Nora took off to her family’s house the next day. Her parents had moved out to Costa Mesa in California, so she booked her ticket, took the bags she packed the night she found the key, and boarded a plane—just like that. She had taken a leave of absence from work and hadn’t booked a return trip. Her life was falling apart, and she was running. It was something Scottie was eerily familiar with.
The initial earthquake might have been over, but Scottie had a feeling that the aftershocks had just begun. Cory’s secret would come out—Scottie was hellbent on that—and Nora was walking a tightrope over a breakdown—it was only a matter of time before she got tired of keeping her balance.
Hugging her tightly, Scottie inhaled the herbal scent of her hair. She’d washed it before confronting Cory the night before—the first time in seven days—and it was tied up in a messy knot on the top of her head. Despite her misery and dark circles, she still had the look of a beautiful person, the scaffolding of attractiveness firmly in place. No amount of emotional trauma could wipe that away.
But seeing the pain in her glassy eyes, when Scottie slammed the cab door and watched the yellow car disappear down the street, was like swallowing nails. Her guilt was at an all-time high and it was threatening to lite her up from the inside out. The farther away Nora was right now, the better. She’d have to tell her eventually. Will as well. But right now wasn’t the time. She needed answers first. Pulling her long sweater around her against the chill, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it and inhaling like someone who’d been starved. It was her first sober cigarette since college. Taking another drag she closed her eyes and hardened her resolve. She knew what she had to do.
SCOTTIE: Are you home?
She sent the text without looking at the screen, pressing the gas of Will’s car flat against the floor and accelerating like fire through the light at the Holland tunnel. Will had removed the hand controls for her when she’d called him at work and asked, trying to keep the desperation in her voice at bay, to borrow it. They were currently jostling around in the back seat.
She had insisted on picking him up on her way back through the city, but he was adamant he would just meet her at home. There was an accessible subway station not too far from his office…according to him. Part of her didn’t quite buy it, but she didn’t argue. Will had seemed wound tight and tense when she’d met him in the lobby of his building. She’d assumed she’d have to go up to his floor to grab his keys, but he’d intercepted her like a bad pass. It was as if he couldn’t wait to get her into the car and out of his sight. It made her pause, but not stop. He was probably still frustrated with how she’d acted last night, and she couldn’t entirely blame him. She had been stone cold, barely able to look or speak to him after she’d pieced together the identity of Angela K. King. Every time she opened her mouth she was worried word vomit, or worse, actual vomit, was going to pour out, ruining his pants, shoes, wheelchair, and their relationship.
Will kissed her like he meant it as she zipped her coat back up and leaned down to him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. The smell of him was comforting—masculine and clean—like a bar of soap. She didn’t know what she was going to find but she tried not to show how nervous she was. She’d lied and said she needed to see a storage facility for the stuff in her family’s apartment she couldn’t take with her but didn’t want to get rid of. He didn’t ask for much clarification past that, and Scottie wondered if he believed her at all. She watched him wheel his way back to the elevator, pressing the button and running his hands through his hair as he waited. Biting her lip, she took off down the sidewalk to his blue Volvo.
But driving back to the city, her heart was in her throat. She could feel herself shaking slightly as she tossed her phone into the open cup holder and reached for the XL 7/11 diet Coke. The bubbles were flatter than she wanted. She ached for the kind of carbonation that almost hurt and pricked her throat all the way down and cursed 7/11 under her breath. Fuckers. If she wasn’t behind the wheel of a car she’d be drinking tequila—that much she knew.
Her phone pinged almost immediately, and Cory’s name lit up the screen as she gazed sideways, slowing down at another light. She reached for it and opened his message, feeling a bit sick. She swallowed to keep the bile down.
CORY: Yes, I am.
He typed quickly as the three dots appeared again just as the light changed. She hastened the car and her pulse. She was ready to jump out of her skin. Everything swirled in her brain, words fuzzy and intangible. She took a deep breath and focused on the road ahead of her. Passing the gas station and the Holland Hotel, she imagined that people were in those rooms—with an hourly rate for convenience—doing exactly what she and Cory used to do. Again, her stomach churned and threatened to empty its contents all over the dashboard. Her phone buzzed again and she glanced at it carefully, keeping her eyes on the road as much as possible.
CORY: Want to come over?
