Bonus Scene from TEN BELOW ZERO by Whitney Barbetti
© 2014 by Whitney Barbetti
All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
We were standing directly next to one another as I pointed out the petroglyphs. A few times, I looked over at Parker, watched her take it in. I wanted to peek inside her mind, to see what she was thinking.
She’d asked me earlier, at the gas station, how I was feeling. I’d told her I didn’t know. It was true, to some degree. More accurate was that I didn’t have words for this. In the span of a few days, she’d become someone I felt complex things for. All of that had come to a head the night before, when she’d cleaned my wounds in the bathroom of the hotel. And later, when I’d had the nightmare of the man that knocked Parker down. I’d stupidly tried distancing myself from her earlier that morning, pissed to be feeling anything for her.
And so I’d continued being an asshole earlier this morning, telling her to kiss me like she meant it. I was selfish, there was no other way to explain it. I pushed her and pulled her, ignored her and overwhelmed her. I knew I confused her, but I didn’t give a damn. I wanted her to feel. It was as simple as that.
She turned to look at me, her eyes searching. I almost said something before one of the tour guides interrupted my thoughts, tore my eyes away from staring at her. “Now, you can find petroglyphs in many national parks around the country. Take the Grand Canyon for instance, has anyone been there?”
I hesitated only a second, glancing quickly at Parker. My lips curved as I spoke. “We were there a couple days ago.” I felt her eyes on me.
The tour guide nodded, encouraging me to continue. “Did you explore it?” he asked.
I looked back at her, looking forward to what was about to happen. I aimed a thumb at her. “No. Parker called it a big hole in the ground, so we didn’t stick around.”
Like I expected, her eyes shot to mine, wide eyed with shock. I couldn’t help but smile back. She self-consciously looked around, before she turned back to me and glared. “You’re an asshole, Everett,” she said, her cheeks coloring the most beautiful shade of red. My arm moved of its own volition, wrapping around her shoulders and pulling her closer to me.
“Do you love me yet?” I whispered, my breath at her ear. I felt my heart thud in my chest and the words I’d spoken became weighted as I realized what I wanted her answer to be. Shock pooled in my veins then, but I didn't let go.
She shoved away from me, muttering “Definitely not,” as she walked back down to the car.
The thud in my chest became a punch, a solid one. I winced a little, not expecting my body’s reaction to her answer. I knew I was an asshole. Part of my reason for being an asshole was because it was easier to be one, to keep people at arm’s length. I was dying. I had to deal with the disappointment my mother and sister felt every time I told them I was taking this final journey.
But the bigger reason I was an asshole was the cancer. The surgery years earlier had removed the tumor and my tact. Gone was the Everett that had been the life of every party. In his place was me, this person who spoke harshly, sometimes by choice and other times because it was in my nature.
The funny thing was that with my mother and my sister, I was very mindful of how I spoke. Careful not to hurt. But with Parker? I didn’t censor myself as much. I very much wanted to hurt her. To know that I could, because then she’d have to admit that she too was feeling whatever it was that was building between us. If I could hurt her, pull her from her tomb of indifference, then she was feeling something. And not just something, but something for me.
When we reached the stopping point for the arch, I collected my thoughts as I grabbed the camera from my backpack in the backseat. Parker went ahead of me, with the group up to the arch. I watched her for a moment, so completely committed to keeping her thoughts locked inside that head of hers, that I nearly forgot what my mission was.
I caught up to her a few yards from the arch. “Wait a second, Parker,” I called, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Turn around.”
She turned around and I moved so I was standing behind her, my hand still on her shoulder. I inhaled the scent of limes that followed her. “That’s the Purgatoire River,” I said, motioning out to the view in front of us.
“Picketwire. Purgatoire,” she said. I could tell she was working it out in her head.
“Yes. Spanish explorers called it their translation of “The River of Lost Souls in Purgatory” after having a tough go of it. French trappers later called it the Purgatoire River. The pronunciation was bastardized when American Explorers came through, and so this canyon was called Picketwire.” I leaned down, bearing a little more weight on her shoulder and put my lips to her ear. “Everyone comes here to see the arch, but I think the arch is the fortunate one, to have this view, a view that was named for purgatory.” It was the truth.
I always told people I didn’t remember this, didn’t remember the Picketwire Canyonlands, from the trip I took pre-surgery. And while it was true, it wasn’t completely true. I remembered the parts I’d studied in advance, the arch and the dinosaur prints. I had the vaguest memory of watching my family climb up to the arch while I stood in this spot and stared at the valley below, thinking about the possibility of death. Thinking about Purgatory. Heavy stuff for a teenager.
I wanted Parker to see it, to understand.
“But isn’t purgatory a place of suffering, a place you have to atone for your sins before being admitted to Heaven?” she asked.
I wanted to connect with her. Maybe by touching me, she’d feel it. She’d get it. I needed to speak more deeply to her. I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her back, into me. “How very Parker of you to think of purgatory so negatively.” I leaned in so close I could kiss her temple. “I prefer to think of it as a place to cleanse, to purify your soul before heaven.” I pressed a quick kiss there, unable to resist being so close and not tasting her skin. I closed my eyes and breathed in her lime scent. “And is there a better place to see while you’re waiting for your forever in the afterlife?”
She seemed to relax in my arms so I held her for a moment, letting the warmth of her body soothe me.
“Come,” I said, reaching in front of her and grabbing her hand. I pulled her up the hill as the last tourists started to depart. I reached a hand out to one of them and asked him to take our photo.
I jumped up on the ledge below the arch and pulled her right up next to me. My heart was beating loudly in my chest and I summoned the words that I hoped would speak to her soul, that would help her understand the significance of this moment. “Look, Parker,” I said, point out in front of us. My voice sounded gruffer than usual. I swallowed. “Look at this view as this man takes this photo of us.” I turned to look at her, put an arm around her and pulled her close, so nothing, not even air, separated us.
I put my lips to her ear. “Everyone who sees this photo will see us under the arch. But when you see this photo, you’ll see the canyon and the water and all the beauty in front of us.” Everything else around us dropped off. All I saw was her. She was in my arms, her short breaths becoming the only sound I was aware of, and her scent wrapping us in everything that was perfect about her. “Remember that, Parker. When you look at this photo, remember looking at purgatory with me. While everyone else was looking at the arch, we were looking at that.” I felt the ache then. I’d been trying to speak to her soul. Instead, I’d succeeded in speaking to mine.
She turned her head tentatively, so she was looking at me. Her eyes were wide, vulnerable. Her lips trembled. My lips touched hers and my hands moved to hold the sides of her face, my grip tight. This kiss involved only our lips, but there was no doubt that my heart was tangled in that mess of flesh.
I pulled back and stared at her, wanting to see her reaction. She still looked vulnerable. But she had a secure lid on her emotions, so I swallowed uncomfortably. “Let’s catch up to the group,” I said, jumping down from the arch in a fall that was more graceful than the one my heart had just done.
I wouldn’t ask her if she loved me again. Not unless I knew, wholeheartedly, the answer. Another “No” would be like a knife to my soul.