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Damaged Like Us: Chapter 23

MAXIMOFF HALE

“I DON’T THINK I brought enough chips,” Sulli says in my kitchen beside me. The two of us fix a plate of food for everyone. She inspects the Tostitos. “What was I thinking? One fucking bag. Akara can eat a whole bag by himself. And why did I bring donuts? No one likes midnight donuts but me.”

“Hey.” I place two hands on her broad swimmer’s shoulders. She’s long-legged and long-armed, and barefoot, she’s six-feet tall. Only a couple inches shorter than me, and we’re almost eye-level.

We look like brother and sister. Not just cousins.

Our moms are sisters. We share their green eyes.

Our dads are half-brothers. We share our grandfather’s dark brown hair (if I didn’t dye mine).

So you know Sullivan Minnie Meadows as the foul-mouthed, ultra-focused Olympian who returned home with four gold medals last summer in 200 & 400-meter freestyle and individual medley. You’re angry that she just retired from swimming, but some of you are too excited about the idea of Sullivan starting to date to seriously care.

I’ve seen your tweets about her virginity.

Back off.

And me…I know her as Sulli. My nineteen-year-old cousin who jokes crudely, loves wildly, and can outrace me on foot or water every single time. I love her like a little sister, and she has no brothers of her own.

Fair warning: I’ll rip each lung out of your ribcage and grind them in a rusted meat processor if you fuck with her.

“Don’t stress,” I say, clutching her shoulders. “One bag of chips is fine. And when have you ever cared if no one else likes donuts?”

“It’s our first Hallow Friends Eve.”

I get it. Halloween is more of my dad’s birthday and a giant costume get-together. Family only. Jane and Sulli have been trying to figure out a day-before-Halloween tradition for years that doesn’t include our parents or the little kids.

Hence, Hallow Friends Eve. Of our cousins and siblings, we decided to only invite those who’ve already graduated high school. Charlie never RSVP’d. Fucking typical. And his twin brother Beckett just became a principal dancer at a prestigious ballet company. He’d be here for Sulli, his best friend, but he has a performance tonight.

That just leaves Jane, Sulli, and me.

“And it’s my first time hosting a party,” Sulli reminds me. “It has to be perfect.” She inflicts pressure on herself all the time. Whenever Sullivan has a goal, in her mind it’s her job to go for gold.

“Co-hosting,” I correct, dropping my hands. “It’s my house. Anything goes wrong, you can blame me.” I pour her chips in an orange plastic bowl.

Sulli snorts. “That’s not how this works. You can’t fall on a sword for me, Mof.” Quietly, she adds, “And I don’t want this to be the worst party our bodyguards have ever been invited to.”

My brows scrunch. “Who are you trying to impress? It’s just Akara, Quinn, and Farrow.” We invited them as friends. Off-duty. We’re all staying in our townhouse all-night and watching a horror movie. They can drink alcohol, but they need to crash here.

We pushed the loveseat against the kitchen’s archway. So we have to hurdle the furniture to reach the living room where we set up beanbags and sleeping bags. Like Jane, Sulli is already wearing her pajamas, cupcake boxer shorts and a turquoise tank.

“I’m trying to impress all three of them,” Sulli whispers. “I’ve heard them talk shit about your pool party circa…how old were you?”

“Eighteen, and that mosquito infestation was not my fucking fault. We were outside. Where bugs live. Naturally.”

“Hey, I’m not the one ragging on you,” Sulli says. “I totally agree. It’s nature’s fucking fault. Not the watermelon that you cut in half.”

I scowl. “You’re right, they’re annoying. Why’d we invite them anyway?” I’m half-serious, half-sarcastic. Even though I spend 24/7 with Farrow, this’ll be the first time he’s technically off-duty around me.

And he just loves his technicalities.

“If we didn’t invite them,” Sulli says, “then we’d have to call this Hallow Family Eve because the three of us don’t have friends. Other than the people we pay to protect us.”

“Jesus, we’re so sad,” I say, sarcasm thick.

Sulli smiles. “The fucking saddest.” She grips a beer by the neck and casually takes a small sip. She cringes, nose wrinkling. Not enjoying the bitter taste.

Her dark hair is parted in the center. Splayed in waves over her broad shoulders. Sulli casts a glance to the living room.

