Break Us – Jennifer Brown

THE DOOR SEEMED flimsy. She probably could have kicked it in if she wanted to. And, at the moment, she really, really wanted to. She wanted to kick in everything in sight. She wanted to kick in the world. She had lost, and if there was one thing she could not stand, it was losing. If she kicked in the world, she could let everyone know—she had lost for now, but she would win in the end. Make no mistake about it. She followed him through the flimsy door and dropped her bag on the carpet just inside, then peered around. Tacky, tacky, cheap, tacky, common, tasteless. “I’m already bored,” she said. “Don’t be like that. Give it a chance.” He hurried across the room and threw open the curtains, revealing a window almost the length of the whole wall. Sunlight flooded into her, causing her to squint, a small stab of pain lighting up in her temples.

She cursed, but he ignored her. “What do you think?” She followed him to the window, pressed her hand against it. It was warm. Her heels sank into the carpet, so she kicked them off and curled her toes into its fiber. At least the carpet was plush. Still tacky, but plush. A gull swooped past the window and winged into the distance, until it was a tiny, squawking dot. She turned, pressing her back against the toasty window, and faced him. “I’m not doing this forever.” “Of course not,” he said.

“There’s no intention of that.” She paced through the living room, testing the cushion of the sofa with her palm. Plush, just like the carpet. Okay, so maybe not quite as cheap as she’d originally thought. “Let me show you the rest,” he said. He’d somehow gotten back over by the door—this place was way too small—and grabbed her bag. She sank onto the sofa, propped her bare feet up on the coffee table, and closed her eyes. “I don’t feel like it.” “At least let me show you your room. You can freshen up.

I’ll make us some sandwiches.” Her lip curled in disgust. Sandwiches? She didn’t eat sandwiches. Sandwiches made people fat. Sandwiches made people ordinary. She didn’t know why she kept having to prove it over and over again, but she was not ordinary. She was special. She was meant for better than this. She was meant for better than anything she’d ever been given in her life. How was it fair that she’d been gifted with so many talents and not one person—not one!—who could truly appreciate them? “Well? You hungry?” “I don’t think so.

” “We can talk.” She opened one eye. “And what exactly is it you think I want to talk about?” “You know exactly what,” he said, his face grave. He gestured toward the hallway with her bag again. She sighed and pulled herself off the sofa. Already she felt herself getting cankles and dull hair and ragged cuticles. No, she could not do this forever. He stood aside and let her go down the hall first, even though she didn’t know where she was going. But damn straight she would lead. Because leading was what she was meant to do.

“Are we going to talk about getting rid of Nikki Kill?” she asked. So casual, even though the name Nikki Kill made her insides boil. “No,” he said. “We’re going to talk about getting rid of you.” She stopped, causing him to nearly bump into her, and turned her deadest eyes on him. Her lips pulled back in a snarl. “I told you I’m not doing this forever.” “I told you, I have no intention of you doing this forever.” He grinned. One tooth stood just the tiniest bit out of line with the others.

His lips looked dry. “Trust me,” he said. “I have something much better in mind.” 1 THE MINUTE I stepped out of my car, I knew I should have rolled down my window before lighting up. I stank. That’s what he would say, anyway. If he remembered how much he hated my smoking. He might or he might not. The doctors said it would be that way. He’d remember some things and not others.

He would forget again things he’d remembered just the day before. He would suddenly recall something silly and unimportant, or maybe something serious and very important, but there was no way to tell what would trigger him and no way to force him to recall everything we wanted him to recall. Basically, they said, the brain was as mysterious in injury as it was in health, and we just had to learn to live with it. I was not great at learning to live with things. We also had to learn to live with it if he got frustrated and headachy and short-tempered and tired. He’d been through a hell of a trauma, and it would take a while to put all the pieces of Chris Martinez back together again, even if he looked whole on the outside. Those conversations happened in the early days—the ones right after he woke up, opening bloodshot eyes in swollen, purple sockets, darting glances around the room warily, as if he had come back from the other side and wasn’t sure where, or who, he’d come back to. Maybe I was being dramatic. Maybe Chris Martinez was behind those eyes, present and accounted for, so serve-and-protect upstanding yellow you could get a sunburn off him, and I was too distracted by the blissful release from my crimson prison to see it. I was so sick of crimson.

