I was behind where I wanted to be in my training schedule for the Seattle marathon but I wasn’t worried. I’d been running for years and could hold my own without much effort. Still, I wanted it to be my best time since it was a qualifying race for the Boston marathon.
It didn’t matter. The time had come. I packed my stuff and started the drive to Seattle. I ended up making great time. Record breaking, even. But it came at a price.
A rift between Lee and I.
An hour before we were supposed to hit the road, Lee told me he couldn’t go.
“Please say something, Nash,” Lee pleaded while I sat at the counter, trying to reign in my emotions.
There were a lot of things I wanted to say, but since they were all out of anger and hurt, I stared at the window instead. This wasn’t just a random race; this was my qualifying race. I needed him there.
“You know I would go if I could. Supporting you is the most important thing in the world,” he said, touching my shoulder affectionately.
I shrugged him off and walked toward our room. “The second most important thing.” There was no point in waiting another hour to leave. I could start the drive early and beat the traffic. All my things were packed. I grabbed my suitcase and walked through the house with Lee hot on my tail—begging me to stop. I turned and faced him with a cold, emotionless expression.
“You’ve known about this race for months. You know what it means to me. You could come if you wanted. You’re choosing work. I have every right to be upset about this.”
I leaned in to give him a kiss goodbye. No matter how angry I was, I’d never leave without a proper goodbye. That wasn’t enough for Lee, he tried for more. More than I could give, so I pulled away.
“Nash—” he sighed from the front door. I got in my truck and pulled away. If I had left him high and dry, I would’ve gotten the silent treatment for a week.
I barely remember the five-hour drive to Seattle. I was torn between being upset that Lee bailed on me and being understanding because that’s who I was.
I was so worked up I had to force myself to eat a solid meal. I needed it if I was going to give my best performance. I finally managed something. It wasn’t as balanced or high in calories and carbs as I wanted, but it was better than nothing, which is what I usually eat when I’m upset.
I waited until I’d settled in for the night before sending Lee a text, letting him know I made it to the hotel. He tried calling but I wasn’t emotionally there yet.
Sleep left something to be desired. I kept looking at the clock thinking, if I fall asleep now, I’ll sleep this long—
I finally slept. It wasn’t great. Not the quality or quantity I needed before a race. I still felt funky, held back by the fight with Lee. I tried to fake it but, after getting ready for the race, alone, and arriving at and registering, alone, I was still overwhelmed by hurt and disappointment. It was hard watching the crowd of people holding signs and cheering for their loved ones while I had no one.
When the shot went off, I channeled my anger into fuel and I ran. Much like I did after Paul upset me and I ran to the ball field. I ran harder than ever. Harder than I probably should have. The first seven miles passed with ease, after that, I started feeling the burn. I could feel it in my legs, and my breathing was getting harder, but I was making great time. I was keeping pace toward the front of the group.
The further I ran, the more I thought about Lee bailing on me. The way that minds do, I started thinking about non-existent, hypothetical situations.
What if Lee bailed on Boston?
That hypothetical question was enough to keep my anger tank fully fueled. I knew he wasn’t bailing on Boston, but he could…and in my head, he was. What would stop him? Clearly not work. I ran harder as I conjured up scenarios where Lee told me he could go along with a list of outlandish reasons why. I knew I should have stopped myself from going down that dangerous rabbit hole, but I didn’t. I let my mind run undisciplined as the miles blurred.
There were a few rough miles where I debated about slowing down. But I kept on. I felt nothing except the chill in the air biting my skin as I pushed myself, mile after mile, toward the finish line. There were stretches of time that I thought about nothing and other stretches where the unhealthy lies I let live in my head looped on a constant replay.
In the end, I got third place in my division.
The finish line was crowded with people, signs, and cheering. Little kids sitting on shoulders as they waited for their moms or dads to come to view. So many people were there, all of them cheering for someone.
I had run lots of races alone, this was nothing new. But I always went into it knowing I wouldn’t have someone at the finish line. I was okay with that, truly. But this was different, I thought I’d have Lee.
The second I crossed the finish line I felt like my body was going to collapse. Every step felt like it would be my last; like I was walking on sinking sand. I barely remember the officials talking to me, the need to pass out was overwhelming. The second they left me alone I wobbled to a trash can and threw up. I was in trouble. Marathons are hard on the body and I hadn’t eaten properly since leaving the house. On top of that, I pushed myself past the point of health. I knew better but I let it happen anyway.
Somehow, I got back to the room. A gift from God. I managed to draw a cold bath. It wasn’t the ice bath I needed but it was all my shaky body could manage.
Naked, I laid in bed and tried to eat more food. I really disliked the catch twenty-two of running. You push yourself so hard you completely deplete your system until you're in desperate need of nutrition, but you’re so fatigued you can’t eat. You literally have no appetite. Every bite I took made me want to throw up. I decided to take a nap. I always felt better after giving my body a chance to recharge. Except, I didn’t feel better when I woke up.
I was becoming increasingly worried that I had pushed myself too hard. I settled on a Seinfeld marathon and I nibbled on more food. Maybe I just needed more time. My stomach churned in protest. I tried to tune it out but eventually, it became too much and I expelled everything into the bedside trash can. I laid with my head dangling off the side of the mattress in case I wasn’t done. I didn’t even have energy to make it to the bathroom.
