Unedited and uncorrected
The boy in the garden is no more than four. He is a handsome child, with bright brown eyes and the silkiest of dark chestnut hair. His black shirt is neatly pressed—thanks to the housekeeper—and his blue denim pants are tidy as well, except for a streak of dirt from the yard where he wrestled with his twin.
He takes hold of his mother’s soft, manicured hand with his own, sticky with sweat and candy from earlier. She flinches and tries to pull away. When he doesn’t let go, she yanks her hand from his grip and stares at her palm with distaste. She takes out a handkerchief and wipes it.
His gaze rises to her face.
“’Ommy?” he says when she ignores him.
She sighs. “It’s Mommy, not ’ommy.” Her voice is impatient.
“I love you!” he declares as though he isn’t bothered by the correction, looking up at his beautiful golden mother with a cherubic smile.
She shakes her head. “What did I say about manipulation?”
“Manipulation,” she corrects him again. “When you say things like ‘I love you’ to get the other person to say it back. Manipulation. Putting pressure on someone.”
The smile on his face slips. He just wanted her to know how much he loves her.
“You’re being needy,” she continues. “Needy children are the worst. Why are your hands so grubby?” She opens and closes the palm he held, then wipes it again.
He looks down. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.
She doesn’t acknowledge him. Instead, she wrinkles her nose and disappears into the mansion.
The boy remains standing in the garden, unsure and alone.
* * * * *
I do not make a habit of reminiscing about my exes. Nor do I make a habit of stalking our former haunts.
So it is with the greatest annoyance and puzzlement that I find myself back in Charlottesville, Virginia. I have nothing there—no friends, no business interests. Well…there’s that house. I should put that on the market and move back to Seattle permanently, but somehow I can’t bring myself to do so.
For fuck’s sake, just sell the place and get the hell out of here. Cut all ties.
Rain water drips down my jet’s windows as the plane slows on the tarmac. The cabin crew hands me a spare umbrella.
My assistant had my Mercedes dropped off at the airport yesterday before starting her vacation. I claim the car—no luggage this time—and run a rough hand over my face. My left leg aches. I should probably move to someplace where the sun shines all year long.
Instead of going to my own home to soak the throbbing limb in hot water, I drive to the duplex, park across the street like a fucking stalker, and watch the sad little building through the rain-blurred windshield.
She doesn’t even live here anymore, but somehow I keep coming back. Like a damned boomerang.
The bitch kicked you to the curb when you were at your lowest. Fuck her.
Yes. Fuck her. Forget she exists. Get myself a hot chick to fuck so I can move on. Scarred or not, I am young and rich. It’s no problem to get a willing girl.
The duplex’s exterior could use a fresh coat of paint and a bit of landscaping, but the management company won’t do anything until the place looks like a dump. They know just as well as I do that college kids don’t care all that much about curb appeal.
The scuffed blue door stays stubbornly shut. It was raining when we had our first real date and she let me pick her up from her place.
In my mind’s eyes, I see the door opening, Ava stepping out with an umbrella. She’s in a long-sleeve shirt and old jeans with frayed hems and stitches, and her feet are encased in a pair of black boots she bought on clearance at a department store the year before. I quickly put an open umbrella over her to shield her from the icy raindrops and lead her to my car. I don’t want even a drop to touch her soft, warm skin.
No matter how much I will it, Ava isn’t coming out. She left me two years ago. She couldn’t have made it clearer that she didn’t want anything to do with me.
A pretty blonde walks by on the other side of the street, a bright orange, white and navy blue umbrella showing her school spirit. Her white UVA med school shirt stretches across young, perky tits. The skirt she’s wearing is short and shows off long, shapely legs. Her canvas shoes are wet, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
Med school. Must be smart. And she’s easy on the eyes.
But my body remains coolly uninterested. It’s as though after the accident, somebody flipped my libido switch off…leaving me deadened to one of the best pleasures in life.
If I were the superstitious type, I’d suspect that Ava cast a dark spell on me before she left.
The muscles in my left leg twinge, and I rub the thigh with an impatient hand. It acts up every time it rains, even when I’m seated. Maybe the pain’s making it difficult for me to get interested. I’m not a masochist.
The blonde knocks on Ava’s old blue door, and a boy comes out. They hug and kiss. The view twists something inside me.
What the hell am I trying to accomplish by coming back?
I pull out and drive away. It’s over.
It was over two years ago.
For a so-called genius, it’s taking me an awful long time to accept that fact. I can deal with numbers and patterns. But figuring Ava out… That has always eluded me.
No time for that bullshit. Let her go. You have three months left to find a wife.
The muscles in my neck tighten until they feel like steel. The idea of marrying anyone spikes my heartbeat, and the roast-beef sandwich I had for lunch churns in my gut. If it were just me, I’d say to hell with everything. But if I don’t marry…if all of us don’t get married, none of us are getting our grandfather’s damned paintings.
I don’t fucking want a wife. I’m not like my brothers. Pretty Boy Ryder found one—well, he felt compelled to marry his assistant after knocking her up. My twin Elliot found a stripper to marry for a year. But I can’t let my brothers and sister down. My sister Elizabeth in particular would be devastated.
The paintings are rightfully ours. If Grandpa had had a better lawyer—or a better brain for business—they would’ve come to us rather than our asshole father, who is now using them for his twisted amusement. Julian is a borderline sociopath who likes to watch people weaker than him squirm at his command. It enrages him that he can’t fuck with us—his children from his first wife are too wealthy and well-connected, and Elliot and I made our own fortunes when we were twenty-one.
