Without me, p.11
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       Without Me, p.11
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         Part #5 of Men of Inked series by Chelle Bliss
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  with the color of your skin.”

  My head began to spin. Thoughts swirled in my mind as I tried to piece together what had truly happened. Max had tried to push me away, but when it hadn’t worked, she’d pulled the most visible reason from her bag. Racism. It was dirty and underhanded.

  “Maybe she was confused. Maybe she just meant her brother.”

  “No, baby. He doesn’t care about color. In fact, his fiancée is a beautiful, redheaded, white woman. I don’t know why Max would say that.”

  My stomach started to knot as my chest tightened. The woman in front of me was looking at me like I was the most beautiful creature in the world. Her words were smooth and kind. No malice or trickery as she spoke to me.

  Max had lied.

  It wasn’t a little lie either. It was the biggest of lies. She’d said it without blinking, making me believe the trash she’d spewed.

  “Would you like to come in, Ruth?” I opened the door, stepping out of the way to let her pass. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be rude.”

  She nodded, brushing my chest with her bare shoulder as she walked into the house. If it were under different circumstances, I would’ve laughed, but it just made me realize how horrible the lie had been.

  As she sat on the couch, adjusting the hem of her dress, I headed to the kitchen. I needed something to deal with the bullshit that would occur when Max saw her mother sitting in the living room.

  “Would you like a drink?”

  “No. Thank you,” she replied as she gripped her knees.

  “I’ll be right back.”

  When I opened the cabinet to grab a glass, I heard, “What the…” from the living room and froze. I didn’t want to make a sound and possibly miss what was about to be said.

  “Max,” her mother said. “Sit.”

  I poured myself a drink and headed back to the living room.

  “This fine man,” she said as I walked back in the room and glanced at me, “he said I don’t like him because he’s white. Can you explain this to me?” She glared at her daughter, crossing her arms with her mouth set in a firm line.

  “Well, I… I…” she stuttered, glancing between the two of us. “I…”

  “Drop the shit, Max. Be truthful with me. Remember, God is listening.”

  Not only did the woman have the mother guilt, she had thrown religion in Max’s face. It wasn’t unlike something my mother would do, but when it came from Ruth’s mouth, it sounded direr.

  Max sat on the opposite couch and bit her lip. “Mama, I didn’t know what to say.” Max looked down at her hands and knotted them together. “Anthony, can you let me talk to my mother alone, please?”

  “No,” I replied as I rested on the wall. “I’m not missing this for the world.” Lifting the glass to my lips, I sipped the Crown, letting it linger in my mouth.

  “Please!” Max yelled, and shot me a glare.

  “He’s staying,” Ruth said, turning to look at me. Before she looked back toward Max, she threw me a wink.

  I grinned behind the cup, feeling a bit better about how the night was unfolding. Although her arrival had tossed a wrench in my plans, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

  “Mother. There are things I don’t want him to know,” Max said.

  “It sounds like he knows plenty about you, Maxine,” Ruth replied. “Stop wasting time and tell me why you said I don’t like white people.”

  “It’s complicated, Mama.” Her hands unfurled and she reached up, scrubbing her fingers across her face. “I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to like him.”

  “You used me as an excuse. Why?”

  “Because, Mama. I don’t deserve him.” She peered up at me through her fingers. “It’s not fair.”

  “Child, life isn’t fair. You’re going to have to get over yourself and figure out what you want in life.”

  “I know life isn’t fair. I’m the one living with this shit!” Max yelled as she jumped to her feet. “I’m the one who will never have happiness. Not you, Mama. Me!”

  It felt like I had turned a movie on in the middle, having missed something important that clued me the fuck in on what they were talking about.

  “Sit,” Ruth commanded. “Do not raise your voice at me. My patience is hanging by a thread right now.”

  “I’m sorry,” Max mumbled as she plopped down.

  “What?” I asked, still in the dark. “I’m lost.”

  Max shook her head, shooting a glare at her mother. “Don’t.”

  “Maxine,” her mother said. “You need to stop lying to everyone in your life. Someday, you’re going to look back and regret every minute you wasted with your foolishness.”

  “I’m waiting,” I said, taking another drink of Crown. I gripped the glass tighter, feeling my hands begin to shake. The virtual train wreck I’d expected and taken secret joy in watching as it played out was derailing before my eyes.

