An early draft of the first chapter from my upcoming novel. Sure, it’s a little lengthy, but hey! Reading about a mysterious man–who occasionally goes by the name, Lipstick Rick–rushing to the rescue of a suicidal girl, is an excellent way to pass the time. Enjoy!
I will never forget the first moment I met him. How could I? It was my darkest hour.
It was the night of the meteor shower. It was such an extraordinary event that it had been extensively broadcasted on the news—something about how the meteors were coming from out of nowhere. How there was no pattern to their existence, no known colliding orbit with the Earth, and how they left thousands of long tails of brilliant, bright light as they fell from the sky. It was a night of romantic dates and proposals, and a crazy guy saying the end of the world was near.
Normally, I would have set up a chair in my backyard, surrounded by the fields of my small hometown and watched the shower with an enthusiastic curiosity and naive sense of wonder. Instead, I’d spent my evening dragging myself through the gloom of dimly lit city streets, far from home, where no one could even see the stupid stars for the streetlights and rainclouds. I was in a daze, darting between buildings, breathing in the smell of rain soaked pavement and exhaust, all the while cradling a broken arm. It was starting to go numb now, but when it’d happened, it’d burned like the bone had been set on fire.
Echoes of the scene still resonated through me: the feeling of helplessness, losing all control of my body as it flew backwards when my now-officially-ex-boyfriend shoved me. The brief feeling of weightlessness as I fell, and the resounding crack I heard as my arm snapped when I reached out to try and catch my fall, before finally tumbling the rest of the way down the stairs. Little lights had popped and fizzled in my vision, my stomach had twisted with nausea and I couldn’t breathe for the biting pain. As I relived it in my mind, my stomach lurched all over again, still unsettled, still threatening to climb right up and out of my throat.
I looked down at the wet pavement, my hair sticking to the sides of my head in the rain. I could still see his face in my mind. I had looked up at him from the bottom of the stairs and he had just stood there, his pale eyes looking but not seeing, his mouth half open… he remained frozen like that long enough for me to pull myself together and run.
And I was still running, but it was without any direction. I had no destination. I was a confused and wounded mouse whose only thought was of getting away from the monstrous cat who’d tormented me. I was scared to stop. I turned at every red light that flashed just so I could keep moving. If I stopped, he might find me. If I stopped, he’d dig his cruel claws deep into my soul and I’d have to go back, and I could never go back.
But I could never return to my hometown, either, though I visited it in my mind. I could see it, cradled in the arms of the mighty mountains surrounding it, where I could bust out a lawn chair at a whim and gaze in awe at the vast canopy of stars. The place was a broken memory, resting in jagged shards that I cut my heart on every time I thought about it. Tears burned my eyes as the beating of my heart grew heavy, feeling as though it had begun to bleed and couldn’t stop. That was when I’d usually try to think about something else, but not this time. I continued to cut myself against the memories, because all I wanted was to go home. I wanted to see my dad again. I wanted to hear him play the piano and sing. I wanted him to tell me some crazy tale that couldn’t possibly have happened then hear him end it with, “True story.” I wanted to hear his sage advice, and I wanted to listen to it this time. How I wished I could go back and say, “You’re right, dad. That guy is not good for me,” and then kick the guy out of my life before he could shatter it.
But I couldn’t—and I couldn’t go home. Not after what I’d done. It wasn’t my home anymore. I had no home. I had no family. I had no friends. I had nothing but the shoes on my aching feet and the wet clothes now clinging to my body. I was an outcast, one with the shadows… a stain on the pavement.
A stain on the pavement…
I’d lingered too long on the memories. A hole had opened up in my heart, black and dead, and my soul was being pulled in, spiraling out of control. The good memories were being consumed by the horrors that’d shattered them until the guilt, the shame, the helplessness, terror and darkness were all that remained. I began shaking, but not from the cold. I could feel the shadows dancing just under my skin. It hurt so much. I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t….
