Read Honesty (Mark of Nexus) Online
Authors: Carrie Butler
“Yeah, we’ll see how that goes.” He tapped on the roof and half-assed a wave over his shoulder. “Later.”
Speaking of calls…
I had one thing left on today’s agenda. Sucking in a deep breath, I pulled out my phone and tapped the newest entry on my contact list. One ring, two…
“Rachel?” I asked, imagining her confused face.
“Yes?” A pause. “Can I help you?”
So trusting. She didn’t even demand to know who was calling her out of the blue.
“This is Cole Blake,” I told her, leaning back in my seat. “Wallace’s brother. You remember me?”
“Oh, sure! You never came back to the stand for that face-painting.”
Shit. I knew I was forgetting something.
“I had to take Rena back to campus,” I explained. “She, uh, got sick.”
“Oh no! That’s terrible. Is she all right now?”
I bit my lip. “Mhmm…”
She breathed a crackling sigh of relief into the receiver. “Well, that’s good.”
“She’s actually how I got your number,” I went on, caught up in the momentum. “I wanted to talk to you again.”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I?”
She laughed. Stilted. Awkward. “I don’t know…”
“So, you wanna grab dinner this weekend?”
There was a pause. “Just us?”
Was she expecting a chaperone? “Uh, yeah.”
“I’m sorry, Cole. I have to work this weekend.”
Okay, so she
expecting a chaperone.
“What about next Saturday?” I countered, trying to remember if I had anything else going on. “We could grab some coffee with Rena and Wallace. Maybe get to know each other a little better.”
Provided they’re willing to be in the same room by then…
“That sounds great,” Rachel said, much to my relief. “Where should I meet you guys?”
I sank back in my seat and blew out a sigh. “What about that place by the Laundromat?”
Another week dragged past.
Teresa locked herself in her office most days, probably planning my demise. She hadn’t spoken to me since I showed her the stills—which was kind of stupid, if you thought about it. Why piss off the guy with the blackmail?
At least my nipples had stopped bur—
“You going to use that controller or stick it up your ass for the rumble?”
I looked up to find Tits staring at me, the lights from the ceiling fan reflected in his glasses.
Speaking of nipples.
“You said you would play.”
I didn’t miss a beat. “You said you would start the game.”
Since I’d already done a sweep of the neighborhood, and I didn’t plan on visiting the fam until tomorrow, Titsy and I were having a man-date. Junk food, movies, and a gameathon he had no hopes of winning.
“Mmm…” I hugged my controller as the start screen appeared on the TV. “Gratuitous violence. My favorite.”
We played all through the night, destroying a bag of pretzels, a carton of beef jerky, and what was left of Tits’ manly figure. By four, the beast was swaying in his beanbag. Judging from the bottle count on the carpet, I estimated he’d had nine beers—maybe more. He’d be passed out by the time I got back from the bathroom.
I hadn’t shared in the latter of his indulgences. No fuzzy barrier between me and real life shit—just exhaustion and a need to part with some poor food choices. I edged around him, slipped down the hall, and flipped on the light in his bathroom.
The space was downright claustrophobic, but it’d do. I dropped my pants, copped a squat on the throne, and rested my arm on the edge of the toilet paper holder. Something about the dim lighting and cramped quarters screwed with me, like I’d wandered into a visual lullaby. I yawned.
My eyelids lowered of their own accord, despite my struggle to keep them open, and my head dropped onto my arm. Maybe if I rested for a minute, I’d be good to go. We could get another round or two in before sunrise.
I just need to…
I jolted in the doorframe of my childhood home, nearly running into my dad in the hallway.
“In a hurry, buddy?” He halted in his tracks, and a grin tugged at his lips. Something about the moment felt off—wrong, even—but I couldn’t decide what it was. All I knew was the rush of comfort I felt at the sight of my father. My eyes burned.
“No, I was just gonna look for Wallace.”
“I think he’s downstairs. Your grandma just got here to watch you guys while we’re out. Shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours.” He crouched down and made his face serious. “Think you can be the man of the house until then?”
“What about Grandpa Freddie?”
“He has to work late. It’s just going to be you boys and Grandma this time.”
“Good.” The grin was back, creasing the corners of his eyes as he reached out to ruffle my hair. “I don’t want to hear about any problems, okay? No running around the house, pretending you’re invisible.”
“I got it, Dad.” I pushed his hand away and made a face. “I haven’t done that since I was seven. I’ve grown up since then.”
“What a difference a year makes.”
We both laughed, but I wasn’t sure why.
“Russ, have you seen my gloves?” My mother’s voice carried from downstairs. She was probably getting her coat on, waiting for him by the door.
Dad snorted under his breath as he stood, and we both made our way down the staircase. “Have you checked your coat pockets?”
“The hall closet?”
“Did you check
There was a pause before she finally came into view, clutching a pair of slender black gloves that’d been crammed together in a wad. Her lips pinched in suppressed amusement. “Well, would you look at that.”
He leaned over the railing before we reached the bottom step, sneaking a kiss. “I know, Gloria. You don’t have to say it. I’m your hero.”
