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Damaged Goods: Chapter 17


Lev

Miserable Fact #2,200: After being decapitated, the average person remains conscious for an additional 15–20 seconds.

I leave the Followhill residence without saying goodbye, their daughter’s juices still all over my hand.

I storm across the street to my house, throwing the door open. Dad and Dixie are sitting in the living room watching Parks and Rec like the most wholesome couple on planet earth.

They seriously need to pork already.

“Hey, Lev.” Dixie twists her head, smiling at me from the couch. “I made some steamed eggrolls if you—”

“Yeah. Thanks. Later.” I shoot up the stairs to my bathroom like I just downed a bottle of laxatives.

“Manners!” Dad barks from the couch. Like he gives two shits about those when Dixie isn’t around.

In my bathroom, I begin dumping my football gear on the floor. I get to my jockstrap.

I pull it off, then grimace as I peer inside. Yup. I came in my pants like a goddamn rookie.

My jockstrap are superglued to my junk by spunk.

With a hiss, I dump the jockstrap into the trash and squeeze the edges of the granite counter, staring at myself in the mirror.

I felt like a shithead, fingering Dove. Not because it didn’t feel good. It felt fantastic.

But because she was under the influence and I genuinely thought she’d tell me where the drugs were if I brought her to the brink of coming and denied her.

My dick is hard again—fuck this shit and fuck being an eighteen-year-old.

I drop my gaze to the hand that’s still coated in Bailey’s juices.

It’s all sticky and dry now, but I can still smell her. Taste her, if I ran my tongue over my palm. But I can’t. I can’t jerk off using her juices.

It would be wrong. The guilt would kill me.

Leaning forward, I close my eyes and tap-tap-tap my forehead against the mirror, willing myself not to headbutt it and send it crashing.

I love Bailey Followhill to death.

But the girl she becomes when she’s high…

I hate that chick. With a passion.


“So, anyway, thanks a lot for blue-balling my ass, Mom.” I sit next to Mom’s grave, snapping twigs distractedly. “Bailey said she didn’t wanna start something together because you made her promise she’d always be there for me. She took it to mean she had to friend-zone my ass into oblivion. Now she’s in trouble and I’m not sure how to help her.”

How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?

I bet Mom would have wise words on that.

“Okay, fair,” I groan. “It’s not your fault that things are messed up. But I’m allowed to vent, all right?”

Shaking my head, I shove my hand into a bucket of warm water and dish soap, pull out a sponge, and start washing her grave.

Dad, Knight, and I come here every Sunday to hang out with her and take turns cleaning her gravestone and decorating it with fresh flowers.

Then we all tell her about our week. It’s probably the only place Dad doesn’t bring Dixie.

Today is my turn to clean and put flowers.

Dad and Knight said they were running a little late.

After I’m done drying the gravestone with a microfiber towel, I slip flowers into the vase that’s on top of it. Roses for Rosie. Pink and white. Her favorite.

“There, Mom. Looking like a million bucks, as per usual.” I stand in front of the stone, winking at it.

“Stop hitting on Mom, Lev. She’s taken,” I hear Knight chiding playfully from behind me, gravel crunching beneath his boots.

I feel him clap my back, drawing me into a bro-hug, and I hear Dad’s car locking automatically as he joins us. Knight kisses my head to piss me off, because it makes me feel like a kid. “You look good, baby bro.”

“Yeah? Well, I feel like crap.”

“Smell like it too.” Knight’s nose twitches, but he’s just pulling my leg. “Bailey still giving you trouble?”

Before I can answer, Dad crouches down to the gravestone and rearranges the roses with a frown.

He is so meticulous and particular about everything Mom related.

Maybe it’s best if Bailey and I part ways. There’s nothing sadder than living your heartbreak every single day after you lose someone you love.

“Boys, can you take a little walk? I need to talk to your mom.”

“Uh-huh.” Knight presses two fingers to his lips. “Someone’s gonna get his ass handed to him. What’d you do? Mom, don’t go easy on him!”

Dad pins him with a really? glare. I shake my head and tug Knight down the green lawns toward a bunch of whitewashed granite benches.