Desperate to feel something else, I dug my fingers into the elbow of my broken arm and fresh pain shot through me. Pain that hurt less than the hollowness that was growing inside me. My breathing was coming in ragged gasps like I was drowning. I stumbled into walls and people. People that were oblivious, who pulled their coats up over their heads and turned away. I winced as I bumped into a tall woman, my fingers brushing against the back of her hand as she rose from adjusting her boot. She had a very deep, manly voice and asked if I needed help, but without really looking at her, I smiled and said I was fine. She moved on. They all moved on, which was for the best, really. This… me… what I had become… I was beyond repair.
No one could help me.
I let out a hopeless sob. How was I supposed to keep going? How was I supposed to keep carrying this? How?
I muttered under my breath, “A stain on the pavement… A stain on the pavement…”
For the first time in hours, I stopped. I listened to the rain spattering against the sidewalk and then the laughter of a couple as they passed by, the sounds vivid to me in that moment. My thoughts drifted after them and I imagined the warmth of the home they must be going to, the smiles of the loved ones that probably waited for them there. I’d wanted to be them once. Still did. I longed for that kind of love—the real deal. To share a life with someone who actually loved me. To have a family. To hold a child in my arms. My heart let out a cry of agony as I watched them walk away, as though I were a homeless kid with her nose pressed against the glass of a bakery at Christmastime, peering at something that I could see so clearly but had no hope of ever having.
And yet there I was, in their midst yet invisible to their sight, lost and alone.
A thought crept into my mind, and not for the first time that day. But this time, its presence seeped into the dark, lonely crevices like tendrils of fog, filling them with an eerie sense of comfort and peace.
I didn’t have to keep going. I didn’t have to keep carrying the pain.
I’d been thinking about it for years, had done my research on the best ways to do it, and over the last few months, the thought had been the only thing to bring me any sense of peace—a calm in the eye of the storm… and it had brought it again. My breathing steadied, the whirlwind inside of me settled and faded, and the shadows under my skin grew still, soothing me and enveloping me like a comforting blanket. For the first time, the feeling of peace didn’t go away. It was such a relief to the agony I was feeling that instead of even attempting to shove it aside, I clung to it.
I knew in that moment exactly what I needed to do. I’d known for months, maybe even years, but now, I was ready.
As I made the decision, the weight of my world lifted from my shoulders. I even laughed a little. I was done! I didn’t have to do this anymore! No more worries about what I was going to do about my arm with no money and no insurance to fix it. I didn’t have to worry about that guy finding me, or about finding food or a place to live or about my broken soul and the black, rotting hole that had opened up inside of it.
I was done.
I was no longer walking aimlessly. I had a destination in mind. My eyes began searching for the right building—a tall enough one where I could hopefully get to the roof. Just a little ways down the street to my right, I watched a man hurry into an apartment building, his coat over his head, eager to get out of the rain. I did a quick scan of the building. It was about ten stories or so, an appropriate height. It appeared to be undergoing renovations, as there was construction equipment parked nearby and scaffolding wrapped around one side. I darted towards the door as it started to close and caught it with my shoe. Tentatively, I attempted to pry the door the rest of the way open with my shoulder, the stress of the movement causing fire to shoot through my arm again. Nausea swarmed, my vision began to spin and I thought I might faint until the guy who’d gone in before me doubled back and helped me with the door.
“Thanks,” I managed to say without throwing up.
“Sure, no problem.” He paused, his eyes widening a little as he saw the shape I was in. I wasn’t one to look at myself in the mirror much these days. It was always the same reflection—the gaunt specter of a 23-year-old who’d been sealed up in a tomb, alive. My skin looked gray and paper thin, my green eyes were dull and sunken, and any signs of life had long since drained from them. My curly, blonde hair—which was now a wet, matted mess against my skull—was thin and broke like straw. My corduroy jacket, Deadpool T-shirt and jeans hung off of my bones, being two sizes too big, though they hadn’t started off that way. Adding this to the fact that I looked like I’d just had a bucket of water dumped on top of me, had no make-up on over my swollen, red eyes and was probably a little extra pale with pain, I imagined that I must have been a rather terrifying sight to behold. He probably thought I was a banshee, coming to warn him of his imminent death.
I meandered away, looking for an elevator as he added, “Hey, uh… you don’t look—” he caught himself and changed his comment to a question, “Are you alright?”
