I let Em choose where to meet. Of course, he suggests the coffee shop on Blake. I should say something, but I don't. It's a game I like to play. Hang around the edges of the fire, trying not to get burned. I'm shit at it, and the scars aren't pretty.
He's waiting for me at a table hidden away in the corner so we can talk freely. That's a game he plays. Remove all of Edward's excuses to avoid dealing with his issues. Unfortunately, he's gotten pretty good at it.
"So how've you been?" He's got his sponsor hat on today. Actually, it's an Orioles' Snapback, but you know what I mean.
"Good," I say, gulping at the black coffee he knows I hate—another tactic to make talking unavoidable. I put it down and push it away.
"Really? Or good because explaining anything else is too much like hard work?" He narrows his eyes at me. It's going to be one of those conversations.
I pull out the universal signal for 'no clue how to answer that' and shrug.
Em sits back and folds his arms, cocking his head. "You gotta give me more than that." You can't bullshit a bullshitter.
I sigh and rub a hand down my face. "It's been okay. You know how it is. Some days are harder than others, but overall I'm good. Busy at work, pulled a few lates."
"Snowed under with obituaries, huh?"
"Fuck you, Em," I say, his words digging into old wounds. My fall from grace was not limited to my personal life.
"You shouldn't be working like that, E. It's not healthy. You'll run yourself into the ground. We talked about routine and using it to help you when things get tough, but working all hours isn't what I meant." He's all serious again, his magnifying glass burning a hole through me. "You need hobbies, too. A way to burn off steam." My mind goes straight to the thought of Red Lantern sprawled across my bed. "Are you still sparring down at Jasper's place?"
"Not at the moment," I say, flexing my hand in reaction. My knuckles are still swollen. The dull pain chases her from my mind and back to fuck up number 1,256 on the road to recovery. Byline—the night my sister had had enough.
"You spoken to Ally?"
"Nope," I say, and he frowns again.
"You even try?"
"Yeah. I tried, but what can I do? She doesn't want to talk to me."
"Are you surprised?" Em is all about the low blows today.
The bell rings above the door, stealing my attention. It's not who I'm looking for, but it gives me a chance to change the subject. "How're things with you?"
He's not falling for it and digs into me again. I eye the clock above the wall, the tick of the second hand, giving him five minutes before I'll suggest a break.
Times up and we've gotten nowhere. I'm not playing ball."You want a smoke?"
He's as predictable as the days of the week. A pause while he worries what his wife will say. Another when he remembers she's left him and doesn't give a fuck. A fraction of a second when the pain is visible on his face. I hate that part. I count my luck I didn't fuck up a wife. Lose a kid. I screwed up way before that stage of my life. "Yeah. Might as well," he says.
We lean up against the bricks. It's not raining, but it's cold enough to puff our own smoke before we even light up.
"When will we be back?" I nod to the building across from us, its insides piled up in a dumpster out front.
"A couple of weeks or so. You want me to pick you up next week, make sure you get there okay?" He struggles to light up with the flimsy match I offer him. Route 55. Stale beer, old jukebox, a black eye. "Why the hell do you use these? Get a lighter, Jesus."
I laugh and accept his offer of a lift. Sometimes my conscience butts in to make sure I sort my shit out. We chat for a while about this and that. Nothing serious. I catch every movement on the street. A car pulling out the lot. Not her. A mom pushing a stroller. Not her. A cat trying to catch its dinner. Definately not her. If Em notices I'm distracted, he doesn't say anything.
When we turn to go back in for round two, I see the restaurant's not even open. I'm disappointed with relief.
On the bus home, I pull out my phone and call Ally again. Get her voicemail again. More relief. I don't think I could handle that conversation right now, not when my mind's full of nothing but bad news.
It's a shitty time to try and get home—we're locked in the middle of rush hour. I've been staring at the same crawling cars and depressed faces for half an hour. I'm thinking I should've walked, when I'm rewarded for my laziness. Through the filthy windows, I catch a glance of a brunette walking back to where we've crawled from.
I can't be sure it's her, but it's enough to test my limits. The bus pulls up to the curb, doors whoosh open, and I have to switch off—flatline so I don't do something stupid.
Think of the devil and she shall appear.
Who am I fucking kidding?
AN: Thank you so much for all the reviews, follows and favourites. Your response has been amazing. See you soon.
Kim, Choc and Cat make this pretty for me. I heart them.