Pain, abuse, brutality. That was my life. I struggled and stressed; cried until I forgot what tears were. But I worked hard. I clawed to the peak.
And then I lost everything.
Most people would have shattered.
I’m not most people.
My dreams are gone, but that’s fine. I could have lived this tiny, broken life. I could have suffered in silence.
Until I met her: Noel.
God, she’s so alive. She makes me ACHE and I just…
I can’t ignore her.
So I won’t.
Noel thinks she can handle me. Survive me.
If she knew the truth—could see into my mind—she’d smarten up and run.
I’m so lucky she doesn’t have a clue.
Author’s Note: This novel is a stand alone. It contains scorching sex, violent themes, and mature situations that could make readers uncomfortable.
I didn’t react; I knew what was coming. I expected the slaps, the kicks, the spitting on my hunched body. I certainly wasn’t stunned when Mom shoved me against the edge of my bookcase.
Distantly, I knew I used to be scared of the pain. At some point, after every day of disappointing my parents, reality had gone fuzzy and cold on the edges.
Even my own name sounded hollow to me.
My dad, that time. He lifted me up, crushed me against the wall. My body vibrated on impact, but nothing fell to the floor. I didn’t hang art or photos. I was smarter than that.
“Are you listening?” Which of them had asked? I didn’t know, my head was throbbing. Looking up, I found my mother’s sour glare. Her arms were wrapped violently around herself. If she let go, I suspected she’d crumble into small pieces. “They called today. Of course, you already knew the results, didn’t you?”
Yes, I’d known. I’d been sure at the audition, noting how the judges frowned, feeling every mistake I’d made. I’d still hoped, though. I’d begged inside and outside that this time I’d be accepted into an elite ballet school; the cream of the crop. My parents changed their preferred program every year. It should have given me a hundred opportunities. I should have passed one audition.
It never happened.
Not for me.
My dad let go, wiping his palms on his stick-thin legs. I didn’t blame him; I disgusted myself. “You don’t care anymore, do you, Carter? We do everything to pay for these classes, these lessons, and you still let us down every single goddamn time!”
He was screaming, spittle flying. Despite the noise, I still heard the tiny whine. My hearing had always been good.
Covertly, I peeked out into the hall. A small, fuzzy dog—Midnight, named for his color—looked back at me. You want to help, I thought sadly. Don’t bother trying. You’re as weak as I am.
“Nothing gets through to you anymore,” my mother sobbed. Her tears were dry, I was familiar with her desire to martyr herself. “Oh, God! I’m a terrible mother, aren’t I?”
“No dear, no!” Dad hugged her, comforted her through her shivers.
“Then why doesn’t he try harder?”
“He will,” my father promised. His eyes narrowed on me, then trailed towards the hallway. My dog offered a small wag of its tail. “He just needs the right motivation.”
Motivation? Yes, I knew how they liked to motivate me. The beatings, the abuse, had become so normal… it did nothing to me anymore. It was like brushing my teeth.
But my father was a clever man. He knew an opportunity when he saw one. I’d witnessed his conniving side enough to spot it instantly. Clenching my teeth, I faced him with the first flicker of dread—such a weird feeling—that I’d felt since I was little. “Don’t you dare touch him.”
A stillness came over my father’s face. “It’s only because we want the best for you.”
“I said don’t touch him!”
Shit, that raw emotion. Scalding hatred crawled up my throat, smoldered in my clenched fists. They both saw it; only my father recognized the signs.
I was smaller than him, a lean fourteen year old who had accepted every casual attack since the roots of my memories. Right then, I didn’t feel small or numb or weak.
In my eyes, I knew my dad saw blood lust.
He actually backed away, flustered. In a burst of angry shame, he pushed me aside and went for Midnight. It didn’t matter how much I wanted to stop him; he was big, I was small, and that was my reality.
Weak, frail, worthless.
“Please don’t hurt him!” I cried, real tears—the last tears I would ever remember shedding as a kid—dripping down my chin. My mother did nothing, just watched as he grabbed my whimpering pet. “I’ll work harder, I swear! I’ll train more, I won’t mess up anymore!”
Their hard eyes rested on me. Had I fallen to my knees? I didn’t remember doing that. My parents were giants, towering so that their voices came from miles above. “You care more about this animal than you do about us. We love you, we just want you to succeed. Isn’t that obvious?”
“Yes,” I sniffled. No, I thought in bitter resentment. But what did I know about love? Maybe this was love. It was all I’d known.
In Dad’s hands, my dog looked so fragile. “Pass the next audition. Understand?”