Over the loveseat, I spot Jane entertaining Quinn, Akara, and Farrow with some elaborate story. Gesticulating madly, lemonade mixed drink in her hand.

“She’s so good at that,” Sulli says, wistful. “Half the time I don’t know what the fuck to say to people.”

“It’s a Cobalt thing,” I remind Sulli. “They have a harder time knowing when to shut up.”

She exchanges a smile with me. We love our seven Cobalt cousins—our best friends are Cobalts: Beckett for her, Janie for me—but it’s undeniable how different we are from them.

She nods and takes a larger swig of beer. Trying not to make a disgusted face. She succeeds. Then in a different language, she asks, “Has pensado en la ultra?” Have you thought about the ultra?

Ryke Meadows taught his daughters to speak Spanish. And he taught me. I’m proud to be fluent, but in the past year, being constantly compared to Ryke…I don’t know.

I question everything.

“Moffy?” Sulli nudges my ribs, waking me from a stupor.

The ultra.

I grab a water bottle from the hard-shell cooler on the ground. Thinking. Sulli retired from swimming because she completed her goal. She went to the Olympics. She medaled. And she could’ve returned to the next summer Olympics, but she didn’t want to go after more-of-the-same.

So she set her sights on doing an ultra-marathon in Chile. The Atacama Crossing, a 155-mile race in the desert. It’s her next goal.

Her next fight for first.

And she wants me by her side.

Swimming and running go hand-in-hand. We used to condition on land by doing endurance runs together, and I’d love to make time for an ultra.

If she asked me a year ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated like I do now.

“It’s because my dad ran an ultra, isn’t it?”

“Sul.” I rub my sharpened jaw. “If I go, they’ll compare me more to your dad than they do now.”

Sulli tears at the label on her beer. “Look, I know you’re not my brother

“I didn’t mean it like that.” Goddammit.

“Oh hey, I know. I’m fucking terrible with words.” She takes a giant breath. Not giving up yet. Sulli rarely gives up on anything. “Hear me out. We started competitive swimming together, and in the grand universe of friendship and fate, maybe we should start this together too.” She pauses. “And I just can’t fucking imagine doing this alone. So think about it, will you?”

I nod. “For you, will.”

Sulli puts her lips to the beer rim and catches me eagle-eyeing the alcohol. She lowers the bottle. “You can stop looking at me like I’ve sprouted wings.”

“Actually, I’m looking at you like you’re cradling a lit firework.”

“I know what I’m doing, Moffy,” she tries to reassure me.

Our grandfather was an alcoholic.

My dad is a recovering alcoholic.

Her dad chose to stop drinking alcohol at seventeen.

Alcoholism runs in the Hale and Meadows bloodlines. Just because I decided to never drink alcohol doesn’t mean my siblings or cousins will choose the same.

“Just be careful.” I dump pretzels in another bowl.

Sulli doesn’t say I always am. Adventure and fearlessness also runs deep in her blood. As a Meadows, she grew up cliff-jumping into tropical oceans, riding Ducatis, and paragliding hundreds of feet in the air.

Instead, she tells me, “I know the risk.”

Sulli reaches for a bakery box that contains a dozen chocolate-covered donuts. We carry the assortment of food: pretzels, chips, buffalo poppers, Halloween candy, and a veggie tray. And we skillfully climb over the loveseat without spilling anything.

Akara, Quinn, and Farrow lounge on beanbags, radios set aside. So they’re seriously off-duty. They face the fireplace, television mounted above the mantel. I set the food on a green sleeping bag in the middle, and Janie yanks the cord to the ceiling light.

Blanketing us in near-darkness.

Farrow leans on a black beanbag, nearest the staircase. More off on his own damn island. Akara, Quinn, and even Janie who plops down near the food are clustered much closer together.

Farrow swigs a beer, eyes dead-set on me. He’s wondering what my next move is. So am I. I’m dying to sit beside him. But what kind of message is that sending to everyone else?

Hey, I’m fucking my bodyguard!

Or hey, I’m just good friends with my bodyguard.

Alright—the first one sounds like pure paranoia with a dash of overreacting. Before I step towards Farrow, Sulli places donuts next to the chips and curses, “Cumbuckets.”

“What?” ask.

“I forgot the salsa.” She rests two fingers to her lips: the famous Sullivan Meadows concentration face. And she’s using it for a salsa crisis.

“Sulli,” I snap. “It’s fine.”

