Just a little sneak peek at my upcoming book, Barbed Wire Bandages.
(Yes, I’m aware the paragraphs aren’t indented. Apparently that’s what happens when you cut and paste.) 😛
“I fucking hate this place.”
Garrison grumbled to himself as the shuffling of sneakers and scraping of spoons attempted to deafen him. All around the cafeteria, his classmates smiled, flirted, and gossiped. They made high school life look so easy, so effortless, and all Garrison wanted was to fit in, be a part of the crowd – any crowd – and not wake up every morning paralyzed by the thought of dragging his shitty body to his shitty school to deal with shitty assholes all day.
At six foot one and a buck fifty soaking wet, Garrison was a walking catastrophe. Try as he may, he just couldn’t get his thin, awkward frame to creep through the halls of Till Creek High School undetected. He wanted nothing more than the ability to blend into the background of adolescent life, but fate had taken a special interest in him, and she was a cruel, cruel bitch.
If someone were to trip over their own feet and fall face-first into their mashed potatoes on meat loaf day, you didn’t have to look up from your gravy to know it was Garrison. And if the locker room door were to swing open ten minutes before P.E., there was a 99.9% chance Garrison would be the poor schmuck standing in the doorway, his tighty whities on full display.
And the guy picking up his spilled books from the hallway? The guy with a drenched crotch thanks to a water fountain malfunction? The guy who couldn’t quite make it to the top of the rope in gym and ended up falling to the floor in disgrace?
As he sat alone at a table, his nose buried in The Best Loved Poems of the American People, Garrison wondered when it was going to happen for him. ‘It’ being the happy, content life he’d dreamed about since the day his social ineptitude was brought to his attention. Sure, most high school kids struggled occasionally, but it seemed that every week grew progressively more difficult for him. And he was tired of struggling. He was ready to reach the peak and somersault down the other side.
As he gave up on reading and gathered his things to leave, a large hand smacked him between the shoulder blades, sending a wave of painful pin-pricks crashing across his back. He cringed and bowed his back, fighting the urge to cry out.
Show them no weakness.
Do not tear up.
Do. Not. Do. It.
Garrison clenched the underside of the table and wished he had the balls to tell Nat just how much he despised that nickname.
“You forgot to eat your green beans. Don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong?”
The football flunkies stood around the table like a Hollister-clad Stonehenge, chuckling at their quarterback’s patronizing tone. As Nat’s athletic frame slid into the seat next to Garrison, he tried not to flinch or curl into himself, but ended up failing miserably. He couldn’t help it. It was simple conditioning. Over the years, he’d learned that a pinch, a smack, or a painful noogie could come out of nowhere.
“What? Is this seat saved?” Nat smiled, knowing damn good and well that Garrison was alone.
Shawn, Garrison’s one and only friend, was out sick for the day, a fact Nat was aware of since it was him that locked Shawn in the milk cooler for the entire duration of third period the day before.
When Garrison meekly shook his head, the entire football team slammed their trays down and squeezed their muscled torsos and all star glutes into the picnic-style bench seats. The entire table creaked and groaned beneath their weight, but arguing their invasion wasn’t an option. That would have been social suicide, if Garrison’s social life hadn’t already been lying in shambles at his feet.
Garrison held on tight as his nemesis tried to shoulder him off the seat and into the floor, but his grip was faltering. He stretched out one foot to brace himself against Nat’s seemingly innocent assault and prayed to the High School Gods, asking them to spare him for just one day. One. Fucking. Day.
Nat Stilton was a brat who had stepped into his self-imposed role of class bully on day one of pre-school. On day two, he set his sights on Garrison- as did every other little terror trying to climb their way to the coveted spot of Schoolyard Alpha.
Not much had changed in fourteen years. Nat still took pleasure in tormenting him on a daily basis. But Garrison never pushed back, no matter how much he wanted to. He only hung on for dear life and waited for Nat to get bored.
As he kept his hold on the table and began counting down the minutes until fourth period, he felt a sharp tap on his shoulder.
“You’re done. Move.”
He didn’t need to turn around to know who that voice belonged to. As he started to stand, fingers sporting talon-like nails wrapped around his scrawny bicep.
“Hey,” she barked. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you.”