I gave him a weak smile, “I just need to lay down.”
I wandered down a hallway lined with peeling, peach wallpaper until I finally found the elevator. I stared at the worn arrow button, trying to press it with my mind. When that didn’t work, I grit my teeth as I worked up the courage to let go of my elbow enough to push it. My good arm was the only thing keeping the other one from dangling from my shoulder like a bag of rocks. Finally, I pried away a trembling finger and pushed it. The doors immediately opened. I stepped inside and pressed one last button, then leaned back against the wall as the doors closed.
It was a long ride, listening to the elevator creak and groan like at any second a cable might snap, inhaling the scent of a floral air freshener that was trying in vain to mask the stench of moldy carpet and beer. The weight of my decision started to sink in and my heart began to pound. I instructed myself, Make sure you dive head first. My stomach fluttered.
I wasn’t sure why I did it. Probably because my dad had been a minister at our church but even then, I’d felt sure that if there was a god, he’d given up on me a long time ago. But without really thinking, I cried silently from the depths of my soul out into the unknown, Please… save me.
I heard the cheerful ding that signaled the end of my elevator ride and the doors rolled open.
I stood there for a moment, staring at the peach, oak-lined wall in front of me. As I willed myself to step through the elevator doors, they started to close, almost as if to try and stop me.
You can’t stop me, I thought at the elevator as I darted out into the hall, the doors creaking back open again as it sensed me pass through. Then I turned to it, stared it down and said, “Give me one good reason why you think I shouldn’t.”
The doors rolled close.
I knew darn well that the elevator never had any intention of saying anything back, but still, my heart sank a little. “I thought so.”
I wandered through the hallways, following signs that led to the stairs. Stumbling into the stairwell, which was lined with sheets of plastic covering remnants of construction things, I saw the sign reading “Roof Access”. It appeared to have once been blocked for safety reasons but someone had clearly broken through it, leaving the door unable to close properly. It felt like a sign. The pieces had all fallen into place. I took a deep breath to solidify my courage and as I did, the feeling of peace returned with a sense of the rightness of what I was doing.
I pushed open the door to the roof with my shoulder and stepped out into the night. The rain had slowed till it had become a mere mist in the air, though the sky was still as dark and starless as ever. I trudged over to the edge of the roof and closed my eyes, drinking in the smell of the rain. When I opened my eyes again, I saw that, far out over the city, the darkness had parted slightly, revealing a nearly full moon peering out from beneath a fluffy blanket of clouds.
From the shadows behind me came a rich, deep voice, gentle yet all-encompassing like thunder at the end of a storm, “Beautiful night tonight, isn’t it?”
I jumped and whirled around, my long hair whipping me in the face. I winced as my arm throbbed with the sudden movement, then buckled over in agony as the ache consumed my entire body, making my vision turn black and blurry with stars. Anger and frustration rippled through the shadows under my skin at the unexpected appearance of this person. It added just the right amount of extra distress to make me sure that I was going to throw up.
I heard his voice again, cheerful at first but gradually growing concerned as I didn’t move from my about-to-barf-everywhere position, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you, I uh… are you okay? That’s a stupid question, you’re clearly not okay.”
I tried to breathe, to steady myself and not faint into a puddle of vomit. I forced a polite smile without moving, saying in the strangled tone of someone who’d just been punched in the gut, “I’m fine.”
“Oh! Well good,” he said with upbeat sarcasm, “That’s good. I’m glad we got that cleared up because for a moment there, I really thought you might be in terrible pain. And then, of course, I’d want to do something about it, so, I’m relieved to get out of that…. Of course, I would be happy to help, you know, if you needed help because you were in pain, but since you’re not… but if you were…”
I didn’t know what it was—maybe it was just to get him to shut up—but something about his words forced my surrender. With more tears burning my eyes, I confessed, “Alright, I’m not.” I sniffed, wishing I could wipe away all the snot and tears or even just brush away the strands of hair that were sticking to my face. “I’m not okay. But there’s nothing anybody can do about it. Not unless you can work miracles… maybe turn back time.”