The ‘or else’ wasn’t spoken. It didn’t need to be. “I will, I really will.” My voice was strained. I’ll do it, because if I don’t, they’ll hurt my dog. The world wasn’t fair. No, worse than unfair. It was cruel and cold.
Inside of me, something was strangling, shredding at my innocence. It was the first sign of what lay in wait for me. What I would eventually become.
We tell kids about monsters. We warn them with stories and tease them about dark corners.
We never talk about the rancid parts they can’t see.
What it feels like to have a monster growing right inside their own heart.
* * * * *
I passed the next audition. I nearly killed myself, but I did it.
I passed them all, every single one, for the next two years.
It wasn’t until the summer I turned seventeen that I failed another. By then, the joke was on my parents. They couldn’t punish me. Midnight had already passed on, hit by a car while I wasn’t home. Their trump card was gone.
There were no tears from me. As I buried him by myself, tamping down the dirt in the backyard, I felt a little envy. I didn’t want to die, I knew that… but I tried to picture what it was like for him. That instant, realizing his existence was just… finished.
How freeing that must have been.
You’d think that after putting me through so much hell, that with my eighteenth birthday drawing near and my ability to abandon them both on the horizon, that my parents would have eased up on me.
You’d be wrong.
They hit me more than ever, and when that didn’t satisfy, they started to openly hurt themselves. When I was younger, I didn’t think about where my parents got their money. I was out of the house so much with ballet and dance and education, I spent very little time under my own roof.
I had memories of people, faces I rarely saw again, visiting us at odd hours. They’d see me sometimes, looking away like my existence was too wretched to witness. Then, there were the men who stared at me.
I hated them in a way I couldn’t grasp as a child.
Over time, though, the facade came down. My parents openly did their drugs in the kitchen, sold and traded and used with their customers. There was no shame. Often, they’d accuse me of being thankless when they were high on whatever mix, their noses bleeding, teeth yellowed.
Like all of the horrors in my life, I adapted to this one, too.
I’d grit my teeth when I saw them unconscious on the floor. There was a prickly, jagged thing in me that loathed who they were—no—what they were. Selfish people who had shoved me at arms length, then pulled me close just to hurt me with glee.
I was becoming no better.
They’d made me into a heartless machine who chased perfection, and it was all I knew.
While they withered away and sank deep into their own dark mistakes, I kept up in my studies. I attended every ballet class, I practiced hours and hours a day. I didn’t fear them anymore. I didn’t have time for their judgments.
I was quite busy with judging myself.
Failure, I would think in wretched despair. Anytime I turned my leg out wrong, didn’t land right, didn’t spin fast enough or smooth enough… anytime I wasn’t perfect, I fed the monster in my chest.
It was always hungry.
There was only one vice that I had, something that distracted me and gave me a place to run to when I wasn’t able to train but didn’t want to return home.
There were plenty of them who pursued me. Classmates, other dancers, they chased because I wasn’t attainable. My aloofness attracted them. I didn’t understand it, and the meaningless sex never satisfied me. Each of them broke up with me or avoided me when it became clear I couldn’t let them inside. I didn’t know how to. I’d built my walls so long ago, I didn’t know a world without them.
Honestly, I thought it was better for them. Safer.
Inside of me, curled around and swimming in my warm blood, there was a creature as awful and deadly as cyanide. I’d let it near the surface the day my father had threatened my dog. It had grown to big to ignore then—hell, maybe it was still growing.
It was dangerous to them, the girls who tried so hard to get too close. I’ll admit that also, for me, it was also a terrible allure… the idea of letting it out. What would happen—to me, and the unlucky woman? If I allowed myself to act freely, gave in and dove into my passion, I might finally enjoy the sex.
But that poor girl…
No. It was better to keep my walls up.
As quick as the flood of attraction had started, they began to ignore me. Word had gotten around. I was emotionless, empty and unfeeling. No one wanted that, not long term. The temptation of ‘changing’ me was erased.
That was fine.
It was better for everyone this way.
* * * * *
The news wouldn’t shut up about the damn fire.
Days later, and still, the people on TV babbled about the violence, the scandal, of the drug ring right under their nose.
I bent over the floor, reached for my toes, tried to focus. I didn’t need to listen to the details. I knew everything; more than all of them.
The police had been blunt when telling me how my parents had been killed. They’d hoped I could give them information, lead them on the right track. I’d had nothing to say.
Around me, I felt the eyes. Again, I tried to concentrate. They all know. Everyone here has to know. But who were they to judge me? How could they understand?
If anything, what I was doing…
My parents would have wanted it this way.