I’d run a dozen or more marathons and never felt this terrible. I contemplated going to the hospital. At the very least, I figured IV fluids and anti-nausea medication would turn me around.
The pride in me decided to wait it out.
I needed Lee. I wasn’t even mad at him anymore. I was mad at myself for getting so worked up about it. It was my fault that I was lying in bed, naked and afraid. I grabbed the phone that was lying next to me and, ignoring the many notifications, called Lee.
“Nash,” Lee’s voice was quiet and full of regret and concern. He knew he was standing at the edge of a frozen lake and one step in the wrong direction would break the ice. He wasn’t the only one standing on that lake. I was there too, on the opposite side, and hearing his voice was enough to shatter my already fragile; broken and exhausted state.
“Lee,” I whispered with my cheek pressed to the white hotel bed and tears welling up in my eyes. “I think I need to go to the hospital.” Even I could hear the panic in my voice.
“Nash, take a breath,” he said as he tried to calm himself down. “What’s going on?”
Just then I felt another round of nausea hit me like a ton of bricks and I leaned over the bed and let it go. It wasn’t much but it was enough to drain me of what little energy I had left.
“I don’t feel good,” I mumbled, and I didn’t. “I feel like my body is dying. What if I ruined myself? What if I end up like Sam...or worse?” I said aloud. My head was still dangling off the bed and I could feel my hair as it dangled along with me.
“You’re going to be fine,” he said, though he didn’t sound sure. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I should’ve been there. I’m on my way. Can you hold on for a few hours? Baby, can you eat something?”
Lee rambled on, trying to keep me on the line while he grabbed his stuff and flew out of the house. I mumbled that I couldn't eat, I was too tired. I was fighting fatigue and sleep had a powerful pull.
I woke to the sound of Lee’s voice as he snuggled against me.
“Fuck. I really screwed up. You have no idea how sorry I am. The guilt, Nash, it’s eating me alive. I betrayed your trust. What kind of husband am I?” he muttered his apologies against my shoulder as he stroked my hair. It took me longer than normal to fully wake and, when I finally did, I found his blue eyes begging for forgiveness. “I’m here baby. I brought food and drinks. I even drew you an ice bath.”
Lee helped me sit up. I knew I looked like shit but it was confirmed by the look in his eyes, he was worried. He brought a specialty drink to help replenish my depleted system along with calorie and carb-dense post-marathon foods. I smiled when he handed me some anti-nausea medication.
I didn’t end up going to the hospital. We stayed at the hotel for two days while Lee nursed me back to health. He had managed to find a flight to Seattle which meant we could drive back together. It took me longer than expected to feel normal and I wondered if I’d be okay to run in Boston even though it was nine months away.
Lee kept telling me that I shouldn't give up and he’d be with me every step of the way. He’d never miss another marathon again, especially not Boston. He’d be there to take care of me.
Lee fussed over me for the next week. Actually, he fussed over me every day until I left for camp. He even insisted that he should take some time off work during the summer so we could get-away. He kept suggesting places like Scottsdale...in July. I enjoyed hot weather but not as much as Lee; he loved to fry. Eighty-five degrees was plenty for me and anything over three digits was not a vacation, it was a death sentence.
The truth was, I’d go anywhere he wanted.
For camp, we met at the Safeway parking lot on Saturday morning. It was total chaos as we gathered the last camp payments and health/consent forms. Then it was a seven-hour drive with two Greyhound buses with over a hundred eager teenagers. Like always, Camp was the best week ever. Yevo knew how to take summer camp to the next level.
When I got home, I took a few days off to recoup. As much as I loved hanging out with pre-adults for a living, seven days was draining. More so since I was still recovering from the marathon-from-hell.
Lee managed to wrangle a long weekend away from work at the end of June. It was a total surprise, too. He booked the trip, packed our bags, and got me to the airport before I realized something was up.
Four days on a quiet beach in California. It was perfect.
I barely kept my hands off him on the airplane. If the flight had been longer, we would have joined the mile-high club. Whatever resistance we had on the plane was out the window when we got to the resort. The second we stepped into our penthouse suite I was on him like an animal. We fought to undress the fastest.
Lee jumped up and wrapped his legs around my waist.
“I can’t wait to spend this time with you,” he mumbled between kisses. “I can’t live without you. I love you too much.”
I pulled away from him and looked him in the eyes. “There’s never been anyone for me but you. Never will be.”
I kissed his lips and he smiled. When I went to kiss him again, he pushed my forehead away with a smirk. “Enough with the lovey shit, I want you to fuck me over the couch.”
Lee rarely talked dirty and I wasn’t going to discourage something that turned me on. He even prepped himself while I watched. I don’t know what had gotten into him, but I was a supporter.
I rubbed the head of my shaft along his ass, then slowly watched it bob against his puckered hole before disappearing completely. It didn't take long for me to sink my entire length into him. I pulled all the way out before pushing it back in. I went slow. I closed my eyes and relished the tight heat around me. In and out. He was demanding and I did everything asked until we were both moaning and panting in the middle of the living room. Lee was working himself when I heard him cry through his orgasm.
I kept pumping even after I came, hoping to come again. I could come two or three times before going soft but Lee stopped me before I could go too far. He was only good for one orgasm and hated being simulated after he came. He said it was uncomfortable and I respected that.
