“Cross Me Off Your List”
story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
Six a.m. was an unusual time to go see Max. Rory had tried to give her a heads-up by text, but she didn’t seem to have gotten it, either because she was asleep or because of how the Fathoms gobbled up digital transmissions like candy. Which meant he’d probably be waking her up when he got there.
But he couldn’t help himself. He needed her. He felt wide awake after his last dream escapade with Fabi, and now he couldn’t get his heart rate to slow down no matter how deeply he tried to breathe. Plus he was feeling horny like he always did when he was anxious—which made Fabi too much of a temptation.
He booked it from the bus stop in Delphi’s town square; took the Alfheim stairs all the way up to Floor Eight, not feeling in the mood to stand around in the elevator with some dead-eyed attendant.
He reached Max’s floor buzzing with adrenaline and half out of breath; jogged up to her door, raised a fist to knock.
Froze with his hand in midair, hearing something that made his heart stop:
The familiar sound of Max being pleasured.
Rory stood there blinking like a dumbass.
He stayed riveted in place for a moment, panting softly, then pressed his ear against the door, trying to filter out the tidal roar of his own pulse, the yammering of Cartoon Network in the room beyond—latching onto any sound that might confirm there was someone in there with her.
Max’s whimpers became muffled by kisses. Someone else’s moans joined hers. Rory thought maybe it was another girl at first, till he heard Max gasp,
Rory recoiled as if the door had burned him.
… And Jules.
After several long seconds, he leaned his ear once more against the door.
He could hear Jules’s husky alto, clearly:
“I love you, Max. I’ll never let you go.”
Rory pivoted, shuffled a few aimless paces down the hall.
… He loves her.
He lapsed into a detached musing over what that courtship must have looked like: which cheesy rom-com tropes could have brought his virginal, uptight ex-best-friend and his randy goofball girlfriend to a mutual decision to bump buggies.
It was her who came on to him. Right? It had to be.
He paced around in front of the elevators, his gears grinding sluggishly as he tried to sort out what to do, or at least where to put himself until he figured out what to do.
He finally ducked into a little nook that housed some snack and soda machines and plunked himself down on the floor, in a spot where he was mostly hidden from view of the hallway but maintained a slim sightline on it.
There he waited, knees pulled close to his chest, trying to shut off the flood of NSFW images that kept streaming through his brain.
Rory wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he finally heard the uneven footsteps that turned out, as expected, to be Jules. He glanced around the snack machine just in time to glimpse the alchemist breezing past in his business suit and trench coat. No cane anymore, Rory noticed. Just a trace of a limp.
Elevator doors whirred open. “Mr. Nimri,” came the attendant’s voice.
Rory heard the doors slide shut.
He stood up, took a deep breath.
Moved at a determined pace toward Max’s room.
Without ceremony, knocked on her door.
For several seconds after, all he heard was the relentless cacophony of Cartoon Network. “Who is it?” came Max’s voice, finally.
“Rory. Open up.”
Again, silence. Then, “Just a minute.”
A few seconds of running water. Then, the door unbolted, and Max appeared in front of him in her usual around-the-house-wear—courtesy of old-school Jules—with a too-bright smile on her scrubbed-pink face. “Hey.” She grabbed him by the collar, moved in for a peck on the lips.
Rory placed his hand firmly on the top of her head, stopped her face within inches of his own. Bored his gaze into hers for a moment, inhaling deeply through his nose.
Released her, feeling dizzy.
“Rory…?” She turned to stare after him as he advanced into the room.
“Your face smells like pussy.” His hands twitched at his sides as he rotated to face her.
She lingered near the doorway. “I-I…”
“Does he know about you and me?”
“Don’t play dumb. You’re a lot of things, I guess, but I know you’re not dumb.”
Max seemed to melt on her feet. She rubbed runaway tears from her cheeks with the backs of her hands. “Rory…I’m s-sorry.”
“Answer the question.”
“Does. Jules. Know. I’ve. Been. Fucking you.”
Max swallowed loudly, her eyes trained on the floor. “No.”
“God-fucking-dammit, Max. Fuck.” Rory paced away, clawed a hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Max dropped her forehead into her palms, her face flushing beet-red. “I just feel s-so empty. I can’t get—I need—I’m just—I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I don’t know if you can believe this right now, but I r-really do love you.”
“Do you love him?”
She bit her lip. Answered in a small voice, tears overflowing, “Yes.”
“Do you really?” Rory’s jaw felt like it would snap in half. He was silent a moment, took time to make sure he could keep his voice under control when he next spoke: “Do you have any idea what he’s been through?”
Max stared at him, clearly taken off guard by the question, then hugged herself, her body convulsing in hiccup-like sobs.
“You are not gonna fucking hurt him. Do you understand me?”
“I’m out.” Rory flashed his palms. “You and me—done.” He started for the door.
Max latched onto his arm as he passed. He shook her off, more roughly than he meant to. “Don’t fucking touch me! Fuck! I am so unbelievably angry with you right now. It’s all I can do not to lose my shit. So back the fuck off.” He fell silent, heaving, then spasmed, launching his heel into the nearby chest of drawers. Max gave a startled yelp. “I can’t believe you made me part of this. I feel so goddamn dirty. Do you have any idea what you’ve done here, you—you—?!”
Max began bawling in earnest, clutching her head in both hands. Rory felt nothing but disgust toward her, but he forced himself to cut his tirade short before he said something he’d regret.
“Don’t text me.” He raised a finger in warning. “Don’t call me. And don’t you dare tell him about you and me—not ever. Don’t you even fucking think about telling him.” Max gaped at him with bloodshot eyes, one hand cupped white-knuckled over her mouth. “You’re getting a do-over here, Max. I hope you appreciate that. I hope you’ll take this chance to think really, really hard about what you have, and try like hell not to fuck it up.”
Rory turned, stalked out of the room without looking back. Ignored the broken sound of Max calling his name.
He took the stairs again to the ground floor, two at a time. Stormed out the back of the hotel. Made a beeline for the bus stop on the square.
His heart was still beating like a drum when he got off the bus at 18th and Racine. He shot one glance at the forty-something messages he’d already gotten from Max before deleting them all and blocking her number.
The garage door at the Bitch Pit was partway open. Rory ducked under it, kept moving at a determined pace, past Doctor Weird and his devotees, past Icon Slaughter in the middle of a noisy rehearsal, past Yulia playing Devil May Cry 4 on the bathtub-couch, straight through Fabiana’s bed-sheet partition.
Fabi sat bolt upright on her mattress at the sound of his entrance. Her mint-green hair was sticking up every which way. Her kohl-smudged eyes looked bleary, like she’d just been asleep. “You’re back… Dude, what’s up?” she asked, seeing his face.
“You were right.” Rory felt a spasm in his throat. “The world is diseased. All we do is go around poisoning each other. And the few really good people there are—the ones we can’t corrupt no matter how hard we try—them we just suck the life out of and leave for dead.”
Fabiana sat blinking up at him for a moment, then pushed herself to her feet, stalked toward him, the holey white tee that was her only covering draping like a sack on her cadaverous frame. Rory watched her approach, each palpitation of his heart punching like a knifepoint through his chest.
“Dream with me.” She gazed into his eyes, laid her gaunt palms on either side of his face.
“I’m done dreaming.” Rory yanked her to him, trailed one finger down the crack of her ass. “I’m ready to act.”
NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE
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