“Do you have anything in your fridge? I could make some.” She can’t offer to make a grocery run since that’d entail needing a sober Akara Kitsuwon.

“Forget the salsa, Sulli.”

“Uncle Lo says that it’s not a party until there’s salsa. It’s a party rule. Right?” She looks to Jane.

“Well…” Jane muses the idea for too long.

I cut in, “My dad could also eat five hot sauce packets for brunch and nothing else.”

“Famous ones,” Farrow calls out, and our heads turn to him. “There’s no salsa rule for parties. Not normal.”

Christ, the fact that we needed clarification from Farrow makes me pinch my eyes and groan. He smiles wide into his swig of beer.

“Come here, Sul.” Akara waves her to sit on the green beanbag beside him, the bowl of chips on his lap.

Sitting, she holds her legs to her chest but leans towards him.

“These are perfectly fine without salsa.” He demonstrates and tosses a corn ship in his mouth. “Delicious.”

“You’re just saying that,” Sulli refutes.

“Am not.” Akara playfully pulls the bowl against his chest. “These are mine now, thanks.”

She smiles bright, and then tries to grab a chip. He hoists the bowl over her head. Teasing.

Teasing?

I dazedly walk over to Farrow. Not taking my gaze off that exchange, and I sink down next to him. “What’s up with that?” I whisper to him.

“It’s called a buddy-guard, wolf scout.”

I’ve heard security use the term before. Buddy-guard (noun): one who protects a very-important-person while also being their close friend.

I’ve known that Akara understands everything about Sulli, her habits, her likes and dislikes—I just never really honed in on their “friendship” until

Until I started fucking my bodyguard.

Great. Is my perception of every bodyguard-client relationship going to skew on the side of they’re copulating now? My mind is a rabbit hole that I didn’t ask to fall into.

“Lean back,” Farrow says, sipping his beer.

I do, and we’re shoulder-to-shoulder. But my narrowed eyes remain plastered on my cousin and her bodyguard. I lower my voice, ensuring only Farrow can hear. “Do they look super close to you? More than a buddy-guard?”

“No.” He sips his beer, at total ease right now. I observe my cousin. She shoves Akara’s carved bicep, laughing as he hides the bowl behind his back.

I grimace—are they flirting? I try not to even touch my mixed feelings. I’m a hypocrite if I dislike the mere idea of Sulli with her bodyguard, but some part of me tramples through the “Hulk-Smash Akara” territory. “You sure?”

Farrow turns his head to whisper in my ear. “I’ve known Akara a long time, and he’d never cross that line with Sulli. He’s a security lead. He’s too professional. And he knows Ryke Meadows would kill him.”

My dad will kill you. My jaw tenses, and he must sense my sudden thought.

He whispers up against my ear again. “If your dad scared me, I wouldn’t have kissed you.”

That reminds me…I haven’t regretted crossing a line with Farrow. Not once.

My shoulders lower a fraction, and Farrow bites into an English muffin, sandwiched with egg, bacon and cheese. Which he made at his townhouse after showering and brought it here. Even though we bought snacks for tonight.

His love of breakfast foods has no bounds. Farrow will literally order sunny-side up eggs and sausage seven days in a row for every meal.

Farrow extends the half-bitten sandwich to me.

“I thought you don’t share.”

He licks his thumb, lips lifting. “I share with you, only.”

I grab the sandwich. “Because I’m your client.”

“Try again.”

Because I’m your… “You tell me.” Are we labeling this relationship—I don’t know? This is my first relationship—when do the labels come? Maybe Farrow has like a six-month minimum before he considers a person his

I watch him survey the room out of his peripheral. Farrow being subtly alert of our surroundings—I love. I’m more obvious. Staring straight on.

Janie uses the remote to find a horror movie on Netflix. Akara and Sulli are chatting quietly, and she’s stacking chips on a donut. Quinn plays with Ophelia, the white cat scurrying beneath his muscular legs.

“Maximoff.” Farrow captures my gaze. He stops himself from speaking more, and I can’t feel disappointed. Because I know he sees someone watching us. He stares straight ahead at the television.

I take a bite of his food before handing the sandwich back. Then I unscrew my water bottle and swig.

“What the hell is up with this one?” Quinn frowns at a calico kitten pawing at his ankle.

“It hates you, Oliveira,” Farrow says into a swig of beer.