The weekend was perfect. If we weren’t outside sunning ourselves or playing in the water, we were fucking—and I do mean fucking. For a guy who was never into slut play or base sex, he really went all out. I was a little worried by the time we got home. I knew he was holding on to guilt from Seattle but I didn’t want him to do things just because he was afraid I was going to leave him. I’d never do that.
I was on my iPad, putting together a rough draft calendar of events for next year when Lee came home from work. He was smiling brightly as he tossed his jacket on the back of the chair and pointed his pistol fingers at me. “Guess who was at work today?” he asked, then blurted the answer before I could guess. “Ryan and Logan.”
“Everything going okay with Joyce?” I asked, hoping she wasn’t pulling one over on them.
“No, no, everything's fine, just some business paperwork,” Lee quickly waved me off that subject. “But they invited us over this weekend. It’s the big third of July party.” He did a little dance in the middle of the living.
“I’m guessing you want to go?” I teased as I watched him bubble with excitement.
The third of July was a big deal. Logan and Abby lived on the lake and Len and Tia owned the lot next door. Every year they had a big party. The lake association put on a private firework show that outdid what the one put on by the City.
“What? You don’t want to?” he asked, slightly annoyed by my lack of enthusiasm. “This is thee event, Nash. Of course I want to go, I’ve always wanted to go.”
“It doesn’t bother you that we’re only being invited out of courtesy? You’re their lawyer. We’re not actually friends with any of them.”
“No, it doesn’t bother me. And you know what? We might actually be friends with them if you’d stop declining every invitation they sent our way. There’s a ton of people that don’t get invited, Nash. If they didn’t want us to come then they wouldn’t extend the invitation, but they did.” Lee wasn’t smiling anymore as he loosened his tie and unbuttoned his cuffs.
Lee only wanted to go to this party because it was a Knott/Lewis party and being invited made him feel good about himself. I doubt they’d notice if we weren’t there. Not that Lee cared, he just wanted to be there to show off. It was the exact thing that irritated me about so many people. There wasn’t a fiber in my body that was interested in going.
“If you want to go, then go, but I’m going to Nathan and Kelsea’s.”
Lee threw his hands up. “You’re kidding, right? Tell me you’re kidding.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t kidding. Lee took a deep, calming breath in. He was frustrated. “Why would you go to Nathan’s when we can go to Logan’s? Logan’s!” he repeated.
I looked at him like the idiot he was being. “Because Nathan is my friend, and I’m going to be a groomsman in his wedding. That’s a lot more than I can say for Ryan.”
“Well, I’m going to the lake—with or without you,” he said, semi storming upstairs to the bedroom.
“Have fun!” I yelled in his wake.
If it was that important to him then he was free to go. I honestly didn’t care. I’d happily hang out with my best friend and his wife if Lee was going to be in a sour mood the whole time. We’d been together long enough that we didn’t have to spend every day together. I was genuinely fine with him going if that’s what was important to him.
Of course, Nathan called me Thursday and canceled. I loved him but he was a flake. They decided on a last-minute trip to Gold Beach to ride the Jet Boats down the Rogue River. Lee assumed that meant I was going with him to the lake. When I told him Saturday morning that I wasn’t going, he was pretty annoyed. We didn’t fight over it, but Lee definitely gave me the silent treatment before leaving the house.
I used my new-found free time to clean the suburban out. It smelled from driving messy kids around. I stripped down and got to work.
The neighborhood was pretty deserted. Everyone had left town for the holiday, so I decided to forgo my earbuds and use the outdoor sound system up. Nothing says summer cleaning like Billboard hits from the early 2000’s.
Knee-deep in stale food, candy wrappers and rocking out to Sk8ter Boi was exactly where I wanted to be.
I found a completely uneaten burger from McDonald's. I had no clue how long it had been there, but it was hard as a rock. I was about to toss it when I heard someone honk their car horn in a repeated concession. I jumped and quickly wiggled myself out from the tight-fitting third row.
Ryan was hanging out the driver's side window of his truck with a shit-eating grin on his face. Penn sat on the passenger side, looking uncomfortable.
“I never pictured you as an Avril Lavigne man.”
I walked toward them until I was standing outside his window and shrugged, “What can I say, I’ve always had a thing for Skater Boys.”
Both Ryan and Penn laughed. Ryan looked past me; taking note of my truck with all the doors open, the vacuum and cleaning supplies scattered around.
“So, this,” he pointed toward my crap, “is why you’re too busy to join us?”
I looked behind me at my truck, then back at Ryan and nodded. “Yep.”
Ryan shook his head, letting me know that was unacceptable. “No. This won’t do. Clean up your stuff and let’s go.”
I laughed. “Thanks, but I have to decline. Maybe if I get everything finished, I’ll swing by for the fireworks.”
“No, just come now.”
He pursed his lips for a moment then relaxed, “Because your presence is wanted. Don’t disappoint.”
“Did Lee tell you to come here,” I asked with a bit of annoyance.
“No—” he started, then stopped himself. “It’s Independence Day weekend, it’s a time to let loose and have fun. Why are you being so difficult?”
“I’m not. I’m minding my own business. It’s you two that came to my house uninvited and it’s you two who won’t take no for an answer,” I shot back. Ryan seemed a little frustrated but I thought it was kind of funny.