  “I can’t.” Max shook her head, placing her face in her palms.

  The one phrase I had always hated to hear her say should’ve been her personal motto. If I never heard the two words again in my life, I’d be a happy man.

  “Bullshit,” I muttered into the glass.

  “Maxine, look at me,” Ruth said. When Max’s eyes drifted to hers, she began to speak. “Do you love this man?”

  Even from across the room, I could see the tears that had collected in her eyes. “I ca—”

  “Stop!” Ruth yelled, causing us to jump. “Do. You. Love. Him? It’s real simple, Max. Yes or no.”

  She’d told me many times that she loved me. Never had she admitted it to another person. Even when we were with her friends, she’d gloss over the topic and change course.

  I didn’t know what I wanted her answer to be. Hearing her tell another soul that she loved me would bring me warmth and joy. The way our relationship had played out—and was in the process of crashing and burning in spectacular fashion—made me want to hear her say no. Could I leave her in the dust if she professed her feelings for me to her own mother?

  “Yes,” she confessed through gritted teeth as tears began to trickle down her cheeks.

  My stomach dropped, filling with butterflies. Renewed hope and the warmth I had sought flooded me. Even though I wanted to stomp on her heart and show her how painful love could be, I felt happy at her confession.

  “Does he love you?” Ruth asked Max like I wasn’t in the room.

  “Yes.”

  “Then I don’t see what the problem is besides you and your lies.”

  “You know what the problem is,” Max bit out as her nostrils flared.

  I had had enough. I couldn’t stand by and listen to the two of them bicker in code. “Can someone clue me the fuck in on what’s going on here?” I growled as I pushed off the wall and headed toward Max. “Excuse my language, Ruth,” I added.

  “It’s okay, baby. Sometimes it’s the only way to emphasize what we need to say. Tell him, Max, or I will.”

  I looked down at Max and saw her trembling. I waited for her to speak.

  “I can’t,” she whispered without looking at me. “I can’t be with you anymore, Anthony. I love you, but it’s not right.”

  “I think I should be the judge of what’s right for me, Max. Not you. I want to hear that truth.”

  “No,” she said. “I won’t.” She gave me a steely glare. Even as the tears streamed down her face, she refused to break.

  “That’s it? Everything I’ve been through with you. All the abuse I’ve taken from you and you won’t even tell me what the fuck is going on.”

  She shook her head.

  “I’m done, Max. I’ve had enough of your bullshit. Believe it or not, I do have feelings.” I turned to face her mother. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t either.” I stalked over, grabbing my shirt from the floor as I slipped my sandals on.

  She jumped to her feet and walked toward me. “Son, wait. You need to know—”

  “No, I don’t need to
know anything. It doesn’t matter how much I love your daughter. She still shuts me out. I can’t do this anymore.”

  Without a second thought or a backward glance, I walked out, leaving her and Ruth to talk. I’d done my part, begged enough for her to share the thing that kept her at arm’s length, but she’d refused. I couldn’t be her pawn in whatever wicked game she was playing.

  My time with Max was over.

  I stared up at the starry sky as I walked to my car. Everything came crashing down and ended in spectacular fashion.

  “Fuck you, Karma!” I yelled as I watched the distant stars twinkle. “You win!”

  I headed home, making a vow not to let her have another go at my heart. Max had trampled it to bits, and there was nothing left.

  I’d chased her, stalked her as my prey, until she’d caved in and become my trophy.

  What happened next would cause my head to spin and have me cursing the gods.

  When I found something so pure and real it would be complicated and heartbreaking.

  I would be swallowed up, spit out like a mouthful of cum by a two-bit hooker looking for a fix, and left feeling numb.

  It was the ultimate payback for being a cocky asshole my entire life. Karma wasn’t done with me yet.

  * * *

  The day my brother returned home should’ve been a day to celebrate. When he walked in the door, I’d been texting Max and we’d been having a war of words and my mood had turned to shit. Although I wanted to join the rest of the family in welcoming him home, my mind was filled with anger toward Max.

  I tried to ignore my phone, pushing her out of my mind while listening to Thomas. Seeing him sitting in my parents’ house brought me a bit of solace even as my world had been turned upside down.

