Chapter 1

One

“Here’s a good one,” Lennon said, grinning behind her cookie-dough milkshake. Her dark hair was sloppily put into a bun, but loose strands spilled across her face and over her ears, like cloudy tendrils across a full moon. “Me”—

“Nope,” I said, using the thick of my hand to swipe crumbs off the white, sticky diner tabletop. 

“What do you mean, nope?”

“The rules are hardfast and clear. We can include anyone—be them past, present, or future, living, dead, or entirely fictional—but we can’t insert ourselves as one of the three options.”

Lennon pinched her thick pink straw and shoveled out a dollop of whipped cream from the oversized glass cup and licked it off. Some slipped off, plopping onto the table and splashing onto her black t-shirt and across my dinner plate. She bit her lower lip and grinned. 

“What was that?” I asked, struggling not to encourage her with a bubbling laugh.

“Just proving a point.”

“That you’re unable to eat a milkshake like normal human?”

“That it doesn’t matter who I throw on the list, you can’t resist me.”

“You’re only going to hurt yourself.”

“And you, if you choose wrong.” 

“Give me the names.” I leaned back in the red-cushioned booth and grinned, knowing there was not a chance in this world I would ever choose anyone but Lennon James.

“ Jessica Alba.” 

“You’re really confident in yourself, aren’t you?” 

And… Jaime.”

“Kern?”

“Is that a problem for you, Mr. Gibson?”

Jaime Kern had been Lennon’s roommate and best friend for five years, since their freshman year at UC Davis. She was… how do I say promiscuous without sounding misogynistic? Jaime conducted extensive experiments on what she liked and disliked sexually, opening herself up to a world of possibilities as she explored her sexual desires. Actually, to sum it up in a word, Jaime was experienced. And for good reason. I’m not the kind of man to strip a woman’s identity to only her physical, outward appearance. To be entirely clear on this matter, I would never—not ever—describe Jaime as having a tight, curvaceous body that filled her often skimpy clothing in all the right ways. I don’t think that particular description would be fair to her, given the important trait of her rather insensitive personality—the kind where she would ask a question, then stop listening halfway through the response to look at her phone. And I wouldn’t, not in a million—not even in a billion—years, mention her full lips or toned, tanned legs or curly, blonde hair. I fear those qualities might overshadow the fact that she thinks old people are—in her word, not mine—“Ew,” and scientists and doctors work for the government, and they’re all lying about the Earth’s shape, medicine, and Adrenochrome, because… “Because they just are, okay.”

I only mention all this because it hopefully paints a clear picture of Jaime Kern. Bedroom expertise plus her goddess appearance multiplied by her gullibility (it’s the nicest word I could come up with to not insult how extremely and over-the-top idiotic she is) equals—according to my calculator—one all-caps CRAZY night.

Back to the action.

“You want my honest answer?” I asked. 

Lennon reached across the table, snatching a French fry off my plate. She dipped it in her milkshake and placed it on her tongue. “I want your honest answer.” 

I had, five minutes ago, initiated one of our favorite, guilty-pleasure games—screw, marry, kill. The game’s actual title is a little more crude and beneath my mother’s verbal taste. But screw or copulate or whatever flavor of coitus you prefer gets the point across all the same. It’s a simple game. I named three people, and Lennon categorized those three people into which ones she would rather marry, kill, or canoodle. 

For example, if she said to me, “Atticus, screw, marry, kill. Daphne, from Scooby-Doo. Belle from Beauty and the Beast. And Zatanna from literally any DC animated series. I’d answer, marry Belle, duh. Screw Zatanna, because you know she has a trick or two up her sleeve. And kill, unfortunately—but that’s how the game works—Daphne.

“Jessica Alba. Jaime. Me,” Lennon said. “Are you ever going to answer?”

“You know my evergreen affinity toward Jessica Alba. And you’re more than familiar with my… my primal fondness toward Jamie. You really want to know my honest answer?”

“Are you implying you would kill me?”

“Well, Jaime is clearly the one to make whoopee with.” 

“Clearly?”

“Clearly,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, your whip cream display was seductive and sexy. But Lenny, you and I, we’ve bumped uglies. I’ve been there and done that. To choose you as my screw, it would be a disservice to the game. The winner is Jaime.”

