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Damaged Like Us: Chapter 6

MAXIMOFF HALE

SIX MONTHS AGO, Jane Cobalt rushed into my room at midnight. Face covered in an avocado mask. Brunette hair twisted in a pink towel.

“Moffy?” she whispered.

I hadn’t fallen asleep yet. At the spike of her breezy voice, I flipped on my lamp fast. And Janie saw the girl nestled beneath my covers. Buck-naked. Both of us.

Jane winced. “Désolée. Ça n’a pas d’importance.” So sorry. It doesn’t matter. She started to leave.

I whispered with urgency, “Attends.” Wait. I hurried out of bed and tugged on boxer-briefs. “Jane.” I sprinted to the door, and my one-night stand groggily said my name. I assured her, “I’ll be right back.”

I left my door ajar so she’d be less inclined to take pictures of my bedroom.

Jane waited for me in the middle of the staircase. At the top, Declan played a game on his cellphone—he’d been guarding my room that night. My bodyguard gave me a colossal amount of figurative space. Barely acknowledging me.

“Jane?” I stopped one stair above hers.

Go back,” she emphasized. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I just had a sudden…” With two hands, she motioned to her body and outward. Jane was rarely lost for words.

My brows knotted and I shook my head repeatedly. “You had a creature come loose through your small intestines?” Alright, I wasn’t used to Janie miming.

Her tiny smile pulled at her avocado mask. “And you still question why you’re never picked first for charades.”

Alright, that too.

She inhaled. “I had a sudden…épiphanie.” Epiphany.

“About what?” I stood like a stone statue. She’s moving out. My sudden guess stabbed my lungs.

We’d been together since birth. Inseparable as kids and teenagers. In Philly, there weren’t laundry lists of actors and celebrities to shirk attention from ourselves. We weren’t in LA or New York. Our families were the only shiny toys in the window. The only animals in the zoo.

Growing up in the public eye here, we related to very few people. So we naturally stuck together. As an adult, it always felt like we were supposed to move on somehow—but I never understood why that meant we had to move on from each other.

I wanted Janie in my world. And she was the one who said those three months we separated at college—I went to Harvard, she went to Princeton—were the “darkest, most miserable days” of her life.

After a quick glance at my cracked door, she murmured, “An epiphany about my future. Midnight life contemplations, you know those.”

I did. When we were sixteen, we used to sneak into the Meadows girls’ treehouse at night and talk for hours about our identities. Our role in the world.

Who we were. Inside. And out.

Our attention drifted as two calico kittens skulked up the stairs. She picked up Walrus and let his brother Carpenter scamper away. Jane owned five cats: Walrus, Carpenter, Toodles, Ophelia, and Lady Macbeth. I never minded them or even the strays she sometimes housed.

They made Janie happy.

“I can’t do philanthropy for much longer,” she said after a short pause.

That.

Too many emotions hit me at once, so I knocked them aside. And a heavy nothingness weighed me down.

Since she was eighteen, Jane had been the temporary CFO for H.M.C. Philanthropies. I tried to prepare myself for the day she’d leave, but I let the idea wither and die in my brain.

She’d be by my side forever.

Except forever always ends.

“It’s almost been three years, Moffy.” She tried to kiss Walrus without avocado-ing his calico fur. Then he sprung out of her arms. “Charity work is just supposed to be my pit stop. It’s what you’re good at. It’s what you desperately love.” She said the word love from her core. “But me

“You don’t have to convince me. I know it’s not your thing.” I wish it could’ve been, but I wouldn’t selfishly beg her to stay.

Because out of loyalty, she would. And I wasn’t going to trap my best friend.

Jane lowered her voice to another whisper. “We’re all incredibly privileged, and the thought of wasting a moment or any opportunity we’ve been given feels like eternal failure.”

“No,” I snapped, concerned about where this was headed.

“It’s true.” She tried hard not to scratch her face. But her mask must’ve itched because she kept crinkling her nose. She tilted her chin up and looked me right in the eye. “I can’t sit idly by and be the woman no one hoped I’d be.”

My jaw tensed. “You put way too much fucking pressure on yourself.” All of the girls I was surrounded by did, and it had a lot, in part, to do with the media placing impossible ideals on them.

Before they even hit puberty, they were supposed to be role models, advocates, successful, beautiful, fierce, strong, humble, and sweet—when all I ever wanted for each of them was to be happy.