Ryan opened his door and got out, forcing me to take a few steps back. Before I knew it, he was shoving everything back in my garage and locking up my truck.
“Get in the damn truck,” he demanded in a tone that was playful enough to make me smile.
“Can I at least get—”
“Truck!” he pointed. He used his body to block me from going to the house to gather things like shoes or clothes. I shook my head and laughed, but I did as told.
The backseat was full of food and beer so I sat bitch between Ryan and Penn. Not that I was complaining, not really, but they were fully dressed and I was not. I crossed my arms over my chest to cover myself. It helped, a little.
The short drive to Logan’s was quiet, not uncomfortable, just quiet. I was relieved to see everyone else wearing swimwear.
“Look who’s here!” Jane and Abby shouted when they saw me. Their fussing attracted a lot of attention.
“Held hostage against my will,” I sang back, shooting a glare at Ryan, who seemed unbothered by his actions as he carried the beer to the kitchen.
“That’s fine, we can work with that. Would you like something to drink?” Jane asked. “We have domestic, import, craft, wine, liquor, or bitch beer if you prefer.”
“Water?” I asked. I wasn’t one for drinking alcohol.
“Of course, it’s in the cooler on the porch, help yourself.”
After grabbing the water, I walked around a bit. There were people everywhere. I said hi to people as I looked for Lee. I finally found him in a small group out back. He was talking animatedly about something, smiling brightly as the others laughed along. He was surprised to see me and quickly excused himself from the group.
“You came,” Lee said as he gave me a quick kiss.
“What was I supposed to do? You sent the wolves.”
He looked at me in confusion, “What are you talking about?”
“Ryan and Penn.”
He shook his head, “I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“They stopped by the house and kidnapped me; told me I didn’t have a choice.”
“Hmm, this is the first I’ve heard about it. I’m glad they did though. It sucks not having you here,” he leaned in and gave me another kiss. This one, slightly more intimate than the last, making me melt.
“Boat time,” Ryan pulled my arm as he walked by. “Let’s go.”
Ryan and Penn were shirtless. They’d changed from their clothes to their swim shorts. It was a beautiful sight. I took Lee’s hand so he’d follow, but he resisted.
“I don’t want to go.”
I took one look at him and wrapped him in my arms. “You’re damn sexy. Don’t worry so much. Have you seen some of the people here? They’d give their left nut to have your sexy body.”
Lee looked around and rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to be shirtless on a boat next to you, and those two,” he nodded toward Ryan and Penn.
“Then don’t take off your shirt.”
“Nah, I’m going to go back over there,” he looked at the group he’d just left. “But you have fun.”
I wanted him on the boat and I knew he wanted that too. When he didn’t give in, I gave him a kiss and jogged to the dock where Ryan and Penn were waiting impatiently. They suited me up and dropped me in the lake. I hadn’t been on the water in years but the second I got out there, it all came back. It was like riding a bike.
“No tricks?” Ryan asked when I finished my round and crawled back on the boat.
“I haven’t been boarding since college. I don’t want to kill myself, yet.”
Ryan and Penn both laughed as Ryan got ready for his turn. They had the same charismatic smile, though Ryan was more generous with his. It made it easy to be around them.
Ryan dropped in the water and looked at me.
“Don’t let Penny kill me, okay?”
Before I had a chance to reply, Penn took off. I thought Ryan was going to break in half from the force but he took the rough start like a champ. Not the first time it had happened, I was sure. The longer we were out, the more I worried for Ryan’s safety. Penn was a vicious driver.
“He’ll be fine,” he said, noticing the terror written on my face.
“I’m not worried for Ryan, okay maybe a little. I’m actually little scared for myself,” I admitted. “We’re going so fast. It feels like we’re this close to flying out of the water. Like we might flip over, catch on fire, and die.” I had to use both hands to stop my wet hair from whipping my face bloody.
Penn laughed, like really, really laughed, but then he slowed down. He reached under the seat and pulled out a hat and pressed it to my chest.
“Won’t this fly off?”
He shrugged indifferently. I put the hat on backward and sighed in relief. It was nice to have my hair out of my face.
Ryan was a natural on the water. I had a lot of fun watching him jump and flip. Soon enough we circled around and Ryan climbed back in the boat.
“You’re up Penny. Show ‘em how it’s done.”
And he showed us how it was done. Penn was hands down the most skilled wakeboarder I had ever seen.
“He’s good,” I said in awe as I watched Penn slice through the water before flying through the air.
“He’s the best,” Ryan said, and I felt like he meant it in more ways than one. Penn was so entertaining that I was sad when his time was up.
“Ready to go out again?” Ryan asked as Penn pulled himself into the boat.
“You want me to follow that—,” I pointed at Penn, “and still walk away with dignity and self-respect?” I shook my head no, no way.
After much persuasion, or bullying as I called it, I was back in the water. I tried to do something cool but kept falling in the water. After the fourth fall I thought they were going to let me in the boat, instead, Penn gave me some tips. They were great tips but I still sucked. I kept falling. They’d circle around, Penn gave more pointers. I improved a bit. More pointers, more improvement, and more falling until I was too exhausted to go on. I did actually land a flip, though. I was pretty excited about that.
“I bet if you hang out with us this summer, you’ll give Penn a run for his money,” Ryan teased as I barely pulled myself out of the water.