“You would rather make sweet, passionate love with Jamie than with me?”

“The definition of screw is anything but sweet… perhaps it’s passionate.” I waved my hands before my face. “Either way, Jamie doesn’t need a map to get herself around the bed.” 

“Atticus,” Lennon said. Ice frosted over her voice now. 

I shrugged. “Am I wrong?”

“Not about her, no. But are you implying that I need a map to get around our bed?” She smirked, slurping her milkshake. 

“I’ll re-skin the analogy, so as not to discredit your top-notch bedroom skills. I believe Jamie has less of a… is sexual filter the right word?” 

“You’re saying she’s a slut.” 

“Your word, not mine. I’m saying she’s expertly experienced and dedicatedly practiced, and for a one-night no-pants party, she might be someone worth inquiring. Honestly, you should take my decision as a compliment.”

“Which part should I take as the compliment?”

“You’re more of the marrying type. Jaime is more of the walk-home-wearing-the-dress-from-the-night-before-with-her-heels-draped-over-her-shoulder type.”

“But Jessica Alba is more of the marrying type than I am?”

I rubbed the back of my neck. “Who sings this song?”

“What song?” Lennon glanced over her shoulder, as if she might be able to see the song playing softly throughout the diner. 

“Love is all that I need,” I half-sang, half-mumbled, “and I found it there in your heart. It isn’t to hard to see, we’re in Heaven.” 

“I’ve never heard it.”

“You’ve never heard this song? Do you live under a rock?” 

“Quit trying to change the subject. Jessica Alba is more marriage-material than me?”

I bit my knuckle. “This is why you never put your own name on the list. In this purely hypothetical situation with this particular grouping of incredibly talented, beautiful women… you might just come in second place on all accounts… except to be killed.”

“You’re going to kill me then?” 

“Jessica Alba is a multimillionaire who owns a very lucrative company and has a successful acting-slash-modeling career.”

“So, I’m good at sex, but not good enough for a one night fuck.”

I cringed. “I would have phrased it a little more delicately, but that’s the gist.” 

She widened her dark green eyes into a crazy stare that bore straight through my soul. “And I’m the marrying type, but not quite as marriageable as Jessica Alba?”

“There are rules in place for a reason,” I said. “And you insisted I answer honestly.” I slapped my palms on the table. “You want to do this?”

“Do what?”

“Let’s do this then.”

“Fine,” Lennon said. “Let’s do this.”

“What if I asked you to choose between Chris Hemsworth, Ryan Reynolds, and myself?” 

“That’s completely different.”

“How is that any different.”

“I’d always choose a celebrity over you, and I’d expect you to do the same.”

“You were just upset about Jessica Alba.”

“No, I tossed Jaime in there. You easily could have screwed Jessica Alba and married me, or vice versa, killing Jaime in either scenario.”

“Killing Jaime wouldn’t be fair to the game.”

“You’re not helping anything when you use your mouth to say words.” 

I sighed. “Alright. How about Ryan Reynolds. Luke. Me.” 

“Luke Hawkins?”

“Luke mother-flipping Hawkins.”

Luke was one of my semi-friends’ friends—like if I had an acquaintance who knew a minor celebrity. Lennon and I hung out with Luke a few times a year, whenever he threw massive parties at his family’s beach house or mountain cabin. The Hawkins family was richer than God, and Luke was better looking than the statue of David. If there was a male equivalent to Jaime, it would have been Luke.

“Should we set up Luke and Jaime?” Lennon asked. 

“You must be telepathic, because I was literally just thinking that.”

“Or maybe you’re just predictable. Do you know Luke well enough to set him up on a date?” 

I shrugged. “Does Jaime want to settle down with a random dude?”

Lennon shrugged. “You know her.”

“We’ll figure it out another time. I’ll ask Mike”—my semi-friend who knew Luke—“later. But onto more important matters. Does adding Luke level the playing field and make my question legitimate?” 

Lennon sucked more of the milkshake down. “God, I hate saying this.”

Grinning, I gestured for her to continue. “But I love, so so much, hearing you say it.”

“So, so much that you might kill Jaime and fook me?” 

“Why wouldn’t you want me to marry you?”

“Maybe I want to use you for your body and nothing else.”