There was a brief moment of silence, then he said, “Well, unfortunately, I can’t turn back time, but I have been told I am a miracle worker.”
A small smile—so small as to be nearly nonexistent but genuine nonetheless, and the first smile that I could recall having in months that wasn’t triggered by the thought of death—made its way to the corner of my lips. I willed my body to straighten itself enough for me to look up at him, and after a great deal of effort… I still couldn’t see him. My hair was plastered to my face and blocking my vision. Normally, I always hid my ugly face behind my hair and should’ve felt relieved that he couldn’t see me, but I was beyond caring at this point and my curiosity outweighed my reservations. When jerking my head to the side didn’t work, I tried blinking as a method of brushing it away, but it was only as effective as blinking-wet-hair-out-of-your-eyes could be. I could hear he had an accent. British, maybe? No… Portuguese? I wasn’t even sure what a Portuguese accent sounded like, but I thought maybe his was it. All I really knew was he sounded fancy, which led me to imagine him wearing a suit, making me uncomfortably aware of the hideous shape I was in. But so far, the only evidence I could see to prove my assumption of his fanciness true was that he appeared to be wearing a lot of black, but really this meant nothing. For all I knew, he could’ve been wearing a snuggie.
He went on, “For example, right now, I am going to perform the miracle of restoring your sight.”
My smile grew, “Oh, hallelujah!”
I could hear the clicking of his shoes against the pavement as he took a few steps towards me, saying with the important tone of a doctor about to perform surgery, “Now, this may feel a little bit awkward, since I’m just some strange, stranger hanging out on a roof who actually hates touching people and being touched by people, and really, just, most people in general—”
I smirked and nodded. “I get that.”
“People are absolutely terrible, aren’t they?”
He had no idea just how true that statement was to me. “They really are.”
“I’m glad we agree,” he then added thoughtfully, “I feel like we’ve developed a special bond over this and are strangers no more, but best friends.”
A real, genuine snort of laughter broke out of me, which really hurt. “I think we need matching bracelets.”
“Yes! We should go pick some out on Tuesday.”
The smile grew a little more. “Sounds good.”
“Perfect! Now, onto the miracle, then.”
I closed my eyes, flinching a little as I felt very calloused finger tips brush across my forehead, pushing the strands of rain-soaked hair across my cheeks and eyelashes. It was only a moment—maybe two fleeting seconds before it had passed but in that mere flicker of time, I felt a warm, soothing light spread throughout my body from his touch. And not ‘light’ in a metaphorical sense, but in a very literal sense—there was no other way to describe it, it was light—warm and radiant, like basking in the sun on a summer morning. I felt my shoulders relax—I hadn’t even realized how tense they were. My breathing steadied. My broken arm and heart grew pleasantly tingly and I felt the pain in them diminish till I could hardly feel it at all. The heavy shadows were chased out of my skin, and I was suddenly able to stand completely upright, feeling lighter.
All in a mere two seconds.
I felt his touch leave, but in its place there was a little flame that had been ignited in my soul, there in the dark void. A light that was all my own… a mere match-light in comparison to his sunlight—flickering, sputtering and threatening to go out with a mild breeze, but it was there and alive, and certainly hadn’t been before. I kept my eyes closed, continuing to bask in it. I let out a long sigh, and the few lingering remnants of darkness drifted out of me into oblivion, replaced by something I’d forgotten, something that actually hurt but in a good way—in the way wounds hurt as they start to heal. It was something I hadn’t felt in years.
It was hope.
Tears spilled down my cheeks, but they were a different kind this time. A kind that was much more welcome, that came from the small flame; a life inside me that had been reignited with a single spark. And I realized, this… this was real peace.
I felt like I was waking up from a deep sleep. I didn’t want to open my eyes. I was refreshed and deliriously happy and yet disoriented. I’d forgotten where I was. I was on a… roof? Why?