He,” Janie corrects Farrow with a pointed look; when she sees me watching, she forces a smile like we’re friends; don’t worry, Moffy.

Did that convince anyone? Wallpaper, lamp, table, man on the moon—you all fucking convinced? Me neither.

“What?” Quinn says to Farrow, seeming genuinely upset at that idea. “He doesn’t hate me. I’m great with animals. Before I boxed pro, I could’ve been a dog whisperer.” He clucks his tongue at the kitten and makes a cooing noise.

Solo cup in hand, Akara leans towards Quinn. “Hey, you do know that’s a cat, not dog.”

Quinn laughs with all of us. I’ve never seen any metaphorical jab knock him down. He sips his rum and Fizz. “I had a dog growing up.”

“What kind?” Sulli asks, and Janie lands on A Nightmare on Elm Street and mouths to me and Farrow, yes or no.

I give her a thumbs-up.

Farrow purposefully puts his thumb-down.

I right up his fucking thumb.

He wears a self-satisfied expression like I just agreed to jerk him off. Not equivalent, but I am giving him a hell of a lot of attention. And he’s making me aware of that.

Quinn replies to my cousin, “I had a husky.”

“I had a husky too,” Sulli says, and the room goes quiet. To Quinn, my cousin adds, “She died a while back.”

“Yeah, I know. I saw on…” Quinn trails off and clears his throat.

“Twitter,” Farrow says.

More confidently, Quinn tells Sulli, “It was actually Facebook.”

If the Meadows had a fifth family member, it wouldn’t be me. It’d be Coconut the Husky. You loved that dog. I loved that damn dog, and we were all sad when she finally passed from old age.

Quinn tries to pet the calico kitten, and he bites his finger. “Jane?”

“Carpenter likes vegetables. Just toss him one of those baby tomatoes.”

Quinn stretches towards the veggie tray and then throws a tomato beneath the loveseat. Carpenter dashes after it.

He shakes his head. “That’s not natural.”

Akara motions his cup to the television. “Are we still doing the drinking game?”

“Yeah,” Sulli nods repeatedly. “Jane has the rules.”

“Right.” Jane is busy smashing her beanbag. She’s usually next to me during these kinds of things, and she’s sort of off in a corner.

“Janie,” I call out and motion her closer.

She mouths, no. And casts the briefest glance at Farrow. Like she needs to give us privacy. It’s not like we’re about to exchange secret hand-jobs in the fucking dark. I’m in a room with two of my cousins.

Not happening.

“Jane,” Farrow calls before I have to prod further.

She hesitates for one second before dragging her pink beanbag near us. She plops a few feet from me. I reach over and slide her and the beanbag right by my side.

Jane can’t hide her smile. “Hallow Friends Eve’s drinking game rules,” she announces to the group. “Take a sip from your drink every time Freddy Krueger appears, someone screams, and when someone says the word nightmare, dream, or sleep.”

“What about Moffy?” Sulli asks.

“I’m not playing.”

“You can’t not play,” Jane replies. “And you know I’m dreadfully serious when I use a double negative.”

Sulli bites into a donut and with a full mouth says, “Uncle Lo and my dad always have alternative rules for sober players.”

Janie perks up. “Take off an article of clothing every time someone screams.”

“Ce n’est pas une bonne idée,” I say in French so only Jane can understand. That’s not a good idea. Yeah, I came already today, and I can will-away an erection by sheer mental concentration. But not if I’m stripping beside Farrow. Look, there are some things that can’t be easily hidden.

My huge, rock-hard cock is one of them.

Everyone is staring at me but Farrow. He edges away from me, and then he leaves to the kitchen with his empty beer bottle.

Jane says, “Je n’ai pas d’autre idée que celle-ci.” I have no other idea but this one.

I glance at Sulli and remember her trepidation about the party failing. I don’t want to disappoint my cousin over a boner. I shut my eyes in a long blink. Trying to scrub away that last bizarre thought.

“Alright,” I say, eyes open. “Every other scream, I’ll take off an article of clothing but I stop before my underwear.” The room agrees, and Farrow returns with a new pale ale and one of Janie’s pastel blue blankets. He tosses the blanket to me and sinks back down.

Just as close as before. Shoulder-to-shoulder. His presence is a furnace, boiling me from head-to-toe. Don’t get caught. How’s that mantra? If I repeat it over and over, I should be able to avoid an erection. Definitely.

