Inked by Chris Ledbetter by Chris Ledbetter - Read Online

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Inked - Chris Ledbetter

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Vinci

Chapter One

Waiting is the hardest. It’s sweeter sorrow than parting. Anticipation builds like pressure in a spray paint can, combustible neurotic anxiety. But sometimes, hope and expectation can outweigh the event that comes. My mind wanders through worst possible scenarios like strolling through a hallucinogenic mist where horrific fears manifest. And still, I wait.

Aches gnaw at my ribcage. I pull down the window shade slats again to peek out of Pizzetta’s Pizzeria’s front glass. This is the place we picked, right? I check my phone for the eleventieth time and sigh.

Can I refresh your water? Toni, the waitress, asks, slightly louder than the indistinct chatter.

I purse my lips and nod. I recognize her from school, but we’re not friends. Raven hair falls across her olive-toned face. Her easy, knowing smile caresses my manic state while she fills my water glass…for the fourth time. I check my phone. Again. And gaze out the window. Again.

Waiting does conveniently afford me the time to reaffirm my new life’s goals, since being given a second chance after that near-death joy ride not long ago. Though, joyous is not quite how I’d describe my experience. My number one objective is to stay alive and finish this school year unscathed. I absolutely can’t scare Dad like that again. It’s not fair to him or Mom. I spare a glance to the copper ceiling tiles and whirring fans. RIP Mom.

My second goal is to get through the upcoming holiday season without completely losing my marbles. Mom’s death last year changed the Thanksgiving and Christmas landscape forever. Dad and I will have to lean on one another. We have no choice. Furthermore, I really need to find the strength to move past Mom’s home going. I don’t even know if that’s possible. Or even a worthy goal.

Did you want to go ahead and put an order in? the waitress asks. It’ll be ready by the time she arrives.

Dang! Am I that obvious? What makes her think I’m waiting for a girl? A throb slowly beats at my temple. I couldn’t even guess what kind of pizza Farrah Spangled likes. The aroma of fresh-from-the-oven, doughy, cheesy pepperoni goodness skims past my nose as another waitress sets down a pie at a nearby table. Everybody likes pepperoni, right? Nah, I better not.

The waitress flashes a soft smile. The one that says she knows. Everything. I tug at the window slat again. A tumble of red hair rounds the corner into my view. A sigh shudders through me while an uncontrollable smile steals up from my core. Her head turns over both shoulders as she approaches the pizzeria’s front door. I quickly scoot backward in my chair as if I hadn’t been worrying the hell out of the blinds for the past forty or so minutes.

She casts two furtive glances over both shoulders before grasping the door to the best Italian food in the Wilmington, NC area. She crosses the threshold. Our eyes meet like it’s the first time. We drink each other in during a moment of pause. A smile plays at the corner of her mouth. She bites her lip.

You made it, I whisper.

You doubted me? Her head twists to the side and thumbs over her shoulder. I could leave—

No! That’s not what I mean—

I know what you meant. Her smile could make the Devil blush. I had to take care of a few things. She pauses, walking closer, holding my gaze like it’s precious and fragile. Her glasses magnify her blue eyes. Sorry. I would’ve texted, but… She pauses. She glances toward the floor. Dad checks my phone bill like he’s FBI now.

Ahh, I see your other party has arrived? Our waitress smiles. Wanna grab a table, or would you rather sit at the window.

Table, we both chime. Near the back.

Farrah slides into the seat across from me. She pushes her glasses back up her nose, and then decides to remove them altogether. Her blue eyes flash up at me from under beautifully naked lashes. The better to see you with.

After a fair bit of fidgeting, I break the silence. I hate waiting to talk to you. I wanna put that out there.

Well, we both decided… Her voice trails off.

I know. And it’s probably the best decision, but…

The waitress brings Farrah a glass of water. Have you decided?

I’ll take a slice of grilled veggie. Farrah looks up from the menu.

And I’ll have two slices of meat lovers.

The waitress leaves. The intensity of the hushed air between Farrah and me grows, partly because I understand what it means. It’s not exactly uncomfortable, just a dense fog. Despite being healthy again and back in school, there are still things we haven’t discussed. Multitudes.