  On his second Sunday dinner, Thomas brought his girlfriend. Again, I’d been fighting with Max. It was all we seemed to do lately. My family was too wrapped up in him and his girlfriend, Angel, to realize that I was seriously pissed off as well as depressed. I was thankful, because the last thing I wanted to do was have a long conversation about how I’d become a pansy and joined the dark side.

  The only person who noticed was Thomas. Even with the overwhelming reception he’d received after being gone for months, he saw right through me. I confessed, telling him as much about the situation as I felt comfortable with.

  Although I wanted to spill my secrets and aggravations to Thomas, he didn’t need the hassle. He had enough to deal with at the moment to have to worry about my dumb ass.

  Walking out the door on Max weeks ago had been the easy part. Living with the pain from the aftermath had become excruciating. There were times I wanted to turn my phone off. Seeing her messages every day reminded me that I couldn’t touch her. Even though I wanted to ignore her words and not respond, I couldn’t.

  My need for any type of communication got the better of me. The one thing I wouldn’t do was beg her to give me another shot. I was done with that shit. When she begged me to see her, it took everything in me to say no. She asked if we could meet and just talk, but I knew how it would end up. There would be very little talking, lots of fucking, and I’d leave most likely after she threw me out. I wouldn’t do it again. I couldn’t relive the last few weeks.

  The pain had finally started to dull, the ache in my chest turning into a twinge every once in a while. I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t afford the pain. I was too old to deal with the bullshit and life was too fucking short.

  When my brother called the family together because Angel had been kidnapped, I didn’t have time to think about Max. We worked together, bringing her home safely. When we arrived at Thomas’s house afterward, the entire family had gathered. Each person had their loved one waiting for them, but not me. I had no one.

  To say that it hurt would be an understatement. What I wouldn’t have given to see Max standing there, waiting to see that I was okay. It wasn’t in the cards. I’d only thought about her a couple of times in the last forty-eight hours since the insanity of Angel’s abduction occurred.

  But seeing everyone hugging and kissing with tears in their eyes had made me grouchier. Every feeling that had simmered beneath the surface was ready to bust free. I didn’t stay and celebrate with everyone. My heart wasn’t in it. I should’ve been elated, but Max’s absence in my life made me feel like shit.

  I grabbed a bottle of tequila on the way home and decided to drink myself into oblivion. I was tired and ready to make it all disappear. What better way to do it than at the bottom of a bottle?

  I was mortified and defeated.

  The words I wanted to say to him were stuck on my tongue, but I couldn’t say them. Even when my mother threatened me, I still couldn’t. I didn’t want him to know. It was my secret. It was something that only my family and my closest friends knew.

  I didn’t want him to look at me differently. I wouldn’t be able to survive it. When he walked out the door yet again, I held back the anguish I felt as my insides were shattering.

  “What is wrong with you, Max?” My mother shook her head as she climbed to her feet. “That man seems to really like you, and you’re being selfish.”

  “Mother,” I snapped as I jumped to my feet. “If I were selfish, I’d let him be mine. I’m saving him from me. He can’t fall in love with me. He just can’t.” I paced the tiny area between the coffee table and couch. He couldn’t. I wouldn’t allow it.

  “He already does, child.”

  “Ma, what he says and does are two different things.”

  “I can tell by the way he lit up when you walked in the room. I haven’t heard a man fight so hard for the love of a woman. Can’t you see how he feels about you?”

  I stopped dead in my tracks. “I do! That’s why I pushed him away, Mama. It’s not fair for him. It’s not right of me to love him.” I began to pace again.

  She gripped my arms, stopping me as she shook me. “Baby, you deserve love as much as everybody else. If you don’t get your head out of your ass, you’re going to spend the rest of your life alone.”

  “I have you, my family, and friends. I don’t need anyone else.”

  “Lies. I won’t be here forever, Max. Your friends and family have their own loved ones. We all need somebody in life. Don’t push away a man that’s willing to fight for you.”

  “Mama—”

  She held up her hand. “I don’t want to hear it. Go tell that man that you love him and make him understand why you’ve been acting like a fool.”

  “I can’t,” I whispered as my eyes flooded with tears.

  “You will. If you don’t, Max, I’ll find that boy and tell him exactly what’s going on.”