He had no choice. Not if he wanted to leave the cafeteria in one piece. As he willed his body not to shake, he slowly turned to face Bridget Warner. He could see his pathetic green eyes reflected back at him in her expensive shades. He didn’t dare look at anything else. Not her full lips. Not her silky hair. And certainly not the kick ass curves every guy in school wanted to get their hands on. He didn’t dare look because that was a one-way ticket to the dumpster behind the school, courtesy of Nat, and because he hated Bridget.
He hated her because she had absolutely no excuse for being the heinous bitch everyone knew her to be. She came from a kind, charitable family that had no qualms with anyone else in town. Nat, on the other hand, couldn’t escape nor deny his rank in the social hierarchy of Till Park. His sour nature was bred into him. He came from a long line of worthless, lazy, self-entitled bastards who did nothing but bring everyone down and trample spirits with their shit-caked boots.
Nat had latched onto Bridget the second she abandoned her training bras in favor of padded lace, and they’d been inseparable ever since. If Nat was King Bully, Bridget was his queen, and she ruled with an iron fist and rusty brass knuckles.
“Well,” Bridget said, impatiently gesturing to the open aisle. “Get.”
Without a second thought or a single word in his defense, Garrison grabbed his tray in one hand, his bag in the other, and scrambled away from the table. Laughter followed him as he tried to hide his flushing cheeks. Underclassmen, most of whom thought he was a waste of space, planted their feet, making it as difficult as possible for him to pass.
“Don’t scare the poor boy,” Nat yelled, pulling Bridget into a teasing hug. “You’ll make him wet himself.”
“Twice in one week? We wouldn’t want that.”
Garrison made his way to the edge of the room, giving the table the side-eye long enough to watch Bridget flip her brown hair across a shoulder and blow him a demeaning kiss.
When he finally made it to the hallway, tears stung at his eyes as he slammed against the lockers, struggling to keep himself together. He didn’t want to fall apart in those halls. He couldn’t. That would be the end of him. If he broke, the wolves would descend and he’d be buried before he could even think to wipe his tears.
With a deep, resolute breath through chapped lips, he stuffed his emotions into the same vault he kept his heart, wit, and spontaneity, and decided the day was ruined. Hell, high school had been ruined because of those two and the mockery they’d made of his very existence.
Abandoning the rest of his classes for the day, Garrison stashed his books in his locker, jumped on his ten speed, and rode toward the one place that had been on his mind all year long. The one place where he knew he’d find a solution, or at the very least, sound advice.
He was tired of being pushed around. Tired of being treated like a lesser person. Tired of being a joke.
He wanted to do something that could change all that.
So, with labored breaths, Garrison Beckett peddled his way to the recruiting station.
Ten Years Later
“What the hell am I doing?”
Garrison Beckett read the sign again, squinting behind his aviators at the familiar wordage. The pale yellow paint adorning the cockeyed billboard had worn off years ago, but you could still make out where the words Welcome to Till Park had first been engraved.
“Son of a bitch” he groaned, leaning back into the leather headrest. “I must be out of my damn mind.”
With one hand on the steering wheel and the other raking over his two day beard, Garrison rolled into the city limits of his hometown. He made his way down Main Street, noting that not much had changed in the years he’d been gone. The storefronts that boasted signs for a pizza parlor, laundromat, and attorney’s office still sat deserted. High school students loitered near Bucky’s, the only bar in town, even though they weren’t old enough to enter, let alone drink there. And every set of eyes he passed tried to laser their way through his tinted windows to get a good look at the man behind the wheel. Folks in Till Park had always been the most curious, loose-lipped, judgmental people to grace God’s green earth.
As a familiar anxiety began to build, Garrison grabbed his cell from the cup holder and dialed his best friend. He tapped the wheel, fighting his muscle’s urge to pull an illegal u-turn and haul ass back to Georgia. But before he could tuck tail and run, Owen answered.
“You make it yet?”
“What the hell am I doing here?” Garrison blurted, repeating the question for Owen since he hadn’t been able to answer it himself.
“Well, from the sound of it, it sounds like you’re about to chicken out.”
He huffed out a laugh. “Yeah, right. I drove seven hours to get here. I can’t just turn around and drive back home.”
“Well, technically you can, it just wouldn’t be your wisest move.”
“Coming here wasn’t my wisest move,” Garrison admitted.
“Dude, grow a pair. It’s one party.”
“Nooo,” Garrison drawled. “It’s one high school reunion with a bunch of shitty people who hated me in school.”
“So? You’re a fucking Marine now. They don’t like you? Kick their ass.”
