Ten Below Zero (standalone)
“In here,” he said, pushing on the skin above my heart, “you're ten below zero. And you’re closer to death than I am.”
My name is Parker. My body is marked with scars from an attack I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember. I choose to live my life by observation, not through experience. While people are laughing and kissing and connecting, I’m in the corner. Watching them live. I’m indifferent to everything, everyone. The only emotion I feel with any kind of depth is annoyance, and I feel it often.
A text message sent to the wrong number proves to be my undoing.
His name is Everett, but I call him rude. He’s pushy, he’s arrogant, he crowds my personal space, and worst of all: he makes me feel.
He chooses to wear all black, all the time, as if he’s waiting to attend a funeral. Probably because he is.
Everett is dying. And he’s spending his final days living, truly living. In doing so, he’s forcing me to feel, to heal. To come face to face with the demons I suppressed in my memory.
He hurts me, he fulfills me, he completes me. And still, he's dying.
Read the first chapter, for free, below.
Ten Below Zero by Whitney Barbetti
Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
A single text message changed my entire life.
Unknown: This is Jacob’s friend, Everett. He said we should meet.
Ten words. Two sentences. And yet, it was the beginning of my entire life as I knew it, though I didn't know it when I first read the words.
It was also a wrong number. But I didn't tell him that, the mysterious Everett. My friends, or more appropriate, roommates, had just left me alone, so I sat alone in my apartment, wearing a sweatshirt that was three times my usual size and paint-splattered yoga pants. My face was completely free of makeup and my hair was in a bun on top of my head, a style that could not be accused of being fashionable in any magazine.
My night suddenly had an extra option thrown into the mix. Normally, my nights consisted of the same things: books, people watching from my balcony, studying, or working my shift at the restaurant. I was never chosen for Friday or Saturday nights. No one I knew would call me “outgoing” or even merely “friendly.” My shifts were usually breakfasts and early lunches, when the customers were too hung over from their all night partying to bother with engaging conversation. They were less likely to dwell on the scar on my face, or the one on my arm. My scars weren’t something I particularly enjoyed talking about over eggs and coffee.
But a text from a stranger was something that didn’t happen every day. Or any day, really. The only people that texted me were my roommates and it was always to pick up their drunk asses. As they had walked out the door this evening, Jasmine had even told me she expected me to be available to pick them up. And why wouldn’t they count on me? I was dependable. I didn’t party. I spent more time inside the apartment than out of it and I never ever had plans. Granted, Jasmine took advantage of my lack of social life and I let her. Tonight, though, when she’d blown the insincere kiss at me on her way out, I’d been angry. Which was new for me.
So I cradled the phone in my hands, rubbed a thumb over the words on the screen, and made a decision. To be reckless.
Me: Sure. Where? When?
I sent the reply before I could talk myself out of it.
It was dangerous behavior, especially for a twenty-one year old girl, but I always played it safe. I’d never broken curfew, I’d never snuck a guy into my room, I’d never gotten wasted, I never so much as straddled the line into rebellion. I was practically puritanical in my behavior. When I’d turned eighteen, all bets were off. And then, after being attacked in the middle of an abandoned parking lot, I’d crawled into a hole of indifference.
Which was probably why my roommates took advantage of my ability to pick them up from whatever hole in the wall they’d needed rescue from. I didn’t have a life. I didn’t do things. I didn’t have plans and I most certainly didn’t meet with strangers on a whim. I went to my anthropology classes. I worked. I hid in my room.
I tapped my fingers on my desk, willing his reply to come. And then I suddenly wondered if he even lived in this area. My new-found sense of spontaneity could be short-lived, depending on his reply.
I didn’t have to wonder long.
Everett: The Brick. Nine?
Being the shut-in I was, I quickly woke up my laptop and Googled The Brick, sighing in relief when I saw it was four blocks away from my apartment. I wouldn't even have to drive. I could run home if I wanted. I was forever thinking practically. Practicality: killer of dreams and fun. And I was practicality’s most valuable assassin.