“I’d rather stick to running if you don’t mind.”
“Ah, spoilsport,” he punched me lightly on the shoulder.
We stayed on the boat for most of the day. When Penn was in the water, Ryan and I talked constantly. When Ryan was in the water, Penn and I said almost nothing.
“So, is Penn really short for Penny?” I asked, trying to start some sort of conversation.
“No,” Penn smirked as he watched his brother in the water.
Inwardly, I made a frustrated face. Penn was one of the most awkward people I had ever met. Trying to keep a conversation going was like pulling teeth.
“Mom and Dad thought it was a good idea to let Ryan, who was three at the time, name me. He was a big fan of Paddington.” He sensed the shock on my face, to be named after a toy bear! “I know. Luckily, my parents were merciful. Instead, they named me Pennington. It’s not really better, except, instead of Patty, I’m Penny.”
I promise, I tried not to laugh. The poor guy. But what a great story. I thought he might be mad that I was laughing at him but, when I looked up, he had the cutest little smile on his face. His dark hair was whipping wildly as he watched his brother and tried not to smile.
I didn’t know much about Penn but suddenly I wanted to. I felt like there was a lot more there then met the eye.
We got in trouble by the wives for monopolizing the boat but it was worth it. I had a great time. After being reprimanded, I found Lee. He was socializing with a whole new group. I joined them and had a nice conversation. They fired up the BBQ and cooked enough food to feed half the town. There were a large number of kids there and I spent some time with them.
When it was time for the fireworks, everyone gathered outside. It was oddly warm for the Oregon coast and felt strange not needing a jacket. I wrapped myself around Lee and watched the show. It was everything we’d expected and more. The power of a private show funded by wealthy people; nothing was better.
I thought we’d go home after the fireworks but quickly learned how naive I was. Instead, the music started playing. I loved dancing, so when a drunk Abby and Jane grabbed me by the arms and dragged me to the make-shift dance floor, I didn’t put up a fight. I don’t know if others would agree, but I fancied myself a decent dancer and was very confident in the way I moved.
The girls and I laughed as we danced. More and more people joined in. I danced without a care in the world even as I started getting pushed around. The girls had been replaced by their husbands, who were smiling and laughing. Logan and Ryan pushed me back and forth between them. Typical of straight men to re-enact the scene from A Night at the Roxbury, but it was funny and I started laughing.
Penn joined in and suddenly we were all dancing. I had to give them props, they made it feel totally normal for four guys to dance together. They had me trapped. Ryan was behind me, Penn in front, and Logan to my side. I carefully took in the moment because I never happen again, even in my fantasies. I could feel all of them moving against me. It wasn’t sexual, not even a little, just friends dancing. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Lee saw what he thought was his fantasy orgy and quickly joined. He squared out my jail cell, shielding me from the outside world. Lee couldn’t stop smiling. His eyes were so wide you’d think he struck gold.
In a moment of deviousness, I decided to drive Lee crazy. I began dancing a little more sexually. Unfortunately for Penn, his proximity made him my victim. I kept glancing at Lee who was panting as I swayed my body against Penn’s. Judging by the look in my husband’s eyes, he really liked what he was watching.
Unlike Lee, who was a terrible dancer, Penn had a nice flow about him. He didn’t seem to mind what I was doing to Lee, because he didn’t react to me dancing against him.
There was a moment, while dancing with Penn, that I felt more than just a passing attraction. I had never, not once, genuinely lusted after another man. Sure, I had a little fantasy crush on Ryan and, okay, I thought there were lots of cute guys out there, but I never lusted.
Ryan and Logan were attractive. I mean, obviously. Ryan was my straight crush after all. But the more I was around Penn, the more I found him to be…intriguing. His dark features set him apart almost as much as his chiseled body. And after spending hours on the lake with him, I knew there was more to him and that caught my attention. He was quiet and reserved compared to his brothers and slow to speak. What intrigued me most was how he seemed to watch everything. He wasn’t obvious about it, but I saw the look in his eyes. I could tell he saw things that no one else deemed important. What I wouldn’t give to sit down and pick his brain. I bet he knew things others were clueless about, simply because he paid attention.
He one up’d me on all levels. He was just a little taller, had just a little more muscle, more athletic, tanner, etc.
I let my thoughts run undisciplined for a moment as his hips swayed and his muscles moved like a finely oiled machine. There were a few times I looked at him, only to find his dark eyes staring back. I couldn’t decipher the look but his eyes were unlike anything I’d ever seen. They showed everything and nothing. There was a depth in those dark pools like I’d never seen, and I knew one could get lost trying to find themselves. I wondered if that was the goal, to become lost.
It was in those depths that I started to panic. I allowed myself to cross a mental line that never should’ve been crossed, even if it was for just a few seconds.
I turned to Lee, not knowing what I’d find. Had he seen the lust in my eyes? Did he think the dancing had gone too far?
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw him dancing with Ryan and Logan several yards away. Lee smiled brightly at me like, ‘are you seeing this? I’m dancing with Ryan AND Logan!’ He was in heaven.
I shot him a thumbs up and let him continue to live out his fantasy. I needed to get away from Penn. I was about to make an excuse when Camilla, his wife, popped out of nowhere. I took it as a gift and quickly ducked away.
