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Unloved
Author: Katy Regnery

Brynn

 

My car wouldn’t start.

That’s how it all began.

With something as ordinary as a dead battery.

Turning the key again and again, I was rewarded with silence and finally texted Jem that I wouldn’t make it to the concert. I told him I was sorry. I told him to have a great time. I told him not to wake me up when he got home.

He didn’t.

Because he never came home.

A million times, I’ve returned to that night, to the simple, nothing decisions that started a chain of events in my life leading to today. I think of Jem checking his phone, wondering why I was late. I picture him getting my text and grimacing in disappointment. I see him in my mind, considering whether or not to leave the club and come home to me—or to stay.

He decided to stay.

Twenty minutes later, he was dead.

The shooter left a note saying that he didn’t love or hate the music of Steeple 10. What he hated was the idea of all those people in a club for the same reason: having something in common that they all enjoyed. He didn’t enjoy anything with anyone and was jealous of their communal happiness, their shared appreciation for noise pop. So he opened fire on three hundred people packed into the crowded club, killing thirty-one. Among them, my fiancé, Jem.

Sometimes, in my dreams, I’m back in my car on that rainy night, and the engine turns over. I drive to the club. I park outside. I see Derrick Frost Willums get out of his 2011 Toyota Corolla, his black trench coat too heavy and too hot for an unseasonably humid August night in San Francisco. In some versions of my dream, I imagine myself intercepting him, talking to him, befriending him, and inadvertently letting him know that he’s not alone. In others, I race into the club, looking frantically over the hot-pink and indigo-blue lights to find Jem’s blond, spiked hair in the crowd. I imagine running to my love and telling him to lie down on the floor with me, since those who quickly dropped to the floor mostly survived. I imagine us huddled together on the filthy, beer-slick floor as bullets rain around us and terrified concertgoers slowly realize what’s happening, darting chaotically in search of cover, slipping in pools of blood, trying desperately to dodge Willums’s relentless rounds of open fire. But mostly, in nine out of ten dreams, I am too late. I see myself sprint, in slow motion, from my car to the club, swinging open the door just in time to see Willums turn the gun on himself, pull the trigger, and fall backward.

I stand there frozen: a lone, paralyzed figure, unable to help anyone, way too late to save Jem, who probably died instantly from a clean shot to his heart—to his strong, beautiful, bursting-with-love-for-me heart.

When I wake up, my pillow is drenched with tears and I reach for Jem, hoping that the dream I’ve had is somehow just a horrible nightmare, not the truth, not an actual, outlandish, and still-incomprehensible part of my life. But Jem’s side of the bed is always empty now, as it’s been for almost two years.

The rest of the world moved on from the Steeple 10 Shooting, ever more numb to the news of similar events, out of sympathy for nameless strangers who meet the same tragic end.

But I can’t seem to move on.

I had someone in the crowd that night who had a name, who was dearly loved. Those of us who survived are the walking wounded. Or the walking dead.

And some of us, even if we never set foot in that club that night, are still somehow there, facing the spray of Willums’s fury with our lost loved ones, and uselessly wishing that everything could have turned out different.

 

 

Brynn

Present Day

 

Brynn, any chance you’ll be able to complete the website by today? Was hoping to go live this weekend. Please advise. –Stu

I stare at the e-mail over the rim of my coffee cup, rolling my eyes. When I quoted Stu (of Stu’s Pools) a price of $1,200 to build his website, I was clear that it would take up to three weeks to complete. It’s been ten days and he’s already bothering me to finish?

“I hate people,” I tell Milo, my four-year-old Siamese cat.

Purring, he paces back and forth on my desk, between my forearms and the warm keyboard, before falling dramatically atop it. The screen quickly starts to fill with line after line of question marks.

“I can’t work if you stay there,” I say, taking another sip of coffee.

“Meow,” he answers, licking his paw. Oh, well. Too bad for you.

Milo has always been chatty. It was the reason that Jem chose him for me from all of the other kittens at the pet store that day.

“Now you’ll have someone to keep you company while you work,” he said, handing the cashier his credit card.

“I don’t need anyone to keep me company,” I pointed out. “I like working alone. Besides, litter boxes aren’t my gig.”

“I’ll keep it clean,” Jem promised.

“I don’t want the responsibility of a cat,” I insisted, whining a little.

“Just let him be your friend. I’ll care for him,” he said, his New England accent strong on the word care, which sounded more like “cay-uh.”

In the end, that’s what had swayed me—the way his sweet lips said care. It made my toes curl. I’d always had a thing for accents, and as a born-and-bred San Franciscan, I’d fallen for his at the first hello.

Jeremiah Benton was from Bangor, Maine, a place so far from the Bay area, it may have well been a different country altogether.

“What are you drinking?” I asked him the first time I ever saw him.

I was working behind the bar, blown away by the aqua blue of his eyes when he looked up at me, and determined to be nonchalant about how insanely, ruggedly hot he was.

“Whatever you have on tap there.” Thay-uh.

“Thay-uh?” I repeated, raising an eyebrow, my lips quirking up.

“Did you lose an r?” he asked, grinning at me through a scruffy beard.

“I think you did,” I teased, pulling him a pint of Go West! IPA.

He chugged down half the beer and swiped at his beard before speaking again, those aqua eyes darkening just a touch as they captured mine. “Sweet girl, I’ll wager I’m gonna lose more than just an r to you by the time this is over.”

Just like that . . . I was a goner.

He told me he’d just spent a month hiking in the Sierra National Forest on assignment for Backpacker magazine.

I told him I’d never been on a hike in my entire life.

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