“Everyone,” a strong voice called, leaning into the room. The man held a sheet of paper, eyes rolling on us—all twenty optimistic hopefuls—before pausing on me. The way he hesitated, it dug spider-claws deeper into my veins. “They’re ready for you now.”
In the lights of the studio, I saw myself in the mirrors. I was no longer the small, tiny thing my father had once found so easy to control. The years had shaped me, made me tall and lean with muscles running under my flesh like rocks under a rushing stream. Black leggings reminded me of charcoal. My home that fucking drug gang had set ablaze.
I could still smell the burnt flesh in my nose.
On the stage, all of us lined up. The judges sat behind their table, sentinels waiting to decide if we were fit to go further. This was nothing small; I was planning to snatch one of the few positions in the San Francisco Ballet school.
Everything I’d endured, it had been preparing me for this. I had no other plans. I would get in.
I had to get in.
We were told the combinations, shown them only twice. There was no kindness here. The judges needed to know we could follow instructions and waste no time.
In the corner, someone began playing the piano.
It was our moment—my moment—to prove myself.
Power exploded from my heels, vaulting me up so I could make smooth flutters. Down, up, fly. I dug myself into the stage. The wood was my earth, toes curling in my socks. When I leaped, I could nearly touch the ceiling—no, the moon.
Everything extended from me, out of my fingertips. When I danced, the monstrous tumor of hate and disgust clung to my guts less and less. I was lighter than light itself…
A pure flame.
Like the flames that ate my home and cooked my parents. They’d already been shot dead, of course, so they hadn’t felt the heat that charred them and left them for me to find later and—and—and.
The image was in my skull. It painted itself behind my eyes, haunted me and made me think about how—right at that moment—the funeral was happening.
It wasn’t fair, making me choose between that and my audition.
God, why was life so fond of fucking with me?
When the music ended, I was covered in sweat; only some was from the performance. I was glad I could blame it.
Around me, I saw the faces of my competition. Their calm poise, how they looked everywhere but at me until they were sure I had turned away. None of them could understand. They would judge me for my decision, find me guilty of being selfish and heartless, but they could never know. They hadn’t been through the same hell.
I was jealous of that—and it made me heavier. Inside, my heart thumped and screamed and allowed the gift of freedom—the thing I still danced for—to fade.
“Carter Braeburn,” the man with the papers said. It was my turn to solo in the center of the stage. It should have been my moment, it should have made me feel something. Fear, excitement… anything.
There was no question that my moves lacked soul. I could tell from the judges, just scanning their tight frowns. Only one of them watched me curiously; a face I thought I recognized, but the low lights made it hard.
I wanted to fly again. Bitterness weighed me down. My body didn’t belong to me, it belonged to the scaled monster in my core.
It was over too soon; the music erasing into the air. Swaying to a halt, I stepped off the stage at the end of my turn. I kept going, heading into the empty hallway. There was no question in my mind. I’d fucked up, failed again!
I’d missed my parents funeral for nothing.
Waiting to be rejected was too much. I didn’t want to hear critique, didn’t want to see the eyes full of pity or scorn. Yanking on my sweatpants and sneakers, I shoved out the backdoor and into the wet night.
I walked for some time. Rain pelted my face, legs close to running. My intestines wrapped around my lungs, my breathing a strained grunt. There was no destination, I just had to keep moving. Anything less would let whatever was growing finally catch up with me.
My world was crumbling.
I had nothing anymore.
Gone. Everyone, everything. I stepped over a puddle. I’ll have no where to stay, no money. The police had explained to me, the day after my parents’ death, that their money was from ‘illicit’ sources. That was code for ‘none of this money belongs to you.’
I really had nothing left. Getting a scholarship into that school had been the epitome of my existence. My last hope. Again, the snake coils tightened. Maybe, if I just kept running… I’d vanish. Just dissipate into the wind. I could learn how Midnight felt before the end.
Jerking my head up, I saw the group of men. They were standing in front of me on the empty street, like they’d been waiting for me. That made no sense; I didn’t even know where I was.
One of them threw a cigarette at the muddy ground. “You’re Carter Braeburn, yeah?”
A tingle of warning started in my brain. “Why?”
“That’s him,” a heavy-set guy with red hair said. He spit over his shoulder. I saw the orange streetlight glint off a pipe in his fist.
The man who’d been smoking looked me up and down. “You’re sure?”
“Yeah. Few times I was there, I seen him. While back, he was scrawnier, but it’s him.” Greasy cheeks parted, silvery teeth glinting. He must have had fillings on every tooth—and it made my breath catch.
I’d seen this guy before.
In the ghosts of my memory, I saw that awful smile peering at me while my parents snorted white lines off the kitchen table.