I continued dancing until I found myself with the wives again. Women always felt they could let loose around me since I had zero interest in them. That, and they enjoyed trying to spark jealousy from their husbands.
Jane and Abby were chill but Camilla surprised me. She joined us and had long passed the ‘jealousy-inducing’ dancing that was normal and moved on to ‘trying-to-take-my-pants-off’ dancing.
“You are so fucking hot,” she said as she ran her hands over my bare chest.
“Thanks,” I said awkwardly as I looked around for help. Everyone was busy drinking and dancing to notice Camilla fondling me.
“Your body is amazing,” her eyes ran over me and I literally felt like a piece of meat. “Have you ever slept with a woman?”
“No, never,” I swallowed. I tried to put some distance between us but she was like a magnet.
“Do you want to?”
I was about to get the hell out of there when Penn pulled her stumbling body away from me. He didn’t look too happy with what he found, and I didn’t blame him.
“I think she’s drunk,” I half defended myself even though I hadn’t done anything.
“She is. She’s a slutty drunk. She’ll go after anyone with a dick,” he said as he analyzed his wife before brushing the hair out of her face. “C’mon Cammy, let's get you to a bed.”
He left without so much of a glance, which I was thankful for. I had no idea how to respond to that situation. ‘Sorry your wife is a total slut when she’s drunk. I bet that’s fun to deal with’ and that was on top of the guilt I felt about our own interaction. I also wondered what she’ll go after anyone with a dick had meant. Was it a burn on me? On him?
I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of the situation. I had lusted after her husband and then she lusted after me. The might was a total shitshow and I wanted nothing to do with it.
I didn’t need another reason to grab Lee and go. I wasn’t going to stick around so something else could transpire. Experiencing this kind of infidelity wasn’t my life. I know that sounds prudish, nothing had happened, not really, but it always starts somewhere. All it needs is the right conditions to grow. This was something I wouldn’t nurture.
It was the week after the fourth of July when an unknown number popped up on my phone. That in itself wasn’t surprising. As a public figure that worked with teenagers, everyone either had my number or had access to it. But summer camp was over and the school year had yet to begin and that meant my work life was relatively quiet.
“Nash Cushman,” I answered.
“Nash, it’s Ryan.”
“Hey Ryan, what do I owe this pleasure?” I replied, one-hundred percent surprised by the call.
“I was wondering if you could do me a favor?”
“I can’t think of one thing I could do that would benefit you.”
Ryan’s deep chuckled sounded through the phone. “Remember the night we switched after the baseball game?”
“Impossible to forget about that.”
“Are you busy or would it be possible for you to bring my clothes out to my house really quick?”
It was early afternoon on a Saturday and I was tossing expired food from the cabinets. I was hardly busy. “Yeah, I can do that,” I said as I wiped my hands on my pants and moved away from the pile of food trash.
“Awesome, see you soon?”
“Sure, see you soon.”
I changed, grabbed his clothes, and locked up the house. Lee was in the valley buying furniture for the office so I left him a note just in case he got home before me.
Ryan and Jane lived on the outside of town, up a country road. They had a beautiful secluded home on more acreage than anyone ever needed. The first thing I noticed was all the cars parked outside. Then the people. There must have been fifty. I wondered what was going on that so many people were over, but then again, this was their life. They were crazy social people.
Ryan jogged toward me so I got everything ready for a quick handoff and stuck my hand out the window. I figured he’d grab his work clothes and get back to his party.
“There are a few parking spots over there,” he pointed to his shop which was quite a ways away. “Grab one while the gettin's good.”
I looked at him for a second, thinking that maybe he was joking, but he wasn’t. I didn’t usually care what I looked like but I had been cleaning the house all day. I was a long way from being presentable.
“Oh no, I was just dropping the stuff off.”
“Get your ass out of the truck Cushman and join the damn party,” he said as he stepped forward and put his hands on the window of my truck. When I didn’t make a move, he rolled his eyes at me. The next thing I knew, he had my door open and was pulling me from my own vehicle. When I was on my feet, he jumped in the driver's seat and drove away. I watched as he parked my truck in the distance.
“I guess I’m staying,” I mumbled to myself.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Forcing me against my will was quickly becoming his signature move.
I was greeted with an array of warm welcomes. Just another weekend in the life of the Knotts, I thought to myself as I made small talk with half the town.
The usuals were all there; the Knotts, Len and Tia, and Abby’s family, who also owned a local construction business. I recognized almost everyone else. I didn’t personally know them but, when you live in a small town, no one is a stranger.
“Nash, what a wonderful surprise!” Jane said as she approached. “I was hoping you’d come. We love having you around.”
She leaned in and gave me a hug. The whole family was genuine and down to earth but I’d always clicked with Jane. We weren’t what I would call ‘close’ but over the years we ran into each other on a regular basis and had built a solid ‘five-minute friendship’. We were more than “hi” but not quite at premeditated meetups. I can confidently say we both enjoyed one another’s company.
“Well, I haven’t had much of a choice lately. Your husband is demanding. I don’t know how you do it.”
“Yes, what can I say? Ryan is goal oriented.”
Abby spotted us and quickly descended. She donned a blended drink and, by the blush on her cheeks, it wasn’t the first one. Maybe not even her second.
Where Jane was tall and curvy, Abby was short and petite. She couldn’t have been taller than five-four or weigh more than a buck-ten soaking wet. She was beautiful but the kind of beautiful that cost a lot of time and money. I preferred Jane’s more natural look.