“That tracks,” I said.” But let’s get back to the meat of this conversation. What do you hate saying? I need to hear it come from your luscious lips.” 

Lennon bit her lower lip and fluttered her eyes. “You’re right.”

I leaned across the table.  “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said. One more time.” 

“Between Ryan Reynolds, Luke Hawkins, and you… I wouldn’t hesitate to kill you.”

 I threw up my arms in victory and shouted, maybe with a little too much excitement for a family diner. “God, that’s a beautiful thing to hear!” A few of the patrons from around the restaurant glanced over at us. I ignored them, planting my elbows on the table, resting my cheeks on my palms, and longingly staring at Lennon. “Sweeter words from a sweeter person have never been spoken to another living soul.”

“I would kill you so hard,” she said, leaning toward me, biting the air so her teeth clacked together.

“I like this feistiness. Be a tad more specific with the details. How would you do it?” I asked, folding further across the table. Our noses were inches apart.

“First, I’d tie you to the bed with twine from your dad’s farm.”

“That’s so specific, I’m actually a little scared,”  I whispered.

“I want to make sure it you can’t escape, no matter what.” 

“You’re a little psychotic.” 

“I’d strip you naked.”

“You’re deranged. I’m trembling in my boots.”

“Not in your boots. I took them off you, remember.”

“Would you leave my socks on?” I asked.

“I’m a murderer, not a serial killer.” 

I couldn’t help but smile. “What would you do next?”

Lennon lowered her voice, all but exhaling the words. Her breath was milkshake cold and smelled of cookies. “I would climb atop your naked body.”

“You’re fully clothed?”

“I don’t want your blood on my clothing. That would tie me to the killing.”

“Smart.”

“I’d be naked. Wearing nothing but a Donald Trump mask.”

“That’s… that might be the creepiest detail of this entire scenario. But I won’t ask why you have that or why you’d ever wear it. Let’s push forward to a happier topic… my impending doom.”

“I’d mount you like a horse in need of breaking. And I’d wrap my fingers around your throat. And I’d squeeze.”

“You would strangulate me? So intimate. And sexy.”

Lennon plucked the straw from her cup and licked the ice cream from it. “It is strangely sexy, isn’t it? I feel a lot dirty, and… and strangely stimulated.”

“Stimulated?”

“I want to be on top of your helpless, tied-down, naked body right now.” 

“But without the Donald Trump mask, right? These hypotheticals can only leak so much into reality.” 

“Do you have cash?”

“Like twenty bucks, maybe less. Why?” 

Lennon glanced over her shoulder, looking toward the kitchen. She turned back to me, reaching out and grabbing my hands. “I can’t wait.” 

“Wait for what?” I asked. 

“Give me your keys.” 

“I’m confused.”

“Give me your keys. I’m going to warm up… the engine.” 

“It’s in the nineties today, I don’t think it needs”—I opened my mouth, dropping my jaw with understanding. “Oh.” I fished my truck keys from my pocket and handed them to her. “What do I do?” 

“Wait for the tab, leave your cash, then meet me at the truck. Don’t be too long.” She was poised, that woman, slinking from the booth and nonchalantly strolling through the restaurant with the confidence of a patron who had paid their bill and was legally leaving the establishment. 

I remained seated, with my elbows on the sticky table top, picking at what remained of my fries. The waitress appeared a few minutes later. She had a cheeky face, still chubby with youth and spotted with acne. She wore a hooded sweatshirt and a stained apron over her black jeans. 

“Can I get anything else for you?” she asked. She reminded me of a high school student forced by her parents to work a summer job—bored of the work, annoyed with her mom dad, antsy to clock out and get to the Friday night jamboree. 

“Just the bill,” I said. 

She dug into her apron pocket, producing the check presenter, and tapped it on the end of the table. “Take your time.” 

“Thanks.”

She scampered to assist with another customer. I opened the server book and read the tag. $20.71, not including tip. I swallowed, tasting the remnants of my burger and the salty fries. I reached into my back pocket, withdrew my wallet, and counted my cash. A ten dollar bill and six ones. My phone buzzed, vibrating loudly atop the table and startling me. I glanced over, checking the message. 

Lennon had taken and sent me a more or less—but definitely more—provocative picture of herself, captioned, Engine is warming.

