Chapter 5

The lone scar Amari had, she’d gotten when she wrecked her ankle. She was rushing to a date that evening and was even skipping the lone concert she’d found to go to. Concerts weren’t her first choice of live event anyway and there would be plenty of time for mundane things like concerts back home. In the rush to get down to Park Road, she stepped on the edge of the sidewalk where the concrete met the grass. Her ankle burned as she righted herself but she could still walk and that was all that mattered.

     While she was sitting on a bench on Queen Street, making sure not to put her bare sock on the ground as she slipped on the ankle brace she grabbed out of Stirling Sports, she began to have doubts. Going back to her flat never occurred to her; she HAD to be on time. But…why?

    Was any of this worth it? Uprooting her life to do…what, exactly for half a year?

     Would they have done this for me?

     But like she always did, she pushed the doubts down and slipped on the hideous boots (the only thing she could find when her Converse finally gave out) and went on to the bus stop, dutifully letting them know where she was, despite rarely receiving the same courtesy in return when they were running late.

    These days, she didn’t think of the bench on Queen Street, but rather how long she’d need to ignore the throbbing and make an effort to hide the limp. Malik had never seen the brace, mostly because Amari didn’t want him to know there were any other remnants of that period. That she couldn’t drink, couldn’t dress the way she liked, couldn’t eat, sleep…Amari could hide those things and she could hide mild pain too.

     The question was whether or not she could hide from Khadijah. She wanted to write, not bare her soul to a stranger. But sometimes she wondered if it was even possible to do one and not the other.

     As she walked to Grand Central Library, her phone’s GPS giving instructions in one earbud, she began running down what Khadijah might have to say about her latest revisions. She’d emailed a copy two days prior and refused to look at it any longer. Would the substance Khadijah swore was in there be closer to the surface? Or would it still be buried underneath her stream of consciousness?

     However the piece had actually turned out, Amari only had a few more moments to herself. She liked this better, she thought, arriving rather than waiting. She’d done her fair share of waiting, when they finally agreed to see him, she always worried she’d be left alone. But Khadijah was already at the meeting room she’d booked.

     “Bit big for just two people,” she’d noted after their greetings.

     “Only size they got. Plus I wanna spread out.

    A few minutes later, for the second time in as many weeks, Amari saw her book spread into piles with red marks covering the pages.

     “Now I’m liking what you’ve added so far. Way more direction. But there’s still too much distance from the reader. Look here,” she said, pointing out a passage Amari spent hours on and still hated.

     “I don’t get this guy. Why’s he killing people in the first place? Now you don’t need to spell it out, but I can tell that you don’t know. He’s just…doing ugly things, but they don’t feel ugly.”

     Amari scribbled that down-make it feel ugly. How would she do that? Hopefully before she next met with Khadijah, she’d answer that question. The next twenty minutes were more of the same and it all culminated with Khadijah telling her, “Sell me on it.”

     “Dial it back or turn it up, but sell me on it.” And Amari wrote that down too.

     She slumped into her chair, trying not to close herself off. She hadn’t had this much trouble writing in years. She hated her last book, sure, the collection of short stories being the low point of her fledgling career. But it had been easy to write.

     This one made her think. And a lot of how she’d been getting by was avoiding foolish things like thinking. Not about herself, at least. That was the problem with digging through her old notes for story ideas. Every so often, moments she’d spent many nights trying to forget would slip through; she’d make them solid and real for a few hundred words. And in such small bites, she could handle those moments. Turn them into fantastical story nuggets, things she would never touch again. And yet here she was, handling them roughly, breaking them down, trying to make it all make sense to people that weren’t in her head. Maybe…maybe it wasn’t worth the effort.

     “What if…” she tried to find the right words? Scrap it? Rewrite it again?

     “What if you showed your face here?” Khadijah slid her tablet across where there was an email from Jessie pulled up.

     “I’m not doing that,” Amari said the moment she saw the name Reeve Hastings.

     “He sent that invite for you.”

     “Who said I have to accept?”

     “Let’s be real, Amari. Jessie scrambled to push those short stories and we’re lucky your third book wasn’t canceled. You need to start gearing up to push this book. I know it’s a year off at least but you need practice. Just talking to me isn’t going to get you there.”

     “That’s…I know. I know. But is there nothing else?”

     “Nothing soon enough.”

     “Does it have to be him?”

     “What’s wrong with Reeve Hastings? It’s not like you haven’t name dropped him before. And Jessie told me you don’t like nobody so you must actually like his books.”

