WARNING: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the writer”s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Prologue

I used to believe I could do anything. That was back when the world was big and life was simple, back when my parents and teachers would say that I could do anything I set my mind to.

Liars.

When I was five, I wanted to be a dinosaur. I would pull my elbows up into my sleeves, roar and then stomp around my living room, chasing a jeep with a black haired man in the back yelling, “Must go faster.” Little did I know, twenty-years later I would be the furthest thing from a dinosaur. I wouldn’t even be able to feed myself without a microwave or a drive-thru. Eventually, we all figure out life’s greatest secret . . . it sucks. Once we get past that, we can move on.

First, though, let’s get back to the part about when the world was big and life was simple.

Every tree was a sentinel, every house a fortress, and every yard a vast land full of untold adventure. Passing the time was just a matter of turning inward and losing myself to the realms of my imagination.

“Your mind is like a plant,” my grandmother would say. “If you don’t nurture and care for it, it’ll wither away.”

She would smile and wrap her arms around my five-year-old self as we sat on a blanket in her backyard, beneath the shade of her cherry blossom trees. The birds would chirp, the wind would blow, the bees would sting you if you got too close, but all was right with the world, or at least the parts of it I understood and knew existed.

Then again, maybe it’s just the memory.

It’s hard to tell, these days.

As the sun cast a warm glow on the lush green lawn, causing the plants to glow vivid shades of green, everything felt so alive, so vibrant, like I’d walked into another world, untouched by man, the wilds of some reality other than mine. Her back yard was like the cupboard door that led to Narnia. The only modern convenience to be found was the book in my grandmother’s hand.

“Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” she would say in her best pirate voice, closing the cover, yet again, on a worn out copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

I would give anything to go back to those days, if only just for a moment or two, to remember a time when I was full of life and finding happiness was as simple as breathing.

My grandmother taught me how to read and write, raising me on classic authors, poets and play-writes like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth and Hemingway. While most kids, who were my age at the time, were reading Goosebumps and Harry Potter novels (both of which I loved). I was exploring collected volumes of Poe, Kipling and Doyle, to name a few. In school I never understood why the other kids hated to read so much. To me, books were everything, which is why the gift my grandmother gave me on my thirteenth birthday meant the world to me.

My grandfather died when I was three. Besides the photographs and the Budweiser he snuck into my sippy cup as an infant, I don’t have many memories of him. As hard as I try to remember even the smallest detail of what he was like and spending time with him, all I can muster is the man I see in the photographs. My grandmother would always talk about how much he loved me and how he would say that I was going to grow up to do great things, and I don’t doubt her, but when I look at it now, I realize that he was just one more person that I’ve disappointed.

Turning thirteen is both a gift and a curse. It’s the end of childhood and the beginning of something new, life’s next “great” adventure. What people don’t tell you about are the things they can’t prepare you for. You can practice catching a baseball so it doesn’t hit you in the face. You can practice swimming so you don’t drown. You can even practice poisoning yourself in the hopes of building up immunity. Though we can’t all beat Sicilians when death is on the line. But you can’t practice puberty. You can’t prepare yourself for the awkwardness of adolescence, the growth spurts, embarrassing voice cracks and the awakening of a sex drive that gets you into a whole lot of trouble. It’s exciting, scary and tragic all at the same time, which is why on my thirteenth birthday, my grandmother gave me a novel titled, My Teenage Schism.

            I didn’t realize the significance of that two hundred and fifty page book until I saw the name of the author. It was written by my grandfather . . . Earnest Keating.

For the next two weeks, I would become engulfed in that book, coming to know each character more intimately than any real person in my life. It would not only become an escape, it would become a refuge and a guide through some of the most difficult years of my life, as it taught me how to live, laugh and love, and all of the pain that comes with it.

I had no idea at the time, but that book would shape a significant part of my life, affecting me in a profound way. Call it inspiration. Call it pride. Call it an excuse.

Call it a tragedy.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The tragedy in a man’s life is what dies inside of him while he lives.”

The real tragedy is not knowing how to bring it back. At the end of it all, our deeds are like wilted roses, leaving nothing but holes, and a question of what to fill them with.

 

Chapter 1

           I’d almost forgotten how to hurt that much. Not that one easily forgets that kind of pain, but eventually, with time and distractions, we become numb to it. Nothing matters but finding the strength to get out of bed and surviving long enough to get back into it.

