Playing Dirty – Liliana Hart

BRETT JORGENSON DİDN’T START his day by thinking about death. He woke before dawn, as he did every morning, leaving his wife snoring softly in their bed. He’d never tell her, but the further along she got in her pregnancy, the more her snoring kept him awake. Earplugs had become his lifesaver. The house creaked and groaned around him as he padded his way around the room, gathering his clothes he’d laid out the night before, and then headed to the bathroom. He loved the stillness of the morning, the gentle hush of his surroundings as nature, animal, and human all slept. It was why they’d moved to King George County—the simple life. They wanted their children to enjoy swing sets instead of subways. And moving from the city had been the right decision for all of them. It had saved his family, and he’d do it again if given the choice. The decisions he’d made in his life hadn’t always been good or right, but this one was. Life was as perfect as it could get. There were no phone calls or emails or business meetings. Those would come later. But this time was for himself and the open road to freedom.

If there was a God—and he had to think there must be—then Brett imagined he had a little slice of heaven right here on earth. His blood sang with anticipation. Every morning brought new opportunities—new possibilities—and he went to bed each night eager for the morning. Once he’d brushed his teeth and washed the sleep from his eyes, he put on his cycling bib and leg warmers, and then he strapped on his heart monitor and pulled on his jersey. He left it unzipped as he made his way to the kitchen. He wasn’t one of those people who was controlled by caffeine. He didn’t use anything to stimulate his mind or his body. Not anymore. He’d been living clean for eight years, six months, and two days. He turned off the alarm and headed to the garage where his carbon fiber Trek hung on the wall.

He’d filled up his water bottles after his ride with the team the previous night, and they were already in the cages attached to his bike. He loved the routine of cycling. There was the softest hint of gray in the sky—a pearly incandescent sheen that brought a chill on this November morning. He only had a matter of weeks to ride before the weather would keep him off the roads. But for now—for now it was glorious. His clip-in shoes sat on the rack against the wall and he slipped them on quickly, securing the Velcro as his flesh pebbled with cold. Even the way he put his shoes on was routine, and he enjoyed the monotony of it as he rolled the bike out of the garage, his shoes clacking against the concrete, and then closed the door behind him. He zipped his jersey, secured his phone in the front pouch, and strapped on his helmet securely before straddling the bike. The cold wouldn’t dissipate as his blood heated and sweat covered his skin—it would only get colder as the wind whipped across his face and body as he increased his speed. He pulled a neoprene mask from his saddlebag and covered his face, and then he clipped his shoes into the pedals.

There was nothing quite like that first stroke, and then the next, as muscles started to loosen and air burned the lungs. He pedaled down the long driveway and then turned onto the country road, careful to watch for signs of headlights. There was risk in riding at this time of day, but it was worth it to see the sun crest and touch the fields with golden light. His wife and co-workers didn’t understand his obsession, but how could they know unless they felt their pulse race beneath their skin or the wind battering against man and machine? It was freedom and speed. It was as close to flying as he could imagine. A smile stretched across his face as he pedaled harder and faster. The endless stretch of road rose and fell, and a light sheen of sweat covered his body as his breathing fell into a steady rhythm. He drank greedily from his water bottle to replenish fluids, and then pushed harder as he made his way up the hill, praying his timing was just right. He crested the hill just as the sun exploded into a cacophony of light and color across the land, and just as he did most mornings, he stopped to watch the wonder of the earth waking up. He laughed and drank the rest of his first bottle of water.

Pure joy radiated through his every being, and he raised his arms to the sky as if he was conducting the most magnificent symphony in the universe. And when the moment passed—at least until he could experience it again the following morning—he hunkered down over the bike and let out a whoop as he rocketed down the hill. This was his favorite part of the ride, a series of rolling hills for miles. He pushed himself hard to climb the next hill, noting the fog that had started to creep in with the morning. It wasn’t unusual, but he needed to be more aware of his surroundings. There were blind spots, and the drivers of cars were rarely as attentive as they should be. He flew down the next hill, and started his next climb back up, noting his heart rate on his Garmin screen. It was higher than normal, but he’d been struggling on the climbs more than usual. He hadn’t thought the ride from the night before had been too strenuous, but he could feel the strain in his muscles as they started to tighten. He pushed himself harder.

