“There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.” Sloan appears before us, slurring her words. She’s swaying as she moves through the darkness but stops to stand in front of us. I can tell in an instant by the redness under her nose that her wedding day wasn’t a day to forgo the coc**ne habit.
Bell, thinking the comment was directed at her, responds. “Oh, sorry, Sloan, did you need something?”
Sloan smiles at her. “As a matter of fact I do,” she mumbles.
She sits in between us and places her hand on my thigh. Then she leans over and announces loudly, “I want you to come up to my room so we can have some fun again.”
I glance over at Bell whose eyebrows have scrunched together as her eyes follow Sloan’s fingers all the way down to the crotch of my pants. She throws my jacket in my lap then glares at me. “Are you kidding me?”
“Hey,” I call after her as she walks away, stomping her heels. “Hey, S’belle, wait!” I walk behind her grabbing her elbow.
I can hear Sloan behind us. “What the hell is going on?” She’s yelling, but I ignore her.
S’belle whirls around. “You slept with her, didn’t you?”
I can’t find any words to defend myself. I didn’t sleep with her, but we did do other things.
“I know you did, that day at the hotel. Sloan has made a few comments that I chose to ignore. But now I know for certain.”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“Really, what wasn’t it like? It wasn’t like you pulled your pants down when you were supposed to be working? Is that what it wasn’t like?”
I glare at her. When I fail to answer she turns back around, but I stop her with my hands on her hips. “You of all people shouldn’t be judging me.” My words are curt, harsh, and my tone more of a hiss. I regret them instantly.
She goes stiff. She looks over her shoulder at me and her eyes look like they’re searching for something.
“I’ve been going through some shit and haven’t been in the right mind space lately.”
She turns around slowly, this time to face me and cuts me off. For a moment, by the look in her eyes, I think she understands me. “Here’s the thing, Ben, I don’t care what you’re going through or what you did. Don’t talk to me again. I mean it.”
So I put my hands up in surrender and let her leave. There’s no explaining what I did because I shouldn’t have done it. I stand there and watch her walk away from me again, all the while thinking I might have just blown the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.
Moving onward through the maze of bushes that surrounds me, I leave Sloan, who is still sitting on the bench waiting for my return, without a word. I have something I want to take care, a small gesture to let S’belle know I do care.
I stop by Beck’s. He’s not there but I find what I need to break into her car in the backroom. I shimmy open her lock and pop the trunk. Once I’ve changed her tire, I hide the keys under the mat, and glance at my watch. I remove it and search for a piece of paper. Finding a stray receipt and a pen I write a quick note:
Use this until you purchase another.
And call me if you ever want to talk.
Your keys are under the mat.
Then I hit the lock button, slam the door, and head back to the motel hating myself for the way the night ended.
March first, a new month, almost spring, and it’s also two days until the anniversary of my death—that cluster of f**ked-up events that I can’t wrap my head around. I’ve been reading through my journals—the ones I still have left. I came across an entry from when I first came back to Laguna. I read the pages over and over. How much pain had I caused the people I loved by making that decision? How had I changed the course of everyone’s lives?
Do you ever try to pinpoint any one event in your life that may have changed everything? I do—all the time. But there seems to be so many I’m not sure changing any one would ever change the whole or make anything better.
I lie on my bed, closing my eyes, just thinking. My choice to come back wasn’t all that bad. . . . I had helped Trent, I had made my mother’s eyes sparkle, I had been there to help my sister with her son. So, no, it wasn’t all bad. I sit up and grab my journal. Letting it fall open, I read the entry in front of one more time.
I asked Mom if Dahl was seeing anyone. She was hesitant to tell me anything at first, but admitted there was a guy she was serious about and Dahl had been seeing him for a while. I guess I can assume he’s the same guy Caleb told me about. It’s not that I didn’t want her to move on—I never thought I’d be back. But I just never thought I’d have to see it.
I also asked if Dahl had dated many guys and she told me no, just the one. I had hoped there were more because that would make her more like me. She would have been doing what I had been doing—trying to find a substitute to fill the hole. When I first got to New York I was lost. I had no one. For months I didn’t go out or talk to anyone. Then after a while I tried to date someone, but everything we did just brought me back to the life I left, the life I missed, and it wasn’t fair to that girl.
I started teaching that fall, but it didn’t help me forget Dahl. That Halloween I knew she must need me and I wasn’t there. I went out and got shitfaced and f**ked a girl that looked like her. That started me down a road I can’t even remember clearly. Work, eat, drink, f**k. I never thought I’d see Dahlia again so I f**ked just about every tall blond I ran into. And New York was loaded with them. But I never stuck around . . . they weren’t replacements for her and I didn’t want to get that close.