She stirs the ice in her glass. I’m not gonna lie, I have questions for you, but I want you to lead off.

God, I have no idea where to begin. It’s not like I don’t know her queries. I could write them down verbatim without missing any punctuation. I jump right into the deep end and hope my swimming skills can withstand the tide.

Let me start from the beginning… I explain everything.

Mr. Cassisi, my art mentor who recently passed away.

The sketchbook. The moving image. The deadly magic.

She adds in her own experiences. I intertwine them with my own.

And by the time we finish our pizza, our understanding is solid.

I am so sorry I put you through that pain and agony. I grasp her hands across the table. I’ll never hurt you like that again.

She laughs. The tension breaks. If you do… Her eyebrows shoot skyward. If you draw me in that damned sketchbook again, I will walk to your house and I will end you! You got me?

Loud and clear. I’d never endanger her like that. I’d rather eat glass than hurt her. I chuckle and stare into her eyes for a moment too long. Were you ever scared?

She exhales slowly. Not really, if that makes any sense at all. It felt like such a surreal dream that I never really took it seriously.

But about the sickness…I mean, were you afraid in the hospital?

She looks away. Her eyes close slowly. Yes and no. She huffs out a curt breath. "The pain wasn’t fun, but it was the oddest thing. For the first time in my life, I felt truly alive. I realize that sounds crazypants, and trust me, I don’t ever need to do that again, but for once my existence wasn’t this numb drone of illusions, façades, and expectations. And it gave me distance from Chace that I never knew I desperately needed. I had time to figure some things out, and…yeah…"

Does Chace even know the details about your Terra Sempre adventure?

God, no! No one does. I’ll carry that shiz to my grave. She beams a grin. See what I did there? I’m trying not to curse so much.

Potty mouth.

Clean enough to kiss you with. She wipes her mouth and then bites her lip. We should do this again. Of course, I’ll have to run a 10k just to burn off this slice.

Did you sign up for Jamison’s Turkey Trot 5k?

She shakes her head. Should I?

It’s for a good cause.

Hmmm, are you running?

Maybe—

Yeah, see…that’s the thing. We need to keep a low profile for a minute. Only until my dad’s skin tone turns from red-hot fire poker down to a normal shade of crimson.

My soul kinks. She’s right. Kind of. How long do you think…

What, until he finally accepts you? Uhh, hmmm…

I hate sneaking. I feel like I’m doing something wrong. And I’m not. And you’re not.

She places her hand over mine. Baby, I know. But you remember what happened at the hospital. Our families aren’t exactly exchanging Christmas gifts.

The truth of that statement spears me. But we should be. Do you think it will always be this way?

She sighs. Mom is…well, she’s easier. Less rigid, we’ll call it. Dad? She turns away for a moment. Let’s say that I’m seeing a side of him I never knew was there. I guess if I looked hard enough I could’ve noticed, but never really recognized it. Her face softens. Come to think of it…some of Mom’s comments and expressions make sense now.

Explain?

She shakes her head. Maybe. One day. Baby steps, Cam.

I arch my brows.

"I chose you, yes. And I’d do it again. But, this is still a heaping bowl of new."

I’m sorry for rushing in—

No. Not at all. I don’t want you to stop. You have to understand our roads are different, especially at home.

I nod.

Her smile weakens me to putty. "I need some new Chucks. You wanna follow me to Journeys in the mall? That place is my sanctuary. I wish I could buy stock in that store for all the money I drop in there."

My mouth says yes before I’m able to fully digest the potential consequences for either of us. I want this moment to go on forever. Farrah. Conversation. Italian food.

We pay and exit. You wanna ride with me? I ask.

Farrah’s gaze sears into me. Yeah…no. Her eyes twinkle when she smiles, though. How’d that end us up last time?

But it’s different now. I slide my arm around her shoulder. Back then, I hadn’t yet saved your life.

You hadn’t endangered it yet either. She pushes her glasses up her nose again and pins me with a glare.

Touché.

Chapter Two

We park and enter the shopping mall. I trail behind to drink in the dappled sunlight bouncing off her corkscrews of auburn hair. And the pendulum of her hips could probably be outlawed in several states.