Weakness wasn’t acceptable. Life was stressful—the audit and a new baby on the way—but he wouldn’t have it any other way. What was the point of living if you didn’t push everything you did to the limits? He let his body rest on the way down the next hill, the fog thickening and leaving a layer of moisture on his clothes. He tried to breathe in, to fill his lungs, but his heart was pounding too heavily in his chest. His body ached. The rushing in his ears was so loud he wouldn’t have heard a car if it was right on top of him. Maybe he was getting sick. Several people in the office had gone home with the flu the week before, and a couple of the riders in his group were no-shows the night before because they’d come down with it as well. It was that time of year. He decided to reach the peak of the next hill and call Marla to come get him.

If he had the flu, pushing his body to exhaustion and dehydrating wasn’t the smart thing to do. He’d go home, get a couple of days’ rest and rehydrate, and then he’d be back to his normal routine feeling better than ever. It was nothing but a little setback. Life couldn’t be all highs without any lows. Just like the hills that were currently kicking his ass. His feet and legs felt like lead, and he knew he wasn’t going to have the strength to pedal up the next hill. But he tried anyway. The fog was thickening, and the loss of his hearing made him disoriented. He kept pedaling. His Garmin screen was fogged over, or maybe his vision was blurry, but he knew his heart was pounding too fast—too hard—and then he felt the pop in his chest.

Pain like nothing he’d ever experienced exploded through his body and then everything went numb and cold. Brett got a quick glimpse of the truck coming up behind him in his mirror, but he didn’t feel the impact as metal met flesh and carbon fiber. He was already dead. 1 THERE WAS the kind of cold that had nothing to do with the weather—the kind that seeped into the soul and bones and rested there. A cold that began from the inside and penetrated places that might never be warm again. My name is J.J. Graves, and I was no stranger to the cold. As a doctor, I knew that shivering was the body’s attempt to try to stay warm. But I’d stopped shivering hours ago and lethargy had set in.

I’d thought the lethargy would mean sleep, but I’d only been able to stare at the clock on the bedside table, the red numbers clicking the minutes, and then eventually, hours. I tried to focus on my body. It was a good way to pass the time and think about things other than the reality that was suffocating me. I knew what depression felt like—I’d been there before—and it was all about pushing through from one moment and into the next. I’d thought those days were long past, but boy, had I been wrong. It had been almost forty-eight hours since the life I thought Jack and I were starting to build had crumbled around us. We’d been through so much in our lives—obstacles so horrendous I was surprised either of us was still alive today. I’d made it through neglect from my parents during childhood, and I’d watched Jack fight for his life when he’d been shot on the job. I’d gone through the grief and anger of my parents’ driving their car over a cliff and committing suicide, and I’d watched a man I thought I might spend my life with gunned down in cold blood. I’d been strangled nearly to death, and I’d watched as my father came back from the dead, as bold as he pleased, so he could complicate my future as much as he’d complicated my past.

Jack and I had both lost friends along the way. But through it all, we’d always had each other. We’d always clung to each other. But not this time…this time our house of cards had toppled over something that I’d never thought possible. Wasn’t it always the small things that somehow became big things? I trusted Jack with my life. I trusted him with my secrets. But he couldn’t say the same about me. Maybe he’d never trusted me at all. That was the question I was asking myself now. Was everything we had a lie? Had I given Jack my all while he still held a part of himself back from me? I’d known about the shame in Jack’s past—about the child he’d conceived with a woman who thought she and the baby would be better off with another man.

Jack had been nineteen at the time and had little to offer, so when the woman had begged him to walk away and not cause problems for her, he’d agreed. Everyone had a past and the baggage that came with it, and everyone had choices in their lives they wished they’d made differently. It was part of being human, and I couldn’t and wouldn’t hold Jack’s mistakes against him when I had made so many of my own. He’d told me his secret of the child, and all these years, we’d not spoken of it. I’d all but forgotten it had happened, it seemed so long ago. But someone had given the information to Floyd Parker at the Gazette, and in a small conservative place like King George, scandals like this were still a big deal. I didn’t know if Jack would win the election or not, but I had to believe that the people of King George County had better sense than to let someone like Floyd Parker become their sheriff. I hadn’t betrayed Jack to Floyd or the press. I would never do such a thing, even inadvertently. But that had been the first thought in Jack’s mind when the news had been splashed across the front page of the newspaper—that the betrayal had come from me.