Her dark hair was pulled up in a twist for parent-teacher night. Regardless of the occasion, my mother always managed to look so graceful and exotic.
The word caught in my brain. Managed, in the past—not now. She was gone.
was gone. This…wasn’t possible.
My heart leapt into my throat, and I staggered down the steps. They couldn’t be here. It didn’t make sense.
“All right, sweetheart. Be a good boy for Grandma.” My mother bent to hug me, her perfume lingering between us. “We should be back by nine.”
“No!” Panic shot through my veins, and suddenly, I didn’t know what to do. I reached for her, but she was already in the doorway. They were calling their goodbyes, and the door was shutting behind them.
I yelled, and the room narrowed to a tunnel. Using my speed, I caught the door just before it closed—but it didn’t budge. My pulse raged in my ears.
“Wallace, help me!”
I turned to find him sitting on the floor in the corner, his arms wrapped around his knees. The same position he’d stayed in for weeks after our parents…our parents…
“Fuck!” I spun as realization dawned on me. The door had slammed shut. My parents had just left for their execution.
I spent what felt like hours wailing on that door—jerking on the handle, slamming my shoulder against it—but no amount of effort paid off. In the end, I fell back exhausted. Powerless. Trapped.
Tears stung my eyes, and a string of curses found my lips. They were gone.
How the hell had I let that happen?
“Grandma,” I called out, barely mustering the energy to push myself to my feet. “Grandma, where are you?”
The room blurred and contorted as I ventured deeper into it, searching for her. One second it was our house, the next it was hers. Floral. Old. She sat up on the couch. “What is it, sweetie?”
Her aging face lined with concern. “Oh.”
“You know I can’t stay here forever, Nicholas. You’re grown.”
My chest tightened. “What the hell does that mean?”
When she didn’t reprimand me for the language, I took a step forward. “Grandma, what does that mean?”
Glass shattered at the end of the room, and Rena came barreling through the now-open window. “Wallace!”
My brother looked up from his daze on the floor, expressionless.
“Get up,” she ordered, grabbing his hand. “Come on. You can’t sit there anymore. We’ve got to go now.”
He let her pull him up and turned lucid the second he looked at me. “You get what’s happening, right?”
I shook my head. “Good luck with that. We’re trapped here.”
“Maybe you are.” He sidestepped me, leading her toward the door.
“Uh, not to constantly repeat myself,” I started, “but what’s that supposed to mean?”
Everything was changing, spiraling, but there was nowhere to run. I didn’t know whether to scream or torch the place. It was too much. The night had turned into a damn circus.
As if magnetized by my distress, a shadowed figured latched onto my leg. Dark and wispy, reeking of alcohol and sulfur. I staggered and tried to pry it off, but it was no use. “What the hell is this?”
Wallace furrowed his brows. “I thought you got rid of that.”
“Rid of what?” I frantically shook my leg. “I’ve never seen it before. It’s creepin’ me out.”
A knock came at the door.
“It’s for you,” Rena told me.
I managed to get there, despite my dark parasite, and looked out the peephole. Distorted by the angled glass stood a beautiful woman with red hair and angel eyes. “Rachel?”
“Cole!” She lit up, twisting the handle to no avail.
I groaned and pressed my forehead against the chilled metal panel. “You can’t be here. Something weird’s going on.”
“I can help,” she offered.
“It’s not safe.”
“Is it safer for me out here, without you?”
After considering it, I whispered, “I don’t know anymore.”
“So, let me in.”
“Cole,” she repeated, unknowingly meeting my gaze with steadfast determination. “Let me in.”
“I said I—”
“Let. Me. In!”
I jerked awake and nearly fell off the toilet. My heart surged. “Wha?”
“Let me in,” Tits bellowed from the other side of the door. “I’m freaking out, man. You’ve been in there for like an hour. I thought you died on the shitter.”
“Oh.” I rubbed my forehead. Speaking of which, I had yet to utilize its full potential. Too bad the feeling had passed.
“You okay?” he asked, still muffled.
“Yeah.” I finished up and tugged on my jeans. “Just…passed out or something.”
He didn’t know the half of my humiliation. That nightmare had scared me so deeply I couldn’t think—let alone talk—about it. My heartbeat had yet to slow.
I washed my hands to buy myself another minute, and then waltzed back into his room with a calm façade. “Ready to get your ass kicked again?”
The Festival of Bromance ended when Tits started snoring.
I made it to Wilcox by mid-morning, determined to forget the nightmare my screwed-up brain had conjured earlier—not that anyone came to greet me. Neither Rena nor Wallace had picked up their phones, so I let myself into their dorm. A collage of colorful flyers greeted the back entrance, but one with huge block letters stood out from the rest.
I snatched the sheet off the wall and scanned its contents. “Shit.”
“R.S. Tobler Laboratories is looking for students, aged eighteen to twenty-six, to take part in a research study this Saturday,” I murmured, reading aloud. “Participants will visit the clinic three times over the course of six months to receive a trial vaccination, give blood samples, and answer questions related to the…ah, hell.”
Four flights of stairs, a blurred corner, and a suite door later, I made my first stop.
Bang, bang, bang!