Journeys is right around the corner from the entrance. Farrah’s face brightens like someone just handed her a winning lottery ticket. She beelines straight to the Converse All-Star low-tops. Some artist somewhere had an unrestrained field day creating this collection. The shades range from canary yellow and bubble gum pink to UNCW Seahawk teal. I can almost taste a York Peppermint Patty by looking at the cool mint-green shoes.

Farrah fondles a paint-splotched pair and wheels around. Badass, huh?

The store associate, a girl not much older than us, chimes in. Yeah, until 1971 you could get any color, as long as you wanted black or white. But now, the All-Star universe is a Technicolor dream.

I turn the splotched shoes over in my hand, thinking I could spill paint on these and no one could even tell. Then I see some straight awesomeness. Andy Warhols? I ask before my brain filters.

We got them into this store not long ago. The salesgirl tosses the graffiti-designed shoe to me. You must be an artist.

Guilty.

Farrah turns slowly, casting a sidelong glance at her. Then she glares at me, and then back to the salesgirl. Heat creeps up my neck. Farrah grabs a white All-Star hi-top with a Wonder Woman design on it. Can I see these in a child’s six?

Those are hot, I whisper.

Farrah mouths back, Damn right. A devilish grin creases her cheeks.

The salesgirl returns a moment later, removes the right shoe, and laces it.

Sit down, I say to Farrah. I got this. I beckon for the shoe from the sales associate. She obliges.

Farrah sits and slowly crosses her legs. I kneel before her, gazing into her intense blue eyes. Her cheeks flush as a stifled smile twists her lip at the corner. She finally breaks my gaze and drops her forehead into her hands, before driving her fingers back through her hair to get it off her face.

I cup the back of her heel, sliding my palm up her denim-clad calf. She bites her lip and casts a glare at me that says she’s probably going to kill me later. Or kiss me.

I slide her shoes off and place her sock-covered feet on my thighs. She wiggles her toes at me and smiles. Her high, freckle-laden cheekbones radiate a warm glow.

I slip the Wonder Woman All-Stars slowly onto her feet and tie them. Your invisible plane awaits you, M’ lady.

Well, aren’t you fast, a male voice interjects from outside the store.

My head whips toward the voice. It’s Mr. black E-Class himself, wearing a pink polo, pale blue shorts, and deck shoes.

Branson, what are you doing here? Farrah says.

"Same as you. It’s bring your help to the mall day, yes? He sneers. Or is that tomorrow. Did I miss it—"

I’m about tired of your crap. I stand, but Farrah tugs at my arm.

I got this, she says, stepping toward Branson. Not dating Chace anymore, so you can crawl back to your hole.

You’re right. Chace deserves better. He turns, muttering under his breath. The South never should’ve lost the war.

I step in front of Farrah. To paraphrase Victor Hugo, the greatest army in the world couldn’t stop an idea whose time had come. I cross my arms.

Farrah places a hand on my back. And besides that, the North had better generals.

Branson enters the store with his right hand reaching for his back pocket. He glares me up and down. I stiffen my back, gaze unwavering. He pauses, glances at Farrah, and then at the sales associate. He pulls his cell phone from his pocket, sneers, then turns to leave.

That was tense, the salesgirl says. Frenemy of yours?

Unfortunately. Farrah returns to her seat, wringing her hands.

I sit in front of her again, and then take her hands in mine. You’re trembling…

Farrah yanks her hands away and folds her arms, hiding her clenched fists. She huffs and crosses her legs. Her foot bounces incessantly.

I grab her Wonder Woman-clad foot. Relax. I’ve been through worse encounters than that.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

I gaze into her eyes. Do you know how the mighty icebreaker ships work in the frozen waters up north?

She shakes her head, half rolling her eyes.

I press forward, undaunted, bringing my hands to a steeple. For starters, the hull is reinforced. One side doesn’t work without the other. I press my fingers at the tips to impress my point. And secondly, they don’t actually plow through the ice. They rise above it. And then the weight of the ship breaks off the ice so that they can displace it. Cool stuff, right?

