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Damaged Goods: Prologue


Lev

Age fourteen

I’m standing over my mother’s grave, wondering why the fuck my eyes are dry.

I couldn’t look at the coffin back inside the church. Knight said she looked pretty. Calm. At peace. But also…nothing like herself.

I squeezed my eyes shut the entire way through, the way I did when I was really little and went on spooky rides at theme parks. Now I’m freaking out because maybe I made a mistake, because it was the last time I could look at her face not through a picture.

That’s the thing about losing someone—there are so many losses along the way that make up a big loss.

No more cuddles in bed on rainy days.

No more heart-shaped fruit in my lunch box.

No more singing lullabies to me when I’m sick, with me pretending I’m embarrassed and annoyed by it when actually Mom singing lullabies is the best thing to happen to this universe since sliced bread.

Bailey is hugging me so close, my bones are about to dissipate to dust. She’s about four inches taller than me now, which is stupid and embarrassing and just my luck. My face is hidden deep inside her hair, and I pretend to cry because it seems rude and screwed up if I don’t. But the truth is, I’m not sad or gloomy or any of those things. I’m fucking pissed. Angry. Enraged.

Mom’s gone.

What if she’s cold? What if she’s claustrophobic? What if she is struggling to breathe? What if she’s scared? Reasonably, I know she isn’t. She’s dead. But logic isn’t my friend right now. Not even an acquaintance. Hell, I doubt I could spell the word in my current state. I feel like Bailey is physically keeping me together. Like if she loosens her arms around me, I’ll collapse into thousands of little marbles, scatter and disappear into the nooks and crannies of the cemetery.

Everyone files back to their cars. Dad claps a shaking hand over my shoulder and steers me away from the grave. Bails reluctantly releases me. I clutch the tips of her fingers. She’s gravity. She’s oxygen. In this moment in time, she’s everything.

Sensing my unspoken need for her, Bailey turns to my dad. “May I please catch a ride with you, Uncle Dean?”

Thank you, Jesus.

“Yeah, Bails, sure,” Dad says distractedly, laser-focused on Knight’s back. My brother is going through his own stuff right now and my dad is trying to ensure he doesn’t lose another member of our family. Usually, I’m cool with being the low-maintenance, “background” kid. Not today, though. I just lost my mom at fourteen. I want the world to stop, but it disrespectfully keeps on spinning and functioning like my life wasn’t just destroyed.

Before we hop into the car, I clutch Bailey’s fingers and pull her to me. “If I told you I want to run away from here, somewhere really far, like…I dunno, Kansas far, what would you say?”

Her big blue eyes hold mine like my eyeballs are about to fall off. “We ride at dawn, bitch.”

“Really?” I ask.

She nods once. “Try me, Lev. You’re my best friend. I’ll never let you down.”

It’s weird, but the possibility of Bailey and me running away from all this is the one thing holding my ass together right now. She might be everyone’s good girl, but to me, she’s a bad addiction.

The drive is silent. I’m a page torn out of a book. Out of place and floating aimlessly. All I have is the memory of once belonging. Then, we’re in front of my house. Everyone trickles inside in their black frocks. They look like ghouls. Home without Mom isn’t a home. It’s a pile of bricks and expensive furniture.

Invisible ivy roots me to the ground. Bailey is the only one who notices. She loiters behind with me, and suddenly, I really hate that I’m putting all my dreams and hopes on her. Because she could be gone tomorrow too. Bus accident. Freak heart attack at fifteen. A kidnap-and-murder plot. The options are endless, and I have really shitty luck with people.

“Kansas?” She grabs my fingers, playing them like they’re keys on a piano.

I shake my head, too choked up to produce actual words.

“We don’t have to go inside.” Her hands slide up to grab my arms and keep me standing. How did she know I’m close to falling? “We can hang out at mine. I’ll make fondue. We can watch South Park.” Her blues gleam like sapphires.

Fresh irritation floods me. Bailey is being soooo understanding, even though she doesn’t understand jack shit. She does have a mom. A healthy one. And a dad. And a sister who isn’t an addict. Her life is perfect, while mine is a pile of calamities.

She’s a blossoming flower, and I’m dirt, but that’s okay because the thing about flowers is they’re buried in dirt, so I know exactly how to cut her off.

