Shadow Me

Chapter 2

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Chapter

The only thing Warner and I seem to have in common is that we both like to blow off steam in the gym. I pushed too much weight the other day and didn’t stretch afterward—and now I’m paying for it. I can hardly lift my arms.

I take a deep breath, arch my back. Stretch my neck. Try to work out the knots in my shoulder.

I hear someone whistle down the hall and I look up. Lily winks at me in an obvious, exaggerated way, and I roll my eyes. I’d really like to be flattered, because I’m not modest enough to deny that I have a nice body, but Lily could not give fewer shits about me. Instead, she does this—mocks me for walking around without a shirt on—nearly every morning. Her and Ian. Together. The two have been low-key dating for a couple of months now.

“Looking good, bro.” Ian smiles. “Is that sweat or baby oil? You’re so shiny.”

I flip him off.

“Those purple boxers are really working for you, though,” says Lily. “Nice choice. They suit your skin tone.”

I shoot her an incredulous look. I might not be wearing a shirt, but I’m definitely—I glance down—wearing sweatpants. My underwear is nowhere in sight. “How could you possibly know the color of my boxers?”

“Photographic memory,” she says, tapping her temple.

“Lil, that doesn’t mean you have X-ray vision.”

“You’re wearing purple underwear?” Winston’s voice—and a distinct whiff of coffee—carries down the hall. “That’s inspired.”

“All right, fuck off, all of you.”

“Hey— Whoa— I thought you weren’t allowed to use foul language.” Winston comes into view, his boots heavy on the concrete floor. He’s fighting back a laugh when he says, “I thought you and Castle had an agreement.”

“That’s not true,” I say, pointing at him. “Castle and I agreed I could say shit as much as I wanted.”

Winston raises his eyebrows.

“Anyway,” I mutter, “Castle isn’t here right now, is he? So I stand by my original statement. Fuck off, all of you.”

Winston laughs, Ian shakes his head, and Lily pretends to look offended, when—

“I most definitely am here right now, and I heard that,” Castle calls from his office.

I cringe.

I used to swear profusely as a teenager—much worse than I do now—and it really used to upset Castle. He said he worried I’d never find a way to articulate my emotions without anger. He wanted me to slow down when I spoke, to use specific words to describe how I was feeling instead of angrily shouting obscenities. He seemed so worried about it that I agreed to tone down my language. But I made that promise four years ago, and as much as I love Castle, I often regret it.

“Kenji?” Castle again. I know he’s waiting for an apology.

I peer down the hall and spot his open door. We’re all squeezed up against each other, even with the new accommodations. Warner basically had to reinvent this floor, and it took a lot of work and sacrifice, so, again, I’m not complaining.

But still.

It’s hard not to be annoyed by the overwhelming lack of privacy.

“My bad,” I shout back.

I can actually hear Castle sigh, even from across the hall.

“A touching display of remorse,” Winston says.

“All right, show’s over.” I wave them all away. “I have to shower.”

“Yeah you do,” Ian says, raising an eyebrow.

I shake my head, exhausted. “I can’t believe I put up with you assholes.”

Ian laughs. “You know I’m messing with you, right?” When I don’t respond he says, “Seriously—you look good. We should hit the gym later. I need someone to spot me.”

I nod, only a little mollified, and mumble a goodbye. I head back into my room to grab my shower caddy, but Winston follows me in, leans against the doorframe. It’s just then that I notice he’s holding a paper to-go cup.

My eyes light up. “Is that coffee?”

Winston pulls away from the door, horrified. “It’s my coffee.”

“Hand it over.”

“What? No.”

I narrow my eyes at him.

“Why can’t you get your own?” he says, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “This is only my second cup. You know it takes at least three before I’m even half awake.”

“Yeah, well, I have to be downstairs in five minutes or Warner’s going to murder me and I haven’t had any breakfast yet and I’m already exhausted and I really—”

“Fine.” Winston’s face darkens as he hands it over. “You monster.”