     Some things Amari planned to take to the urn. Malik was never supposed to know how bad things had gotten in Tamaki and with each passing day, she could see the truth coming closer to the surface. Her mom wasn’t supposed to know why she’d really moved out when she came home and so far, that was still looking possible. But no one was supposed to know about her fling with Reeve.

     “…how far off is it again?”

     “Two months. And it’s not advertised, but they want him to hype up a couple of Clear Isle authors, one of which he chose to be you.”

     He’s messing with me, but even as Amari thought it, she didn’t believe it. She hadn’t told Reeve anything, not about them or Tamaki or anything beyond taking safety measures. It was a few nights over a few weeks, nothing more, nothing less. And it was exactly the sort of thing she swore she’d never do, not after how she wished he could take back everything with them.

     “Did something foul go down between y’all? If that’s it, I won’t ask what but-”

     “No, no. It’s nothing like that. I’m the problem. Just…say yes.”

“Wanna be my plus one?”

     “Who catering?”

     “Ion know yet. It’s a book release so…”

     “Who book is it?”

     “Ah…Reeve Hastings,” Amari hoped that rolled off her tongue naturally, that she didn’t–

     “I haven’t seen him around in a while. What he up to?”

     “Releasing a book.”

     It was then that Malik turned his camera on, his expression flat. “Oh you think you funny.”

     “I know you like his books. You wanna come or nah?”

     “Aight. I’ll be there. That all?”

     There Malik went again and Amari felt a pang of guilt. She wouldn’t be lying per say, but she didn’t like splitting hairs like that, not with Malik. Mostly because when her friend had both the time and patience to needle, none of her omissions ever stayed hidden.

     “Yeah, that’s all. I might hop online later.”

     “We’ll see,” Malik snorted.

     “You right. I’ll see you.”

     Amari hung up and turned back towards the new piles her novel was split into and her open laptop.

     None of what she’d written was ugly. She didn’t even think she knew what that meant but she knew Khadijah was right. She wasn’t uncomfortable when she wrote, wasn’t digging deep enough. Sometimes the light pieces she penned came out well. Not everything needed to be so dark and moody and leave her so raw she couldn’t stand to look at her own work. But writing in that light, distant way was how she’d ended up with that shoddy short story collection.

     She couldn’t do that again. So she sat there, digging. It didn’t work too well, which wasn’t surprising. She wanted to get down something that sounded less…depressing. But that was the thing-it was. She did feel awful back then. Maybe she was able to function now but had she ever stopped to sit and think?

     The closest she’d come was the thing with Reeve, where for once she’d at least acknowledged to herself that she wanted to feel better. Maybe long-term it didn’t fix anything, but she had felt better for a while. Not…broken.

If Amari was going to attempt to go to the book release, she needed something decent to wear. After taking her measurements and spending a solid two hours on every site she could think of, she ended up calling Mrs. Maynard. She wanted to feel comfortable for once.

     “Look through these,” Mrs. Maynard spread a stack of patterns in front of her. Jackets and pants mostly; she could get by with a white t-shirt but the rest needed to be–

     “Business casual,” she muttered while she sifted through the patterns. She settled on pants that could be made with a thicker fabric; maybe then she wouldn’t need to layer so heavily since the venue was outdoors. The jacket was a loose fitting one that had a removable liner. Both would look fine with Air Forces.

     “These ones,” she passed her selections to Mrs. Maynard, missing when she didn’t have to worry about whether or not she’d freeze if she wore one layer too few. She originally thought the problem was the constant wind and rain in Tamaki but didn’t change when she went home.

     “What’s the occasion?”

     “A book release. Not mine, or you know y’all would have an invite. But I don’t get out too much. I wanna try to look good. Maybe I’ll feel good too.”

     Amari froze. Where had that come from? She didn’t have to dwell on it because suddenly there were fabric samples in front of her, sets for both the pants and jacket. She went for the thickest things that were in black.

     “I’ll see what I can do,” Mrs. Maynard smiled.

     She let Amari go not long after, at which point she had to find something new to do to occupy her mind. Something that would keep her out of the, “I know Khadijah is right but that doesn’t mean I ever planned on confronting jack shit” spiral she’d been in since the moment she looked at the email invite.

     She could write. Or go see Malik. Neither was all that appealing since both required that she think and that was the last thing she wanted to do.

     Instead, she went to the arcade, where she planned to stay until her fingers hurt. P1 was a short walk from home and in the summer, she would walk there. In winter, her fingers would be too stiff to play much of anything so she drove there with the heater cranked up. She spent the drive from the Maynard’s plotting out what games she would play; it was easier to think about than…anything else.

     The black light carpet was welcoming, as was the hug from Nina, P1’s sole proprietor.

