A thrilling new dark romance is coming next week from author H.D. Carlton, and I have the whole first chapter for you.
Cancer tastes like shit.
I suck in deeply, menthol gliding past my tongue and filling my lungs with manufactured chemicals. How many of these do I have to smoke before cancer invades my cells, metastasizing until I’m ridden with disease?
My throat tightens and revolts against the tobacco, forcing out a harsh cough. I pull the cigarette away and stare at it, my face twisted in disgust as smoke filters out of my nose and mouth. I rock my hand, viewing it from different angles.
A bright orange glow radiates from the tip, gray ash eating at the paper.
Fire is on the tip, flaring as if to entice me to wrap my lips back around it.
Still isn’t appealing.
A tanned hand reaches out, nabbing the cigarette before I can stub it on the sand.
“Give me that before you waste it.”
I frown. How flammable is sand? I bet not at all. It’s too dense—nothing to feed the oxygen. Not unless I pour gasoline all over it. I bet it’d make the beach prettier, though.
Fire on the shoreline of a vast, blue ocean? Who wouldn’t want to see that?
The salty sea breeze blows softly, coercing the blonde, curly tendrils around my face into a sensual dance. I tuck the locks behind my ear, too tired to pull them back into the loose knot tied low on my head.
I look over to the guy sitting next to me. His overgrown sandy hair curls against the nape of his neck and the dagger tattoo behind his ear is alluring against his sun-kissed skin. All of his tattoos are—he’s covered in them.
I still don’t know his name, but his cock is nice, and that’s all that really matters. Well, that, and his murderous nicotine. He’s not the type I usually go for, but I was feeling lonely and entertained the first guy who didn’t make me nauseous.
“What kind of cancer do you think you’ll get from that?” I ask, nodding toward the cigarette in his hand.
He quirks a thick brow, his pretty blue eyes sparkling in the morning glow. “I dunno. Lung cancer is too typical. Throat?”
“Do you think you’ll die?”
He barks out a short laugh. “I fucking hope so.”
I nod, reaching out my hand for him to give it back to me. He looks at me like I’m strange, a beat passing before he does as I ask.
Another inhale, and it tastes a little better with the reminder that I’m ingesting death into my lungs.
Yeah, that tastes much better.
Loud waves crash up the shore, rolling up and reaching toward my chipped baby blue painted toes with outstretched claws, before sinking back down and dragging sand with them.
The ocean is beautiful. But it’s also unforgivable. Within seconds, it can turn against you. Drag you down so violently, you don’t know which way is up, and feed you into its cavernous mouth until you drown or end up between the teeth of something much scarier.
I inhale again deeply, closing my eyes as I feel the smoke fill my lungs and stick inside of them.
Cigarettes are also unforgivable, with the way they eat at you from the inside out. Kill you slowly, and then all at once.
I decide I like the ocean, and I like cigarettes.
Because I… I am also unforgivable.
* * *
“That will be $68.10,” the cashier says pleasantly, a smile on his face.
“For a pregnancy test and a pack of cigarettes?” I ask incredulously.
The guy chuckles. “’Fraid so.”
“That’s literally robbery,” I mutter, but I’m not sure if he heard me because he’s still smiling.
I’d love to siphon some of that happiness for myself, but after three weeks in Port Valen, Australia, I don’t feel any safer than I did in America.
After landing, I checked the news online, and authorities were informed that I was possibly sighted at the airport and presumed to have escaped on a plane. The lady at the ticket counter may or may not be able to identify me and confirm my flight to Australia, regardless of using a different name. At the very least, she could say I was acting suspicious and give them a reason to look.
I’m not safe in this country—they’d turn me in to U.S. authorities if caught—but it’s too risky to fly to a country that’d grant me mercy. So, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m staying here for a while yet, and that it’s time to take on the life of someone else again.
There are worse places to be, I suppose.
Port Valen is a beautiful seaside town on the east coast, surrounded by a bright aqua blue ocean and crowded with tourists looking to shark dive or explore the coral reefs. Outside of the beach, it’s rich with massive waterfalls and diving holes surrounded by wildlife and miles of bright forests, attracting hikers from around the world.
It’s also expensive as hell here.
I dig through my ratty coin purse, strings frayed at the edges and getting caught in the zipper. I count out the bills and coins, berating myself for winding up in this situation. Precious money down the drain because I can hardly stand to be alone, plus the extra cost since now I feel the need to get a buzz just to take the edge off.
Problem is, that edge is sharp and jagged, and there’s not a drug in this world that will prevent it from cutting me.