I don’t want to move. I just want to lie here for the rest of my life. I’ll learn to absorb nutrients through photosynthesis. I’ll eat the sunlight that shines in through the window each day, until I grow so round and so large that they’ll need a forklift to move me. My family will be given their own reality television show titled My Son’s Orbit, which will inevitably end with one of my siblings marrying a rapper with a god complex and another one getting a sex change.

I suppose the real reason I don’t want to get out of bed is because to willingly get out of bed would imply that I’m ready for the future, ready for a future without her. Because of that, I sometimes don’t get up at all.

She was mine.

She’ll never be mine again.

She is the night sky, and I am a vapor trail.

Getting over heartbreak is like going on a diet. You keep telling yourself you’ll do it tomorrow, but your brain keeps tricking your emotions into thinking that the misery is too delicious and the loneliness too comfortable to let go. Instead, you forget that it’s supposed to be temporary, and you keep supersizing it until your entire life has been wasted in the drive-thru.

My life has become a Counting Crows song.

That’s what I’m updating my Facebook status to. I spend more time, these days, trying to come up with clever updates than I do trying to figure out what’s going on outside of my house. Last I checked, politicians were lying to each other, people are offended, and everybody has become an expert on both. I’d be willing to bet the contents of my wallet and a gift card to Yogurt Land that things haven’t changed.

As sad as many of their songs are, my Counting Crows comment isn’t an attempt for sympathy. I like to make obscure references that leave my relatives confused. They believe me to be emotionally unstable and occasionally send gift baskets with candy and cheerful notes asking me not to kill myself. I’ve never actually attempted suicide or given any indication that I want to end my life by ceiling fan noose, breathing in bath water or any other method of literal self-destruction. I wrote a book once, that featured a depressed character, and since then they like to hug me for uncomfortable spans of time and tell me that they’re praying for me.

Pity is like a fart, you can stand the smell of your own, but everybody else’s smells like rotten eggs and death.

Everything that’s wrong with the world can be found in the first ten posts on your social media pages. My newsfeed is filled with rants about racial equality, gun control, bad music and animals doing funny things. Most of the people on my “friends” list are people I went to high school with but haven’t talked to in years. Some of them have found successful careers and started families, and others are like speeding locomotives that started crashing ten years ago and haven’t quite lost momentum. Ashley has written a paragraph about God’s plan for her love life, which can be found several posts above her drunken, half-nude photos from the night before. Jennifer is excited about an announcement by Marvel Comics that the new Ant-Man will be a transsexual, Indonesian, raised by Muslims from a tough neighborhood in Texas. Brent has once again posted a meme about cross-fit that’s only funny to the one percent of people he knows who loves the gym as much as he does. He’s built like a He-Man action figure, but his capacity for humor or any other subject that doesn’t involve gratuitous exercise is somewhat lacking.

There are several videos posted to my wall. As I scroll through them, I notice that it’s not several different videos, it’s the same video posted several times. It stares me in the eyes, like a wolf ready to devour. It’s a recording of Good Morning Sacramento, a morning talk show that had aired just a few hours ago. I was always under the impression that only single women and soccer moms watch it, but judging by the excessive number of notifications in the top right hand corner of my computer screen, I was wrong.

I click play.

The camera pans around a cheering audience full of women between the ages of twenty-five and sixty. The set is made up of three chairs, a coffee table, and a fake view of the city, east of the Sacramento River. Sharon Dungsworth, a round woman with cheeks like Rugor Nass, the Gungan ruler from Star Wars, is occupying one of the chairs. Her baggy, dark clothes are meant to hide the extra weight she’s put on since her modeling career, which ended in her thirties. Much like Oprah Winfrey, she probably loves bread a little more than she should. She turned fifty-three a week ago and now looks like the thing that ate her former self. In the seat beside her, is her co-host Jared Swift, whose only qualification for being on a show mostly watched by women, is the fact that he wants to be a woman himself. He can deny it all he wants, but any man who wears that much make-up and has hair as long as his is either in a metal band or aspiring to be a centaur.