I take the cup. “I’m a goddamn joy.”

Winston mutters something foul under his breath.

“Hey”—I take a sip of the coffee—“by the way— Did you, uh—?”

Winston’s neck goes suddenly red. He averts his eyes. “No.”

I hold up my free hand. “Hey—no pressure or anything. I was just wondering.”

“I’m still waiting for the right time,” he says.

“Cool. Of course. I’m just excited for you, that’s all.”

Winston looks up. Shoots me an uncertain smile.

Winston’s been in love with Brendan for a long time, but I’m the only one who knows about it. Winston never thought Brendan would be interested, because as far as we knew, he’d only ever dated women, but a few months ago Brendan was linked, briefly, to this other dude from Point, and that was when Winston opened up to me about the whole thing. He asked me to keep it to myself, said he wanted to be the one to talk about it when it felt right, and he’s been trying to build up the courage to say something to Brendan ever since. The problem is that Winston thinks he’s a little old for Brendan, and he’s worried that if Brendan turns him down it might ruin their friendship. So he’s been waiting. For the right moment.

I clap him on the shoulder. “I’m happy for you, bro.”

Winston lets out a breathy, nervous laugh that’s unlike him. “Don’t be too happy just yet,” he says. And then he shakes his head as if to clear it. “Anyway—enjoy the coffee. I need to go get another one.”

I raise the coffee cup in a gesture that says both thank you and goodbye, and as I turn away to gather my things for a quick shower, my smile slips. Somehow I can’t help but be reminded, all the time, of my own solitude.

I kill the coffee in a couple of quick, deep pulls, and toss the cup. Quietly, I make my way to the shower, my movements mechanical as I turn on the water. Strip. Lather. Rinse. Whatever.

I’m frozen for a moment, watching the water pool in my upturned hands. I sigh, press my forehead to the cool, slick tile as the hot water pelts my back. I feel a measure of relief as my muscles begin to relax, the heat and steam releasing knots of tension under my skin. I try to focus on the luxury of this shower, on my gratitude for this miracle of hot water, but my less gracious thoughts keep circling me, pecking at my heart and mind like emotional vultures.

I’m so happy for my friends. I love them, even when they piss me off. I care about them. I want their joy. But it still hurts a little when it feels like, everywhere I look, everyone seems to have someone.

Everyone but me.

It’s crazy how much I wish I didn’t care. I wish, so much, all the time, that I didn’t give a shit about this sort of thing—that I could be like Warner, a frozen, unforgiving island; or even like Adam, who’s found his happiness in family, in his relationship with his brother—but I’m like neither. Instead, I’m a big, raw, bleeding heart, and I spend my days pretending not to notice that I want more. That I need more.

Maybe it sounds weird to say, but I know I could love the shit out of someone. I feel it, in my heart. This capacity to love. To be romantic and passionate. Like it’s a superpower I have. A gift, even.

And I’ve got no one to share it with.

Everyone thinks I’m a joke.

I run my hands down my face, squeezing my eyes shut as I remember my interaction with Nazeera last night.

She came up to me, I try to remind myself.

I never approached her. I didn’t even try to talk to her again, not after that day on the beach when she made it clear she wasn’t even a little bit interested in me. Though it’s not like I would’ve had a chance to talk to her after that, anyway; everything got crazy after that. J got shot and everyone was reeling, and then all that shit with Warner and Juliette went down, and now here we are.

But last night I was just minding my own business, still trying to figure out what to do about the fact that our supreme commander was slowly marinating in half a pint of Anderson’s best whisky, when Nazeera came up to me. Out of the blue. It was right after dinner—hell, she wasn’t even present at dinner—and she just showed up, like an apparition, cornering me as I was leaving the dining room. Literally backed me into a corner and asked me if it was true, that I had the power of invisibility.

She looked so mad. I was so confused. I didn’t know how she knew and I didn’t know why she cared, but there she was, right in front of me, demanding an answer, and I didn’t see the harm in telling her the truth.


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