Shaking her off, I swivel and stomp my way out of our cul-de-sac. She races after me, calling my name. Her Mary Janes clap the ground urgently.

“Lev, please! Did I say something wrong?”

To be fair to her, she stood no chance at saying anything right. But screw being fair. I’m hurting, and she is baggage. Just another person to love and to lose.

I pick up my pace, running now. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m eager to get there. The sky—completely blue just seconds ago—cracks like an egg. Thunder rolls, gray washes over it, and rain starts pouring in thick sheets. It’s summer in SoCal and shouldn’t rain. The universe is angry, but I’m angrier.

Whenever Bailey manages to catch the sleeve of my shirt, I speed up, but even after thirty minutes of running in the rain, soaked to the bone, she doesn’t quit. Somehow, we find ourselves in the woods on the outskirts of town. The thick, tall branches and blankets of leaves intertwine together like laced fingers above us, creating a makeshift umbrella. I can sort of see my surroundings now, and it’s pretty and it’s calm and far enough away from that stupid cemetery. I stop running when I realize I’m not gonna escape the new reality: Mom’s dead.

I finally understand the term heartbreak. Because that thing in my chest? Split open clean in two.

I turn around, my lungs scorching. Bailey is pale and sodden, her black dress clinging to her body. Her lips are blue and her skin is so pale, I see a map of purple and red veins under her flesh.

“Go home,” I growl. But I don’t want her to go home. I want her to never leave.

She steps closer, tilting her chin up defiantly. “I’m not leaving you.”

“Fuck off, Bailey!” I fold in half, screaming. I feel like she kicked me in the stomach.

She’ll leave. She’ll let you down. Don’t fall for this, Lev.

“I’m so sorry.” Her eyes are full of tears, and she flexes her fingers, itching to grab me.

Hug me.

Go away.

Fuckfuckfuck.

My mouth opens again and more bullshit spews out. “Don’t be sorry for me. Be sorry for yourself. You’re the loser who hangs out with an eighth grader instead of people your own age.”

“I wish it didn’t happen.” She ignores my insults, trying to grab my fingers again and play them like a piano, like she does every time I’m upset.

Laughing, I rasp, “I wish you didn’t happen.”

“I wish it were me who was dead.” Her face is covered with tears and pain and mud, and I can’t do this anymore. I don’t care how much I’m hurting, I can’t ruin the only good thing about my life right now. She gives me something to fight for when every cell of my body wants to give up.

“Now you’re just talking outta your ass.” I spit phlegm between us.

She shakes her head, quivering fingers darting to her hair, massaging her scalp. I believe her. And it kills me that even though I feel like someone slashed me open and my guts are pouring out, I still wouldn’t want Bailey to be in Mom’s place.

“I’m not. I’m serious. I would die before willingly watch you suffer.”

There’s a beat of silence. Then I open my mouth and the most feral, scary, loud cry I’ve ever heard tears out of it. It echoes in the sky and bounces off the trees. A flock of ravens takes flight from the treetops.

And then I go to the only place I need to be right now—I go mad.

Anger pierces through my skin. I rip through a thick curtain of cobweb, grab a young tree like it’s a neck, and crack it in half with my own two hands. Blood gushes from the creases of my palms, and a fingernail snaps clean out of my skin. It falls into the wet mud under my feet. I can’t even feel the pain.

Bailey is screaming, but I can’t hear her. I punch into oak trees, kick dirt, pull flowers from their beds, holding them like decapitated heads and tossing them into the river in a white, blind, hot rage. I destroy nests and uproot a whole-ass bench, throwing it into the river. I’m annihilating anything and everything in my path. It’s me against nature, and once—just this once—it seems like I’m winning.

At some point, I notice through the mist of rain that I’m not the only one wreaking havoc. Bailey is on a bender too. Ripping flowers, peeling chipped tree trunks, screaming into the wind. Her face is muddy, her hair crazy, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her like this—wild and free and rabid.

I think it’s the first time either of us has done anything less than perfect. Seeing her destroying instead of mending for once in her life does something to me. She punches a tree, and I realize that she is bleeding, and that realization, that she is hurting, finally snaps me out of my trance. I pause. Look around. Breathe. Really breathe, feeling the oxygen filling my lungs and the carbon dioxide leaving them. The wind ceases to weep. The rain stops. Bailey stops too.