He had sent it with bated breath, unsure of what she wanted. Of course, Scottie couldn’t have known that. Because it was typed, she couldn’t see his uncertainty and more importantly, his twisted hope that she was coming over for what he’d been wanting ever since she took off for the west coast. He may have lost Nora but he knew she’d come back eventually. As for Scottie, he thought he’d lost her to Will, and he had a really hard time comprehending how a guy who’s dick probably didn’t even work could keep a woman like Scottie. According to this text, it seemed, he couldn’t after all.
SCOTTIE: I’m on my way.
Before she found herself speeding up the West Side Highway to Cory’s apartment, Scottie had gone for an unannounced visit to the home of Angela K.King, or Kristin as she now knew her. She’d spent most of the night, while Will’s chest rose and fell in the comforting rhythm of sleep, on her laptop in the corner of the bedroom, scouring the internet for an address. She finally scraped it out of a news clipping from five years ago.
Kristin and her sister lived in Orange, New Jersey, and ran a tattoo and piercing place out of their home. They’d turned the garage and the downstairs into a parlor. The clipping had a picture of the two of them—both blonde, Kristin considerably more attractive than her sister Hayley—posing outside the small house they shared, beaming at the camera. It made Scottie feel icky knowing that she was about to just show up at their doorstep, but she didn’t let her resolve weaken. This wasn’t about her anymore.
She’d parked Will’s car in their driveway, slamming the door, her sneakers scraping across the asphalt badly in need of repaving. It looked like the shop was open, but the cold was intense, and there was no life outside. She’d squinted as she approached, hoping to catch something through the windows. The lights were on and then she’d seen it—a flash of movement. Someone was home. Zipping her coat up to her chin, she’d sped up, jogging the rest of the way to the door. She couldn’t tell if it was the front door to their house or the front door to their business. Maybe they were one in the same? A deep breath. A mental reset. A brief knock.
She’d chewed on her lip as she waited, moving her feet around in her boots just to keep herself from bolting. Her heart was pounding hammer hard when the door had clicked open. A blonde woman in a sweatshirt, light jeans, and bare feet stood there with a cigarette hanging out of her lips and a baby propped up on her hip. The baby had been crying, fresh tears soaking her cheeks. She sniffled once and stared at Scottie, her blue eyes startling. Scottie looked down immediately before she could picture Will’s blue eyes looking up at her, his rough hand reaching for her own, his lips brushing her neck. Then she immediately thought of the hunch Nora had about a secret child. This baby couldn’t be it, right?
“The entrance to the tattoo shop is down there,” she said flatly, a thick Boston accent weaving its way over her words. Scottie nodded twice, thrusting her hands in her pockets, moving her feet back and forth against the cold.
“I’m actually looking for Kristin,” Scottie answered, her voice conveying more confidence than she felt. She brought her eyes up to look at Hayley. She wasn’t the Hayley from the newspapers. Her face was wrapped with lines, especially around her eyes and mouth. Her hair was dreary, dry, and dyed an unnatural blonde.
“Oh,” she cracked, cocking her head and looking Scottie up and down. “Fine,” she acquiesced, stepping to the side to allow Scottie into the house. Scottie stepped over the threshold and onto the thick carpet that went wall to wall. It smelled like cat pee and the shades were drawn over the two windows in the living room.
“Kristin?!” Hayley shouted, her voice scraping like a car tire over gravel.
“Yeah?” A response came, muffled and far away.
“You’ve got company,” she shouted again, inhaling on her cigarette and bouncing the baby up and down on her hip. “I’m sure she’ll be down at some point,” she offered vaguely, waving her cigarette wielding hand above her head. She nodded once and turned left, sauntering out of the room, leaving a trail of smoke behind her. Scottie took a deep breath and hugged herself, almost wishing she was still out in the cold as she heard footsteps taking the stairs two at a time.
And all at once, there she was, the beautiful woman who had driven her out of Royal Palms in one full swoop. Her throat was tight as she took her in. The same woman with soft blond waves and dark green eyes that sparkled and creamy pale freckle-free skin stood before her in grey sweats and a white t-shirt. She was considerably shorter than Scottie though, and in this grey light, without Will’s hand in hers, there was something slightly off about her face and the way she carried herself. She wasn’t quite as beautiful as Scottie had remembered. A bitterness came out of nowhere in her mouth and she cringed reflexively. It didn’t go unnoticed.