Garrison rolled his eyes even as his chest ached for what he’d just given up.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Owen scoffed. “Ex-Marine. I keep forgetting your pansy ass went rogue on us.”
“I didn’t go rogue,” he argued for the umpteenth time. “My contract was up. I wanted a change. What is so fucking wrong about that?”
“Nothing. Not a damn thing.” Owen paused, and when he spoke again, Garrison knew he was smiling. “But you’ll be back.”
“Says the man who doesn’t plan to reenlist when his contract is up in six months.”
The beat of silence that followed made Garrison wonder if Owen was second guessing his decision. It wouldn’t be the first time a Marine had been on the fence. Once a Marine, always a Marine. That’s what his superiors had drilled into him from day one.
But Garrison was different. As was Owen. They’d served their time. The Corps had changed them, molded them into something better, something stronger, smarter, and braver. But they both knew there was more to life than serving. At least, they hoped.
“I’m keeping my options open. I haven’t decided.”
“Right.” Loud clattering came across the speaker and Garrison jerked the phone away from his ear. “Where the hell are you?”
“Chow hall,” Owen answered around a mouthful of food. “Where are you?”
“Till Park.” Even the town’s name left a sour patch on his tongue.
“Good. Now suck it up, go to the party, bed some good ole southern gals, and come home.”
“The reunion’s not for another two weeks. What am I supposed to do until then?”
His best friend let out a noise that was half sigh, half grunt. To him, it seemed like nothing more than a trip home, but Garrison’s visit was so much more than that.
He hadn’t so much as stepped foot in Till Park since graduation day; the day he said goodbye to everything he knew about life. He hadn’t even packed a bag. He just taped a note to his uncle’s keg, saying that he’d see him in a few years and caught a ride upstate from his recruiter. That was ten years ago.
“Beckett, this was your idea, remember? Your self-imposed vacation before you started looking for a job. So… do whatever people do on vacation.”
Garrison shook his head as he turned onto an abandoned street. “I’ve never been on vacation. I mean, hell, the last time I was on a beach I was getting shot at. I think it’s safe to say I have no fucking idea what a civilian vacation would be like.”
“Me either,” Owen admitted before cursing under his breath.
Frantic scrambling and the clattering of dishes overshadowed his voice, and Garrison would have bet money on the fact that Owen was late. That man was always late for everything.
“Look man, I gotta go. Call me later if you need help with the hotties. I know your A-game must be pretty damn rusty.”
“I think I’ll manage,” Garrison said with a laugh.
“With that face? Doubtful.”
Before he could argue, Owen hung up and the phone went silent. Without much else to do, and no one to answer to for the first time in years, Garrison took his time driving through town, re-familiarizing himself with the layout. By the time the sun set, he’d seen the dilapidated senior center, the run down grocery store, the patch of brown grass that passed as Till Park’s football field, and everything else in between.
He yawned, and the idea of venturing to his motel and turning in early briefly flitted through his mind. But when he rounded the corner, Bucky’s came back into view and the neon lights called to him. If that damn Corona sign were a woman, she would have licked her lips and crooked her finger, beckoning him to come inside.
He idly tapped his fingers against the wheel, contemplating how he wanted to pass his time. On one hand, if he threw back a few drinks he might actually be able to tolerate his first night back in that wretched town. But on the other hand… People. He would have to deal with people.
Garrison didn’t hate people. He just hated the Till Park variety.
“To drink, or not to drink. That is the question.”
While sitting at the stop sign across from Bucky’s, raindrops began peppering his windshield, but not a single vehicle approached from either direction. The town was close to dead and it was barely six on a Saturday night. He hadn’t expected to see more than a few ancient trucks rumbling up and down the pock-marked streets, but the sight still depressed him.
Garrison inched the car forward, still debating on his first move. He was horrible at sitting still. He couldn’t sit down long enough to read a book, enjoy a concert, or get lost in a movie. He’d been in high gear for so long he couldn’t remember what it was like to relax. Even when he and Owen ventured out to bars around base, they never claimed a seat. They were always moving, chatting up women, dancing, or competing in one way or another. Darts, eight-ball, snooker; they were always playing. Always winning.
But that was his life in Albany, Georgia. Back where his brothers in arms knew him well. In Till Park, the place he’d fought tooth and nail to escape a decade ago… no one knew him. Not the Marine he’d become. Hell, they probably didn’t even remember the awkward, knobby-kneed kid he was in school. That boy was the very definition of unimpressive, so Garrison didn’t expect anyone to remember his face, let alone his name.