“Let me preface,” Jane said, “my epiphany has nothing to do with math.”

Good.”

Jane loved math as a child. Even joined mathletes as a teenager, and people fantasized about Janie having a career in the field. But she never meant for it to be a lifelong passion. Still, people on Twitter, Tumblr, all social medias—they created an entire life for Jane off a favorite childhood school subject.

It was a lot of pressure for kid.

Fear of disappointing your parents—that’s one tough thing. Fear of disappointing fans, the world—that’s a massive, indestructible wall that many people I love keep running into.

I’ve even met that wall before.

Jane took the largest breath. The crux was coming. “I realized tonight,” she said, “that I’ve spent nearly all four years of my ‘college experience’ ambitionless. Lackluster. I need drive.” She clenched her fist like she channeled Joan of Arc into her soul. “A challenge.” Her eyes lit with fire. “My parents live by ambition, and my tank is dry. Empty. Caput.”

“You’re not ambitionless. You’re in Princeton.” In anyone else’s world, that would be considered a success. For the Cobalt family, attending an Ivy League was just expected.

“Online courses,” she corrected. “And I only have three semesters left. I’m setting a goal. A challenge. I have to find a career path by the time I graduate. No floundering like a dead fish. I’m born from lions.”

There it was.

The biggest truth.

Her parents had their shit figured out in the womb. Her mom created her own fashion company at fifteen. Her dad ran a multi-billion-dollar paint, magnet, and diamond business called Cobalt Inc. by twenty-four.

In Jane’s mind, she wasn’t even the tortoise lagging behind. She hadn’t put herself in the fucking race yet.

Ambition. She wanted it.

I vowed to help her, and we’ve been doing random activities together ever since. Just to ignite a modicum of inspiration. Flight lessons, roller derby, and most recently, cake decorating.


BELLS DING as Farrow holds a door open to a polished city bakery. I was a centimeter away from grabbing the knob first.

“I’m just faster than you,” Farrow says, near-laughter as my scowl deepens.

On land maybe. “And so much more humble too.” I know he only lets me enter the bakery before him because it’s empty. Bought-out for a couple hours by Jane.

A few weeks ago, her bodyguard retired too, and Akara assigned a new face to Jane. Twenty-year-old Quinn Oliveira is the youngest bodyguard in the team, and he’s earning his stripes by starting on Jane’s detail.

I don’t know him that well. Just that he’s a former pro-boxer, Brazilian-American, and his older brother is another bodyguard on SFO. Quinn’s inexperience doesn’t bother me. Everyone has to start somewhere, but I do find it strange that they’re letting Farrow train him. Christ, Farrow practically threw out my rules on day one. He’s not the ideal bodyguard role model.

Quinn looms by the bakery’s sprinkle rack. Right near the store window for optimum entrance security.

And where there’s a Quinn, there has to be Jane.

I leave Farrow at the bakery-front. Attempting my best to glance back only one time. Not half a million. Farrow rests his knee on a stubby wooden stool and quietly talks to Quinn. My bodyguard motions towards the entrances and exits, probably giving him tips or something.

I walk deeper into the bakery. And my smile forms the instant I spot my best friend.

Hands perched on her wide hips, Jane surveys the artistic chalkboard menu as though this one decision will determine her whole future.

Pale blue cat-eye sunglasses perch on long, frizzy brunette hair. Jane’s as unique as her style: mint-green pants, frilly Victorian sleeves beneath a Zebra-print sweater, mismatched sequined heels, and a watermelon-shaped purse—no one can duplicate or clone this girl.

She’s patented one-of-a-kind, and I’m not letting go of her. Not anytime or day or year. I love her too damn much.

Approaching fast, I steal her gaze and watch her own smile take shape.

In seamless French, I say, “Bonsoir, ma moitié.” Good evening, my other half. I kiss both of her freckled cheeks.

Her long lashes shade poised, blistering blue eyes. “It’s just you and me, old chap.”

Nearly at the same time, her arms wrap around my waist and mine slide around her shoulders. I draw her into a warm hug.

My muscles start to loosen like I’m home.

You know Jane Eleanor Cobalt as the oldest Cobalt child out of seven. The twenty-two-year-old pastel-loving, cat-hoarding girl who invites you into her life like a friend. You’ve seen Instagram videos of her burning French toast, trying on a new pair of pants, and reading passages of old literature.