Death, death, death. It followed my life like a grim shadow, rolling in and out on tides of deep, burnt red. Mom, Peyton, Dru. Vanessa. And almost Chris. Almost. It had been three months since I’d last seen him. Right after he’d woken up and it had been clear that everything between us had changed. How could it stay the same when he didn’t remember anything more than my name? It hurt too much to be forgotten. And it annoyed me too much to be hurt.

Besides, his gaggle of cop buddies hung around, watching me like I was a suspect, like I had done this to him just by virtue of being in his life. And they might not have been altogether wrong. If I hadn’t been in Chris’s life, he might have never been following Rigo Basile. Peyton’s murder would have remained an unsolved case, but he wouldn’t have had any reason to be at Tesori Antico, trading bullets with Bill Hollis. He wouldn’t have been walking across the street, distracted by the blood seeping through his shirt. He wouldn’t have been there at all when that black Monte Carlo rounded the corner. But that Monte Carlo had nothing to do with the Hollises. At least not that I could tell. That black Monte Carlo was about something else. Something Chris wouldn’t let me in on.

Something that had him driving around with bullet holes in the front panel of his car and had him checking sidewalks and doorways like he expected someone to jump out at him. He’d been right to expect that, apparently. They’d caught him in that one rare instant that he wasn’t watching for them. Whoever they were. I had a name—Heriberto. Someone he’d been searching for. But the last name was escaping me because it was associated in my mind with a color I didn’t expect and I usually relied on my synesthesia to help me remember things like words, numbers, and names. Heriberto’s last name wasn’t red, and it wasn’t exactly purple. Basically, I had nothing for the cops who caught me in the hallways, the waiting rooms, the cafeteria, peppering me with questions. You’re .

close. What do you know? What did he tell you? Who did this? My answer was always the same: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. We weren’t that close. We weren’t that close. We were that close. But I was the only one who knew it. Even Chris didn’t know it anymore. So I stayed away.

It killed me, but I didn’t belong by his bedside. Not like the others. I paid attention to his progress from afar. One thing I had learned while working with Chris was that it was so easy to fool people into giving you information you shouldn’t have. And once I found out he was discharged, it wasn’t hard to follow him from his apartment to physical therapy. You don’t just go charging into someone’s workout session when it’s been three months since you last saw him. Instead, I found his car in the parking lot and sat on the hood, holding a manila envelope in my lap, my feet crossed at the ankles and rhythmically thumping against the bumper. He’d parked under a cottonwood tree, and I enjoyed the shade, along with an intermittent breeze that blew the smoke out of my clothes. Summer was on its way out. My peers had long since packed and headed off to freshman orientation at whatever schools they’d chosen.

They were stuffing their valuables into plastic tubs and vying for bathroom space in their dorm rooms and doing icebreaker exercises on campus quads. And I was wasting time, waiting for my recently attacked unofficial-as-hell partner in justice to hobble out of the hospital and talk me down off the ledge . again. After what seemed like forever, I finally saw his form making its way to me. He was walking with a cane now—how ironic, I thought, given that this whole ordeal had started with a cane—his limp pronounced, but his gait quick. He paused when he saw me, raised his hand to shade his eyes, then continued his journey. “Hey,” I said, when he got close enough to hear. Like it was nothing to run into each other here after all this time. “You’re sitting on my car.” I glanced down.

“You’re right. I’m so sorry. I’d hate to do something to take away the aesthetics of your bullet holes there.” He stared at me, his face giving away nothing. I hated this. Normally, he would have a smart-ass comment to throw right back at me. This new and unimproved Martinez was so serious. “Fine,” I said, sliding off the car. I took a few steps toward him, holding out the manila envelope. “I just wanted to let you know that I can’t do it.