“Here ya go,” I tell him, forcing a smile on my numb face. Feels like when Mom used to take me to the dentist, and I walked out with lidocaine injected in my mouth and no control over my facial muscles. I always used to giggle at the odd feeling, but I don’t feel much like laughing now.
He hands me the change and my purchases, another smile on his face. Now it’s almost annoying how happy he is.
“Have a good day,” he chirps.
“Thanks,” I murmur.
I snatch the sack and rush toward the exit of the grocery store, my bright orange flip-flops clacking against the dirty white tile.
This stupid fucking pregnancy test really cut into the little allowance I give myself. Still, I’d rather know if a little alien is invading my body than live in fear, obsessively checking my stomach on any reflective surface I come by just to see if it grew an inch.
I live with enough fear, I don’t need any more.
They can’t find you, Sawyer. You’re safe.
I shake my head, persistent on staying in the cold, lonely place where the terror resides. Am I safe?
If my insides are being invaded by an alien, that will make my life that much harder. I can’t take care of a child and provide for myself. I’m barely doing that as it is, and my means for doing so are… God, they’re awful.
My thoughts spiral, picturing a little blonde baby in my arms, screaming at the top of its lungs because they’re hungry and suffering from diaper rash or something. I’d have to give the baby up for adoption, no question.
But it’d break my fucking heart. Or whatever is left of it.
My breathing is starting to escalate, and I work to control it, fighting to fill my tightening lungs. Bright sunlight warms my cheeks as I storm out of the automatic doors, run out of the parking lot, and onto the sidewalk, my dollar store flip-flops threatening to snap from my speed.
I inhale deeply, desperately sucking in oxygen, but it’s clogging my throat.
My period is a week late, though I’ve been stressed. Really stressed. I’ve never prayed so much—hovering over a toilet with my thumbs hooked in my shorts, begging the gods to give me a reason to use the tampon in my hand.
I think Heaven has me on their shitlist.
Which is such bullshit, even though I can’t blame the angels for rebuking me in the name of the Lord.
The taste of the salty ocean lingers in the air, coating my tongue as I continue to suck in deep breaths and feel my tightened chest loosen just a bit. Something about the smell of the sea always soothes my tortured lungs, whether it’s because I’m abusing them with a panic attack or cigarette smoke.
It’s something I’ll mourn when I eventually move on to the next destination.
For now, I appreciate the beauty of Port Valen while I can. Greenery surrounds the streets, along with bright pops of pink, orange, and purples from flowers. Massive cliffs are far behind me, and though miles away, their imposing structures are not to be ignored.
A group of women pass by in their thong bikinis and tops, and I can’t help but fall in love with how laid-back this town is.
Even more dangerous, I’m falling in love with Port Valen as a whole, despite the man-eating spiders that inhabit this country.
I speed walk toward the bus stop and plop on the bench with a shaky exhale, the plastic bag dangling between my spread legs. There’s a magpie circling overhead, setting me further on edge. I’ve learned the hard way that the demon birds like to swoop down and attack unprovoked. I’m still traumatized from the last one and pray the bus gets here quicker than scheduled.
I could’ve driven Senile Suzy, the van I bought last week. It’s an old, buttery-yellow Volkswagen—the ones you’d see hippies back in the 70s driving around. Living out of a van is more ideal than a hotel, and I got incredibly lucky to find one for much cheaper than it’s worth. He claimed it was his daughter’s who had passed away, and he just wanted it gone.
I don’t have my license here anyway, and I’m not confident enough to drive on the opposite side of the road. I’m convinced I’ll perish from a car wreck or get pulled over and caught driving without a license.
On cue, the magpie squawks as if to warn me that taking my chances with Senile Suzy might be safer, but thankfully, it flies elsewhere.
Hands shaking from the residual anxiety, I dig through the bag and pluck out the pack of cigarettes. I shouldn’t be smoking these in my possible predicament, yet the thought of death is too enticing, and I’m too scared to do anything else.
I’m ashamed of myself, but I don’t think I know what it’s like to feel anything else.
Don’t make it a habit, Sawyer. You have enough of those.
Just as I slide one out and stick it in my mouth, I realize two things. I forgot to buy a lighter, and there’s somebody sitting next to me, the weight of their stare hardening on my face like dried clay.
I turn to find an older man with deep brown skin holding out an orange lighter as bright as my flip-flops, his thumb poised on the striker and ready to ignite it for me. He’s wearing an old white shirt and an aged khaki-colored ball cap on his head. Sweat gleams down the side of his face, but he smells like Old Spice and salt.