Knowing that the chances of running into anyone curious enough to approach him were slim to none, he let off the brake and coasted into the parking lot.
The atmosphere inside Bucky’s Bar & Grill wasn’t what Garrison was expecting. Not by a long shot. He imagined low ceilings, wood paneled walls, rickety bar stools, and surly patrons. But when he stepped foot into the renovated firehouse, he was pleasantly surprised.
Bucky had taken advantage of the two-story building and had turned the loft into a party room locals could reserve for special occasions. The ground floor was distinctly sectioned off into two areas. Toward the back was a relaxed dining area where couples sat at thick wooden booths with checkered tablecloths sipping wine and ale, while the front of the building was completely open and boasted beautifully stained hardwood floors. Garrison assumed that was the dance floor, but seeing as it was too early for uninhibited dancing, none of the barflies were kickin’ it to Cotton Eye Joe just yet.
There were quite a few couples moseying around, but not enough to make Garrison abandon his thirst and head for his motel. He planned on putting that off for as long as possible. If you’ve been in one roach motel, you’ve been in them all, and Garrison had stayed in plenty.
As he took a seat at the bar separating the dining area from the dance floor, a thin blonde with legs for miles approached him with a pitcher.
“Hey there! Need a menu?”
“Uh, yeah, please.”
The waitress handed him a small, laminated menu from her apron and took his drink order before sauntering out of sight. While he perused the entrees, he stole glances at the patrons. He wondered if he knew any of them once upon a time, while at the same time hiding his face just in case anyone took notice of him.
Surely they wouldn’t. After all, he’d gained over one hundred pounds in the last ten years, he kept his dark hair cut shorter, and the hard lines of his face bore little resemblance to the fresh-faced child he was before leaving Till Park. No one would ever know he was-
He begrudgingly turned, looked up from his menu, and came face-to-surprised-face with someone he was actually pleased to see.
When he stood, Shawn pulled him into an intense, back-slapping, man hug before holding him out at arms length, inspecting him from his high and tight down to his well-worn boots.
“Holy biceps, Batman! Look at you! Life’s been good to you, huh?”
Garrison smiled genuinely. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. You look…”
“Exactly the same, right?” Shawn laughed, and Garrison was happy he admitted it. Shawn really hadn’t changed. From his stature, his hair, his skin, his voice- he hadn’t changed at all.
“Rach! Can I get a shot for my friend over here?”
Shawn raised his hand over his head and the waitress who’d taken Garrison’s order stomped back into view, clearly not happy with how Shawn was yelling across the room.
“Shawn, you don’t have friends,” she yelled right back. “You have people who tolerate you.”
“Not this guy,” he said, nudging Garrison in the ribs. “We go way back.”
“Oh? Prison buddy?” She tilted her head to the side and offered the duo a sugary-sweet smile.
Out of the corner of his eye, Garrison watched Shawn cringe.
“Nah. High school, actually.”
“Really?” She took a step forward and squinted, perhaps trying to place him. “A Till Park native?”
“Yup.” Shawn slapped Garrison on the back, a gesture he was quickly growing sick of. “But this one escaped. Left the day of graduation to serve Uncle Sam.”
That little tidbit of information seemed to interest Rachel, seeing as how she pulled her shoulders back and made a show of jutting her ample cleavage forward. “A soldier, huh?”
“A Marine,” Garrison corrected.
Even across the room, he could see her pupils dilate. “Even better.”
He’d have to watch that one. He knew there were women out there who had lady hard-ons for a man in uniform, but he’d been lucky enough to avoid them most of his military career.
After Rachel took her sweet time undressing him with her eyes, she nodded to Shawn and grabbed a shot glass off the rack before filling it with whiskey.
“Two, please,” Shawn said, slapping the bar to make sure he had her attention.
Ten shots later, they were thoroughly caught up. Garrison didn’t have much in the way of things he could talk about, but Shawn had lived a colorful life. Between hopping jobs every year, three DUIs, a not-so-brief stint in prison, and two failed marriages, Garrison was surprised Shawn looked as good as he did. He didn’t look like a recovering alcoholic, nor a man who’d had his heart repeatedly trampled. He looked like the same old Shawn.
“So, seen anyone else since you’ve been back?” Shawn asked as Rachel set a pitcher of beer between the two of them.