Me: See you then.
I stood up and stretched, staring at my drab closet, hoping for inspiration. Just as I started to walk to the closet, my phone vibrated across the desk.
Everett: What will you be wearing? I need to know who to look for.
I looked down at my current ensemble. This wouldn’t do. I bit my finger as I contemplated. Inspiration came to me in an instant and my fingers flew across the on-screen keyboard.
Me: Look for the girl who doesn’t belong.
His reply came quickly, and seemed warmer than his earlier texts.
Everett: Now I’m really looking forward to meeting you.
If I smiled, I would have then. But I didn’t smile, not ever.
I whipped the sweatshirt over my head, sliding the yoga pants off immediately after. And then I strode across the hall into Jasmine’s room. We didn’t have explicit rules about sharing clothes, probably because Jasmine knew I’d never have an occasion to wear something that wasn’t from my usual drab wardrobe. But I opened the doors to her closet and stood back, admiring the bevy of options that greeted me. Four years earlier, I had worn clothes very similar. Less fabric and more skin. My hands caressed the hangers longingly. I caught sight of my left arm and pulled it back, as if it had betrayed me. The scar that ran from my elbow to thumb was a reminder of why I wasn’t a Jasmine anymore.
I grabbed the pale pink strapless dress from the hanger. I’d seen Jasmine wear it once. It was fitted to the body, with tiers on the skirt that reminded me of a mermaid’s scales. I remembered Jasmine hadn’t liked it much because her chest has spilled out of the top. Thankfully, though I had ample cleavage, no one would accuse me of being busty.
I ran out of her room as if I’d be caught and slid into the dress once I’d arrived in my room. I couldn’t wear a bra with it, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t have a full length mirror in my room because I’d never needed one, so I walked barefoot down the hall to my other roommate’s room. Carly was much nicer to me than Jasmine was. But she related more to Jasmine and spent more nights living it up with Jasmine at the local bars, so I was often left alone, which didn’t bother me in the least. In fact, I thrived in the loneliness. Carly could have treated me the same way Jasmine did and I still wouldn’t care. Mean or nice, it made no difference to me. Sometimes Carly’s niceness was as annoying as Jasmine’s meanness.
I walked to the mirror on her closet door and looked in. The pale pink color of the dress was pretty against my snow white skin. My eyes traveled up my reflection until they hit my face. I’d need to do something about the messy bun on the top of my head. And maybe makeup too.
I raided Carly’s supply of makeup, darkening my bright blue eyes with kohl liner. I smudged it around my eyes, creating a smoky eye. When I stood back to look at my reflection, I was reminded of my first year after leaving foster care, when I didn’t leave my bedroom without a full face of makeup. I shook the memory away and hesitantly rubbed some concealer across the scar that marred my left cheekbone. It was angry, raised off the skin from my lips, up my cheekbone, and into my hairline. I let my fingers graze over the ridge that cut into my pale skin and in my reflection I saw the scars on my arm and face aligned parallel. Before my brain delved into the black hole of that memory, I pulled my hand away and turned my face to get a better look at the scar on my cheek. The concealer I’d applied had only highlighted its prominence on my face.
I took a tissue and rubbed it away, preferring to show the tender flesh than to cake it with liquid lies. After sliding some simple studs in my ears, I walked into the bathroom and brushed my hair out.
The bun had given my long brown hair some volume, the ends curled out just a bit. I wore it with a part down the middle and let it hang without any extra effort. By the time I’d left the apartment, it was nearly nine and I knew I’d have to hurry.
The sound of laughter greeted me as I hit the sidewalk and I looked around, shivering from the fear that snuck up in an instant. What was I doing? I didn’t do this. I didn’t leave the apartment at night ever unless I was picking up my roommates. And I certainly didn’t walk anywhere at night anymore. My hands gripped the small purse I’d slung across my body. I’d packed my phone, my ID and credit card, lip gloss, and a knife. All normal, except for maybe that last one. I carried a knife with me everywhere. After being at the wrong end of one four years earlier, I knew just how deep they could cut.