  “You wouldn’t!” I yelled as I closed my eyes. One thing I know about my mother is that she doesn’t speak hollow words.

  “I will. Try me, child. Get yourself together and go beg for his forgiveness.”

  There wasn’t a point in arguing with her. I knew she’d tell him if I didn’t. No matter how hard it would be to tell him my secret, it had to come from my mouth. I needed to look into his eyes when the realization and enormity of it sank in.

  10

  Hopeless

  Loud pounding on the door woke me from my sleep. After half a bottle of tequila, I’d crawled in bed and nodded off watching Dual Survival.

  I grabbed my pillow, smashing my face into the material. If I ignored the door, maybe they’d go away. As I sighed and didn’t hear a second knock, I spread out and started to drift back to sleep.

  Another knock had my eyes flying open. This time, the pounding was more forceful, and it made my heart jump. I looked at the clock and wondered who in the fuck would be pounding on my damn door after midnight.

  Anything was possible at this point, but most likely, it was one of my brothers popping by with some bullshit. Without looking at my phone, I grabbed a pair of shorts and put them on as I walked down the steps.

  The pounding continued, growing louder the closer I moved toward the door.

/>   Finally, I swung it open and yelled, “What?”

  Max stood before me with her face covered in tears and her fist in midair. “Anthony,” she said.

  I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at her. The tequila and the banging on the door had started to give me a headache. Seeing her on my doorstep made my blood whoosh through my veins so fast that my head began to pound harder than her fists had been hitting the door.

  “What, Max?” I replied in a scathing voice. “I don’t have time for your shit, and I sure as fuck don’t need any pussy.”

  “Oh,” she replied, and looked over my shoulder.

  “No one is here. I just refuse to let you stomp all over me again. I will not be that man. I’m not weak, Max. I don’t need you in my life.”

  “Anthony, please let me talk.” She looked beautiful with her hair shining in the moonlight and taking on a bluish tone in the darkness.

  I held my hand out. “There’s nothing you can say to me. We want different things in life. I asked for a chance to get to know you so I wouldn’t have a regret. I’ve changed my fucking mind. I regret the day I met you. I’m through. Go home. There’s nothing or no one here for you.”

  Some of it I meant. There was nothing more I wanted to do than hold her and feel her body on mine. I couldn’t give in. Standing my ground would be the only way she and I could ever have a future together.

  “I don’t care how many tears you’ve cried. Save them for someone who means something to you.”

  “Stop!” she yelled as tears streamed down her face. “I’m sick, Anthony. Sick! My father died and his condition was genetic.” The sob that broke free caused her entire body to tremble.

  Every ounce of air inside my lungs had left me in one quick exhale. I stood there not believing what she’d said. Max had lied before, so this had to be another one of her tales.

  “What?”

  “You heard me,” she cried as her shoulders sagged. “I’ll never have a future. You need to find someone else to give you a happy life and a big family. I’m not that girl. I can never be her. No matter how badly I want it, I just can’t be.” She looked at the ground, breaking eye contact.

  The knots that had formed in my stomach had changed, turning into a solid punch in the gut. There wasn’t a blow I’d taken from my brothers that had caused as much pain as her words had. Sick. She was sick. The strong woman standing before me had something that affected her and made her feel unworthy.

  I lifted her chin, needing to look into her dark eyes and understand the depths of her pain. “Max,” I whispered. “I don’t understand. You don’t seem sick.”

  Her lip trembled as she spoke. “I’m not sick now, but I will be. I know my fate. I never have to wonder what I’ll be like in my old age, Anthony. I know that I’ll be wheelchair-bound and unable to live on my own, just like my father.”

  It couldn’t be.

  Max was vibrant, full of life, and too fierce to let anything stop her. She couldn’t resign herself to such a fate. I wouldn’t allow her to. All the anger I had been holding inside had vanished and was replaced by a worry so profound that I wanted to move heaven and earth to make her existence different.

  “Max, we can go see the best doctors in the world. I have money. I’ll help you find a way to change your fate.” I wouldn’t accept the word of a single doctor.

  “It’s hopeless, Anthony,” she replied as the tears fell onto my fingertips. “I’ve been to the top doctors in the country. There’s no cure. No treatment. I
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