The final man, shorter than the others, tilted a squashed hat down his forehead. “Fine. Make this fast.”
They rushed me, a pack of hyenas with their grins jagged in the night. A fist hit me in the temple, faster than I could react. Red burst behind my eyes. The night became wobbly behind a bloody filter.
They’re going to kill me, I thought. I don’t know them and they plan to fucking kill me. My dulled senses turned into a roaring torrent of fury. No, I did know one of them—knew him from the back corners of my memories. Shiny Teeth there, he’d been in my house. He’d known my parents.
It all snapped into place like the most gruesome of puzzles.
The murderers. These men had ruined my parents, burned my home and their bodies and put the lead inside their skulls. I had no doubts. It was them. Why would they be looking for me?
To finish the job, I realized. Whatever my parents sins, I was being punished for them. It had been that way my whole life. This gang, they’d planned to shoot all of us when they’d visited. They wanted to burn me to ashes in my bed.
Just like my parents.
Just like my future.
It was pure chance that I hadn’t been sleeping at home that night.
Something broke. It resonated from my core to my tendons, left scratching insect legs and primal screams in its wake.
Around me, the echo of rain faded. Everything faded. In a rush that made me gasp, I suddenly saw the world for real. Saw the cells, the colors, the wrongs and twists and bitter rotten insides. Nothing had ever, ever felt so good. I’d finally done it.
My walls were down.
The men were amazed when I didn’t lose my balance in the first attack. I saw the white, bulbous eggs of their eyes. “Hit him again, Raff!” Shiny Teeth demanded, his pipe at his hip.
Another arm came for me; I slapped it aside, grabbed the elbow and threw him to the ground. I was screaming, I couldn’t stop. The noise was beautiful.
“Fucking shut him up!” Who had spoken? I didn’t care. Fingers went into Raff’s hair, my muscle bulging as I pulled. The man went down, his nose crumbling on my knee.
Thump thump thump, my heart was open.
I was more alive—more free—than when I danced.
Why had I kept my walls up?
“Take him the fuck down!”
At my feet, the man I’d knocked out was moaning. His skin was white, shiny like a sea shell in the sand. I didn’t see Shiny Teeth swing the pipe; it punched the side of my left knee, shattering bone and creating black shapes in my vision.
The men left standing were breathing rapidly. “You hear that?” Shiny Teeth asked.
“Sirens, yeah. Shit! Forget this. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Shuddering, I twisted on my palms in the street. I could hear the faint sound of cop cars, too.
Metal clanged, the pipe landing nearby. My eyes shot to it, then to the retreating men. One of them—the tallest—was hesitating. “You really wanna just leave him here like this?”
They didn’t mean me. They were staring at their moaning friend.
“Fuck him,” Shiny Teeth grunted. “Let him take the fall.” Sunken, pea-sized eyes flicked to me. “Listen up, asshole. We’re leaving you alive. You tell the cops this fucker hit you with that pipe, that no one else was here, or we’ll find you again and finish the job. Got it?”
I said nothing. They didn’t wait to see if I would. Turning, the pair fled down an alley, abandoning me in the rain with my mangled leg.
The man coughed, adjusting on the hard ground. His nose was dripping blood; it looked black in the late hour. The sirens said cops would be on us in minutes. They’d show up, look at the scene and call an ambulance.
Only one of us would be needing it.
At my feet was a gift. This man had assisted with breaking me into pieces… with killing the only family I had, as abusive and shitty as they were. He’d helped me come undone.
Crawling forward was agony.
Feeling my fingers on his throat was anything but.
Blame him for what happened. That had been my instructions—Shiny Teeth’s warning. Fine, I’d happily oblige.
The flesh under my hands went from pale to purple. He made small gurgling sounds; I ignored them. He scrambled to break away, but I was locked on. Glistening eyes gaped up at me, begging me to save him. He couldn’t know I was just as trapped as he was.
My madness, my wrath, had finally found a suitable target. The beast had been starving too long. It wanted to tear someone to chunks, wanted to let loose and finally make someone else suffer. He was just unlucky that he’d been within reach.
Sitting there in the rain, blinded by the pain of my shattered knee and fragmented future, I watched the light fade from my attacker’s eyes.
And I loved every second of it.
* * * * *
Self-defense. That was the official ruling.
The police hadn’t seemed interested in anything further. There was no questioning of the timeline, they just took my word. I’d been attacked, I’d gotten my assailant down, he busted my leg and I choked him to death to save myself.
No one cared about a dead drug dealer.
I doubted anyone cared about me, either. I sat in the hospital for days, forced to suck down pain killers as my leg healed. It was a gruesome wound.