I pinched the cash from the wallet, folding it half, placing it atop the check, and closing the server’s book. I grabbed my phone and stood, shuffling toward the door and avoiding eye contact with any other living soul. The door chimed when I opened it, and I froze, instinctively glancing back into the heart of the restaurant. 

The waitress stood near my table, holding the checkbook—though it remained closed in her hand. “Thank you,” she called out. 

I wanted to say something, anything at all. In the years trailing my dine-and-dash heist, I thought of a hundred different things I could have said to her. But when I replayed the incident in deep contemplation while in the shower, I always imagined myself settling to say, “Keep the change,” before stepping into the evening. In the moment though, I only thought of my mom finding out I had shortchanged the restaurant, and of her responsive and expedient wrath to that knowledge. Instead of a bad-arse, one-liner, I muttered, barely mumbling it through my clattering teeth, “You, too.” The response immediately made feel less than capable of tying my own shoes. She had simply thanked me for dining with them, and I had said, “You, too.” 

Luckily,  I had the wherewithal to not linger in the door, licking my wounds while waiting for her to count the cash. I bolted around the side of the building, toward the back parking lot where Lennon impatiently waited for me. A cyclone fence wrapped around the parking area. Weeds grew within the chain links. I had parked at the opposite corner of where I now stood. Hurrying across the empty stalls, I risked a glance back. 

Like Lot’s family, Atti—my mom’s words rang through my mind—looking backwards only leads, at best, to stagnation. Keep your eyes fixed forward. 

But with guilt overriding my nerves and the curiosity overruling my anxiety, turning around was more instinctive than intentional. I half-expected to find the staff tight on my tail, chasing after me and demanding I pay the rest of bill before they called the cops. 

Instead, I watched an elderly couple stroll around the corner. Beneath the illumination of exterior lights, they held hands. By glancing back and observing their casual gait, I witnessed Lennon’s and my future. In them I saw Lennon and me—so in love and simply content in the presence of each other. We had discussed the possibility of marriage on numerous occasions, but we both agreed the timing had yet to align. In that moment though, timing was irrelevant. I wanted to spend the rest of my life playing silly, hypothetical games with her and making spontaneous—albeit terrible—decisions, and enjoying life to the absolute fullest. I wanted that with her. And it no longer made any sense to me why we continued to postponed our engagement.

An encompassing warmth settled over my entire body. At twenty-two, Lennon and I had an entire lifetime to spend together. To be that happy. To create our own life and our own family. And I wanted to start it all right then.

I sprinted to the truck. 

Lennon had started the vehicle and had cracked the windows, always preferring the touch of the world on her skin. A Mariah Carey song spilled from the truck, into the night. I curled around the short bed, opened the driver’s door, and climbed inside the cab. It smelled of cement dust and dirt—the lingering aromas from years of serving as my dad’s primary work vehicle.

Lennon, in her impatience, had slipped off her denim shorts. She half-wore underwear with a Spider-Man design—red with black webbing. She eyed me, slightly parting her lips into a pleased grin and breathing heavier than normal. 

“Did rushing over here wind you?” I asked, shifting the truck into reverse and backing out of the parking space. 

“I couldn’t wait for you,” she said through bated breaths. “Get us somewhere private, now. Or I might not have the patience to need you at all.”

I extended my criminality during the short drive, violating speed limits and rolling through a couple stop signs. Luckily, in our small town, law enforcement was as active as an old, overweight dog on a summer day. 

I drove to a park at the edge of town. Due to its more rural than urban location, it didn’t benefit from the illumination of light posts. It was pitched in darkness. After sunset, the place was mostly vacant. Only vagrants like Lennon and me, searching for vice, frequented the park after dark.

As I turned into the lot, Lennon leaned across the center console and unzipped my pants. I nearly snapped the gear stick in half from slamming it into park. Lennon’s advances didn’t help with my fumbling dexterity either. 

The fun didn’t last long in the cab. Lennon demanded attention to her, throwing open the passenger door and leaping out of the truck. I reached into the backseat, where I always made sure to carry a few extra blankets and pillows—in case of similar emergencies. With them  hoisted beneath my arm, I scurried to the truck bed and spread out the bedding. 

Lennon had dropped the tailgate, and we raced onto the bed, succumbing to the night and our base desires.

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