Knight slings an arm over my shoulder and tilts his chin to Dad. “What do you think that’s about?”

“Dixie, probably.”

“Word. Did you ever find out if he’s giving her the ol’ selfie stick?”

“Jesus, Knight. What did the English language ever do to you that you abuse it so badly?” I shake off his touch. “Annoyingly, Dad claims they’re just friends.”

“Maybe he’s asking Mom for permission to move on?” Knight raises his eyebrows hopefully, peering over his shoulder at Dad earnestly conversing with the gravestone.

“Hope so because apparently Dad hasn’t porked anyone in four years.”

“Oof. Fun conversations happening in the Cole household these days.” Knight flicks his aviators down his nose. “Well, that’s sad.” He pauses. “Not as sad as you still being a virgin, but close.”

“I’m not a virgin.” I don’t know why I’m scowling. Maybe because even though Knight is chronologically my big brother, usually I’m the responsible, mature one.

“Right. Thalia.” He snaps his fingers. “The knockoff version of Bailey. Mailey.” He chuckles. “You broken up with her yet?”

“Kinda, yeah.” I suck my teeth, again wondering what the fuck I was thinking with this whole pretend act. Now Bailey thinks she got fingered by a dude who’s attached. I don’t want any version of her to think I’m a dick. “So let me ask you a question. As a former addict—” I start.

He cuts me off. “Addict, just addict. I’ll always be an addict. Keeping shit under control is a daily struggle. I still attend meetings weekly, you know.”

“As an addict, tell me how I can help her. Get through to her. She doesn’t want to admit she’s using painkillers. But she must be using a ton because she’s always high.”

“That’s not a thing.” He kneads my shoulder. “You can’t force someone to get better. They have to hit rock bottom first, then take a little nap on that bitch for a few weeks or months. It’s not like in the movies, where she has a light-bulb moment and boom, everything’s fine. She still has so much to lose, and my advice? Let her take those hits. Just don’t give up, okay? Be there for her as soon as she’s ready and not until then.”

He tilts his chin down, holding my gaze. “I’d have been so fucked if Luna had decided I was too much work and walked away.”

“I’m never gonna give up,” I say.

I still place an empty box by her bedroom door every day. Unfailingly.

Hopefully she gets the meaning of it. Otherwise, I just look like a weirdo with a boner for cardboard. “I can’t just let her lose everything.

She’s worked so hard for it. I’ll never just sit back and watch as her world burns.” And there was another thing—a selfish need to prove to myself that I could save her like she saved me.

“Good. Good. Hey.” Knight wrangles me into a brotherly headlock. “How’s football? Still kicking ass? I expect you to ask me to be your agent when you go pro, yeah?”

I am about to answer him that I won’t go pro but, thankfully, get distracted.

“All right, boys. Ready to grab lunch?” Dad walks over to us. His eyes are red, but he actually looks like they had a good talk. One thing my mother’s death has taught me is that people die but the love you feel for them stays alive. And that love? It is the most precious memory you can have. More than photos, videos, or any kind of inheritance.

“Are we gonna meet Dixie there?” Knight pokes as we all head over to our cars.

“No.” Dad makes a face. “She doesn’t always come.”

“That’s why you should always start with foreplay and oral.” Knight winks.

Dad flicks Knight’s back. “That woman birthed you. Do you have no moral lines?”

“Clearly not.” Knight makes a face. “No, but seriously, is Dixie coming?”

“No,” Dad groans.

“Aww, but I want my new mommy.” Knight pouts.

Dad and I both shove him forward in unison, which only makes the three of us laugh harder.

Sometimes, it’s okay to not be okay.

Chapter

Lev

Miserable Fact #98: Most people die within a five-mile radius from the place where they were born.

I slam my locker shut, and Grim’s head pops up on the other side, a shit-eating grin on his face.

“Stop looking so happy. It’s ruining my day.” I hoist my backpack over my shoulder and trudge my way out the doors.

He follows me, wiggling his brows.