I stopped trying to replace her over time because no matter how much I wanted it, there was no substitute for her. My love for Dahl never went away, but I met Kimberly shortly after Caleb told me he had seen Dahl with some guy in the Hills. Although I hated that she had moved on, for some reason it brought me closure and I stopped f**king around. Kimberly and I started dating and after a few months, I felt like I’d found a happy medium. I didn’t screw around on her. I liked her enough. Yeah, maybe she looked a lot like Dahlia, but she didn’t act like her. She never called me on my shit and never put me in my place. We had a good sex life and a decent time together. She wasn’t needy and didn’t pressure me for more than I was willing to give.
I was committed to Kimberly until I was told I could go back, at which point I told her I had an emergency back home and I’d be in touch soon. She didn’t know anything about where home was . . . I was always vague. She knew I was from California and she knew me as Alex. I didn’t want to explain anything different. So I haven’t talked to her since I left. I am going to call her—I owe her that. I just haven’t figured out what I am going to say.
All along I wanted to believe Dahl’s commitment to this guy was like my commitment to Kimberly—committed until something else came around. I had thought I would not only be her first, but also her last. And now hearing she’s going to marry another guy has torn my heart apart.
Yeah, my life might suck now, but it also sucked before I returned to things here. I called Kimberly a few times while in Australia but she didn’t answer. I wanted to find closure with her. Thinking back, there are many things I would want to change but the first would be how I handled finding out Dahl was in love with someone else. I knew she was happy. Why couldn’t I just leave it alone?
Why did I think I should try to change that? Now I miss the friendship we shared. I could have just tried to regain that. But instead I wrecked it.
The ring tone of my cell jolts me out of my thoughts. Grabbing my phone, I see its Caleb.
“Where the f**k have you been?”
“Nice way to answer the phone.” Caleb laughs.
“I called you over a week ago.” I settle back on the bed.
“Sorry, man. Haven’t had access to a phone.”
“I don’t want to know.” I chuckle.
“So what was so important?”
“Not so much important. Just odd.”
“Okay, what was so odd, then?”
“Strangest thing. Bass called me in her office and told me the data I had given her on the drive was useless. The team working with her thought it might have been pulled from a phonebook put on there to throw them off.”
“What did you tell them?” Caleb asked.
“What could I tell them? Just that I hadn’t dissected all the data before I wrote the story.”
“They’re f**king incompetent. They have no idea how to see their way through what’s right in front of them. I’ll make a few calls and see if I can get a copy of the info. Did Jason see it?”
“I have no f**king idea. He wasn’t in the room and his name never came up.”
“Look, man, I have to run, but I’ll see if I can find anything out and let you know.”
“Sure thing.” And with that we hang up.
Something about that phone call seems off. Caleb has never mentioned Jason working on the cartel case.
I glance at the time on my phone and decide to hop in the shower. It’s almost five and I haven’t left this room yet today.
While I’m washing my hair my mind shifts gears from Caleb to S’belle. I can’t stop thinking about how she looked at me the other night. She had such disgust in her eyes. Fuuuuck! I slam my hand against the glass and the door pops out of the track. What is it about that girl that constantly has me thinking about her? I turn the water off and stand there, letting water drip down my body. When I step out, all I know is that with all the bad ties between us, it’s better our conversation never went any further. Besides, I only f**k up everything I touch.
I know I need to get out and clear my head. So I quickly get dressed and head over to Beck’s.
When I enter I see him on the phone arguing with someone. He hangs up and heads over my way. He slams a mug on the counter and I put my hand out. “How about a cup of coffee?”
He laughs. “Haven’t ever seen you turn down a beer.”
I ignore his comment. “Everything okay?”
He shakes his head. “Ruby’s f**king ex is giving her a real hard time.”
“What do you mean? I thought he moved out.”
“He did, but he keeps showing up at the apartment, at work. I called the cops and they say there’s nothing they can do unless he poses a threat.”
“Has he done anything threatening?”
“No, but something about him tells me he’s off balance.”
“My ex-brother-in-law used to work this beat. Let me see if he can help out at all.”
“Fuck, man, that would be great.”
A little while later I leave the bar sober and feeling like maybe a small part of my life is coming together.
The next morning I have to shade my eyes against the sun’s glare in the room as I roll over to pick up my cell phone and see who’s calling. Irritation flares through me as Agent Bass’s name flashes across the screen.
“Yeah,” I answer, as I sit up.
“Ben, it’s Agent Bass. We were wondering if you could come down to the bureau this morning. Josh Hart’s trial concluded yesterday and I’d like to fill you in.”
I throw myself back on the bed trying to process what she just said. “Ummm . . . yeah, sure but I was never called to testify.”
“I’ll explain when you get here.”
“I just have to swing by the office and then I’ll head over.”
I hang up. Fuck, what the hell is going on? Why is Hart’s trial concluding already? And why hasn’t the drug cartel’s trial even begun? I can’t stand being left in the dark. All I know is that I am to stay put until all of the legal proceedings across these multiple cases are complete.