I walked briskly down the sidewalk, thankful that the sidewalk was packed with people spilling out of bars for a smoke. Fifteen strangers were less scary than one.
What felt like a few minutes later, I stopped, standing right outside The Brick. Or, what I assumed was The Brick. Sure, the neon sign above the metal door stated its name, but the building did not exactly live up to it. It was concrete and steel, and a total dive. But I’d committed to this moment and had no desire to turn around. I pulled my phone out of the purse and looked at the time. 8:59. I nearly applauded myself on my promptness before I realized I probably should have shown up fashionably late.
The bouncer carded me before letting me walk into the bar. It was one long room. Narrow. A long, black lacquered bar glistened under the dimmed red lights, running the length of the room itself. On the opposite side of the bar were a bunch of pub tables. It was quiet. The only noises came from the bartenders setting thick glasses on the bar top, or the hushed din of conversation. I stepped a bit more into the bar and heard the dulcet tones of something resembling blues music from the speakers that hung over the bar.
Remembering why I was there, my eyes traveled over the handful of couples that occupied the pub tables and deduced they were not who I was looking for. My eyes moved to the bar, taking in the lone patrons who sat there.
There was an older man, who looked halfway to a deep sleep at the end closest to me. I safely assumed he wasn’t Everett. I noticed a couple suits and narrowed my eyes, but passed over them when I saw a woman sidle up from behind me to sit between them. If I didn’t have a purpose for being here, I would be very interested in watching their exchange.
I saw a few lone stragglers and a couple middle aged women before my eyes landed on him. I almost didn’t see him, as his head was bent down while he played with a lighter. He sat near the very end of the bar, alone, with a short glass of amber liquid in his free hand. His hair was ink black, thick, and overlong. I could see a spackling of facial hair on his face, though it looked more like he hadn’t shaved in a couple days than a legitimate beard. I couldn’t see his face easily from the dim lighting so I moved slowly down the bar in his direction.
As I approached, I took in his clothing. Black jeans, black belt, black dress shirt. Over the back of his chair was a black leather jacket. A man in black.
I took the seat next to the man in black and set my purse on the bar top. The bartender walked my way and I kept my eyes trained on him as I felt the eyes of the man to my left focus on me.
Out of my peripheral vision, I saw the man in black’s eyes slide down my body and I resisted the urge to squirm in my seat.
“What’ll you have?” the bartender asked, bracing his hands on the bar across from me.
I raised my head to look over the man in black at the bottles that lined the wall. “Gin and tonic please. Extra limes, too.”
The bartender nodded and moved away. I set my phone on the bar top and then reached in my purse to pull out my credit card. And then I turned my gaze towards the man sitting next to me.
The first thing I noticed was his bright eyes. My own blue eyes were bright, but his were a frosty blue-green, unnatural looking with his black hair and thick black brows. His forehead scrunched up before he tilted his head. “Sarah?” he asked tentatively.
The bartender returned with my gin and tonic and I slid him my card. “Do you want to start a tab…Parker?” the bartender asked, reading my name from the card.
I turned my gaze to him and nodded. “Please.”
“I guess that answers my question,” came the voice beside me.
I turned my head back in his direction. “Oh?” I asked, coolly.
“I’m waiting for someone,” he explained, swirling the liquid around his glass absent-mindedly.
“Someone named Sarah?” I asked, turning to look straight ahead.
“Yes.” I felt him turn his eyes to me again and take in my appearance. He was seeing the side of my profile that showed off my scar, but he didn’t seem put off, or disgusted by it.
I turned my face to his and stared at him, directly in his eyes. His eyes didn’t waver from mine, not for a second. I felt something stir within me and blinked rapidly in surprise. I couldn’t name it. It startled me. It wasn’t fear or annoyance: those were the only emotions I felt with any real strength. I guessed it was attraction. When he tilted his head a bit, my suspicion was confirmed. It was lust. There was something about the way he looked at me. When he spoke, he commanded my attention. And it was then that I felt the familiar emotion: annoyance. I did not need to feel lust for this complete stranger.