Smiling, I lean forward, and he flicks it. I’m just as mesmerized by the fire as I am by watching it eat at the flimsy paper. Smoke coils from the stick into the salty air, burning my eyes as it wafts into my face.
“Thank you,” I say, waving away the smoke. “Do you want one?”
“Sure,” he says. I hand him a cigarette and watch him closely as he lights his own, an orange glow blaring as he inhales.
“Been trying to cut back on smoking but can never seem to let ’em go for good,” he muses conversationally.
A terrible problem to have, and one I shouldn’t inflict on myself, but then a wave of euphoria washes over me, and I suppose it’s not so bad. It won’t last more than a minute, however it makes the sharp edge bearable, and that’s all I need right now. That, and good company.
“When have we ever been able to let go of the things that hurt us most?” I mutter.
“Well, you got me there.”
I grin. “What’s your name?” I ask, attempting to blow out a smoky O but failing miserably.
He chuckles, the sound husky. “Can’t remember the last time a pretty young lady asked me my name. Name’s Simon.”
Normally, an old, strange man calling me pretty would have me getting up and walking away without a backward glance, but the way he says it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. In fact, it makes me feel a little like what a home is supposed to feel like. Warm and welcoming. Safe.
That sense of comfort lulls me into doing something I rarely do. Something I never do. I give him my real name.
“Sawyer. Thanks for keeping me company, Simon.”
A beat of silence passes, and then, “Want to see my new tattoo?”
Surprise has me pausing for a brief second, the cigarette suspended halfway to my mouth before I shoot out a quick, “I’d love to,” and then trap the filter in the corner of my lips.
He rolls up his cargo shorts and shows me his new ink. Black, uneven lines make up the words “Fuck You” stacked in the middle of his thigh, still puffy and irritated. This time, I genuinely am caught off guard.
Astonished laughter bursts from my throat, and I almost lose my cigarette in the process, but I wouldn’t have cared if I did.
“Oh my God, I love that. Probably more than my favorite toe. Did that hurt?” I ask, leaning closer to inspect the ink. It’s obviously not professionally done—in fact, it’s a pretty shit job—but I think that’s what I like most about it.
“Nah,” he says, waving a hand. “It’s therapeutic. Not sure what you mean by a favorite toe, though.”
I hold up my left foot and point to it. “My pinkie toe is really cute, don’t you think?”
He leans over and inspects it closely. “You’re right. I like that toe, too.”
Smiling, I drop my foot and stare down at the misshapen words. I’m in love with it. I could always use a little therapy in the form of a reckless—and slightly manic—decision.
I suck in another mouthful of smoke and blow it out, trying to fight the impulse rising inside of me.
“Where did you get that?”
He shrugs. “I did it myself. Ever heard of tebori?”
I shake my head, so he digs in his pocket and pulls out a vial of black ink and a handful of sealed needles.
I raise my brows, wondering why he would carry this stuff with him, but glad that he’s at least using unused needles.
“It’s a traditional Japanese method. People call ‘em stick and poke tattoos,” he explains.
“How does it work?”
He explains the process to me, which sounds pretty simple. So simple, that I consider doing one myself. I don’t have any tattoos nor the luxury of going to a shop and paying for one.
Just as I open my mouth to ask where he got the supplies from, he cuts in, “You want me to do one for you?”
I cock my head at him, a grin clawing its way up my cheeks.
“Yeah,” I say, nodding my head, deciding the idea of a stranger giving me a tattoo at a bus stop is too good to pass up. It’s the perfect kind of spontaneity I need. “What do you want for it?”
He nods toward my plastic bag. “That pack of cigs will be enough.”
The look he casts me gives me the distinct feeling that he’s more interested in keeping me from smoking them rather than smoking them himself. I wonder if he noticed what else was in the bag.
I smile. “Deal. I want one just like yours. Same place, too. We can match.”
I like the idea of having a matching tattoo with Simon. I guess it makes me feel like I’ve found a friend in my lonely little world and will have someone to remember when I eventually leave.
More importantly, I like the message. Because really, those exact words cross my mind every day. What better phrase to get tattooed than my daily mantra?
He grins, showcasing slightly crooked teeth, and motions for me to turn my thigh toward him. Cutoff shorts are my everyday attire here, so he’ll be able to put one in the same place as his easily.
The bus is approaching, so we’ll miss our ride, but another bus will show up in thirty minutes—plenty of time to get my first tattoo.
He uncaps the vial and pours out a tiny bit of inky black liquid into the lid, and then tears open the package with a new needle.