“Nash!” she wrapped her arms around my waist and squeezed. “I can’t believe you came. You have no idea how happy—”
“Everyone is that you’re here,” Jane finished, wrapping her arm around Abby’s shoulder. Abby’s eyes widened as she glanced around the room.
I was very aware that something was amiss. I could have pressed the issue but they weren’t going to tell me and I really didn’t care enough. When I excused myself, I saw Jane reprimanding Abby from the corner of my eye. I was curious, of course, but not enough to give it free rent in my head.
I saw Camilla as I bounced from group to group. We acknowledged each other from afar but I could tell she was trying to keep her distance. She looked guilty and ashamed about her behavior. If I had the opportunity, I would pull her off to the side and clear the air. It looked like she needed to know there were no hard feelings lingering from the past weekend.
I was leaning against the kitchen island, looking out the window. There was a large wrap around porch full of people. Everyone held drinks and chatted happily. I was having a good time but was missing Lee. I knew he’d want to be there, socializing and having fun.
I jerked at my name on Penn’s lips. His face etched with confusion. “What are you doing here?”
I hated that my tongue felt swollen. My glands working overdrive as Penn stood there in jeans and a tight black shirt. The look was effortless but effective. Then there was the dark hair he wore slightly messy and oh so hot.
“I have no clue, Ryan tricked me into coming.”
He nodded in understanding then looked around for his brother, probably wanting a few words about my presence. I really thought we were past the weird, stand-off-ness but I was wrong.
Penn’s reaction told me exactly what I’d already known; all the invitations in the world didn't mean anything. I didn’t know why Ryan was trying so hard, but we weren’t friends, I knew that much.
“I’m actually looking for your brother so I can get my keys,” I said in way of peace offering.
“Oh. You’re more than welcome to stay. I don’t care,” he said quickly but with very little emotion.
“Ah, say it like you mean it.” Penn blinked a few times then turned and walked away. The thing about sarcasm is, not everyone gets it. All I could do was shrug at his hot/cold behavior and move on.
I was ready to leave. I hadn’t seen Ryan or Logan since I arrived and I had clearly mistaken their kindness for more than what it was; acquaintanceship. I felt stupid for that. I always preached to Lee about this exact thing and here I was falling for it. I was forming a ridiculous crush on Penn, which I hated and I had deluded myself into a friendship with the three brothers that wasn’t real.
I finally found Ryan outside. He was talking to Penn privately. The conversation looked a lot like Ryan was trying to calm Penn down. I tried to backtrack unnoticed but it was too late, they both saw me.
Ryan smiled brightly and waved me over.
“I was just looking for my keys,” I said as I walked toward the two.
“What?” Ryan looked confused. “You’re not leaving yet. The birthday party hasn’t even started.”
“Penny is the big three-eight today,” he patted Penny’s back a little too hard and Penn smiled none too genuinely.
Wonderful. I was crashing a birthday party for the one Knott who didn’t care for me that much. I looked at Penn, apologetically. “Happy birthday, Penn. I had no clue it was your birthday. I feel like a total jerk for intruding. I’ll just grab my keys and head out,” I held out my hand out and waited for Ryan to hand me the keys.
“Forget it, you’re staying. You’re not intruding at all! We’re glad to have you here, ask anyone.”
I wanted to ask Penn, just to prove my point, but that was rude and unnecessary. I ended up staying. It was hard to leave when Ryan had my keys and my phone was locked in the truck.
I distanced myself from the party and hung with the teenagers; Koby, Kayde, Jay, and their friends. We played football in the field for a while before they led me to the shop. It was full of big boy toys. I knew they were avid adventurers but I had never seen anything like it. Classic looking SUVs that had been revamped with big tires and roll cages, sand rails, four-wheelers, dirt bikes, and anything else you could think of.
It was the big go-cart looking things that the boys were interested in. Kayde pointed me to the passenger seat of one that looked a bit more custom then the others. It was all black and terrifying to look at. It screamed death. I strapped myself in the passenger seat and waited for everyone else to get ready. I wasn’t sure what we were doing or where we were going but I trusted Kayde.
The engines came to life one by one. The noise and vibration echoed through the shop like a Beethoven symphony—the rock n’ roll version.
“What’s going on in here?” Penn stood at the large roll up door with his arms crossed. He was all business and none too happy. I worried we were doing something wrong. I hoped I wasn’t a willing accomplice to something bad.
“We’re gonna rip a bit. You coming?” Kayde yelled back, hope filling his face.
“Yeah,” he said as he walked towards us. “Now go find your own ride,” he waved Kayde away. “And why is no one wearing helmets? Do you guys have a death wish?”
Kayde mumbled a curse under his breath and unlatched the safety harness before crawling out. Apparently, he picked the wrong go-cart to ride. Not wanting to piss off an already angry Penn, I started unbuckling my harness. Kayde stopped me.
“You ride with Penn.”
I didn’t want to ride with Penn but I wasn’t going to beg an eighteen-year-old to trade places with me. Penn tossed me a helmet. Everyone was ready, engines revved in excitement, but no one moved. They were waiting for something.
Just as I was about to ask what was going on, Penn took off like a bat out of hell. The second we left the building I could hear everyone racing after us.