The man next to me was handsome, in a rugged way. His face wouldn’t be accused of being pretty or soft; his face looked like it’d lived through the effects of the sun, the torture of grief. The faint lines around his mouth suggested he knew how to smile, and did it often.
The only line on my face was cut with a knife.
I forced the muscles in my face to relax. He certainly was attractive, and in another lifetime I might have flirted heavily with him. But I was different now. I made a habit of studying other people, of watching them live their lives. That was how I lived mine - through study; not through experience.
I sipped my drink and looked around the bar. “I guess she’s not here yet.”
He sighed and ran an impatient hand through his hair. “Guess not.” He glanced towards the entrance and tossed back the rest of his drink. He seemed a bit fidgety. Nervous, maybe? I watched his hand play with his glass. His other hand flicked on the lighter repeatedly. Click, click, click. I felt my throat go dry.
I turned to my drink again. The bartender had placed a pile of sliced limes onto a cocktail napkin next to the drink. I brought one slice up to my lips and placed the fruit between my teeth, pulling the peel away as I ate it.
After placing the third peel onto the napkin, the man in black, who I’d deduced was Everett, looked at me. “Are you actually eating those?”
I nodded and swallowed. I licked my lips on impulse and I didn’t miss the way his eyes followed the movement of my tongue.
When I said nothing, he watched me eat the fourth slice. He’d turned his body more fully to face me and watched me in disbelief. “Isn’t that…sour?” he asked. He looked like he wanted to gag.
“Yes.” I shrugged. “So?”
I ate the fifth one while he watched me, enraptured. I felt uncomfortable under his scrutiny. I was usually the people watcher; no one ever paid attention to me.
When I finished the sixth one, the bartender placed another napkin of slices next to my mostly-full drink. “Thank you,” I said without a smile. I rarely smiled. I wasn’t sure how to do it genuinely. I wasn’t depressed. I just wasn’t emotional.
“It’s rude to stare, you know,” I said matter-of-factly to Everett as I started in on the additional slices.
He shook his head. “I’ve never claimed to be anything else. And I’ve never seen someone eat limes like they’re apples.”
I furrowed my brow. “Neither have I. Especially since the peel of an apple isn’t thick like it is on a lime.” I placed the peel on the napkin and looked at him. “And besides, apples are disgusting.” I didn’t put much feeling in what I was saying, which probably made me sound monotone. I turned to look at him again, my eyes tracing his face. Under his bright eyes were dark circles, making the ice blue of his eyes look even brighter. From the dark circles to the lines on his face, it was obvious he was tired. And something about that attracted me. I liked seeing imperfections; I liked that he wore a bit of exhaustion on his face.
He shook his head, as if in a trance, and turned to his phone. He seemed agitated. “Is Sarah late?” I asked. I felt the corner of my twitch and I brought my hand up to touch it. I’m sure surprise showed in my eyes. The situation was amusing, that I knew. But I didn’t expect my face to react.
Everett blew out a breath and raised his glass to the bartender, the universal gesture for a refill. While the bartender poured his drink, Everett’s fingers flew across the screen before he set it back down on the bar.
I bit my lip nervously. A second later, my phone vibrated across the bar’s surface, the noise deafening in our silence. I watched Everett halt in bringing his refilled drink to his lips to look at my phone. It was lit up from the incoming text message notification. He scrunched his brows together and took a sip of his drink.
I took a leisurely sip of my own drink and then carefully placed it on the napkin, smoothing the corners, before picking up my phone. “Excuse me,” I said, turning my body away from his.
Everett: Are you still coming?
I felt Everett’s eyes on me, so I replied quickly, uncomfortable with such singular attention.
Me: I’m here. Hi.
It was all I could come up with.
I turned back around and set my phone on the bar; picking up another lime slice just as his phone dinged and my text filled his screen.
Everett looked at it and looked at me. “You’re not Sarah, though?”