Don’t get fucking caught.

Janie presses play, and about ten minutes into the movie, Farrow calls out, “Akara, are you on the clock or do you just love Jane’s décor?” He must’ve been surveying the room.

An actress suddenly shrieks. Everyone drinks, and I pull my shirt off over my head and toss the thing aside. I lean back beside Farrow. He’s trying to suppress smile.

That’s rare.

Jane keeps the conversation alive. “Akara, you love how I decorated this place?”

“I didn’t say that,” he says.

“My brother likes your decorations,” Quinn tells her. “He calls it Retro Granny Realness.”

Janie beams.

“I think it’s hella fucking cute,” Sulli tells her.

“Thank you, Sullivan,” Janie replies. “Will you be my new bodyguard?”

“Of course, I’ll protect you to the fucking death.”

“And follow me around everywhere go?”

Everywhere.”

“Heyheyhey,” Quinn cuts in, extending his arm towards Sulli. “Don’t take my job. It’s not for sale.”

Jane beams harder. Her last, retired bodyguard never voiced his enjoyment of being on her detail.

“Too bad you’re not in charge of transfers, Quinn,” Farrow tells him. “Only Akara can decide that.”

Sulli nudges Akara’s arm. “What’d you say, Kits? Put me on Jane’s detail?” Kits.

My cousin has a special nickname for her bodyguard. Off his last name Kitsuwon, but still, it’s a nickname. Farrow has a nickname for me. Two plus two equals

Huh.

My mind needs to just stop for the night. I swear I’m going to reach a new circle of hell for paranoid souls.

Akara nods to Sulli. “When you can beat me in the ring, you can take Jane’s detail.” He sounds serious, but maybe he knows she’d never beat him. He was trained in Muay Thai since he was six.

Sulli crinkles her nose. “But I’m a lover not a fighter.”

His lips quirk. “Sorry, Sul. Gotta pass on you then. You’d make a shit bodyguard.”

Jane clutches her heart. “Say it isn’t so.”

“Drink,” Farrow calls out as the word sleep is said on-screen. The horror movie engrosses all of us for the next twenty minutes. I’ve seen everyone grab three refills.

Sulli is on her sixth beer.

Yeah, I’m counting.

And I have zero clothes left to shed. Down to my dark green boxer-briefs. The blanket was a tactical maneuver by Farrow in case I spring a boner. I’m fine. I stopped watching him swig his beer, and my brain and dick are cooperating with me for once.

Thankfully.

My phone pings a few times. I respond to my siblings. Most of whom are pissed they weren’t invited to Hallow Friends Eve.

Kinney is the most vexed.

You turd. You don’t even know what horror is – Kinney

We’ll do a Halloween movie night at mom and dad’s another time. Promise. reply.

She sends a skull and cross bones emoji.

I don’t want them around alcohol yet. Not when I’m hanging out with men in their twenties. My sister is thirteen. She can stay thirteen.

And Luna—she’s walking a fragile line with our parents after the tongue piercing. I’m doing her a favor by not extending an invite.

Plus, if we invited Luna, we’d have to invite Jane’s two brothers, Eliot Cobalt and Tom Cobalt. Which would probably end with me calling the fire department or our on-call doctor.

So that’s pretty much why we made the “high school graduates only” invite stipulation.

“Sulli?” Her bodyguard’s concerned voice steals my attention. He leans over my cousin and cups her cheek. “Hold on…” He stands and easily hurdles the loveseat.

Sulli hugs her legs tighter to her chest, and then she rests her forehead to her kneecaps. She’s dizzy.

“Sulli,” I start, about to stand, but Akara returns with a new box of donuts.

“Eat this.” He hands Sulli a plain glazed donut. “You can kill your buzz with food.” He pries the beer out of her fingers.

“Thanks,” she mutters and lifts her head enough to grab the donut.

Jane strokes her black cat Lady Macbeth. “The first time I got drunk, I puked everywhere,” she tells Sulli. “Moffy held my hair.” She rests her cheek on my shoulder. I wrap my arm around hers.

“First time I got drunk, I passed out in my own piss,” Quinn says. “Don’t ask.”

Farrow sets aside his empty bottle. “And now I’m going to

An object shatters the curtained front-window. Followed by quick, violent pop pop pop pop

Pop.


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