“Octopus ink,” he tells me. “Best ink you can get.”
I nod, though I don’t necessarily care. Everything about this is unsanitary anyway. If my body rejects it, it will make a pretty cool scar. Though I’ve always really liked octopi, so I guess it’ll be nice to have a part of them injected into me.
They can disappear so easily, camouflage themselves to blend in with their surroundings, and that’s all I’ve really wanted in life. Maybe with this new tattoo, I can pretend that its ink corroded everything that makes me human and will allow me to disappear just like them.
I frown, knowing it’s never like the movies where a lonely kid gains an incredible superpower. I think I resent octopi a little, too.
My new friend leans down close to my thigh, his brown eyes never straying from his task as his surprisingly steady hand meticulously pokes ink into my skin. The sharp pinpricks release all kinds of endorphins into my system, and I decide here, and now, that I’m addicted to tattoos.
This is better than cigarettes, though since they’re his now, he does allow me to smoke one more during the process. To take the edge off, he says.
A few more people join us, and it makes me laugh when none of them look the least bit surprised to see a girl getting a tebori tattoo while waiting for the bus, as if this is a common occurrence in Port Valen. One guy even comes over and asks for one of his own, but Simon tells him to find him another day.
The whole experience is odd, but it’s brought me happiness, and that foreign feeling is better than sex. I experience so little joy, and too often, strange men crowd over me and invade my body.
Most importantly, it’s made me forget.
Twenty-five minutes later, Simon straightens up, his face contorting in pain and his back cracking from being locked in an uncomfortable position for so long.
I feel bad for the pain I caused him, and he must note the expression on my face because he shoots me a stern look, much like how a father would when scolding their child. “Don’t you feel bad for me, young lady. It’s a blessing to be old, and every blessing is a little bittersweet.”
I still feel bad, but I nod and lean down to examine my tattoo. My thigh is bright red and irritated, amplifying the harsh lines.
Fuck You, in bold black letters, though mine looks a little neater than his. Regardless, they’re still uneven and wobbly, and I’m relieved about it. That’s why I love it so much.
“Imperfect,” he corrects, eyeing his work.
“Perfectly imperfect,” I compromise, smiling big at him. My cheeks hurt from how widely they’re being stretched, but just like every time that needle poked through my skin, the pain feels good. “All the best things are.”
He lights another cig and leans back like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Simon looks like he’s lived his life very thoroughly, and I want to know what led him to this bus stop, giving a strange girl a tattoo on a Tuesday afternoon.
“You’re right,” he concedes. “You’re also very strange.” I grin wider when he echoes my exact thoughts.
“So are you, Simon. So are you.” The look we share speaks volumes—we’re both content with being strange.
Right then, the bus pulls up, the engine rumbling loudly. When the doors hiss and then glide open, I stand up and offer my elbow to him, as if I’m escorting him to a ball.
He waves his hand, shooing me on.
“I prefer to walk. My old bones need the movement, or else they’ll lock up forever.”
My brows draw in. “Then why were you sitting at the bus stop?”
He shrugs. “I was passing by, and you looked like you needed a friend.”
Dropping my elbow, a weird piercing feeling stabs me in the chest. Disappointment.
I wanted to talk to Simon more. Ask him questions and learn more about the man behind the worn clothes and octopus ink.
He’s observant, too, once more noting the expression on my face. Or maybe I just wear my feelings on my sleeve too much.
“We’ll cross paths again, Sawyer. Life has a funny way of throwing people into your path when you’re meant to collide. It’s up to you to choose to make it permanent.”
“Permanence,” I mutter, tasting the foreign word on my tongue. “You’re already permanent, Simon, just as much as this tattoo.”
He smiles at me, a knowing twinkle in his eye.
“Then I’ll see you soon, won’t I?”
Feeling a tad better, I pick up my plastic bag, and the rustle of its contents reminds me of what else is in it. The small grin on my face slips. Simon will no longer distract me from my impending situation, and suddenly, I’m really dreading this ride alone.
“I hope so. Nice meeting you, Simon.”
And then I turn, my thigh burning as I make my way onto the bus. I put my coins in the slot and find a seat far in the back. The faux leather is hot and sticky against the backs of my thighs, but I hardly notice.
I face the window, getting one last glimpse of Simon waving at me before the bus takes off.
At least I didn’t have to go to a shop and use a credit card or take out any more money. I’m only giving myself a couple more days before it’s time to grab a drink.
Then, I’ll start over as someone else.
Not Sawyer Bennett, but someone who wishes they never met her.