Kristin took a step toward Scottie slowly, confusion knitted in her features then as she crossed her arms, the pieces seemed to click together slowly. Her expression went from confused to guarded in a matter of seconds.
“You’re here about Will Nash, aren’t you?” she asked, words cautious. Scottie took a deep breath and nodded.
“Uh huh,” she answered quietly, never letting her eyes leave Kristin.
“Cory warned me you might show up,” she said flatly, narrowing her eyes slightly and biting the inside of her cheek. “He told me not to tell you anything.” Scottie didn’t speak. She didn’t even breathe. The silence between them was loaded and highly combustible. It stretched on for what felt like a full minute, but then Kristin let out an exhale and shook her head wearily, as if all of a sudden, she was completely exhausted.
“Come on into the kitchen. I’ll make some coffee. You’ll want to sit down for this.”
Will pushed himself through the locker room of the gym a few blocks from his apartment. He felt like a caged animal and needed to blow off some steam. His quads were spasming from the tension and frustration, but Will didn’t move to massage them. He had to work out his frustration by pushing himself to the limit. Emerging into the main floor of the gym, he looked around. It was relatively quiet, and he slid comfortably into the rhythm of metal clanking on metal as he found the free weights. It was inevitable that he would get a strange look here and there. People didn’t expect people like him to workout, to push his fractured body in the ways he still could. It was as if they were seeing a fish out of water, but he’d gotten good at ignoring them. His workout was just that—his.
He’d taken off from work early after he’d blown up at Emily on the corner of Wooster and Houston. He couldn’t believe some of things he had said. They’d been in a meeting with a potential client. And, like it was with most things, there had been a half-second, when he’d been introduced as the creative director on their project, where Will had seen a flicker of confusion. He found this to be one of the most tiring things of all. People were afraid of people with disabilities, and whether it was their ignorance or self-congratulatory pity, Will had to constantly prove himself. He had to prove that his life still had worth, even without his legs. He had to prove his opinion was as valid as anyone else’s. He had to prove that his brain was in complete working order, even if his lower half refused to listen to it anymore. Although, he had spent quite a bit of time questioning his judgement in light of the nightmare that Emily had become.
He’d nailed the presentation they’d planned, and sitting around the table, discussing the logistics of a partnership, he’d felt as if they’d completely forgotten that he was sitting not in an office chair, but in a wheelchair, and that was a victory. Until he looked down and saw Emily’s hand resting on his knee. Furthermore, she’d pulled his right foot off of his footplate and had slipped out of her shoe, her left foot rubbing up and down his leg. Will felt suddenly ill, wondering how long she’d been touching him without his knowledge, the violation of it all visceral and all consuming. Calmly, he reached down and grabbed her hand hard, moving it away from him, while trying to concentrate on what the client was saying. He didn’t want a scene. He wanted to fucking disappear.
Wheeling and weaving through the weight machines, Will found the chest press, loaded the right amount of weight, parked and locked his chair, and transferred onto the narrow bench. It had taken some practice to get the hang of that particular transfer, considering how narrow the seat was, but he’d spent years doing it. At this point it was second nature.
As he leaned back and pressed the bars forward, letting out a whoosh of air, he remembered the doctor telling him that one day, he simply wouldn’t think of himself as able bodied anymore—that being in a wheelchair would be normal. At the time he’d scoffed, angry at anyone and anything in his path, especially someone telling him he could still lead a full life from a sitting position. Then he’d be reminded of the bitter truth that he had no one to blame but himself. He’d driven off the road and into the ditch. And then he’d try to remember what had happened only to come up with nothing but a blank screen.
But sitting there, feeling the sheer power of his upper body, contrasted with the emptiness and stillness of his lower body, it did feel admittedly normal. He couldn’t remember what it had been like not to see a wheelchair waiting patiently by his side wherever he went. He couldn’t remember what it felt like contract the muscles of his leg to take a step.
And what pissed him off, was that Emily had taken advantage of that comfort, that self-confidence, that acceptance in who he was in this body. She’d known he wouldn’t feel it if she nudged his leg under the table. She’d taken advantage of him, and of all places, an arena where he’d finally found comfort and pride.