I drive past the guard manning the gated community in Charlottesville. He merely nods. The lush verdant lawn stretches endlessly, trees big with branches that stretch far. The leaves are still a vibrant jade, but a tinge of orange, yellow and red has started to creep in, a discordant signal to the end of summer. Homes are stately in stone and brick, with elegant white-framed windows. Beyond them is a golf course, which I never used.
I only bought an “estate” here because it had an acceptable house for sale. Ava was studying at the University of Virginia, and flying back and forth between the east and west coasts didn’t appeal. That’s ten hours per round trip I could’ve spent with her. Seattle didn’t have anything for me. Still doesn’t, which is why I haven’t moved back after finishing my treatment at the UVA hospital.
My home sprawls on one level and comes with seven bedrooms. Perhaps it was divine providence that the only place available was a one-level house. Going up and down the stairs with my injuries would’ve been difficult, especially on days when I was wheelchair-bound.
I park my car in the three-car garage. On the other side is a silver Lexus that’s barely three years old. I don’t drive it, but I make sure it’s well maintained.
You should get rid of it. She’s not coming back.
Shaking off the gloomy thoughts, I step out. The black waxed surface of the Mercedes is like a mirror, reflecting my white, strained face. I take the time to smooth it into a calm mask and slip quietly into the house.
“Welcome home, Lucas,” Gail says in greeting, her voice as gentle as a spring breeze. She eyes my face. “Something warm to drink?”
I shake my head.
Her thin-lipped mouth thins further because I’m not letting her mother me, but I ignore her displeasure. In her early sixties, Gail is my full-time housekeeper. Despite my parents’ disapproval, I don’t insist that she put on a maid’s uniform or any such bullshit. She’s old enough to dress herself; right now she’s in a light blue sweater, jeans and white sneakers.
She goes to the kitchen counter, her cloud-like gray hair glinting under the recessed lights, then almost immediately returns with a white envelope.
“This came for you.”
Moments like this, I miss Rachel. My assistant would’ve thrown it out without bugging me with it, but she’s on a well-deserved week-long vacation in the Bahamas.
“You can toss it. It’s junk,” I say without taking a closer look.
All legal documents that require my attention go to my attorney. Things that matter come to my inbox. My bills are paid automatically through direct debit, and invoices are forwarded to my assistant. Only garish advertisements and pitiful offers of credit end up in my mailbox.
“I thought that at first, but it doesn’t look like junk.” She hands it to me. “Here. See for yourself.”
Left without a choice, I take it. It’s as big as letter-sized paper folded in half, and the material is stiff and waterproof. The outside doesn’t have any stamps or indication of where it’s come from. It merely has a name—LUCAS REED—in all caps.
Maybe it isn’t junk after all. “Thank you,” I say and take it to my office, trying not to limp.
My left leg is shorter now, even though the surgeons did their best to minimize the discrepancy. I can usually manage to disguise it, but on days when my leg muscles throb, it’s hard to hide my uneven gait.
I close the door to my home office and slump in the armchair that faces the cold and black fireplace. The mantel has a framed photo of me and my brothers and sister, taken while we were exiled to fancy European boarding schools. People call it “education,” but that’s just a euphemism. There aren’t any pictures of Ava and me together. We never took any, and I don’t remember why. I wish we had.
For what? To burn them? Delete from your phone’s memory? Would that have made it clear that she’s gone?
I tug at the little red-tipped section on the corner, and the envelope comes apart easily. Glossy photographs spill out, landing in my lap. I pick one up.
A young female pedestrian on a stone bridge crossing a river. Wind tosses her long and wavy platinum blond hair. The color of her eyes is ice blue, which never seems to fit because they’re too warm. Her facial bones are delicate, her lips soft. She’s always been frail looking; just a tad too thin, as though she grew up without enough to eat. That hasn’t changed from the way the pale pink dress fits her, a slim white belt cinching her small waist.
My fingers go numb. Ava.
Heart hammering against my ribs, I flip the picture over. Nothing on the other side. I pick up the rest of the photos, but none of them have a message for me on the back.
Suddenly a thought bleeds into my mind. All of the photos are candid shots. Someone’s been watching her.
My gut goes cold. My sister Elizabeth has had her share of problems with assholes who didn’t understand the meaning of no. But this feels different. Why would a stalker send me Ava’s photos?
I dig inside the envelope for clues. My hand grasps a piece of paper.
Le Meridien Chiang Mai, Thailand, it reads. Underneath the name of the hotel are dates—today, tomorrow and the day after—and an itinerary for a flight from Chiang Mai to Osaka via Seoul on Korean Air. The flight doesn’t leave until almost midnight two days from now.
If I leave now, I can be in Chiang Mai before the departure.
I pick up the photos again. I didn’t see them before, my focus on Ava’s face, but the signs around her are in Japanese. I still remember a few hiragana and katakana characters from way back when I spent a semester in Tokyo.
So why Chiang Mai?
I toss the photos on the floor and throw my head against the back of my chair. I never, ever go after exes. Never. Not like some lovesick fool with my heart on my sleeve. I might as well cut off my dick and carve LOSER into my face with a nail.
But I’m entitled to closure. It won’t be begging if that’s all I want…and maybe a pound of flesh for all I’ve suffered in the last twenty-four months.
On its own volition, my hand reaches into my pocket and pulls out my phone. My fingers move across the smooth surface and dial my pilot, who’s ready to go 24/7.
“Chiang Mai,” I say. “ASAP.”
I head straight to the garage. No time to pack.