six

December 13th
11:36 AM
New York
——-

The morning light danced across Gunner’s face and roused him out of his stupor.

His mind was hazy and his brain disconnected from his body, eyes adjusting to the dull sunlight streaming into the room. He attempted to turn on his side but felt the presence of some other, the expulsion of soft breaths fluttering against his naked chest.

Audrey…her river of black hair cascading over her back and face a pure reflection of the peace she didn’t have when she was awake. Gunner admired her in silence, cradled her close within his arms, touched her glistening tawny skin, and planted a featherlight kiss on her temple.

He was calm, basking in her serenity, smiling benevolently to himself and at the feeling of welcoming the day with his beautiful girlfriend in his arms. It had last been months since they shared their bed intimately. Glimpses of their passionate night together flashed before his eyes, the stiffness of his muscles serving as a generous reminder of it all. He lazily fumbled for his phone on the bedside table to find he had slept through eight calls from Ace and three texts, and he figured Leah was late for school.

But to wake Audrey up and risk ruining whatever this was between him wasn’t something he was desperate for. As selfish as it sounded, he wished time would stop and everyone would disappear and it’d just be him and her. It always used to be that way when he first fell in love with her. If you asked him now, he would still be able to recall the places they ran off to together on nights when the only rush they needed was each other.

Watching her here, next to him, and his to keep, brought the haunting memories back. And he was sober enough to enjoy it.

“Something’s bothering you,” Audrey spoke in an undertone. “What is it, Gunner?”

He didn’t force himself to smile because it was obvious she saw right through his façade. Little did she know it was much worse–it was a complete accumulation of all the wrongs he’d committed. If only she could comprehend the totality of it all; the marks left behind by the needles on his forearms, his bloodshot eyes, the dark under his eyes.

Gunner lay there, dominated by his profound sadness, fatigue engraved on his youthful face. She suddenly provided him with no warmth or security. In fact, her embrace was nothing short of nauseating. It was morbid in its own way. He refused to look her way, even as his lips trembled and his shoulders started to shake with emotion, he swallowed the lump in his throat and sighed.

“Nothing’s bothering me,” he muttered. “I was thinking about things, that’s all. Everything’s just been a lot for me and I know it’s been a lot for you too but…I don’t know where I’m going with this.”

In the midst of it all, her hand enclosed his. He felt the pressure of it, of being a good father and boyfriend when he couldn’t take care of himself.

“Do you think we should take a break?” Audrey’s voice was smaller than he anticipated. “Maybe some space might do us good. I can stay with Penelope and you can be here if it helps.”

“That’ll just make things worse.” He shocked himself with the dejection in his own voice. He wasn’t so sure he believed what he was saying. “One of us might not want to come back.”

He had a feeling it would be her.

Audrey turned her attention to the ceiling as if it held the utmost importance to her. She pulled the sheets tight over her body and let her eyes flicker to the left, surveying him momentarily. “We’ll figure this out, baby. Everything’ll get better soon,” Gunner ascertained, taking her cold hand and intertwining their fingers.

She needed no other invitation but his outstretched arms to nestle into him. Gunner squeezed his eyes closed and gave her as much warmth as he could. That was all he could ever do. Let her know he was here and that what they both had was home enough.

“Leah’s really late for school,” he said.

Audrey regarded his words with a low sigh. “I forgot about that. Can you go wake her up for me?”

“Just let her have the day off. She’s probably exhausted after everything yesterday,” he looked down at her and his lips adorned a fond smile. “Besides, I think you could use a lazy day to stay in bed with me.”

“I hate that you’re right. I’m all sore from last night.”

Gunner’s face relaxed into one of unstrained mirth. “Well, we haven’t slept together in months, Rey. I guess I should’ve been more gentle, huh?”

“You were fine,” she smiled and cast him a glance. “I kinda missed it.”

She remained silent, listening, a flickering feeling of hope washing over her, settling down in the innocence of her eyes.

“Come here,” he beckoned her closer than they already were and captured her lips.

She broke their kiss first. “I’m sorry about last night. I didn’t mean what I said about leaving.”

“It’s okay, baby.”

He whispered soft words into her ear, kissing the nerves that made her shiver. Her hands disentangled with his and drifted into his hair, running them through their softness and to the ends where she tugged to extract a sweet hum from him. Another heady kiss awaited them both. Tongues intertwined and hearts beating in time with each other’s, they fell victim to the desires continually building between them.

He pulled the covers over their bodies and she held her breath, feeling him inside. A gentle moan fell from her lips as he moved steadily, leaving fires burning on her skin with every touch.

He closed his eyes and groaned. “I know I keep saying I missed you, but I really missed you.”

He was suddenly underneath her and she straddled his hips, his fingers digging into her waist.