“You’ll be walking without assistance in six months,” the doctor explained. “You might never play professional football, though,” he had chuckled. He was trying to be kind; to make me laugh.
So I’d given him a tight grin… and managed not to tell him to fuck off.
My first only visitor came at the end of the first week. The brisk knock on the door lifted my eyes. A gentle, older face met mine—the judge I’d recognized from my audition. Where did I know him from before that?
“Hello there, Carter.” That heavy, familiar French accent sparked a memory I’d shoved away. A time when I’d been small, my first dance studio—when ballet had been a pure joy.
The images hurt my skull; I pushed them deep. “I know you, don’t I? Mr… Mr. Vince?”
His mouth turned up at its weathered corners. “Ah, after all this time. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t recognize you at first, last week, either.”
The reminder of the audition soured my stomach. Shifting in the hospital bed, I watched my knotting fingers. “But you did, apparently. I’m sorry for my performance. I wasn’t at my best that night.”
Mr. Vince waited—a pause that made me aware of how tight my breathing was. “Yes, your parents. My condolences.”
Condolences. His pity caused my neck to throb. “Why are you here?” I sighed, wondering if I should get another dose of my meds. I’d been going light—trying to deny myself the stuff—when I could. I took no comfort in relying on drugs of any kind. That scar was too deep.
The mattress creaked; he sat at the base. I eyed him nervously. “Carter, I wanted to talk about… you.”
“Me?” I sat up straighter. “Are you going to tell me how badly I did? I already know about that. Or, are you going to try and cheer me up because of this?” My arm jabbed sharply at my wrapped leg.
“I’m here because of your audition and because of your leg,” he grunted. It was so smooth, his transition from kind grandfather to strict guardian. Again, I caught bits of memory—me, practicing in a small studio as Mr. Vince coached, cheering and patiently corrected me. “Carter, I know how much you’ve been through.”
I wanted to challenge him. Something in his voice held my tongue.
From his pocket, he slid out an envelope; my lungs shrank. “There were many opinions about your performance. Some questioned your… character, for coming that night.” He was dodging the elephant in the room; how I’d chosen to dance instead of attending the funeral. “However,” he went on, “I argued with them about your skill. Beyond that, your spirit.”
“There’s more to ballet than just the movements. You flowed, you soared, you tore the air and I felt the rawness in you. Carter,” he said, leaning closer, offering the envelope. “Before you open this, let me express how sorry I am.”
As my belly twirled, I took the paper. Shaking fingers carefully pried it open. I didn’t know what to expect anymore. My world was on a roller-coaster.
Reading the black ink, the words went fuzzy. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s a great tragedy, but you deserved to know.”
There was a lump in my throat. “It says… I was accepted.” After I was so sure I’d failed, this… “I actually got approved for the scholarship. So… so then why are you sorry?”
Simultaneously, we both looked at my broken leg. My ribs quaked, fighting down laughter or vomit. Now I understood.
The great tragedy. Crumpling the letter, I dropped it on the floor without looking. “They won’t let me attend because of my leg. Right?”
Mr. Vince frowned severely. “It would be impossible. The letter is only a formality, the scholarship will have to be given to someone else. Carter, I—”
“Why?” I whispered, covering my eyes, digging in the heels of my palms. “Why give me the fucking letter at all?”
“I wanted you to know you were good enough.”
“How does that help me now?” I growled, pushing until my eye sockets ached. “It’s pointless. I got what I wanted, and can’t even have it! Now, I might never dance again, so why…” Why is the world so awful? I wanted to ask it, scream it. Razors wound around my center. I punched the button to dispense more pain meds.
It wouldn’t help.
It wasn’t my leg that actually hurt.
The springs squeaked again. He’d moved beside me, lifting the letter from the floor. “I wanted you to know you were good enough,” he said again. “And to offer you another chance.”
My arms fell into my lap. “Another chance.” I was too lethargic to make it a question.
“You’re young, Carter. You can do wonderful things with your life. With time and work, you might even dance as well as you did before this injury.” I didn’t control my derisive chuckle. He acted like he didn’t notice. “I taught you when you were a child. I’m not a teacher anymore. In a month, I’ll be going back to France, taking over a dance program my father used to run. I want you to come with me.”
Like my head was stuck in honey, it took me forever to meet his stare. “To do what?”
His wrinkles bunched on his forehead. “Well, to change lives.”
“Change whose lives?” What is he offering me?
“I’ll send you a formal letter in a week. Consider everything it says. And this time, Carter…” He pushed the crinkled envelope—the reminder of my lost scholarship and dreams—into my hands. “Don’t just casually throw it away.”