“Nope.” This time, I did squirm in my seat. I hadn’t exactly thought this part out.
“Was your name ever Sarah?”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “No.” What kind of question was that?
“I’m…” he started, running a hand through the mop of hair on his head. “Confused. Yes, confused. I was expecting a Sarah.”
“Well,” I said, taking a delicate sip of my drink. “You got a Parker instead.”
“Is this a joke? Jacob told me he was giving me Sarah’s number.”
“Who’s Jacob?” I asked, nonchalantly.
For the first time, a flash of white stretched his lips. “You’re not Jacob’s friend, are you?”
I took another sip of my drink and placed it on the napkin. “Probably not.” I don’t have friends, I added to myself.
“Did I text a wrong number?” he asked, leaning back to get a better look at me.
“If you were expecting a Sarah, who is Jacob’s friend, when you sent that text, then yes, my number was the wrong number.” It was said with a slight bite of sarcasm, but I controlled my features, maintaining the aloofness I was projecting.
“Well, why didn’t you say something when I said, ‘This is Jacob’s friend, Everett’ in my first text?”
I shrugged and swallowed another lime. “I figured you thought your friend Jacob was kind of a big deal and that I should be expected to know him.” It was a lie, but it sounded funny.
Everett took a sip of his drink. The moment right after he swallowed he laughed, a short sound. “And you decided to come along? To meet me? I could have been a crazy serial killer for all you knew.”
I visibly trembled. My hand nearly dropped the lime peel I pulled from the lips and my throat closed up, causing the fruit I was swallowing to nearly come back up. I knew my alarm was at what he said, not fear that he was what he suggested he could be. Serial killers didn’t dress all in black and drink whiskey in bluesy bars. They lurked around corners, in the dark, preying upon those unaware of their presence.
I knew my reaction to his off-hand remark had registered with Everett because he seemed uncomfortable. I tried to break the tension.
“I was bored,” I blurted out.
I took a sip of my drink and let the gin cool the nerves that flared up, before I swallowed. “I came along because I was bored.” I set the drink down and turned towards him, sizing him up. “And my status has not changed.”
I watched as Everett let that sink in. It was a bitchy thing to say. But I was socially awkward, stilted from my self-imposed loneliness. Words could bite. When I spoke to strangers, I wanted my words to have fangs.
He took a sip of his whiskey, his eyes guarded. I couldn’t read him as easily as some other people and that frustrated me. We sat there at the end of the bar, our eyes locked on each other as we contemplated what to say.
He set his glass down on the bar and rubbed his thumb over his upper lip. His gaze never wavered, never slipped from mine. My mind flooded with thoughts; I couldn’t quiet a single one of them.
“Why did you really come?” he asked, his voice just barely above a whisper. Something about the way he said it made my leg want to bounce up and down. I decided I wanted him to say it again.
“What did you say?” I asked, leaning closer. The space between us became nonexistent a second later, when he wrapped his hand on the back of my chair and leaned in closer, close enough to brush his lips against my ear. I felt an uncontrollable need to cross my legs. My breathing became shallow, my heart rate picked up and I couldn’t help the flood of desire that overtook my body.
“I said,” he started, his breath warm from the whiskey, “why did you really come?”
I felt trapped. He had completely enclosed me and his voice…why was I squirming? Without a second thought, I stood up, grabbed my clutch and phone and took off out the door.
I ran down the sidewalk, my heels catching in the impressions of the worn concrete. I fell a handful of times as I ran blindly towards my apartment, ignoring the cat calls and stepping into the street to avoid plowing into groups of smokers gathered along the sidewalk under the street lamps. Smoke wafted in my face and I remembered a piece of the memory I suppressed. Smoke was a comforting smell to me, but every time I smelled it I was brought back to my body lying on the asphalt, a voice urging me to wake up.
They said that scent was the strongest sense related to memory and I believed it. It dredged up memories that I tried to ignore.
As soon as I stepped into the apartment and slammed the door, I vomited into the kitchen sink.