Then I remembered. The memories flooded back to me, but instead of drowning me in them, they were held at a distance by this little light and the indescribable feeling of optimism that came with it. I was suddenly aware of my heart, broken but still beating; of the warmth of my pulse against the chill of the air and of the mist of cool rain I breathed into my lungs. I listened to the hum of traffic below. Nothing else existed but this moment and in it, I was alive, and somehow—I wasn’t sure how—that now meant something. Somehow, that gave me room to hope. It was as though I had been seeing the world from deep under water and had been pulled from the murky depths and placed back on my feet where I could see it all more clearly, though I hadn’t yet opened my eyes.
My mind began to race, But wait, only two seconds ago, I was… What just happened? None of this makes sense, it was just a moment, a touch. What did he do to me? And how… how did he do it?
I was determined to ask him the second I opened my eyes… but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. What if this feeling was the dream? What if I opened my eyes or spoke and it all went away?
Then I heard his voice, “There. Now not only will you be able to see, but you also have a face!”
I laughed—which was something I thought I’d forgotten how to do—and without thinking, I let go of my broken arm and quickly wiped my face with my sleeve, hoping that the tears and snot had blended in with the rain and he hadn’t noticed. When I realized that I’d actually let my broken arm fall slack against my side, my eyes shot open and I looked up at him. That was when my jaw hit the floor.
I hadn’t been wrong. He was fancy and hands down, the most beautiful man that I had ever seen. What struck me immediately were his bright blue eyes that seemed to glow in the darkness like bottled lightning. The face that they were set in was the commanding face of an angel, and not in a Nicholas Sparks novel kind of way, but in a very literal sense that if I had pictured an angel… well, this man exceeded all of my expectations and was what I should’ve been picturing every time I’d heard the word. From his dark skin and high cheekbones, the straight bridge of his gently broad nose, to the square width and sharp edges of his jaw, and even the defined lines of his full lips were all etched from power and raw beauty. It was as if every particularity had been cut directly from stone and blended together so flawlessly that no piece was out of place, neither more prominent or distinguishable above the rest. And quite unexpectedly, all of these features were expertly brought out with eyeliner, black and silver eyeshadow and dark red lipstick. He was so much better with make-up than I was, and also much better with hair, as his face was framed with a gorgeous mane of black curls which were protected from the rain by a large, black umbrella. What I could see of his chest beneath his shimmering, black cocktail dress and long black coat made it clear that his body was that of a sculpted, muscular god. There was nothing feminine in the way he carried himself or in his physique, but he wore that dress with an air of confidence that stated that not only was he perfectly comfortable wearing it, he knew he looked good in it.
I immediately thought of Zangief from ‘Wreck-It-Ralph’, and how he could crush a man’s skull between his thighs like an egg. I was sure this man could do the same, and all while wearing high heeled boots.
He furrowed his brow at me. “What?” Then glancing down at himself, “is there something on my dress?”
I immediately picked up my jaw, feeling stupid and apologetic. “No, no, I just—”
He waved this off, “I’m just messing with you. I get that look all the time. When I’m wearing a dress, when I’m not wearing a dress. I’m in a band. Tonight was ladies’ night at the club where we play, and as you can see, I take the responsibility very seriously. On 80’s night, I wear a ruffled shirt and a suit jacket with blue sequins.”
I busted up picturing this. “That makes me so happy. That sounds amazing. Do you do the big hair—?”
“Oh absolutely. What is 80’s night without big 80’s hair?”
“I would love to see that. I bet you rock big hair and blue sequins, but probably not as well as you’re rockin’ that dress and those high heeled boots.”
He tossed his hair back and posed with his hand on his hip. “You’re right. That is simply impossible.”
Laughing this time reminded me that, though my arm didn’t hurt near as bad anymore, it was still broken. I winced, cradling it again. I wanted to ask him how he’d taken so much of the pain away. I wanted to know if he was, in fact, an angel, and if the other members in his band also enjoyed looking pretty. My mouth opened once or twice to try and make words, but my brain couldn’t process any of it well enough to form them.
His expression grew concerned, “So, I can see that your arm is very broken, and I was wondering… what in the world you are doing on a roof when you so obviously belong in a hospital?”
I looked down at my beat-up Sketchers, running responses through my mind. “Well I, um… I can’t go to a hospital because… I don’t have…” I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t say it. I didn’t want charity, and I didn’t want to look like I was looking for charity. “I just can’t go.”