“How could I not when Thalia is going around telling people you guys are gonna miss each other like crazy when you go to Jackson Hole?” He cackles. “Which, by the way, is probably the only hole you’ll be enjoying for the foreseeable future, knowing your track record with Miss Followhill.”

Dipshit.

Also, what business does Thalia have saying stuff like that? We’re supposed to be fake dating. This is real annoying.

“We’re not together anymore,” I mutter under my breath, waltzing out the doors toward the parking lot. “Just saving face so people keep their mouths shut.”

“Shocking.” Grim falls into step with me.

“Keep your mouth shut about it, yeah?”

“Hold on a moment, gotta cancel the press conference.”

Swear to God, this dude is made out of pure sarcasm.

He probably bleeds one-liners. I get to my car and unlock it, tossing my backpack in the passenger seat, getting ready to climb in.

Grim blocks my way. “Not so fast. We need to talk.”

Alarm bells blast in my head. Grim is not a talk-it-out kind of person, so it must be serious. I fold my arms, slowly raking my eyes over his face. “Make it quick.”

“I wanna do another vote for team captain,” he says matter-of-factly. “You’re slipping, your mind’s not in the game, and you’re missing practices left and right.”

“The team has already voted,” I say blandly. Unfortunately. I didn’t want this, but I can’t walk away from this, either.

I’m not a quitter, and being an All Saints football hero is my family’s legacy.

“I was next in line by two votes.”

“Well, shit, Grim. I forgot the rules have changed and second place now gets the cake.”

“You’re already the president of the debate club, have a thousand AP classes, and three volunteer stints. Your résumé is fucking sick.”

“I worked hard for all of those things.” I grit my teeth. “Spat blood, mind you.”

“Look.” Grim sticks his hand through his hair. “You don’t even attend every practice. Your mind is off the game. I actually want this. My parents are gonna strong-arm my ass into a life of billable hours and never-ending fucking arguments on behalf of rich people. I haven’t gotten any offers yet. I need the airtime. Do me this solid, Cole.”

I want to. Fuck, there’s nothing I want more than to dump this football bullshit and go my merry way.

But Dad. It’s the only thing giving him joy these days.

And there’s also something else—the high I get out of being hot shit. The best in school. In the zip code, really.

This is the only real place I’m getting any validation these days, even if that makes it even more narcissistic.

Grim sees the answer on my face. He sucks his cheeks in, then spits on the ground beside me.

“This is my dream,” he croaks, and I’ve never seen him more serious in my life.

His nostrils flare, and he looks like he is holding his breath. “I’m not asking you to hand it over, man. Just let the team vote again.”

I wish I could turn my back on my dad’s dreams. On Knight’s expectations. But they’re all I have, and it’s important to them, so I have to make this captaincy important to me. Somehow.

“Dude, I’m sorry,” I groan, slipping into my car.


I get back from school to an envelope in our mailbox.

That’s pretty rare, since we pay our bills online and all the junk is thrown out by our housekeeper.

I pull the letter out of the box and take it inside, flipping it over.

My throat is dry.

It’s from the University of Michigan.

Shit. Shit. Fuck.

Tearing the envelope open, I can already make out the words I don’t want to see.

Committee on Admissions and acceptance and congratulations and extraordinary achievement.

Bile hits the back of my throat because I just officially got into a crazy good football college, and if Dad finds out, my Air Force Academy dream is about as attainable as dinner with Marilyn Monroe and Jesus Christ.

I glance at my phone. Dad will be home soon. He can’t see this. He can’t find out I got in.

Shaking my head, I stomp my way up into my room.

There, I go to the one thing no one ever touches—not the cleaners, not our housekeeper, not Dad—Mom’s portrait, which is hung on my wall.

I move it slightly to the left and tuck the letter of acceptance in a rubber band, along with the other letters of acceptance I’ve ignored. Five so far. All from leading colleges.

Duke included.

I return Mom’s picture to its original position and take a step back, watching her staring at me, wondering what she’d have thought about what I just did if she were here.

Probably that I’ve become a liar.

A cheat.

A cop-out.

The same faker Bailey has become.

Caving under the pressure and making people miserable in the process.

Maybe Bailey isn’t perfect anymore.

But neither am I.


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