They’d been waiting on Penn.
The ATV bounced wildly, yet surprisingly gentle, as we zoomed down the narrow dirt path. My heart raced and my knuckles were white as I gripped anything I could find in an effort to hold myself steady.
The screaming started without my consent. I was torn between wanting to cover my eyes and seeing the last moments of my life.
We turned off the road and into the trees. There was no road, yet it felt like we were going faster and taking corners sharper. We caught air more times than I can count. Each time left my stomach in knots.
Penn drove us off the cliff, at least that’s what it felt like. I don’t know how we weren’t tumbling. It was probably the way I pressed myself into the seat that counterbalanced us. Then I saw the ground and I knew death was moments away. I closed my eyes and let out a low hum (manly scream) as I braced for impact.
Penn laughed at me.
Suddenly, we weren’t falling. Hell, we weren’t even moving. I opened my eyes and put my hand over my heaving chest. My heart was trying to pound its way out.
“What the hell?!” I shouted as others came to a skidding stop around us. I tried to undo my harness but my shaky hands made it impossible.
“What are you doing,” Penn asked.
I looked at him like he was the devil incarnate. He might not be the devil but he was a goddamned idiot if he thought I was staying in that death trap for one more minute. “Getting me out of here. This is insane!”
The next thing I knew I was plastered to my seat once again as we shot forward. I could hear the loud whine of everyone behind us. It was one version of cat and mouse that I wanted nothing to do with. When I dared to open my eyes, we were weaving around trees. The kids were getting ballsy and I could see them on either side of us, racing.
“Hold on,” Penn yelled as he accelerated up the mountain.
“What do you think I’ve been doing?” I screamed back.
I peeked out of one eye to see a narrow trail leading up a very steep hill. I turned my head back and saw no one following us. That was a bad sign. The higher we went the steeper the incline became. It wasn’t long before it felt like we were hanging upside down.
Physically impossible, I know. That’s what made it so terrifying.
I wasn’t one to curse but there was a steady flow of choice words as I squeezed my eyes closed. Nothing we did felt right. We definitely weren’t supposed to be suspended in air…forever
“Brace yourself,” Penn shouted.
I was braced. I could not brace myself any more than I was. If I could, I would have. I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to do and it worried me. What was going to happen that I needed to brace myself more than I already was?
Suddenly, we hit the ground, then suspended in the air again, then hit the ground again. There were a few more aftershocks before he found enough traction to zoom away. We were alone. No one had followed us. That should tell you how smart kids are these days. They knew the difference between life and death when they saw it.
Penn slowed down enough for me to stop being terrified. I was just starting to wonder where we were when I saw everyone sitting in a clearing ahead of us.
I thought we were going to stop and take a break but Penn drove by, accelerating as he did and, once again, the air filled with the whine of motors as everyone tried to catch up.
I didn’t like leading the pack. I wanted to be in last place, to eat dust. Dust was highly underrated. God made dirt and dirt don’t hurt. I was going to tell Penn that as soon as I was standing on solid ground.
Eventually, we were back on a dirt road which was oddly comforting. Then I could see Ryan’s house in the distance and I could finally breathe. It was almost over.
Penn passed the shop where we were supposed to park and drove straight to the house. He started whipping cookies in the front yard, making me scream like the chicken I was—in front of God and all his witnesses.
He finally stopped and everyone whooped and hollered. I wanted to tell them there was nothing to whoop or holler about but I was too busy trying to free myself from the vessel of death.
“What’d you think?” Logan asked, laughing—at me.
“I think consent is something that should be taken more seriously; inside and outside the bedroom.”
I was still shaking and my legs felt like they were moments away from collapsing. I ran a hand through my hair which was dripping with sweat—and that wasn’t the only part of me that was sweaty. I was a mess.
“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad.” Judging by the smirk on Logan’s face, he knew it was, in fact, that bad.
“Nah, it was an easy ride. More of a stroll really,” Penn said. Ryan looked between us in amusement.
“A stroll?” I asked, sarcastically. “I sweated more than I do after a marathon,” I lifted my arms to show them the obvious pit stains. “And the swamp ass is no joke.”
Penn had a little sweat built up around his hairline but other than that he looked unphased by the adventure. I hated him even more for it. They enjoyed giving me a hard time. Even Penn was smiling at my expense.
After my heart slowed, I wasn’t so upset. I still grumbled and complain but it was mostly for entertainment purposes. The kids thought it was hilarious.
I stayed a bit longer. Penn actually engaged with me, which was a stark contrast from his earlier behavior. I found he had a charming way about him. He might not smile all the time, but when he did, it blew his brothers out of the water. He had an amazing smile that highlighted his one dimple and naturally perfect teeth.
I might have had a nothing crush on Ryan, but I was feeling something a little more real for Penn. I found myself wanting a friendship with him.
“You’re hanging with us next weekend, right?” Ryan asked as he dangled my keys like a carrot.
“If we don’t have plans, sure, I’ll see you next weekend,” I reached for the keys but Ryan pulled them away.
“That was a terrible answer, try again,” he held the keys up once more and waited for me to give him the answer he wanted to hear.
“Fine,” I rolled my eyes. “I will see you guys next weekend. Can I have my keys now?”
Ryan let me snatch the keys out of his hands. “We know where you live,” he hollered as I walked away.