It was all in the timing, of course. The election was only a few days away, and Floyd had played his hand brilliantly. We’d just come off a case and whether Jack wanted to admit it or not, the politics of the job were getting to him, so stress was at an all-time high. Floyd Parker had made it a point to be the bane of our existence and cause chaos and division however he could. He’d succeeded. Now Jack and I were more divided than we’d ever been. The gossip mill was working overtime, especially now that it had gotten out that I was sleeping at the funeral home. I wasn’t really sure how I’d gotten to this place in my life. It was surreal. Me, only married a few months, and already my husband thought the worst of me and I was left with no one on my side.

If I had the energy I would’ve laughed. It seemed to be a recurring theme in my life. Maybe one day there’d be someone who supposedly loved me enough to believe in me unequivocally, but so far, it hadn’t been my parents or the love of my life, so I didn’t hold out much hope. Rehashing the memory of my last moments with Jack did nothing but make me sink further into the abyss, so I went back to human anatomy. I started at my toes, wiggling them slowly, and I was conscious of the nubby sheets scraping against my skin. Then I moved up, visualizing the skeletal system and the tendons, muscles, and vascular system that made me who I was. My pulse was slow and sluggish, and my muscles were tight. I could feel the threat of a charley horse in my calves as I stretched and flexed. Up the body I went—vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, iliotibial band, rectus femoris—I tried to relax each muscle, but I found the task impossible. Gluteus medius, rectus abdominis, external oblique… When I finished, I repeated the exercise over again, and when the clock finally turned to five, with great effort, I pushed back the covers and dragged my legs so they hung over the side of the bed.

The carpet was threadbare on the third floor of the funeral home. Though to be fair, the entire third floor was threadbare. It hadn’t been renovated in fifty years, and the last people to live there had been my grandparents. At least until my grandmother had taken a plunge from her bedroom window. Not the one I was currently staying in. I wasn’t that macabre. Whether she’d jumped or been pushed, no one knew, but the third floor had been closed off, the furniture draped in white cloths, and mothballs had been put in all the closets. Over the years, the third floor had become my sanctuary when I had something to hide from. It was the first place I ran when life got hard. Maybe because it was a conscious reminder that, no matter how hard life got, I wouldn’t end up like my grandmother.

Or maybe it was because I had nowhere else to go. I got to my feet, the stretch and pull of muscles making me feel much older than my three-plus decades. I was still in my clothes from the day before. Changing had seemed trivial. But I pulled on a thick robe to help with the chill as I opened the door to the bedroom and stepped out into the hall. I wasn’t the only occupant of the funeral home. As far as weeks went, it hadn’t been my favorite. There were two bodies, each in a different viewing room and ready for burial, that had been the victims of a tornado that had swept through the week before. I’d buried a father and daughter only yesterday, grateful my emotions seemed to be in a state of paralysis due to my current personal crisis. The funeral had been one of the hardest I’d done, watching a wife and mother put her world into the ground while she silently fell apart.

Time had moved differently over the past forty-eight hours. It was a blur, yet interminably long. But life kept moving around me, despite my desperation for everything to stop. There were still employees, families, and victims to deal with. Life and death were an unceasing circle, and if I could count on nothing else in this world, I could always count on the dead. I padded down the stairs to the second-floor landing, where the carpet changed from threadbare to soft and plush beneath my feet. I always left the lights on at the front of the funeral home. There had been attempted break-ins a time or two through the years, usually kids thinking it would be cool to spend Halloween night inside with the bodies who temporarily lived here. I’d thought the same when I was a teenager. We’d dress in our costumes and lie to our parents about where we were going—not that my parents cared one way or the other what I did with my time—and then Vaughn would sneak beer he’d stolen from his father and I’d let everyone inside with the extra key of the funeral home I’d filched from my parents.

Jack and Dickie would bring snacks and we’d tell stories and scare ourselves to death, never lasting all the way through the night before we ended up back at the Lawsons’ and the security of knowing no one was going to murder us in our sleep. It was a bittersweet memory. Most of my memories involved Jack.

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