He could barely stop shaking as he shook the client’s hand, a phony smile plastered on his face as he and Emily walked them to the elevators. The second the doors closed he rounded on her, trembling with hurt and betrayal. She stared at him blankly and crossed her hands over her chest, refusing to acknowledge that she’d done anything wrong.
It was hard enough working for someone he’d slept with who clearly was still working out the nuances of how that kind of relationship could slide back down the relationship scale from personal to professional, but working for someone who had lost all respect for him both as an teammate and as a person? She’d not only compromised his physical and psychological comfort, but she’d compromised his presentation, his client, his work as a whole. And Will was absolutely not going to put up with it. His resolve was hardening, a decision being made—if he wasn’t fired over what he’d said to Emily, then he’d quit.
Kirstin was focused on pouring cream into her coffee. She’d brought out two heavy mugs, one plain white one with a considerable chip in the side, and the other from a diner called “The Prestige Diner.” That was the mug she handed Scottie as she sat down with heaviness, groaning resignedly. She stirred the spoon round and round absently, while Scottie took a sip of hers, black, the edges clinking against the ceramic. The refrigerator hummed quietly as Scottie waited for Kristin to speak. She didn’t for a long time, and Scottie grew impatient.
“I just want to clear up that this isn’t about an affair, really, is it?” Kristin shook her head in shame, pursing her lips.
“And that baby? Not a secret love child of yours and Cory’s?” Scottie continued harshly but with conviction. Kristin shook her head again, this time, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Great,” Scottie retorted, “glad we cleared that up.” Scottie took another sip of her bitter coffee and leaned back in the kitchen chair to listen. Kristin didn’t speak right away, but when she finally did, her voice was strong, but small—an odd combination. It was as if she was trying to justify what she was saying, but also acknowledge that she’d fucked up considerably.
“I want you to know that I did love Will…” she started, catching herself and correcting her statement. “I do love, Will.” Scottie furrowed her brow and crossed her arms. Kristin refused to look at her, instead focusing on the skin around her left pinky nail.
“I was taking on student loans. I wanted to get my degree. I had something not everyone had. I was smart. I wanted to dig myself out of the life I’d grown up with. I thought Will would give me that. And maybe he would have. But I was also 19. I’d been brought up hard in a rough neighborhood in Boston. My parents were fuck ups. There was always something going wrong. I was exposed to lot of drinking. Sex. Drugs.
“And rock and roll?” Scottie snapped, immediately regretting her tone and intrusion. “Sorry,” she muttered lamely to herself, staring down at the mug of steaming coffee. Kristin just stared at her for a minute then huffed an exasperated breath.
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” she replied sharply.
“I know,” Scottie hedged, “I’m sorry.” Kristin narrowed her eyes and turned, looking out into the frigid yard. Dead grass gave way to one bare spindly tree. The desolation of the scene punched Scottie in the gut.
“Cory offered something Will didn’t. Will was always so…so safe. So…strong, and so stable. He gave me this kind of stability that I’d never ever had. But he was always so serious, so….genuine.” Scottie swallowed hard, hating the peculiar and uncanny reflection of herself she was seeing in this woman.
“Logically I knew Will would make me better. He’d make my life better. But Cory, well…he was rich. I’d never been with someone who had money like that. He’d take me to nice dinners. We’d sneak around. The sex was aggressive and rough. It was what I was used to. Sex with Will…well, it had never been like that.” Scottie bit her tongue so hard she tasted blood. Her vision was blurry and spinning, and she knew that if she opened her mouth she might just scream.
“The night Will was paralyzed…” Kristin continued, taking a deep shuddering breath and pressing her face into her hands. Scottie wanted to shake her but she rung her hands out in front of her instead. “Cory and I had snuck upstairs. We were at a party in New Hampshire. I’m sure he’s told you this part…”
“He has,” Scottie agreed, trying to keep her voice neutral, but it was proving incredibly difficult. “But I came all this way to hear your side of the story, remember?” Kristin sniffled and pulled face out of her hands, revealing blotchy skin and haggard eyes. Scottie knew with one look that this girl had been through hell in her life. A kindred spirit of sorts.
But then Kristin took a deep breath, opened her mouth, and told her side of the story.
"I had a price," she murmured more to herself than to Scottie.
And before Scottie knew it, she found herself doubled over in that frigidly desolate lawn puking up that bitter black coffee.