She enjoyed watching his expression morph in bliss, knowing he only ever yielded to her and she would be the only person to make him feel this way. Adoration shone in his green eyes, brightening them, shining like a light. “I love you so much,” he panted, throwing his head back on the pillow.

“I love you too.”

Gunner smiled, but it came with a hint of sadness and… grief. Audrey almost faltered, yet so quickly, it was replaced by tenderness. She smiled at the cute, desperate sounds he made. Closing his eyes, his teeth sank into his lip to hold in a brittle sigh that had instead translated into shockwaves of warmth flooding his spine and skin.

“I’m sorry,” his hands reached up and caressed her cheeks, “for yesterday and the day before. For being such a terrible person.”

Leaning forward, she kissed his lips. Lost in a trance, she barely felt herself come in contact with the mattress and Gunner hovering over her once more.

“Um…mommy?”

They distanced themselves with a sharp gasp and quickly tightened the covers over their naked bodies. Leah stood by the door, staring curiously, head tilted to one side as she peered over at Gunner next. Her face dropped into a frown. “Is daddy hurting you?”

A furious blush blossomed on Audrey’s cheek and she shook her head. “Of course not. He was just…saying sorry.”

She looked like she didn’t quite trust either of them but chose to leave them be. Rocking back and forth on her heels, she glared at the floor and pouted, “I want breakfast.”

“I’ll come make you some soon. While you wait, go brush your teeth.” she sighed, running her hands over her face, still flustered that they had been caught. “Think you can give me ten minutes?”

“What about school?”

“You’re not going today because–ow, what are you doing?” Audrey pushed Gunner’s face away when he bit down on her neck and kissed it. “You couldn’t have waited for her to leave?”

He offered her a slothful grin and sank back onto the mattress, his hand braced on her lower back as she pushed herself to sit up without the sheets slipping off her body. “You’re cute when you’re all shy and embarrassed.”

Her cheeks flared again. “Leah, go brush your teeth and wait for me in the living room. I’ll be out soon.”

“Okay.” She exchanged one more glance with her father before scurrying out of their bedroom.

Audrey immediately turned to him and swatted his chest. “Don’t do that next time.”

“I make no promises.” He laughed. “Still in the mood? We didn’t get to finish.”

“Leah’s hungry.”

His lips touched her ear. “But I want you.”

“We can’t right now.”

“Please, baby.”

She gave in.

She kissed Gunner and he propped himself on top of her. She felt the slow-building pressure between them, filled the gaps of silence with kisses and sweet nothings before their fire erupted and cooled.

His lips grazed her neck. “Thank you.”

Audrey nodded but said nothing else. She just really ached for him. She didn’t know how to tell him though. “Yeah…”

“I mean it, Audrey. Not just thank you for this but…” Gunner paused, struggling for the right thing to say. “For everything, for putting up with me.”

Their lips meshed together like two perfect pieces that had finally come together. His hands cupped her face, thumbs caressing the soft spot below her jaw as his kisses left her mouth and started fires on her neck. “You’re everything to me,” he whispered.

Then as quickly as he spoke, he pulled away and lay next to her.

“You mean a lot to me, Gunner. I don’t show it sometimes, but you do,” she confessed.

He extended a hand for the packet of cigarettes and lighter on the bedside table next to his phone, expertly lighting a stick and bringing it to his lips. Audrey gazed at his own self-destruction, brows raised slightly. Gunner grinned again and blew out a huff of smoke right in her direction, chuckling softly at her bemusement.

“Want a smoke?”

Audrey looked at the window instead. “You know I don’t like smoking. Especially when you do it.”

“It’s not as bad as it looks. I’ll live, baby; I can control myself.”

“And when did you get my name tattooed?” she asked unexpectedly.

Gunner flicked a few ashes on the bedside table next to him before taking another drag of his cigarette. “Last week, I think. I was tweaking off molly and I went out to get tatted with Ace. Couldn’t really think of anything except your name when I got there.”

Her fingers traced the elaborate inscription on the arch of his neck, her name written so beautifully on his skin. “Did it hurt?”

He let out a sound between a laugh and wheeze. “I was outta my mind so I have no idea,” he shifted his eyes, a light green, to her face. “Maybe it did, I’ll never know.”

“It’s pretty.”

“Like you.” Gunner inhaled and exhaled more smoke. “You’re beautiful.”

She couldn’t remember the last time he said anything like that. She wasn’t exactly used to it, it was so foreign rolling off his tongue. “I’ve gotta go,” Audrey cut in. “Are you coming to breakfast?”

“I think I’ll pass. But you go ahead, I’ll be out soon.”

He grabbed his phone next and let the cigarette rest between his lips, already typing away at who she could guarantee was his best friend. It never took long for her to be forgotten. Drugs were always more important, not her happiness.

“I love you, Gunner.”