Time moves, but we don’t. We stand there like two trees, the soft ripples of the river nearby the only sound penetrating the silence. For a moment, we’re the only two creatures existing in this world. The sole survivors of my mental apocalypse. Then I hear it. The chirp of birds. Bailey and I both look up at the same branch, where two doves are huddled together, slightly damp from the rain. One of them cleans the other with its beak. The other is tweeting.

I swear it’s looking at us while it chirps. Am I losing my mind? Why the fuck not? This seems on par with the rest of my crappy week.

“Look, Levy.” Bailey points at the birds, her eyes flaring. “Know what they are?”

“Rats with wings.” I scowl, not in the mood for a wildlife lesson. Bailey is full of useless facts about animals. And every other subject under the sun, really.

“Turtle doves,” she corrects. “They’re notoriously loyal. Symbolizing friendship and everlasting love.”

“Parasitic disease hubs.” I wipe the blood on my fists against my wet black suit, spitting on the ground.

“When they puff their chests out, their wings look exactly like a heart pressed together. Don’t you get it? A heart. Lev.”

I blink steadily. “Are you high?” I really can’t afford having another addict to worry about. Like, Knight is already doing my head in.

“Can’t you see?” She grabs both my hands, pulling me to the tree where the doves sit. “This is hope in tragedy. A message from above!”

“A message from my mom?” I repeat slowly so she can hear the full dumbassery of the sentence, though I’m desperate to believe her. And if there’s anyone who can convince me to believe supernatural shit, it’s Bailey. She’s crazy smart.

Bailey nods, her eyes shining like lighthouses in the pitch-black. “The sudden rain? The rainbow? The doves? Rosie is telling you something.”

“That global warming is about to go batshit on our asses?”

Bailey shakes her head vehemently. “That you’re not alone. That you will always have people who love you.” Now she does take my fingers and plays with them.

“What kind of people?” I grunt.

“People like me,” she whispers, tightening her hold.

“Yeah, but eventually you’ll leave.” A grim smile slits my face. “I’ve seen this movie before.” Knight is going through the same thing with Luna, and they were best friends too. “You’ll go to college, and I—”

“Even then, I’ll be at your beck and call.” She tugs and pulls, her voice begging me to believe her. “Try me, Lev. Pick up that phone and call when I’m in the middle of the semester. I’ll drop everything and come. No questions asked.”

I ignore her. “You’ll find a boyfri—”

“Romance is fleeting. Friendship is constant. I will always choose a good friend over a great boyfriend.” She shakes her head. “You’re my soul mate.”

It is not the time to tell her I’m in love with her. It is not the time to tell her I want to be that hypothetical boyfriend. That she is becoming an ethereal weapon of self-destruction for me. That when I jack off, it’s to her image. That when she laughs, my chest feels funny. When she cries, I want to suck in her pain with a kiss and suffer on her behalf.

My knees sink into the muddy ground. Bailey descends with me, our fingers still knotted together. My head drops to her shoulder. And I finally feel them. The tears. They’re coming hot and fast, running down my cheeks like they have somewhere important to go. Bailey swallows me in her arms, stroking my head, my back, my arms. Her lips are in my hair, whispering all the things I want to hear.

That it will be okay. That happiness will find me. That rainbows appear after thunderstorms because the universe is a balancing act of good and bad.

I cry and I cry and I cry until I’m all dried up. Heartbreak gives way to exhaustion. I can barely open my eyes, they feel so puffy. But still, I don’t lift my head up. I want a few more minutes buried in my best friend.

“Can we stay like this?” My lips move against her shoulder blade.

“Forever,” she confirms, pressing her lips to the edge of my ear. “I have nowhere to go. Other than Kansas, maybe.”

She’s attempting a joke. Checking the temperature to see if I’m ready to stop being a jackass.

My face is still in the crook of her neck. I’m too chickenshit to look up. “How’s the sky looking, Dove?”

Bailey stiffens at the sound of her new nickname. For a second I’m worried she’ll laugh at me. Say it’s a cliché. Worry I’m calling her a feathered rat. Then she relaxes against me.

Her voice floats like a bird’s song: “Blue and clear as day, Levy.”


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