     “Where have you been?”

     “Typing, scribbling. Trying not to wear my hands out.”

     “Well, you have fun. I got some repairs to make,” she motioned toward the far corner where an arcade cabinet was open and the repair tech was hunched over it.

     Her evening turned out to be somewhat relaxing as she made her way around the rows of fighting games, only playing through arcade mode once on each game. She always liked the adjustment period between games, remembering if she needed to press a button to block or just stand there, making minute spacing adjustments, and finding her fingers still remembered her favorite combos. Why couldn’t writing work that way? Where every so often it would all just…click. She was by no means a pro so she rarely won the same way. There was no combo she’d ever found to win every match, no guarantee she would win more often than not.

     Writing was the same way. No two pieces were ever the same, they never came together the same way either. Problem was, winning games was easier when she didn’t care but not caring made her writing distant.

      Amari reached into her pocket for more quarters and found it empty. She stood and stretched but stopped when she felt a bit lightheaded, hoping she played it off well. Drinking soda probably wasn’t the best response but it’d make her feel better. She went to the food counter where the lunch rush had just died down.

     Kishawn, the cook and busboy, came to take her order.

     “Medium RC, light ice?”

     “You got it.”

     Amari leaned against the counter, gazing over the mostly empty arcade floor. P1 had to be a vanity project and Amari wished she could afford to run one of her own. But she instead had to use her words to make a living.

     “You need quarters?” The repair tech was back at the end of the counter that gave out change and prizes.

     “I do, actually.” She passed her a ten dollar bill and got a fresh roll of quarters in return.

     “Do you draw?”

     “No,” was all she said at first, trying to mask her confusion. Most days she was so concerned with making sure she looked presentable at a glance that she didn’t fret over the small details. More than once she’d gone out in a Malik-approved outfit only for strangers to ask about a show or band she’d not seen in years. And she’d fumble most of the time. This time, she quickly followed up with, “What made you ask?”

     “Your hands. I worked with a lot of artists at my last job; they could never get all the ink off.”

     “Ah…I write, actually. My favorite brand of pens didn’t quite get the ‘quick-dry’ thing right.”

     “What do you write?”

     “Little of everything. Last one was a thriller though.”

     This was good. She was talking, sounding almost like a normal person, almost like she used to. Sure, a mostly empty arcade was nothing like a book release for her old fling that would be filled with other writers she knew and drinking and who even knew what else. But natural sounding words sounded natural anywhere you said them. At least she hoped they did.

     “Order up. Medium RC.”

     Amari thanked Kishawn and took a few sips, pretending not to see the wordless conversation he was having with the repair tech. She was about to offer up the name of her book when she felt small arms latch around her waist with an accompanying, “’Mari!” She turned around to find Malik’s sister, Cleo, beaming up at her.

     “What you doing here?”

     “I begged Malik to bring me before break is over.”

She looked around and saw Malik sauntering over to the prize counter. He looked tired, but there was no way he’d let on when Cleo was looking at him.

     “You good?”

     “Just got done grading so it was time to hang with baby sis.”

     Once Cleo’s vice grip on Amari loosened, she got her own roll of quarters and immediately dragged Malik and Amari to the air hockey tables.

     “Watch me win!”

     She found a bar stool to perch on while Cleo tried her best to end Malik’s winning streak. After a few failed attempts and with only two points before Malik’s next win, she pulled Amari to the table to take her place.

     “I’ll see what I can do,” she patted her head.

     “You look a lil’ better,” Malik said, keeping his words light and even airy.

     “That could change,” she sank the puck into Malik’s goal, to Cleo’s delight.

     “Do coming here help?”

     “Some days. Today’s one of them.”

     “Good.” The lights around Amari’s half of the board lit up in a panicked flashing pattern, letting her know that one more goal and she was through.

     “You still doing the book release?”

     Amari fumbled then, losing hold of her pusher after a swift goal defense but quickly grabbed it again.

     “Yeah. It’ll be fine.” She managed to land another goal, finally up five to Malik’s six.

     “Fine? You read the book yet?”

     “Nah. Waiting for my ARC. I’m sure it’ll be alright though.”

     The rest of the match went along with the more usual trash talk and Cleo’s cheering and Malik capturing the win.

     “Well, he won fair and square, Cleo. What do we do now?” Amari feigned sadness.

     “How about you get me a lemonade?” Malik passed her a card and she went off to the food counter.

     P1 was never especially full and today was no exception; with Cleo across the building, only the rumblings of demos coming from the game cabinets, she and Malik were almost alone. And that was exactly where Amari didn’t want to be.