“Thank you, thank you,” Sharon says, holding her hands up like she’s attempting to calm the sea. “Today we have a very special guest, who has a book coming out tomorrow that I’m sure most of you can’t wait to get your hands on. I know I can’t wait. Let’s welcome Amber Hayes!”

I feel my heart swell up and then rupture like a balloon that’s floated too high and falls victim to the pressures in the atmosphere. The contents of my stomach bubble, slowly rising to my throat like lava in a long dormant volcano. I’ve spent the past twelve months trying to forget her, and now, there she is, the only woman I’ve ever truly loved, the only woman to ever truly destroy me.

Her body is still perfect, lean and curved in all of the right places. She isn’t scrawny, nor is she round, she’s shaped the way a woman should be, and she knows it. Her long blonde hair falls in thick waves across her shoulders, shimmering beneath the studio lights, adding a translucent tinge to her crystal green eyes. She’s wearing a blue dress that comes down to her knees and a pair of black heels to complete the ensemble.

She’s just as beautiful as I remember.

She sits down in the vacant chair beside Jared. She folds her right leg over her left, very elegantly, resting her manicured fingers across her knees. There’s something about the way the light catches her complexion that makes her appear almost angelic, like she’s been sent from Heaven as the physical embodiment of God’s wrath; full of beauty, full of danger and completely unfathomable. She smiles, not showing her teeth. She never does. She’s afraid that people might be able to tell that her two front ones are fake, the aftermath of an unfortunate mishap with the steering wheel of her car. I can tell she’s nervous by the way she keeps tucking the loose strands of hair behind her ears and then leans forward so they can fall back in front of her face.

“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you for having me.”

“It’s our pleasure,” Jared assures her, waving his hands flamboyantly.

“So, the book is called My Grey Romance,” Sharon says, holding a hardcover copy of a book with Amber’s name written on the bottom. The cover depicts a rather homely looking man, seated in front of type-writer, while unbeknownst to him, there’s a woman in the background being groped by a shirtless man with perfect abs and nearly glowing blue eyes. He looks like he was created in an American Eagle assembly line.

It doesn’t take much for my mind to put it together.

The woman is the writer’s girlfriend, which means that the man sitting in front of the typewriter is me. It takes but a moment for my fears to be confirmed.

“What we know about the book,” Sharon continues, “is that it’s about your relationship with author Grey Keating, and how it tragically ended. Can you give us anymore details?”

Tragically for who?

She takes a deep breath, looking at the audience and the cameras, as if she hopes I’m watching. Is it guilt in her eyes? Or is it the satisfaction of knowing that she still has the ability to hurt me?

“For those of you who don’t know,” she begins, “I was in a relationship with Grey Keating, the author of the best-selling novel, Yolo County. And as you might be able to tell by my presence here and the book in Sharon’s hand, it didn’t work out.”

The audience erupts into laughter, sounding like a symphony of drowning cats.

“This isn’t so much a love story as it is a story about what goes into a relationship,” she continues, “and what happens when that relationship becomes unsustainable. Ours was great . . . at first. Grey was really sweet. He was the perfect example of somebody that any girl would be lucky enough to spend the rest of her life with. Then he changed, and so did everything else.”

“I actually have a passage marked,” Sharon says, opening her book. “Would you mind if I gave them a taste?”

“Please,” Amber tells her, smiling. “Just don’t give too much away.”

The lady host leans forward, putting a hand on Amber’s knee.

“I would never,” she says. “Believe me, women everywhere are going to love this book. It’s truly inspirational, and it’s full of all kinds of juicy tidbits.” She winks, clearing her throat. “It was as if he peered into my soul and found all the parts hidden away and ignored for years. Matthew helped me heal and in his arms, I felt safe and loved.”

There were sighs in the studio, like they were all watching a romance film, and the two main characters had just fallen into each other’s arms after some cheesy dialogue and some carefully plotted mishap that took place during a storm.

Amber’s face is red.

“You’re making me blush,” she says, fanning the air with her hands.

“Every page is filled with beautiful words. Your struggle from a despondent relationship to finding true love had me in tears.” Sharon tells her, dabbing a tissue on her face. She turns to the camera. “If you’re looking for a good book and a good cry, this is a must-read. Again, the book is called My Grey Romance, and it’s due in stores tomorrow. Do yourselves a favor and pick up a copy. You won’t regret it.”

The video ends.