I thought I could, but I was wrong. I can’t. Sorry. I know you’ll be disappointed, but I’ve gotta look out for numero uno, you know? And numero uno is not interested after all.” At first he just stared at the envelope, looking from it to me and back again. Then he reached out slowly and pulled it out of my hand. “What is this?” “The application,” I said. “Police academy? Ringing any bells?” I was hoping it would, for more than one reason. I wanted him to remember pushing me about becoming a cop, because that would mean he remembered something about our time together after Dru’s death. I wanted him to remember, and be ready to help me get to the bottom of everything once and for all, even though the doctors had said that pushing him to remember things was likely to do the opposite.

He leaned the cane against his leg and opened the envelope, sliding out its contents. “Of course I know what the police academy is,” he said. “I’ve lost a couple months, not my whole life.” “But you don’t remember forcing me into it.” He gave me a look that couldn’t even be called incredulous. It was more like you have got to be fucking kidding me. The same look Dad had given me when I mentioned that I might be looking into pursuing a career in law enforcement. The same look I’d given Chris when he’d first suggested the idea to me. Guess Nikki Kill playing the role of Upstanding Administrator of Justice wasn’t believable to any of us. At the time that I picked up the paperwork, Chris was lying in a hospital bed, unconscious.

He had just saved my ass in every conceivable way. And I’d saved his. We’d become a team on a level I’d never imagined we could. I’d thought he was dying. I’d thought of making a promise to go into the academy as some kind of tribute. Or maybe a bargaining chip with God—make Chris pull through and I’ll become a decent person after all. I honestly didn’t know why I was doing it. I only knew that I’d told myself, sleeping Chris, and my dad of all people that I was going to do this. And there was no way in hell I could do this. “It doesn’t matter now,” I said.

“I’m not going. I can’t.” He glanced at the application, which was blank, pushed it back into the envelope, and held it out for me to take. “Okay. Why not?” “Because. I can’t be a cop. I mean, who would want to be one, right?” I gestured the length of his broken body. “I did. I still do.” “Yeah, but you’re not normal.

You’ve got all that crazy annoying yellow, and . ” I trailed off, realizing too late that I’d casually been talking about my synesthesia. Of course, I’d told him all about it at his bedside, but he apparently didn’t know that, and now that he was alive, awake, looking right at me, it felt weird to talk about it. Why was I able to do so many things when he was sleeping that I was unable to hold to when he was awake? Why was I such a chickenshit? It was disgusting. “Yellow?” I shook my head. “Never mind. I just mean . you were meant to be a cop. I wasn’t.” He thrust the envelope toward me again; I still didn’t take it.

“Listen, Nikki. I can’t remember what happened that made me give you this, but if I thought you could be a cop, then I probably had a good reason.” “The reason was charity. Or, I don’t know, recruitment quotas? Do you have those? I told you then that I couldn’t do it, and I’m still telling you that.” “Okay.” He dropped the envelope on the ground between us. He started to make his way past me and to his car. “Okay?” He turned. “Okay.” “That’s all you have to say? I’m telling you that I’m giving up on the cop thing, and it’s just okay?” He shrugged.

“What’s it supposed to be? No, please, think about it some more? Don’t give up? You can do it? It’s natural to be afraid? Will any of those things help?” I gritted my teeth. “No.” He shrugged again. “Then okay. You already told me you didn’t want to do it, and I don’t remember any of this anyway. So do it or don’t do it. Nothing I can change about it. All I know is I’m exhausted and my leg hurts and I want to sit down and drink a beer and get this day over with.” He started toward his car again, his limp more pronounced now that he’d been standing for a while. “This is the first time you’ve seen me since you were mowed down right in front of me and you want to go home and drink a beer? Nice.

” He turned back to me. “Mowed down. You were there?” he asked. Or maybe he said it: “You were there.” I couldn’t tell. Maybe he couldn’t tell, either. I nodded. He shuffled toward me. “Why?” He licked his lips. “Why did I do it? What had me so distracted?” “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Why did you do what?” “Walk out in front of the car,” he said. “Was I going somewhere?” Jagged-edged mint built a bridge between us. His confusion was obvious. He was searching for answers. He had only pieces of what happened—the ones told to him. Somehow he’d gotten the impression this was a true accident, maybe even his fault. Of course he had. Nobody else had been there but Arrigo Basile’s mother and me. I could tell them it looked like a purposeful hit all day long, but I had nothing to prove it, other than the fact that the driver hadn’t stopped. God knows what Arrigo’s mom would have told police.