My fist hammered against the wood. Sure, I wasn’t as strong as my brother, but I could knock this thing down without much effort. If someone didn’t acknowledge me in five seconds, I’d do a demonstration.
Sadly, the door jerked open before I had an excuse. Rena’s feisty roommate, the Latina chick, glared up at me. “
“Sis here?” I asked, letting my nervous energy shift my weight from side to side.
A spaghetti strap had slipped off her bare shoulder, leaving access to silky, tanned skin. It wasn’t bad by any means, but she’d look better in my t-shirt. Cotton hovering mid-thigh, barely touching her. Swollen lips. Love marks on her—
“Ah, sorry.” She patted her crazy bed hair down and leaned against the door. “Didn’t recognize you through the peephole. Ree’s not here.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “Gym?”
“Yeah, she’s been visiting the Rec a lot lately. All that sexual frustration to work out, you know?” Her dark eyes took me in, creasing in amusement. “You could wait here, though.”
“Hmm…” I strained at the thought of what the girl might improvise for entertainment. Literally. My pants were too tight. But before I could consider a plan of action, another vision of Rachel assaulted my mind—a girl I’d talked to for a grand total of five fucking minutes now.
False alarm, brain. We don’t have anything to cheat on.
“We could watch a movie or something.” Hot Roommate crossed her arms, and a line formed between her plump, perfectly shaped breasts. “You know, get to know each other a little better.”
“Ugh, rain check,” I gritted out, forcing an uneasy breath. “I need to go find Wallace.”
She borderlined nonchalance with a shrug. “Another time, then. How’s Ace holdin’ up, anyway?”
“Like someone sucked out his soul.”
“Ah.” Her lips pursed, and she clung to the door for support. “Poor…guy.”
She lifted her chin. “Huh? No, just a little dizzy. That’s all.”
have that effect on people,” I admitted, raising my brows. “You need to sit down?”
“No, no…well, yeah, maybe. You need anything else?”
Note to self—check up on Rena’s roommate.
“Nah, I’m good. Thanks for your help, though, uh…?”
“Gabby,” she answered, her lips twitching as she gripped the handle. “Don’t forget it.”
I tipped my invisible cowboy hat as I backed away. “Yes, ma’am.”
Hold eye contact, hold it, wait until she shuts the…door.
I jogged up the next three floors in a daze. The missed opportunity didn’t bother me as much as it should have. Maybe I had too much on my mind, too many errands to run today.
Press that ERA chick for information, visit headquarters, grab the next piece of the puzzle…
First things first, though, I had to check Wallace’s room—you know, to make sure he hadn’t buried himself in boohoo rags. Plus, I needed to tell him about the flyer. I jerked his suite door open and almost ran headlong into Scrawny McFreckles from the diner.
“Aiden Ross,” I acknowledged, pulling his name out of my ass. “Didn’t see you there.”
“That’s okay. Most people don’t.” He attempted a smile, but failed to sell it.
If I weren’t strapped for time, my curiosity might’ve gotten the better of me.
I edged around him to bang on Wallace’s door.
“He’s not in there.”
I glanced over my shoulder. “What? Where is he?”
Aiden shrugged. “I don’t know. I heard the door a little while ago and checked the peephole. It was just him leaving. I think he was wearing gym shorts, though, so you might check the Rec.”
His expression darkened. “I’m sure he’s there pumping iron or whatever it is those people do.”
Okay, now my interest was piqued. “You still upset about him makin’ Rena cry two weeks ago?”
“That?” He scrunched his nose up, reddening a cluster of freckles. “No, no. I mean, I didn’t actually hear the whole story of what happened. From what she says, it was her doing.”
“And you believe that?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
I shrugged and followed him out, pushing the door open around his arm. “Just seems like you’re not his biggest fan right now.”
Aiden threw a furtive glance over his shoulder as he turned the corner. “I don’t have a problem with your brother. I just…don’t know where he is. I’m sorry.”
“You know you could tell me if you did, right?” I planted my shoulder against the wall’s edge while he waited for the elevator. “Have a problem, that is. It’s not like he and I are close, these days.”
Scrawny McFreckles bounced on his toes.
All right. It’s gotta be one of three things…
“His clusters have to be pretty distracting, right?”
Aiden shook his head. “No, we know when to expect ‘em now. There’s always something on to drown out the noise.” A half second later, he blurted out, “Not that we’re not concerned!”
“Relax. I get it.” I waved him off, watching the numbers light up in slow procession over the door. “What about his personality? He’s a little self-righteous. Don’t ya think?”
Aiden crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know. We’ve never really talked much, even when…they were together.”
“Glad that’s over, huh?” I pushed off the wall and rounded on him with a conspiratorial grin. “She could do way better.”
He snorted. An honest-to-goodness snort. I wasn’t even sure I’d heard one in real life before. “Maybe.”
The doors finally chimed open, and he scurried inside to escape.
I didn’t move.
“You coming?” he asked, worry pinching his brows as he swatted at the door. “T-They’re closing.”
“Nah, I’ll take the stairs.” I shoved my hands into my pockets and made my way toward the door. “Catch you later, Aiden Ross.”
And stay the hell away from my sister.