He lifted his head and his eyes steadied themselves on her lips, his own mouth arched with a soft smile. “I love you too, baby.”

Audrey found her discarded clothes and slipped them on, then left their bedroom.

* * *

December 13th
7:45 PM
New York

‘Hey, this is Gunner. I can’t talk right now. Leave me a message.’

“Hey, Gun, it’s me. Um, you’ve been gone all day and I haven’t heard from you since you left this morning. I just wanted to check on you to make sure that you’re okay. I’m getting a bit worried. Don’t stay out too late, alright? Come home soon. Leah really misses you. I do too. So… yeah. Love you.”

Audrey put the cellphone down next to her and slouched against the couch. After seven unsuccessful calls made to Gunner, her thoughts began racing, thinking of all the awful places he might be at, the unhealthy things he was probably doing, and perhaps the worst, if he had gotten himself in trouble with the law.

It happened three times in the past two years, but he had luck that there was no direct evidence linking him to anything. The same couldn’t be said of his best friend. Audrey has accompanied her boyfriend on trips to visit him in jail numerous times. There was no doubt in her mind that Ace was a terrible influence on him.

Standing from her position on the couch, she strolled into the kitchen and sought to distract herself with the thought of anything except Gunner. Worrying about him was starting to give her a headache, not to mention making it difficult for her to focus on properly taking care of her daughter.

“Mommy, I’m hungry.” Leah’s voice reached her ears, followed by her quick footsteps. Audrey sensed a gentle tug on the hem of her t-shirt and bowed her head, meeting the morose face of her daughter.

“What would you like, Leah?” Leah. Think about Leah and not Gunner. “Don’t say pancakes because I’m not feeding you any more sugar.”

“But mommy—”

“I’ll make you something else.” Audrey ruffled Leah’s dark hair and sidestepped her, opening the overhead cabinet. “How about pasta?”

Her daughter’s mouth fell into a pout. “I really want pancakes.”

Emitting a faint laugh, Audrey grabbed the packet of penne pasta. “Pasta it is. I’ll get started on dinner. Go watch some TV for now and I’ll call you when I’m done.”

Leah’s folded her arms stubbornly, unsatisfied. “Fine, but I want pancakes for breakfast tomorrow.”

“We’ll see, baby.” Crouching, she kissed her forehead. “Now go and lemme work.”

Audrey knew she wasn’t the ideal housewife—before moving in with Gunner, she practically had zero skills in the kitchen. She had to learn out of necessity if she wanted to survive, so she had honed her skills little by little over the years. They still weren’t anywhere near her mother’s from what she could remember, but it got them by. A few basic dishes were good enough to get her family by so long as they were healthy. Besides, once she started working, she didn’t have the time to make lunch or dinner. She mostly relied on Mrs. Shapiro to feed her daughter when she babysat. Audrey was forever indebted to her. She made a better mother than she ever could.

“Leah, baby, can you grab me my—”

A knock was heard at her front door seconds later, calling her away from the kitchen.

Leah came bustling out of her bedroom to join her, eyes gleaming alongside her quizzical expression. “Is daddy home yet?”

“I don’t think that’s him.” She looked through the peep-hole and was greeted with the sight of Penelope’s mess of curls and impatient frown. “It’s not like we were expecting anybody anyway.”

“Maybe it’s Mrs. Shapiro,” her daughter offered. “Do you think she brought us more butterscotch? It was really tasty. Can we go buy some?”

Audrey snorted softly at her excitement as a brittle smile tugged at her lips. “One day, princess. Now, be on your best behaviour because Penny’s here.”

She pulled the door open and her friend didn’t wait for an invitation before shuffling inside. “Took you long enough, Rey. I’ve been out there for ten minutes.”

“You knocked a minute ago. Stop being dramatic.” She shut the front door and locked it. Penelope sluggishly made her way to the couch and sat, her brown skin reddening and shoulders starting to tremble. “Penny, what’s wrong? Is it Marcus?”

“It ain’t him, Rey,” she disclosed as she began shedding her black jacket. “Agatha fired me too. Said that I wasn’t performing well enough for her fine establishment. So now I’m out of the job and Marcus has to take double shifts to make up for my half and…”

She tossed it aside, her voice faltering for a moment. “I feel terrible, Rey! He’s working so hard for us and I can’t do jack shit about it.”

Audrey knew the feeling, she had just never thought herself weak enough to cry about it.

“That’s a bad word, Penny.” Leah’s small voice drew their attention to the center of the living room. She stood on the balls of her feet, hands clasped behind her back and her giggles softening the tension that had built. “Mommy said if you say bad words, Santa won’t give you any presents. You’ll get coal, and that’s not fun at all.”

Penelope rubbed at her eyes, ever so surely welcoming her smile as it came. “Come here and make me feel better, pumpkin.”