The air in my room is still. Ten minutes pass in the blink of an eye. There’s a fly buzzing around the dust-covered picture on the nightstand, probably dropping microscope poop on the scattered remnants of my life.

I’m a cliché.

I’m a cliché, and she is my muse.

This would make a great Nicholas Sparks novel.

I don’t dare read the comments attached. I can’t bring myself to do it. I’ve spent the past year trying to get over what she did to me. I retreated into my house, locking myself away from the world outside to lick my wounds, and in a matter of a five minutes, she’s torn them all open again.

I want to let go. I really do.

However, it’s difficult when she keeps dragging her chains around my head like a ghost in my conscience, waiting in the dark to strangle me with them. My thoughts are ablaze with “whys” and “hows.” The answers are simple, and I feel like I should care a lot more than I do, but even now I’m being passive aggressive by aggressively trying not to think about it and justifying how I still love her despite the fact that she wrote a book about how much she hates me.

I’m thinking about how the cover exaggerated my waist size when my mother calls. It’s like the woman can sense changes in my emotions in the same way a dog can sense the presence of another dog by smelling its urine in the air.

“Are you okay? she asks, before even giving me the chance to say hello. “I saw Amber on television. She’s got some nerve.”

“I’m fine,” I tell her.

“You don’t sound fine.”

“How does fine sound?”

“Fine sounds fine, you sound miserable, and misery has a very distinct sound. You’re not drinking are you?”

“Not currently.”

“You need to start dating again.”

“After tomorrow, I don’t think any woman in America will want to date me. Though I could look into a Russian mail order bride.”

“Sweetie, you can’t even speak Spanish. I don’t think you could handle the pressure of a woman who speaks any language except English. Besides, you don’t even know if anybody’s going to read Amber’s book. It could end up in the clearance section at Costco next week.”

“Or it could end up selling as many copies as The DaVinci Code.

“I think you’re being a bit dramatic. I doubt your relationship with Amber was as exciting or controversial as finding the last living descendant of Jesus.”

“Is there a reason you called me?”

“I just wanted to make sure you’re alright and ask if you’re still coming over for dinner tonight.”

“Did I say I was coming over?”

“Yes?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

My mother takes full advantage of her children’s flaws. I love her, but she has a tendency to be quite manipulative. For example, she’s fully aware that I make plans and then forget about them, which is why she’s going to try to convince me that I agreed to come over for dinner when she probably never asked me in the first place.

“I’ll see you at seven o’clock,” she says.

“Okay, but I probably won’t be there. I’m kind of busy today.”

“Nyeah,” she says, emphasizing the “N” and stuttering at the end of the “h.”

I can always tell when she’s either actively not listening to what I’m saying or trying her best to ignore it. She makes a sound like a goat.

“You’re never busy,” she continues. “You never leave the house.”

“I’m comfortable here.”

“You’re not fine.”

“I thought we moved past that?”

“I’ll see you tonight then.”

My agent is calling me.

“Mom, I have to go,” I tell her. “Bye.”

I hang up and answer Mikael’s call, knowing my mom is probably still talking. I suppose she’ll figure it out.

“Hello?”

I like to answer the phone like I don’t know who’s calling. It always throws the people on the other end off because they tell me their names and attempt to justify why they’re calling. Mikael, on the other hand, doesn’t.

“This is a real crap storm your ex-girlfriend has made.”

I’m thinking about a storm in which the rain has been replaced with crap. It’s a really stinky situation.

That was a horrible pun.

“I’m fine,” I tell him.

“Get down here. We need to talk.”

“It’s 9:30 in the morning.”

I say it like the rest of the world keeps the same schedule as me and doesn’t start anything until at least eleven.

“Oh good, you can tell time. I’ll see you in an hour.”

He hangs up. I can hear the sweat oozing from his pores as he ends the conversation.

I want to go back to sleep and pretend this morning didn’t happen. It’s 9:30 AM and Amber hates me. It’s 9:30 AM and I’ll never again know the taste of her lips, the feel of her skin against mine or the sound of her laughter.

Love is a waltz across a glass floor, take one wrong step and you fall through, dooming yourself to rest among the collateral shards below.

 

Congratulations, You Suck

Spring 2017

Other Works by Josh Pederson

Vendetta Dark

Center Space

 

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