I could hear in his tone that he saw right through me, “I see.” He pressed fingers to his lips thoughtfully, “Well, if you’d like, I am sort of a doctor—not really—but sort of.”
I raised an eyebrow, “Sort of, huh?”
“It’s a long story that’s sure to bore you to tears. But the point is, I can help you, if you’ll let me.” His eyes brightened, becoming heartfelt, “I know you have no reason to trust me. I’m just some stranger on a roof, but, I won’t be at peace until I know that I have done all I can to help you.”
I shook my head, my heart starting to pound in my chest as I struggled to wrap my mind around everything that I’d felt and everything he was saying. After what I’d experienced in those two seconds, I couldn’t help but hope he was telling the truth. I’d been let down so many times before, and I knew if I was let down again it’d be the end of me. Still, the little light was growing brighter and brighter, hope was spreading through me against my will—I was so afraid to hope, afraid that I’d see it shattered right in front of me just moments after getting it back. I swallowed, “I don’t want charity—”
He gave a small shrug, “Nah, this isn’t charity. This is just a friend helping a friend. That’s what friends are for, isn’t it?”
My breathing caught on a sob, those stupid tears returning to me. I tried to mask it with a derisive snort and blurted, more angrily than I meant it to be, “We’re not friends! I mean… why? Why do you want to help me? Nobody cares about me, why do you? You don’t know me! You don’t even know my name!”
He didn’t miss a beat, “What is your name?”
I hadn’t expected that. I hesitated, “It’s Emily.”
He repeated it with reverence, “Emily. Well, Emily, my name is Richard. My friends call me Rick—except when I’m in drag like this, then they call me Lipstick Rick. And I can tell that you are in pain—”
I snorted again. Of course I was in pain, my arm was broken. But before I could say this, he hurried on, “—I can see it in your eyes, it’s more than a broken arm. And I can see it because I’ve seen it in my own eyes before. And I know… I know what it feels like to be broken,” he thought for a moment, smiling a little in a dark sort of way. “Indeed, I’ve actually felt a bit of a connection to that Humpty Dumpty character you hear about… to have a great fall, and to be so broken that no one, not even you—especially not you—has any idea how to put you back together again. And people go away, ya know. They abandon you… because it’s too much work, and sometimes it’s just because they don’t know what to do. And other times, you push them away…”
My eyes filled with more tears as I watched him, his expression growing far away, reliving some dark moment before he continued, “Because who in the world could possibly help you? Who are you to be saved?” He looked down at the ground, “I get it, Emily. And I know how terrible it is to be alone through it, and right now, you don’t have to be. Sometimes, you just need some help picking up the pieces, and I’m here to help you do just that—and I enjoy puzzles.”
I choked a laugh, trying very hard not to start sobbing. With his words, I felt the sunlight he held radiate from him, comforting and kind, so wonderful and strange… so strange. How did he do that?
He smiled and continued, “And you know, I’ve found in my life, through these terrible storms, that what often seems like a tragic ending turns out to be the beginning of some… fantastic adventure. The beginning of a new chapter. But only if we keep going, you know. Keep reading to see what happens next. It’s up to us to turn the page—just one page at a time. That’s all you need to do. So what do you say? Are you ready to turn the page on this?” He thought for a moment and then gave a small shrug, “I realize that I’m quoting at least three different songs in saying that—that’s the mind of a musician for you—but don’t let it deter you from the very real idea.”
I smiled, then frowned at my shoes. The darkness that had left me returned, pressing upon me for a moment, reminding me that it was still there, I was still broken… it made the little light within me flicker as I thought of what turning away from the edge of the building would mean. I looked back at it, knowing that walking away meant that I’d still have to carry the feeling of being broken, I’d still have to hurt, I’d still have to run. I felt the weight of my world sit back upon my shoulders, looming over me like a dark shadow. I asked him, “What if it’s too late—?”
With a curt shake of his head, Lipstick Rick said with a matter-of-fact tone, “It’s never too late.”
At this, I seized the little thread of hope I now had and turned to him. “Then, yes. I am.”
He smiled, “Then follow me.”