You also pressure her to become a math professor and to advocate for women in STEM. And you pry about who she’s dating or not dating—but you’re not sure if it’s “serious” between them.

I know her as Janie.

My best friend, ma moitié. One month apart in age, but she’s a million light-years smarter. A girl who breathes loyalty like it’s a third lung. Who will sacrifice every day, minute, and second for the people she loves.

Fair warning: I’ll break both of your kneecaps and stake your head on a pitchfork if you fuck with her. Glad we have that covered.

Jane rests her chin on my chest. And she looks up. “Just us. Except for the two very strapping bodyguards, the bakery employees, and your three siblings that’ll arrive at seven.”

I invited my two sisters and my brother to join us later. “Thanks for calling the bakery in advance,” I say seriously. No sarcasm. When I asked Jane if my little brother could join, her first response: I’ll buy-out the bakery for a couple hours.

The two of us—Jane and me—we don’t typically shutdown stores for ourselves. We can handle media and public attention. But Jane knew that Xander wouldn’t come if people were around. Instead of saying, just leave him back, she was the first to help include him.

“Avec plaisir,” she says silkily. With pleasure.

So I’m fluent in two foreign languages for very different reasons. I’m not going into the rabbit hole of the second one, but the first, French—Jane and I taught ourselves more than we learned in prep school. We picked it up quickly since her parents are fluent.

My arm stays around her shoulders while we face the menu. Sketches of different shaped cakes are scrawled in pink chalk.

Boom.

My head whips to the storefront. Hoards of young excitable girls push against the glass door. I’m talking enough bodies to flood the sidewalk and trickle into street parking.

I stand up, muscles constricted. “Our location got leaked.” Already. Jane and I don’t draw crowds like we’re a band at Coachella unless people post about us.

Janie starts scrolling through a Twitter feed. “…it looks like a fan tweeted that they saw the paparazzi outside the bakery.”

“Did they post the address?”

Oui.” Yes.

“Great,” I say dryly, and I take my phone out of my pocket. A few cameramen flocked the area when I first parked my car. I don’t mention them every time I see one. It’s like pointing out the grass, cement, or the damn sky. They’re scenery to my world. Always there. Always present.

And sometimes fucking up my day.

“Back up!” Farrow shouts through the glass. Girls keep trying to yank open the locked door. Some pound on the windows. For as severe as his voice sounds, Farrow looks unconcerned by the growing masses. He grips the handle to keep the door from jerking against the lock.

Quinn yells at the fans to leave too. But my gaze is tethered to Farrow. I sweep his relaxed six-foot-three build, his supreme composure—all in the face of a high-stress situation.

Farrow turns slightly, keeping his hand on the door. And with one quick glance, his eyes touch my eyes.

Before he reads my expression, I rotate completely. I rub my sharpened jaw.

My phone vibrates in my palm. I see the names Luna and Kinney, my two sisters, and I read the incoming texts.

Moffy!!!!!! Xander won’t leave the house :’((( – Luna

I told him nothin’ bad will happen, but he saw his name trending on Twitter – Kinney

And #PhillyBakery – Luna

I text: it’s not that crowded here.

Don’t lie. – Xander

I rapidly text: I’ll be by your side when you walk in. I promise. I won’t let anyone touch you.

No response yet.

I look up. Farrow is watching me. I follow his precise fingers that touch a small, slender mic attached to his black V-neck collar. The microphone’s wire runs up to his earpiece and then down to a radio that’s clipped on his waistband.

All security wear coms, but if he’s touching the mic, it means he’s actively talking to other bodyguards right now.

“Are they bailing?” Jane asks as she sidles next to me.

“Probably.” If Xander stays at home, it means his anxiety is through the roof. Luna and Kinney will want to keep him company.

I try one last thing and text: I’ll distract the crowds when you come. I want to add that I’d kill for him. I’d move mountains and rip through stone. I’d do anything to ensure my little brother’s safety. So I type: I’ll take a bullet for you. I’ll do any fucking thing. Just get here.

press send.

After a long pause, my phone buzzes.

It won’t work. It never works. – Xander

My muscles bind. I flash the text to Janie. “This’ll be two weeks that he hasn’t left the house.” My parents try not to hound him about the isolation unless it reaches one month. It adds to his anxiety, they say. But staying cooped up for weeks on end isn’t goddamn healthy either.

Jane frowns. “Next time, we should pick him up first.”

I nod in agreement.


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