She had been half-crazed with fear, and had an entire family of criminal thugs to protect—including Arrigo himself. And, damn it, I had been too busy rushing to Chris’s crumpled body to think about looking for a license plate. All I knew was it was a black Monte Carlo. Not like there weren’t a few zillion of those out there or anything. “You didn’t walk in front of it,” I said. “They came out of nowhere. They hit you on purpose. And then they ran.” He frowned, as he tried to take it all in. “Who?” I deflated.

“I was hoping you could tell me,” I said. “You were being really secretive about something. You wouldn’t let me in.” Suspicion stretched between us in mints and ferns and lime sherbets. I worried that I’d sounded bitter about him not letting me in. How rich, given that I’d made it my life’s mission to let nobody— especially him—in. “Why were you there?” he asked. “Why were we together?” “Oh God,” I breathed. “You really don’t remember anything.” He shook his head, slowly at first, and then with more conviction.

His forehead creased. “I’m trying. I remember being at your graduation. And then . pieces. You were in jail, right?” “That’s what you remember, out of all this time? That I was in jail? Yeah. I was in jail. For a night. You got me out. We were looking for Rigo Basile, and we found him.

You sh—” I stopped myself short. You shot Bill Hollis, I was about to say. But was that something you sprang on someone —that they’d killed somebody? Would he understand why without me retelling everything that had happened? It didn’t seem like it. And where did I start, anyway? With my arrest at the graduation party? With the day we busted into the Hollis warehouse? With my mom dying right next to me when I was eight? It all seemed to go together, to get scrambled into one long event. And I wasn’t sure how he would take it, or even if he could take it. “You should go home and get that beer,” I said instead. “You’ll remember more tomorrow, probably.” He grunted, frustrated, as if he wanted to say something else, but then he thought better of it and started limping away from me again. “And for your information, I’m not afraid,” I said to his back. He stopped, turned.

I kicked at the manila envelope. “It’s the written test. I can’t pass that. You know how my grades were.” What he didn’t know was that it was the distraction of my synesthesia that made my grades suck. And what neither of us knew was whether or not I could use it to my advantage now that I’d learned how to rely on it in the right ways. But what I didn’t want to know was if I sucked just as bad in the real world as I did in school. You suck at school, you get an F; you suck at the real world, you get a shitty life; you suck as a cop, you get dead. “Sounds like you’re afraid,” he said. “Afraid of taking a test.

I don’t know what to tell you. I, personally, think you could pass it without a problem. But I’m not the one who has to go in and take it. Already did that. And, yes, I do remember taking it. You want, maybe I can help you study for it. Or not. Entirely your call.” I felt irritation well up inside me—piping-hot ink with steam—and I clenched my fists. The rahrah-you-can-do-it Chris was annoying, but this Chris was .

well, he was just an ass. “No, I don’t need your help with anything,” I said. “I’m not taking it.” I bent and picked up the envelope. “And I can study on my own.” He smirked. I realized what I’d just said, how it made no sense that I could study alone for a test I wasn’t taking, and the fact that he’d reduced me to idiocy only served to enrage me further. Still, it was kind of good to see the old Chris come through a little, even if just with that maddening smirk. “Got it,” he said. “It’s good to see you, Nikki.

I missed you. You shouldn’t have stayed away so long. I could have used a friendly face in that therapy room.” I frowned, cocked my hip to one side. “Does this look like a friendly face to you?” “No, not exactly,” he said. “But when you’re around, something inside me remembers that it can be.” He opened his car door and tossed his cane across to the passenger seat. “Don’t be such a stranger,” he said, then got in, started up, and pulled away. I stood in the shade of the cottonwood tree, listening to the warning cries of a mother bird above me, and held the manila envelope, which felt heavy and impossible in my hand. I watched him go.

At least he remembered something.

.

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