Farrah laugh-sniffles and fails to stifle a smile that speaks multitudes. Her stormy eyes are liquid behind a wall of moisture. She unfurls her fists and places her hands on either side of my face. You’re amazing, you know that?

I shake my head. I simply fight for what’s worth fighting for.

Do you have a brother? The salesgirl interjects. If he’s anything like you, I’d fight for him.

Farrah and I chuckle. Farrah drops her head down into her lap for several seconds. Her auburn locks fall over the side of her legs.

You know what we need? I say.

She shakes her head, eyes downcast.

Kilwin’s! And we need it now.

Ice cream? But it’s … well, hmmm, I guess it’s not that cold—

Course not, I say. It’s the perfect diversion excursion.

What the…? She chuckles.

It’s something Mom used to say whenever we went somewhere, like on vacation.

She punches me in the arm. Actually, Boombalatti’s has better cream. But I am not going on that side of town right now.

Good. Kilwin’s it is. Let’s go.

I still have to pay! Sheesh. She turns to the sales associate and points toward the wall of shoes. I’d like the Wonder Womans, and the Carolina blue, beach glass, thunder gray, and Jack Purcell Twilights all in a size six please.

My mouth gapes. She’s dropping over $300 on shoes on a random Tuesday like it’s nothing. That’s insane. I won’t spend that much on shoes in five years.

****

After leaving my truck at my house, Farrah treats me to a ride downtown. It’s the second time I’ve been inside the Mercedes. It’s no less impressive this time. My fingers dance over the worn leather seats, still buttery soft. The interior lights dazzle compared to my ’81 VW truck.

We park at the very top of the downtown deck as the sun sets fire to the far side of the Cape Fear River. Coral bleeds into tangerine, while lilac clouds with dark periwinkle underbellies streak across the sky like a light brush stroke.

We trek down the stairs to the ground floor and emerge back into the light. Well, light-ish. The setting sun casts long shadows over the downtown riverfront area. We cross Front Street and a slew of bars we’re not old enough for yet. Just past a set of local clothing boutiques Mom used to work with all the time, the Kilwin’s aroma hooks us at about ten to fifteen paces and reels us in like helpless fish.

Oh, God, do you smell that? She inhales deeply. A smile beams across her face. Good call, Cam.

Heaven on Earth, girl, I quip. I’ve already petitioned the USDA and the FDA to add Kilwin’s ice cream to the official food pyramid.

Yeah, it’s called dairy, fool. She cracks up. I love the musical tone of her laugh. I need it like I need air.

But… I flash my forefinger in the air. Kilwin’s is so much more than dairy.

She smirks. I’ll give you that. But good Lord, you are carbing me out today.

We cross the threshold into the two-story shop as fans drone above our heads. Crossing the wooden floor, we’re immersed into the rich aromas of waffle cones, fudge, and ice cream flavors one only dreams about. She orders a medium cup of Kilwin’s Mud, vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips and caramel.

I order my old standby vanilla milkshake. It’s quite middle of the road, but sooo good. If I make it at home, I put extra vanilla extract in there. Or rather, that’s what Mom used to do. And then she’d add a splash of half and half. Sooo nom-worthy.

We take our treats down toward Water Street and the river’s edge. It’s still fairly crowded with people on the Riverwalk, despite being so close to Thanksgiving. We sit under a nearly cloudless sky and watch the lights from nearby businesses reflect on the water’s surface. I could exist in this moment forever.

On the way back to Farrah’s car, I edge closer and nudge her hip. She smiles up at me. I slowly ease my hand across the cosmos. Our pinkies touch. A jolt of unexpected bliss shivers up my back. She leans her head to the side, using her opposite hand to drive her hair off her face.

Our fingers brush again. I reach out. My hand slides around hers, palms molding into one another. Our fingers thread as she grips tighter and flashes a smile. The remainder of our walk is cloaked in comfortable silence. Sometimes words are so unnecessary.

We weave back through town to my house. Beneath the aged oaks that shadow my driveway, I slide my hand over her shoulder and around to the back of her neck. She licks her lips and presses them. Her right hand grips the hand brake as she slowly