my econ class?’

One of the twerkers bumped into her, sloshing her drink on to her face. She lurched forward and I grabbed her arm to keep her from going straight to the floor. Turning, she shrieked, ‘Back off, skank,’ to the twerking girl, though it was the guy who’d bumped her.

When she turned back to me, the ugly sneer dissipated. She smiled prettily, like the past ten seconds hadn’t happened. Scary.

‘What’d I just say?’ She sidled closer and I dropped her arm. ‘Oh, yeah. Economics. With what’s-his-name …’ She snapped her fingers a couple of times, trying to remember, while I glanced over her head at Jackie, dancing with a guy wearing a long, dark cape. He laughed at something she said, showing off his white plastic fangs. There were at least a dozen vampires in attendance tonight.

‘Mr Keller?’ econ girl said.

‘Dr Heller,’ I supplied.

She smiled again. ‘Yeah, that’s him.’ She poked me in the chest with a metallic silver fingernail. ‘You sit on the back row. Not paying attention. Tsk, tsk.’

Wow. I have got to extricate myself from this conversation. ‘I’m actually the supplemental instructor for that class.’

‘The who-de-whaty?’

I looked down, pursing my lips. Christ. ‘The tutor.’

‘Ohhhh …’ Then she told me her name, which I forgot immediately, and launched into a monologue of enmity concerning the girl who’d bumped her. I didn’t know either of them, and I couldn’t have cared less about their blood feud, which concerned either a guy or a pair of shoes – I couldn’t determine which in my state of I don’t give a shit.

When I visibly located Jackie again, she’d pulled her bag over her shoulder and was heading out the back door to the concrete lot shared by several of the Greek houses. I’d come to the party hoping to see her, though I had no business stalking her like this. It was just as well I hadn’t asked her to dance or spoken to her. I could leave now, no harm done. Just follow her out the door and go home.

Except I’d squeezed my bike into a small space between a couple of cars out front. No reason for me to go out the back door.

Vampire guy had been watching the back door, too. He slung the cape over a chair and spat out the plastic fangs, shoving them into his front pocket. Exiting right behind Jackie, he didn’t seem rushed, but he wasn’t dawdling, either – like he had somewhere to be. Or someone to meet.

6

Landon

The wooden block on the desk read Mrs Sally Ingram – black lettering set into a polished brass plate. It sounded like a nice enough name, and she’d seemed nice from a distance during the mandatory orientation assembly last week. Nice was the first thing my high-school principal seemed to be and wasn’t.

I hunched into a hard vinyl-seated chair in front of her massive desk. The top was a solid slab of wood that appeared built for the specific purpose of preventing someone from lunging across it easily. I couldn’t imagine how they even got a desk that size into this office. It must have come into the room in pieces, because it sure as hell couldn’t have fitted through the door.

Mrs Ingram leafed through an open file, shifting pieces of paper like I wasn’t sitting there, waiting to find out why I’d been called to the principal’s office on my first day of high school. Her glasses sat at the end of her nose, the way Dad wore his when he was reading or updating the books – the only concession to his previous career I’d seen since we moved here eight months ago.

At first, there’d been arguments and accusations – my father spitting out criticisms concerning Grandpa’s lack of business sense or planning or record keeping with the fishing enterprise that had supported him for decades … which was Grandpa’s line of reasoning. Finally, they’d come to some sort of agreement, and my father took over the financial aspects of the business. While entering numbers in the ledgers or transferring them to his laptop, Dad still mumbled the occasional cuss word or yanked his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose as if his frustration might trigger a nosebleed. But he’d ordered the ‘office’ – which consisted of a cupboard crammed into the hallway between the living area and kitchen (which held logbooks instead of dishes), and the built-in kitchen table … over which drooped a single lightbulb on a cord. The work space was a long way from Dad’s office in Washington or his home office in Alexandria.

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