“Nope.” Garrison shook his head, thankful he hadn’t run into anyone before Shawn. “I literally came straight here when I got into town. I haven’t even had a chance to check into the motel.”
“Good priorities,” Shawn chuckled. “Beer, babes, and then bed.”
“I guess.” He smiled into his stein, remembering that Shawn had always been a candid individual. “So, are there quite a few people still around?”
“Are you kidding?” Beer sloshed onto the table as Shawn poured it, his hand shaking. “Almost everyone we ever went to school with. Not a lot of people left after grad, and if they did, they were back within a couple years.”
“Tragic,” Garrison muttered under his breath. Between the rainstorm raging to life outside and the steady hum of music, Shawn couldn’t hear the bitterness lacing his voice.
“Oh! But get this!” He yelled, suddenly remembering something crucial. “Crazy Cat Lady is still rompin’ around these parts.”
“Who?” Garrison took a sip of beer, for once cursing his high tolerance. The world was barely starting to fuzz around the edges and Shawn’s loud voice, which had been hell on his ears, was finally starting to become bearable.
“You remember Bridget Warner?”
Just hearing that woman’s name caused Garrison’s shoulders to stiffen and his pulse to jack up a few notches. It had been years since he’d thought about Bridget Warner or Nat Stilton or the football players and cheerleaders that made his life a living hell, but the memories still stung. The anger was still there. The resentment was buried deep, somewhere his conscious thoughts never ventured, so the reminder did nothing but piss him off.
“Yeah. I remember her.”
“Her parents left her their place when they kicked the bucket and she turned it into some kind of animal shelter. She goes around town collecting strays in this beat up Ford.” He closed his eyes and laughed. “She went from high school royalty to crazy cat lady. It’s fucking hilarious!”
“Oh, yeah?” Garrison tried to sound interested, but the truth was, he just didn’t care. At least, that’s what he told himself.
He wanted Shawn to drop the subject, but at the same time, he wanted reassurance that she’d gotten what she deserved. So he allowed himself one question, hoping for the bleakest of answers.
“Is she still with Nat?”
“Oh, hell no. That dick left town a while ago. He’s some big name in marketing now. Or accounting or real estate or some shit. Hell, I don’t remember. All I know is that when I got out of the pen, he was long gone and Bridget was busy collecting pussy off the street.”
Good to know.
That meant one less person to run into. One less person he’d have the urge to throttle.
“She stays out there by herself, almost never comes to town,” Shawn continued.. “I bet she’s three hundred pounds with yellow teeth by now.”
He laughed heartily and eventually Garrison joined in, thinking all the while that that was just the kind of life someone like Bridget Warner deserved.
After he started refusing refills and some of the alcohol had burned from his system, Garrison bid goodnight to Shawn with a promise of catching up again before the reunion. Exhausted, he made his way outside, cursing the rain he’d been eyeing from the safety of the bar. When he stepped out from under the awning above the door, the cold pellets seemed to intensify and he fumbled for his keys as the rain soaked through his light jacket.
“Till Park really fucking hates me, doesn’t it?”
By the time he managed to wrench his door open and climb inside, he was soaked to the bone and thoroughly pissed. He turned the key and glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Hours had passed since he rolled into town and it was beyond time to get to his motel, check in, and dig out some dry, warm clothes.
After spending so many years in the Corps serving in all kinds of shitty weather, his body was used to the sticky, uncomfortable feel of his wet shirt rubbing against his chest. But he wasn’t a Marine anymore. He was a civilian. He didn’t have to endure.
The car purred to life and he backed out onto the street, fully intending to retire for the night.
But something stopped him.
Something deplorable and disgraceful… and too powerful to ignore.
“Bad idea, man,” he whispered to himself as he tapped the wheel. “Bad. Fucking. Idea.”
Curiosity nagged at him.
It wouldn’t relent.
He needed to see, needed to be reassured that one of the most awful human beings he’d ever had the displeasure of knowing had ended up living in filth and degradation.
He had to know.
So, instead of driving the short distance to a guaranteed shower and bed, he turned in the opposite direction and made his way out one of the many dirt roads in town. Even though Garrison knew how shitty of an idea it was, he traveled steadily down the gravel trail leading to the Warner property.
Add to your TBR: http://bit.ly/1S16QRe
Copyright © 2016 Catherine Black
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission of the author.