There was a bounce in Leah’s step, her grin an embrace. “I really like your sweater,” Penelope said, patting down the blue knit fabric. She had even nestled a matching bow in her long hair. “I think I have one that looks just like it. I’ll wear it the next I come over so we can be all matching. What do you say?”

“And you need a bow too. Mommy bought this one for me when we went to the mall to buy daddy a present for his birthday,” she happily explained. “I don’t have any extras.”

“What I’d do to have a little girl like you, Leah. Your momma’s so lucky.”

It was times like these that made Audrey feel inferior. She felt ghostlike and blotted out of their minds. She believed there to be a hidden distance between her and her daughter, that no matter how close she told herself they were, maybe Leah truly didn’t feel the same incentive to love her family. Audrey could have just been what she needed, not what she wanted. Not a mother who worked, a mother who played princess and brushed her hair and told her stories before bed.

Penelope was that kind of mother without a child of her own, for that Audrey would be green with envy, blue with pain.

“You think you can do me a favour and watch Leah for a couple hours. I need to go find Gunner. I’m getting worried about him.”

“How long has he been gone for?”

“Since this morning,” she answered, getting up from the couch. “And he hasn’t picked up any of my calls, it’s unusual of him.”

“Mommy?”

Audrey had her eyes open and vulnerable as she stared at her daughter. Leah crawled off Penelope’s lap and into the empty space beside her, a rosy flush tickling her puffed cheeks. “What were you and daddy doing together when I was sleeping and before breakfast? Was he trying to hurt you for being upset? It was really noisy and I thought you were scared and yelling at him to stop.”

Audrey’s exploded in unattractive hues of reds and averted her gaze to her laughing friend. “It’s not funny, Penny. We didn’t do anything–”

“So you did the deed with Gunner last night, hm. No wonder you’re all worried about him all of a sudden. You’ve never mentioned calling him before, Rey. Change of heart?”

“What’s the deed?” Leah questioned, glancing between the two women and impatiently awaiting an explanation.

“Your mommy and daddy love each other, pumpkin. That means that sometimes they gotta show each other how much they mean to one another–”

“Seriously!” Audrey shoved her hair back away from her face, narrowing her eyes at her best friend in chagrin. “She doesn’t need to know. She’s still a kid.”

“No!” Leah jumped to her feet and crossed her arms with a slight pout. “I’m all grown up, mommy! I’m six!”

“I know, Leah. But you’re still too little to worry about me and your father.”

“But are you okay?” She ran to Audrey. “Please don’t be sad anymore, mommy. Promise me.”

Audrey crouched down and wrapped her arms around her daughter, swaddling her to her chest. “I have you, so I’m never going to be sad.”

“Is daddy sad?”

“No, baby, he’s fine. We love you.” The two separated; Audrey smoothed down the unruly baby hairs that sprang out of place on her daughter’s head, watching as a glimmer returned to her hazel eyes. “Why don’t you go play in your room for a while? Penny will watch you and I’ll go bring your daddy home, okay?”

“Okay!” The little girl beamed before dashing toward her room.

She let time lapse between them before reminding Penelope of her favour. Gunner was beginning to worry her immensely and she needed to find out if he was safe wherever he ran off to. He might have pissed her off sometimes, but she still cared about his well-being.

“Let me get dressed,” she told Penny.

Audrey jogged into their bedroom and threw on whichever pair of jeans and hoodie she could get her hands on. To solve the issue of her locks constantly falling over her eyes, she searched through one of the bedside drawers and found a hair tie, pulling her hair back into a simple ponytail. She grabbed her shoes by the bedroom door and slipped them on quickly.

“You go get your man, Rey. I’ll keep your little girl safe.” Her face was pleasant and wistful, the bright sparkle in her hickory eyes instilling trust within Audrey. “Be safe out there too, and if you don’t find him come straight home.”

“I planned on making Leah some dinner before I left. Do you think you can take over?”

“What were you gonna make?”

“Pasta. It’s still in the kitchen.”

Penny nodded her head. Standing up from where she sat, she beelined for the kitchen, momentarily stopping halfway to say, “I can manage over here. I’ll get her well fed, Rey. Don’t worry.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Penny,” she said, relief alleviating her tense muscles. “I’ll try to be quick.”

She passed her a confident smile that Audrey returned. “Better get going before it’s late. Just leave Leah to me. I got her.”

There was something solemn swimming in Audrey’s gaze as she left the apartment. She smiled back at her best friend and her daughter, but the feeling was incomplete; there was something missing. Grief-stricken and weak, she didn’t move with the urgency that she previously had with regards to bringing her boyfriend home. Her heart told her she had Gunner to look for, but something else convinced her that perhaps she shouldn’t worry if he never came home.

For a moment, she almost turned around and walked back inside, determined to never invite her pain back home.

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